Thursday, 31 March 2016

Lisa Lutz on Hate Mail

Lisa Lutz is best known for her series of comedic crime novels featuring the Spellman’s a family of private investigators. The first novel in the series The Spellman Files was in 2008 nominate for three Best novel awards – an Anthony Award, a Barry Award, a Macavity Award.  It was also nominated for a Dilys Award. The second novel in the series Curse of the Spellmans was nominated for an Edgar Award.  The Passenger is her third standalone novel.

I never got hate mail until I wrote a novel. Anger from strangers is a small price to pay for the luxury of writing books for a living. When I first built my author website and offered up my email for anyone to see, I was essentially inviting some kind of relationship with my readers. My general rule is to respond kindly to the positive notes and ignore the negative ones. But I still read them and take them in, and as much as I want to pretend that they have no effect on my writing or what I do, that is simply untrue.

My first book has a lot of footnotes, as do many thereafter. This was—and is—relatively uncommon for fiction, and especially for something shelved in the mystery section. Some people loved the footnotes; others, not so much. It’s fair to say my footnotes got hate mail. I recall my reaction to my first hostile missive on this front. Wow, this person is really angry, I thought. And maybe for the briefest moment I felt bad. But then something shifted internally and I thought the same thing, but with more delight. It’s so cool that I made this person so angry.  As a novelist, you hope for some kind of emotional response from the reader. Why does it have to be positive?

Some readers suggested removing the footnotes completely. Others, adopting the delicate tone of a person concerned about a loved one’s drinking, suggested that I simply cut back. Still others issued direct threats: If I refused to give up the footnotes, they would never read another book of mine again.

I never took any of these messages under advisement. But I can’t claim that they had no effect on my future work. Now there will be more footnotes! I remember thinking, with glee. And indeed, there were. Sometimes when you stand your ground, you have to take a little more ground. At least that was my thinking back then.

I’ve also had letters pleading for a certain relationship between two characters to intensify. I responded promptly, breaking them up permanently. I wasn’t deliberately trying to antagonise my readers, but it concerned me that I was writing a book about a woman asserting her independence and finding her place in the world, and my readers just wanted her to find love. That’s not what I’m about.

I quit the series when I knew I couldn’t write another good Spellman book. I shifted gears and began trying new things. Last year, How to Start a Fire was published. It’s straight fiction, but like everything I write it shares some common ground with the trajectory of crime novels. This year, with The Passenger, I fully embraced the genre. It’s a crime novel, plain and simple.

The letters (or, more frequently these days, comments on social media) still come through. The response has been generally good, but I have noticed a few interesting trends. Some readers just want the same old, same old. And I get that. Others, however, have suggested that my writing has reached a new level; that my more recent books, which are tonally darker, are also more substantial. This, I take issue with. True comedy has as much meat and as strong a point of view as any other fiction. The jokes just make it easier to digest.

Years ago I met a man at a party. He asked what I did for a living. I told him I wrote comedic novels and gave him the general premise. He was not impressed. Later, he asked me if I ever aspired to write something more serious. I felt myself go cold inside. I contained my urge to sling insults at him and just answered the question.

“No, my literary aspiration is the spit-take.”

I meant it. Even now, if I can say or write something funny enough to make a person choke (in a non-lethal manner) on his or her beverage, I feel perhaps overly satisfied by that accomplishment. At its essence, a joke is about the surprise of seeing a situation from an unexpected angle. Even the grittiest crime writer has the same goal. The end result might be a gasp instead of a laugh, but you want to keep your readers off-balance. You want to show them a new way of looking at the world.

 The Passenger by Lisa Lutz (£7.99 Titan Books)

IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING, I DIDN'T DO IT.  I DON'T HAVE AN ALIBI, SO YOU'LL HAVE TO TAKE MY WORD FOR IT...With her husband's dead body still warm, Tanya Dubois has only one option: run. When the police figure out that she doesn't officially exist, they'll start asking questions she can't answer. Desperate to keep the past buried, she adopts and sheds identities as she flees.  Along the way she meets a cop with unknown motives and a troubled woman who sees through her disguise-and who may be friend or foe.  But ultimately she is alone, and the past can no longer be ignored...

You can find more information about Lisa Lutz on her website. You can also follow her on Twitter @lisalutz and find her on Facebook.

1 comment:

Papa G said...

I am sorry that you are getting weird feedback from readers (?). Actually, I question that these people are actually reading your novels because I find them all wonderful. What's to criticize?

The Spellman novels are funny, quirky, and well plotted. I have been dragged into their strange family dynamics and enjoyed every minute.

I really, really loved your book Heads you Lose. Only trouble was, I enjoyed it so much I read it too quickly. Problem solved though. I read it again. Very funny.

The new book, The Passenger. Full of suspense. I couldn't see how you would pull this person out of her troubles. She seemed to be a magnet for "badness". But you managed the ending well. Left some room for hope.

What I really want to say is Thank you. For the many hours I imagine you sweated over the words and the fun I had trying to catch up. I look forward to your next novel, always.

And to those haters out there - accept the good and stop. Just stop.