The Writing Life

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Why? Why? Why?

I’m sure all the writers out there have been asked some variation of this question: Why did you become a writer? And I’m sure we’ve all given thoughtful answers. I know I’ve given my share of what I believed were honest answers and hoped were interesting ones, too.

But when I really think about this question, the most honest answer I can come up with is: I don’t know. At least, I don’t know of a single reason. There are really a bunch of reasons, some of them profound, some of them less so: I write because I have something to say about the world/because I can create my own world and not bother with the real one; because people’s lives fascinate me/because I don’t have to change out of my pajamas and deal with those annoyances known as people; because I love the intricacy, music, and rhythm of language/because I haven’t a clue how to do much of anything else. All true.

Inevitably, I’m asked why I write crime fiction. That one’s a bit trickier to talk about in polite company. How can one politely say, “Because I like crime?” “Because murder is interesting?” “Because murderers are interesting?” When saying these things to questioners, it’s not unusual for their follow-up to be either peculiar looks or some variation of “How do you sleep at night?”

Sometimes, in order to inject the conversation with something more palatable to my interlocutors, I’ll point out that crime fiction often deals with issues of justice or lack of it. This seems to interest — even satisfy — the moral sensitivities of some of my questioners. For more intellectual types, there’s always the issue of The Puzzle, the satisfaction of following clues to arrive at whodunnit. For questioners who insist on challenging the literary integrity of crime fiction, I remind them that issues of life and death, of murder and its consequences, have been explored by history’s most lauded literary lights. Homer, anyone? Shakespeare? Victor Hugo? This often results in thoughtful nods of the head.

But there is another answer to the question of why I write crime fiction, and though all of those other answers are true, this one is the answer I like best: because I don’t know how it will end. Some crime writers know the ending to their stories. I’m one of those who don’t. Who lives and who dies, who’s guilty and who’s not, who gets away with it and who meets justice, reveals itself as I write. The stakes are thus very high for my characters. And for me.

Okay, I guess I have to add yet one more answer to why I write crime fiction: for the thrill of it.

—Ann Aptaker

•     •     •

Lambda and Goldie winner Ann Aptaker isn’t shy about telling you how much she loves her hometown, New York City. She swears she even feels its history; all those triumphs and tragedies of the famous and the forgotten. She’s now old enough to be part of that history, which she likes, except for the “old” part, which she’s iffy about. Ann is happy to bring you into that history in her Cantor Gold crime series.

It Was Dark, It Was Stormy, It Was Paradise

Recently, and for no particular reason, I tried to remember the first crime or mystery book I ever read. Since I am a woman of a certain age, it was, of course, a Nancy Drew book. I couldn’t recall which book, but I did remember my childhood thrill at being on a dark and stormy adventure with the girl sleuth. Danger! Daring! Disobedience!

Disobedience. Yeah, that was the hook for me. Disobedience all the way around. Disobedient Nancy, doing daring and dangerous things a respectable, well behaved girl shouldn’t do, like pursuing criminals. And criminals by definition are disobedient, doing whatever they want, usually bad things like theft and murder, but hey, they didn’t ask Mommy or Daddy if they could go out and do it. For a straining-at-the-leash kid like me, Nancy Drew’s world of crime and crime solving was a paradise of disobedience, redeemed by good triumphing over evil.

Adulthood has taken the shine off the good-triumphing-over-evil part. We know — through horrifying headlines, even our own personal experiences and crushing disappointments — that good often loses the game. But for me, and perhaps for many crime fiction writers, the lure of disobedience lingers. It’s not only at the core of the criminals we create and the criminal acts we have them perform, disobedience can also power crime solvers: all those rule-breaking cops and PIs.

As crime and mystery writers, we must find empathy within us for all of our characters in order to give them full human dimension. That means understanding the criminal as well as the crime solver, burrowing inside their disobedience to get to the root of their acts. Like the little kid I once was, I still find that thrilling. I even find freedom. In our real lives, we are constrained by various rules, most of them necessary in order to maintain a functioning society. Many of society’s rules, though, are annoying, trapping us in bureaucratic red tape, computer intransigence, general injustice, and other irritating entanglements. Writing crime, writing about people who disobey society’s rules, provides a liberating relief. I don’t have to ask Mommy, Daddy, or the boss who signs my paycheck if I can vicariously rob a bank, kill someone, or disobey the rules in order to catch a killer. Freedom!

Well, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it, as they say. If you’re a crime fiction writer or reader, I have a feeling it’s your story, too. We’re all grown up now, we won’t get our hands slapped or sent to bed without dessert for our attitude of disobedience. As writers, we’ll make art of it.

Long live crime fiction and the disobedient souls who write it and read it.

 —Ann Aptaker

•     •     •

Lambda and Goldie winner Ann Aptaker isn’t shy about telling you how much she loves her hometown, New York City. She swears she even feels its history; all those triumphs and tragedies of the famous and the forgotten. She’s now old enough to be part of that history, which she likes, except for the “old” part, which she’s iffy about. Aptaker is happy to bring you into that history in her Cantor Gold crime series.

When Did the Fiction World Become a Beatdown?

Beatdown: 1.) an emphatic or overwhelming defeat 2.) a violent physical beating

Last week the Internet surged with stories of a young adult book that mysteriously hit the Number One spot on the sacrosanct New York Times YA best-seller list. After an investigation pursued by young adult authors and bloggers, the New York Times book review staff removed the suspect book, Handbook for Mortals, written by Lani Sarem.

Order was restored, and everyone seemed pleased with the outcome, except of course for Lani Sarem, who is furious and upset. "I'm super frustrated," Sarem said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. "There has been no official explanation to what happened other than reported inconsistencies. Nobody talked to us."

The fact that The New York Times removed the book from the list suggests that there must be some sort of problem in how the sales of Handbook for Mortals were counted. But am I the only one who is taken aback by the fury of the mob and the decision to play this out in public rather than quietly report concerns to the Times? This reminds me of the villagers bearing torches swarming the castle of Dr. Frankenstein: "Remember, get the monster alive if you can, but get him!"

Sarem, vigorously defending her novel, says, "Because some people in the YA community weren't aware of it doesn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of people out there that were excited about it. It's disheartening that someone I don't know decided to attack me today basically because he had never heard of it."

Anyone who has posted their book on Goodreads is aware that publishing is a rough sport. An author on Goodreads, especially a debut, can feel like a goalie without protective padding, pinned against the net as offensive players hurtle down the rink, sticks raised. Still, scathing reviews are one thing, and writers have to learn how to cope with them.

What's happening currently is that authors' publishing paths are being savaged.

The author-on-author beatdown can be particularly troubling. Just ask Jonathan Franzen, who serves as a literary piñata for other authors whenever he publishes. But there is a lot more coming at us these days.

Philippa Gregory said in a recent interview, "Choosing to write a genre novel is like fencing the universe because you are afraid of space. Why does anyone write lazy, sloppy genre novels?"

Isabel Allende said of crime writers, "I cannot write that kind of book. It's too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there's no redemption there."

And Martin Amis said, "If I had a serious brain injury, I might well write a children’s book."

Why do these things need to be said?

A special circle of Hades belongs to authors who rip into each other in blogs and on social media over traditional publishing versus indie publishing. That's where it gets truly vicious. May they be condemned to read aloud the hundreds of wounded comments below their posted attacks every night for a year!

In academia they have a saying: "Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low." But the stakes are not low in today's fiction world. Many authors talk darkly of a glut of books. Contracts aren’t being handed out as readily as ten or even five years ago. Is this why it feels so darned angry out there? Why they’re lashing out?

A week ago, I was asked to speak on a panel at the Writer’s Digest annual conference. On Saturday I spotted a very long line snaking down the corridor of the New York Hilton, many of the people in line looking fairly excited. "They’re signed up to pitch," a writer friend told me.

I have two hopes for the writers in that line. The first is that they publish their book. And the second is that when they do, the publishing world has become a nicer place, with far fewer beatdowns.

— Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the historical thrillers The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry and a magazine editor and writer.

Confronting a Classic for Information and Inspiration

True confession time: I recently read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, for the first time. That's kind of embarrassing for a writer whose whole series takes place in Brooklyn neighborhoods and has an underlying theme of "What changes in Brooklyn and what doesn't."

I don’t know how I missed it in my bookworm youth and I'm not sure what impulse made me pick it up now. I am glad I did. Some beloved books need to be read at a certain age to create that passion, and too late or too early, we never fully get what the excitement was about. This one, though taking place before World War I and with a very young girl as the main character, still reached right out and spoke to me, a grandmother raised in the mid-20th century and a long way from Brooklyn.

This is the story of Francie Nolan, half-Irish, half-German, growing up poor even for her poor neighborhood — Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She is bright, an avid reader, and sharply observant of the life and people around her. Though she is the viewpoint character, there are times the author steps in, adding information she could not possibly know. That would generally be considered a flaw, but I can't say I minded. I only wanted to know what happens to this special young girl and her vividly depicted family.

We see her mother turn poverty into a game–and the first time Francie sees through it. We see a teacher who criticizes her for writing stories about her real life because it was too "ugly" and writing should be edifying. We see a doctor and nurse discuss the horrid poor kids as if the children have no ears to hear or minds to understand. Poignant, angry, hopeful, and heartbroken are all moments in Francie's story. By the end, we can guess that Francie grows up to be Betty Smith.

A few months later, looking through my long lists of books to read, out jumped Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. Honestly, there was no plan for this. Yet here I was, deep in another book about girls growing up poor in Brooklyn. African-American, this time, and Bushwick this time, and three-quarters into the twentieth century this time.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is long, detailed, full of stories. The stories are riveting. Another Brooklyn is short and the atmosphere is evoked, like poetry. The language is riveting.

But they both bring to life the young girls at the heart of the story. Different background, different religion, but they tell about yearning spirits and the dangers that are everywhere for young girls whose struggling parents are not always paying attention. Francie’s father loves alcohol more than his family; August’s mother started seeing a ghost and one day walked all the way into a lake. There are dangers to girls from calculating older boys, from nasty men who try to take advantage of their poverty, from a world that seems to say, always, "You can’t." And these are girls who say right back, "Yes, I can."

I looked up Jacqueline Woodson and I found this: She has said that she dislikes books that do not offer hope, but she enjoyed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Even though the family was exceptionally poor, the characters experienced "moments of hope and sheer beauty." She [says], "If you love the people you create, you can see the hope there."

 I think what I need to do is move both books from my shelves of miscellaneous reading over to the shelves of Brooklyn books that I use for information and inspiration. And of course they will stand side by side, sisters across time.

— Triss Stein 

Triss Stein writes mysteries about different Brooklyn neighborhoods a and their unique histories, in her ever-fascinating, ever-changing, ever-challenging adopted home. In the new book, Brooklyn Wars, her heroine, Erica Donato, researches the proud history and slow death of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, when crime gets in the way.


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