If you haven’t heard of Benjamin Percy or his new book, Red Moon — hailed as “an ambitious, epic novel” by Publishers Weekly — chances are good you’ve come across one of his articles or reviews in a myriad of popular magazines. Last year, he spent a few days with John Irving and (literally) wrestled the 70-year-old author of A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules for a profile in Time magazine. Esquire published his compelling, intensely personal essay, “How a Percy Gets Old: Lessons from Four Generations of Men,” earlier this year. And in March, GQ published an article about his experience wearing a pregnancy-simulation suit (called the “Empathy Belly”) designed by Japanese scientists, which led to a strange appearance on the Today show.
That’s a lot of exposure for the author of Refresh, Refresh and The Wilding, two well-received books published by Graywolf Press, and The Language of Elk, his debut story collection originally published by a university press. As of this writing, Red Moon is in the top 20 of several Amazon.com categories, including “Literary Fiction” and “Fantasy,” so that exposure, backed up by a national book tour and Grand Central’s hardworking publicity department, seems to be working.
Percy, whose fiction has appeared in the Paris Review and Best American Short Stories, is among a select group of critically-acclaimed writers — among them Justin Cronin (The Passage) and Colson Whitehead (Zone One) — who are now finding large audiences with horror fiction. He took time at the end of his recent national book tour to answer my questions about this stage in his life as a writer.<
The Millions: Red Moon, like the werewolves at the heart of its story, is a shapeshifting hybrid — a literary horror novel. In what tradition do you place this book?
Benjamin Percy: If people want to call it a literary horror novel, that’s fine. I know it makes them feel better in a neat-freaky sort of way. Like balling their socks and organizing them in a drawer according to color. And I know it’s a talking point, a frame for discussion. But really, people, it doesn’t matter. These are phantom barricades. What is Margaret Atwood? Or Kate Atkinson? Or Cormac McCarthy? You could argue them into several different corners of the bookstore. If I’m going to align myself with anyone, it’s them. And Peter Straub and Dan Chaon and Larry McMurtry and Ursula K. LeGuin and Tom Franklin and Susanna Clarke and anyone else who makes an effort to be both a writer and a storyteller, someone who puts their muscle into artful technique and compulsive readability.
TM: A few prominent literary writers have published horror-related or –themed novels in the last few years. Like them, you received much praise for your earliest work, but this novel will reach the largest audience. Do you worry that readers will tire of the literary crossover novel?
BP: Realism is the trend. That’s what people seem to forget. Look back on the long hoof-marked trail of literature. The beastly majority of stories contain elements of the fantastic. It’s only very recently that realism has become the dominant mode. And that’s changing. Thanks to people like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, who have been cheerleaders for the Avengerization of literature, and thanks to writers like George Saunders and Karen Russell and Kevin Brockemeier and Matt Bell and Kate Bernheimer, who have a kind of hybridized vigor and playfulness to their work that makes them neither fish nor fowl, both literary and genre.
Some people have referred to Red Moon as a departure for me. It’s no departure except stylistically: I have written an epic, sweeping novel (whereas my previous work has been compact). I grew up on genre and even my so-called literary work is plotted and employs the tropes of horror. “Crash” is a ghost story. So is “Unearthed.” “The Caves in Oregon” is a haunted house story. “The Killing” is a pulpy tale of revenge. “When the Bear Came” and “The Woods” are creature-in-the-forest stories. My short story “Refresh, Refresh” was originally a fantasy in which the boys transformed into their fathers by the end. My novel The Wilding originally contained an ending that revealed a supernatural monster. Both were edited into realism.
There is no crossover. Red Moon isn’t some dalliance. This is the kind of book I’ve been working toward writing my whole life and this is the kind of book you’ll be seeing from me from here on out.
TM: You’ve had a lot of new experiences related to the publication of Red Moon — meetings at Amazon headquarters, a trip to the United Kingdom to promote the book, and an appearance at the Texas International Comic Con (Comicpalooza). What has surprised you most about this stage of your career?
BP: I’m in a constant state of surprise. I don’t take anything for granted. In part that’s because of the way I was raised. And in part that’s because I faced a steady stream of rejection for years before finding any sort of success. Every publication, every award, every event is gravy. There is no point in my life when I have thought, “I’ve made it.” I don’t think there ever will be. I’m constantly amazed (and almost embarrassed) by good news. And I’m constantly certain that something terrible will befall me. On a daily basis, I think about back-up jobs. Like, postal carrier. I think that would be a killer job. Just walk around, whistling, tucking letters into mailboxes, thinking up stories. And I might be considering something like this — how I’m going to pay the bills, how I’m going to get my kids through college — right after I walk out of Amazon’s offices or off a stage at Comicpalooza.
Because that’s the way my mind works, I have to remind myself to enjoy the moment. My buddy Jess Walter — novelist and zenmaster — is really good at this. I get on the phone with him and he tells me to chill out, look around, appreciate how the hard work has paid off. And for a few minutes I’m like, “Yeah! You’re right, Jess Walter!” And then I go back to grinding my teeth down to nubs.
TM: Is it true that your agent, Katherine Fausset, sold the novel before it was written? She’s also thanked in the back of your first book, a story collection published by a university press. At what point did you start to work with her? Has working with her affected or influenced how you approach writing fiction?
BP: Katherine sold Red Moon based on seventy pages, accompanied by a twenty-page outline. Same goes for the next novel, The Dead Lands, which releases in June 2014, a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark passage. She’s the perfect combination of tough, smart, witty, and sweet — as an editor, advisor, champion, friend. We began working together in 2004. At the time, I had “sold” my first book on my own to Carnegie Mellon University Press, after soliciting many agents and editors and hearing the same thing from all of them: “Get in touch when you have a novel.” After I signed the contract, I made a ballsy move, posting the deal on Publishers Marketplace, describing it in the most flattering terms possible. My inbox flooded with emails from Warner Brothers, the Paris Review, Albin Michel (who remain my French publisher), and a long list of agents who noticed I wasn’t represented. I was in the fortunate position to get on the phone and talk to all of them before deciding that Katherine was the best match. She’s my first line of defense, the person I send my manuscripts to before they head off into the wild world, and she always has an insightful response, editorial and business savvy.
TM: What is your work day like when you’re at home? Are you able to write while you travel?
BP: On an ideal day, I wake up at six, box up some lunches, ship the kids off to school, then brew a pot of coffee and head downstairs to the cobwebby dungeon where I work. I’ll spend six to eight hours hammering the keyboard and then — come mid-afternoon — I’ll climb out of the dark to play with my kids, hang with my wife, catch up on chores, help cook dinner. When I travel, I’m reading on planes, writing in hotel rooms, which doesn’t suit me, but I make it work. A quiet routine is the best friend of a writer.
TM: Grand Central just reissued your first book, The Language of Elk, as an eBook. What will readers of Red Moon think of that book or Refresh, Refresh, your second story collection?
BP: I wrote the stories in The Language of Elk when I was twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four. This was my time in grad school. Once I “sold” the collection, it took another two years to come out. People might be interested in them archaeologically — to see how far I’ve come stylistically, thematically. Of the stories in there, “Swans” and “Unearthed” are the ones I’m most proud of, but even they make me cringe. I wish I could go back in time and workshop myself violently. But that’s how I am with all of my writing. I’m immediately dissatisfied with it. I’ll edit myself even when standing behind a lectern, reading to a room full of people. I’m glad for that — it means I’m always chasing something better, never plateauing.
TM: Aside from length, what do you perceive to be the essential differences between the short story and novel forms? Do you see yourself continuing to write short stories?
BP: I have another collection ready, but Katherine wants to wait and shop it after I have a few more novels out. I love short stories — writing them, reading them — but over the past few years my mind has rewired and I think almost exclusively in the long form. The differences between novels and short stories are legion, but to break it down as simply and generally as possible: a short story is a stylistically vigorous glimpse of a life.
TM: The Wilding, your first novel, is about a son, father, and grandfather who find trouble during a hunting and fishing trip into the mountains. The role of Karen, the wife/mother back at home, is less important — it’s a subplot. The majority of your short stories are about men or boys. At what point did you decide to make Red Moon’s protagonist a teenage girl?
BP: Red Moon has a huge cast — and I’d say six of them are identifiable as protagonists. They are men and women, young and old, the infected and the uninfected — from all different geographic and cultural and political backgrounds. I wanted these myriad perspectives to tangle together, contradict each other, supply a complicated vision of complicated subjects: xenophobia, terrorism.
With that said, Claire and Miriam are my two favorite characters in the novel. Red Moon has more in common with X-Men than it does Twilight, but I did have Bella in the back of my mind when writing. I’m disturbed by how she — emotionally and physically abused by the man/vampire she falls in love with and sacrifices herself to — became a role model for so many. I’m surrounded by fiercely strong women. My mother is a warrior. My wife is a force, and our daughter is like a miniature version of her. All of my bosses (department chair, editors, agent) are tough as hell, smart as hell. So I was thinking more about them when building the characters of Claire and Miriam, who are stronger than any of the men in the novel.
TM: In an interview several years ago, you mentioned having abandoned earlier novels, but that The Wilding played to your strengths. What do you see as your strengths now?
BP: I didn’t abandon any novels. I completed four — all failures — and buried them. Most writers have a similar arc: you get the bad writing out of your system. Throw away a few thousand pages. The Wilding, my first published novel, was a negotiation between the short and long form — in that it has a small time frame, follows a small cast, takes place on a small stage. It was a gateway to the epic sweep of Red Moon (which is a novel that follows many characters over many years in many different places). I’ve always loved the epic — the immersive reading experience provided by T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Stephen King’s The Stand — and I’m excited to have conquered something of this scope. It’s the same exhausted satisfaction that comes from completing a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. With that said, I know I can do better — and plan to in the next novel.
TM: You’ve published a number of articles about the craft of fiction writing, including several for Poets & Writers, and a craft book, Thrill Me, is on the way. How do you answer critics who say it’s too soon for you to publish a book of writing advice? That it’s too early in your career to assume that role? Stephen King, a writer you admire, had been publishing novels for twenty years before On Writing.
BP: Writing a craft book is such a small pebble tossed in the big lake of letters, I can’t imagine anyone even noticing or caring. Dozens of people will be outraged by the dozens of people who read my writing advice!
I’ve been teaching writing for over a decade — including time served in MFA programs, among them the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — and I’m a regular on the conference and festival circuit. And people use my Poets & Writers columns regularly in classes, so I guess I must have at least a few nuggets of half-assed wisdom to share.
What distinguishes the book is this: I’m not going through the standard motions, talking about character, setting, point of view, and blah blah blah. I’m looking at genre through a literary lens and focusing especially on how to ramp up suspense and momentum. Hopefully it will be helpful.
TM: Young writers are often told that teaching will take time away from their writing, but it doesn’t seem to have hindered you much.
BP: I’ve had some killer teaching loads. The 4/4, with four different preps a semester. All writing classes of thirty students or more, so that I was grading what amounted to two thousand pages a semester. And doing service. And raising kids. And renovating a house. But if you know me — like, live near me, see me regularly — you know that I’m no fun. All I do is work. I’m obsessed. Writing is my obsession. And when I had those heavy teaching loads, I would sleep four hours a night in order to get the writing done. The writing has always been the priority. Everything else is what I need to do, but writing is what I must do. If you don’t have that mindset, then you’re always going to be prepping class or grading papers before you’re building worlds, pushing sentences around.
TM: You’re adapting The Wilding for the screen, working with producer Shana Eddy and director Guillermo Arriaga (Babel, 21 Grams). To my knowledge, this is your first screenwriting job. How did this opportunity unfold, and what have you learned during the process?
BP: I’ve written a few original screenplays that didn’t go the distance, but taught me quite a lot. But yeah, this is my first job as a screenwriter. If you look at Arriaga’s Twitter bio, you’ll see that he describes himself first as a hunter, then a storyteller. When Shana read about the book, she thought it would match his sensibility.
It’s been fun, getting a second chance on a novel. And playing around with the form. Arriaga always employs a non-linear design and he wants me to do the same. So I’ve rearranged the narrative in a way that contributes to suspense and gives the viewer the sense of being lost in the woods.
TM: The magazine writers I know work hard — they’re word hustlers — but they don’t have major book contracts and movie deals and a university position. Maybe one of those, sometimes two, but not all three. Why do you write for magazines? What do you get out of it?
BP: I’ve never had writer’s block because I keep a lot of irons in the fire. When I get sick of the novel, I write a short story, fiddle with a screenplay or comic script, hammer out a craft essay, pitch an article. Then I return to the novel, which is always my central concern, with renewed energy and a fresh perspective. So there’s that — this compulsion I feel to dabble in all different forms of storytelling — and there’s this: magazine writing is fun. I typically take on some sort of challenge (like, jump out of a plane, raft a river, hang-glide off a mountain, climb a 250-foot old-growth tree and spend the night in it, go on a crazy detox diet in which I drink only water and eat only fruits and veggies for 21 days). Usually it’s something I want to do or need to do, and then I scam an article out of it. When writing fiction, I’m visiting faraway places and meeting new people, but only in my mind. Magazine writing puts me in new and uncomfortable situations, introduces me to interesting people, exposes me to danger—all of which I’ll probably find a way to channel into my fiction as well.
TM: “Refresh, Refresh” was adapted into a graphic novel by the talented Danica Novdorgoff. Do you have plans to write an original graphic novel or comic book series?
BP: I’ve talked to Vertigo [an imprint of DC Comics] several times — we’ll see if something flies there — and I’ve just finished a graphic novel that M.K. Perker will be illustrating.
TM: What would you go back and tell young Ben Percy, the boy just beginning to dream of becoming a writer?
BP: I was going to say something like, “This is going to be a long painful apprenticeship. Be ready to put in your 10,000 hours at the keyboard before you produce anything of note,” or “Read your brains out and write your brains out,” or “If you want to go the distance, you’ll need the right balance of ego and humility,” but I learned all of that without anyone whispering Yoda-esque platitudes in my ear. So I guess I’d say what Jess Walter is always saying to me, “Don’t forget to enjoy yourself.” Not that I’d listen.
In The Passage, Justin Cronin introduced us to a nightmarish dystopia. The Twelve is the second installment of a planned trilogy, so if you haven’t read The Passage then you probably don’t want to read this review, but here’s a quick recap just in case: in the world of The Passage, a virus has been discovered in the Amazon that turns human beings into monsters. These are vampires, but vampires far less human-like than any other variants I’ve seen in the genre. Infection turns them into fanged and clawed creatures with skin like armor, virtually immortal, who live on blood and move with inhuman speed.
The American government decides to experiment and see if they can’t somehow weaponize the discovery, but they need test subjects. Who, they consider, are the most disposable members of our society? Who won’t be missed? Death row inmates without families. Twelve men are carefully selected from death rows around the country. They are offered a choice: they can stay in prison and await their inevitable executions, or they can leave with the mysterious men who’ve arrived to visit them. They’re taken to a top-secret facility in Colorado, injected with various strains of the virus, and studied.
Until of course the unthinkable happens and the monsters escape, because what else is going to happen in the early pages of a novel with caged monsters, and a hundred years later the North American continent is a desolate wasteland, monsters hiding in the abandoned cities and the last few humans struggling to survive. The Twelve picks up where The Passage left off, with the various survivors of the first book scattered among the continent’s last few settlements, one of the Twelve dead, and the other eleven and their followers having hunted so successfully that they’re running out of people to eat and are beginning to starve to death.
Once again Cronin has superbly handled the difficult task of writing a character-driven adventure story. But whereas The Passage concerned itself primarily with the dynamic of good people struggling to survive a world infested with bad monsters, The Twelve focuses largely on an aspect of the apocalypse that Cronin touched on only lightly in the first installment: the vampires remain terrifying, but they’re arguably less terrifying than the humans who have decided to collaborate with them in order to survive.
A surprise of The Twelve is that Cronin continues to move the narrative back and forth in time, from the shock of the initial outbreak to the depopulated wasteland that exists a century later. This has the dual effect of allowing him to further fill out a rich and complex back-story and also to rather neatly address one of the major criticisms of the first book, which I saw expressed most frequently along the lines of Seriously? We’re supposed to believe that someone thought it was a good idea to turn death-row inmates into immortal blood-sucking monsters?
Personally, I have no problem accepting the notion that any given group of reasonably intelligent people is perfectly capable of collectively coming up with a very, very dumb idea, but Cronin meets it head-on:
So it was that Deputy Director Horace Guilder (were there any actual directors anymore?) had found himself sitting before the Joint Chiefs… to offer his official assessment of the situation in Colorado. (Sorry, we made vampires; it seemed like a good idea at the time.) A full thirty seconds of dumbfounded silence ensued, everyone waiting to see who would speak next.
A century after his extremely awkward meeting with the Joint Chiefs, Guilder has become a hybrid, a creature who maintains human form and will not age so long as he keeps drinking the blood of a vampire’s familiar. He presides over a nightmare city in Iowa, a corporate dictatorship populated by slaves, human collaborators, and a small army of creatures like himself who dress in suits and drink blood.
There are small moments of humor in amidst the horror — as in most corporations, no department is more dreaded than HR — but Cronin’s vision is dark. No dissent is tolerated in Guilder’s city. Uncooperative citizens are fed to the vampires. Public executions aren’t unheard-of. Rapes and beatings abound.
Cronin takes the precaution of starting his books with a fair-sized cast of major characters, so that the population doesn’t thin out too drastically when the body count inevitably starts to rise, but all writers of apocalyptic fiction have to contend with the tension of wanting to depict their fictional worlds as nearly unsurvivable, without killing off too many of their major characters. As one character remarks, it’s a big continent, but once parted, his characters have a way of reuniting against impossible odds, over spans of years and hundreds of miles. He is at ease in the realm of improbable coincidences.
The prose of The Twelve is somewhat uneven. The impression is of a fine writer working with an enormous amount of plot under a very tight deadline. There are moments when the prose is strictly utilitarian, other times when it slips into sentimentality. A summer day on the prairies is described as “hot-hot-hot.” But there are moments of sheer beauty, as in the last moments before a man, a mechanic who’s secretly a poet, sets himself on fire to avoid being taken up: “This ravishing world,” he thinks, in the last few heartbeats before he flicks the lighter, “this ravishing world…”
These are anxious times we live in, and new apocalypse novels appear with every publishing season. A few years back there was The Road and now the end of the world as we know it recurs again and again, from Cronin’s planned trilogy to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One to Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars to Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles.
Cronin’s books, for all their brutality, have an ethereal quality that most other apocalypse books I’ve read lack. He has created a dark and brutal world, but his monsters are linked by dreams. The Twelve dream of their terrible crimes, and their multitudes of descendants dream the dreams of the Twelve.
Amy, a girl from the first book who remains (barely) human but who carries a modified version of the virus in her blood, has always been able to speak with vampires. She thinks of them as the dreaming ones. The multitudes of lost souls transformed into monsters are intelligent and vicious in the manner of any expert predator, but also they are lost. When she’s near them she hears their constant question in her head, who am I who am I who am I? In The Passage she kneels before a man who’s just been killed by them:
It came to her that the man’s name had been Willem. And the ones who had done it to Willem were sorry, so sorry, and she rose and said to them, It’s all right, go now and do not do this again if you can help it, but she knew they could not. They could not help it because of the Twelve who filled their minds with their terrible dreams of blood and no answer to the question but this:
I am Babcock.
I am Morrison.
I am Chavez.
I am Baffes-Turrell-Winston-Sosa-Echols-Lambright-Martinez-Reinhardt-Carter.
Cronin’s vampires are not individuals in any meaningful sense. They move in pods, they dream the dreams of their masters, and they don’t know who they were before they ceased to be human. The only names that fill their drifting thoughts are the names of the Twelve. The idea of the hive mind isn’t new, but the Borg never dreamed like this. The great mass of vampires are unspeakable, but in a strange way not entirely unsympathetic. Cronin’s skill as a storyteller keeps us immersed in their strange long dream.
“I’m looking for a mystery,” my agent said.
That was the last thing I expected to hear. When I met David a little over two years ago, I was so struck with his Oxford-educated, sweater-vest-wearing persona that I’d wondered if my literary novel would be literary enough. But now he was not only looking for a mystery, but was also – I’ll spare you the precise language involved – highly dissatisfied with the ones coming across his desk.
“I could write a mystery,” I said.
It’s not just David and I. The good ship Literary Fiction has run aground and the survivors are frantically paddling toward the islands of genre. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but there does seem to be a definite trend of literary/mainstream writers turning to romance, thrillers, fantasy, mystery, and YA. Justin Cronin has produced the vampire epic The Passage. Tom Perrotta is offering The Leftovers, a tale of a futuristic Rapturesque apocalypse. And MacArthur-certified genius Colson Whitehead is writing about zombies. It’s enough to make my historical mystery about Jack the Ripper look downright pedestrian.
What’s going on? Is it a mass sellout, a belated and half-hearted attempt by writers to chase the market? Are they being pushed into genre by their agents and publishers? Are the literary novelists simply ready for a change, perhaps because even the most exalted among them have a miniscule readership compared to genre superstars? Or are two disparate worlds finally merging?
Here’s my take on what’s happening – which, granted, is worth exactly as much as you’re currently paying for it.
Once upon a time, genre was treated as almost a different industry from literary fiction, ignored by critics, sneered at by literary writers, relegated by publishers to imprint ghettos. But the dirty little and not-particularly-well-kept secret was that, thanks to the loyalty of their fans and the relatively rapid production of their authors, these genre books were the ones who kept the entire operation in business. All those snobbish literary writers had better have hoped like hell that their publishers had enough genre moneymakers in house to finance the advance for their latest beautifully rendered and experimentally structured observation of upper class angst.
But while genre authors were always the workhorses of publishing, lately they’ve broken out as stars and are belatedly receiving real recognition. In 2010, there were 358 fantasy titles on the best seller list, more than double the number in 2006. Publishers, always the last to recognize a literary trend, are pursuing top genre writers who, for the first time, have not only bigger paychecks but genuine clout.
And as one part of the industry rises, another falls. Magazines and newspapers are dying faster than fruit flies, to the dismay of many writers who counted on nonfiction to supplement their incomes. Advances are lower than they used to be, multi-book deals are becoming as quaint as hoop skirts, and, thanks partially to the rise of ebooks, the author payout per book sale is shrinking. A lot of writers actually support themselves through other jobs, such as teaching, and they may be prepared to wait out the change and hope that literary fiction returns. But those of us who write full-time are scrambling to find additional streams of income just to survive.
Scott Spencer, who has published ten novels dating back to the mid-1970s, was once able to live exclusively on the income from his books and “make this kind of old-fashioned writer’s life work.” But, noting the inherent contradiction between the ups and downs and further downs of literary writing and his need to make a living, he is publishing Breed – “a horror novel that has no real place among the ten that have come before it” – under the name Chase Novak. He’s taken it to a new mystery imprint, Mulholland Books at Little Brown, and says the genre jump was entirely his idea. “In fact,” he says, “my agent was surprised when I sent her the first forty pages.”
“Creative people switch genres all the time,” says Miriam Parker, Spencer’s publicist at Mulholland, who started at Grand Central and has worked with a broad spectrum of writers. Her fellow publicist Crystal Patriarche agrees. “Writers just want to write,” she says, noting that quite a few members of her primarily female client list have shifted genres during the time she’s worked with them, often combining mainstream with romance or mystery. “They evolve through stages throughout their careers.”
Still, it’s hard to think of very many writers – save possibly Stephen King – who have moved from genre to literary. The floor seems to slope the other way, and Patriarche concedes that sometimes the difference isn’t so much in what the author has written as in how the publisher opts to describe it. “I’ve seen literary books blurbed as something like ‘the thinking woman’s beach read,’” she says. “And that’s a sign that the publisher is trying to appeal to consumers who are more mainstream. In this aspect the change is more industry-driven than author-driven.”
Ergo, the case of Dawn Tripp who clicked onto her Amazon page shortly after the publication of her novel Game of Secrets (Random House) only to learn that she’d written a thriller. “One reviewer called it ‘a page turning thriller,’ and another called it ‘a literary thriller told through a poet’s eye,’” says Tripp. “The tag ‘thriller’ surprised me. Although Game of Secrets has a mystery at the heart of it – an unsolved murder played out through a Scrabble game – it does not unfold in a linear way.”
Caroline Leavitt, whose Pictures of You has also been described as a literary thriller, started her career with a different publisher years ago. “My first two literary books were reviewed great but didn’t sell,” she recalls, “and then my publisher called me in and said ‘It’s time to go commercial with your third, so let’s all sit down and hammer out a plot.’” Leavitt followed the outline, “but with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach” and, predictably, the resultant book flopped on both the critical and commercial level. When her publisher didn’t think Pictures of You was commercial enough, she went to Algonquin, a place she describes as an Edenic paradise for writers, and now, after eight books, she has a New York Times best seller.
Even though Leavitt claims she isn’t entirely sure what a literary thriller is, she’ll take it. “A good book is a good book,” she says. “I’ve decided that genre is strictly a marketing tool.” Tripp is equally sanguine. “I don’t balk at the term ‘thriller,’” she says. “I don’t think in terms of genre. I write what moves me.”
While some writers find the genre shift has been almost sprung upon them, others are happy to produce books which are consciously designed to be commercial. Once they get the hang of genre – which can be a steep learning curve as they give themselves a crash course in learning how to plot – they end up having fun with the idea.
“There’s something about writing as Chase Novak that allows me to tell this story in a style that is leaner and more in service to propulsive story,” says Spencer. He took care to choose a style that innately appealed to him as a reader; although he’d never liked fantasy or adventure, “the possibility of horror rearing its head at any moment is something that I give a great deal of thought to while driving my car, taking a walk, or trying to fall asleep. My mother recently said to me ‘When you were little, you were always convinced that Dad and I wanted to kill you.’”
The key to a successful transition is that the writer chooses a genre they enjoy reading, with which he instinctively clicks. I’ve had a blast writing my historical mystery. Not only did the extensive research into Victorian England bring me back to my happy days in journalism, but I bought a bunch of mysteries and read them like a student, breaking apart the plots, analyzing movements through geographic space and time, using note cards to track multiple characters across a layered and detailed literary landscape. Only someone who’s never tried to do this would declare it easier than literary writing, or the books which result less worthy of respect. There’s a big difference between selling and selling out.
Of course, there’s always the danger that genre is a cul-de-sac and that once a writer turns into it, he’ll never get out. “I’ve had clients whose agents or editors turned down their second book because it wasn’t close enough to their first and thus what readers expect of them,” says Patriarche. Leavitt, who quite correctly points out that “writing the same book over and over is the opposite of what it means to be a writer,” also notes that “once you’ve had a commercial success, there’s definitely pressure on you to repeat it with your next book.”
So while publishers might happily support a literary author making the switch to genre they’ll probably be less enthusiastic when that writer develops an itch to move back toward literary writing. The obvious compromise – write literary under one name, genre under another – works for some, but is a stopgap solution while the industry struggles to catch up with the reality of what’s happening. Because it’s not just a matter of writers flipping back and forth, it’s a matter of genre and literary cross-pollinating to produce a new species. Genre books written by literary writers are different than those written by authors who have always embraced and exemplified that genre.
“You might call Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets a ‘psychological thriller’ but that somewhat misses the mark,” says Patriarche. “It’s a thrilling book, but does it play by the rules of a thriller? The problem is we don’t have names for these books, so we call them by the old names, even when the terms don’t fit.” But like any good publicist, she’s prepared to find the opportunity in the midst of the crisis. “It’s hard to get publicity for any book these days, especially one that’s hard to label, but a book that straddles genres can actually be an opportunity for a publicist to open it up to the readership of both genres.”
“More than ever the market requires publicists to approach all books on an individual basis,” says Parker. “I always ask myself ‘Who is the audience for this book and what’s the most effective way to target that audience?’ It can be fun, like when I was at Grand Central and we were bringing out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. We created a great video trailer, which was widely viewed and shared, and built an active Facebook community around book.”
It will probably always be open to debate whether these innovations are the result of writers seeking creative expression and wider audiences or a calculated move on the part of publishers who are simply trying to sell more product, even if it means slightly misrepresenting a book to its potential audience. But either way, the future seems to be stories which combine the pacing and plots of genre with the themes and style of literary writing.
In other words, this crappy market may actually end up producing better books. Because hybrids, bastards, and half-breeds tend to be heartier than those delicate offspring that result from too much careful inbreeding. Just ask the Tudors. The best commercial writers were moving toward this anyway, creating highly metaphorical fantasy works and socially-conscious mysteries, expanding the definition of their genres even before the ex-pat literary crew jumped on the bandwagon. “We’re going to see more blending as everyone attempts to grab a larger audience,” predicts Patriarche, “and the literary snobs are going to have to stop looking down on genre.”
Image credit: Fotomatom/Flickr
The huge, McSweeney’s-published, John Sayles novel A Moment in the Sun has been getting great reviews. It’s now out. Also new this week is China Mieville’s Embassytown, reviewed here today; Paul Theroux’s exploration of the genre of travel writing, The Tao of Travel; prizewinning Nigerian author Helon Habila’s new novel Oil on Water; and A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, the complete stories of Margaret Drabble, recently written up by Joyce Carol Oates in the New Yorker. New in paperback are a pair of Millions Hall of Famers, Emma Donoghue’s Room and Justin Cronin’s The Passage.