Author Joy Castro is our guest today. Her debut novel, Hell or High Water, a thriller set in post-Katrina New Orleans has received rave reviews from many, including the New York Times bestselling author of Mystic River, Dennis Lehane, who calls it a “terrific thriller.” Castro is sharing her story of not being as prepared to write a thriller as she’d thought.
From the Ivory Tower to the Gritty Gutter
A Ph.D. in literature is not, it turns out, the best training for a writer of thrillers.
My new novel Hell or High Water follows young reporter Nola Céspedes as she tracks sex criminals through the streets of New Orleans. Tough, hard-boiled, and hard-drinking, Nola is more than a little dangerous herself.
It was a fun novel to write, but it wasn’t easy. Though I’d come from a gritty background myself, as I’d documented in my memoir The Truth Book, my literary training left me unprepared to write action.
As a doctoral student and young professor, I specialized in modernism. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, William Faulkner: writers of long, spiraling sentences, evanescent perceptions, and the shimmering interior world. I sank into T.S. Eliot’s dense quicksand of archetypes and literary allusions, analyzed the arcane private symbol system of Wallace Stevens, and wrote scholarship on little-known American modernist Margery Latimer.
On the side, I wrote little short stories akin (or so I flattered myself) to Katherine Mansfield’s: a character drifts along; something is said or seen; a sharp realization pierces the soul. The End.
One day I had enough for a collection, and I asked my agent to represent it.
In the hallowed tradition of agents everywhere, he said, “I can’t sell a short story collection. Write me a novel. A novel, I can sell.” If I published a novel, then afterwards, maybe, possibly, we could place the short stories somewhere.
I loved my short stories like Laban loved Leah. I would do whatever it took to find them a good home. If I had to dangle a novel—like Rachel, “lovely in form and beautiful”—to get it for them, I would.
So I thought back to the kinds of novels I’d devoured long before I became educated, the novels I’d read for pleasure and escape back in the trailer park, back in the day. All of them, as it turns out, were mysteries. Page-turners. The Bobbsey Twins, Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, and so on. So I thought, No problem. I’ll write one of those.
I meant well. I tried. I wrote hundreds of pages. But modernism intruded. I kept making my characters sit around in evocative settings thinking lyrical thoughts, and for variety, I had them wander through streets densely layered with history and myth, where they had small, poignant epiphanies they could never hope to express. Oh, the imagery!
But the notion that they actually had to do something, to take action, to speak out loud with one another in actual dialogue? Or for me to impose a force as crude as cause-and-effect upon their wayward subjectivities? Wasn’t I supposed to be paring my nails somewhere, according to Joyce?
For literary fiction, my approach might have worked. But I badly wanted to make a book that someone like my brother, a mechanic, would read for fun, or that my Cuban American grandmother, if she were still alive, would read. (When I published my first story, she asked where. I said with pride, “Mid-American Review.” She said, “Okay, sí. When you get one in Redbook, let me know.”) I wanted to write a thriller, the kind of book that would be shelved in drugstores above the magazines.
My poor, patient agent. Draft after draft he carefully reviewed. He sent his notes back to me. I choked and stalled—and then implemented them. They were smart, and they were right. But it was all a little theoretical.
So like any veteran student, I studied. I started to read mysteries again, but in a serious, attentive way. I took notes. I outlined plots. I tore the sentences apart to see how they worked. Dennis Lehane. Tana French. John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” wrote T.S. Eliot, so I stole. From Dashiell Hammett, whose hard-boiled voice helped me find my protagonist Nola’s. From Kate Atkinson, whose terrific Jackson Brodie novels combine all the rich qualities of literary fiction with the lean, propulsive narrative that mystery readers expect. It was a new, self-guided education, just as delicious as the old one.
I had a road-map. I had models. There were ways to preserve the literary qualities I loved while foregrounding excitement and suspense. Rather than an either-or dilemma, my thriller could be a both-and a proposition that invited all kinds of readers. I could write my novel, come hell or high water.
Were you less prepared than you’d hoped to tackle an aspect of your writing? How did you handle it?