I’ve mentioned this before: I grew up in a household that had a reverence for ‘culture’, culture with an Old World reverence. Opera. Plays. Musicals were a step below, movies and popular music below that. Literature was right up at the top level.
Most of what I read to this day is considered literature. Bellow, Twain, Henry James, Garcia Marquez, Nick Hornby, Michael Chabon, Donna Tartt, Nuala O’Faiolain, Philip Roth. I wrote four books that were my variations on that vein and figured that was what I was going to do. They were stories about my own life, distanced just a couple of steps and looking back through a thin filiter. It’s a time-honored approach.
When I decided to write a thriller, it was a commercial decision. I wasn’t getting published, I thought it would bring me more attention and more money than straight novels. And I think I understood somewhere in the back of my head that I was getting lost. When you try to write literature, you’re up against Bellow and Twain and James, Chabon and Tartt and Faulkner and Shakespeare for Christ’s sake. How the hell can you ever know you’re any good? I’ve got an ego but there’s a limit.
What happened then was, the thriller stopped being ‘just a thriller’ about thirty pages in, as soon as I found the first couple of characters and became allied to them. Suddenly, it was another of my novels, as personal as any of the others, except this one had some rigid expectations. If it didn’t cook along, if there wasn’t something exciting or really interesting happening every thirty pages or so, it would fail outright, no matter how interesting I thought the characters were.
And the stakes were different—it wasn’t about writing a beautiful sentence. It was about telling a story. I’ve tried to read Ludlum and Dan Brown. I’m not knocking them—they know how to spin a yarn. But I wasn’t intimidated in their company. Rightly or wrongly, I felt I’d know if I had something good when I was done.
And that’s how it worked out. I wrote the thing, got rejected twice by agents and went back at the book with a machete. And learned, finally, how to cut ruthlessly, like it wasn’t mine, like it was just a story that had to be told. And after I was done with ‘Mindbenders’, I went back to ‘Green’, which had a great idea for a novel and some of my best writing—but the good stuff was submerged under reams of showing off, of things that didn’t mean a thing to a reader, only as very foolish reassurance for me. It was a bad book until three weeks before I put it online—now it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and I think it stands as a good book.
Good enough. That’s my new standard. I’m not Faulkner or James or Twain. But I can write a good story if I put my heart in it and take out everything else and that‘s what I learned to do writing ‘Mindbenders’. Because I never really approached it as a ‘genre’ story. I can’t approach any story that way. I have people in my head and I have to put them on paper. They have to live. They are, in a way, my family. When you think that way about characters, there’s no such thing as genre.
The other thing that came to me in the writing of ‘Mindbenders’ was that genre these days might speak to our lives a bit more directly than ‘literary’ works. I’ve spent most of my life in a world where the obstacles seemed to be internal. I had to learn to be my own best friend. I had to overcome my own limitations. It was very easy to see the world this way as a privileged American in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. But in the past several years, the challenges no longer come from within. When I talk to people on the street and in the store on my day job, there’s a restlessness, an anger and frustration. We’re being assaulted by entrenched interests—banks, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, politicians of both parties, by a justice system and a political establishment that ignores our needs and an economic system that’s producing incredible wealth for a few on the backs of the rest. We have seen the enemy and, for the first time in decades, it isn’t us anymore. In that kind of world, a thriller can become very personal literature. It can express a view of the world to come in a way that internal narrative no longer can.