Jim Madison Davis: „Sometimes crime writing can be so local that it doesn’t speak to the larger audience.”

Articol publicat in:English | Aparut in:Nr. 26 ( iulie, 2012 )

George ARION talks to J. Madison DAVIS

This interview was occasioned by J. Madison Davis’ (American writer, essayist, creative writing professor at Oklahoma University, and president of the International Association of Crime Writers) participation to Rasnov Thriller&Mystery Festival in Romania. George Arion, acclaimed Romanian crime writer and journalist, is the president of the Romanian Crime Writers Club.


George ARION: What is the importance of studies, of erudition in the process of becoming a crime writer?

Jim Madison DAVIS: That’s a difficult question, because I think there are some people who seem to have a knack for storytelling and storytelling is probably the most important thing. But in creating the reality of situation, having all sorts of knowledge is extremely useful at the least. Maybe having psychological insight into people’s behaviour and having this ability to make stories interesting are more important than education, certainly more important than erudition. Some people are so well educated that they’re not very good writers, they know too much. In a way it obscures the basic human truths that they’re trying to get at, I think.

G.A.:  So the insight about the world is somehow more important than erudition.

J.M.D.: Yeah, it’s more about insight into human beings and their struggles. Characters who are purely good or purely evil are not very interesting. They don’t exist probably, even the most evil person can have interesting traits; that doesn’t redeem them, it doesn’t make them ok, but it makes them interesting, as long as we can understand them. A friend of mine once told me that people don’t do evil because they think it’s evil, they do evil because they think it’s good, and that’s what’s interesting about it: that they always justify things. I’m going to rob the bank because my child is hungry, I kill someone because my child is hungry, I’m going to rob a bank because that guy looked at me funny – they’re always justifying it, and I always think that in crime fiction understanding the dark side of the good character and the good, the lighter side of the evil character is very important in making it feel real and it’s more important than some actual scientific detail.

G.A.: You are a writer, a teacher, a professor, an essesit and the president of the IACW. How can you cope with everything and which one of these instances do you like most?

J.M.D.: Oh, I don’t know if I cope well with all of them. The trick is not trying to cope with all of them at the same time, but to do one at a time. But what I love most is the writing. When I think of myself I think of myself as a writer. I’m a writer who teaches, I’m a writer who does this or that.

G.A.: So everyone else in you is a writer too.

J.M.D.: Yeah, that’s basically it, because that’s where my imagination goes. You drive me down the Victory Way in Bucharest and I look at houses and I try to imagine what’s in them, it’s just habit, it’s just the way my mind goes. Everything else… Being a professor is a very good way to be a writer, you have to have food and money, and it gives it to you in a way that encourages you to write. The American dictom about universities, that they’re organized on a „publish or perish” policy – what could be better for a writer? They tell me „you must publish” – good! Sure!

G.A.: You do what you have to do.

J.M.D.: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

G.A.: Literature as a whole suffered dramatic changes in the 20th century, in all genres. What about the dramatic changes in crime literature? Where is crime literature headed right now?

J.M.D.: I do a lot of thinking about this. I think we are in a very difficult time, we don’t know where it’s going, I think we’re trying to figure it out. The novel changed drastically in the 1800’s, it changed even more in the 20th century. In the 21st century we’re working with all sorts of electronic media and stuff, you can put books on Kindle you can get them electronically and so forth, and this will change the way novels are written and the content of novels.

G.A.: How?

J.M.D.: They might make novels shorter, for example. It will affect them, that’s for certain. I think we’re in the middle of stuff we don’t even understand how much it’s going to change. One of the things the e-book has done appears to be that more people reading.

G.A.: Really?

J.M.D.: Yes. Nobody would have predicted that 20 years ago, it looked like everyone was going to watch movies, and now people download books. On the other hand, probably the medium has certain kinds of material that’s more comfortable on that medium than on paper. When I’m on a computer, I always feel the urge to click and go somewhere else. Does this little screen do that too, does it make you impatient? I think one of the things that’s going to happen is that the short story is going to come back and be stronger. I also suspect the fact that on an electronic medium a long book seems too long. If you pick up a paper book and it’s big, you’re at a certain point in the book and you go like „oh, look at how much I’ve done”. On an e-book, if you’re 500 pages into it, you don’t know where the end is, you’re just on this page here, and you may start thinking „gosh, this is endless, this is boring, I’m gonna switch to something else”. I don’t know.

G.A.: And yet…

J.M.D.: When people buy for 99 cents, less than a dollar, a short story, and they’ll read it and it’ll give them pleasure, that’s good. One of the certain things is that the novella will be back. In America they used to say „novella is a manuscript of 120 pages that no one will publish” – magazines wouldn’t publish it because it’s too long, book publishers wouldn’t publish it because the book looks too little. So writing a novella was a waste of time, you almost couldn’t give it away unless you were a Nobel prize winner. On e-book, for 2 dollars, I think it will bring back some of it.

G.A.: Glad to hear it!

J.M.D.: Short stories and magazines have almost been dying out because of printing and so forth, it’s expensive and they just want to fill the space up with advertisements rather than actual printing, so not many people were reading short stories and then – boom! – this comes along. I think it’s a very unpredictable situation, and it’s different reading on an e-book rather than it is on a regular book. It’s not necessary inferior, it’s just different. On a regular book you can go back, if it’s complicated you flip a few pages. On e-book, you would have to scroll back and you probably wouldn’t go through that kind of trouble. I think it’s just a period of revolutionary change going on and we don’t know where it’s going. I have ideas, but I’m not sure.

G.A.: Did 9/11 change the way of writing thrillers?

J.M.D.: Stories always shift as time goes by because people become compelled by other ideas and so forth, but there are certain historical events that just make some ideas seem silly or irrelevant. I mean, in the extreme case, you’re not gonna write a novel about a father who doesn’t allow the daughter to marry this guy. This was a big issue centuries ago, it’s a dead issue now. Those kinds of cultural changes happen all along, you’re not gonna write favourably about forced marriage, that’s just it. And then other things have shifted too. Even in the 20th century, you could see in America and probably the rest of the civilized world what happened to the hard boiled detective –  in the 60’s that type of man started to seem ridiculous. So suddenly nobody was reading stories about these guys so they stopped publishing them for a while, and then they came back again later as a kind of nostalgia or something, but for a while they were just totally comical almost – Philip Marlowe, all of that, they made movies parodying it, it was a joke, the whole conception of manhood was made irrelevant.

G.A.: So what about 9/11?

J.M.D.: Now, I’m not quite sure what happened after 9/11 except maybe the world became much more conscious that there’s so much surveillance and electronic stuff going on. What I detect in most of the novels and things I read is a kind of paranoia, you’re being watched, people are following you, they’re reading your mail… „Why are they doing this, there’s no reason for them to do this to me”, but there’s a feeling that they could be doing it, that everyone knows everything about you, that there’s no such thing as privacy anymore and somehow I think that 9/11 is a kind of awareness of this, that you’re in a database somewhere and they know everything that you do or can find it out pretty easily. I’ve noticed that in American novels you almost never have the institutions being positive anymore.

G.A.: Indeed.

J.M.D.: The FBI is sneaky and up to something, there’s the good cop and then there’s the FBI who comes and messess everything up. In my childhood, the FBI was perfect, the FBI did everything right, they came in, they solved crimes, they helped the poor, they did everything right. Part of that was J. E. Hoover’s propaganda, but now it’s totally reversed. In every contemporary movie the FBI comes in, they mess stuff up and I think there’s a certain feeling, at least in American books, that the government is up to something. In the 60’s, there were the corporations who were up to something, they were sneaky, they were doing evil things… Now it’s less corporations and just the government in general. It makes me think that a certain kind of Kafka-esque feeling you get out of eastern European books is more vital now than it was ever before. Even though they felt it in the 20’ and the 30’s, they tended to think it was somewhere else. In reality, there’s virtually no privacy. Everyone knows everything about everybody. The world seems to be moving in that direction.

G.A.: How do you explain this boom of the mystery & thriller genre?

J.M.D.: There’s a couple of things about it. One is that literary novels stopped telling stories, or they did it less and less. There were people like the writer John Hawkes in the 60’s who were saying „plot and character is the enemy of fiction”, that plot devices and things like that were old fashioned and obvious and silly and that what’s really interesting is the exploration of forms. But it’s so abstract and intellectual that I don’t think it satisfies the public, it doesn’t give them what they want – a story. Mysteries and thrillers always provide stories. There’s a problem and the resolution of the problem. A lot of people say that in America a lot of adults are now reading young adult books, because young adult books still contain stories in a big way.

G.A.: Very interesting!

J.M.D.: In a way that doesn’t make sense, but the reason it happens is because there’s a story: there’s this guy, there’s the villain, there’s the satisfaction of the struggle and there’s a resolution to the struggle. Mysteries and thrillers tend to provide that, they don’t have open endings, they don’t have wanderings from character to character. They’re not about some guy living in the suburbs who’s unhappy with his life, they’re about some guy living in the suburbs who’s being chased by killers, so therefore it’s automatically more interesting. If you look back at traditional big selling novels in the 30’s and 40’s, they were very story oriented, and then some time in the 60’s they became less story oriented and more oriented towards abstract qualities. I think that’s why people who wanted to read began to move over it. At the same time, I think mysteries and thrillers have got much better.

G.A.: That’s my impression as well.

J.M.D.: A lot of those kind of detective novels of the 50’s are pretty terrible, there are some good ones but there’s a whole bunch of really bad ones and that’s because the better writers were writing literary novels. Now, I think, what happens is that literary writers tend to be a small university group. It’s kind of the way poetry is in the US, there are very few poets, there are very few people who read it,  you can’t sell poetry properly, it’s something in the universities. The literary novels ended up being over there as well, while people were looking for the entertainment value over here, and that’s part of it. And also probably a darker view of the world. I mean, what other genres are there that do this? Romance novels tend to be repetitive, westerns – nobody believes those anymore so… I don’t know if I’m answering your question but I’m trying.

G.A.: There is a debate in Europe, maybe in Romania especially, whether crime fiction is literature or not.

J.M.D.: It’s not like Paradise in the US either, not everyone thinks crime literature is literature, they still review it on a different page. There’s a sort of antipathy towards literary fiction that’s come about so that for example in movies I’ve heard that movie distributors, if a movie won the Palme d’Or at Cannes they don’t want to put that on the ad because Americans won’t go see it, they’d go „oh, it’s one of those arty things, I don’t wanna see that”. A lot of people react to literary fiction that way. There’s still plenty of people who think that mysteries are good because they’re not literature, which is a strange statement, but the idea that all literary fiction is good and all crime fiction is bad or cheap or something is a totally ridiculous idea. Most literary fiction isn’t very good, most crime fiction isn’t very good, but they’re all operating on the same level, and then part of the problem comes simply from the marketing aspect. If a book comes out and they decide to market it as crime fiction, then it becomes crime fiction, even though it might not be very different from a novel they market as a literary fiction. If a crime novel is written by a certain writer, it’s sold as literary fiction and it can have the same sort of things going on, so these distinctions are artificial and I think they’re meaningless. Most books, most paintings, most movies are not that good, that’s it, the ones that are good are good because they’re good, they’re not good because they’re literary fiction or crime fiction.

G.A.: So it’s also a marketing strategy about it.

J.M.D.: Yeah, but marketing is a different thing from literary value. What the marketplace demands is something different than what literature demands. The whole idea of the marketplace is sell stuff. I’ve known the case of many books and many movies that were marketed wrong. So people didn’t understand what they were buying, and when they bought they were surprised. I knew a guy who wrote a book called „Werewolf”, and the book was actually a mystery, there was no werewolf in it,  but everyone thought the book was a horror and when they bought the book they were shocked, they didn’t like it, so it was a marketing mistake. But to say „it’s a really interesting book that you’re gonna like” isn’t very good marketing either. „This is good, trust me” – it can be correct, it can be wrong. There are different demands there, I think, and in reality all writing is a kind of spectrum and they draw lines here and there once in a while and then they take something and sell it – „here, this is a best-seller”, „this is a mystery”, „oh, if we take this mystery and sell it here then it’s a different kind of book”, and that has nothing to do with the writing, as it seems to me, or it has little to do with it.

G.A.: Are there any differences between the styles of writing crime fiction in the US as opposed to those in Europe? In the US or in Europe in different cultures or countries are there some specific traits that are reflected in the style of writing?

J.M.D.: I think the styles of crime fiction will differ according to the appeals of different nationalities. Freud said that artists create because they’re neurotic, they’re trying to deal with issues that bother them deeply. If, in dealing with those issues, they also help less neurotic people who have the same issue, then it’s successful art, so that most books are about life and death and their meaning, except that for some reason they bother the artist more and therefore are more expressive. So, first of all, the styles can be different from writer to writer, but they’re also different according to national preoccupations, like history.

G.A.: How, exactly?

J.M.D.: Here in Romania there was a dictatorship – this is still on your mind and it’s going to then form whatever kind of art is made. In the US there wasn’t a dictatorship so that people are not going to have the same preoccupation there. There’s a lot about the American crime writing that’s very much related to the western. Individuals, strong individuals, opposing evil. I’ve talked with Japanese writers and in their culture it’s not about individuals. There are strong individuals, but it’s about the group, the culture as a whole. Therefore, when they look at crime fiction it’s a different view. In „Sherlock Holmes”, let’s say, there’s that whole British view of „oh, the world is British and it’s wonderful” and then evil comes in, the murderer, then you have to chase the snake out of the garden of Eden and then it’s Eden again. If you look at something like Raymond Chandler, the city is evil, there’s a lot of evil going on in there.

G.A.: But there’s a Philip Marlowe.

J.M.D.: What Philip Marlowe is trying to do in there is right one particular wrong. He’s not going to change the city, all the cops, the evil out there, but he’s going to get rid of this one particular evil and that’s what he does by the end of the book. That’s a very different kind of attitude, but it’s also very much about Philip Marlowe the individual being strong whereas other people are weak. And all of these things go across the cultural spectrum. Now, most people say „European crime fiction tends to have less conclusive resolutions” and this is sometimes the complaint about European movies too. American movies have a definitie resolution. It’s not always true, but in general they tend to have a very definite resolution It can be happy, they usually say „happy ending”, it can be unhappy, but what they have is they have a definite ending and the plot closes. Open endings annoy a lot, particularly in crime fiction. If you write a crime novel in which you don’t reveal who the murderer is, many people will just hate you for it, they won’t think it’s clever, or interesting or anything like that. European books, or crime books at least, tend to be more allusive, more literary in that sort of way, whereas the American ones are very definite.

G.A.: You have written eight novels by now and a lot of short stories. Can you find something common in everything you have written, maybe a message which you want to put through?

J.M.D.: Ask my psychiatrist! I’m joking, I don’t have a psychiatrist. The only thing I can think of is this: one time my agent – he was an editor too – said this: „you know, all of your books are about fascism”.

G.A.: And you didn’t know it!

J.M.D.: I knew it was about Nazis, or white supremacists, but I did a lot of thinking about that and I thought that my preoccupation is I don’t really understand why people are cruel, why they do evil. If you look at all of my books, they’re about people who are exceptionally cruel, but they’re doing it out of some kind of sense of righteousness or something. They decide they have to kill someone because the person is inconvenient. I don’t understand that sort of leap of thought, of how you can do that to somebody, how you can kill anybody for that matter. So I think most of them sort of revolve around this, why people are cruel. It’s like a simple question with no answer. I think that’s what most art is motivated by. There’s a short story by Isaac Singer which I’ve always loved, „Old Love”, and it sort of ends with this guy thinking that he doesn’t understand why a man lives and why a man dies. It’s a beautiful story and a beautiful expression of this problem we all think about. Why do people die? This seems like a terrible thing. Why do we lose them? You can say „oh, the Universe bla bla bla” or religion or whatever, that it’s the way of the world, but it’s still horrible when someone dies and it seems totally unjust in a way. I think all artists, all art, whether it’s writing or not, are trying to get to a simple problem that can’t be solved. So I think mine are about cruelty. I could be wrong, I’ve read them but I can’t understand my own books.

G.A.: You have to read them more.

J.M.D.: Yeah, I understand other people’s books but mine seem to be elusive.

G.A.: What objectives have you set for yourself as the president of the IACW?

J.M.D.: It’s very simple, I want writers of different backgrounds and different thinking to come together and get to know each other, influence each other, rather than preoccupy themselves with the same obsessions that everyone in their group has. I think that the world is an interesting place and people ought to learn more about it. There’s a quote from a musical, I think, „life’s a banquet and most of the poor suckers are starving”. Most people are presented with all of these wonderful opportunities of things to do and most people don’t do much. I thought that, with IACW, it was basically to just get everyone together and to relate, to share. Romania has something to teach Germany and Germany has something to teach Spain and Japan and every other place, as long as you’re acceptive to it.

G.A.: How can Romanian crime writers attract attention on themselves in this area?

J.M.D.: I think that all that anybody can do is just keep writing and keep offering and then every once in a while something will happen. There’s a sort of „critical mass”, enough stuff has to accumulate till someone notices it. It isn’t like a formula, because they’re going to be unique things about Romanian crime fiction and when one of those things becomes compelling out there, then it’s gonna draw it all out. We spent a lot of time talking about, let’s say, why the Swedish writers became so popular. I don’t know. I have theories, but it has to be that something they’re doing is appealing on a universal level, so I think that Romanian writers, or anyone for that matter, should try to speak to a problem of humanity. Sometimes crime writing can be so local that it doesn’t speak to the larger audience. There’s a huge ammount of Japanese crime writers that don’t get translated. Apparently they’re very compelling to Japanese readers; and then every once in a while someone like Natsuo Kirino writes things and people are amazed and they get it and it isn’t because she made a plan, it’s just because she wrote it the best she could and what she’s writing about happens to be something that North-americans and Europeans are interested in, the situation of women. They’re not interested about the situation of women in the Japanese society, but somehow her books are about women in the Japanese society but also speak to women in German society, French society, Italian society. So I think that’s it, there’s no easy answer, just keep working at it and try to tell good stories and eventually it hits in some way. I don’t know what the Swedes have, a magic, I don’t know, or it’s just that once some Swedes are popular, the publishers went after other Swedes, you can look at something like that. It’s hard to tell what makes books sell.

G.A.: Should the Ministry of Culture and the Romanian Institute of Culture have a say in this?

J.M.D.: I was talking to an Estonian writer. There are a few millions of Estonians. You can’t be a crime writer in a country like that. You can write a crime novel and you could sell it to everybody in Estonia and you would hardly make a profit. It comes to the terrible problem of the tyranny of bigger languages, that the biggest book markets in the world are in the US, Germany and Japan. If there are enough people reading French, then French can hear it. The further you go down the list, the economics gets more and more iffy, which is supposedly why Joseph Conrad made the decision that he would learn to write in English. He knew English, but he was trying to decide between writing in French or writing in English, but he wasn’t gonna write in Polish. This was his situation, it’s not a realistic situation for many poets/writers whose French wouldn’t be good enough or whose English wouldn’t be good enough to publish in those languages. It is a problem, but at the same time it’s not the Ministry of Culture that writes the books, it’s the authors who are writing the books, and if they can get the books somehow to someone’s attention, maybe something happens. Even if you’re an American writer writing the most popular vampire book that you can come up with, you may still do nothing and not be able to sell it. A certain ammount of accident is involved in this sort of thing. I can see the problem, yeah.

G.A.: Romanian literature is almost unknown in the world. There were some good intentions by translating poetry but do you think it would be a better way to make it known in the world through crime literature which is much more appealing for readers?

J.M.D.: Yeah, it’s much more likely to bring a lot of money. If you think of the Scandinavians, there was the „Laughing policeman” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö that got noticed and then became a movie and then the next thing you know there’s „Smilla’s sense of snow” by Peter Høeg, and that makes a hit and suddenly they’re paying attention to what Swedish writers are doing, or what Scandinavian writers are doing. Yes, Romanian literature is not well known outside of a small group of people, but if one can get noticed, then another one would be noticed and another one. If one romanian crime novel would be a big success, then there’d be others. So there needs to be a constant kind of offering in order to do this. But the marketplace is a very difficult thing to figure out.

G.A.: Do you have a favourite setting for the story of your novel to take place?

J.M.D.: No, I really don’t, the setting is important for the feeling of things and so on, but it’s usually not the main thing I’m looking at. I do have definite settings, I have a novel in New Orleans, one in New York, but I don’t really have a favourite setting. I’ve been working on a novel set in Venice in the 1700’s. It depends on what I’m interested in at that time. Some are probably better than others, but sometimes I don’t think the setting matters for the story.

G.A.: Do you consider placing the story of one of your novels somewhere in Romania or in Bucharest?

J.M.D.: I am now! I had never seen it before so I couldn’t have imagined it except from pictures so…

G.A.: You will be very close to Castle Bran.

J.M.D.: Why not? Maybe I’ll be inspired to become the best vampire writer!

G.A.: Do you think that the idea of some Romanian crime writers of placing the action of their novels somewhere in the West, thinking that it would be more appealing for the readers, is a good one?

J.M.D.: I think some editors would say yes, I don’t necessarily agree, but there’s some type of appeal. I knew a writer – his name was Les Roberts – who said that his best book was one called „Pepper Pike” and the reason he said this was his best selling book is that „Pepper Pike” is a highway in Cleveland, Ohio, and he said the book sold like mad in Cleveland. People could resonate with that, they would go like „hey, I live near there!” So books that are set, for example, in New York City or Los Angeles automatically have a larger audience in that respective city. A book set in Paris has a romantic appeal because people have a certain notion about Paris, whether they’ve been there or not and whether it’s right or not. A lot of these English mysteries are appealing because it’s an imaginary England. Right now in England there’s a McDonald’s, it’s not like it’s in the books. One strategy used by a lot of writers is they try to write international thrillers, where they take place in several countries, it’s like the Orient Express.. But it seems to me that certain kinds of things would be better set in a certain kind of ambiance. The fact that people don’t know Bucharest wouldn’t really hurt it if it’s a certain kind of spy thriller or something like that, but it would be very important to make people feel like they knew it after they read it. Americans are very bad with geography.

1. George Arion and Jim Madison Davis at the Flacăra Magazine’s editorial office
2. Doing research at the Peles Castle
3. An American writer at Rasnov
4. Writers need relaxation, too
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