Sarah Weinman first read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita when she was 16. Like many readers, she found it "disturbing." The story – of an older man obsessed with a girl, and of deeper perversities therein – is famously disturbing. Plus, she says, "it was something new to read a book in which you couldn't trust the narrator": Humbert Humbert, who tells his tale to make himself seem reasonable, to cover up his moral monstrosity.

She and Lolita were not done with each other. Ottawa-born Weinman, an accomplished writer, editor, and journalist, now lives in Brooklyn. In her latest, The Real Lolita, she tells of the 1948 Camden abduction of Sally Horner, 11, and how Nabokov used that story as a source of Lolita. Weinman's research took her, among other places, to Camden and to the Inquirer's archives. She's just as concerned with the real Sally, a preteen who spent 21 months wandering the United States in thrall to a pedophile, as she is in how Nabokov "strip-mined" Sally's story "to produce the bones of Lolita."

Over breakfast at the Urban Farmer on Logan Square, Weinman discussed her search for Sally, why Nabokov downplayed her role in his writing, and how crimes reflect their cultural settings.

What led you to Sally Horner?

As early as 2013, I was already starting to establish my beat, the intersection of crime and culture. I am especially fascinated in mid-to-post-World War II through the '70s. One night, while online, I came upon Alexander Dolinin's essay "Whatever Happened to Sally Horner?," looking at Sally's life and Lolita. And I asked myself: Had anyone reported out Sally's story? No one had. No one seemed interested in her as a person. Were there people still around who remembered her? Were there court documents? Were there any houses, locales left I could visit? And it began.

Talk a little more about "the intersection of crime and culture."

So often, when researching a crime, I'm struck by what that crime says about its context. So much about Sally's story – the broken circumstances of her working-class Camden family; the obscure background of her abductor, Frank La Salle; how he could command such obedience from her; how she was treated when she escaped and came back home – speak of what Camden was like, what the country was like, relations between men and women, adults and children, attitudes toward sexuality.

Sally is lonely, in search of friendship. And she is powerless.

For a long time she never questions that La Salle is what he says he is: an FBI agent. She really fears that he will send her to a reformatory if she doesn't do what he says.

I was amazed that, during the abduction, La Salle sends her to a local school – and she goes.

She's afraid of what La Salle will do if she tries to escape. When she finally makes the phone call that leads to her rescue, her first thought is what he will do when he finds out.

It's so moving when you portray her day at a Catholic school in Baltimore, again during the abduction. You imagine her taking communion, and wondering whether what is happening with La Salle is a mortal sin.

I was very hesitant; I really didn't want to fill in the blanks that way. But my editor encouraged me: "In order to convey your authority, you need to convey what you don't know." It freed me to explore the picture I had of her. Sally did take communion, because all students were required to go to Mass first thing in the school day. And I don't know exactly what she was thinking, of course, but thoughts such as these are more than plausible.

Sally Horner, 13, is greeted by her mother, Mrs. Ella Horner of Camden, N.J., at Philadelphia International Airport, March 31, 1950. The two had not seen each other for the 21 months of Sally’s kidnapping.
AP
Sally Horner, 13, is greeted by her mother, Mrs. Ella Horner of Camden, N.J., at Philadelphia International Airport, March 31, 1950. The two had not seen each other for the 21 months of Sally’s kidnapping.

You hit real researcher's gold when you contact Carol Taylor, her dear friend.

I was so glad I could talk to her. She exclaimed, "You mean that my friend Sally Horner was the basis for Lolita?" She spoke of her as a formative influence, "a real lady" who taught her how to use a knife and fork. And the grief of Sally's death was still very vivid. Carol died in 2016 and so didn't live to see the book.

Speaking of Nabokov, why do you think he played down the role of Sally's story in Lolita?

He did try to obscure his source. To be fair, he was, as many writers are, concerned primarily with the novel's status as art. His controlled narrative had no place for the real Sally.

Knowing about her, however, helped him finish the book. As of 1950, he's really having trouble with it. When Sally is killed in the car accident [in 1952, two years after her rescue], Nabokov sees the rest of his arc. From then on, he is in a writing fever.

Vladimir Nabokov, author of “Lolita,” holding a butterfly.
Constantin Joffe/Condé Nast via Getty Images
Vladimir Nabokov, author of “Lolita,” holding a butterfly.

Would Lolita have existed without Sally?

He'd been working on this obsession for years. So, yes, he would have written the novel in some form. I feel it's responsible for authors to acknowledge that their stories involve real people with their own stories and feelings. I'm not here to judge. I'm just a conduit for the story, and I hope it opens up a conversation.