Thursday, September 3, 2015

Summer's Best Reads



It’s been a busy summer, what with The Sole Heir finishing her Masters, then helping her
move to Connecticut for medical school, and going back to see her receive her first white coat and stethoscope. I also switched up on my reading habits, and did some truly recreational reading. Not that reading is ever other than recreational for me, but I took the time to read a lot of baseball analysis as a combination of relaxation and palate cleansing. With Labor Day hard upon us, I stand ready to get back into writing and taking a more workmanlike approach to my literary pursuits. (Every time I use my name and “literary” in the same sentence, Cormac McCarthy throws up in his mouth a little and has no idea why.) Here’s what I’ve been up to that’s worth passing along.

Give the Boys a Great Big Hand, Ed McBain. I’m in the tank for McBain as much as ever, so anything of his is likely to make my recommended list. This one is fairly early in the 87th Precinct series (1960), but many of the things that made him wear so well are evident, not least including working a little set piece humor into the investigation. Everything kicks off when a patrol officer notices a box left behind at a bus stop and finds a human hand inside. From there, everyone gets involved.

Bank Shot, Donald Westlake. Dortmunder steals a bank. Not just robs; steals. The real bank is undergoing renovation, so business is conducted out of a trailer that’s up on blocks, and Andy Kelp’s nephew, Victor, has the great idea to drive it away, then take the money at their leisure. Dortmunder isn’t crazy about the idea, and he’s even less enchanted with Victor, who is 1.) a putz, and 2.) a former FBI agent. Dortmunder is unaware Victor plans to write a book about the theft. As usual,everything imaginable goes wrong, and a few things only Westlake could have imagined. Great fun.

The Writers Guide to Weapons, Ben Sobieck. Much delayed by the publisher, and worth the wait. I wrote about this in detail right after I read it. Any writer—crime or otherwise—who needs to use weapons in a story should be familiar with everything in this book.

The Bill James Guide To Baseball Managers: From 1870 to Today, Bill James. Now a consultant for the Boston Red Sox, James coined the phrase sabermetrics for the study and analysis of baseball statistics. Others may have better mathematical chops, but no one combines analysis, insight, and a gift for writing like James does. Here he breaks down the evolution of the job of baseball manager from its origins through 1997. No seam head should skip this book.

Knuckleball, Tom Pitts. Artfully weaving a series of baseball games between the Giants and Dodgers into the investigation of the killing of a San Francisco cop and the effects on his partner and a family caught up in it, Pitts sets up a plot twist made all the more effective by its slow reveal. It’s less of a “I never saw that coming” than it is a “Oh, my God, he’s not going to…” and all the more effective because of it. Pitts handles the novella form effortlessly, making another argument for e-books as providing the perfect platform for a renaissance of the form.

Dig Two Graves, Eric Beetner. No one—with the possible exception of Dennis Lehane—that make me think “what a great movie this would make” more than Beetner. This is a classic revenge tale, with layers of variations. Recently paroled Val wants his vengeance on former partner Ernesto for more than ratting him out. In the tradition of the best noir stories, Val’s first bad decision leads him into a series of bad options from which no good choices are available until he meets a worst case scenario ending. Don’t think Walter Neff’s worst case; this is more of a Vic Mackey ending.

Belfast Noir, edited by Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville. As free from anthology disease as any I can remember reading. (Anthology Disease – Some of the stories don’t measure up to the general standard.) A wide variety of styles by a wide variety or writers. Among the best of the Akashic noir series.

The Dog of the South, Charles Portis. Portis is a national treasure. His books have the quiet, left-handed zaniness of Wes Anderson’s best movies, with a cast of screwballs not found elsewhere. Best known for True Grit, Portis cares little for period or setting. Anything and everything is fair game. In The Dog of the South he tells the story of a man hunting his wife and the man she’s run off with to Texas. Or Mexico. Actually, it’s what was then (1979) called British Honduras. The narrator is as reliable as a somewhat delusional nitwit can be. Everything is deadpan, not a joke in the book, and more pages than not have a laugh out loud sequence. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Twenty Questions with E.A Aymar



E.A. Aymar is the author of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2013) and You’re As Good As Dead (2015), both published by Black Opal Books. He also writes a monthly column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, and his short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Crime Factory, Yellow Mama (10/15), The Rap Sheet, and other pubs. He was recently named Managing Editor of The Thrill Begins, the International Thriller Writers’ online resource for debut and aspiring thriller writers (launching 9/15). As you can see, he’s a growing force and you’re going to see and hear more of him. In case he’s new to you—as he was to me several months ago—here’s a trip into his writing and thought processes. As you’ll see from his smart and entertaining responses, he’s worth paying attention to.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about You’re as Good as Dead.

E.A. Aymar: You’re As Good As Dead is the sequel to I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2013) and takes place three years after that first book has ended. The main character, Tom Starks, witnesses the murder of an influential crime boss and ends up being pulled between rival crime organizations and ruthless federal agents…all while trying to keep his involvement hidden from his teenage daughter.

Also, there are a pair of identical twin female assassins. They’re pretty cool. Readers have liked the Twins a lot.

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.)
EA: I didn’t intend to write a trilogy at first, but there was more I wanted to say about these characters, and violence, and I couldn’t let go. I’m terrible at letting go. I stalk all my exes on Facebook.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write You’re as Good as Dead, start to finish?
EA: Probably a year and a half. I had a definite deadline for the rough draft – my kid was due to be born in February, so I wanted a finished draft by December. I just missed December but I made January, so I didn’t end up trying to stuff his head back inside my wife’s vagina while I was typing away. Close, though.

OBAAT: Where did Tom Starks come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
EA: Tom is my response to contemporary heroes in thrillers. I love today’s writers and the surge in crime fiction writing, but I get bored with perfect, Bond’ish, “one step ahead” protagonists. I wanted someone who felt real, who would react in an extremely human way to a horrifying situation. I remember a comedian once saying that if Die Hard was a true story, then by Die Hard 3 Bruce Willis would be curled up on the ground just saying “what the fuck?” over and over. I didn’t want to go that far, but I wanted someone mortal.

Tom’s similar to me in some ways; like a lot of writers and protagonists, he’s an exaggerated version of how I imagine myself. But within those exaggerations, there’s a lot of difference. If I had a couple of assassins bunking up with me, for example, I’d probably spend every night sleepless. Tom handles it a bit better than I would. But not much better.

OBAAT: In what time and place is You’re as Good as Dead set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
EA: It’s a contemporary story based in Baltimore, and Baltimore is hugely important to the novel. That city factors into everything I write. I’m not as close to it as I was; I used to visit every weekend, especially when I was learning to write, and my writing is informed by its neighborhoods and streets and architecture. There are only a few places I’ve been that could serve as a background for a book. Baltimore, Arizona…well, I guess that’s it.

I should probably travel more.

OBAAT: How did You’re as Good as Dead come to be published?
EA: Like I mentioned earlier, I didn’t intend to write a trilogy. But Black Opal Books liked the first book and its sales performance, and was interested in seeing what happened next. I’ve been fortunate that, as a publisher, they’re agreed with my sentiment and approach to my books.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
EA: I was reared on snobby literary fiction, and it’ll always hold a close place in my heart. I love John Updike and Anne Tyler. My favorite crime fiction writer is Lawrence Block, probably. Maybe. Meg Abbott is WAY up there too. Those are the two writers who, whenever they put a book out, I will ignore my wife, son, and even the TV, and immediately read it.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
EA: It was just always going to happen.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
EA: I mean, not particularly well. I grew up in a decently middle-class environment, like most college-educated kids. I never had run-ins with the law or a fascination with law enforcement. But my imagination tends to skirt on the outside of acceptability, and when I understood that, I realized the perfect genre for me. I like being able to live out things I’d never do, and I like morally-conflicted or ethically-ambiguous characters.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
EA: Panties on the stage, baby.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
EA: The three biggest are Updike and Tyler, and also Woody Allen. The funny thing is, I don’t think anyone would find similarities between what I do and what they’ve done. My work isn’t similar to theirs at all, but I hope that I can create moments that resonate as powerfully as they did, through prose, detail, and the careful balance between humor and sadness.

Musically, the indie rap group Atmosphere does such good work that I always feel like my writing is catching up to theirs. And Billie Holiday, although I doubt I’ll ever catch her.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
EA: No pants, no matter what the people at Starbucks say.

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?
EA: I do a lot of editing.

OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
EA: I get distracted really easily, so as much as I’d like to listen to music, I have to avoid it. Otherwise I’ll end up checking out Youtube videos and getting sucked into the Internet. I have no control.

But music definitely impacts the story. The first novel was influenced by two musicians I know and admire – Abby Mott (alt-rock) and Sara Jones (jazz), both who I’ve worked with on side projects. The second was more hip-hop than anything else, although the influence was more on me and the book’s scope than is apparent in the writing. What I mean is, none of it rhymes.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
EA: I really need to concentrate when I write, and it’s hard to avoid skipping online and playing poker. My favorite tool, and I realize this sounds like a commercial, is Freedom. It disables the Internet for a set period of time and makes it a pain to get back on. Saves me from having to resort to a typewriter.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
EA: The same advice I read by William T. Vollmann – wait. He actually said writers should write for ten years before they try to publish, which is terrific advice and probably unimaginable nowadays. I’ve come across a lot of new writers who have put together a clumsy book and want to publish it ASAP. In most cases, nobody’s first book should see the light of day. It’s a long struggle, and it should be. Just because you’re published doesn’t mean you’re good.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
EA: I think it’s like basketball. Most players have a shot they’re good at, and they play for that shot. Shaq didn’t try and position himself for threes, and Seth Curry doesn’t post up. Find your strength and play to it. So I’d rate those components to what I think I do best: character, setting, tone, story/plot, narrative. I rated story/plot low because I haven’t put out a book that you must read just from the description. I really admire writers who can do that without resorting to gimmickry. One of the things I’m improving is that sense of a ticking time bomb. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead moved slowly, mainly because I was trying to combine a thriller with a sense of family drama. You’re As Good As Dead doesn’t have time for that shit; better said, I read a lot in between books to find how other writers incorporated the family stuff into their suspense, and mimicked their techniques. I think it worked, and the feedback has been that the novel moves at a brisk pace. I like that.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?

EA: My favorite book ever is The Wild Palms by William Faulkner. That’s the one I’d write. The story isn’t especially complex (see?), but it’s beautifully told, and some of the language and sentences will stay with me forever.

Either that or the Preacher series, by Garth Ennis. Fucked up and uncompromising.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
EA: I really like TV. I like sitting on the couch and staring at it. And, although it sounds lame, I like spending time with my family. My kid is 18 months old, and even though I don’t really care for kids or find them endearing, Noah’s different. I like him a lot.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
EA: I like to keep busy. I’m working on the third book in the trilogy, but I’m also finishing a short story and writing columns for The Washington Independent Review of Books and other sites. And I just got a new gig with the International Thriller Writers. They’re revamping and relaunching their site for debut writers, The Thrill Begins, and they made me the Managing Editor. So I “hired” (no-pay) a great team of bloggers and editors and we have a bunch of cool features planned. That launches September 15 and I’m really excited about it.

Thanks for the opportunity, Dana! I loved the short story you read in Baltimore and I’m looking forward to reading A Small Sacrifice (Kindled the other day).

OBAAT: The pleasure was all mine. Thanks for the plug.