Schechter started off the first half of the double-feature. Most recognized for his true crime novels, the American literature professor at Queens College, City University of New York, has also published essays, has edited a true crime anthology and co-wrote an episode of Law and Order.
At his Q&A session the self-proclaimed “19th century Americanist” talked about the place of historical crime novels in literature and the research and writing processes that go into each of his true crime projects.
While crime novels can be seen as a “pop-genre” of fiction or as “sub-literary,” Schechter said the experiences in his novels are important socially and culturally, and many of the crimes he chooses to write about were media hogs in their hey-day.
“I’m interested in not just gruesome crimes…but crimes that have resonated somehow with the public,” he said.
Schechter stumbled upon the literary niche while writing a book about special effects in movies. He discovered two of his favorite movies, Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, were based on a 1957 murderer, Ed Gein, who would later be the character of his first book, Deviant.
The author of Psycho, Robert Bloch, inspired the work of his second and third book as well.
While Schechter enjoys fan mail from prison inmates who sometimes want their own stories told, the former Mystery Writers of America member said the world of historical mysteries is stretching itself thin.
“People are starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel looking for historical characters to use as detectives,” he said, his own being Edgar Allen Poe, however he has also included Louisa May Alcott, P.T. Barnum, Davey Crockett and Kit Carson in his books.
In what Schechter calls “The Age of The Da Vinci Code,” he has watched his true crime novels’ chapters get shorter and his sentences begin to tone down in complexity.
“Short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters, that’s my motto,” he said jokingly of the shift.
When describing his writing process and the craft, he said one of the most important things is to resist temptation to “interpelate,” or indulge in “novelistic embroidery.” He said a true crime writer must project him or herself into the characters’ minds in order to understand them and portray the most accurate dialogue and reactions possible. Details such as what a story’s characters would be eating or how they would express themselves is an example of the disciplined freedom of writing about historical crimes. Given that, Schechter said research for his projects is ongoing, however, the average time it takes for him to complete a book is about a year.
Schechter’s advice to aspiring crime novelists, other than to understand the widespread appeal of Dan Brown, is to rely on primary documents. Schechter hires a genealogical researcher to find family members of victims and perpetrators, reads 1,000-page transcripts, haunts city archives and uses Google books (books.google.com), his most recent resource for finding “obscure details."
With a plethora of information at his fingertips, Schechter paraphrased Elmore Leonard, “The rule for writers should be ‘leave out what the readers aren’t going to be interested in.’”
Not doing so can lead to an editor requesting an 80-page intro be condensed to four, which for a writer who crafts a story paragraph-by-paragraph, like Schechter, is a painful process.
“I fell so in love with the character of Rolland’s father [from Deranged], the general, who is really such a paradigm of Victorian decency of man,” he explained about the 80-to-four warning. The original 80 pages did actually make it to the general’s great-grandson.
“I take professional pride in creating works that I feel are built to last,” he added.
Schechter said part of writing “strong, clear prose” like his is being aware of how movies are put together and edited, in order to master suspense. He said of television writing, it is similar to working with an Elizabethan sonnet in that it’s clearly structured.
With many other parallels to poetry, an obvious amount of enthusiasm for his work and research, and his love of finding a good story within a gruesome crime, Schechter comes across as anything but a writer of the “sub-literary.”
“One of the many platitudes that I live by is the ‘squeaky wheel,’ nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Hahn, a poet and professor in the English department and MFA program at Queens College, City University of New York, rounded off the second half of the craft talks.
The Q&A session with Hahn took the audience acoustically into an analysis of personal presence in her pieces, the meaning behind tanka and zuihitsu poems, the influence Japanese literature and the The New York Times has on her, and the structure of her poetry compilations.
Hahn began her session with a zuihitsu “Things That Make Me Cry Instantly,” from her book The Narrow Road to the Interior.
Just like a fungus is neither flora nor fauna, Hahn said, a zuihitsu is neither poem nor prose. It takes on multiple “forms,” such as a list, diary entry, “pristine” essay, or prose with poetry embedded within.
Hahn’s experimentation with the tanka, one-line poems that weave in and out of The Narrow Road to the Interior, began sometime after the release of The Artist’s Daughter in 2002. She said it was a challenge to herself during a “tumultuous time.”
Moderator Kathleen Winter pointed out there is no clear distinction between the writer and the speaker in Hahn’s poems. Hahn said her poems should read like a diary. However, she explained that many things in her current book that appear factual, such as e-mails, are actually made up or are extensions of conversation that detail what could have happened. Hahn said there’s a distinction to be made between American diaries, which record fact, and a Japanese diary, which allows for a more elaborate perception of experiences.
“I have a problems with making things up,” she said with a laugh.
There are two written truths that I use when I teach, Hahn explained, one with a capital “T,” which means an emotional truth and one with a lowercase “t” to indicate fact.
“I’m always revising things to hopefully suit the poem and experience of reading the poem.”
Hahn said she tried to put a lot of work in her upcoming book, Toxic Flora, in third person to try to dilute autobiographical undertones that led to family disputes in the past, however, she called her personal presence a “birth right.”
“I was born into the idea that I should express myself,” Hahn said.
Hahn said her struggles with defining what a home is and her search for closeness with her deceased mother are strong points she finds that come up in her writing.
Toxic Flora, expected in May, is greatly inspired by the science section of The New York Times, Hahn said. The new book features dislocated sections of a zuihitsu about sexual cannibalism throughout its other pieces.
“The language of science to me is incredibly exotic…and extraordinarily delicious,” she said, adding that she has antique books about insects that she frequently indulges in.
“It’s important to be a citizen, and if you are a true citizen then you’re aware of what’s going on in the world and you’ll write about toxic substances in the aquifer…it’s what you’re hearing and what you’re talking about and what you’re passionate about,” Hahn said.
Kimiko Hahn and Harold Schechter are part of the 2009-10 Distinguished Visiting Writers Series. Click here for more information.