Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
September 24, 1999

Getting answers from mystery writers

by Steve Sullivan
Dead men don't do interviews, but the people who write about them do. For nearly a decade, they've been doing them with Iowa State English Professor Loring Silet.

Silet has built a side-career out of interviewing some of the most popular mystery and crime writers working today. Talking Murder,a collection of 20 of the 50 or so interviews he has done since the early 1990s, will be published in October by the Ontario Review Press. It's published under Silet's full-name, Charles L.P. Silet.

Among the book's better-known mystery writers are Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, Edna Buchanan, Robert B. Parker, James Ellroy, Walter Mosley and Joyce Carol Oates. Oates and her husband, Ray Smith, own the Ontario Review Press. The idea to publish a collection of the interviews arose when Silet interviewed Oates about the mystery novels she writes under the name Rosamond Smith.

"After the interview we began talking and suddenly I felt like I'd known her for 20 years," Silet said. "She discovered that I had interviewed many mystery writers and suggested I submit a number of the interviews to Ontario Review Press and they would consider publishing them as a book."

The book includes interviews, published in part or in full, in mystery reader magazines, such as the now-defunct Armchair Detective,as well as a new Web site, Several of the interviews never have been published before.

Silet's book works as a reference on pop culture and genre fiction, as well as an oral textbook on the art of writing. It's also a ball to read, especially when comments like this one from Andrew Vachss pop up:

"I think because I write about crime and violence and child abuse and treachery and corruption and evil and filth, that I'm a mainstream novelist as far as America in 1999 is concerned."

Many of the writers in the book talk about writing for their chosen genre, and about writing in general. Elmore Leonard, for example, builds characters around a voice and name.

"In the past, crime fiction has often been ignored by the academy. It's not capital "L" literature," Silet said. "Some writers view what they do as simply creating entertainment.

"But, mystery and crime novels reflect the world we live in, especially when they are built around social issues, like the drug trade and the effects of poverty. And mystery writers certainly take their work very seriously.

"It is absolutely the most fun you can imagine," said Silet of his interviewing sideline. "You're meeting the writers whose work you've read and enjoyed and you're talking about crime fiction and you're getting paid a little bit for it. It's just terrific."

The mystery/crime genre has always been popular, but its popularity has grown and diversified, Silet said.

"Look in any bookstore. There's a whole wall of mystery and crime novels," he said. "Mysteries used to be placed in L.A. or New York, occasionally Miami or Chicago. Now mysteries are based in about every region of the country."

Silet said he asks writers brief questions and lets them talk. He strives to get beyond the "canned newspaper interview" that many writers fall victim to, especially when they are on interview-heavy book tours.

Silet's style apparently has been successful, as many writers have done multiple interviews with him. Most interviews are conducted over the phone, though Silet has caught some authors at book signings, in hotel lobbies and bars.

"I finished an interview with Sue Grafton on her way out of a hotel lobby and into her waiting car. You can hear the car door shut on the tape," Silet said.

His interviews provide some benefits to his classroom activities. Ed McBain, a prolific crime writer and Silet interview subject, wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. McBain supplied a copy of the screenplay's original draft to Silet, who teaches a film course on Hitchcock.

"McBain's ending was different than the one Hitchcock went with, which brought an extra element into the classroom discussion of the film," Silet said.

Silet's interview with Donald Westlake, who did the screenplay for a gritty flick, The Grifters,enabled Silet to bring some of Westlake's thoughts about the movie to his film noir class.

How Silet became such a mystery fan is, well, not really a mystery. The grandmother did it.

Silet spent his summers in Illinois with his grandmother, who encouraged reading. One day she presented him with the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes. He has been hooked since. He graduated from the legendary Baker Street detective to the harder-boiled paperback fiction of Mickey Spillane (also among Silet's interview subjects) and the late, revered Ross Macdonald (among Silet's "wish I could have" interview subjects.)

"I'm one of those people who relaxes at night by diving into murder and mayhem," Silet said. "I've got a mystery novel going all the time."

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