Tuesday, April 24, 2007

ON VIOLENCE

"Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at gravemaking?"
*** Shakespeare


RO: I guess violence, specifically gun violence, is on a lot of people's minds in light of recent events. Fortunately for me, I write cozies - yes there is murder and mayhem, but also heavy doses of humor to lighten up the action.

My victims are more likely to get struck by lightning on the golf course while sabotaging a rival's sprinkler system (haven't used that but you get the idea..) than to be blown away by a 9mm. How do you deal with writing about violence and murder...especially at a time like this?

JAN: I was thinking about this all week, but I wasn't so much thinking about gun violence as much as the glorification of all violence. No question that's what our culture does. It's easy to blame it on video games, television and movies, but I think all storytellers play a role. My stuff isn't cozy, it's gritty and realistic. There isn't any gun play in Yesterday's Fatal, but life is still pretty cheap. I don't deal with serial killers, mental illness or even crimes of passion. My bad guys are all pretty logical. Yes, I can come up with a hundred rationalizations why its okay, but I'm not sure it is. And

I'm really tired of hearing everyone pass the blame off to someone else - gun laws, mental health inadequacies, media, campus security, instead of people agreeing that it all has to be addressed. I've got kids on college campuses....this one is going to haunt me for a while.

HANK: I read a draft manscript from a writer who is going to be great sometime soon. The person is new to the mystery-writing world, and although is still "finding her pins," as Hallie always says, the writer is going to be really good.

But in the first page of the ms., something blows up and 700 people are killed. Then the main character goes home and has dinner. I said, you know, you don't have to kill 700 people. That would be tragic and devastating, and the main character would be scarred and harmed forever.
She wouldn't go home and have dinner, unless she were in shock.

The writer said--it doesn't matter, we don't know those people. I said yeah, but if it were real, someone would know them. Why isn't it just as suspenseful to have the bomb almost go off? And almost kill 700 people?That's even scarier and more suspenseful.

Now trust me, this person is a really good writer. But I'm haunted by killing hundreds of people. Even fictional people. Without a wince. (Am I a wimp here?)

Did you see Stranger Than Fiction? When (and I won't give anything away, but it's a fascinating movie)a mystery novelist played by Emma Thompson is haunted by the characters she's killed, because she suddenly thinks they might be real?

Although..one more thought...the remarkable A. O. Scott (in a very thoughtful NY Times article) says most adults easily know the difference between real and make-believe.

HALLIE: An interesting idea that it's okay to kill people/characters that you/readers don't know. Scary.

I remember my very very first radio interview back in 2000 I was asked if I thought that people who committed all the terrible crimes in today's world were getting their ideas from murder mysteries. I said that world of most mystery novels is one in which you can tell evil from innocence, and for the most part justice is served. If only the real world were that way.

Having said that, I sometimes wonder if we don't numb our audiences to murder and mayhem.

There's violence in my books. And plenty of shades of gray in terms of good and evil. But I hope I never kill off a character without a twinge.

5 comments:

The Writers' Group said...

I'm of the opinion that writers tend to reflect life; writing about violence and tragedy is our way of processing the mayhem around us. The story I wrote is an attempt to make right a thousand wrongs. I wanted to write a happy ending for lives that didn't appear to have one. As Hallie said, to create justice. I'm sure I'll wake at 3:00am thinking about what you wrote here. Should I call you?

Amy

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Great idea. Call Hallie. At Home. She loves that.

And from what I've read of your story--you absolutely succeeded.

Lisa said...

You've presented some great food for thought and I admire your desire to analyze what you write within the context of social responsibility. I don't believe written fiction can change anyone's perception of the value of human life any more than I believe The Catcher in the Rye can motivate someone to shoot the President or Ozzy Osborne makes teenagers want to kill themselves. I worry about the inclination of responsible artists to self-censor. Stories that incorporate murder are as old as story telling because killing is and always has been an integral part of our humanity. Stories about people who cross that line fascinate normal people. As human beings, we think about death a lot (OK maybe I think about death a lot). To me, great books are almost always a reflection of something we already know and understand, illuminated in a unique way by the author’s particular style. I hope excessive violence that doesn’t serve a purpose within the story would naturally be culled out of any book worth reading, just as anything else that’s not needed would be. Thank you for such a thought-provoking post.

Jan Brogan said...

I don't think one story can cause one person to do something violent, a direct cause and effect, but I'm quite certain that the stories and myths we tell ourselves shape our culture. When stories glorify violence, the culture accepts more violence. While I agree that stories reflect whats going on in the culture, I think they also help reinforce the values.

The Beautiful Schoolmarm said...

My campus had a lockdown due to gun threat last week, but I don't blame the movies, books or video games the student was exposed to.

The students who have shot up school all fall into a profile. They are drawn to things that glorify violence, but their actions are not caused by them. And I'm not sure that any book that includes violence neccessarily "glorifies" it, either. The worry would be when young people are exposed to works that protray killing and enjoying killing in a positive or acceptable light. That's what the shooters enjoy. It supports their mindset, but doesn't cause it.

Is writing something they find supportive (even if you don't intend it to be) wrong? Wouldn't someone inclined to that find inspiration elsewhere? A hunter's safety handbook shows how to dress out a deer, but in the hands of a sociopath, that's how to dress out their next victim. The local paper or Reader's Digest runs a factual article on the BTK killer and that becomes inspiration.