Monday, February 20, 2012

My brain hurts

I had the interesting experience this week of being interviewed, not for the usual newspaper or magazine or website but for a student's PhD thesis. No, I haven't suddenly got all grand and become a subject for elevated academic study – at least, not on my own.

A young man called Len Warner, a German studying at Edinburgh Univesity, chose for his topic of study what is sometimes called 'tartan noir': Crime Fiction in Scotland.It will take the form of three or four books of interviews with Scottish crime writers – Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Pater May to name but three.

Perhaps as a result of their successes, there has been a huge flowering of Scottish crime writers in recent years. It's a very broad church, with everything from the grittiest of gritty noir to light mysteries and cozies where the cat solves the crime, so it will be interesting to see what conclusions Len comes to once he's talked to us all.

He didn't ask any of the usual questions – 'How many rejections did you have before the first book was published?' 'Do you write in longhand or straight on to the computer?' – and I don't think I've had to think so hard since the last time I was in a university seminar which, I can assure you, wasn't yesterday. He had of course done his homework and read my books, so he would pick up something my main character, DI Marjory Fleming, had said and ask me why she'd said it. I don't know how clearly other authors recall the thought processes of a character, written months or even years before, but I think if it had been an exam I'd have flunked it.

Framing an answer to his questions often needed quite a bit of thought but there was one where I came back straight away. He asked, 'What would you like your characters to know about you?' My reply was instantaneous: a horrified, 'Nothing!; They mustn't even know I'm there!'

He looked surprised and I was a bit surprised myself by my vehemence, but when I consodered it I realised why.  To a character, the author would be a sinister figure, a puppet-master with permanent access to their innermost thoughts, manipulating their lives, putting difficulties in their way – in Sam Goldwyn's splendid phrase, 'Chasing 'em up trees and throwing rocks at 'em.' Not very nice, really, when you think about it.

I don't know how other authors feel.  I've never thought to ask before, but I'm asking now. Would the characters you create be grateful for their very existence, or thoroughly resentful?

6 comments:

John Corrigan said...

Great post. Fascinating.

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Rick Blechta said...

Some very interesting thoughts here. Funny, I’ve never looked at it this way, and of course, you’re absolutely correct. One thing I find distracting is when the author sort of sneaks “onstage” and has the characters say something or makes observations that are obviously not their own. I’m also more guilty of that than I would like to admit.

But actually, when one thinks a little deeper, it might make a very funny novel if the author set him/herself up as the puppet master with the characters very aware of the existence.

Aline Templeton said...

Love the idea, Rick!

Rick Blechta said...

Feel free to use it.