Increasing numbers of contemporary books, articles and conference papers have been devoted to analysing crime and detective fiction within a wide variety of cross-cultural contexts. Critics focus on the diversity of the genre and on the manifold ways in which generic tropes are being transformed as they take on different cultural and national identities. Studies such as these shed light on one of the main reasons for the genre’s durability: as Kate Horsley writes in “Contemporary African Crime Fiction”, “Detective fiction has remained a resilient and versatile genre because of its capacity to raise difficult questions about corruption and moral failure. It represents the investigation of individual crimes but can also work to expose the failures, traumas and brutalities of political and social life.”
This Autumn Crimeculture is featuring some of the best of the 2012-13 publications on cross-culture crime and detective fiction. The following books and articles are reviewed and highly recommended:
Berit Åström, Katarina Gregersdotter and Tanya Horeck (eds), Rape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Beyond: Contemporary Scandinavian and Anglophone Crime Fiction, Palgrave Macmillan, October 2012
We also want to recommend the forthcoming Leeds conference – 17th-18th September 2013, Retold, Resold, Transformed: Crime Fiction in the Modern Era, an Arts Faculty-wide event organised in co-operation with the Crime Studies Network.
‘The Problem of the Overtired Undergrad’, Ari Scott-Zechlin
‘Iustitia’, Tara Coffin
‘A Study in Iron’, Thomas Pinder
‘Nuremberg’, Ros Ballinger
‘Golden Blaze’, Rhys Barter
‘The Undead Detective’, Rhys Barter
‘Paul Wallace’, Sarah Borroum
‘Desert Island Dicks’, Paul Chiswick
‘One-Way Sherlock’, Dennis Mombauer
‘Dear Mr Spade’, Charles Rzepka
‘Ideal Holmes’, Alex Watts
The Sherlock Holmes Flash-Fiction Competition received over a hundred entries. We greatly enjoyed reading all of the stories submitted. Our judge, Sean Cregan, writes:
There are some good ones there! I had a hard time picking between ‘Iustitia’, ‘A Study In Iron’, and ‘The Problem Of The Overtired Undergrad’. I’m going to say ‘Undergrad’ just about takes it though.
It was very, very tight, but ‘Undergrad’ just edged it for me on the style and quality of the writing – there’s a couple of lovely turns of phrase in there. The conceptual switch is a nice one too, like a modern (and more grown-up) update of ‘Young Sherlock’ minus the ambulatory cream cakes, told from an outside point of view (and you can’t go wrong with a sly Mrs Hudson reference). Very tight field, very hard to pick, but this one shaded it.
The Competition: Our Sherlock Holmes Flash Fiction Competition was part of an AudioGo promotion. We asked that stories be no longer than 400 words and that they should feature Holmes in another time and place or in a different genre, e.g. gothic, hardboiled, cyberpunk or sci-fi. The Crimeculture editorial team shortlisted a group of stories and Sean Cregan, author of explosive and brilliant cyberpunk novels The Levels and The Razor Gate, judged the overall winner and the runners-up. The shortlisted and winning writers will have their work published on the Crimeculture website during July. The winning writer will be interviewed, published on Crimeculture and presented with a set of BBC Sherlock Holmes audiobook CDs; our two runners-up will also receive AudioGo prizes.
In May – July, Crimeculture is featuring Sherlock Holmes and classic detective fiction. See our front page links to some of our past articles on detective fiction, and our new contributions: Aysegul Kesirli’s ”Reading House M.D. as a Detective Drama,” which considers Gregory House in comparison to Holmes and to hard-boiled detectives; and Ashleigh Prosser’s ‘’The Genius Detective’ in classical detective fiction,” which discusses Poe’s Three Tales of Ratiocination and Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet.
About Roger Morris
Born in Manchester in 1960, R. N. Morris now lives in North London with his wife and two young children. His series of St. Petersburg novels revolving around the character of Porfiry Petrovich include A Gentle Axe, A Vengeful Longing, which was shortlisted for the 2008 CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger for Best Novel and was Highly Commended in the CWA Ellis Peters Prize for Best Historical Crime Novel in 2008. A Razor Wrapped in Silk was publsihed in 2010, and his fourth book, The Cleansing Flames, was shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger in 2011. He also wrote Taking Comfort which was published by Macmillan under the name Roger Morris in 2006. His latest novel, Summon Up The Blood, is published in April 2012. (see Faber and Faber Authors)
About Michael and Daniela Gregorio
Michael Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio write together as Michael Gregorio. Daniela teaches philosophy; Michael is interested in the history of photography. They live in Spoleto, a small town in central Italy. They have created a series of crime novels whose central charater is the Prussian magistrate, Hanno Stiffeniis. The series includes Critique of Criminal Reason, Days of Atonement, A Visible Darkness and Unholy Awakening. (Faber and Faber Authors)
Michael and Daniela: Did you always think that you would be a writer, Roger, and, if you did, what sort of a writer did you think that you would be?
Roger: Pretty much, yes. Writing stories was always my favourite activity at school. Even the way I played was story-based, making up convoluted scenarios for myself and my friends to act out. Telling stories is one of the ways we make sense of the world. We’re encouraged to do it as children and then at some point we switch to a more academic way of writing. Essays – based on facts. For me at least, at the school I went to, the imaginative, creative approach to writing – making stuff up – was discreetly put to one side. So it became something I pursued in private. For many years. Quite early on I took hold of the misguided idea that being a writer would be a great job. The misguided part was that it was a job at all, when actually it’s an obsession. You don’t turn up to work, work for a certain number of hours and get a pay cheque at the end of the month. In fact, you’re doing well if you’re getting paid at all. To answer the second part of your question, all I can say is that I didn’t particularly see myself as a crime writer. That came quite late on. If there is a spectrum with storyteller at one end and literary writer at the other, I have always thought of myself as being at the storyteller end. Fundamentally, that’s what it’s about for me, telling stories.
How about you two? Did you always see yourselves as writers, and if so what sort?
Michael: I was a kid who always wrote smart formulaic essays in school. English and History? No problem. I read English at university, and fell in love with long novels. They were more fun than Anglo-Saxon, which I also studied. I always fancied writing a novel, but I never had the time. When I came to Italy in 1980, I started worrying about forgetting my English – I was trying so hard to learn Italian – and I began writing short stories, then novels set in Italy as I got more ambitious. Pretty soon Daniela was at it, as well. She’d always been a scribbler. She still has pre-school notepads covered in incomprehensible hieroglyphs! By the mid-1990s, Dani was teaching philosophy and reading horror – Stephen King, James Herbert – and she tried her hand at the genre, too, while I was diddling about with the Victorians and crime. One day she came up with an intriguing idea for a short story set in Prussia featuring her favourite philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and our joint ambition took off. Could we write a novel set in Königsberg in 1804, and if so, what kind of novel would it be? Read more…
About Mark Billingham
Mark Billingham was born and brought up in Birmingham. Having worked for some years as an actor and more recently as a TV writer and stand-up comedian his first crime novel was published in 2001. Sleepyhead was an instant bestseller in the UK. It has been sold widely throughout the world and was published in the USA in the summer of 2002. The series of crime novels featuring London-based detective Tom Thorne continued with Scaredy Cat and was followed by Lazybones, The Burning Girl, Lifeless, Buried, Death Message, Bloodline and From The Dead. The latest in the series – Good As Dead – is published in August 2011. Mark is also the author of the standalone novel In The Dark as well as a series of children’s thrillers – Triskellion – written under the pseudonym Will Peterson. An acclaimed television series based on the Thorne novels was screened on Sky One in Autumn 2010, starring David Morrissey as Tom Thorne. The second series is now in production. Mark lives in London with his wife and two children. He is currently writing his next novel.
Visit his website: http://www.markbillingham.com/
About Paul Johnston
Paul Johnston was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1957. His father Ronald was a successful thriller writer. Paul attended state primary school in Berwickshire and private schools in Edinburgh. He subsequently studied ancient and modern Greek at the University of Oxford, then added an M.Phil in comparative literature to his M.A.. After leaving Oxford in 1982, Paul worked for shipping companies in London and Belgium. He moved to Greece in 1987, working on a newspaper, in shipping and then teaching English. His daughter Silje was born in 1988. He started writing seriously in 1989 when he went to live on the small Aegean island of Antiparos. Paul returned to Edinburgh to do another master’s degree in 1995 and then started studying for a doctorate. Paul remarried in 2005. His wife Roula is a Greek civil servant. Their daughter Maggie was born in Athens in January 2006 and their son Alexander in January 2008. Paul has come through (touch wood) two unconnected bouts of cancer in the last five years and underwent chemotherapy until November 2008. That hasn’t stopped him from writing or from studying for a PhD in creative writing.He still divides his time between Scotland and Greece – having left Athens, he and his family now live in the beautiful seaside town of Nafplio in the Peloponnese. His next project is The Green Lady, the fifth Alex Mavros novel.
Visit his website: http://www.paul-johnston.co.uk/
PJ -You worked in children’s TV and stand up before becoming a crime novelist? What nudge you towards the genre?
MB – I was really not enjoying the work I was doing for TV where scripts tend to be developed by committee. I’d taken my name off several projects before I finally decided I’d had enough, but even though I’d written all sorts of stuff before that (terrible poetry, bad plays, my own stand-up material) I was wary about trying my hand at a novel. Once I took the plunge, however, it was always going to be crime. Put simply, crime fiction had been my passion from a very early age. Once I’d discovered Sherlock Holmes, aged eleven (me, not him) I was hooked. I’ve talked in many interviews about how the work I’d done up to that point influenced and helped me. From TV writing I learned the discipline of deadlines and delivery and the importance of dialogue, which, as a TV writer is pretty much all you have to work with. Stand-up taught me about engaging with your audience quickly and keeping them engaged. A crime novel contains many similar elements to a stand-up routine. It is full of punchlines (though usually very dark ones) and, of course, timing is everything. I firmly believe that a novel is a performance…
What about you? Your background is rather more academic than mine. How does a classicist come to murder so many people on the page? Was it all that Greek tragedy?
PJ – No, I think it was Homer’s Odyssey, which I read in English when I was about seven (precocious, moi?) – plenty of crimes in there. Although I read classics for a couple of years at Oxford, I then changed to Modern Greek and did a Masters in comparative literature, much of which involved analysing that well known crime writer DH Lawrence. I’m really an academic manque, whence my studying for a PhD in creative writing at this advanced age. You mention Greek tragedy, which I read a lot of – no shortage of crime, murder etc in that either, but the biggest classical influence on my early writing was Plato. My Quint Dalrymple series, set in an independent Edinburgh in the 2020s, had more to do with the Republic than science fiction, though Orwell and Huxley are also presiding deities and there’s a hefty Blade Runner homage in the last book. I think I’d describe my approach to crime writing as intellectual rather than academic, actually, even though I know that will lead to endless mockery. I start a book with ideas – I don’t mean plot or character ideas, though they’re there too, but political or even philosophical concepts. Body Politic and its successors raise all sorts of issues about totalitarianism, education, the environment (especially the energy and water supplies), censorship, cloning and so on. I like a crime novel that asks the reader to think…..Read more.
The Tom Milne Popular Fiction Archive: 2012 Exhibition, Texts into Films
Starting on 17th January, Lancaster University Library will open its 2012 Exhibition of novels from the Tom Milne Archive, focusing on the influence of American crime fiction on film noir and neo-noir. Download the Exhibition poster
Crime Films, 1940 – 2000: A Free Film Festival Between Friday 20th and Friday 27th January, the Exhibition will be accompanied by a free film festival, open to all members of Lancaster University. It will show of a mixture of classic film noir and post-1960s neo-noir every evening in the Elizabeth Livingstone Lecture Theatre.
The festival will include films based on Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon (d. John Huston, 1941), Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely (Murder, My Sweet, d. Edward Dmytryk, 1944), James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity (d. Billy Wilder, 1944; paired with Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 take on Cain’s plot, Body Heat), John D. MacDonald’s The Executioners (Cape Fear, d. J. Lee Thompson, 1962), Donald Westlake’s The Hunter (Point Blank, d. John Boorman, 1967), David Goodis’s Down There (Shoot the Piano Player, d. Francois Truffaut, 1960), Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1951), Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch (Jackie Brown, d. Quentin Tarantino, 1997), William P. McGivern’s The Big Heat (d. Fritz Lang, 1953), and Jim Thompson’s The Grifters (d. Stephen Frears, 1990).
The fourth extract from Charles Rzepka’s interview with Elmore Leonard
Professor Charles Rzepka conducted a series of interviews with Elmore Leonard in 2009-10. Crimeculture is delighted to announce that the fourth extract from Professor’s Rzepka’s interviews is now available.
From Elmore Leonard Interview #4, conducted in Bloomfield Village, MI.
CR: I jumped ahead here and I want to go back to the hanging from the roof. I was not only fascinated by Maurice Murray but also I realized that after The Big Bounce hanging from heights, or dying from getting thrown off a building, or having a fear of looking down appears in nearly everything you’ve written.
EL: Is that right?
CR: Have you ever noticed that?
CR: Here, just off the top of my head, in Road Dogs is the scene on the roof with Tico and Jack playing roof ball. That made me go back and look at your other work. There’s Get Shorty, where Bo Catlett falls off his own deck to his death. I think it’s in Stick where Eddie Moke is being held off the balcony by Chuckie, who lets him go. There’s Glitz, where there’s a cab driver who gets thrown off the cliff and this prostitute from Puerto Rico who goes to Atlantic City and gets thrown off a roof.
EL: Right. Wow.
CR: That’s just for starters. And then in Killshot Lionel the ironworker is injured falling from a beam, and you have all of these really high-up perspectives. Take that great scene where they think Wayne is frozen, they think he’s scared. But he’s just in his head rehearsing these surprise scenarios, and he slides down the girder and walks away. But there’s also that great shot in the opening chapter, where Armand goes to Detroit to hit Papa. He walks into the room, and before he says or does anything he sees the scene out the window of the panorama of the cityscape and Canada. It’s like he’s looking at his whole life through the window, like how he got here, not just the other day driving from Toronto, but it’s like Walpole Island and the river and Canada and everything. I bet you in nearly every book you’ve written since The Big Bounce you have a scene where someone is fearful of heights or about to fall or falls to his death, or there’s something to do with great heights. And I don’t think it happens in any of your early westerns, for instance, where someone gets shoved off a mesa or a bluff? But even in an early crime novel like Mr. Majestyk, the climactic scene is where he outwits Renda and the other thugs by getting them to drive off a cliff, off a road on a mesa. Can you think of any earlier books before Big Bounce where that kind of thing happens?
EL: No, but when I was starting out writing I had a dream. I was always falling down these stairs.
CR: When you first started writing?
EL: Yeah, and they were steep and narrow and I’d fall down and you wait for yourself to hit the bottom and that never came. But it was that tightening up on the way down. Then I started to sell and I never had the dream again…. Read more.
Len Wanner, Dead Sharp: Scottish Crime Writers on Country and Craft (Two Ravens Press, 2011)
Review and Extracts
In these intelligent, perceptive, fascinating interviews, Len Wanner reveals both the diversity and the shared concerns of contemporary Scottish crime fiction. His questions probe writers’ creative processes and their views of the genre. On the one hand he focuses in on personal aims, quirks, opinions and writing habits; on the other, he broadens out to engage with such issues as the nature of noir, the turn towards dark crime fiction, the political and moral issues raised by the genre, the Scottishness of Scottish crime fiction.
The collection opens with an extended interview with “the King of Tartan Noir”, Ian Rankin, reflecting on the origins of the label (“Hah! ‘Tartan Noir’ is a term that I’m confident I invented but I gave it to James Ellroy…”) and on why it is so appropriate to the late twentieth-century emergence of some distinctively Scottish variants of crime fiction:
“Tartan Noir – well, there’s no tradition of crime fiction in Scotland but there is a great tradition of quite dark, psychological, Gothic horror stories. Specifically in the ‘70s, I think in Glasgow, there was a move towards a kind of realistic school of writing about working class life, writing about hard men, writing about hard lives, and writing about urban experience.
So it was a move away from the ‘kaleyard’, which was this romanticised view of Scotland. I think crime fiction tapped into that very nicely, and because there was no tradition of crime fiction in Scotland it meant a completely level playing field. Nobody had to be worried about writing in a certain tradition, and most of us weren’t influenced by the English.”
It is by no means a unified tradition, and Wanner astutely explores the variety apparent in the work of his nine chosen writers: Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Karen Campbell, Neil Forsyth, Christopher Brookmyre, Paul Johnston, Alice Thompson, Allan Guthrie and Louise Welsh. As MacBride says, “Tartan Noir doesn’t exist…You can’t pick up a ‘Tartan Noir novel’ and expect to get the same thing every time. They are just going to be incredibly different” (interview extracts in our featured review).
With the author’s permission, Crimeculture is delighted to present extracts from three of Wanner’s interviews, which we hope will convey something of the liveliness and insightfulness of this excellent collection, available from Amazon. For extracts from numerous other reviews, see Len Wanner’s website, The Crime of it All.
…Do foreign readers expect every Scottish writer to write like Ian Rankin seeing as he’s exported a certain notion of Scottishness?
God bless him.
Sure, why not. But does his success mean that the rest of Scottish crime fiction is marketed according to the terms of ‘Tartan Noir’, whatever that may be?
Tartan Noir doesn’t exist. It’s a very convenient umbrella under which to promote crime fiction that is written in Scotland. It’s another “God bless” – this time James Ellroy for coming up with it. Scottish crime fiction is incredibly varied. You can’t look at it and say it’s all of a ‘type’, because it’s not. It’s all over the genre. It’s a huge spread from very gritty hardboiled stuff like Ray Banks and Allan Guthrie to much gentler styles of crime writing like Alexander McCall Smith and Aline Templeton. You can’t pick up a ‘Tartan Noir novel’ and expect to get the same thing every time. They are just going to be incredibly different. But it’s a wonderful marketing tool to sell the books outside Scotland.
If you read a novel that came without a cover, title or name, do you think you might be able to recognise the writer if he or she were Scottish?
Some writers yes, other writers no.
Well, there are some key parts of the Scottish psyche… They’re not universal, by any means, but there’s quite a black sense of humour that runs through a lot of Scottish life – possibly to do with the weather. We have an extremely healthy disrespect for authority, which probably comes down to our political nationhood over the past 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 or 100 years, possible longer. We are incredibly “thrawn” as a culture. It’s a Scottish word that means that if you tell us to do something we will do exactly the opposite, given the opportunity. That is how we are….
“Christa Faust grew up in New York City, in the Bronx and Hell’s Kitchen…After High School finally had enough of her, she worked in the Times Square peep booths and later as a fetish model and professional Dominatrix. She sold her first short story when she moved to Los Angeles in the early 90s…She’s an avid reader and collector of vintage paperbacks, a Film Noir enthusiast and a Tattooed Lady. She writes primarily Hardboiled crime fiction, but also does work-for-hire media tie in novels”(http://www.christafaust.com/). Christa is the author of nine novels, including the Edgar and Anthony award nominated Money Shot, Hoodtown, and the Scribe award winning novelization of Snakes on a Plane.
“Before establishing himself as a crime writer, Ray Banks tried university then a number of different careers, including stints as a wedding singer, a double-glazing salesman, an office temp and a croupier. This particular job came to an abrupt end when the casino was ram-raided one night and Ray decided it just wasn’t worth the personal risk for the sake of other people’s money. His first novel, The Big Blind (PointBlank Press, 2004; now republished in a Kindle edition as Dead Money) draws on this croupier experience. It was originally intended to be a literary novel, but its impact on the crime-fiction world has been significant” (http://www.birlinn.co.uk/). Ray is also the author of the Cal Innes novels, Saturday’s Child, Donkey Punch, No More Heroes and Beast of Burden, as well numerous short stories. He currently lives in Edinburgh, and online at http://www.thesaturdayboy.com.
RB: Okay, let’s begin at the beginning. Yours was not the traditional way into the business, was it? I believe you once said that you “kind of fell into it backwards”, starting with short stories and ending up the First Lady of Hard Case Crime. But what got you writing in the first place?
CF: I’ve been making shit up for as long as I can remember, telling stories before I knew how to write. I have tons of “books” that I made when I was a kid. Got a typewriter when I was 14 and never looked back. Guess I was born this way. The fact that people seem willing to pay me for what I was gonna do anyway is pretty amazing.
RB: So how did you then make the jump from writing to publishing? Or were you subbing when you were still in your teens?
CF: It didn’t really occur to me to try and go pro until my early twenties. Before that I just thought of writing as my weird hobby that had nothing to do with the “real” books that I was reading. Then I fell in with a group of older horror writers who encouraged me to get serious and suggested I submit some short stories to various anthologies. I was accepted on the first try, and every time after that. I never went through the hell of struggling to get published for the first time, so I guess I just got lucky.
RB: What about books?
CF: Getting my first book published was more of a battle, partially because of the taboo subject matter (BDSM) and probably because I was still pretty green back then. But I stuck with it, made it happen eventually and never looked back. How about you? Did you scribble in notebooks as a kid?
RB: Like you, I was a typist. Had a couple of hand-me-downs, one manual and one electric. A lot of short stories, plotlines mostly filched from whatever movies I’d seen that week. That eventually gave way to what I thought were screenplays, and then plays. The problem with writing for film or the stage is that you need money and friends, so I ended up gravitating back to the books, which required nothing more than me in a room.
CF: What made you decide to go pro? Or do you even see yourself that way, as a professional, since writing isn’t your main source of income?
RB: Yeah, I think writing would have trouble classifying as a subsidiary income, let alone main source. When people ask me what I do for a living, I don’t think I’ve ever had the balls to say “writer”. In fact, it’s something I actively try to hide from people who don’t know me through those circles. As I’ve said before, I’d rather be thought of as a loser than a loser with pretensions. Perhaps if I’d written something that was utterly perfect, I’d feel different. In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away as an obsessive amateur. Talking of which, what advice would you give to someone up to their eyes in their first novel?
CF: Don’t stop. Sharks die if they stop swimming, and so do novels. You’re going to get to this halfway point where it feels like every word sucks and every other idea you’ve ever had looks like a sexy, surefire best-seller. Keep going anyway. You’re better off having completed a novel that sucks than never finishing one that might have been brilliant. See, anybody can start a novel, but it takes real stones to make it through to THE END. Once you’re done, you may find it’s not nearly as bad as you thought. And whether it sucks or not, once you’ve reached THE END you have to write something else. And something else after that.
RB: That’s the professional way of looking at it, certainly. Given the way your books have been marketed, do you see yourself as breaking new ground, or as an inherently nostalgic writer?
CF: A little bit of both, maybe? Like maybe I’m trying to use old tools in new ways. I mean, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if not for all the pulp writers who did it before me. But my work is a lot more than just a Xerox or a collage of classic archetypes. It’s my way of taking those archetypes and turning them inside out.
RB: With reference to those archetypes, something in Lee Horsley’s Noir Thriller keeps coming to mind – that there’s something of an identity crisis particular to female hardboiled and noir characters. And certainly when I think of classic noir, in both literature and cinema, there appears to be a very definite separation of woman into either madonna or whore. Do you think that’s still the case?
CF: We don’t have the madonna/whore problem so much as we have the Angelina Jolie problem. It used to be that women were rarely center-stage. They were either the beautiful, horribly violated victim (think Black Dahlia), the saintly good girl who keeps begging the main character to “leave this case alone”, or the scheming Femme Fatale. Now, when women do take the spotlight, they mostly come off like tough guys with tits. Laughably unrealistic 98-pound superheroines who can bang with the big boys without breaking a heel. Then again, we also have equally problematic male clichés that we can’t seem to shake. The tarnished knight, the brilliant, charming serial killer or the stone-cold bad-ass. And while I do think there are way too many shallow, male-fantasy-driven Noir-Barbie protagonists in our little sub-genre, I also think there are writers who are doing it right.
RB: Who would you recommend?
CF: Megan Abbott is one who immediately comes to mind, as is Gillian Flynn. Both succeed in creating fresh identities for their protagonists. Cathi Unsworth, too. That excruciatingly realistic sex scene in The Not-Knowing is one of the best I’ve ever read. They write about women who are complicated, deeply flawed and painfully real.
RB: I don’t know Flynn, but I do know Abbott and Unsworth, and they’re both at the top of their game, I think. So what in your opinion makes them fundamentally different to other writers?
CF: I think it all comes down to that same issue of emotional honesty. You can breathe life into a cliché if you are unflinchingly honest, but you can also create a character that is interesting, complex and unique on the surface but ultimately falls flat because they don’t have that resonant, realistic inner truth.
RB: Do you ever feel the “kink” overshadowing your writing? Or the fact that you’re a woman writing in a genre that is typically male-dominated? A lot of your previous press seems to lean on the whole fetish angle, your gender and your background, rather than talk about the books.
CF: Man, ain’t that the truth? I can’t tell you how sick I am of being mistaken for my protagonist or having (mostly male) reviewers mention how sexy or “noir” they think I am before they even bother to mention the books. But hey, I’m a full-time writer trying to make a living by making shit up. Sure, it would be nice if all anyone cared about was talent, but that’s just not how it is. Especially these days, when online social networking and internet cult-of-personality dynamics can make or break a writer. If my “platform” sells more books, who am I to complain about it? Besides, gimmicks, platform or other kinds of techno-ballyhoo might get the marks into the tent, but once they’re in you’d better deliver if you want to keep them coming back for more. I like to think I deliver. That there’s real substance under the neon. Come for the kink. Stay for the storytelling.
RB: Absolutely, there’s substance, but you’re still talking about “storytelling”, which doesn’t suggest you believe in the “art” of novel writing. Is that the case?
CF: For me it’s more craft than art. I’ve always been a lowbrow girl. If people want to find art in my books, more power to them, but I certainly don’t feel some kind of “artist”. I see myself more like an architect. It’s not like there’s no beauty in what I do, but my ultimate intention is to make something practical that people can actually live in. Not only that, but I’m just as comfortable building a house according to someone else’s specifications (like a media tie-in or novelization) as I am building something of my own design.
Let me bounce this one back to you, with a twist. I’ve seen some strong opinions from you on the topic of emotional honestly. For me, emotional honesty is pretty much a given. I can’t imagine telling a story any other way. Even in my goofiest tie-in books, because that makes it more fun for me. I have no interest in playing dolls with the same old stale, soap-opera motivations. The thing I enjoy most about the tie-in and novelization work is the Frankenstein-like act of breathing life (i.e. emotional honesty) into the dead flesh of Hollywood Barbie and Ken dolls. I don’t always get to choose what the dolls do, but I can control the way they feel about it.
I guess my point is that I don’t see emotional honesty as some lofty kind of art. I see that as simply telling it like it is. What do you think? Am I misunderstanding what you really mean by emotional honesty? What’s your opinion on the whole art-vs-craft argument and how do you think that relates to emotional honesty (or lack thereof) in fiction?
RB: Emotional honesty – or “telling it like it is”, which I think is a better way of putting it – isn’t some lofty thing, but then neither is art. That kind of hierarchy from low to highbrow has more to do with the kind of critical thinking that prizes self-reflexive technique over emotional connection than it does any true and definitive value system. For me, art is the communication of experience and emotion in an honest way. It’s having something personal to say, and saying it as effectively as possible. Anything else is an exercise in craft.
I hate it that “art” has become a dirty word in our genre, too. We’ve both heard writers saying, “Oh, I just write to entertain”, which to me is one of the most regressive, patronising things a writer can say. It’s a half-arsed manifesto, and it gives writers licence to dance around in pastiche rather than say anything worthwhile whilst perpetuating this bizarre reverse intellectual snobbery. It also puts readers into the cud-chewing, dull-minded consumer category which I don’t think reflects a lot of genre readers.
Craft is not the be all and end all. Why not aim for something personally important and entertaining? I mean, given that I’m going to be reading your book for a good few hours, don’t I deserve something a bit more than a rattling good plot? And this is where you come in, because for all that your books can be marketed as kinky revenge yarns, there are more human beings in your books than many so-called literary novels, plus there’s a sense that you care a tremendous amount about creating something of lasting value, and that you’ve invested some part of yourself in doing so. In short, you’re going for the gristle that Harry Crews talks about. So call yourself a craftswoman all you want, Faust. We’ll agree to disagree.
CF: Agreed, but I do have one more thing I need to say about this before we move on. I find it interesting that you’re happy to call yourself an artist, yet you’re reluctant to tell people you’re a writer. I have no qualms whatsoever about telling people I’m a writer, because that’s what I do for a living. It’s not pretentious, it’s a fact. But I do get uncomfortable with the idea of telling people I’m an artist. That feels infinitely more pretentious than telling people how I pay my rent.
In the end, I think this is an issue of semantics, rather than substance. The weight of words and all their personal resonance and connotation. It’s obvious that we’re both doing the same thing, we just have different names for it. Different banners under which we feel most comfortable. And from the reader’s perspective, it’s probably impossible to tell the difference.
RB: No, I wouldn’t call myself an artist. I think novel-writing is an art, but I’m nowhere near that good. Nowhere near consistent enough, which is why I call myself an obsessive amateur, when I have to call myself anything. Maybe if I was paying my rent with it, I’d think differently about it. Anyway, the one thing we do agree on is that the reader doesn’t see it. So in the grand scheme of things how we see ourselves doesn’t really matter. Anyway, you mentioned the tie-ins before, and I wanted to ask you about them. Do you approach the tie-ins differently to your “personal” books? I would imagine you’re working to both a strict outline and deadline on the for-hire stuff.
CF: Yeah, the tie-ins require detailed outlines because you have several people who need to approve your idea. First it gets run past somebody who works for the franchise-owner. They go over it to make sure you don’t violate any of the set guidelines for the established characters or take the story in a direction that’s inconsistent with the overall style of the series. Then you have your own editor who looks it over and gives you their two cents. Then, once everyone is in agreement that your idea will work, you get the go-ahead to run with it. Deadlines are usually 6-8 weeks.
It’s funny, but because of all my tie-in work, I’ve become acclimated to working with outlines. I never used to outline, but now I always do. I don’t necessarily stick to the letter of the outline on my own personal stuff, but I find it useful as a kind of mental roadmap. I also find that I write much faster than I used to. It took me over a year to write my first book. I wrote Money Shot in about 8 weeks.
RB: And so how did writing the Gabriel Hunt adventure fit within your typical process. Was that more a tie-in or an original?
CF: The Gabriel Hunt book is a tie-in, no question, but it was unusual in that it felt more like a collaboration. Hunt is Ardai’s baby and he was very involved every step of the way. When I do a standard tie-in, I never get to meet the creator of the character. I just work with intermediaries and the corporations that own the franchise. This was really fun because I got to sit down with Ardai and play around with various ideas. We’re both fans of old men’s adventure pulp and so we were on the same page from day one. It was a blast. I mean, how can you go wrong with a secret hot spot in Antarctica, sexy cavegirls in fur bikinis and a lost Nazi doomsday machine?
RB: I’m sure I’d find a way to turn it into a one-room swear-fest. Anyway, moving on, you mentioned a love of the pulp there. Every writer has that one author (at least) who obsessed them. Who are yours, and how have they influenced your writing?
CF: You mean other than you?
RB: Well, that’s a given, because I’m awesome. So yes, other than awesome me.
CF: Well, Richard Prather for one. He’s my personal hero, an old-school pulp workhorse, grinding them out but clearly having a blast the whole time and never taking himself too seriously. Love Westlake too, especially his Stark/Parker novels. I can’t get enough of that terse, deceptively simple style.
But in a strange way, I find myself more strongly influenced by writers that are doing it wrong. Or doing it right, but leaving vast areas totally unexplored, particularly the experiences and private landscapes of women. I see something done wrong, it inspires me to try and do it right.
RB: So what prompted Angel Dare?
CF: Money Shot started with this idea of a female porn star left for dead in the trunk of a car. I had no idea who she was or what had happened to her and trying to figure that out was half the fun. I knew I wanted to create a character who would go against the idea that all women in the adult film industry are pathetic victims forced into shameful degradation and ultimately ruined by it. I just didn’t know exactly who she would turn out to be. In a way, she sort of created herself while I ran along behind her with a pen.
That book was initially conceived as a one-shot. I had no idea that the character of Angel Dare would become so popular. I got asked, “When’s the next Angel Dare book coming out?” so many times that I started to think why the hell not? I like a challenge. But in the end it was much harder than I imagined. I found myself second-guessing everything way too much. I didn’t want to create one of those series characters who never changes, who remains cool and detached and above it all adventure after adventure, but I also didn’t want her to lose what readers found appealing in the first place. In the end, I think I struck a pretty good balance, but I guess that remains to be seen.
RB: Do you see her as a long-running character?
CF: No. I’d like to do at least one more book, but I think that will probably bring me to the end of her arc. I can’t really see doing ten or twenty Angel Dare books. But hey, stranger things have happened.
RB: Do you ever see yourself writing a long-running series? I mean, the two authors you mentioned are primarily known as series writers.
CF: I’ve got something in the works, a fun kind of toy-truck project that could potentially turn into a long-running series, but it’s not terribly serious. More of a tongue-in-cheek (well, tongue in something …) Prather/Shell Scott kind of deal. Can’t go into detail about it yet, but all will be revealed soon enough. That being said, I don’t mind reading them, but think I have serious commitment issues when it comes to writing a long-running series character. It’s the literary equivalent of getting married. You lose your independent identity and become known only as Mrs. Jack Reacher, for example. Everyone views you and your character as one and the same and if you try to do something different, readers get all offended as if you’ve been unfaithful. Like it or not, you’re stuck with that character till death do you part. Beyond even, if some writer from a future generation decides to take on the mantle. Also, I worry a lot about how to keep a character fresh, to keep that emotional honesty we talked about, when you’re writing about the same person book after book. If your protag isn’t a cop or a crook, it’s hard to manufacture believable circumstances in which an ordinary citizen gets embroiled in violent and/or criminal situations over and over again.
What are your plans, now that you’re no longer Mrs. Cal Innes? Any thoughts of getting remarried, or would you rather play the field?
RB: I’m doing both, as it happens, so I suppose that makes me some kind of sleazy philanderer. With my new publisher I’ve been given quite a bit of leeway in what kind of books I can write, so I’m tinkering with the possibility of the guys from Wolf Tickets having their own series in the originally-planned Hap and Leonard, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones kind of way. I’ll also be doing some standalones. I very much doubt I’ll get any closer to the mainstream, though.
CF: Your reluctant dick Cal Innes has been called an “anti-hero”, a moniker that is echoed in both the title and the storyline of No More Heroes. Is Innes really an anti-hero or just a realistic protagonist?
RB: Well, he started off as an anti-hero, certainly. He was my answer to what I thought was a fundamental problem with British PI fiction in that most of it was simply American PI fiction dropped into a British setting, and I wanted to create a character that was a direct response to the usual Chandler-inspired romance of gumshoes, dames and “down these mean streets a man must go …” But then the problem with establishing a character based on a specific intellectual viewpoint is that he or she doesn’t grow much beyond that. So in the later books, and especially Beast of Burden, I’ve tried to round him out a bit more, make him more realistic.
CF: And what do you think about the concept of “heroes” in fiction?
RB: They ain’t nothing but a sandwich. Honestly, I think they’re fine to use in thriller or adventure stories, but I’m not sure how you can look at crime – the cause, the event and the aftermath – using a hero protagonist. It’s too binary to be effective. For me, all good crime fiction (as opposed to detective fiction) has its roots firmly in the social novel, and a good social novel demands a level of realism that doesn’t have room for such cartoonish notions as heroes and villains. Heroes don’t exist. Everyone has their rotten little flaws. It’s what makes us human.
What about you? Do you think of characters in terms of “hero” or “anti-hero”, or are they all just protagonists to you?
CF: I’d say most are what I would call straight up, grey-shaded protagonists. Ordinary flawed people who do bad things for good reasons and vice-versa. But Hoodtown is all about the myth of heroes, the pressure to live up to a heroic persona and what it really means to commit a heroic act. Set in the world of pro-wrestling, which is all about faces (good guys) and heels (bad guys), it deals with the ways in which the lines between the two can become blurred.
RB: You’re based in Los Angeles, but you’re originally from the East. What brought you cross-country?
CF: It’s an embarrassing and ridiculous cliché, but I was hitchhiking across the country and quit when I hit the Pacific. I liked the weather. I also like that so many people hate this town, so I was determined to make it my own. I’m contrary like that. Nearly 20 years later, I’m still here and still in love with this crazy, fucked-up city. Can’t imagine living anywhere else.
You use a lot of regional slang that’s completely alien to Americans like me. I love it and feel like it’s the backbone of your books, but it did take some getting used to at first. I’m willing to bet a lot of my fellow countrymen and women aren’t willing to make that effort. Ever been asked to tone it down to reach more American readers?
RB: Nope. I know one editor had some concerns about Mo in Saturday’s Child, and asked me to remove his POV from the book, but I don’t think it was just the slang that prompted the request. Other editors just rejected the book rather than requested changes. I’d like to think that confirms your idea that the regional stuff is the backbone of the book, but it could just be they didn’t like it. As far as I’m aware, the only change made specifically for an American audience was the title change of Donkey Punch to Sucker Punch. HMH thought the original title was inappropriate and I had to agree – a title needs to reflect the book, and Donkey Punch implied a more transgressive novel than it ended up being.
The language of the books has completely limited my audience. Not everyone wants to try and tune their mental ear to another accent, nor do they necessarily like their dialogue on the salty side, and you know what, that’s totally their prerogative. Ultimately, if you put anything between a reader and the story, you run the risk of losing that reader’s attention. But I try to write the books I’d want to read, and those books tend to feature a strong narrative voice and authentic language. If people don’t like that, fine.
CF: You’ve mentioned that you always felt like an outsider no matter where you lived. I’ve always been an outsider too, and so are a lot of other writers I know. Do you think that an almost anthropological outsider’s perspective is somehow critical to being a writer? Like maybe you don’t see the world and the people in it as clearly if you fit in?
RB: Possibly. I’d have to ask which came first, though – the need to write or the feeling of social exclusion. I don’t know that either of us would feel the need to write if we were secure enough to go with the flow. I think you do need to step back from society in order to observe it, but the best writers manage to balance that insider authenticity with an outsider’s clean pair of eyes.
Okay, well, that’s about all we have time for, I think. Anything else to add, or are you happy to call it a day?
CF: It’s a fucking day. I gotta go bang out some deep, meaningful art so I can pay my bills.
RB: Whereas I will pretend to work a day job and dream of a life of pulp.