One Bite at a Time




Friday, December 8, 2017

A Conversation With Les Edgerton

I first encountered Les Edgerton at the Albany Bouchercon, where he read a brief poem at a Down & Out Books event. It was my first encounter with Down & Out, too, so that may have been the most fortuitous half hour of my life. (Certainly of my writing life.) Since then we’ve gotten to know each other and spend some time together, notably in Long Beach, where he joined me (along with Tim Hallinan and John McFetridge) in a reading.

Les is a fine man, a wonderful writer, and someone I’m proud to call a friend. When I heard he had a book coming out and realized how it’s been since we chatted, I hit him up right away. As always, he graciously agreed.

One Bite at a Time: Les, I can’t decide which is the bigger treat: having you on the blog or hearing you have a new book out. Let’s start with the book. Tell us a little about Just Like That.
Les Edgerton: Good question, Dana. The reason I wrote Just Like That was that I just got tired of watching movies and reading novels that without fail got the criminal mindset wrong. I know it’s not their fault; they just aren’t criminals themselves and like a lot of people, many novelists and filmmakers are perhaps a bit lazy. By that, I mean many don’t bother to do the work of research and therefore depend on their idea of the criminal from the books and movies they themselves have experienced. In other words, they simply keep perpetuating the same inaccuracies and myths and stereotypes over and over. And, today’s authors as a group are lazier than in any other era in literary history, in my opinion. It’s not just about criminals. Here’s an example of what I see as a universal reluctance to do much research. Just yesterday I was reading a novel from a bestselling author who had his character smelling cordite. This is the eighth novel I’ve read this year that has character smelling cordite. Jesus! Each time, I think the same thing: Moron. And, each one was from a well-known author and most were from legacy publishers with supposedly quality editing. It’s just a case of writers who seem to believe everything they read to be true or accurate and never questioning anything. Research today is infinitely easier than at any time in history with the Intergnat, and yet none of these writers could spend ten seconds Googling “cordite?” If they had, they would have learned that the manufacture of cordite ceased shortly after WWII and that it was a component of British ammo, not U.S. And, what editor worth his or her title doesn’t do the research these writers couldn’t be bothered with? The answer is the same kind of editor who is just as lazy as the writer they’re editing… We simply live in an age of lowered expectations and quality.

I’m just using cordite as a good example of how many contemporary writers are either lazy or just plain sloppy in their writing. When I began writing, it was considered a terrible thing when a writer made a factual mistake in their novels. The consensus was that once a fact was wrongly presented, the reader couldn’t believe anything else in the novel. Nowadays, that mindset of quality seems to have largely disappeared.

I’ve only been approached by a handful of writers who wanted to know the truth of the criminal mindset or the veracity of their jail or prison scenes. The first was Ray Banks and the other one who springs to mind is Anthony Neil Smith. I seem to remember another writer who bothered to ask me about the veracity of a criminal action or setting but can’t recall who it was. Probably Paul Brazill—that’s the kind of thing Paul would do.

And, that’s it. That’s kind of sad, I think, that so many writers writing crime novels never do any actual research about the characters or the milieu they’re creating. It seems to be common for most writers to research how cops work and all that, but it seems to be okay with most to base their characterizations of criminals and outlaws along the same flawed characterizations in previous flawed books and movies.

So, that’s my long-winded answer to the question you posed, as to what was “the point of the book and how I approached it.” Simply put, the average outlaw or criminal often doesn’t expend a lot of time or energy in pondering a crime, but more often than not just does it on the spur of the moment. Just like that…

Cathy Johns, then the assistant warden of The Farm (the state prison at Angola, La.) read the book and told me that it was “the truest depiction of the criminal mind she’d ever heard.” That meant more to me than any other comment about the book. It told me that I’d succeeded in what I set out to do with it.

OBAAT: You saved me from myself when you read the ARC of my next book and pointed out a mistake I made regarding handwriting analysis, for which I’m grateful. You do quite a bit of teaching. What’s the toughest thing to get through to a fledgling writer?
LE: Another easy question, Dana. Without fail, it’s the lack of knowledge of story structure. Most beginning writers seem to be at least basically proficient in things like description, characterization, dialog, and those bits and pieces of the craft, but are often clueless as to what a story consists of. They know the pieces of writing, but not the structure and how to apply those pieces properly. Think about it—you don’t get to Carnegie Hall with your name on the marquee by knowing how to play the oboe only—you get to Carnegie by creating a symphony. In writing, that symphony is a novel.

In our class, we require everyone to create a short outline for their novel, consisting of five statements and 15-20 words. None of those Roman numeral monstrosities that go on for page after page. The reason I insist on this is that past experience tells me that if they don’t have a basic plan for their book and don’t begin in the right place, we’re all going to end up wasting our time. Their “novel” is most likely going to peter out after 60-80 pages and from that point on they’re going to be desperately trying to resuscitate a corpse. The first week of class they can only send in their outline and the first five pages of their novel. Two things I’ll look for. That their outline clearly begins with the inciting incident and that their first five pages are on one thing only—the inciting incident they’ve described in their outline. If clear evidence of that isn’t there, they’ve just begun what students have termed our “Inciting incident hell.” I’ve only had one student in over ten years of these classes ever escape inc inc hell. And that was a person in our present class.

Occasionally, I’ll get a new student who seems proud that they’re a “pantser.” That seems to mean to them that they’re the captain of their destiny and that creating an outline somehow makes them less creative or something. Often, they’ll quote someone like Hemingway who also claimed to never outline. Only… he did. He didn’t call them outlines. He called them “Draft 1” and “Draft 2” and “Draft 9” but in truth, they were all outlines. Just kind of longish ones, at around a hundred thousand words…

Our outlines consist of five statements. The first describes the inciting incident. The next three describe the three major turns almost all novels go through. The fifth describes the resolution. Personally, I wouldn’t start driving to Adak, Alaska without a map, having never driven there before. With my sense of direction I’d probably end up in L.A, and…no thank you… I like flavor in food too much to want to join the ruminants in California…The outline we use is the barebones but it accomplishes several things. It gives us a roadmap for a lengthy novel. If the novel decides to take a major turn as they sometimes do, no problem. We just take ten minutes and adjust the outline and we still have a good map. It used to take me a year to two years to write a novel—with this kind of outline I can write a better one in three months. I’m not wasting time driving down back roads…

And, it works for all forms. I used the same outline to write a short story, a novel, and a screenplay all on the same story—The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping. Didn’t have to change a word of the outline and all three are very different in many ways. However, they all share the same skeleton. (Editor’s Note: This book is laugh-out-loud funny. I shit you not.)

I had a student come to us years ago with an already-completed 400-page novel. (Not uncommon). She ended up spending ten weeks in inc inc hell before I’d allow her to be passed into writing beyond that. This was when our class was twelve weeks and I was teaching it as an accredited class for Phoenix College. She had two weeks left to go in the class and was still trying to get her first five pages written. She finally nailed it in the eleventh week. She went on in subsequent classes to finish that novel and when done, I helped her land an agent and that agent helped her get a three-book contract. That 400-page book she’d come to class with was long-ago buried in her back yard where it belonged. It was one of those episodic messes that beginning writers often create. She’s currently penning her fifth and sixth novels for Midnight Ink and you may have read her. Her name is Maegan Beaumont. We have many similar stories in our class—more than two dozen of our students have ended up publishing their books and publishing legitimately—not via some vanity or self-publishing venue, but with real publishers.

So, understanding what the inciting incident is and how important it is to a novel’s success is the single toughest thing to get across to a beginning writer. And, often to a writer further along in the process.

OBAAT: I tend to roll my eyes when people talk about “important books,” or “books that had an influence on your life.” Your novel The Bitch is one of two exceptions that come to mind. (David Simon’s The Corner is the other.) In your context The Bitch refers to habitual offender statutes, better known as “three strikes and you’re out” laws. I could go into this at length but I’d rather you give everyone the point of the book and how you approached it.
LE: Another great question. I wrote The Bitch for the same reasons I wrote Just Like That. And, I’d like to include The Rapist in that group. I couldn’t find a book that accurately portrayed the criminal or outlaw realistically. The closest I found was Charles Bukowski’s short story, “The Fiend.” Just about all other writers I’ve read who write about criminals I can’t see as really knowing or understanding the criminal mind. When I was getting my MFA, one of my advisors, Diane Lefer, asked me what I thought about the writer Denis Johnson. My reply was that I thought he was a fine writer but didn’t have a clue how criminals thought or their motivations. His writing made me think this was a college guy who spent a couple of nights in the drunk tank and now thought he understood outlaws. And, sorry, but that’s how I see a lot of writers who write about crime. It’s not a crime not to understand the criminal mind, but I think it is a crime not to try to find out how we think and why we act in the ways we do. Most writers, if they’re not cops themselves, take the time to research police procedures and cops’ mores, but seldom do they bother to do the same with the criminals in their books or films.

Most seem to approach crime the way most social workers do. They try to fit statistical observations into a picture of the criminal mind. That’s why you get these cockamamie theories like “poverty creates criminals.” And, create programs to do away with poverty and then wonder why the criminal rates don’t go down that much. Or, they see abusive parents and how some of their offspring end up being outlaws and assume that’s the cause and feel if they take the kids away that’ll solve the problem. The problem with that is that it only accounts for a portion of the reason some turn to criminal activities. They don’t seem to wonder much why others from the same backgrounds of experiences turn out not to be criminals.

This seems to be the mindset of many crime fiction writers. That the criminal’s background is what led them to their lives of crime. Conveniently, they “forget” the other members of that criminals same family who turned out to be law-abiding citizens.

If social workers and novelists investigated further than most do, they might discover the real reason some turn to crime and others with the same backgrounds don’t.

Almost all criminal acts are the result of a sense of loss of control in some aspect of their lives. The armed robber is in control of his fate when he holds a gun on a store clerk. For that moment, he has reached a place where he’s in control. The rapist feels in control when he’s raping a girl. And, so on. The same experience affects similar people in diverse ways. The child who was sexually abused by his father as was his brother, might grow up to feel out of control in his life and discover the only way to regain control is by imitating what his father did to him. His brother, while experiencing the same abuse, may have found another way to regain control in his life.

The child who grew up in poverty might discover that by taking wealth from others, he at least momentarily regains control over his world. His sibling, undergoing the same experiences in childhood, might have discovered another means of gaining control over his life and not feel the same need to rob others as his brother does.

The thing is, it’s almost always a matter of a sense of control or the lack of control in a particular segment of their lives. This is why most social programs have limited success and why novelists writing criminals also experience limited success in creating characters. They’ve simply ignored or been unaware of the other factors creating individuals.

That’s what I was interested in showing in The Bitch. When it begins, Jake does what he does because he thinks he believes in the concept of loyalty. As events transpire, he eventually learns that what drives him and his actions isn’t his sense of loyalty, but of his sense of survival. Once he learns that about himself, he is then able to change. Which he does in the final scene. He willingly enters a situation—actually, he creates a situation in which he’ll be killed. He’s come to discover through his journey that there is something more important than survival and that he’s built his entire life on a false value. And, that’s what a novel should be about, in my opinion—a significant change in the protagonist’s life as a result of his struggle to resolve a problem. Jake’s not going to end up like Sam in Cheers, but as a completely changed person. Albeit… room temperature...

What was rewarding to me was the tremendous amount of emails and letters I received that all said the same thing. That they couldn’t help rooting for Jake throughout the story, even though at every single turn he was doing horrible things to others. While they didn’t condone the things he did, they understood that he was almost forced to do them and they understood why and all throughout the read they kept hoping he’d find a way to not only survive but end up as a good person. That the only thing that made him do bad things wasn’t that he was a bad person but that he was only given bad choices. That told me that I’d succeeded in creating a real character who was a true criminal but not a one-dimensional cardboard character. Jake wasn’t a Snidely Whiplash, but a real human being.


Come back next Wednesday for Part Two of my conversation with Les Edgerton.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Conversation With John McNally

John McNally is the closest thing to a writing teacher I’ve had. (No, I don’t blame him and neither should you.) We met when I was accepted into the Jenny Moore McKean workshop at George Washington University while I was working on the book that would become A Small Sacrifice, which was eventually nominated for a Shamus Award, so thank you for that, John.

John has written and edited short story collections (of which my favorite is Troublemakers), written novels (of which my favorites are The Book of Ralph and After the Workshop), and a couple of writing instruction books I think fill unique niches. The Creative Writer's Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist fills a vital need: advice less on how to write but on how to be a writer, with all the challenges that career choice places on one’s life. His more traditional how-to, Vivid and Continuous, is a book I return to every couple of years as a touchstone. Both stress practical advice; neither messes with metaphysicality. Both should be on every writer’s shelf.

John is currently Professor of English and Writer in Residence at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. His newest book, The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex: The Memoir of a Fat Kid dropped December 1 from Elephant Rock Productions.

One Bite at a Time: Let’s get right to it. You’ve written fiction, books on various aspects of writing (more on those later), and edited anthologies. What was it that got you to thinking about writing a memoir?
John McNally: In a concentrated period of time, three things happened in my life: I got divorced, my father died, and I took a new job that was 900 miles away. For the first time in almost twenty years, I decided to take a break from writing. I was burnt out writing fiction. I was burnt out doing pretty much anything, truth be told. But during that break, a friend asked me to write a short personal essay, no longer than 750 words, for a column he was editing, and I thought, okay, sure. I can do 750 words. What I realize now -- but didn't then -- was that once I start writing about myself, a small detail will unlock another memory that I had shoved aside, and the more I wrote, the more that those things I had forgotten about came back to me. And so I kept writing. My father looms over this book in ways that I hadn't anticipated, but it's because my father had always been -- and still is -- an enigma to me. I didn't cry when he died, and it bothered me that I didn't. And I still haven't. But this book is, in part, my attempt to understand our relationship better, even if I didn't realize that when I was writing it.

OBAAT: I have small autobiographical elements in my writing, but they’re things like time spent with my daughter or my parents. I can’t imagine opening a vein like you did. Was it intimidating once you realized you’d made a commitment to yourself to release it to the public?
JM: Very intimidating. But then I think, okay, so...how much longer do I have to live if this doesn't go over well? It's the same mindset as when I started getting tattoos at fifty. I'm actually a pretty private person. People will sometimes compliment me for how open I am about things on Facebook, so I guess I give the illusion of not being private, but what I reveal about myself on social media is probably one percent of my life. There are all kinds of things I don't talk about. I don't talk about my ex-wives or current relationships; I don't talk about teaching; I will talk about depression but not when I'm in the throes of it; I don't talk much about books or writing; and for as much as I bash Trump I never mentioned who I supported even if it's obvious. So, it does make me nervous to be so open in the new book. My forthcoming book on failure also has a lot of personal stuff in it, but in that book I talk about the importance of risking something of yourself when you write, and I certainly tried to do that in The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex. I had a teacher who once posed this question to the class: "What's at stake for you in this?" That's probably become the single most important piece of writing advice I've received. Not what's at stake for the character but what's at stake for you?

OBAAT: I’ve noticed that about you on Facebook, how open and entertaining you are about some things—tacos, cats, and vinyl, for example—but say little or nothing about the rest of your life. Has writing the memoir led you to feel more or less open in general? We all re-evaluate some things about our lives as we age. Are there things you now look at differently than you might have if you hadn’t written The Boy Who?
JM: I'm definitely not more open now. Maybe less open. As for looking at things differently...yes, definitely. It's difficult not to spend a few years writing about your childhood without coming to some realizations about why you are the way you are now. I've become more aware over the years that I have a compulsive personality, but writing the book illuminated for me the ways in which my compulsive behavior began at a very young age, and how the compulsiveness was often self-destructive or self-defeating. And then I saw how my father also had a compulsive streak that was also self-defeating. The patterns in my life became more obvious while writing the book. But I also become more aware -- and I'm not saying this to pat myself on the back -- of how much I had to overcome to get to where I am today. I'm sure compulsiveness explains how I overcame overwhelming odds to get to this point. So it's not all bad.

OBAAT: I think one of the things that attracts me to your writing is the similarities of background we share. You’re from outside Chicago and I’m from a semi-rural area near Pittsburgh, but we both have working class backgrounds and understand a person does what needs to be done to get by. I see that in everything you’ve written. Even the books about writing have a well-grounded, “it’s a job before it’s anything else” feel to them. Is this something you’re conscious about, or does it just come when you write?
JM: When I write fiction, my blue-collar upbringing influences nearly every story I write because employment and money (or lack thereof) are usually at the core of the story in a meaningful way. When I first began writing, however, I had moved those working class issues to the forefront of my stories, but the stories never worked. They came across as maudlin or didactic, but once I simply put an interesting character into motion in a particular situation that happens, they can't help but to be influenced by their background. As for my own process, I believe in work. My father was a roofer; my mother, who had grown up in a sharecropping family, worked in a factory. I've spent most of my life teaching, but I've been working since the first grade, hustling to make a buck doing any number of things. And so as a writer I don't sit around waiting for the muse. The muse is a myth, in my opinion. Times when I'm inspired are times when I'm working hard and I'm holding several disparate parts of a story or novel in my head at once, and then something clicks that pulls it all together; that's the result of working consistently so that my brain can begin functioning like the flawed computer that it is, not because I was visited by a muse. If you want a hole in the ground, you have to dig the hole. The hole doesn't simply appear one morning.

OBAAT: The writer who tends to come to mind when I read a lot of your stuff is Richard Russo. Same working-class sensibilities and similar dry senses of humor. You have some experience with him, don’t you? Did he influence the writer you’ve become?
JM: He was my undergraduate teacher my last semester of college. And then he was responsible for hiring me back, after I'd gotten my MFA, to replace him while he was on leave to write Nobody's Fool. I can't say he influenced my subject matter. But he influenced me as the kind of person I wanted to be. He's a good guy, a hard worker, and genuinely supportive of younger writers. He's not a prima donna. In many ways, the writers who've influenced me the most were because of their character. And I think that transfers into one's writing. When you read Rick's novels, you know you're in the hands of a generous writer. There's nothing precious or cloying in his books.

OBAAT: As I mentioned before, this isn’t your first departure from fiction. Vivid and Continuous is as good a book on craft as I’ve read, and I go back to it every couple of years for reminders. The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide occupies a unique niche, as far as I know: It’s a book on what writers need to do when they’re not actually writing. Tell us a little about why you wrote them.
JM: That's a high compliment, Dana. Thank you for that. The Creative Writer's Survival Guide came about because my editor at the University of Iowa Press asked me if I'd be interested in writing a book that answered common questions about writing. I said, sure, but I wanted it to be opinionated. I wanted a personality behind the writing. I didn't want to write something dry. And I wanted it to be autobiographical. I wanted it to be coming from a guy you might meet in a bar and not an expert. Iowa has been great to me. They let me write the books I want to write, and I can live or die by it. The second book, Vivid and Continuous, was written in a similar voice except that it's a craft book. I wanted to write about those issues of craft that I hammer home to my students but that seem to get ignored in textbooks. I'd already written some of those chapters for magazines or public lectures, so the idea of putting it together as a book was the next logical step. I have a third book coming out in the spring, tentatively titled The Promise of Failure, and it's the one I'm most excited by, and it's definitely the most person. It's a look at the role of failure in our work -- the positive role as well as the debilitating role. I teach part of the year in a low-residency MFA program, and several years ago I began giving lectures on failure, and they seemed to resonate, probably because it's a taboo subject. On Facebook, people like to post about their successes. Rarely do you see someone grappling with their failures. I have to say, in many ways these three books have been the hardest books to write. I had to keep going back to ask myself, “Would this make sense to someone with a basic knowledge on the subject? Would this be interesting to someone with a sophisticated knowledge of the subject?” There's a reason each book is shorter than the previous book!

OBAAT: A lot of writers have a concern that a writing teacher will try to impose his style and philosophy of writing on them. I have first-hand experience with you as a teacher, and you’re quite the opposite. I always felt you were making a conscious effort to develop me into the best writer my talents would allow. One thing that sticks in my mind was you noticing I had a little trouble getting into and out of scenes, so you recommended I look at how Ross Macdonald began and ended his chapters. Not that I do anything how—or as well—as Macdonald, but I was able to see some of his technique there and adapt the bits that suited my style. Long way around of asking what is it you look for in a student and how do you decide which things to focus on, and what to suggest?
JM: I try to follow the doctor's oath of "first, do no harm." I certainly have my own aesthetic likes and dislikes. I champion accuracy over cleverness, for instance. I see too much cleverness -- cheap cleverness -- so I've grown suspicious of it. I'm always cautioning writers to get out of the way of their own writing. That said, I try to take each piece of writing on its own terms. I certainly don't want to turn my students into me. These days I find myself asking larger questions, like, "Why this story? Tell me why you're drawn to this material?" Mostly I ask those questions so I can see better how to respond to the work. I work mostly with MFA and PhD students these days, so it's easier for me to respond once I've seen a book's worth of material. I look for patterns. I try to push them to risk more of themselves. How can you be in the work without being in the way of it?

OBAAT: That’s a great point: “Why this story?” You’ve already talked about the memoir as growing from a personal essay. In your fiction, what do you look for in a story before deciding to spend so much time on it?

JM: I tell my students that our stories are smarter than we are. By this, I mean that when you begin writing a story, you draw much of it from your unconscious mind, so it makes sense that we often don't understand, on a conscious level, why certain things creep into our work. I've learned to be patient with the stories I write. I'm patient because I'm hoping that my intellect -- that weak, lumbering tool -- will catch up to the savvier, sneakier subconscious. In other words, I put faith in the fact that every story I write is coming from some personal place, but in order for me to do it justice, I have to unlock the images and metaphors and cryptic things within it, which sometimes takes years. I have a batch of stories that I started six years ago. I'm only now figuring them out. I have to find myself in there, however obliquely I may appear. Once I find that, then the story's reason for being becomes more urgent to me. I don't write for personal therapy, but I think whenever you attempt art of any kind, the side-effect is that it's illuminating something about yourself or the world you live in. That said, I still honor story. The reader should feel that urgency of "Why this story?" but not necessarily see it. So, what do I look for? I look for something in a story that nags at me even while it's trying to elude me. I look for a mystery within the story that only I can see. And then I want to solve it.

Monday, November 6, 2017

On Hiatus

There are times when life doesn’t just imitate art, it takes over. This is one of those. I’m shutting down the blog for a bit while some things sort themselves out. I’ll drop in from time to time and I have some interviews queued up I’m as happy with as any I’ve ever done, but regular posts are going on hiatus for a while.


Behave yourselves. I’m coming back.

Bouchercon 2017: Extra-Curricular Activities



Bouchercon 2017 was just a conference for The Beloved Spouse™ and me the way Charlize Theron is attractive: way more than that. We like car trips and Toronto was easily drivable for us, with other attractions along the way. So here’s what else happened.

Monday October 9

Left at a reasonable hour as we had no place to be at any given time. Drove through central Pennsylvania and western New York looking at beautiful terrain with foliage not quite as spectacular as we expected (thanks, climate change) but still plenty eye-catching. Got ourselves to the Microtel in Niagara Falls late in the afternoon and needed a place to eat. The diner recommended by the hotel clerk closed early so we figured we’re only twenty miles from Buffalo, what better excuse for wings? So, from us to you, when in Buffalo and hungry, check out the Buffalo Wing Joint and Pub on Niagara Falls Boulevard. First rate and the fries with gravy were outstanding. (They offered poutine but we decided to wait for the authentic Canadian version.)

Tuesday October 10

Niagara Falls on a beautiful day. Went to Goat Island then took the stairs to Cave of the Winds where I went all the way to the edge of the Hurricane Deck. (I don’t think it was a real hurricane deck. Jim Cantore was nowhere around.) Got soaked but they let us keep the sandals, which are comfortable and will serve as nice reminders of the trip.

Lunch was at Augie’s, the diner we missed the previous night. A BLT club was very good and the perfect size. We crossed the Lewiston Bridge into Canada (more on the bridge crossings next time) and were on our way around the lake to Toronto. I adhered strictly to the speed limit and all traffic laws, having no desire to end up in a Canadian prison even though it’s been years since I saw Midnight Express. Canadians drive just as fast as Americans, but I must admit, (relatively) slow as I was going, no one tailgated me all the way to Toronto. I can’t get milk here without some Helio Castroneves or Danica Patrick wannabe trying to give me a vehicular colonoscopy.

We invested Tuesday afternoon and evening reconnoitering the immediate area and eating dinner at the Duke of Richmond pub. Excellent bacon cheeseburger.

Wednesday October 11

The Hockey Hall of Fame, baby! By far the nicest of the three I’ve been to so far. (Basketball and football the others, though I confess I was at the old basketball HOF on 1983.) Reasonably priced, even in the gift shop, and more cool stuff than a hockey fan can take in. History and a good take on the current game.

For those who are wondering, damn right I touched the Cup. It’s not like I’m going to have any official capacity with an NHL team anytime soon, so fuck the jinx. Kudos to Ryan (no last name on his badge) who knows where everyone is on the plaques of honor. Literally. Just give him your team and he’ll tell you where all your boys are, even if they just passed through. Coming here would have made the whole trip worthwhile all by itself.

Dinner in the room, leftover chicken wings from the Buffalo joint. A brief break, then Noir at the Bar at the Rivoli on Queen Street. The perfectly seedy venue was packed and Rob Brunet and Tanis Mallow put on a hell of a show. I stayed through the first two sets of readers and had a fine old time breaking balls with John Shepphird and Scott Adlerberg. Had to leave a little early, though, with a 10:00 panel on Thursday.

Thursday October 12: The Bar

We’ll cut directly to the bar. Hooked up with Kevin Burton Smith and a reader named Keith Lastnameescapes me, attending his first Bouchercon. (Sorry, Keith. It was a pleasure to meet you, though.) Peter Rozovsky was there, too, but we didn’t get together at Noir at the Bar, so fuck him. Got to talking Westerns with Gary Phillips and by the time we were done and I had time to let things settle, I had pretty much the whole plot worked out. Now it’s only a matter of finding time to write it.

Friday October 13: The Bar

Should have known trouble was brewing when I ran into The Two Erics—Campbell and Beetner—before I even got to the bar. Within five minutes Steve Lauden was there, then Mike McCrary, Gary Phillips, Lenny Kravitz Danny Gardner, and then we started drinking. The bar at Quinn’s already contained Eryk Pruitt, David Swinson, Dale Berry, Keith from Thursday, and the inimitable, irrepressible, lovely and talented Tim O’Mara. Tim got me drunk in New Orleans last year, but not as much as this time. I can’t guarantee a great time was had by all, but I had enough fun to cover several other people. (Special shout out to Alex, our waitress. I asked her what they sold that was in the Bass/Newcastle Brown range and she nailed it.)

Saturday October 14: The Bar

A quiet evening, though the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter would have been a quiet evening compared to Friday. Stopped back into Quinn’s with John McFetridge and his wife Laurie Reid, Seana Graham, Dave McKee, and fuck Peter Rozovsky. One beer and one Arnold Palmer and I was out of there, Tim O’Mara’s best efforts notwithstanding. (More kudos to Alex, who not only remembered me, but asked if I wanted “the usual” when she came to take our orders. I felt like Norm there for a second.)

Sunday October 15


One panel and the long drive home. Spectacular scenery coming down I-99 through central Pennsylvania, no traffic, beautiful and my best girl beside me. The perfect end to the perfect week. Many thinks to all who contributed. Except for that prick Chappee. More about him in the next post.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Movies Since Last Time

Ladybug Ladybug (1963) This could have been good. Started out as a twist on a 60s nuclear apocalypse story by taking the perspective of schoolteachers and the kids in a rural school where communications aren’t very good and showed the kinds of confusion that could result. That only lasted half an hour or so and things deteriorated into the standard dreary end of the world 60s flick. The highlights were seeing young versions of William Daniels, Estelle Parsons, and Nancy Marchand.

Cool Hand Luke (1967) One of those movies that gets better every time I see it. It operates on multiple levels and works on all of them. George Kennedy richly deserved his Oscar for supporting actor, and Paul Newman would have won Best Actor in most other years; he lost to Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night. Full of iconic scenes that hold together just as well in another century, there are elements here that might be even more worthy of attention today than fifty years ago.

L.A. Confidential (1997) Another movie that gets better every time I see it. I can damn near recite the whole thing now, which leaves me free to notice little things. I’ve written about it before and I’m sure I will again. Without doubt one of the five greatest crime films ever made.

The Imitation Game (2014) Yet another one of those what gets better every time. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the man who led the team that broke the German Enigma machine codes and shortened the war by as much as two years according to British MI6. The film moves between Turing’s work at Bletchley Park, his days in boarding school, and his arrest for homosexuality in 1951. It’s inspiring to watch Turing struggle to complete his machine, heartbreaking to watch him lose his only friend at school, and depressing to see how all his contributions to the war effort meant nothing in the face of his homosexuality. It’s not just a blight on British history, but a condemnation everyone needs to find a way to get past.


Friday, October 27, 2017

Bouchercon 2017: Saturday / Sunday


The Beloved Spouse™ has commented more than once over the years about how little I drink, so it seemed only right when I got back to the room a little after 1:30 Saturday morning to shake her awake and say, “You’re always saying you’ve never seen me drunk. Here’s your chance.” As might be expected, Friday’s night at the bar placed the 8:30 Saturday panels in irretrievable jeopardy.

Saturday October 14

10:00 Anthony Best Novel Nominees

Given this year’s nominees, a good time was guaranteed, especially with Hank Phillippi Ryan as moderator. No one disappointed. The highlights:

Reed Farrel Coleman plays the movie of his book in his head then describes enough for the reader to create his own.

Louise Penny didn’t think her first book would be published, so all her decisions were made to please herself. (Maybe this is why I don’t care for most best sellers: The decisions are too obviously made to please the greatest number of people, of which I am not one.)

Laura Lippman understands she’s not going to write anything “new,” but sees her job as engaging the reader who’s “read it all.” Plot is not enough. She’s always a little embarrassed when people flatter her, doesn’t feel she’s deserving. She’s always struck by the fact they gave her their time to read the book.

Laura Lippman: She can’t write a better Mystic River than Mystic River, but there are other things she can do very well.

When Hank asked all the panelists what they’re working on now, Louise Penny noted she’s busy promoting next year’s Anthony Award winner, which came out last month. (Actually I said that, not Louise. I do have to wonder if it’s time to rename the best novel award in Louise’s honor and retire her from the pool. Give someone else a chance.)

12:40 20 on the 20s: Joe Clifford (That’s right. A panel at 10 and the next at 12:40. So I ate lunch and did a little shopping. Sue me.)

There are few more fascinating people than Joe Clifford. Promoting his newest Jay Porter novel, he also let slip plans for a book of the things his seven-year-old son Holden says. Having followed Holden on Facebook since he was born (all right, technically I’m friends with Joe, but Holden’s way more fun), this book promises to be far more entertaining than Shit my Dad Says.

In discussing Jay and the inspiration for the novels, Joe uttered what might have been the best bon mot of the conference: Teen angst is what happens when you realize the things your parents taught you when they were your only source of information are untrue.

1:00 Confined Crimes: Small town settings – the advantages and limitations of using a smaller stage for crimes.

With my Penns River series set in a small town, this is always a destination panel for me. (Also a soft spot in my heart, as a small town discussion in Cleveland broke my Bouchercon panel cherry.) Lynn Cahoon made sure I wasn’t disappointed, leading a sterling cast through a wide-ranging discussion.

Small town settings appeal to Lori Roy because you can’t escape your past in a small town.

Eryk Pruitt: You’ll never get better samples of small town dialog than at the local BBQ shop.

Lori Roy: Outsiders’ eyes can change everything. Bringing an outsider as the editor of the Boston Globe was what made the Spotlight story possible.

(Note to future panelists: when you say something like, “I write character-driven fiction,” it can’t help but sound like you’re saying your peers on the panel are hacks who write cartoon characters.)

Eryk Pruitt talked about the feeling of isolation in small towns. Spoke of taking a break from work and seeing the grain elevator and water tower are the town’s perpetual skyline, and how the banal and gossipy conversations never change, except for the names. While everyone in town is close, they can feel isolated from the rest of the world and end up thinking, “Is this all there is for me?”

Karin Salvalaggio learned while researching a book that residents of Bozeman MT often left their doors unlocked. This sometimes became an issue when college students, walking home drunk, got tired and let themselves in to crash on strangers’ couches. (She’d done so well on the liars’ panel the other day I had to ask her if this story was bullshit.)

4:00 The Blue Detectives: Police procedurals

Another typical destination panel for me. The Penns River books are primarily procedurals, and I scored a procedural panel in Raleigh. Caro Ramsey kept things moving and fun with great rapport with her panel, especially Jeffrey Siger. Caro’s smart and funny, but with her Scots accent she almost needs subtitles at times.

Andrew Case: “A falling knife has no handle. Never try to catch it.” Used in real estate and stocks when people try to time the bottom of a market.

Caro Ramsey: Scottish police are unarmed except for batons and sarcasm. They’re taught to engage in a non-threatening manner. She admits it works because they’re pretty sure they’re dealing with a suspect who does not himself have a gun.

Jeffrey Siger’s pet peeve with police stories is some writers’ need to wrap up every little detail.
Andrew Case’s is when a non-cop breaks a bunch of rules to solve a case and never faces any consequences because he was successful.

Jeffrey Siger: You act differently when you carry a gun. (Not said as a good or bad thing or as a political statement. Just an explanation why he doesn’t wear one even though he’s qualified and has a permit.)

5:30 Noir is the Beat-Up Black: You are compelled like a victim to a dark alley to attend this panel, even knowing it can only end…

Noir has achieved the status of pornography in the writing world: No one can define it, but everyone knows what it is when they see it. (I’ll have more to say on that in a few weeks.) Rob Brunet’s panel did yeoman’s work describing their own definitions, begun by Rob quoting Gary Phillips: Noir is a doomed character on a doomed path.

Christopher Brookmyer: The level of violence that must appear onscreen should be tied to what you need to show about the character.

Christopher Brookmyer: Film can show what violence looks like but only books can describe what it feels like.

Saturday evening was spent on a fun dinner and drink (just one, thank you very much) with John McFetridge and his lovely wife Laurie Reid; Seana Graham, Peter Rozovsky, Dave McKee, and a gentleman whose name I apologize for not remembering. (John, if you have it, please comment.) An early panel I wanted to see the next day would be followed by lots of driving, so one drink was it for me.

Sunday, October 15

8:30 The Bodies Politic: Political mysteries and how politics can lead to murder

Political thrillers aren’t usually my cup of tea, but moderator Robin Spano and panelist Nik Korpon are friends and I hate to blow off a day of any conference (I paid for the whole thing, damn it), so I went. Good move. Robin nailed her first panel as moderator and Nik was as good as expected. Other highlights:

Tom Rosenstiel: It’s acceptable in Washington to lie to a microphone but not face-to-face to a colleague.

Tom Rosenstiel: Definition of an English spy thriller: Suddenly, nothing happened.

Tom Rosenstiel: The political center in Washington meets privately and informally because to appear publicly as anything other than pure invites a primary challenge.

Mark Greaney: Reading David McCullouch’s book on John Adams shows what we’re going through now is nothing new.

Cheryl L. Reed: Other countries—such as Ukraine—have already dealt with their fake news crises. We just have to figure ours out.


And so we were done. Next time I’ll talk a little about the peripheral entertainment that made the week such a rousing success, followed by a comparison of border agents of various countries, namely Canada and the United States.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Bouchercon 2017: Friday


With my panel behind me and a fairly relaxing evening at the bar under my belt, Friday showed great potential. It did not disappoint.

Friday October 13

10:00 Urban Noir: City Settings where, despite the light pollution, there is darkness

Susan Calder did a nice job navigating through a challenge for any moderator: a panelist who rambles and forgets there are four other people up there. The rest of the panel picked their spots well and made it an educational and entertaining hour. To wit:

Tim O’Mara: If you own you call his neighborhood Clinton; it you rent it’s Hell’s Kitchen.

Michael Harvey wondered why most psychological thrillers are set in the suburbs. Gary Dvorkin: The suburbs may have taken over noir as the cities Disney-fied themselves.

Tim O’Mara: The street people who left Times Square had to go somewhere. Many of them wound up in his neighborhood.

Tim O’Mara grew up in Long Island and knew his first black person in college. His daughter grows up amidst far more diversity and has far fewer fears.

Tim O’Mara: In New York, “Writer’s block” means 2 or 3 writers live there.

Michael Harvey: “Urban noir” is the accumulation of individuals’ small evils.

Michael Harvey: When asked what something in his book means, he says that’s up to the readers, who must filter everything through their own experience.

Michael Harvey: There’s great ambiguity in life and people are too interested in putting labels on things, especially in America. You don’t know anything until you understand you know nothing.

This provoked a general back and forth on how impulses we’ve all had are based on potentially misinterpreting situations can inform what our characters do. In a book things can happen you’d wait the extra beat for in real life.

Michael Harvey: Genre labels have gone too far. There’s only good writing and bad. That’s how books should be shelved: “Good Writing” and Shitty Writing.”

11:30 Sweet Revenge: Writers who have used revenge as a motivation for their work.

Well, damn, people. We write crime. Who hasn’t used revenge, both as a character’s motivation and as a way to get back at the jackass who took the last Cinnabon at the airport? Mike McCrary hit a good balance of darkness and wit in leading an excellent panel through more than its share of thought-provoking comments.

Stuart Neville: Revenge is a flawed concept. It never works and just feeds on itself.

Stuart Neville: Plot is the consequence of characters’ desires. Revenge is always a strong motivator and its results always have consequences.

Stuart Neville: Revenge as character motivation is almost always about self-worth. Could just be a matter of someone feeling shamed.

Michael Wiley: The best revenge may be for the person to always have to look over their shoulder. Used The Last Good Kiss as an example.

Stuart Neville: Revenge takes many forms. In Ratlines, it’s the hero telling Otto Skorczeny he knows Skorczeny is a phony.

Stuart Neville: Trading Places is a great revenge story.

Stuart Neville: The IRA now lets the highest-level informants alone because the press would be too bad.

Victoria Helen Stone: It’s easier for a betrayed spouse to project his or her anger and desire for revenge onto the other man/woman instead of onto the spouse, who is the person who actually betrayed them.

Stuart Neville: The Irish exchanged justice for peace and a lot of people were put off because acknowledged killers got away with it and ended up in good positions.

Elizabeth Heiter: A funny revenge story can work. (Especially is the person seeking revenge isn’t very good at it.)

2:00 Mysteries of Toronto: Get to know the blood-soaked streets on Toronto

Okay, so not as blood-soaked as we might have been led to believe. An all-Toronto panel spoke to a mostly Toronto audience about crime in—you guessed it—Toronto. While the panel was fun and informative, most of the comments were of a “you had to be there” nature. One that stuck out came during a discussion of media coverage, from John McFetridge: People involved in newsworthy events always remark on how incomplete the coverage was, yet people form firm opinions based on those accounts.

3:30 Government Agencies: Authors writing about military or other government agencies

Who says people associated with government agencies have no sense of humor? Lots of good insights delivered with tongues often planted firmly in cheeks. Joseph Finder set the tone by admitting he made a gun mistake in a book once.
Gwen Florio: That’s the worst mistake you can make.
Joseph Finder: Second worst. The worst is killing a dog.

J. J. Hensley: Bolt-Action Remedy is the best-selling biathlon mystery in the world. Unless one of you publishes one tonight.

Mike Maden (seconded by JJH): You don’t study counterfeit money to identify it; you study real money. That way you can testify about what’s wrong with the counterfeit, as there a million ways to do it wrong. (Original comment by Maden was intended to show why to read the best fiction in your genre.)

This was a good panel but I had to leave early to make it to
4:20 20 on the 20s: Scott Adlerberg

Scott spoke about his new book, Jack Waters. Scott is one of those guys you’re never quite sure what the next project will be like, and this one is another departure, a historical novel about a man who, quite frankly, doesn’t seem to give a fuck. If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Scott speak or read in person, rectify it. You’ll thank me.

4:40 20 on the 20s: Montreal Noir

Akashic continues its series of [Your City Here] Noir anthologies with Montreal, edited by John McFetridge and Jacques Filippi. A mix of stories, half of which written by Anglo authors and half by Francophones intended to capture the multicultural vibe of the city. McFetridge and Filippi know what they’re doing, the authors on hand knew what they were about, so it looks like another success for Akashic.

By then I was exhausted, and the serious drinking was yet to come. More on that later.