Talking with Barbara Bourland about her Debut Mystery, I’LL EAT WHEN I’M DEAD

Photo of Barbara Bourland (c) Dennis Drenner

Photo of Barbara Bourland (c) Dennis Drenner

 

Mystery Month 2017Barbara Bourland’s debut mystery, I’ll Eat When I’m Dead (Grand Central), unfolds from the offices of the fictional RAGE Fashion Book, a groundbreakingly ethical magazine. I loved the book’s characters, especially tough, smart fashion editor Cat Ono, its industry-insider mood with just the right amount of froth and gloss (in other words, a lot), and the way it delightfully skewered the behemoth fashion and beauty industries.

Bourland and I recently talked on the phone about her book, out today, which she calls “a satire that comes from love.” I was surprised by the origins of my favorite character, Cat, and delighted to hear about Bourland’s future projects—including a sequel to IEWID, already in the works.

 

There’s a line at the beginning of your book that made me drop everything and find a pencil: “Magazines were where women watched themselves being watched; where they learned how to be.” Can you talk a little bit about your work in, and your relationship to, magazines?

I was a web producer, and I did travel writing, and I was sort of a not-terribly-important employee at a variety of media companies. This book really comes out of my personal love for women’s magazines and how I have longed for them to be. We learn about ourselves when we look in the pages of a magazine; we see a fantasy. And that can be the [Vogue creative director] Grace Coddington dragons-and-forest fantasy, or it can be when we see real women looking really powerful.

Grace Coddington

Grace Coddington

Most women I know tend to investigate the construction of their identity. We’re always, on the one hand, getting dressed and shopping, picking outfits, changing up our makeup; it really does feel like self-expression. But then on the other hand, fashion and beauty are these massive economies that have global ramifications.

Often when I pick up a fashion magazine, I’ll see a spread that has some variation on “budget looks for work,” and the idea is that by tending to our own economic needs, we are engaging in feminist behavior that raises all ships. But when the clothing on the page is made by another woman who’s incredibly economically disadvantaged by your passion as a consumer, then it doesn’t really function as feminism. Commercial feminism is a really interesting idea to me. I don’t know if it’s bad or good; I don’t know if we can buy our way into better politics or not, but I had the idea that, what if there was a magazine that could do that? And it really stuck with me. . . [Margo, the editor-in-chief at RAGE, is] very, very loosely based on Helen Gurley Brown, who took over Cosmopolitan.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about the research that went into writing I’ll Eat When I’m Dead? 

There are three books on the garment industry that I read. One of them is Deluxe by Dana Thomas, who lives in Paris and is a foreign correspondent for fashion for T: The New York Times Style Magazine. She wrote this book trying to unpack a high-end handbag. A handbag is $7,000: Where does everything in it come from, and is it really luxurious? There’s a brand understanding that luxury goods are made by groups of women in France whose families have been doing this for a thousand years in a cottage industry in a small town, and it’s worth every penny. But that’s less and less true with each passing year.

deluxe dana thomasI also read Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline. Cline looked in her closet and realized how much fast fashion was in it, and wanted to know how all of it was made and if it was possible to track a supply chain. . . She created a fake company, went to China, handed out business cards, and tried to see as many factories as she could.

There’s another book called Wear No Evil by Greta Eagan, a how-to guide about wearing clothes that aren’t made by someone who’s disadvantaged. But the problem with most clothing really isn’t even necessarily with the manufacturing; all of the statistics about the garment industry in IEWID are true or have been reported in some way. The World Bank put out a report several years ago noting that the garment industry is actually the number two polluter of the worlds potable waterways, after agriculture. Because to make a really inexpensive jersey in a super-bright red with a color-fast dye is pretty chemically complex, and if a manufacturing corridor doesn’t have any incentive to regulate that, they’re not going to. When you start thinking about wanting to buy things that are only made in a way you would feel good about, it does actually become really hard to shop. In IEWID, that universe is different. RAGE has changed that, they have made a difference. That’s the fantasy, that that is even possible. Which it may not be.  [For more fashion titles, check out the reading list Bourland shared on Read it Forward. –Ed.]

 

At one point, readers are suddenly dropped into Cat’s past, which is this unexpected and beautiful departure from the book’s action. How did Cat’s backstory emerge for you?

[When] I wrote the very first draft of the book, I was living in Chicago. My husband was finishing his PhD in Art History at the University of Chicago, and I was doing a year at Harpo Studios. About a week before we got married, which is roughly this time five years ago, he was on the academic job market, and it’s incredibly nerve-racking. He looked at me and said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. What do you think I could do?”

He’d essentially spent eight years thinking about the semiotic structures of visual culture. . . and I had no idea how that was applicable. I went to work the next day, and I was still thinking about it. I went on my lunch break and I was walking around the block smoking a cigarette and I thought, “Oh my god, you could use all these things at a fashion magazine! But it would have to be really progressive: as glamorous as Vogue and as principled as Ms.” And so I sat there and I wrote this weird little sketch on my phone, with a dead woman at the center of the plot, and the protagonist is this weird alternate-universe version of my husband. But of course Cat went ABD—[and] Ian did finish, and got a job.

Ferdinand de Saussure, foundational semiotician

Ferdinand de Saussure, foundational semiotician

I had forgotten about it until we moved to Baltimore three years ago, and then I was able to sit down and write it. In the moment, I think I was trying to emotionally process a fantasy to deal with the stress of what was actually happening. But it stayed with me, and I’m so glad that it did.

 

Have you ever been sewn into a dress? Because this happens to your characters a lot and I was so curious if. . . 

No! No no no no no. I know some seamstresses, though.

 

There’s a sequel to I’ll Eat When I’m Dead in the works—any teasers you can throw our way?

While IEWID focused on the impact that print media has on the politics of women’s bodies and women’s work, Maniacs will explore how technology could change a billion women’s lives—including Cat’s—for better, and for worse.

My third novel is also forthcoming from Grand Central. It’s called Pine City, a murder mystery set at an abandoned hotel that’s been turned into an artists’ colony in upstate New York. It’s written in the first person, so it’s different from the constant jumping POVs of IEWID. It’s about a young abstract painter who goes to the colony for the summer, as a guest, and falls into their circle and starts digging around with the people who run the place. It’s sort of sexy, scary, Twin Peaks-y. Right now we’re saying 2019, so I’m working as I go. I started it when I needed a break from Cat’s technologically heavy world. So there’s no phones in Pine City. Phones don’t work there.

 

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About the Author:

Annie Bostrom is Associate Editor, Adult Books, at Booklist. She is a cat person, but also really likes dogs. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Annie.

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