I first got hooked on Seth Greenland’s work around this time last year, when I reviewed his sharp, hilarious, timely, and simply fun to read novel Shining City (well, more like praised it) for a magazine.
Now that it’s out in paperback, I thought it a good time to spend some time talking to Seth about what he’s reading, and writing these days.
Seth Greenland | Author of Shining City
Q&A with Christine Thomas, June 2009
Q. What brought you to these crime novels?
A. I’m currently working on a crime novel and since I’m not a crime writer, I’ve been reading crime novels by writers who aren’t thought of as crime writers. It helps me get a sense of how writers who are usually more character-driven get a handle on genre writing.
Q. Black is even a pseudonym, of John Banville, whose journal-like novel “The Sea” won the 2005 Man Booker Prize. And Jonathan Lethem also writes sci-fi and autobiographical fiction, right? Do their crime novels share any traits from their other work?
A. I’m a fan of Banville as Banville, which is one of the reasons I was interested in checking out his incarnation as Benjamin Black. What I noticed is that Benjamin Black writes as beautifully as John Banville does, which makes me wonder why he bothers with the pseudonym. Does he think he’s slumming on some level? Does Mr. Booker Prize think he can’t be seen writing crime fiction? That can’t be it since he made no real effort to disguise himself, so who knows?
As far as Lethem goes, “Motherless Brooklyn” contains a brilliantly drawn character placed in the middle of what amounts to kind of a shaggy dog story. Like the Benjamin Black book, it was beautifully written, but unlike the Black book, I didn’t particularly care about what was happening and found it to be kind of a slog. I should add that I am a minority here among my friends, most of whom think it’s brilliant.
Q. Why do they—your friends, and are they writers?—think “Motherless Brooklyn” is brilliant, and what for you made it a slog?
A. Yes, it’s my writer friends who think it’s brilliant. And maybe it is. I’m not weighing in on its brilliance. I just found it boring. And it’s hard to put my finger on exactly why. The plot was serviceable, the main character was unusual and sympathetic, but the book took me six weeks to get through. I was thoroughly unengaged. In the end, we experience all art viscerally so not matter how much I might admire “Motherless Brooklyn,” it left me cold.
Q. Yet you kept with it for six weeks—an eternity in some readers’ lives. Why not just toss it aside as an example of what not to do?
A. I attribute my need to finish “Motherless Brooklyn” to my own neurosis. Everyone I know who read that book really liked it, so I thought I should keep going until I started liking it, which unfortunately never happened. I don’t regret finishing the book. I admire it, actually. I just didn’t enjoy reading it. I’m trying to think of another example of this kind of experience and the best I can do is “Bleak House,” another one I forced myself to finish. It’s the only Dickens novel I had to fight my way through.
Q. I had to force myself through every Dickens’ book, though I think that was due mostly to me being a young girl in Hawaii reading about a place totally foreign in comparison. I’d fall asleep on the sofa every time. Anyway…What did “Christine Falls” help you learn about the genre?
A. I can’t imagine reading Dickens while in Hawai’i. So bizarre. On the other hand, the first time I read “On the Road” I was in Oxford, England, as a twenty-year old and, weirdly enough, it was the perfect place to encounter that book because it was like an antidote to the environment.
The Black book exists as a superb example of the genre, much like John Le Carre’s thrillers and, as such, did not teach me anything new. It simply affirmed what I already knew, but in silvery tones. I’m still stuck on his use of a nom de plume. I’d have been happy to have my name on something like “Christine Falls.”
Q. Perhaps using “Banville” ruins his street-cred in the crime fiction world, if there is such a thing?
A. I don’t think the crime world is judgmental about that kind of thing. Look at Graham Greene who wrote straight ahead thrillers along with books that were more literary. He categorized his thrillers as “entertainments” but he put his own name on them. In Banville’s case, I would have guessed he was more concerned with the judgment of his literary peers, but then he never made any effort to truly disguise his identity. Perhaps it’s just a game he plays with himself. He’s a terrific writer no matter what name he’s writing under.
Q. So what did Christine Falls affirm exactly, or what do you already know about crime fiction, and is that guiding your own new novel?
A. The only principle guiding my new novel is my desire to entertain myself. If I find it compelling, I hope someone else might. There are certain crime tropes that I’m using—a murder, a law enforcement person, etc.—but I hope I’m configuring them in a new way. It’s certainly not a straight-ahead crime novel. There are so many people already doing that better than I could ever hope to. I’m just using the genre to get at themes that interest me and create characters I want to spend some time with.
Q. This new book follows on the heels of “Shining City,” your latest novel about to be released in paperback. It flirts with crime in that the protagonist Marcus Ripps unsuspectingly falls into what he thinks is a legitimate business that turns out to be a front for a criminal operation. It’s also smart, entertaining, and compelling as you watch Marcus evolve and grow more confident. Was this first flirtation with “crime writing” intentional?
A. So many books that we think of as classics are “crime” stories. “Les Misérables” is a crime story, “The Great Gatsby,” too. “Huck Finn” is a crime story when you think about it for a moment. So was my flirtation with crime writing intentional? Not really. I didn’t conceive of the book that way, although, using my elastic definition, it’s obviously a crime novel, too. So is my first novel, “The Bones,” by the way. I’m interested in bad behavior, people under stress behaving in extreme ways. As we know, this often leads to the committing of crimes. Hence, my interest in “crime fiction.”
Q. So how will this new book be a departure for you?
A. It’s set in a place I haven’t written about—the desert—and is about a milieu—politics—I have only blogged about on the Huffington Post. But for someone interested in bad behavior, it’s hard to find a better venue than the political world.
Q. You blogged recently about your recent feelings of political optimism, and how it seems that anything can happen, since Obama is anything but irrelevant despite, well, everything. Are the desert politicians in your book going to compel us to ditch our pessimism, too?
A. I suspect they will have the opposite effect, although in an entertaining way.
Q. I guess we’ll have to wait and find out. But, just because you were stuck on Banville’s name change, I’ve got to ask—if crime writing required a pseudonym (I know it’s a stretch) what would yours be?
A. Martin Amis. I think I’d sell more books that way.