A Dangerous Fiction
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When a wouldbe writer brandishing a bad novel accosts literary agent Jo Donovan, she writes it off as just another occupational hazard. A ridiculous figure in trench coat and fedora (Jo calls him Sam Spade, a nickname he readily accepts), he’d been rejected by the agency but persists in believing he’s destined to be a great writer and that Jo will be his muse. Scary, yes, but well within the realm of failedwriter madness. But when her agency and writers fall prey to vicious pranks, Jo senses something far more sinister than your runofthemill egomaniac.
These attacks are accompanied by an implicit and repeated threat“Can you hear me now?” The police are called in, including detective Tommy Cullen, whom Jo had datedand dumpedyears before. With little evidence to work with, everyone is a suspect. Jo carries on bravely, minimizing the danger to herself, until a dear friend turns up dead.
As the police waste precious time investigating Jo herself, the real criminal remains at large, and Jo fears more of her friends may be in danger. Her staff and her writers rally around her, offering support and protection, but the tension is inescapable as the novel races to its dramatic conclusion.
As well as being a whiteknuckle thriller, A Dangerous Fiction gives readers a remarkable inside view of the publishing world. Fastpaced, witty, and filled with suspense, Barbara’s Rogan’s superb mystery is about both deception and selfdeceptionthe dangerous fictions we read and the dangerous fictions we tell ourselves
Barbara Rogan is the author of eight novels and coauthor of two nonfiction books. Her fiction has been translated into six languages. She has taught fiction writing at Hofstra University and currently teaches for Writers Digest University and in her own online school, Next Level Workshops. She lives on Long Island and blogs at barbararogan.com/blog. Visit barbararogan.com and nextlevelworkshop.com.
Q. You worked for Fawcett Books in New York and started your own literary agency in Israel. How did that work personally affect your own writing life?
The result of having worked as an editor and agent is that I know a lot about the publishing process and the industry, and I have great respect for the people who work in it. Of course, like most knowledge, this is a doubleedged sword. The upside is that I can be a better, more effective partner in the publishing process, which I really do see as a cooperative effort. The downside is that the more you know, the more you worry. Neophyte writers can sit back and enjoy the boat ride, and I sometimes envy that. I tend to see the boulders up ahead.
Q. To what extent is Jo Donovan a reflection of you?
Apart from being clever, gorgeous, and sexy, you mean? Actually, Jo is who she needs to be for this story. Plot and character, I believe, are two sides of the same coin. What happens to Jo arises out of who she is and the choices she’s made. That said, we do share a profession, and I think I drew on some of my own characteristics as an agent in creating Jo. Like her, I was a strong advocate, as well as a bit of a mother hen, even though at the time most of my clients were older than me.
Q. In the novel, Jo describes writers as arrogant, insecure, everwatchful creatures with fragile egos and an endless need for praise, though she obviously feels a great affection for them as well. Do you share her view of writers?
I’m not sure Jo sees writers as having fragile egos. Writing’s a tough profession. Most writers encounter a lot of rejection, especially in the early part of their careers, but often afterward as well. The fragile souls tend to drop out. But I do agree with one thing Jo says of writers: “Every one I’d ever met was bipolar, the poles being arrogance and insecurity.” The arrogance (her word, not mine) is really a deepseated conviction that their work has merit and deserves to be recognized. Without that belief, writers are likely to have given up somewhere along the line. The insecurity comes from the nature of the work: “trying to cross a chasm on a bridge of words,” as one character puts it.
Q. The characters in the novel are aware of the many ways real life is often stranger than fiction . Hearing one of Max’s theories about a possible motive for the criminal, Jo calls it “feeble.” But Max responds: “Feeble for fiction, maybe. Real life has lower standards” (p. 163). The characters are very conscious of the differences between life and art. Is that something you were consciously aiming for, or just a result of the literary terrain they live in?
I’m not sure how conscious it wasthese things tend to be a lot clearer after the factbut the intersection of reality and fiction is very much at the heart of the novel. In part this is due to the characters’ profession, which is saturated with fiction. But I was primarily interested in the way people fictionalize their own lives, eliding the messy, discordant parts, rationalizing the irrational, and imposing structure and a moral order borrowed from fiction and fairy tales.
Q. Jo feels that great writers like her husband Hugo are allowed to flaunt the rules of conventional society to serve the demands of their own genius. Does Jo really believe that or is she just using it as a justification for Hugo’s bad behavior? What’s your own take on the great writerasphilanderer?
Jo has to find some way to justify Hugo’s behavior if she’s to go on being his wife, which she very much wants to do. The genius-trumps-all argument is a convenient excuse. For me, writing is a profession like any other, and a good book doesn’t absolve bad behavior. My own take on Hugo? I’d have kicked him to the curb.
Q. Do you plot out your novels before you begin or let the writing itself determine your direction? What most surprised you in writing A Dangerous Fiction?
I plot out the story roughly before I start writing; then I plot in more detail as I progress through the book. What surprised me most was how much I ended up liking Jo. More than any main character I’ve ever written, she has serious flaws and shortcomings. But she also displays great strengths and qualities that I particularly admire: courage, compassion, loyalty, and humor. I ended up caring a lot about her, and I hope readers will as well.
Q. How much research did you do for the book? Is that an enjoyable aspect of your process?
One of the great benefits of my profession is the opportunity it provides to delve into worlds very
different from my own. It’s a fallacy that fiction writers can just “make it all up.” To create a story that feels authentic to the reader, the writer has to get it right, both the facts and the ambiance. I generally do a lot of research, not just reading up on subjects but getting out of my office (a pleasure in itself!) and walking the walk. For previous books I’ve spent weeks trailing doctors through inner city ERs, hung out with homicide detectives, and schmoozed with retired spieswho wouldn’t be fascinated? In the case of A Dangerous Fiction, though, the research load was relatively light, since I know New York and I’d been a literary agent myself. And what I didn’t know, my agent, Gail Hochman, did.
Q. Could you talk about your prose style? Much of the novel proceeds quite briskly through pages of dialogue with little or no narrative intrusion. What’s the appeal of that kind of writing, for you and for your readers?
I like dialogue because you can convey so many levels of meaning with it, some of them conflicting, and what’s not said can be as important as what is said. Dialogue is not just a vehicle for revelation but also for concealment, manipulation, seduction, and misdirection. A conversation that seems light on the surface may have dark undertones. So I tend to write a lot of the stuff, and in the case of A Dangerous Fiction, that style meshed well with the setting and the characters. Publishing is a world full of unapologetically smart people
in which clever conversation is valued; and of course clever conversation is also fun to read. In the back of my mind, as I wrote this book, I was hearing Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table and the wonderful repartee of those classic thirties’ movies like the Thin Man series.
Q. What are the most pleasurable aspects of your writing life? What are the most challenging? How hard was writing A Dangerous Fiction?
The most pleasurable part is the actual writing. When it goes well, I am transported to another world, the story’s world; it’s almost like living a second life. The most challenging part is plotting, which feels rather like playing three games of chess simultaneously against opponents who are all better than me. (Or at least I imagine that’s how it feels. I’ve never actually tried the chess thing.) This was true of A Dangerous Fiction as well. It was fun to write once I got the basic plot down. That was the tricky part: keeping plenty of viable suspects in the mix while planting enough clues to be fair to the reader.
Q. What mystery writers have most influenced you? Who are your current favorites?
That is the toughest question of all, because there are so many I admire, and I’ve learned from all of them. Like many writers, I was weaned on Nancy Drew. I love the classic mystery writers, American and British: Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Patricia Highsmith, Ross MacDonald, James Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Peter Dickenson. Among more contemporary writers, I admire Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley, Barry Unsworth, P. D. James, James Lee Burke, Scott Turow, Alexander McCall Smith, and Gillian Flynn. All these authors have one thing in common: mysteries aside, they are firstclass writers.
- Why might Barbara Rogan have chosen A Dangerous Fiction as her title? In what ways is fiction shown to be dangerous in the book? What different meanings does “fiction” have in this context?
- When Jo overhears Teddy Pendragon delivering a theory about the case, she says: “Got it all figured out, have we, Teddy? Neat and tidy and wrapped in a bow?” Teddy replies: “It’s human nature to try, don’t you think?” (p. 289). Why do we have an inherent and seemingly irresistible need to solve mysteries? Why is doing so both pleasurable and frustrating?
- How does Rogan build and sustain suspense throughout the novel? How does she keep you guessing? What red herrings does she plant? Were you able to guess the murderer? If so, how?
- Jo is repeatedly incensed that the police consider her a suspect in the deaths of her friends. Are they being pigheaded or just doing their job?
- Why is Jo so resistant to having a biography written about her late husband Hugo? What are her stated reasons? What are her deeper, partly unconscious reasons?
- A Dangerous Fiction is a not only a mystery but also a novel about writers and writing. What insights does Jo offer about the personalities of writers and the writing process itself?
- The novel gives us an inside look at the publishing industry. What most surprised you about what the book reveals about the world of publishing and literary agencies?
- How has Jo been changed by all that she’s suffered over the course of the novel? How has her attitude toward Tommy changed?
- At the end of the novel, Jo tells Tommy that she had been living in a fairy tale. “I was an expert at other people’s stories, but when it came to my own, I’d heard only what I wanted to hear, seen only what I expected to see” (p. 321) What hard truths does Jo refuse to see? Why has she been so willfully blind?