Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Reflections on a Dark “Room”

One of the most rewarding results of reading crime and thriller fiction is to happen across a narrative that makes your consciousness spark at the same time as it entertains you. A bonus is to discover that this same story is also layered with insightful social commentary, and that it poses uncomfortable questions and makes you reassess your worldview. I’ve found that the work of Danuta Reah (who writes as well under the pen name Carla Banks) accomplishes all of that. Her novels are consistently rewarding; I selected Bleak Water as one of my favorite new novels of 2002, and ranked The Forest of Souls among January Magazine’s Best Books of 2005.

Her latest book, The Last Room--released this summer in the UK by Caffeine Nights Publishing--is especially meritorious.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with Reah’s fiction should know that her interests lie in exploring the darker dimensions of human nature and motivations; she’s always looking for fresh and striking insights. Her protagonists frequently investigate dangers facing dispossessed or disadvantaged people. In addition to plumbing the rich recesses of her imagination, she’s an avid supporter of literacy programs and has worked as an educational consultant and creative-writing instructor. A resident of Sheffield, England, Reah has long been active in the British Crime Writers’ Association, and she has served as one of the chairs of judges for the CWA Dagger Awards.

I was delighted to receive, not that long ago, a copy of The Last Room and was captivated by its tale, which traverses geopolitics and war, and reveals how the seeds of conflict often lie hidden in manipulations executed during our history. Here’s my story line synopsis from a review I wrote for the Webzine Shots:
With the contemporary world (as ever) in geopolitical turmoil, we find The Last Room reflecting this, in a very disturbing tale of the reality that is often masked under (what former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara described as) ‘the fog of war’. The back story is the Balkan War(s), though the lineage for that conflict, and this disturbing novel [also has roots] further in time, back to WW2 (and African civil wars).

The opening is a terse, grueling snatch of a vicious attack on a pregnant woman [named Nadifa] on Africa’s war-torn Ivory Coast in 2005. This sets the scene for a complex novel which questions if there can ever be any absolute truth …

Moving to 2007 Europe, we follow the aftermath of the suicide of Dr. Ania Milosz, an expert witness involved in the conviction of a child killer, Derek Haynes, who is appealing against his conviction for the murder of six-year old Sagal Akindes (daughter of [the] aforementioned, brutalized asylum seeker from the Ivory Coast).

Neither Ania’s father, retired policeman Will Gillen, nor her fiancé, Dariusz Erland, believes that the linguistics expert jumped to her death, and so starts a trail that snakes its way to the deeds of the past, deeds that some wish to remain hidden in the fog that is war.
After my immersion in this dense, disturbing yarn, I contacted Reah. I had a few questions to ask about her book’s components and construction. She kindly agreed to respond to my queries, but she also offered more information about herself as a novelist. Our exchange, posted below, covered everything from her writing style and her pseudonym to the source of her curiosity about Eastern Europe, her time as the chair of the CWA, and her thoughts on today’s rapidly evolving publishing industry.

Ali Karim: I considered The Last Room to be a solidly crafted, sculptured, narrative that held together a complex plot, with its various unconnected strands weaving themselves through the tale but leaving no visible seams. So am I right in thinking it was plotted extensively before any writing commenced?

Danuta Reah: I’m not a writer who can plot [everything out ahead of time]. I need to be in the story with the characters before I know what will happen. I plot as I go. It’s rather a tense way of writing--what if I never find out what happens? But I can’t seem to write any other way. I’ve found there’s quite a divide among writers between those who plot beforehand and those who plot as they go. I don’t think one way is better than the other--it’s just the way different people write. It’s part of finding your voice as a writer, understanding how you work.

AK: Although it’s far from gratuitously violent, the opening of your novel is somewhat painful to read. Were you concerned about beginning the story with such shocking imagery?

DR: I was, but I wanted to tell this story. I have always been very wary of writing rape scenes, and I was careful to include no physical details of the actual rape. As soon as you do that, you are running the risk of making it titillating.

(Left) Author Danuta Read. (Image courtesy of Zace Photography.)

I worked with asylum seekers from Cote d’Ivoire a few years ago, and I noticed that some of the women came here with stories that didn’t really hold together. I wondered why this was. At that time the country was in such chaos, they should have a legitimate claim for asylum, so why were they telling stories that clearly weren’t true, or weren’t fully true? I realized later, when I learned more about it, that there were some stories they couldn’t tell, especially not to a strange man at the UK border. Women in Cote d’Ivoire who have been raped carry a terrible stigma. Their families, their husbands, their communities can (and do) reject them. Nadifa, in a way, is a Cote d’Ivoirian Everywoman from that time. Rape has been used for centuries as a weapon of war. If anybody doubts how dreadful this is, they should read the Human Rights Watch account of sexual violence against women in Cote d’Ivoire, “My Heart Is Cut.” The first chapter of The Last Room pales into nothing by comparison. I couldn’t write what really happened--I could just hint at it as I stayed in Nadifa’s mind as she saves her children from the soldiers who are attacking her.

AK: The novel boasts a propulsive pace, due in part to your use of short, concise chapters. Did you set out to structure the story this way, or did the narrative simply lead you to offer such short chapters?

DR: I found short chapters very useful. It wasn’t a conscious decision--it’s how it worked out in the writing. There were parts of the book where something happened that lent itself to a chapter, but was quite brief. It was a new thing for me, but I enjoyed writing this way.

AK: Did you consider releasing The Last Room under your Carla Banks pseudonym? It reminded me, both in stylistic and thematic terms, of your 2005 thriller, Forest of Souls, which you did publish as Banks.

DR: The Carla Banks identity was imposed on me by my then publisher. I always wanted to get my name back. I know what you mean--The Last Room, like Forest of Souls and Strangers [2007], is an international thriller, and it is dark and complex. I think this represents a development in my writing--I think this is the way I write now, and I’m happy to have my own name attached to it. But who knows where publishers will take me?

AK: The sections of your new book set in Poland were vividly, and sometimes chillingly, realized. So tell us a little about your geographical and historical research.

DR: My father was Polish, but I didn’t go to Poland myself until I was an adult. I visited the place he was born and lived as a child, Baranovichi, which is now in Belarus. Something we forget about Central and Eastern Europe is that the 1939-45 war did not end well for them. They went from the Nazi occupation--which was far, far worse than anything that was seen in Western Europe--to Soviet occupation under Stalin. The memories of that war are still vivid--not for any vainglorious reasons, but simply because it was so terrible. We know the story of the Jews, but sometimes the horror of that drowns out the horror of what happened to the ethnic Poles. That, too, was close to genocide. The Polish-American poet John Guzlowski has written some powerful poetry about his parents’ memories and experiences in his collections, The Language of Mules and Lightning and Ashes.

I went to Łódź first of all, to a summer conference on forensic linguistics, something that interests me as an academic. I loved the city. Łódź is a bit like my own city of Sheffield--it’s an industrial city that has suffered through depressions, but it’s also a city that has its beautiful places. Like Sheffield, it’s full of trees and green spaces, but Łódź is truly a city in a forest. The Łagiewniki Forest comes right into the city--when I was there first, I stayed in a hotel in the forest.

Łódź also has its war memorials. The extermination center of Chełmno was not so far away, and the Litzmannstadt (German name for Łódź) Ghetto was one of the major centers where Jews from across Europe were sent. You can still walk the lines of the Ghetto boundaries, and in the Jewish graveyard, as I describe in the book, there are the grave pits the last Ghetto survivors were forced to dig. Like so many Eastern European cities--like Warsaw, like Minsk--Łódź is haunted by a terrible past. But Łódź also has lovely memories of its Jewish community before the Holocaust. The graves show how long the families had lived there, the buildings and the statues on the streets remember the Jews of Łódź--there is one of Arthur Rubinstein playing the piano; his parents are buried in the Jewish graveyard. There are so many stories to tell from that time. I think I will revisit it.

AK: You write very strong male characters, especially from the perspective of protagonists Will Gillen and Dariusz Erland. Can you tell us how you see the differences between writing from the female or male points of view?

DR: I’m glad you found the male characters convincing--I hoped they were, but it takes a man to spot it. I suppose I have lived with men all my life. I was very close to my father, I have a son, I have a brother, I have a brief and very bad marriage in my past, and an enduring and very happy one in my present. And over the years I have had many, many male friends. I try to drop behind the male eye, and see the world from that perspective. I think men express their emotions differently from women. Both Will and Dariusz are grieving, but neither of them deals with grief in quite the way a woman would. I think they are both quite isolated--they come from backgrounds where men are expected not to show their emotions, Will as a senior police officer, Dariusz with his background in the social unrest around the Solidarity movement. In both cases, their environment expects them to be less emotional, and I found I could work with that.

AK: There were moments in this story, especially in the later sections set in Poland, that were upsetting, guaranteed to draw out emotions in the reader. As an author, how difficult do you find it traversing the tightrope that has pathos on one side and melodrama on the other?

DR: The Last Room is a book about grief--real grief, not the faux version we see too often across our television screens. Grief is a very raw emotion. I was able to draw on my own experiences of this, but it was painful to do so. I think the important thing is to be honest about the way the bereaved and the lost feel. Will has had so much grief in his life that he can let it in and get on with what he needs to do. Dariusz tries to shut it out, but he can’t. It leads him to take crazy risks--he can’t stand his own feelings so he does some not very sensible things because he can’t bear to sit still and remember.

The book deals with some traumatic events, and I think, if I’ve done my job and engaged readers sufficiently with the characters and the narrative, then they will find some of the working out of the story traumatic too.

AK: As a reviewer, one has to be able to distinguish cliché from convention. So I must ask: Did you have concern that one of the pivots this plot rests upon is the investigation of a suicide that may be murder? In the real world, we know that many suicides, especially those related to geopolitics, hide secrets from the public.

DR: I wasn’t sure, when Ania first died, if this was suicide or murder. My thoughts became clearer as I followed Will’s investigation, and the police investigation. I realized more and more that Ania’s death was a lot more complicated than it seemed, whether it was murder, suicide, or accident. You have to follow where the plot goes, and hope you can manage to avoid any possible cliché. I hope I have managed this--but readers will let me know!

AK: There is very interesting social commentary interwoven into your fast-moving plot. Do you ever fear that the underlying theme or message in a work of fiction, especially one casting an eye on contemporary issues, risks stepping over the line that is “entertainment”?

DR: I’ve been told that my books are very dark. I sometimes wonder if they are too dark. It’s hard to know how to lighten them--maybe I should crack a joke of two on the way. Or maybe not, come to think of it. I like to ask readers to look at other people’s lives from different perspectives. I don’t want to move away from the story, but I want to tell the stories. Several people told me that one of the things they liked about The Forest of Souls was that it told them things they didn’t know. If you, as a writer, can work these things into the narrative--and they seem to weave themselves in naturally--then I think it all works as a book, as a story. My main aim is to write something people will read and enjoy.

AK: The Last Room tackles a number of currently topical issues, among them war crimes, asylum seekers, and moral panic over Operation Yewtree, the British police investigation of sexual abuse by the late media personality, Jimmy Saville, and others. Do these concerns in the book reflect your own concerns, or were they spawned by the tale you had constructed in your imagination?

DR: They were all an integral part of the story, but I suppose that arose originally from my own concerns. When I was starting to find the threads of the story--my starting point was a woman who had destroyed her own career and professional reputation by falsifying evidence in a court case--I had to ask why someone would do this, and what was happening. I first saw Will as a solitary man living on the east coast of Scotland and I wondered why he was isolating himself like this. I think the answers to these questions were drawn from my own experience and concerns, and in the past few years, some of these issues have been very central to my life.

AK: You are a former chair of the UK Crime Writers’ Association, having served back in the days when e-books were still an experiment, rather than a cultural trend. Can you tell us what you think about the changing modern publishing environment?

DR: It’s a very challenging time to be a writer as I’m sure lots of writers have told you. It’s also exciting--there are so many routes into publishing now. At the moment it’s a bit of a free-for-all. Self-publishing is now financially accessible and several professional writers have taken this up. Some debut writers have used this as a route into publishing. The problem with this is the quality control has gone and the reader is left with a bewildering array of books and no guidance. The market will probably sort it out.

Historical mystery novelist Michael Jecks poses on the left, with Reah. (Photograph by Ali Karim.)

People dream about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, when an independently published book makes a fortune. But this is rarer than hen’s teeth (if you’ll allow me one cliché). I would never discourage anyone from self-publishing if the established publishing industry won’t give them a way in, but I would ask them to look coldly and critically at their book, and to get some unbiased feedback. Too many badly written and poorly edited books are out there now. It isn’t just independently published books, sadly. The professional editor is slowly disappearing from the trade. I was very lucky to be edited by one of the best in the business for my first six books and I learned a tremendous amount. It was hard, but worth it.

AK: And your thoughts on the recent Amazon vs. Hachette war?

DB: Amazon has changed the world of bookselling. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I regret the demise of the Net Book Agreement. This squeezed so-called mid-list writers out of the market, which reduced variety. Small booksellers--who are the people who keep the market lively and buoyant--are a vanishing breed. At the moment, Amazon has too much power, but it’s power we, the readers, have given it.

On the other hand, it is Amazon that has allowed small publishers to flourish. The big booksellers also abuse their power. Very few readers realize that those tempting piles of books on displays are not bookshop recommendations based on the shop’s opinion of their quality--they are paid-for promotions. And this makes it hard for small publishers who can’t pay this kind of money and sometimes can’t get their books into the shops at all. At one time, an author who couldn’t get his or her books into [W.H.] Smith or Waterstones was dead. Amazon has changed that. Of course, small publishers still have to fight to get their books into the bookstores. The result? Every branch of Waterstones or Smith’s is identical to every other branch. If I want variety, I go into the wonderful London Review Bookshop when I’m in London, and some of the surviving independents when I am in the north.

So Amazon isn’t Satan, as it is sometimes portrayed. But Amazon shouldn’t be trying to force the price of books down any further. Writers, oddly enough, need to live. The next big thing will be along one day, and will do to Amazon what Amazon has done to the big booksellers--they will need reader and writer loyalty.

AK: A well-known crime-fiction author remarked recently (and without a particular agenda) that it seemed to him many writers from other genres, as well as general fiction authors, have recently been dipping their toes more and more into the once-sniffed-at crime/thriller field. Do you have any thoughts on this development?

DB: Yes, I suppose it could be seen as an easy way to get a bestseller. I’m sure I would do the same if I were in that position. I have read one or two of these books, and found them to be at the very least readable, which is what you would expect given the quality of some of these writers. Good writers write good books. What I don’t like is the subtext (it doesn’t come from writers, it comes from a certain section of the world of critics and commentators) that “quality” writers are showing crime writers how to do it.

Genre fiction of all types has a range--from the formulaic, fast-written thriller (and don’t knock that--it’s not an easy thing to do) to books that have the depth and complexity of many so-called literary writers. The late and much lamented Reginald Hill wrote some books that were multi-layered and subtle (ignore the TV versions--the books are where the quality lies). John Harvey writes books that are about a lot more than the crime that may be central to the narrative. I could go on.

I have twice been faced with the “genre” smear (in the sense that the literary establishment thinks that genre fiction writers are a sub-species). Once I went for an interview for a writer-in-residence post, and one of the panel, a nationally known poet, sat through the interview with a “bad smell” expression on his face and asked me how I would cope with criticism from students that I wrote crime. The other--again in academia--was when someone asked me (very nicely) if I’d ever thought about writing a proper book. I said I wasn’t clever enough to do that.

AK: We all know that the crime, mystery, and thriller sector is a vibrant one in today’s book-publishing market. As I have with many other writers in this genre, let me ask you what you think it is about this genre that appeals most to readers.

DB: That’s so hard to answer. I’m a reader, and I know I’m looking for a good story. This can range from a light, engaging read (for a plane journey, maybe, or for reading after a grueling work period) to a book that will engage me deeply and perhaps disturb me. I think crime offers that range far more than any genre. I think we all like to read about rules being broken--and there’s nothing like a good fright from time to time.

AK: How hard is it nowadays to make one’s career as a writer--a profession that admittedly has never seemed particularly “secure”?

DB: It’s harder than ever now. To make my living as a writer I have to write articles, reviews, run workshops--and somehow find time to write as well. I think it is going to get worse. I’m currently looking at new outlets for stories, because I’ll always want to tell them, but I also need to make a living.

AK: What books are you currently composing?

DB: I’m working on a book that looks back to the last war in Eastern Europe, but which also looks forward to problems in the present day. The question that I’m asking is, if something looks like a good outcome, a happy ending, are you sure that’s the case? Is this what it appears to be? I have a young journalist who is on the track of a story--maybe she needs to be careful--and a man in search of the people who helped his family in wartime Poland--and maybe he needs to be careful too.

AK: Finally, what have you enjoyed reading lately?

DB: I’ve been re-reading some Agatha Christie--when she’s good, she’s very good. I recommend Five Little Pigs. I’ve also just read Invisible City, by Julia Dahl--we’ll hear more of this writer. It’s an excellent debut. I enjoyed M.J. Carter’s The Strangler Vine. It’s slow moving, but very absorbing. I thoroughly enjoyed John Harvey’s last [Charlie] Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness.


Kristopher said...

Thanks Ali. I haven't read Danuta yet, but she has been on my list for a while now. This interview has encouraged me to seek out her work.

I have to agree with her, the Julia Dahl debut novel is quite strong and I can't wait to see what she does next.

Anonymous said...

Quick note: No book promotions in Waterstones have to be paid for by any publisher. Not book of the month, book club or 'those piles' on the table. Hasn't been the case for years.