Tag: dennis lehane

dennis lehane

Why do you write suspense?

As someone new to writing, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I’m drawn to write mysteries.  So, I thought I’d ask the experts: why do you write what you write?  Cate: I write suspense because I love the feeling of surprise when I learn something unexpected about a person, that in retrospect makes sense. I am also fascinated by the justifications people have for doing badthings. I like creating flawed characters that you feel for. Some of my favorite suspense writers are Gillian Flynn, Dennis Lehane, Ruth Ware, Stephen King, Fiona Barton, Herman Koch and Patricia Highsmith. Susan: I think I like mysteries so much because the writer has to interact with the reader. You’re always thinking: Will the reader guess this clue? Will she be surprised? Is it satisfying? There’s something about that interaction I find very appealing. I’ve heard some authors say that they write for themselves and don’t care if anyone reads it, but I’ve never felt that way. I also love the whole idea of good versus bad, even if there are lots of shades of gray. Tracee: I fell into suspense through old fashioned mysteries. I confess that I am still not ready for hard core scary (I recently saw a preview for the movie It based on Stephen King’s book and that couple of minutes was almost enough to make me leave the theater…. and this was at a matinee!). My preferred suspense writers are in the vein of Patrica Highsmith and more recently Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger. I suppose that I am driven to write in the mystery/suspense genre because that’s what I return to consistently as a reader. I like reading and writing about what people do, what they conceal and why, and how choices sometimes lead people away from their ‘ordinary’ lives.  Robin: I wrote my first ghost story at 8 years old, the cleverly titled “Haunted House on the Hill.” I don’t recall what inspired that particular story but my parents saved it because I also illustrated and hand-bound it with a cardboard-and-construction paper cover complete with spine title and back jacket copy. I think it’s somewhere in my attic now. Later in life, meaning junior high, I fell in love with Stephen King’s work but what drove me to start writing suspense myself was reading Dean Koontz’s Strangers when I was 20-something. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances seemed like a revelation. I wanted to see if I could write a novel-length page-turner. My first couple of attempts weren’t terrible but weren’t very good. They were great learning experiences, though. Something I didn’t expect was how much fun they are to write. I’ve been honing my crime-writing craft ever since.  Michele: I have always loved police procedurals, but for many of them the methodical, sometimes plodding unraveling of the mystery, is the draw. Not so for Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, which while challenging my skills at deductive reasoning, somehow rivet me. French’s lyrical writing lures me into her stories about ordinary people who find themselves tangled in awful circumstances that slowly become riveting. Without a contrived twist, French delivers a punch to the gut at the end that stays with me long after. Her writing inspires me to want to share that same kind of adventure for my own readers. “In the Woods” was her first book. Seven years later, I still wonder about what happened to – no, wait, no spoilers here. But wouldn’t I love to think I had a reader still challenged that many years later. I call that writing that stays with you and that is what I want to write. Alexia: Had to think about this one. Why crime fiction as opposed to other genres? I think because of my sense of justice. Every day I see real world examples of injustice, towards people, animals, the environment. Horrible people get away with being horrible and there’s nothing I, nor anyone else, can do about it. We can (and should) donate to causes, march in protests, sign petitions, rescue animals, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, soothe the afflicted, comfort the dying. Yet, for every good work we do, we turn around and see some gazillionaire put people trying to eke a living on minimum wage out of work so the gazillionaire can increase his profit margin and bring home a $50 million bonus instead of a $30 million bonus. Or sneak them across the border to do his laundry or pick his fruit then have them thrown back to a country they haven’t lived in for 10 or 20 years once he’s done with them. Or we see someone beaten up or shot or fired or evicted or denied the right to marry the person they love because someone else doesn’t like their skin color or religion or gender or sexual orientation. Or one puppy mill or dog fighting ring is shut down and 3 more pop up or some demonoid tortures a cat and posts the video online–and gets likes. Or school girls are kidnapped by fanatical creeps who think women shouldn’t be allowed to read– and then some newspaper reports our government has been funneling arms to that particular group of fanatics because they were more sympathetic to our agenda than the opposing group. Or some honest, hardworking person is denied health care because someone decided they weren’t worthy of not having to choose between rent and medicine or, let’s face it, that they weren’t worthy of living. And instead of sticking up for that person, narcissistic jerks take to social media to trumpet about how they’ve got theirs so they don’t give a fuck about anyone else and expect to be applauded for being cold-blooded vultures. Or someone has to travel for miles to get drinkable water because the stuff from their tap is loaded with lead or live in the shadow of a pipeline that won’t benefit them but will certainly poison them if it leaks, all because they’re too poor to buy the political clout to send the mess to someone else’s neighborhood. Or they lose the home that’s been in their family for generations because people with more money suddenly decide their neighborhood is the place to be–as long as the original residents are forced out with sky-high property taxes and restrictive ordinances. We fight and fight and fight and bleed and fight some more and help the ones we can, maybe even save a few but, at the end of the day we have to accept that some things are beyond our control. Except in crime fiction. In crime fiction, I control the world I write. I can create justice. The unrepentant bad guy will go down. The underdog will have his day. Revenge will be had on the cat-torturing, woman-hating, narcissistic, bigot. In crime fiction, the devil may think he’s gotten away with something but by the last page, the angels will have the last word. (Here ends the rant.)      

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The Better Book Battle: Mystery Fiction vs. Literary Fiction.

There’s been renewed debate, recently, about the relative value of mystery fiction vs. its “literary” counterpart thanks to a self-described “passing remark” by Notre Dame English professor William O’Rourke that disparaged the mystery writing community as suffering from a “fatal lack of talent.” In a subsequent article in the Irish Times, O’Rourke clarified that he did not intend for his remark to insult mystery writers in particular but, instead, to denigrate the entire literary culture in America.  After reading both articles, it’s clear that O’Rourke believes our nation subsists on the literary equivalent of McDonald’s, formulaic, processed writing intended to keep readers turning pages thanks to contrived cliff hangers. Other cultures, he argues, consume the good stuff–books that make folks stop and think.  I don’t believe O’Rourke is entirely wrong in his assessment of the average American’s fiction diet. Our busy culture values easily digested entertainment. And, in my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with that. I like having a cheeseburger now and again. Sometimes, I want something fun to read on a plane, or at the beach, or to listen to in the car. However, I certainly disagree that mystery writing as a whole is formulaic fast food. Good writing–and there is plenty of it in the mystery realm–transcends genre and turns formulas upside down. A recent example (which guessing from Mr. O’Rourke’s criticism he’d probably dislike) is Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. It’s a fantasy. It’s a mystery. It’s a family drama. Above all, it’s a story that forces readers to contemplate grief. What does losing a child do to a family? How do gender expectations limit an individual’s ability to properly mourn? Do people really survive the murder of a loved one with their former self intact or is violent loss so transformative that there is forever a person before and a person after?   Last night, I saw GET OUT, a movie by comedian, writer and actor Jordan Peele which manages to be a fantastic commentary on race and related micro-aggressions wrapped in a horror film. It certainly made me think about how the construct of race divides Americans, even when people are trying for it not to. At one point, for example, a character tries to prove he is not racist by saying how many times he voted for former President Obama, as though supporting a black political candidate was proof of post-racial colorblindness. Of course, the character brought up his vote precisely because he was seeing the color of the person he was talking to and assuming his support would create a bond.  Personally, I think the best writing is not the sort that purports to be literary from the get go. Sure, authors may applaud themselves for writing a “difficult book” filled with words intended to elevate the Flesch-Kincaid reading level. But those writers certainly don’t win many fans among readers.  The best authors aim to tell an engaging story that also makes their audience contemplate some larger issue. There are plenty of mystery books that do this. Emma Cline’s The Girls, Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl are examples. Each made me consider the nature of crime and punishment as much as I did when reading Dostoyevsky’s novel named for the very subject. These books, each in their own way, made me ponder what constitutes real justice. Can living with the knowledge of an immoral act and evading legal retribution prove worse than serving time?  Perhaps more importantly, these stories stayed with me long after I finished reading them, and I suspect they did for most readers. They were popular and they were smart. As I tell my daughters all the time, it’s quite possible to be both. 

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