Harriet was trying to explain to Sport how to play Town. “See, first you make up the name of the town. Then you write down the names of all the people who live in it. You can’t have too many or it gets too hard. I usually have twenty-five.”
“Ummmmm.” Sport was tossing a football in the air. They were in the courtyard of Harriet’s house on East Eighty-seventh Street in Manhattan.
“Then when you know who lives there, you make up what they do. For instance, Mr. Charles Hanley runs the filling station on the corner.” Harriet spoke thoughtfully as she squatted next to the big tree, bending so low over her notebook that her long straight hair touched the edges.
“Don’tcha wanta play football?” Sport asked.
“Now, listen, Sport, you never did this and it’s fun. Now over here next to this curve in the mountain we’ll put the filling station. So if anything happens there, you remember where it is.
Sport tucked the football under his arm and walked over to her. “That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”
“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” Harriet looked up into his face.
Sport moved back a pace. “Looks like an old tree root,” he muttered.
Harriet pushed her hair back and looked him seriously. “Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”
“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”
“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.”
Harriet turns 50 this week (well, technically 61, but her adventures on the page hit the half-century mark) and BookTrib talked to six contemporary authors of crime fiction (and nonfiction)—Laura Lippman, Alafair Burke, Cornelia Read, Cara Black, Kelli Stanley, and Sarah Weinman—to see how this 11-year-old girl with her trusty notebook full of secrets influenced them as readers and writers.
BookTrib: Did you read the Louise Fitzhugh’s books as a child or as an adult (or both)? Did they make you want to become a spy and/or a writer like Harriet?
Laura Lippman: As a child and I re-read it constantly. I never “liked” Harriet—I actually prefer The Long Secret for that reason—but I loved her life. And my devotion to black-and-white notebooks was certainly inspired by her.
Alafair Burke: As a kid. A classic chicken or the egg problem: did Harriet make me want to spy, or did I love Harriet because I was already a spy in the making? My sister and I would plan our missions from the closet under the staircase, which we called our Buddy Club. Typical plots included sneaking around our brother’s room and seeing how many times we could move our mother’s coffee mug before she noticed we were messing with her.
Cornelia Read: I first read Louise Fitzhugh’s books in fourth grade at Carmel River School in California, at the behest of my teachers Mrs. Miller and Mr. Wilson. This was very soon after I’d written my very-first-ever short story. I think Mrs. Miller and Mr. Wilson knew that I would be inspired to start keeping my own Harriet-style notebook on my classmates, despite the consequences this activity entailed for Harriet. The only thing I remember from this notebook is that I described a classmate as follows: “Chris Gordon looks like a crinkle-cut French fry.” I am not sure what I meant by that, except that he was a tall, skinny, and somewhat angular kid. With freckles. What I should’ve written is “Chris Gordon looks oddly like Sport.” Also, in sixth grade, I wrote a book titled “Call Me Stringbean,” which was the diary of a child spy who infiltrates a secret ring of heroin dealers in Manhattan and the Bahamas at the behest of her dad, the CIA agent. She is both skinny and gets to live with her dad, so it was a gigantic exercise in wish fulfillment. I also constructed her special “spy sneakers” out of a pair of old Keds. My sixth-grade language arts teacher took the diary and shoes to a gifted-child-education conference at the UN. The Soviets were apparently horrified that I’d been brainwashed, when actually I just segued rapidly from Louise Fitzhugh to Ian Fleming, and still profoundly wanted to be Harriet. And a real spy.
Cara Black: I read Harriet the Spy when I was eleven years old like Harriet. Of course, I ate tomato sandwiches and wanted to be a spy. They wouldn’t take me. So I turned to writing.
Kelli Stanley: Both. As a kid, I liked the whole “spy” business best. As an adult, I better appreciated Harriet’s honest snarkiness.
Sarah Weinman: Both, though I didn’t finish it as a kid (gasp!) because it felt like too much, somehow. Probably because Harriet’s behavior hit awfully close to my own at the time.
BT: How did Harriet and her industrious note-taking on the good and bad parts of human nature influence you as a crime writer, where you’re also sussing out the “bad” people?
LL: The thing I loved most about Harriet was her game of trying to guess people’s appearances while eavesdropping on their conversations.
AB: I think Harriet would also come to learn a truth that is reflected in the best of crime fiction—that people aren’t always either good or bad. Good people are capable of doing bad things, either for good reasons or in a bad situation. And people who do a lot of bad things are also capable of being selfless, brave, and other good things. Those are facts of human nature that you only learn by truly watching people.
CR: Harriet taught me to be a silent observer. I even played “Town” in our back yard in California whenever the creek was running. I would dam up the water, then build a town and invent a populace, then kick the dam open and do a running commentary on all of them drowning. Which usually made me cry for the poor imaginary people. I think there is no better training for a writer than to read Harriet the Spy around fourth grade. Even if the only observation you can then come up with at the time is that Chris Gordon looks like a crinkle-cut French fry. It’s those weird little moments/details that make characters work.
CB: Harriet wrote her impressions down—I do that, too. If I didn’t I’d forget. There’s something about writing down a mannerism, capturing the feeling, or your take on a person that will fly away if you don’t.
KS: Harriet is such a special character largely because she isn’t saccharine in the least. She is a social realist—she understands that there can be bad in good people and good in bad people. She’s also not afraid to call ‘em as she sees ‘em. Maybe she is, like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, a “high-functioning sociopath.” I write in my head when I’m not typing on a keyboard. It’s an integral part of that process is noticing my surroundings and re-purposing them for a fictional world. Harriet definitely helped me be a better observer (particularly in public places—bus rides have always been fertile ground for me creatively) both as a writer and (when I was first out of high school) as an actress. Observation is key to creating believable characters or embodying them theatrically.
SW: Harriet made more of an unconscious influence than an overt one, almost certainly because I didn’t read the book properly until I was a grown-up. And by then, my formative influences were more ingrained (and noirish).
BT: Harriet’s diary is her most prized possession and she’s lost—and vulnerable—without it. What’s your personal equivalent to this notebook of full of secrets?
LL: My private communications with a friend who knows that I can be very, very, very mean.
AB: Burke claims to have no such equivalent, save for her French Bulldog, Double. BookTrib is sure he’s full of secrets.
CR: I still have “Call Me Stringbean.” It’s in a miniature black three-ring binder from Longs Drugs in Carmel, California. I wrote the title on it in purple nail polish. The fact that I lost the spy sneakers I made to go with it still kills me. That and an old scrapbook of photos from the teens through 1940s on my dad’s side are the first two things I’d grab if my house were on fire.
CB: Maps. I’m a map-a-holic. I write, draw and jot notes on a map that becomes my map-diary. If I lost it, I’d lose half my plot. Visually it helps me to outline the routes I take, mark the cafes, museums, a lovely 17th-century door, the bus stop, and a possible murder location.
KS: My notebooks are full of ideas, scenes and sketches. I’d be devastated but not lost without them. I keep my observations to myself—stored in my “mind palace,” to use another Sherlock phrase—until they’ve percolated into my writings. So I guess for me, memory is my most prized possession. Remembering the way people look, talk, walk, smell, dress, act…remembering the sound of traffic at a particular intersection or a fleeting look of pain on a stranger’s face, or an unexpected smile from someone you hadn’t noticed. That’s what’s valuable to my writing. Ironically, I hated diaries as a kid.
SW: In a strange coincidence, I answer this a day or so after unearthing my unfinished journal, which I started at age 13 and which apparently stop-started until I was 18. It’s equal parts hilarious (the KEEP OUT! edict on the title page), embarrassing (tennis star crushes, lists of soap opera couples I hoped would happen, more crush confessions), and dark, and weirdly holds the key—or a part of a key—to some unresolved issues I should probably deal with at some point, and that which also explain some choices I’ve since made.
BT: Admit it: have you observed strangers—or people you know—and written down their behavior, conversations, and flaws to use to for material in your fiction?
LL: I eavesdrop constantly. Part of it is simply a desire to nail down the vagaries of speech—the turns of phrase (especially in my hometown), the way people rationalize certain things. But, yes, if someone angers me with their behavior, it might be noted for future use.
AB: I am an unabashed eavesdropper. I have live tweeted entire conversations overheard at lunch. As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t want someone like me studying (and judging) your every word, then lower your voicer.
CR: I collect them: people I see on the bus, or planes, or walking down the street. I have a mental file of quirks I want to someday incorporate into fictional characters: the ten-year-old boy in the Longs Drugstore in Berkeley wearing a black t-shirt that read “Shut Up, Stupid Hippie….” The teenager I stood behind on line at the DMV in Cambridge who had a cowlick about two thirds back on his Mohawk. The really cool lady who ran a daycare in Cambridge AND introduced me to the books of Minette Walters AND said she’d given a father, who wanted a daily accounting of all his child’s activities, a bullet-pointed note which read:
- Morning snack (vegan)
- Finger painting
- Crucifying bunnies in my backyard while playing Abbey Road backwards
CB: The truth? Yes, notebooks and notebooks full of observations on the Metro, the bus, in the square, even conversations overheard in cafes between the owners and deliverymen. In Paris, I buy five Clairefontaine apple green notebooks at a time. Then I go back for more.
KS: See my previous answer. I’ve never written down direct observation and used it as is. In fact, I do very little reporting, a la Harriet. I do, however, watch. And listen. And observe. And then, if it fits my imagination, if it works in the storyline, if it feels right…it winds up in a book or story.
SW: Hell yes and proud of it. Where else will I get material aside from old newspaper archives, videos, and the like?
BT: 50 years later, where do you think Harriet is now and what has she done with her life?
LL: So she’d be in her 60s, right? I think she’s an enormous success and she has a social conscience. There were hints of her awareness of the haves and the have-nots even when she was a privileged kid. She was pretty insular then, but I have a feeling she developed greater empathy for others. I think she’s rich, but not particularly interested in things and uses her wealth for good causes. And like Ole Golly, I think she married late.
AB: I think she’s the lady sitting next to me at lunch, sipping a martini, pretending to doodle innocently in a notebook.
CR: I have it on very good authority that she is a redheaded, gorgeous, and brilliant college librarian in northern New Hampshire. This is where she settled after teaching on the Zuni reservation in New Mexico for many years. She still likes the Grateful Dead, and is a crack shot.
CB: I think Harriet, after an illustrious career with the CIA, in a role similar to M, has retired to her fishing boat off the Greek Island of Paros.
KS: I think Harriet is living by herself and working as an advice columnist. Of course, that’s what she wants us to think. In reality, it’s all a cover story (she’s in a supportive relationship) and she’s running intel for Anonymous.
SW: She’s the executive editor of The New York Times and changed her name along the way to Jill Abramson. (I kid, but Abramson’s sister writes the FANCY NANCY books, so perhaps I’m not so far off…?)
Laura Lippman’s latest novel, After I’m Gone, is available now. Alafair Burke’s All Day and a Night, is out in June. Cornelia Read’s Valley of Ashes is available now. Cara Black’s newest series installment, Murder in Pigalle, is out in March. Kelli Stanley’s new novel, City of Ghosts, is due in August. Sarah Weinman’s Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, is available now.