An Unconventional Path to Crime Fiction
By David JoyAugust 13, 2018
When I was a kid, I didn’t much care for books. I spent my time outside building forts, climbing trees, running from cows, and fishing. I can count the number of books I fell in love with as a kid on two fingers—Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and Walter Dean Myers’s Fallen Angels.
Unlike a lot of crime writers, I can’t trace how I wound up writing to any early reading habits. It wasn’t like I read The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew or The Boxcar Children. I grew up in an oral storytelling tradition, listening to my grandmother and great uncles tell stories, and that’s where my writing is most deeply rooted. I don’t know why it took me so long to fall in love with reading. A lot of it, I guess, was that I just wasn’t handed the right books.
Ron Rash was the first person to ever hand me a book I fell in love with. I was 18 or 19 years old. He let me borrow a copy of William Gay’s I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down. Reading those stories, I just remember feeling like Gay was writing about the people I knew, the people I grew up with. They were stories of working-class, oftentimes rural people scraping the bottom of the barrel.
I remember the first time I read the story “The Paper Hanger,” a violent story about a man contracted to repaper a house who kills the child of the woman he’s working for, and I knew that was the type of story I wanted to tell. William Gay had an incredible ability to go to the darkest places imaginable and find pieces of humanity. He had a knack for making even the most horrific brutality palatable by the sheer beauty of his language.
Gay led me to Cormac McCarthy, and McCarthy led me to Larry Brown and Harry Crews and Barry Hannah and Tim McLaurin and George Singleton. It took me a bit longer to find all the incredible women who were writing about those same people. I’d read Welty and O’Connor, but I fell in love with Jill McCorkle and Dorothy Allison and Bonnie Jo Campbell.
When I started writing that first novel, Where All Light Tends To Go, I was obsessed with Daniel Woodrell and, more specifically, his novel Tomato Red. I read that book cover to cover five or six times in a row. I spent an entire month reading the opening chapter over and over trying to figure out how the hell he did it. How could he make a story move that fast? How could he hold a reader underwater for 10 pages before letting them up for air? There was a breathlessness to his pacing. He was able to create a voice that would haunt you the rest of your life. That’s what I wanted to do.
It wasn’t until my first novel was on shelves and folks started calling it “crime fiction” that I discovered “crime writers.” I’d never read a series. To this day, the only series I’ve read in its entirety is Ace Atkins’s Quinn Colson novels. All of a sudden, though, there were all these new names I’d never heard of, remarkable writers I’d never read. I read everything Megan Abbott had written over the course of a month. She was one of the smartest writers I’d ever encountered. When I finished Megan’s work, I turned to Laura Lippman. The way Laura wrote about Baltimore made me search out other writers doing similar things with other cities, and that’s how I stumbled onto Walter Mosley. The way those two wrote about place was no different than how I was writing about Appalachia.
The more time I spent in that sort of crime-writing community, the more people threw around names of folks I had to have read—Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, Agatha Christie—only I hadn’t. Every time I shook my head, people gave me a look like I was an idiot, but what they didn’t realize was that I could’ve thrown around just as many names they’d never heard of—James Still, Dale Ray Phillips, Pamela Duncan, Wilma Dykeman. It was not that I wasn’t well read. It was that I’d come into crime fiction backwards. It was that I’d never set out to write crime fiction at all.
When I look back at how my reading tastes have changed, I can’t help but see how all of it has come to affect my work. I think I still try to emulate the language of novelists like William Gay and Ron Rash. My obsession with how a sentence sounds stems from my passion for poetry, from reading writers like Maurice Manning and Rebecca Gayle Howell and Ray McManus and Frank X Walker. But now, I’m equally drawn to the pacing and the plotting and the turns of writers like Reed Farrell Coleman and Chevy Stevens, the dialogue of writers like Ingrid Thoft. I want to write books that sound like poetry but read like thrillers. I want to write novels that pull all of those elements together.
Nowadays, I don’t know that I see those lines as clearly as some people like to draw them. I think about books like Ron Rash’s last two novels, Above The Waterfall and The Risen, and I think: What are those books if not mysteries? I reread Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone and can’t help but see it as a detective novel turned on its head. I think a lot of times we like to think of books and genre as this cut-and-dry thing, and the bottom line is that none of it holds up. You get Megan Abbott talking about the books she loves and it becomes pretty clear she’s read everything under the sun. You get Ace Atkins talking about the writers who influenced him most and he’ll mention Faulkner in the same breath as Dashiell Hammett.
What I’m getting at is that there isn’t any clear, straight line that leads to good crime fiction. The best writers I know read broadly, and maybe that’s the best rule of thumb. Search out books you wouldn’t normally pick up. Read outside of your comfort zone. Read sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and poetry. In the end, I don’t care where a book is shelved, I care that the book is good. The only thing that matters is what’s on the page. There’s something to be learned from all of it.