Monday, November 24, 2014

Bouchercon 2014 - Friday

Noir at the (Breakfast) Bar
My Author Focus slot was 9:00 AM, when most Bouchercon attendees can’t focus at all. With eight other concurrent events, I had as much chance of drawing a crowd as Mel Gibson has of becoming B'nai B'rith’s Man of the Year. So, I cheated. (Anyone who calls himself a crime writer and isn’t willing to cheat is engaged in false advertising.) I, personally, might not draw a crowd—okay, would not—but I was willing to bet Les Edgerton, Tim Hallinan, and John McFetridge all together would, and they did. The room was packed, remaining so even after they had finished and the only reader remaining was me, which shows what a courteous bunch crime readers are. (Editor’s Note: The “packed room” held about a dozen people, four of whom were the authors, one was The Beloved Spouse, and one was Jack Getze, who has a special relationship with Les Edgerton we’re not going to get into here.) Still, it was packed, and a good time was had by all. Especially me, which is what I really cared about. Many thanks to Les, Tim, John, and all those who attended when there were plenty of others things they could have been doing. (Such as soaking their heads in ice.)

When Your Sleuth is a Crook – Criminal Protagonists
Moderator Josh Stallings got things rolling with an observation that he didn’t understand the term “page turner.” Said he turns pages in every book he reads.

Jodi Compton lamented the stereotypical treatment of gang members, what she called “gangbanger catch and release.” Bring them in, they act tough for three minutes, then they fold, get turned loose, and nothing happens to them.

Stallings is most interested in what happens after the robbery or murder or whatever, when things have returned to “normal.” Most people have wondered at times, “What would happen if I took that bike? Or car?”

Tim Hallinan noted that setting is the interaction between location and character. Crooks see the same locations differently than straights.

Seth Harwood said life is like a cake. Straights live on the frosting, while crooks are boring through the inside. Sometimes a crook breaks through the frosting and has to be noticed. Still, everyone is somewhat in the cake. People may think someone lives on the frosting, but go into their houses, look deeper. They’re all in the cake in some way.

Jamie Mason thinks of all her POV characters as protagonists, that it’s all a matter of “screen time.” Backing this up, Jodi Compton says Jamie’s novels remind her of Coen Brothers movies.

Hallinan: Everyone thinks he’s a good guy. As more people come to realize the game is rigged, there is more willingness to go outside the rules and accept the consequences. People think about crooks differently, as people who show great rectitude are actually crooks. (Jamie Dimon’s name got mentioned.)

Favorite anti-heroes:
John Stallings: The Wild Bunch.
John Morgan Wilson: Vito and Michael Corelone
Jodi Compton: Jonah (Old Testament God tends to choose bad guys to do things. Jonah showed no fear of God, before or after that whole getting swallowed business.)
Tim Hallinan: Macbeth. (Basically a good man whose life was twisted around.)

To show the levels of corruption available, Hallinan told the story of Sidney Korshak, who effectively represented both the movie studios and the unions while working for the Chicago Outfit. “When there was a labor dispute in Hollywood, Sidney Korshak went into a room by himself and made a decision.” He also did a lot of good.

Wilson told a story from his days as a journalist, catching some gang members on another gang’s turf, asking if they were concerned. Turned out there was a truce on weekends, so the bangers could shop for their girlfriends.

Hallinan told a story of a cop calling him to ask how he knew of a scheme to use refrigerator boxes to break and enter houses. He’d made it up himself, not knowing it was a thing in LA.

The topic of redemption came up. A consensus formed around the ideas, “What level of redemption, and what kind?” Justice doesn’t have to be served. It’s not in real life.

Harwood wrapped up by saying the key is to establish the moral code of each character.

Another great panel.

Crime Novel as Social Novel – Dealing With Issues and Problems of Our Time
Moderator Hilary Davidson opened with a Dennis Lehane quote: “This is where the social novel went. It went into crime fiction.”

Joe Clifford: If gentrification can happen in Reno, it’s happening everywhere.

Les Edgerton decides what his “theme” is after the first draft, then goes back and cuts the irrelevant passages.

Bill Loehfelm noted that any social commentary has to be woven in. If the reader hears the author and not the characters, you’ve gone too far.

Tim O’Mara believes if a novel doesn’t have any social issues, the author is not doing justice to the setting.

When discussing arguments over the minimum wage and how it will price fast food out of its market, Loehfelm said, “If they can afford to sell it to you for a dollar, you don’t want to eat it.”

People in the service industry can size others up quickly: who tips, who’s trouble, who has a drinking problem, how they treat women. They have to learn this if they want to succeed.

When someone who doesn’t smoke picks up an ashtray, he’s looking for a weapon.

Edgerton believes in the Jack London school of writing. Taking jobs at the bottom of the pile to gain experience. When it was noted that Flannery O’Connor once said living in the same house for 17 years should provide enough material for a lifetime, he said he wished to hell he’d heard that earlier.

Tim O’Mara now teaches on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, said the saddest thing he’s seen there is a black nanny pushing a baby in a stroller while the mother walks beside them, talking on her cell. This is a kid who’s going to be telling his stories on a couch one day.

Joe Clifford noted that empathy can’t be taught; it has to be experienced. Everyone wants a better life. Everyone has dreams. Loehfelm followed up with a Steve Earle quote: If you’re a storyteller, you’re only job is to create empathy.

To write characters who aren’t similar to you, grab onto whatever similarities you can and use them.

Edgerton hates the idea of heroes and villains. It creates two-dimensional characters.

When asked about balancing commentary and entertainment:
O’Mara: Social commentary works best when it comes from characters not based on yourself. The context is the key.
Loehfelm: Beware the crusader. He comes across as heavy-handed. Humor can go a long ways. He didn’t enjoy The Corner nearly as much as The Wire because The Corner had no humor.
Edgerton: Criminals, like cops, are always joking. It’s a stress management technique.

A brief exchange:
Edgerton: My publisher didn’t want to use The Bitch or The Rapist as titles, but fuck him.
Loehfelm: That’s the next book.

O’Mara noted a Special Ed class on the Upper West Side, all the kids are black or Hispanic. The white kids have money and health insurance. “I’m putting my kid on medication because the insurance will pay for it.”

Recommendations for crime writers who tackle social issues well:
Clifford: Ben Whitmer, Tom Pitts.
Edgerton: Ray Banks.
Loehfelm: Richard Price, Laura Lippman.
Sara J. Henry: John D. MacDonald
O’Mara: Jess Walter (The Financial Lives of the Poets.)

Beyond Chandler, Hammett, and Spillane – Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Eras
Yet another example of a panel I probably would not have attended had not Peter Rozovsky been the moderator. If you’re ever in doubt about a panel at Bouchercon, go to his, even if you don’t think you care about the topic. No one prepares better, or plays as well to the strengths of his panel. The nature of this session didn’t lend itself to the kind of comments of the others I attended—mostly talking about underappreciated authors, including why they were sometimes underappreciated—but I did come away with some writers to check into, notably Ennis Willey and Roy Huggins. Oh, and why do I always have to be reminded to read more Chester Himes? It’s a serious weakness on my part.

Similar, But Different - Cops and PIs Sleuthing Around
Kenneth Wishnia made a telling comment that all writers would do well to remember: Humor is the weapon of the powerless.

Cops who want to come across the table during an interrogation are a problem in too much fiction. The way to do it is to sympathize; that’s why interviews take so long. You have to let them know you know they’re lying without breaking trust.

PIs can screw up the chain of evidence if they’re not careful. Same rules would apply as if they were cops, but they may have no witness to the original collection, thus queering the deal.

Cops may have to do something they don’t think is “right” because it’s the law.

PWA Banquet and Shamus Awards
Unfortunately, Bob Randisi was unable to attend, but Max Allen Collins did yeoman’s work in his stead.

Congratulations to all the well-deserved winners:
The Hammer Award, for best PI series character: Kinsey Millhone, accepted by Sue Grafton.
Best Hardcover PI novel: The Good Cop, by Brad Parks.
Best First PI Novel: Bear is Broken, by Lachlan Smith.
Best Original Paperback PI Novel: Heart of Ice, by P.J. Parrish.
Best PI Short Story: “So Long, Chief,” by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane.
Best Indie PI Novel: Don’t Dare a Dame, by M. Ruth Myers.
St. Martins/PWA Award: The Red Storm, by Grant Bywaters.

This was my first PWA banquet. I’d heard much good about them, and my expectations were fully realized. The support and affection for the members of this community was obvious.


On Wednesday, how the weekend went.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Bouchercon 2014 - Thursday

Three conferences in a six-week period proves it’s good to save the best for last. No offense to C3 (where I plan to become a regular) or NoirCon, but Bouchercon can’t help but be the big event of any year. Last week’s conference in Long Beach was no exception. It’s hard to winnow down the highlights, and my notes from the bar are less than complete (apologies to anyone I omitted; the fault is entirely Stella Artois’s), but here’s my best remembrances of Bouchercon 45.

THURSDAY
Women Wearing a Badge – Making Their Way and Working With the Boys
Not the first panel attended, but a great way to start. (The first actual panel quickly proved itself to be a self-promotional effort for a publisher that will not be named here.) Deborah Crombie got the ball rolling with an observation that British TV does a much better job of depicting realistic female cops than we do here. Broadchurch and Happy Valley received favorable mentions.

Allison Brennan noted many female cops have male relatives in law enforcement in one way or another. Not that it’s a family tradition for the women, but having a father/uncle/brother/cousin seems to create a more favorable perspective toward joining up. Allison also mentioned she has met cops who are convinced they have never arrested an innocent man. (Well, I sure hope so. I’d hate to think, “Well, close enough” is a prevailing philosophy.)

Peter Robinson was cited as a male author who writes women well. There appeared to be a consensus—which I’d heard before—that women are more comfortable writing male characters than men are writing women. This may be why there are more male protagonists written by women than vice versa. (I wonder if there might not be two other things at work: male crime fiction protagonists have been traditionally male, and therefore safer to write; and a man is far more likely to get carved up for poorly-written female characters than the other way around.)

Family is always a concern when writing a female character, as women are far more likely to put family ahead of career. Not that they all do, but it should be accounted for.

In a confrontation, women will tend to talk longer; men are more proactive.

Doesn’t Play Well With Others – How Dysfunctional Characters Enhance Plots and series
Moderator Kim Hammond offered a free book by each of the authors to the first person who could correctly identify the author from a little-known fact. First up was Brad Parks, and the fact was from a story I’d heard him tell at the C3 conference last month. I told The Beloved Spouse, she raised her hand, and—voila—we get a book. I feel a little guilty about it, but not so much so I declined the book.

Great unattributed quote: “To find the truth about any era, read its fiction.” I looked it up and can’t find who said it. (I mean originally, not at Bouchercon.) A free copy of Grind Joint is coming to the first person who can steer me in the right direction.

In the realm of attributable quotes, Mara Purl said “You can’t write the character and judge the character at the same time.” This panel was great fun, but would have been worth it for that alone.

Cops Around the World – International Police Procedurals
Mark Billingham got the elephant in the room out of the way right up front, saying, let’s be honest, no one is writing actual police procedurals. They’d be a thousand pages long, dull as ditchwater, and you wouldn’t like the ending. The authors and readers have an arrangement where they will suspend disbelief and we will provide a heightened reality.

As usual, Billingham was full of money quotes. (The problem with his panels is keeping up with the note taking.) Among his other gems:
                  The primary difference between US and UK procedurals is, we have guns, they have whistles. This alters chase scenes considerably. “Stop, or I’ll…say ‘stop’ again.”
                  He was asked once which actor he’d like to see play Tom Thorne. That actor coincidentally read one of the Thorne novels, Googled him, and saw their names pop up together. He got the part. Billingham says he’s sure Lee Child always had Tom Cruise on mind to play Jack Reacher.
                  Since Thomas Harris’s success, serial killers have become a lazy way to provide pacing. (Time for an action? Order up another murder.) It dehumanizes the victims.
                  The ongoing problem with Harris and Hannibal Lector is that so many writers were inspired to write brilliant killers. Most killers are stupid.

Speaking of serial killers, Stav Sherez doesn’t think they’re interesting, as the psychological motivations are always disappointing and weaker than solving crimes committed for a reason. Ragnar Jonasson says there has never been a serial killer in Iceland, which is good, because there are so few Icelanders to start with.

Sherez considers James Ellroy to be the best procedural writer. (I’m sure Ellroy agrees, and no, I did not get my picture taken with him.) He and Billingham both believe the best procedurals are about how the characters are affected over the years. There must be change; they see, and experience, too much. Sherez says it’s like watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon, where an anvil drops on Tom’s head and he’s anvil shaped for a while. We’re only writing the anvil-shaped characters. He’s interested in why the cop became a cop.

As video surveillance becomes more prevalent, the trick for the writer is to keep that as interesting as knocking on doors.

Kwei Quartey pointed out that even an autopsy scene should be about the killing, not a dissertation on the damage.

Sara Blaedel has two protagonists. One is a cop, the other a journalist. She says that allows her to get “completely around” a case. The cop has great resources, but there are things people will tell a journalist they’d never tell a cop.

Billingham and Sherez both write series, but do the occasional standalone as breaks for themselves. No one ever says, “You know what the best book of that series was? Number 13.”

Yeah, that was a good one.

Noir at the Bar
Not the kind of thing one takes notes at, but, in case Eric Beetner sees this, it’s spelled, “Swierczynski.” A metric shit tonne of kick ass noir writers, each given a minute to read something that will hook new readers. In my case, five, not including those I was already in the tank for.


On Monday, we’ll take a look at Day Two.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Twenty Questions With Rob Kitchin

Got back from Bouchercon early this morning, in no condition to write something original. (You're welcome.) In my stead, Rob Kitchin has graciously consented to submit to Twenty Questions for your amusement and edification. Rob lives in Ireland where he works in a research institute and is a regular media commentator on social and planning issues. He is also the author of dozens of short stories, and four novels. Stumped, which Patti Abbott calls "Intricate, terrifying, and thrillingly propulsive,” is out now from 280 Steps in paperback and e-formats.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Stumped.

Rob Kitchin: It's a screwball noir set in Ireland with a first date, a severed finger, a vicious Dublin gangster, an ambitious politician, a rockabilly cop, corrupt developers, a nosy journalist, and drag queen farmers.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
RK: I’ve no recollection at this stage, I’m afraid.  I wrote the first draft of the book 15 years ago.  I set out to write a comic crime caper set in Ireland that had two ordinary lead characters who got themselves caught up in extraordinary circumstances involving several, competing larger-than-life characters.  Amongst my favorite writers at the time were Colin Bateman, Joe Lansdale, Carl Hiaasen, Laurence Shames, Lauren Henderson, Tim Dorsey and Janet Evanovich, and they influenced the type of book I wanted to create.  Once I got the hook I needed to write the story to see how the puzzle was resolved.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Stumped, start to finish?
RK: The first draft didn’t take too long; a few months.  Since then it’s been through multiple revisions and edits, usually once every two or three years when I pulled it out of a virtual drawer, dusted it down and gave it another run through. 

OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
RK: The two central characters are Mary and Grant.  Mary lost her husband and her legs in a car accident and is raising her two young children while studying at the local university.  Grant is a university lecturer who has recently arrived in Ireland from England and is still feeling a little out of place.  The story starts with them tentatively agreeing to go on a date, but then fate intervenes and gives them the task of saving the life of Grant’s housemate, Sinead, who has been kidnapped by Dublin gangster seeking the return of a valuable package.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Stumped set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
RK: It’s set in the present day in Ireland, with a brief sojourn to Manchester in England.  The setting was important to me.  Fifteen years ago the whole Irish crime fiction boom had not yet begun, with only a handful of Irish writers having success in the genre, notably Colin Bateman (whose books were set in Northern Ireland) and John Connolly (whose books were set in the US).  I wanted to read crime fiction set in the Republic and I wanted to read stories that challenged stereotypes about Irish society.  A screwball noir set in Irish suburbia, but which travelled round Dublin and the Irish countryside allowed me to do that.  I knew that getting any novel published would be a difficult, but soon discovered that my approach seemed to make it all but impossible.  Every rejection letter I got started with the phrase ‘I really enjoyed reading this, but ...’.  The ‘but’ was crime fiction set in Ireland has no established market, nationally or internationally.  A few years later, when Irish crime fiction was on an upward trend, I was told that the problem was there was no established market for an Irish comic crime caper, or it was ‘too American’ in style for Irish fiction.  A couple of US publishers did show interest in the book, but they felt the Irish setting was too parochial and wanted the story moved to the US, something that I wasn’t prepared to do.

OBAAT: How did Stumped come to be published?
RK: Kjetil Hestvedt at 280 Steps wrote to tell me about the company and the books it was publishing and to see whether I would be interested in reviewing any of them for the crime fiction blog I write (The View from the Blue House).  He mentioned that he had enjoyed reading my last novel, Stiffed.  We swapped a few emails and I ended up sending him drafts of two novels, one I’d recently finished and Stumped.  He expressed an interest in publishing Stumped and I signed on the dotted line. 

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
RK: I’m an avid reader.  Beyond the academic work I read for my day job as a university professor, I mostly read crime fiction and popular science and history.  I generally read and review just over a hundred books a year, circa 90% of which are crime fiction.  Of those, I tend to focus on police procedurals, hardboiled noirs, comic crime capers, espionage, and historical versions of those (I have a fondness for stories set between 1930-60).  I tend to shy away from cozies, psychological and political thrillers, or tales with a supernatural bent.  I always find it difficult to pick out favorite authors, preferring favorite books, but have soft spots for Joe Lansdale, Adrian McKinty, Gene Kerrigan, Philip Kerr, Carlo Lucarelli, Peter Temple, Terry Pratchett, and Duane Swierczyski.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
RK: I read so widely that I’m sure I pick up ideas from many different authors.  The authors listed in the first and previous question have no doubt been important influences.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
RK: I tend to outline about 20-30 pages in advance of the scene I’m presently writing. 

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
RK: I tend to edit as I go.  I think writing is a recursive process that is made up of rounds of drafting and editing.  With non-fiction I write in a very non-linear way and can be working on several chapters at once, gradually building up the structure and narrative.  That’s very difficult to do with fiction as maintaining continuity becomes tricky.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
RK: It depends on what the ambition on the novice writer is.  If it is to be really successful, write stuff that is similar, but slightly different, to what is popular in the market right now.  If it is to be true to oneself then write the story as you feel it needs to be told and hope that the market comes round to your way of thinking. 

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
RK: Walking the dogs.

OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
RK: The good review.  Stumped is my 18th authored book between non-fiction and fiction genres and I’ve yet to make decent money from any of them, except indirectly through rapid promotion as an academic.

OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
RK: No.  I make my living from writing, either indirectly or directly, and I thoroughly enjoy doing it.  If I was to never write again I think I’d be pretty miserable.  Money without pleasure sounds worthless.

OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
RK: Three.  I think most people starting have hopes of hitting the big time and having their work read by as many people as possible and making a living from writing.  Option 3 is the best for that.  Over time, one changes perspective. I’ve done all three between non-fiction and fiction and they all have their pluses and minuses.  The way you phrase Option 2 is really very negative and in my view, small and traditional houses have a lot to offer, including more attention on the author and the work as it’s not lost in a vast system.  In many ways, they also have more vested in the book being a success.

OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
RK: Beer

OBAAT: Baseball or football?
RK: I’ve always enjoyed attending baseball games more than football when visiting the US.

OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
RK: To be honest, I don’t really feel the need to unburden any nugget of knowledge or enlightening anecdote. I’m happy to just take whatever questions come, and if a question slightly misses the point, I’ll gladly steer it to be able to give some kind of reasonable answer.   

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
RK: I’m editing two non-fiction books, both about how software is changing how cities are experienced and run. I’m hoping to get back to drafting a novel in the new year.



Thursday, November 13, 2014

Twenty Questions With Larry Matthews

Ha! I’ll bet you thought you’d be rid of me for a while, what with Bouchercon and all. No such luck. There are still readers of this blog who need servicing. (I hope using the plural was not overoptimistic, and that some of the less generate of you don’t take that “servicing” comment the wrong way.)

Fortunately for all of us, Larry Matthews has graciously consented to sit for Twenty Questions in my absence. Larry is a former broadcast journalist and recipient of the George Foster Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting, the DuPont-Columbia Citation, and many other national and regional awards for his investigative reporting. His memoir, I Used to Be In Radio, was praised as "a funny and moving page-turner" and "a must-read in journalism schools, especially for those who aspire to be investigative reporters."

Detonator is his latest thriller to feature investigative reporter Dave Haggard, following Butterfly Knife and Brass Knuckles. In Detonator, Haggard works to thwart a terrorist plan to blow up Nationals Park in Washington. New York Times best-selling author D.L. Wilson says of Detonator "... powerful characters, fascinating scenes, and great technical research and content." The Washington Independent Review of Books says "Detonator works...and more!"

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Detonator.
Larry Matthews: Detonator is the third Dave Haggard thriller. Dave is an investigative reporter for a public broadcasting outlet in Washington. In Detonator he investigates a plot to blow up Nationals Park during a sold out game. As usual, he barely escapes with his life.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
LM: All of the Haggard thrillers start with a simple idea. Detonator is terrorism. The previous books worked around the same idea. Butterfly Knife was perversion of religion, Brass Knuckles was greed.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Detonator, start to finish?
LM:  I write in spurts. I get the idea and begin the book and write for maybe twenty thousand words and take a breather. Detonator took me about five months. When I’m writing I’m pretty fast, a habit, I assume, from over thirty years in daily journalism where there no time to stare at the ceiling waiting for lightning to strike.

OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
LM: Dave is a street reporter in Washington, as was I. He is a composite of people I knew and maybe even a bit of me. He sacrifices his personal life for his work, as did I and most of the journalists I knew. The books give me a chance to use my experience in the news business to offer the readers some insight into how it works. I also have several recurring characters who are Dave’s sources in law enforcement or in Congress.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Detonator set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
LM: I use Washington as a character. The city is known to everyone but not everyone knows the ins and outs of it. The time is the unspecified “now.”

OBAAT: How did Detonator come to be published?
LM:  I have published nine books with two different publishers. My current publisher, W&B Publishers, is a unit of A-Argus Better Books, which published three previous books. Like everyone else, I weigh the benefits and costs of becoming independent and self-publishing, which many authors are doing.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
LM: I read a lot of non-fiction, probably because of my news background. I am a Grisham fan. I know there are those who say his writing isn’t what it once was, but he’s a heck of a story teller. The same could be said of W.E.B. Griffin, who’s sometimes panned by other authors. Of course, John le Carre is a favorite because of the complexity of his stories.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
LM: Truth be told, I can’t remember their names. When I was a boy and a teenager I got into World War II spy and escape stories and consumed them by the dozen. They were the old twenty-five cent paperbacks and were written in spare style that left out all emotion and romance. Reviewers would no doubt pan them. I liked the straight-ahead writing and the absence of fluff. I think it influenced my writing today.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
LM: Well, yes, I do wear pants. My wife would complain if I didn’t. I am mostly a pantser but I do know where it’s going. I write the last scene first and spend the rest of my writing time getting there.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
LM: Like most of the writers I know who worked in daily journalism I’m not a big reviser. The daily news grind has no time for that and we become trained to crank it out the first time. I write a chapter or two, revisit it the next day and make revisions as needed, and move on. Once the book is finished I do it all again. I don’t re-draft the entire book or question whether one character has too much dialogue or another is out of position.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
LM: Write, write, write. The more you write, the better you get. Read Steven King’s book On Writing and take it to heart. He says there are no rules. He’s right. It’s all about the story. Find people who are good story tellers and hang out with them.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
LM: Reading, mostly. I also like to be outdoors, so I walk.

OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
LM: Well, gee, given that I’ve not made any serious money with my writing, I’ll have to say a good review. Detonator is getting some good reviews so I will be happy with that.

OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
LM: Given that I’m retired and don’t “work” the answer is no.

OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
LM: Oh boy! I’m neck deep in Option #2 and have been for several years, so that’s out. Number 1 is more interesting and challenging but deep down all authors would pick #3.

OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
LM: Beer.

OBAAT: Baseball or football?
LM: Baseball. Go Nats!

OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
LM: Have I told you this interview comes with a free car?

OBAAT: What’s the answer?
LM:  No

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

LM: I’m working on the fourth Dave Haggard thriller. This one is called Nine Millimeter Afternoon. It’s about human trafficking.

Monday, November 10, 2014

My NoirCon Highlights

I broke my NoirCon cherry last week. It didn’t leave a mark, but I am a little sore.

Things got off to a quick start, with a screening of 1951’s The Prowler, followed by an interview with “The Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller. He hooked me early on, with his definition of noir as a story where the protagonist willfully does a wrong thing and pays for it. (That’s as simple and elegant a take on this slippery subject as I have heard, the Occam’s Razor of noir definitions.) When asked to sum up noir in one word, he said, “empathy.” The trick is to make the protagonist the villain, and still make the audience feel for him.

That evening we adjourned to the Mausoleum of Contemporary Art for what I thought was the best paced panel of the conference: Megan Abbott moderating, with Christa Faust, Wallace Stroby, and Dennis Tafoya discussing the kinds of underclasses only noir fiction seems to want to deal with. (Masked wrestlers, rodeo bullfighters and barrel men (they’re not clowns anymore), circus workers, carnies, and other folk decent, upstanding Republican Americans don’t want to see their daughters bring home.) Tafoya believes modern fiction writers have a reporting function, taking readers to populations they would otherwise know nothing about. After some give-and-take about how The Godfather had elevated organized crime to operatic status, Stroby commented on attending a dinner for a colleague at the Newark Star-Ledger, thrown by the wise guys he’d covered over the past thirty years, because he had treated them fairly. I can’t do the story justice here, but if you ever have a chance to talk to him, ask about it.

A panel discussing the upcoming anthology, Trouble in the Heartland, a collection of stories based on songs by Bruce Springsteen, then a handful of short films written by Jonathan Woods (including the shamefully underappreciated The Curse of the Sponge Man) wrapped up the evening. (It’s yet another indictment of the studio system that this fine film has avoided wider recognition. You can decide for yourself over at Vimeo.)

I spent the first 45 minutes of Steve Hodel’s presentation Friday morning pondering the point of such a detailed biography of his father, the next 45 with kind of a creepy feeling as I saw where he was going, and the last 30 as convinced as Steve that his father, George, was the Black Dahlia killer. (And a lot of other people, too.) Steve is a retired LA detective who worked 300 homicides, and the effectiveness of his presentation was made even more eerie as one couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like to peel back the onion to learn these things about his father, who was as sick a fuck as ever walked the earth. Kudos to Steve for his work and presentation.

The afternoon passed, frankly, pretty uneventfully. (I did miss the reading at 4:00, which is on me, but my ass was sore.) Friday evening was highlighted by a nice little soiree, hosted by Soho Books, capped off with a showing of the noir classic, Get Carter. Soho authors Stuart Neville and Fuminori Nakamura read.

“Stray Dogs: Tales From the Other America” discussed the anthology by the same name, somewhat related to Thursday night’s panel, except this time focusing more on the poor of the rural south. My favorite takeaway here (sorry, I forget who provided it), was a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez: If shit were as valuable as gold, poor people wouldn’t be allowed to have assholes.

Defining “politics” as “power,” moderator John Grant set the perfect tone for his panel, “Politics and Noir.” Jon McGoran noted that thriller writers tend to be conservative and noir writers are more likely to be liberal, as modern, 24-style thrillers focus on military or paramilitary organizations and techniques, and noir is about individuals. (McGoran phrased it better. Keeping up with him in my note taking was a challenge.) He also told a story of how his publicist had to walk away from one of his books because GMOs were not charitably treated, and another client was heavily into them, placing the publicist in a classic “fuck or walk” conundrum.

Richard Godwin sees two lines in each noir tale. The first is where the situation tempts the protagonist to cross the line of legality. The second is where he fails, often because the powers that be will not allow him to succeed. Godwin feels strongly about noir tales where the protagonist is forced into the situation, as opposed to being drawn in by his own lust or greed. A key element of all noir is moral compromise, regardless of the motivation.

This was a good panel, one of the two best of the weekend, and Stuart Neville still stole it. Speaking without notes (this was not a traditional panel of back and forth, but several brief speeches), Neville described the lessons of growing up in Northern Ireland.  As he ages, he finds himself less willing to write about what is gained by violence—nothing, now that he thinks about it—and more about what is lost: everything. He is appalled that killers are now respected members of government. Speaking of those who would kill a man in front of his son and call it an act of politics, he is plainspoken: it’s not politics. It’s murder. They’re not politicians; they’re criminals. Period. These men were always criminals. The Troubles just gave them a “legitimate” outlet. (He also brought a bit of a chill to the room when he said there’s a danger of writers using the term “noir” as a way to try to set themselves a bit above those who write plain old crime fiction.)

My vantage point made it a little hard to tell who said what for the “Jewish Noir” panel. I did learn that the Jewish Bible is in a different order than the Christian New Testament, ending on a more upbeat note. Judaism is also the perfect noir religion, as one can follow the right path and still get screwed. Oy.

I skipped dinner on Saturday to take a nap and rest up for the last night at the bar, which was time well spent. One drawback to NoirCon is that the evening activities are somewhat dispersed and no transportation is provided. I didn’t feel like messing with another cab to go to dinner and I appear to have chosen wisely, as sorting out whose cab was whose after what was sometimes an extended wait apparently turned into a bit of a cluster fuck. Buses would have been nice.

That’s a quibble. On balance, I had a great time, and learned a lot. Aside from renewing acquaintances with the likes of Peter Rozovsky, Absolutely Kate Pilarcik, Jon McGoran, and Mike Dennis, I got to meet face-to-face for the first time such luminaries as Patti Abbott, Kate Laity, Jed Ayres, Erik Arneson, and Vicki Hendrix. (To those who qualified but were omitted here, my sincerest apologies, but there was drinking going on.) Well worth the trip.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Twenty Questions With Jonathan Ashley

Jonathan Ashley is a freelance journalist and book dealer living in Lexington, KY. His work has appeared in Crime Factory, A Twist of Noir, LEO Weekly, Kentucky Magazine and Yellow Mama. The Cost of Doing Business, which Frank Bill calls "one black tar mind-fuck-ride of a novel", is out now from 280 Steps in paperback and e-formats.

OBAAT: Tell us about The Cost of Doing Business.
Jonathan Ashley: It is a dark comedy about a person's entry into the drug world. Jon Catlett, a misanthropic literary obsessive, is facing the loss of the only thing in the world he loves; his used bookstore. He has several other problems, the least of which are his love affair with a bi-polar femme fatale heiress to a thriving northern steel company, or the exponentially growing opiate habit he has developed. When Jon, during a deal gone wrong, accidentally kills a fellow drug addict, getting away with murder turns out to be the least of his worries. The steps he and Paul, the obsessive-compulsive manager of Jon's store, must take to cover up the killing result in the two cornering Louisville’s blossoming heroin trade.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
JA: I owned a bookstore in Louisville, actually at the same exact location as described in the novel. I’d also had struggled with different addictions in my life and as a result came face to face with some pretty scary operators. Around that time, I felt very lost and suffered from the most paralyzing depression I’d ever known. I hated everything I wrote. I was in an MFA program where they thought crime writers lesser artists. Finally, something clicked. I was living a crime novel with my deviant behavior and ties to the local drug trade. So, I just started writing, a vague idea about a junkie book dealer who replaces his favorite high with that of power through importing mass quantities of heroin, the city’s now most popular drug. The rest of the work seemed to take care of itself.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write The Cost of Doing Business, start to finish?
JA: I wrote the first draft in two months but, when all editing and re-structuring ceased, I’d spent about a year on the project.

OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
JA: Jon is your classic underachiever. Despite his character faults, his failures, and his horrid past, he still believes he’s too smart to be struggling financially, running a failing used bookstore. He feels undiscovered for his genius, underutilized, and, in all things, that everyone should appreciate him more. He is the most ungrateful character I have ever written. Yet, I try to make the audience understand how he has gotten by in life, sometimes very successfully. Therein comes his charm, humor, and, strangely, an almost unreasonable sense of loyalty and justice.

OBAAT: In what time and place is The Cost of Doing Business set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
JA: It’s a modern novel set in Louisville, KY. I think the place is very important in regards to the story and characters. While a culturally rich Southern city – Southern in that it’s far below the Mason-Dixon line - Louisville is also a poor city full of people trying to just get by another day. The rift between the poor and the ridiculously rich is enormous. The city is blatantly segregated. And lately, a heroin problem worse than some mega-cities has developed. It’s a perfect place for Jon and Paul to proceed along their misadventures. I’ve lived a lot of places, and maybe it’s because of the city’s strange mix of hillbilly and cosmopolitan culture, but I’ve never met more interesting people in one place than in Louisville.

OBAAT: How did The Cost of Doing Business come to be published?
JA: I sent it to several agents who either responded with form letters or pointed out that the novel didn’t seem to fit anywhere. It had a strange mix of black humor, social commentary, violence, with a nearly conventional crime story woven in. I did little to adjust to these agents’ parameter or to try and give them what they wanted because their response was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want to write your grandpa’s crime novel. I wanted to write one that deals with real people making hard choices in the face of impossible financial situations, or because of their own demons. Then 280 Steps accepted the work and asked for a sequel.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JA: John Cheever. I recommend his collected stories to anyone who wants to learn how to write and to possibly publish. Dashiell Hammett was writing before and influenced Earnest Hemingway in that clipped, no-words-wasted style that Hemingway made famous. Truth was, he stole it from the best crime novelist every to live. Elmore Leonard will also school you on how to put a story together. Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price have made the undeniable connection in their respective works between crime, class and poverty. They’re the game changers. Then there’s the classics. Lolita, Deliverance, A Fan’s Notes, A Confederacy Of Dunces – those to name a few are books every writer should not just read, but study.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
JA: Jon Kennedy Toole. Frederick Exley. Lawrence Durrell. James Crumley. Hammett. Charles Willeford, Elmore Leonard. David Goodis.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
JA: I wear a robe, smoke a cigar, and let the robe hang open in case anyone tries to interrupt my writing time. I also keep the office land-mined and only I have the map that can lead a person safely in our out of my office.

If I think of a scene that will come later in the novel, or even say, halfway through the novel, the entire second act comes to me, I’ll jot that down. But I have never plotted one from beginning to end without first writing and letting the characters tell me where they might want to go.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
JA: I treat each draft equally. That way if I am killed in a home invasion and can save it to my email before I die, I can say I was doing my best work before I bleed out. I usually write a few pages, then go back and edit them half to death. Then I repeat that process until tea-time. Just kidding. I don’t have tea-time. I just mainline the caffeine right between my toes.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JA: Write your ass off for at least an hour a day. Read what you wrote. Make the corrections. Then put it away and do not think about it until it’s time for you to return to the desk the next day. Write well everyday. Take care of your sentences and your sentences will take care of you. I have learned this lesson the hard way, trust me.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
JA: Swimming laps. Walking my dog. Teaching if I have a class at the time. I also write political pieces for a local magazine and sell used/rare books on the internet. For a writer, I’m a fairly busy dude.

OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
JA: Neither. I take with me the comfort that I worked again that day. I was never a disciplined man. But I have made myself one when it comes to writing. Money comes and goes. Praises turn cruel. But the only person that can stop me from is me.

OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
JA: I’d take the money, then move to a country that does not extradite and keep writing anyway.

OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
JA: I would go with someone like 280 Steps. They're getting great readings for me. Reviews I wouldn’t have dreamt of. The cover is cool. And they maintain an honest, consistent working relationship with me, always open-minded as to possibilities of exposure and higher sale volume. I don’t know that I would make any kind of change right now, knowing what I do of the publishing industry. I guess it would depend on the book I was working on and whatever possible offer an outside publisher might make. For right now though, I am proud that my first novels will be released with powerful support and backing of 280 Steps.

OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
JA: No thanks. I’m allergic. They make me break out in warrants and handcuffs. Also, I may have to work in a few months and drinking, for me, can ruin even commitments far into the future. It’s like the domino effect.

OBAAT: Baseball or football?
JA: Football. People are more likely to get seriously hurt.

OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
JA: Have you ever killed a man? Say a drifter you thought no one would miss just for shits and gigs or maybe a more sexual MO?

OBAAT: What’s the answer?
JA: That’s a fucked up question, man I’m not even going to dignify that with a response. You’re sick. You’re sick and you need to seek serious psychiatric treatment and bath in Holy Water for about a year.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JA: The Wrong Business – this is the tentative title for the sequel. It brings the rowdy. Ups all antes and the stakes are much higher, as in all good sequels.





Monday, November 3, 2014

October's Reads

October was an up and down month for reading, but the ups were so far up, it was a good month.

The Getaway Car: ADonald Westlake Non-Fiction Miscellany, edited by Levi Stahl. I came late to Westlake, and the more I learn of him, the better I like him, both as a writer and as a man. This potpourri of non-fiction—letters, essays, book introductions—is sometimes serious, more often funny, but always well crafted. Lawrence Block’s introduction takes editor Stahl to task for referring to Westlake’s “jokes,” and is right to do so. There’s not a joke in the book, though there are lot of laughs. Westlake’s strength was his wit, which showed itself in his ability to phrase what would have seemed commonplace coming from anyone else in such a way the corner of your mouth can’t help but turn up. Read this, even if you’re not a Westlake fan. Not only will it be great fun, but you’ll likely become a fan.

The Color of Blood, Declan Hughes. Hughes’s Ed Loy books are the synthesis of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Having heard Hughes speak on the primacy of the PI story in crime fiction, it’s easy to see that passion on every page here. Ed Loy gets hired to do a task, follows through to the end because he needs to know. This may not be the way of a real-life PI with bills to pay and a license to maintain, but it makes for intoxicating fiction. In The Color of Blood, Loy finds the motivations for murder in events over twenty years’ past, and describes them with a kind of prose few other than Chandler have managed. Things get a little convoluted at times and have to be explained in the classic, “I supposed you wonder I called you all together” scene, but even that is less a resolution than the spring that will launch the resolution when it comes.