The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal
“The book was better than the movie!” What about when the book was inspired by a movie? Hugo Award Winning author Mary Robinette Kowal talks to us today about what inspired her to write her newest novel, The Spare Man.
MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL:
The Thin Man in Space — That’s what The Spare Man is. Not the novel by Dashiel Hammet, mind you, but the films that follow Nick and Nora Charles as played by William Powell and Myrna Loy. I adore these films. If you haven’t seen them, they’re about a happily married couple who solve crime with their adorable dog Asta. They were made in the 1930s are are often lumped into the noir category but are really murder comedies.
I wanted to write a murder mystery that was a playful as the films, also starring a happily married couple and their small dog. In space. I am a science fiction writer after all.
This is one of those novels where the pitch came first and then the characters and then I had to find the story itself. To do that, I watched all six of The Thin Man movies and started paying attention to the way things were constructed. The films are… uneven, shall we say. The relationship between Nick and Nora (and Asta) is always charming because of the actors, but some of the mysteries are so convoluted that they don’t make any sense.
In the good ones, every suspect has a connection to the deceased and a motive. There are clues that are easily misinterpreted until another clue puts them into a different light. And there are oddball characters that seem to exist only to give a sense of whimsy.
And, of course, a murder.
With those elements, I turned to one of my other favorite tools — inversion. I really enjoy taking a piece of a story and turning it to its opposite. In the films, Nick is the detective and Nora is the spouse who wants to participate in sleuthing but isn’t allowed.
Sure, I could have gender swapped the characters, but that still means the detective is doing the detecting. I’m more interested in stories in which a competent person is put in a situation where their competencies are irrelevant. That meant that my Nora — Tesla Crane — is still an heiress. Her Nick — Shalmaneser Steward — is still a detective. My Asta — Gimlet — is still a dog.
But let’s invert some things. Shal is placed in a position where he can’t investigate, even though he’s a detective, because he’s arrested as a suspect. Tesla has to investigate, but I strip her of her power — money — by having her travel incognito. That in itself is an inversion, because Nick and Nora are both famous within the world of the films.
And in my novel, Gimlet (the most perfect of dogs) is a service dog so she has self-awareness and discipline that her inspiration lacks.
When you watch the film and then read the book, you’ll spot one other inversion which is related to the murder itself. That is a giant spoiler, but I’ll just say that I’m really proud of that murder.
The other major driving force in The Thin Man movies comes via the conversations that Nick and Nora have in their pursuit of answers. When I plotted the novel initially, I figured out who the characters were and how Tesla and Shal could meet them and then I discovery-wrote the first half of the book. Usually I plot things out, but I hadn’t fully decided who the murderer was until I was about at the midway point following the Agatha Christie method of writing mysteries. What’s the Agatha Christie method? She didn’t plot her novels. I know, right?! She gave everyone motive and opportunity and then decided at the end which one was the murderer.
I didn’t go quite that far but I did wait until I had fleshed out the characters before deciding, because I realized that a lot of the fun of The Thin Man comes from the conversations, the banter, and the characters that they meet.
So for Shal and Tesla, I started with the characters, not the plot. Granted, I had to do a fair bit of cleanup after that. But each time I had to adjust an element, I thought about Nick and Nora Charles and tried to bring them into the 21st century. In space.
As I said, the Big Idea for this is pretty simple. The Thin Man in spaaaaaaaaaaaace!!!!