Con Lehane is the author of the Brian McNulty series of mystery novels, as well as this year’s Murder at the 42nd Street Library, which received a starred review from Kirkus. Here he talks about the inspiration behind his story “Stella by Starlight,” which appears in the current issue of AHMM.
“Stella by Starlight,” my story in the October 2016 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, is my first mystery short story. I’ve published a few mystery novels—the latest is Murder at the 42nd Street Library—and in the past I wrote a half-dozen or more short stories that were published in small literary magazines. I’m not altogether sure where “Stella” came from. But I do know, once I began writing it, I intended it to be a mystery story that I would send to AHMM.
I wrote the first couple of scenes during a class on story writing I was teaching at the Bethesda Writer’s Center. As I often do, I assigned an exercise and then did the exercise along with the workshop participants. Most of the time, I do the exercise and just put it away; sometimes I read it to the class; this time, I put it away, and later it became a story.
Mostly, I don’t know where my stories come from, so I make a guess that it’s from my unconscious. For this one, there were a couple of ingredients swimming around in the old unconscious. One piece was my realizing, one day as I passed through that part of Manhattan below Houston Street, that the Bowery, long famous as New York’s skid row, had become gentrified. I wondered where the winos had gone (actually, I still wonder).
Another piece was a memory I had of a skid row bar that had moved uptown to my neighborhood in Milwaukee when I was in college. It was the victim of some sort of urban renewal that had wiped out Milwaukee’s skid row. The bar—Lenny’s Tap: Beer! Wine! Open 6:00 a.m!—brought along its winos who lived upstairs from the bar in single occupancy rooms. I went there often enough to recognize the humanity of its clientele who began lining up a little before 6:00 each morning.
Beyond this, there were two more pieces. One was the image that opens the story of a blizzard in the city and “one of the coldest winds the city had ever encountered.” The second is more complex and more central to the story.
Most of the fiction I write begins with what Henry James termed “the germ of an idea.” This germ might be a phrase you hear, an incident you witness, a bit of a story you overhear. Important for Henry James was that you not overhear the whole story or know the context of the incident, only a catch a piece of it so your imagination can fill in the rest.
The germ of an idea for “Stella By Starlight,” came from a snatch of conversation. I’d been to the funeral of a man with whom I tended bar many years before. We’d been good friends when we worked together and for a few years afterward. We lost touch for a good while, and caught up with one another again a couple of years before he died of a heart attack. After his wake, I’d gone for a drink with a group of people—a half-dozen former cocktail waitresses (the title for women who served drinks back in the day) and a couple of bartenders from the airport lounge where we’d all worked together. They’d all stayed in the area and kept in touch with one another. I’d moved on and hadn’t seen any of them for better than thirty years.
When I’d worked at the airport lounge, the cocktail waitresses were in their early twenties and gorgeous. It was that kind of bar, in an airport, with mostly businessmen stopping for a drink before or between planes, where the waitresses wore uniforms modeled on stewardess outfits, featuring very short shorts. These young women weren’t working for the summer to help with their college costs. As young as they were, they were journeymen waitresses, for whom this would be a lifetime occupation. Many of them, single mothers or wives to good timing men, had, despite their youth, charm, and beauty, already started out on hard roads that were to become harder with the years.
I don’t remember much of the conversation that night after the wake. It was largely people sharing memories that were tinged with regret. One of the women, wildly attractive at the time we worked together and by the time of this conversation showing the ravages of a difficult life, was describing one misadventure or another in her life, when she said, “He asked about my ex-husband. I didn’t know who he was talking about. I’ve been married five times.”
So this snippet of conversation, the germ of an idea for the story, caught up with a bunch of other images and memories in my unconscious and set the story in motion.