Thursday, 7 February 2008

French fries, Tess Gerritsen and literary trauma

Yes, I know, I did it again - or rather didn't do it: didn't blog last week. This time, apart from ongoing GCSE coursework issues, I was preparing for the arrival of my elder son's French exchange student, who has left this morning. He was a nice kid but totally inscrutable, so the past few days have been hard work, not least because the fridge and larder full of food we thought would please a French palate ... didn't. Cheese? Salad? Vegetables? A shrug, a 'Non', a moue of distaste. He did drink a lot of fruit juice, but apart from this was only enthusiastic about Coke, chips, and roast potatoes. Looks like Europe has indeed caught up with us in the unhealthy eating stakes.

So, on to literary matters. A couple of weeks ago I went along to see Tess Gerritsen at Borders in Oxford. She delivered, not a reading, but a very detailed account of her researches for her latest thriller, 'The Bone Garden.' This involved explicit and gruesome descriptions of the horrors of nineteenth century medicine pre-anaesthetics and pre-hygiene: she let us know just how ghastly puerperal fever was, and read us a surgeon's account of how best to amputate a limb. The audience shuddered a fair amount and once again it struck me (as most of those present were women), that women are often better than men when it comes to coping with explicitness of this nature. In our household I'm the one who watches medical dramas while my menfolks leave the room! I like a good thriller and I can stomach a fair amount of gore: Gerritsen used to be a doctor and pulls no punches with the details of what goes on in the poor vulnerable body both pre- and post-mortem. The trick is that the nasties should serve the story, not just be gratuitous shlock-horror. I think women writers who deal with horror in thrillers and detective stories, never lose sight of the characters as characters: there is an interest in and a sympathy with the victim, an empathetic approach to those who grieve, those who detect, and, indeed, those who commit the crime, all of which involve the reader emotionally. I remember reading, years ago, P.D. James' 'Devices and Desires': near the beginning there is a very striking analysis not only of how the victim experiences their last moments but also of the broken nature of the perpetrator. (Sadly, the last P.D. James book I read, 'The Lighthouse' was dreadful: not a single character I could either believe in or sympathise with: laboured artifice and clumsy dialogue throughout.)

At Tess Gerritsen's question and answer session after her talk, I asked her about the demands of writing novels as frequently as publishers now demand. I don't know about you, but there are writers I am fond of, who, when they hit success bigtime, seem to be on a terrible treadmill: a novel a year, sometimes more, with the result that the quality of their work suffers: rehashed themes, sketchy research, poorly edited writing involving stock phrases, repetition and padding - a sense that the story has not been allowed to ferment at its own rate. The result is the same as a tomato forced in a greenhouse: it may look good, but the flavour ain't there.

Tess acknowledged the pressure she feels and said she spends a month of each year on the road. So, we all dream of fame, success, the freedom to write full-time, but it may turn out to be a poisoned chalice. Freedom turns to commitment, inspiration turns to forced labour. Still, wouldn't mind giving it a go ...!

I thoroughly recommend Tess's blog on her website: , esspecially the posts of February 6th; January 30th, where she responds to a fellow writer for whom all the joy of writing has disappeared; December 20, where she talks about how as a writer you never can switch off from thinking about it, even when you're not doing it, and December 15th, where she talks about the pressure of maintaining success. Do read her - and let me know what you think.

If anybody's considering reading her books, she has a police series where her lead characters are detective Jane Rizzoli and pathologist Maura Isles, and she has standalones such as 'Harvest' and 'Gravity'. I started with the Jane Rizzoli story 'The Surgeon', which features a killer who does harrowing things to women, while they're totally helpless and still alive - and you need to be a woman to truly feel the squirm of what he does .. Read her if you like a good page-turner, but only if you've got the stomach for it.

See? I'm a total ghoul.


Muvva said...

Thanks for the pointer to Tess's blog, Lorna - very interesting.

In my experience, admittedly only secondhand, French exchange students snub any kind of English food on principle. In one infamous family story, a French girl turned up her nose up at sweetcorn, saying 'In France, we only give thees to zee cattle."

Unfortunately I can't subscribe to your theory about women having stronger stomachs. I get shooting pains down my legs if someone even so much as gets a paper cut, and often spend half the time at the cinema with my hands over my eyes. Pathetic, really!

Lorna F said...

Thanks for this, muvva. I'm hearing loads of anecdotes about hard-to-please exchange students!