Archive for October, 2010


Interview: Sophie Hannah, author of The Truth-Teller’s Lie

October 24, 2010

Having long admired Laura Ellen Scott‘s own writing (and having interviewed her myself in these pages), I’m glad to welcome her in another capacity to Art & Literature. This week, Scott interviews bestselling suspense writer Sophie Hannah about her most recent book and her career in general. To find out more about Scott, visit her own website, Probably just a story. To find out more about Hannah… well, just read on, as Scott guides you into Hannah’s often twisted and always tantalizing world.

Poet and novelist Sophie Hannah is the author of five internationally bestselling psychological thrillers featuring DS Charlotte “Charlie” Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse, four of which are available in US editions so far: Little Face, The Wrong Mother, The Truth-Teller’s Lie, and The Dead Lie Down. The fifth book in the series will be released here as The Cradle in the Grave. Frequently compared to Tana French, Hannah specializes in dark, tangled relationships and continuing characters who are as rich as her villains are extraordinary. Released in September 2010 in the US, The Truth-Teller’s Lie examines perceptions of rape and sadism, but we can rely on Hannah’s deeply human detectives to guide us through the shocks to levels of understanding all too rare in crime fiction.

Laura Ellen Scott: Your thrillers start with traumatized people instead of dead bodies. You humanize rather than objectify the subject to take the procedural to a whole new level. Do you think this allows you grapple with more complicated issues, as you do in The Truth-Teller’s Lie?

Sophie Hannah: Well, you’re right to say that I never start with a dead body! My main interest as a writer of mystery fiction is in the mystery and the suspense–I want the reader to be on the edge of his or her seat, desperate to find out what’s going on. So I try to start my novels with a really puzzling or apparently impossible situation. For example, a man confesses to the murder of a woman who isn’t dead (The Dead Lie Down), or a woman claims her baby has been swapped for another baby while she was out of the house for two hours, but no other baby has been reported missing (Little Face). I want readers not to have a clue what might be going on–I even want them to worry that I’ve taken on far too ambitious a premise and will never be able to make it work. And then, of course, the challenge to me is to do precisely that. So, starting a mystery story with a dead body doesn’t appeal to me because those kinds of beginnings are not particularly mysterious, in my view. Generally, the minute you meet the dead body, you know half of what’s happened–someone’s killed someone else. True, you don’t know exactly why, but generally it has to do with the killer not liking the victim very much for whatever reason…. More and more, I’m coming to think of the dead-body opening to a mystery as a kind of shorthand signifying a lack of original and interesting ideas.

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Interview: Matt Bell, author of How They Were Found

October 18, 2010

Matt Bell

Early October brought the publication of How They Were Found, the first full-length collection of short stories by the extremely talented and prolific Matt Bell. Bell’s work has previously appeared in three chapbooks — Wolf PartsThe Collectors, and How the Broken Lead the Blind — and in a number of high-profile anthologies: “Mario’s Last Stand,” originally published in Barrelhouse, was selected for Best American Fantasy 2008; “Dredge,” originally published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2010; and “His Last Great Gift,” originally published in Conjunctions, was named a notable story of the year in Best American Short Stories 2010. In addition to his own work as a writer, Bell is also the editor of The Collagist and of Dzanc’s Best of the Web anthology series. And that’s just the start of a very distinguished résumé.

In the wake of the publication both of his new collection and of the Best American anthologies, Bell took a few moments to answer questions about his career, these recent honors and the work still ahead.

Art Taylor: The thirteen tales gathered in How They Were Found draw both on material from your earlier chapbooks and from your long line of journal publications. How did you decide what to include for this “debut” — and was there anything you were sorry to leave out?

Matt Bell: It took a long time to decide what should be included and what shouldn’t, in part because I’d never tried to organize my work in this way before, at least not on this scale. One thing that helped is that my writing made a pretty dramatic shift right around 2008 or so and kind of broke away from most of what I’d done before. So it was clear early on that a lot of the older work wasn’t going to fit, although there were certainly stories that I clung to for a while, hoping to find them a place in the order.

In the end, what I wanted was a collection that wasn’t just a random group of stories or even one that was organized around a theme or something similar. I wanted a collection that read best as a whole book, despite the stories not having obvious links between them, and I wanted that book to show off what was unique about my worldview as a writer and my style upon the page. I think these thirteen stories do that, in a way that thirteen others might not. I’m not sure there’s another book I could have made out of the other stories I had at the time, but certainly there isn’t one that I’d be as happy with as this one.

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Review: On the Nickel by John Shannon

October 16, 2010

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been working my way through the novels of John Shannon — one of the most ambitious and interesting series in contemporary crime fiction. Shannon’s books have been compared to Raymond Chandler and have been labelled noir, but ultimately Shannon’s books seem to defy comparisons and labels; in fact, in a panel yesterday at Bouchercon by the Bay, Shannon himself claimed that his books weren’t really mysteries at all, but family novels — soap operas even. And since his novels focus as much on the existential crises of troubled hero Jack Liffey and his shifting relationships with his daughter, his ex-wife, his lovers as they do on any crime at hand… well, it’s tough not to agree.

Tough noir meets the domestic drama? While these various directions may threaten to confound some readers, I’ve found the dynamism both enthralling and provocative, and I ultimately consider this ambitious series as a whole to be a model for the flexibility of this genre we call crime fiction.

Today’s Washington Post runs my review of Shannon’s latest novel, On the Nickel (and later this month, I’ll present the paper “‘You’re F***** We’re Your Future’: Children and Teens in John Shannon’s Jack Liffey Novels” at the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association’s 2010 Annual Conference). While I’d recommend previous books as a better starting point for those new to the series (try Streets on Fire, for example, or The Dark Streets or Palos Verdes Blue, among my own favorites), On The Nickel proves to be another great addition to this continuing saga.

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Review: My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer

October 3, 2010

Last week in this spot, Brandon Wicks proved himself a fine interviewer, chatting with William Wright, series editor of The Southern Poetry Anthology. Here he takes up his pen again for reviewing, turning a sharp eye toward a terrific collection of fresh takes on fairy tales from around the world.

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales

Edited by Kate Bernheimer

Penguin Books

Reviewed by Brandon Wicks

Most savvy readers know that fairy tales are for adults. We know that the Brothers Grimm were just that—grim—filling their stories with pedophagia and regicide. We know the vein of political allegory that can be traced through L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. We also know that the modern tales of magic—the J.K. Rowlings, the Philip Pullmans, the J.R.R. Tolkiens—are enjoyed as much by parents as by children, if not more so. However, decades of the Disney princess-factory and a dozen clichés about happy endings still push popular opinion to misconstrue the form as kidstuff. With the new anthology, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, editor Kate Bernheimer seeks to set the record straight and reassert the fairy tale’s rightful prominence in the cultural imagination.

The collection is impressive, both in its range of stories and contributing authors. Bernheimer brings a cross-section of literary muscle: included are tales by such heavy-hitters as Michael Cunningham, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike, a long list of rising notables like Aimee Bender and Katherine Vaz, and international favorites such as Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and Neil Gaiman. The variety of authors reflects the breadth of source material. Each story is drawn from an original tale, ranging from familiar ones by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, to folktales from Vietnam and Mexico, to the more contemporary fables of Italo Calvino and even Walt Disney. And while it might be odd to praise a table of contents, Bernheimer has organized a thing of beauty. Each entry names the fairy tale from which the story is derived, the country and author of origin, and even the opening lines—bringing helpful context to each story and inviting the reader to graze through the book, guided by her own proclivities.

The stories found within My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me could be divided into stylistic camps. Many are fantastical, as one would expect. In “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumplestiltskin,” Kevin Brockmeier explores the lesser known ending—in which Rumplestiltskin splits himself, vertically, in his rage—after the original fairy tale has ended. But many are also realistic—inhabited not by witches, but by restaurant chefs and single mothers, by characters who have strayed in the dark wood of their everyday lives a little too long, who only survive by their own resourceful acumen and luck.

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