The Secret to Writing Psychological Thrillers
By Layton Green
This month I had the pleasure of interviewing one of South America’s bestselling crime novelists: Claudia Piñiero from Buenos Aires, Argentina. I spent some time living in Argentina, and was particularly keen to read Claudia’s work. Buenos Aires is a fascinating city, and one of the best parts about international crime fiction is reading how a particular locale is depicted through the eyes of a native. Especially a bestselling suspense author who delves deeply into the psyche of a city.
For the interview, I focused on BETTY BOO, Claudia’s latest novel (the English translation comes out on February 9). It’s a fascinating book about a novelist who is contracted by a newspaper editor – who happens to be the novelist’s former lover – to cover a high-profile murder investigation. Claudia has a very compelling voice, and she gets into her characters’ heads as well as anyone I’ve ever read. I was riveted to the page.
Each of Claudia’s four novels has been a bestseller in Latin America. In the United States, she’s often compared to Patricia Highsmith. Both BETTY BOO and Thursday Night Widows have been made into films, and Claudia is also a playwright, television scriptwriter, and award-winning journalist.
Thanks for agreeing to chat, Claudia. I really loved BETTY BOO. It was an intense psychological thriller that really brought me back to my time in Buenos Aires, with its carefully crafted details and atmospheric sense of place. Your characters are drawn with so much depth, far more so than in most novels of suspense, yet I couldn’t put the book down. How do you pull off that balance?
Thank you so much for reading my book, I’m really pleased that you found it interesting. What I find most absorbing and enjoyable about writing a novel is discovering who the characters are that inhabit it – their conflicts and contradictions. I see the plot as merely a tool to enable the development of those characters. Putting them in situations that force them to make decisions when faced with particular circumstances, allows us to understand who they are. So often in a thriller the plot gobbles up the players; character development can get neglected in that rush to get to the crux – to find out “whodunnit” – and other equally, or more, important elements get pushed aside.
When I was writing one of my first novels (Thursday Night Widows) I had a writing teacher who made me read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I believe that was very good advice. His point was that the demands of story-telling (fundamental to any thriller or roman noir) should not steam-roll the composition of each character and the details of the world around them. For all that there are mysteries to be revealed and truths to be uncovered, the novel can’t leave to one side the characters, their psychological make-up, their conflicts and traumas.
I started you off with a loaded question, but let’s dial it back. What got you started as a writer? How long did it take to write your first novel?
I’ve been writing fiction ever since I knew how to write. I mean, as soon as I went to school and learned my alphabet, I started writing stories. And yet I found it very hard to think of myself as ‘a writer’. There was nobody in my family connected to the world of art or literature. I imagined that in the future I would work full time and write in my time off. I never thought of writing as something that could be work in itself and I was nearly thirty before I found a way to combine the two. Before that I went to University and graduated with honors in Economics, a field in which I worked for several years. But even at that time I was writing stories and after work I would take classes in creative writing. The first novel I wrote was All Yours. And it took me two to three years to do that. In fact all the novels I’ve written have taken about that long.
Did you always know you wanted to write crime novels? How did you come to the genre?
No! I don’t even know that now! In truth, I never sat down to write a novel with that genre in mind until BETTY BOO. I didn’t say to myself, “This is going to be a crime novel,” rather the genre snuck up on me in the middle of the writing. I started telling a story and at some point in that process and as the characters evolved, a crime appeared and with it the mystery and the quest for truth. Then the novel, once it was finished, was considered by editors, booksellers and critics as a roman noir. But I never saw it that way while in the actual process of writing – I hadn’t framed it in that genre. That was the case with my first four novels. Then with my BETTY BOO I made the decision to aim for that genre from the very first line. And I told the story with genre in mind, framing it that way right from the start.
I’m always fascinated by how crime novels are perceived in other countries. Is crime fiction a popular genre in Argentina? What do you think Argentine readers look for in a crime novel?
Crime fiction is very popular in Argentina. What’s more, there are great writers who have translated the best of North American and European crime fiction. Some examples of magnificent translators would be: Borges, Cortázar, Bioy Casares. The essential crime writers for an Argentine reader are, among others, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Ham met, Muriel Spark, Simenon. But also: Petro Markaris, Andrea Camillieri, Manuel Vásquez Montalbán. There are plenty of Argentine writers who only write crime fiction, but many more who have one or more crime novels in their oeuvre, without necessarily being genre writers. I find it hard to think of an Argentine writer who hasn’t written anything that could be included in that category.
Leaving aside those considerations that apply to any reader, I think that an Argentine reader of thrillers is seeking to understand the society in which he or she lives. And I believe that the same applies to other countries in Latin America. I’ve taken part in crime festivals in Argentina where the audience seemed more interested in knowing who we thought was responsible for a particular crime that had featured in the press than in our own, fictional, works. They’re asking us to bring them closer to understanding a reality that sometimes doesn’t provide answers.
Buenos Aires is an amazing city. Like other world-class metropolises, the diversity of people and urban locales is great fodder for a writer. How does your home city inform your fiction?
The city is always present in my novels. And in many of them it is even a main character. Both Thursday Night Widows and BETTY BOO feature gated developments, a style of urban planning that had its apogee in the 1990s and has proved to be the perfect framing device for crime fiction. In Argentina these places are called ‘country clubs’ and it’s very difficult to get into them without the authorization of a member and even then only after passing through certain controls. It functions as the ‘locked-room’ of classic crime fiction: when a murder takes place somewhere like that, the murderer is in the same place. In Thursday Night Widows, that community was seen through the eyes of people living inside it. The big difference with BETTY BOO is that here the place is seen by people coming into it from outside, strangers, visitors. That’s why in that novel there is so much emphasis on the controls and barriers which each of them has to endure and comply with every time they go in and out. Other novels, like A CRACK IN THE WALL or ELENA SABE [Elena Knows – not yet translated] also feature the city as a main character, but in a more urban context. A CRACK IN THE WALL makes a tour of emblematic buildings in Buenos Aires, a tour that is crucial to the novel’s plot. I’m very interested in the way a society uses its living place, the extent to which old buildings or neighbors are respected – or not.
You’re an international bestseller. When you write, are you thinking solely about what will sell in Argentina, or do you keep the Latin American or even the global market in mind? Or do you just write the damn thing, and then a ton of readers snatch it up?
I always think that there’s someone on the other side, that what I read will be read by someone. I am aware of the reader and of writing as a means of communication. Sartre said that if that were not the case, if what one writes did not end up reassembling itself in the mind of a reader, then the writing is nothing more than black ink stains on white paper. I think that’s true. But I don’t know who the reader is, how old he or she is, where he or she lives etc. When I’m writing I never think that I have to do things in a particular way to attract a reader. I just write the damn thing, as you put it. And then if something isn’t understood in another country, I trust that good translators will help get the text across in a way that makes sense in different latitudes.
You’ve probably been asked this before, but how does your work as a journalist affect your fiction?
I actually think it’s the other way round: my fiction affects my work as a journalist. Everything I do in journalism has a literary spirit that I have to reign in so that the text works in a journalistic medium. But I’m a writer first, journalist second.
BETTY BOO is a novel about a famous crime writer, the “Dark Lady of Argentine fiction,” who is hired by a top periodical to ghost-write a column concerning an ongoing murder investigation. The famous crime writer, of course, gets involved in the investigation. Great premise! So . . . just how autobiographical is this crime writer? Do you have any wisdom about using characters based on real people?
In reality none of my characters are real, not even the writer in BETTY BOO. On the other hand, it’s true that I ‘steal’ some characteristics and tics from people I know. I don’t like to spin dark fictions from real-life cases. Very often those cases have not been solved, at least in Argentina, and a respect for the families involved stops me fantasizing about what could have happened and who the assassin or what the motive might be. But there are always details one can ‘steal’. From true crime stories and from elsewhere. For example, perhaps some quirk of one of my children’s teachers seems perfect for the murderer in my novel, perhaps the way she sharpens pencils, or her obsessive approach to correcting homework. Well then I’ll steal that characteristic. But that doesn’t mean I think the teacher could be a murderer.
When I’m thinking up a character, I find it easier to give him or her the face of someone I know, to make him walk, talk and move like someone known to me, even though the story I go on to tell may have nothing whatsoever to do with that person’s life.
BETTY BOO is written in a complex, omniscient voice that often switches narrators in the middle of a paragraph. It really heightens the psychological suspense. [Note to readers: she pulls it off seamlessly]. Do you prefer one narrative form over another?
I think every novel demands its own narrative form. Sometimes it’s as simple as telling the story in the first person. Sometimes not. There are times when it’s better to use the present tense, so that the narrator doesn’t have advance knowledge of what’s being revealed, but makes those discoveries along with the reader. But that isn’t always the case. With BETTY BOO it seemed very important to me to have different voices that were overlapping and almost simultaneous. In other words, while something is happening to one character, the other isn’t static, waiting for that other thing to finish before she can act; things are happening to her too, at precisely the same time. I wanted to tell the story as though it were a screen divided into quarters showing what is happening to different people in different places at the same time. It’s not a style I would choose for every story, but this one needed it. I choose other narrative paths for other novels.
What are you reading right now? Who are some of your favorite authors?
I’ve just finished reading ZAMA, by Antonio Di Benedetto, a great Argentine writer who died a few years ago and is unfortunately unknown outside our country. Last week I also read CARLOTA PODRIDA, a novella by the Uruguayan Gustavo Espinosa. And before that I read SOME DAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU, by Peter Cameron. I’ve just started Jonathan Franzen’s PURITY. And next week I’m taking Svetlana Alexievich’s VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL on holiday with me.
I have a lot of favorite authors and they change from time to time. But they always include David Lodge, Coetze, David Grossman, Chekov, John Cheever, Carver, Patricia Highsmith, Natalia Ginzburg, Manuel Puig and Juan José Saer.
Do you have any have regrets in your writing career?
Um, no, I don’t think so. I always try with a new novel to improve on something that I think the last one could have done better. With every one I write I know that I could have done better. But I don’t regret having done it that way; I wouldn’t rewrite or change it. I take the mistake as learning exercise for future work, always. I don’t regret it, but I always learn from it.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
That they read a lot. It’s impossible to be a good writer without being a good reader.
What you are working on?
I’m starting a new novel. I’m right at the beginning. But the seed has germinated in my mind and it’s growing there. So there we are. I know it’s going to be my new novel. All I have to do now is write it.
Final question: what’s your favorite Argentinian meal? Is it, as per the novel, “a traditional asado and a fine bottle of red?” Or, perhaps, “short ribs, pork belly, sweetbreads and Dom Perignon?”
Ha, ha. No, nothing like that. I like that sort of food but I can’t pretend it’s my favorite. My favorite food, since I was a little girl, has always been artichokes. I think it’s because you can only get them fresh here in September, so I used to wait all year round for them to appear in the greengrocers and gorge myself on them all month. Then I’d yearn for them until the season came round again. I think it was that yearning for something that isn’t always available that made artichokes my favorite food.
For more information on Claudia, go to Bitter Lemon Press.