Monday, July 2, 2012

What I Write About

I’ve decided to pump up this blog by posting more frequently. I suppose I’ve always felt that what a writer had to say should be entirely contained in the work, but this, I’m advised, is not the way the publishing world works nowadays. It’s especially important to me because my publisher was replaced recently by a gentleman who does not particularly care for my work. I had thought that he was not going to publish The Family Dead at all, and so posted here, but that’s not the case. He will publish it, grudgingly, probably early next year, but in the meantime my agent is scrambling to find a non-grudging publisher. So that’s semi-good news.

In any case, I thought I would start this effort by writing about what my books are about. If anyone reads this they would then know whether they’d be interested in looking at one of my books. This would save time and money for those who don’t care about this stuff or would be offended by it, and maybe attract more people who do.

Essentially, I write thrillers with ideas in them. This is a good way to turn off all the readers who want thrillers void of ideas and people who like dealing with ideas but think thrillers are lame. This is not a good business model, therefore, but I can’t help myself I get too bored otherwise.

A thriller is a species of genre novel, and a genre novel is distinguished from a literary novel by having certain conventions of plot. In the mystery genre, for example, there’s a crime, almost always a murder, and the sleuth has to piece together a set of clues to bring the murderer to justice. A romance novel is boy meeets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. The formula is constant, like the recipe for chocolate cake: only the icing and the filling vary.

Despite this, there’s no reason that a genre piece can’t be as wonderful a literary achievement as any supposed non-genre work. Between 1590 and 1640, for example, one of the dominant genres on the English stage was the revenge tragedy. These are formulaic pieces in which the revenger announces his complaint against the target, vows to bring him down, and spends the play isolating the target by killing his near and dear, sowing discord, hatching plots, and so forth, until finally the revenger and the target cross swords and are typically both killed—stage littered with corpses, curtain. There are dozens of these exant, of varying quality. One of them is Hamlet. So in my infinitely lesser case, it still seems interesting to expand the formula by seeding it with impurities like thought and fully-formed characters, in hopes that a pearl may grow.

The core of any thriller is the Bad Thing. The protagonist is charged with stopping the Bad Thing from happening, or if it’s happened already, relieving the Badness or stopping the Bad from occurring again. The terrorists are going to set off a bomb. The great man is to be assassinated. A spy has stolen the plans for the super-weapon. A secret is being hidden by malign forces who will stop at nothing to conceal it. A child has been kidnapped. Usually there’s a Clock in a thriller: the hero has to stop the Bad Thing before a time certain, which increases the thrill. What distinguishes the thriller from the mystery is that the thriller can cut back and forth, cinematically, between what the hero is doing and what the bad guys are doing, which gives the author the opportunity to explore the nature of evil, always a popular trope.

Thrillers can be divided between Sap thrillers and Pro thrillers. In a Sap thriller, a fairly ordinary person is jerked from his or her banal existence by involvement in the Bad Thing. Both Riddle of the Sands and The Thirty-Nine Steps, which novels essentially invented the thriller format in the early 20th century, are Sap thrillers. The problem with Sap thrillers, however, is that you can’t use the same Sap more than once. The solution here is either to write the same book over again with different Saps (Sap vs. Nazis, Sap vs. terrorists, Sap vs. Mafia) or else write Pro thrillers.

Pro thrillers are almost inevitably series books. Their heroes are men or women who are professionally involved with stopping Bad Things. They’re government agents, private dicks, alienated teens with special talents, retired assassins, just the sort of person one would want in order to stop Bad Things. The main point in this sort of writing is to make each succeeding book virtually identical in language, style, and pacing to the one before, so as to build a customer base for a familiar commodity. Thus in one book the Pro may hunt down an Arab terrorist, in the next he gets Mexican cartelistas, but with very much the same episodes of danger, violence, capture, escape and destruction of the bad guys. It’s very like snacks. The greatness of potato chips is that they’re all the same, more or less, but each one slightly different, to keep the mouth interested. In contrast, my potato chips are not all the same. You could reach into the bag and pull out an oyster. Disturbing!

So one of the things I like to write about is the underlying nature of reality, what philosophers call ontology. Is the world really all particles and the forces among them or is there something else, (as over 99 percent of the human race has believed for over 99 per cent of its existence)? What defines the realistic novel is that is tacitly accepts the conventional ontology. If the supernatural is treated in such a novel, it is as a private belief, and operates in the characters and the plot in that way, and only in that way. Now, clearly, there is a vast fantasy literature that supposes the real existence of an unseen world, but that’s not what I mean, and I don’t mean magical realism either. Yes, there’s a real universe out there (probably) but what we make of it is culturaly conditioned. It’s well known, to take just one part of the sensorium, that our visual world is constructed in our optical cortex on the fly, from relatively small increments of information coming through our eyeballs. And we see only what our culture has taught us to see, and pay no attention to the rest: that’s invisible. That doesn’t really exist. When your daddy tells you there are no monsters in your bedroom, even though you can see them perfectly well, after a while you stop seeing them. Subsequently they live in your head, where they’re not so easy to get rid of.

Undermining personal ontology is a fearful thing and I like to try to do it in my fiction. The art of it is turning things weird just a little bit, so that the remains of reality become suspect, uncertain, menacing. Lord Dunsany, the early horror and fantasy writer, was once asked what was the very scariest thing he could imagine and he said there were two: one was walking into an English garden on a bright June day and hearing the roses sing. The other was being shaken awake in the middle of the night and it’s a clown. So I try to get that going.

That leads into the next thing I like to write about, which is culture and the origin of the stuff we hold in our heads, our model of what the world is like, especially our models of good and evil. We think, without really thinking, that romance is good and democracy is good and freedom is good, but that a system of class-bound aristocracy is bad, and corporal punishment is bad, and that incest and pedophilia are really bad. We think fascism and Stalinisn are the worst systems of government ever devised. We want human rights and to be thin and smart. I agree with these positions, of course, as all right thinking people do. Yet all of these beliefs are culturally induced and there were in the past (just as one example) cultures that not only approved the sexual use of children, but institutionalized it as a normal aspect of maturation.

The point here is that one of the uses of fiction is to reveal the Other. The most familiar sort of revelation is sexual: in fiction men get to know what women are like inside their heads and bodies, and women get to learn the same things about men. We can recall (if we’ve forgotten) what it’s like to be a child. And we get to share the essential humanity of people who agree with us on not one of the bedrock assumptions upon which we have built our lives. A special case of this is the depiction of people who are in some way between cultures, either because they are living among a people not their own or because they are the product of two different cultures—“half-breeds,” as we used to unkindly call them. I believe showing people like this is illuminating for the reader, because it’s not a good thing to leave unexamined the essential motors of our existence. We’re strengthened as people when we’re forced to examone these, which is what education is supposed to be about, and fiction can do it as well. Besides, it’s fascinating, at least to me, and I have a number of such characters in my books.

An extension of this interest is historical fiction. I’ve place historical fictions in several of my novels and the book I’m working on now is an historical novel. Most historical characters in average genre fiction are modern characters in fancy dress. For example, there are who-done-its set in ancient Rome, or Ming China, or medieval England. But in fact the whole idea of finding out who-done-it by following clues, accumulating evidence, and finding the culprit is a modern notion, which is why the detective novel is a 19th century invention that blossomed fully only in the 20th. In the old days, to “solve” a crime they grabbed up someone surplus to requirements, or who had made powerful enemies, and simply tortured a confession out of him. The same with modern attitudes toward animals, democracy, feminism, war, equality of opportunity, sex, children and sex with children. The art in historical fiction is thetefore to make the reader live for a time in an utterly unfamiliar head, the theory being that de-familiarization is a good thing, and necessary for helping us live in complex cultural spaces, such as much of world has now become. It’s not popular, though.

Besides that, I’m interested in twins and the acquistion of foreign languages, in weapons and ciphers, in religions and in how to make love stay, and I write about all of these in various novels, sometimes all at once.

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