Monday, January 03, 2011

Five best: human dramas

Roger “R.J.” Ellory is the recent winner of the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year Award and author of The Anniversary Man. His latest novel is Saints of New York.

He discussed five of his favorite human dramas with Daisy Banks at FiveBooks, including:
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

[I]t’s short stories about Vietnam written by a guy who was there as a very young man. And it really is a book about what it is like to be a regular ordinary American teenager and suddenly find yourself neck-deep in a jungle fighting a war that you neither understand nor care about. Killing people that are so different from you with no opportunity to understand or appreciate their culture. And, just as Stephen King shocks you by presenting the surreal against the banal, so Tim O’Brien creates characters for you that are so immensely believable, based on real people and based on himself, and he also presents you with situations that just defy comprehension as far as any point of reference or context is concerned.

He presents you with a gang of teenagers carrying 60 or 70 pounds of equipment in 40-plus centigrade temperatures with malaria, fighting insects, fighting monsoons, fighting conscience, fighting political ideology, fighting religious ideas and their own code of ethics and morals even more than they are fighting what they have been told is the common enemy. And I think the way that he does that with such humanity and such heart is outstanding. And again it is a book I have read probably three times.

Many authors I talk to think that character and a sense of place are just as important as plot. What about you?

I absolutely agree. I and other crime authors I know have been asked many times what creates tension and I believe the real tension is created by people being interested in and caring enough about their characters to want to know what is going to happen to them next. I think that is where real tension comes from irrespective of the genre.

What about this idea of a sense of place, because all the books you have described are very evocative and that is a big part of your novels as well?

I am of the opinion that the location, the setting and the time period are just as important as any of the individuals in the books. I think the worst criticism for an author is: I read your book and I can’t remember what it was about. I want people to be unsettled, I want people to feel uncomfortable and challenged, I want people to have to think. I really couldn’t care whether people remember the title of the book they have read by me or even remember my name. That is of no concern. However, what is important to me is that someone is reminded of a book of mine they read six months ago, not because of all the characters and the plot, but because of the way it made them feel. And that is as much the job of putting them in New York or putting them in Washington in the middle of a political conspiracy or putting them in Georgia in the Depression in 1939 while there were child murders going on and feeling the heat and the dust and the parched air. All that kind of stuff is just as important to me because I think it contributes so much of the story.
Read about another book Ellory tagged.

See Ali Karim's interview with R.J. Ellory at The Rap Sheet.

--Marshal Zeringue