Long gestation and the crime novel by Matt Rees

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Crime novelists generally write a novel a year. It’s what publishers want. Some big writers—and I mean, 25 million books sold—have told me their publishers and agents complain that if they don’t produce a book a year their readers will forget them.

In the case of such writers, some of those 25 million may have degenerative diseases and others may be plain stupid, but in all likelihood about 24 million of them will remember a writer whose book they read, let’s say, two years ago.

Nonetheless the expectation remains that a book a year will be forthcoming. So do all crime writers have one good idea a year? Or do ideas take longer to gestate? And if they do, where does that leave the writer who needs to get words on paper right now.

In the case of my latest novel MOZART’S LAST ARIA (out now in the UK, but not until November in the US), it was eight years between the initial idea and publication. A most un-crime-fiction-like timescale.

It began with a trip I took with my wife into the Salzkammergut, to find peace among the mountains and lakes at a time when we were living through the Palestinian intifada in Jerusalem. There we stumbled across the remote house where Mozart’s sister Nannerl had lived and a fascination with her was born.

It was nurtured through future visits to Vienna, to Prague (where Mozart’s operas are still performed in the Estates Theater, scene of his “Don Giovanni” premier), dinners with Maestro Zubin Mehta at which we discussed our mutual admiration for the great composer (though it shan’t surprise you to learn that his understanding of the music is on a somewhat, ahem, more elevated level than mine…)

All this was before I began to scribble notes and plot diagrams and to read every letter Mozart wrote and to walk Vienna searching out the places where I wanted to set scenes and to listen, listen, listen to all his music. Oh, and to learn to play the piano so I could play Mozart, but the less said about that the better, because sooner or later someone’s going to want to hear me play and I oughtn’t to inflict that on anyone.

Meanwhile, I wrote four of my crime novels set in present-day Palestine (and Brooklyn’s Little Palestine.) They came quicker. Perhaps because after the first book, THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM, I had a set of characters to whom I could return. The events I described were often based on stories I had covered as a journalist, so there were readymade anchors for the plot—things which had actually happened, which I had heard described or even seen for myself.

The most important element, though, of putting yourself in a position to write a book a year is a matter of managing your head. I’ve come to believe that remaining creatively open, focusing on relaxation and not overstimulation, allows the brain to unleash itself. If our fingers could keep up, we could type a dozen novels a year—if only we’d set our brains free.

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