Monday, June 20, 2016

Books and the People Who Love Them

I have lots of reasons for loving physical books—the feel of the pages between my fingers, the variety of fonts, the smell of the paper and the glue in the binding, the way they look lined up on a shelf. I love all sorts of libraries—big and little.

On Saturday I went to the opening of the Maud/Olson Library in Gloucester, a huge effort undertaken by Ralph Maud to bring together all the works the poet Charles Olson was known to have owned, referred to, or read. The library operates under the auspices of the Gloucester Writers Center. For the moment, the books are organized alphabetically by title, so E.E. Cummings and Agatha Christie are half a shelf apart (perhaps the only time in public too). There are other wonderful juxtapositions but I mention the library this morning as I write because after several years of writing fiction I stood in a library packed with serious nonfiction, including many titles I had known and worked with. It was like coming home.

My library is similar to a garden. I add plants and weed out others. I trim and move and replace. We began years ago with pansies and now we have roses and the pansies are relegated to pots on the porch, where they thrive. I can’t say my library is a true rose garden, but both garden and library are works in progress.

My thoughts on books today are prompted in part by an appeal I came across for donations to
the Greenville High School/Indian Valley Academy, a tiny town in Greenville, CA, with a tiny school and a library that hasn’t been able to loan books for a few years, and had no money to buy any new ones either. They’re hoping to change that. I mention this because as I read through the article I got more and more excited about finding someone who wanted books.

Books seem to have become both expensive and disposable, turning into a mass of clutter the minute you carry them out of the store. I donate to the library book sale every year, and usually buy as many as I donate. But the library has trouble recycling the books to other sellers at the end of their sale. We have a huge second-hand bookstore in our area, but most online sellers are picky about what they will take. So when I saw the appeal for books (and yes, suitable for a school but not textbooks) I was excited, delighted, and went searching for titles to send. Someone out there wants (yes, WANTS) books.

The person making the request asked only for one book from anyone reading the piece, but I’m sending at least four and maybe more. I’m so happy to send them where they’ll be valued.

To read more, go here. The article is about two-thirds down in the list. And as I turn my attention to photographs to illustrate this piece, I think about how easy it is to make me happy (or anyone else who loves books).

The two books of my own I'm sending are mystery novels that I think will be appropriate for high-school students because my friends' children read them. I'm sending Last Call for Justice and Come About for Murder. In addition, I'm sending two memoirs by young women and some nonfiction about the West.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Why do I write crime fiction?

During a recent panel on crime fiction a member of the audience asked why we wrote crime fiction. She pointed out that all three of us on the panel disliked violence and yet we chose to write about it. Why were we writing crime fiction if we disliked violence so much? I’ve been asked this question a number of times, but never quite in this manner.

I sometimes think the answer it that crime fiction addresses the central concern of our times, but
this can't be accurate. Life in the current time is far less violent than during other periods in our history. Children can't be spanked, wives can't be beaten, animals can't be beaten, and entire minority communities can't be burned to the ground with impunity. In many cities and towns I can walk home from work on safe streets late at night. But yes, many of us still face violence in our working and private lives. But it's nothing like in previous decades and centuries. Perhaps, then, we write about crime because in fact we experience little of it and we want to explore the issues surrounding violence. I don't have the answer, but I do have a number of reasons for choosing to write in this genre, and here are some of them. I’m sure there are more.

First, crime fiction, either the traditional mystery or noir or thriller or spy story, has a steady, ever growing audience, and new books are sure to find at least some audience. There’s nothing wrong with writing to be read, and crime fiction is sure to be read. The audience is a community of readers who share interests, and their enthusiasms for their favorite authors can be an added bonus for the writer.

Second, anyone who wants to write fiction can explore several different genres or make up one. The traditional mystery can bring together Jane Austen and zombies, and Sherlock Holmes can retire and marry and carry on as he will. Anything is possible. If nothing else, crime fiction has enormous flexibility and an open-endedness that other genres can only envy.

Third, crime fiction offers a format, or formula if you prefer, that guides the writer from beginning to end, ensuring if nothing else that digressions are limited and the end will bear some relationship with the beginning. Not always true in non-genre fiction.

Fourth—and this is one reason that really matters to me—crime fiction challenges the writer to confront larger issues and grapple with them. In this genre, however broadly defined, characters must reveal themselves, and the writer’s views on crime and responsibility must make sense or the novel fails. Here is where we examine and explore issues that matter in the larger scheme of our lives. Do we really believe in justifiable homicide, or is every unnatural death a crime? Do we admit that sometimes our efforts at justice fall short, or do we admit that a system of justice created by flawed human beings will in turn be flawed? How do we feel about our current justice system? Where do we see weak spots? What is our responsibility as members of a civil society?

Each writer will begin a novel with a separate question in mind, and sometimes I won’t even recognize what the question is until I am well into the story. I discover that part of the novel just as I discover the story and the world of the characters. But I follow along to explore and learn. And then I put the characters into a position in which they must confront their own values and beliefs.

Fifth, and last, is one reason that cannot be ignored. Writing crime fiction is fun. This is the only time when the voice of reason will prevail. No writer will deny the pleasure to be derived from shaping the world according to her own values and then explaining it in a rational way.

The Anita Ray series takes me to India, where Anita confronts the ever-threatening conflict between tradition and modernity. She gets to go places and do things that I can only experience on the periphery. Her Auntie Meena is always fun. But in the next mystery, WhenKrishna Calls, Auntie Meena is almost done in.

Writing about sailing in the seventh Joe Silva/Mellingham mystery was almost (almost) as good as being out on the water. In Come About for Murder, Joe teaches his stepson to sail, and Philip loves it.

Those are my reasons for writing (and reading) crime fiction. What are yours?