Bestselling crime fiction writers Alafair Burke (Never Tell) and Lisa Unger (Heartbroken) answered a couple of questions about their writing via email.
What people most inspired you to write crime fiction?
Burke: There's an obvious answer here for the daughter of a writer (crime fiction master James Lee Burke) and a librarian, but I'd chalk it up to Sue Grafton and Michael Connelly. I had been a fan of mysteries and crime fiction since I was a child, but Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone series was the first time I remember getting to know a character who seemed like someone I might actually hang around in real life. Every year, I know that the day a Kinsey book comes out is like a visit from an old friend. I started reading Michael Connelly very early in his career. His Harry Bosch series is unparalleled in its authentic depiction of police procedure and culture, yet always emphasizes the human stories revealed by a criminal case. When I set out to write my first novel, I basically wanted to write like Michael Connelly and Sue Grafton's secret love child.
Unger: Truman Capote was an early favorite. His prose and his sad, deep explorations into the human heart always moved and fascinated me. But it was In Cold Blood that showed me that we can write about crime in all its ugliness (in this case, it was a nonfiction account) and do it with breathless beauty and deep compassion.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier was my first real thriller. I was swept away by the voice, the imagery, and the idea of the young woman caught in harrowing and extraordinary circumstances. I have been hooked on this type of story ever since, and many of the themes I encountered there — the lost girl, the corrosive nature of secrets — lace their way through my work even today.
Crime fiction used to be, for the most part, a boys club. Those days are gone, but how do you think crime fiction written by women differs from that written by men — or does it?
Burke: It shouldn't differ. If agents and editors and readers didn't have different expectations of writers based on gender, I truly believe that there would be none of this talk about women writers being different from male writers. But that's not the world we live in.
In very subtle ways, the gender of an author changes the subjective experience of the reader. It shapes expectations. It affects marketing: the title of the book, the look of the jacket, the emphasis of the copy on the book jacket. Editors are more likely to press women to include a romance angle or to discourage them from writing male lead characters. On the other hand, I know many male authors who believe that women are given more leeway in writing violence than men. Ultimately, though, I don't think any of this matters to readers. They just want to read good books.
Unger: I hesitate to make sweeping judgments about how men write versus how women write. When I sit down at the keyboard, I am nothing but a writer trying to tell a story in the best way I can. And that's true for most writers I know — male or female.
Certainly, we all bring our experiences to the page, our various ways of seeing the world, our female or male perspectives. But when I think about the writers I love — Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, Kate Atkinson, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Stephen King, Patricia Highsmith or Karin Slaughter — I am moved by the work. It may be because of the depth of their characters, the beauty of their prose, or the richness of their plots. I am not sure that I see a difference — a male or female quality to what they write.
As far as a boy's club goes, I think men are better at lifting each other up and helping each other along in the business than women are. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But I wish that women were better at it, at mentoring and encouraging and helping each other. I think this is something that could use improvement in most businesses, though, not just in the business of publishing.