At home between the poetry and the pulp…

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

I recently had the privilege of being selected to do a reading as part of the Mystery Café series during Bloody Words 2010. Not only did I earn some bucks for the reading — (which made me feel like a reckless and bona fide author when I turned around and blew it on gin tonics) — but I was also provided a rare opportunity to share thoughts on pretty much any theme or topic related to crime writing. It’s quite unusual for someone to say to me, ‘Hey Chris, why don’t you go on out there and talk about whatever you want’. At least people who know me tend not to say this. I suppose it’s an issue of trust and past behaviour.

I chose ‘The Accidental Mystery Writer’ as the title for my reading and presentation because, well, it pretty much sums up my experience as a fledgling and innately frustrated writer. I used the life and works of James M. Cain as the starting point for the discussion. I feel a kinship of sorts with Cain, and maybe even David Goodis for that matter (but Goodis is another story for another blog, one which focuses on having your ideas stolen and how to make the perfect Rusty Nail and what not…)

James M. Cain – the former serious journalist who penned the utterly perfect The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the nearly as brilliant Double Indemnity back in the late ’30s and early ’40s — had a penchant for opera and fine scotch. He also apparently despised the employment of labels which he considered painted a writer into a corner, and probably more importantly closed off entire audiences to his work. He is, of course, now long associated with the so-called ‘hard-boiled’ and ‘pulp’ movements of the ’40s and ’50s.

Railing against a system that stamps out labels, he famously wrote:

“I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.”

This is where I foolishly, or perhaps pure-heartedly, sympathize with Cain. I spent fifteen years toiling on various incarnations of the next great literary novel. You know, books with The Big Themes that are covered in all the good country and western songs: love, loss, good sex, bad dogs, and too much drinkin’ — although not necessarily all in the same book. I spent about two years writing each masterpiece (they are called, in the order they are stuffed in boxes under my bed: Coming To, Inside The Distance, Beneath This Stillness, Chasing Pace, and Strange Arrangement).

Oh I came agonizingly close a few times — once just as the accepting publisher was preparing to transition from indie literature to shelling out cook books and tourists maps. But mostly I just wrote and I sent things out and I waited by the mailbox. I collected a few dozen rejection slips (a handful of them surprisingly hand-written), stopped writing altogether for three years in there and started a rock band, gave up hard liquor and then switched exclusively back to hard liquor, turned vegetarian for about four days, read a brochure on yoga and really thought about it for a while, renovated a hundred-year-old house from top to bottom, moved cities a few times, and then presto, woke up one day in the mid-2000s to find I had been a victim of Labelling.

That’s right, I had been labelling myself all along, telling myself I had to be a ‘literary writer’, as though exclusivity in that domain could mean anything but a life of frustration and liver damage. Like Cain, I thought I wanted to be taken seriously by miserable, ashen-faced men dressed perpetually in tweed coats reeking of pipe tobacco and moth balls. I mean, who wouldn’t?

Ironically, like Cain, when I looked back over my body of work, every single novel had acrime at its centre. Murder or bank robbery, or something bad that happened to someone was always my impetus for exploring the grey area that exists in all of us. I like that world, I think I understand it, and so in hindsight it seemed so glaringly obvious that I might just be a crime writer after all. A ‘literary crime writer’, perhaps? Hey, why stop self-labelling now? (Cain just rolled over in his grave and winked at me.)

My first ‘literary crime novel‘, The Weight of Stones, was released in the spring of 2009. The embrace from the community of crime writers — and especially readers — has been like coming home after a long time away. Or perhaps I was never really home to begin with, I was just out there stumbling in the long grass with my dog-eared copy of The Sun Also Rises stuffed in my hip pocket. Now I’m like an adopted child just thankful for a roof over his head.

I guess I finally see that you can have it both ways after all. You can write what you want and need to write, and with some luck and alignment of the stars it will find a home with some thoughtful readers. I hope Cain eventually felt this way, too. And I hope he was grateful.

Cain’s writing, for me, contains as much poetry, as much clarity of intent as it does the cruder elements of so-called ‘pulp’. There is not a moment where you doubt this is a writer firmly in control of the story and where he is taking you, what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. In this regard, Cain is an artist in every sense of the word. He has accepted the ancient and sacred trust between writer and reader — transmitter and receiver — and he has kept the promise to pull no cheap tricks.

‘I kissed her’ – says the male character in Postman, the unwitting Frank who will ultimately be destroyed by his insatiable lust for the bodacious Cora. ‘Her eyes were shining up at me like two blue stars. It was like being in church.’

Three sentences. Twenty words. And the world will never be the same again. We can appreciate the distilled power of those lines, the imagery of a man on his knees worshipping this deity we call female beauty, all in the context of the certainly guaranteed devastation to come. Cain was a powerful and effective writer, regardless of any label.

So these days you’ll find me pecking out lines and aiming for a little place I know somewhere between the poetry and the pulp.