“You write the book you have in you”

Liz Nugent: who read at the first School of English reading. Photograph: Aidan Crawley, Irish Times

MA student  Claire Zwaartman questions the notion of genre, after attending  a reading by three Irish crime writers at the first of the School of English reading series.

Crime novels? Nah, don’t read them. Well, that’s what I thought, until I remembered my love of Arthur Conan Doyle or the novels of Wilkie Collins I read as an undergraduate. My first independent reading as a child was Enid Blyton’s mystery books. The baddie being exposed, the puzzling questions cleared up and the notion that good will out, were deeply satisfying. If only life were so compliant. . .

Three Irish crime writers, Julie Parsons, Liz Nugent and Alex Barclay, who came to read at UCC last week, reminded me of that satisfaction.

Julie Parsons is the author of six novels; her latest, The Therapy House, has been shortlisted for the 2017 Crime Fiction Award. Liz Nugent’s first novel Unravelling Oliver won a Crime Fiction of the Year award in 2014 and the follow-up, Lying in Wait, won a Listeners Choice award at the Irish Book Awards 2016. Castletownbere-based Alex Barclay is the author of eight crime thrillers.  Her most recent novel, in the Ren Bryce series, is The Drowning Child.

Of interest to many of us was the distinction between crime as a genre and how it might differ from literary fiction. The writers clearly had been asked this question before but didn’t seem to be at all concerned about where their work sat.

Alex Barclay said that after she had written her first book, it was her agent who classed it as part of the crime genre. I was surprised that this seemed to be the way all three of the writers started out. If I had been asked, I probably would have expected them to start out with a recipe of sorts, a plan for what the finished work would be like, a pre-conceived  notion of what they were aspiring to do. But as Liz Nugent put it: “You write the book you have in you.”

Focusing on the category it will fit into before it even exists seems foolish. Their advice –  to just write  – was very liberating.

Other pre-conceptions about what crime writing is were also challenged that evening when Alex Barclay read two short stories – “Calloway Hart and The Town of Sable Forge” from the collection The Big Book of Hope, and “The Reveller” from Belfast Noir. If I had missed the poster on the door I would not have recognized this work as being crime. Her stories were poetic and beautiful, dark certainly but the language was gorgeous and the imagery vivid.

Not at all what I was expecting. But what had I been expecting? Clichés, corny language and one-dimensional characters?

The issue of violence came up during the Q and A.  The writers were asked if it was difficult to get inside the mind of a violent person, and how to write about a murderer convincingly. Julie Parsons told us a fascinating story about how she met and interviewed a woman who was in jail having killed her husband with a shotgun after a night of heavy drinking. The woman in question, Norma Cotter, was convicted of murdering her husband but to Julie she came across as a normal woman who did a terrible thing. The idea that, under certain circumstances, any one of us could be capable of killing another person is compelling. When Julie asked her what she missed most about being in prison she answered: “Hearing a dog bark and putting out the washing.”

This remembered detail was so telling of the normality of both the woman and of Julie’s writerly instinct. As Liz joked, people don’t go around with ‘murderer’ emblazoned on their foreheads.

Liz went on to tell us that a book she cannot read is Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, because she found it too graphic. Which again reminded me of how arbitrary the categorization of books is – Ellis’s book is considered to be literary fiction.  So, the rationale behind how some novels are classified as crime and others are not, remains a mystery. The main message I took from the evening is that if it doesn’t matter to the writer, why should it matter to the reader?