So the wonderful folks over at AmazonEncore have asked me to write a short essay that has something to with AKoIS. I couldn't decide what to do, but I took a couple of shots at it.
I don’t like to admit it, but I used to be a literary snob. As I prepared to enter graduate school for a master’s degree in English, I believed I’d put genre fiction--mysteries, science fiction, the whole lot of it--behind me. Literature with a capital L, that was the stuff for me. But when I happened upon a review of James Lee Burke’s novel In the Electric with Confederate Dead, everything changed. The article piqued my interest and when I headed down to my local Bookstar (remember them?) I sought out the book. It only took a few paragraphs to turn me into a convert. I tore through the rest of Burke’s novels, moved on to Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder series, began to discover the hardboiled classics and haven’t looked back since.
What I discovered that summer was that I had been wrong about genre writing. James Lee Burke and those other extraordinary writers I discovered that summer showed me that mysteries could be every bit as literary as any other kind of novel. In grad school I even discovered a considerable body of literary criticism on Hammett and Chandler that helped me to reconcile the conflict between my affections for literary and genre fiction. The two categories, I was thrilled to discover, were not mutually exclusive (no matter how strongly many of my professors argued that they were). From Burke’s lyrically elegiac descriptions to Chandler’s searingly vivid depictions of Los Angeles, there is no arguing the literary merit of the best of the mystery genre.
As I was studying literature, I was also beginning to take my own fiction writing more seriously. I dabbled in short fiction in the Raymond Carver mode for a surprisingly long while before it occurred to me to try my hand at mysteries. But when I did, I never looked back.
When I’m asked about the beginnings of *A King of Infinite Space*, I can’t help but think about the review that sent me out in search in James Lee Burke and the discoveries that followed. Would I have ever come across them without it? I don’t the answer to that question. I probably would have, but I’m glad I don’t have to find out.
When I began writing *A King of Infinite Space*, I was in graduate school earning an MFA in fiction writing. As is the case in many such programs, there was a good deal of autobiographical introspection in the writing going on around me, and that was the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to do something different. One of the primary reasons I’ve always loved reading is that it takes me away from myself and allows me to experience the lives of other people. What, I asked myself, could I credibly write about that was very different from my own experience?
My father was a Los Angeles deputy sheriff, and throughout most of my youth, I wanted to be a police officer. Although my career goals changed, I was left with a considerable amount of background knowledge that I felt I could put to good use. And it didn’t hurt that my favorite writers included the likes of James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly. It was settled, I thought. I’ll write a police procedural--I know enough about it (with a fair amount of research thrown in) to sound authoritative about it, and what could be farther from an English grad student’s personal experience than a story about investigating homicides?
I did decide to allow myself one autobiographical detail. My father died when I was very young, and I decided to have Danny Beckett, the novel’s protagonist share this experience. It would, I thought, give the two of us a bit of common ground and help me relate to the character.
As the writing and rewriting progressed, I felt a reassuring sense of distance from Danny, a sort of critical perspective that thought allowed me to shape and hone the character with a studied and intellectual reserve that seemed properly authorial and intellectual.
So it came as quite a surprise when the novel was finished and my friends and family began to read it. Danny sounds just like you, they said. I refused to accept this, so I interrogated them. One by one they pointed out details and ideas and jokes and phrases that they’d heard me express, usually more than once. And a few of those closest to me commented on the similarity of our voices and perspectives. Eventually, I had to admit it. They were right.
It was only recently, though, when I had the occasion to look through an old family photo album and saw a picture of myself at five or six years old, around the time of my father’s death. In it I wore a clip-on tie, a makeshift shoulder holster complete with cap gun, and an expression befitting the most serious of detectives. It was me I was looking at, but I couldn’t help thinking it might just as well have been Danny Beckett.