Sunday, April 5, 2009

What's on your mind?

RO: Most mystery fans know that Carl Hiaasen has pretty strong views on the environment, in Florida, in particular. And why should he hide them? He's got a bully pulpit now. But it wouldn't work if he hadn't written some terrific books first. The Cosby Show was enormously popular before the anti-apartheid posters starting showing up in the kids' bedrooms. Later on this week (Wednesday!)our guest blogger will be NYTimes best-selling author Linda Fairstein, who, as a former NYC prosecutor and former head of NY's Sex Crimes Unit has made no secret of some of the issues that are important to her.

I gently (I am still a newbie, after all) raised the issue of day laborers in Pushing Up Daisies, and casino gambling in The Big Dirt Nap. How comfortable are you mentioning real issues in your books? We know the story has to be served first, but what about after that's done?

JAN: I always have an issue in my books. In Teaser, it was the dangers social networking pose for teenagers; in Yesterday's Fatal it was the exploitation of illegal immigrants in staged car accidents; and A Confidential Source it was casino and state-sponsored gambling. But I wouldn't exactly call it a bully pulpit. I'm not sure murder mysteries are an effective forum for advancing social change. They are more an avenue for me to research and explore the crime trends that fascinate and disturb me.

RO: Well, I guess I'm asking, not so much about advancing social change (would that we all had the power of Oprah, or to a much lesser degree Carl Hiaasen) as I'm asking about revealing your own positions on issues.

HALLIE: I think it works when Hiaasen does it because he's so funny about it. You do it with humor, too, Ro. So even though there may be a serious intent, it doesn't come off as confrontational.

ROBERTA: I think we all reveal ourselves (whether we start out with that intention or not) in our choice of characters and story. As long as the opinions read like they come from the characters rather than the heavy hand of the author, I'm all for it. Celebrities do have unusual opportunities to bring attention to world problems and I admire the ones who do that.

HANK: Yes, Roberta, I agree. It's a great way to put a spotlight on reality without beating readers over the head with it. For instance? Franklin Parrish, Charlie McNally's producer, is black. That's not really discussed, except for one brief introduction. each book there are situations that, unfortunately, would happen to Franklin and not to Charlie, who is white. He's pulled aside by airport security. He's followed by suspicious salespeople in a used car lot. He's ignored by salespeople in a posh store.
"Look at the bright side," Charlie suggests. "At least they're not bothering you." "There is no bright side," Franklin says. Charlie pauses. "I guess not." As an author, I don't need to say any more.

RO: That's that famous Ryan touch. Not too heavy, not too light!

HANK: Aw. Thanks. xo.

RHYS: I also strive for a balance between light and dark in my books.Even though I write historicals, I focus a lot on social issues and I leave the reader to draw interesting comparisons between the early twentieth century and the present day. My latest Molly book is all about the role of women in society, how women leave Vassar with bright, awakened minds, only to marry and be caged by what society thinks a wife should be. We've come a long way in that respect, but I've also written about conditions in sweat shops and the powerlessness of the immigrant--which haven't changed all that much. Even my Royal Spyness books, light as they are, have a darker underpinning of the great depression. I think that if my sleuth is a real person, she can't fail to be aware of conditions and injustices around her and they have to creep into the book.

RO: As readers and writers how do you feel when you're reading a mystery and you can feel the writer's political or social positions coming out? Do you need to agree with the main character's opinions in order to enjoy the book?

(And don't forget to come back Wednesday for the first of our two interviews with Linda Fairstein.)


  1. Excellent question!

    I think our books are an ideal place to address social issues, as long as we aren't too heavy-handed about it. My Orchard heroine Meg has to wrestle with all the real problems that small farmers face--and she's hiring Jamaican pickers. In Sarah Atwell's upcoming Snake in the Glass, the book opens with a body found in the Arizona desert, and everyone assumes it's just another one of those illegals and no one looks too closely. Again, that's a real problem in Tucson.

    The trick is making your case effectively without sounding preachy. We as writers can do good--as long as we write it well.

  2. I think Roberta nailed it, we all reveal ourselves one way or another. The key, as Sheila says, is not to be heavy handed. In fact, the stronger you feel about something, probably the lighter you should be! The bottom line is entertainment.

  3. Once again you've shown why I love this blog so much!

    This is a great topic Ro!

    My sense is that if the author is "anchored" in the issue that the revelation of that position is just organic. For me it's not about having a judgment about the issue but bringing awareness to the issue. Hank's example is perfect. It's stated and seen from both sides. First by Charlie, then by Franklin in counterpoint. Ching!

    The issue must serve the story. In "ICE, India and Old Lovers" my central character shows her disapproval of corporate mavens contracting a company that uses child labor by saying -"I'm not hanging corporate profits on the head of third world children!" Ching! I emphasize it by making it is so powerful for her that she quits the company in the next scene. So, in part it's a turning point for her - not the only reason, but the last straw for sure.

    For me it is exciting when as authors we can do that. We serve the world, genre and the story at the same time!


  4. As a reader, I don't have to share a character's (or writer's) opinions to enjoy the book -- unless the fiction is more vehicle for author platform than departure for me as a reader. I read Hiaasen and enjoy him. I'm more tolerant of an internal viewpoint when the fiction is strong. When it's not, I'm less forgiving.

    Patrick O'Brian leaves me breathless, his fiction and his world are that complete, but were he still alive I'd love to have a vigorous discussion about our (many) points of disagreement, social commentary embedded in fiction set in 1812. It's actually more interesting, perhaps, to have that friction between the art and the writer's comment behind it than otherwise.

    I'm wide of the mark answering this question as a writer, as I'm not currently writing fiction -- and social issues are pretty much at the visible heart of everything I'm doing in narrative nonfiction -- though I don't sermonize, I hope.

    One of the hardest things I've ever written concerns the rescue/recovery response to Hurricane Katrina. (It's not in the upcoming book.) So much has been written about Katrina that it would be easy to slip into the greased grooves left by others. To thump away with the best of them and co-opt their still-warm phrases, or to leave that heavy-lifting to doctors ... or firefighters ...or the whole host of journalists who waded into the mud and out of it again, but as much as I tried to sidestep that troubled ground, ultimately I could not.

    Even in narrative nonfiction, showing is much more powerful than telling, and that's generally what I go for. In this case, not waving the 'Katrina response was a travesty of abandonment' banner, but allowing readers to see the situations as I saw them and make up their own minds about past, present, and future choices.

    Sidebar: Let me recommend Ken Wells' marvelous The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous: Fighting to Save a Way of Live in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina. Now there's social comment embedded in a virtue of showing over telling.

  5. MTV is right about the issue serving the story..frankly those anti-apartheid posters in the Cosby kids' bedrooms used to bother me. (We get it, we agree, may I help you with that soapbox?)Still, he did it because he could and it was an incredible opportunity for product placement.

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