Today’s guest is Jenny Siler, whose latest book, An Accidental Americanwill be published in April under the pseudonym Alex Carr. The novel is an international thriller in the same vein as John le Carre. Siler is the author of four other books, each representing the best crime fiction can offer. She currently lives in Virginia, but will soon be a Mainer in a couple of months. If you haven’t read any of her books, what the hell are you doing reading this – go to a bookstore already.
I e-mailed Jenny some questions earlier this week, and she was kind enough to reply.
Noir Writer:Do you want me to address you as Jenny or Alex? Who am I talking to right now?
Siler:There is no Jenny or Alex, only Zuul. But you can call me The Gatekeeper.
Noir Writer:You've picked up a rather androgynous pen name for your latest book; do you think women writers in the genre have a harder time than men?
Siler:I'm not naive enough to think it isn't more difficult for women in this genre. I've been in too many situations where male readers have explicitly told me they don't read women authors, period. On the other hand, there are plenty of people out there who do read books by women, and plently of female thriller writers who've had huge success. People like Tess Gerritsen, Kathy Reichs, Laura Lippman, and Patricia Cornwell, to name just a few.
The main problem I see is with readers' expectations. The women I mentioned before all have products readers have come to expect from a female author. Thanks in no small part to writers like Patricia Cornwell, readers (men included) are comfortable with women writing really gritty stuff. They're comfortable with the tough girl protagonist, with female FBI agents, with women who are smart or flawed or both.
My problem, especially with my more recent books, is that I'm getting away from what readers expect from a woman, which makes it difficult for people to make any kind of prejudgement about my work. (Let's face it, getting someone to buy your book is all about prejudgement, so if the name Alex makes someone pick up my book who might not have otherwise, and they end up liking it, then the ambiguity of the name will have served its purpose.) The Alex Carr books are highly literary, character-driven thrillers about political and moral corruption. Many of the characters are old men, washed-up spies and assassins. It's the kind of stuff people still don't associate with female authors. I'm not sure they think a woman can't write that kind of fiction, they just don't expect it.
The other day, for instance, my local bookseller introduced me to someone as "the next Patricia Cornwell." It was an unfortunate comparison (I can't think of an author whose work is more different from mine), but a good illustration of the point I'm trying to make here. The bookseller was looking for some way to sum me up to a potential customer, and the only thing she could think of was to compare me to another female author, when a male author like Le Carre or Furst would have been a much more accurate match.
Noir Writer:There has been a lot of discussion lately about women authors writing violent stories. There was a big discussion on that last October about a blog post on Sarah Weinman's site(Women, Violence and Controversy) in which you commented a couple of times. The big controversy that overshadowed the discussion was a foot-in-mouth disease quote by Ian Rankin stating the majority of women writing graphic violence seemed to be lesbians. Putting aside Rankin's comment speculating about sexual orientation, what do you think of this topic? Do men and women write differently when it comes to violence?
Siler:I don't necessarily think men and women write differently when it comes to violence. The point I was trying to make in connection with Ian Rankin's comments was that there's still an assumption among both men and women that women need to jettison some inherent part of their femaleness to write "like men." But I'm not going to go into that too much here, as I feel I/we sort of beat it to death on Sarah's site.
I do, however, have a problem with violence in general and with what I believe is a growing fascination with violence in American mass culture. I have always thought that violence has a place in art. This is a discussion that often centers on film, and there are numerous examples of non-gratutitous graphic violence in the movies. Two of my favorite films of all time, Scorcese's Goodfellas, and Eastwood's Unforgiven use violence to make critical moral statements. The same can be said for many of the great noir writers.
Lately, though, there has been a disturbing rise in gratuitous violence in film, television, and books. Torture, violent killing, child abuse, horrific sexual abuse: all have found a place in prime time and on the best-seller list, and people seem to be watching and reading with glee. It's a trend I find seriously alarming. Obviously, my books are violent, but I work very hard to make a distinction between violence with a purpose and violence for the sake of titillation.
Noir Writer:In the comment section of Sarah Weinman's post mentioned above you stated that your writing has become darker and angrier as your career has progressed and that you're thankful that you have your family to pull you away from that at the end of the day. How does your writing affect you personally?
Siler:I'm not sure if it's the actual writing that affects me so much as the research I do. I see a lot of what's wrong with the world, especially with the place we Americans have made for ourselves in it, and not a lot of what's right. That can be awfully depressing. I've just finished a manuscript in which one of the main characters is a young Moroccan boy, an orphan. The research for that book was especially difficult. There were a lot of nights when I held my daughter for that extra minute at bed time. We live in a world of such overwhelming priviledge in this country, and we don't appreciate what we have.
I've always been a skeptic about the world in general, but my research has definitely made me more so. I don't trust the government at all. I grew up in a family of political idealists. My parents were children of the sixties and my mother, in particular, had and still has a strong conviction that the world can be changed through politics. I just don't think that's true anymore. I really hope someone will come along to prove me wrong, though.
Noir Writer:What has changed in your writing from your first book?
Siler:Hmmm..... That's a tough question. My first book was such a lark. I mean, I had never taken a writing class, never been workshopped or critiqued in any way. I just wrote it without thinking, to have fun. I am definitely a lot more careful now, though I'm not convinced that's such a great thing. I'm a lot more self-conscious, too.
One thing I try to be aware of all the time is the old piece of writing advice about showing rather than telling. Was it Fitzgerald who first articulated that idea? I think so. Anyway, I really work at writing scenes which are utilitarian, which reveal character through action and dialogue. I hope I've improved in that respect.
Noir Writer:What type of research do you do for your novels?
Siler:Generally I'll get an idea and run with it. With my first book, Easy Money, the plot was inspired by a newspaper article I read about William Colby and the Pheonix Program. So I went and read everything I could find about the CIA's involvement in Vietnam. Newspaper articles, personal memoirs, biographies. Now, there's so much out there on the internet, it's unbelievable. The internet is not perfect for everything, but it's a great resource for straight-up facts, things like time-lines, names, etc. You can also find great personal or first-hand accounts on-line. Wikipedia is like having my very own personal assistant.
Noir Writer:You latest book is coming out as a trade paperback, like other books in the new Mortalis imprint; what is your view on the fate of the hardcover book?
Siler:The hardcover book is doomed, and the sooner the publishing industry figures that out, the better. I mean, who wants to pay thirty dollars for a book? I've been fighting to get into trade paperback for years now, and I'm so excited it's finally happened. I'm not convinced paperback is the ultimate solution. If books are going to survive (and that's a big 'if'), publishers need to figure out the electronic market, but for the time being, trade paperbacks are better than nothing.
Noir Writer:I asked this question last week, but I think it is an interesting topic: You're relatively young considering that the average age of the published author in this world is closer to fifty than thirty. Fitzgerald and Hemingway both hit the literary jackpot in their early twenties, but over the past few decades there have been fewer and fewer significant works of fiction by those under 40. Even Time magazine last year found it difficult to find just a small handful of important fiction writers under 40. Why do you think that there are fewer great "young" writers than there have been? Do you think it's a trend?
Siler:I do think this is a trend. I agree with Keith Dixon that the publishing industry bears some of the burden. But I also think another obvious reason is that adulthood has been significantly delayed in our culture. They may have been young, but Fitzgerald and Hemingway were both decidedly adults when they achieved success, with no lack of life experience. So much of the fiction being written by the under forty crowd today is sophomoric and, worse, self-involved. In my opinion, the ubiquity of MFA programs only adds to the problem. People spend two years talking about themselves and their writing, when they could be out gathering real experience. Also, there's a certain MFA program style students are compelled to learn, and which must be unlearned before these writers can develop their own style.
Noir Writer:You were lucky enough to have been exposed to a number of literary figures while growing up, including James Crumley, how much have they influenced your work?
Siler:Well, I'm not much of a drinker, for one thing. But seriously, more than anything, growing up in a town full of writers showed me that writing as a way of life and a means of earning a living was a real possibility. I mean, I don't think it occurs to most people that writing can be a career. And if it does they think in terms of best-selling authors. I've always had a more realistic view of writing as a job, as something you have to work at every day. And I'm aware of how fickle the rewards can be. The happiest writers I know are the ones who love what they do and don't care how much money they make or who reads them. I haven't gotten to that point yet, but I'd like to someday.
Noir Writer:With the new name, are you afraid people will come up to you and say how much they loved The Alienist?
Siler:I hope they do! I think Caleb Carr is a terrific writer. I just read his Sherlock Holmes book, The Italian Secretary. I loved it.
Noir Writer:You now have a second personality on the bookshelves with Alex Carr. What is your favorite split personality movie?
Siler:Ghost Busters. But that should be obvious from my answer to your first question.
Noir Writer:Do you watch Heroes? And if so, are you as evil as the Sylar on that show? And if so, how often do you eat the brains of superhumans?
Siler:I do not watch Heroes, but I do enjoy a good superhuman brain every now and then. I like mine sauteed in a little caper-lemon butter. Al Diavolo is another nice preparation. For more recipies, visit my website, www.humanbraincuisine.com.
Noir Writer:If the 22nd Amendment were repealed and George Bush was able to seek a third term in office, would you jump for joy or weep for humanity?
Siler:I have plans for just such an event, and they involve a cabin in Montana, a stash of MRE's, and an arsenal of automatic weapons.
Noir Writer:(In my best Barbara Walters impersonation) If you were a tree, what kind would you be?
Siler:A ponderosa. They're tall and graceful. Everything I'm not.
Noir Writer:And finally: you've read some of my work. Would you say a great writer or the greatest writer?
Siler:The greatest. No question about it. Now can I have the combination to the bomb, please?
I want to thank Jenny for herr time is answering even the silly questions. Please come back next week when I will interview other personalities in the crime fiction field. Until then, enjoy the random madness I usually post here during the week.
Jenny is seen here lounging around her Virginia home with husband Keith