On Genre Writing

I have always toyed with genre in my novels, though have never attempted full-blown genre until The Drowning, a psychological thriller with not just plot twists, but also narrative twists that makes the reader a participant into what’s happening to the protagonist, Alex Mason. 

I came to genre primarily through my reading of certain French authors who blend genre with literary fiction: J-P Manchette, René Belletto, Patrick Modiano, and even Marcel Proust, whose In Search of Lost Timeis, in parts, a spy novel as well as a detective story. After all, it’s about a search for something that eludes the narrator until the end. And then there’s Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose 1953 novel,The Erasers, is a modern-day detective story based on Oedipus Rex. It, too, isn’t a conventional tale. It plays with time in a wholly new way, and demands an attentive reading and re-reading. 

I only occasionally read genre: the odd thriller, espionage tale, and detective novel. And I’ve seen lots of thriller movies and quality TV series. Before I even began to think about writing The Drowning I saw at least five different limited TV series about a missing child, each excellent in its own way. But in every case the story follows a similar pattern: a child goes missing—a situation that for any parent watching can be wrenching, since we automatically think of our own children rounding a corner in a supermarket, say, and then vanishing—followed by the hunting of clues, the following of leads, the denouement when we learn what had happened to the child. The Drowning, as I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, is based on something that happened to me. But I’m still here, because there was no plot twist to make me vanish.

But all too often when a child goes missing, he or she is never found. The mystery never goes away, and the agony for the parents and siblings never lessens. And once you have a mystery (is he or she still alive? Will there ever be closure?), time begins to polish it into a legend that lives on. There is no neat ending that will satisfy the genre reader.

As I mentioned in an interview included in The Drowning, I’ve grown increasingly interested in genre, though not coming from that world I try to bring to it a different sensibility. Genre provides a writer with known forms and structures; it’s what you can do with it to make it new that provides the great challenge for the author. As a screenwriting manager once said to me, “Write the same old story, just make it so different from all the others that it becomes irresistible.”