By Jonathan Santlofer
Crime Fiction Academy started as an idea, a musing about the fact that there was no place to study crime fiction seriously. Noreen Tomassi, director of Manhattan’s Center for Fiction, posed the question: Why isn’t there a place for people to learn the history of the genre, a place where people can finish a crime novel, a place that is on-going and dedicated to crime fiction in all of its variations? My answer: Because it is not taken seriously in our current cultural milieu, despite the fact that some of the best “literary” novels of all time are indeed crime novels, Lolita, Crime and Punishment, An American Tragedy, to name just a few.
Noreen said, “So why don’t we put it together?” and that’s just what we did.
We knew we wanted a program that was serious and in-depth, a program for unpublished writers, the go-to place for anyone who wanted to write about crime, a place that ten years from now would be famous for having spawned a new generation of crime fiction writers, and we are already seeing that happen.
The program is composed of a weekly 3-hour writing workshop where a small group of students work with a published crime writer to edit their manuscripts and stories, deconstruct crime stories and novels, and critique one another, all in a safe, supportive environment. It’s where students learn the writing dos-and-don’ts, how to pace, how to cut, how to make one’s characters come alive on the page and how to make those pages turn. The workshops are intense and tough but with some of the most inspiring camaraderie between students I have ever witnessed in my writing and teaching life.
The writing workshop is complimented by a once-a-month seminar where students read and discuss the classics, writers like Chandler and Hammett, to understand how the genre has evolved and to learn from its originators. Last season it was led by Megan Abbott. This session by Duane Swierczynski.
For many, the highlight of the program is our once-a-month (sometimes twice-a-month) “Master Classes,” where the biggest names in crime fiction come to speak about the craft. We inaugurated CFA with Elmore Leonard, then Lee Child, Harlan Coban, Laura Lippman, and Joyce Carol Oates. This season the master teachers will be Lawrence Block, Val McDermid, Dennis Lehane and Susan Isaacs. Each of these amazing writers gives a public talk followed by a private seminar with CFA students and this is where they really let their hair down.
It’s where Lee Child talked about how and why he invented the name “Lee Child” and chose the name “Reacher” for his character—and why he has no control over Tom Cruise playing his famous character and wishes readers would stop yelling at him about it! It’s where Joyce Carol Oates talked about her startling family history, her amazing work ethic and why she believes almost all novels are about crime in some way. It’s where Harlan Coben told us how he needs to be hungry when he writes (and he meant that literally, as in starving!). It’s where Laura Lippman not only showed us one of the cut-paper scrolls she makes to help her when she gets stuck, but pointed out where her baby had spit up on it! It’s where Elmore Leonard expounded upon his rules for writing but told us to ignore half of them.
It’s in these salon-like meetings that CFA students get to be up close and personal with bestselling crime fiction icons and ask those burning questions one does not want ask in front of a group. It’s where CFA students get to sit and chat with writers like Dennis Lehane and Lawrence Block as if at a friend’s dinner party — as if they have all known one another for years.
Everything takes place at the Center For Fiction’s beautiful building in midtown Manhattan. CFA students also receive free admission to all Center For Fiction lectures, talks and events (and there are many), access to the center’s Raven Award-winning crime fiction library and 24-hour access to the center’s Writer’s Studio, so that all of our students have a quiet place to write.
Of course we wanted CFA to be deeply involved with the art and craft of the genre but to be equally businesslike and professional. And to that end, we bring in professionals in the field — from publicity and marketing people to panels of editors and intimate gatherings with literary agents, who specialize in crime fiction.
We have already gotten one of our students published and others signed with agents, and we are planning a partnership with a publisher so that we can produce an annual CFA anthology and get all of our students published.
Recently we received a grant from Amazon, which we immediately put back into the program in the form of tuition scholarships so that we could get attract talented students who can’t afford our fee.
For us, it’s just the beginning, but the dream is happening. And maybe, just maybe, in a few years more people will think of crime fiction not as a guilty pleasure but as the great literature it is. And when someone picks up the next great crime fiction novel, we can proudly say, yes, that writer came through The Crime Fiction Academy.
If you want to know more check out our website. Have a look at the video featuring Laura Lippman, Elmore Leonard, Lee Child, Joyce Carol Oates and a few of our students as well. See for yourself what Crime Fiction Academy is all about and how to apply.
Jonathan Santlofer is the author of 5 bestselling novels, including The Death Artist and Anatomy of Fear, the editor contributor of the crime anthology The Dark End of the Street, and editor/contributor of La Noire: The Collected Stories. He is currently editing a serial novel for Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, an anthology for Akashic Books and finishing a new novel. He is the director of Crime Fiction Academy.