Most of the time, we choose favourite authors based on their work. If we like the author’s work and it’s of high quality, we read it and want more. If we don’t and it’s not, we don’t read it. So in that sense, we don’t need to know much about authors to decide what we think of their work. But the fact is that authors put themselves into their work. They tap their own experiences when they write, and their ways of looking at the world come through in their stories. That’s just how writing is. So it can give a really interesting perspective on a novel if we know something about the author who wrote it.
Many authors, for instance, had other careers before they started writing. Some have even kept those careers. They tap their professional knowledge as they write, and it comes through in their novels. For example, Scott Turow has a very interesting professional background. He has pursued a dual career you might say in literary writing as well as the law and in fact, he’s still a practicing attorney. We see his legal background in novels such as Presumed innocent, Burden of Proof and more recently Innocent. Those novels feature attorneys and other legal professionals in fictional Kindle County. In the cases Turow explores, we see his knowledge of and interest in preparing and trying cases, getting and using evidence and so on. They are what most people think of as legal mysteries/thrillers. And yet we also see Turow’s literary background. It’s a fascinating example actually of the way an author’s personal life can come through in her or his work.
Gail Bowen’s work reflects her background as well. She’s a former university professor (she taught English) whose academic experience shows through in her Joanne Kilbourn series. Kilbourn is a political scientist and university professor. As the series has gone on, she’s also gotten a position on NationTV on a political talk show. In novels such as Deadly Appearances and A Killing Spring, we get a real sense of how Saskatchewan universities work. We get a solid and authentic look ‘behind the scenes’ at what it’s like to work with students, negotiate university politics and so on. That aspect of these novels is all the more realistic because they’re informed by Bowen’s background.
Katherine Howell has also had a really interesting professional background. She was a paramedic in New South Wales for fifteen years and that experience gives her Ella Marconi series a great deal of authenticity. Marconi is a member of the New South Wales Police and in her cases, she often crosses paths with paramedics who, for instance, are first responders at murder scenes. And in novels such as Violent Exposure, Silent Fear and Web of Deceit, we follow multiple plot threads so that the paramedics are co-protagonists as you might say. Their storylines, the realities of their jobs and so on have a real ring of truth because of Howell’s experience. But Howell is not just a former paramedic. She’s also studied literature, especially the use of suspense. And anyone who’s read and enjoyed her Ella Marconi novels can tell you that she makes very effective use of her knowledge of suspense, too.
And then there’s Michael Connelly. He decided early on in his adulthood to be a writer and in fact, studied journalism too. He worked as a crime reporter for a few years before introducing us all to his LAPD cop Harry Bosch in The Black Echo. Connelly fans will know that his Jack McEvoy is a crime reporter, and his outlook, experiences and challenges have a sense of authenticity about them. No doubt that’s a case of Connelly’s tapping his own experiences. Connelly’s interest in crime writing is said to have started when he fell in love with the work of writers such as Raymond Chandler, and you can see that influence as you read the Harry Bosch series.
Elly Griffiths started her professional life in the publishing field before turning to fiction writing. So where does the archaeology background of her Ruth Galloway novels come from, you might wonder. Griffiths is married to an archaeologist. We see that professional knowledge come through quite clearly in this series. Galloway is a forensic archaeologist with the University of North Norfolk, and is called in when the police need her specialised knowledge to solve cases. And it’s said that Griffiths’ aunt lives on the Norfolk coast. The sense of place is very strong in this series, so it’s easy to see that influence.
Agatha Christie fans will know that she, too, was married to an archaeologist, and that several of her stories show that influence. Murder in Mesopotamia, Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) and The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb are just a few examples. And then there’s Christie’s own experience as a hospital dispenser and nurse, which is also clear in her work. Did you know that poison is the most frequently-used method of murder in her novels? Not a surprise if you think about her background.
So as you can see, It can help us to understand an author’s work if we know a little about that person’s background. But did you notice that I didn’t say a lot about these authors’ personal lives? It’s easy enough to link authors’ experiences and professional backgrounds with their writing, but how much should an author reveal about her or his private life? It’s not at all an easy question to answer actually. On the one hand, in today’s world, authors have more opportunities than ever to connect with readers, and a lot of readers want to know about the people who write the books they love. So to be candid about it, it makes sense for authors to share something about themselves with readers. On the other, there’s an argument that we are all entitled to a private life. There’s also the fact that author presence can only take you so far. Without really well-written books, an author won’t win and keep fans. Besides, how much do readers really want to know about an author? So for an author, it makes sense to focus one one’s writing, not on one’s ‘personal presence.’ In the end, like so much else about writing, it’s a balance.
What do you think? Do you like to know something about authors whose work you read? If you’re an author, how do you balance marketing yourself as a person with keeping your focus on high-quality writing?
On Another Note…
Speaking of talented writers… my sincere thanks to Nottingham-based writer Rebecca Bradley for giving Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… this lovely blog award. I’m honoured.
This award doesn’t come with any requests that I go on about my childhood or my deepest fears or anything. It does, however, ask that I pass the award along. So here’s what I will do. Let me ask you to take a look at my blog roll. Yes, that one on my sidebar. Choose a few writer blogs you haven’t visited lately, or haven’t visited at all before. Go ‘head. Show ‘em some love. Tell ‘em Margot sent you. We writers can use all the support we can get. Trust me.
Oh, and start with Rebecca’s excellent writing blog. You won’t regret it.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Bobs’ Through the Wall.