Bouchercon is once again upon us. For the first time since the pandemic began, the crime fiction conference is happening in person, with one of the CrimeReads editors already here and typing this in their Minneapolis hotel room. Ahead of the convention, we asked nominees for the Anthony Awards to answer a few questions about the most pressing issues facing the world of crime literature. Below, you’ll see 17 writers reflect on the past, present, and future of the genre, for a fascinating discussion that runs the gamut from highly amusing to immensely relevant. Thanks to the folks who contributed, and best of luck at the awards!
WHAT DOES CRIME FICTION MEAN TO YOU?
Gabriel Valjan (nominated for Best Short Story—”Burnt Ends”): For me, crime fiction has been the Colosseum for social issues. At its darkest and blackest heart, the beat has always been about transgression, about violation and deprivation. Done well, the writer lays bare both the thorns and the fruit of injustices without sermonizing. Discerning readers see it, recognize it, and are (hopefully) entertained and left to sort out their own thoughts on the crime and resolution. The writer who writes well disappears into the background, leaving the reader to turn the pages, ferret out the culprit and motivation, and solve the mystery. Crime fiction allows readers to experience the dark side of the street and visit a world that may or may not mirror their own.
Greg Herren (nominated for Best Paperback/E-Book/Audiobook—Bury Me In Shadows): For me, crime fiction is any story in any medium where the story has been built around either the planning, commission or aftermath of a crime—or any combination thereof. It’s a broad definition, to be sure, but I like to think “crime fiction” should be defined broadly.
Laurie R. King (nominated for Best Critical/Nonfiction—How to Write A Mystery: A Handbook): There’s a spectrum, from the intellectual/cosy/whodunnit to the emotions/race-against-time/thriller. Along that spectrum, if there’s a crime, whether missing jewels or destruction of a city, it’s crime fiction.
Ed Aymar (nominated for Best Short Story—”The Search for Eric Garcia”): Like a lot of supposedly simple concepts, crime fiction is surprisingly difficult to define. On one hand, there are very set subgenres that have strict requirements and are readily recognizable, and others that tend to evolve and greedily break any rules set for them. Which isn’t to say, of course, one genre is better than the other, or that some are inherently limited because of expectations. But it is to say that each represents such a growing breadth of approaches that crime fiction is increasingly difficult to neatly categorize. Generally, I’d say any book that revolves around a crime or criminal is crime fiction, especially as our definitions of subgenres—and, for that matter, our understanding of crime and criminals – changes.
Rachel Howzell Hall (nominated for Best Novel—These Toxic Things): Crime fiction: a type of story where someone has been wronged (emotionally, psychologically, fatally) and that wrong is explored and justice sought. Not necessarily justice won but someone attempts to win it. The crime doesn’t have to be found in a penal code but there’s been a hurt there, plenty of damage to the person’s world. Crime fiction relates to anyone who’s been a victim—which means everyone, pretty much. Again, not necessarily a victim of a crime that gets the perpetrator a cot, a needle or steel bars for years. Crime fiction is a big-tent genre, ready for fusion and collaboration.
Hank Phillippi Ryan (nominated for Best Anthology—This Time for Sure: Bouchercon 2021 Anthology): Well, I thought that was such an easy question, but turns out, it isn’t. Because there are so many different kinds of crimes–sure, the kind enumerated in the law books, so any book about those laws being broken and then justice following–or not–would be in that category. But there are other crimes, too–psychological crimes and domestic crimes and personal crimes, the kind of violence that we do by manipulation or gaslighting or deception. So crime fiction is not just about something that’s illegal and the consequences that may or may not follow, but people’s inhumanity to others, and our attempts to regain a moral equilibrium.
Jan Brogan (nominated for Best Critical/Nonfiction—The Combat Zone: Murder, Race and Boston’s Struggle for Justice): A lot of literature involves crime at some level, I think it’s crime fiction when the crime, real or imagined, sets the story in motion.
Heather Levy (nominated for Best First Novel—Walking Through Needles): A decade ago when I was still in my 30s and writing a lot of nonfiction and the occasional odd short fiction, I would’ve said crime fiction was like noir film in written form. I’ve always read widely, but it wasn’t until I was working on the draft of my third book (the first to be published, WALKING THROUGH NEEDLES) that my writing mentor, Lou Berney, told me what I was writing was crime fiction. I believe he said something like if the story has a crime in it, however big or small, it’s crime fiction. Well, a lot of stories fall under that umbrella, and I realized some of my favorite books of all time like Rebecca were, in fact, crime novels. So, for me, crime fiction is one of the most expansive genres we have as readers and writers, and I’m sure its definition and influence will continue to change.
Richie Narvaez (nominated for Best Short Story—”Doc’s At Midnight”): I tell my students that crime fiction is taking crime—injustice, inequality, assault, loss of property, of security, of life—and using it as a plot feature in a narrative. And because it is one of the worst things that can happen to anyone, it comes ready-made with the conflict needed to energize a story. But what you do with that energy is what makes a story interesting and worthwhile to write and to read.
Alison Gaylin (nominated for Best Novel—The Collective): Fiction with a crime in it. How’s that for a simple answer? To me, the most exciting form of fiction to write because the stakes tend to be the highest, life and death issues are addressed in one way or another, and our noblest and most transgressive qualities are explored.
Tori Eldridge (nominated for Best Paperback/E-Book/Audiobook—The Ninja Betrayed): Since the stories I write and enjoy reading tend to blend multiple genres, my take on crime fiction is probably broader than most. I think any story that centers around a crime, which includes violence and injustice, qualifies as crime fiction even if it isn’t a classic detective, caper, mystery, procedural, or amateur sleuth.
WOULD YOU EVER WRITE A PANDEMIC NOVEL? HOW DO YOU PLAN TO INCORPORATE THE POST-2020 WORLD INTO YOUR WRITING?
Rachel Howzell Hall: My next novel, WHAT NEVER HAPPENED, occurs at the beginning of the pandemic in Southern California. The story, even without COVID-19, takes place on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles, so it was already a kind of locked-room crime story. With the pandemic, the ferry service to Catalina that shuttles people between the mainland and the island, stopped regular service. Islanders were cut-off from the rest of the world and without visitors, the place looked deserted.
So, my heroine, who was already nervous being there for “reasons” is even more anxious with the threat of some strange new virus.
Greg Herren: I plan to. I’ve written a pandemic short story that’s not going to be published anytime soon, but I will definitely write one. Paradigm shifts, such as the pandemic, are difficult to write about, and sometimes people understandably don’t want to either revisit or relive that time, either writing or reading about it. But I also went through Hurricane Katrina, and New Orleans writers were all faced with the same kind of choice: pretend it never happened, or write about it. I wrote about it, even though I didn’t think I would and I was very resistant to the idea. My editor actually convinced me that I needed to write about it. Likewise, how could you write gay characters and stories during the AIDS pandemic and not mention it? I myself am curious to see what kind of pandemic books will be coming out.
Ed Aymar: I’ve incorporated the pandemic in my work, but mainly as a memory. In fiction, I treat the pandemic is something we moved on from—which, for a distressingly amount of people, is true, even if premature. But the pandemic was so globally and individually affecting that, when writing about it, it’s very difficult not to have it weigh heavily into the story.
When the pandemic first started, I wanted to write about it. But so many writers and readers had such disdain for that notion—people wanted an escape. So I past-tensed the pandemic, but it’s absolutely something I’d revisit. I do want to provide that sense of escape in fiction, but I also feel like ignoring it is an abdication of responsibility. COVID-19 killed a million people in America alone, and ignoring it (and ignoring the people that have allowed it to flourish) feels like letting one of history’s most notorious mass murderers remain free.
Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell (nominated for Best Critical/Non-fiction—Murder Book: A Graphic Memoir of a True Crime Obsession): The pandemic, for me, feels so annoying to write about. Part of me just never wants to address it because I so desperately want to move past it. But at the same time we’re all so deeply affected by it that it might be possible that it’ll show up in our writing without us even knowing it?
Tara Laskowski (nominated for Best Paperback/E-Book/Audiobook—The Mother Next Door): I plan on just ignoring it, honestly! Unless there’s some excellent reason to use it, I kind of prefer to just pretend it never happened. This is why I write fiction, I guess. An opportunity to lie to myself.
Hank Phillippi Ryan: At this point, I’m ignoring it. My world is the world of my books, I’ve decided that in the world of my books there is no pandemic. Okay. I’m on the fence about this, I have to admit, reality is reality, but so far there is no pandemic novel in my future. In an early version of my current novel THE HOUSE GUEST, I referred to it, respectfully and in sorrow, as an event in my characters lives that had ended. But somehow even that did not seem respectful enough, and it felt better to me to leave it out all together. We can all talk about this, someday, when we can all safely meet without masks.
Jan Brogan: The thing I really liked about writing about a true crime in the 1970s, is that research into the era made this era seem, by comparison, not quite as horrible. So, I’m going to stay in the past.
Alison Gaylin: It’s interesting because the epilogue of THE COLLECTIVE is full of the pandemic—because it takes place in March of 2020. (The rest of the book takes place in Jan/Feb of the same year). And some readers were/are really upset that I’d mentioned it. I understand that, but I put it in merely to specify that one month had passed, and in March of 2020, the pandemic was directly affecting all of our day-to-day lives, particularly in New York City, which is where the epilogue takes place. It’s hard, because when writing something that takes place in present times, you have to include context. And, for better or worse, the pandemic is very strong part of that context. Not mentioning the pandemic in a book set in 2020 – present would be like writing a book that took place in the early 1940s without mentioning WW2. The problem is, I think, we’re still in the thick of it. We don’t yet have perspective. I don’t know that I’ll write an entire pandemic novel until—and if—I’ve gained that perspective.
THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A BETTER TIME FOR CROSSOVERS. WHAT’S BEHIND THE NEW FLUIDITY OF GENRE?
Yasmin Angoe: Oh my gosh, I don’t know what’s behind it, but I LOVE IT! I want to be a crime fiction writer that has fluidity of genre. I think I have a bit of it in Her Name Is Knight, actually. I think that readers and writers can’t be bottled up into one thing. That’s not life. In life, people have a multitude of interests. They have romances and some horror. They have some sci-fi mixed in and so I think authors are trying to tie those interests into their books. I’m here for all of it. I think it makes the best kind of read when there’s crime fiction with a splash of this and that.
Tori Eldridge: Writing stories without concern for fitting neatly into a particular genre gives me the freedom to let my imagination run free without restriction, often in shocking directions. This was especially true for Dance Among the Flames, which blends literary horror, historical, contemporary dark fantasy, crime, thriller, and magical realism inspired by Brazilian spiritualism. The Lily Wong series was different because I actively set out to blend equal parts mystery, thriller, and the kind of cultural family focus I would normally find in literary or historical fiction. In both cases—accidental or deliberate—I let the characters take me where they wanted to go and created whatever kind of story they needed to tell. It thrills me as a writer, and I think readers (and publishers) are excited about the new fluidity between genres, as well.
Greg Herren: I think there’s always been crossover; Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt wrote romance/mystery hybrids very well; Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier certainly blurred genre lines, and Isaac Azimov wrote science fiction detective novels. I think books that are genre-fluid are good things, because they push the boundaries of what’s expected and what can be done. I like to sometimes include paranormal elements in some of my books; I love a good ghost story mystery.
Laurie R. King: To some extent, crossovers are the natural outcome of a long period of increasingly tight sub-genres. Publishers market to very specific tastes—you’re either on a horror list or a historical mystery list or a cozy-cooking mystery list—overlooking the fact that many of us like all of the above, and more. The mashups that began in fan fiction and self-pub are going mainstream. And why not have a vampire story in Victorian times with recipes? (We even have a chapter in How to Write a Mystery on crossovers—written by Charlaine Harris, who should certainly know!)
Tara Laskowski: I don’t know, to me ‘genre’ has always been more for marketers and booksellers than readers, anyway. I feel like most books can be more than one genre—literary novels with a crime in them; a mystery with a ghost; a fantasy with a romance. In fact, I think they are more interesting when this is so.
Alison Gaylin: I find it very exciting! I’m not sure I know what’s behind it, other than perhaps the fact that people are reading more widely, and without prejudice. Fewer people say, “Oh I’d never read romance or sci fi or crime fiction,” and that includes writers. When you are open to reading various genres, you develop an appreciation for them and it finds its way into your work. And publishers seem a little more open to taking on fiction that straddles genres. As it turns out, it sells! I’d love to write a horror crossover, or dystopian science fiction. I certainly love to read them.
WHAT’S YOUR WRITING SET-UP LIKE?
Yasmin Angoe: I have a macbook (old and on her last legs but I hate to part with her) that is connected to a huge gaming screen so I can pull up windows upon windows. They’re all on an automatic standing desk that I don’t really stand at, but I should. My desk is kind of messy because I write notes everywhere and then feel I need to keep them right there, so I remember to use them. Don’t judge me.
Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell: Since I’m a graphic novelist/cartoonist my writing is entrenched in my drawing. I have a big wooden desk in my office that has a mirror leaning against it so I can make weird faces in it to figure out how to draw different expressions. The desk is covered in scraps of notes, notebooks, pens and pencils. I try to avoid my computer as much as possible.
Greg Herren: I have a nice table in the breakfast nook in my kitchen which is where I work. I have a desktop Mac, a MacBook Air, and my day job also provides me with a Dell laptop. I also write sometimes on my iPad, and of course I keep a journal and have notebooks everywhere. I do most of the writing on my desktop–now that I’m getting older my eyes can’t really do the laptop thing anymore–but use a laptop when I travel, etc.
Valerie Burns: I converted a room of my home into a home office. There’s a sofa for the rare times when I have the time to sit and read, but it’s mostly where my two dogs curl up and nap while I write. I have a desk with a laptop and two huge monitors. There are cords everywhere, which is an unsightly mess and a trip hazard. Most importantly, there are bookshelves full of books.
Hank Phillippi Ryan: I have worked for years now, happily and comfortably, in my study at home. It’s painted “tawny lion” so said the paint can, and I sit at an antique semi circular hunt desk, with the flat of the diameter up against a massive window facing an ancient sugar maple tree. The desktop is cluttered, I fear, with memorabilia: a bottle of white wine from Sue Grafton, I two crystal hourglasses, a balloon from my publisher which is now deflated, but I keep it anyway, and a bottle of champagne from…some happy occasion. And a chunky container full of Blackwing number two pencils. My zoom background is pristine (10/10 on Roomrater, seriously, the joy of my life) and shows bookshelves with books and Emmys and awards,. Out of camera range, which you will never see, are piles of books and files. The back of my desk chair is laden, I mean, multi-layered, with the badges I have worn at various conferences and conventions, dozens and dozens of them from “debut author” to “Guest of Honor.” I am very very happy here.
Tracy Clark: I would love a roll-top desk and an ink well, but unfortunately, I just have a plain old desk and a Dell laptop with my favorite ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING screensaver on it. I’m sitting at my desk now. Let’s see, let’s tool around. Hmm. I have pens, Post-it notes (a pantser’s lifeline), a dodgy little lamp (LED. Paid $20 for it), a bag of Twizzlers (essential brain food for when I get stuck, and it get stuck A LOT), and my go-to writing drink, a glass of ice-cold V-8. That’s it. Anything more than that, and I’d never get a book done. It doesn’t take much to distract me and get me thinking about other things because other things are always easier than writing.
Tori Eldridge: After decades of professional dance and martial arts, I need to keep moving or my hips, back, and shoulders cramp. To that end, I change my locations and position throughout the day. I begin by standing on a Gaiam balance board at a bistro table with my MacBook Air on a Nulaxy rack and my Logitech keyboard underneath. I write standing in this way for two or three hours. Then, weather permitting, I move outside to lounge in a comfy chair with my feet up and my laptop/keyboard rig sitting in my lap. Naturally, I have a thermos of whole leaf tea (Dragonwell, Darjeeling, or Asaam) on the table beside me alongside one of my special gaiwan teacups. (My favs were gifts from our eldest son during his years in Shanghai.) When I get hungry, I move inside to the dining table or set my laptop/keyboard rig at the coffee table where I can kneel on a meditation bench that allows me to kneel without sitting on my ankles. If my legs need stretching, I extend them out to the sides in a quazi-split.
Alan Orloff: I like to think of myself as a no-fuss writer. Sometimes I write at my desk. Sometimes I write outside on a table. Sometimes I’ll go to the library. All I need is my laptop and a place to sit. (Although at one point, I used to write at a very fancy standing desk (okay, it was just a cardboard box set on top of my desk.))
Jan Brogan: I tried a standing desk, but never used it, so I converted to one that rises to standing. And rarely rise. I like to write first drafts in my own office with a MacBook and secondary screen, and as many of my hardcopy research materials in view. (you should see my office, yikes) Later drafts are more portable, and as I have a nautical historical set partially on Martha’s Vineyard, I like to work on it while I’m there and can smell the sea.
Alison Gaylin: Standing desk and a PC laptop that’s well past its prime but still works. (I keep devices until they die on me. Friends laugh at my phone.)
HOW DO YOU THINK CRIME FICTION IS CURRENTLY EVOLVING? WHAT’S THE NEXT BIG THING IN THE GENRE?
Ed Aymar: I’ve written about this before, but I think all of literature is in its next great literary movement. While other movements were recognized by approaches in style, I think this will be realized as a movement of voice. The diversity of voices is reimagining the existing canon, which is what all literary movements do, and introducing different concepts and acceptances of literature than what previously existed.
I think of it as “The New Truth,” a time when existing conceptions are destroyed and illusions lifted. Our lens of literature, which was always narrow, is being expanded by fiction from minoritized communities—women, writers of color, neurodiverse and disabled writers, writers from queer communities.
There’s a fight for the old ways and voices to remain, but I don’t think they will. Part of that is simply because of demographics, but it’s also the steady amount of insight and information we’re receiving from so many new sources. Literature isn’t leading the way in this, but it’s not hopelessly trailing far behind either.
Rachel Howzell Hall: It’s happening slowly but surely… More diverse reads. From writers of color, from LGBTQI writers, from working-class writers… It’s becoming like the best mall food courts in the world. I think as we continue to demand these more diverse reads, and as some publishers see the value (not just financial) in these stories, writers will have more chances to share their stories. Hopefully, more readers will pick up these tales and support writers who may not look like them.
The next big thing? Incorporating virtual/cyber worlds somehow into the narrative. And not high-tech things. I’m talking Ring cameras capturing crime. Fitbits and Apple watches and Alexa devices helping to solve crime. Is this woman real or is she an NFT or whatever that is. I think there will be more crime-fusion, especially between science fiction and crime. I mean… the world is strange and fantastical. Crime writers write what we see and how we deal with the most awful things people can do to each other.
Greg Herren: If I knew the answer to this I’d write the book! I’ve really been thrilled to see the explosion of non-white writers in our genre over the last few years or so–I always say it’s like how the women writers rescued the private eye novel in the 1980;’s; new voices, new points of view, new ways of looking at the world. Selfishly, I’d love for the next big thing to be queer writers! There are some really amazing ones now, too–PJ Vernon, Kelly J. Ford, John Copenhaver, Cheryl Head, Michael Nava is writing again…this is a really good time to be a fan of crime fiction.
Gabriel Valjan: In terms of evolution, publishers are (slowly but surely) making different voices available to the public. It’s always been about money, but I hold out hope. It takes a lot for any author to be seen and heard above the ocean of books, but there’ve been breakthroughs. David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Virgil Wounded Horse and Marcie R. Rendon’s Cash Blackbear have provided readers with a glimpse into the lives of indigenous people. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl widened the door for women writers. Kellye Garrett and SA Cosby continue to walk through the door Eleanor Taylor Bland and Walter Mosley and other people of color have opened for them. Marco Carocari, Michael Nava, and PJ Vernon have created characters who are successors to Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter. Gabino Iglesias and Richard Navarez have given voice to the vibrant Latinx experience in America. Robyn Gigl and Dharma Kelleher are two writers who come to mind for authors who write about the complexities of gender and the justice system. If people can understand that ‘different’ is a relative term, that we have more in common, then perhaps it lessens the vitriol and ignorance in society.
As for ‘the next big thing,’ crime has become more sophisticated and amorphous. The RICO laws made a dent in organized crime. White-collar crime has metastasized beyond the S&L scandals. There’s cryptocurrency, data theft, and human trafficking. Multinational corporations act like cartels, cloaked in laws that protect them from oversight and from paying taxes. There is no face, only a logo, and their victims are people without recourse. Politicians have aided and abetted conglomerates, for either personal gain or for power. Whether it’s treason, bribery, or other high crimes, a writer has to up their game in order for readers to understand the crime and deliver a solution. In this new landscape, justice, like the ending to Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, may leave the reader unsettled.
Heather Levy: I think we’ll see more horror-crime. Works by wonderful writers like Cynthia Pelayo and Hailey Piper are proving how successful this evolving genre can be, and I’m here for all of it.
HOW HAVE YOU BEST CONNECTED WITH YOUR FANS, ESPECIALLY DURING THE PAST FEW YEARS?
Tori Eldridge: I’ve had great fun connecting with my muse-letter where I giveaway one to three books from my talented author friends. I think up fun ways for my readers to respond when they enter so we can get to know each other in friendship-building ways!
Greg Herren: I’ve done a lot of ZOOM. Conferences have always been the best way to connect with readers for me. I’m on social media, but I have never been convinced that will sell books for me. Still, it’s nice to interact with readers there.
Valerie Burns: Over the past few years, I’ve done a lot of Zoom events. I also have been much more active on social media. I also engage with readers through my monthly newsletter.
Laurie R. King: Newsletters, blogs, and Zoom events have been valuable the past three years, and helped to build a far-flung community. However, I have to say I’m really looking forward to actual, in-person author events. I’m enough of a performer to relish the response and feedback. And since some of my readers are starting to hold in-person meetups as well, I’d say it’s a loss felt by others as well.
Tara Laskowski: I sort of love Instagram. The readers on IG are so friendly and enthusiastic and supportive. I am still scared of TikTok, but Bookstagrammers are the kinds of people I want to sit down and have tea with. They have been very lovely.
Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell: Instagram has always been my strongest connection with my audience, but in the past year I have shifted my focus to substack. I started a weekly newsletter that I’ve found to be much more giving and connected to a dedicated fan group than on Instagram. I’ve always had such a difficult relationship with social media (as we all do) and creating a newsletter has given me more control over reaching my audience while also allowing me to write more freely and not be restricted by the ever changing algorithms.
Alan Orloff: I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that the past few covid years, have been VERY challenging for most people. I had two books released during that time, and, without in-person events, I felt disconnected with my readers. Zoom events filled some of the vacuum, and while they were better than nothing (and allowed me to cover more geographic areas), I found it changed the way I connected with mystery lovers. More distant. Less feedback (are they laughing at my jokes? I can’t tell, everyone’s on mute!). Ultimately less satisfaction. I’M SO GLAD WE’RE BACK TO IN-PERSON EVENTS, LIKE BOUCHERCON (yes, I’m shouting!).
Jan Brogan: My favorite thing is to Zoom into a book club, where I don’t have to hold back any details about the story for fear of detracting from the suspense. In terms of social media, everyone today says Instagram, but I find Facebook and Twitter more effective for true crime.
Richie Narvaez: These past few years have actually helped me connect with fans. I was able to go to more events than I would’ve under normal circumstances, and more fans were able to see me. And we were interacting more on social media, particularly Instagram. It’s because of them I feel I’m not writing just for myself, that there are people who want to read my words. They’re very encouraging.
Gabriel Valjan: While I do attend conferences such as Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, Maine Crimewave, and New England Crimebake, my connection to fans has been mostly through social media. Facebook and Twitter. I’m still learning Instagram.
Hank Phillippi Ryan: It is still remarkable to me to think about “fans,” but okay. Over the past pandemic years, I have co-founded The Back Room, with my pal and best-selling author Karen Dionne, and for the past two years we have presented bi-monthly author panels—via zoom, but extraordinarily interactive—and that has been an absolute joy, with our audience growing and growing. Best-selling Canadian author Hannah Mary McKinnon and I do the twice-weekly (!!) First Chapter Fun, where every Tuesday and Thursday at 12:30 PM ET on Facebook and Instagram, we read the first chapter of a wonderful new book! And we are almost up to 300 episodes, and going strong.
And have I have the honor of hosting the weekly CRIME TIME author interview show for the iconic A Mighty Blaze. The pandemic has been horrific, and incredibly sad, but I have to say these opportunities have all been life-changing! And each one is continuing to grow.
Alison Gaylin: I’ve done several zoom events and they’ve been fun. I’ve also taught classes over zoom. I think it’s a great opportunity to connect with readers all over the world.
WHAT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY (IF ANY) OF THE CRIME WRITER, WHEN IT COMES TO REPRESENTING INEQUALITY AND INJUSTICE?
Tracy Clark: Honestly, I think that’s what crime fiction is all about, isn’t it? Writers create battlers of injustice on the page who move heaven and earth to right the wrongs of society, one person, one wrong at a time. That’s the very foundation of the genre. Writers shine the light. They pick at the bleeding sores. They hold a magnifying glass up to the dark, gritty, ugly bits of society and try to make sense of it through story, through character. Frankly, I don’t see how we could write crime fiction at all without doing that. We’re saying to a reader, this is the world you might not see; these are the people you don’t know, the things that go on and shouldn’t. THIS is why THIS happens. Inequality isn’t new; injustice didn’t just drop out of the sky yesterday. Both societal failures have long histories, root causes, and we cannot write the kinds of stories we do by glossing over the parts of our society that are unpleasant to look at. Crime fiction is part morality play (good v. evil), but writers of crime fiction are the ones who have to look and see and grapple with the answer to that basic societal question, Why.
Rachel Howzell Hall: I think that’s what crime-writing is about. If you’re not into that, then what are you here for? Crime is all about making things right and perpetrators being held to account for what they’ve done. Can you call yourself a crime-writer without those elements? I don’t think so. At least, I won’t call you that. Even in a crooked world of thieves and bandits, there are rules—and if you break them, you’re punished. I hear some readers complain about agendas and politics and how they don’t like them in their books. I say all of life is political. Not making a choice is making a choice. Choosing not to be political is being political. And with crime fiction, especially, there can’t be crime without characters taking a stand—for it or against it. Hell, our holiest books are political.
There’s no such thing as an apolitical book. Now, you may not agree with the politics, which is why it stands out and bothers you, but all books have a message.
Heather Levy: Of course, I can only speak for myself, but I do feel a responsibility to represent those aspects in my work. For instance, my writing focuses on sexuality, in particular the darker sides of it (BDSM, sex work, etc.) often looked down upon by society, so I feel responsible for dismantaling misconceptions about a community I’m a part of. Along the way, I try my best to shine a light on other areas of inequality and injustice in society, like racism, sexism, and classism.
Greg Herren: Well, as a gay man in the modern US, my books inevitably always somehow circle back to inequality and injustice. The problem is, do you want to resolve the issue for a satisfying ending for the reader, or do you allow your fictional world to allow inequality and injustice to flourish, or go on? I’d like to believe that we are moving that direction as a society, but some days I have my doubts. Do we want depressing reality in our story, or do we want to invent the world that we would like to live in? For me, it depends on what story I am telling. It is very dissatisfying to write an ending where justice doesn’t in fact prevail. I can say that for sure, having done it a couple of times.
Yasmin Angoe: I think there is a responsibility for a crime writer to accurately represent inequality and injustice. That’s not to say they need to make them the focal point of the story. But I think it’s important the author acknowledges something wrong is going on (because injustice and inequality does dip into crime writing in some shape or form) and address it a bit in their story. We’d do our readers a disservice if we acted like inequality and injustice didn’t exist, in my opinion.
Gabriel Valjan: The responsibility of the writer is to deliver excellent writing and the best possible story. I prefer the story to present the facts and let the reader sort out the details. I dislike writing that tells a reader how to think and feel about something. Respect your reader’s intelligence. Don’t preach. The artistry is showing that nothing is dichotomous, black or white. I’m comfortable with gray. I understand that ambiguity leaves people psychologically unmoored. The season finales of Lost and The Sopranos are proof of that. For me, fiction that is white as vanilla is the stuff of fairy tales, and total darkness as in absolute noir is a form of nihilism. Social inequality is a problem in complex societies (Foucault) because it is human nature that whoever has power will do whatever is necessary to maintain it (Machiavelli). Yes, it’s a cynical view. Read history, and you’ll see that there are no innocents.
Tori Eldridge: Although all of my books and short stories address some sort of societal injustice or abuse, I don’t feel that crime writers have a responsibility or obligation to shine a light on or examine these issues. What we have is a perfect opportunity to explore and share. I feel most fulfilled as a writer when I’m expanding my awareness and challenging my perceptions. Hopefully, my readers feel the same.
Hank Phillippi Ryan: The responsibility to represent any inequality and injustice? Top of mind, and never ending. I’ve been a TV investigative reporter for 43 years now, and my entire life has been spent spotlighting the ways the world does not work, and standing up for the little guy, and hoping to have the good guys win, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them, and to change the world a little bit. I am devoted to doing exactly the same thing in crime fiction.
Jan Brogan: As a true crime writer, focusing on the criminal justice I feel a strong responsibility to reveal inequities in the system and the impacts of poverty and the media. But in fictional crime writing, I love to read humor, and I think we might lose something in a heist story or farce if too much emphasis is placed on responsibilities.
Alison Gaylin: I think the responsibility is to accurately portray the world your characters live in. Since sadly, there is a lot of inequality and injustice in that world — and that’s often a source of conflict in crime fiction in particular — I don’t think you can get away from it.
Laurie R. King: There are two sides to that question, aren’t there? In fiction, the mystery story often incorporates social issues, whether it’s the victim’s circumstances, the protagonist’s struggles, or the villain’s backstory. If you’re writing noir, the injustice may pointedly come out on top. If you prefer more optimistic endings, it speaks up for opportunity and reassurance. Within either, so long as the writer isn’t shouting too obviously from a soapbox, personal attitudes and opinions are a large part of the world that writer creates.
The other part of the question is, what responsibility do we have outside of our stories? These days, a writer needs to decide: do I speak my own truth openly, and come out for or against this political candidate and that hot-button issue, or do I keep my opinions to myself and only talk about what I write? Personally, I feel that anyone with a public face has the right, and indeed the responsibility, to speak up.
Richie Narvaez: We all have a responsibility to each other, and certainly for anyone who wants the attention of more than their circle of friends that responsibility is multiplied. With crime fiction, there’s a special weight attached. We write about murder, about people who shoot people. In a world where people shoot people, where more and more every day children have to worry about getting shot to death in school. So, as we write we have to ask: Is this exploitation? Is this romanticizing and euphemizing awful things? Is this helping or hurting? We have to understand that all art, even stuff that some critics like to dismiss as disposable fluff, can have an impact.
READERS AND PUBLISHERS HAVE INCREASINGLY EMBRACED DIVERSITY, BUT THERE’S STILL A LONG WAY TO GO. WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN TO CREATE AN INCLUSIVE CRIME FICTION COMMUNITY?
Yasmin Angoe: Well definitely diversity needs to become the norm, not the special thing being done to look performative. Readers need to really open themselves to all types of authors and all types of stories from those authors. They need to accept those voices that are different from their own. Publishing needs to stop looking for the same of one “in” thing. Just because a couple other Black or Latinx authors discussed this type of conflict doesn’t mean publishing should expect all other authors from the same groups to write about it. Publishing also needs to remember than until things are equal between non-marginalized authors and marginalized authors, they must provide an equitable space, giving more support and resources, publicity, and marketing for marginalized authors so they can have the same level of successes as non-marginalized authors.
Greg Herren: We’re much closer to it than we were when I started publishing twenty years ago. There’s still a long way to go, unfortunately. I think we need to go on pointing out disparities, bigotry and prejudice whenever we are confronted with them, and continue making space for writers who come from traditionally marginalized communities.
Tracy Clark: As a community, we need to open all the doors and let all the voices in. There are so many wonderful, textured diverse, vibrant voices out there, so many fantastically deep and rich stories. New writers coming up, those who are already here, are broadening horizons with their perspectives on the world and all its complexities. We need that diversity. As a community, we need that depth to grow and breathe. I want all the voices, all the stories. I want all the seats at the table filled.
Tara Laskowski: I think there’s still a lot of work to do, but one step for me is more empathy. I don’t think we as a writing community, or even as citizens in a global world, can move forward and create equity and space for all if we jump first to defensiveness and finger-pointing and don’t even attempt to understand other people’s viewpoints and experiences.
Jan Brogan: I think this question is best answered by those authors who have historically felt locked out.
Richie Narvaez: Keep conscious of your attitude and your decisions. A simple thing to do, for example, is when assembling a panel, you stop and ask, “Hey, does everyone on it look the same and come from the same background?” If so, please add variety. Same thing when inviting people to an anthology. I mean, it not only helps create a more inclusive community, it also makes for much more interesting panels and anthologies.
Alison Gaylin: I think we’re headed in the right direction, but like anything else, it will take time. I think it’s great that we’re seeing more successful publishing and marketing of books by women, people of color and those in the LGBTQ community, but as you said, we’re not there yet. Publishing will always be driven by sales, but I think publishers are getting an eye-opener as to what does sell and who reads books. When I published my first book, there were very few books by women nominated for crime fiction awards, the stories mostly focused on white, straight male characters, and women writers were encouraged to use initials rather than their first names because “men don’t buy books by women.” This was in 2005. Things have changed a lot since then. And they will continue to change.
Gabriel Valjan: There’s always room for improvement, and to think there isn’t is delusional. Utopia doesn’t exist. I mentioned publishers earlier. Visibility is the next step. If readers can’t see your book at the local bookstore. To lean into the issue of Visibility more, I like to point out a deceptive practice. Book lovers understand that indie bookstores are David to Amazon’s Goliath, but what they don’t know is that ‘indie press’ and ‘small press’ are not synonymous terms. Authors. Do the forensics and you’ll see that what you thought was a small press is in fact an imprint of the Big 5. It reminds me of an old television commercial, where viewers thought it was two old guys selling their wine coolers, when in fact their brand was a subsidiary of a wine corporation.
Writers from small presses need to be invited to the major conferences and asked to participate on panels or moderate them. Yes, it’s nice to be reviewed in the trades, but hungry readers don’t care what the critics have to say. They’ll decide for themselves. One last point on visibility: libraries need to stock emerging authors and display the books for foot traffic. A love of books, for most readers, began with a library card in childhood. We have to cultivate and nurture and sustain that love for stories in younger readers. I’m talking about literacy, about getting people to read more books after high school and college.
The library is the great democratizing force in America. You don’t need money to buy books when you have a library card. When I was a child and a young adult, I had an unrestricted library card because my parents didn’t believe in coddling me. I was like a lawnmower as a kid, reading up and down the stacks at my local library. I didn’t care who wrote the book, why they wrote it, and it didn’t matter to me what the author looked like because I was that ravenous for a well-told story. Knowing they existed is what mattered most to me. The writers who fed me, I remembered and cherished.
WHAT ARE YOU WEARING TO THE ANTHONY AWARDS?
Greg Herren: A big smile.
Valerie Burns: The simple black dress.
Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell: Something with BRIGHT RED high heels!!!
Laurie R. King: Since I’ll have a day that includes three panels, three signings, various meetups, and the dinner, I’ll probably be in the same clothes I put on first thing that morning, although rather less crisp-looking. I just hope my hair doesn’t frighten people.
Alan Orloff: After not wearing a tux for forty years, I’ve worn it twice in the past few months. However, it won’t be making the trip to Minneapolis. I’ll probably wear khakis and a button-down shirt. Comfortable shoes. And, of course, my lucky socks.
Yasmin Angoe: Oooh, fun question. Hell, if I know. I should go take a look at what I have. Something cute though. Damn, do we have to dress up?
Tracy Clark: Beats me. Something comfortable. I don’t get too fussy with it.
Jan Brogan: Clothes stuffed into a roll on. (There’s an ironing board in the hotel, right??)
Richie Narvaez: I’d like to say a luxury designer suit, but let’s just start with Mennen Speed Stick.
Alison Gaylin: That’s the toughest question of all! Can we talk about the next big thing again?
Hank Phillippi Ryan: I will reveal it now… Probably sweatpants. I am devastated that I cannot go to the Anthonys, but it does not make me any less gaspingly honored that the anthology of short stories I edited, THIS TIME FOR SURE, is nominated for best anthology . I am in awe of all the nominees.
WHAT’S A QUESTION YOU WISH YOU GOT ASKED MORE?
Greg Herren: “Will you write a book if we pay you six figures?”
Alan Orloff: On a scale of one-to-ten, what’s your terrorfication level of someone realizing that you are a total imposter when it comes to writing?
Jan Brogan: Why are you so fascinated by the psychological components of revenge?
Alison Gaylin: What trend annoys you the most in Netflix true crime documentaries? (The answer: Shots of interviewees walking into rooms, sitting in chairs, attaching microphones. Just tell us the damn story.) Also, “Can I buy you a drink?” is a perennial favorite.
WHAT’S ON YOUR NIGHTSTAND?
Valerie Burns: All Her Little Secrets by Wanda Morris.
Alan Orloff: I’ve got a physical nightstand (with print books) as well as a virtual nightstand (ebooks on my Kindle). At the top of the pile: The Pallbearers Club by Paul Tremblay, Her Three Lives by Cate Holahan, The Island by Adrian McKinty, Things We Do in the Dark by Jennifer Hillier, and Real Bad Things by Kelly J. Ford.
Yasmin Angoe: Chapstick.
Okay, okay, and my phone with audiobooks of what I’m listening to because you wanted to know what I’m reading don’t you? I’m re-reading Heat 2 by Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner which is so good! The narrator even sounds like Al Pacino, and I am so tickled whenever I hear it. And I’m about to start Matthew Farrell’s We Have Your Daughter which sounds like it will be amazing. Then Dorothy Koomson’s The Ice Cream Girls.
Jan Brogan: Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford. (about mob mentality)
Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell: Currently reading Annn Rule’s A Rose for her Grave, Beverly Lowry’s Who Killed These Girls? and Patricia Highsmith’s Deep Water. Also I obviously always have an old glass of water, last night’s glass of wine, and a cup of coffee that need’s reheating—sort of permanently on my nightstand.
Tracy Clark: I keep a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare next to my bed. I never know when I’m going to get the urge to read As You Like It for the millionth time. I also keep whatever I’m currently reading next to my bed. I just finished Laurie R. King’s Castle Shade and Cheryl Head’s Time’s Undoing (wow), and now I’m reading Carlene O’Connor’s No Strangers Here and loving it. My TBR stack is HUGE, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Who was it who said, “A house without books is like a room without windows”? I’ve got LOTS of windows.
Tori Eldridge: Shutter by Ramona Emerson, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Devil Takes You Home by Gabino Iglesias, and Deep Work by Cal Newport.
Alison Gaylin: WE KEEP THE DEAD CLOSE by Becky Cooper, SURVIVORS GUILT AND OTHER STORIES by Greg Herren, THE DEAD ARE ARISING by Les Payne and Tamara Payne
Rachel Howzell Hall: I no longer keep books on my nightstand—sometimes, that feels too much like work. So now, I have a big book of crosswords and a good pen. Sometimes, there’s my Xbox game controller (yes, I have a system in my bedroom) because that’s how I truly wind down down. There’s a S’well of icy water and Zzquil gummies.
WHO ARE SOME UP-AND-COMING AUTHORS YOU’D LIKE OUR READERS TO KNOW ABOUT?
Ed Aymar: Katie Gutierrez’s fantastic debut, More Than You Know, should end up on every award list next year. And I have to give a shout out to my 2021 Pitch Wars mentee, Sian Gilbert, who’s astonishing debut thriller, She Started It, is going to be published in 2023 from William Morrow Books and is going to blow readers away. Also everyone should read the debuts from this year’s terrific slate of Anthony nominees: Yasmin Angoe, Zakiya Dalila Harris, Heather Levy, Mia P. Manasala, and Wanda M. Morris.
Greg Herren: John Copenhaver, Marco Carocari, PJ Vernon, Wanda M. Morris, Yasmin Angoe, Mia Manansala, Raquel V. Reyes, Kelly J. Ford, Curtis Ippolito, Elizabeth Little, Erica Ruth Neubauer…I could be here all day!
What can I say? I’m an overachiever.
Valerie Burns: I don’t know about “up-and-coming,” but I’ve been impressed by Wanda Morris, Yasmin Angoe, Andrea J. Johnson, and Mia Manansala.
Alan Orloff: If you define up-and-coming authors as having written two novels or fewer (give or take), then I’ve got some terrific names to recommend: Wanda Morris, Marco Carocari, Yasmin Angoe, and John Copenhaver. But wait, there’s more: Tara Laskowski, Carl Vonderau, Raquel V. Reyes, and Bonnar Spring. Crime fiction readers really are fortunate that there’s so many great writers in the pipeline!
Yasmin Angoe: Damyanti Biswas- The Blue Bar
Jumata Emill- The Black Queen
Erin Adams- Jackal
Terry Benton-Walker- Blood Debts
Alison Gaylin: All the best firsts nominated for Anthonys are wonderful! Honestly. I also loved Stacy Willingham’s debut novel, A FLICKER IN THE DARK, which came out this year. Kellye Garrett and Alex Segura are newer authors who should be on everybody’s radar.
Heather Levy: Oh, there are so many! Obviously, my fellow Anthony nominees for Best First Novel: Zakiya Dalia Harris, Wanda Morris, Mia Manansala, and Yasmin Angoe. I’ll also add Halley Sutton (one of my Pitch Wars mentors–Layne Fargo as well, whose audible series just announced a second season), Erin Flanagan, Mark Westmoreland, Bobby Mathews, Curtis Ippolito, and my best buddy Mer Whinery.
Jan Brogan: Maureen Boyle, author of Shallow Graves, (about a serial killing spree in New Bedford, Massachusetts that targeted vulnerable young females with addiction problems.) and John Nardizzi, The Burden of Innocence.
Hank Phillippi Ryan: Oh, I am absolutely in love with two new authors: Katie Gutierrez, whose brilliant MORE THAN YOU’LL EVEN KNOW is an absolute knockout story. And Gillian McAllister‘s WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME , a complete tour de force novel that I cannot get out of my head. In both cases, as soon as I finished, I wanted to begin again to deconstruct how these supremely talented authors did it. Not to be missed.
And oh, Lev AC Rosen‘s Lavender House! Do not miss this heartbreaking and ingenious and revealing 1050’s PI story. Sam Spade meets La Cage au Folles? Maybe, but like all good crime fiction, it is richer and deeper and wonderfully multilayered.
(FOR TRUE CRIME WRITERS) WHAT’S THE WILDEST RESEARCH STORY YOU CAN TELL US?
Jan Brogan: When I started The Combat Zone, in 2008, the victim’s family firmly believed and told me that the murderer, Leon Easterling, had died of AIDS, I was trying to get a handle on who exactly he was, his background, etc., and reached out on a popular website for people who might have known him. Imagine my surprise when I got an email from Easterling himself, who was very much not-dead. He wanted me to pay him for his story, which I had to decline out of journalistic principle. But until he died 2014, he followed me on Twitter and Facebook.
Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell: In the middle of creating Murder Book I was sitting at my local bar in Brooklyn where I typically like to doodle and write at. I struck up a conversation with a man next to me and we ended up talking about my book. Then he mentions that where he grew up there was this infamous murder trial. Then he says he’s from Wilmington, DE. Then he says his family actually knew the murderer… Thomas Capano. And my jaw drops. I go… that’s what I’m writing about. I was so giddy to talk to him and couldn’t believe the coincidence. I was very disturbed (and horrified) to find out that the murder is so well known in his hometown that people continue to dress up as Capano for Halloween, carrying around an igloo chest with a foot hanging out of it. Offensive, much?! I chose to not include that in the book.
TRUE CRIME WRITING HAS SEEMINGLY EVOLVED FROM A SENSATIONALIST GENRE TO MORE EMPATHETIC, VICTIM-FOCUSED NARRATIVES AND NOW TO MORE WORKS OF REPORTAGE—WHAT ARE YOU THOUGHTS ON THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF TRUE CRIME?
Jan Brogan: I tend to believe there has always been empathetic victim focused true crime. For example, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the original masterpiece of the genre, was as much about the victim-family and the community, as about the murder. But I think sensational murder stories, then, now and in the future, will always attract the most attention. I think/ hope that the recent expansion of reader interest in the genre, thanks in part to true crime documentaries on streaming services, has helped build an audience for true crime stories that are a lot more than blood and guts. I want to believe that in the future, we will see more and more stories that reveal the historical inequities and fallibilities of the criminal justice system.