College of LAS « Illinois

First Person

Why I Write and What I Write

Stuart Kaminsky has won and been nominated for major literary awards.

Stuart Kaminsky

I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was 12 years old.
In grade school I was a terrible student and actually failed third grade. Why? Because I cut school to read and write. I also failed my second year of high school for the same reason. I snuck into the public library and read, read without guidance or shame, read with joy and awe. During one week when I was 14 I read Mickey Spillane's My Gun Is Quick and Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment. I have re-read Crime and Punishment every year since then. I learned from Dostoevski and I learned from Mickey, who is now a friend.

I still read a book a week.

When I was 14, without thought of audience, I wrote stories, plays, and poetry. I still do. A book of my poetry was published four years ago and will soon be reprinted. When I returned to high school to repeat my second year, I decided that I needed credentials and professional training to become a writer.

I sailed through the rest of high school with an A average, and sailed through my undergraduate work in journalism at U of I (and earned a varsity letter in soccer). I trotted through my MA in English literature, also at U of I, and after serving in the army where I continued to write, was a straight A student earning my PhD in communications from Northwestern University.

In the process, I acquired a liberal arts education that changed my life and gave me a lifelong interest in history, politics, and religion.

And through all this, through two years in the army, jobs writing photo captions for United Press International, news stories for suburban Chicago papers, articles on everything from welding to electron microscopes, I wrote, eventually making a living at writing fiction.


I've won and been nominated for major literary awards including the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Novel, and the Prix D'Roman D'Aventure of France for Best Novel. Two years ago, I was presented with the American Culture Association's Governing Board Award for my work as a teacher and scholar for "bridging the gap between critical scholarship and mass market writing."

When I was 12, I wanted to Wright St.ories that impressed others. By the time I was 14, I had developed a basic philosophy of writing in which I still believe.

My basic philosophy:

  • I do not worry about creating "art" or writing for posterity. I do not write for critics or scholars any more than did Shakespeare, Mark Twain, or F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  • I am most content writing genre fiction. So was Dostoevski. I write what I would like to read if I were not a writer.
  • I think that those who seek to write the great American novel are always doomed to failure. One writes a great novel by writing what one believes in with skill and passion. If I have something to say about life, I will say it in the course of telling my story with skill and enthusiasm. Many critics have seen large themes in my work. I'm confident they are there, but not because I consciously put them there. The novels so often praised by critics and scholars in each generation as "great" are usually forgotten within that same generation.
  • I can do more good for the causes I believe in by donating my time and money to them than by consciously trying to draw people to my causes through my writing. If in the context of the broad expanses of a genre piece, I get readers to reconsider their positions, that is all to the good, but it is not my goal. Entertaining, entrancing, and holding a reader for the duration of time it takes them to read or see my story is reward enough.

I am most comfortable writing within the genre generally labeled "mystery" or "thriller." "Genre" is not a dirty word; it is an acknowledgement of the shared history of varying mythic forms. I've written two textbooks on genre, both of which have been continuously in print for more than 30 years.

I learned about the history of aesthetics from Murray Krieger when I was a graduate student in the English Department. I learned that the search for aesthetic absolutes is akin to alchemy. No one has ever come up with proven rules of "art" or "what makes a novel great."

Possibly one of the great American movies is The Searchers, made by John Ford. When introduced at an Academy Award presentation, he simply said: "I'm John Ford. I make Westerns."

I am Stuart Kaminsky. I write mysteries.

By Stuart Kaminsky, July 2004