2021 L.A. Times Festival of Books preview
The Book Prize Mystery/Thriller finalists roundtable
Jennifer Hillier, Rachel Howzell Hall, Cristopher Bollen, S.A. Crosby and Ivy Pochoda are finalists for the Times Book Prize in the mystery/thriller category. Bollen and Hillier will appear on a Festival of Books panel April 19 with bestselling author Tod Goldberg, moderated by Paula L. Woods.
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A young queer couple runs a high-stakes con game in Venice, Italy. Black and white people in rural Virginia become uneasy allies in a heist gone terribly wrong. A fledgling PI works a case while evading her abusive ex-husband. A child abduction in Seattle reveals fissures in a marriage that could turn fatal. Women in Los Angeles’ West Adams neighborhood live in the shadow of a serial killer. While they are all very different, what unites these five novels, apart from their being shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the mystery/thriller category, is that they are unafraid to explore difficult topics with diverse characters, unencumbered by expectations from readers about genre or the darkest corners of our culture.
Nothing was off the table when I met, via a lively video chat, with authors Christopher Bollen (“A Beautiful Crime”), S.A. (Sean) Cosby (“Blacktop Wasteland”), Rachel Howzell Hall (“And Now She’s Gone”), Jennifer Hillier (“Little Secrets”) and Ivy Pochoda (“These Women”). Talking easily and frankly about their work and their lives, the authors covered their early literary influences, the power of settings, the uselessness of genre labels and the parts they had the hardest time writing. And as the Book Prize finalists this year are majority female but also queer, straight, Black, white and multiracial, it was enlightening to hear their thoughts on whether and how much identity matters in their fiction. But first, we dug into a topic that’s stimulated debate since Edmund Wilson skewered “detective stories” back in 1944.
A critic wrote of “A Beautiful Crime”: “Bollen writes expansive, psychologically probing novels in the manner of Updike, Eugenides, and Franzen, but he’s an avowed disciple of Agatha Christie.” How does that statement — and the assumptions it makes about literature versus crime fiction — resonate for you?
Bollen: (Laughing) I discovered Agatha Christie in the fourth grade, and became obsessed with reading her novels, so mysteries were my gateway drug into reading and loving literature.
Hillier: I read a lot of “Sweet Valley High” as a kid, then jumped directly to Stephen King, which were books my mother had lying around the house. King rocked my world, but his books weren’t always digestible; I think I was 11 when I read “Pet Sematary.” I know a lot of writers from my generation who were influenced by King.
Pochoda: That quote’s so wearisome and trite. The difference between crime fiction or literary is a matter of focus — are we looking at the crime as the center of the story, or are we looking at all this family stuff that surrounds it? I think the five of us have actually changed that dynamic. All of our books are very different from a crime novel that was written 10 years ago, which was pretty much a bad guy being pursued by a long-suffering, drunk cop.
Cosby: In addition to loving Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and The Three Investigators, in the passionate Southern Baptist environment where I grew up the Bible stories I read were full of violence and dark revenge. And if you’ve read Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” you know it’s literally about crime and punishment. So this distinction that certain novels are literature because of how they kill someone, and others are not, is ultimately ridiculous.
Your novels are all distinctive for their language, unique characters, great dialogue and plotting that may be unconventional but always effective. Which was easiest and hardest for you in writing these books?
Hall: I’m telling two stories in “And Now She’s Gone” and one of those is my PI’s origin story, so the plot and its pacing were a challenge. But I love people watching and stealing things that I hear them say and do, so character and dialogue came naturally.
Cosby: “Blacktop Wasteland” is a heist novel, the “one last job” trope that’s foundational in noir. The dialogue and characters were more difficult for me because there was a lot that cut close to home. I vacillated between three endings to the novel before I realized my hesitancy to dig into the hard conversation that ends the novel was hurting the character and the book.
Pochoda: Of all the books I’ve written, “These Women” had the simplest plot: There’s a guy who’s killing these women and we’ve got to figure out who it is. That freed me to spend time riffing on my characters’ inner monologues, to create a three-dimensional panorama of West Adams. Since my experience as a white, relative newcomer is very different than my Filipina neighbor who lived here for 75 years, I needed to show the neighborhood from multiple perspectives so a reader who lives in Omaha could understand it.
Hillier: It took me forever to find the story in “Little Secrets.” My intention was to write a story about cheating, but by the time I submitted it, it had become a story about child abduction! I also whittled it down from a bunch of voices to two main characters. One woman was a little like me, because she was my age with a child. The other woman was who I might have been if I were 24 in the age of social media, that girl who’s on Instagram Live all the time doing makeup tutorials.
Bollen: As opposed to my previous books, where there’s a murder that had to be solved, a lot of the plotting in “A Beautiful Crime” involved keeping the excitement and suspense of the con going while telling stories about these diverse characters whom I loved. And they were all so different, representing a generational divide between the older and younger gay men — and a racial divide as well.
How important is it to nail a specific place in the reader’s mind?
Pochoda: It is literally the most important thing to me. I don’t know why I don’t care what my characters look like, but place descriptions have to be perfect. And by the way, if you want your neighborhood to gentrify, let me write a book about it, because I’m three for three recently! [Pochoda’s previous novels were set in L.A.’s skid row and Red Hook, Brooklyn.]
Hall: The cities we all write about have personalities, beyond what everyone thinks about them. For us Angelenos, the city is changing so rapidly that I feel obligated to capture what is true, what no one else would know unless they live here. I can tell when an author writes a novel set in L.A. who knows nothing about the city. I think, “Oh, I can tell you don’t know this place. You’re just Googling.”
Pochoda: Especially a city like Los Angeles, which is so misunderstood. People think it’s either Tinseltown or South-Central, and there’s nothing in between.
Cosby: There’s this idea that the South is sole provenance of neo-Confederate apologists, and nothing could be further from the truth. So when I write, I’m also trying to elucidate stories of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, queer people. What it means to be a son of the South and yet still feel unloved. What it means to grow up in a town where there’s a Confederate statue outside of the courthouse. To paraphrase James Baldwin, I love the South. And because I love her, I retain the right to criticize her.
Bollen: I write so much about New York because that’s where I live, but I’ve always wanted to write a book set in Venice, in part because at 23 I was lucky enough to be an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection there. But since everyone has this tourist’s image of Venice already in their heads, I couldn’t just describe the Grand Canal and a bunch of gondolas. I really had to dive into places and neighborhoods for details you wouldn’t ordinarily see. That was tricky, but also made it fun and brought the city to life for me as I was writing.
Do race, gender and sexuality matter in your books?
Hillier: I write commercial thrillers, so I have really been very open about wanting to just entertain people and tell a good story. But I write from the point of view that I feel I know best, which is as a woman of color. I am surrounded by people of color. It’s how I grew up here in Toronto. And it’s normal for me to write about diverse people, interracial friendships. And so it matters in that I feel like that’s the best point of view that I can write about.
Pochoda: While #MeToo has amplified the voices of many women who had suffered abuse and been disregarded, rarely did you hear from women of color, women of lower socioeconomic status. While I support the movement, I recognized there were times when upper-middle-class women played fast and loose with the parameters of abuse, thereby casting the true testaments of lower-income women into doubt. In other words, even in #MeToo, a certain type of women was still living under the threat of not being believed. So I wanted “These Women” to raise up those stories.
Cosby: On the advice of a former teacher who thought “The Rat and the Cobra,” an early story of mine about two Black men who commit a crime, wasn’t “uplifting the race,” I changed the protagonists to white men. And while people liked the story, I promised myself I would never do that again. Because the stories I’m telling don’t denigrate who I am, even when they’re about crime. I grew up in a world where the default was a cis white male protagonist. So when I read the Spenser novels, Raymond Chandler‘s books or anything other than Chester Himes and Donald Goines, that was the default. I want my default as a writer to be Black people I grew up with in the South.
Bollen: When Gore Vidal wrote “The City and the Pillar” in 1948, he wanted his queer characters to be two “normal all-American” men, which meant white men. I wanted my book to represent the diversity of the queer community today, for Nick and Clay and other characters to be of our age and time. I wanted to acknowledge how systemic racism affected Clay throughout his life, even in so-called forward-thinking “bohemian” artistic circles of New York and Europe. I wanted those small moments of racism to pile up over the arc of the book. I tried to show that, even though Nick and Clay are boyfriends and equal partners in the con, the world treats them radically differently, down to simple first impressions of goodness or suspicion.
Hall: My stories have always been about Black women because, one, we don’t get to see them in a lot of stories, and two, that’s who I am, and I’m proud of that. Having a Black female PI narrate the story lets me explore white men’s interactions with Black women, or the relationships between Black women and white women in the workplace. I wanted all of that messy complexity because every interaction these days is fraught with people not saying things, people making sure they don’t offend each other. So I wanted to call out these things because it makes us all uncomfortable. And what better thing is there for a writer to do than to make people uncomfortable when they’re reading!
Woods is a book critic, editor and author of several anthologies and crime novels.