"When you look at it in the cold, hard, light of day, you don't feel that much emotion. It's very strange." I am on Skype with the writer Plum Sykes and we are talking about dead bodies. Specifically, we are talking about the "absolutely disgusting pictures of people killed in the most horrible ways" that she saw as part of the research for her new murder-mystery series, the first of which will be out May 9. It's called Party Girls Die in Pearls.
"I've always thought, actually, a dead body or death is not as frightening as people think," she says. "The thought of a grisly death is much more frightening than an actual death, I suppose."
I remember reading Plum's stories in my mother's copies of Vogue when I was a teenager. I remember seeing her photos in the magazine's party pages. Unbeknownst to me, the fact that she often appeared in those party pages meant people did not take her as seriously when she eventually wrote a book, the deliciously funny Bergdorf Blondes. A party girl who is also a writer?, everyone thought, but like, hello, did they never read Eve Babitz? She released another novel after that, The Debutante Divorcée, which was one of the first novels I read after the election, when I was desperate to escape reality even if just for a couple of hours. Her novels always feature glamorous women flying around in PJ's (that's short for private jets, darling), so you can imagine that talking about "grisly deaths" is not one of the topics I would've ever imagined discussing with Plum. Yet here we are.
There's good reason for this, as Party Girls is about Nancy and Ursula, two girls who meet on their first day at Oxford University in the late '80s and become obsessed with solving the murder of one of the popular girls at school. I devoured it in two days.
A few weeks later, I talked to Plum over Skype about fancy fowl, It girls, and the one time she saw a dead person ("This guy died next to me on an airplane of a heart attack. I remember thinking, Wow, that man's dead."). It was an absolute dream.
When I suddenly learned about this job called being a fashion writer, I thought, I found what I want to do.
Laia Garcia: When did the idea for Party Girls Die in Pearls first come to you?
Plum Sykes: I went to Oxford University in the late '80s. I think even when I was there, I always thought it would be kind of a funny novel because the experiences were so extreme and amusing, and it was so cliquey and so silly. A little bit like Manhattan, actually. So I always had it in the back of my mind that I would love to write a book about Oxford.
Then, about four years ago, I wrote a Kindle single for Amazon.com which was called Oxford Girl. It was actually a nonfiction, 10,000-word download. I wrote that, and then my agent kept saying to me, "Why don't you turn it into a novel?" At the time, I'd just had my second child and I was feeling quite tired. I'd had very, very bad endometriosis.
LG: Oh, really?
PS: Yeah. I'd had like three operations. At the time, when they had said "Turn it into a book," I didn't have the physical strength or the concentration because of my two children. Then, a couple years ago, I took out that little bit of writing and reread it. I thought, What am I doing? This is so funny, of course this can be a novel.
LG: I feel like you have a weirdly dark sensibility. I'm thinking about the attempted-suicide scene in your first book, Bergdorf Blondes, and now you've written a murder mystery. Where does it come from?
PS: Well, I do like a bit of horror, actually, but kind of fake horror. Do you know what I mean? When I was a child, I loved history — this was before I went off to study history — but you know the stories that I loved? I loved the princes in the tower, these poor little six-year-old boys being kept in the Tower of London, but wearing like frilly collars and velvet sailor suits. In my mind, I think they were suffocated. I love that story. I loved anyone who was beheaded. I loved Mary Queen of Scots. Marie Antoinette. Any queen.
I also love Agatha Christie and P.D. James, and those sort of mystery writers, but they're not really noir. Like, those books are kind of social commentaries with a murder. That was really what I was trying to sort of emulate. I think we all have a dark side, don't we?
LG: So you studied history at Oxford. Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do career-wise when you went to university?
PS: Well, you know, English people at that time didn't really have career plans [laughs]. We didn't do internships or anything like that. In the holidays, we went on vacation, we didn't do a job or anything. I definitely had this period of like a year and a half after college, I was like, Oh, fuck, what am I going to do? I hadn't done any work, I hadn't done any internships. I couldn't really work a computer or pick up the phone really in an office. I was highly educated, and I highly overintellectualized everything, which was absolutely useless for getting my first job. I didn't have very much self-confidence at all. I think that's a combination of English girls being a little bit squashed at that time and the '80s, it was still incredibly sexist. My book actually has this underlying theme — aside from the dark side and the comedy — about the sexism of the UK and America in the '80s, and how old-fashioned it still was. Even though people think the '80s was a modern era, it was very sexist. It was very male-dominated.
I went to British Vogue. I did an internship for three weeks, and I stayed for four years. I never actually had the plan to work for Vogue, but I was always very interested in fashion, and I was very interested in writing. When I suddenly learned about this job called being a fashion writer, I thought, I found what I want to do.
LG: Then you moved to New York to work at American Vogue, and you were written about as if you were a party girl. Did that bother you? Do you think people underestimated you?
PS: It was a very odd thing, because I went to the parties to report on the It girls. I knew I had to get to Vogue at half past seven the next morning after all these parties. I never drank anything. I would get a champagne glass and ask them to fill it with Perrier. It was so fun writing down what everyone said to each other and all the kind of catty comments and things. Then suddenly I was being reported on by other people. Aerin Lauder and the Miller sisters were like the leading It girls of that moment. They were generating entire magazines, and I had a little mention now and again in the New York Post, orwhatever. I was really flattered by it. I must say, whenever I was labeled an It girl, I thought, But I'm not an It girl because I have a job and I have to go to work. I wasn't offended by it exactly, but I did think, They don't know me, really.
I thought, God, no one's ever said to me, 'You should write a book.' Least of all Anna Wintour.
LG: You said you weren't sure that you could be a novelist. What made you want to start writing a book?
PS: What happened to make that change, going from being a magazine writer to author — although, I just call myself a writer, I think it's a bit pretentious to say I'm an author — was I wrote a column for Vogue called "Fashion Fiction" which was a fictionalized email exchange between an uptown girl and a downtown girl. This was when email was first coming in, and it was really, really funny, if I do say it myself. I remember sitting across Anna [Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue] eating her enormous steak, big and raw, as always. She said to me, just in a throwaway, "You know, Plum, that column could be a book." That definitely stayed with me. I thought, God, no one's ever said to me, 'You should write a book.' Least of all Anna Wintour.
LG: One of my favorite things about your books is they're almost anthropological. They always paint a picture of a particular moment in time. Do you think that's part of your history background seeping in?
PS: Definitely writing about Oxford in the '80s for this book, I researched it as if I was researching a historical essay. Obviously, I have my own memory, but I went back and talked to lots and lots of people who were there at that time and before. Then one of the other things I did that was very geeky, research-y, kind of history thing to do, was I went in and just sat in the libraries in Oxford and I read through all of those newspapers and all of their gossip columns. I just immersed myself in the time.
LG: How many interviews did you do?
PS: Oh my God! I don't know, actually, loads. I interview people continuously while I'm writing a book. I remember thinking to myself, Oh my God, I've got this book deal to write a murder. Oh, shit, shit, I've never done this before. I need to find a detective to talk to who knows about murders. I didn't know anything about it, Laia, nothing, nothing, nothing. Then I noticed that, on a round-robin email between a group of us who'd been at Oxford at the same time, that one of my friends who I had not spoken to for 25 years had become a police commissioner.
I sent this email to him, and I said, "Do you know any really brilliant murder detectives that I can speak to for my new book?" He wrote back immediately and put me in touch with this very experienced detective who had done some of the most interesting cases in the UK and had worked in the '80s. In the '80s, there wasn't any DNA testing. I wanted to set the book before DNA and before there was all this technical stuff. I wanted it to be more like us just figuring out the murder from stories and situations. Not from a scientific result.
The detective was brilliant. Then he introduced me to a pathologist, so I went and met this pathologist who basically became the character in the book because he was just so funny and so charismatic and had such a dark but humorous view of death. It was really, really good to go meet those people and find out what it really is like to do an autopsy.
LG: What is your writing ritual like when you are in writing mode?
PS: Well, at the beginning of the book, I think I write for about three to four hours a day, but as I get more into the editing, and there's much more volume of writing to be done, and I get nearer to the deadlines, then I would work all morning, and then I would try and do like an hour or two in the afternoon as well. But because I've got two adorable children and a lovely husband, that cuts into the amount of time. If you're a working mother, you've got to be very, very focused and cram it into that time and just not procrastinate. My thing is I don't spend too much time thinking, Oh, what am I going to write today? What am I going to do? I know when I sit down at the computer what I'm going to do already.
LG: What are your current obsessions?
PS: At our house in the country, I got really into chickens. Then the fox ate all the chickens, so that was a bit of a disaster. Then I discovered that guinea fowl — which are a kind of West African bird, are really beautiful, very chic, kind of look like they're from a fashion shoot — they would roost in the trees and they didn't get eaten. And now whenever I walk outside the house, they start chattering and following me around and stuff, which is quite funny.
Also, Stranger Things is incredible. We've actually been having a really, really good time with our TV because I've been able to stop working so, so hard with all the writing. Now I can enjoy myself and watch telly.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Laia Garcia is not so much a Bergdorf Blonde as she is a Real Real Brunette.