Thursday, June 11, 2009

Death Becomes Her (from the National Post)

by Mark Medley

Traditional thinking has it that if you want your novel to sell well, one of the last things you should do is encourage the murder --even fictional--of a literary critic. But celebrating the demise of book reviewers is exactly how Stratford, Ont., novelist Terry Griggs has promoted her new novel, Thought You Were Dead. Thus far, the Revenge Lit contest Griggs and her publisher Biblioasis have cooked up -- submit a short story imagining the death of a critic--has received dozens of entries -- including some from notable authors -- and garnered buzz across the book world. But what does it say about the authors lining up for the chance to plot a critic's grisly fate?

"We've all, I suppose, experienced our humiliations in the writing world," Griggs says. "Perhaps bad reviews, or what we feel are unjust reviews. It's a very common experience for writers." She laughs: "I noticed that [in] some of the entries, there's a lot of feeling."

The murder of a "freelance reviewer" kicks off Thought You Were Dead, Griggs' seventh book in a career that has spanned more than 20 years, from short stories to comic novels to children's lit.

"I don't like being classified as this kind of writer or that kind of writer," she says during an recent interview at a downtown Toronto coffee shop. "I like moving in between the genres. And besides, this book itself is a bit of a hybrid."

Indeed, Thought You Were Dead blurs the line between genres; the plot apes well-known tropes of hard-boiled detective paperbacks, at the same time packing in enough absurdist humour to render the book a send-up of the genre. There are even illustrations by Nick Craine, lending the book a slight graphic novel vibe. Still, the writing is literary enough to remind you that Griggs was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for her first book, Quickening, way back in 1990 ("It sort of trails behind me like those cans behind a car at a wedding," she says). And the initial idea for the book was even more bizarre: some kind of fictionalized writer's manual concerning genealogy.

Her own literary genealogy is long and varied. Griggs, 57, has published with small presses (Porcupine's Quill), big presses (Random House) and presses that no longer have a fiction program (Raincoast). In 2002, she won the now-discontinued Marian Engel Award, awarded to a female writer in mid-career for a distinguished body of work.

It took six years of writing -- off and on -- to complete her most recent work. Trouble arose when her editor, Patrick Crean, at Thomas Allen & Son wanted changes made to the manuscript that Griggs wasn't willing to make. She withdrew the novel.

"Something just didn't jive," she says. "I couldn't see any problem with it. So I just sat on it for a while. I thought, 'Hmm, maybe I'm missing something here.' ...It was puzzling."

Dan Wells, publisher of Biblioasis, knew Griggs was working on a novel. He asked to read it, then jumped at the chance to publish it. In hindsight, it was a good business move: The book, in stores for a hardly month, has already gone back for a second printing.

"People talk about writers as word-drunk: Terry's work leaves me feeling physically tipsy and giddy," Wells gushes. "I love everything about her writing: the headlong energy of it, the verbal sparring, the humour, the zaniness of her plotting, the biting social farce and criticism. She's a great artist, but she's also a hell of a lot of fun -- an undervalued concept in literary circles these days: We seem to prefer our literature flavoured with castor oil."

And to think Griggs has achieved this success with a quasi-mystery is even more surprising after she admits she'd never even read a mystery before starting to write Thought You Were Dead. She eventually fell in love with the genre through authors such as Ian Rankin, P. D. James and Martha Grimes, but agrees the mystery novel, like other genres of fiction, gets no respect.

"I think it's unfortunate, especially in Canada, that genre writing is stigmatized -- it's thought of as a lesser form," she says. "I certainly don't look down on any other genre. I'm quite happy to read anything that's well-written. That's what I'm looking for.

"But of course," she adds, "the reward for those books is that they sell really well."

As a full-time writer, Griggs ekes out a living through her craft, though she jokes it doesn't really allow her to make a "decent" living.

"I'm happy to be publishing, and I haven't made any compromises. I write my idiosyncratic books and I get great response from readers. That's very gratifying. It's hard to say. I have lots of things planned and on the go, but who knows? Maybe I'll get a real job."

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