Thursday, April 02, 2009

"Unnacustomed as I am to public speaking..."

Mes Amis

Its been a long time since I was at university. In my last couple of years I had to regularly present ideas and potential papers to my peers to convince everyone that I was actually doing the work I sai I was. I was always nervous about it. More so than when I have to do an event, I think because I knew that there was something at stake here; I was presenting work not to interested parties, but to people who knew their stuff inside out, who wanted to be dazzled by that which they did not know, not merely entertained.

On Monday I had some of those old fears come back to me when I went to talk to a fourth year English seminar at Dundee university. Oh, sure, the wonderful Dr Aliki Varvogli - who is a true friend to crime fiction - had assured me that all would be fine, but I couldn't help remembering some of the old pressures. And when I learned they'd already had a few other guest speakers including the learned Andrew Pepper who by all acounts was witty, informed and supremely able to answer any questions thrown at him, my fears went into overdrive.

Unneccearily, it seems, because it was great fun talking to these folks, And even more reassuring that none of them dropped off to sleep as I remember doing on occasion when we used to have guest speakers. A lot of what I talked about was apparently very relevant to the course, which focussed on American crime fiction. Being that my influences are near exclusively stateside, I talked about what appealed to me in what they wrote, how it differed from the Brit crime I knew when I was coming up in the scene (and how a great deal of that has thankfully changed) and about whether I was really interested in crime fiction.

Yes, that last one was an unexpected question: "are you interested in crime? Or crime fiction?" A tough one to answer, and my answer was long and rambling, but in the end it came down to this: I'm not interested in mysteries. I'm not interested in justice restored. I don't care how someone committed a crime. I don't care if we ever know whodunnit. I am interested in how crime affects people. I am interested in what crime fiction has to say socially, pyschologically. I think it can be more than a mere distraction, that at its best it can truly say something more interesting than, "crime is bad." So no, I'm not interested in "crime fiction" as its own end, but I'm interested in fictionally how crime can be used. I think there's a distinction.

Did I answer the question? I don't know. But at least I tried to tease out what it meant.

In all, it was a grand afternoon even if my prepared stuff ran a little short as I self-edited on the day (cutting out a whole swathe about Walter Mosley as social commentator that just kind of droned on) and luckily there were a few questions from the floor. The Sopranos and The Wire came up, of course. We pondered why America does "street level" crime far better than we've ever done (my own theory has something to do with the lawlessness of the old west which, when you think about it, wasn't that long ago in historical terms) and a myriad of other topics. True crime came up, and I admitted that aside from a few exceptions (David Simon's Homicide, Carol Anne Davis's rational explorations, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and, of course, the magnificent Joseph Wambaugh) I never had much time for it, finding accounts to very often be sensationalised or unfulfilling in the way they approached the subject matter. We also talked about location as being intrinsic to crime fiction and how the tropes of the thriller genre just don't work in some locations no matter how hard an author might want them too.

And my fears have dissipated at least a little. I wasn't there as an academic, even though my fear was they'd treat me like one (expecting me to have the answers) but as someone whose approach to crime and crime fiction came from another angle.

So with many thanks to Aliki and the students at UoD (may you all graduate in style, and watch out for the wee gnome who smacks you atop the head with a rolled up sock at the graduation ceremony) for being so welcoming and accomadating. Even the girl who turned up late (I actually never noticed until she apologised at the end of the session) and, above all, for helping me overcome my fears at doing my first solo gig as an author*.

Next up, Dundee Literary Festival... but I'll let you know more about that one as it approaches!

Au revoir


*the launch doesn't exactly count - - that was a very on-my-side audience.

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