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"I want Sally Horner to be in permanent conversation with LOLITA, to make readers see there was a real girl and her repeated abuse subsumed by the fancy prose style."
Nabokov's Lolita is one of our culture's most revered and controversial books, but few people know that there was a real person behind the infamous character that inspired the author. The 1948 abduction of Sally Horner hit headlines, but no one knew that it became the inspiration for the novel. In her latest book, author Sarah Weinman provides details on the case collected from records and interviews, and also looks to provide new insight on the famous tale. It is dark, twisted, and also beautiful in many unexpected ways.
Weinman spoke with The Rational Creature about her process for writing the book and why she felt it was important to share the story.
How did you become interested in writing?
I didn’t grow up thinking I would be a writer. My interests were music, crime, and science, and I got a Master’s degree in forensic science. But the interest in crime led me to crime fiction, and to meeting writers, and to publishing short stories in my 20s, and to starting a blog on the genre, which changed my life and led me to freelance book reviewing and later, reporting. So I think it was destined, I just needed life experience before trying the writing thing.
What has sparked your curiosity for women and crime, a topic that is often explored in your books?
A sense that crime stories and novels by women were unjustly overlooked and neglected and they had a different window into society than did their male counterparts.
Your latest book explores the real-life story that influenced Nabokov's Lolita. How did you find out about this investigation?
I was looking for my next feature story idea in mid to late 2013. That led me to an essay by a Nabokov scholar on the connections between Sally Horner’s kidnapping and LOLITA, and wondering if anyone had reported Sally’s ordeal as a proper long-form story. That first appeared in Hazlitt in 2014, but I knew there was more than enough material for a book.
What was your research process like? Why do you think others have not explored this topic before?
Nonlinear and complicated. Reporting trips to Camden, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Jose while working on the book (Atlantic City & Dallas came later), archival visits to the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library to see what Nabokov knew of Sally Horner’s kidnapping and when he knew it. Many hours perusing internet newspaper databases and poring through more newspapers on microfiche. And of course, interviewing Sally’s family members and friends and as many key figures who had some connection to her that I could find (difficult, as 70 years or so had passed.)
Nabokov did not make it apparent how much he knew about this case/how heavily it influenced him. Do you think your book will challenge the way that Lolita is viewed in the literary world?
I think it has already begun to change people’s perception. I want Sally Horner to be in permanent conversation with LOLITA, to make readers see there was a real girl and her repeated abuse subsumed by the fancy prose style, as was the case with the fictional Dolores Haze.
How do you feel about the future of women's stories? Do you think women's narratives will be given more space in the pubic eye?
I sure hope so. But I hope even more women’s stories are simply “stories”, as much the default as men’s stories.
What is coming up next for you?
My next book is another narrative crime story, at the juncture of book publishing, 1960s America, and the dawn of neoconservative politics.
Follow Sarah Weinman on Twitter | Instagram. The Real Lolita is now available from HarperCollins.
Rachel A.G. Gilman is the Creator/Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Creature.