Q & A with Little Deaths author Emma Flint
Waterstones Online's Martha Greengrass caught up with Flint to discuss her vivid portrait of a woman's trial-by-media and explore why true crimes such as this still resonate half a century later.
Photo: Wake Up in New York, 1969 (c) Tony Hall
You’ve written about why certain true crime stories linger in the public imagination, you commented that: ‘the violent details of the crimes themselves are arguably less interesting than the way that ordinary life can co-exist with the business of murder.’ Little Deaths is based on a real murder case, what was it that made this story stand out for you and made you want to explore it in fiction?
I first read about the case that inspired Little Deaths when I was about sixteen, and there were two details in particular that stayed with me for twenty years. One was an image of a striking petite woman, stumbling along a sunny sidewalk, eyes downcast, surrounded by large bulky men in suits. This turned out to be a photograph of the character who became Ruth Malone, moments after she'd been taken to see the recently-discovered body of her murdered daughter. I realised that I wanted to convey that juxtaposition of physical frailty with emotional toughness: despite the circumstances, she refused to cry for the cameras.
The other detail I remembered was the discrepancy between what 'Ruth' said she fed the children the night before they died, and what was found during the autopsies on their bodies. I knew that whatever I wrote would need to offer a credible solution to that discrepancy.
Thank you – I’m delighted that you felt that. I read two outstanding books on the original case - which I mention in the acknowledgements - but most of my research was done online. I used Google Maps and Streetview to ‘walk’ down the streets in Queens where the story is set, to look up at the buildings, and try to get a sense of the neighbourhood where Ruth lives. I listened to Queens accents on YouTube, and I looked at thousands of photos of suburban America in the mid-60s.
I also kept thinking about my own childhood: I grew up in a quiet and sometimes claustrophobic suburb on the outskirts of a city. I think anyone who grew up in an environment like that will understand the closeness of that kind of neighbourhood, and how anyone different stands out.
I don’t expect I’ll ever be lucky enough to have this experience again, but Ruth leapt fully-formed into my head and didn’t change in the six years that I spent writing her story. From day one, she was ambiguous, mysterious and deliberately evasive – and it was always vital that she shouldn't be either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It is absolutely key that the question of how complicit she is in the children’s deaths is one that readers should find difficult to answer definitely.
I realised very early on that I needed two narrators: there are parts of the story that Ruth doesn’t have the knowledge to tell from her perspective. The decision to make my second narrator a reporter came a couple of years in, but as soon as I realised that’s what Pete was, it made complete sense. He has to be a reporter because of the way that Ruth’s story plays out in the media, and he has to be male because it’s men who judge her publicly, while the women in the novel judge her privately.
The book deals with uncomfortable subjects: the murder of two children; a woman judged on her appearance; loneliness; obsession. It makes sense that readers should sometimes feel uncomfortable when considering these ideas - when you’re ‘witnessing’ a crime, even a fictional one, and even as a reader, you should be uncomfortable. Murder is not a comfortable topic – and reading about it is an experience that should make you question what you believe is right and wrong.
It was a deliberate decision. The deaths of the children are obviously key to the plot, but graphic details of how they were killed or what their bodies looked like when they were discovered are neither useful nor necessary. These were real children, killed at the ages of four and five, and dwelling on the details of their deaths in that way is not something I feel comfortable with. In my next book – also based on a true case – the victim is an adult, and I've been surprised by how much more comfortable I feel writing about the manner of that character’s death.
Oddly enough, I don’t think of it as a historical piece at all now. I did when I was researching it, but spending so much time with Ruth made her very real and very immediate to me. And then reading 21st century tabloid descriptions of women in the public eye - particularly women associated with crimes (Amanda Knox, Kate McCann) - made me realise that this isn't a historical problem. The issue of 'trial by media', of women being judged on how they look, is still unfortunately very relevant today.
My inspirations for the way Ruth dances and talks and flirts and moves were women from 1940s and 1950s American noir films: Gilda, Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, Laura Manion in Anatomy of a Murder - and also characters from more recent films like LA Confidential and The Last Seduction.
Having said that, I don't think I deliberately set out to create a particular mood. There were certain scenes in Ruth's narrative - for example, the scene where she gets drunk and dances alone in her apartment - that are key to understanding her character, and that came into my mind fully-formed and very clear. All I did was describe what I could see in my imagination.