And some crime writers are mediums for the world that came before. Pamila Payne is a unique fusion of both, an author compelled by the sins of the past to speak for a bygone eras’ lost souls. Her Vintage Vice site features a prolific archive of early-20th century tales revealing haunted criminals and the spirits, both real and imagined, that torment them.
Part time-travel, part seance and all too vivid, Pamila’s stories transport readers to another era and let them walk alongside its ghosts. In this interview, we’ll meet the ghosts that possess her.
Gina Marie: You describe your work as “vintage vice.” What sources do you draw on for your research?
Pamila Payne: My fascination with the past has been a lifelong obsession, especially the 1920s through the early ‘50s. I watch old movies of every genre, but noir is where I feel the most at home. I listen to old radio shows and recorded man-on-the-street interviews to get dialects and phrasing. The Library of Congress is my favorite wormhole. I search for updated digital photo libraries and rejoice each time I find something like the UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, which has digitized images from the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily News photographic archives. Old photos are a great source of inspiration, especially if there's no story or explanations attached. Some of my characters have just leapt right out of anonymous photos fully formed.
Footage is helpful too, though it's almost too much for me. Especially the Downtown LA material on the Internet Archives.
Being a native of Los Angeles, I've always had an interest in our regional history and I pine for what's been lost. LA eats itself over and over. My great-grandfather moved here from the east in the 1940s and I grew up with him driving me around town in the ‘70s, pointing to things out of the car window and saying, "That didn't used to be there," or, "All this was orange groves," or "That's where such and such used to be."
I watch that footage and get mesmerized. The Victorian buildings slide by, the big old cars swim alongside, the tantalizing glimpses of people walking down the street or standing on corners in the bleachey sunlight, it all gives me a strange achey feeling. I watch and invariably find myself muttering, "Stop. Pull over so I can get out and walk around in there." I want to see what's down that other street. I want to follow that woman and see where she goes.
I read novels of the time, from pulp trash to classic literature. I look at advertising and propaganda, news and typical sources of information from the period. "Look it up," used to mean, "in the encyclopedia." People didn't have constant streams of unsorted information shooting them in the face 24 hours a day. They had to seek out information, they had to wait for the news, they had to read and talk to each other.
All the aspects of life that create shared experience—popular culture, style crazes, wars, economics, social and political movements—these things set the tone and shaped people's lives in ways that were more regionally unique in the past.
I don't necessarily include all of that directly in my stories, though. I don't consider what I do to be historical fiction, I take a lot of creative liberties. I'm not a scholar and I don't even really research properly, but I can't seem to write much without getting lost in the past for a while. I mostly just pour all it into my head, let it swim around in there and then the remix happens on the page.
Gina Marie: What inspires you about these time periods?
Pamila Payne: The first half of the twentieth century was the threshold of modern life, a pause at the doorway to a totally different world. In the big picture, human life changed very little right up to the end of the nineteenth century. The period of rapid change that began with the twentieth century created interwoven parallel realities of old world and new world. Science, technology, social constructs, the limits to human achievement, everything was stretching and splitting and outgrowing the old timeworn containers. That span of time feels very dangerous and beautiful for all that was emerging and all that was to be lost.
I know that realistically, there is much about my slice of the past that would have really pissed me off. If I was living in the 1940s as the person I am, I would have been considered one of those odd, uppity women who got dragged to asylums for spouting off and failing to recognize the authority of men. If I ever get to time travel, I'm going male.
Gina Marie: You have called the Bella Vista Motel stories your “life’s work.” What formed your idea for them?
Pamila Payne: My joke delivery must be really dry. I've been working on the Bella Vista project for a very long time...I will write other things.
The motel was inspired by a real motel in west Texas that I stayed at very briefly on my way to New Orleans, long, long ago. I had a strange, unsettling experience there that planted the idea of a haunted motel in my mind. The character of Romeo, the Bella Vista Motel manager, began from imagining what the old guy I encountered at the front desk that night might have been like as a young man. It took a few years, a ouija board, keeping a dream journal next to my bed and a lot of conversations with good friends for the idea to really gel and for me to start writing actual stories set in that world.
Gina Marie: What female horror writers inspire you?
Pamila Payne: I had to really think about that question. I don’t seek out horror specifically most of the time. My idea of horror isn't limited to what publishers deem horror. I'm inspired by all kinds of literature and I find horror everywhere. I remember reading The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and being surprised that it wasn’t considered a horror story. Mary Shelly's Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus was called horror, but I think it was much more philosophical science fiction. Either way, both of those stories inspired me.
I started down the path to horror with Edgar Allen Poe as a nine year old let loose in a big public library. I got hooked on Stephen King soon after when Carrie came out, and then Anne Rice when I read Interview With The Vampire. I think she's the one that really influenced my early development as a writer because she wrote so beautifully and I appreciated the immersive quality of her stories. I’m more interested in psychological horror woven into a compelling story than slasher or straight-up gore. Throughout the years I've found inspiration in many literary writers that included elements of horror. Toni Morrison, for example. Beloved is the most profoundly beautiful ghost story with deeply disturbing horror woven in.
Some of the best and most enjoyable horror stories I've read in recent years has come from writers I found online in the flash scene: Carrie Clevenger, Jodi MacArthur, Icy Sedgwick, Erin Cole, Laurita Miller. There’s a wide range of styles and experimentation in their work, dark and twisty, witty and relatable, as well as some truly inspired interpretations of the usual genre themes.
Gina Marie: What supernatural elements in fiction and film do you find the most enticing?
Pamila Payne: Ghost stories. Absolutely. That's what I've been drawn to creatively, all my life.
Gina Marie: Why do you weave mysticism into your crime fiction?
Pamila Payne: Because it's there. Because a man decides to kill. The gun goes off, and the body falls to the ground. The damage to the body releases all the energy it contained back out into the universe. The body ceases to be a person in the present reality. The killer walks away, maybe gets caught, maybe doesn't. But the world has been irreversibly altered. Paths will now cross that wouldn't have otherwise, future consequences will go on skewing out in redirected cycles, lives will fail or flourish in the space left behind by the dead.
Because even if I reduce crime fiction to its barest bones, there is still reality beyond normal human perception implied. Because death is the most mystical occurrence of all. Because we are mystical beings even when we're bad and wrong.
Gina Marie: Do you embrace or dispel nostalgia or a combination of both?
Pamila Payne: Maybe I secretly embrace a nostalgic view of romantic love, beauty, and film from the past. Maybe. But mostly I tend to trample on nostalgia. I think of nostalgia as being an unrealistic and self-deluding belief that things were better in the past. Often, a nostalgic view fails to include the darker elements of a time period or even denies they existed at all. I think the kind of story telling that uses the past as a style template but imposes modern sensibilities on its characters does a disservice to history. Showing everybody respectfully getting along in the past denies the reality that things were really bad for a lot of people for a long time, and to the extent that things got better, it was because lots of people worked hard and suffered to change things.
When I see footage of senate hearings and newscasts speaking of groups of people as lesser human beings or advocating for repressive social structures, it reminds me that the lives we live today are the result of long, painfully slow change. That's why if it makes sense in the context of the story, I include racism, sexism, offensive language and ignorant outlooks that were realistically appropriate to the time periods and regional areas where my stories took place. We're not that far away from our darker past, and it wouldn't take that much to slide backwards if we forget what it really means to go back to the good old days.
Gina Marie: Do you have a writing process?
Pamila Payne: Sometimes I just start to hear someone talking and that voice ends up being a character. Sometimes I have to try to catch story fragments as they waft in and out and collect them without expectation until a form congeals. Sometimes I get run down and plowed by a fully formed monster of an idea that won't let me go until I carve it into my forehead.
Once I've got enough random bits and pieces, I either put it together and just write it if it's a short story, or outline until I can make sense of how the story might go if it's a longer piece. Then I just write and write and write...Then I just rewrite and rewrite and rewrite...I was lucky to find a smart, dedicated writers group who are all better at grammar than me. We've been together for years and they've read everything I've written and worn out many red pens.
Gina Marie: What projects are you working on now, and what can we expect from you in the future?
Pamila Payne: I'm about to make a huge change in my life that will accommodate a full-time writing schedule and revived focus on my book narration goals. Book One of The Bella Vista Motel is first up to receive the full force of my attention. I've also got a few new short stories that will come out in January/February online, a website refresh in progress, and I’ve begun developing an entirely new novel that has nothing to do with the Bella Vista. It's a crime noir ghost story about a traumatized young woman living a secret life while working as an evidence clerk for the LAPD in downtown Los Angeles in the early ‘50s. I'm dying to write it.
Great interview. There are some terrific female hard-boiled crime writers making the rounds today. And I'm talking apart from the glut of serial killer/forensic investigator airport novel type.
Christa Faust writes great old-school noir tales, not to mention her funny-as-hell character of 'Butch Fatale: Dyke Dick'.
My favourite female crime writer is Mo Hayder from England. Her stuff is as grisly as any other writer you can name, and her novel 'Tokyo' (titled 'The Devil of Nanking' in the US) is one of the most uniquely disturbing, fucked-up horror/crime novels I've ever read. That book still haunts me.