Wednesday, November 25, 2015

High on Highsmith

JULIA:  Nothing says Thanksgiving like suspense, right?  Well, maybe not. But here's a respite from your table setting and gravy-worrying--from the remarkable Mark Stevens. 

Highsmith Who?
            by Mark Stevens 

Nobody wrote like Patricia Highsmith.

And, I would suggest, few other writers present such a dicey challenge for filmmakers, who try and play with the bones of the plots but struggle to transform so such much rich interior space.

I’ll see “Carol,” the new film based on The Price of Salt, Highsmith’s 1952 happy-ending lesbian romance-suspense, written under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. “Carol” is getting great buzz and, besides, when was the last time Cate Blanchett was in a clunker?

Nonetheless, I think I’ll be disappointed.

Blanchett has experience doing Highsmith roles on film; she played the heiress Meredith Logue in the 1999 version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (directed by Anthony Minghella). I liked that movie. At least, I liked it better than most of the Highsmith adaptations (and there have been quite a few). But at the end it just wasn’t the same.

I wanted that same creepy-weirdness that crawls under your skin when you read her prose—that strange tension, that visceral gut-punch. The movie, for the most part, stayed up there on the screen.

Yeah, yeah, yeah—I know. Films and books, two different deals. Highsmith knew it. I couldn't write a book with the idea in my mind that it was going to be a film,” she said. “That would be like thinking of a statue when you're painting a picture.” She said she didn’t care if directors and screenwriters changed her stories around to suit their needs—she understood the needs of the movie makers were different than her own.

Upcoming is “A Kind of Murder” with Jessica Biel, based on another terrific Highsmith novel, The Blunderer.

Yes, I’ll go to that, too. I’ll keep my expectations low. Highsmith is notoriously difficult to translate to film—Alfred Hitchcock reportedly took one of Raymond Chandler’s attempts at a screenplay adaptation of Strangers on a Train and threw it in the trash while holding his nose.

It’s great to see Highsmith getting her due, not that she’s ever been off the radar. After all, she’s been the subject of two major biographies. Go with Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith if you have to choose between the two, but Beautiful Shadow, A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson is also highly recommended.

When I do book talks and mention James M. Cain, Elmore Leonard and Patricia Highsmith as my guiding lights, it’s the “Highsmith” mention that usually draws shrugs. Who?

Patricia Highsmith’s works were dark, edgy and disturbing. No writer I’ve ever experienced has given me the willies—the I’m-really-worried-now vibe—quite like her.

Highsmith’s heroes aren’t likable, yet you find yourself rooting for them in their own warped world. Her people—mostly men—are frequently obsessed with their needs and desires. Of course, Patricia was also self-absorbed. Schenkar said Highsmith “is our most Freudian novelist.” Highsmith’s works find their way into your bones, your soul and down deep in the innards of your psyche.

In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Highsmith cautioned that it’s “impossible to explain how a successful—that is, readable—book is written. But this is what makes writing a lively and exciting profession, the ever-present possibility of failure.
Getting the reader to care about the characters, she wrote, starts with the writer’s caring. “To care about a character, hero or villain, takes time and also a kind of affection, or better said, affection takes time and also knowledge, which takes time, and hack writers don’t have it.”

Whack. Take that you hacks!

Despite fairly “rough and unadorned prose”—that’s Schenkar’s assessment—most Highsmith characters find a way into your head, heart and soul like few others. Maybe E.A. Poe?  

As a person, Patricia Highsmith was unsettled, dark, feisty, irascible, grumpy and quick-tempered. No surprise—deeply self-centered, too. Schenkar digs into the gritty material of Highsmith’s early life, her time as a writer for comics, her odd attitudes about cats and dogs, her love of snails, her ability to drink (and drink), her strife-filled relationships with agents and editors, and her stormy love affairs with a long string of women and men.

More than anything else, The Talented Miss Highsmith shows the hard work that Highsmith poured into her craft. Schenkar calls it “Highsmith Country.” It has a population of one, writes Schenkar, and it's “a territory so psychologically threatening that even her most devoted readers hope never to recognize themselves in its pages.”

I agree with that!

I’m waiting for that first movie to draw on the same darkness. To draw me to that same dark place. Maybe it will happen. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Highsmith didn’t care.

“I don't want to know movie directors,” she said. “I don't want to be close to them. I don't want to interfere with their work. I don't want them to interfere with mine.”

So go see “Carol” or “A Kind of Murder” and then go read The Price of Salt and The Blunderer.

If you don’t know it already, you’ll be deep in “Highsmith Country.”

JULIA: Any Highsmith fans out there?

Mark Stevens is the author of the Allison Coil Mystery Series—Antler Dust (2007), Buried by the Roan(2011), Trapline (2014) and Lake of Fire (2015). Trapline won the 2015 Colorado Book Award for best mystery and the 2015 Colorado Authors League award for best genre fiction.  Kirkus Review called Lake of Fire "thrilling .... irresistible." 

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  1. Not too sure I'll see the film, but I've enjoyed many of Patricia Highsmith's books . . .

  2. I interviewed Joan Schenkar--she's amazing, and that book is terrific.

    I'd never heard those quotes from Highsmith before. Wow. And perfect timing as I am now in final revisions (YAY!) and trying to make sure there's poetry and not just plot.

    Strangers on A Train--what a great movie, I thought! ANd Ripley, of course, is brilliant. I still think about that song they chose--Americano, something like that? Matt Damon, right? Was SO young.

  3. Poetry and not just plot--love that! I will definitely see CAROL.

    I watched THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY with my hub a few years ago. He had to leave in the middle of it because he found the tension unbearable. So there you go! I will love trying out her biography too, thanks for the suggestions.

  4. Highsmith is amazing, and a worthy writer to have as an inspiration. I think her sly, twisty stories have a very modern sensibility - ironic and unsentimental, but also funny in places. Or maybe I'm the only one who finds the Ripley stories funny?

    Anyway, I'm planning to see CAROL. Don't you wish they had kept Highsmith's story's title? THE PRICE OF SALT is so much more alluring. I'm also planning to read TRAPLINE, because the character of Allison Coil sounds pretty alluring, too!

  5. You're still young, Ms. Ryan. Yes, Julia, a very modern sensibility. I was thinking after wrote the piece that few writers can make the "plot" in such a way that it is driven purely by human emotions -- desire, obsession in particular. She's such an organic writer, to me, who starts with basic human wants & needs. Check out "Suspension of Mercy," also known as "The Storyteller." An unhappy couple. The husband is a crime writer. The wife goes away on a trip. The husband decides to pretend he's murdered HER, just to go through the steps, say, of rolling up the body in the carpet. (Just the carpet, mind you, no body). And buries the carpet in the woods. You know, for the experience. And what happens? Of course, SHE disappears on her own. And he goes looking. But you never feel the plot of the book, you're so inside the skin of the characters...

  6. I have to admit that until now, Patricia Highsmith has somehow escaped me. (A shameful confession for a crime writer, I know. I think I might like to start with The Storyteller.

  7. I've never read a Highsmith novel. I did, however, greatly enjoy Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train.

  8. I've not read Highsmith, but I did like Ripley. Back to Amazon, and thank you for an intriguing post.

  9. Thank you, Mark, Deborah, Kait and all. To me, she was a real touchstone / flashpoint for wondering, "how do freaking words on a page make my skin crawl?" It's bizarre. I had to figure out what it took. Or, at least, try.

  10. OH, my gosh. off to read that story, Mark. And thank you--young, me? Ha. Those days are gone.

  11. Just discovered that my library system has a good sampling of her works available as e-books, so I'll be able to download a few titles and see what I've been missing. I know the name, can't figure out why I haven't read anything by her.

    And the bios sound great--I've spent part of the autumn re-reading Ngaio Marsh and checking out her bios.

  12. For a cool link, check this out: Choose Your Highsmith....

    How cool is that?

  13. I know my comments are probably too late for anyone to read, but I've missed the Jungle Reds so much the last few days while I was out of town that I had to start catching up tonight. I'm a bit embarrassed that I haven't read any Highsmith, but it's good to know that I've missed some masterful writing so that I can rectify that egregious error. And, Mark, it is, of course, lovely to make your acquaintance and learn of your books, too.