Friday, April 28, 2017

A Conversation With Eric Beetner

Those who say perpetual motion is impossible haven’t met Eric Beetner. I don’t know anyone else who maintains his pace. I don’t know two people who combined can match his pace on Eric’s day off. To give a brief idea of his resume, his books include Rumrunners and its sequel Leadfoot, The Devil Doesn't Want Me, When The Devil Comes To Call and Book 3 in the trilogy, The Devil At Your Door (released last week), Dig Two Graves, White Hot Pistol, The Year I Died Seven Times, Stripper Pole At The End Of The World, and the story collection, A Bouquet Of Bullets.

He co-authored The Backlist and The Short List, both with Frank Zafiro, and, with JB Kohl, the novels One Too Many Blows to The Head, Borrowed Trouble, and Over Their Heads. He’s also penned two novellas in the popular Fightcard series, Split Decision and A Mouth Full of Blood, and two novellas in The Lawyer series of Westerns, Blood Moon and Six Guns at Sundown.

(Pause here to give the reader a chance to catch her breath.)

He co-produces, edits, and hosts the highly-acclaimed podcast Writer Types with S.W. Lauden and has designed over ninety book covers, three of which I am proud to call my own.

Eric has toured as a musician, painted, written screenplays, acted in short films, been to China twice, fished in the Mississippi, met Barry Manilow, and directed films and music videos. His name has been on television over a hundred times, and he owns a real human skull.

He lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts the Noir At The Bar reading series in his copious free time.

In spite of all that, he still found time to shoot the shit with me. As you might expect, he started:

Eric Beetner: Your Penns River series is ongoing and I'm just wrapping up a trilogy, which
felt like the right amount of story for those characters. Did you have a plan going in about how many books [the] story would entail, or are you just following the stories as they come to you?

Dana King: I don’t know I had the idea it would even be a series when I started. Once I had the universe in place stories started to find me. I came to like that world so much I even made the PI from my other series into the cousin of the main character in Penns River so I could overlap the two. Now I’m curious to see how far I can take it.

I thought Lars and Shaine were great characters from early on in The Devil Doesn't Want Me. When you say three felt about right for them, is that an idea that came to you after you wrote the third, or did you have three stories in mind when you started, kind of how David Simon had a five-year arc in mind when he started The Wire?

EB: I really start every book as a standalone so at the end of The Devil Doesn't Want Me it could have been one and done. But at the same time the ending was very leading, at least for me, to wonder what came next for these characters. The relationship they establish in the first book is just beginning almost like he's adopted a new child. There was plenty of story left to tell. I haven't traditionally been a big fan of series work, or long series anyway. I think the Parker books over read ten or eleven. Beyond that I tend to tap out after three, with a few exceptions like Owen Laukkanen's Stevens and Windermere series, Joe Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series. I'm coming around to longer series. Maybe it's my age. J

But for me I like a story with real stakes and that means not knowing if a character is going to make it through to the end. If I go in knowing full well that Phillip Marlowe, for example, is going to be fine it takes a little away from the story. It might be why even in the sequels I've written I tend to still kill off a lot of people. That threat has to be there.

Part of me has wanted to do a series where the main character gets killed off and the books pick up with a minor character who gets pushed forward, then they die and so on. Something tells me a publisher might not be into that idea.

But for books two and three of Lars and Shaine I had a trilogy plotted out by the time I was pitching that book to publishers. Neither idea of the second and third books ended up being what they were about. I came up with new stuff when the time came.

All that said, I was sad to see them go. I've always wondered if writers who do a series 20-plus books deep, if there is some basic reluctance to let these characters go. Like if or when they do, do they go through a depression like losing a family member?

DK: I’ll let you know about that depression business if people can bear to read that many of my books. You do touch on a problem with many series: the reader knows the main character can’t die. That’s why I think—well, I hope—I can keep the Penns River series going. Because it’s an ensemble cast and the town is the continuing focal point, I can kill off anyone I want. Maybe not Ben Dougherty, but there’s nothing that says something terrible can’t happen to him and maybe move him off the front line.

I had an idea years ago for an anthology where the main character in each story played a minor role in the previous story. Ideally the last story in the book would include the first story’s main character in a supporting role to close the loop and make it truly a book you could start anywhere and read. Patti Abbott started a cycle of flash pieces like that and it was great fun to fill a niche.

EB: That anthology sounds like a lot of fun. A different approach to a collection.

I like your approach with Penns River, too. I think it's interesting to make a series more about a place than a person. Like you say, there is a central character in Ben, but if you populate the world around him with compelling people and situations, your limit of stories is endless.

Not to name drop but I recently had the chance to interview Sara Paretsky (for my podcast Writer Types with me and SW Lauden) and we asked her how her character of VI Warshawski ages as the series progresses. Without giving away her answer, it is an interesting thought that most writers probably don't consider at the start of a series. I guess there is always the option to have them perpetually one age like The Simpsons or something, but crime novels generally try to stick to the realism. My characters Lars and Shaine go through some significant changes in just the three books over the course of only a few years, but it was important to me to show that growth, especially since age is such an important thing in the first book, The Devil Doesn't Want Me.

Of course I'm always fighting my instinct to write a character who is fifty as the "older" guy while seeming to deny that I am approaching that milestone myself in the fast lane. I suppose time marches on for us too. We don't get the luxury of being frozen on the page. *sigh*

DK: I bleed for you. I vaguely remember being fifty.

I thought a lot and made conscious decisions about how characters aged in the Penns River books. I haven’t been writing them long enough for anyone but me to notice, but the characters do age, just not in real time. I drop into each story little hints about how long it’s been since its predecessor, even though there may have been a few years since the previous books came out. Doc’s parents will start to show their age, Chief Napierkowski will retire at some point, but most likely at times when those actions will be of most benefit to a story. I borrowed the idea—okay, I stole it—from Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series. He wrote them for almost fifty years and the characters aged some, but not dramatically. The passage of time was most obvious in how Steve Carella’s kids grew up.

You mentioned the podcasts you’re doing with Steve Lauden a minute ago. I’ve heard both that are currently available, featuring names such as Megan Abbott, Joe Lonsdale, Reed Farrel Coleman, and Lou Berney. (Others became available since this interview took place.) What made you decide these were a good idea—they are, I look forward to the next one—and how do you get such good production values? They sound like they could’ve been lifted from NPR.

EB: Well thank you, I'm glad you are liking them. Steve and I both come from a music background that celebrated a do it yourself aesthetic that we both have stuck with into our forays in publishing. We had each been approached separately about doing podcasts as part of a larger "network" and while that appealed to us, we each had the same reservations of wanting to have total control over the product our names would be on. Add to that Steve's experience in marketing, my experience in editing and film and TV productions and we knew we could do something of the quality we required before we attached our reputations to it.

I'm glad to see you reference NPR because that really was our model. We wanted a variety show for crime and mystery fans. We have so many people we want to talk to and interview that we didn't want to limit ourselves to one guest per episode. Nor did we want the work load of doing a show a week. So we decided on once a month and heavily edited (there went that whole workload thing for me). It's been great fun for us to do and we look forward to doing it for a long time.

With being our own producers and engineers we can do it however we want. We recently have done mobile recording. We have two authors who are on tour out there with a list of things I want them to record and which I will then edit into a mini tour diary. We can play with those kinds of ideas.

Steve and I both try our best to promote other authors and build up the crime fiction community much like a music scene. Writer Types has provided us a new platform to do that which allows us to go national instead of just local with a Noir at the Bar or similar reading or event. If we can keep up the quality of the first four episodes, I'll be thrilled.

DK: You mentioned your workload. In addition to knocking out excellent books at a rate any 50s pulp writer would be proud of and everything else you mentioned just now, you also do book cover designs. Really good cover designs, if I do say so myself, having seen the three you did for me recently for the Penns River series. Not only are they good, you’re far more consultative with the author than are most cover artists. How did you get into that? Even better, how did you find time for that?

EB: Honestly, this gets back to the DIY thing and my lifelong curiosity of any art form, usually with the attitude of, "I want a painting in my wall. Why don't I paint one?" "I want to hear a song like the one in my head. Why don't I write it?" And in this case, "I need a book cover. Why don't I do it myself?"

I would not recommend this to everyone. That said, it's not like I have any special skills or anything. I am untrained in design or PhotoShop. I just like to get in and do things. I'm amazed people have trusted me for what is now more than 90 covers. There are many more talented designers, but I am happy to do it if it means helping out a fellow writer who doesn't have the means to do it on their own or a small press who needs it done on a small budget. (Yes, I come cheap.) For every cover I usually throw out four or five concepts and let the author weigh in, depending on the policy of the publisher. Sometimes that can backfire and it means a lot of cooks in the kitchen. But my overall goal is to have the author be happy with their cover.
As for the time, it's time I should be writing. You will see a slowdown in my output for the next year or two. My agent has three completed manuscripts yet to find a home, I'm working on a fourth now. I wrote some TV stuff that I doubt will ever see the light of day. But I did let myself get overextended in many ways and I am trying to really focus back on writing alone, at least for a while. The podcast takes time, other obligations come and go like signing on to write for anthologies or editing my own anthology (Unloaded Vol. 2 - out early next year) but I really need to be focused on only the book I'm writing when I get into it so I'm trying to clear the decks for the next few months to write this new one.

So quit bugging me, Dana! Are we done here? Sheesh!

Seriously though, it's been a fun chat.

Sincere thanks to Eric Beetner, the James Brown of Crime Fiction, for chatting here today. Eric’s newest book, The Devil at Your Door, Volume 3 of the Lars and Shaine trilogy, is available for Kindle now.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Where in the World is Dana King?

Okay, so I’m not the first person to use that “Where in the World is…” thing and I’m not as much fun as Carmen Sandiego. On the other hand, I can whip Matt Lauer’s ass and still have enough in the tank to handle Savannah Guthrie and that bald-headed stooge Al Roker, so watch your ass. There’s stuff on the horizon, some of which I can even tell you about.

The Big News™, for me, at least, is the release of Resurrection Mall next Monday, May 1, though reliable sources tell me books have been delivered as early as this past Friday. Res Mall is the third in the Penns River series and introduces a new character I think everyone will like in Sean Sisler, former Marine sniper and new Penns River cop. The story focuses on five shotgun murders that pretty much wipe out the local drug dealers, though no one steps immediately into the vacuum. Why is that? Buy the book and see.

A blog tour is rolling. Some dates are still firming up, but the definites are here:

Today, April 24: S.W. Lauden lowers the value of his fine blog, Bad Citizen Corporation, with an interview.

Friday, April 28: Patti Abbott’s outstanding blog, pattinase also asks what I think about things, always a dangerous proposition.

Monday, May 1 (launch date): An excerpt from Resurrection Mall appears in Omnimystery Magazine.

In Reference to Murder indulges my ideas on research on May 2.

I talk about the appeal of writing series for Elizabeth White on May 4.

Drinks With Reads has a fun feature on what kind of mixed drink characters in Penns River would enjoy. The response might surprise you.

For those who can bear me in person:

Saturday, May 20. Gaithersburg Book Festival, Gaithersburg MD. At 12:15 I’m moderating a panel, “Military Thrillers: Matthew Betley and Rick Campbell discuss using their experience in the military to craft international thrillers.” It’s a chance for me to spread out a little and I’m looking forward to meeting both Matthew and Rick in the flesh.

Also Saturday, May 20. Noir at the Bar DC at the Wonderland Ballroom, 1101 Kenyon Street NW, Washington DC. I’m in some fast company here at 7:00 as the lovely and talented Ed Aymar hosts Kim Alexander, Jen Conley, Eryk Pruitt, Laura Ellen Scott, Colleen Shogan, John Dunn Smith, David Swinson, Neely Tucker, Steve Weddle , and yours truly as part of a three-day, three-city Noir at the Bar crawl that begins Friday night in Richmond and ends Sunday in Baltimore. If you anywhere in what they now call the DMV, you have no excuse not to catch at least one of these fine events. (I always think of the DMV as the Department of Motor Vehicles and no one wants to go there, but such is life. This is a different DMV. Trust me.)

Friday, June 16. One More Page Books, Arlington VA. 7:00 PM. Ed Aymar moderates a panel on different approaches to crime fiction with Christina Kovac, Nik Korpon, and yours truly. We all have our own distinct perspectives on writing crime fiction, which promises to lead to an entertaining discussion. Of course, if Aymar has new pants, that may be all he wants to talk about.

Friday September 8 through Sunday September 10. Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference. Panels are as yet undetermined; check back for updates. Keynote speakers are Peter Blauner and Jonathan Maberry, with local guest speakers Debbi Mack and David Swinson.

Thursday October 12 through Sunday October 15. Bouchercon, Toronto, ON, Canada. No schedule available at press time. I will be at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Wednesday to get my picture taken with the Stanley Cup.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What Do Readers Want to Know?

A while back the always thought-provoking Patti Abbott launched a Facebook discussion about what kinds of questions readers liked answers to when going to an author event. She received lots of good suggestions, none better than those from Katie Caprero. I liked Katie’s questions so much, I decided to answer them all here as if she had grilled me at an appearance of my own, which I hope she’ll have an opportunity to do some day.

Katie Caprero: Why do you write (mysteries, police procedure, thriller, etc.)?
Dana King: The two answers that spring to mind will disappoint those looking for profundity from a writer: I like to write, and I enjoy the positive feedback. I was a musician before I was a writer, and I’ve always enjoyed entertaining people, whether it was with through music or just telling jokes or amusing stories. The enjoyment I receive from entertaining others didn’t go away when I gave up my musical ambitions. Once I got into writing I realized there were challenges for me to try to work a little more than just entertainment into the stories, and folks seem to like that, too. Now I enjoy finding a story I like and looking for the best way for me to tell it.

KC: When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
DK: I don’t know there was a day when I knew I wanted to “become” a writer. I wrote a few things and got positive feedback, so I wrote a few more. After a while I decided to try my hand at a novel, but even then it was more of a question of whether I could do it. By the time I thought of any ambitions, I’d already written one that got me an agent, found I enjoyed the process of writing, so I kept at it. I guess I could say I didn’t know I wanted to become a writer until I already was one.

KC: What is your worst book signing story?
DK: I’ve been lucky in that the few signings I’ve had all went pretty well, though I do have one that was less than optimal.

I hooked up with a local bookstore/stationery/gift/clothing/candy/other-stuff-on-the-first-floor-I-never-saw-store for one of the classic “events” all writers dread. They put you at a table with a stack of your books and leave you there for a couple of hours. Do your best.

Like most writers I’m an introvert, so I pretty much sat there waiting for other people to start conversations which I would, with luck, work back around to the book. A casual acquaintance stopped by and chatted for half an hour or so, which was nice. (And she bought a book.) Another woman and her husband or boyfriend or whatever circled the table for a while until she came over and chatted me up. Asked a bunch of questions that bordered on non sequiturs and half listened to the answers. After fifteen minutes or so she saw her significant other and split. He came over a few minutes and apologized. Said they’d met friends for lunch and she had more to drink than expected and was really drunk enough that he was trying to take her home but they’d had an errand to run in the store and she wandered off. I said it was fine, I appreciated having someone to talk to, but he felt bad and bought a copy of the book to make it up to me, figuring she must have cost me sales.

KC: In a series -- is there something that happened early in the series that you regret and/or had to fix later? (Tattoo, annoying neighbor, pet that had to be fed, significant other that limited plot, etc.)
DK: If I had it to do over again I wouldn’t base Nick Forte, my private eye character, in Chicago. My other series takes place in Western Pennsylvania and it was great to bring Nick in as a guest star for Grind Joint, but it would be nice to be able to have him make random appearances without having to come up with reasons for him to have traveled four hundred-plus miles to see his parents precisely when his cousin the cop needs him. I tied Nick’s daughter and all the supporting cast to Chicago, so if I moved him, I’d lose them all.

KC: What is the role or influence of family in your story?
DK: Substantial. The main character in the Penns River books, Ben “Doc” Dougherty, spends at least a couple of chapters per book visiting with his parents. The work in progress introduced his brother. As I mentioned earlier, Doc’s cousin Nick Forte is a Chicago-based PI who comes to town to visit his sick mother and ends up staying through several life-threatening experiences. Forte is a divorced father who spends at least a couple of chapters of each book with his daughter, Caroline. The family associations serve to help to humanize characters who may at some point take dramatic or violent action, and also serve as touchpoints to ground the characters and give the reader insights into them as people without spending too much time on backstory.

KC: What is the difference between you as a writer and you as a speaker about books?
DK: Speaking is more informal to me. My writing style is pretty informal, too, but I’m always aware that’s much more of a one-way street. When speaking about a book in front of an audience—or even as part of an interview—I don’t worry about closing the loop so much, as the next question can always ask for more, or take the conversation in a direction I didn’t anticipate. I’m also less worried about going off on a tangent when speaking because I can always tell an anecdote then go right back to the topic at hand. In a book there needs to be better flow or you risk losing the reader.

KC: Which of your characters would you hate to have buy the house next to you?
DK: Deputy Chief of Police Jack Harriger. He’s the kind of stick-necked prick who’d call the homeowners’ association on you because your grass was half an inch too high.

KC: What book would you read again and again?
DK: Would I? There are several I do already. Chandler’s big three: The Big Sleep; Farewell, My Lovely; and The Long Goodbye. Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty. There are also several that haven’t yet qualified for “again and again” but will get there if I have time.

KC: How do you choose the names of characters in your books?
DK: Character names are enormously important in the Penns River books, as they help to set the sense of place. The area of near Pittsburgh where the books are set is heavily ethnic: German, Italian, Polish, Eastern European, Irish. I work hard to use names that keep that in the reader’s mind, so much so I provide a pronunciation key in the front of each book. I use local newspaper articles and my old high school yearbooks as references. I’m working on a short story for an anthology now and need a couple of names for Dixie Mafia guys, so I asked a good friend who’s from Mississippi and has lived for years in Tennessee for suggestions.

KC: How do you decide how characters will die?
DK: I work hard so my readers don’t have to expend too much energy suspending disbelief, so you’re not going to see anyone killed by a rare, untraceable poison that was dropped in their tea by a bird the killer had trained to fly by that exact spot at 7:57 every morning because he knew the victim always sat in that chair turned at that angle for the morning beverage. That said, the details of how they meet their demise still must conform to the needs of the story. Not just how, but which characters will die are always subject to what The Beloved Spouse and I call Stringer Bell Disease—after the Idris Elba character in The Wire—or Lemanski Syndrome, after a key character in The Shield. If the story needs for them to go, they go, in whatever manner is necessary.

Many thanks for Katie for inadvertently providing fodder for this interview. I hope she likes my answers. As a tribute to her, I’m going to add a bonus question she didn’t ask but may have thought of, as it was bandied about at length in Patti’s discussion and authors often speak of it—in sometimes less than flattering terms—as the question they most often hear at events:

Q: Where do you get your ideas?
DK: Ideas are everywhere. The sad truth is we’re tripping over them every day. I probably stumble onto two or three a week that would be worth writing on, and that’s a conservative estimate. The hard part is finding the ideas that dovetail with your abilities and interests and that you’ll want to spend a year or more working on. An idea may occur to me, and I’ll even noodle out some possibilities before realizing, “Ah, this is a Laura LIppman novel. Or a Dennis Lehane novel. Or a John McFetridge / Les Edgerton / Declan Burke novel because it lies in their wheelhouse, not mine.

I think this is such a popular question because readers see a writer at an event and we’re not that impressive to look at. There’s nothing about any of us that would lead a person who didn’t already know who we are to point and exclaim, “Writer!” Since we’re such an ordinary-looking bunch, there’s a natural inclination to figure there must be some spark that sets us apart from everyone else, and that spark must be our ability to come up with ideas no one else can. I hate to disappoint them, but Edison was right: Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. The idea is fine, but I’m sure any group of fifty random people can generate twenty ideas as good as anything I can come up with. The difference—the secret—is locking oneself in a room alone, often hours at a time over an extended period to get an end result that fulfills the author’s vision. Some are better at this part than others, but no matter how much perceived talent someone has, this last part, the locking oneself away, is non-negotiable.

I’ve grown to like the “ideas” question, as it opens up new avenues for discussion one rarely has a chance to get into.

Speaking of new avenues of discussion, many thanks to Katie Caprero for setting me up so well for this blog post.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Mindless Entertainment

Today's entry in this week’s entirely Benoit Lelieve-inspired series focuses on “mindless entertainment.” It’s in quotes because the thesis of Ben’s post is there is no such thing as mindless entertainment unless we will it to be so. I might have disagreed with that, but not after reading his essay.

To his primary point, it makes sense to say no one is going to spend months or years of their lives and possibly millions of dollars creating something without thought, and any thought the creator put into the project is there for the taking. Whether the audience chooses to do anything with it is entirely up to them.

Saying creators put thought into their projects says dick about the depth of said thought. Most mainstream entertainment seems to make a point not to make the audience think too hard, often by making it relatively easy for the average viewer/reader/listener to pretend deeper ideas aren’t there. Benoit’s choice of the Rambo movies was spot on, as they have much more going on, especially in the original, than most viewers care to pick up on.

The “mindless entertainment” argument often turns on whether people should demand more. This is a common topic of arguments, usually one-sided, because people who are at least relatively happy with the status quo aren’t the ones bitching about it. Those who are most unhappy are the more artistically minded themselves: writers and film students and musicians and whoever else looks at the creative process from the production side. Seems those on our side are always upset about the quality of what’s out there. How mind-numbing it is—different from mindless—and how our entertainment should be better. I used to do it myself on a regular basis.

Guess what? The people who control what gets into the mainstream don’t give a shit. Nor should they. We’re outliers. We occupy a niche market that serves is pretty well, all things considered. One has to know where to look, but modern technology makes it possible for us to find our favorites and never have to leave the house. (True, we should do what we can to support independent booksellers, but that’s a different discussion.)

There are some things we oddballs need to make peace with. One is that there’s lots of room in entertainment between “mindless” and “challenging” and that’s the way the world wants it. People work hard. They have a lot going on. They’re tired physically, mentally, and emotionally. They want to laugh along with the Barones and the Connors and those Seinfeld assholes because they have relatable problems and it’s nice to see those problems have humor in them if looked at the right way. (Full disclosure: I liked all three of those shows a lot.) They’re happy with Law and Order and CSI because they’d like to go to bed feeling like they saw a serious problem solved that will make everyone a little safer, how realistic the shows are be damned. Just because you or I won’t watch them doesn’t make the others wrong.  

We outliers have to take some responsibility for the appeal of simplistic entertainment. I didn’t read fiction for years after getting out of school because people who knew what was best for me decided much of the fiction I should read in junior high and high school was deadly dreary stuff for a kid growing up in a working class Western Pennsylvania town. Much of it was great literature, too, but I wasn’t ready for it. I wonder how many kids grew into adults who wanted nothing to do with books, fine movies, and classical music because well-meaning people wanted to “expose” them to such things crammed them down the kids’ throats until they gagged on it. Making them look for the symbols and themes of a book and never once mentioning how much they should just let the story sweep them up, to take away from it as much as they wanted.

Maybe sitting in the back yard on a warm day with a cold drink letting the breeze play over you qualifies as mindless entertainment. But anything you feel like discussing later engaged the mind on some level. Some engagement is deeper and more detailed. There’s room—and need—for both.

Life is hard and it’s short. Be happy, at whatever level of intellectual engagement you choose.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Understanding Art

Benoit Lelieve is one of the people who keeps me from getting old. While he’s young enough to be my son—okay, my nephew, maybe—his blog Dead End Follies routinely provides fodder that keeps me looking at things in a fresh light and exposes me to others I might otherwise have missed. While his tastes and interest are not always my own (see the age difference comment above), his writing on more universal issues, filtered through our dissimilar backgrounds, is always thought-provoking. This isn’t the first time he’s stimulated a response that required more thought and space than could fit into a comment, and it will not be the last.

A few weeks ago he wrote about the difficulty of understanding art. (Pause inserted while you read his piece, which would be worth reading even if it weren’t helpful for understanding what I wrote below.) As with all such discussions, the crux of the matter is defining what art is, as it’s impossible to understand anything if one can’t define it. Therein lies the rub. Art is like beauty (and, not coincidentally, often has “beauty” somewhere in many of its definitions) in that it is in the eye of the beholder. What is art to me may not be art to you, and the guy down street agrees with neither of us, though he’s a cretin, so fuck him.

Does intent matter? Maybe. Probably not. J.S. Bach didn’t intend for his cantatas to become timeless works of art. He just needed music for Sunday’s service. On the flip side are countless writers, singers, songwriters, actors, sculptors, painters, on and on with pretentions of creating art. Their definition of art is sometimes whatever they create and, oh my god, is this a “my shit doesn’t stink” crew to have to deal with. So, no, intent doesn’t matter a whole lot.

Another question that comes up—often raised by snobs—is whether art is more “noble” than entertainment. Even if that’s true—a point on which I am not sure—there’s also no bright line there. Doesn’t art need to entertain its audience on some level? Since its medium (listening, viewing, reading) is not required for life—and by “required” I mean like food and water and air—can’t we say there must be some reason for people other than the creator to partake, and that reason is to be entertained? Devotees of Gabriel Garcia Marquez are likely not entertained by his writing in the same way as Bruce Springsteen’s fans are by the Boss’s work, but each has qualities in their creations that engage others, and we can think of that engagement as entertainment as easily as anything else.

Now, there is entertainment and there is entertainment. “Mere” entertainment doesn’t challenge the audience. (See Benoit’s comments about the TV show Numb3rs. See? I told you to read his piece.) If one engages with a book or movie or piece of music but is not compelled to think about it afterward as more than a good time, it succeeds as entertainment, but it is not art. Art is when the experience gets one to thinking about more than what was on the surface. I enjoy Ray Donovan, but when each episode is over any discussion focuses on what happened, what went well, and what they might have done better. Compare that to The Wire or Deadwood or NYPD Blue, where The Beloved Spouse and I talk about all of the above and how it affected us. What it made us think about we hadn’t thought of before, and what it made us re-evaluate.

I argue that no one can fully “understand” art. It’s too dependent on one’s previous experience and background. I have friends whose opinions I trust and respect, whose work I enjoy and value, who get moist about the virtues of X-Men or Batman, or any of a number of members of the DC or Marvel universes; I think they’re fucking comic books. That doesn’t make me wrong, nor them. It doesn’t even mean either of us is mistaken. It just shows there’s more each of us may still have to learn, and having more to learn—and a desire to continue to learn it—is always a good thing.

Maybe that’s all we need to understand about art. It’s what makes us want to keep growing.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

March's Best Reads

Spring training brought some baseball-themed reads. None of them disappointed. The non-baseball-related book kicked ass, too.

Nasty Cutter, Tim O’Mara. Raymond Donne is back in school for the fourth book in the series. He’s the kind of teacher I like to think I would have been had I stuck with it: no-nonsense but with a soft interior. Having taught in a city school myself, I know O’Mara has the feel and atmosphere just right. He also handles the “amateur sleuth” problem as well as anyone currently writing them. Donne has the background to come by the skills he shows honestly and the position to have opportunities thrust upon him. The supporting cast provides both input and resources without reaching for anything. This is a well-written solid series that deserves a lot more attention than it gets.

The Kid From Tomkinsville, John R. Tunis. I first read Tunis’s Brooklyn Dodgers books when I was a kid. Now I fully appreciate them. Young adult sports fiction in the 1940s was typically Frank Merriwell stuff. Tunis was the first to put an edge to them. Yes, Roy Tucker comes out on top in the end, but not before a freak injury endangers his career, the team’s manager dies in a car wreck, and the star pitcher gets his drunk on and almost throws Roy out a window. Much darker stuff than was typical of the time, and now I’m old enough to appreciate the writing as well.

Tomato Red, Daniel Woodrell. Starts out more like a Charles Portis novel than Winter’s Bone, which is fine. I love Charles Portis. Then an unexpected but not unreasonable plot twist comes out of left field and everything changes. Woodrell has a gift for creating less than sympathetic characters and still elicit the reader’s empathy. Maybe it’s his ability to show they’re not bad people, but they can’t catch a break and have a tendency to act out at inopportune times to become their own worst enemies. Whatever it is, he lays it out in beautiful prose that never draws attention to itself and places you in the Ozarks and the story. A wonderful writer.

Moneyball, Michael Lewis. I assumed he had a gift for explaining unnecessarily arcane subjects like Wall Street from The Big Short and Flash Boys, though I could only guess at how well I understood because I knew so little about the topics going in. Baseball is something I know quite a bit about, and he crushed this one, too. Lewis knows exactly how much context to supply and where to put it, and a writing style that is conversational but never sloppy. People who know me well will wonder how it took so long to get to Moneyball. It’s because I do know some baseball and Lewis had to convince me he wasn’t just some dilettante slumming in the sports world. I’m well and truly hooked now. There are lessons well beyond baseball here.