Fatal Attraction: A manly panel of Michael Robotham, Julian Novitz, Ben Sanders and local lad Paul Cleave at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival talking about writing crime fiction. Host Craig Sisterson noted the abundance of testosterone and I can also report lots of hairy bits. Beards, stubble and sideys are IN with the crime scribes. I don’t think the issue of what to wear on-stage had been filling the panel’s every waking hour, minute or even second, but slightly rumpled casual is oh-so-wearable and bang on-trend for Spring 2012. Likewise the shoes were solid, macho and in need of a good polish. No flak jackets or commando trews which I was disappointed by but points perhaps to the fact that these guys write crime not thrillers. I was amused to hear one festival helper/author wrangler had chided 22 year-old Aucklander Ben Sanders on wearing just a cotton shirt for a day in chilly Christchurch. No layers. The madness!
Now, the questions:
Why write crime?
For most of the panelists this was not a conscious choice. Michael Robotham didn’t initially see his novel Suspect as crime writing. However his publishers marketed it as such and his book-deal stipulated that he had to write subsequent book in a similar style. So crime it was. Likewise Julian Novitz’s Little Sister has a murder at the centre of the novel but it was his publishers who wanted to promote the literary crime elements. Paul Cleave wanted to write horror but his publishers marketed The Cleaner as crime. Only Ben Sanders identified crime as his target genre, wanting to emulate his favourite writers such as Lee Child, Michael Connelly etc. Michael Robotham and Julian Novitz were respectively prosaic and intrigued by the marketing decisions around genre but Novitz added he was “happy to be in any section, in any bookstore”.
Is genre fiction perceived as inferior?
Yes and erroneously seemed to be the consensus. Ben Sanders pointed to the misconception that crime writers have the same goals as literary novelists, he sees them as different creatures entirely. Michael Robotham said it was important to compare like with like and that often he sees the worst of crime being balanced against the best of literary. Julian Novitz wanted any novel he read to be fresh and not formulaic regardless of genre, while Paul Cleave felt that the general standard of crime writing was rising all the time. Host Craig Sisterson used Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels as an example of crime fiction using real-life themes and providing valuable social commentary. Likewise Michael Robotham and Paul Cleave have used a variety of real themes is their work: People trafficking, the global financial crisis, racism, youth drinking etc
Can you write a crime novel without a murder?
Ben Sanders’s gave an emphatic no, adding “homicide lends crime fiction its sizzle”. If nobody died in one of his books Paul Cleave would expect a lot of concerned calls from his friends and family about what was up with him. He added that the choice of victim not the murder per se was the critical issue in writing crime. Michael Robotham’s wife finds his tendency to bump off characters she likes infuriating, she’ll put the book down and punch him saying “bring them back you bastard”! Like Sanders he sees murder as the ultimate transgression and one that most crime novels must address.