The characters made me do it

coverIt is fascinating to listen to writers talk about their craft. Setting the Scene for Murder at the Christchurch Writers Festival was the opportunity to hear two of America’s most successful crime writers, Tess Gerritsen and John Hart.

I loved how they both talked of characters they created who developed a life of their own and led the writers in directions they could not have imagined when they began their novels. Neither writer develops an outline before they begin a book,they just write and then edit. John Hart referred to it as ‘grope and hope’. I just couldn’t imagine how Tess Gerritsen could write an entire novel longhand (in doctors writing no-one else can read) then type it up and edit it through six or seven drafts. John Hart spoke of writing freely in the morning and editing what he had written in the afternoon. Either way it seemed to be a brave and consuming enterprise for both novelists. When asked about seeking feedback on their writing Tess spoke of the value of writers groups where other writers critiqued your work. John Hart was adamantly opposed to criticism by committee and trusted his wife’s opinion

Their intimate involvement with their characters was echoed by the four New Zealand crime writers who spoke before the presentation of the Ngaio Marsh Award.When Paddy Richardson talked about how her character developed she said the character chose the direction.

coverI think crime writers must feel like children’s writers. They are often pigeonholed and their writing dismissed as somehow a lesser kind. In fact the best of them, as we saw today, start out first and foremost to write creatively, to express themselves and for their personal satisfaction. That their characters and plots lead them to be labelled as crime writers is by the by. Tess Gerritsen has used her background as a Chinese American and her feeling of being an outsider to find expression in her characters. John Hart talked about writing to change his life and writing as catharsis. Neil Cross talked about wanting to write about transgression, sin and guilt.

It was great session. Fans of Tess Gerritsen will be pleased to know a television series based around her characters Maura Isles and Jane Rizzoli should be screening here next year under the name Rizzoli and Isles.

And the hometown boy won…

Paul CleavePaul Cleave is the winner of this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. The award was announced today in a special Christchurch Writers’ Festival event, Setting the Stage for Murder. Paul won the award for his book Blood Men. The other finalists were Alix Bosco, Neil Cross and Paddy Richardson.

The award was announced at the end of a feast of crime writers talking.  First we had best selling American authors Tess Gerritsen and John Hart talking with Graham Beattie about their work.

Then the four finalists sat down with Craig Sisterson as chair to answer a few questions. I’d have to say all four seemed a little hesitant about being on stage if body language was anything to go by but as the panel discussion went on they opened up with some great observations. By the time a member of the audience asked whether they would consider including the Christchurch earthquakes in their stories they were ready to take some quite differing views. Paul Cleave was quite strong in his feeling that it would be wrong to make money by writing about such a tragedy, Greg McGee (Alix Bosco) was cautious believing there were dangers in writing about the event too soon and time need to elapse. Neil Cross was quite firm that good writing helps cultures examine their traumas. This was a view that John Hart certainly endorsed from the audience.

It was great to see four good New Zealand writers talking about issues that confront New Zealand writers – too much looking inward and an “ingrained lack of confidence” in selling on the world stage. There was a hope that there were enough good writers around and New Zealand had the chance to carve its own distinctive place in crime writing as Scandinavian crime writing had done. So come on crime writing fans  – support your local team (or at least go to one game and see how they play).