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Amanda Coetzee

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Fact versus Crime Fiction

There are times when I read the newspaper (or more recently, social media) and I despair.  I cannot begin to fathom or unravel the complexities and banality of crime and nor do I wish to. My publisher would scoff at daily headlines as implausible if I tried to work them into a storyline and they would be right; as Mandy Weiner once said to me, ‘You couldn’t make this stuff up.’

You really could not and retain any credibility as a fictional author, so why bother? I am often asked why I choose to lose myself in a violent world of my own making and the answer is always the same. I unravel the chaos and present hope and love as a backdrop against the tides of madness. There is always a ‘why’ in crime fiction, a journey and resolution and rarely are we given that insight or truth in reality. Perhaps it is just as well or who of us could bear it?

Is it appropriate to create entertainment from the ashes of suffering even if only fictional? I stand proudly with my genre of choice and say that like all archetypal stories and characters, society needs them to navigate its own darkness.

We tap into our communal fear in order to control it if we cannot explain it, and sometimes, just sometimes, we do both.

What’s in a name?

Choosing a title for your book requires an agonizingly and profound decision making process; or does it?

I’m notorious for my methodical approach to structuring my writing and raising my eyebrows in polite disbelief at the more creatively, erratic methods recklessly employed by fellow authors. However, when it comes to naming my novel, my Romany roots overwhelm my common sense and I am superstitiously bound by immoveable criteria.

I must choose the title of my next book before the end of writing my current novel. I simply have to or the universe will conspire to ensure that there is no next book. I then have to ruthlessly insert it in to as many conversations as possible so it cannot be unimagined. Of course this makes no sense but it is true and so I confidently announce my next novel as ‘Hard Time’.

It’s as good as written!

Coming out of the Crime Closet

I have recently had to defend the genre of crime writing as being important enough to be taken seriously in the world of literature. I find the idea absurd that as a genre, it has been sidelined as disposable fiction that is rated by ‘serious readers’ as formulaic and slightly seedy. In general I am uncomfortable with any kind of elitism and sadly; literary pretentiousness has just been added to my list.

Crime deals with every strata of society, it’s the punk of modern writing where there are no rules except that the product be tight and well crafted. A crime writer cannot get away with self indulgent commentary on the state of the human condition – we dissect, analyse and present it in its glorious and terrifying totality. I am an avid crime reader and can tell you that its writers are as diverse in their styles, themes and protagonists as any literary author.

I am coming out of the literary closet and proclaiming that crime writers take our writing and our readers seriously; we look for issues to explore as the backdrop to our criminal investigation and comment on the nuances of society deliberately as well as effectively. We work on our prose and characters diligently and are proud of the writing we produce. Is the violence sometimes gratuitous or titillating? Well, perhaps sometimes. In that case put down the book and find a novel more suited to your literary tastes but the world is a dark place and crime authors are not afraid of exploring its shadows.

Crime is harder than you think to write; it is not simply a plot device for  a tortured detective and depraved villain to pin a puzzle upon; instead you delve into the origin and structure of evil and try to navigate it, just a little, for your readers. Does it glamourise or perpetuate violence in a world that is already shuddering under the weight of the fractured state of humankind? I doubt it, instead I think like all fiction it allows us to engage with the topics that terrify or interest us the most.

Is it great literature, probably not. But then I think people have the right to read Mills and Boons without the snickers and raised eyebrows.  Crime at its best is great reading and often great writing and that’s good enough for me.

 

 

In the flesh, figuratively speaking

Click escape if you were hoping for some saucy banter about erotic fiction. I’m not talking about being naked on the pages, but rather being exposed in interviews.

What’s your preference?

I’ve got to say it’s a tricky question. There’s a very real connection between a writer and a journalist that takes place over a cuppa and a lengthy interview about so much more than just the book, that simply cannot be replicated in an electronic interview. Is it preferable? Not so sure.

I like control. I like to know where my book and characters are heading and I like to know what is going to end up in print attached to my name. Does that mean I am extraordinarily precise in my email interviews; absolutely. I rarely take risks or reveal more than I wish to about myself or my private life and generally breathe a sight of relief when the interview looks exactly as it did when I typed it.

Is it a fair reflection of my personality, contradictions and eccentricities? I doubt it. In fact I would go further and say deliberately not. But should it be? What is that people want to know about an author? Is it the process or the person behind the pages?

I enjoy interviews while they are taking place, I positively glow at the opportunity to talk animatedly about a wide range of topics and can happily be diverted to say far more than I intended. It’s afterwards that I begin to worry. Like a night out with too much alcohol and lowered inhibitions I start the sweat induced replay of events. I cringe as the conversation loops through my mind at all the ‘witty, self-deprecating’ anecdotes that feel a little cheap in the cold light of day.

I have reason to be self-conscious. I have made blunders in person that would never have escaped my scrutiny in a document, I have tripped, got my coat caught under my chair, had lipstick on my teeth, incorrectly pronounced Guantanamo Bay and miscounted my siblings. Just writing this I can feel the sweat pooling at the base of my spine. Still, thinking before writing isn’t foolproof; I remember an awkward conversation with my editor about a comment I left in French on my Amazon Book page – don’t ask…

The writer in me wants perfection, the sometimes overwhelmed mother of a four year old and deputy principal is learning to expect less. Do I like to read thought provoking and insightful commentaries on the artist as well as their work; of course. Do I want that spotlight in my direction?

Only if I can proofread it first…

 

 

Cult – a four letter word?

The definition of a cult in its simplest terms is any group that uses abusive and/or manipulative methods to attract and retain members. How do I know this? I spent an awful lot of time researching cults and their membership as background material for my third novel, Flaming June. It’s a disturbing and compelling topic.

Most people consider themselves too emotionally or intellectually aware to fall prey to the machinations of a cult, but it’s humbling to find out that this simply isn’t the case. If the wrong people manage to insinuate themselves into your life at the right time, then you too might find yourself joining an organisation that only later, reveals its more sinister intent. Of course by then you won’t know it’s a cult, because you will have become entirely dependent on and submissive to the doctrine of the organisation. Need love and unconditional acceptance? Join us. Want to change the world for the better, save your soul, make millions, tap into the power of the universe? Joins us. Whatever your need, you can be sure that the cult has anticipated and provided for it as they dangled the hook that drew you in.

Nobody joins a cult but people are singled out and invited to retreats, seminars, sales conferences or bible studies everyday. Nobody affiliates themselves willingly to a group that will by definition remove them from the world and place them at the bottom of the food chain in an elitist and closed structure.

They don’t need to.

The principles of thought reform remain the same whether your cult is religious, political, new-age/self help, gang related or commercial in nature; immerse the potential recruit in a high energy, emotionally powerful, loaded language environment and make sure that initially at least, any kooky ideas or cult like images are excluded. Use thought terminating cliches and exhausting activities that prevent independent and reasoned critical engagement with the message of the leadership and watch the tumble locks of resistance slowly become replaced by euphoric cooperation.

I am not sure which I found the most disturbing, that there are cults in every walk of life or that the systematic process required to change a person’s core beliefs is so readily documented. Whether you want to turn a potential political intelligence source or convince a couple that it’s acceptable for the leader to have sex with your underage children, thought reform, brainwashing, obliteration of the previous self is not that complicated. Don’t believe me? Spend a few sordid hours on google and trawl through the damage that cults have wrought in the lives of ordinary people.

Human beings are social animals and we need to belong, even if it is to a group that disdains formal and traditional society; so when does a community become a cult? Start asking questions when you are no longer free to act according to your own conscience or judgement or are so conditioned you can no longer differentiate between you and the group. Most importantly, when you find yourself threatened if you have doubts about leaving the organisation.

But then it is probably already too late.

 

Should old writing stay in the drawer?

Most of us did not begin as fully formed writers. Instead we grew, developed and hopefully improved along the years, so where does that leave our earlier writing?

Do I really want to haul out my angry young woman novel that I wrote in my early twenties now that I am a married woman in my ever disappearing forties? It’s not that I am not proud of the writing, raw and dramatic though it may be, It’s just that I don’t see the world the same way. It feels a little like looking through my old photographs and loving the nostalgia of my dodgy hairstyles and fashion choices and recognizing their authenticity, without wanting that horrendous eighties perm again!

Am I the only writer that tried out Romance before finding my groove? Most people who know me will accept that as a reasonable detour as I remain a hopeless romantic. Still after nearly sixteen years of marriage and the sometimes traumatic events that make up a life together, I might be less about the happy ending and more about the journey that comes after. Do I still believe in forever love, absolutely, do I still want to share my innermost feelings with the world and present it in saccharine wrapping? Not so much.

So where does that leave the writing in the drawer, or work backed up on a file and saved under ‘do not reveal’? In my case I often find shades of previous writing in my current work. The diaphanous shifts worn by members of the cult Connect, in Flaming June, were once part of a fantasy novel I wrote called… Well I think that might be enough about that particular piece of work, but perhaps therein lies the answer.

The moments of promise, the phrases that still resonate find their way in to my writing, like fragments from a forgotten dream. I believed in magic and feared the dark and my writing still explores those themes, albeit from a hopefully better crafted perspective. Would I publish my earlier manuscripts, unlikely. Would I revisit, rewrite and use them as source material for new work? Why wouldn’t I?

So dust it off, cringe, laugh, burn a little with pride at the you before a million rejection letters and see what treasures you uncover.

You just may be inspired.

The logic of creativity

This year I have been fortunate enough to attend a couple of literary festivals and network with readers and authors alike. One of the questions regularly raised is regarding the mechanism of writing; does it organically occur in a creative mist of inspiration or is it more daily grind and planning?

It has been unsettling for me to discover how many writers free fall into a creative space where the stories unfold and characters weave their own tales. I say unsettling because my own approach is somewhat pedestrian in comparison. I research, I plan, I sift, I even happily draw mind maps and character sketches and have a fairly concrete idea of what I am going to try and write.

This approach seems resigned to produce one of two reactions; relief from the methodical camp, or bemusement from writers and a soft sigh of disappointment from readers. I even understand it, after all where is the mystery in a structured environment of planning and commitment to achieving a pre-ordained daily word count? Yet in my world there is a magic in being able to produce on paper what was still only a thought, even if it was a well formed thought.

The truth is, I suspect there are as many approaches to writing as there are books and authors and that is as it should be. Some of us that write alone cannot imagine a collaborative process and yet that is how many people routinely produce books. Team writers consider the solitary process of developing a manuscript intensely lonely, wracked with doubt and I am confident that despite the disparity; we are all right. The logic of creativity is not that there is a formula, but that we formulate the best way to bring to life the stories that burn within.

My own writing style is no doubt a combination of personality and circumstance. As a deputy principal of a large school and mother of a busy four year old, I rarely have time to sit and stare at a blank computer screen even as I love the poetry of the concept. Instead, when I sit down to write, I have a plan and a structure and it works for me. Is it dull to hear that producing a book has as much to do with organisation as creativity; possibly. Is it drudgery to create within a framework?

Not on your life; it’s my personal brand of magic.