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’?
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:
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir and a collection of lyrical essays. In brief: ‘Heaven’s Rage is an imaginative autobiography. Reporting on feelings people don’t usually own up to, Leslie Tate explores addiction, cross-dressing and the hidden sides of families. Writing lyrically, he brings together stories of bullying, childhood dreams, thwarted creativity and late-life illness, 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.
- Purple is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of modern love and a family saga. Set in the North of England, it follows the story of shy ingénue Matthew Lavender living through the wildness of the 60s and his grandmother Mary, born into a traditional working-class family. Both are innocents who have to learn more about long-term love and commitment, earning their independence through a series of revealing and closely-observed relationships. Purple is the first part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Purple here.
- Blue tells the story of Richard and Vanessa Lavender, who join a 90s feminist collective sharing childcare, political activism and open relationships. Boosted by their ‘wider network’ they take secondary partners, throw parties and observe the dance of relationships amongst their friends. But finding a balance between power and restraint, and handling shared love, proves difficult… Blue is the second part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Blue here.