Friday, August 30, 2013

An Interview With Rick Ollerman of Stark House

As was noted recently, I plugged away for well over ten years before anyone paid me to publish one of my novels. Who was this daring man, who scoffed at conventional wisdom and braved the currents of uncertainty to give an aging rookie a glimpse of the Land of Publication, where food tastes better, the winters are milder, and women ask you to autograph their breasts. (Richard Castle lives in one of the tonier neighborhoods in the Land of Publication.)

Rick Ollerman is such a man, and he proved his generosity of spirit yet again by agreeing to answer a handful of questions that, it is hoped, will provide some insight to his thought processes.

One Bite at a Time: Rick, you’re the first honest to Maxwell Perkins editor we’ve ever had here at One Bite at a Time. Describe your ivory tower for us. How’s the view?

Rick Ollerman: Only about knee high.

Stark House originally started out selling American versions of fantasy books by Storm Constantine. Then there were some collections by the classic fantasist Algernon Blackwood. Somewhere along the way, Stark House printed a non-fiction tribute to the great film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, co-authored by Ed Gorman and star of the movie Kevin McCartthy. A long way from classic hard-boiled and noir fiction, right?

But then Stark House did an original novel by a woman named Catherine Butzen called Thief of Midnight. We released a slightly updated edition of the classic Beat writer collection called The Beat Generation & The Angry Young Men. That came about because one of the original editors, Max Gartenberg, was Peter Rabe’s agent and upon Max’s passing, his daughter offered the book to us. Under the Shepardson Books imprint we released a collection of publisher Greg Shepard’s father’s old newspaper columns that talk about life in old California. After Thief of Night was published, we started publishing new novels by the great Charlie Stella.

All that’s kind of a long way of saying that what I do as an editor is not strictly the same thing that an editor at another house would do. Yes, I read manuscripts–last year I rejected two that were bought by other publishers and kept one, yes, your own Grind Joint. I have a constant trickle of manuscripts to go through and so far none but yours has really measured up.

I proofread every book myself, I’ve started to write many of the introductions for the books, I’ve edited and recreated lost pages for a previously unpublished novel by one of the greats, I sometimes write but more often revise or edit the teaser pages.

For our recent non-fiction book, Paperback Confidential, I edited that book which included writing an introduction, writing six of the 132 entries, and compiling the index of pseudonyms that I hope people find truly handy (the Pseudodex).

I’ve influenced which books have appeared in some of our collections, I’m recruiting possible cover artists for future books, and I’m also heavily involved in some of the publicity that we do.

Maxwell Perkins never had it so good. Better, I’m sure.

OBAAT: Tell us what’s up with Stark House.

RO: Quite a lot, actually. When we publish books by authors who are actually still alive, there’s a lot more work that goes into gearing up each launch, especially if the author is a new one. One of my pet projects is trying to establish what we, as a small house, can do for independent booksellers who are feeling fairly ignored by the Big 5 in New York. There are all sorts of arguments that can be made for doing business as usual, but I think there’s a potentially huge role in the future for small presses. For instance, I could go buy a book by Random House just because it’s published by Random House, but there’s no guarantee, not that there is with any book but go with me here, and I don’t know what I’m getting. But Stark House has a wonderful reputation, thanks to the curation of our publisher Greg Shepherd, that even if you’re unfamiliar with a book or an author, that you know if it’s published by Stark House there’s a good chance you already have a sense of the kind of book you’re going to get.

Recent numbers seem to show that e-book sales are leveling off and that the number of independent bookstore is increasing. By forging new and tighter relationships with the bookstores, I hope that we can deliver new forms of the books that give both the bookstores and the readers what they want, which believe it or not are not always thirty dollar hardcovers and oversized trade paperbacks.

We’ve also increased the number of books we release each year, and we want to keep trying to find top level new writers to introduce to the world. We also have a Crime Club service where readers can sign up and receive deals on each new book as it comes out, shipped in pristine condition in a cardboard wraparound container, and a monthly or so newsletter that not only let’s people know what we’re up to, but also adds discounts to selected back list titles. Joining either or both is as easy as sending us an e-mail.

OBAAT: How did you get connected to Stark House?

RO: That’s the simple question for me. I bought a Stark House book by one of my favorite authors, and after enough instances of people “jumping in their ear and driving off” I knew the proofreading was a little off. Soooo many publishers now just scan, OCR and print and don’t bother proofreading the work. This is especially true with e-books. I just read a half dozen as research for an introduction I’m working on and I couldn’t believe that a name publisher can charge you $9.99, a robust price, and knowingly supply you with a subpar product.

Anyway, I e-mailed Stark House and said I wanted to buy more Stark House books, but not if they were that full of typos. Yes, typos drive me crazy. I’m one of those. I’ve done proofreading for other publishers and I offered to do some for Stark House. Greg sent me the pages for the book I had just finished reading and things grew from there, especially after Ed Gorman ended his relationship with Stark House. I’ve been accumulating additional responsibilities since then.

OBAAT: What’s the best thing about being an editor at a small publisher?

RO: Those five minutes a year when you feel you’ve actually caught up. Otherwise, there are a lot of little joys, like when I can suggest an alternative novel for a collection that gets approved, or when I contribute to some of the things that I know would have come out differently without my involvement. All the positive reviews we get, like when prominent bloggers say they believe everyone out there should just be buying each Stark House title as they come out. The occasional hate mail you get back after rejecting someone’s work is a little harsh, especially when we go out of our way to be author-friendly. You know you’re in trouble when someone starts a sentence with, “I’m normally thick-skinned about my work”–you know that will be automatically followed by irrefutable proof that it really isn’t so.

Another good thing is uncovering previously unpublished works. We have a book coming out by Jada Davis, a man who only published two books in his lifetime, one of which, One For Hell, is like reading Jim Thompson on steroids and deserves to be known as a hard-boiled noir classic. But Midnight Road, coming in early 2014, is his masterpiece, a really poignant coming of age rural story where crime is an element, but only one among many other, more human ones. It’s a brilliant book that deserves the widest possible audience.

OBAAT: What’s your greatest challenge, working for a small house that’s earning its niche?

RO: Trying to keep it all going, trying to figure out where the small fish figure in the Big 5 dominated book world. When New York is simultaneously publishing expensive hardcovers and (relatively) cheap e-book versions, what does the customer do who still likes reading books and not computer files? What do the independents sell when the collectors buy the hardcovers but the only “inexpensive” solution is to get an e-book or wait for a not-quite-so-inexpensive trade paperback? There’s a place for all of it, but it’s a constantly moving target. The Holy Grail would be to give the readers what they want and give the bookstores what they need. The online sales seem to be taking care of themselves.

OBAAT: What do you do when you’re not editing other writers’ work?

RO: Theoretically, I started out as a writer but contracted a chronic illness that at one time left me bedridden for eight straight months. Not good for your workout program. That’s been an ongoing battle for many years now and while at first I didn’t want to do anything that took away from my writing time, I really wasn’t able to focus and concentrate enough to do it well. There’s a long list of writers who have had to stop writing, sometimes permanently, because of illness. Those guys are different from me, because you’ve actually heard of them. But still, the point remains.

Things have been slowly improving, which is good, and I just sold a short story recently, and a two-in-one edition of two of my early books is coming out next year from Stark House. I have a more recent book that’s sitting here in the first draft stage, and another project for Stark House that’s just waiting for a few more hours to be added to the day. I’m working on introductions for Stark House books, as well, that hopefully add to the value of each volume.

Beyond that, I home school our two children and get routinely mauled by three dogs and two Guinea pigs. It’s the pigs that make me bleed, though. Apparently I have fingers that look too much like carrots. I’d rather have the slobber.

(Rick will be accompanying me to the launch of Grind Joint, November 16 at 10:00 AM at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont PA.)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Grind Joint Launch Announcement

I am pleased—and, frankly, shocked—to announce the official launch for Grind Joint will take place at the highly respected Mystery Lovers Bookshop, 514 Allegheny River Blvd, Oakmont, PA. The event will be held Saturday, November 16 at 10:00 AM, as part of MLBS’s Coffee and Crime series.

The Mystery Lovers Bookshop sits about halfway between Penns River—the setting of Grind Joint—and the Burgh, a mile or so from the famous Oakmont Country Club. Getting an opportunity to launch my first book so near to its setting, where the events that shaped the story and characters took place, is a treat and a privilege. Many thanks to Laurie Stephens from MLBS, as well as Rick Ollerman and Greg Shepherd of Stark House for making this possible.

Don’t worry. I’ll make sure no one forgets about it.

The Author Has a Choice, Not a Decision

As you may have heard, I am participating in the “Goodnight, My Angel: Hard-Boiled, Noir, and the Reader's Love Affair With Both" panel, with moderator Peter Rozovsky and panelists Eric Beetner, Mike Dennis, Terrence McCauley, and Jonathan Woods, at Bouchercon 2013 on Friday, Sept. 20, at 10:20 a.m. That should take care of itself. No one runs a better panel than Peter, and the rest of the panelists are interesting and entertaining enough to make my primary job not to step on anyone’s lines. Come out and see for yourself.

I’m also hosting an Author’s Choice event, Saturday at 4:00. The title of that session is:

That’s right. Ain’t got one yet.

What I’m leaning toward right now is a discussion of the relevance today of Raymond Chandler’s idea of a hero, as put forth in his classic essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.” It’s a topic near and dear to me, and it gives me an excuse to read the final few paragraphs from the essay, which rival the timeless “What did it matter where you lay once you were dead?” paragraph from The Big Sleep. (“The realist in murder writes of a world…Down these mean streets…”) It would be fun to lay out some thoughts along those lines, maybe debate them with readers and any other authors who might show up.

Fun for me, sure. It occurs to me I might want not to be so goddamn selfish for a change and see what someone else wants to hear about, maybe even discuss.


I am soliciting suggestions for my Author’s Choice session. If you like the idea above, say so. If you don’t, say so. If you have a better idea—and if you don’t like mine I sure hope you do—make a suggestion. Argue among yourselves. If someone talks me into something that will work better, I’ll do it.

What’s in it for you? (I heard you ask, even if no one else did.)

Free stuff.

All commenters will be entered into a drawing for a free advance copy of Grind Joint, with the inscription of your choosing. To ensure fairness, the name will be drawn from among all commenters by The Sole Heir, once described by her high school classmates as “the archetype of virginal beauty.” I will place the names in a hat from which her unspoiled hand shall pluck the lucky winner.

Have at it. Use your imagination. Clearly I don’t have any.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Catching Up With Paul Brazill

Paul Brazil gets around. A tireless writer with an offbeat view of crime fiction, he writes the Roman Dalton series of PI novels, as well as other standalone books and stories (Guns of Brixton, Gumshoe.). Paul recently started Blackwitch Press. Today One Bite at a Time takes a look at the multi-faceted Mr. Brazill.

One Bite at a Time: Let’s start with a nice, easy, “chicken or the egg?” question. Which came first, Blackwitch Press, or Roman Dalton?

Paul Brazill: Roman Dalton started off in a story called Drunk On The Moon that I wrote for the late lamented Dark Valentine Magazine a couple of years ago. He later appeared in a few more stories that have been published in various anthologies. I wanted to collect the stories together so I came up with Blackwitch Press.

OBAAT: Okay, here’s a softball if there ever was one: what makes Roman Dalton different from all the other PIs out there, and why did you decide to make him different in that manner?

PB: He’s a werewolf. I just liked the idea of creating my own world and the PI is always an outcast, as is the werewolf – even in a world of supernatural creatures, the werewolf is always the outsider. It just seemed natural, to be honest.

OBAAT: Does Dalton’s unique background make him better suited than other PIs for certain kinds of work?

PB: He has a better chance of escaping Haitian voodoo lords and zombie henchmen than the normal PI though his actual detection skills do seem to leave a lot to be desired.

OBAAT: Once you decided what it was set Dalton apart, did you discover anything unexpected in the writing? Things you were able—or not able—to do?

PB: I realised that it was all about Dalton’s ‘world’ and creating an equally colourful cast of supporting characters was great fun. It’s not a one man show.

OBAAT: Given everything else you’re into (see exhaustive list above), why start a publishing venture?

PB: I just wanted to put the Dalton stories in a package and then saw the opportunity to put out some other things and thought why not? It’s only my stuff. If it all goes pear shaped it’s only me with egg on my face, which worries me not a jot.

OBAAT: Now that Blackwitch is off the ground, what about it was harder than you expected? Easier? Maybe neither, but somehow different?

PB: The ebook was easy because I used professionals to do the heavy lifting before I put it online. I got Marcin Drzewiecki to do the cover, Julie Lewthwaite to edit and proofread and Craig Douglas for the formatting.

I’m still trying to get my head around formatting the cover for CreateSpace. I suspect I’ll have to ask someone to do it for me!

OBAAT: Where do you want to go with Blackwitch?

PB: I want to put out a couple more of my books and then an anthology or two. After that, I’ll just see how it goes.

OBAAT: What was it got a nice English lad such as yourself to move to Poland? (No offense to Poland. The Sole Heir is one-quarter Polish ancestry.)

PB: I did a TEFL course in Spain in 2001 and after that applied for various teaching jobs around the world. The first school to sort things out was here in Poland. I’ve been here since then, though in various cities. Now I’m a dad, I’m not going anywhere else.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Stark House Newsletter, Hot Off the (Virtual) Presses

The courageous folks at Stark House have released their latest newsletter. (Damn right they’re courageous. A lot of publishers had their shot at me; only Stark House had the ouva to step up and put their name next to mine, damn the consequences. That takes courage. Or cluelessness. You can be the judge when the book comes out.)

A few highlights:

Brian Ritt, author of Paperback Confidential: Crime Writers of the Paperback Era will appear at Mystery Ink, 8907 Warner Ave. in Huntington Beach CA on Saturday, September 14 at 2:00.

Master of Mob Fiction Charlie Stella (Rough Riders, Johnny Porno), Stark House editor Rick Ollerman, and I will appear on a Book Cave podcast to be recorded in late September. I’ll provide details as I get them.

Hmmm. It also says Dana King (Grind Joint) is scheduled to appear at Bouchercon on a panel titled "Goodnight My Angel: Hard-boiled, Noir and the Reader's Love Affair with Both." This will be moderated by Peter Rozovsky on Friday, September 20th at 10:20 a.m.

Dana will also be doing an Author's Choice session the next day at 4:00 p.m., the topic to be Dana's choice (he welcomes questions).

(This King character sounds like he’s hanging onto people’s coattails, but what can I say? He has suction with this blog’s editor.)

You can send Stark House an email to subscribe for your own personal copies of future newsletters. To see back issues of the newsletter, click here.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard

The Internet is awash with testimonials to the late Elmore Leonard, who died yesterday morning from complications of a stroke. I’m not going to try to compete with better writers who may have known him personally, and may well know his writing better than I do. Leonard was a master, possibly the master in his field. By all accounts, he was also a cool guy. He’ll be missed on multiple levels, and it’s great he had such a good, long run. I doubt he felt cheated when things grew dark for the last time.

For a long time I counted Elmore Leonard as among the three most prominent influences on my writing, along with Raymond Chandler and Ed McBain. Times change, styles evolve, writers (hopefully) grow. The influence of George V. Higgins is also important in my work now; James Ellroy gnaws at the back of my mind more all the time. I may even have come to take Leonard’s influence for granted, so ingrained has it become into my process, but he was—and remains—the writer most responsible for how I write today. (The good things. The not so good is the unadulterated product of my own suckiness.)

His Ten Rules of Writing are making the rounds. They’re all good, and best read with his explanatory comments. My favorite part comes after Number 4. Number 3 reads, “Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue.” After a brief paragraph explaining why, he moves on to

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' . . .

. . . he admonished gravely.

That’s the money quote. Coupled with his most famous comment (If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it), that tongue-in-cheek admonition sums up the key takeaway from Leonard the writer: Do what works. Have some fun with it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can't allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It's my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

He opens the essay with a disclaimer: these are his rules; feel free to ignore them.

If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

The ultimate irony of Elmore Leonard is, hard as he worked to make his authorial hand invisible to the reader, few writers had a more distinctive, easily identifiable style. The challenge when reading him was to keep from going too fast, the eyes scan so effortlessly over the page. Leonard isn’t read so much as listened to, the characters and their dialog so natural, the transference from eye to brain so fluid, it’s as though the medium of delivery has been eliminated, and you’re getting the story telepathically..

I’ve gone on too long, put the lie to the influence I claimed at the beginning. His rules, like everything else, were worth reading, but the essence of Elmore Leonard as a writer can be summed up in the words of Chili palmer:

I’m not gonna say any more than I have to, if that.

He never did.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Austin Camacho on Creatures, Crime, and Creativity

As mentioned last week, Austin Camacho has a finger in every pie on the shelf: author, publisher, and, now, conference organizer. With the inaugural Creatures, Crime, and Creativity conference around the corner (September 13 – 15 in Hunt Valley Maryland, north of Baltimore), Let’s take a few minutes with Austin to see how things are shaking out.

One Bite At a Time: What prompted you to start a conference from scratch?

Austin Camacho: I love the Love is Murder conference, which is a gathering that welcomes readers as well as writers. It attracts a broad spectrum of fans and authors. Mystery lovers mingle with thriller, horror and romantic suspense fans and share what it’s like to be a fan or a creator. It has been my long held dream to hold a “Love is Murder East” expanding the multi-genre concept, and since there's nothing like this for folks in the Mid-Atlantic states, my Intrigue Publishing partners agreed to give it a shot.

OBAAT: The Creatures, Crimes and Creativity conference crosses genre lines, which is a bit unusual for a readers/writers conference. (The web site notes the conference purpose is “to gather readers and writers of mystery, suspense, thriller, horror, sci-fi, fantasy and steam punk.”) Why cast such a broad net instead of specializing, as most conferences do?

AC: We were sure that by combining a list of fiction genres that have been overlapping of late we might draw a crowd. Each has its own conferences and it will be fun to throw writers and fans of these genres together. And for the writers it will be exciting to explore the similarities rather than differences. Writing a good thriller, a great mystery, a really fun fantasy story... they are more alike than most people think.

OBAAT: Unlike many conferences, meals are included with registration at C3. What was your thought there, instead of turning people loose to fend for themselves?

AC: A big part of the Intrigue Publishing mission is to bring authors and readers together. It's fine to see writers at a podium or listen to them in a panel discussion, but we wanted to offer the kind of one-on-one interaction you get over lunch, or at the dinner table. Fans can ask the questions they've always wanted to ask a writer, and writers can hand out bookmarks and business cards and explain why you should want to read their books. It's also the best way for newer writers to chat openly with more established authors. I think mealtimes offer the best possible networking.

OBAAT: You got several well-known authors to highlight the inaugural C3 (Jeffrey Deaver, Christopher Golden, John Gilstrap, Trice Hickman). How hard was that to pull off for a conference with no track record to date?

AC: The genre fiction community is very open and welcoming to interested fans and writers... and I'm both. I've met and spoken to a lot of great authors at Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, Magna Cum Murder, Thrillerfest, and other events. When I shared my idea with some of the authors I've met at cons they reacted with "Well it's about time we had something like this in our area" and very graciously agreed to share some time with us. (THAT'S the kind of networking you can do at events like Creatures, Crimes & Creativity!)

OBAAT: C3 has a wide-ranging list of subject for its panels. How did you decide on a schedule, and, maybe more interesting to a lot of readers. How did you place authors in their respective panels?

AC: Our schedule is based on the Love Is Murder model, but we looked at the last couple of years' panels of all the cons I mentioned earlier to choose our panels. Then we got a few great ideas from attending authors. It changed a dozen times before we actually posted the panels on our web site.

Author placement is ongoing, and I think we're doing things a bit differently from the other cons I love. Usually, I get an email saying "you're on X panel at Y o'clock." We have gone to each author and asked for their input to try to match their skills and interests to the panel.

I want to stress that it is not too late for authors OR fans to register. Attending authors' books will be available in our on-site bookstore and there will be dedicated book signing times. They can also sign up for agent pitch sessions. Each attendee will get a goodie-bag full of cool stuff, including our exclusive anthology filled with stories written by attending authors. Plus fun events like book signings, a Twitter contest and a scavenger hunt, with prizes like a Kindle, Amazon gift cards and paid attendance to the Love is Murder conference in Chicago. So go to the web site to register, and tell all your literate friends! It's going to be three days of great fun!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Bouchercon Panel Announcement

The Bouchercon panel announcements have been made, and I am flattered to be included in the panel, “Goodnight, My Angel: Hard-boiled, Noir, and the Reader's Love Affair With Both.” The moderator is curator of the award-winning Detectives Beyond Borders blog, Peter Rozovsky. Co-panelists are Eric Beetner, Mike Dennis, Terrence McCauley, and Jonathan Woods. I’m excited about both the topic and the company I’ll be keeping and hope anyone reading this can stop by and say hello. The panel is on Friday, September 20 from 10:20 – 11:15 in Room 2. All of us will be signing after the panel, until 11:40. (Many thanks to Greg Shepherd at Stark House for making copies of Grind Joint available for sale at Bouchercon, even though the drop date is November 21.)

Bouchercon is trying something new this year, creating Author’s Choice slots of half an hour each, where authors can talk about whatever they choose. I was lucky to grab a slot, and will be giving my talk—with, I hope, a lot of Q&A—on Saturday from 4:00 – 4:30. Again, please stop by. I have some ideas for a topic, and will be letting that out as my thoughts firm up.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Food Was Good, Too

I’m still on vacation (yawn, stretch) which means I have time to catch up with some people I don’t get to talk to often enough. Monday I had lunch with the ubiquitous Austin Camacho. If you’re looking for way to spend an entertaining hour or so, lunch with Austin is the way to go. He is the author of two series: one featuring detective Hannibal Jones, and the Stark and O’Brien action-adventure series. He is a co-founder of Intrigue Publishing and organizer of the upcoming Creatures, Crime, and Creativity conference in Hunt Valley MD, north of Baltimore. He also teaches at Anne Arundel Community College and works a full-time job.

I truly don’t remember how I came across Austin. We first met in person when I invited him to present to the Writers of Chantilly, the writing group I belong to. Austin gave the group of fledgling writers soup-to-nuts coverage of what to look for—and what to look out for—from starting the book to finding a publisher to what to do after the finished product has been created. As much as he has going on, I’ve never known him to be too busy to share an experience or offer thoughtful advice. Our conversation on Monday ranged from promotion to conferences to writing tips to favorites to guilty pleasure; a quicker hour-and-a-half I can’t remember.

Catching everyone up with what Austin’s activities will take more than one blog post. An interview will be posted next week. For now, here’s information on the C3 conference, as well as Intrigue Publishing.

I’m going somewhere horizontal to read. If I doze off, I’ll get over it. The rest of you, carry on.

Monday, August 12, 2013


I’m off work this week. Nothing special. Running some errands, having lunch with a couple of friends, reading, taking naps. Just a week off work to not think about work.

The part of my mind that comes up with ideas for blogs appears to have taken the week off, as well. I got nothing. Nada. Zip. Bupkes. Things are happening I can write about later, but, right now, the blog component of my creative persona is somnolent.

We did watch a couple of moves over the weekend. Want to hear about them?

Killing Them Softly. Not great, but better than I’d been led to believe from the reviews. What most critics complained about—the frequent use of 2008 news and campaign sound bites as background—both The Beloved Spouse and I liked, as they were often used to draw parallels between what was happening in the movie to actual events in a delightfully cynical manner. The problem was, they all led to Brad Pitt’s speech at the end, which was a screed, though the last line was perfect for such a movie.

I haven’t read Cogan’s Trade—the George V. Higgins book on which the film is based—though the filmmakers captured Higgins-style dialog and general tone very well. The acting is also excellent. Almost a hell of a movie, still a good, solid effort. This is the kind of movie I keep complaining we don’t make in this country anymore: moody and low-key, with a level of verisimilitude rarely seen in American films anymore.

Road House. I’d heard this was a guilty pleasure for quite a few crime aficionados, so we checked it out last night. I’ll confess, it gave me a story idea I think I can run with, but I’ll run in the opposite direction from where Road House went. Patrick Swayze spends about half the movie with his shirt off and sweating, so I have a pretty good idea of which sub-set of crime fiction fans find this a guilty pleasure. (Nothing wrong with that; I watch Castle.) Still, anyone pleading guilty to this one needs some time in maximum security.

I’ll do better next time.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Coming Up For Air

With an e-book recently released and a dead tree scroll due out in a few months, promotion has been on my mind. Unfortunately, it has been almost exclusively self-promotion, which always makes me feel a little like a politician, which is to say, unclean. I spend a lot more time reading other people’s stuff than writing my own—with good reason—so it’s time to give credit where it’s due.

Patti Abbott is hard to keep up with because she’s everywhere. Her most recent efforts include, “Floes the Ice” in Shotgun Honey, as well as “Won’t You Pardon Me?” in Plots With Guns. Her novel in stories, Home Invasion, currently has a five-star rating and is available for Kindle for $0.99. Her blog, Pattinase, covers topics from forgotten books to good things to say about Detroit to music to television, films, and whatever else comes to mind. I stop by several times a day.

Paul Brazill never sleeps. In addition to posting daily on his fine blog, You Would Say That, Wouldn’t You? he released two books in July, which is allegedly a vacation month. A Knife and a Quill says of Gumshoe, “The adventures of this PI feel like they rolled out of a Tom Waits song.” Of his newest, Guns of Brixton, Out Of the Gutter Online says, “Brazill has a knack for larger-than-life characters, tar-black humor, and sharp plots, and Guns of Brixton offers a great deal of all that.” McVoices has nominated Death on a Hot Afternoon as Alternative Crime Book of the Year.

Gerard Brennan is about as busy as Patti and Paul. (I’m sensing a pattern here and feeling like a bit of a piker as I do so.) He has a couple of new novellas vying for public attention. I read Welcome to the Octagon yesterday and kept thinking of what a good movie this story of a MMA fighter and single father would make, partly because it has a perfect plot for a movie, and for how well the descriptions of the fights put me on the inside. His newest, Wee Danny, is picking up good reviews faster than I can find links for them all. Save yourself some trouble and just get a copy.

Jochem van der Steen has a different perspective on private investigators. Noah Milano is the scion of a Mafia family who tries to make amends by becoming a straight PI, which isn’t always as easy as Noah would like it to be. Primarily a series of “novelettes,” Jochem’s treatment of what many would call a uniquely American genre proves those who would say that are nuts. I read and enjoyed Scoundrel and Redemption a lot; Noah’s newest is the novella, Guilt. Anyone wishing to keep up with what’s going on in Pi fiction should take a look at Jochem’s blog, Sons of Spade.

Steve Weddle is co-creator of Needle Magazine, as well as my favorite writing blog, Do Some Damage. Steve has been posting kick-ass short fiction all over the place for quite a while, and his first novel, Country Hardball is available for pre-order. There will be more on this one as the date approaches.

Jim Winter writes the Nick Kepler series of detective stories, set in Cleveland. (And I still read them; that’s how good they are.) His collection of short stories, The Compleat Kepler, does a superb job of universe building, showing Kepler in multiple situations. His newest novel, Bad Religion, starts out as the story of a shady preacher, but drags Kepler into a whole lot more.

There are others to catch up with; stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Pleasant Surprise

The primary thing that got me to quit writing—I got better—was the level of bullshit it looked like I’d have to endure after having got past all the bullshit it took to get a contract in the first place. Force of Nature Charlie Stella short-circuited me around the pre-contract bullshit, so a cynic/realist (there’s no difference, not anymore) would expect things to be that much worse in the post-contract phase.

Well, I was wrong again.

Stark House has been a pleasure to work with from Day One. I had dreaded the editing process, having heard stories of contracts signed only for the publisher to require major changes on tight deadlines. Rick Ollerman had a small handful of suggestions, all of which made perfect sense to me, and, in total, amounted to a haircut, not the surgery I’d feared.

Now the drop date nears and marketing rears its ugly head. Rick and Greg Shepherd, the publisher, have picked up some things about which I had no clue, and been very cooperative and helpful with the my own ideas. What I’d dreaded as a large company treating me as a not particularly valued employee in their stable has, in fact, been a highly cooperative and educational experience.

Of course, much of this has to do with the size of the enterprise. Stark House has two active writers: Charlie Stella and me. Everything else is reprints: Margaret Millar, Bill Pronzini, Bob Randisi and a host of others. That’s good company, and I’m proud to see my name on the list. It’s also great to know that, when I trade emails with Greg Shepherd, I’m in touch with Mr. Stark; it’s his house. Try swapping ideas with Mr. HarperCollins some time. I’ll bet even Elmore Leonard can’t do that, not and get much more than a head patting.

(An aside here to wish Mr. Leonard a full and speedy recovery from a recent stroke. He wouldn’t know me if I robbed him at gunpoint, but he has provided me with more hours of entertainment, and worthwhile tidbits of writing advice, than I can remember. I hope he’s around for a long time, even if he never writes another word. He’s earned it.)

So, this whole post-contract business has been a pleasant surprise so far. The horror stories are still out there, but you’re not getting one from me.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Anchor

Damaged heroes have had a prominent run. This phase may be ending, or it may be I have found a way to avoid most of them. Protagonists cannot be bland, but do we really need another alcoholic hero?

Nick Forte was my response to this. In his first book, A Small Sacrifice, he’s not damaged, but he’s bruised. His life is progressing along a not unacceptable path, he’s gotten over his wife throwing him out, but still has yet to find what he considers an adequate way to remain as much of a father as he wants to be. Each book juxtaposes his relationship with his daughter, Caroline, against what is driving Forte deeper into himself, and how she becomes his connection to the man he used to be—and still wants to be—more all the time, as well as his awareness this is too great a burden to place on a child, even if she is unaware of it.

Here’s the reader’s introduction to Caroline, and how Nick feels about her.

Seven year-old Caroline Forte had lapped the field as the most distinguished accomplishment of my thirty-eight years. Tall for her age, straight blond hair shifted a notch toward light brown every year. Her eyes had done the same, quicker. Never baby blue, charcoal gray for six months until they morphed into copies of mine. She had the healthy skinniness kids that age can have, more than skin and bones, no fat.

She chose Fuddruckers at 75th Street and Lemont Road for dinner. We always sat in the glassed-in seating area off the main dining room so Caroline could watch for Volkswagens and play the Putt Bug game. She ordered a kid’s burger, disappeared it under tomatoes and pickles, and ate enough to fill a bottle cap.

Eating a meal with Caroline was a non-linear experience. She wanted to talk more than eat. I wanted to listen, but I didn’t spend enough time with her to follow a conversation that ranged from recess to her cousins to school friends to a dog to what she saw on television three days ago. Somewhere in there I needed the lowdown on school and what else was going on with her she might not think to volunteer. I started with school.

“Did you have science today?” I asked while she pushed pickles back into the bun opposite the side she bit into.

“I think so.” She took a big bite of her burger. Half of what was left fell onto the plate.

“You’re not sure? Did you do anything that sounded scientifical?”

Chewing now, slow as ever. Being required to talk didn’t move things along any. “Is space science?”

“Yes.” Progress! “Space is science. What did you learn about space today?”

She drank some of the Coke-Sprite-iced tea concoction she mixed for herself at the fountain. It had to be swallowed with the same care as the food. “Planets.”

“Any one in particular?”

“All of them.”

“What about the planets?”

“Well, they go around the sun, and there’s like, seven or eight of them. Does Earth count?” I nodded. “Then it’s eight.” She slid a French fry around the glob of ketchup on her plate to draw a smiley face.

“What would you like to do after we eat?” I wouldn’t get any more school scoop for the time being. I’d sneak arithmetic in later.

“Can we play ball?”

Caroline had taken an interest in baseball this spring and I jumped on it like Paul Konerko on a hanging curve. I even bought her a genuine Alexei Ramirez glove, the Missile being the closest thing to Ozzie Smith or Bill Mazeroski on the White Sox roster. We’d oiled it and tied a ball into the pocket on our previous weekend together. “I thought you might want to throw the ball around today. Our stuff’s in the trunk. We’ll go to the park, after you eat.”

Friday, August 2, 2013

Season Two

The Beloved Spouse and I finished Season Two of The Wire tonight; it’s our third or fourth time through. Season Two is my favorite for several reasons. The plots dovetail fluidly, the morality play of trying to do right by doing wrong, and the stark honesty of showing what happens when nominally straight people get in over their heads. Mostly, it takes me home.

I grew up near Pittsburgh about the time the mills passed the point of no return. There was a small mill in my town, a larger one directly across the river, and New Kensington once made most of the world’s aluminum. My father didn’t work in the mill, though he did work for a while at Alcoa’s Technical Center, at the time the largest metallurgical laboratory in the world. My grandfather worked in the aluminum mill; a grandfather-in-law lost three fingers there. One uncle worked at Alcoa’s powder plant, was laid off, worked again, laid off again, over a period of many years. Things were different then. Getting laid off meant, “Things are slow. We’ll bring you back then they pick up.” Now it means, “Get the fuck out.”

I was old enough to understand what was happening, though I missed the worst effects by not yet being in the workforce. Jobs were leaving in droves when I graduated high school. By the time I graduated college, they were gone, and so was I, to the army. They were hiring.

Now I’m a father with a grown daughter and spent a year out of work in the early aughts, proving high tech jobs aren’t recession-proof. I got by on a decent severance and the proceeds of a house sale, and before the year was out I gained an appreciation for two things: good times don’t have to last forever, and bad times don’t have to end. The fact that mine did didn’t blind me to how lucky I was.

What resonates so well with Season Two of The Wire is empathy. I felt for the kids in Season Four and for Bunny Colvin’s frustration in Season Three, but I don’t know any drug addicts or dealers, don’t spend time with people who live near those corners. I know Frank Sobotka and Horse Face. I went to school with Nick and Ziggy. Thirty years—now forty—didn’t change what makes them recognizable.

I’d like to think I wouldn’t make the same decisions Frank Sobotka made, but, then, Frank didn’t wake up one day and decide to become a criminal. Times were hard, the only life he and his friends had ever known was falling apart, and he found himself in a position to do something about it. The camel got its nose into the tent an inch at a time while Frank refused to ask himself the questions that would have destroyed the foundation of his rationalizations.

Where was the tipping point? Well before the dead prostitutes were found, certainly, but was there a bright line he had to cross, knowing as he stepped across it he was now a criminal and there was no going back? Of course not. Frank never thought of himself as a criminal until it came apart, and, as he said to his lawyer near the end, he had to get clean. Piece by piece he sold his soul until at the end it wasn’t his anymore, though its core may have been as pure as ever.

More than the other seasons, more than any fiction I can think of, Season Two of The Wire makes me wonder if I would have come out differently in Frank’s situation. Can I say I’d have a better moral compass, or would I lack the balls to do what I felt needed to be done and face the consequences later?

This is why Season Two gets to me the way it does, on multiple levels, and what I’d like to evoke some day in the Penns River novels. I haven’t yet. But that’s what I’m working toward.