A hardworking dreamer who’s too stubborn to give up.
How would your best friend describe you in a sentence?
A woman who’s endlessly curious about the world beyond her own life.
Crime fiction is at its best when…
it moves me emotionally.
The worst literary vice is…
nonstop action without suspense.
The highest order a writer can aspire to is…
to make a reader keep thinking about your book long after she’s finished it.
Plot or character?
What’s your favourite word?
If you could remove one word from the parlance of our time, what would that be?
If you could remove one profession from the planet, which would that be?
If you could remove one person from the planet, who would that be?
We all get removed from the planet eventually. I can wait.
Which fictional character is going to be shot come the literary revolution?
Which fictional character would you most like to meet in real life?
What’s the best oneliner you’ve ever read or written?
“In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons.” – Herodotus
An American, an Englishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar…
However this one ends, you know the Scotsman will not be paying the tab.
Your five favourite party guests are…
any five professional chefs. I love to hear people discuss food.
Which book other than your own do you wish you’d written for no financial gain?
The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
Sum up your latest book in no more than 10 words:
Was a Chinatown murder committed by the mythical Monkey King?
What’s the most amusing situation your writing has gotten you into?
Almost arrested by hospital security guards while I was doing research.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started writing?
To turn off that dratted internal editor and just keep writing.
If God exists, what will you say when you crash the pearly gates?
“Did I make it in time for cocktails?”
According to Gore Vidal, “One interesting result of today’s passion for the immediate and the casual has been the decline, in all the arts, of the idea of technical virtuosity as being in any way desirable. The culture (kitsch as well as camp) enjoys writers whose swift flow of words across the page is not submitted to the rigors of grammar or shaped by conscious thought. There is a general Zen-ish sense of why bother.” Discuss.
It seems that critics always hearken back to the past for tout-worthy works of art, while the art being created in their own time is considered inferior. In particular, I’m amused by his complaint that “technical virtuosity” is missing in today’s literature, as it has given way to the inferior “swift flow of words.” In other words, writers are too intent on telling their stories, and not spending enough time on stylistic flourishes.
This complaint is such an old one. It reminds me of a similar debate that went on among writers in 9th century China. One of my literary heroes is Han Yu, an essayist who lived during the Tang Dynasty. He revolutionized writing in his day by advocating the use of clear, concise language. He felt that baroque literary flourishes were, in fact, a form of dishonesty, and that the best writing is direct, its meaning clear. In other words, he valued substance over form, which would seem to be in contradiction to what Gore Vidal is saying.
How have these values affected your own writing?
I like to think I’m a follower in Han Yu’s literary footsteps. His tradition may be 9th century, but I think it also characterizes modern storytelling today, especially when it comes to popular novels. They tend to be stories told clearly, with writing that is direct. When I write, I want my reader to be so swept into the story that they don’t notice my style or even the fact that it’s a writer telling that story. They are too frantic to know what happens next to these people they care about.
Believe me, such storytelling is quite the opposite of careless writing. The more effortless it looks, the more difficult it is to pull off. I liken it to Olympic gymnasts who can twirl and fly through the air and make it look easy while the much less skilled athlete grunts and sweats and flops about, making it clear to everyone how hard he is working at it.
Writers will always defend their choices of technique; critics will always find reasons to criticize. There is nothing new under the sun. All I can do is point to Han Yu and say, if it was good enough for one of the greatest writers in China, it’s good enough for me.
What do you make of Aristotle’s theory that literature should be about extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances?
I would disagree with Aristotle’s take on what literature should be, although I love Aristotle! I think the most compelling stories, the ones we readers most enjoy, are about seemingly ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. It’s the journey and transformation of an ordinary person into what ends up an extraordinary person that most fascinates us. We want to be able to identify with the character. If he starts off as tall, dark, handsome, and invincible, there’s nothing there to identify with, unless one is actually tall, dark, handsome, and invincible. But if he starts off average, pale, and unsure of himself – and then must learn to survive a horrid crisis – well, we’re going to root for that man.
Does crime fiction deserve more critical attention?
I think a lot of literary fiction is finding its voice as crime fiction. In a crime novel, you can explore every aspect of human nature and conflict, which makes it a perfect framework for literary stories. If one believes that ‘worthwhile’ fiction deserves more critical attention, then yes – I think crime fiction deserves that attention, because it’s what serious writers are writing today.
Is crime fiction especially limited by genre conventions and reader expectations?
I don’t think the genre places particularly stifling limits to being able to write a satisfying story. Within the genre, there is freedom to explore any subject, any emotion. The limits have to do with reader expectations. Most readers want a solution to the mystery you’ve posed. They want the crisis resolved. They want the protagonist to find some measure of happiness by the end. If you violate any of those expectations, you’ll probably find a lot of angry reader comments in your email in-box! Now, if you believe that ‘good’ crime writing means one must write without thought of reader expectations, you’ll end up with writers who are critically acclaimed… with few readers.
If modesty allows, can you say why readers gravitate to your work?
I don’t know why readers gravitate toward my work. I only know that I write what I, as a reader, like to read. I want characters I care about and can identify with, a crisis that rivets me, and a sense of both catharsis and redemption at the end. I don’t believe those are limited to crime novels; I think those are winning characteristics of all beloved stories.
How do you approach your work? Does it all start with the large themes or the little characteristics?
When I start my stories, I’m not thinking about social structures or larger themes; I start off with personal feelings about the characters, and how their lives are about to change. The more universal themes will somehow show up in the course of the story.
What makes a good crime novel?
I think a good crime novel forces us to confront our own failings. It makes us wonder: faced with the terrible choice this character faces, would I make as noble a choice? Would I be a coward or a fighter? It allows us to know ourselves better.
As opposed to the literary or social novel?
The ‘social novel’ can be unsatisfying because too often it poses a problem or crisis, and then fails to resolve it. That’s the nature of many literary novels – they explore life’s tragedies, without offering any solutions. Crime novels, at least, provide answers to the central mystery of the story.
Is the crime novel as you read and write it about the extremes human beings are capable of?
Yes. Crime novels are often about extremes – in behavior and in tragedy. All people slow down to stare at a train wreck. We’re both horrified by it, and unable to look away. Crime fiction may have the same hypnotic quality.
Is that why you often reserve moral judgment of your protagonists, villainous or not?
My villain, Warren Hoyt – in The Surgeon and The Apprentice – is a sociopathic, highly intellectual killer who happens to be a born predator. As reprehensible as he is, there are aspects to him that many readers can identify with. It doesn’t mean we condone what he does; it just means that we acknowledge that he’s as human as we are.
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