The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2022

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SEPT 2022 Issue
Books In Conversation

Jill Dearman with Gene Seymour

Jill Dearman
(Vine Leaves Press, 2022)

In Jazzed, Jill Dearman blows open the doors to a New York City of the 1920s bursting with possibility, erotic adventure, and (almost inevitably) danger. Wilhelmina “Will” Reinhardt and Dorothy “Dolly” Raab are first-year Barnard College students who are the daughters of wealthy Jewish families. Their intense passion for each other is galvanized by their intellectual excitement with Nietzschean philosophy—and an ungovernable impulse to play with fire, and not just figuratively. If you’re at all aware of the real-life 1924 case of Leopold and Loeb, you suspect how this all turns out. And yet, Dearman keeps you turning the novel’s pages all the way through because of her vivid evocation of the period, its Harlem speakeasies, salons, and street corners, along with the societal pressures and prejudices fueling Will and Dolly’s furies. All of which is unfurled with a propulsive narrative style with as much vitality, color, and flow as the music that gives the book its title. 

Gene Seymour (Rail): What drew you to this particular period in history? Of course, there has been and (I hope and trust) always will be a fascination with what’s been tagged “The Roaring Twenties.” But do you think the era’s romance persists even in these grayer, more anxious times?

Jill Dearman: There is a vitality and luxuriousness to the Jazz Age that I really connect with. Silent movies! Fabulous fashion! Art Deco! But it was a complicated era too, and I was curious to explore how it would play out if two young women instead of two young men committed a terrible crime in the 1920s.

How would the legal system, the psychiatric establishment, the news media, the public treat them? After all, though it was an era of supposed freedom for women—who had finally won the right to vote at the decade’s start—there was a specter of death that hung over the times, too. We know in hindsight that the Great Depression would end the party in 1929, and hard times would make the most vulnerable and least privileged—the people of color, the queers, the immigrants, the women—the most apt to be scapegoated for the country’s misfortunes. I wanted to explore the way this prologue to the end of the party played out.

Rail: Jazzed, befitting its title, sustains throughout a frenzied, effervescent momentum roughly equivalent to what resonates in “hot” dance music. This pitch is at its fevered peak when seeing things from the hyperbolic Dolly’s point-of-view. But there’s also music playing when the focus is on Will, even if it’s what sounds to me a predominantly minor key. How did you achieve such tones—and how hard was it to sustain it?

Dearman: I followed the music where it took me and happened upon something thrilling in the early drafts: the way that music could shift the mood, even if we don’t literally hear it playing. Dolly’s father hates jazz, and so Dolly often resorts to composing in her mind, sometimes with a “prop” keyboard she’s fashioned with cardboard and ink. As rich as her family is, they stand in the way of her freedom to be her true self. Who knows what would have happened if she were allowed to put that fevered hyperbolic passion fully into music? And as for Will, she’s more of a depressive sort, self-conscious, and full of longing for love. Dolly makes her swoon, but the sad blues of the tunes she favors echo the story that she believes about herself: that she may be able to experience love and beauty in her hands for a moment, but in the blink of an eye it could be taken from her.

Rail: In a related matter, your musical references (notably Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and, towards the end, John Coltrane) help ground the reader in time and place. So, I’m guessing you listened to a lot of different jazz music, not just from the specific setting. When and how did you do your aural research? Did you listen to any of it as you were writing?

Dearman: Well, I know you are wild about jazz too, Gene! During childhood, my father introduced me to the Latin jazz that he loved: Chick Corea, Celia Cruz, Tito Puente. When I was writing the novel, I definitely immersed myself in a lot of the 1920s jazz. Some of the lyrics were so provocative, you could really hear the sexual freedom that was in the air. In addition to Bessie Smith, Black female jazz singers like Gladys Bentley, Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, Ethel Waters all are known now as “lesbian-leaning,” and all sung a type of jazz called “Hokum” which contained some great double entendres and overt lusty couplets.

Since Will is a clarinet player, I played a lot of Sidney Bechet while writing Jazzed. But it was actually Pharoah Sanders, whose song “The Creator Has a Master Plan” comes up late in the book, years after the crime, that really changed the game for me. That song and some of the prose I wrote around it really felt “channeled.” I knew I wanted to communicate something about the transcendent quality of music and how it connects us all through space and time, but it was that song that inspired my words.

It's also not a coincidence that jazz music especially by Black artists is infused with the pains of enduring the small and enormous torment of living in a world of social injustice. My friend John McCaffrey has a terrific short story book out now (also with Vine Leaves Press) called Automatically Hip. The title story was inspired by the years in the jazz legend Thelonious Monk’s life when he was legally not allowed to play music in clubs.

Rail: Some of the advance reviews of Jazzed invoke the name of Patricia Highsmith and the storyline is such that it tempts one to wonder if Highsmith could have made up the whole true-life case of Leopold and Loeb (about whom more later). But your style here, as noted, is so drastically different from what I’ve found to be Highsmith’s dour mordancy. The contrast is so stark that I wonder if both the nod to Highsmith and your “jazzing” up her narrative approach were deliberate on your part.

Dearman: The true life tale is so Highsmithean, isn’t it? And of course Highsmith is one of my favorite authors, and The Talented Mr. Ripley one of my favorite novels. What’s interesting to me is that Highsmith was a lesbian, but used male protagonists as her stand-ins. It always felt to me in some of her male/female romances that she was channeling her own desires into the male protagonist’s head. I could certainly recognize a woman’s desire for another woman even within the heterosexual couple’s dynamic. The one novel she wrote that featured a lesbian love story was her only non-crime novel, The Price of Salt, which she wrote under a pseudonym. Later of course, it was renamed Carol, with her real name on the cover, and turned into a great film with Cate Blanchett. It’s a tender and beautiful story.

Rail: The story of Leopold and Loeb and their murder of Bobby Franks conveyed such gruesome power throughout America in 1924 and beyond that their notoriety in pop culture extended into the 1929 play and 1948 movie, Rope and the novel and movie, Compulsion in the 1950s. Anyone knowing the facts of the case will recognize the references in Jazzed, though it isn’t necessary to know who “Babe” and Dickie were to get wrapped up in Will and Dolly. (Good on you, by the way.) Do you think people thirty-and-under, or even forty-and-under, will know or care about your main characters’ true-life antecedents?

Dearman: Yes, those mainstream works were inspired by the case, as was the 1990s queer cinema film, Swoon, and the queer play Thrill Me in the early aughts. The latter continues to be staged all over the world. And there are many more variations on the story. We are living in an era of true crime obsession, so I would guess younger people coming to the story might seek out the original details of the case. That’s what I did after my father introduced me to the Compulsion novel when I was twelve. I think so far younger people are finding the historical facts and social justice angle in Jazzed really resonant.

The age-old Leopold and Loeb narrative labels them “thrill-killers.” It was unheard of to commit murder “for no reason.” But there were reasons. Not an excuse for murder, to be sure. But the criminals didn’t come here from another planet! Now, kids are growing up with years and years of random acts of violence, children killing children in school… I think young people especially understand that violence starts from the top and trickles down, until it finally pours down, to this tortured individual or that one. Criminals aren’t born. They are made.

I write socially-engaged crime fiction because so many of the true crime stories (of all mediums) and crime novels that I devour tend to omit the influence of society on crime. I love crime fiction because it allows the reader to go inside the minds of the criminals, which allows people to vicariously experience their own shadows. That’s great, because often the most nonviolent types hold the most rage in their hearts! Outwardly they believe in justice, but inwardly they feel guilty for their lesser urges. Crime fiction allows the reader to experience in fantasy what it might be like to do terrible things. But what I really aimed to add to the mix in Jazzed was a three-dimensional sense of what it was like to live in those times. In those days a Congolese boy was put on display in a cage for the amusement of American whites. In the twenty-first century, we have a Republican president who supported putting immigrant children in cages. As we speak now, Brittany Griner, a Black masculine lesbian has been convicted to nine years in a Russian penal colony. Where are the Americans taking to the streets to protest? Then as now, it is because the dominant culture hates people of color, hates queers, hates immigrants, hates women.

Rail: What were some of the other literary sources that helped inform this novel’s mood and tone, if not its content? Did you also dig into the New York newspapers or other period media?

Dearman: I’ve studied this case—out of pure obsession—since I was a kid, and in writing Jazzed, I returned to the news reportage, and case transcripts, and dug up more public documents. But what excited (and enraged) me most was when I dug into the 1920s’ version of the war on women, which has different details than today’s war on women, but the same sentiment: to control women’s bodies and minds. For instance, there was indeed a Dr. Steinach who believed in female genital mutilation, to “normalize” women. Just as there is indeed a book which comes up in Jazzed called Sex in Education: or, a Fair Chance for the Girls, by a Harvard Professor, from the late nineteenth century who believed women who went to college would grow bigger and heavier brains, and soon their wombs would atrophy and they’d be unable to do what they were put here for: to bear children.

I also read reems about eugenics which was considered a real science in those days and used as an excuse to keep out non-(western European) white immigrants, and to claim the inferiority of Black people, the neurodivergent, “perverted” queers, and women who did not uphold the dominant culture’s definition of femininity. And as we can see in the papers and in the world today, everything old is new again.

You know, while I was finishing the first draft of Jazzed I was brought on by Nomad Press to write a history of feminism book for middle-schoolers. Even though Hillary hadn’t become president, there was still Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and strides in intersectional feminism that seemed optimistic. And I am an optimist! But considering the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the culture and legal war on queers, women, people of color, immigrants, the disabled…it’s as if we are back in the 1920s—just without the parties!

Rail: Another aspect of the era you bring to light was the anti-Semitism that was far more overt in American society between the two world wars than now (See Philip Roth, The Plot Against America, etc.), though as we know it’s never really gone away. When it surfaces in your novel, it’s both enlightening and unsettling to see how such prejudices seamlessly blended into the racism and homophobia rampant in that era, especially manifest in the brutal fate of Dolly’s friend CC. What was some of the source material you used to help evoke such genteel brutality? Did it include some of your own family history?

Dearman: In terms of genteel brutality… I don’t think many (if any?) people have publicly commented on an obscure aspect of Meyer Levin’s Compulsion, the novelization of the Leopold and Loeb case. Levin based the lead character, a cub reporter named Sid Silver, on himself. The book was published in the 1950s and much of it, especially the final section, is laden with what most feminists and queers would consider crackpot Freudian psychology. Still, that’s the fifties for you. But upon reading it again in recent years, I came face to face with what I think is the most shocking element of the book. During World War II we see Sid and his army buddy actively and openly hunting for German “frauleins” to rape. They come damn close, too, but it is Sid who talks his friend out of it, just as the crime is beginning. Still, they come within a hair of raping a 17-year-old virgin. (They were actually hunting for a presumed virgin to add to the thrill of their potential crime.) Now, I have mixed feelings about Meyer Levin. His book allowed my father to obliquely come out to me (more on that here); and when I was growing up his obsession with Anne Frank was also something I connected with. He’s a great writer, but he’s a flawed man. That’s ok! And I do understand that the potential rape scene (which I’m quite sure was an unconscious mirroring of the Leopold and Loeb characters looking for a youth to kill) was fiction (though likely based on fact, as the whole book was, by his admission). There is nothing wrong with rape fantasies or murder fantasies or any fantasies. But what killed me as a kid, and still drives me mad to this day, is the hypocrisy of one group of people judging another as sick and disturbed, or evil, when under the skin we are all the same.

As for me, going to elementary, junior and high school in 1970s/80s Queens, we learned a lot about the Holocaust, probably because so many of our teachers’ parents had escaped Europe or died at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. And since our class trips were to museums and plays in “the city” we learned a lot about the New York subway system! But my family was lower middle class, and we didn’t really have those political discussions around the dinner table the way the Raab family does in Jazzed. We definitely were given the message to be culturally loyal to our tribe (of Jews). Interestingly, the majority of kids at the public schools I attended in Queens were non-white and it felt like “the real” New York—truly diverse, not just paying lip service to the idea of diversity. I think issues of class united us, more than differences of other kinds divided us.

But as for anti-Semitism, yes, both Will and Dolly’s fathers are terrified of the hatred toward Jews in this country and in the world, and with good reason. When a people are the object of such irrational hatred and disgust for so many centuries, of course we’re going to feel a little skittish and at times downright terrified! Then and now. I mean, as a kid growing up and learning firsthand about the Holocaust from teachers, and then reading today about all these Holocaust-deniers, it’s awful. And to deny today’s kids an opportunity to read Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which is a great telling of history and an amazing graphic book—it’s just so wrong. Luckily artists and writers are the sneaky sort, and one way or another we make sure our work gets out there.

Rail: So, can you talk about what’s been capturing your interest now, as far as the next thriller is concerned?

Dearman: Well, I have a shorter work that’s of the thriller variety with more sex, violence and gender-swapping; it’s set during the Great Depression. But I am also working on a nonfiction book about metaphysics, a subject I’ve been immersed in since childhood, but especially in these recent years. It sounds esoteric, but it’s meant to help us embodied humans here on earth deal with the real life horrors of these apocalyptic times. Don’t worry; there’s plenty of humor in it too!


Gene Seymour

Gene Seymour is an essayist and critic whose work has appeared in The Nation, The Washington Post, BookForum, and The New Republic. He lives in Philadelphia. 


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2022

All Issues