Interview by Sharleen Jonsson
Sarah Weinman is the author ofThe Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World (September 2018). Sheis editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and ’50s and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. She covers book publishing for Publishers Marketplace, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major American and Canadian media. Native of Ottawa and graduate of McGill University and of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s forensic science graduate program, Weinman lives in Brooklyn, New York.
SJ:The Real Lolitadraws connections between Vladimir Nabokov’s novel,Lolita,and the real-life abduction of Sally Horner. At what point did you realize you cared enough about Sally to commit to telling her story? Did anything in your initial research lead you to imagine one particular scene that grew to haunt you?
SW:The Real Lolitabegan life as an article for Hazlitt, so my realization dated back to late 2013 or thereabouts, when I stumbled across a 2005 essay by the Nabokov scholar Alexander Dolinin connecting the dots between Lolitaand Sally’s kidnapping. Because the literary essay, excellent as it was, didn’t answer a central question: who was Sally? How had her story been reported? Was anyone alive to remember her? And so those were the questions I had in mind as I began to research and report things out, first for the piece (published in November 2014) and then for the book, which took, in stop-and-start form, another two or so years to research and write. I always knew Sally’s story was bigger than a mere article. The connections to Lolitawere so rich and nuanced and I wanted to expand on that in book form.
SJ:Your story of Sally is heartbreaking and riveting. We get to know many people involved in her short life, and we also get a strong sense of Camden, New Jersey, and of American culture in the late 1940s. You weave a lot of threads together into a story that never sags. Can you talk about how you structured this book? What were the challenges?
SW: Sally’s kidnapping and the road trip aspect – going from Camden to Atlantic City to Baltimore to Dallas to San Jose, where she was rescued after 21 months in captivity – was always going to be the spine of the book, and that the Nabokov sections would be attached, spoke-like, with other shorter chapters on Camden’s history, other pivotal characters, and Lolita‘s weird cultural afterlife, slotting in somehow. But it was certainly challenging to make the book of my vision match the final product. Nabokov’s a daunting figure and it took a long time to have the confidence to step into his aura and wrestle with it while respecting his genius (it helped that I finished The Real Lolitain a state of additional admiration and love for Lolita, which remains at present.) And I always wanted the book to be paced like a thriller because what happened to Sally is a suspense story, with many twists and turns. So, too, is Lolita, and getting the Nabokov sections to complement was tough; many pages of outright lit-crit had to be cut to keep the pacing consistent.
My editors, Anne Collins at Knopf Canada and Zack Wagman at Ecco, really pushed me to dig deeper, go further, and write better over a period of about five months of revision, and that The Real Lolitadoesn’t sag is a testament to all that hard work, in such a collaborative, positive manner.
SJ: What would you say to Sally if you were (magically) able to communicate with her?
SW: I fear this would be akin to a rip in the time-space continuum to think about this! But my answer, I think, is the answer I give to people as to why I wanted to write about her: that she matters, and deserves our full attention. And I suppose, more directly, that her family and friends loved her and still love her, and that she remains a tremendous influence upon them.
SJ:You provide a detailed description of problems Nabokov had getting Lolitainto the hands of American readers. In 2018, the story of a middle-aged man having a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl might be even more difficult to bring to the public. Can you say anything about how the industry currently reacts to “difficult” books? If the entertainment industry is afraid to be politically incorrect, what, if anything, do we lose?
SW: I’ve written about this a little in an essay for Vanity Fair, as it is part of a larger issue of appropriation, who gets to write what types of stories, diversity, and the like. And ultimately, I’ve come to believe that any writer is free and should write whatever and however they want, but the degree of difficulty, and the entry barrier, must also be extraordinarily high. Debut novels have always needed to be exceptional, and as editors are more inclusive in the kinds of books they buy, the range of exceptionality must change, which I think is ultimately for the betterment of literature.
The question I ask writers (as well as myself) constantly is: why are youthe person to write this particular story? Listen, do the work, come in with humility and generosity, and the stories will be there.