Wednesday, July 14, 2021

A Thriller Writer in a Literary World: A Guest Post by David Bell

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: David Bell has all the accoutrements of an accomplished literary writer: he holds a MFA and a PhD, he's a professor of Creative Writing (full, not associate) and his work has been published in literary journals and won or been nominated for distinguished prizes, including the Pushcart.

And yet.

There's something about a dead body, a creaking floorboard, a nasty look over a glass of expensive wine that David Bell can't resist. In fact, he's succumbed to the temptation of genre so much, he's a USA Today bestseller whose latest, KILL ALL YOUR DARLINGS, was named a "most anticipated thriller" by She Reads, Crime Reads and the Palm Beach Daily News, among others

Which leaves him with the difficult task of explaining himself, as author Neal Stephenson describes, as a Beowulf writer in a Dante world.

 

Like Connor Nye in my novel KILL ALL YOUR DARLINGS, I’m a creative writing professor at a large public university in Kentucky.

 

Let me get this out of the way up front—unlike Connor, I’ve never stolen a manuscript from a student, and I’ve never been implicated in an unsolved murder based on something I’ve published.

 

Not yet anyway.

 

But there is something that has happened to me that happens to Connor in the book. Connor publishes a thriller, a book about the murder of a young woman in a college town. And when his book comes out, some of his colleagues make disparaging comments about the genre he has chosen to write in. Oh, that’s a book you read at the beach. Oh, you probably wrote that really fast. Oh, that’s just a thriller.

 

Yes, I’ve heard all of that in the English department where I teach at Western Kentucky University.

 

That’s not to say all of my fellow professors feel this way. I have a number of colleagues who have been very supportive of my career. They come to my events. They buy my books for themselves or their family members. They read books by other thriller writers. One of them once said to me, “I’m going to read your new book, but I have to read Karin Slaughter’s latest first.”

 

Karin Slaughter is a great writer, so it’s an honor to be in the TBR stack behind her.

 

But how do those negative comments from my colleagues affect me when they come my way? How do I cope? How does any writer handle the occasional jab that sounds like a judgment of the genre they write in?

 

I’ve always told my students that the most important thing they can do as writers is to write what they want to write. Don’t try to write something geared toward a certain audience—or toward a certain teacher. If any writer tries to create that way—oriented toward someone else’s taste—the work will be flat and uninspiring. Only the individual writer can decide what is the right story for them to tell.

 

I grew up reading the classics in school. Grade school, high school, undergraduate, graduate school. I loved many of those books. I found many others to be painfully boring. But when I was free to read on my own, my tastes gravitated toward popular fiction. Thrillers, mysteries, spy novels, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, westerns. I devoured them. And so did many other people. Millions of people in fact.

 

Why? Because those books entertain us. We can get caught up in those stories and lose ourselves in them. And, at their best, they could still deal with serious issues. War, crime, history. Everything.

 

And I decided I wanted to write stories that did the same thing. I believe it’s possible for an entertaining, suspenseful book to also deal with important topics. Reading about serious issues doesn’t have to be like swallowing medicine. We can be entertained and enlightened at the same time.

 

Readers—real readers—get this. They understand what they like, and they don’t need to have their tastes curated by someone else. I write for that audience, not an academic one.

 

So any time one of my colleagues dismisses one of my books as a beach read, I take that as the highest compliment that can be paid. And I hope your copy of my book is splashed with water, filled with sand, and smeared with suntan lotion.

 

About David Bell

David Bell is the USA Today bestselling and award-winning author of 13 novels, including: The Request, Layover, Somebody’s Daughter, Bring Her Home, Since She Went Away, Somebody I Used to Know, The Forgotten Girl, Never Come Back, The Hiding Place, and Cemetery Girl. He lives in Bowling Green with his wife, writer Molly McCafferty. Learn more at davidbellnovels.com/. Friend him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter as @DavidBellNovels.

 

About KillAll Your Darlings

After years of struggling to write following the deaths of his wife and son, English professor Connor Nye publishes his first novel, a thriller about the murder of a young woman.    

There’s just one problem: Connor didn’t write the book. His missing student did. And then she appears on his doorstep, alive and well, threatening to expose him.    

Connor’s problems escalate when the police insist details in the novel implicate him in an unsolved murder from two years ago. Soon Connor discovers the crime is part of a disturbing scandal on campus and faces an impossible dilemma—admit he didn’t write the book and lose his job or keep up the lie and risk everything. When another murder occurs, Connor must clear his name by unraveling the horrifying secrets buried in his student’s manuscript.  

This is a suspenseful, provocative novel about the sexual harassment that still runs rampant in academia—and the lengths those in power will go to cover it up.

43 comments:

  1. I’ve never quite understood the disdain some readers hold for a particular genre or type of writing; I’m looking forward to reading “Kill All Your Darlings” and finding out how things work out for Connor.

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  2. David, welcome to JRW and congratulations on your new book. The cover is gorgeous. As a parent and grandparent, I think it is very important to allow young readers to select the books that interest them. As a literature major, I knew that many genres would be assigned. As a reader, it is very satisfying to choose what I enjoy. The comments from some of your colleagues seem tainted by envy over your achievement. Doesn't every author want to write something that people want to read?

    Please tell us what inspired this story?

    Julia, this book was recently featured on First Chapter Fun. Wow, wow, wow. If you love thrillers, this must go on your TBR list, right now! It's on mine!

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    1. Thank you, Judy! As far as inspiration for the book...let's just say I've seen a lot of bad behavior when I was a graduate student and also as a faculty member.

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    2. SO pleased you enjoyed it on First Chapter Fun! xxxx. (and isn't it a fabulous first chapter?)

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  3. Congratulations on your new release! Great premise. I'm a fan of Amanda Cross's Kate Fansler books (Carolyn Heilbrun). Maybe we'll see you at a Cincinnati event sometime?

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    1. PS: the Cincinnati library system has 72 holds on 15 copies of your book. You're a popular guy.

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    2. That's my hometown, so I hope they like me! Thanks!

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    3. Margaret, another Amanda Cross fan here!

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  4. As someone who writes cozy and historical mysteries, I am in complete agreement, David. We deal with real issues all the time, in the background and as part of the story. AND the books entertain. I'm glad you didn't let your naysayers get you down.

    I love the Kill All Your Darlings title - perfect for a writing professor! The story sounds truly thrilling. Best of luck with it!

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    1. Right. A book can entertain and enlighten. Many do. Thanks!

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  5. Well said, and best of luck with your new book. I've always thought a good story is a basic human need, right after food, clothing and shelter. "Serious" literature does a lot, very well, but storytelling is often not the point these days. We can find it in genre fiction.And at its best, find a lot more, too.

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    1. Yes, I've had "literary" friends say they don't really care about plot. Say what????

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    2. David, I am laughing here. I just completed a story--well, I wasn't exactly sure it was a story. A friend of mine, who is a retired full professor and editor/owner of a small press, said to me: 'it has plot, it has structure....' I was so relieved!! Plot! Yes!

      Literary snobs seem to forget (or perhaps have never understood) what Jenn pointed out below--most literature started life as a story--the good ones, the great ones, survive today. And those snobs are missing some whopping good stories, extremely well written as well as entertaining. Keep on writing those thrillers!

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    3. You're right!! How can a book not have a plot? Isn't that like tennis without a net?

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  6. Hooked at the premise. Sounds like an excellent read and the perfect way to spend a long summer night.

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  7. Looking forward to reading your book, David! I liked what Triss said about storytelling, which to me is the most important thing.

    Several years ago my brother and his son came to visit. They lived in ID so I hardly ever got to see them and really didn't know my nephew at all. In my house there are shelves and shelves of books, books all over the place. He picked up a few and thumbed through them. Finally he had to say "you have a lot of mysteries." I agreed that I did and he went on to comment "they are very formulaic, aren't they?" I was so bugged by the way he just dismissed so many of the books that I loved. But he was very full of himself, just graduated from high school and on his way to Oxford. I was not impressed.

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    1. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers teach that. But I think we're in a golden age of mysteries and thrillers! So many riches. Thanks!

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  8. Ha! Welcome to Jungle Red, David! I bought your book based on the title - it spoke to me - and am ecstatic to discover you here today. I love your post. I don’t believe there is a hierarchy in literature. Shakespeare wrote for the masses after all and it worked out okay for him. LOL.

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    1. Exactly!! Aren't Shakespeare, Homer, Dickens, Austen entertaining as well? Have we forgotten that?

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    2. I cried my eyes out at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. As I read, I was caught up in the story, those characters, those events--that writing wrung my heart! I forgot I was reading 'literature' and was totally absorbed by the story.

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    3. Exactly!! Great writing is entertaining!

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  9. This is such a terrific book, you all! And yes, it hits on important issues, but in the end, it’s incredibly entertaining, and an absolutely riveting story. One of my most poignant real life stories is when my father called a bookstore, years and years ago, to ask if they had my book The Other Woman. He was told, in no uncertain terms, “we don’t carry books like that. “
    I’m secretly happy to say that store is now under new management.

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    1. Thank you, Hank!! That's such a crazy story about your dad. People miss out on so many books by sticking to these arbitrary categories. Thank you for being such a champion of my books! You're a great friend to your fellow authors. Cheers!

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    2. Hank, shocking! Hurrah for new management! HA!

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  10. I don't think calling something a "beach read" is disparaging at all. I look at it this way: a reader is giving me two of their most precious commodities, money and time. And if that time is when they are relaxing and having fun, well, then it's all the more valuable.

    The book sounds great! Congratulations!

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  11. Welcome to JRWs David, I just ordered your book. It won't be covered in sand - I went for the ebook.
    I am so relieved to be able to admit BTL that I don't savor literary fiction. I never ever could get into the WASP male take on the world. (Standing here with my plebian flag flying high.) I have a question, does it bother you if a reader has to stop and read the last chapter before finishing the the book? -- a 'friend' wants to know.

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    1. Thanks, Coralee!! You can tell your "friend" that they can read the book any way they want. That's up to the individual reader. When I was a teenager, I always used to read the last line of the book first. I'm not sure why.

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  12. Loved your post, David, and your cover is stunning. I've never understood that literary snobbism. As Jenn said so well, most "classics" were written to entertain, to tell a story that needed to be told. And I take "beach read" as the highest compliment!

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  13. David, as an historian at a snooty university I get all kinds of criticism for reading mystery fiction. But I love it, and it not only entertains but provides a balance for my "work" reading of nonfiction (much of it badly written and rather dull). Trying to survive in an academic setting, I am anxious to read your book. A good story told well is always worth the time.

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  14. I was so frustrated when dealing with those who'd sniff that students "should only read the classics." No, they should read widely and love their books. In class I'd work to make the assigned classics as "real" to them as the others . . . reader's theater, storytelling, group work to teach each other, whatever helped ignite a spark. <3 Read what you love, write what you love . . . and those pompous ones should, as a wise friend said, "go sit on a tack."

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    1. Right. Read everything. There is something to be learned from every story.

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  15. I have never understood book snobbery. A well written thriller or mystery can be more instructive on issues than a dry newspaper account. I remember going to the city library as a child and asking the librarian where the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys books were. She looked like she'd smelled something dead when she said the library stocks only good books. Fortunately the county library's policy was to stock what the readers want. Oh well. That was the progressive 50's for you!

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    1. I forgot to add that I've been hearing all kinds of good things about your book!

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    2. Imagine that! A library stocking what the readers want?! Thanks for your kind words.

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  16. I read to be entertained and have fun. If I want depressing, I read the news. It's why I don't read "literary" fiction - too depressing and boring.

    However, I don't read much at the beach. :) Your book might have crumbs from the sandwich I ate at lunch in it, however.

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    1. Hey, the crumbs sound delicious. Thank you!!

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