In Ivy Pochoda’s new thriller, five women are connected by a serial killer—but he doesn’t get to tell the story.
Five years ago, I was convinced during after-dinner drinks (always the best time to get me to do anything) to run for a seat on my local neighborhood council. Grassroots politics and community organizing had never been on my radar. But I live in a neighborhood called Harvard Heights, a small subsection of a much larger neighborhood called West Adams that sweeps across South Los Angeles for many miles, and I care deeply about my community. It’s a conflicted place of pride and neglect, home to families who have generational roots as well as newcomers. West Adams, which is filled with grand Craftsman homes and Victorian mansions, was one of the first places in Los Angeles to permit nonwhite homeownership, and for that reason, when the city decided to build the 10 Freeway, they placed it smack-dab in the neighborhood’s middle, creating a roaring gully and ghettoizing the area south of the 10.
I have to admit, I didn’t last on the council very long, only half of my four-year term. (I travel too much.) But what I saw and absorbed there became the basis for These Women. My council was called the United Neighborhoods Neighborhood Council (yeah, I know), and it was comprised of a handful of underserved communities at the eastern and northern edges of West Adams. The council members fell into two categories: long-term African American residents who wanted to see the neighborhood thrive economically without falling prey to the perils of gentrification and middle-aged white people devoted to the historic preservation of the state homes in the community. Many issues brought before the council broke along these lines: make things better for the residents or preserve the important historic charm of the United Neighborhoods.
The board was predominantly female—outspoken and articulate women from different races and cultures who brought a wide range of views, perspectives and intolerances to the table. Everyone saw the community, its potentials and its problems differently. I knew that I wanted to write about this cultural divide in my section of West Adams. I wanted to write about the women who cared about it and who were rooted in it.
One of the issues that commonly cropped up in front of the council was prostitution. It was a subject that united everyone: Get rid of the “hookers,” shame them, blame them. Western Avenue, the major thoroughfare that runs north-south through our section of West Adams, is a hotbed for prostitution. This has never bothered me. I lived in Amsterdam for many years and have what I hope is a liberal or humanizing take on the industry. I was horrified that a group of civic-minded women could be so intolerant of the sex workers in their midst. I was baffled by their inability to see them as not just people, but people most likely conscripted into their line of work. And then I knew I had my story.
I always think that the best way to write about a community—to examine one—is to make a crime occur in its midst. A crime gives everyone something to react to. It teases out deep cultural fissures and challenges loyalties. With the premise of someone killing sex workers, I knew I had a way to explore my section of West Adams. And I knew I had something people wanted to read—a serial killer story. But therein lay a problem.
We already have many books about serial killers. And I didn’t dare add my name to that list. There are many great ones that influenced me: Michael Connelly’s The Poet and Jess Walter’s incredible Over Tumbled Graves, as well as Dan Chaon’s remarkable Ill Will, to name a few. These books are paragons of the genre. Connelly’s is more conventional but nonetheless brilliant and accomplished. Walter takes a larger swing, peppering his story with a critique of our fascination with serial killers and the cottage industry they inspire. And Chaon, well, he hits it out of the park with his beyond-category psychological thriller that plunges the serial killer mythos and our perception of it into incredibly dark waters.
Instead of fetishizing him, as other books might, I punched a serial killer-size hole in my narrative, shifting the focus to the women at the nexus of his crimes.
We’ve also had too many books (and TV shows) that fetishize such murderers, almost glorifying them, granting them genius status simply because of the number of killings they got away with. And I certainly didn’t want to enter that fray.
What interested me was not the killer but the women touched by his crimes—the women like those on my neighborhood council. I was interested in the obvious victims, sure, those he killed and those related to the women he killed. But I was also compelled by the victims usually overlooked in crime fiction, those close to the murderer who have lived in the shadow of unspeakable violence. As I began to write, I realized the serial killer in my book had little to do with my story. So instead of fetishizing him, as other books might, I punched a serial killer-size hole in my narrative, shifting the focus to the women at the nexus of his crimes.
Never before has it been so important to listen to women, to hear our stories, to put our perspectives first. Never before has it been so important to understand the amount of disregard that has been dumped upon us, to consider how often we are written off as victims, sluts, hysterics, embittered and emotional wrecks. Never before has it been so important to see a crime from the female perspective and for once to put the criminal where he belongs: in the background.
Which is why I wrote These Women—to celebrate my neighborhood and the women who live there who are overlooked but shouldn’t be.
Author photo by Maria Kanevskaya