I came to the thriller genre innocent as a newborn baby.
In fact, I didn’t even realise I was writing one until I was more than 10,000 words into my novel Jihadi: A Love Story. Beta readers kept telling me I was writing a thriller, and at first that left me a little confused. I had no idea what the definition of a thriller novel was. I looked that up and found that International Thriller Writers considered a thriller to be a novel driven by ‘the sudden rush of emotions, the excitement, sense of suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace’. Another definition told me that a thriller matched a resourceful human protagonist, often cut off from his or her support network, against one or more better-equipped villains out to destroy the protagonist, his or her nation, and/or world stability. I had no problem with any of that, so I kept on writing. But some questions kept nagging at me. Why do thrillers – novels from a genre that had apparently chosen me, rather than me choosing it – get so little respect? What was I getting myself into with this book? Why do we so often think of thrillers as something you read on a long airplane flight, to distract yourself and then set aside, as opposed to something you read to for joy, for learning, for growth as a person?
The answer came back (and it was my own, nobody else’s): Because thrillers aren’t real literature.
Yes. I’m ashamed now that this thought flashed across my brain pan. And yes. I know it isn’t true. I promise, I didn’t speak those words out loud when I thought them, and I promise I haven’t spoken them out loud since, and I promise that the first time I’ve had the courage to type them is right now, for this blog. I typed those five disgraceful words out as a means of full, repentant disclosure. I really don’t know what came over me.
I do know thrillers can be real literature. By ‘real literature’, all I mean is a book that an intelligent person would want to at least consider reading twice. (Edward Wilson’s A Very British Ending comes to mind.) Here are three things I did in my novel in the hope of helping it to fall into that category.
I tried to emphasize character development. The protagonist of my story, Thelonius Liddell, also known as Ali Liddell, is a US intelligence agent accused of terrorism, held in a secret overseas prison. We follow him from boyhood into his mid-forties, and he is manifestly not the same person at the end of the book as he is when we see him as a youngster. The story gives us his major life decisions, his lessons, and his attempts to atone for the mistakes he feels he’s made. In short, his character arc. It is meant to be a broad arc. I meant him to go on a journey of transformation.
I chose big themes and tried to explore them in depth. A novel has to be about something, and even though mine might appear from a distance to deal exclusively with topical issues, I actually wanted it to operate along lines that would still be relevant and important fifty, a hundred, or two hundred years from now. These included justice, love, striving, authenticity, and the influence that one’s own perspective has on the search for truth. If any of that sounds elitist or high-minded, I don’t mean it to. I still wanted to write a page-turner. Given that a good story always carries some thematic message, though, I think a thriller is likelier to reward the reader, and inspire a second look, if it chooses big themes and follows them wherever they may lead.
I chose metaphors and images with care. Hemingway put forth something known as the ‘Iceberg Theory’, under which the metaphors and images chosen by a writer are held to be capable of carrying far more of the meaning of the story than the more commonly relied-upon narrative elements of description and dialogue. Thus a character’s holding a cigarette with a long ash that’s about to collapse may say more about the smoker’s fragile mental state than any number of descriptive sentences about the character, or than something the character says. I tried to write the novel bearing the Iceberg Theory in mind.
It’s a bit pretentious, I know, appealing to the status of ‘literature’ for any book one has written. That’s really for someone else to decide, not me. All I am sharing here is what I understand ‘real literature’ to be – that which one would be inclined to read again, having finished it – and my conviction that, despite that dark lapse in thinking I shared earlier, of which I am heartily ashamed, and which I will not type here again, great thrillers can indeed come under that heading. At any rate, I tried to write one that did.