In my story “The Noir Boudoir,” the narrator, Ray Strout, retired cop and dealer in paper ephemera, says: “These are my fellow members of the species Magpie. We are small-time antique dealers, which is to say we are collectors who sell to support our habit. We glean old things and send some on their journey up in price, which lets us make a buck and keep the treasures we cannot bear to part with. We’d be mere hoarders if we didn’t sell.” I liked this name for the group and its extension into questions of wealth, status, and what happens to objects after their owners die that underlie the plot of the story. While revising, I tried calling it “Magpies,” but the editor of the anthology Miami Noir asked me to return to the original, and I agreed. As I often do when I change titles, I scrawled the discarded one on a card and thumbtacked it to the bulletin board above my desk, to see what else it might provoke. I think of discarded titles as seeds for other stories; in fact “The Secret Names of Women” spent some time presiding over a couple of the stories in that collection before I decided it represented something about identity that belonged not so much to a single story as to the collection.
Bit by bit the Magpies card sitting above my desk started speaking to me about what I was writing. I added some magpie images from old engravings, liking how alert and filled with intention they always look, how often they were in some human setting, on a dressing table, for instance. In legend magpies are attracted to what glitters and will take objects for which they have no need, and hide and hoard them. I have not so far found any scientific reference to this proclivity. But there have been studies showing that magpies are extraordinarily intelligent, and that, alone among birds, they can recognize themselves in a mirror. Some images of magpies in old illustrations, painted long before the scientific study, show them facing mirrors, sometimes with jewelry clasped in their beaks. I thought about how vanity and insecurity share the mirror.
I thought, too about how there are two human sides to magpie acquisitiveness: we can identify with the stubbornness of unreasonable desire, but we also fear it in others. The magpie is a thief, and, above my desk, I started to see the bird above my desk as an emblem of the fear of loss. Ray Strout says, in “The Noir Boudoir,” “I got interested in life’s cast-off paper, and started to buy and sell and learn the worth of the worthless.” Questions of what might or might not have worth were reverberating around me. Just blocks from my house, people stood in line at a condo launch party to buy imaginary pieces of the sky, drinking champagne and feeling rich on the speculation that they could sell to someone else before the foundation was poured. The one nearest to me was never built, and when the lime green plastic signage that wrapped its periphery came down, there was nothing but an empty lot and a couple of rusting cranes.
I’d already written my story “Links,” set during the dot com bubble, and I noticed how many things I touched on there were showing up in some of my other stories, desire mingled with anxiety, and questions of what a home is. It isn’t that I wanted to write about the real estate boom and bust or hurricanes, but I wanted to understand characters who had those and other threats as a background against which they would try to find safety or comfort or love That could apply to characters who are doing something so simple as trying to hold onto or make new Christmas traditions after a death in the family, or to a developer who, fearing losing his empire, enters into a conspiracy to fake his own death.
By the time I was putting together the collection, I could see that a number of stories that I wrote during this period did not fit. A couple of very long crime stories published in anthologies simply had different concerns and tones, and there are some short tales that seem to be the start of something else. But the stories that I felt had some element of human “magpieness” seemed to go together. I know that many readers think more in terms of genre and will say, how can there be crime, a bit of the fantastic, and stories about relationships, some comic, some not, in one collection, but to me these are different ways of getting at something that I have summed up in the word Magpies, and I think it is better not to explain too much beyond that.
Two other reasons for the title:
As a writer, I am a magpie. I like to pick up pieces of what’s going on around me, bits of the past, details from landscape, things I have gleaned from who knows where, and find a place for them in a story. When something I’ve been holding onto in my mind for fifteen years will suddenly find its spot, it’s a great pleasure.
And: the title is short. My first two books of stories, The Land of Go and The Secret Names of Women, had four words, five. I’d seen the second book called (in print!) The Secret Lives of Women, Secret Loves of Women, etc. One word, however enigmatic, is easier to remember, isn’t it?