Friday, July 27, 2018

Reds on Themes

RHYS BOWEN: I have been doing a lot of interviews and podcasts recently. Most of the time it's the same questions... what made you choose World War II? Why did you leave your series? Will you go back to Molly etc etc.
But recently one interviewer asked, "Why do you keep burning your characters' clothes?"
This completely threw me.
"I don't think that I..." I started to say, then I thought a little more and added, "You're right. I do. I've burned Molly Murphy's clothes twice now. Once when a bomb was thrown at her house and once during the San Francisco earthquake. And I've burned Lady Georgie's clothes too, at a Hollywood mansion.

Someone doing a PhD thesis on my writing in the distant future will see this as a Leitmotif--a theme that runs through my work. I can see it now: PhD thesis on the motif of burned clothes in the writings of Rhys Bowen.

So this made me wonder why I burn my character's clothes. I think the answer in both series is that my heroines started out with nothing. They had to battle poverty and being alone in the world. So when they reach a level of prosperity and stability I have to take it away from them. Which makes me go on to think "Is this a reflection of how I see my own life?"  Do I worry that as I reach prosperity and stability it will be taken away from me?

I used to be quite afraid of fire. When I lived in a third floor London flat I used to lie in bed and worry about what things to save if the building caught on fire. Now I'm actually more relaxed about material things. I have most of my photos on the cloud, ditto my writing. I'd save a few items of jewelry and my iPad and computer and phone but not worry about the rest. Perhaps I have reached a level of stability when I don't worry about things being taken taken away from me.

And this also has me wondering about themes in my work. I didn't believe until recently that I've ever started out with a theme and built a story around it. I think The Tuscan Child is the only book I've consciously developed around a theme... which is healing through food. Mostly I just want to tell a good story. I want my readers to live vicariously in the past... in the 1930s or in old New York City, or among the aristocrats in WWII. But now I'm thinking ahead to my next stand alone novel that comes out in February. It's called The Victory Garden and again it's a story about healing oneself through healing others. OMG... I'm becoming a serious novelist with themes!

So now I want to know from my sister Reds: do you ever begin a book with a theme in mind? Have you ever had an underlying Leitmotif? If anyone writes a PhD thesis on your work, what will it be?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that my heroine, Clare Fergusson, has had at least three or four cars destroyed in the course of eight novels (so far.) I can perhaps attribute this to the fact that Ross always got the new car, and I always drove the older/used/clunker set of wheels. When I hear something scraping or rattling under my chassis, my mind goes to a bad place.

I actually often start with a theme in mind: HID FROM OUR EYES, for instance, is about the mentor/student relationships men have that substitute for father/son relationships. Then I have to figure out how to slip a murder or three in. There are also books where I'm quite deliberate about the imagery-in OUT OF THE DEEP I CRY, many of the metaphors, similes and descriptions evoke water.

But the themes that my writing reveals about myself? That I don't know. I think there's a reason why literary analysis is a different job than authorship. Can the creator of the work every see past his or her own assumptions? After all, near the end of his life, Ray Bradbury insisted FARENHEIT 451 wasn't about censorship...

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I once interviewed the brilliant David McCullough, and asked him "Do you have a theme when you write your books?" And he answered: "Yes, I do. And I write the books to find out what it is." So I am totally in that camp. Usually. But TRUST ME started out to be about truth. And how we decide what's true. And what "true" even means--is it true because we believe it? Can we have our own truth? Can there be two true versions of the  same story? There can, right? And even scarier--what happens when there's no way to know?   I am so pleased with how it came out. 
And, as it turns out, thats what I always write about. Not surprising, I suppose, since I'm a reporter. I think about it every day.

LUCY BURDETTE: I always have themes in the back of my mind. For the new book, one of them has to do with immigration. And there is a constant thread about the meaning of food and cooking. And family--who is your family and what does that mean?

The strangest moment was a question I had from a very good and insightful interviewer about two years ago. She said, "I've noticed that all three of your protagonists have fathers who are missing either physically or emotionally, or both. I wonder if that comes from your life? My answer was an unqualified NO. My dad was so sweet and warm and funny and supportive...he did not fit that mold. So why did I make my poor characters suffer?? Conflict, I suppose, right?

INGRID THOFT: I always have a theme in mind, which is reflected in the title of the book, but the theme can evolve and show up in unexpected ways when I’m writing.  I like questions and intersections:  To whom do you give your LOYALTY?  To your family or your own values?  What is the true essence of your IDENTITY?  Nature or nature?  What is the price of BRUTALITY?  Millions of dollars or a healthy brain?  And are you guilty of DUPLICITY?  Do you profess one value, but practice another?  My WIP is also centered around a theme, but I’m not quite ready to divulge it!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Hmmm, this is such a good question, Rhys. Although I often have topics I want to explore in a novel, I'm not usually deliberately trying to express a theme. But I think what does underlie all of the Duncan and Gemma books is an emphasis on the importance of family--families that are made by choice even more than the family one is born into--and the strength of community.

JENN McKINLAY: Do shenanigans count as a theme? Cause I'm all about the shenanigans. I don't believe I have a deliberate theme in any of my books, but I'm sure there is a commonality in all of my titles that includes humor as a coping mechanism for life's hard knocks, the power of friendship, and the strength of character required to do the right thing which is usually the harder thing to do.

24 comments:

  1. I can understand building a story around a specific theme, Rhys, but I think the most important thing about the books you write is your statement that “ . . . I just want to tell a good story.” And you always do . . . .

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  2. An interesting topic! I sometimes see a theme after I write the book, too, but agree it's not always easy to see into our own work.

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  3. Oh, I love talking about this and 'listening' to all of you talk about it. I think that I often am vaguely aware of the underlying messages in books. I also think that when I write about reading experience, I sometimes am able to access those thoughts and put them down for others to consider. Probably why I don't call my 'reviews' by that name - I say, 'my thoughts'. It's also why I get 'up in arms' when people get snarky about genre fiction and whether any of it is 'worthwhile'. Themes are everywhere. Who doesn't see the underlying messages in the Harry Potter books? Keep talking about this. I love listening. ;-)

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    1. Like you, Kay, I detest people who sneer at genre fiction--particularly romance novels. If the choice of your life partner isn't one of the most important choices of your adult life, I'm not sure what is. And if important choices aren't worth writing about, what is? In an era when publishing was dominated by men, and women's voices were stifled, romance novels emerged as a little pocket of publishing where women could write about things they cared about, largely without interference from the masculine literary snobs. While those guys joked about bodice rippers, romance novels evolved to explore themes of abuse, power, healing, self-reliance, family, and a whole range of important topics.

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    2. You tell it, Gigi! Seriously!

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    3. You both tell it, women! You are so right. If murder and the motives that lead to it arent' serious topics, then what is??

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    4. Putting down genre fiction makes me see red! What shows the human condition more than a society torn apart by murder? I have been asked "so, do you think you'll ever write a real novel?"
      And B and N has fiction and literature around the walls and mystery on another shelf.

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    5. Genre fiction is all I read. When literature is interesting, I'll read it, otherwise, pthbbth. ;)

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  4. I think nearly all mystery novels are about restoring order and affirming the value of order over chaos, but it is interesting to see what individual authors bring to their books, and how they allow their characters to grow. Deb's books are a lovely example. Instead of freezing her characters in place and giving us endless tiresome and contrived variations on "will they/won't they?" she has allowed her characters to explore the vast, uncharted territory of "okay, so now what?" Duncan has gone from a lonely, and somewhat bitter divorced man to a happy and fiercely protective family man. Gemma has gone from an embattled single mum, focused on her career, to a woman who is learning and expanding her universe far beyond her working class roots. Seriously, in the days when Toby was pinging off the walls as a three-year old, could the baker's daughter ever have envisioned ballet lessons for him? I think it's very brave to let your characters grow the way Deb has.

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    1. I so agree about Debs's books!

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    2. I completely agree that restoring order is a value in crime /thriller books. As a control enthusiast, there's great appeal in trying to right wrongs in worlds we create, particularly at times when the world we live in seems so out of control.

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    3. One of the reasons we love series is watching characters grow and change.

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    4. Thanks, Gigi!!!! I'm going to memorize that for the next time I'm asked what my books are about:-)

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  5. I write about women who have been wronged who strive to move forward in their lives. I'm not conscious of it as I shape the character and plot, but the "theme" emerges as I write. Gardens as a symbol of controlled order, and good food. My latest story provokes the killer with a chocolate cake layered with with espresso Kahlua ganache.

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    1. that sounds deliciously malicious Margaret!

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    2. Margaret, I hadn't thought about gardens and good food as symbols of controlled order, but I can certainly see that. How interesting. And weird as my WIP has both a garden and food. Hmmm.

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    3. As my protagonist emerges from a messy domestic situation, she focuses on the serenity of her perennial garden and sit down homecooked family meals, moments of stasis as all hell breaks loose around her.

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  6. I'm firmly in the Davide McCullough/Hank camp: I write to figure out what the theme is. Sometimes readers find themes that completely surprise me, too. I occasionally wish I could go the other way, but there it is.

    Rhys, sounds like a great PhD thesis!

    Mary/Liz

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  7. I remember, too, my editor calling after she'd read one of my manuscripts--"I love this story about redemption," she said.
    I paused.
    Yay! I said. Thank you!
    After we hung up, thought: Redemption? Okay, sure, I guess so! But I had never thought of it that way. Even so, it was all there. It had just taken someone else's eyes to see it.

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  8. Jenn ~~ Shannigans, yes.. but also your series are works of self affirmation and growth. Your protagonists begin as self doubters, even the Library Director, self doubts. and with the support of loving friends, she/they begin to blossom.

    Hank ~~ Say no more is about secret keeping and from that the joy of honesty. My opinions only.

    Gee I feel like I am Coraleesplaining.. when I review a work, it takes time because I do think of the overall theme. Interesting to see that the theme can come from the creative unconscious as well as the conscious intention.

    Genre put downs make me furious as well. For so long publishing/literature studies were kingdoms of exclusivity. Why, pray tell, is Old Man and the Sea better than One Was Soldier? Answer. It isn't. Why are the Newbery's 'better' than Harry Potter? Same answer.

    Reading is a fundamental skill that allows us to connect mind to mind.

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    1. Thank you very much, Coralee. You put that so beautifully. I had no idea self affirmation and growth were the common thread. Brilliant! (you not me). :)

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  9. Oh, lord amighty. I was coming to the end of a lengthy response, and I lost the whole thing. Please forgive me that I don't type it all out again, even if I could replicate it all. Suffice to say that I do love themes, and I enjoy those threads of themes that run throughout all of your books. And, I will add that with Hank's books, I especially enjoy the way the title, which is thematic in its nature, is revealed in different applications in the book. For example, the "wrong girl" may apply to more than one wrong girl.

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  10. Now that you mention themes, I have to think about that. I had forgotten about the burned clothes. I wondered if the themes were universal. The themes of the 1930s seem current when you read the newspaper these days. I was reminded of the quote " the more things change, the more things stay the same". I love the idea of someone writing a PhD paper. When I was graduating from college, in order to get my Bachelors in my major, I had to write a thesis and I thought I could write about Barbara Cartland novels because her novels had a lot of history and my major was in History. It did not work out that way and I forgot why.

    Hank, I love David McCullough. I have his American history books.

    Diana

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