"These women..." They are the women who are most frequently described as getting what they deserve, when they are even described at all. They are the women whose lives — and deaths — make people squirm, make them turn away. They are the women whose stories are ignored in favor of those of the men who killed them. And they are the women around whom Ivy Pochoda has centered her latest novel, These Women, a subversive, powerful look at the myriad effects a serial killer has on the lives of different women living in South Los Angeles.
Pochoda's is one of the few crime novels that refuses to prioritize the experience of the aggressor; instead, she amplifies and interweaves the voices of those who are too often silenced, thereby offering a nuanced, impactful portrait of the effects of violence on a community of women.
Below, Pochoda spoke with Refinery29 about These Women, the banality of serial killers, and avoiding the trope of fetishizing violent men.
Refinery29: How do you write a book about women being murdered that doesn't feel like it's part of, you know, the Dead Girl Industrial Complex?
Ivy Pochoda: It came about in different ways. Nick Broomfield's documentary on The Grim Sleeper was a huge influence on this idea, because the serial killer [in These Women] is sort of based on Lonnie Franklin [aka The Grim Sleeper, who killed nine women and one teenage girl]. The woman who takes Nick Broomfield around is this ex-sex worker, and I was just like, This is one of the most amazing people I've ever seen on screen. She's so smart, she's so driven, and so helpful, but also has been really cast out of society. Like, she can't get a job. But she's also Dr. Watson to [Broomfield's] Sherlock Holmes.
That woman just jumped out at me, but I was really interested in that documentary for several reasons — not because of Lonnie Franklin. Some killers are super interesting, but this guy is so boring.
He's so uninteresting. It's part of what let him kill for so long.
Totally. But then, in the middle of watching it, there's that moment where Lonnie's friend says, Well, you know, he did always have pictures of bound women. He told us he liked to do these like really violent things. And I stopped the TV and I was like, He knew. They all knew.
After that, I thought, I'm going to write about the level of denial around a serial killer. You hear the same shit all the time: Oh, I had no idea. Such a nice guy. Oh it couldn't be him. Like, he was just the next door neighbor. And I don't fundamentally believe that's the case for everyone. Serial killers are not geniuses, you know? This level of denial is what I was interested in.
This book, like Wonder Valley, has lots of interlinked characters. What is appealing about that narrative form for you?
It started in graduate school, because I went to a low-residency MFA program where you turned in 20 to 30 pages every month. I was writing what became Visitation Street, but I didn't really know what I was doing. So I'd write a chapter and send it off and then I'd have to immediately start another one. So I would then switch to another character and then switch to another character. And that's sort of how I did Wonder Valley, too, because I didn't really know how to do anything else. [laughs]
This time I knew that I needed to do something slightly different because I didn't want to do the same type of interlinking. I wanted to do a different structure, but still have different voices because I like to write about a community or a world — but everyone sees a world slightly differently. The way I see my neighborhood is not the way my Filipino neighbor, who's lived here for 40 years, does. The most accurate panorama is to have different viewpoints. With this novel, I wanted each woman's story to be complete in her section. I wanted to make sure that each character was treated fairly, but also that we saw her beginning point and her ending point.
Ultimately, it does add up to who the killer is and what happens to these women. But, I feel like each of these stories is a novella that can be read on its own. You might not get the same overall takeaway, but you understand each woman from her section. I really wanted to do that. I thought it was a fair way to treat the characters.
There is this ability you have to take these disparate stories and then bring them all together which I think is really incredible.
I have this visual sense of the way I want these things to look; this sense that the whole story is going to crash together at one point and then sort of splinter apart. I love that feeling, like when you're at the symphony and it’s building and building and building and building, and then there’s this huge crescendo at the end and then it softens out. That's the moment I need, where all these pieces come together. That’s what I aim for.
When you were writing this, were you thinking about a feminist commentary on the question of: Why do women love true crime? (Although, if one more person asks me that, I'll lose my mind.) Were you making a statement about these kinds of stories that have focused historically on the men?
Yes and no. I think that if you write with the idea to make a statement it’s a death knell for fiction. It just becomes really ponderous even for an essay, you know? When I started out writing it, that was not my intention overtly, but I was quite devoted to the idea that, if I was going to do this about a serial killer, he wasn't going to be part of the story. I had written an earlier version in which you see him a little more. But, I was looking at it and I was just like, Hey, it's creepy, but this is boring. I realized that's the point — he’s so boring. So, let's just get rid of it, because the whole point is this guy's not interesting, so let's remove him from the setting.
And I am aware of this fetishization of serial killers, you know, if predominantly male detectives can't solve the crime, the killer must be some kind of genius. We build up these people, but they’re just regular guys. So, I didn’t want to make him sexy Dexter or whatever, a Hannibal Lecter type. I think if you're going to write about the victims and treat them fairly, you can't also write about the killer and make him charismatic, because it's just not the truth. It’s just someone who got lucky for X amount of years.