The first time anyone referred to my novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, as a crime novel was in October of 2007 at a reception for Ernest J. Gaines. I’d been invited because I studied fiction writing under Gaines during my time in graduate school at the University of Louisiana in nearby Lafayette. I knew his literary agent would be at the reception too, and I practiced my pitch for days: “My novel is about the fallout in the community after an autistic boy is smothered during a healing service in the mountains of North Carolina.”
Twenty-five words on the nose: my elevator pitch would require only one floor.
That evening, I found myself seated beside Gaines’s agent, so I took the opportunity to pitch my book. And then something curious happened. “It sounds like a crime novel,” he said. “I love crime novels.” I didn’t know how to respond; for the past couple of years I’d been working on a regional novel about families living in southern Appalachia, and here I was learning that I’d been working on an entirely different kind of project. But I’d never met an agent before, much less an agent who seemed interested in my work, so I smiled and said, “Crime novel? Of course, I love those too.”
A couple of years and several drafts later I found myself in the very fortunate position of being represented by literary agent Nat Sobel of Sobel Weber Associates, Inc. Several of my friends who are writers didn’t seem too surprised to hear the great news. “That makes sense,” they said. “He represents a lot of crime writers.”
“But my book isn’t really a crime novel,” I said. “I don’t know how to write a crime novel. My book is a regional novel about families living in southern Appalachia.”
“Okay,” my friends said. “Whatever.”
What did everyone seem to know that I didn’t?
I’d always thought of crime novels as books in which both the characters and the reader work toward discovery, toward an “Aha!” moment as the mystery unfurls. My novel is one in which the reader already knows who did what, how they did it, and why. It isn’t a complicated, well-planned whodunit. It isn’t even a whydunit or howdunit.
It’s a regional novel about families living in southern Appalachia, for crying out loud!
But then I reconsidered the genre, realizing that crime novels don’t always involve a mystery, but they always rely on some type of crime to propel the plot and/or compel the characters. The community in A Land More Kind Than Home is as placid as a still pond before someone comes along and tosses a jagged rock into it; the stories in the novel are the ripples created by that rock. My rock just happened to be a crime: the smothering of a young boy.
So, it was true; I’d written a crime novel about families living in southern Appalachia. But even that clear understanding couldn’t have prepared me for the shock I received when I learned that A Land More Kind Than Home was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association’s 2012 John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award. I went to London with my wife for the awards show with the secret fear that I’d be revealed as a phony who’d stumbled his way into writing a crime novel.
And then we won, and no one was more surprised than me. That night, there was no doubt that I’d written a crime novel. Now when people ask what my novel is about, I give them my new elevator pitch: “My crime novel is about the fallout in the community after an autistic boy is smothered during a healing service in the mountains of North Carolina.”
Twenty-six words on the nose; my elevator pitch still requires only one floor, but it makes for a much more interesting ride.
A Land More Kind Than Home is published by Transworld