One Bite at a Time




Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Conversation With Les Edgerton, Part Two

Welcome back for Part Two of my conversation with Les Edgerton.

OBAAT: I’m not a fan of a lot of neo-noir, where I think some writers like to revel in their characters’ depravity. To me, Jake is the classic noir protagonist. Someone who makes a bad decision for what might seem like a good—or at least excusable—reason to him at the time, after which everything turns to shit. It’s not that he makes bad choices as the book progresses. He makes the best choices available to him at the time. Damn right I rooted for him. What makes you pull for a character when you’re reading?
LE: I didn’t know what neo-noir was before your explanation, but I’m with you in not being a fan of that, Dana. A few years ago, I was sent a novel by a newer writer for me to blurb and there was no frickin’ way. It read like this guy just picked up on all the salacious and stereotypical elements of bad guys and gave them all to his character and his story. It was clear he hadn’t read much and mostly it looked like he’d read a lot of so-called noir that had lately sprung up and thought that was his secret to success—just have his guy do every nasty thing in the world and that’s what noir was. I turned him down and told him why. I also told him that I thought he had some talent and that if he ever wanted to I’d be happy to read a new work if it wasn’t like that first one. To his credit, he did just that and the next novel he sent me was much better and very unlike that first piece of crap he sent. Nowadays, he’s a regular member of the “noir community” and shows up at the bar at B-Cons and has even served as a co-publisher with another writer for a small indie press. He’s not the best writer in the world, but he does pen a craftsman-like novel these days and I like most of his work.

Now, to your question—what makes me pull for a character I’m reading. First, that he has a story problem I feel is both interesting as well as compelling. If his story problem is some bullshit thing, I’m out of there quickly. If it looks like something that could happen to any of us then I’m in. I want to see him make intelligent choices. Those choices may turn out badly (and probably will), but the first time he makes a dumb decision, I’m outta there. Like I preach to my students, “Your protagonist should always make the decision or choice a person of at least average intelligence would make.” Amen. Someone who makes a choice that no logical person would make will have to carry on without me. That’s just a lazy, unimaginative writer behind that character.

There’s a movie I use to illustrate this. This was an actual movie that opened in theaters and later made the late-night TV circuit. I saw it in the theater and walked out halfway through it and asked for my money back. I didn’t get it, but did see the rest of it on TV a few years later and saw concrete proof that I was right.

The setup of this godawful movie was that there was this new-fangled office building in town that had a unique security system. The entire building was shut down on Friday evening and didn’t open back up until Monday morning. That established, the movie begins with this couple trapped inside this building with a bad guy after them. Why he’s after them I forget but it doesn’t matter. He is and that’s all that counts. The first half of the movie is mostly what my wife calls a “chasey-fighty” movie. This couple is all over this building—up and down staircases, elevator shafts, whatever. They keep barely escaping his evil clutches each time until—halfway through the movie—they run into this large office space that’s being remodeled. There are stacks of lumber all over, building supplies and tools everywhere they look. The guy finds a nail hammer and they hide behind a pile of lumber to wait and bushwack the bad guy. Which he does. It works out perfectly. The bad guy walks around the lumber pile and the good guy whacks him on the head with the nail hammer and he’s knocked out. The couple kiss and embrace, clearly with tongues and at this point one assumes the movie’s over. But, it’s only been going on for less than an hour! What the heck?

Here’s where the movie completely falls apart and where I walked out and asked for my money back. (Note to younger, less-experienced readers: Theaters never give refunds, no matter how pathetic the product they just sold you is.)

I use this movie in my classes to illustrate just how stupid Hollywood can be at times. I simply ask them if this was you and your significant other, what would you do at this point? You know this guy is out to kill you both and you know you’ve got the drop on him and he’s clearly knocked out. It’s only Saturday so you know you’ve got another day and a half before the building can release you. So, what do you do?

I get the same answers every time.

1. I’d kill him.
2. I’d find something to tie him up with (clearly possible as they’re in a room with all kinds of building supplies and tools and plenty of things to tie him up with.
3. I’d take turns with my partner in watching him, and every time he begins to stir whoever is watching him would bop him on the head again and knock him out.

That’s about the extent of the suggestions. All of these answers represent what a person of at least average intelligence would do. The litmus test of what to base your protagonist’s actions on. Never does anyone suggest what these movie geniuses actually do. Which is to throw the nail gun down and run away to hide again.

This is when I made my way to the lobby. That I was the only one to do so was discouraging. It kind of told me where our educational system was and where our country was headed…

The rest of the movie is the resumed chase which they “miraculously” win at the very end. Too late for me. My fear is that these mesomorphs will mate and it’s for sure their progeny is going to emerge from the shallow end of the gene pool and probably end up running our educational systems. Anyone who sat through the end of this if they have any active gray matter left, simply has to begin rooting for the bad guy. He’s the only one with any living brain cells left.

This was a for-real movie and what’s sad, this kind of thing isn’t that rare in movies or in novels. Too often a writer isn’t really much of a writer and opts for manipulating a plot like this guy did instead of doing the hard work of actually writing. Life’s too short to waste on these clowns.


OBAAT: More than most writers, you’re someone whose next book might be about anything. Crime, comic crime, memoir, writing instruction. (Note to aspiring writers: If you haven’t read Hooked, stop reading right now and get thee a copy. It’s not Les’s only instructional book, but it starts at the beginning, where all books should start.) How do decide which of the ideas that are pushing for attention gets written next?
LE: That’s easy, Dana. It’s the book that I’m most interested in at the time. Just about all of my agents have thrown up their hands at the way I work. More than one have begged me to create a series and I could never do that. I know it hurts my so-called career as that’s the way you build an audience, but I just can’t work like that. Writing to me isn’t just my “job”—it’s my life, and I have the rare opportunity to do what I enjoy doing in life. Writing the same character over and over just seems… what’s the word?... oh, yeah… boring. That’s just me and I don’t have anything against those writers who write series. It’s just something that’s alien to my world.
For one thing, if you write a series based on a character, it’s very difficult to create a character arc for the protagonist and that’s important to me. A novel series is more like a TV series than anything else. The protagonist in a television series remains largely unchanged. They’re more akin to short stories than novels. A contemporary short story only reveals a small truth, unlike the structure of former eras. The same for series television. Sam, the bartender in Cheers, learns a small lesson each week and seems to be somewhat transformed, but when the next week’s episode rolls around, he’s the same old Sam. To me, that’s boring writing and while I enjoy that kind of thing somewhat, it’s all surface entertainment and not anything profound. I’d rather try for profound and fail than have as my goal a lot of readers and money. I never want to be that shallow. And, I feel that to create monetary success in writing means writing to the lowest common denominator, i.e. surface entertainment, and that’s not something that interests me in the least.

Money has never been my goal. I’ve walked out on several opportunities to make a lot of money only because it was boring and I viewed it as an artificial way of living a life. I sold life insurance at one point and walked away from a job that would have made me a millionaire. I stuck it out for a year and was at the top of the game and saw how ridiculously easy making money was if I just kept doing the same thing, but just couldn’t face another day of doing something just to make my life comfortable. After all, how many cars can one drive at once, how many houses can one live in at the same time, how many possessions are enough? None of those things have ever mattered to me. I’m sorry, but my personal opinion of those who settle for this kind of life is that they’re basically cowards. (This isn’t going to win me many friends, is it? Like I give a shit…) Nowadays, I have to confess to a bit of regret as I have no income other than Social Security and the bit I make from book royalties and from the online class I teach and if I can no longer teach I’ll probably end up homeless, but that’s not the worst fate in the world. I’ve been homeless at various times of my life and it wasn‘t all that bad and I survived. I firmly believe I’d still not trade a bit of security at the end of my days for selling my soul to work at something I didn’t enjoy or believe in. And, I just don’t believe in being Salesman of the Month. I do believe in creating a book that affects people’s lives. And, not just “people’s” lives, but intelligent people’s lives. I confess to not have much interest in the average person. The average person is largely boring and I think that most are average by choice. Often, they simply don’t want to take any chances in their lives so their averageness isn’t being average at all, but being a coward. Who needs people like that? Other than politicians and ministers…  I’ve been blessed to have impacted the thinking of extraordinary people with a few of my books and that means far more to me than any pension plan or late-model car. And I realize that’s a rare philosophy and one that most would be unable to follow, but that’s all right. I never want to be like most people. Most people I think aren’t all that happy and have a bunch of regrets. I don’t have many regrets at all.
My next book is always going to be the one that interests me the most.


I’ve consistently enjoyed the new format of these interviews, but none has made me want to sit down with an adult beverage and discuss writing and the world more than this one. I hope you’ve enjoyed this time with les Edgerton as much as I have. Thanks, Les. You’re The Man. 

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.


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bouchercon 2017: Thursday

This year’s Bouchercon in Toronto wasn’t just a conference for The Beloved Spouse™ and I; it was an adventure. The road trip we took merits at least one blog post of its own. First we’ll cut to the chase.

Thursday, October 13

10:00 Heroes and Antiheroes: Are heroes possible even in fiction? Do we need them?
I don’t have a lot to say about this panel, largely because I was in it. That’s not due to any false modesty on my part; it kicked ass. The problem is that I couldn’t very well take notes while on the dais, and there are no recordings this year. My mind fully occupied, I can barely remember what I said, let alone everyone else. Suffice to say J. Kent Messum led a star-studded cast of Eric Campbell, Allison Gaylin, Stuart Neville, and David Swinson through a thought-provoking and fast-paced hour while I tried to keep up.

2:30 Adapted For…About books made into movies or TV shows
Watching the audience file in for this one it occurred to me how many people with infirmities attend Bouchercon. It makes sense. Those with physical infirmities often find reading a recreational activity they can continue to enjoy without an ability to move around as freely as they’d like. Those with mental infirmities become writers.

Our friend Sam Wiebe was unable to attend Bouchercon this year due to jury duty. We learned right before the panel his book, Invisible Dead, was nominated for the City of Vancouver Book Award. Guess now we know which jury he was on.

The panel was worth getting good seats for, as Shawn Reilly Simmons led an all-star crew through a discussion of both sides of the process of moving a book to the screen. Here are some highlights:

Yrsa Sigurdardottir: The book is like your child; the movie is a grandchild. It’s not appropriate for the grandparents to be too involved in its creation.

Lou Berney: It’s tricky to collaborate with too protective an author.
Maureen Jennings: “Collaboration” means “interference.”

David Morell: When selling rights, insist on print control of the characters. (He got to write the novelizations for the Rambo sequels and change not only the themes, but the plots.)

David Morell: Tracing the historical antecedents of books showed the evolution of British thrillers and, by extension, how all books stand on the shoulders of their predecessors.

Ann Cleeves: Once you send a book out to the public, it’s not really yours anymore. It belongs to the reader’s imagination. A TV/movie adaptation is another step down that road, as they’re entirely different storytelling media.

Lou Berney: Adapting a novel into a screenplay is like distilling a haiku out of an epic poem.


There were more panels I could have gone to, but the adventure in getting to Canada and the rush from the anti-hero panel wore me out. Come back next week for a look at what transpired on Friday. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

On the Road Again

No blog posts this week while The Beloved Spouse and I are away at Bouchercon. 

I’ll be back with Part I of this year’s wrap-up on Wednesday, October 18.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Conversation With Dietrich Kalteis

Dietrich Kalteis is unique. I can’t remember the last time he and I didn’t get together at Bouchercon, except this year it’s in Toronto and he won’t be there even though for once he won’t need a passport. (I will, but not to get into Canada. I’m an American citizen and need one to come back. Go figure.) Well, okay, the reason he can’t go is because his latest book, Zero Avenue, launched yesterday, so he has promotional stuff to do. To me, what better way to promote a new work of crime fiction than to go to the largest gathering of crime fiction devotees in the world—where, among other promotional opportunities, he could buy me a drink—but I guess not everyone has the marketing chops I have. (Amazon didn’t just give me that $7.52 I made last month, you know.)

Dieter has like no biographical information online, so suffice to say he’s a disarmingly charming guy whose serene demeanor in no way reflects the content of his books. I could go on, but it’s better if we let him do it. He’s good with words. Very good.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Zero Avenue.
Dietrich Kalteis: Zero Avenue is set during the early days of Vancouver’s punk rock scene.
It follows Frankie del Rey, who aspires to launch her music career and raise enough money to cut a demo record and take her band Waves of Nausea on the road. To make ends meet she mules drugs for a powerful dealer named Marty Sayles. Things are going well when she gets in a relationship with a Johnny Falco, owner of a struggling club on the Downtown Eastside. That is, until Johnny decides to raid one of Marty Sayles’ pot fields. When he gets away with it, Frankie’s bass player finds out about it and figures that was easy enough and rips off another one of Sayles’ fields. When he goes missing, Johnnie and Frankie try to find out what happened. Meanwhile Marty Sayles comes looking for who ripped him off the first time — a trail that leads straight to Johnny and Frankie.

This is the first novel where I tried writing a female lead character, and at first I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, but once I got going I had fun with it, and it worked out well.

OBAAT: You hooked me with the name of the band. Waves of Nausea sounds like something Carl Hiaasen would come up with. You must have been but a child when punk cut its teeth in Vancouver. What made you pick that period and how did you research it?
DK: I wasn’t in Vancouver during early those punk days, but I was around. Jesus, I remember when Brian Jones was in the Stones. And the setting seemed perfect for a crime story because the punk scene was so raw and angry, and Vancouver was such a polite, sleepy backwater town back then, so there’s this natural tension. It was also a time before Google Earth, Google Maps, and satellite imagery, back when pot fields were a lot easier to hide.

As far as research, there are some great books that helped with the details: Guilty of Everything by John Armstrong, Perfect Youth by Sam Sutherland, I, Shithead and Talk-Action=Zero, both by Joe Keithley. And there was Bloodied but Unbowed, a documentary by Susanne Tabata that’s jam-packed with clips and tales from Vancouver’s early punk scene.

OBAAT: You’re a Vancouver guy, so you sit perilously close to the border with Baja Canada, or what many here refer to as the United States. With a country that close ten times the size of Canada, who do you feel is your audience? Or do you have a single reader in mind? Or just don’t give a fuck and write what you like and hope for the best?
DK: I do give a fuck, and I write the kind of stories that I would personally like to read. And they tend to be crime stories that end up on the gritty side with a little dark humor tossed in. I’ve used settings on either side of the border, so I hope the stories appeal to readers who like that type of story too. 

OBAAT: You’re one of the few people I know who diched his day job and jumped feet first into writing. Did things go about as you expected, or did you find a lot of surprises once you made the leap?
DK: When I ditched the day job about ten years ago, I wasn’t sure how far the jump was. I just knew if I was ever going to do it, I had to take that leap. And there were some surprises along the way, although most of them have been good ones — like getting that first novel accepted. Signing that deal was a rush, one which never gets old from one novel to the next. And like you, Dana, I’m blessed with a beloved spouse who is totally supportive; and without that, I might still just be talking about taking the jump.

OBAAT: You’ve said before that tone is what keeps you reading a book, by which you meant voice and pace. What is it about the tone of a book—or an author—that makes it the key element for you? We agree on this by the way. I’m just wondering how you came to that point.
DK: The voice is the personality of the writing, it’s what makes each author sound unique. It’s the way a writer combines syntax, pace, character, dialog, and all the story elements to pull the whole thing off and come up with an individual style.

When I read a book where the author’s voice resonates with me, I often find it’s hard to put it down, and that’s like magic. And when I find an author that I really connect with like that, I just want to read everything they’ve ever written, and then reread it all.

OBAAT: I know a lot of writers who don’t read fiction when they’re working on a book because they’re afraid it will influence their work in progress. As someone so closely attuned to voice and style, do you cut yourself off from such potential influences, or do you not worry about that?
DK: I always read while I’m working on a novel, which for me is most of the time. If I didn’t read when I was writing I’d never get to read. I think reading something well written not only entertains but inspires me to write. 

OBAAT: The “inspires [you] to write” comment hits home with me on multiple levels. Sometimes other fiction doesn’t just inspire me, it suggests things. For example, reminders of what someone else does well can trigger a thought that I’ve become a little lazy in some way. Even more, I’ve picked up plot suggestions from other books in the nick of time. Not that I plagiarize anyone, but some trick or twist I’ve read somewhere can be adapted to my situation and become useful to me. The climax of my first Nick Forte novel, A Small Sacrifice, was inspired by the ending of the film Three Days of the Condor, though the situations are so different one could hardly call it a copy. Have you ever had that happen?
DK: I get what you mean. What inspires me can spark my own ideas. Sometimes it comes from something I read, but also from something I see or hear, anything around me really. It might send me thinking, well, what if this happens … And it’s partly why I don’t plot a story in advance. These sparks might come along when I’m working on a story, as the whole thing’s taking shape, and it might give birth to a new idea or a twist. And that’s probably better than anything I would have come up with if I just sat down and outlined the whole story before I started writing. I mean, it’s just so organic, and that’s just something that works for me.

OBAAT: When we chatted in 2014 the question arose “Does writing ever seem like work to you?” Your reply:  The only time writing ever seemed like work was when I gave myself a crash course in grammar back when I started out five years ago. I studied a half dozen grammar texts and kept a notebook which I still refer to from time to time. I thought since I was working with words and called myself a writer, I ought to at least know where to put the commas and stuff.

This put me in mind of what I consider the greatest bit of dialog ever written to describe the public’s perception of writers, Bo Catlett explaining to Chili Palmer how easy it is to write a screenplay:

“You asking me,” Catlett said, “do I know how to write down words on a piece of paper? That’s what you do, man, you write down one word after the other as it comes in your head. It isn’t like having to learn how to play the piano, like you have to learn notes. You already learned in school how to write, didn’t you? I hope so. You have the idea and you put down what you want to say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas and shit where they belong, if you aren’t positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words. There people do that for you. Some, I’ve even seen scripts where I know words weren’t spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it. So I don’t think it’s too important. You come to the last page you write in ‘Fade out’ and that’s the end, you’re done.”
Chili said, “That’s all there is to it?”
“That’s all.”
Chili said, “Then what do I need you for?”

(Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard. Page 143.)

That’s a long way to go to get to this question: Do you ever find bits of your stories showing up in your life? When I was working on Wild Bill, The Beloved Spouse™ said she could tell who that day’s POV character was by the way I talked when I came downstairs.
DK: That’s funny about your wife being able to tell the day’s POV character by the way you talk when you come downstairs. I think I get that. When I finish writing for the day, I sometimes feel like I’m in a fog, like I’m waking up from the story and coming back down to earth. 

And sometimes I stick bits of my real life in my stories — like something I experienced or just heard or read, with some fiction thrown in. I often jot little notes, like when somebody says something that I can use in a story I’m working on. Little bits drift in all the time, and I don’t want to miss them, so I write them down.

And you’re right about that scene from Get Shorty and the great dialog. What works is how simple and real it sounds. It’s a great example of how Elmore Leonard was just a master of the game.

OBAAT: You and I are both strongly influenced by Elmore Leonard, who once said he strove to get out of the way so the reader is unaware Leonard is writing at all, yet few writers are as easily identifiable as he. Why do you think that is?
DK: He just had this amazing voice, and he said if his writing sounded like writing, he rewrote it. He wanted to let the point of view of his characters come through, so he got out of their way so they could plot their own course and make their own decisions, good or bad. Doing that really let their cleverness or dumbness show through. And I think that’s one of the great lessons one can take away from Elmore Leonard.

OBAAT: Thanks for a great time, Dieter. I’m looking forward to seeing you at Bouchercon in Toronto. (You will be there, right?) Till then, what’s on the agenda for you writing-wise?
DK: After Zero Avenue comes Poughkeepsie Shuffle which takes place in Toronto in the mid-eighties and centers on Jeff Nichols, a guy just released from the infamous Don Jail. He lands himself a job at a used-car lot and finds himself mixed up in a smuggling ring bringing guns in from Upstate New York. Jeff’s a guy who’s willing to break a few rules on the road to riches, living by the motto, “why let the mistakes of the past get in the way of a good score in the future.”


I won’t make it to Bouchercon this year, I’ll be on the West Coast promoting the new book, but hopefully we’ll be able to catch up at next year’s Bouchercon in St. Petersburg. And thanks very much, Dana, for having me on One Bite at a Time. It was a lot of fun.