This interview originally appeared on March 11, 2012 at a site called The Crime of It All which is no longer online. I hope Len won’t mind my reprinting it here.
For whom do you write?
Hmmm. I guess every effective writer has an audience in mind, and in that sense, I write for people who read crime fiction and have certain expectations about what they’re likely to experience when they read a mystery. I am one of those readers. But my favorite writers manage to satisfy in terms of presenting a compelling story with characters I care about and give me something to think about and aesthetic pleasure, but don’t do so in a way so familiar it’s formulaic. So I don’t write for readers in the sense that I’m trying to deliver a product that meets certain specifications. I’m trying to write the kind of story I enjoy reading. Whether people actually read it or not is less important to me than writing something worth reading. Of course, I have a day job.
Where do you stand on the genre debate?
A few years ago we had a visiting speaker on campus, Mark Edmundson who teaches English Literature at the University of Virginia and wrote a book called Why Read? which argues that reading good books is a means of self-understanding and betterment – sort of an Oprah’s Book Club message except that he thinks the choice of what books you read for betterment should be made by experts like him rather than by television celebrities. I had breakfast with him, and we had a fairly raucous argument about the value of crime fiction; he asked whether I would teach a course on it. I said, maybe, if I had the chance. And he was disgusted: why waste students’ time with the second rate when they could be reading Shakespeare? What, plays about rape, murder, dismemberment, and feeding one’s ex her murdered children in a pie? Proper literature like The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus? Long story short, I now teach a course on international crime fiction. So there, Mark Edmundson.
Sorry, I warned you – I do go on and on! But I really should answer your question. I think part of the reason there’s a division between literary and popular fiction is that literary writers, who are often trained in MFA programs and who go on to teach in MFA programs to make ends meet, feel a bit annoyed that their hard-wrought prose doesn’t have much success in the marketplace, so they blame readers and the book industry for being too lowbrow. Quite a few readers who love crime fiction tend to return the favor, characterizing literary fiction as snobbish, boring, and full of self-absorbed characters who don’t do anything interesting, which isn’t entirely fair either. There’s good and bad in both camps. As for why thrillers – well, Patrick Anderson gives a pretty good explanation of why they are popular in The Triumph of the Thriller, though it’s mostly a run-through of his favorite (and most despised) authors in the genre. I tried to give my own answer (of a sort) in this article that appeared in Clues a while back:
Certainly in my own fiction I tend to write about things that are bugging me because it’s how I figure them out. My reading choices tend the same way, toward fiction that is socially aware and that will teach me something about the issues it engages – both in terms of information but also in terms of empathy and identification with human experience. I’m particularly fond of Scandinavian crime fiction because it treads a nice balance between the social panorama and individual character development.
Some would argue that the status of legitimacy that ‘literary fiction’ enjoys is owed to the fig leaf that a serious purpose provides. Since crime fiction is about the imminence of violent disorder, and it is hard to find a more contemporary topic, does the genre not have at least the same claim to recognition?
I do feel crime fiction (when done well, as it very often is) provides what literature always has for its readers: a reflection on our times, an exploration of human experience, an opportunity to think about ethical dilemmas through the lens of a story, and aesthetic pleasure. The fact that it is often derivative and formulaic doesn’t alter the fact that there are talented writers in the genre who write terrific fiction by any standard. I recently finished Lush Life by Richard Price that I could use as exhibit A: it’s simply a wonderful novel. There’s a lot of fiction that falls into the “literary” category that is also formulaic and derivative; that doesn’t mean it’s all rubbish. Yet many readers are uninterested in self-described literary fiction because they believe it’s more focused on stylistics than story and on exploring minutiae of personal experience through carefully-wrought descriptions of small events rather than in taking on larger social issues through dramatic story-telling.
Second, even when crime fiction isn’t particularly good in a literary sense, I think it still tells us something valuable about who we are and what we make of the world we’re in. What does it say about us that so many of our popular stories are about serial killers who stalk women, do nasty things to them, and create a public spectacle to celebrate their deviance – particularly when so many of the protagonists are themselves women and the largest audience for these stories is women? I don’t know, but I suspect it means something. To understand that, it would be interesting to explore the reading experience itself, as Janet Radway did in the 1980s for women reading romances. She went into the project thinking women were being schooled in patriarchal social relationships, which is what scholars surmised by looking at the texts, but found that compulsive readers of romance were totally hip to the absurdity of the “happily ever after” stories, but were actually sounding out their own lived experience through the contrast between idealized patriarchy and how things actually work. (Of course, Edmundson thought Radway was rubbish, that asking readers about their experiences was pointless, because what do they know? They’re not experts.)
At its best, the genre tackles social issues in a way that helps us approach important issues such as the roots of violence, the effects of crime on victims, and how social institutions function in matters of justice – or how they fail. I think crime fiction is actually uniquely suited for exploring these issues because it plays on our anxieties, which play a large role on how social issues are formed collectively.
What do you consider to be the main appeal of crime fiction?
It engages us with questions of right and wrong in a variety of arenas – relationships, social issues, environmental issues, whatever – in the compelling form of a story. It lets us get close to things that give us anxiety and get a better handle on them, but without any risk of getting hurt.
Does it offer an education?
There’s some interesting psychological research that supports the claim that fiction has a role to play in how people make meaning. For example: Victor Nell has studied the trance-like state that reading induces and found that neural processing demands are higher when reading a book than when experiencing other media. It’s not escape from thinking, it’s escape into thinking that happens to effectively block out other distractions.
Richard Gerrig studied the psychology of reading and one of his experiments tested whether people could separate the “facts” related in fiction from those relayed in non-fiction. Basically, they couldn’t; what we read in fiction enters our knowledge base, particularly when we’re reading about a topic we know little about. That to me means writers of fiction should be concerned about how accurate they are simply because we don’t mentally shelve fiction separately from non-fiction.
And a gang of psychologists write an interesting blog “on fiction” – http://www.onfiction.ca/ – also has some of their research studies posted there.
The Telegraph also recently reported on a study from Manchester and the LSE on how fiction can “explain the world’s problems” better than reports. And a library and information science professor at the University of Western Ontario, Catherine Sheldrick Ross, has studied what readers get out of what they read for pleasure and found that readers learn a lot from books that they read for pleasure – some of it self-knowledge, some of it knowledge about the world.
What are your topical concerns?
As a reader I gravitate toward crime fiction that focuses on the choices individuals make in a world where there are a lot of ethical choices facing us. In In the Wind I was thinking about police culture in Chicago and how difficult it would be for a cop with integrity to respond to the kind of brutality that is fairly bog-standard in the CPD. It’s making a choice to not close ranks that sets up the main character’s situation. I was also intrigued by the striking similarities between government surveillance during the Vietnam War era and what was emerging in the post 9/11 environment. The constitutional issues were making my blood boil, so writing about it creatively was a therapeutic outlet.
Through the Cracks involves race and criminal justice as well as violence against women, and the debates about immigration here and the barely-concealed racism behind the rhetoric was definitely feeding my urge to write about it.
I think crime fiction provides a fertile ground for dramatizing and particularizing the ethical choices we make as a society and by making those choices the basis of a story they become more complex, more real, more compelling than when they are abstract policies or political positions. And the interesting thing is that by using people who enforce laws as the protagonists, we can see what happens when that enforcement is complicated by human nature and by the tendency for power to corrupt.
Ian Rankin’s Rebus is a wonderful fulcrum for that tension between individual morality and institutional failure. The ending of Exit Music, where we see how emotionally connected he is to Big Ger Cafferty demonstrates this nicely as the lines between crime and law enforcement have blurred.
Are you concerned with the social structures that facilitate crime?
Yes, totally. The way we deal with drugs and guns in our country, for example, coupled with the lack of opportunity for entire communities of young men ensures that there will be a certain amount of violent crime in those areas. Crime fiction often starts with the moment of violence and works backward. Uncovering the build-up to the outburst is what drives the story. Then again, some crime is nearly random. In Richard Price’s Lush Life, a kid who is holding a gun during a robbery fires it unintentionally when the victim responds in an unexpected way. But why was that kid involved in a hold-up in the first place? Why was a gun involved? Why did they pick on those people to mug? It turns out to be a very involving story though the crime itself is not complex or well-planned. Those character-driven stories interest me far more than ones that depend on elaborate plotting because they seem much more interested in the ethical issues, less in using deviance as a convenient way to set up an exciting situation.
Does such crime fiction instruct readers on how to deal with crime and the criminal in a culture that is searching for an ethical centre?
It does, and sometimes it does so in a valuable way; sometimes not so valuable. I get annoyed with the standard profiler-pursues-deviant-but-clever-serial-killer storyline because it bears so little resemblance to reality and the ethical center it presents is, to me, false. It sets up a Manichean struggle between pure evil and absolute good (represented usually by a federal agent who has to probe the elaborate deviance of the serial killer in a way that will give the reader the most thrills, which often have a misogynistic female-in-jeopardy element). It’s a mythology that is comforting, but it doesn’t tell us anything about good and evil other than that we’re excited by deviance but want to have it put back in its box after it’s done its work. For example, I think depicting torture as a legitimate and even noble pursuit in the television series 24 makes the audience complicit in a policy that is ethically wrong. It’s comforting because it excuses violence as a heroic necessity and it reinforces government power rather than asking us to question it. (It’s also entirely unrealistic about how that power actually operates.) On the opposite side would be The Wire, which doesn’t make easy excuses for the people in power and complicates our understanding of crime and ethics – and is much more realistic in depicting social institutions at work.
Do you see crime fiction as a guide to modern life? Can its protagonist be a role model for the compromises we make every day as a way to survive the modern world?
That’s an interesting thought. I suspect we see crime fiction dramatizing questions we face, but making them far more interesting than they are in our day-to-day life. Most of us don’t have jobs that matter the way we imagine a detective’s job does. Of course, in reality there’s a fair amount of boring stuff in a detective’s job, too, and plenty of frustration with delays, paperwork, dead ends, and the knowledge that making an arrest won’t stop people from hurting each other. But in fiction it’s a great frame for questions of good and evil and the choices we make.
Can crime fiction investigate moral principles and identify where they need revision?
I’ve heard a lot of readers say that they value the way crime fiction arrives at some sense of order out of chaos, that they respond to the triumph of justice, even if the characters and the choices they make are complex and more gray than black and white. I think readers want to understand questions of justice through the stories of characters enacting choices – because the empathy we develop enriches our understanding of ethical choices and perhaps helps us rehearse our own responses if we are faced with choices of our own. I think at its best it also helps us understand people with whom we may have little contact – people of races and classes other than our own or from other cultures. I felt very much better informed about Palestine after reading Matt Beynon Ress’s The Collaborator of Bethlehem, not because I learned any facts, but because of the way he depicted day-to-day life and customs and the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in an occupied zone with fanatics playing on people’s emotions.
How would you define the relationship between our current culture of fear and crime fiction’s current popularity?
I wrote an article about that – concluding “It gives our deepest fears narrative form—but doesn’t necessarily provide simple solutions that resolve our anxiety. Jenkins has pointed out, “[f]or all the science and quantification used to substantiate a new problem, its true momentum will be located in its appeal to deep-rooted anxieties that respond poorly to rational inquiry, still less rebuttal” (Using Murder 229). He suggests that the formation of social problems can be understood through its treatment in popular culture, where our fears are given dramatic form. Since crime fiction deliberately draws us into an exploration of that which frightens us and frames our inchoate anxieties in textual coherence, it may indeed be just the place to conduct such an examination.”
Does voyeurism, that Victorian ‘virtue’, persist in the genre’s theory that every private life tells a story of secret shame and trauma?
Huh, I never considered that. I think the form that voyeurism takes in popular fiction is an interest in “entering the mind of a monster/serial killer” (though why, I’ve never been sure) – and that particular monster is largely an invention, or at least is a fascination with a kind of evil that is quite rare. In these stories the monsters only appear normal on the outside, but are secretly some other form of life, alternate life forms sneaking into our midst. It’s a way of being titillated by the idea of evil while being able to feel absolved of any connection with it. The writers who tackle the complexity of real lives – where good and evil are more complex – are voyeurs of society like Dickens when he wrote about poverty.
How would you describe your long-term relationship with your characters?
I don’t quite know how to answer that. I got burned on my first published mystery/thriller, On Edge, in that the contract was for three books and I thought I would be able to do things with a character I liked and whose story was just starting. The editor left, the publisher canned the series idea though I had two more manuscripts drafted, and my character had to take early retirement. Now I’m a little less emotionally invested – which may be maturity, or may just be that I’m gun shy. As a reader, though, I am not as interested in the development of series characters and their lives as I am in each individual story, so perhaps that shapes my attitude, too.
If you had to start all over tomorrow, what would be your last thought before going to bed?
Probably the same as always – I’d better put the book I’m reading aside before I fall asleep and it hits me on the nose.