I'm just back from Thrillerfest, the writing conference for aspiring and published Thriller writers held in New York City each year. I'll be posting some pictures soon - I'm still a little bit zombielike and exhausted from nearly a week of late nights and extended cocktail hours - but for now I want to tell you about a session I went to called something like "Thrillers - Can They Be Both Smart AND Exciting?"
Now the main reason I went to this panel was that my brother, Mike Cooper, was on it. So was Andrew Pyper, a Canadian author whose work I love and who deserves a LOT more attention.
Then there were a bunch of other guys.
Sorry so blurry, but that's Mike, me, author Joe Finder, MWA president Margery Flax, and Andrew Pyper. Someone with even fewer phone skills than me took the shot
I mean them no disrespect when I say that their comments - all considered, all earnest - did not do much for me. Everyone agreed with the quickly established thesis (yes, in fact, smart+exciting is not only possible, but recommended) so there went any possible dramatic tension. What happened, instead, is that everyone started holding up exactly the same example of how to write every possible facet of a thriller.
That example is Lee Child and the Reacher series, which is a fine, fine collection of books. But it's pretty damn narrow for defining success in a genre. Must, then, all our heroes be uncommunicative yet stunningly resourceful in life or death situations? Must all our prose be staccato, our dialog terse, our action scenes robust? Without the qualities of a Reacher novel, will our own fail or pale in comparison? (Would you guys like me better if i had a british accent and a better wardrobe?)
I kept thinking of books I considered smart and exciting that did not cleave to this model at all - Mr. Pyper's, for one, but also novels by Richard Price and Barbara Vine and Joe Hill and Dan Simmons and all kinds of other oddball wordslingers. Now I'm sure that the panelists had other examples too (Mike did mention a wide swath, in fact) but I do think there is a danger in deciding that we know what a genre should look like based on what we've seen of it in the past. This could apply to any genre, of course, but because thrillers are a relatively recent phenomenon (fast-paced suspense novels can be found going way back in history, but the term itself is newish) I think it's especially dangerous to decide we know all about What Should Be based on a small sampling of books.
I might be especially sensitive to this because I don't really stick to a single genre when I write. In fact, I was sitting in the audience having a whole silent internal conversation with myself (as usual, when bored, i gave everyone imaginary haircuts and brow waxes and fashion makeovers; yeah, it's damn shallow of me but what else are you going to do in a windowless hotel ballroom?) when it occurred to me that I don't really write thrillers. AFTERTIME is kind of sort of a zombie thriller, I guess. And my young adult books are thriller-y-ish. But they're also part romance and part paranormal and part urban fantasy and part other parts. People take lots of breaks from being chased around to do a considerable amount of navel gazing (I like to think it is lyrical navel gazing, but still...) This type of plot, uh, device (if one can call it that) is well outside the norms of the thriller genre, and I guess I was feeling a little inadequate to consider my book held up against a standard it cannot possibly meet.
So...a toast to Reacher. But also a toast to Pyper's self-loathing addict hero Bart Crane in LOST GIRLS, Price's mean and bloody but often contemplative streets in CLOCKERS, and Simmons' THE TERROR, in which a monster that may or may not exist and a pair of ships and the frigid landscape of the north are as deeply drawn characters as any in the ensemble cast. Toast these, read these, and please don't exclude these from any defining of the Thriller canon.
One little plea to my fellow Pens...I *hate* Michael Jackson's "Thriller" - everything about it from the music video to the thumping bass to the girlish whooping to the shoulder pads. God, I hate that thing. So if you're gonna post about it I'd appreciate a little advance notice so I don't get that odious wreck stuck in my head all day.
...and on that grumpy note I think it's time for bed! I missed y'all!