Monday, April 23, 2018

It's All a Mystery

Terry Shames here:

Our blog assignment this week is to write a back cover synopsis of a well-known “mainstream” novel, as if it were a mystery. Here’s why I decided not to do that:

After my first novel came out, I had a launch party at a local bookstore. I gave a talk about the book and then opened up for questions. And I got one of the most combative questions anyone ever asked at one of those reading events: “Did you write a mystery novel because you didn’t think you were good enough to write a mainstream novel?” The audience gasped. Luckily, I had an answer:

It has long been my theme song that there is a mystery at the heart of every good book. If not a whodunit, at least a mystery “of the human heart.” Whatever I wrote, I tried to use the best prose at my command, and I think that’s what every writer does. The questioner was satisfied, and told me later that he admired the answer.

So I’m not even sure how I would go about writing a synopsis of a famous novel “as if” it were a mystery. They are all mysteries. What would Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice be without the mystery of what happened to Mr. Darcy’s younger sister? Or without the question of why he was so aloof? What would Styron’s Sophie’s Choice be without the mystery of the choice Sophie had to make that destroyed her peace of mind? You won’t find Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods in the mystery section of a bookstore, but the entire book is one, long mystery. Did William Faulkner write anything that didn’t involve a gasp-inducing moment when a mystery was revealed? Try reading Faulkner’s The Sanctuary. It’s short and is a classic of suspense. Crime and Punishment: Mainstream, yes. But it examines the criminal mind as surely as any mystery novelist does. Drieser’s An American Tragedy. A mainstream mystery.

I can turn it around, too. If you haven’t read Tim Hallinan’s The Hot Countries, you should know that it is as mainstream as E. M. Forester. Is John LeCarre a mainstream novelist? You bet. How about Laura Lippman? Read Sunburned, and think of it not as a “mystery” but as a novel about people who are hiding something and whose lives are gripped by their fears.

A good novel drags you into the scene and the setting, sets characters at odds with each other and takes you into their interior lives—their hopes, motivations, fears, and fury—and their convoluted ways of dealing with each of these emotions. Would anyone read Flannery O’Conner, that master of writing about conflicted people, and not be aware of the potential for terror and violence on every page? What about Cormack McCarthy? His books encompass, violence, fury, fear, and tenderness.

What’s going to happen next? That’s the question we writers hope that our readers will ask on every page. Some of us structure our books more clearly to set up a mysterious event than others do. But it’s always about the way a character’s wants and needs conflict with that of others. That’s all anyone worth reading writes about. Some people do it with more thrill and action; others in a more contemplative way, but it’s all about the mystery.


Cathy Ace said...

Really interesting piece, Terry :-)

Kathy Reel said...

I so agree about all stories having a mystery in them. Enjoyed this piece, Terry.