I'd paired the first three chapters of her novel with Lee Horsley's "Regendering the Genre" chapter from Twentieth Century Crime Fiction, to take what we'd been talking about with Vowell and our concepts of crime literature as they've been evolving over the course of the semester. My students are turning in their final essay on Friday, so I'm excited to see what they write about. I'd asked my students, as they were in their groups, to consider how Horsley sees the ways that gender works in contemporary crime fiction, but what's really interesting is how she draws that lineage back even to the Golden Age of crime fiction, where women like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers reigned supreme. As Horsley breaks down the binaries associated with gender on the page, I asked my students to consider how regendering affects the four main areas of the text: the author, protagonist, victim, and perpetrator. Horsley writes, "The recovery of female subjectivity is more complex than [changing the male protagonist to female]: there are other key roles that female characters occupy. The revisionings of the female transgressor--and indeed victim--are as significant as the better known series which recast the investigative role." It was with this in mind that I wanted us to talk with Joy about her novel, which reinvisions the role of women in all these areas. (My students were uncharacteristically quiet, but as we talked on Monday after they'd had time to process, they had quite a bit to say.)
We started with these questions:
- What are the large scale issues that this book addresses (or will address)? What about large-scale questions this novel presents? How are they presented in a way that provokes conversation and debate different from other modes of fiction?
- Issues of social order/disorder?
- What are the societal fears that drive this novel?
- Creation of suspense? Where do you see elements we’ve discussed before?
- Joy Castro (from an interview with Amelia Montes): “For readers, true suspense comes from caring about characters. When you really care about a character—when that character feels real on the page—then his or her fate matters to you.”
- Where do you see the intersection of this novel with Lee Horsley’s ideas about gender and regendering? (Specifically, your group’s assignment: victims/perpetrators/protagonists/authors.)
- Issues of place: place as active character, place/displacement/out-of-place, movement and stasis, natural and built environments?
This is a book I wish I could have taught in its entirety and next time I get to teach a crime lit class, it's definitely going to be on the list. Issues of place/displacement/out-of-place were some of the things that stood out to me as I reread these first three chapters, trying to look at them as if I'd never seen them before. The drawing of both the built and natural environments contributes to this, the buildings of various parts of New Orleans, a natural environment that is itself a built environment that affects every single cell of those who live there. I want to talk gendering of Nola, Joy's protagonist, and I want to talk about things that I can't reveal here for spoiling the plot. I want to talk more about the creation of suspense that we talked about with Agatha Christie, the use of breaking the reader's trust, reader's assumptions, control of the clock, and more. What's more suspenseful than issues of violence against women and children (that social fear we've been talking about all semester), combined with the rapists that Nola is interviewing--many in positions of power and authority, men who should be absolutely trustworthy, clergy and assistant principals and more. I want to talk about the craft of fiction, the craft of crime fiction, and I want to talk details--especially the layering of sensory details. It's not enough just to have a scent-drenched paragraph; what makes Joy's work great is that those senses are layered. Smell with color, tactile details with taste. That's the mark of a truly great writer. Here's a link to Joy's blog post on "The Fragrance of Fiction."
One of my students missed Friday (traveling to play in the marching band for UNL's Big Ten Championship...or whatever it was that turned out to be on Saturday) and unfortunately, she'd also missed Kent Krueger's Skype for marching band as well. Because I didn't want her to miss out completely on the conversations with writers we'd had this semester, Joy kindly consented to answer my student's questions via email.
So, I'll just save up these moments as they're spinning in my head and hope I'll get to teach to them someday soon. I'm hoping to be able to do a more focused interview with Joy in the very near future, so stay tuned! As it is, I'm working on planning my Intro to Creative Writing (250) and Intro to Fiction Writing (252) for spring, and I've just lined up Sean Doolittle to come to my 252 to talk his suspense novel Rain Dogs. One book always leads to another!