Friday, May 24, 2019

The Effects of Bestsellers

There were no takers for today’s Diversity Friday slot, so I’ll fill it myself. If you’re reading this—and I sure hope you are or I’ll feel like a real dumbass asking you to do something—and are a woman, writer of color, LGBTQ, or basically anything other than a cisgender white male, please drop me a line at danakingcrime (at) gmail (dot) com and we’ll find an open spot for you. If you know a writer who fits any of the above descriptions and who might like an opportunity, please invite them to contact me. My goal is to feel guilty because I can’t accommodate everyone in as timely a manner as I would like. Work with me here.

Now to our regularly scheduled program.

Last Saturday was the tenth annual Gaithersburg Book Festival, a gem of an event that takes over downtown Gaithersburg MD and invites authors from all over the world. It’s become a must-go-to event for The Beloved Spouse™ and me the past few years and I recommend it without reservation for any readers.

Friend of the blog Ed Aymar was part of a thought-provoking panel that included John Copenhaver, Julie Maloney, and moderator Hannah Oliver Depp. Each author has a book out that handles some dark element of life we all wish didn’t exist, but does. As thought-provoking panels are wont to do, this one got me to thinking, though not necessarily in the way the panelists might have expected.

What makes a best-seller, and what do bestsellers say about us? Even more, how do the books affect us?

Bestsellers are, by and large, about events bigger than life. Donald Maas may not have invented the phrase “raising the stakes” in his Writing the Breakout Novel, but if he didn’t, he cemented it in the public consciousness. Maas is still the gold standard—he’s presenting his Breakout Novel spiel at a pre-Bouchercon event in Dallas—and books still break out because the situations become more dire; now things even start there and manage to get worse.

Human trafficking. Kidnapping. Remorseless and amoral drug cartels. Sociopathic spouses. Serial killers. These are the grist for the mill of mystery and thriller sales. When asked why these topics are so popular, the standard answer is that they provide safe havens for readers to explore the worst the world has to offer, but from a distance (our homes, where we feel safest), and with the knowledge that things will turn out at least relatively well.

What no one talks about is what effect such reading has on the life the art claims to imitate. I will not dispute the horror of human trafficking or drug abuse or serial killers or learning how vile the person is who sleeps next to you. All of these happen. What people seem to have lost is the perspective to remind themselves they don’t happen very often. With a modicum of care, one is more likely to be killed by a cow than kidnapped or tortured to death. (Don’t feel too safe. Cows kill more people than do sharks. That’s why I still eat steak, before the brutal bovine bastards decide it’s my turn.) It’s just that the kidnappings and torture killings are what makes the news and the bestseller lists, creating the impression the world is a far more dangerous place than it is.

Do I exaggerate? The “CSI Effect” is well documented, where juries demand DNA and trace evidence and hair samples and shoeprint matches because they see all that on the modern crime shows and think things really work that way. We have a surgical image of war in part because of what I call the Tom Clancy Effect, where all this marvelous hardware works exactly as it’s intended, every time. I saw a knowledgeable speaker asked once if our weapons actually worked that well. “In theory,” he said. “In practice something always goes wrong.” A complex military endeavor is as likely to turn into the abortive rescue of the Iran hostages in 1980 as the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

It’s fun to watch movies or read books where intricate conspiracies spin out. Just don’t start thinking things work that well in the real world. The writers always have the godlike power for the conspirators to catch a convenient break, or for something to go wrong enough to raise the stakes. The child kidnapped for sale as a sex slave just happens to have a father with a unique and relevant set of skills and a stepfather rich enough to place Dad wherever he needs to be in a matter of minutes.

This is all well and good so long as everyone remembers that life isn’t like that. Do all these things happen? Sure they do. Are they horrible? Goddamn right. The question folks seem more likely to forget to ask anymore is “How likely is it?” what are the odds your child will be whisked away by a stranger in the United States? About 1 in 300,000.

Too many of us live fear-based lives; it’s more apparent in political campaigns all the time. The Beloved Spouse™ knows an intelligent man who comes heavy to the movies because he’s afraid to be caught there unarmed when the shooting starts. How many people are killed by gunman in theaters each year? One is too many, so too many. What are the odds one of them will be you? Infinitesimal. Be safe. Be vigilant. Do not be paranoid.

Nothing is guaranteed in life. A security system will not prevent someone from stealing your car or breaking into your house if they want to badly enough. The best we can hope for is to dissuade those who aren’t dead solid serious about it. The best we can do is not to let the fears we allow to be induced in ourselves, whatever their origin, to get the better of us.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Don't Read Shitty Books

Among the first—and best—pieces of advice every fledgling writers hears is, “Read. Read everything. The good stuff will inspire you and the bad will teach you what not to do.” While that’s sterling advice for a newcomer, I have an addendum that applies to writers who have found their way enough to become comfortable with their own voice:

Don’t read shitty books.

That’s good advice on a superficial because life’s too short. None of us has time to read everything we want to. Why waste precious reading time on something you don’t enjoy? Reading should always be a pleasure. True, academic or training texts often are not, but that’s the fault of the author. Even technical journals can be fun to read if done right. Not necessarily “ha-ha” funny, but not drudgery, either.

When it comes to fiction, though, enjoy everything you read. “But wait,” you say. (I heard you even if you didn’t yourself. I’m good like that.) “Haven’t you said that once one commits to being a writer one can never read solely for enjoyment again?” Yes, I have. “Isn’t this a direct contradiction, you hypocritical prick?” No, it’s not, and you need to take a deep fucking breath before this gets testy. (I’ve been bingeing Deadwood in preparation for the movie. Sometimes it shows.)

My position is unchanged. Once you commit to being a writer, you lose the luxury of reading solely for pleasure. Some part of your mind has to be analyzing the work. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the reading of it. In a really good book you should enjoy even the analytical part, as appreciation for recognizing something done well, and wondering how you might improve yourself by this insight.

Shitty books are more inclined to lower your standards. The last thing you want when reworking a tricky passage is to remember the most recent piece of dreck you read and start to figure, even subconsciously, “This is already better than the book I’m reading now.” Down that path lies shitty writing with your name on it.

I know some friends who don’t read fiction when they’re working on a book. I see their point but disagree. Too many times have I been plodding along in a rewrite when I’ll see just the right thing in a novel and know exactly what to do next. Not plagiarizing. Noticing a technique that will work. Maybe a different POV character. Show by looking back through dialog. Scene reversal. Could be anything. 

The absolute last thing I want is for some shitty book to have that kind of influence, even subliminally. This takes eternal vigilance. Shitty books abound in nature, as natural as black mold on a wet wall. That’ll make you sick. Stay away from it. I’m not saying if the first page doesn’t grip you by the nether regions and drag you along you should quit, but if you’ve read 20 – 50 pages and have to talk yourself into continuing, leave. Even better, get the fuck out. (Which is leaving with extreme prejudice.) You’ll be happier and your writing will be better for it. 

Friday, May 10, 2019

Graduation Day

This is Diversity Friday, though a decided dearth of diverse dramatists may have dried up the design before it achieved critical mass. Digging deeper into the depths of alliterative depravity, the blog takes the day off from writerly interests for a family outing, as today The Sole Heir becomes a doctor, as in M.D.

I try not to make this blog too much about me; asking people to suffer my opinions already tests the limits of both human endurance and compassion. Today I get to swell my fatherly chest a little as I take a few minutes to tell the world how proud I am of this young woman. People have asked me for years what my favorite age is for her when I look back and I have always said, “However old she is now.” Never has that been more true than today.

Congratulations, Dr. Blewett.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Favorite Reads for March and April

Events overtook my shout-outs for my favorite reads in March so we’ll catch things up here.

Trigger, David Swinson. The third of the Frank Marr trilogy finds Marr trying to clean up his act. Well, a little. The thing with Marr is that he likes how he is but comes to realize he’s paying too high a price in other aspects of his life to continue to indulge in the “WWHSTD?” lifestyle. (What Would Hunter S. Thompson Do?) Here Marr’s helping his old police partner defend himself in an officer involved shooting that looks dirty. Marr wants to help but is less than enthusiastic about the prospects until he runs into a former adversary he almost killed in The Second Girl. Watching Marr trying to bring a former banger along as a partner gives the reader insights Marr can’t get into on his own even in a first-person narrative and makes this book stand out. I still like The Second Girl best of the three, but that may well be because it was so unlike anything I expected.

November Road, Lou Berney. A worthy successor to The Long and Faraway Gone, a book that won so many awards organizations had to invent new ones. The story takes place immediately after the Kennedy assassination as a mid-level New Orleans mobster who was peripherally involved realizes he’s a cut-out and hits the road, where he hooks up with a housewife who’s had enough and is taking the kids west to no one knows what. He needs her as cover, she’s in over her head and doesn’t see through him until it’s too late. There are few around who tell a story as well as Berney and though I wasn’t crazy about the ending I’ll still bet November Road end up in the ten best books I’ll read this year. (I don’t like saying something doesn’t work for me and not saying why, but that would be a spoiler in this case.)

I Will Find You: Solving Killer Cases from My Life Fighting Crime, Joe Kenda. Kenda is a retired Colorado Springs detective with a homicide clearance rate of well over 90%. The show based on his career, Homicide Hunter, is a staple of Investigation Discovery’s programming. This memoir moves from his younger days in Western Pennsylvania (less than an hour from where I grew up and based Penns River) through his career in Colorado Springs and his early retirement. Kenda shows more personality in the book than the TV show allows, including a dry wit that he uses in just the right amounts. An informal and entertaining book that should be read by anyone interested in how law enforcement actually works.

American Tabloid, James Ellroy. While not the Great American Novel, is it certainly a great American novel, and the Quintessential American Novel. Here’s to all the rogue cops and shakedown artists and wiretappers and soldiers of fortune and faggot lounge entertainers who shaped American history as we know it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Terrence McCauley, Author of Dark Territory

Among the highlights of my writing career was a Bouchercon panel assignment in Albany circa 2013. (Editor’s Note: The Oxford English Dictionary has called to complain about the use of the word “career” to describe my writing activities, to which I say, “Bite me, you Limey gobshites. I got your Brexit right here, pal.”) Moderated by the lovely and talented Peter Rozovsky, it included Eric Beetner, Mike Dennis, Jonathan Woods, and today’s guest Terrence McCauley. I’d read Terrence’s book Prohibition and was delighted to run into him in the booksellers’ area before the panel, where we chatted and he gave me a copy of another of his Prohibition-era books, Slow Burn. We became friends and remain so even as I have come to understand there’s nothing the prick can’t write well, from period crime novels to techno-thrillers to crossovers of the two and now, Westerns. We’ve talked about his previous writing before, so today we’re going to focus on Westerns.

One Bite at a Time: Your Prohibition- and pre-World War II-era books are well received, as is the University series of techno-thrillers. What took you over to Westerns?

Terrence McCauley: I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the genre. On the one hand, I love the true history of that time in our nation’s history. The drama, the danger, the rawness of it and the wickedness, too. I never liked how it was portrayed in movies or television shows because I think they whitewashed a lot of things and flat out lied about the way people lived back then. Like the whole showdown on Main Street at high noon. Those kinds of things didn’t happen very often, if at all. I wanted to write a western that was closer to the kind of story I wanted to see. Almost every type of story has been told about the west, all the way from the unrealistically patriotic movies of John Ford to the equally unrealistic revisionist history of later years. I wanted to tell a story that was about people, not stereotypes. People seem to have liked it.  

OBAAT: I haven’t had a chance to read Dark Territory yet, but Where the Bullets Fly is a fascinating mix of modern sensibilities and sensitivities while also serving an homage to classic Western tropes. Was that the plan, or did it just come out that way?

TM: I wrote the kind of story I wanted to see, but rarely did. The western expansion was a far more diverse time than people realize and I wanted to write a story that showed that diversity without pandering to current audiences seeking diversity where there was none. For example, there weren’t many women gunfighters, so I don’t have such characters in my westerns. But the women weren’t shrinking violets, either, and I write the same type of strong female characters in my westerns as I do in my other books. There were, however, black lawmen at the time, most notably Bass Reeves among others. My Billy Sunday character harkens back to that. After introducing him as an essential character in Bullets, I have him branch out even more in Dark Territory and in the third Mackey book, tentatively titled Blood Warrant that I’m working on now. I plan on continuing to add more realistic, diverse characters to the mix in my westerns because I always seek to avoid stereotypes and want to keep my work as interesting for me and for the reader.

OBAAT: How hard was it to fall into a style that suited a Western after writing the University series? I know The Fairfax Incident came between but that’s closer to the University than to a Western.

TM: I’ve found it to be more restorative than anything else. It keeps me from getting stale. Too many books of the same type in a row tend to bore me and I deserve better. So does my audience. That’s not to say I’m done with the University Series or Charlie Doherty or Terry Quinn or James Hicks or any of the characters I’ve created. Far from it.

But I enjoy the challenge of changing up tone and setting of my stories. Writing about the 1930s for me is like a bowl of ice cream. I love every second of it and I love it more with each passing page. Fairfax wasn’t an easy book to write, but it was a joy to do it.

Writing about Hicks and the University Series has become easier as I’ve grown more familiar with those characters and what they can do.

Westerns are a different pace entirely. Everything took longer back then and present special challenges. One couldn’t just pick up a phone and call. They couldn’t hop in a car or board a plane and get from point A to point B quickly. Even the shortest trips took the better part of a day at least and required planning. Horses needed to be fed and tended to. They got sick and injured, too. Death was always just a cold or an infected cut away. It was a deliberate time and only deliberate people survived it. So, in some ways, my westerns are different from the rest of my work, but there are also many similarities.

OBAAT: What or who are your primary influences as a writer of Westerns?

TM: The movies played a huge role in my interest in westerns, just as they played a role in my interest in the 1930s. But, like the 1930s, once I began doing research into the actual era, I found a world the movies only scratched.

However, my first real interest in westerns came from a short story I had to read in high school called, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”. It was a story that broke all of the expected tropes in westerns and showed me that there was much more to the genre than I had seen in the movies.

But the movies that had an impact on me were huge. Yes, The Searchers is flawed and could have done with a sharper editor’s blade, but several of the scenes in it were iconic as was the ending. (The book is excellent, by the way, and differs from the movie in several key areas.) The Outlaw Josey Wales was right up there with another anti-hero and epic scenes filmed by Clint Eastwood. 

OBAAT: You and I have known each other as members of the crime fiction community since we shared a Bouchercon panel in Albany in 2013. I know you’ve been to at least one major Western conference. What are they like? Similarities? Differences?

TM: I attended the Western Writers of America conference in Billings, Montana in 2018 and absolutely loved everything about the experience. I love Montana, the scenery and the people. The convention was much smaller than Bouchercon, but fantastic. People who think the genre only encompasses books about cowboys and Indians and bandits and sheriffs really need to take a look at the number of categories they have for the Silver Spur Award to see how wrong they are. The amount of scholarship in that community is so deep, it’s almost impossible to believe. Sure, they cover western history and fiction, but they also cover modern subjects as well, such as organized labor and environmental issues facing the west. People’s political views were all over the map, too, and they didn’t mind welcoming the bald guy with glasses and the thick New York accent into the fold. They couldn’t have been nicer to me and my wife, Rita, and I’m proud to be a member of the organization.

To the contrary, I’ve seen a lot of bitterness and piety in the crime fiction community lately and it saddens me. There’s a mob mentality that seems to spring up right before a convention that creates a nasty undercurrent throughout the event. A controversy is born, sides are chosen and armies of right and righteousness take to steed and charge into battle.

At least on Facebook and on blogs and on Twitter, anyway.

It’s a trend that’s not fair to conference organizers, volunteers or to attendees. Unfair accusations get thrown around like they don’t mean anything, but they do. We have to be mindful of people who seek to burn things down simply to have the joy of licking the ashes. The ruins be damned.

For example, last year’s Bouchercon was dominated by the #MeToo movement and respect for women. It’s a just cause that can never receive enough support or attention. Anyone who believes it’s not a problem that deserves to be stomped out wherever it takes place is a fool. Some attendees even wore stars on their name tags to show they cared and could be a safe space for women who needed help. My wife and I even volunteered for the program, but no one got around to giving us a star. We kept an eye out anyway.

But the luster of those stars dimmed when it actually came time to actually do something about defending female attendees or female staff members of the hotel. One particular participant was on a drunken tirade the entire weekend and none of the brave souls with stars stepped in when he was nasty to women or to female staff members. Many members of this star force probably remained quiet because a) the offender was a friend of theirs and b) because the guy who drank actually posed a physical threat. Posting one’s commitment to defending women on line is one thing. When faced with a raving drunk who could knock you on your ass? Well, that’s different. It’s far safer to stay in the crowd and sip your pilsner and talk about your training than actually putting it into practice.

The drunken offender was obviously going through a lot and needed some kind of assistance. But I abhor grandstanding phonies who either brag about their bravery online only to shrug when it’s needed. I hold people who use a crisis they helped to create as a way to sell books in particular contempt. “Take a stand against predatory men and fight for women.” Great idea. Sign me up, until: “And the best way you can tear down the patriarchy is to buy my book right now.” Huh?

There have also been a lot of ugly accusations thrown around concerning racial diversity in our genre. I’ve had good friends smeared on both sides. Their motives have been questioned and it’s horrible. But good things come out of turmoil and I’m glad to see a dedication to increasing the diversity in our gene. It won’t happen immediately and we can’t get there soon enough, but I’m glad many members of our community are taking steps to moving it in the right direction.

My take on controversies at conventions is simple. If you see or hear of someone stepping out of line or doing something horrible, do something. Call them out on it directly, or get someone else to do it. Demand answers. You’re entitled to them. If not, then remain content to talk about craft beer and social injustice and stay in the corner where you belong while the people who are actually trying to improve things do their work.

OBAAT: Dark Territory followed Where the Bullets Fly by only six months. Is this a sign of a permanent shift toward Westerns? Two books you got ideas for at once and had to get off your chest? Or do Westerns seem to come quicker for you?

TM: Where the Bullets Fly was actually written ten years ago before I was published. I had it on my computer for a long time while I waited to see if the genre might rebound. When my agent asked me for a list of all my work, I figured he’d ignore the western. To my surprise, that’s what he focused on. The good people over at Kensington were interested and they bought it. They asked for Dark Territory so quickly because they knew I was in between projects at the time.

Writing about the west comes quicker to me now than it did when I started Bullets. I know these characters now. I’m comfortable with them and the world they inhabit. Writing about Aaron Mackey and Billy Sunday and the evil James Grant is easier because I know them now, but it’s by no means easy. I try to make each book a bit different than the last, so each work presents its own new set of challenges.  

Friday, April 26, 2019

Dea Poirier, Author of Next Girl to Die

Dea (D.H) Poirier (dee pour-e-er) was raised in Edmond, Oklahoma, where she got her start writing in creative writing courses and attended The University of Central Oklahoma, majoring in Computer Science and Political Science. Later, she spent time living on both coasts, and traveling the United States, before finally putting down roots in Central Florida, thus establishing herself as a centrist. Dea now resides somewhere between Disney and the swamp. Next Girl to Die is her first novel.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us a little about Next Girl to Die.
Dea Poirier: Next Girl To Die is a mystery/police procedural where
Detective Claire Calderwood returns to her hometown of Vinalhaven, Maine after a girl dies in circumstances very similar to Claire's sister's unsolved homicide. Claire must battle with unresolved emotions regarding her sister's death while trying to hunt down a ritualistic serial killer before she or another girl on the island becomes the next girl to die.

OBAAT: What was it about this story that made you want to spend however much time it took to write?  
DP: I was really drawn to the island in Maine—Vinalhaven—where the story is set. While writing the story I did research on the town, the history of it, and how weave in some of the history/geography into the story itself.

OBAAT: While we’re at it, how long did it take you to write Next Girl to Die?
DP: Next Girl To Die took me about six weeks to write (maybe a touch longer, it’s been a while, as I originally wrote it in 2016). While writing the story I did research on the town, the history of it, and how weave in some of the history/geography into the story itself.

OBAAT: I hate to ask questions along the lines of “If you like _________, you’ll like my book,” but there’s also no point in ignoring the influences other authors and books have on us. What book or author had the most influence in how you wrote this book, even if that book or person is not a huge influence on your writing in general?
DP: I would say the biggest influence on this book was Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. I read it shortly before I started Next Girl to Die and it (and a lot of Law & Order SVU) helped inspire the story.

OBAAT: In cruising your web site and blog I noticed you do interviews yourself. In keeping with my policy of never asking people questions I wouldn’t be willing to answer myself, I’m going to steal a couple you asked others. (Hehehehe.)

What is your writing routine? (e.g. How do you carve out your writing time? Where do you normally write?)

DP: My writing routine has had to evolve around my family life and my
career. I used to get up at 4 am to write while everyone in my house was still asleep, but now I’ve had to shift to writing at night since my kid gets up early. On a typical day, I try to write during my lunch break if I can squeeze it in, then I try to carve out two hours (or a little more) at night for my writing time.

OBAAT: What is your favorite part of your writing process, and why?
DP: Drafting – I will forever love it. There’s something about getting that initial spark, the first hints of a story in my mind, chasing it down, and outlining how it will all flow into a story. I also enjoy writing a first draft.

OBAAT: What is the most challenging part of your writing process, and why?
DP: Editing the first draft. To me that’s the worst part, I second guess myself, I have a hard time visualizing how it will one day be a great draft. I find that once I get through the first two or three passes, I’m good. But those first few, they are the absolute worst.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
DP: I’m currently working on a dual-timeline psychological suspense, two YA historical fantasies, and an adult historical fantasy.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Tim O'Mara, Editor of Down to the River

I’ve told my favorite Bouchercon story here more than once. My second favorite Bouchercon story took place in Cleveland. The Beloved Spouse™ had made me a long-sleeve black T-shirt with “WWASD” on the left breast and “What Would Al Swearengen Do?” across the back. I was at the bar waiting for a drink when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to see a guy I’d never seen before. First words out of his mouth? “I want that shirt.”

And so was born my enduring friendship with Tim O’Mara. I didn’t know he was a writer at the time, so it was doubly tickling to learn how good he was once I got a look at his Raymond Donne books, crime fiction tales starring a former policemen who now teaches in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. We share a love of baseball, have both worked in public education (Tim retired a few years ago), and share many warm thoughts about the 1960 World Series. (Tim because the Yankees won their three game by scores of 16 – 3, 10 – 0, and 12 - 0; me because the Pirates won the Series on Bill Mazeroski’s home run, still the only seventh-game walk-off in over a hundred years of Series play.)

Tim’s more than a good friend and outstanding writer: he’s a man of conscience. This comes through in the topics he takes on in his Raymond Donne books,  and even more so in the anthology that dropped today, Down to the River, in which I am flattered to have been asked to participate.

Tim took time form his hectic schedule to answer a few questions.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us a little about Down to the River. What can we expect?

Tim O’Mara: With Down to the River the reader can expect to be exposed to some rather diverse voices in crime fiction. Some of the authors have been around for a while, others are some of the hidden gems in crime fiction, and a few are first-timers. I also want the reader to come away with an appreciation for America’s waterways, not only as great locations for crime fiction but as the precious and fragile natural resources they are.

OBAAT: The authors all donated their stories for the benefit of American What’s the deal with them and what brought them to your attention?

TO: American Rivers educates the public about our waterways and the threats they currently face. The current administration has done away with lots of regulations that protected our rivers. Americans should be more informed and involved in this and understand that this affects all Americans regardless of political affiliation. American Rivers helps make that happen. They also lobby to keep the protections we have for out rivers in place.

OBAAT: What’s the hardest part about pulling together a project such as this?

TO: This was my first time editing at this level. I worked with twenty-two other writers to help make their stories better. I had to be very careful that any edits I suggested were presented respectfully and in the spirit of improving the story. I also needed to be mindful of not rewriting anything because that’s the way I wanted it to be written. Every single author was appreciative and more than willing to make this the best anthology it could be. (Maybe the best anthology ever?)

OBAAT: All you told the authors was that a river had to be involved somehow in their story. How broad a range of stories did you get and how geographically diverse were the rivers in your stories?

TO: The diversity of writers and their stories is the thing I am most proud of with Down to the River. Just like every river has its different twists and turns, so does every story in this book. I could have easily had two dozen stories about the Hudson River—blocks away from my home in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen—but I believed it would be much more interesting to learn about other rivers and other parts of the country. I was right. I not only received crime stories, I got a few science fiction pieces, some fantasy, and a touch of horror. A good book should surprise the reader; I didn’t know it was going to surprise the editor.

OBAAT: How did you decide who you wanted as contributors and how hard was it to get them to sign on?

TO: Again, I wanted as much diversity as I could get. I asked writers I knew from Bouchercon and Thrillerfest and other conventions. I knew a lot of the writers’ works before asking them to contribute, but some I just had to trust. I have two writers—Marcie Rendon and Maria Kelson—who were recommended by another author who was too busy to contribute. Again, what a nice surprise and I believe I made two new friends in the process. Every writer who contributed said Yes pretty quickly and made that part of the process smoother than I could have hoped.

OBAAT: What part of molding the anthology did you enjoy most?

TO: Working with the authors was as much a learning experience for me as I hope it was for most of them. Some stories needed a period here and a comma there while others needed more work. “Molding” is a good word, Dana. The stories were all effective when I received them; my job was to chip away where needed and add when I wanted more. The process taught me a lot about my own writing and self-editing skills.

OBAAT: You can’t leave here without me asking you if there are any Raymond Donne books on the horizon. I miss him.

TO: Yes! I’m currently working on my fifth Raymond Donne book, The Hook. This time around I’m tackling some smaller issues: White Nationalism and the opioid epidemic in America. I’m also putting in some a Ray’s journalist girlfriend’s pieces. That’s new for me as all the Raymond books are in the first person. I wanted to do something different to keep myself—and I hope my readers—more interested in the series.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Nik Korpon, Author of Wear Your Home Like a Scar

I first met Nik Korpon at a Noir at the Bar event he put on at Slainte in Baltimore. Outstanding and versatile writer and a hell of a nice guy. Our Venn diagrams intersect through quite a few friends and we tend to show up at the same Noirs at Bars and his writing never disappoints, even sometimes becoming performance art. He straddles the line between science fiction and crime as well as anyone I know and he always has thoughts worth sharing so it’s a treat to have him here today.

One Bite at a Time: It’s been almost two years since we last got together here. You’ve wasted exactly none of that time, I see. Two books coming out the first half of this year with Down & Out Books and a recent announcement of another deal. How did you hook up with Down & Out?

Nik Korpon: Thanks for having me back! Yeah, it’s been a pretty busy year, or two or three or… I’ve wanted to work with Down & Out for a while but, for a variety of reasons, things never lined up right. Then Eric (the head of D&O) approached me after the press that had released Old Ghosts and my short-story collection went dark, asking if I wanted to put them out with D&O. Of course, I jumped on it. It’s been a long road with both of the books but I’m very proud of what we came up with.

OBAAT: Old Ghosts came out in February. Give us a little scoop on that.
NK: I’ve written a lot since the first iteration of Old Ghosts but it’s always been a special book to me. I think it was because, prior to that, I’d written about Baltimore as a way to “visit” it while living in Europe or Massachusetts. But I wrote Old Ghosts in this little crappy apartment in east Baltimore where my wife and I lived when we got married, and I’d walk through the same streets in the book on my way home from the tattoo shop where I worked at the time. There’s something about the love triangle within the book that I’ve written around a couple times, with the main character Beto being pulled between mundane life with his wife, whom he loves, and the idealized past of Chance and Delilah. It’s like that pg. 99 song, “In Love with an Apparition.” So he’s pulled between these two possibilities, both of which are real in their own way, but some are more real than others.

That said, I found a lot of stuff I didn’t like as I was editing. Some passages were overwrought (hey, I was still figuring out how to write [actually, I’m still trying to figure out how to write; I just suck less now than I did then]) and there were a couple narrative inconsistencies within it that I fixed. But overall, I wanted to make the book a little more current, more applicable to life in Baltimore as it is now, so there are more themes around gentrification, immigration, stuff the city is dealing with. I couldn’t go into it as much as I wanted/should’ve (as one reviewer pointed out) but that’s the trade-off with novellas: choosing between propulsive stories or expansive themes. Still, I’m proud of how it turned out. It was nice to see that I’ve learned something over the last ten years.

OBAAT: Wear Your Home Like a Scar is the next book up, due out May 13. Tease us with something about it.
NK: I’m super, super stoked about this one. One of the books Down & Out asked about was a collection called Bar Scars. I initially said sure, why not, but after reading through it—and looking at all the stories I’d written between publishing the collection and now, I felt like I was doing a disservice to myself to put out that collection again. So I pitched a new, better version to Eric, which he thankfully was cool with. I took three of the stories from Bar Scars and re-edited them—one of them changing a ton, as well as moving from the Jersey Shore to Medellín, Colombia—then found a handful that had been published in places like Thuglit and Crime Factory along with others I loved but had gone in small anthologies that didn’t get the recognition I felt they’d deserved. To round it out, I wrote a couple new ones that filled some thematic spots within the flow of the collection.

What I found especially interesting was revisiting all of these stories and seeing my various preoccupations pop up across the years. There are a lot of stories dealing with dislocation or trying to reinvent yourself, things I’ve become more aware of as I’ve gotten older. But it was also a chance to push myself with new settings, different narrators and such. I made up worlds when I wrote the Memory Thief books but in crime I’ve never written about any place other than where I’ve lived—everything’s Baltimore or Massachusetts. So it was fun to pull other interests into these stories, try new things. There’s a second-person la Llorona story set in Mexico. More set on the border and in South America. I actually got ideas for a few of them from a podcast called Radio Ambulante, which is like a Spanish-language This American Life. They did a two-parter on the ruta negra—the clandestine plastic surgery trade— in Medellín that was tragic and morbidly fascinating. I asked a friend in Cali (Colombia, not California) about it and we had this long conversation about how pervasive it is, the socioeconomic implications of it, plus how these various illicit markets still thrive despite the city making massive moves to overcome the stigma of Pablo Escobar. (Though I did write an Escobar-adjacent story that was based on a line I heard in El Patron del Mal, but it’s not the typical narco story.) I think that, overall, the collection is very much a Nik Korpon book, but a different and better one. If that even makes sense.

What was I just saying about learning how to write?

OBAAT: I struggle with titles and often don’t have one until I’m halfway or more through the drafts. Wear Your Home Like a Scar is a fantastic title. How did you come up with that?
NK: Ha. Basically, a long text chain between me, Chris Irvin, and Angel Colón. I initially felt like there should be some sort of connection to Bar Scars because I didn’t want people to think it was a totally new collection and feel duped but also wanted to make the name better.

Then it turned into a wholly new collection, so the name had to change. We were texting back and forth about ideas and whatnot, and eventually I hit on the idea that most of the people in the collection are trying to reinvent themselves or find a new place where they fit but are unable because of whatever baggage they carry from before. They’re hampered because they can’t leave their home (whatever that means to them) behind. It came pretty quick after that.

OBAAT: Your new news is a deal with ChiZine Publications for your novel Rogue Matter. Tell us a little of the deal and what we can expect from the book. I also hear rumors there’s a film agent linked to the book. Do tell.
NK: When I was just starting as a writer, I loved the hell out of the books ChiZine put out and it was always one of my white whales, so I was super stoked they loved the book. I’ve gotten to know Sandra and Brett (who run CZP) over the last few years and we hit it off really well. I’m looking forward to working with them.

Rogue Matter was a really fun book to write. I’d been killing myself trying to figure out a different book and it just wasn’t happening, so to clear my head on the way to work, I listened to a podcast that was The Shield writers’ room reunion. I kept thinking, Man, The Shield was so damn good. I should write a book like that. But of course, The Shield is The Shield and I couldn’t top that. Then I thought, if I can’t top it, just make it different—like, The Shield in Space. A week or two later, I had a full outline and was laughing my ass off as I was writing it. I kept calling it Fly Hard, to which my agent said Yeah, that’s funny; no, we’re not using that title. But that gives you an idea of the book. It follows a group of rogue space cops called the Meros as the former-straight-arrow lead cop tries to earn enough money to save his adoptive mother in Mexico. It’s kind of like the lead-in to a bad joke: a Swede, a Colombian, and a Brazilian walk into a bar with their capybara and it all goes to hell. There are a bunch of insane fights and explosions. Outer space chases and a bunch of soccer references. Though it’s a crazy book, I think the emotional underpinning—what constitutes family, trying to find something that fills your missing parts—keep it from being just an action book and give it some grounding. Another bonus of that whole world is that they can go to different planets, and each one acts as a different movie genre. So in Rogue Matter, they visit a cartel planet, a Shaw Brothers/Hong Kong planet, a Blade Runner-type planet. I have ideas for additional books that let me write all these sort-of mini-genre-movies, which is really exciting.

As far as the agent, Eric Reid from WME heard about the book and really dug it, so he took it back to the in-house team at WME and they all loved it, so as far as I know, it’s making the rounds. I’ve heard some things here and there, but nothing’s ever done until it’s really done so I can’t say much more than that. I’m crossing my fingers and making every kind of offering I can think of, but mostly trying to keep my head down and work on this next book to keep my mind off it.

Friday, April 12, 2019

E.A. Aymar, Author of The Unrepentant

I had a nice intro for Ed “E.A.” Aymar all set to go until the Legal Department saw what I’d written and pimples spelling “LIBEL” burst out on their foreheads. “But it’s all true,” I said. “You still can’t afford the lawsuit,” they said. “All you have is your job and that litigious bastard has the bottomless pockets of [employer name redacted]. He’ll bankrupt you.”


So, E.A. Aymar is an author, raconteur, bon vivant, entrepreneur, media genius, and the country’s leading provider of dick jokes. His new book, The Unrepentant, is blowing up, and his treatment of a delicate issue is earning well-deserved kudos from all points. Ed also writes a column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, serves on the board of the International Thriller Writers while managing “The Thrill Begins” for ITW and acting as the Vice-President for Author Programs. He also organizes Washington DC-area Noirs at the Bar, where his penchant for awarding deadly weapons to the fan favorites had brought him wide-ranging attention, notably within the Metropolitan Police Department.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us a little about The Unrepentant.

E.A. Aymar: First off, thank you for having me back on OBAAT. I’d never tell you this because you’re such a cranky asshole, but you do a really wonderful job with this blog, and your work with police procedurals is some of the best I’ve read.

The Unrepentant is a story about an 18-year old girl who is tricked and kidnapped by criminals, and taken from Arizona to Maryland. She escapes with the help of a former soldier and realizes, to fully escape, she needs to kill all the men who kidnapped her. Hilarity ensues? Not really, but there is a joke here or there.

Anyway, just to warn you, this is the only question you asked that I can answer.

OBAAT: You spoke at the book’s launch about how much research you had to do into human trafficking and how distasteful it was. I had a similar, though I’m sure less intense, experience when I researched men’s rights advocates for a book. Talk a little about what you learned and the ways it repelled you.

EAA: It’s pretty easy to understand the repellant elements of sex trafficking – the kidnapped or coerced women or children, the abuse, the callousness. What changed for me was the way I regarded prostitution. I’d often thought of prostitution as a victimless crime, one that was determined more by morals than actual harm.

That changed in the course of my research, both in the essays and interviews I read, as well as the interviews I conducted. I’d subscribed to the myth of the happy hooker for years – that the men and women who did this work did it out of choice. And that legalizing the practice would eliminate many of its current dangers.

Those were, in many cases, naïve assumptions.

Places where prostitution has been legalized, for example, have often suffered an increase in child sex trafficking and child prostitution. And although some sex workers have entered the profession voluntarily, they tend to be exceptions. And the act of prostitution loses its allure when you realize that some prostitutes have a dozen or more clients a night, rather than the imagined Pretty Woman take on the practice.

All that said, I don’t have an argument in the pro/con debate over sex work. Many of the people I spoke with think all sex work should be abolished. Others don’t. And I really don’t know the correct answer to that question.

OBAAT: You write, have a full-time job with an employer that threatened to “sue [my] ass off” if I said who they were, write a column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, manage “The Thrill Begins” for the International Thriller Writers in addition to serving on the board and acting as the Vice-President for Author Programs for ITW, organize the Washington DC-area Noirs at the Bar, and are on a first-name basis with every author, editor, publisher, bookseller, reader, and bail bondsman on the East Coast. In your spare time you have a wife and child. How do you find the time, and does your young ‘un recognize you?

EAA: Ha! I don’t know anybody you don’t. The thing is, crime fiction is a small community (though it doesn’t feel that way), and we all know each other. And we care about each other, despite the occasional tussles here and there.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently – not the tussles, but your question. When I was just starting out, writing was everything, and the most important commitment I had. I put it ahead of others in my life, and was pretty much a pretentious d’bag about it. It wasn’t until I got married, and then when I had my son, that I realized other things could, and should, come ahead of it.

I was very selfish when I started out, and not terribly considerate of others in my life. But, here’s the thing…maybe that was necessary? Maybe I needed to distance people, and neglect what others wanted of me? Maybe I really needed to embrace it as roughly as I did.

I don’t think that has to be the case, but that’s the way I did it. And I’ve found that the best techniques you know may not work for others. I’d tell anyone who wants to write that they should write every day. But there are good writers who write, say, only when they’re getting paid. And that works for them.

I have a commitment to writing, particularly in regards to my approach to it. If I die tomorrow, I don’t think I’ll regret not writing more. But I will regret not seeing my son grow older.

OBAAT: You’re as affable a person as I know. Easy-going, quick and ready sense of humor, always a smile on your face, yet revenge is a thread through virtually all your writing. What the fuck?
EAA: I’ve moved a bit away from revenge as a concept, I think, and toward violence. The Unrepentant can be considered a revenge story, but I really think of it as a study of violence – how it’s embraced, repelled, and used.

And, again, it’s something I’ve thought a lot about (so, good question), especially in regard to my books. I think I would like to write something lighter. I don’t want to write another Unrepentant, but I can’t really write something funny. I wish I could – I admire Wodehouse and our friend Sherry Harris, but it’s really hard to write a funny story. Every element has to have some degree of humor, from the plot to the characters to the dialogue to the description, and it has to be balanced. That’s really difficult, and I do think it has to be the natural pull inside you.

I’m not that guy. When I’ve tried to put more humor in my stories, it doesn’t work. That was really hard with The Unrepentant, because I was focusing on how to make something affable and, hey you sociopathic asshat, there’s a kidnapped, abused young woman here. Pay attention.

I guess it’s like this…my pull tends to be dark, with moments of light. But if you write about the light, with moments of darkness, that’s just as powerful.

I think I need a healthier outlook on life, maybe? I dunno.

I blame Trump.

OBAAT: At the launch for The Unrepentant you spoke of your interest in the “philosophy of violence.” For those who weren’t there, what did you mean by that?

EAA: I’ve been saying that in promotion of the book, but it’s a bit vague. What I’ve really been exploring is the male and female approach and needs for violence, which is a bit of a gross generalization.

Statistically, men are more physically violent than women, especially when it comes to sexual violence. As a country, we tend to try to view violence racially, nationally, or through economic spheres, but we rarely consider it as it relates to gender. When a mass shooting occurs, we debate gun laws and video games and movies, and those can certainly factor in. But the discussion rarely centers on the gender of the person committing that crime, and that person is almost always male.

I’m not sure why men are pulled to violence in a way women, seemingly, aren’t. I’m not different. I like violence as entertainment, whether it’s in the relatively bloodless Marvel universe, or sometimes in the grimmest portrayal imaginable (a movie like Irreversible, for example). And I like controlled forms of violence, like football or MMA, although I’ve tuned out of MMA in recent years. And I’ve studied both wrestling and judo, which have degrees of violence within them (as opposed to, say, golf).

Obviously, those are all things that many women enjoy a great deal and, happily, there’s been a push to have that enjoyment expressed. But women don’t seem as compelled to engage in pure violence in the same way we do. Maybe men have less control, and perhaps that’s because we’re taught, as men, that we don’t need control. Everything is our dominion and, if it’s not, we have the right (and, to an extent, the duty) to take it. It’s an unhealthy way to look at the world, and it poisons the world. And us.

But I don’t know.

See? I told you I can’t answer of these questions.

Monday, April 8, 2019

An Interview With Lance Wright, Associate Editor and Marketing Director for Down and Out Books

One of the many joys I experienced when I became part of the fold at Down & Out Books was learning Lance Wright was there. Lance was one of the first people I met on the business side of writing when I first started to self-publish and was routinely a delight to work with. He and I trade enough e-mails, especially as a publication date approaches, that I know he was a key player with Down & Out, but I confess not even I knew exactly how broad his responsibilities were.

I could go on for a while but it’s much better if you hear it from Lance himself. Be sure to say hello if you run into him at a conference. He’s a peach.

One Bite at a Time: You and I recently started the paperwork on what will be my sixth book for Down & Out Books and I spend more time in communication with you than anyone else there, yet I confess I couldn’t list everything you do there, though I know it’s a not inconsiderable level of effort. Describe what your duties are for Down & Out.

Lance Wright: I like to think of myself as the guy in the back office who keeps the day-to-day operations of the publishing process up and running. I am definitely a process person, someone who follows a set of guidelines drawn up for almost every task that are designed and intended to ensure that nothing, or very little, falls through the cracks. Everyday tasks include: gathering information from authors about upcoming books (a process you’re familiar with!); assisting with formatting manuscripts to our own standards; uploading formatted manuscripts to all retail vendors; a bit of marketing and keeping up with social media; maintaining the website; and responding promptly (I hope!) to all e-mail — I come from a customer service management background, and that experience informs a lot of what I do for Down & Out Books.

OBAAT: You and I first met when I was self-publishing and you were running the Omnimystery sites. How did that get started?

LW: Omnimystery had its origin in the mid-80s with Hidden Staircase Mystery Books, a pre-internet mail order service specializing in high quality first edition crime novels. The biggest problem I had with the company was that I was also a collector, and I had a hard time parting with many of the books in my inventory. A cross-country move in 1995 caused me to rethink what I was doing. The internet was still young then — Amazon had just been founded the year before, and Google was three years into the future — and I thought I could leverage my knowledge of the mystery genre into a centralized database of sorts. Life gets in the way, of course, and I had a full-time job, so the idea simmered in the background for another ten years until I registered the domain name in 2006. I had assembled half-dozen other sites in the meantime, and when Omnimystery became a reality, I merged them all under its umbrella. It still exists today, and I’m still active with parts of it, though some of its divisions are way out of date.

OBAAT: How did you get together with Eric Campbell?

LW: That’s an interesting question, and one that neither Eric or I can really fully answer. Another cross-country move in 2008 found me in the Tampa area of Florida. I had left my full-time job, and was looking to monetize the Omnimystery brand. Eric founded Down & Out Books in 2009, and I’d like to think I was well-known enough in the mystery community that a year or so later he reached out to me to help build his new business. Of course, I was looking for advertisers and sponsors, so it’s quite possible I reached out to him! To this day, we don’t know who reached out first. But with both of us local to Tampa, we arranged a lunch meeting to discuss how we might help each other. Quite honestly, nothing concrete came out of that initial meeting. But we kept in touch, and another couple of years later we had another lunch meeting and a few months after that he asked if I might want to work part-time for him. I jumped at the opportunity, which led to the position I hold today with the company.

OBAAT: What’s the best part of your job?

LW: It probably sounds like a cliché, but what I enjoy most is working with Eric. We come from completely different backgrounds, have vastly different professional experiences, and yet we both find ourselves working in a field that has held us captive since childhood. It truly doesn’t get any better than that.

OBAAT: What’s the worst part? Aside from dealing with whiny, co-dependent writers, that is.

LW: Whiny, co-dependent writers? They exist? Wow, you’ll have to introduce me to one, because the second best part of my job is working with our family of authors. I will say the most frustrating part of my job is that I don’t have the time to read all the books we publish. Indeed, I probably only read cover-to-cover 10-15% of them. True, I do have the opportunity to get a sense of all of them during the manuscript prepping and formatting processes, but I do miss simply reading books for the shear joy of losing myself in the world of crime fiction.

OBAAT: What’s the greatest challenge of competing with the big publishers?

LW: I’m not sure this answers your question, but I think the greatest challenge Down & Out Books and other small, independent publishers have is simply getting recognition for their authors and their work. The business of selling books — reviews, awards, features, bookstores — heavily favors the NYC-based publishers. I believe we could compete just fine if the playing field were even slightly more level. We publish solidly plotted storylines with strongly drawn characters, which take place in immersive settings that more than stand up against the bestselling authors published by New York. But the average reader simply cannot find them. It’s a tough business, to be sure, but I firmly believe we are making progress despite the headwinds, and I couldn’t be more proud of the books that Down & Out Books publishes every year.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Movies Since Last Time

The Verdict (1982) I know it’s got kudos out the wazoo but this film wasn’t
nearly as good as I remembered it being. Maybe I know more about how courts and lawyers work now than I did then, or maybe I’ve gotten better at spotting plot holes. Either way, I’d been looking forward to this one working its way to the top of the Netflix queue and felt quite let down. Criticism aside, the casting and acting were superb, including Paul Newman, Jack Warden (one of my favorite character actors ever), James Mason, and Charlotte Rampling.

52 Pick-Up (1986) I saw Get Shorty not long ago, so watching 52 Pick-Up was a good lesson in what was wrong with Elmore Leonard adaptations prior to Get Shorty/Jackie Brown/Out of Sight even
when Leonard helped write the screenplay. John Frankenheimer’s reputation as a director of thrillers is well-earned (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, The Train, Ronin, among many others) but his “everyone on the edge of a meltdown” style was inappropriate to Leonard’s material. I love Roy Scheider, but his intensity was too much for the piece; Ann Margret was badly miscast. Even when the film did use Leonard’s set pieces, the dialog doesn’t flow as it should. It didn’t help that the book took place in Detroit and the film in LA, as the whole vibe is off right from the start. (Yes, I know Tarantino moved Jackie Brown from Florida to California, but he still captured the essential feel of the story.)

Killshot (2008) Mickey Rourke plays Armand “Blackbird” Degas, a First Nation hitman for the Toronto mob who messed up a job and finds his
star descending. He messes up another job by being too efficient (these Mob guys are never satisfied) and falls into a partnership with complete whack job Richie Nix (Joseph Gordon-Leavett) that leads to more complications. Diane Lane and Thomas Janes are the straight couple who cross paths with this duo. Based on one of my favorite Elmore Leonard novels, Killshot isn’t great but it still deserved a much better fate than it got from the studio and critics on its release.

First Man (2018) Another film, like The Post, that manages to combine two potentially fascinating stories and diminish both. Ryan Gosling plays
first man on the moon Neil Armstrong as if Gosling thought he was still in Blade Runner 2049; Claire Foy matches him scene for scene. Each gets one chance to show emotion, but everything else is so tightly wound Terminators seem like laugh riots. Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, LaLa Land) manages to wring all spirit of adventure and camaraderie from the astronauts and the NASA ground personnel to the point where it seems like actuaries put the moon program together. The special effects have their moments (and I admit this might have been a much more entertaining film if seen in a theater, especially IMAX), but the end result makes NASA and the astronauts come off as exactly the kinds of people who would fake the landing.

Apollo 13 (1995) Damn near a perfect movie. Ron Howard takes grief because his movies never seem to rise above the source material; I don’t
study film enough to argue with that. In fairness it needs to be pointed out that he consistently makes excellent films when given the raw materials to work with, which makes him the equivalent of a baseball player who may not make the highlight reels but also doesn’t make any errors. Apollo 13 is an outstanding example of taking wonderful source material and letting it be. Do it justice and don’t try to gild the lily. I’ll never get tired of watching this movie.