Darryl Wimberley has five novels with St. Martin's Press in the Barrett Raines mystery series: A Rock and a Hard Place (1999), Dead Man's Bay (2000), Strawman's Hammock (2001), Pepperfish Keys (2007) and Devil's Slew (2011). A separate, literary work, A Tinker's Damn, was published in 2000 by MacMurray and Beck; another literary novel, The King of Colored Town, was published in 2007 by The Toby Press, and was awarded the Willie Morris Prize for Southern Fiction. His script Kaleidoscope was Grand Prize Winner for Fade In: Magazine's 1998 competition. He and my husband, author and editor Ross Gresham, are former colleagues.
RG: You’ve written award-winning literary fiction, and you’ve also done a long genre series. Is it a different experience to write?
DW: If you have a dead body in your story and you are Dostoevsky, you are operating with a very different purpose in mind than if you have a dead body in your narrative and you are John Grisham or Scott Turow or Stephen King. To oversimplify-- How far would you get in a genre series if your protagonist couldn't figure out who the murderer was? And how far would your series run if your protagonist was killed in the first book?
Purpose matters, not just for the subject undertaken, but as a determining factor in every other aesthetic decision.
That does not mean that any given literary work has more merit than any given work of sci-fi, noir, fantasy, etc. It does mean that good literary fiction and good genre fiction develop narratives informed at their outset by parameters and purposes that are narratively distinct, and so ready comparisons can't be made. Both Daisy Miller and "The Turn of the Screw" are great fiction. But Henry James, self-consciously, knew that these works were not directly comparable.
Another over-simplification in this argument would be to say that works can always be neatly binned as genre or literary. That clearly is not true. I'd argue that a lot of Elmore Leonard's work deserves merit both as genre, and as literary fiction, and of course Tolkien is rightly cited in every convention of fantasy-lovers as an example of literary work.
On the other hand many novels that I read (or perhaps read badly), especially when touted as examples of post-modern purpose/construction, are for me simply tiresome. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, for me, mostly unbearable. I don't have much patience with authors who disdain basic story-telling; I suspect them of being lazy because, from my own experience, developing a coherent plot is not just hard, hard work but intellectually challenging. It can't be an accident that works enduring for readers, whether the Iliad or To Kill A Mockingbird, observe the basics of story-craft -- a narrative that makes sense, a voice that is unexpected, characters whose actions are not entirely predictable, and, I would add, a concern for a world unrelated to meta-fiction. Anyone looking for a model for genre fiction or literature might profitably sit down for a season of Breaking Bad.
RG: You’ve also worked as a screenwriter. What did that teach you?
DW: It taught me how to forge a damned good plot-line. People now often joke about Syd Field's nonfiction book. The first edition is best, titled simply The Screenplay. Most of the book is derivative. Even so, the chapter relegated to "The Plot Point" is something novelists need to read along with screenwriters. It is hard to come up with a plot that will sustain seventy thousand words.
It's not an accident that most writing schools virtually ignore the business of story-boarding. Most students in those arenas write short stories—pretty hard to write a novel in a 15 week semester. But short-narrative writing can screw up folks wanting to move on to multi-hour series, feature scripts—or novels. Understanding the narrative structure that repeats and underpins well-written films and dramatic series is part of a craft that can be learned and applied to works of prose.
RG: Setting is important to a lot of thriller series, and of all the places you’ve lived, you chose northern Florida? What’s the flavor you were after?
DW: The importance and influence of setting in any well-written fiction is hard to overstate, but setting has no necessary relationship to "reality". As I Lay Dying and "A Good Man is Hard to Find" derive much of their power from an authentic evocation of an actually-extant time and place, but The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are equally powerful narratives set in settings that are almost wholly imagined.
Setting is the lens, real or fabricated. through which the stuff of writing is refracted. All settings get filtered through the author's consciousness. A writer, whether James Lee Burke or Bill Kennedy, has to know his story's period and place inside and out to be effective. A story's setting includes details of its period as well as its place, so for example when I set my novels in northern Florida, I can't take for granted that the region familiar to me from childhood was the same place in 1925 or 1965 as it is in 2013. The "flavor" changes, necessarily, with any particular place or time. I grant myself no special provenance or expertise in my setting, but I do know enough to mine that region to create those authentic encounters essential to any fiction.
RG: You’ve been in the game a while. What’s changed in the publishing world?
DW: Technology has somewhat paradoxically created a choke-point between new writers and agents. Anyone submitting manuscripts to agents sees the "Submission Guidelines" that populate almost any literary agency's website. Most of these sites require an electronic submission which is much easier for newbies to manage than in previous years where a hard-copy of the manuscript, or some sample of the text, would accompany the obligatory SASE.
So much easier to send. But is this a good thing? I asked a New York agent recently if her agency even looked at submissions submitted over the internet and she freely admitted that they did not. In the first place, easy submissions mean that agents get many more manuscripts, most of them bad, flooding into their hard-drives. And there is another factor at play. Recreating the agent's response to my question roughly— “Our offices are small. Space comes at a premium. In the old days, when manuscripts came in shoeboxes or whatever, we'd stack 'em up around the office and eventually they'd get in the way, and we'd sit down every month or so and weed 'em out, just to get some room to move around. You'd read the first twenty pages of each submission and maybe halfway through the stack you'd find something meriting more attention. But with the computer? There's no mess. There are no boxes under your feet or stacking up the wall, so there is no incentive to actually start reading the hundred or so submissions that we get DAILY." So who gets agents now? Several contests offer a publication or meeting with an agent as incentive to submit. Those can be worthwhile. Other manqués get recommendations from writing schools whose profs often are published themselves with ongoing relationships at many agencies, or with editors. OR (new info for me) folks with manuscripts have to shell out coin to get personal sit-downs at conferences where agents pay to meet aspiring writers. Ten minutes to make your pitch.
A lot like Hollywood, come to think of it.
In the old days.