Friday, December 29, 2017

Minette Walters

Minette Walters, Toronto, April 1997

A FORMER JOURNALIST I KNOW ONCE EMBARRASSED HIMSELF by making it clear during an interview with an author that he hadn't read her books. I can understand the author's anger, but only up to a point. Journalists are magpie generalists by necessity (and underpaid publicists most of the time, at least within the limits of the entertainment section,) and while the best of them can fake their way through almost any situation, their main job is to fill column inches with copy, and sometimes a writer - or director, or actor - has to acknowledge that ten minutes worth of chat with a stranger and their recording device or notepad isn't where authoritative discussions or great insights happen.

Photographers, on the other hand, aren't really expected to know much about their subjects before a shoot - not even what they look like. I don't know why we get to benefit from such low expectations, but that's the simple truth. This is a long way of saying that I'd never read anything by British mystery author Minette Walters when I photographed her for the Globe & Mail in the lobby of an unremembered Toronto hotel twenty years ago.

Minette Walters, Toronto, April 1997

The Globe was a client I desperately wanted to please. It was then (and still is today) the paper of the Canadian establishment (though that means an awful lot less today than it did then.) When I got my first freelance writing assignment from them, a not-unsophisticated friend asked whether I'd be buying a house, now that I'd obviously "made it." The truth was that, as a writer and photographer, I spent years trying to get regular work from the Globe, but almost inevitably found myself back at square one after I handed in each assignment.

This is probably why I gave whoever assigned me this job so many options, from the rather stark and unusual portrait of Walters with an antique chair, to the ill-lit shot of her peering around a wall (very "mystery writer," I thought at the time) to the Penn-esque portrait at the top. It also might have been because I didn't know Walters' work, so I delivered shots that might have suited an article about a writer of psychological thrillers, or a formalist playing with the genre, or the playful author of bestselling whodunnits.

Minette Walters, Toronto, April 1997

I've made a rule for myself while scanning pictures for this blog that I need to read at least one book by any writer I've photographed if I haven't done so already, so twenty years after I took these photos I can tell you that the photo at the top is probably the most suitable to its subject. Walters' novels are only notionally mystery novels, and while they definitely fit the loose description of British mystery stories as "awful things happening in terrible weather," they're less about story than character, and are suitably full of damaged people and villains whose motivation comes from personal trauma and not supernatural evil.

After a very successful career writing crime fiction, Walters retired from the genre ten years after I took these photos and, after a further decade-long hiatus, returned this year with the first of what she says will be a series of historical novels set in Dorset during the Black Death. I'm grateful that I took my photos of her during her mystery writing heyday, since I don't know how I'd shoot the author of medieval fiction.

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