Literary fiction is a bit of a Rorschach test for readers, often associated—fairly or not—with ideas and stylistic brio over structure and plot. This season, a few authors whose books typically sit on the literary shelves are dipping into psychological suspense.
For Lydia Millet, it’s not too big of a leap. “I think the best fiction is a form of psychological suspense, even though I don’t really write in that idiom,” she says. Since the mid-1990s, Millet, a 2012 Guggenheim fellow, has released 10 books—literary fiction, political satire, science fiction, and YA—and has landed in finalist spots for the Pulitzer Prize and the Arthur C. Clark Award.
In May, Norton will publish Millet’s Sweet Lamb of God, about a young mother fleeing her increasingly sinister husband. The thriller plot line serves as a frame for Millet’s thoughts about issues of privacy, freedom, and oppression.
“[Millet has] always been a person with deep philosophical things in her novels—extinction, the fate of humanity, the destruction of the earth,” says Tom Mayer, v-p and senior editor at Norton, who has worked on four books with the author. “And she’s also had a great talent for satire about modern society and the foolishness of our fellow human beings.”
With Sweet Lamb, Millet says, she found it liberating to start with an established genre. She describes the book’s clear-cut villain as a “malicious character,” one she had to detail sharply enough to keep him from becoming too stock.
“It’s fun to play with something that has a pre-existing form,” Millet said. “It gives you a certain freedom to have a through-line, but to also go off the rails.”
Similarly, Melissa Ginsburg, whose background is in lyric poetry, wanted to experiment with the structure of genre novels to explore the psyche of a woman in grief. Ecco will release her debut novel, Sunset City, in April.
“[The examination of grief is] the most important part of the book,” she says. “If I were going to write a crime novel, I knew it would need a kind of mourning. I’m interested in death not as a plot device but as a thing that matters in people’s lives.”
Ginsburg likens the structure of Sunset City to that of a sonnet: “You know what it’s going to look like, and you can do a lot within it to experiment.”
Genre writing can also offer an author an escape from earlier work. Consider Ron Rash, who has written six collections of short stories and six novels, mostly set in the Carolinas. He was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner in 2008 for the collection Chemistry and Other Stories and in 2009 for his novel Serena.
With his seventh novel, The Risen (Ecco, Sept.)—which details how a girl’s disappearance complicates the relationship between two estranged brothers—Rash wanted to do something a little bit different from his earlier work. “My last novel was so language-intense that I wanted to do something more character driven,” said. “I’ve always loved Dostoyevski, and I’ve had a really disturbing dream where I killed somebody years ago, and it’s come back up.”
As with Dostoyevski’s work, the central crime Rash envisions in The Risen is a vehicle to explore issues of guilt, personal failure, and the very primal conflict between two brothers. “That goes back to Cain and Abel,” Rash said. “That’s an archetypal struggle.”
Even if an author is interested in ideas first and plot second, a psychological suspense novel still needs a resolution. But finding the right balance between plot and theme isn’t always easy.
“That’s where craft comes in,” Rash said. “I couldn’t have written [The Risen] 35 or 40 years ago. Being able to write and keep that balance, that just comes from experience as a writer and in the world.”