“You Are What You Read” (by Jonathan Santlofer)

A bestselling crime novelist and winner of the Nero Wolfe Award, Jonathan Santlofer only turned to writing fiction after he’d become well known as a painter. He has been the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts painting grants and his work is part of the collections of a number of museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Tokyo’s Institute of Contemporary Art.  He talks today about what led him to start writing crime fiction, and eventually to co-found Crime Fiction Academy.—Janet Hutchings

More and more the short story has become an important part of my writing life.

The other day I was thinking about the old Alfred Hitchcock TV show, one in particular where the housewife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb then serves it to the police who come to investigate, and another about a restaurant where human flesh was the specialty of the house, and The Twilight Zone and Mr. & Mrs. North and Dragnet and Hawaiian Eye and Surfside Six and The Mod Squad, all of them running together in my brain, commingling with the detective and mystery stories I read as a boy, the Hardy Boys my favorite series, along with horror comics like Tales From the Crypt, and Classic Comics like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which I had no idea came from an actual book until a wise teacher pointed it out and suggested I might also like Edgar Allan Poe, and that was it, I was hooked.

Poe taught me to love short stories: The Fall of the House of Usher, which I must have read under the covers a dozen times and again recently and liked it just as much with a deeper understanding of familial love gone very wrong—or the terror/torture of The Pit and the Pendulum—and possibly the first detective story I ever read, The Murders in the Rue Morgue —and the opium-drenched ghost story, Ligeia—and, of course, the unparalleled crime and guilt story, The Tell-Tale Heart, which I still have my writing students read for its structure and pitch-perfect voice.

I don’t remember exactly when I started reading stories by Chandler, Hammett and Woolrich, the latter perhaps the least elegant prose writer of the three but his particular brand of darkness appealed to my teenage brain and still does. Even as a kid I loved noir stories where things do not work out for the best or twist and turn in such a way that the bad guys and gals get what’s coming to them—the lurid has always held me in thrall.

The thing is, I never planned to be a writer. I started as an artist and continue to paint, but a twist of fate—a gallery fire that obliterated six years of my artwork—knocked me for a loop and the next thing I knew I was writing, then having published, a crime-fiction novel, The Death Artist, successful enough to get me a contract to write more and I just kept going. Perhaps all those mysteries I’d read as a kid were just waiting for something to come along and give me the needed kick in the pants to write my own.

It took me a while to write a short story—something about the form scared me—but as soon as I did I realized it was the place a writer honed his or her craft (like drawing is to painting for visual artists), an arena in which to stretch, try new voices and POVs you haven’t tried before or don’t think you can sustain in a longer form. I (almost) always have fun writing a story, something I can’t say about a novel.

I can write a short story in a few sittings, particularly when I get an “assignment”: say, Nelson DeMille asking me to contribute to the MWA anthology The Rich and the Dead, or Joyce Carol Oates requesting a story set in the Garden State for Akashic’s New Jersey Noir, which is both flattering and intimidating because you don’t want to disappoint them.

There are times I write a story, put it aside, then come back to it months, even years later and realize what needs to be done, which is exactly what happened with a story called “The Muse,” which will be in the September/October issue of Ellery Queen, a story inspired by a tabloid headline that haunted me for well over a year before I started to write it.

A few years ago I put together an anthology, The Dark End of the Street, with my good friend, the crime-fiction writer, S.J. Rozan, in which we brought together crime-fiction and literary authors all writing crime stories. Editing anthologies can be one of the more gratifying experiences a writer can have—asking all sorts of wonderful writers to create a short story just for you!

Last year, I was asked to put together a collection of original noir stories to accompany the debut of Rockstar’s gorgeous narrative video game LA Noire. I invited a stellar group—Megan Abbott, Lawrence Block, Francine Prose, Joe Lansdale, Joyce Carol Oates, Duane Swierczynski, Andrew Vachss—to write stories set in 1947 Los Angeles (and Hard Case Crime’s Charles Ardai provided an introduction, and yes, I wrote a story too) all of us under the pressure of an eight-week deadline, but everyone came through with thrilling stories, which you can still download from Amazon for only 99 cents, a very good deal no matter how you look at it.

Ideas about writing crime fiction are often discussed at mystery writers’ conferences and conventions, and though some have seminars in the craft there is no place that deals with the subject in an ongoing way, which is how the Crime Fiction Academy came into being. It had been percolating in the back of my brain for some time but it took Noreen Tomassi, the daring and forward-thinking director of the Center for Fiction, to press me into becoming the Program Director and to actually create it. Noreen and I met over a period of months, putting our collective heads together as to what such a program should be, who it would be aimed at, and eventually we figured out what we wanted—a program devoted exclusively to crime fiction in all its glorious forms where people could finish the novel they had been trying and unable to finish, a place for unpublished writers who would become what we hoped would be the next generation of great published crime writers. Last month concluded our inaugural session—a twelve-week program that included a weekly three-hour writing workshop, a monthly historical reading seminar, a once-a-month “Master Class” with writers like Elmore Leonard, Lee Child, Joyce Carol Oates, and Harlan Coben, and evening events with leading editors and agents in the field—and it was a rousing success.

In twelve weeks I saw students learn how to self-edit and revise their novels, write brand-new heart-stopping, heart-breaking short stories, sit side-by-side with Lee Child, Elmore Leonard, and Joyce Carol Oates and talk about craft and career, and chat with editors and agents about the best way to get published (one of our students has already had a story published that was written in CFA and there are more to come).

The students came from all over, young and old and bright and determined. Many of them told me it was the most incredible writing experience they’ve ever had and it was incredible for me too. We’re starting up again in September with Dennis Lehane, Lawrence Block, Susan Isaacs, and more, and I can’t wait.

So, other than the fact that Crime Fiction Academy is sort of my baby, why am I telling you this? Because at the end of the season my CFA students surprised me with a gift, a first-edition copy of a rare Cornell Woolrich novel, and I swear I never told them that I loved Woolrich or how much his stories had meant to me or helped form the basis of my general love for crime fiction, but somehow they intuited it.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how it all comes around? I think of all those novels and stories I read as a boy—the Hardy Boys, Agatha Christie, the incomparable Edgar Allan Poe, then Hammett and Chandler and Woolrich, and I wonder who I might have been or what I might have done if I hadn’t read them. But then, I did, and they are part of me, so perhaps I never had a choice.

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3 Responses to “You Are What You Read” (by Jonathan Santlofer)

  1. Keene says:

    A great piece! So interesting to read how Santlofer has used his creativity over the years in so many ways–as an artist, a writer, an editor and anthologist, and as a founder of the Crime Fiction Academy. And were we all reading and watching exactly the same things as kids? Those two Alfred HItchcock episodes are burned into my consciousness, too.

  2. Jonathan Santlofer says:

    Thanks for your reply, Keene. I LOVED those episodes, others as well. Since I wrote that I keep thinking about other ones, other shows, like the Twilight Zone episode where the woman is having plastic surgery (bandaged throughout) and you never see anyone’s face till they unwrap her face and everyone shrieks and you see the doctors and nurses and everyone else are the monsters, not her. Very corny but hit something in my kid consciousness that lingered.
    Re: Creativity. It took me a long to figure out that *creative energy is creative energy* and can be applied in many varied situations. Actually, it took a fire, which I don’t recommend but it made me brave.

  3. Jon L. Breen says:

    Quick footnote: those Hitchcock teleplays were based on short stories, both of which appeared in EQMM, Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter” and Stanley Ellin’s “The Specialty of the House.”

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