Ivy Pochoda’s new novel, Sing Her Down (MCD, May), began as a dare between herself and a friend at a bar. She wondered if one could write a female version of Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy’s very bloody, very male western from 1985.

Pochoda had been thinking, she says via Zoom during a visit to New York City (she lives in Los Angeles), about “why we allow men to be violent in books but not women, and Blood Meridian is the ur-example of that.”

Could she do it? Could she challenge the conventions of the genre—and flout readers’ expectations for women characters—by telling a story of carnage from a female perspective? She decided she would. And she certainly has.

Sing Her Down centers on three female characters: two newly released ex-convicts, Florida and Dios, and a detective, Lobos, who embarks on a hunt for them after identifying them as suspects in a murder. The book, set mainly in Los Angeles in 2020, may not have the usual trappings of a western—as far as mise-en-scène goes it’s more freeways and gas stations than the “bloodred clouds” and “desert nighthawks” of McCarthy’s epic. But one thing Pochoda realized about the genre as she was preparing to write the book is that it’s highly malleable.

More than a time period or location, she says, “the west is an idea—it’s a mood.” And with its focus on characters taking justice into their own hands, the western is well suited to the present.

“We’re seeing a lot of vigilante justice,” Pochoda says. She cites as examples the recent surge in gun violence and the proliferation of private militias. “People feel that the government is failing them, or that it’s abandoning them. We’re seeing western-style justice being carried out—never for better, always for worse.”

In Sing Her Down, it’s definitely for worse. After their release from a women’s prison in Arizona, Florida and Dios—ex-cellmates with much bad blood between them—at first go their separate ways. Florida (real name Florence), a rich girl with a penchant for bad crowds and reckless behavior, sets her mind on retrieving her cherished Jaguar from her mother’s mansion in Los Angeles and leaving her criminal past behind.

But Dios, a highly educated and darkly philosophical sociopath who calls to mind McCarthy’s Judge Holden, believes that Florida is as much a natural-born criminal as she is. She feels that, with enough convincing, Florida will come to see the beauty in her evil, and over the course of the novel she stalks Florida with this eventual conversion in mind. “Stop lying to yourself,” Dios tells Florida. “You’re not rehabilitated. You don’t want to be.”

Even Lobos, a committed upholder of the law, harbors fantasies of violence and extrajudicial score settling. She’s reeling from a failed marriage that culminated in a violent attack by her ex-husband, and as she searches for Florida and Dios she finds herself tapping into her own reservoir of fury. “She’s trained to pretend she doesn’t understand the hatred, couldn’t possibly identify with the lawless rage that comes across her desk,” Pochoda writes of Lobos. “But she does.”

Sing Her Down is Pochoda’s third novel set in Los Angeles, after These Women and Wonder Valley. All three deal with life on the city’s margins—on Skid Row, in its encampments, among its misfits and drifters.

A native of Brooklyn, Pochoda moved to Los Angeles in 2009 with her then husband, who worked in TV. “I had no connection to the city whatsoever,” she says. “I felt really uncomfortable writing about L.A., which is why I think I write about outsider versions of the city.”

Pochoda already knew a good deal about being an outsider. She spent much of her youth playing squash, first in Brooklyn and later at Harvard, where in 1998 she won the title of individual national champion. She went on to play professionally for several years after college. She loved the sport and still plays regularly, but she’s never felt at home in the buttoned-up squash community. In a 2013 New York Times essay, she wrote about the culture shock she experienced when she, the daughter of “committed leftists,” entered the world of Brooklyn’s Heights Casino squash club, where women wore elephant pins to signal their political affiliation and spectators were discouraged from cheering.

“I’ve always felt different from most of the people who play squash,” Pochoda says. “I’m a little more outspoken. They think I’m a punk, or a hippie, or something.”

Pochoda’s time as a squash player was isolating, but it was good training for writing—as isolating a profession as there can possibly be—and it helped her find her subject matter and perspective. Her characters, she says, are “often lonely and alienated and by themselves.”

They also do not arrive at happy endings, and that is very much to Pochoda’s point. In keeping with her interest in the western genre, in allowing women to be as violent and unrepentant as men, she affords her characters little in the way of redemption. The novel is dark from start to finish.

“I read way too many books where it’s very violent and then there’s a beautiful scene at the end where there’s a possibility for a new world,” Pochoda says. “And I’m like—I mean, maybe! But that doesn’t seem to serve the story you just told. Follow your characters where they’re going to lead you. They can be super-violent and awful but there can also be beauty within that.”

Pochoda finds that writers often hasten to justify a woman’s violence with exonerating explanations. “She was raped, or she had an abusive childhood, or someone stole her child, or it’s Thelma and Louise and her husband’s an asshole,” she says. “It’s a kind of perversion. People want to read about violent women up to a point, and then they need that violence to be excused.”

Pochoda herself fell prey to this instinct while writing the book, adding in exculpatory backstories for her characters that she later cut. “I was like, ‘No, no, no, don’t do that!’ ” she says. “It doesn’t matter. They’re just allowed to do these things. It can just be in their nature.”

In all her novels, Pochoda likes to zero in on a turning point that decides a character’s trajectory. For Florida, it’s the pivotal second when she opts to commit the crime that lands her in prison (suffice it to say it involves a lit match). After that, her fate is sealed: no pardons, no reformations, no bright tomorrows await.

“There’s a moment when your life either stays on course or goes off course,” Pochoda says. “If you can pinpoint that moment, that’s enough redemption for me, because it shows there was a possibility that you could have been otherwise.”

Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York’s Hudson Valley. His debut novel, Ways and Means, is forthcoming from Overlook Press in early 2024.