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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Review: 'Rogue Males'

In honor of Stephen J. Cannell's passing, here's my review of Craig McDonald's absorbing Rogue Males. His conversation with Cannell is a wonderful thing to read; I got a great sense of what a great fella Cannell had to have been.

ROGUE MALES: Conversations & Confrontations About the Writing Life
By Craig McDonald
Nonfiction (interviews of mystery writers)
May 2009
Bleak House Books
ISBN: 978-1-932557-45-9

Often, those who are not writers can be bored stiff at the idea of reading what writers think about their craft. Thanks to the writers chosen by Craig McDonald to talk about their work, Rogue Males is instead a treasure of what makes fiction -- especially crime fiction -- matter.

Whether it's James Ellroy talking about his tortured past and plans of future greatness (just before he decided not to give interviews any more), Max Allan Collins and Stephen J. Cannell being honest about scriptwriting, the late James Crumley discussing writers he admires or Tom Russell telling why music matters, Rogue Males is filled with riveting people giving honest views on what matters to them when it comes to writing and, through those revelations, what matters in life.

The talk about the writing itself remains center stage and is fascinating. Two of the common threads are how the development of characters makes genre writing all the stronger, and how genre doesn't need to be boxed in. For Crumley, McDonald notes how plot takes second place to character. The great Daniel Woodrell has a writer character of his mention that, while others call him a crime writer, he thinks he's writing slice of life dramas. Woodrell also tells that going to the Iowa Writers Workshop was of great benefit to him, because he paid attention to the writing that the others there admired. Being open to look at all manner of things was helpful to him.

Character also is important to veteran scriptwriter and novelist Stephen J. Cannell, who thinks that even if a character appears for only two pages in a script, that character "has to have a yesterday and is going to have a tomorrow" for the script to work. Craig Holden relates that his French editor says the story comes from characters following their urges or obsessions.

James Sallis comes across as one of the most thoughtful and perceptive writers around in both solo conversations and one with Ken Bruen. Perhaps it's partly because he has lived in so many ways. His experience includes a career as a respiratory therapist (including for severely ill infants), besides writing poetry and a biography of Chester Himes, translating work from the French and editing anthologies. The entire book is worth buying just for his description of how he could begin a piece by a picture that has come to mind, which he says is how his work often begins, and the questions he asks about that visual image in his head. So is his view of why show, not tell, makes for subtle and powerful storytelling. So are his ideas about rewrites and what that first draft does -- in summary, the writer looks at the draft, asks what the draft is trying to say, and then rewrites the story to fit what the draft says.

Sallis also has a beautiful image of literature, how it's not a sideboard with separate drawers in which, say, mystery is never touched by poetry, but rather a long buffet. Now that's wisdom.

To deepen the conversation, Alistair Macleod says that writing is an act of communication, that writers send out letters to the world. Lee Child also says that now Reacher has been out in the world for more than 10 years, his readers can claim ownership as much as he can. Kinky Friedman, interviewed during his run for governor of Texas, shows he's not kept up with the genre when he says mystery writing is still limited by needing to have a body in the library.

The major quibble is that the men McDonald interviews often comment on how perceptive he is of their work. That's got to be validating to McDonald, but to the reader it looks like he's patting himself on the back through their comments. But if that and an obsessive belief that the only modern writing that matters is thanks to Hemingway, then Rogue Males has strength and vitality to invigorate writers and other readers alike.

© 2009 All Rights Reserved Reviews at CompuServe Books and reprinted with permission

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