In most MFA programs, the idea of writing a crime novel would be considered…well…just not dignified enough. Which is one of many reasons we’re not your average MFA program — we have a firm belief that genre fiction isn’t just what people like to read, it’s what people like to write, too, and we’re all about helping people write what they want to write. We sat down with fiction professor (and program director) Tod Goldberg to talk about the art of crime fiction and how to teach the greatest criminal minds…
In my own work, not really. A story comes to me and I write it. Now, of course, if the main character is a hit man (like in my new book) and there are dead bodies everywhere, well, I know it’s not going to be shelved in literary fiction, but that doesn’t mean I’m trying to be any less introspective or am less concerned with the machinations of humanity and such, only that maybe I’m also thinking about a strong sense of plot and character and action and that at some point in the book, a mystery of some kind will be solved. So maybe less epiphanies and more solutions, but even that’s not a tried and true thing. Mostly, I’m just trying to get whatever is in my head onto the page and hopefully the result is entertaining.
But when I’m reading, yes, of course, I’m aware of the key differences. If the main character in a book is a detective, I suspect I have different expectations than if the main character is a plumber. But when I think of some of my favorite books, be it The Great Gatsby or The Quiet American or Empire Falls, to name three, at the heart of all three of those books are pretty significant crimes. I think it’s an element of literature and in a perfect world, everything would just be shelved in alphabetical order, but people do like to have an idea of what they’re getting into.
When you have a student writing crime fiction, what are some touchstone books you have them read? Or are there a few authors you have them investigate closely?
This year, I found myself recommending Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin quite a bit, which is one of the best crime novels I’ve read in the last few years, as it focuses on both the cop, the (presumed) criminal, and also conveys an incredibly rich sense of place, integrates flashback exceptionally well and is an absolute page-turner. And Franklin comes from a pretty literary tradition, so it might also just be a thing of taste on my part. Also, I’m constantly recommending Daniel Woodrell (who might be my favorite living author), Elmore Leonard, Sara Gran, Dennis Lehane, and Megan Abbott to folks — these are all contemporary writers, obviously, apart from Leonard who passed away recently — and this last residency we had Attica Locke out to talk about her books, specifically The Cutting Season, which blew me away, and before that we had T. Jefferson Parker out, who I’ve been a fan of since, well, since we were both younger men, and they’re both writers who could be writing anything and it would be good. So I’ll give a student The Cutting Season or California Girl by Parker and say, okay, look at how these writers convey place, how they make the location of the book integral to its mysteries, how they deal with the tradition of that place, the history, and how invariably the people in the book are products of that environment, how rich that makes the story.
I guess it also makes a difference if they’re writing a PI novel, a cop novel, or noir, or a novel about people doing criminal things vs. a crime being solved. So if someone’s writing noir, for instance, I might have them read Scott Phillips, who is cut right from the Jim Thompson cloth (and sometimes I have them read Thompson, too) and maybe someone like Vicki Hendricks (her novel Miami Purity was a on a bunch of reading lists this year). If they’re writing comic crime, we have one of the best in the business on our faculty in Mark Haskell Smith, and then there’s also writers like Seth Greenland, whose book The Bones I end up telling someone to read at least once a quarter. The genre is filled with wonderful writers, both contemporary and historical, and so there’s a lot to look at.
Is there some part of crime writing that is different now than when it began? Or some pitfall new writers run into?
I think the tough part is that now you can’t just sit down and start writing a crime novel and make up things about the investigation, if you’re writing a PI or cop book. Readers are so savvy and they know (or at least they think they know) so much about police procedure from TV that if you get some detail wrong, the whole enterprise can crumble.
I think most people would be surprised to know that the crime fiction of the 1920s and 30s was just as violent and gritty as today’s. You read a book like Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, which was published in 1929, and it’s exceptionally dark and violent. But the general premise is still the same — there’s someone doing something bad and that someone must be stopped, though of course the conception of who is bad and who is good is really up to the reader. I was raised on books where the bad guy is the good guy — you grow up reading Donald Westlake, you end up having skewed ideas about these things, I suppose — and that’s where it makes the books so interesting. Normal power structures don’t always exist in crime fiction.
The easiest pitfall is one of being too reliant on the canonical works and their attendant cliches and not establishing your own voice. This is particularly true with writers doing PI books. In the last few years, when students have embarked down that path I’ve had them give a good look at Paul Tremblay, who took the hallmarks of the genre, adhered to them, and then completely flipped cliche on its head with his narcoleptic detective. Or recently, I’ve been talking a lot about Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman and its sequel, Countdown City, both of which really play with the conventional detective novel and add to it a doomsday asteroid hurtling towards the planet. I’m not saying every new PI novel has to have something like that — an affliction or something from space — merely that both writers carved a spot for themselves inside a well-worn genre by exploiting the tropes, showing that they knew what was expected, and then making it all wholly original. In the end of a PI novel, the PI solves the crime. The reader knows that. So the thing the reader wants is for the journey to take them somewhere fresh and new. I think that’s an emotional thing, making a character that readers really connect with on an empathetic level.
What is it about genre fiction — not just mystery or crime, but also sci-fi & fantasy or horror — that gets people in academia up in arms?
Well, I think there’s a perception that it isn’t important. And if it’s not important, why would you teach it? And if it’s popular, it can’t be good. When people say these things — and if you go to an academic conference, for instance, there’s always a panel about why genre fiction is important and then, invariably, someone raises their hand and says there hasn’t been a decent work of mystery fiction since Poe died, that no one will ever be a better detective than Sherlock Holmes and that JK Rowling has ruined the world, and other like-minded nonsense — my first thought is that they are deeply disconnected from what people actually read. And so I think in some ways that’s the challenge creative writing programs have — making it safe for people to write the most serious literary fiction and, if they want, the best story of a vampire hit man from space who solves crimes from the back of his dragon. People can write whatever they want to write and in this program, we’re going to help them write it really well. That’s not specifically true for a great many creative writing programs and in that way I think it’s just an institutional bias based out of fear — they don’t know how to teach fantasy fiction, they’re not going to admit a student who writes it. It’s silly to me. You don’t know how to teach it? Hire someone who does.
Is there one crime novel that you love that not a lot of people have read?
Hard to pick just one. A book that I re-opened just the other day, though, when talking to a student was The Bottoms by Joe Lansdale, who is better known for his horror writing. It’s a great one. It won the Edgar Award when it came out. I always like to remind people of the writer Barbara Seranella, who was a dear friend of mine, and who passed away a few years ago. She had a series of novels featuring a character named Munch Mancini that I think would have been even more popular if they had come out today instead of 15 years ago. I miss her so much and reminding people about her work is not just a way of keeping her alive, but also reminding people of some great writing. There are so many more, though. I’d say the best crime novel I’ve read in 2014, though, was Chance by Kem Nunn. He’s a writer who can do no wrong in my book.
Do you have a piece of advice for someone thinking of applying to the program with an eye towards writing a mystery novel?
I think we’re always looking to be surprised. If you’re writing a mystery, in those first 25 pages that you submit as your creative sample, the same rules apply as if you were submitting to an agent: you really need to hook us, show us you have an original take, show us your best writing. I know that’s all pretty nebulous, so I guess the biggest thing is that we just want to see a writer who is ready to make a big step, or who looks like they could use the help we can provide, or who maybe has one great sentence that shows us what might open up in its wake. Also, it surely helps if something really cool happens right away. And by that I mean: Who knows! You’ll know it when you write it.
Are you one of the greatest criminal minds of our time? Applications are due February 1st for our Spring class.