Thursday, August 25, 2011

A crime writer shares his thoughts on his broken city

At the "Setting the Stage for Murder" event on Sunday in Christchurch, during the New Zealand author panel that I chaired (consisting of the four 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award finalists), the audience questions took something of an unexpected turn. Often, at such events, writers get asked things like 'where do you get your ideas from?', 'how did you first get published?', 'how often/much do you write each day', etc. Basically, questions that show there are plenty of aspiring writers in the audience, hoping to discover the 'secret' to those particular authors' success.

At the Michael Connelly event in Auckland earlier this year, one gentleman asked Connelly what software he used - perhaps believing that was all that stood between him and his writing dreams? Or he was just curious.

However, the first audience question on Sunday was far more meaningful - were the writers, and Paul Cleave in particular (being Christchurch-based), considering incorporating the recent devastating Canterbury earthquakes into their future books? And if so, how did they think they would address it?

It was a question that sparked some great discussion and debate. Cleave was very clear that he would never use an earthquake as a plot device, although he couldn't say for sure that he wouldn't ever incorporate it into the setting/background to his stories at some point. Others on the panel thought it might be okay to address the earthquake after a certain time period. From memory, Neil Cross strongly believed that writers shouldn't be afraid of tackling such issues in their books. Edgar Award winner John Hart, who'd been part of the international panel with Tess Gerritsen, and was now in the audience for the New Zealand panel, asked if the authors thought there might be some obligation on writers to help people deal with such matters by writing about them, incorporating them into future stories. He pointed to some September 11-themed books that may have had that sort of effect for people - although as the Kiwi writers noted, they came out a few years after the terrorist attacks. There's always the question of when is 'too soon', and people will have wildly diverging opinions on such issues.

The discussion was certainly an interesting portion of a great event, and it was brought to mind again this morning when I came across a new blog post by a crime writer based in Christchurch, Steve Malley, who emigrated from the United States several years ago. Malley is the author of two thrillers available as e-books. You can read my 9mm interview with him from earlier this year, here.

In his post, Malley talks passionately about the devastating effects of the earthquakes on his adopted home town, and how they've changed the city in an unprecedented way.

"Way back in September (funny to think it's not quite a year yet-- it seems decades), we were all so grateful that so much was spared. Some really great stuff was lost, but for a shake that size, every damn one of us knew we'd gotten off light.

Boxing Day hammered us pretty hard, but it also left the bones of our city unscathed. No major buildings fell, no loss of life. It seemed like this was how it was going to be: scary, but doable.

February changed everything. Forever."

As the months go past, and the news cycles move on to other dramas happening here and abroad, it will be important to remember Christchurch, a beautiful city, now lying bent, if not broken, that will take a long time to recover, despite the marvellous resilience and can-do attitude of its citizens.

Speaking from my own experiences, I drove around the outskirts of the cordoned CBD area with crime writers Paul Cleave, Vanda Symon, Neil Cross, and website designer David Batterbury, after the event on Sunday. It was just devastating - people are still kept out of most of the CBD, but you can see the twisted, leaning, and badly damaged buildings, as well as plenty of blank sites where buildings once stood. I spent five years in Christchurch while at University there (college, for US readers), and it was eerie seeing how places I knew were just gone. Wiped from the map by the hand of mother nature.

You can read Malley's full blog post here.

Thoughts welcome.