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For crime writers James W. Hall, Lisa Unger, it all comes down to human element

How do crime fiction writers create the books that keep us holding our breath as we turn the pages?

You can gain insight into that process at the Times Festival of Reading, where two bestselling authors of mysteries will share a conversation about their craft and art.

James W. Hall lives in Coral Gables — he recently retired as a professor of creative writing at Florida International University — and sets his books in South Florida. Many of them are part of a series about Thorn, the aptly named fishing guide, investigator and prickly knight errant. In Hall's most recent novel, Silencer, Thorn is kidnapped while investigating the murder of a powerful Florida rancher and races against time to save himself and others from terrible peril.

Lisa Unger, who worked in the publishing industry before turning author herself, lives in Clearwater and has set her mysteries in New York, Florida and other locales. Her most recent, Darkness, My Old Friend, returns readers to the Hollows, the village in upstate New York that was the setting for her 2010 novel Fragile. This time, ex-cop Jones Cooper delves into the cold case of a missing woman while trying to avoid a psychic with predictions about his future.

The Times asked Hall and Unger three questions about mystery writing. Here are their answers.

1Contemporary technology, such as the Internet and cell phones, has changed crime and law enforcement in many ways. It has also changed crime fiction. What impact has technology had on how you create plots and characters?

Hall: I'm not a fan of CSI and the super-high-tech crime dramas. Too much sci-fi hardware crowds out the people. As it happens, my recurring hero, Thorn, is even more isolated from and hostile towards modern technology. He lives a Thoreauvian life and doesn't own any of the high-tech stuff ordinary crime solvers these day revel in. So when he's forced to deal with iPhones or iPads or even the Internet, he comes at it with a primitive's wonder and ineptitude, which gives me a nice tension to work with. Also, I've long believed that having phone conversations at crucial points in a narrative is a lazy kind of storytelling. It may speed things up, but it robs stories of the kind of face-to-face drama that I think readers hunger for.

Unger: In life our cell phones, the Internet, Facebook and other social media keep us more connected, speed up the pace of our lives, distract and addle us — all while delivering a stream of information we can't possibly process. And because this affects our world, it necessarily affects our fiction, maybe especially crime fiction. But ultimately I am still writing about people, how they live, what motivates and drives them. I'm still asking questions about human nature: Why do we lie and kill? Why are some of us running towards disaster, while others are running away? For me, character is king, and my plot flows from those characters. How they communicate with each other — and the immediacy of those communications — is very important, but not nearly as important as what they're actually saying.

2If you could have a conversation with one crime fiction writer who is no longer living, who would it be and why?

Hall: I'd love to spend an hour or two with Robert Parker [author of the Spenser series and other books]. I met him a couple of times and remember our conversation almost word for word. He was one of the funniest and most no-nonsense writers I've ever met. And one of the wisest.

Unger: I have deeply admired the work of Patricia Highsmith, and I would love to take her to lunch — even though I understand that she wasn't the best lunch companion. With her lean, powerful and evocative prose, Highsmith delivered absolutely riveting and dark character portraits, just brilliant novels. And she was a female standout in the very male-dominated noir world. A student of human nature, she endlessly pored over texts on abnormal psychology. I can relate to that kind of curiosity; I think we would have had a lot to talk about. Though she has written some of crime fiction's most enduring tales — Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, to name just two — many readers don't know her name. That has changed some in recent years, and I hope people continue to discover her.

3Great crime fiction can genuinely scare its readers. Have you ever scared yourself while writing your books?

Hall: I try to write the kind of book I want to read and also to write it in such a way that I experience the same surprises and emotions I'm hoping my reader will experience. If I deeply lament the death of a particular character, the chances are good that most readers will feel sorrow for their death too. So yes, I scare myself a lot. The scariest part of the whole process for me is bringing to life some pretty twisted bad guys. When they start talking in my throat as I'm typing, yeah, that's creepy.

Unger: I scare myself all the time. But the page is the place where I exorcise many of those demons. Because I do have such a vivid, dark and powerful imagination, I need to release that energy. What better place to explore fear and all its many faces than in crime fiction? The world can be frightening and terribly unjust. And readers turn to fiction not just to escape life, but also to understand it. Between the covers of a book, people find order in chaos — there's a beginning, a middle and an end. Generally, justice is served, and the line between right and wrong is fairly clear. If readers turn to fiction for all of these things, then perhaps writers write for many of the same reasons.

James W. Hall and Lisa Unger

They will speak at 10 a.m.

Saturday at Poynter

Institute Barnes Pavilion.

For crime writers James W. Hall, Lisa Unger, it all comes down to human element 10/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 15, 2011 5:31am]

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