What is it about the work of Patricia Highsmith that attracts some readers as powerfully as it repels others? I’m in the first group: I fell under the spell of her weird, chilling, compelling voice the first time I read her.
Wondering what all the fuss was about, I went to the bookstore and randomly bought The Price of Salt (which was later made into the movie Carol), not knowing that it was an anomalous choice as it was more a love story—forbidden love, at the time—than the kind of crime story Highsmith became famous for. The power of the storytelling lay in the eerie clarity of her narrative voice and a fierce willingness to push her characters over all kinds of edges.
Next, I read Strangers on a Train, and there it was, the alchemy of that voice as it wormed its way through the protagonist’s rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma. Highsmith generally leans hard into the villain’s point of view, then brings you deep into his (I would soon recognize that her protagonists were almost always men) consciousness and makes you root for him, maybe. More a literary sorceress than stylist, she traps you in the mind of a person you’d never want to meet in reality.
Sarah Weinman stated it perfectly in her recent article on Highsmith: “Her concepts are daring, her portrayals of men in the throes of personality disorder and psychopathic leanings are equally repulsive and propulsive, and there is enough sublimated autobiography in her work that searching out the facts of her life reveals all manner of infuriating contradictions.”
When I set out to write my novel Invisible Woman, I wanted to do two things at once: show the unfolding dilemma of a woman trapped between fraught personal history as it collides with sensational breaking news and tap into the cool, eerie, icky deliciousness of Highsmith’s bleak yet urgent narrative voice. I couldn’t resist the temptation to try my hand at a modern Highsmith novel, from a woman’s point of view. By setting my story in the early upheavals of the #MeToo movement, I’d be able to infuse my protagonist with more juice, more velocity, than would have been possible in Highsmith’s time. Back then, there was little social or moral infrastructure to support the believability of a female protagonist who could take action as ruthlessly as her male counterparts—and get away with it.
In the early and mid-twentieth century, when Highsmith was living and writing, it was generally not considered interesting to write about a woman’s life (at least, not in crime novels). It wasn’t interesting because, well, who cared? Women were passive sidekicks. Women lacked agency. At best, they were wisecracking dames. A female character could not be a protagonist because a protagonist had to be a hero, and a hero had to be male, because…well, partly because society had capitulated to that idea at some point in the past and continued to spend enormous amounts of psychic energy upholding it, and partly because it was men sitting behind the desks making the decisions about what interested them.
When I was a young woman making my way in the world and finding my voice as a writer in the nineteen eighties, even my protagonists tended to be male. I sensed that if I wrote about women, I wouldn’t get published. For women, that kind of looped thinking was our noose. Generations would break out of it occasionally then thoughtlessly let it slip back around our necks. Finally, when publishers realized that the great American readership was powered by women, they created a category called “Women’s Fiction” (ugh) with a subset of books called “Chick Lit” (ugh) but despite those demeaning monikers, writers went to town. Female protagonists were brought full-scale to the party with flare and introduced to a hungry readership that lapped them up. By the early two-thousands, when I started writing crime fiction, my women always held the weapon at the end.
But not until Invisible Woman did I explore the terrain of a female protagonist’s story from within the prism of the societal pressures at work on her life. Her thinking is her motivation. Her motivation is her action. Her action is an act of self as well as an act of social expression in the context of her historical time. What (I hope) makes it Highsmithian is that the outcome isn’t good or right or moral, but it is inevitable. When a woman’s mind and heart are twisted by distorted social dictates, the outcome may not be pretty.When a woman’s mind and heart are twisted by distorted social dictates, the outcome may not be pretty.
Writing a Highsmith-inspired novel from a female perspective meant allowing my protagonist all the passionate distortions an epic midcentury male hero, or antihero, would enjoy—and deploy. He’d deploy his strongest feelings and worst instincts against the people and system that wronged him. To capture the Highsmith spirit, and the spirit of our times, my protagonist would need to be honest and raw even if it made her unpleasant or dangerous or both. She’d have to feel her feelings, think her thoughts and drop the smile that had plugged a cauldron of conflicted feelings so long that they’d simmered to a slow boil. Unplugged, all that steam had no choice but to rush out with consequence.
I prepared by gathering six Highsmith novels I’d never read, took notes along the way, and finally dove into a recent biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith. If you read it, brace yourself, and do your best to separate the artist from the art. She wasn’t a smiler nor was she nice. Highsmith herself might have been her own perfect, distorted protagonist if she’d been writing today, minus the buried bodies.
By the time I set to work on Invisible Woman, Ms. Highsmith had also wormed her way into my protagonist Joni’s mind and story—she reads these same novels as her own story picks up steam and Highsmith’s voice ignites dangerous sparks in her imagination and sets her on her path to deciding, on her own terms, what the ending would be.