Why stick to a single genre, when you can write in many--sometimes all at once?
When I write (or read, or drive, or do just about anything else) I listen to music. More often than not, the music I choose to listen to is music that fuses two (or more) distinct styles and influences together—the rock/jazz fusions of Steely Dan and Joe Jackson, maybe, or the work of Gram Parsons, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and those who followed, blending an uneven mix of rock, country, and folk.
What does this have to do with writing? Maybe it’s just the way my brain is wired, but I like to do the same thing in my fiction. My recent novel MISSING WHITE GIRL, which came out from Penguin/Jove in the summer of 2007, was a supernatural thriller, combining elements of horror with police procedural and thriller elements strong enough to bump it onto the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association’s bestseller list for a time. The follow-up to that, RIVER RUNS RED, due in October 2008 from the same house, includes elements of spy fiction instead of police procedure.
My career spans thirty-some novels and dozens of comic books, and looking back across sit is like examining the inner mental wallet of someone suffering from multiple personality disorder. I’m a Western writer, a fantasist, a hard science fiction writer, a young adult writer, an espionage writer, a writer of superhero adventure, and most often a horror writer. Sometimes all in the same book—okay, maybe not. But in the same year? Definitely.
My long-running comic book series DESPERADOES (a decade old last year) has always been a Western/horror hybrid. It’s been nominated for the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award and the International Horror Guild Award; last year’s miniseries, Buffalo Dreams, also was accolades from True West Magazine as the Best Western Comic Book of 2007. That’s some diverse acclaim.
Some of my novels are tie-ins to TV shows and comic books. I’ve written more Angel novels than any other writer, based on Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off. When the Angel series began, it was pointedly a noir detective series featuring a vampire protagonist. That’s how I played out the novels, too—hard-boiled mystery stories with bloodsuckers and stakes and other supernatural elements.
Currently I’m writing a novel based on the Marvel Comics character Spider-Man. Superhero adventure, right? Except I’m doing it as part horror story, part spy tale, part superhero.
It’s possible that I’d be a household name by now—in some households, anyway—if I had picked one genre early on and stuck to it. But I can’t. I can’t even read that way—if I tried to be one of those people who read only mysteries, or only horror, or only romance, I’d go stark raving bonkers after two or three books. I need to mix it up, and it’s easier and more satisfying to me to read authors who feel the same way. I have nothing against straight genre works, but they have to be exceptionally well written to hold my interest (thereby, I suppose, mixing the literary novel with whatever other genre is in play). Stephen King’s recent works, blending literary with horror to astonishing effect, are good examples, as are the thrillers of T. Jefferson Parker.
Blending genres is nothing new, of course. Look at the history of the romance field. They’re all romantic, but there are historical romances, Western romances, paranormal romances, romantic suspense, science fiction romances, etc. What might be new is the increasing popular acceptance of genre blending in other fields. Even TV’s getting in the act (which often means it’s time for we book-writin’ types to start looking in new directions): how many new cop shows on the air don’t have some sort of supernatural element to them?
As just a few examples of what I’m talking about, let’s stroll through the bookshelves. John Connolly started out writing straight thrillers, but soon began working supernatural elements in to the point that the horror is now as prominent as the crime. James Lee Burke is another writer who has introduced supernatural elements into what was a straight mystery/crime series. Richard K. Morgan writes kind of neo-noir science fiction. Most of the urban fantasy writers fuse together crime, magic and monsters to one degree or another.
To me, mixing up the genres is fun, playing with literary conventions in an informed and interesting way. It’s not always possible (or desirable) to follow every rule of all the genres I’m working in, but that doesn’t mean I allow myself to cheat—no crime, for instance, is solved by a detective’s mind-reading ability. To the contrary, the supernatural elements in a thriller should make it harder for the forces of law and order to prevail. By the same token, the presence of cops in a book doesn’t mean that they’ll forestall the appearance of something terrifyingly evil.
If you’re like me, easily bored by a steady diet of a single genre, try blending two or three next time out and see if it renews your excitement about what you’re writing. Most blends have been done to some extent, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t new territory to explore. Maybe you’ll be the first to combine cozy mystery with slasher horror—Miss Marple meets Saw—or you’ll come up with a hard science fiction premise set in the early days of colonial Jamestown. The possibilities are literally endless, because they’re only restrained by your imagination.
But leave that sword & sorcery Western in the drawer, because that blend is mine!