By Leslie Lindsay
Darkly brilliant imagined rendering of Florence “Sally” Horner and her mysterious disappearance in 1948 at the hands of a ‘moral abuser,’ RUST AND STARDUST glitters. She’s here chatting about her charming Golden Retriever, Phoebe, the rabbit hole of research, how she cranked out the first draft of RUST & STARDUST in only a month (and then revised for many more), and so much else.
It’s 1948 in Camden, New Jersey when shy, lonely, awkward Florence “Sally” Horner is given a dare from a group of girls to steal something from a Woolworths. She’s desperate to join their club and so goes along with them. Just as she’s leaving the store, a man (Frank LaSalle) grabs her and catches her stealing. He says he’s with the FBI and she must go to their headquarters to confess her sins. But really, Frank LaSalle is fresh out of prison.
As the story unfolds, Frank’s lies become deeper and more brutal. Sally is scared but feels she has no way out of her situation. He takes her from Camden to the shore, Baltimore, Dallas, and California. RUST & STARDUST is a true story that has been fictionalized by the author to give it a novel appeal.
And so you wonder…the connection between this book and Nabakov’s LOLITA? The way I understand it, Nabakov was struggling with the manuscript that would eventually become LOLITA while Sally’s case was exposed in the media. It caught his attention and inspired characters in his book.
RUST & STARDUST is gritty but not obscene. Greenwood takes a gentle hand with the brutal aspects of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in the narrative. Readers get a sense of what is going on, but never is it blatant. Her words flow and glimmer and while the tale is disturbing, I felt such a soft spot for Sally and worried for her fate.
Greenwood’s research and intrigue with the case is evident in these pages, but so, too is her imagination. We ‘meet’ a colorful cast of characters, including a traveling circus at The Good Luck Motor Court in Texas as well as migrant workers in a citrus field in California. I found I simply could not put this book down. The chapters are short and told from the POV of several characters fully bringing the narrative–and Sally–to life.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Tammy Greenwood back to the author interview series.
Oh, this book! It’s shattering and gorgeous and ruinous and everything else. I know you researched this story for over two years. But I have to ask—what prompted your interest?
I was introduced to Sally Horner as a teenager when I read Lolita for the first time, though I didn’t realize it. A reference to her is embedded in one of Nabokov’s famous parentheticals: (Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?). It wasn’t until nearly twenty-five years later when I read an essay by crime writer, Sarah Weinman on Sally (and the connection to Lolita), that I encountered her again. Sally’s story, the tragedy of it, resonated with me, and I tumbled down the rabbit hole of research.
Can you lead us into your research a bit? Where did you start and how did you stop yourself from getting too entrenched and still allow the fiction to flow?
I began by looking at every archived newspaper article I could find about the kidnapping. I also studied genealogy sites and census records to determine familial relationships and addresses and occupations of her family members. I haunted obituaries.
This novel covers a large geographical terrain; La Salle took Sally from Camden, N.J. to Atlantic City to Baltimore, then on to Dallas and eventually San Jose. In the 1970s when I was a little girl, my family often drove to Atlantic City in the summer, where I performed (singing and dancing) on the Steel Pier. I have always wanted to write about this old Atlantic City, and so the fact that Frank and Sally spent time there felt almost serendipitous to me. I did a tremendous amount of research about Camden. (I am forever indebted to a marvelous historical website) I read extensively about the neighborhood in Baltimore where she was enrolled at a Catholic School. I also studied the history of their Dallas neighborhood, discovering that the traveling circus often stayed at their trailer park when they were passing through town. I also learned about a neighboring night club which was host to a shady cast of characters at that time. And then, when I had exhausted every resource I could find, I gave myself permission to fill in the blanks. I dreamed up the rest – including several characters. I tried to stay as true to the facts that I did know, but exercised my full creative license in imagining what life must have been like for Sally during this ordeal, as well as for those she left behind.
You chose to tell RUST & STARDUST from the POV from several characters—Sally, her sister, Susan, brother-in-law Al, her mother Ella. I like this because it gave me a sense of what was going on ‘back home,’ when Sally was in the grips of Frank. Was this telling deliberate on your part, or did it arise organically?
At first the story belonged almost exclusively to these characters. For the first couple of drafts, I wrote around Sally. I think it was too daunting and scary to inhabit her consciousness given all that she went through. But I knew I needed to go there eventually, and when I finally did, I realized that while the narrative was kaleidoscopic, that Sally was always that bright bit of light at the center.
I have an eleven-year-old daughter. I think you once mentioned that your youngest daughter was eleven when you started RUST & STARDUST. How did that affect your telling of this story?
I think it was, in part, what drew me to her. Eleven is a magical age. It’s that odd cusp between childhood and adolescence. Everything about eleven is fragile. I wanted to capture that in Sally’s character. Of course, Sally isn’t nearly as savvy as my own twenty-first century daughter – the book opens in 1948 – but there were more similarities than differences, I think: that longing to fit in, that push and pull with her mother, that precarious innocence.
Ella, the mother of Sally…I think she had a really tough, bitter life. Not only had she been widowed twice, but she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and scraped by on her sewing and piecework. And then this awful thing happens to Sally. Can you tell us a little more about her character? Do you think she had any psychiatric issues?
It’s important to state first that Ella’s character is fictional. I was inspired by what I knew about her (her occupation, her economic status, her having been widowed by a man who committed suicide). But everything else I gleaned solely from the multiple photographs I located of her and the brief commentary that she offered to the various reporters who interviewed her.
One of the most difficult aspects of this story for people (myself included) to understand is how Ella could have put her daughter on a bus with a stranger. And so, my biggest challenge was creating a character and a scenario in which this would be plausible.
In 2015, I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis (the symptoms of which are exactly like rheumatoid arthritis). For nearly six months, before my rheumatologist found a medication that worked, I was in crippling pain. Chronic pain is not only physically but mentally debilitating. Pain becomes, quite literally, a cage inside which you exist. I knew right away, that I wanted Ella to be inordinately preoccupied – by grief, by financial struggles, and by physical pain. It was the only way I could justify – to myself anyway – the ease with which Frank was able to snatch her child right out from under her.
I understand there’s a true crime book coming out this September about the ‘real’ LOLITA. Sarah Weinman THE REAL LOLITA: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World, Ecco]. Are you familiar with it? I so fell in love with Sally through RUST & STARDUST, I feel I’ve got to read it. Thoughts? Also, can you tell us more about that LOLITA connection?
Yes. At the time that I read Weinman’s essay, I was unaware that she had plans to write a book-length non-fiction account of Sally’s life (and her ordeal’s influence on Nabokov). I actually found out about Weinman’s book proposal just as I preparing to submit my own for publication. I worried a little that there would be no need for two books about Sally. However, in the end, I think they are nice companion pieces. Weinman’s research is comprehensive. She interviewed surviving family members and others who knew Sally, and her book provides an ample overview of the crime. She also explores the connection between Sally’s ordeal and LOLITA as well as Nabokov’s reluctance to acknowledge this influence. But while our agendas are similar – to give a voice to this forgotten child – our respective approaches are fundamentally different. She is a journalist, and I am a novelist. THE REAL LOLITA is a work of reportage, RUST & STARDUST is not true crime, but a fictional rendering of this crime. My hope is that my work not only offers information about Sally’s life, but – through Sally – touches on the larger themes of vulnerability and abuse, of motherhood, and of survival. My goal has always been to offer the reader a glimpse inside what it must have been like for Sally and those who loved her. I would say, if you don’t want to know what happens to Sally, you might want to wait to read the factual accounts of her life until after reading the novel so as not to spoil anything.
“Greenwood’s glowing dark ruby of a novel brilliantly transforms the true crime story that inspired Nabokov’s Lolita. Shatteringly original and eloquently written, Rust and Stardust is a lot about how what we believe to be true can shape or ruin a life, and the bright lure of innocence pitted against the murk of evil. So ferociously suspenseful, I found myself holding my breath, and so gorgeous and so unsettling in all the roads it might have taken, I kept rereading pages.”
—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World
Can you tell us a bit about your writing routines and rituals? Any cute dog stories? Mine is curled up under my desk. She thinks she’s helping…
Mine (Phoebe – a golden retriever) is curled up next to me right now! When I am working on a book, I wake up early (5:30 or so) and after grabbing a cup of coffee go straight to my home office. I try to avoid email and social media (try being the operative word) and just begin working. I only write for a couple of hours each morning, and then have the rest of the day to do all those other things I need to do: teaching, researching or reading, and driving back and forth to my daughters’ school and the ballet studio where my oldest daughter spends most of her time. I like to write my first drafts rather quickly – usually in four to six weeks. The revision process is the agonizing and lengthy one for me. I wrote the first draft of RUST & STARDUST in a month. And then I revised it for another eighteen months.
What’s on your fall reading list?
Probably all those books I didn’t get around to this summer. I am researching a new book, which means lots of reading for that project. But I am looking forward to playing catch up: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is on my list, as is The Summer I Met Jack by Michelle Gable, The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris, and Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon. Those are just a few in an enormous, teetering stack.
Tammy, it’s been a pleasure, as always. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Only, “What next?”! My next book, KEEPING LUCY, will be out next August. I won’t say too much about it yet – except that it explores the lengths to which a mother will go for her child. It’s also about one woman’s staking claim to her own life. Like RUST & STARDUST it’s a period piece – this time set in 1971. The novel begins in a tony Boston suburb and ends at a roadside mermaid show in Weeki Wachee, Florida.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of RUST & STARDUST, please visit:
- Barnes & Noble
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: T. GREENWOOD’s novels have sold over 250,000 copies. She has received grants from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation, Christopher Isherwood Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Maryland State Arts Council. Her novel Bodies of Water was a 2014 Lambda Literary Awards Finalist; Two Rivers and Grace were each named Best General Fiction Book at the San Diego Book Awards, and Where I Lost Her was a Globe and Mail bestseller in 2016. Greenwood lives with her family in San Diego.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press and used with permission].