Friday, March 18, 2011

Brent Ghelfi on Literary Violence


Today I'm pleased to announce that Brent Ghelfi, author of the Volk books set in modern-day Russia, is joining the Type M Line up on a casual, alternate Friday Basis. Brent starts his stint off with a provocative question.

I write violent books. Some readers like that aspect of my books, but some don’t. They tell me so in emails, and some bring it up at book my signings. So why do it? Why not blink sooner, turn away, leave more to the imagination?

The answer starts with a simple premise: violence in literature should be organic. Violence should grow from the setting, from the subject matter, from the seed of the story itself.

My novels are set in modern-day Russia, one of the most violent places in the world. The last twenty years there have been like the Industrial Revolution on crack, a savage race for riches, all the wealth of a nation up for grabs in a cage fight where the biggest and the meanest get to make up the rules as they go.

Many of the scenes in my books were inspired by events reported in the Moscow Times. Two stand out. An anti-Putin politician executed in daylight on a busy street outside the Duma (roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Congress); another progressive pol gunned down by a sniper while visiting an outdoor park. Imagine my dismay, then, when the Moscow Times reviewed my first book with the following observation:

The prevailing color here is less red than purple, with Ghelfi not-so-secretly enamored of his hero's propensity for casually dispensed atrocity, and inclined to excessiveness in his poeticizing of the horrific.

I’ll buy the part about “poeticizing” the horrific. Violent scenes open the door to poetic prose. Slow down, speed up. Linger or run. Taste it, touch it, feel the warm slide of blood. I like writing those parts. I think there are terrible people and places in the world, and if we’re going to write about them we should do it honestly. So did I do that? Did the violence achieve its purpose? Here’s the Moscow Times reviewer again:

As numbing as the violence in ‘Volk's Game’ may be, it does serve its purpose of indelibly rendering a brutal world of the powerful and the damned, where oligarchs and politicians duke it out with the impoverished, the weak and the needy as pawns in their endless struggle.

I’ll buy that part, too. In fact, that’s the whole point. Why would I render “a brutal world of the powerful and the damned” in anything other than indelible prose?

I think most writers struggle with the question where to step out of the way and let the reader fill in the blanks. At one time or another, most of us have missed the mark. That may have happened with one or more of my violent scenes. But those are decisions only a writer can make, one word, one sentence, and one scene at a time.

Brent Ghelfi is the author of VOLK'S GAME, nominated by the International Thriller Writers for Best First Novel of 2007 and a Barry Award for Best Thriller, and the critically-acclaimed VOLK'S SHADOW, released in 2008, and THE VENONA CABLE, released in 2009. His novels have been translated into eight languages and optioned for film. The fourth novel in the Volk series, THE BURNING LAKE, will be released in April 2011

5 comments:

John R Corrigan said...

Brent, I loved the post. Welcome aboard!

Anonymous said...

As someone who doesn't like violence in my reading, I appreciate your explanation, Brent. It's out there - why not show it.

Rick Blechta said...

Situations that are violent sometimes call for violent language to get the point across. Sure, we can allude to it, or turn away and let readers' imaginations fill in the blanks, but sometimes a scene needs real impact and there's only one way to get that.

Good post. I second John's sentiments!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Welcome, Brent. Great to alternate Fridays with you.

Thought-provoking post.

Donis Casey said...

I'm so glad you're joining us, Brent. I've enjoyed your books since I first read Volk's Game after I met you and the lovely Lisa at an event in Tucson back in - was it 2007? I knew instantly that you really had something.