I like to think that each of my novels is something new and fresh and tasty – like a warm croissant. But somewhere down the line of production you realise you’ve been thinking about certain themes and characters, plot twists and turns, for a very long time. In a sense all your past work and experience, all your reading (and in my case reviewing, and increasingly teaching) is in there; also your concerns and probably likes and dislikes (though I’d hate to use the word prejudice).
In fact of all my books there’s explicitly more of me in My Criminal World than the others. However, this was deliberate from the outset. You see, years ago, when I was starting out as a writer friends used to send me used, tatty paperback copies of pulp novels with titles like The Voyeur, The Liberated, The Exhibitionist. The joke was these were by a guy called Henry Sutton (who obviously wasn’t me). Nevertheless I read them, enjoyed them, stuck them on my bookshelves, where they were later to be joined by my own novels.
Sometime later I was chatting to a top New York agent who said, ‘You’re they second Henry Sutton I’ve met.’ I replied, ‘So you know the author of The Exhibitionist?’ She did. Indeed at the time she represented him. Though of course Henry Sutton was just one of his pseudonyms. He was, and very much still is, David R Slavitt, an American academic, classicist, novelist and poet of much re-known. Indeed, under one guise or another David R Slavitt has published over 100 books.
I had some catching up to do. And when I came to write my latest novel, which I very much wanted to be a genre novel, a crime novel (because, aside from everything else, that’s what I should have been doing all along, and indeed was where I was firmly heading with my previous novels Get Me Out Of Here and Kids’ Stuff) I thought of David Slavitt and Henry Sutton. And oddly, too, at the time I had recently secured an academic job (UEA, where I direct the Prose Fiction MA), so I was very much preoccupied with issues of fictional creation and literary intent. With one thing leading to another I decided to make my narrator a crime writer struggling with his next text.
It seemed obvious to call him David Slavitt, as David had used my name to great effect in the past – so went my thinking. Actually I did ask the real David Slavitt why he chose the name Henry Sutton and he said he was thinking of Henry Fonda and the legendary, sensational best-seller, publisher Bernard Geis; Geis lived on Sutton Place South in Manhattan.
Now while all this may sound a little contrived, a little too meta-fictional, well that was always something like the intention too. With My Criminal World I hoped to address, from the inside, if you like, issues of creativity, genre (specifically the crime genre), narrative effect, violence and entertainment, and what it means to be a writer (even a struggling writer) struggling to complete a popular work of fiction in an increasingly graphic, competitive and demanding environment. And boy, does my David Slavitt come under pressure. I also wanted to write a mystery, two mysteries in fact (because there is a book within a book) that were both utterly convincing and respectful to the genre that I have grown to love and admire with a passion. I’m in awe of crime writers who don’t appear to struggle, who achieve such extraordinary success, who have made their mark within the broadest and most accepting of literary forms. Though I suspect, and in fact from what I know, it’s never remotely easy, whatever you are called.
*My Criminal World by Henry Sutton is published on 18 April, 2013 by Harvill Secker.