First of all, tell us who are you and what you do:
I’m M.E. Proctor – M for Martine. I was born in Brussels and now live in Texas, in a rural county north of Houston. My husband is also a writer. He’s my first reader, toughest critic and big supporter. We tell stories to each other. For a long time, writing was that thing you did when the job let you. I managed to publish a four-book science fiction series that way – The Savage Crown. It’s dystopian and full of political mischief. Now that I have more time, my writing is more focused. I’m working on a contemporary detective series, and in between drafts or when I need a change of scenery, I write short stories. They hop between genres: crime, SF, quiet horror, and pieces that don’t fit in any box. It’s pretty much whatever the characters feel like doing.
What have you read recently that you think the rest of us should read and why?
I read like some people raid the all-you-can-eat buffet. I recently discovered Wiley Cash’s “A Land More Kind than Home”. It’s beautiful. I have his last one in my to-be-read list. I was immediately seduced by the voice and the strength of the writing. In non-fiction, I inhaled “Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann. Pick it up and you’ll see why Scorsese is making a movie from it. I’m also on a Tana French streak. The way she writes bowls me over. And I recommend James Kestrel’s “Five Decembers”. Get ready to forget sleep for a while.
Can you talk about how you went about writing “Instant Eternity,” your story at Pulp Modern Flash?
The image of a girl standing with a gun in her hand, sunlight coming through the blinds, popped into my head. Ideas for stories often start like that, with a visual, or a single line of text. I wondered: what if she doesn’t know what she’s done or why, how would that work? Memory interests me. I wrote a horror story once about a woman who can’t forget anything. Her memory becomes that monstrous thing that needs constant feeding. Jo, in “Instant Eternity”, is the exact opposite. She doesn’t remember anything. She lives entirely in the moment, to the extreme, minute by minute. Whatever happens is immediately erased, it never was. It is terrifying, but not for Jo. Matt, the sheriff, who sees his job as some version of Groundhog Day, going after bad guys over and over, shake and repeat, is enthralled. He feels he’s been given a glimpse into eternity. It is a strange story, sweet and sad. There’s a dreamlike quality to it.
If you were asked to determine a moral compass in crime fiction, how would you describe it? Do you think it’s changed over time? How and why?
Somebody must have written a thesis on this, with thousands of stories analyzed line by line. Maybe they’ve come up with a good answer. This is where my compass points: Never lose sight of the humanity of the characters (humanity being defined broadly. I wrote a piece on a lovestruck chunk of computer code) and don’t wallow in graphic violence. Other writers have other principles. A friend of mine won’t write anything that involves the abuse of children. An there’s that rule: Whatever you do, don’t kill the dog, or the cat, or the pet bunny. I don’t know. What if it’s Cujo? The principle that crime must lead to punishment has been beaten into the ground a long time ago. Robin Hood didn’t hang for robbery, Arsène Lupin didn’t lose his head on the guillotine, and where is Hannibal Lecter vacationing these days? Writers, and readers, have always been more interested in crime than retribution. The entire detective genre is predicated on the police being ineffective, and so is every vigilante or revenge yarn. When cops are in front they’re troubled and flawed (Wambaugh, Mankell), corrupt (Ellroy), or downright psychopathic (John D. MacDonald has a couple of sheriffs you don’t want to cross paths with).
I don’t think the compass has shifted. The fundamentals haven’t changed. It is still good (on whichever side of the law that might be) versus evil (ditto), with variations in grayness Chandler would recognize. The way stories are told, the characters featured in them have evolved because society has evolved. Crime fiction is very good at keeping in sync or a few steps ahead of life in real time. Nobody writes about gender and race like some of the guys (mostly guys!) did in the heyday of classic noir.
We often see reviews these days in which the reviewer critiques a piece of writing through the lens of the reviewer’s personal experiences and view(s) of the world. Do you think this is a good direction for literary criticism to go? Why or why not?
I doubt reviewers have ever been able to leave their opinions, pet peeves and crushes on the shelf when critiquing a book. We read and write with a ton of baggage threatening to topple over in the back of our heads. It is natural. What is annoying today is the systematic filtering through political and societal grids. The checkmark approach. How does this book stack against women’s rights, diversity, social justice, the environment: Score 1 to 5. I like to read reviews. I want to know if the person enjoyed it, read into the middle of night because they couldn’t put it aside, or threw it out of the window in frustration. I want a gut feeling, not an academic paper with footnotes and a bibliography. That comes later, after I’ve read the book.
Law enforcement has been under tremendous scrutiny for the last decade, leading some crime fiction writers to suggest police officers and detectives should no longer be protagonists in crime fiction. What’s your opinion of this stance?
I picture a stern-looking, frowning individual wagging a finger at me saying: You should not! I remember walking on a boardwalk somewhere and reading a list of “don’ts”: no dogs on the beach, no towels left on chairs, no alcoholic beverages, smoking, music, horseplay… I elbowed my husband and said: let’s horseplay!
Telling writers what they should or should not write is silly. They’ll do whatever they want anyway. They might not find a publisher, but that’s a different issue. If a writer decides to have a cop as a protagonist, fine, do it, knock yourself out. In the current climate, it’s likely to be interesting and we can all talk about it.
What can we expect from you in the near future?
More short stories, of course, and I’m toying with a project for a collection. I have the theme, the title and enough material to make it work. I’m pitching it right now.
The big news is that I signed a contract for my Declan Shaw PI series. The first book will come out in January 2023 from TouchPoint Press. I’m excited about working with the team over there. By year-end, I’ll be fit to be tied!
M.E. Proctor is a European transplant. Born in Brussels, she now lives in Livingston, Texas, with her husband, James Lee Proctor, also a writer. Navigating between cultures, she’s an observer of differences. As a former freelance journalist, she’s more interested in the answers than the questions. Something she shares with Declan Shaw, her PI protagonist. She’s the author of the dystopian SF series “The Savage Crown”. Her short stories have been published in Bristol Noir, Mystery Tribune, Beat to a Pulp, The Bookends Review, Pulp Modern, and Shotgun Honey among others.