A dual U.S. and Canadian author, Zandra Renwick has had stories and poems published under several variations on her name (see also Alexandra Renwick, Alex C. Renwick, and Camille Alexa). She has over fifty short stories and thirty poems in print. Her latest story, “Killer Biznez,” appears in EQMM’s current issue, September/October 2020, and another recent story, “The Dead Man’s Dog,” was nominated in the best-short-story category for the 2020 Arthur Ellis Awards, Canada’s equivalent of the U.S.’s Edgar Allan Poe Awards. Zandra’s fiction has been translated, podcasted, performed on stage, and developed for television. With her work having proved adaptable to so many formats, you might not expect there to be a single answer to the question potential readers often ask writers: What are your stories about? But as you’ll see, the author sees a common thread running through it all, and it’s one that is shared by much of suspense fiction.—Janet Hutchings
Short-fiction writers, of all genres, for any number of reasons, surely must universally dread the question: What are your stories about?
The smart thing to do (a path one sadly rarely chooses, amiright?) would be to not overthink the business and toss off a quick, “I tend to write crime fiction” (or “historical” or “westerns”—or even “historical crime westerns with hot time-traveling feminist werewolves”*). But such limited answers feel so ungenuine, so inadequate, so lacking the scope of what you write, right? What about themes of found family? Outsiderism? Misdirected love or hate? The ache of loss and grief? The fear and empathy and heroism, theatricism or stoicism, or whatever ragged emotion you channel to write the bloody stuff (crime pun!) in the first place? Try rambling down that path and just watch the stiffening politeness of your well-meaning interrogator’s glazing-over gaze as they increasingly regret having asked you the question at all.
I feel lucky to have had a good writer friend early in my authorial trajectory (hugs to all good writer friends everywhere) who, over too-expensive cocktails in a charmingly Portlandian hipster bar (an old repurposed bordello, lush with broken parasols and flocked wallpaper and dim red lanterns) asked, on the eve of the release of my short-fiction collection (the product of my first year’s-worth of crazy unclassifiable stories): What are your stories about? And I without hesitation spoke the answer that welled up unbidden: I write about the moment when expectations change.
If it hadn’t rung so true I probably would’ve forgotten it by now, alongside all the other barstool fiddlefaddle (or coffee-shop philosophizing, depending on your poison) one spouts in a lifetime of barstools (and baristas). Instead, I felt electrified. And I never forgot it. It eventually came to frame how I think not only of my own stories, but all stories.
Like many reading this, I’m a great fan of short fiction. I wasn’t always, but these years of writing (it’s hard! and exhilarating! and, frankly, wondrous!) have brought me deep appreciation for the immediacy, power, and intimacy of the shorter form. Unlike novels, where the story has hundreds of pages to unfold, short fiction needs to deliver this change of expectation in a matter of vastly fewer words. It has to hone in. It has to punch. What’s often thrilling about suspense and crime fiction is the sheer rapidity with which these expectations are forced to change. You (via the narrative) stumble over a dead body, hear a gunshot, see a neighbor bury something gory in his garden, get caught in bed with the wrong person or wake to find a scalpel pressed to your jugular . . . and you change your mind about what your options are, fast.
This whiplash effect might be a reason short stories and novellas can make such thrilling translations to screen. In the mystery, suspense, and crime arenas a few come readily to mind: Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds” and Cornell Woolrich’s “It Had to Be Murder,” adapted for screen into Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic masterpieces The Birds and Rear Window; Stephen King’s “Apt Pupil” and “The Body”; “The Third Man” by Graham Greene (who said, in the introduction of Viking’s The Portable Graham Greene,“To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. . .”); Ian Fleming’s collection For Your Eyes Only and the Perry Mason shorts by Erle Stanley Gardner; “Beware of the Dog” by Roald Dahl, which hit the big screen in 1965 as 36 Hours and littler ones in 1989 as the TV movie Breaking Point. Many more shorts-to-screen titles are easy find with a bit of digging, some I’ve seen, others I haven’t: Gun Crazy (1950); Blowup (1966); Bad Day at Black Rock (1955); Fallen Idol (1948); Crime Wave (1954); Double Indemnity (1944); Crack-Up (1946) Smooth Talk (1985). And where would modern mystery be without Sherlock Holmes and the powerful short-fiction delivery of his famous creator? My own household is presently engaged in a delightful pandemic lockdown binge of all 118 episodes of The Saint (Leslie Charteris’s alter-eponymous character of novel and short story after whom, my father informs me, my brother was named).
I’m thrilled to think of my own fiction in the process of making this page to screen leap; a short story of mine is currently in development for television—an endeavor like so many others affected by the rapidity with which the world is undergoing change at the moment, and the rapidity with which our expectations are changing in what we demand of it, what we hope for it. Now, here, writing from the Canadian side of the international border that separates my two homes, the creative meeting for which I last year flew to L.A. (the city of my birth) feels as if it took place in a previous century, a previous life. But a surprising thing has been happening lately: I’ve been making peace with letting go of previous expectations.
This doesn’t mean give up! It doesn’t mean buckle under or despair. But it does mean, at least for this writer, taking each thing as it comes right now without yearning too much for the way things were, or worrying too much over the unknowable way things will be. It’s advice I might give my characters, if they could ask me how to live through whatever about-face or adversity I’d sent their direction. And then, if they survived, I’d tell them to forgive themselves and each other afterward for any mistakes they may have made along the way.
*No story like this in the works. Sorry.