Friday, May 29, 2020

The Times, They are A'Changin'

Otto Penzler opened his annual controversy last week with an intemperate response to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s decision to choose another editor for their Best American Mystery Stories anthology. (Editor’s Note: Otto took down his post so I have included a verbatim copy below so no one can say I slanted his opinion.)

The most charitable spin to Otto’s statement is he is an aging white man who hasn’t evolved with the times. It’s a failure as old as history. Things once commonly accepted prove not to be true. Apollo’s chariot does not traverse the sky to bring daylight. The stars and planets do not revolve around the Earth. The Earth is not flat. White men are not inherently superior in any regard; openly accepting the contributions of others into any aspect of society can only improve it.

It is unlikely HMH would have replaced Otto had they felt his choices reflected the current state of crime fiction. One can argue that his dismissal was a politically correct marketing ploy, but that implies, had Otto opened things up more on his own, they would have felt no need to replace him.

Otto’s own comment allows one to reasonably infer he wasn’t open to accepting more diversity: “This means that stories will no longer be selected for excellence, the major criterion evidently now being the race, ethnicity, or sexual preference of the author.” That’s yet another example of the death of irony in America, as, looking back, it appears race and ethnicity were criteria in Otto’s selections.

There’s another layer of privilege here that hasn’t gotten nearly enough mention: Where does Otto Penzler get off deciding it is his divine right to choose each year’s Best American Mystery Stories in perpetuity? Is he the only person, white or otherwise, qualified to be the arbiter of what is “best?” Even if the Aryan Brotherhood started an annual “Best White American Mystery Stories” anthology, one could argue a different editor each year would create a more representative selection over time.

I wish Otto Penzler no ill will; I’ve never met the man. No one disputes his enormous contributions to crime fiction over the years. That said, publishing, and hopefully society in general, is turning a corner. The new direction is clear. The ruckus raised by those who find themselves left behind is evidence of the desperation born of their realization this is true. The train to a better world is leaving the station, and they lack the currency to buy a ticket. There’s room for everyone, but they’ll have to make some changes in themselves if they are earn the means to ride inside the coach.

(The Facebook post I refer to in this commentary is below:
Hi All--A couple of days ago I posted that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had decided not to renew my tenure as the series editor for THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES OF THE YEAR. My heart was warmed by the many supportive comments and the kind words about me and the series. I was stunned by the news and didn't understand the motivation for it, and many of you had theories. I now have an answer. According to an announcement from the editor-in-chief of HMH on Monday, the series "is going in an exciting new direction in response to the changing market and evolving readership and with an increased focus on traditionally marginalized voices." This means that stories will no longer be selected for excellence, the major criterion evidently now being the race, ethnicity, or sexual preference of the author. Forgive my bitterness. First off, I published lots of black writers and probably more than I knew since I never required a photo ID. I also published some writers who I know are gay but, again, doubtless others whose sexual preferences were unknown to me--as they should be. No one was marginalized when my first reader Michele Slung, and I, and the guest editors, sought the best stories. I'm now glad that I was not asked to stay on as I never would have agreed to edit a book on these terms. It's not over. I'll make an announcement soon.)

Friday, May 22, 2020

Joe Clifford, A Man With Too Much Good News to Fit Into a Title

It’s not fair to either of them, but people tend to think of Tom Pitts and Joe Clifford in tandem. This is partly their fault, as they’re fucking inseparable. (Yeah, I know. I’m usually pretty safe for work in these interview intros, but Clifford fucking brings it out in people, you know?) So even though it’s not fair and I love both these guys, as soon as I booked Tom for last week’s interview (prodded by the release of Coldwater), it occurred to me I hadn’t had Joe on the blog for a while and more good stuff happened to him in a short period of time than can be grasped by a single human mind, so I got him for today. Which puts them here as a tandem, which is what I just said was unfair. So I’m a prick. Fucking sue me.

Anyway, Joe doesn’t need much more introduction, as the interview touches on just about every aspect of his life except for his unhealthy fascination with Taylor Swift, which I didn’t ask about because…maybe you should seek help yourself if I have to explain it. Here’s Joe.

One Bite at a Time: You probably thought I was kidding on Facebook when I said this would be the easiest interview I ever did. Your life has been so action-packed the questions wrote themselves. Let’s start with congratulations. I have as much respect for you as I do for anyone I know and to say you deserve all this is an understatement.

Joe Clifford: Stop it. You’ll make me cry. Seriously. Why are the insults always so much easier to take than the compliments? But thank you.

OBAAT: The news that probably got the most attention is your fifth Jay Porter Rag and Bone, receiving a nomination for the International Thriller Writers’ Award for Best Hardcover novel. I suspect you’ll admit that the Porter books, while well received, may not have sold as well as they might because a lot of people found Jay to be unlikable. Does this nomination provide some validation, that there are people who get Jay and understand what you were going for?

JC: Dude, that was fucking nuts. The last thing I would’ve expected. I frequently am looking for good news from, as Tom Pitts likes to say, “the e-mailman.” It rarely comes. That morning I got the news from ITW, I was bleary-eyed, Day 39 whatever of Marchtober or whatever fucking month. Gobsmacked. Which is not a word I use lightly. Not a word I use, really, but can’t think of a better one. I sorta keep waiting for a correction email saying they made a mistake!

But to answer your question? Fuck yeah. The books sold okay, but, no, they didn’t earn USA Today Bestseller status, and I think my publisher, Oceanview, would say the same. The books sold fine. We were hoping for more. Which is cool. That’s a lot of books. I was appreciative that I had a nice loyal group of readers who picked up each new Porter, but you’re right, that one criticism I heard, over and over, was “he’s unlikable,” he being my protagonist Jay Porter. And honestly? After a while it started to get to me. I understand the books are not for everyone, but I also feel like, sometimes, that “unlikable” tag can be a copout. No, Jay isn’t likable. He makes some bad decisions. Like a lot of people I know. Like, well, me. I strove less to make him likable than I did “believable.” If there was a silver lining it’s that. I didn’t hear much “Well, I’d never believe someone like him would do that.” It was more, “Yup. Of course he did that. He’s an asshole!”

Anyway, I won’t ramble so much for the rest of the questions. I could’ve just answered yes. Yes, I am very happy that there are some people who “get” Jay Porter enough to bestow upon me this tremendous honor; it’s fucking humbling.

OBAAT: I’ve had a couple of Shamus nominations and, while it’s a letdown to hear someone else’s name, I never felt like the nomination wasn’t sufficient notice, even though I did want each undeserving winner to have an aneurism and die on their way to the podium. (Not that I’m bitter.) I don’t want to jinx you—I’m assuming you’re going to win—but should the unspeakable happen and you don’t, you’re not going to be one of those who feels like you lost something, are you?

JC: There’s not a fucking chance in hell I win. Did you see those other names? Blake Crouch had a show on TV with Matt Dillon. And a second season with Jason Patric. And Baldacci has been translated into more languages than are currently known (I’m approximating that number). And the rest of the writers? Are you kidding me? A who’s who list! I know it’s cliché to say “honor just to be nominated.” I always say shit like that. Like when someone else is sick and you’re like “Aw, I wish it was me not you.” I never mean it. Except when I had kids. Now I really would prefer I got sick instead of them. And I mean it this time with the “it’s an honor just...” And I am fine with that. Of all the mysteries and thrillers released? To be one of the six Best Hardcovers of the Year? Yeah, I won’t go back to shooting heroin if I “lose.” I’ll Gloria Gaynor that shit.

OBAAT: You also have a new book deal, for Shadow People. Tell us a little about the book, the deal, and when we can expect to see it.

JC: When I was strung out on speed, which was in between/during the heroin stuff (and cocaine) back in the 1990s, well, that shit is bad. Obviously. But it makes you see shit. Like really see shit. And you know it’s not there. Except … it is. And I can’t explain that if you haven’t done a shit-ton of meth but something happens. You cross over worlds. And I know that sounds insane, and it is. But that’s the thing with speed: you go crazy. It’s in the minutia. You focus on the dot and the dots that makes up that dot, until you are so zeroed in you’re … seeing … the inside of the inside. And people will call that hallucination. And it was. I’m not maintaining I was in a parallel universe. But as clear as you see that coffee cup or pen, I’d see people who may or may not have been there. And I’d talk to them. And I’d see cats, and they’d be all automaton-ic, dripping green ooze and moving all robotic, and then it would turn out to be a shirt. But the thing is when you are living like that? It’s fucking real. So you live in this Dali painting, and some days, your … mind … takes you somewhere wonderful. But after a while, it drags you to your worst fears, deepest hells. Interestingly enough, this is the same sensation schizophrenics experience. And I’ve known a lot of them. Was married to one. The guitarist in my first band suffered. Horrible affliction. So using my firsthand … experience … with the symptoms, I crafted a narrative about a schizophrenic who witnesses a crime, and then it’s up to his friend to separate reality from fiction. Basically it’s a road trip novel with an uptight college student and the dude’s equally schizo grandpa, who’s made peace with his disease. So, y’know, a laugh riot.

OBAAT: Keeping the roll going, you sold the audio rights to The Lakehouse five months before the book is scheduled to drop. That’s Michael Connelly/Dennis Lehane action there. What’s the scoop and do you know who’d going to read it yet? I have a soft spot for Gilbert Gottfried.

JC: Lol. That reminds me of when Gottfried read 50 Shades of Gray. I’ve been very lucky with narrators. Timothy McKean, who’s done most of my books and is fantastic, and Jennifer Jill Araya, who did a knockout job with The One That Got Away. Dreamscape has the rights to the new one, and they are as big as it gets, so I have no doubt whomever they choose will be equally terrific.

OBAAT: A new edition of Junkie Love popped to Number One on Amazon when it came out. I read the original about five years ago and there are few books that have affected me as much, thanks to its unvarnished look at the life of a junkie and getting clean. What prompted the second edition?

JC: It wasn’t our intention—“our” being me and Fawn Nuen, who runs Battered Suitcase (publisher for JL), but I think it turned into a New Coke kinda deal. So we had the original Junkie Love with the black cover and syringe, and Fawn and I always thought maybe that cover was a little too … graphic? Anyway, I had this old Polaroid taken by Gluehead (my speed dealer, who got his nickname as a kid because of a bad haircut. Pre-destiny, I guess), with my ex-wife (Cathy in the book) and me and there’s fire all around us, a photography trick Glue employed. Anyway after my brother died, I wanted to update JL, and so I wrote a new intro and significant Afterword, and we released a second edition. Which did fine. But then people were all, “I can’t find the original!” Which was funny because I didn’t change the main text, just augmented with additional material, like ten percent more! So then we brought back our original Coke, which I guess people had cued for alerts or some shit, and so the original became a “new release” (like Spinal Tap and the “New Originals”), and we sold a bunch.

OBAAT: I saved this one for last, but you also got a record deal. I’m a recovering musician while you have remained active, but I suspect this might have been the news that jazzed you up more than the rest. Spill so I can have another reason to hate you.

JC: I might’ve oversold that one! Steve Coulter put together a lo-fi compilation record to help benefit musicians out of work because of COVID. Originally it was just this thing going up band camp. Then Big Stir Records picked it up. So, yeah, as I guy who started out wanting to be a rock-and-roll star, desperate to be picked up by a label, and falling far short… Fast forward thirty years, and now I’m a crime writer, and dream comes true. But really it’s a great cause, super cheap, and it was a blast! Some AMAZING company on this one. Not sure Big Stir will be putting out the next Wandering Jews record. But I won’t lie. Each morning, I check my email kinda sorta hoping maybe… Quarantine Sessions

OBAAT: I recently interviewed Tom Pitts and asked him this same question. I’m asking you before his interview comes out so we can get a weird Newlywed Game vibe going: You and Tom go way back, well before you were writers. How did you meet and how did your paths to becoming acclaimed writers vary? Or were similar?

JC: I feel like this is asking for another Batman origin story. Not sure anyone wants to hear it? But … yeah, Tom and I were junkies and we met at Hepatitis Heights and… Tell you what? Let’s just close with a line I wrote about Tom from Junkie Love. Because it was fucking true then. And it’s fucking true now, except minus the dope: Tom Pitts was a rare breed: a reliable doper. Meaning you could trust Tom with you money, your girl, your dope, your everything. He’d never rip you off or do you wrong. He was true blue then. And he’s fucking true blue now. He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother...

Friday, May 15, 2020

Tom Pitts, Author of Coldwater

Tom Pitts is one of my favorite people. Even just to see him pass by and exchange smiles at Bouchercon is a treat. His talent as an author is a bonus, but that’s not to say it’s insubstantial. He has his own way of pouring his life into his books without about his life, just letting his experiences inform the writing as few can. His new book, Coldwater, drops May 18 from Down & Out Books.

One Bite at a Time: First, welcome back. I don’t keep formal stats but this is the fifth time you have graced this site and I always look forward to getting a chance to catch up with you. The Beloved Spouse and I aren’t going to Bouchercon this year—decided well before all the coronavirus business started—so this will have to do for this year.

Your new book is titled Coldwater. Give us a two hundred word or less
Tom Pitts: Fifth time? Do I get one of those jackets like they have on Saturday Night Live?
I can answer this one with a lot less than two hundred words. Coldwater is my take on a real-life horror story. What happens when regular people are pulled into a nightmarish pool of criminal quicksand.

OBAAT: Your books tend to deal with criminals, usually drug-related (either users of dealers or both), and sometimes cops. In Coldwater you make a suburban couple the focal point of the action. What was it that drew you to that bit of departure?
TP: I think the Everyman facing insurmountable odds is a powerful theme, and very relatable. I wanted to write something akin to Joe Lansdale’s Hot in December or Cold in July, but my own version. And in Northern California. And I wanted it to play out in a few locations, not just San Francisco. I think the suburban sprawl is under-represented in fiction. Gentrification has made the big cities so banal. Where’s the hunger, where’s the struggle, where’s the passion? In the burbs, baby.

OBAAT: I don’t know of many writers who can make their stories as unique as you do. Knuckleball was a fairly straightforward police procedural. Hustle tells the story of two young street hustler addicts. Your previous book, 101, focused on the marijuana trade as legalization approached. Now Coldwater is kind of a suburban horror story. What is it that draws you to such different types of stories and what kinds of adjustments, if any, are needed to write them?
TP: I grouped my four novels together as a “Northern California Quartet” because I think they do have a common denominator. And not just geographically. Really, what I wanted to do with Hustle is a realistic take on drug addiction, which I feel writers often get wrong. With 101, I wanted to do the same thing with the weed industry. With Coldwater, I wanted to capture my version of Sacramento. I want to show the world the view from where I stand, especially on topics I still feel like I have a little input on. My next book will be my take on the homeless situation, which I don’t think people really understand. Not in an empathetic way. I’ve been down in the trenches, and I want to convey what it’s like to be living like an animal on the streets of a big city.

OBAAT: The only thing I don’t like about your writing is that I get so invested in the characters I want more when the book ends. Have you ever considered even a short series? A trilogy, maybe?
TP: Weirdly enough, I thought about it with this book. Mostly because I like the name Calper Dennings so much. I started another book with Calper as the catalyst, but it crashed at about twenty thousand words. But yeah, I’d consider it. I better stop killing everyone off at the end of my book though.

OBAAT: What do you do when you’re not writing?
TP: These days, not much because of the pandemic, but I’m not kidding in the bio where it says I’m trying to survive. Being on the bottom end of the financial ladder in one of the priciest cities in the world doesn’t leave you with a lot of leisure time. I work too much, I worry too much. Not really pastimes, but they do pass the time.

OBAAT: We talked last time about your love of the Bay Area, though you’re a Canadian native. What part of Canada are you from and what was it that drew you to California so this love affair with San Francisco could begin?
TP: The short story is that I moved here from Calgary when I was 17 to play music. SF was punk rock mecca in the 80s, a very different place. But the truth is, when I was younger, my dad’s hockey team would come to Santa Rosa every summer to play. On one day each trip, we’d drive down to San Francisco, do North Beach, Chinatown, etc. And I remember being up near Coit tower, looking across at the density of North Beach, and I thought, I’m moving here when I grow up. This is America, this is where I belong.

OBAAT: You and Joe Clifford go way back, well before you were writers. How did you meet and how did your paths to becoming acclaimed writers vary? Or were similar? (I’m going to ask Clifford these same questions when I get a chance. Get some Newlywed Game action going.)
TP: Now that’s a loaded question. I really should write the story of the day we met, because it was a perfect snapshot of our lives then. It started with a shot of dope, but it ended with Joe attacking some guy in the house over a deal gone bad. But I digress. Basically, we were both living on the floor of different junkie scumbags who lived in the same flat—this horrific place we called Hepatitis Heights—and Joe was introduced to me by this awful person named Skipper Nick. Don’t get me started on that piece of work. Anyway, Joe was dope sick and bent in half. I’d just copped a gram of junk and a half gram of coke, and I threw most or all of it in a spoon and split it with him. Now, that’s a pretty big fuckin’ dose, and trust me, nobody was sharing. It just wasn’t done. I don’t know why I shared it with him, he seemed like a good guy. But that action started a pact between us, we’d split whatever we had, money or drugs, and keep each other well. You see, in Hepatitis Heights, it was a constant free-for-all. Lying, stealing, begging, borrowing, pawning, whoring, everyone was out for themselves. With me and Joe actually able to trust each other, it gave us half a chance to survive.

OBAAT: We’ve both been around long enough, and written enough books, that we can look back at our books with a little perspective. Which of your books is your favorite and which means the most to you? Doesn’t have to be the same book. I know mine wouldn’t be.
TP: I think Hustle means most to me. Maybe because it was my first novel, or maybe because the movie option made me the most money, but I think it’s because there’s a lot of my personal experience in there. But I think my favorite is 101. I feel like, at least with pacing, I’m at the top of my game in 101. That said, readers seem like American Static the most, so, who knows?
OBAAT: With Coldwater hitting the stores, what’s in the pipeline?
TP: Absolutely nothing. I’m writing, of course, but I’m not sure this next one is truly crime fiction. And I’m not sure what’ll happen with it. It’s a book about a homeless man in San Francisco who thinks he’s a prophet and the lives that intersect because of him. I’m trying a very different approach, so we’ll see if it works. Trying to push the envelope and create something new.

Thank you, Dana, it’s always good to talk with you. Hopefully we’ll both be around for a sixth round.

OBAAT: Always a pleasure, Tom. Come back any time.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Favorite Reads

Though my schedule hasn’t changed much, social distancing has created time for reading. I also read when I used to watch television news. The books chosen were good choices, as well.

The Man with the Getaway Face, Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark. I’ve read a small handful of the Stark/Parker books and the only one I didn’t care for was The Hunter. (I’m working on a post that goes into things everyone else loves and I don’t, and why the rest of you are wrong.) Getaway Face (wonderful title) begins with Parker leaving an off the radar clinic with a new face to minimize the chances of being recognized by anyone he offended in The Hunter. Wouldn’t be much of a book if that worked, so besides worrying about that, a member of his new crew has a personal agenda, plus the caretaker from the clinic is chasing the last three new faces to see which one killed the doctor. Well-paced, not a wasted word, and Parker’s personal moral code is easy to understand once you buy into the character, which is also easier here than in The Hunter. There was nothing Westlake couldn’t do as a writer.

Paradise Sky, Joe Lansdale. I liked Cold in July so much I went straight for a Western and found it completely different but just as good. A fictionalized account of the life of Nat Love, aka “Deadwood Dick,” the book traces his life from the day he’s almost lynched for looking too closely at a white woman’s ass, through his time as a Buffalo Soldier, and onto Deadwood, where the obsessed man whose wife’s butt Nat admired catches up with him. Paradise Sky has all the wit and laugh out loud humor Lansdale is known for, but also pulls the reader into the sadness approaching despair Love faces, and the horrific injustice faced by African Americans after the Civil War. Lansdale’s reputation rests much on the Hap and Leonard books, but having read one of them in addition to Cold in July and Paradise Sky, I’d have to say it’s the weakest of the three, which is not to say it’s weak. I have another H&L on my shelf, so a re-evaluation may be in order.

The Promise, Robert Crais. Writers like Crais are why I keep a spreadsheet to track the writers I don’t want to lose touch with. I like the Elvis Cole books best, and I like the parts of this book that are told through Cole’s first-person POV better as well, but the characters are all compelling, even Maggie the K-9. The plot never sacrifices plausibility for surprise, but there is plenty you won’t see coming. I could have lived without the last two denouement chapters, but that’s like saying Charlize Theron has ugly toes. (Full disclosure: I have no idea what Ms. Theron’s toes look like, and I’m not about to add to a crime writer’s already dubious search history by Googling “Charlize Theron toes.”)

Hawke's Target, Reavis Wortham. A modern day Texas Ranger story, and a damn good one. I’m not usually a fan of books that go from one shootout to the next, preferring suspense to build more organically, but Wortham writes such good action sequences I was happy to get to the next. Sonny Hawke is a good ol’ boy trouble seems to find and Wortham makes Sonny capable without being superhuman. I’ll be back.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Pushing Water Drops May 4 from Down & Out Books

I don’t do a lot of blatant self-promotion and my sales reflect it. This being my blog, nothing I say or do here BSP, as everyone is here of their own free will, as opposed to me beating you senseless on Facebook. With Pushing Water dropping on Monday and a blog of my own, where else should people expect to see puffery?

Let’s start with how happy I am over the blurbs this book has received. I have been fortunate over the years to get blurbs from writers better than I deserve. (I’d list their names but they asked me not to. All of them. Every goddamn one.) I try not to go to the same wells too often (at their request), and I wanted to appeal to those who enjoy procedurals with more realism in them. Who better to ask than actual cops who are also writers? The way I looked at it, these were people uniquely immune to bullshit. They knew cops inside and out (literally) and knew the trickiness of balancing verisimilitude and entertainment.

The lead quote on the Down & Out web site belongs to Colin Campbell. Colin is a thirty-year veteran of the West Yorkshire police and author of the Jim Grant series of thrillers, the next of which, Catawba Point, drops June 8 from Down & Out. He hit my sweet spot without me having to tell him what it was.

“An extraordinary voice. A mix of Pelecanos, Leonard and Wambaugh.”

Mark Bergin retired as a lieutenant from Alexandria VA police, a two-time Officer of the Year for drug and robbery investigations. Before that, he was an award-winning newspaper crime reporter. His debut novel, Apprehension, was one of my favorite reads last year and I started looking forward to his next book soon as I put it down.

“Facing a flood of armed robberies – and murder—Detective Doc Dougherty and his partners never lose their professional edge or hometown humanity in Pushing Water. With twists that shock and detective work that rings true, King is among the best cop writers going.”

Adam Plantinga is a 19-year veteran of the Milwaukee and San Francisco police departments and still an active sergeant. His first book, 400 Things Cops Know, earned an Agatha Award and won the 2015 Silver Falchion award for best nonfiction crime reference. I scan it and Adam’s follow-up, Police Craft before I start work on a book to refresh my memory on what I can use to add realism.

“Pushing Water is smart, rhythmic and relentless with a gripping narrative and a keen eye for how cops act and think.”

Frank Zafiro served twenty years in the Spokane WA PD, retiring as a captain. He worked as a patrol officer, corporal, and detective before entering into leadership roles, where he commanded patrol officers, investigators, K-9 officers (and their dogs!), and the SWAT team.

Since retiring Frank has taught, and written police craft textbooks. He’s currently a writing machine who edits the Down & Out series The Grifter’s Song and co-writing with Colin Conway the Charlie 3-16 series of novels. His podcast, Wrong Place, Write Crime has cost me a small fortune buying his guests’ books.

“Pushing Water is an engaging book that gets everything right: the people, how they speak and act, the setting, and the story. The most telling endorsement is this - after I finished reading it, I passed it on to another retired cop to read!”

Thanks to all these fine officers and gentlemen. (Literally.) Asking for blurbs is one of the more difficult aspects or writing for me, as I know how busy everyone is and how many people want names such as these on their books. The generosity they showed with their time and their words ranks high on the list of things that keep me going.