Why We Write
(for Liz Wilkins – Liz Loves Books)
I don’t remember a time when – one way or the other – I wasn’t telling stories. Before I could read and write I would make up whole epic sagas for my toys to distract myself from the boredom of an enforced afternoon nap – it’s the only memory I have of being three years old but it’s a strong one.
Once I could read I read everything I could lay my hands on and was always given books as a favourite gift – fairy tales became Young Adult fiction then a long stint of Sci-Fi and Classics before safely landing on general fiction and Crime. And I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that I should not read a particular book because it was written for grown-ups. I just hopped from Jack London to Isaac Asimov to PG Wodehouse to John Steinbeck.
As a child, stories were something I could live inside and they moulded the world around me to such a degree that when I returned home from watching a film, I would continue the story from the point when the film had left the characters because I wanted to know what would happen to them next and wanted to be part of it – more often than not I changed the story and gave it a completely different ending.
Today I write crime fiction but that is almost incidental. I’m interested in writing stories that explore extreme situations and how people deal with these situations and keep, or lose, their humanity. These kinds of questions are generally answered in the crime fiction field, and so that’s where I have pitched my tent.
I still read all kinds of books, though mostly but not exclusively fiction, and in the last few weeks I’ve read two books by Patrick Ness, Nathan Filer’s ‘The Shock Of The Fall’, Charlotte Mendelson’s ‘Almost English’ and Louise Penny’s ‘The Nature Of The Beast’, and of these only the last one could be considered crime. I’m also listening to Jane Austen on audiobooks – as a treat – because I love the rhythm of the language and the dialogue.
When I was working on my first novel, ‘The Gift Of Darkness’, about a young woman who has recently joined the Homicide Unit in Seattle – a town in the U.S. Pacific Northwest – I had many influences but without a doubt Thomas Harris’s ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ was the most important, and in many ways it still sets the bar. Thomas Harris used to be a crime reporter before he became an author and, especially in ‘Red Dragon’ and ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’, he wrote with an elegant simplicity that I found incredibly appealing: he constructed very complex characters, built an utterly compelling story and created a world that stayed with me long after I finished the books. In ‘Red Dragon’ Harris constructed an unforgettable villain – yes, I know everyone loves Lecter but I think Francis Dolarhyde is just as intriguing. With an amazing sleight of hand Harris managed to turn a monster into a human being and back into a monster right in front of our eyes. Dolarhyde had been a neglected and abused little boy who had grown up to become a serial killer and yet, thanks to Harris’s skill, we could still see him as lonely and vulnerable.
When I start writing a new book I always re-read a bit of Thomas Harris to remind myself of just how high the bar is, and when – a few weeks ago – I had lost my battered copy somewhere in the house, there were some unhappy days until it was recovered.
There is a huge pleasure in a story well told, from the tiny anecdote to the rambling epic and for me there is no greater delight than building a whole world of people and places and colours and weather and then let the story take over. It goes back to living in a cave and telling stories – often scary stories – around the fire. We have changed, sure, but not that much.