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What Ya Readin’ for?

ThThe outsidere best explanation of the difference between nonfiction and fiction, I feel, is that nonfiction’s primary purpose is to convey information, whereas the purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotion in the reader.

I think great books work on an emotional level. Fear is an emotion, a very powerful emotion. Perhaps people read thrillers and horror novels because it is a way of experiencing emotions that you ordinarily don’t experience in life, but without putting yourself directly in harm’s way. I think, also, that it is an effort to try to better understand the aspects of the human psyche that we don’t have answers for. The more we ourselves understand about human nature, the better we will survive. I know we operate that way, so all reading—of whatever genre or subject—has to also come down to the fact that we are trying to understand more of ourselves and others to better our own comprehension of life, and thus improve the quality of our existence.

Someone once said to me that there  are two types of novels. There are those that you read simply because some mystery is created and you have to find out what happens. A puzzle or an unresolved question is presented in the opening, and from there you follow a tortuous maze of clues, misdirectors, and red herrings until the denouement. The denouement is satisfying or not, but still this is not the type of book you read for the lyrical prose, the scintillating turn of phrase, the stunningly descriptive passages. It is airport literature, and that term is not applied derogatorily. Such novels are compelling, and the urgency with which you have to reach the end is remarkable. You need to know what happened! Having read such a book, however, perhaps you would be asked some weeks later whether it was a title you had encountered. You would pause for moment. “Remind me again what it was about?” you would say, and that simple request would say all that needed to be said about the level of emotional engagement inherent in such a book. Wonderful plots, clever twists, but not a book to change your preconceptions about life.

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Why I Want to Fuck J. G. Ballard

So I can have his babies, that’s why. Though I am reliably informed that for various reasons this may no longer be possible, if indeed it ever was . . . which is a pity, because I’ve been a big fan of Ballard’s since the late  seventies, when I first came across The Atrocity Exhibition.

Your mid- to late teens are a great time for discovering new ways of seeing things, new stuff—thrilling works of transgression that make an indelible impression on your imagination. Someone hands you a copy of The Third Policeman, or you sneak in to see Taxi Driver, and somehow your world changes. I found it especially thrilling back then to come across a copy of The Atrocity Exhibition, because not only did it change my world, it cut it up and rearranged its face. I remember scanning the chapter headings in the shop, still trying to work out what the damn thing was—a novel? short stories? a catalog?—but when I got to “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” I knew it didn’t matter. Whatever this shit was, I had to read it.

So it wasn’t too long before I was devouring Crash, Concrete Island, High-Rise, and The Unlimited Dream Company. I then followed Ballard through the years, reading every new book that came out, as well as many of his always fascinating articles and interviews. And when he died last year I felt—along with so many others—a real sense of loss. Ballard inspired great loyalty in his readers. There was this idea that he had been our guide through the supermediated psychoscapes of the twentieth century, and both halves of it, too—because as centuries go, the twentieth had definitely been a game of two halves. In the first half fascism happened and was more or less quashed. In the second half certain unresolved energies left over from the thirties and forties spurted forth and flowered in a thousand weird and rarely wonderful little ways. Ballard absorbed the first half, and then—luckily for us—chronicled the second.

And that is one of the reasons, I think, for his continuing appeal—especially to young writers who may be striving to find a voice and subject matter of their own. Ballard seemed to arrive on the scene with a voice and subject matter that were ready-made and fully assembled, a set of concerns and themes that would be the envy of any writer at any time.

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The True Believer

Every writer needs a true believer on his team. I am a literary agent, and I am a true believer. I am a creative partner and a business partner to a group of talented, ambitious, and hardworking authors. I’m a good editor, I know a lot of people who can publish your book or buy your rights, and I can negotiate a sweet contract with them. But my real job is just to believe.

Publishing is a creative business. Everyone who works in this industry is semi-crazy with the belief that we are working on something that is going to make a mark, become something special, maybe even invent an entire subgenre. I believe in the endless possibility of a good creative idea. That’s why I hate rejecting submissions. I sometimes sit on them when I should just say no, because I believe they can be fixed. I am sick with this belief; I can see the potential in almost everything. Yet in my heart I know they can’t all be saved.

But here’s how it goes when it’s good: One day a writer tells me about an idea. I tell her it rocks, because it does. A few months and a few drafts later, it is an 85,000-word novel under contract with a publisher. With an on-sale date at bookstores and a very pretty cover. Soon after that, it’s a signed first edition or downloading to your iPad in fifteen seconds and your friends are talking about it. The next year, it’s winning a big award and we’re all drunk with the celebration. Then I have cool-looking copies of the book in Polish and Chinese translations sitting on my office bookshelves, and the guy I first pitched the film rights to is on the telephone with me seriously talking about Nicolas Cage playing the lead in the film adaptation. This kind of stuff happens because we all believe.

My belief disrupts my family life. Last week, Duane Swierczynski delivered the first draft of his new novel Fun and Games. It seems like we just pitched this as a story idea not fifteen minutes ago. It is so damned good that I blew off the Friday night movie my wife and I rented to watch together just so I could finish reading it. Sadly, my wife understands. She wants to read it, too.

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Sinking the Titanic

Man with Tommy GunBest interview question I’ve ever been asked: What’s the worst thing your parents think you’ve done? Not actually done, but that they think you’ve done.

My answer: Heroin.

I love doing research. It’s like cheating, but with permission.

Here are some of the things I have done in the name of Research: learned to ride a motorcycle; became a certified EMT for both New York State and Monterey County, California; had my sneakers stick to the floor in a peep-show booth back when Times Square was not a place where you took the kids; drunk tea with nuns; crawled through the Portland Shanghai Tunnels; watched a domme flog her sub in an S&M club while he hung on a St. Andrew’s Cross; visited the Oregon State Police Crime Lab; learned to play guitar from a former member of Everclear; learned how to field-strip an M1911; gone on countless ride-alongs in countless cities; fired an HK MP5 on single, three-round, and full-auto; fired a Tommy Gun (only full-auto); fired many other types of firearms; hung out with junkies; hung out with methheads; hung out with rock bands; argued politics with a Political Officer at the State Department; gotten bronchitis standing in Lancashire fields taking reference photographs; been politely asked to leave the premises of Vauxhall Cross; run a day-long “scavenger hunt” through New York City and the boroughs (had to see if the route was possible, and to get the timing down); gotten sick-drunk with men who wouldn’t talk to me sober; been attacked by rats; trespassed; eavesdropped; learned the best way to burn someone alive; used a Starbucks bathroom seat-cover dispenser for a dead drop; been laughed at, mocked, threatened, and ignored.

Some of the things I’ve done.

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Mark Billingham and Laura Lippman on themselves and everything else

I’ve known Mark Billingham since 2002, but I feel as if we’re lifelong friends. When I heard he was going to move to Mulholland, I was sad for our mutual publisher but happy for Mark, if that makes sense. We share several enthusiasms, including the music of Elvis Costello and beer. I guess I should also mention that Mark is the author of the award-winning series of police procedurals about Tom Thorne, and a stand-alone, In the Dark. A stand-up comedian, he also is one of the funniest people I know. My new book came out in the United States on Tuesday, August 17, and Mark’s latest, From the Dead, is out in the United Kingdom on Thursday, August 19. When Mulholland asked if I wanted to inhabit its online real estate for a day, I suggested that Mark and I chat via Facebook. This is a lightly edited version of that chat.

MB: So, Laura, the new book is out in a couple of days. This is another stand-alone, right?

LL: Yes, another stand-alone. It’s called I’d Know You Anywhere, and it’s about a woman who’s contacted by the man who kidnapped and raped her when she was fifteen.

MB: Are you into any kind of pattern with the stand-alones and the series? A Tess Monaghan, then a stand-alone?

LL: There was a pattern, but it was broken because I wanted the book that was serialized in the New York Times magazine — The Girl in the Green Raincoat, the one with Tess’s pregnancy — to go out into the world before I resumed her story. That will finally happen next year.

MB: You’ve said that in some ways the new book is a companion piece to Life Sentences.

LL: After writing a book about a high-strung type who wrote the kind of book that book clubs discuss, I wanted to write a book about the kind of woman who belongs to a book club. Does that make sense?

MB: Absolutely. So would you say it’s less of straightforward mystery novel than you might write if it was a Tess book? Or should I say less of a crime novel?

LL: Less of a straightforward mystery, but very much a crime novel.

MB: So many writers, when they’re as many books in as you, start talking about feeling certain pressures to deliver the genre goods. Is that something that bothers you at all?

LL: Nick Hornby has a great line about how writing a good novel within a genre category is harder than writing a mainstream novel. I think it ups the ante in a very exciting way. It helps that I never did big twists. Weaknesses can become inadvertent strengths. I’ve never delivered huge twists (although some readers of What the Dead Know might disagree) so readers don’t expect me to take the tops of their heads off.

What do you think? Your Thorne books and your stand-alone seemed to me to be centered in real-world situations, where things are surprising, but never out-of-the-blue-didn’t-see-that-coming. I have to say, I think the dedicated reader, the one who wants to solve things, should be able to see things coming. You?

MB: Yes, I agree. I’ve actually started to grow tired of books where there is twist after twist. You can never actually invest in the story, because you know that so much of it is going to get pulled from under your feet. There’s a danger of it becoming nothing more than a technical exercise.

LL: I think at some point we have to choose between being clever and being — I’m stuck for the best word. Grounded? Credible? I’m not saying the latter is better than the former, just that it’s hard to do both in the same book. Presumed Innocent managed it. But it’s hard.

MB: If your book stands or falls on a reader being able to figure out a twist, or who the killer is, then it’s probably not much of a book. There has to be something more going on than that.

LL: I talk to young writers (or just new writers) about role-model books, the books that one aspires to write. Did you have such books? You know, “If only I could write a book like [Title] I would be so happy.”
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Guns to Shape the Future

bulletsThe sensation, if you allow yourself experience it, is that of pressing your face up against the glass right at the rushing tip of the present as it plows headlong into the future. There is no wind, only a thrum of momentum from somewhere deeply hidden; yet the sense of speed is nauseating, teetering on the edge of elation and dismay. Morale flicks back and forth, threatening to fall definitively to one side or the other, as each blurred impression of what the world is becoming blips onto the horizon, looms suddenly, and plunges behind us into the immediate past. With no time to understand.
Is it any wonder that we only climb into the nose of the present to face this overwhelming aspect on rare occasions?
I mean, I like a roller coaster, but not every minute of every day.
Of course, the biggest difference between a roller coaster and the future is that one runs on tracks, and the other does not. That’s what makes the terrors of a roller coaster enjoyable, and the terrors of the future a source of dread. Corkscrewing while pulling 3G’s can be an exhilarating sensation with a padded steel bar locked over one’s torso. Hurtling through the radically mutating implications of shattered financial systems, looming ash clouds, gouting oil leaks, combusting religious extremists, mushrooming mega-urban sprawl, radicalized weather systems, and your choice of today’s lesser headlines, all without the benefit of a lap belt, let alone an air bag, is something more akin to being caught in the head, your pants around your ankles, when the airbus goes into a tailspin: pinned to the wall by incomprehensible forces, half naked and helpless, with shit flying everywhere.
Still, I like the future. Though it seems intent on killing me and everyone I love, I’m a big fan. What I like about the future is that I have no fucking idea what it is going to do next. I am astounded all but daily by how the future manages to take both the past and present by the tail and twist them until they howl and spring off in directions no one ever imagined they had gone or could go.
Neat trick.
Because the future is so very present right now, it is the kind of thing one might want to write about, if one were a writer.
Hello. My name is Charlie Huston, and I am a writer.
The future, you say?
Hmm, how would one write about such a thing?
To be clear, when I think or write about writing about the future, I’m not thinking or writing about writing science fiction. Not right now, anyway. I’m thinking and writing about writing about that perilously thin membrane stretched between
NOW
and
NOW.

Oddly, writing about the extreme verge of the present is quite hard. Trying to capture the sense of a moment while it is happening is a slippery business. And there is a great danger that what one writes will feel dated a year after it is written, about the time it is likely to be finding its way into the hands of people willing to pay money for the pleasure (if lucky) of reading it.
I’m not good at it.
I gave it a whack in a book called Sleepless, but ended up pushing that story ahead a few years, setting it in a definitive future. One close at hand, yes, but not a real NOW.
Now I’m trying again.
Along with the future, I also like a good wall I can bang my head against.
It’s a very healthy process, this writing thing.
Which explains why I am trying to write about the present in a story told primarily through the eyes of a man who will seek to destroy it. Or risk destroying it. Or save it.
Or something.
If I knew for certain what he would do, I wouldn’t have much reason to write the book.
I’m writing about people who are right there at that membrane, people with resources that allow them to do more than simply stand there and feel the rush of the future, people who are equipped to reach beyond the membrane, to swing their hammers and their picks and hew the future.
Blindly.
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