I am, at heart, a story guy and a structure slut. I studied Shakespeare, particularly the tragedies, because they are terrific thrillers. Macbeth: great mob tale. Hamlet: ghost story. Othello: pre-noir. Etc. Stateside, I love Faulkner – the corncob rape scene in Sanctuary? Need we say more about lurid classifications? I collect his paperbacks from the 50s for their great pulp covers. I enjoy terrific stories where I can find them, and one can find them in all sections of a bookstore. There’s a lot of poorly written stuff as well, both ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’, the only distinction seeming to be that commercial crap actually makes the authors money. If you write in clichés, get published, and DON’T make money, well that’s an even sadder state of affairs.
I also like to point out that ‘commercial’ writing extends across the board; Updike did okay for himself. Dickens never had trouble paying the rent – and his literary reputation has survived relatively well. When Gertrude Stein came to California, she only wanted to meet Dashiell Hammett – okay, and Chaplin too, but that dilutes the anecdote.
I think crime fiction has replaced the social novel. I’d press someone to find a better practitioner of the craft than, say, Poe or Chandler or Lethem or Lehane – or to find someone who better reveals to us a city or a family or a moral conundrum. But I find it’s no use getting defensive. One can’t really win arguing that he or she should be taken more seriously. Better to write as goddamned well as one can manage, and let people sort it out a couple hundred years hence.
I should clarify: I think your and others’ efforts to draw more attention to our kind of writing is noble and an important contribution to discourse regarding matters literary; what’s the good of books if we can’t argue about them? I was remarking that authors commenting on their own work is generally less helpful. No one’s ever won an argument claiming that they should be taken seriously, or that they should be accorded more respect. When it comes to genre and respect, I like to rip off Oscar Wilde: “Books are well-written or badly written. That is all.”
Are well-written crime novels about epic perseverance in a world where there is no healing, only constant movement towards it?
That’s certainly one good take on it. I think that there are a lot of angles on crime fiction – some reads like blue-collar tragedy, some like suburban morality tales, some like social novels. They’re all over the map, which is one thing I love about it.
Does the crime writer sit at the table of literature like a transvestite cousin at a family gathering, where he is silently pardoned while his fabulous hat is studiously ignored?
Wow. I wish we had that chair at our family reunion. To be honest, I don’t give this issue much thought anymore. People forget – Camus was inspired to write The Stranger after reading James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Dickens was paid by the word. I don’t really care what others term appropriate or worthwhile – just what I feel in my gut when I’m writing and when I’m reading. Let it all be judged a hundred years after we’re dead.
What are you interested in as a writer?
How to deal with the unknown and unpredictable… A lot of my academic work was centered on Jung, and that’s because I believe that certain narratives are selected as useful to the human race – same as opposable thumbs.
What kind of criminals are you interested in?
What interest me are the ‘one small decision at a time’ criminals that I discuss in We Know.
If crime novels are the current affairs of art, do you see yourself as a tour guide to modern culture?
Though I do incorporate aspects of modern culture in the books to make them ring true, I think that my main job is to tell a story with real characters. I’m more interested in plot, structure, and character than pop culture. But I am a pop culture junkie, so it tends to work its way in where appropriate.
Why do you write?
I think I write to figure that out for myself. Often, it’s not until I’m done with a novel that I look back at it and know what it was about for me, what drove me to write it. If I know in advance why I’m writing something, I doubt it would work out. It’s sort of like deciding the morality of what you’re writing ahead of time – that’s not writing; it’s propaganda.
Are you saying you’re concerned with structural violence?
Yes, I suppose so – not that that’s a primary motivation. But one of the great things about crime fiction is that you can punish people and social structures that make you angry. So The Program, about mind control cults, was my reaction to looking into them, and growing angrier, and angrier, and angrier…
Is it fair to say that reading and writing crime fiction is about more than entertainment to you?
Yes – absolutely. Narrative is the backbone to our culture, and to our own process of psychological development. If you removed everything I’d ever learned from stories, I’d be one useless human indeed.
What kind of relationship do you have with your protagonists?
Intimate. I live with them for years before I write them. When I’m finally ready to start, I spend more time with them than I do with my family.
If you had to start all over tomorrow, would you?
Without question and with the same enthusiasm.
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