What am I thinking when I set out to write a book? First of all, I think it’s impossible.
It’s impossible to transform my thoughts and feelings into letters that can convey them to a reader without losing most of—and the most important parts of—their meaning. And it’s definitely impossible for these vague, sound-mimicking symbols to seduce a reader, to convince him or her to accompany me where I want to go. In this way, I’m like a pilot seated behind the controls of a jumbo jet with the runway in front of me, thinking to myself that although I’ve accomplished this miracle a few times before, my common sense tells me it’s impossible for just a couple of wings and a willing engine to get this off the ground. And fly through the air. And land exactly where I’ve planned. Speaking of which, this idea of a planned destination is something I’ll return to later.
So, what is it that gets the plane up in the air? It’s obviously not just the skeptical and terrified pilot. Similarly, an author doesn’t create a story alone. First of all, he (me, in this case) creates stories that are read in a context, in a tradition, on a continuum of literature that’s been written before. Authors, regardless of genre and whether they’re aware of it or not, are in dialogue with their predecessors and their contemporaries. As a crime author, not only am I indebted to—and inevitably read in light of—Edgar Allan Poe, Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson. But also Karl Ove Knausgård, John Irving, Astrid Lindgren, Charles Dickens, and you might as well trace it back to Miguel de Cervantes. And let me stress: read in light of. Authors don’t necessarily write in a literary context. After all, there are authors who haven’t read a single book before writing one of their own. But since the book reaches an audience, what you’ve written is bound to be read and experienced within that context, against that sounding board, comprised of the reader’s experiences in life and literature, aesthetic taste, moral values, expectations of literature and the genre. So, if the author is the pilot, literary tradition is the wings and the reader is the engine. At least, that’s what I hope for when I’ve gotten the plane up to take-off speed and can see the end of the runway approaching.
For the full article, please order our upcoming issue with short stories by Ruth Ware, Charles Todd, Max Allan Collins and an interview with James Rollins.