by Inger Ash Wolfe
Published by Corgi Books
512 pages, 2008
One of the joys of reviewing books is discovering something that comes just a little left-of-field. That describes exactly Inger Ash Wolfe’s “debut” crime-fiction novel, The Calling.
I managed to get a review copy prior to the The Calling’s debut in the United Kingdom this month. I agreed with Richards wholeheartedly. The Calling is a novel of immense power and literary ambition. I then bumped into Sarah Turner, a senior and seasoned publisher at UK’s Transworld Publishers recently at the CWA Ellis Peters Awards. Turner advised me that Transworld had issued The Calling in a very limited hardcover print run predominately for the library sector, but it was the paperback that they were very excited about. Turner was not surprised at my enthusiasm in discovering such a fresh wound on the serial killer theme, because she knew my fascination with the works of Thomas Harris. I do find thematic similarities between The Calling and Harris’ work, this partly due the use of language and the empathy and the insight into the minds of damaged people. In fact, the UK cover uses a familiar Thomas Harris motif, the moth/butterfly. The other area of commonality is the reclusive nature of both Thomas Harris and Inger Ash Wolfe. Both are reticent in talking to their audience other than through their writing. So it came as a huge surprise when Sarah Turner indicated that she could arrange for me to interview Wolfe. I understood it would have to be done through e-mail as Wolfe wanted to protect her identity. Even so, I couldn’t refuse this opportunity in part because I had so enjoyed the book and in part due the mystery that surrounds Inger Ash Wolfe. And the truth of the matter was this: after I had turned the final page in The Calling, my mind was filled with questions and here I had been offered the opportunity to get some answers from this enigmatic author.
So remembering the exchange between Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, I decided upon a little game of quid-pro-quo myself -- but from the safety of my computer screen.
If you’re not convinced by my enthusiasm for Inger Ash Wolfe’s “debut novel,” then let me leave the last word to Richards:
Ali Karim: Ms. Wolfe, let’s get the pressing questions out of the way before we talk about your debut crime thriller. What made you choose to publish The Calling under a pen name?
Inger Ash Wolfe: There are a couple of reasons, the most important of which is that I wanted these novels to be read in their own context and to succeed or fail on their own terms. I can’t do that under my own name. Also, the genre discussion -- what does it mean to write genre, who is a genre writer, what does it mean to write more than one kind of fiction -- is a heated one, and I didn’t set out to write these books in order to take a side. I don’t want to be co-opted into a debate I can’t contribute to (or be directly accused of holding positions I don’t hold) so the pseudonym is a way of abstaining. I am writing these books because they’re fun to write, end of story.
And how did you come up with Inger Ash Wolfe? It is quite creepy itself and I noticed you reported the confusion relating to the Danish novelist Inger Wolfe in an e-mail at Sarah Weinman’s site earlier this year.
The name is based on the name of a relation [of mine]. I added the Ash to distinguish myself from the Danish writer.
Why do you think people are so fascinated by wanting to discover who you really are? And does it annoy you, when the real issue is the merit of The Calling?
I knew people would speculate on my identity, but some of it has been nasty, and yes, that has surprised me. I’m not annoyed by the speculation, although it troubles me sometimes when reviewers don’t separate out the use of a pseudonym from the content of the book, and those who don’t approve, for whatever reason, of the use of a pseudonym have uniformly written negative reviews of the book.
As the crime fiction genre, like many others, attracts collectors, is there any way to get a signed copy?
Absolutely! In fact, I’m posting some signed copies especially for readers of Shots in a competition.
I guess you could use the Long Pen and wear a disguise if you wanted to do a signing?
Uh, no. I look terrible in wigs.
Anyway, we’ve digressed somewhat. I have been very impressed by The Calling, as it is a dark book, but has heart, real heart. Please tell us a little about the genesis of the book.
It was an idea I had a long time ago and didn’t know how to treat. It was clearly not going to be like what I’d written before, but for a long time, I thought it might be a film script. Then I hit on the idea of it being a series of novels and it took off from there.
Do you read crime fiction? And are you aware of the conventions of the genre, as in The Calling you tended to avoid them?
I do know the conventions, as a wide reader of crime fiction, as well as an avid consumer of crime movies and television. I’m not sure I avoided the conventions as much as I tried to allow the book to be as organic as possible and to be aware of when I might be tripping unconsciously into cliché. Conventions are as much a part of genre writing as they are of literary writing: no one is free of them. You stay aware, you adapt, and you try to stay true to your vision.
So from the crime fiction genre what authors have interested you and why?
There are a lot of writers who I love, many of whom are British, including Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, and Patricia Highsmith. I also love the hard-boiled stuff, Chandler, Gardner, Leonard and the like. I follow the work of Giles Blunt, Kate Atkinson, Peter Robinson, Henning Mankell, Jess Walter. I’ve enjoyed the two books by Stieg Larsson that have appeared in English.
I think it’s a sign that writers who may not have allowed themselves access to other parts of their imagination are seeing that there are opportunities for creative growth there. And they are acknowledging that the distinction between “literary” and “genre” fiction may be mostly illusory.
Why is crime fiction going through a new Golden Age currently; being one of the few areas of publishing still expanding?
Sorry, I don’t know. Possibly in a world more and more inclined to evil, people are turning to crime fiction to help them process their fears.
Thematically I found similarities between The Calling and the works of Thomas Harris, as you delve into the psyche of a serial killer and why he is hunting down the terminally ill. Would you care to comment, and are you familiar with Harris’ work?
I’ve read Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, both of which are great books (there’s a scene in Red Dragon, when the villain reappears and we see his yellow eyes glowing, that made me drop the book in terror). I’m not sure Hannibal Lecter and Simon Mallick have much in common, though. Lecter is a true psychopath: he has no empathy, feels no remorse, he is “morally empty” as a psychologist would put it. Mallick believes in goodness and thinks he’s acting on its behalf. He is driven by grief. He’s not a psychopath as much as he’s had a psychotic break. A slender difference, but one all the same.
Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef is an interesting character. Is she pure creation, or do her roots lie somewhere in your psyche or experience?
Without sounding ageist, were you concerned in having a detective in her sixties such as Micallef, in case a series sprung from The Calling?
Nope. I can write ten more books before Hazel turns 75...
You include an interesting array of supporting characters, some of whom take the novel into different directions during the narrative. Can you tell us your thoughts on the importance of vibrant secondary characters?
It’s essential. In fact, I think the characters are more important than the plot. I don’t get into purely plot-driven crime novels and I imagine readers who like these Port Dundas mysteries will be of the same ilk. Just because it’s so-called “genre” doesn’t mean it can’t live and breathe. I like the challenge inherent in writing a gripping genre novel with real characters in it.
The details on the killings are rather visceral, bleak and tragic, with genuine pathos not only for the victim, but also for the killer. Can you share your take on the serial killer motif in fiction?
I admit I haven’t read that much serial killer fiction; some of what I’ve read uses the motif of the serial killer to unleash as much chaos as possible; I hope I haven’t done that in The Calling. Apart from that, I’m not sure what the attraction is except for the body count. It can be an easy “out” for the crime writer, but when it’s done well, it’s very gripping. Most of us can imagine stealing something, hitting someone, telling a lie, and some of us can even imagine killing someone. But killing many people, mostly for pleasure, is beyond the ken of the average person, and perhaps that’s why the serial killer is an attractive character for some writers: it’s his difference that attracts.
The Calling is not a mystery novel, but a novel of suspense, though it does have some sinister twists. Did you enjoy the writing process or did you find it challenging?
I loved the writing process. The Calling (and the next one, which I’ve just completed) wasn’t easy to write, but it was one of the most pleasurable writing experiences I’ve ever had.
The US reviews have been positive, apart from all the distracting speculation on who you are, so can you tell us how you ended with Transworld Publishers for UK release?
The Calling was sold to Transworld before the book came out anywhere -- they were in at the ground floor, as were the other two English-language publishers. And I went with Transworld because they were passionate about the series and I believe they’re going to be behind the books all the way. I’m very excited to be working with them.
I understand you have sold rights to many territories, so on the eve of UK publication can you tell us a little about how the book is doing in these territories?
The book has only just appeared in Italy, but will also be coming out in Germany, France, Japan, Holland, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia (so far!) I haven’t heard much about the Italian launch, I’m afraid …
I see you have a Facebook page, and the Internet is filled with bloggers and readers reviewing The Calling. In today’s world of economic woes, how difficult is to become an established novelist compared to when you started out?
Oh, it’s pretty hard no matter when you start out. There are always new technologies threatening the primacy of the book and literacy rates have been falling since Gutenberg. The goal is to write as well as possible, find a publisher who believes in you, try as hard as you can to find your audience, and finally, recognize that once a book is out, there’s not much you can do beyond promoting it and you just have to get to work on the next thing.
My assumption is that Inger Ash Wolfe is here to stay in the crime fiction world; am I right? And will you continue your literary novels?
Yes and yes.
And finally, what books have passed your reading table recently that have impressed you, and why?
I’m reading Richard Holmes two-part biography of Coleridge, which is remarkable; I’m finally reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote after having it stare at me from its shelf for a long time; I’m reading Lisa See’s first crime novel, The Flower Net, which is excellent, as well as Chelsea Cain’s Heartsick, which is scary as hell. Also, Jim Harrison’s The English Major -- delicious and sad. Next up on the pile, the endless pile, is finishing Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creak, Eamon Dillon’s The Fraudsters, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and a book about poison. | December 2008
Ali Karim is an industrial chemist, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to his being a regular contributor to January Magazine and The Rap Sheet, he’s also the assistant editor of Shots, and writes and reviews for Deadly Pleasures, Crime Spree and Mystery Readers International magazines. In a rare pocket of spare time, Karim recently launched a personal blog.