I am a bad mystery author.
Quite often (okay, once every few months, but for me, that’s often), I’m asked by a reader, an interviewer, or just this guy who always follows me into the Stop & Shop, “what do YOU like to read?” The guy at the supermarket asks everybody that question, so I’ll discount his participation, but the others seem to think that, as a published author, my taste in reading is in some way more relevant than their own, which it’s not.
Because I have a reputation, and a very minor one, for including humor in my writing, I can get away with a snappy comeback like “I read graffiti,” “I read my wife’s moods, in order to stay alive,” “who said I could read?” or “I read grocery lists,” which really only works on the supermarket guy. But the truth is, I’m embarrassed to say what I really read, because it’s not what they want to hear.
I’ll confess it here: I’m a mystery author. I don’t really read mysteries all that much.
It’s not that I don’t find the form interesting. It’s not that I don’t ENJOY the odd mystery book here and there. But the sad fact is, after a day of toiling away at my own meager work, it’s depressing to read someone who does it better, and whose book is, after all, finished. It all seems so easy for those other authors–even though I know it’s really not, their work is between covers and has a copyright date on it, and everything, so it feels like they’re just flaunting their success at me.
Besides, I’ve seen enough words for one day. Spending hours staring at a screen with words on it, I believe, has a finite capacity. After a certain number of words, my brain goes into a fetal position and gives up for the day. I just can’t deal with any more, especially if the words are actually challenging.
And the sad fact is, when I do read for pleasure, I tend more toward non-fiction than fiction. I’m currently listening to an audiobook of Manhunt, a description of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth, by James L. Swanson. Booth has just gotten to the home of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd to get his broken leg set, and at the rate I’m going, it’ll be a lot more than twelve days before they shoot him in a barn in Virginia.
Why don’t I read more mysteries? Well, for one, I don’t want to steal stuff inadvertently (or even advertently) from other authors, and there’s sure to be some morsel of plot that will make me go: “oh yeah, that would work perfectly with the story I’m working on now!” I’d have to suppress that impulse, and would do so, but it’s just too upsetting to go through the process.
There are certain authors I can’t read when I’m writing. For days, my work will sound like a bad imitation of theirs. Scarier than that, I’ve been told at least once (okay, once) that at least one (okay, one) author can’t read me while writing. I assume reading too much of my writing while working on one’s own would lead to an upset stomach. Lord knows, that’s what happens to me.
On the other hand, I do sometimes read mysteries by friends I’ve met through this adventure of an industry. For example, this week I read the ARC of Julia Spencer-Fleming‘s upcoming All Mortal Flesh, and I’ve gotta tell ya, it’s dynamite. Luckily, Julia and I don’t write on similar themes–her heroine is an Episcopal priest, and my characters are about as not an Episcopal priest as you can get without actually being a different species. But Julia writes with humor, with emotion and with an evil sense of plot and pacing that will keep you turning pages, which is what this business is all about. I’d ask her how she does it, but then she’d just tell me, and I still wouldn’t do it as well, and that would be the waste of an afternoon.
What was I talking about? Oh yes, what I read.
A few years ago, an interviewer asked me what my favorite book was, and I said, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo: A Celebration of the Marx Brothers and a Satire on the Rest of the World, by Joe Adamson. For some reason, the interviewer thought I was kidding. I wasn’t. Concerning itself with one (well, four) of my favorite subjects, this is the book that I would have written if Adamson hadn’t gotten there first. It’s out of print now, but you can find a copy. The information is copious, and it’s a funny, funny book.
I know what I was supposed to say. I should have looked thoughtful and said, “you know, my real influences have been Chandler and Hammett, but I’d have to say my favorite book is The Canterbury Tales. What a depth and breadth of character!” Of course, I wouldn’t have a clue what I was talking about, and I wouldn’t know one Canterbury Tale from another, but that’s what you’re supposed to say. (Although you can substitute Moby-Dick or Ulysses for The Canterbury Tales and still be considered acceptable.
A lot of people cite Dickens, Shakespeare, Salinger or (god help us) James Joyce as influences. For me, it was Joe Adamson for how to make non-fiction entertaining, and for storytelling, I had to go to Irwin Shaw. A storyteller beyond compare, Shaw’s novels had lots of juicy plot to chew on, and characters who weren’t stupid, which is a plus. If you haven’t, check out Nightwork, in which a hotel clerk’s life changes when he comes across a tube filled with money one night. Some would say shallow; I say, ahh.
You don’t get to choose your influences, or everybody would be writing in iambic pentameter, and wearing accordion collars. And those would chafe like crazy in this heat.
What it comes down to is, it doesn’t matter what an author reads. It matters what an author writes. And you should read what you want to read. Assuming, of course, that my books are included on that list.
After all, a guy’s got to have priorities.