Okay, full disclosure. I wrote those words in the acknowledgment page of Requiem in Vienna; Peter is my editor on the Viennese Mystery series.
He is also helping me inaugurate a new feature on this blog: I plan to interview editors and agents as well as writers on the use of spirit of place in fiction, thus providing input from all sides of publishing.
Peter acquires mysteries and thrillers under the Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Minotaur imprint, and also acquires nonfiction titles in science, history, biography/autobiography, narrative nonfiction, and pop-culture. Additionally, Peter serves as an editor for Lost Magazine, coordinates the annual Tony Hillerman Prize, and is an occasional contributor for Flavorwire.
Peter, welcome to Scene of the Crime.
First, how important is the spirit of place for you in the selection of your personal reading material? How about its importance in books you take on professionally?
When I moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, it seemed as if it was required to have read Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy if you wanted your trash picked up in the morning (and Robert Caro’s Power Broker if you wanted a parking permit). The New York Trilogy seemed to be the ubiquitous recommendation for newcomers. Auster’s book doesn’t have all that much to do with the city I see every day, but it seems to represent an idea that people have of what it means to live in this city. It captures a mood that they associate with life in New York. Most locales have certain books that exemplify the culture and history and reading them is a type of tourism.
Where would you rank setting in terms of other aspects of the novel, such as plot, character, point of view, etc?
Location may not be as important in publishing as it is in real estate, but it does make a difference. There isn’t a hard-and-fast rule (publishing history is a long chain of exceptions to the rule) but I do keep in mind what other books are out there and where they are set when I read submissions. If a manuscript takes place in the same small town or very specific time-period as an already established series, then this new novel had better bring something markedly different to the table.
There is one case in which location is of utmost importance to my work. I manage the annual Tony Hillerman Prize, which goes to the best first debut mystery set in the Southwest (this year’s deadline is June 1st, by the way).
Do you think there is an inherent difference in the importance of setting in thrillers and mysteries as opposed to mainstream novels?
Absolutely. I once worked on a book that had to be set in a contemporary time period but just before text messaging became popular. Texting would have completely altered the plot.
That’s just a minor example, but it shows that the time period and location affect the limitations your characters will face. The impediments may be technological or moral, but they do change the story in significant ways. Seeing how characters face and overcome these setting-specific hurdles is one of the reasons why readers enjoy historical novels, I think. Every year I look forward to reading another novel in Dewey Lambdin’s naval adventure series knowing (with some relief) that it’s the closest I am going to get to serving in the British navy of the nineteenth century.
A Corpse in the Koryo by James Church is a good contemporary example. How do you solve a crime in North Korea? I doubt I’ll ever go to North Korea myself, but it’s fascinating to read about what life is like there.
Can you talk about some authors you’ve represented or edited who you think are good examples of the use of location?
Well, since I have edited your books, Syd, I’d be remiss in not mentioning The Empty Mirror and Requiem in Vienna. You had already written both works of history and also guidebooks about Vienna, so you had a head start on most novelists when it comes to the research. These mysteries have given you a chance to portray what life was like in historic Vienna in a way that wouldn’t work in nonfiction.
Another series I’ve edited that makes excellent use of setting is written under the pseudonym Michael Gregorio. The next book in the series, Unholy Awakening is out in the States this coming fall and takes place at a time in nineteenth-century Europe when people really did believe in vampires. There was widespread vampire hysteria, but unlike today it involved less Stephanie Meyer and more disinterring and staking corpses.
There are many others, too, but the list is too long. If you’re interested you can go to my Goodreads page.
Desert Island questions: What one novel would you recommend to writers and readers to learn about the use of setting and spirit of place?
Recommend one novel? Impossible!
Lastly, what is your favorite place in the world (if you did not already answer this)? Why?
I like most places that I’ve visited and read about. But I love New York City for the same reason that people keep writing about it. It’s never fully knowable. You could read (or write) a million books about the city without capturing every part of it. The New York Trilogy is just the tip of the iceberg.
Many thanks again, Peter, for taking the time to talk with Scene of the Crime.