One Bite at a Time




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.