Marion Stein is a native New Yorker who returned to her hometown in September 2001 after living many other places including Burlington, Vermont, Oaxaca, Mexico and Seattle, Washington. She has an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence as well as an MSW from Hunter College. Marion's careers have included crisis clinician, teacher, tarot card reader, grant writer and temp. Her story Pogo was published in Gordon Lish's literary magazine, The Quarterly. More recently she has been involved with The Storytelling Circle at Narativ and was a featured storyteller on a WBAI radio broadcast. Her novel, Hungry Ghosts was shortlisted for the 2009 International 3-Day Novel Contest.
Can you sum up your book in no more than 25 words?
Inspired by a true crime, Loisaida, set in NY's pre-gentrified East Village, circa 1988, is a tale of sex, drugs, real estate, and murder.
What was your motivation for writing it?
I didn't live in the East Village in the late 1980's, but in nearby Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which was undergoing its own gentrification. I read about this horrific grizzly murder in which a young woman was cannibalized and literally fed to the homeless. Years later, I met someone who knew of a young reporter who had died of a drug overdose while trying to investigate what really happened. Strangely, I realized that I knew several people who had known him and might have even crossed paths with him myself. What I really wanted to know was how someone like that reporter, handsome, smart, born with every opportunity, could screw up so completely. Was his death in fact an accident? Or was it, as some suspected, something else? I was never going to know the truth, but I could explore a situation like it through fiction. I could find through fiction, some deeper truth that would only be coincidently and tangentially connected to "real life.”
So I set out to imagine a victim who was too self-involved to see the danger around her, and I created an ambitious aspiring journalist with some fatal flaws, who becomes obsessed with her death and gets in over his head. Early on I decided that the victim in my story and the journalist would actually meet, nearly hook up, and if they had the fates of both might have been different.
How important is a good title?
I'm not sure if I have a good one. I initially called the story, simply Loisaida because the neighborhood is so much a character in the book. I added the subtitle, "A New York Story", when I put an excerpt on the writing site, Authonomy, because I realized no one outside New York would have any idea what the title meant. Ironically, another novel just came out called, Loisaida -- the Novel, but I already have a book page on the web with that title. It might have been called, Lost Humans, a phrase used in the prologue/1st chapter. Loisaida is simply one of the nicknames of the area. It's Spanglish for Lower East Side, although some would argue it only covers the area east of where most events took place. I might have called it Alphabet City as that's another nickname, which is the name of some police memoir recently out about that era. I've heard there was going to be a cop show on Showtime called Alphaville also about that time and place. That is a brilliant title!
Do you have any other projects on the go?
Life is making the writing of fiction tough. I have been working on expanding a novella that got honorable mention in the 2009 International 3-day Novel Competition. It has a paranormal element -- a ghost narrator who was a murder victim. It's kind of The Lovely Bones crossed with Lolita from Delores Haze's point of view. My guess is if I ever get it done, it might be more commercially viable than Loisaida. Meantime, the world can keep up with my blog for free.
What's the best piece of craft advice you've been given?
"Write what you don't know about what you know." The late American short story writer, Grace Paley was one of my teachers, and she said that once in a class. I don't know if she said it often or it could be found as a quote, but I heard her say it in a class where we all joking about writing rules. Someone said something about "write what you know," and Grace pointed out that if that was all you did, your stuff would be pretty dull.
What's your favourite part of the writing process?
My favorite part of the writing process is the part where the story takes over and you're just taking dictation. It takes a lot of work to get there, but to paraphrase from the Velvet Underground, when you're out on that run, you feel like Jesus' son.
As a reader, how would you describe your taste in crime fiction?
Loisaida is as much a literary novel as "crime fiction." It's certainly not formulaic. I read more general and literary fiction than crime fiction. What I do like in crime is dark and quirky. I'm a big fan of Patricia Highsmith -- especially the Ripliad. I also enjoy Cornell Woolrich, Raymond Chandler, and I grew up in a home where Ross MacDonald was considered a minor god. I've been known to crack open the occasional Ruth Rendall or even Sarah Paretsky -- usually when I'm on vacation. I should read more Lehane, as I think he's very good. And I loved Elizabeth Jenkins', Harriet and Dr. Gully, both of which are of course character-driven and based on true stories.
As a writer, how would you describe your ideal reader's taste in crime fiction?
This is where things get interesting. Loisaida is a novel about a crime. There are some pretty dangerous characters running around including a sadistic, serial killer. It is written, however, with several post-modern touches -- multiple points of view, shifts in time, incidents repeated from different points of view, etc. People who expect a certain method to their crime fiction may find it disappointing. This is a book for those who enjoy grittiness and are interested in psychological depth. If there's a mystery to be solved, it centers more on Peter's fate, than Ingrid's. I have a background that includes clinical social work, and I've tried to make my characters as realistic as possible. If you want to get up close and personal into the mind of a sociopath, this may be a book for you. If you want to see something that can go deeper (by using fiction) than a book based on a true crime, then this might work. If you are interested in solving puzzles, not so much. By the end, you will know more details about Ingrid's demise, but all your questions won't be answered. I wouldn't compare it to the Crow Road, except to say that like that book, there is a crime and a mystery at the core, but the story goes other places.