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Jill Dearman: Interview with the Author of JAZZED

July 4, 2022

Jazzed is the compelling new novel by Jill Dearman. It delivers an ingenious twist on the Leopold & Loeb case – what if the two killers were women? The setting is Barnard College for Women, New York City, in the 1920s. Wilhelmina ‘Will’ Reinhardt and Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Raab are Freshman roommates at Barnard. Like many people who are attracted to each other, Will and Dolly have an interesting combination of similarities and differences. They are both from upper middle class Jewish families. However, Will is bookish and shy whereas Dolly is dominant, confident and knows exactly how to tease Will by withholding affection. At first their relationship blossoms among the Harlem speakeasies that made New York the epicentre of the Jazz Age. But an interest in Nietzschean philosophy thrusts the two women into increasingly transgressive acts that will ultimately lead to their destruction. When, for reasons of barely concealed prejudice, Barnard officials pair the couple off with new roommates, Dolly decides that she and Will must break the ultimate taboo by committing, and getting away with, the perfect crime – kidnapping and murdering a child.

Anyone who is interested in the Leopold & Loeb case, or indeed any reader who broadly enjoys crime fiction, will find Jazzed riveting. This is a story which is by turns sexy, dark, disturbing and tragic and yet it all coheres seamlessly into an exhilarating read.

I’ve been corresponding with Jill for several years now as we are both fascinated with True Crime, Film Noir and James Ellroy. Every conversation with Jill is a joy. She has wit, verve and joie de vivre. Enjoy this interview and buy yourself a copy of Jazzed. It’s sizzling.

Interviewer: How did you become interested in the Leopold and Loeb case?

My late father, a New York City cab driver, was obsessed with true crime and introduced me to the case when I was an adolescent. There was something about the relationship between the two boys that resonated for me. I wondered how much the “madness” of desire and the hatred (by the mainstream) of that desire might be the spark that ignites the “need” to kill. If your very being – who you are as a person – is completely oppressed, and you are being kept from the one you love, wouldn’t you feel desperate? I believe my father had a lot of desperate drives and I explore some of the backstory of our relationship in this personal essay, “Compulsion.”

Interviewer: Was it difficult to transfer/adapt the personalities of two male killers into the personalities of Dolly and Will?

No! They poured out of me, as if Dolly and Will were waiting for a chance to come to life. Though Dolly was based on Loeb, and Will on Leopold, their inner lives were their own. As I wrote and revised it was clear that being women informed so much of their experience.

Interviewer: Have you always been fascinated by the Jazz Age, and how would you describe its legacy in America today?

No, I came to jazz later. I had recently picked up piano and developed an immediate love for improvisation, just a year before penning my writing book, Bang the Keys. There is something about jazz that is so deliriously uninhibited. Whether listening to jazz or reading a novel, that sense of music or prose being created in real time, through the art of improvisation, is just so thrilling. And I am endlessly fascinated by the way jazz stands as “America’s music.” I think all of the United States is one big improvisation. Unlike older culture, the United States seems to get by on fast talk and a strange lack of history, of groundedness. Jazz stands as a perfect model of America’s selective memory. We’re a country built on superconfidence and a predilection for hucksterism.

The swagger and bravado of jazz captures those vibes. And at the same time Jazz emerged from Black culture and was commodified by whites. This particular early ‘20s era of jazz that serves as a character in my book is of special fascination to me. All the lesbian jazz singers, the Black jazz acts that rose up from the underground against the odds; there was a sense of rebellion. By the Great Depression just five years later, the mood would change.

I’m reminded of the Obama years in the United States. It seemed like this country might just move towards a new time of personal freedom. A Black president. Gay marriage. Trans identity going mainstream. There was a terrific prestige television show that aired during Obama’s second term called Treme. David Simon of The Wire fame was one of the creators. Treme dealt with the jazz life in New Orleans, just after Hurricane Katrina. The sense of life and the sense of doom merge perfectly. Given the dark path America is taking, it’s a great time to revisit the Jazz age and compare notes from a 100 years ago.

Interviewer: You’ve experimented with a variety of styles with Jazzed and your previous novel The Great Bravura. How would you describe the difference in both style and narrative between the two novels?

Well, The Great Bravura was much more stylized noir, whereas Jazzed is more direct in terms of language. In Bravura, which was set in 1948, it was fun to use some surreal techniques, such as making gay marriage just a regular part of life. Given the state of the world today, that seems even more surreal! And since the novel revolves around magic, I felt compelled to explore not just the work-a-day world of a magician, but also elements of mysticism, and the unknown. Jazzed is realist in its narrative style, but the key plot element of music allows the characters to experience a kind of transcendence, universal love. And musicality is of great importance to me in my writing, so I really do try and “hear” books as I compose them.

Interviewer: The novel provides an important critique of sexism, racism and homophobia. How did you approach this when your two main characters commit the worst crime of all, so in theory they shouldn’t be sympathetic?

It’s interesting because we are living in a moment and in a world in which the interconnectedness among us is hard to miss. The book is set about a hundred years ago, before “intersectionality” was termed and before the Internet and the climate crisis allowed us to see with such immediacy how connected and interdependent we all are. What I wanted to do with Will and Dolly was show that they were influenced by the many forms of oppression they faced. To quote the Bruce Springsteen song, “Johnny 99”: “Now I ain’t saying that makes me an innocent man, but it was more than all this that put that gun in my hand.”

Jill Dearman

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