Insightful question. All authors are products of their times and their environments. I was one of the earliest members of ‘my generation’ to find success in literature; prose fiction. The speed and intensity of history shaped us. The prospect of nuclear Armageddon; the Birth Control Pill; the explosive growth of the middle class following WWII and the Depression; the Red Scare and McCarthyism; TV essentially in a very Marshall McLuhan fashion bringing the world into our homes; JFK – plus RFK and MLK, Malcolm X – being assassinated; Vietnam; and, not to be ignored, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
If I’d have had that talent, I’d have gone that way. Writing with a noir eye lets you see around the edges of the terrors of modern daily life. Writing on the edge – say a crime thriller by Richard Stark, Donald Westlake, Elmore Leonard – lets you look back at the rest of life with a perspective that sometimes shows the readers something they never otherwise would have articulated or heard articulated. And writing fiction in that vein requires you to enthral the reader with entertainment – not just dazzle him with complex sentences or observations or pontifications. The best fiction is ‘true’ – and finding truth is at the heart of crime, thriller, suspense, noir, espionage, mystery fiction.
What are your thoughts on genre divisions and literary reviews?
I think ‘fiction criticism’ should stop trying to put its subject into tidy hierarchical ghettos just so they can serve course catalogs at universities and PhD theses. Hamlet and Macbeth were popular entertainments with spies, murders, ghosts. Hammett almost lived long enough to see himself go from ‘hack pulp writer’ to ‘great American author’. Sure, some fiction is written within limits and aimed at a particular type of enjoyment. But too often critical attention is created by academics who come out of navel-gazing education and ‘criticize’ to win approval of their fellow critics.
Do formulas ever help writers and their critics?
I consider ‘formulas’ dangerous to all fiction – for example, the ‘academic novel’ so beloved by… academics, gee, what a surprise – suffers the more formulaic it is. The best three academic novels I’ve read are Lucky Jim, I’ve Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, and The Wonderboys.
To me, the best crime or noir or espionage writers start with the necessary elements to put their work in that definition – Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, John LeCarre, Hammett & Chandler & Cain – then let their story burst beyond that. In Six Days of the Condor, for example, I deliberately chose to go against the James Bond rule of the times and make my hero incapable of doing anything I couldn’t do, actually, making him less competent than I thought I was.
How did you come to that writing philosophy?
The economic crash of industrial America – facilitated by the Reagan Administration, I would argue – triggered Steeltown. One Saturday back when newspapers were thick – early 1980’s – I saw a two sentence story in the back pages of my Washington Post that a citizens’ group president from Youngstown, Ohio, had testified to Congress that with the crash of the steel industry, the only groups with any power left in his once booming hometown were competing groups of organized crime. The convicted and bizarre Congressman Jim Traficant – Ohio, released from prison – is from Youngstown.
It was like a vortex hit me and swept me up, and I saw the novel I wanted to write, one that in part was an homage to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest which had been written about Butte, Montana – Montana being my home state, Butte the tough “city” – we’re talking less than 100,000 when I was growing up – that dominated the state. Hammett wrote about smokestack cities on their way up in America, I wanted to write about them on their way down, and both of us used the same fictional model: crime novel.
I went to Youngstown and hung with the citizens group, labor unions, other citizens for several days. There’d been something like 58 car bombings in one year a year or so before I got there. This was 1988. They showed me the outside of a casino that did $28 million a year in illegal biz that it took the FBI a couple more years to bust. A great reporting trip.
From the start, I knew the title of the book should be: “Stealtown” A deliberate pun, one like Hammett used in Red Harvest, and one that I thought would make customers pick up the book and wonder.
Then several things happened. My wife got pregnant with our son Nathan and I developed Graves disease – a thyroid condition that’s no big deal if diagnosed and treated, but her pregnancy was troubled, and once I realized that I was ill, shaking, trembling, dropping weight – an lb. every other day – I figured I had cancer and that if I told anyone, that might endanger the unborn baby. Author Kitty Kelley threw us a baby shower and the reaction of all our friends to the sight of me made my wife Bonnie call a doctor, who called me, diagnosed me over the phone, and all was well – or on the slow mend – almost immediately.
But before that, I’d delivered the MS to Bantam publishers. Went up to NYC still “secretly” dying – I know, how stupid and paranoid! – got double teamed by the editor and publisher who thought their “new” idea for a title was “brilliant”. They’d already rejected it specifically once before: “Steeltown.” I sat there, not able to ascertain what the stakes were, worried that if I said no to a stupid title, they’d kill the book or publish it “small.” So to get the book published and the next chunk of the advance for my family, I agreed. I would never buy a book with that title, but I sold one with it out of unfounded paranoia. Dumb.
So the city in my book became named Steeltown. I was going to keep it no named. The book starts: “Once upon a time, Steeltown worked big magic in the great American dream, but on the May morning the man flew into that city, he saw empty smokestacks rising into a clear sky.” Then it’s the private eye playing one faction off against another to gain control of the town novel. I even named chapters like Hammett. The French loved it and got it; mild sales and reviews in the U.S.
What’s the story behind River of Darkness?
River of Darkness is the noir covert history of what we call the Baby Boom generation of Americans from Vietnam to Iran-Contra, told as a cross-country chase. And it’s the closest thing to an autobiography I’ve written. Again, the only weakness is its title, which I foolishly locked onto way early in the book – I even passed by the better title in my consideration, mostly out of arrogance to recognize it when I heard it.
What was it?
Naw, don’t ask, maybe someday I’ll get to re-print it and use it then.
Is all of your writing noir?
River of Darkness is full of “social” fiction/journalism, but disguised, with the characters and plot racing through it. Mad Dogs also races through the post 9/11 American landscape. It took the French giving me an award for me to grasp that I’m a noir author – and that noir is essentially the ‘social novel’, but one in which characters must face the reality that they must choose from imperfect choices, and that though they must rebel to find themselves, they are doomed to life’s absurdities.
What makes a good social novel?
I think good crime novels are good social novels – Huckleberry Finn was about Huck breaking the law to free, thus steal, the slave Jim. I think ‘social novels’ – Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Dickens – have faded because it takes so damn long from the time your manuscript is approved – let alone sold to a publisher – the social conditions you’re writing about have been over-run by new concerns.
Authors who seek to use fiction to scream about some issue usually end up being out-dated by the time their books roll off the presses and often end up looking stupid – circa 1973, I read a book in which Nixon was an all-wise hero. Because the world moves faster and more intensely every day, setting a novel in a contemporary social structure is increasingly difficult.
Novelist, critic, academic John Gardner became famous for the not so original position that all fiction presents a moral vision, so a writer should be careful about what he does. I’ve always had a dual fascination: writing and politics. I worked in the U.S. Senate after I was a 25 year old success with Six Days of the Condor, for example. I think that writers who ignore the moral issues and complexities of their times at best are fantasy creators. What’s ironic about that is how the science fiction authors beyond Huxley and Orwell used ‘fantasy’ to mirror every social issue their neighbors faced.
Also, at least in America, crime writers are the authors most likely to actually go into the streets of neighborhoods and lives they don’t know in search of backgrounds and stories. A good novel of any categorization makes you feel and empathize with the characters, makes you feel not alone. If you’re writing a novel that’s removed from realities of society, well, the empathy becomes shallow.
All that said, when I write about a particular crime, the particulars of that crime are what’s of utmost importance. What you go for is some sort of universality: anybody can be a murder victim.
What do you hope that does for your readers?
Crime novels give us a chance to think about justice and crime in a safe fashion. I think we read crime fiction for an odd reason: we seek to escape reality often by reading fictions that we feel – or believe – somehow reflect a deeper reality than that which we face when we close the book. Which is ‘better’ for your reader to feel when he’s done with your book – “I wish that’s how it was” or “That’s how it is”? I think the answer is how much and how true you make the reader feel.
What’s the appeal of criminal protagonists?
In fiction, the better the villain, the stronger the story. Yeah, we fear – and love – Hannibal Lecter, and I think there is some level of “I wish I could just shoot people who piss me off” in every reader. People are drawn to strength, people who ‘do’ rather than ‘obey,’ and criminals by definition refuse a certain level of obedience to society. Camus’s brilliant understanding of the necessity of rebellion applies here.
But inseparable from this are issues of responsibility, narcissism, sadism, greed, arrogance, insanity. A criminal’s life requires deception, and thus is ultimately inauthentic and limited in its rewards. Today more than ever, we realize how much power we actually lack, so someone who seizes all the power he can regardless of what moral or legal or practical lines he crosses is fascinating.
How often do you think that leads to an examination of core principles of morality?
I think crime fiction by definition requires examination of “core principles of morality” – Les Miserables, for example: theft is wrong, so not stealing but letting your child starve is…? I don’t think we read crime fiction for lessons on how to act, except for a few idiots who ape TV or novel fiction to become criminals. We read to be thrilled, to escape, to be entertained, to be intrigued. I think everyone who read The Godfather at some point wanted to be in the Mafia because it felt so powerful and energetic, even if they would have recoiled in horror at doing what Mafia people do.
Speaking of social stratification and conflicting loyalties to multiple authorities, has dramatising corrupt definitions of justice had a noticeable impact on people’s real-life expectations of ‘justice served’?
Absolutely – and that’s both good and bad. Juries in America are starting to free defendants because they, as consumers of fiction, have been taught to believe that the extensions of Sherlock Holmes and J. Edgar Hoover to TV’s CSI mean that the prosecution should be able to scientifically prove everything not just beyond the shadow of a doubt but as precisely and cleanly as 2 + 2 = 4.
I think good crime fiction can help a reader understand “what might happen” so they can better understand the chaos and fears of their lives. The better the crime novel – on all levels, including action – the better portrait of reality it creates. Thus, the reader can choose to see more than just the fiction when he’s done with it, his eyes and heart and mind can have been opened, if only for an instant. What happens then is so individualized I can’t speculate.
I think a good crime novel can let a reader feel that at least in this book, things make sense. Thus, a logical next step might be: “What kind of sense can I make of my ‘real’ world using the ‘education’ gained through reading this crime novel?”
Can you define your writing philosophy?
I try to write my fiction ‘true.’ I have seen terrible things and met terrible people; I have seen wonderful things and met wonderful people. To deny the terrible cheapens the wonderful and obscures truth.
Can you recommend a fellow writer?
Richard Thompson, the folk-rock poet singer-songwriter. He is an under-appreciated author, writes novels as 3-5 minute songs. And on that note, let me say that the best author who’s my age – born in 1949 – is Bruce Springsteen. As I said in Mad Dogs: “The poets of our generation put down their pens and picked up electric guitars.” Not all poets, of course – there are great ones out there, Billy Collins, Charles Simic, etc. – and not me. But “if I could-a, I would-a.”
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