Associate Chair, Stacy Hubbard, sat down with Associate Professor David Schmid to find out more about his background, his research and his teaching.
SH: Tell us about your background—where you grew up, where you conducted your undergraduate and graduate studies.
DS: I was born and raised in Exeter, in the southwest of England. I read English at Pembroke College at Oxford, where I had a very canonical education in British literature. I then did a Master’s degree in Critical Theory at the University of Sussex, where I had the opportunity to study such subjects as Psychoanalysis, Marxism, Feminism, and (Post)Structuralism. After writing a Master’s thesis on the Moors Murders, I then moved to California to do my Ph.D. at Stanford University’s Modern Thought and Literature Program.
SH: What was it that drew you to modern American fiction, particularly popular fiction?
DS: Part of it was a reaction against my early training. I never had the opportunity to study these subjects at Oxford, even though I had read widely in these fields. The other part was my desire to work on materials that would enable me to connect with people outside of the academy. I’m the first person from my family to finish either high school or college and it was important to me to do research that might appeal to a broad audience.
SH: Your first book was Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Fiction (U of Chicago, 2005). What’s the fascination with serial killers—for you, or for the culture at large? What do you think of some of the recent television shows—such as Dexter or Hannibal—that focus on serial killers?
DS: Personally, this subject appealed to me for three reasons. First, I’ve always believed that violence and celebrity both provide great windows into the workings of a society. In other words, show me what criminals are famous in a particular culture and I can tell you a lot about that culture’s values and what makes it tick. Second, and in a similar vein, researching Americans’ fascination with serial killers gave me a way of understanding my adopted culture (I’m a naturalized American citizen). Third, as I mentioned above, working on this subject allowed me to connect with a wider audience than most academics are able to do. More generally, I think the crux of our fascination with serial killers is two-fold: 1. These figures combine the ordinary (their outside appearance) and the extraordinary (their actions and psychological make-up) in a way that makes people both nervous and curious. 2. Fictional serial killers, such as Dexter and Hannibal, allow audiences to fantasize about what it must be like to act out your desires with no conscience, remorse, or concern for anyone else. In this sense, fictional serial killers embody the polar opposite of the rather humdrum daily lives most of us lead.
SH: Have you been able to use the UB Library’s Kelley Collection in your research?
DS: The Kelley Paperback and Pulp Fiction Collection is a unique and wonderful resource that UB is privileged to have. I often use it when I am writing about crime fiction paperbacks that can be hard to find, especially because the collection has so many first editions and the cover art of the books is in glorious condition.
SH: In addition to your work on popular fiction, you have strong interests in film. What are some of the differences between the way crime novels and crime movies work?
DS: The differences often depend on the source material. Dashiell Hammett, for example, writes from a third person point of view and with a very stripped down prose style, so much so that his novels almost resemble screenplays. For this reason, the novel and film versions of The Maltese Falcon are very close to each other. But for writers like Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith, whose focus is much more on recreating and exploring the complexities of the interior psychological states of their protagonists, film versions of their work have to be changed in order to present these interior states in visual terms. Finally, depending on the time period, crime films were often subject to much more stringent censorship than the crime novels the films were based on, sometimes resulting in the suppression of content deemed to be controversial from the films.
SH: Your courses on Crime Fiction, Mysteries, Hitchcock, Celebrity Culture and Pop Culture are quite popular. Do most students show up expecting “lightweight” courses because of the sensationalist topics? How do you disabuse them?
DS: Yes, this can be a problem! I sometimes feel guilty that I spoil students’ enjoyment of these subjects by showing them that they are as complex and engaging as more conventional and canonical materials! The vast majority of students, however, respond very well to the suggestion that there is much, much more to pop culture than meets the eye.
SH: You often give radio and television interviews and are cited in popular publications. You’ve also recently been taping a series of lectures for the general public and writing a blog about fiction and film. Do you see yourself as a public intellectual as well as an academic scholar? What does that mean for you?
DS: I certainly aspire to the title ‘public intellectual.’ What that means to me is that I have a responsibility (as well as the desire) to write about complex subjects and issues in such a way that the resulting work neither understates that complexity nor values obscurity for its own sake. In my view, when humanists are able and willing to write for a variety of audiences, including non-academics, everyone wins.
SH: What can you tell us about your current book project—“From the Locked Room to the Globe: Space in Crime Fiction”?
DS: As the title implies, this project examines a range of crime fiction spaces, including Edgar Allan Poe’s locked room in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s London, Agatha Christie’s country house, various hard-boiled cities, the suburbs of Megan Abbott’s novels, and the transnational spaces of Paco Ignacio Taibo and Subcomandante Marcos’ The Uncomfortable Dead. The overall movement of the project is thus from what I take to be the smallest unit of space in crime fiction, namely, the locked room, to the largest, the globe. My argument is that space in crime fiction narratives is much more than setting; indeed, it provides us with a way of taking a fresh look at questions that have been debated time and time again in crime fiction criticism over the years, such as: is the genre characterized primarily by closure, the neat tying up of loose ends, or by open-endedness and ambiguity? Is crime fiction best described as being characterized by individualized approaches to both the causes and solutions to crime, or does it imagine and put into play more collective, structural analyses of these issues? Finally, does crime fiction have the potential to produce radical, counter-hegemonic critiques of the ways in which power is mobilized in capitalist, racist, and patriarchal social formations, or is it instead an essentially conservative, bourgeois genre that supports the status quo?
SH: Where do you see your work going in the next decade?
DS: For the foreseeable future I’ll be working on crime fiction-related projects, but I just started making a few notes about a new project I’d like to tackle about masculinity in Alfred Hitchcock’s films that will be called The Men Who Knew Too Little! My other great passion is the work of the Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. I think of a lot of the extant criticism on these figures is less than persuasive, so I’d like to do something about that.
SH: Thanks for a great conversation, David.