Why do we read? To escape our lives, fuel our imaginations, entertain ourselves during a wait—there are so many reasons. But one thing is universal: reading satisfies a hunger for story that’s almost as basic as our need for food and sleep. For writers, reading can add a rich vein of inspiration, but it gets complicated because it’s so tightly intertwined with our work.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my own reading life as a novelist—not the research I do for work, but what I read for love. My personal reading is as vital to me as writing: I need both. But instead of working in concert they seem to dance around each other, coming together and moving apart as a quiet tension builds and ultimately finds its way into my work, but sideways.
Here’s a confession: Despite having published a dozen crime novels, I don’t read much in that genre. I admit to feeling guilty—as if I’m not true to my own genre, not doing enough homework. But when we read for love it shouldn’t feel like homework, it should be pure pleasure. All I know is that when I’m not researching something for a novel I’m about to write, when I want to lose myself in the pleasure of escape into someone else’s writing, I tend to reach for anything but crime.
What Do Crime Writers Read?
What do I reach for? What do other crime writers reach for? I decided to put my guilt to the test and ask my crime writer friends what they read solely to please themselves when they want to escape, well, everything.
Right away, their answers comforted me as I realized how diverse their interests were when they stepped away from their own manuscripts. Like me, every one of them often reaches for fiction—but not the same kind of fiction. Reed Farrel Coleman reads mostly crime fiction. Joe Ide reads anything that “takes me away to anyplace but here.” Allison Brennan reports that “90% of what I read are mysteries, thrillers, or romantic suspense.” Lyndsay Faye loves “fantasy, sci-fi, YA, mystery, historical—essentially, I’m a sucker for genre fiction. Which is the same thing as literary fiction, but with a plot.” Sarah Weinman wants “a novel to introduce me to a world I might not know…Great characters that I care about. Language that is truly the writer’s own. Pacing that raises the stakes.” Michael Koryta reads “everything—looking at last year’s list, I read 96 books, and it broke down with 50 nonfiction titles, 40 novels, three YA novels, and three short story collections.” Alex Segura also reaches across the spectrum for his reading pleasure: “I read a lot of crime, but I do also spend time in sci-fi, comics, fantasy and nonfiction.” Me, I mostly love to read so-called literary fiction (I’m in full agreement with Lyndsay Faye that genre fiction is, or should be, “literary fiction, but with a plot.” Sometimes I’ll lose myself in a biography, because I love learning about other people’s lives. I will read crime fiction, but only if it skews literary—and when it’s good, I don’t want to do anything else but read.
Sarah Weinman traces the reading hunger to its roots: “If I must be honest, I would rather read than write. I started reading at around the age of two and a half and I read at about a book-a-day.” (Um, short books, I presume? Though this being Sarah, you never know.) She cut her reading teeth on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s The Blue Castle and Anne of Green Gables. For Michael Koryta, the joy of reading also sparked young with “The Crow and the Castle, by Keith Robertson, The House with the Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs, and really everything by Lois Duncan.” As a boy, Reed Farrel Coleman was “knocked out by a collection of stories and poems by some hack named Poe.” Chris Pavone and his teacher-parents “spent all summer every summer driving around Mexico and Guatemala under the influence of a guidebook called—no kidding—Mexico and Guatemala on $5 a Day” until those long months became “an exercise in testing the limits boredom. Which I solved by reading all the time, whatever I could get my hands on that was English, beginning when I was too young to remember.” Allison Brennan, meanwhile, found herself particularly captivated by Julie Campbell Tatham’s Trixie Belden series of mystery novels and later The Stand by Stephen King. For Joe Ide it was Sherlock Holmes: “I identified with him. He was a misfit, an oddball.” (I can assure you that Joe in person is neither a misfit nor an oddball, but a fascinating guy with an aura of humor.) Lyndsay Faye also fell for Sherlock Holmes: “My dad told me to read The Adventure of the Speckled Band, and pretty soon I’d devoured four novels and 56 short stories.” Another author who loved Sherlock Holmes as a kid was Alex Segura, though “the first novel that kind of knocked me for a loop was Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.” I also remember being gobsmacked by that hunk of a book when I was a teenager, but the very first book that drew me into a world of bliss was something about a castle (I no longer remember the title, but I was eight and the book had illustrations which at the time was a requirement for me) and soon after I fell hard for Elsa the lion in Born Free. I’ve never once written about a castle or a lion, but it was there and then that a love of reading blossomed in my mind, though I was never that kid holed up with a book if outside play with friends was an option. So from lions to castles to travel guide books to mystery series to classics, this sample of children who would grow up to be crime writers pretty much read it all.
And now, as adults, we continue our trend of free range reading, from newspapers to stories to novels to nonfiction. When I asked my writer friends what the last book was that they fell in love with, the answers were just as eclectic. Tim Johnston’s “beautifully written suspense novel” The Current and the non-fiction Hank and Jim, by Scott Eyman (Michael Koryta). Todd Smith’s The Far Empty and The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, because “both books have everything” (Joe Ide). “The J.D. Robb In Death series [is] one of the few series I still read religiously even after 40+ books. [And] I read an arc of THE LOVELY AND THE LOST by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. It’s sort of out of my comfort zone — it’s a YA suspense. But I love it” (Allison Brennan). “Matt Goldman’s Gone To Dust. It’s always great to discover a new PI novel that plays with the tropes and conceits of the genre yet shines” (Reed Farrel Coleman). Sarah Weinman’s The Real Lolita, “which is so much more than a true crime book—it blends literary history, true crime and some of the major issues we’re grappling with today to create a very personal, evocative and timely story that just made for a great, impossible to ignore book” (Alex Segura). As for me, it was Paulette Jiles’s News of the World that most recently carried me far, far away from real life and compressed hours into minutes.
What Are We All Looking For (in a Book)?
I’ve taught fiction writing to college students and adults for many years, and the big takeaway from my course is that a writer needs to merge both a strong, active story and rich, evocative language to transport a reader into a fictional world. This dual emphasis is what I look for, what I require, as a reader. Joe Ide also looks for “a great story, a character I can believe in, great writing and a world I haven’t visited before, even if it’s an emotional one.” Michael Koryta “wants it all. I’m a greedy SOB as a reader. I want great characters and story but I really do care about the language, yes. It ultimately boils down to the writer’s voice.” Allison Brennan requires “a good story well told. I want to lose myself in the author’s world. I have to like at least one of the characters or I’ll put the book down.” It’s also “Character first,” for Alex Segura. “I don’t care about plot twists or revelations if the characters don’t appeal to me. Introduce me to someone flawed and engaging and I’m yours.” For Lyndsay Faye, it starts with “language and prose. I can read any number of beautifully simple books, but I can’t read a poorly or sloppily written book. Ultimately, character matters most. I want to peel humans apart like onions and get to the core.” (Yikes, Lyndsay!) Sarah Weinman wants “a novel to introduce me to a world I might not know, or think I know but there is something fresh to it. Great characters that I care about. Language that is truly the writer’s own. Pacing that raises the stakes.” Reed Farrel Coleman wants, simply, “everything. I want compelling characters, an interesting plot, and beautiful language, if I can get it… I wish more writers would concern themselves with the art of writing. But the most beautiful writing in the world won’t rescue a book with one-dimensional characters trapped in a boring plot.” Chris Pavone is “willing to be entertained, enlightened, amused, heartbroken, and made a better human by almost anything that’s well-executed in what it’s trying to accomplish. I love a novel of beautiful language and finely tuned observations of tiny moments, even if practically nothing happens in the way of plot. I also love a plot-heavy novel of twists and turns that make me desperate to turn the page, even if there’s no attempt whatsoever to include even one beautiful sentence in the entire book. And what I love most is a novel that manages to do both.” Basically, we’re all pretty greedy as readers—I am, too—in that we want strong story bones wrapped in a skin of transportive writing. It’s true that when a writer reads, the bar is set high; we tend to spot, and can’t tolerate, fissures that compromise the believability of a work. Reed Farrel Coleman puts it nicely when he says, “I can’t help but read analytically now and I know the writer’s short hand. But it makes me really look forward to books from the writers I love.
We’re all avid storytellers and of us watch TV (except for Sarah, who’s too busy reading) and some of us enjoy movies and podcasts.
We read in the morning, afternoon, evening and night. We read sitting up, lying down, pedaling at the gym, and even walking. Some of us read voraciously while we’re working on our own books, because it doesn’t influence our writing, but some of us avoid reading fiction and stick to research-reading in order to avoid the intrusion of another writer’s voice.
As readers, we’re a motley bunch. As writers, we write about crime, which at its best synthesizes experience, conflict, psychology and emotion—in other words, being human in a tricky world—using language as a conduit, we hope, to someplace other than our own lives. And to a person, we all read with the yearning of all true readers: to be deeply satisfied.
The upshot of all this? I no longer feel guilty, as if my reading habits don’t befit an author of crime novels. When it comes to reading for ourselves, it’s whatever gets us from here to there with a literary sleight of hand so deft we practically float.