Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sex, Violence, and Other Mysteries

This was something I posted on a DorothyL listserve discussion (April 26) which I thought might be of interest:

Long before I started writing mysteries, I published a book called Sex and Violence in the Canadian Novel. After a brief flurry of sales, it died a merciful death. In the first of my Quin and Morgan mysteries, Still Waters, there is a strong sexual component. A rape scene, crucial to character and plot, is presented with retrained brutality that underscores the lasting horror. The description of a male’s first affair is emotionally graphic and a subsequent fantasy tryst is emotionally empty; in the latter, the sex is graphic, in the former it is muted, tender, and fraught with innocence. My point: sex is character, sex is plot. When it’s neither, as in life, it’s just sex.

The third novel in the series, “The Gibraltar Coordinates” which is due out next spring, is more of an action-packed thriller (the second is gothic, the fourth a drawing-room puzzle). There’s lots of intimacy and affection but little on-stage sex; there’s violence enough to keep the wheels moving fast, but never separable from character-in-plot.

There are no rules, each representation is different, an integral part of the composition. But if sex is difficult to write, or awkward to read, it shouldn’t be there. If violence titillates when it should terrify, it’s extraneous.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Stranded at Hazlitt's in Soho

There are worse ways to be stranded abroad than in Hazlitt’s Hotel in Soho. I’d rather be home about now, since in a couple of days there’s a mystery gala in Picton, being held in association with Books & Co, where I was to be one of the writers to read a bit and talk about murder. I’m assuming Rick Blechta, Mary Jane Mafini, Michael Blair, John David Carpenter, Vicki Delany, Violette Malan, and Janet Kellough will still be there for the April 22nd event. I’ll still be at Hazlitt’s.

London is beautiful at this time of year but we’re being held captive by the volcanic activities in Iceland. We were due to fly out this morning. We’d booked in here for our last night away, after totally low-end accomodation in London and Paris over the last couple of weeks. Now we can’t get away. The d├ęcor is 18th century, William Hazlitt, the great essayist lived here, and the ‘library’ has autographed books by previous literary guests like Umberto Ecco and J.K. Rowling. I’m sure in due course at least one of my mysteries will find its way onto their august shelves, along with Beverley’s book, Inventing Easter Island.

By chance Bev and I bumped into Kirk Howard, my publisher at Dundurn Press, and Beth Bruder, VP of Sales and Marketing, at the London Book Fair. The whole affair was pretty low key because of the flight limitations. Still, it was great to be so far from home and talk about Canadian publishing. Like us, they’re probably anxious to get home, and yet it’s hard not to feel the excitement of being stranded. For Bev and I, a few more days at Hazlitt’s will be a luxury we can neither afford nor forego.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Yann Martel and What’s Her Name

As a writer, you have a better chance of falling into a pot hole on main street and ending up among talking rabbits and erasable cats than snaring a publisher’s advance in the millions. Yet it happens. Yann Martel is apparently getting somewhere around three million for his new novel. More incredibly, a woman in Nanaimo is pulling in over a million for her first, repeat, first novel. Yes, it does happen.

Don’t forget, this is the writer’s own money. The publisher is betting the writer’s work will bring in enough to make it up out of his or her earnings. It’s a gamble, since if the book fails to earn big bucks, the publisher is out of pocket, not the writer. But it is also something of a self-fulfilling prophecy since the publisher has a vested interest in extravagant marketing, beginning, of course, by flaunting the huge advance.

So why am I writing about this? Because most writers are professionals: that means by definition that there is not a direct correlation between what we do and what we make. Some medical doctors bring in more than Yann Martel, some work as an act of grace in places God forgot. Most writers are artists: that means by definition that there is not a direct correlation between what we make and what we are paid, whether it’s music, sculpture, or a book worth reading. When a professional artist like Martel strikes it rich, it’s not because he’s the best, but because he’s very good at doing what we do and vicariously I’ll dine out on his fortune. As for those writers like the woman on Vancouver Island who candidly admits to writing as a business project or Dan Brown who markets a product with amazing success, I wish them well, the same as if they’d won the lottery or invented a widget and struck it rich. Good for them but it’s got nothing to do with me and my life.

I write mysteries, Martel writes parables. We’re both listening to the world and we hear some of the same voices, share some of the same visions. Well done, Yann. I’ll enjoy my dinner at your imagined expense.