The actor Joseph Chaiken suggested to his fellow actors that they mentally put a specific person in the audience each night, someone who touches them deeply and inspires them. He always put Dr. Martin Luther King in the audience. I’ve not narrowed it down quite that much, i.e., to a single person.
I write for the readers who’ve responded generously to my previous work, and a handful of writers I admire, trying to live up to their example (I’d prefer not to say who they are). And I write for my late wife, who contributed so much to my first book, which was purchased just prior to her death. If I remain true to her advice on that book – which I might have heeded more conscientiously, to be honest – I think I’ll do okay.
Bitter, cynical, jaundiced, self-aware, steadfast in their purpose, graceful under ultimate pressure – do your heroes remain heroes?
I’m not sure my protagonists are bitter or cynical or jaundiced (at least not in the medical sense in the last case). Hardened, sadder but wiser, sure. But the key, as you so kindly point out, is that they remain steadfast in their purpose, usually out of love. And for that reason, yes, despite their many flaws, they remain heroes, albeit all too human ones.
I believe that we are best when we remain true to the noble simplicities of our heart – loyalty, empathy, courage – as long as we are honest with ourselves about them. The honesty is the hard part, for we are intrinsically fallible and prone to self-delusion and denial, usually due to a deep-seated need to cling to some illusion out of dread – dread of feeling too deeply the terror of our solitude, for example, which can seem like a living death.
The serpent in the garden is fear, which corrupts honesty and love. All my books could be seen as variations on that theme.
Before one can annihilate the world, one must first write it into being. Is that what you do?
Not that I know of. “No worlds were annihilated in the writing of this novel”: perhaps I should add that before each book.
Seriously, I try to create a fictional world that mirrors the real one, a kind of thought experiment except it’s not just the mind but the heart I hope to engage. I pose a hypothetical situation by which the reader can imagine the possibility of living through the events I portray, and being faced with the moral choices the action presents. Through that, I hope to expand the reader’s sense of the world, perhaps tap a little deeper into her well of compassion, understanding and insight.
Mostly, I hope I can seduce them into feeling something for my characters. If I’ve done that, I’ve written well.
Do you think a bourgeois appetite for dirty adventure explains the popular success of crime fiction?
Oh, why pick on the bourgeoisie? I think the appeal of depicting crime in fiction is the opportunity to glance into the shadows of the soul. We all suspect we know what we’ll find there, but propriety forbids our indulging the glance too wholeheartedly. And crime is just the dark end of individualism, where all sense of the common good is cast aside – sometimes out of desperation, sometimes out of sadistic obsession, sometimes out of a sociopathic narcissism.
We all can imagine ourselves being thrust into that end of things, as victims or perpetrators, or venturing there out of sheer perverse pleasure. Crime in a novel or film allows us to do that without creating actual harm. If indulged unwisely I suppose one could consider it a pornography of violence, but that’s why I emphasize my characters and try to elicit empathy for their plight.
Would you agree that what most defines the genre are not its formal conventions, but rather the epic perseverance of its protagonists in a world where there is no healing, only constant movement towards it – is CF stoicism with a fancy for spectacle?
I think any genre per se is defined by its subject matter, not its conventions. The conventions are not ironclad rules but just typical devices – approaches – that provide a set of reliable expectations for the reader (and publishing house marketing departments). How far you can bend or stray from those conventions before falling outside the genre seems to me a pointless question. The point is to realize one’s own artistic vision; let others worry about where you fall on the bookstore shelf. That may be seen by some as naive, but I wouldn’t be surprised if such people consider craft the pinnacle of art.
Does CF have a particular fondness for stoic heroes?
No more than war fiction – which would seem to have the edge on spectacle. I had a conversation a few years ago with an editor from a major publishing house – a man who shall remain nameless – in which he talked about those writers who, in his estimation, do or do not “respect the genre.” In his opinion, Jim Patterson and Mike Connelly are clear-cut examples of writers who do, indeed, respect the genre, and their followings (or more to the point, their numbers) demonstrated that fact. In contrast, two writers who do not respect the genre, as far as this gentleman was concerned, are George Pelecanos and Walter Mosley: “Neither one of them have sales anywhere near what their reputations would suggest,” he said, trying to justify himself. Then, even more poignantly: “If you slap the words “race riot” on the back of a book, don’t expect it to fly off the shelves.”
Now, you may infer from this, as I did, that this particular editor was confusing respecting the genre with respecting the bottom line. And I have to admit, having as I do a great admiration for both Mosley and Pelecanos, I felt a bit protective, which is a polite way to say I got pissed off. I thought this editor was slamming two first-rate and one-of-a-kind writers for being innovative – for not just taking the genre as an ironclad set of conventions, but trying to expand it by making their own distinctive contributions.
I think you have to respect a genre to want to contribute to it meaningfully, whether by “expanding” it or “transcending” it or adhering to its most “conventional” conventions. No one before Ed McBain had an entire precinct’s detective squad as a series protagonist; no one before Robert B. Parker gave his PI protagonist an explicit “code and a quest,” or a long-term love interest; James Lee Burke and James Crumley expanded the genre’s taste for regionalism and literary prose style. Claiming any of these writers didn’t respect the genre is laughable – all of which is just to say that today’s experimentations routinely become tomorrow’s conventions.
Some have argued that modern life is post-tragic. There is no space left for the tragic hero. Do you write to locate a land of adventure where we can find it, a place beyond laws in the known world, where human nature can turn to savagery and heroism?
I don’t buy the post-tragic argument. Tragedy is nothing but the dramatization of how man’s own nature betrays his self-idealization – how his realities undermine his illusions. That’s as applicable, relevant and necessary now as it ever was.
The only reason we’re in a post-tragic anything is because, since Jaws and Star Wars slammed the door forever on the neo-noir experimentations of late 1960s and early 1970s cinema, there has been an active determination on the part of Hollywood to avoid the “downer” ending. Death on the screen (for anyone but the villain(s) after Act 2) means death at the box office.
Does the genre writer sit at the table of literature like a transvestite cousin at a family gathering – does political correctness invite and pardon him while his fabulous hat is studiously ignored?
To the extent genre fiction is indulged, it is because of the size of its audience, which can’t be ignored. Occasionally, even smart readers don’t want medicine, they want candy. That doesn’t mean they want sugary crap. Or, as a friend once put it: There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, just entertainment that insults your intelligence.
Genre fiction loses its prestige in direct proportion to the degree it is formulaic. The prime virtues of crime fiction specifically – concision, narrative drive, the depiction of the darker sides of human nature – are by no means restricted to it. But snobs always need something to look down on. Genre fiction will be their punching bag for the foreseeable future. And sometimes, genre fiction will deserve what it gets.
CLICK HERE FOR THE ONE BOOK EVERYBODY SHOULD READ: Do They Know I’m Running?