I met crime novelist and counsellor Amanda Thow on a University of East Anglia/Guardian creative writing course. I asked Amanda about what detective fiction does for the reader and the relationship between this genre and her wide-ranging life-experiences.
Leslie: What do you enjoy about crime fiction?
Amanda: I like being challenged by a puzzle; I always try to work out who has `dunnit’ and it gives me great satisfaction if I get it right. For me it’s an escape from my stressful life and probably a release from the darkness and violence in me that finds no other outlet, except as both a reader and writer of crime fiction. I remember you once saying, Leslie, that I wrote violent action scenes in a compelling – slightly scary – way.
Leslie: I did say that, and it’s true! So, let me ask you, Amanda, who you read as models for that ‘strongly charged’ kind of fiction’?
Amanda: I like writers who write simply and yet powerfully with lots of strong characters and complex interwoven plots, eg William Boyd and Jonathan Franzen.
Leslie: Some critics describe crime stories as an irrelevant escape or nothing but a commercial enterprise. Others point to something deeper – maybe a moral purpose. What’s your view?
Amanda: No escape is irrelevant, but an essential part of life. Yes, in part it’s a commercial enterprise but no writer can write simply to make money, there are so many easier ways. I do also think it expresses something deeper. We are story tellers by nature and we like to be stirred, excited, frightened – think of ghost stories told around a campfire. All my children have loved to be told stories from an early age. As far as ‘moral purpose’ goes, I’m not quite sure, but the genre certainly questions the gap between appearance and reality in many people’s lives and hypocrisy in general.
Leslie: What have you learned about writing crime fiction from the courses you’ve been on and speakers you’ve heard?
Amanda: I think the arc of the story is important and was not something I’d paid enough attention to in the past. One agent said that in every scene you should ask yourself whether the reader needs to know this detail at this particular point and if they don’t, remove it! This has helped me pare down my chapters quite considerably and helped with the problem of `momentum’ that some agents have picked up on.
Leslie: Which of the creative writing mantras, such as ‘show don’t tell’, do you accept and which do you question?
Amanda: Andrew Willie at the Festival of Writing gave a very good talk about how it’s important not to adhere too strictly to `show don’t tell’ or there is no place for lyricism. You can read about it here in my blog.
Mark Twain said, `Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” I’ve certainly learnt not to overwrite, or use too many Latinate words or treat the reader as a bit of an idiot by over-explaining or giving `stage directions’ that are unnecessary. When I reread what I’ve written in the past, I am shocked by the number of extraneous words!
One of my favourite writing quotes is: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” – Stephen King. I have always been able to sit down and write, even if I haven’t felt like it. I had a very disciplined childhood, an only child until 9, so I think that helps. I am quite self-sufficient.
Leslie: In your blog you say that in writing: ‘the idea is to create a dream world that the reader is completely immersed in’. Would you like to expand on that idea?
Amanda: Nothing must jar or the illusion is lost. A dream world is the perfect escape for the reader, taking them away from their own humdrum or painful or stressful existence as a form of respite. Isn’t that why – in part – we all read fiction and watch movies?
Leslie: Do you see any relationship between your work counselling clients and reading/writing crime fiction?
Amanda: Yes, you have to be fascinated by people and their stories in order to do both. You have much more power, writing fiction, as you have (some) control over the lives of your characters. And of course it would be completely unethical ever to write about the real lives of my clients, although it does naturally inform my knowledge of people of all faiths, nationalities, ethnicities etc which is helpful in my understanding of the many complexities of human nature in general.
Leslie: Do you want to expand on your statement in your blog: ‘It’s recognition from strangers I desire’?
Amanda: I would like to be able to touch people’s lives through my stories even if only in entertaining them and maybe making them think differently about a particular issue, eg disability.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here