Although I’d dreamed of writing when I was a kid growing up in Baltimore, life kept getting in the way of dreams, when it should have been the other way around. And so it was only after several careers, which included food service, English teacher and psych nurse, that I finally took the plunge and dove headfirst into fiction writing–though at first it felt more like a belly flop.
Coming from an academic background, I read lots of books on the craft of writing, most of which were unhelpful. (FYI, a decidedly helpful book is Stephen King’s On Writing.) Wading through the material, one warning kept appearing, usually in all caps and with an exclamation point or two:
DO NOT MIX GENRES!
I understood the danger. Readers like to know what they’re getting into and if a book crossed too many genres–maybe a science-fiction western with a comic slant–it would fall by the wayside. And yet following this rule too strictly is self-limiting. I agree with David Byrne:
Putting everything into little genres is counterproductive. You’re not going to get too many surprises if you only focus on the stuff that fits inside the box that you know.
In other words, good writers make their own boxes. Either a book works, or it doesn’t.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet John Connolly at a book signing on a Friday night in London. Connolly is the author of the Charlie Parker thrillers. For those of you not familiar with the series, they’re rather odd books with elements of crime fiction, myth, supernatural, with a dash of dark humor for spice.
Incredibly, these disparate elements come together to form a compelling universe of good and evil, and something in-between.
It doesn’t hurt that his writer’s toolbox is full. He’s a gifted stylist whose prose often veers into the poetic. And he’s no slouch at characterization. His characters not only bleed, but eat, fall in love, and make bad jokes. They live outside the pages.So how does Connolly do it?
For me, one of Connoly’s most touching characterizations was that of mechanic Willie Brew, whose story figures prominently in The Reapers. Save for his association with Charlie Parker and his lethal friends Louis and Angel, Willie’s sixty years on earth have passed largely unnoticed. A workaday everyman, he worked at fixing cars, got married, got divorced, then worked some more. But in Connolly’s hands Willie’s small life becomes very large, achieving a certain dignity. When Willie’s asked to put everything at risk for his friends, we know exactly what he’s giving up.
I still think about Willie Brew. If he had the chance to do it all over again, would he make the same decision?
But perhaps the most compelling part of these novels is in Connolly’s portrayal of evil. Too often evil is rendered in the abstract, Have you ever noticed that evil is often sensed, rather than seen or felt? I think writers sometimes shy away from the concrete in their descriptions because they fear winding up with a cartoon devil with horns and tail that wouldn’t scare a five-year-old.
Here’s hoping Charlie Parker keeps fighting the darkness for a long, long time.But Connolly doesn’t look away from the face of evil. In his books, it is felt, seen, smelled, touched and even…well, you get the idea.