Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Lara Elena Donnelly

Lara Elena Donnelly is the author of the vintage-glam spy thriller trilogy The Amberlough Dossier (Tor), as well as short fiction and poetry appearing in venues including Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Nightmare, and Uncanny.

A graduate of the Clarion and Alpha writers’ workshops, Donnelly has also served as on-site staff at the latter, mentoring amazing teens who will someday take over the world of SFF. She is currently a guest lecturer in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College and a teacher at the Catapult Classes in New York City.

Recently I asked Donnelly about what she was reading. Her reply:
Back in 2012, one of my Clarion instructors mentioned The Talented Mr. Ripley in workshop. The name was vaguely familiar, but only as a received pop culture artifact. But she talked about it in such glowing terms I thought, I guess I’d better read this.

And I tried. But I bounced off it like a superball.

Years passed. My tastes changed. My own writing, and my understanding of other authors’ craft, improved. And, after a bout with another thriller many blurbs and reviews hailed as “Ripleyesque,” which I found equal parts un-put-downable and deeply frustrating on a couple of craft levels, I thought, maybe I should try Ripley again.

I tore through it this time. Whenever I set it aside to do something else, I was back on the sofa within half an hour. Patricia Highsmith makes every moment of that book feel like a potential turning point in Tom Ripley’s hectic, high-stakes scam. None of the characters is a hero or a villain; the book is a masterclass in winning reader empathy through characterization and context.

Recently, after looking at some pages for a proposed new project, my editor said they reminded her of Highsmith, and asked if I could lean even harder on that tone, those characters, that voice. I had pitched the project as Perfume: The Story of a Murderer meets Brian Fuller’s Hannibal, in the style of Donna Tartt. But as soon as she said “Highsmith,” I knew she was right.

So I’ve lately finished Strangers on a Train, her debut, and Ripley Under Ground. Next is Ripley’s Game. She has such a particular way of presenting her characters’ situations through a lens that invites the reader to adopt a peculiar code privileging personal aesthetic over public morality. Of presenting elevated aesthetics as the highest achievement, an end worth any number of unsavory means.

Supporting this on every page is her lush imagery—setting, art, culture, food, people. She paints pictures of the luxe life, yes, but her skill is apparent even in small, intimate moments. In Strangers on a Train, she describes Anne at work over her illustrations: “When she dabbled her paintbrush fast in a glass of water, the sound was like laughter.” Oof! The gorgeous specificity! If you’ve ever painted in watercolor, you know that sound, and you know she’s dead-on.

The more I read of her work, the less I’m sure I’ll be able to carry off amorality with quite so much elegance. But wow, she really makes me want to try.
Visit Lara Elena Donnelly's website.

My Book, The Movie: Amberlough.

--Marshal Zeringue