I was a reader of true crime from a young age, and came to crime fiction primarily through a love of film noir.
Whose work would you say has most influenced you and your writing?
James Ellroy’s, without question. He was the first writer I read who seemed to pull the lid off the world for me.
Can you put into words why you write what you write?
I guess the most basic answer is that those are the worlds I’d like to occupy, even if just for a little while. I write to sink myself into those worlds. For a little while. And then escape them.
When you wrote Die A Little, were you thinking of it in terms of homage to the hardboiled writers of that era?
No. I’d been reading a lot of hardboiled writers, especially Raymond Chandler, at the time and it definitely influenced by style, the mood, as did film. But “homage” might mean the book was more about my experience with other books than about the story. And, for me, for better or for worse, the book is always about the characters.
That said, how important is a sense of time and place to you and your writing?
Very important. To a fault. Mood is my biggest weakness, and bringing the reader, as best I can, into the world in my head is the main reason I write. My favorite authors are experts in that: you read Elloy’s The Big Nowhere, and you are so completely in his version of 1950s LA that you lose all sense of where you are, what era you’re in. He swallows you whole.
How much of you is in your protagonists?
I guess I’ve always been of the belief that all your characters are, in some way, you. It’d be hard to write them convincingly otherwise. But they tend to be aspects of my personality, and in high relief—thankfully, because things generally don’t go well for them.
What was it about the flair of an almost forgotten world that made you want to write Queenpin?
Mostly, it was a fascination with the minutiae of being involved in low-level rackets, and what that was like for the few women who were. The details of how bookmaking works, that kind of thing, completely intrigued me, and the ways women negotiated power in those worlds.
Did the Edgar award change things for you?
Those things are hard to tell, for me at least. I do know I’m so grateful for it.
If modesty allows, do you mind venturing a guess as to why your work is so appealing to a growing and international readership?
I have no idea! In fact, I’m always surprised to find anyone who’s read any of my books. What I can guess is that there’re some readers out there interested in the same things I am, and that always feels good.
Do you have a personal favourite amongst your own novels, perhaps one you would recommend to a first time reader of your work?
Crime being the thematic catalogue of a crime writer, how did your job description change when terrorism put a new dimension into our Western ability to imagine the unimaginable?
Well, I’ve only been published a few years so I can’t answer that question precisely. Of course, the unfortunate truth is the unimaginable has been around for centuries or more, taking different and horrible forms. There are always fresh horrors and tragedies on large scales. It’s the pain of living, of our world. I think we cling to art, including books, to help us through these things. I do. I think I read more now than ever, for all kinds of reasons – to escape, to investigate, to try to understand, to celebrate language and story and character. Books matter; I’m not talking about mine, here, mind you!
So much for the context in which noir and hardboiled crime fiction have recently been charged with glorifying violence. Are such critics citing isolated examples to charge writers such as yourself for prurience only to hide their deeper anxiety about an aesthetic of violence?
I don’t know. That’s a great but complicated question. I think there are many reasons and they vary depending on the kind of book facing the charge. Frequently it’s the tone of the violence that provokes, either because it’s very realistic and spare and thus maybe feels uncomfortably real, or it’s in the service of a satirical or purposely over-the-top approach that may be misunderstood. There are always going to be books that walk, or cross the line, though. And, like every book, these books are not for all readers. I have my limits as a writer and a reader, but I don’t expect anyone else to hold to the same ones.
Is it the epic perseverance of its protagonists that best defines this genre – perseverance in a world where there is no healing but constant movement towards it? Is crime fiction stoicism with a skill for spectacle?
That’s very interesting. I do think the survival impulse in noir is too often ignored. While death often hangs over the ends of noir fiction, there’s usually someone who endures, mightily. And the end of the journey isn’t healing, as you say, but it’s persistence. It’s persisting in spite of the darkness viewed, which is a kind of strength.
On a lighter note, what is it you enjoy most about writing?
Research. I love to burrow into strange corners and learn about things like tuberculosis, betting, cheerleading, anything I can.
Do you have a writing routine and a set of writing rules you’ve come to trust?
I am slow, so I need to allot myself hours and hours to write just a little bit. I can’t jam it in, so I have to block out whole days or nothing happens.
Have any of your books been optioned for film? What role do you take when it comes to adapting your work?
Die A Little and Queenpin – and my role is minimal. I haven’t been involved at all with Die a Little, but I’ve had some great conversations with Todd E. Kessler, the writer who’s taking on Queenpin, for television.
For what kind of reader do you write?
I don’t write for a specific reader. But I always try to imagine I’m telling a story to someone, confiding in them, whispering in their ear.
Whose work can you recommend as crime fiction that could change your life?
Daniel Woodrell. Not strictly crime fiction but everyone in the world should read him. I wish I could read him again for the first time.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known when you started your writing career?
If I’d known what I know now I might not have done it! It’s a hard business. But there are immense rewards. While I still have a job, I do get to spend large amounts of my time talking to people about books. And that’s pretty much a gift.
CLICK HERE FOR THE ONE BOOK EVERYBODY SHOULD READ: Queenpin