Wednesday, October 29, 2014

World Tour Update

The 2014 World Tour continues tomorrow with a train ride to NoirCon in Philadelphia. This will be my first NoirCon, l so I’m not 100% sure what to expect, except that I’ll see some old friends, make new ones, and get to meet a few in person who have heretofore been only internet presences to me. A full report is scheduled for November 10.

After that it’s a week of normalcy, then off to
Los Angeles for Bouchercon where I’ll be hosting the first Noir at the (Breakfast) Bar, a/k/a N@bB. Stop by room Harbor A at 9:00 AM PST on Friday (November 14) to hear Les Edgerton, Tim Hallinan, John McFetridge, and me read flash pieces guaranteed to entertain and get you out inside of twenty minutes, after which the Bouchercon organizers will throw us out. (Apparently my reputation precedes me.) The event is BYOB: Bring Your Own Breakfast. Added incentive: the Godfather of Noir at the Bar, Peter Rozovsky, may make a cameo appearance. If he does not, any money collected for admission to the event will be cheerfully refunded.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Paradox of Free Expression

I was unfamiliar with Brad Parks’s work when I attended the Creatures, Crime, and Creativity conference earlier this month, so he was a revelation to me at his Master Class. He discussed writing from soup to nuts as well as could be done in 45 minutes, and was educational, eye-opening, and entertaining. (Read: laugh out loud funny.) He also clearly felt comfortable in the company of other writers and readers predisposed to hearing some inside baseball stuff on writing, and spoke freely, i.e. did not censor his comments.

When I say his comments were uncensored, I do not mean to imply he channeled Al Swearengen. His language was neither gratuitous, not overly graphic. It was about what I’d expect from a writing discussion with other crime writers: an easy exchange of like-minded people.

That’s what I thought, and what Parks expected, based on his later comments. One person in the room did not agree and left, muttering under her breath about “too much…too many” after a couple of “fucks” made their (fleeting) appearance. Parks apologized, said he hadn’t meant to offend anyone, and probably should have monitored his language more closely.

Here’s what bothers me: she was a writer. (Well, she thought of herself as one.) Writers, if nothing else, should be all about words as a means of expression, the whole, “There are no ‘bad’ words” thing. Yes, you don’t use them in front of children, or in polite company. (Though I think polite company would benefit greatly if it loosened the fuck up once in a while.) I was there: neither of those descriptions applied. For a “writer” to take public offense with another writer’s language in the company of consenting adults is antithetical to what writers should stand for, which is free expression, whether or not you agree with the message, or method, of that expression.

I’ve written about this before. I expect I’ll do it again. The American hypocrisy about foul language is my personal windmill and my attitude well be a career limiting move. So it goes. It’s not like I have a “career” in the generally accepted sense of the word. As political and social bullshit demands words to have flexible—or no—meaning, the one thing I can maintain control over is my writing. Not the heinous shit right-wingers defend, nor the Obama apologists on the other side. Not those who argue an inability to persecute others is the same as being persecuted themselves, nor Salon’s daily “sky is falling” article. The only thing that’s in my control is to write the book I’d like to read, as all writers are encouraged to do.

So I fucking will.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Twenty Questions With Sharon Buchbinder

Among the myriad of cool things about the Creatures, Crime, and Creativity conference is the ability to spend time with readers and writers from outside one’s chosen niche. Crime, thrillers, science fiction, paranormal, urban fantasy, erotica all got together to share their enthusiasm for their chose genre(s). (Sorry if your got missed.) No one I came across had any issues about being The Cool Kid, or working in The Cool Genre. Everyone had something worthwhile to say, and everyone listened and learned.

Over the next several weeks OBAAT will feature writers I came across at C3. Today we begin with Sharon Buchbinder, who, after working in health care delivery for years, became an association executive, a health care researcher, and an academic in higher education. She had it all--a terrific, supportive husband, an amazing son and a wonderful job. But that itch to write (some call it an obsession) kept beckoning her to "come on back" to writing fiction. Thanks to the kindness of family, friends, critique partners, and beta readers, she is published in contemporary, erotic, paranormal, and romantic suspense. When not attempting to make students, colleagues, and babies laugh, she can be found herding cats, waiting on a large gray dog, fishing, dining with good friends, or writing. You can find her at

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Some Other Child.
Sharon Buchbinder: Between the responsibility for the care of her injured mother and straightening out her muddled finances, public health researcher Sarah Wright hasn't a minute to herself, much less time to repair a fractured romance. After a much loved aunt goes missing, Sarah is convinced it's a kidnapping but the police refuse to investigate. Former fiancé Dan flies to Sarah's side to help—and it looks like things might come back together for the two of them—until Sarah is arrested for her aunt's murder. As evidence stacks up against her, Sarah must find the real culprits as well as unravel decades old family secrets along the way.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
SB: At the time I went back to my first love (writing fiction), Baltimore had the dubious distinction of being number one in the US for congenital syphilis. I used this fact as the nucleus of the story. Drawing on my family of origin for the heroine's back story, I placed the tale in Baltimore using many famous landmarks and institutions as settings for the mystery and suspense.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Some Other Child, start to finish?
SB:  I wrote the first draft between 2004 and 2005. The book's gestation period exceeded that of an elephant. It took almost ten years with repeated rewrites and umpteen revisions.

OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
SB: Sarah Wright sacrifices her romance to be a "good daughter." She devotes her life to her work as a pediatric researcher and taking care of her alcoholic mother. Her next door neighbor, "Aunt" Ida Katz, is her mother's best friend and polar opposite. Neither her mother nor Ida will ever discuss how they met. When Sarah arrives home from work one winter day, she is confronted by police cars and ambulances. Her mother, who had been on the wagon, went outside in a drunken stupor and fell on the ice. She is hypothermic and near death. Sarah is devastated. Just when it looks like things can't get much worse, Aunt Ida vanishes. The police won't put out a missing person alert because Ida is competent. Sarah knows something is terribly wrong and starts her own investigation. Just a hint: things get much worse for Sarah before they get better.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Some Other Child set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
SB: The book is set in contemporary times in Baltimore and its suburbs. The city is an interesting mix of cultures and ethnicities, which gives it great charm and fascinating characters.  Although I changed the names of a number of places in the book, local readers love recognizing their favorite haunts. The academic medical center is intrinsic to the plot lines and ability of the main character to conduct her amateur sleuthing

OBAAT: How did Some Other Child come to be published?
SB: After I wrote the book, Some Other Child was beta read by my family, friends, colleague, and even a professor of literature. Based on their input, I revised the book. Then I tried to get it published. No luck. So, I hired a professional editor, who gave me great feedback, including the fact that the book was in the wrong point of view (first person). I revised the book, again. Between revisions, I found Romance Writers of America and Maryland Romance Writers. I discovered the romance genre had a large umbrella that covered many subgenres. I put my firstborn book aside, despite many readers telling me I needed to get it published. I plunged into romance, writing and selling seven short stories and novellas. I pulled Some Other Child out of the drawer, added more romance, and began re-submitting to romance publishers. After the third rejection, I decided to self-publish.  As you can well imagine, it was enormously gratifying to receive the Paranormal Romance Guild Best Mystery/Thriller Award for 2012.  After I self-published (and received the award) one of the editors at The Wild Rose Press who worked with me on my short stories and novellas reached out to me and asked me to submit the manuscript. And she bought the book! Happy dance!

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
SB: Genre fiction, including historical, mystery, suspense, thrillers, supernatural, paranormal romance, romantic suspense, sci-fi, and fantasy. My desert island books are The Eight by Katherine Neville and Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. A very short list of my favorite authors include: Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov, Connie Willis, Ken Follett, F Paul Wilson, JD Robb (Nora Roberts), Elizabeth Cunningham, Lucia St Clair Robson, to mention but a few.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
SB: Nancy Drew! She got me hooked on girl-driven stories. Heinlein opened doors to other worlds, literally. Neville showed me how to write a book in two different eras and wrap the two plots together. She is also, by the way, incredibly kind and gracious to fan girls.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
SB: My pants are always seated firmly in a framework that used to be loose, but gets tighter with each subsequent story. Part of the reason Some Other Child took so long to be born is because I wrote it as a pantser. Now that I'm working on my fourth novel, I'm thrilled to have a road map that gives me direction, but allows for scenic detours.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
SB: Something in between. In a writing frenzy, I will move forward as fast as I can. I let that chunk "cool" then review it later. Then the warts come out. Revise, rewrite, set on fire. Or, on rare occasion, "Did I write that?" Beta readers are incredibly important to me. They tell me what works and doesn't work. Then revise, rewrite, or burn.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
SB: Read the genre you want to write so you know the rules--then make it your own voice, not the voice of the author you love. It's your story. Not his or hers.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
SB: Playing with my grandson.

OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
SB: Good reviews. I live for good feedback.

OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
SB: No. It's an obsession. I can't stop.

OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
SB: I've done all except number 3, so I'd like to rewind and try that for a change. Big Six, no matter what the dynamics of the publishing industry, is still the Ivy League or Major League or whatever metaphor you choose. It is a stamp of recognition that few other publishing venues offer.

OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
SB: Wine.

OBAAT: Baseball or football?
SB: The Ravens.

OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
SB:  How did it feel to sell your first book?

OBAAT: What’s the answer?

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
SB: Kiss of the Burmese Prince, third in my Kiss Series (Kiss of the Silver Wolf, Kiss of the Virgin Queen). Kiss of the Burmese Prince is the story about a jinni hunter retracing her "crazy" grandmother's bedtime stories about her journey into the Jinni Realm during World War II in the China-Burma-India theatre. The jinni hunter follows her grandmother's journal and discovers the truth of her own origins and finds love along the way.

Thanks, Sharon, for taking the time to let OBAAT readers have a look at writing other than the usual here. I’ll be appearing on Sharon’s blog, Snap, Crackle, and Popping, on December 30.

Monday, October 20, 2014


This is the 500th edition of One Bite at a Time. Things were sporadic for quite a while after the first post on August 17, 2008, though I have settled into a semi-weekly routine that seems to work pretty well. Blogger tells me the all-time average number of views per post is 152, though in the past month that figure is 302, which I am interpreting as a growing reach, and, hopefully, a growing number of folks who are interested. My sincere thanks to everyone who stops by for a read, especially the regulars, and even more so to those who comment. Blogging is often a little like sending writing off into a void as NASA did with Voyager. It’s always good to receive some telemetry.

Now, for the news:

My World Tour began October 10 – 12 with an appearance at the Creatures, Crime, and Creativity conference outside of Baltimore. I was lucky enough to score a couple of nice panel gigs, made quite a few new friends, and learned a lot. I’ll be back next year.

October 30 – November 2 I’ll be attending NoirCon in Philadelphia.

November 13 – 16 The Beloved Spouse and I will be at Bouchercon in Long Beach (Los Angeles).

Speaking of Bouchercon, I’m taking this opportunity to announce a special event to take place there: the first ever Noir at the Breakfast Bar a/k/a N@bB. What the official program will bill as an Author Focus event in room Harbor A (Friday, November 14 at 9:00 AM) will actually be a hell of a lot more entertaining than watching me drone on or tap dance: a group reading of flash fiction. Not just any group. This group includes, alphabetically, Les Edgerton, Timothy Hallinan, and John McFetridge. (Yeah, you have to put up with me, too, but I’m the guy signed up for the time.) Each of us will read a piece of flash fiction, and we’ll have everyone out in 20 minutes. Stop by to help get your heart started as ease into your first full day of the conference. (Many thanks to the Godfather of Noir at the Bar, Peter Rozovsky, for allowing me to hitch my skateboard to his Maserati.)
This next can be viewed as news, or a warning: I hope to have a fully functional web site operational no later than early 2015. I’m researching other authors’ web sites for ideas I can steal borrow. If anyone has suggestions for an author site I might want to check out, please let me know.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Creatures, Crime, and Creativity

I spent last weekend at the second (hopefully annual) Creatures, Crime, and Creativity conference in suburban Baltimore. (Hunt Valley, to be precise.) In the interests of full disclosure, I only went because organizer Austin Camacho is a good friend, and I wanted to show the flag. I expected to go, then need to come up with a plausible excuse in future years. Well, finding the annual excuse will not be a problem. I’m already registered for next year

C3 (as it’s called) has a few quirks in its programming. Panels begin Friday at noon, run all day Saturday, and till about noon on Sunday. Tables are set up around the bookseller’s location for a mass author signing at 5:00 each day, where readers can also get their programs and anthologies autographed. (These are open to the public, whether registered for the conference, or not.)  Meals are communal events, where writers and readers of different styles, genres, and tastes get into conversations I’ve rarely had at other, larger cons.

What I’d thought might be a weakness turned out to be a strength: this is not a genre-specific conference. Crime figures heavily, but so do vampires, romance, urban fiction, sci-fi, and a few I’m not sure what the hell they were about. What mattered was, the attendees were readers and writers who cared about what they wrote and read, and were more than willing to share their enthusiasm with others. I attended a session during every time slot—something I rarely do, even at Bouchercon—and took away something from them all, save one, which was my fault. (I misinterpreted the title.)

Four authors of various styles and genres were featured in interviews, speeches, and “master classes,” in which a guest author spoke as a panel of one on a specific topic. (Alphabetically, C.J. Ellisson, John Gilstrap, Brad Parks, and Rebecca York.) Below are some highlights, in more or less chronological order.

In “Using the Five Senses to Engage Your Readers,” panelist Dorothy Spruzen made a point for not explaining too much. When noting a section of her book where concert goers were always happy to hear something melodic, and would gripe about more contemporary pieces, she used Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich as examples. Her thinking was, everyone knows about Tchaikovsky, and they’ll figure out enough about Shostakovich through the context if they don’t know about him already. Trusting the readers’ intelligence. What a concept.

When discussing “How Gut-Wrenching Should [Crime Scenes} Be?” a discussion broke out about the recent trend for audiences to accept behavior (read: violence) by the protagonist that may exceed even that of the villain, and where this has come from, what Austin Camacho referred to as “Batman Syndrome.”  TV’s 24 was mentioned more than once. It was also pointed out that intelligence and security professionals are appalled by this, as, put simply, it doesn’t work. Make someone hurt bad enough, he’ll tell you anything.

John Gilstrap opened Saturday morning with a presentation called, “Broken Bones, Ballistics, and Backdrafts: Technical Stuff the Writers Get Wrong.” With a Master’s in Safety Engineering, a successful career as a thriller writer, and an energetic and entertaining presentation manner, John was perfect for this session. His introductory slide refers to him as an “Explosive Safety ‘Expert’” (“Expert” in quotes), as a reminder to himself not to get cocky.

Brad Parks, author of the Carter Ross series of humorous thrillers, spoke on writing techniques, beginning with the first four paragraphs of Charlotte’s Web, which he described as a great take-off on the thriller genre, as the first four paragraphs provide a.) an underdog the reader can root for; 2.) dire circumstances; and iii.) a flawed character with agency to save the underdog. A few highlights:
·        Every character needs to have a secret. You don’t have to tell what it is, but you should know.
·        Lee Child’s theory of how many characters to use: Think of them as actors needed on a set, with their own needs: food, costumes, personal maintenance, expectations, agents, personalities, etc. How many of them do you want to deal with, and how often?
·        Suspense = (What I want to Know – What I know already) x How badly do I want to know it?
·        There must be conflict on every page. One person wants one thing, another wants something else, they can’t both get what they want, and they’re both right.
·        Be the best you you can be. If 90% think you’re a schmuck, the remaining 10% can make you a bestseller forever.
Plus lots of other good stuff, delivered with a quantity and quality of humor that got me to buy a book, and I rarely buy books at conferences.

“You’ve Got Fan Mail: Honored Guests Discuss Mail From Fascinating Fans” was a discussion with the featured authors about mail they have received. Great fun—with a few cautionary notes—it had a selfish benefit for me, as the plot element I need to get the next Nick Forte novel moving in the direction I want it to go was handed to me on a platter.

At dinner, John Gilstrap spoke about serendipity and failure, tracing his success back through events in his life that led to something else that created a “Six Degrees” kind of path to successful novelist. Except…there was that whole part in the middle where his book underperformed the publisher’s expectations—for which the author had to take full responsibility because, as we all know, publishers do not overpay for books; authors and agents oversell them—and how he rebuilt his career. John is funny, engaging, and totally immersed in what he’s saying, and I have to confess he hit a few notes in discussing failure (“only you can declare yourself a failure”) that had me genuinely choked up. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, do so.

Sunday morning’s opening session was with C.J. Ellisson, who writes Urban Fantasy and Contemporary Erotic Romance. Neither of these genres are in my wheelhouse, but she is also an acknowledged master of using Facebook to promote sales. (Somehow “Mistress of Facebook” doesn’t sound quite right.) She spend most of an hour showing how to create a unified and strong presence on Facebook without being overbearing about it, and I’m looking forward to consolidating my notes and getting to work on my presence there, and on building an honest-to-God web site.

The final session concerned how to keep a series going. A discussion evolved on point of view, during which Brad Parks made an observation so striking, I think most authors there were with me in the, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” category. When writing close third person and having trouble with a potentially wandering POV, write the scene in first person, then go back and change what needs to be changed. There’s never any trouble in staying with first person.

C3 is still a small conference, and, for now, that intimacy is a major part of its charm, as there is little trouble catching up with whoever you’re looking for. There’s a lot of room for growth in attendance, and the directors appear to have everything under control to make that happen. So, if you’re a reader or author looking for a great long weekend immersed in your favorite activity, look into the Creatures, Crime, and Creativity conference for next year, scheduled for September 25 – 27. I’ll be there, but you should go, anyway.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Catching up With the Movies

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. (1962) Considered by many to be among the greatest Westerns ever made, which may explain a lot about why I went so long without watching Westerns. The story is good, but delivered in such a ham-handed manner I couldn’t take it seriously. Actors’ actions and reactions were exaggerated to the point where high school musicals look nuanced in comparison. The acting is broad overall, making the quieter scenes—where they actually talk, and don’t make speeches—welcome relief. Character actor heaven, especially Liberty Valence’s (Lee Marvin) henchmen: Strother Martin and Lee van Cleef.

Out of the Furnace. (2013) This was recommended and the trailer looked good, so we took a flyer, it taking place in Pittsburgh, and all. Loved it. I feel guilty sometimes when I enjoy a Christian Bale performance, knowing what a self-important asshole he is (or at least can be), but he carries this film effortlessly. There are couple of plot points—not really holes—that keep it from getting highest marks, but they’re not critical. Well worth anyone’s time.

Klute. (1971) Jane Fonda’s Oscar-winning role. Released in the early part of the 70s Golden Age, it doesn’t hold up well. Director Alan Pakula went for a psychological thriller, but the plot doesn’t hold water, the actors speak wooden dialog as if they didn’t believe it themselves, the pacing is lugubrious, and the timing for the final scenes is ludicrous. Not even Donald Sutherland could save this for me. (Frankly, he’s not very good in it, either.)

Jackie Brown (1997) I had a day off work and dilated pupils from an ophthalmologist appointment, so watching TV was about all I could do. The Beloved Spouse came home a short ways in, said she hadn’t liked it the first time we saw it, and would stay while we ate. She stayed for the whole thing, said. “That was a lot better than I remembered it.” One of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations (of Rum Punch), and one of Tarantino’s best movies, from the days when he was more concerned with making good movies than with making “Quentin Tarantino” movies.

Get Shorty (1995) I’m not going to say any more than I have to, if that, about this. My annual birthday movie, brought out early to try to recover a thoroughly shitty day. There’s no way I can watch this and not feel better.

LA Confidential (1997) Get Shorty was over too early to go to bed, so I asked TBS if she’d mind watching LA Confidential. She said she’d hang in until she fell asleep, then stayed awake past midnight. This is as close to the perfect crime film as I’ve ever seen, and damn near a perfect movie.

The Big Lebowski (1998) Burned out after a couple of tough weeks, I drove home from Pennsylvania, dropped my ass in the chair, and asked TBS if she’d mind spending the evening with The Dude, because my buddies didn’t die face down in the muck for me to have a shitty weekend. As expected, The Dude abides.

The Mexican (2001) Getting back to normal life, this underappreciated little comedy tries to achieve on multiple levels, and pretty much does. It’s nothing special, and it probably doesn’t pay to look too deeply at how the story holds up, but it has an Elmore Leonard quality to the loopiness of the plot and characters that made it a fun way to spend an evening.

The Guns of Navarone (1961) Hadn’t seen it in at least thirty years, and it surprised me. What I’d thought I’d like, hadn’t aged well, and what I’d forgotten was much better than to have been forgotten. The classic Alistair MacLean commando tale, the battle scenes don’t hold up after you become accustomed to Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. On the other hand, there’s far more anti-war sentiment and shades of gray than I remember. Gregory Peck sure could chew some scenery when he had a mind to.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2013) Great fun in another of Wes Anderson’s off-kilter worlds. We first became acquainted with Anderson with Moonrise Kingdom, and the ads for The Grand Budapest Hotel were too good to pass up. Anderson’s films are highly stylized, stiff to the point of absurdity, which makes the lunacy they depict all the more entertaining. Highest marks.

Hour of the Gun (1961) Probably a more realistic depiction of the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday-Tombstone period than even Tombstone, begins with the Earps and Doc on their way to the OK Corral, none of that fussy family and wives backstory bullshit. (I hope to know more which is the more accurate after I read a book currently working its way to the top of the TBR list.) James Garner and Jason Robards are well cast as Wyatt and Doc, though Val Kilmer has created the definitive Holliday. It’s a compelling story, but somehow doesn’t quite measure up. It has a little of the same problem as The Guns of Navarone, as more sophisticated viewers will wonder how accurate these guys can be at distance when shooting everything—pistols, rifles, shotguns—from the hip, and often pointed at an angle that would put the bullet in the ground six feet away from the shooter.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Interview With Declan Burke, Author of Crime Always Pays

Declan Burke is the author of Eightball Boogie (2003), The Big O (2007), Absolute Zero Cool (winner of the Goldsboro “Last Laugh” Award for 2011 at Crimefest), Slaughter's Hound (sequel to Eightball Boogie, 2012), and his newest, Crime Always Pays, which is a sequel to The Big O. (How there came to be so long between them is discussed below.) A tireless supporter and champion of Irish crime fiction in his blog, Crime Always Pays, he is the editor of Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing In The 21st Century, and is the co-editor, with John Connolly, of Books To Die For (2012).
More than that, at least to me, is he’s a damn good friend, an enthusiastic supporter of my work who not only talked me out of quitting before I’d been published, but reached across the sheugh to tell me what he thought of Grind Joint person-to-person. That’s why I’m particularly chuffed to be able to so enthusiastically endorse Crime Always Pays, which combines the best elements of Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake. (I shit you not.)

Declan took time from his busy schedule and family to  submit to the usual inordinate amount of questions from me.

One Bite at a Time: I read a draft copy of Crime Always Pays, had to be five years ago. What the hell took so long for it to be published?
Declan Burke: Well, as John Lennon said, life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Basically, the very lovely editor who signed Crime Always Pays as the second of a two-book deal (the first being The Big O) was no longer at that particular desk when the time came around for it to be published, so it ended up being a very protracted process. In the end I bought back the rights to The Big O and Crime Always Pays, and I was delighted last year when the good people at Severn House decided they wanted to publish Crime Always Pays.

OBAAT: Crime Always Pays is a sequel to The Big O, and begins only a couple of hours after The Big O ends. Did you have a sequel in mind all the time, or were those characters so much fun you felt you had to keep the roll going?
DB: No, I didn’t have a sequel in mind at the time, I don’t really work that way. It’s partly what you suggest, that I had so much fun with those guys that I wanted to see what happened to them after The Big O ended, if they couldn’t manage to finagle themselves into an even bigger mess than before. It was also partly because, when I was writing The Big O, it was in my mind largely a story about Karen and Ray – and Karen, really. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realised that I’d given Rossi a bum deal throughout that whole story, and I wanted to give him the kind of second chance that life never gave him, or that life, in reality, never gives to guys like him. 

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Crime Always Pays, start to finish?
DB: Crikey – how long is a piece of string? If memory serves, the first draft took about four or five months, and that went pretty well – I’d say the finished book is probably about 70% of the first draft. But, with life and other books and various other issues getting in the way, it probably took about six years to get from writing the first line to seeing it on a shelf.

OBAAT: Crime Always Pays is a multi-POV story, to say the least. Seven characters share in telling the story, but my favorite, by far, is Sleeps, the narcoleptic getaway driver. How did you come up with him?
DB: I honestly can’t remember. In the beginning Sleeps was just a guy who lends Rossi a hand getting back on his feet after Rossi gets out of prison, but given that Rossi is plagued by bad luck – a lot of it due to bad planning, it has to say – Sleeps quickly became more of a hindrance than a help to Rossi, not least because he comes to serve as Rossi’s conscience, and I just loved the idea of a getaway driver who is prone to nodding off at the wheel. Actually, Sleeps is probably my favourite character in Crime Always Pays too – at one point the book was operating under the working title ‘Sleeps The Hero’.

OBAAT: The Big O takes place all within a few miles. Crime Always Pays spans Europe, from Ireland to the Greek Islands. Did you plan a broader scope from the get-go, is that how things just worked out, or did you want to take a vacation and thought it would be nice to write it off as research?
DB: I’d always wanted to write a “road movie” book, but that’s not really a runner in Ireland, because three or four hours would take you coast-to-coast, which would make for a pretty short book. So I thought it would be fun to take Karen, Ray, Rossi et al on the road. Once I decided that, they were only ever heading for the Greek islands – I fell in love with the landscape of the Greek islands about 25 years ago, and I’ve always wanted to set a story there. Finally, the year I wrote Crime Always Pays, I knew I wouldn’t be getting a vacation. So the next best thing was to write a story set in my favourite place – I got to spend a couple of hours a day, for four or five months, in the Greek islands.  

OBAAT: Anna is a three-quarters wolf, one-quarter Husky mix that serves as a focal point for much of what happens, as Karen’s devotion to her influences what everyone else has to do in some way. It’s a brilliant way to create an organic and ongoing complication. What made you think of such a device? (I apologize for referring to her as a “device,” as she’s a well-rounded character of her own.)
DB: I came up with Anna for The Big O because I wanted Karen to have a serious responsibility and / or an unusual reason for pulling hold-ups. The first thing that came to mind was that Karen had a child to take care of, but that’s been done more than a few times before, so I gave her a child-like and slightly unusual character in Anna. Someone pointed out to me that there’s always some kind of wild (or semi-wild) character in all of my books – there’s another dog in Slaughter’s Hound, for example – and I guess it’s because, as you suggest, I like the idea of a ‘organic and ongoing complication’, but one that is unpredictable and potentially savage, which represents the more unevolved aspects of human behaviour.

OBAAT: I don’t know of another writer who can successfully pull off such a broad range of
stories. The Big O and Crime Always Pays are comedies, with CAP reminding me a little of the classic 60s movie, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Eightball Boogie and Slaughter’s Hound are classic, first-person private eye stories, though the writing style is current and Harry’s not really a PI in the second. Absolute Zero Cool is meta-fiction, the author interacting with a character he thought he’d abandoned. Even better, the similar stories are not necessarily consecutively written. I couldn’t do that if I tried, and I have. How do you decide what to do next?
DB: Well, I thank you kindly for the good word, sir. I guess the ‘broad range’ comes about because I get bored very easily, and – as a reader – I like all kinds of crime and mystery novels (all kinds of fiction, really), so I like to mix it up. I mean, people don’t tend to read only hardboiled crime, or locked-room mysteries, or cozy mysteries, or spy thrillers – for the most part, and even if we only read in the crime / mystery / thriller genre, we tend to read across the board. How do I decide what to do next? Well, I just get the idea for a story, and then the form that will suit that story best will present itself, and I’ll do my best to do justice to that particular form.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
DB: I’m happy to read any kind of story that’s written well, although I skew very heavily in favour of the crime / mystery novel, not least because it offers – potentially – the best aspects of any kind of novel. I mean, there’s very few elements in literature that can’t be incorporated into the crime form, if you’re prepared to stretch yourself. My favourite authors? That would be a very, very long list. On the basis of those writers I tend to read or reread at least once a year, I’d list Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Mary Renault, John le Carré, James Ellroy, John Connolly, Megan Abbott and Agatha Christie.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
DB: Well, I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s read him that Raymond Chandler was a huge influence on my Harry Rigby books, in that I was aiming to write a Chandleresque story set in contemporary Ireland; and the same goes for Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen and Barry Gifford in terms of The Big O and Crime Always Pays. I should say, though, that I’m much more influenced by individual books than I am by a writer’s canon of work. Alistair Maclean’s When Eight Bells Toll was a massive influence on me, as was William Goldman’s Marathon Man, and while I’ve read other books of theirs – I love The Princess Bride – I’ve never been moved to emulate the style or storytelling of any of their other books. And it would be remiss, while we’re on the subject of ‘influence’, not to mention Enid Blyton and her Famous Five / Secret Seven books, which introduced me to the idea that a good book always had a mystery investigation at its heart; and Agatha Christie, to whom I graduated after I left Enid Blyton behind, for much the same reason.  

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
DB: I do wear pants when I write. In fact, I insist on being fully clothed, although this has less to do with propriety than it has the Irish weather. I never outline, even though I promise myself that I will with every book I begin. But then I start to write a plan and I get hooked on one idea or another and off I go, writing – much to my dismay roughly four months later. I think that’s because, for me, writing is far more interesting on the micro level of fiddling around with words than it is on the macro level of narrative progression and so forth – although, obviously, storytelling becomes much more important in the process from the second draft onwards.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
DB: I do edit as I go. I’m a very slow writer, unfortunately, the three-words-forward, two-words-back type. Plus, I tend to keep writing forward until I’ve completely painted myself into the proverbial corner, and then I start shooting people, starting with the minor characters and working up to the main players. By the time there’s only one man or woman standing, that’s generally the end of the story.  

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
DB: I suppose it’s a variation on the old saw of ‘read, read, read’ – I’m not sure that’s particularly great advice, because any writer who is going to make it will be the ‘read, read, read’ type. My version would be, ‘listen, listen, listen’ – to strangers, to hear the way they talk (not necessarily for what they say, but the way they say it); to editors and agents and publishers and PR people, wherever you can find them; to readers, to find out what it is they like to read about; and, most importantly, to your inner voice, that unique quality of yours that will make you stand out from all the rest.  

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
DB: I play a little football (soccer), a pick-up game once a week – I really enjoy that. And of course I listen to music, and watch TV and so forth – the usual stuff. Probably the best fun is spending time with my daughter, who is 6 years old at this stage, and brilliant company, not least because she’s reintroducing me to all the joys of play at that age – the latest phase is Lego, which I’d forgotten all about.  

OBAAT: If you had to pick one author people really should read (apart from yourself and me), who would it be?
DB: This changes with the seasons, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, but right now I’ll say John le Carré. Sometimes the cynicism can be hard to stomach, but he always seems to give value in every single line.  

OBAAT: If you were just starting out again, would you rather: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
DB: If I had the choice, I’d go with a Big Six (Big Five?) publisher – the traditional route, because when it comes to writing, I’m a traditional kind of guy. Also, I still retain that romantic and hopelessly outdated notion of writing, which is that the writer writes and other people do whatever needs to be done to get the book on the shelves. The big problem with any kind of indie publishing, in my experience, is that the business side of things takes up far more time than the actual writing, and sucks up the creative energy.

OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
DB: Mainly beer, because I prefer a good buzz to being poleaxed drunk. That said, I’ve become uncommonly fond of gin-and-tonic recently, even if the Irish climate doesn’t really lend itself to the sundowner-on-the-patio moment.  

OBAAT: Gaelic football or hurling?
DB: Hurling, always, as I suspect you already know. For me it’s the ultimate team sport: skill, speed, strength, style, courage. At its best it’s the very definition of grace under pressure.

OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
DB: “Do you have a tattoo?”

OBAAT: What’s the answer?
DB: “Yes, of Wile E. Coyote.”

OBAAT: What are you up to now?
DB: Right this second I’m about to sign off and go brush my daughter’s hair and check her schoolbag, and set out for the schoolyard. Dana, it’s been terrific fun to answer these questions, and thanks a million for having me.

Dec, you’ve had no more answering them than I have in reading your replies. Thanks again for taking the time.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Crime Always Pays

Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way: Declan Burke is a friend of mine, among the first I made as a writer. He and Charlie Stella are the two people most responsible for getting me published. Charlie, because he made Stark House an offer they couldn’t refuse; Declan because he talked me out of quitting before Grind Joint had even been written. So, yes, I may be pre-disposed to like anything he writes. A quick look at any reputable dictionary will show you “pre-disposed to like anything he writes” does not mean laughing out loud so often The Beloved Spouse asked me to read whatever it was I just read to her, because she couldn’t focus on anything else until I calmed down.

His newest, Crime Always Pays, is a sequel to 2008’s The Big O. Crime Always Pays was written more or less immediately afterward. In an episode of the publishing industry having its collective head even farther up its collective ass than usual, CAP was finally released this year by Severn House, who deserve full marks for seeing what others missed. (The April 1 U.K. release date was inspired, given the characters and tone of the book.)

The cast is what matters here. There’s Karen, abused by her father, broke her own jaw to seal the deal on his conviction. She pulled armed robberies with a gun and Ducati motorcycle she was holding onto for Rossi while he was inside. Oh, and €60,000, which he was kind of hoping to get back, but she spent it boarding…

Anna, a three-quarters wolf, one-quarter Husky mix with an eye patch because Rossi gouged one out. When last seen in The Big O, Anna was chewing the head off of…

Rossi, an Irish orphan who fancies himself half-Sicilian. What he wants most is his gun, Ducati, and 60 Gs back from Karen, but after coming onto a kidnapping plot that ended with him holding 200 Gs before the wolf tried to eat his head, he’d like a taste of that, too, though he has to be careful, because he shot…

Ray, who would surely be played by George Clooney in the movie. Ray remains perpetually cool while chasing across Europe and the Greek islands with a cast on his arm where Rossi shot him, wondering on which side the cop…

Doyle will come down. She’s suspended because, even though she foiled the kidnapping, she didn’t get the money, and let just about everyone get away. Oh, and she was there when the kidnap victim…

Madge, shot her husband, who had her kidnapped as part of an insurance scam. Madge may be Rossi’s birth mother, or not. She’s trying to stay out of jail for shooting her hubby, but wouldn’t mind a taste of that loose 200 grand herself, and—oh, I almost forgot—is tight with Karen, who somehow wound up in the original kidnapping plot. Madge and Karen had previously booked a cruise that may now come in handy as part of their getaway plan, until Rossi figures it out and gets in touch with…

Melody, the travel agent who wants to be a movie producer and sees a story unfolding in front of her that’s way better than anything she could come up with, and holds Madge’s and Karen’s final destinations a secret from Rossi so he has to bring her along, where she starts to fall for…

Sleeps, the narcoleptic getaway driver, and my personal favorite character.

That’s all you get from me. The story reminds me a bit of the classic Sixties comedy It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, or what might have happened if Donald Westlake left behind an outline for Elmore Leonard.

In the Author’s Notes, Burke writes:

Crime Always Pays is fiction, and takes place in a parallel universe that largely mimics the rules—gravity, etc.—of the world we are all familiar with. It is, however, a world that differs in some respects to our own, including the basic geography of some Cycladic Greek islands, the prevalence of coincidence, and the improbability of happy endings. To those readers offended by the taking of such liberties, I sincerely apologize.

There’s one more way Crime Always Pays differs from our world: real life is never, ever, this much fun.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Best Reads, August and September

September hit the ground running with some personal business that could not wait, so here are my best reads for both August and September. (Because I know, deep down, you were disappointed when I skipped the August recounting.)

Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell. As good as I’d hoped. Woodrell has the gift of underplaying everything in such a manner it increases the effect. His writing has a backwoods poetry that distills the personalities of the characters and defines the good and bad of the clannishness found in this part of the Ozarks. (“working in the hot fields from can to can’t;” “nobody thought he’d live to see noon until he did.” Both of those are on the same page.) Writes female characters as well or better than any male writer I’ve read, and better than a lot of women. The ending is perfect, and leaves an opening for what could be a wonderful sequel, should Woodrell feel so inclined. The kind of book I wished was longer. Not because it seemed to be in any way incomplete, but because I didn’t want to stop reading.

Difficult Men, Brett Martin. This one got its own review several weeks ago. It’s worth a second mention.

The Way of the Warrior 1, Bernard Schaffer. A brief, quasi-memoir from a retired Philadelphia area cop that is not what one might expect. Schaffer is not an advocate of the increasing police “us versus them” mindset, and makes some compelling arguments for how policing and community relations can be improved. A quick and worthy read.

The Right Madness, James Crumley. I almost took this off the list because I read it a month ago and didn’t remember the story. I read a review and remembered what it was that moved me to put it on the list in the first place. Crumley’s books aren’t really about the plot, as he tends to get carried away and lets things circle back onto each other until the reader is left scratching his head. Doesn’t matter. Crumley’s plots are primarily scaffolds on which to hang the characters, dialog, and writing, all three of which are in fine fettle here.

Farewell, My Lovely, Raymond Chandler. Chandler’s masterpiece, at least until I re-read The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye. My favorite of the three is almost always the one freshest in my mind.

Crime Always Pays, Declan Burke. A more detailed review is coming. For now, imagine Elmore Leonard telling a story devised by Donald Westlake, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how much fun this is. Burke has as much or more range as anyone currently writing in the genre.