Sisters in Crime has a blog challenge for the month of September. The idea is to respond to any (or all) of the following questions in a blog post:
- Which authors have inspired you?
- Which male authors write great women characters? Which female authors write great male characters?
- If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?
- What’s the best part of the writing process for you? What’s the most challenging?
- Do you listen to music while writing? What’s on your playlist?
- What books are on your nightstand right now?
- If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?
Then, tag another author whose work you think readers might enjoy and tweet your post, using the hashtag #SinC-up and including @SINCnational (or if you’re not on Twitter, you can email a link to email@example.com, who will publicize it for you). You don’t have to be a member of Sisters in Crime to participate.
I’m going to give this thing a whirl a little early to help kick things off with three of the questions and one tagged author.
If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?
So, librarians do this thing they call “readers’ advisory.” I’m not very good at it, because I work at an academic library where the students don’t want my advice about anything they might do for fun. Still, it’s an area of the profession that has really blossomed in the past decade, and it would come in handy when formulating a response other than muttered profanities and insults. That would be not only diplomatic but only fair, considering how overwhelmingly male my own list of favorite authors was when began to read mysteries. There are all kinds of complex reasons for this. Let me just say I’m more aware of the imbalance now than I was then and am trying to make a point of discovering and reading women’s crime fiction, because there are a lot of terrific women writers out there.
The first task is to find out more about the reader’s tastes. For example, if I met myself from fifteen years ago, my old self would say “I like Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Tony Hillerman, and James Lee Burke.” I’d say “Me too! Hey, have you tried Denise Mina? She has a great, gritty sense of time and place like Lehane. Or how about Margie Orford, who tackles the ‘grammar of violence’ in post-apartheid Cape Town, South Africa, kind of like what Pelecanos has been doing in his portrayal of our capital city M. J. McGrath has the same fine eye for landscape and an inside view of native cultures as Hillerman, and if you love JLB’s lush prose, you don’t want to miss Tana French, though I’d start first with Faithful Place; I think you’ll like the protagonist.”
Which male authors write great women characters? Which female authors write great male characters?
I’ll mention one of each. Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series has wonderful characters all around, but he’s particularly great at getting inside the head of the women in Poke’s family. The Queen of Patpong is an amazing act of imagination, tracing the life of a woman from northern Thailand who (like so many women) goes to Bangkok to become part of the sex trade. The dignity and empathy with which he treats the subject is amazing. Every scene that Poke’s adopted daughter, Miaow, is in is stolen by her. Again, it’s not just that he can imagine the world from a girl’s perspective, but also from the viewpoint of a girl whose early years were spent on the streets of Bangkok.
Kate Atkinson is another stunningly good writer and I find her Jackson Brodie completely real and convincing (and, yes, male). As with Hallinan, every character she writes about is drawn in complex, human, genuine terms. Brodie is not a collection of male traits; he’s himself, one of a cast of three-dimensional characters defined by a lot of things, not just gender roles, though of course the way they respond to gender roles further reveals who they are. I suspect that is the reason these authors can imagine their way into the life of someone very different from them. They don’t resort to cliches or types.
Okay, one more comment: a writer who delibrately used gender cliches and types to good effect is Steig Larsson. He reversed gender cliches and fooled around with popular culture motifs in a way that made them fresh enough to startle readers and playful enough to be engaging. Otherwise, it might have been a little tricky to get the masses to pick up a book that opens chapters with crime statistics and is titled (in the original Swedish) Men Who Hate Women. But everyone loves the Girl.
If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?
The first thing I would say is I would be a terrible mentor; find yourself a good one and join Sisters in Crime because it offers a lot to writers who want to learn about the business and the dues are affordable (only $40!) Second, being an anarchist pinko, I would ask her what she wants from writing. So much advice out there has to do with self-promotion and validation through the soul-crushing metrics of money and attention. They’re soul-crushing because they induce a yearning that is inevitably disappointing. That’s how capitalism works! (Hey, I warned you about my leanings.)
I would encourage her to figure out what she loves about writing and hold onto that intrinsic motivation because the extrinsic kind is pretty brutal. Learn the basics of the business without paying too much attention to evangelists, either those who think anything that doesn’t come from one of the big five publishing corporations can’t be worthwhile or those who think self-publishing is the only road to liberty and wealth and anyone who chooses another path is a deluded serf. (So. Much. Macho. Posturing. Don’t get me started.) You have options, I would tell her; you don’t have to take sides. Learn the basics, find a few good sources of information to keep up with what’s going on in this strange business, and then focus on writing as well as you can. There is no platonic ideal of “writer” that you need to become. You just need to figure out who you are as a writer – and write your heart out.
Part of this project is to tag a writer worth reading. I’m choosing Lisa Brackmann, author of two bang-up books set in China – Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat (which she describes as “a lighthearted romp through environmental apocalypse”) – and a tense woman-out-of-her-element thriller set in Mexico, Getaway. They’re good, compulsive reading and you’ll never see the world quite the same way again. In fact, every time I think about replacing some worn-out piece of computer hardware I picture a scene in Hour of the Rat. She blogs in various places including her own blog, The Paper Tiger.