Writer’s Desk: There is Always a Mystery

There are three kinds of readers: those who have no idea who Jim Thompson is or have never read him (that’s most people), those who think he’s just about the best crime writer America ever produced, and (this last being a group that overlaps with the second) writers who wish they could do what he did.

A master of mood, detail, tension, and stories that wore the characters down to their often quite nasty and perverse essentials, Thompson was an artist working in a very specific medium who nevertheless had forgotten more about the basics of writing than most of us ever get the hang of. To wit:

There are thirty-two ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one, but there is only one plot: Things are not as they seem.

This applies no matter what you are writing: mystery, steampunk romance, multi-generational historical saga, or even nonfiction. Things are not as they seem will get your narrative moving like almost nothing else.

Writer’s Desk: Imagine Your Reader

Novelist and poet Russell Banks (Family Life, Continental Drift, Affliction) had some advice for high school students in upstate New York a few years back:

Imagine the teller but also imagine the listener. What is fiction after all but a sort of visual hallucination — you’re asking the reader to see things that aren’t there.

When you’re writing, you’re taking a journey with words. Remember that you want the reader to come along with you.

In Books: The Best Fiction of 2014

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redployment1Now that we’re fully into January 2015, it’s time to think about all the books we never got around to reading in 2014. To that end, the book staff at PopMatters have compiled their annual list of the Best Fiction of 2014, with short writeups of all the year’s most notable novels and collections of poetry and short fiction.

I wrote about:

  • The Peripheral, William Gibson
  • The Book of Strange New Things, Michael Faber
  • Redployment, Phil Klay

You can find the feature here.

Writer’s Corner: The Patterson Factory

James Patterson is seen at times as more machine than writer. There’s good reason for this. His advertising background; those couple dozen credited co-writers; a happy malleability when it comes to genre (romance, YA, mystery, whatever); multiple books a year; nearly $100 million in annual revenue.

thomasberryman-coverAll that being said, it’s helpful to remember that at one point even Patterson was a wannabe, just another unpublished novelist trying to get his book out there. From Todd Purdum’s profile for Vanity Fair:

His first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, about a Nashville newspaperman on a murderer’s trail, was rejected by 31 publishers before Little, Brown published it, in 1976. It won the Edgar Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America, but sold only about 10,000 copies…

Selling 10,000 copies of anything would be a dream come true for most authors. Still, success as a writer is never guaranteed. Even for the man who accounted for one of every 26 hardcover novels sold in the U.S. during 2013.

Readers’ Corner: Man Booker Prize Longlist

131023 MB2013 Winner Poster MIDThe Man Booker Prize just announced their longlist of titles being considered for their 2014 fiction prize. This is literary news of a sort—prizes like this being a boon for time-challenged readers looking for help in figuring out what to read next—but nothing that extraordinary in itself. After all, this happens every year.

But here’s something different: For the first time in the prize’s 46 years, the list includes writers from beyond the UK and Commonwealth. In short, that means a couple of Americans have been allowed in; though as Publishers Weekly notes, not Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which you will recall won (perhaps undeservingly, I and some others would argue) this year’s Pulitzer for fiction.

Here’s the full list, via PW (who helpfully annotated with author nationalities):

The 2014 Man Booker Longlist

  • Joshua Ferris (American) To Rise Again at a Decent Hour(Viking)
  • Richard Flanagan (Australian) The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus)
  • Karen Joy Fowler (American) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Serpent’s Tail)
  • Siri Hustvedt (American) The Blazing World (Sceptre)
  • Howard Jacobson (British) J (Jonathan Cape)
  • Paul Kingsnorth (British) The Wake (Unbound)
  • David Mitchell (British) The Bone Clocks (Sceptre)
  • Neel Mukherjee (British) The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus)
  • David Nicholls (British) Us (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Joseph O’Neill (Irish/American) The Dog (Fourth Estate)
  • Richard Powers (American) Orfeo (Atlantic Books)
  • Ali Smith (British) How to be Both (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Niall Williams (Irish) History of the Rain (Bloomsbury)

Reader’s Corner: Jack London

Mostly remembered today as the man who wrote White Fang, in his time Jack London was one of the most popular living American authors. He was as celebrated for his wideranging command of styles (adventure stories to science fiction and political polemics) to his wildly wolfish and nomadic lifestyle. London was a heroic striver or sadistic bastard, depending on who you asked. He showed up in last year’s historical gothic horror novel The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates as a bullying alcoholic who appeared able to drink everybody under the table and then write a bestselling novel about it.

In the Weekly Standard‘s review of the new London biography by Earle Labor, William Pritchard notes that London’s prodigious literary output (50 books, 200 short stories, 400 nonfiction pieces) looks so impressive not just due to how swiftly it was delivered (he died at age 40) but to how much life he packed in when not writing:

…working as an adolescent in a cannery and as an “oyster pirate” on Oakland’s waterfront; going on a seal hunt in the Bering Sea; riding the rails across America, with an interlude of 30 days spent in the Erie County Penitentiary for vagrancy; finding out how the poor live in London’s East End; joining the gold rush to the Klondike; running for mayor of Oakland on the Socialist ticket; sailing to the South Pacific and visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave in Samoa; observing cannibals in the Solomon Islands. This is only the beginning of a list that doesn’t include his two marriages, his fathering two children with his first wife Bella, or his periodic intakes of large quantities of alcohol—all the while becoming, by 1915, the highest-paid author in America.

George Orwell called London “A Socialist with the instincts of a buccaneer,” which seems to get it about right.