Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Interviewer turned interviewee: my thoughts on Kiwi crime writing

While I was working in North Carolina and travelling throughout the United States last year, I was contacted by New Zealand journalist Kelly Andrew, who was putting together a feature article on Kiwi crime writer Paul Cleave for the Herald on Sunday, a major nationwide newspaper. Cleave had won the Ngaio Marsh Award in 2011, is massively popular in Germany and France, and I've had a fair bit to do with him due to my involvement in local crime fiction, from reviews to interviews to sharing the stage together at events.

With Cleave's then-latest book, JOE VICTIM, about to be released, Kelly wanted my perspective on Cleave's writing, and where it stood in terms of local and international crime writing, along with some other comments about New Zealand crime writing. It always feels a little strange for me to be the interviewee rather than the interviewer, but it was fun to have a think about these things too.

As is always the case, many of my comments didn't make it into the final article (I know what that's like from a writer/interviewer perspective, trying to work out which of the 6,000 words of terrific interview with an author I use or don't for an 800-1,500 word article). I've recently rediscovered the interview while going through some old files, so thought as well as sharing the link to Kelly's feature here (it's worth a read), I'd share some of my other thoughts and comments that didn't make it into the piece:

KA: How does Paul Cleave stand out from other Kiwi crime/thriller writers?
CS: I think the thing that makes Paul Cleave stand out is the vividness of his writing, the way he treads the darker edge of crime fiction whilst still managing to instil some humour and a really keen eye for protagonists who see the world in a unique, slightly askew way. He really gets readers into the head of his main characters (which isn't always the most pleasant or comfortable place, but is intriguing and rather captivating), as well creating an almost character-like sense of place. 

KA: Is there a growing market for New Zealand crime writing overseas? 

CS: I think there is potentially a growing market for New Zealand crime writing overseas. Readers worldwide seem to be becoming more open to crime fiction set outside of the US and UK - not only Scandinavian crime fiction, but mysteries set in Asia, the Mediterranean and Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. There are a lot of terrific things about New Zealand as a setting, and we have good writers, so there is definitely potential for New Zealand crime writing to grow in a global readership sense. With the breaking down of geographic barriers when it comes to book publishing and distribution, there is perhaps more than ever an opportunity for NZ writers to succeed worldwide. 

KA: Why is the crime and thriller genre so popular in Germany?

CS: Germany seems something of a 'canary in the coal mine' when it comes to crime fiction - they 'discovered' authors such as Stieg Larsson, Linwood Barclay, and Paul Cleave before the UK/US markets caught up. The Germans do seem to devour crime fiction - but in all honesty it's the most popular genre in many markets. The Germans, like other continental Europeans, do seem to have less of a 'literary vs popular fiction' prejudice (which is sometimes apparent amongst literary critics and award judges in English-speaking countries), though I'm not sure how much this affects book sales anyway, given readers don't seem quite so worried about those types of delineations. 

KA: Do you think NZ book buyers are reluctant to buy crime novels written by local authors compared to the big international names such as Michael Connelly etc?
I'm not sure if New Zealand book buyers are reluctant to buy crime novels written by local authors as much as just being reluctant to buy books from lesser-known or new authors from any country. The biggest sellers in New Zealand when it comes to crime fiction are almost brand-like: Lee Child, Stieg Larsson, Michael Connelly, Kathy Reichs, James Patterson, etc. They are well-known names that readers recognise and feel they can count on. Crime fiction readers seem very 'tribal' - they find an author they like, and will read many/all of their books. Book prices in New Zealand are high, in a global sense, so I can understand why crime fiction readers might not rush to try newer authors, Kiwi or otherwise, until they have experienced them and are confident about liking them. For example, there are outstanding non-New Zealand crime writers who don't sell that well, relatively speaking, here too. However, things do seem to be improving on this front - at least from a sense of keeping an eye on the appearance of New Zealand crime writers such as Cleave, Paddy Richardson, Paul Thomas, Vanda Symon, and Ben Sanders on the Neilsen Best Seller Lists over the past  two to three years - they seem to be featuring more than in the past. Quite how this translates to the actual quantities of books sold, I couldn't tell you. 


So what do you think of Kelly's article, and what I had to say? Fair comments? Do you agree or disagree?


  1. I think the question ...

    KA: Is there a growing market for New Zealand crime writing overseas?

    ... assumes that there is a specific type of crime writing that is unique to NZ. My feeling is that people don't buy PC's books because he is from New Zealand - they buy them because they are good crime novels.

    For example, Ben Sanders has been picked up to write for a US company using the US as a location. I don't think they picked him because he was a NZer, they picked him because they liked his writing.

    It's always been odd to me to refer to sectors of the market like 'kiwi crime writers' or the 'aussie crime scene'. Because not all NZ crime is the same. Vanda and Paul and Paddy and Ben all differ greatly in styles, in graphicness, and tone. Someone who likes Vanda's books may not necessarily like Paul's more gritty and heart wrenching (Sam should have lived) - so the only tie between them is the fact that they are crime writers from NZ (and good friends).

    Or was she referring to crime novels written and set in NZ?

    Cheers Dave

  2. That is a good point Dave. She may have meant crime writing set in New Zealand (as still most international readers are used to crime fiction set in the United States or the United Kingdom) - the issue can get conflated, along with the question of whether readers from other countries are very good at supporting authors from smaller, faraway places, which by nature may be lesser-known or overlooked. It is certainly an issue which is not about just one thing.

    And I agree re: Paul's popularity being down to the fact that he's a very good writers, and people enjoy his books. Some may like the 'exotic' Christchurch setting, where others couldn't care less where it's set (or where he's from).

    There certainly is a very diverse array of crime writing amongst New Zealand authors, as the longlist for this year's Ngaio Marsh Award amply shows. I guess when I talk about the quality of New Zealand crime writing, I'm talking about the quality of the writers here, not that they're somehow homogenous in style etc. Thought-provoking points you bring up.