Wednesday, February 20, 2019

What About Otto?

I make an honest effort not to respond too quickly or intemperately to what I see on Facebook or in blogs. For someone with my personality (Borderline Asshole Disorder, or BAD) not responding too quickly helps a lot with remaining temperate. It’s akin to a comic I saw many years ago—I wish I remembered who he was—describing why there are waiting periods to buy a gun: “What do you mean I have to wait three days? I’m mad now!

There was a post on the always worth reading Do Some Damage blog last week that got me to thinking, so I let it ferment for a while. (Some would argue my thought process is more like composting than fermentation. I have an answer to that, but I’m being temperate today.) David Nemeth’s thoughts on “What to do About Otto” Penzler have rattled around in the empty caverns of my mind ever since.

Full disclosure: I do not know Otto Penzler. I have never met him. The totality of my interaction with him is to have shared a crowded elevator at Bouchercon. I have never been to the Mysterious Bookshop. I obviously know who he is, as I’ve been involved in the crime writing community for quite a few years. My purpose here is not to defend Otto Penzler. He means nothing to me personally.

That said, I would like to give him a fair shake, if only as an intellectual exercise. Penzler is currently under assault on two fronts. One for his spirited—overwrought, even—condemnation of MWA for removing the Grand Master designation from Linda Fairstein in light of her involvement in the Central Park Five case. This rolled into accusations of misogyny with the resurrection of comments Penzler made near to the startup of Sisters in Crime.

In the interest of fairness let’s take a look at both situations.
  • The written position Penzler takes in each instance is indefensible, especially considering the vitriol with which they are written;
  • That said, the SiC comments are over thirty years old; I don’t know if he holds those same opinions now, as
  • His credentials as a misogynist were hardy burnished by standing up for Fairstein as he did.
What I don’t know is what kind of support Penzler and the Mysterious Bookshop have provided to female writers and writers of color. Maybe David does, and has figures. If so I wish he would have made them available before calling names that don’t easily rub off.

David Nemeth is a friend of mine who writes an excellent blog of his own; a lot of thought went into deciding whether I should post this. Still, making inflammatory statements without all the facts is not the way to advance a conversation. We should all strive to be better in this regard.

Friday, February 15, 2019

"Why This? Why Now?" A Guest Post by Frank Zafiro

If only I could tell you how many women have said those exact words to me. Fortunately the rest of you are in luck, as today we have what’s called in the publishing industry “a treat.” Frank Zafiro has stopped by to talk about writing, collaboration, his Ania series, as well as his newest and most precedent-setting series The Grifter’s Song. I could go on a while here, but Frank will tell all of it better than I could.

Why This? Why Now?

So far, I’ve written more than two dozen books. Most are crime fiction. Roughly half have been collaborations. And like probably every other writer I know, these books represent about one percent of the ideas I’d like to turn into books and get out into the world.
That being the case, it might seem a little surprising to some that I chose in 2018 to re-visit the seemingly completed Ania trilogy that I co-authored with Jim Wilsky. Starting with Blood on Blood, this hard boiled series was written in a dual first person narrative with alternating chapters. I wrote one character (Mick) while Jim wrote the other (Jerzy). These two half-brothers find themselves walking a tightrope between cooperating and competing with each other while in pursuit of the diamonds their father hid after his last heist. When Ania, a siren grifter, enters the scene, things get even dicier.
Ania is the thread that links the books of the series, as it continues in Queen of Diamonds, where Jim and I wrote the characters of Cord and Casey, respectively, as they face off in a high stakes poker match where Ania seems to be the prize. The series ends in Closing the Circle, as both John and Andros pursue the wily grifter from Chicago to Vegas and out to northern California. The trilogy most definitely gets wrapped up, and that was 2013, so why revisit it in 2018?
Well, there’s three reasons, really. There’s a business reason, there’s an artistic reason, and there’s an inspiration reason.
The business reason is simple. The fine folks at Down and Out Books decided to re-issue the series under their banner, complete with new covers. That alone got Jim and I talking about the stories again, and the possibility of maybe writing another one. After all, having a new book to add to the re-released trilogy makes some marketing sense, right?
But it was the artistic reason that really took hold. Both Jim and I had long wondered about our mysterious antagonist. After spending time with her for three books, we still didn’t know as much about her as we’d like. Who was she? Where did she come from? How did Ania…become Ania?
That led to some discussions and some exploration, and that led to a new book – a prequel aptly titled Harbinger (you can thank Jim for three out of four titles for this series. My lone contribution was the first book). In it, we discover at least part of the Ania origin story, through the eyes of Boyd and Hicks, presented in the same dual first person narrative of the previous books. Boyd, the pragmatist, and Hicks, the beach bum, both find out who Ania is, and how she became the sensual con artist that she is. Along the way, we discovered a twist neither of us saw coming.
So that’s the second reason to come back to a series that has been completed – that artistic need to ferret out answers to questions that were still interesting to me. Luckily, Jim had some of the same questions, and found them just as worthwhile to answer.
But a third reason emerged, and one that I was completely unaware when my conversations with Jim started. You see, spending time with Ania was inspirational in the sense that it got me excited about another pair of grifters whose story I wanted to get out into the world – Sam and Rachel.
Called A Grifter’s Song, the tale of Sam and Rachel is one of two grifters, deeply in love, and deeply in trouble. Having tried to rip off the mob and failing, they are on the run. Each episode takes place in a different locale, involves a different con, and is a complete story unto itself. But in addition to whatever perils they might face from their current job, the specter of the pursuing mob is always there as well.
As I initially envisioned it, I’d write all of the novella-length episodes and release them about once a quarter. Once the saga was complete, I figured I’d collect them into a compendium of some kind. Writing Harbinger moved the project of A Grifter’s Song up my queue significantly. The first episode, The Concrete Smile, started knocking, and then pounding, on my door.
Working on Harbinger with Jim was a reminder of how much I enjoy collaborating with another author, and how satisfying it can be. The entire process feels akin to how attending a mystery conference or just having coffee with another writer drives up the motivation and excitement about your own work. With that in mind, I took a look at the format of a proposal Gary Phillips had made, to which I had submitted a story idea. The format was also novella-length, with multiple episodes, but….every episode had a different author.
I realized that would be a much more satisfying way to go with A Grifter’s Song. It would keep the stories fresh and different. Best of all, it would be collaborative. So I did what all smart artists do, and promptly appropriated the idea for the format. Instead of me writing each novella, I’ll write the first and last of the series, and ten other authors will write the rest.
I pitched the idea to Down and Out Books, who jumped on it. Eric Campbell and I worked out that the series would take place over two “seasons” of six episodes each. He created a subscription model that included a discount for anyone who subscribed to the whole season. I agreed to write an additional story that only subscribers would get, and set about recruiting writers.
Gary Phillips, of course, was the first email I sent. That only seemed fair, right? And Jim Wilsky had to be included, too, since it was our work on Harbinger that got this project going for me. Add in two other authors I’ve collaborated with successfully (Colin Conway and Lawrence Kelter) and the always edgy J.D. Rhoades, and the first season was set. The second season took a little longer, mostly because of how selective I was, but finally rounded out as well. Season two will include Eryk Pruitt, Scott Eubanks, Asa Maria Bradley, Holly West, and Eric Beetner.
True to form, Eric Campbell commissioned some beautiful covers for the series. The tattered paperback novel look that Zach McCain put together really captures the feel of the stories, and ought to at least engender a second look from any crime fiction fan.
The idea of A Grifter’s Song isn’t new. Cons and heists are as old as the noir sub-genre itself. A man/woman team is classic noir. My intention wasn’t to create something completely new. If anything, my hope is that the series will be a modern homage to some of the great works of Richard Stark (maybe not the Parker novels, but the Alan Grofield ones like Lemons Never Lie) and Lawrence Block’s The Girl with the Long Green Heart (and you owe it to yourself to listen to the Alan Sklar narration).
What is new, though, is the subscription model. The collaboration aspect isn’t common, either. I’ll be interested to see how both fare in what is a capricious marketplace, but I’m proud of the fact that Down and Out Books and all of these authors are taking a stab at something a little bit different.
And really, when it comes down to it, that’s why I’m doing this, and that’s why now.    

Monday, February 11, 2019

Shit The Beloved Spouse Asks Me

The Beloved Spouse™ sometimes asks questions that deserve broader distribution than just replying to her. This is the first in what may become a series of how I reply and why.

The Set-Up:
Discussing TV shows we consider to be “in the rotation,” i.e. series we liked enough to buy the DVDs so we can watch them over and over again. We decided the two best pilots were The Shield and Justified for how well they were good episodes in and of themselves, yet set up the rest of the series without making the machinery for doing so too obvious. I mentioned how Justified did such a great job in the first few minutes by creating a situation where Raylan provokes Tommy Bucks into drawing so Raylan has an excuse to shoot him. No one is crying over Tommy Bucks and the Marshal’s Service certainly isn’t going to go public with how their man provoked Tommy into letting Raylan shoot him, but they’re not going to encourage that kind of behavior, either, so Raylan is given a variation on what I call The McNulty Dilemma: “Where don’t you want to go?” The whole series runs from there.

The Beloved Spouse™’s Question:
What happens if Tommy Bucks just lays his hands on the table and refuses to draw?

My answer:
Tommy has to draw. The story depends on it. This is the best part about being a writer: Everything your character does to provoke a reaction works, unless you (the writer) have a good reason for it not to. There is no story if Tommy lays his hands on the table, so he cannot. Ergo (i.e., e.g., fuck you) he had no choice.

One of the best teachers I ever had was Lawrence Seely for 12th Grade AP English. We studied Hamlet and Mr. Seely cut right to the chase with the eternal question about Shakespeare’s play: What does it take Hamlet so long to do what he knows he has to do in the first scene? Seely’s answer: Because then the play is fifteen minutes long and no one will pay to see that. The trick is in making Hamlet’s dithering seem to be the actions of a real person, beset by all the insecurities and indecision we are all heir to.

We can talk about how stories get away from us and how our characters talk to us and we let the story go where it wants, but before we get all New Age about it let’s remember one thing: when writing a story, the author is God. If we let the voices in our heads dictate where the story goes, it’s because we choose to, not because they have any real say in it. We can alter the space-time continuum or the law of physics with the stroke of a pen so long as we set things up so people will believe it. Let’s see a real god do that. Pikers, all of them.

The key is the pact we all must make with ourselves before we sit down to write a word, when we promise to use these awesome powers only for good.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

January's Favorite Reads

Police Craft, Adam Plantinga. Plantinga has become the go-to source for people who want to know about police work from the cop’s perspective. Packed with information and routinely entertaining, any writer of police procedurals, or even just books with cops in them, needs to be well familiar with Police Craft and its predecessor, 400 Things Cops Know.

Eight Ball Boogie, Declan Burke. It had been too long since I read any of Burke’s work, mainly because he hasn’t put out anything new in a while so there was little to remind the public of him. This is why I keep a list of writers I want to be sure to get to periodically. Eight Ball Boogie is Burke’s first, and the first of his Harry Rigby books (the sequel, Slaughter’s Hound, is just as good) and it was a pleasure to re-familiarize myself with his work. Burke is one of those rare authors who can write anything. Whatever you know of his previous books tells you nothing of the next, except that it will be excellent. Eight Ball Boogie is Chandlerian in a way and Burke turns a phrase and simile as well as anyone. If you haven’t read him, you really ought to.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Elgin Bleecker, Author of Lyme Depot

Elgin Bleecker is one of the unexpected side benefits of maintaining a blog. We met through his comments here at OBAAT, struck up a correspondence, and then a friendship both professional and personal. Elgin is a former journalist. Lyme Depot, which dropped at the end of January, is his first novel.

One Bite at a Time: Elgin, it’s a pleasure to have you as a guest on OBAAT. Tell us a little about your new book, Lyme Depot.

Elgin Bleecker: Thanks for inviting me, Dana. Lyme Depot is a crime story, a country noir about two young men, brothers. One is in the county lockup, but doesn’t plan to stay there long. The other, the younger one, out of loyalty, is trying to help his brother, but is unaware of the escape plans or of new criminal charges about to come down on the older. It is two parallel stories and both are chases – the older brother is being chased by sheriff’s deputies, the younger is chasing the truth about the older. I called it a country noir, but some of it could be called country noir lite, because there is a bit of dark humor mixed in with the action. But there is nothing funny about some of the violent scenes, which, I hope, will shake readers.

OBAAT: You and I have chatted in the past about where I got the idea for Penns River. What’s your connection to Drum County?

EB: Drum County is a fictional combination of several places I know. So many counties in middle America seem so peaceful and picturesque. But beyond the surface appearance, there is always crime. The crimes range from comical stuff, like someone risking arrest and jail for breaking into a garage and stealing an old power lawn mower, to serious stuff like fights that end in stabbings or shootings, domestic violence, and drugs. Drugs are and have been a problem. But I purposely set Lyme Depot in a time before the current opioid crisis.

OBAAT: Lyme Depot requires you to balance multiple story lines and points of view. How do you do this? Outline? Seat of the pants with revisions as needed? Something in between?

EB: Getting the two parallel stories of the brothers to work together took a lot of planning. Once I had the basic idea, knew what each of them would be doing, and how the story would wrap up, I made a point of carefully plotting where they were, who they would meet along the way, and how long it would take them to get from point to point. I even sketched a map of Drum County so I could keep track of everyone’s movements – the brothers, the sheriff and his deputies, and other characters they come in contact with. That sounds a little mechanical, but there was plenty of room for invention as I went along. In fact, I would like to do stories about a couple of the characters who suddenly “arrived” in the novel to my surprise as I was writing.

OBAAT: I hate to ask authors to answer the “If you like _____________, you’ll like me,” but clearly we all have authors who influence us and to whom we’d be flattered when comparisons are made. Who is it for you?

EB: Whoa, Dana, I would hate to compare myself to any of the authors I admire. So, I’ll take a cue from the politicians on the Sunday morning news shows, and give you an answer that ducks the question but connects to the idea of influence.

I have been a fan of comic novels for a long, long time, from John Kennedy Toole’s gold standard, A Confederacy of Dunces, to Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy – The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van. I love the comic crime novels of Carl Hiaasen. So, I suppose I had those and more in the back of my mind when it came to Lyme Depot. An eye-opener for me were the Harlem crime novels of Chester Himes with their realistic setting and their exaggerated characters and absurd, over the top action and violence.

But I was also thinking about Daniel Woodrell and his country noir tales. I am partial to the classic noirs, particularly the post-World War II novels. I may have been thinking about some of Lionel White’s precisely planned heist stories.

OBAAT: What did you do before you took up writing fiction and how did it prepare you to write what you do?

EB: I was a journalist for many years. I’ve also worked in advertising and marketing. But it was my time as a newspaper reporter that contributed most to writing Lyme Depot. Journalism is a great job. The pay is crap. But the experience is worth a million. I was lucky. I got to cover sheriffs’ departments, big city police, small town cops, local politicians, various courts – now that is where you really see a lot. Even if you aren’t there for a specific case, just sitting in on arraignments you will see a variety of people, their lawyers and often their families. In one way or another, that experience found its way into Lyme Depot.

OBAAT: The list of journalists who have done well as authors of crime fiction is lengthy the noteworthy, including such names as Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, Brad Parks, and Bruce DeSilva. Aside from the whole “making things up” business, what was the hardest part of the transition for you?

EB: Almost everything about the transition was different and took some getting used to. But the toughest transition may have been making the character’s motivations clear and understandable. I tried not to jump into their minds to explain. I wanted it to come through action and dialogue. And that was a challenge to do realistically.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Binge Watching

Working a day job while writing novels and this blog in my free time doesn’t leave a lot of time to properly binge watch television. My idea of a binge is three in a row, once or twice a month at best, with rare exceptions. The government shutdown allowed me to get my writing and errands out of the way during the day, leaving free my evenings to watch selected television (and some movies) to my heart’s content.

The closest The Beloved Spouse™ and I came consistently to bingeing is when we watched Deadwood or The Wire or Justified once or twice a night over dinner. It was Justified that taught me the lesson, how skipping commercials not only adds to the enjoyment of individual episodes, but also how not having to wait a week helps to hold the plots together. My only complaint with Justified on FX was the plotting in some of the middle seasons, and how it had what I perceived as holes. Watching episodes back to back cleared a lot of that up and I gained a greater appreciation for the show, which was no small feat.

We’ve been bingeing two series during the shutdown: Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Homicide. We caught up on Nine-Nine over the weekend and are about midway through Season Three of Homicide. (Watching Andre Braugher play Ray Holt and Frank Pembleton within minutes of each other is worth a blog post of its own.) While the two shows could hardly be more different in tone, both have story arcs that span multiple episodes and the characters grow as the series continues. Keeping things fresh in the viewer’s mind keeps the tension from dropping week to week.

Season One of Homicide has a great example in the story arc that portrays the murder of eleven-year-old Edena Watson. It’s Bayliss’s (Kyle Secor) first case as the primary and it’s a stone cold whodunit. He’s feeling a lot of pressure because it’s his first case and because the story is getting so much media attention. In true Homicide style, there are plenty of other things going on that prevent the other detectives from giving Bayliss all the help he might want or need, though having Frank Pembleton as his second is a considerable aid. Not waiting a week between episodes keeps all the threads of the Watson case in mind, and the lack of commercials makes Bayliss’s and Pembleton’s final interrogation of the prime suspect (Moses Gunn) almost unbearably intense, stretching as it does through most of the episode. (Editor’s Note: This case is lifted virtually as a piece from David Simon’s book.)

We’re still not hard-core bingers. Even with Nine-Nine and Homicide, we usually limit ourselves to three or four of each in a sitting. Our record came when I rushed home from work on a Friday several years ago and we watched all of the final season of The Shield in a sitting, turning in around 3:30 Saturday morning. We’re too old for that shit now—I’m not sure I’ve fully recovered yet—but the exercise, coupled with our current immersive experiences, shows the artistic merit of streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix releasing the entire season of a show at once. (Not that I for a second think they do it for artistic reasons. They do it because people like it and now expect it when they pay for the service.)

I started back to work today so the bingeing situation will return to more normal levels. (I have thoughts on returning to work and the shutdown but I pledged long ago to keep politics out of this blog as much as possible and I’ll hold to that.) The Beloved Spouse™ has a far better binge situation, as she can keep series she likes and only recently discovered on all day while she works in her craft room. I have to pick my spots, at least for the time being. Once I retire, though…

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Movies Since Last Time

The shutdown has left me with more time for movies than usual. A lot of that has been absorbed by bingeing Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Homicide (watching both in the same night provides a master class in what a fine actor Andre Braugher is), but I’m still moving along more quickly than usual.

The Big Lebowski (1998) You don’t think it’s a good idea to watch The Big Lebowski to celebrate every New Year’s Eve? That’s just, like, your opinion, man. 

Primal Fear (1996) Holds up well after 20+ years. Richard Gere plays a narcissistic lawyer not dissimilar to his Billy Flynn character in Chicago with none of the tongue-in-cheek overtones. Edward Norton steals the film as
Aaron Stampler, the damaged boy who moved from the hills of Kentucky to Chicago where he is accused of brutally murdering a respected archbishop. Can’t say much more about this as it has a plot twist worthy of The Sixth Sense, except to say that if you haven’t seen it, you should.

Mulholland Falls (1996) You’d think a screenplay by Pete Dexter with actors such as Nick Nolte, Michael Madsen, Chazz Palminteri, Chris Penn, and Treat Williams would be at least pretty good, right? You’d be wrong. This is a lizard of monumental proportions. The
plot rests uneasily on a shaky foundation and is full of holes besides. The dialog is flat and corny. The most entertaining thing about Mulholland Falls is Jennifer Connolly naked (which takes up about half her screen time) and even that’s primarily because the nude scenes are the leverage for a blackmail scheme so there’s no dialog. Bruce Dern, Louise Fletcher, William Peterson, and Rob Lowe all make uncredited cameos, probably uncredited because they saw the finished product and asked demanded to have their names removed.

21 (2008) Loosely based on Ben Mezerich’s fascinating book Bringing Down the House, the
film is entertaining but Columbia couldn’t resist Hollywooding things up and none of the changes were improvements. A key plot point is given away early when it would have been better served by letting the situation play out through hints and cutaways. There’s not really anyone in the book to root for so the filmmakers created a character who’s broke and needs the money to go to medical school, then turn him into a multiple personality borderline sociopath. What might bother me most is that the book did such a wonderful job of showing how card counting works and how casinos react to it, and the movie walked away from those lessons to shoot for a feel good ending.  

Zodiac (2007) The opening didn’t grab me, switching between the cops and journalists as it did but once things got moving everything made sense. Could have been a little shorter—
streamlining or cutting some of the homicides in the beginning and working what was needed for that into the rest of the film would have been enough—but David Fincher’s pacing makes it irrelevant. (The movie seems too long early on and not at all long by the end.) There are things here that do not cover the original investigators with glory, such as not being able to find the survivor (apparently it was actually Fincher who did so) and not looking at an obvious reason for Zodiac’s letters to stop (maybe he was incarcerated). The film itself is solid.

Charley Varrick (1973) I saw this many years ago and didn’t remember it well at all. Walter
Matthau plays the owner of a small crop dusting business in New Mexico who is being forced out of business by larger operations and turns to bank robbery as a way to make ends meet. One day he and his crew happen onto a lot more money than the small town bank they robbed should have had and things start to go wrong. The plot is twisty but not confusingly so in the deft hands of Don Siegel (The Shootist, Telefon, and several of Clint Eastwood’s greatest hits) who keeps things understandable without stooping to explain. A much better film than I remembered, though still with some early 70s conventions we’re better off without. (Joe Don Baker’s idea of foreplay with Sheree North is to backhand her across the face, which her character is obviously okay with.)

A Beautiful Mind (2001) A little slower than I remembered it, but still an outstanding film. Russell Crowe earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Nobel Prize winning
mathematician John Nash, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia throughout his life; Jennifer Connelly earned the Oscar for best Supporting Actress. Director Ron Howard does a wonderful job of bringing Nash’s affliction to the audience, as well as describing in thirty seconds the theory that earned Nash the Nobel. Ed Harris and Christopher Plummer also play small but critical roles.

Get Shorty (1995) The annual birthday viewing. I’m not going to say any more than I have
to, if that.
The Blues Brothers (1980) Because it was still my birthday.