Getting your hands dirty? Apply soap and wash for 20 seconds. Getting your hands dirty in the dark world of crime fiction writing? That is a whole different story.
Crime fiction is often considered another genre written for entertainment and suspense but for some writers, this can be a more traumatic experience. Australian authors Tara Moss and Michael Robotham, and South African writer Lauren Beukes discussed the challenges that lie behind the dark thoughts on the page at the Sydney Writers Festival.
The writers discussed the struggles they have removing themselves from their in-depth research into true crime and serial killers, and the psychological difficulties they encounter when translating this dark side of humanity in their fiction.
Ms Moss said learning to remove herself from the real crime she has spent over 15 years researching, was the biggest challenge. “The first six years of my research into crime were really traumatising and changed me – I will never unlearn the things that I learned.
“What I did discover though, after many years, was to do what many crime writers do, I learnt to compartmentalise,” she said.
Ms Beukes reflected on her cultural background, crime being an all consuming and prominent part of life in South Africa. She explained that in her novels she tries to do justice to the shockingness and seriousness of violence and death by using black humour.
“You have to balance the light in the dark. I throw in time travel,” she said, adding laughingly, “You can’t lose with time travel.”
Her recent novel, The Shining Girls, tells the story of a time-travelling serial killer who is compelled to murder the “shining girls” in order to continue his travels.
The discussion led to an agreement that crime fiction provides readers with justice and resolution that does not always prevail in true crime.
“On the front page of a newspaper you see peoples’ lives torn apart and you see those photographs and it is very hard to write a happy ending with that,” Tara Moss said. “ But in crime fiction, sometimes you can.”
She described how her novels were born out of a frustration with instances of social injustice that she resolved through writing.
She described the times she found police officers who had become haunted by a particular case and could not let go even though it was no longer in their jurisdiction.
“They would be disturbed by a case that they hadn’t been able to solve,” she said, explaining that such cases involved some horror and that the perpetrator had not been brought to justice.
“And what do you do when the criminal is beyond the reach of the law? As a crime fiction writer, you go that extra mile to get your hands bloody,” she said. All may be resolved satisfactorily in fiction.