Thursday, May 19, 2022

Awards

 It has been my good fortune of late to have several friends nominated for – and sometimes win – significant awards. (Or maybe it’s their good fortune. None of these folks won dick before they knew me. Coincidence? You decide.) I was also a judge for a national award this year, so awards have been on my mind.

 

Last week The Beloved Spouse™ and I watched the classic movie The Hustler. (More on that to come.) In looking at the trivia in IMDB, I saw that George C. Scott declined his nomination for Best Supporting Actor, saying that actors should not be in competition with each other except when auditioning for the same part. I knew Scott refused his Oscar for Patton, but was unaware he had already established his opposition to the entire idea of awards.

 

What does George C. Scott have to do with writing awards? Bear with me. I promise to be brief.

 

Working with the other members of the committee I served on was a pleasure. I knew them at least a little before we began, and I now feel closer to all of them. It was also supremely flattering to have been asked to serve.

 

I requested the Best First Novel committee, to avoid having to pass judgment on friend’s books. I figured the odds of me knowing a first timer were slim, and I was right. I recognized a couple of names, but no one I knew entered the competition.

 

I still found the process to be unpleasant, at least as far as making my decisions went. This is no reflection on the books submitted. I was a lot more uncomfortable than I thought I’d be in passing judgment on the books of strangers.

 

I should have known. I stopped doing anything other than positive reviews years ago. Once I understood how much goes into completing a novel, then the challenges of finding a publisher, marketing, getting reviews, and all the other things that exist in the penumbra of a book, I wasn’t about to make things harder for anyone.

 

I’m not against the concept of awards. I have two Shamus nominations myself, so I appreciate the sense of validation that comes through public recognition by one’s peers. I’ll always be grateful to PWA for the nominations. Should I ever win one, I will accept graciously and gratefully.

 

That doesn’t mean I’m any less uncomfortable with making the evaluation myself. I understand someone has to do it, and I applaud those who carve out the time and energy to make fair and reasoned decisions. It takes a special kind of care, skill, and mindset to be a good and conscientious award judge. I just don’t appear to be one of them.

 

Congratulations to everyone who makes a short list. It’s harder every year to rise above the crowd as more books get published and online marketing becomes more sophisticated. Enjoy the moment, whether you win or not. I have nothing but fond memories of the Shamus dinners I’ve attended, and I lost both years I received nominations. No one will applaud louder than I for this year’s winners.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Who is the Intended Audience?

 Last week The Beloved Spouse™ and I watched Mel Brooks’s classic Young Frankenstein. We own a boxed set of his movies and dip into it when we’re stuck for something to watch, or have been in a slump picking films we like.

 

The point of this post is that Young Frankenstein was not our first choice that night. The plan was to watch The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a 1994 Australian flick about two gay drag performers (Guy Pearce, Hugo Wearing) and a transgender woman (Terrence Stamp) traveling across Australia with their cabaret act. The film had generally good reviews, it struck us as quirky enough to be fun, and we both wanted to see Guy Pearce in the role, as our primary experience with him is as Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential.

 

We lasted twenty minutes. It’s not that we’re homophobic (as several friends and a member of the extended family can attest) or transphobic (we also have trans friends and an MTF member of the family we don’t have much to do with, but that extends to well before her transition). It was fun to watch Pearce prance around, but almost all of the humor left us flat. Reviews tell me many people found the film hilarious, and we have active and broad-based senses of humor. What did we miss?

 

We were not the intended audience.

 

Priscilla’s creative team didn’t give a fuck how late-60s cisgendered white people viewed their movie. Nor should they. (Being Americans might not have helped us much, either.) They made Priscilla for people already immersed in that culture, or had keen interest in it. In our brief viewing time, I spotted what I imagined were three inside jokes I didn’t get, probably because I lacked the background.

 

That’s not a bad thing. No one is tuned in to everything, and anyone who claims to be is either

Lying

So superficial they don’t know much about anything

 

I doubt writer-director Stephen Elliott would have a problem with us turning off his movie. I can imagine him smiling wryly and saying, “Well, you know, mate, you weren’t exactly the blokes we had in mind when we made this.” I suspect there would be no hard feelings, either way.

 

Why am I writing about this in my blog? Because the same holds true for writers. Even within the crime genre, I don’t read cozies. (Though Colin Conway is wearing me down.) Psychological thrillers set in suburbia don’t appeal to me. Why not?

 

Cozies are too unbelievable for my police-procedure, process-oriented mind. The motivations of the suburban psychological thriller villains are too internal and perverse for me. I like criminals who commit crimes for reasons other than it gets themselves off.

 

Does that make these kinds of books any less worthy than what I do read? Absolutely not. Does that make me wrong? No again. Everyone has their happy places. While it’s never a bad idea to expand one’s horizons, life is also too short to read books you don’t like.

 

This is among the reasons I so rarely read bestsellers. The books too often make accommodations to attract a sufficiently wide range of readers, thus losing whatever focus that might have made me enjoy them.

 

Last week I noted that Edith Wharton quotes sit near my writing desk. Two come to mind here:

Know your scope (which means you need to have one)

Have a point (ditto)

 

No matter what kind of book you write, your point will not appeal to everyone; the same applies to the scope. How often have you said, “Oh, I wish she’d have…? Be honest. We all do it. Once a month I’ll turn to TBS after watching something and say, “There was a good movie here. This  just wasn’t it.”

 

What’s my point? I don’t mind that cozy aficionados and subpsych thriller readers might not read my books. You’re not my intended audience, just as I am not the intended audience for Louise Penny and Laura Lippman. A writer who tries to write for everybody writes for nobody. You’ll do your best work when you, and those with similar tastes, are your intended audience.

 

I hear you asking now: “What if that audience isn’t large enough to support me as a writer?” Which leads us back to the most important piece of advice any young writer (and most older writers) ever receives:

 

Don’t quit your day job.

 

The core question is, “Do you want to write, or do you want to get rich?” True, some do both, but if that’s your hope, save yourself a lot of pain and money and play the lottery. Your odds are better.

 

 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Surrounded in Inspiration

 Many writers have reminders or aphorisms within easy sight from their writing desks; I am no exception. Because I know some are curious about writers’ processes and habits (superstitions, even), I thought I’d pass mine along.

 

From left to right, with my interpretations interspersed:

From Edith Wharton’s “Five Rules for Novelists:”

·       Know your scope

o   Do less better

(A book that tries to be about too much will be about nothing. Decide in advance what ground to cover and stick to it.)

 

·       Lead with your characters

o   Dialog is where you learn most about your characters

(The more the characters talk, the better the reader knows them. The action is primarily important because of how it affects the characters. This is why Higgins’s description of action through characters talking about it after the fact is so effective.)

 

·       Create peaks and valleys

(Any trip that never changes its speed or scenery becomes either tedious or exhausting. Break things up. It will place the primary actions in better contexts and give time to show other dimensions of the characters.)

 

·       Have a point

(What’s the book about? Differs from “Know your scope” in that scope is how much ground to cover; the point is the reason you chose to write this particular book.)

 

Dennis Lehane

No one cares

(Except you. Don’t worry what others will think about a passage or a sentence. No one is going to notice it in the grand scheme of things except you.)

 

Wes Anderson (from the film The French Dispatch)

Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.

(This will help the prose to flow, making it easier for the reader to experience your story, as opposed to reading it.)

 

George V. Higgins (from The Friends of Eddie Coyle)

Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.

(Make every word count. In those opening 17 words, we learn that

·       Jackie Brown is a young man

·       He’s talking about his business, not something he does for fun

·       His business is selling guns

And we’re off to the races.)

 

The Sole Heir (placard purchased by her, for me)

If you were in my novel, you’d be dead by now

(If you need to have this one explained, you’re who it refers to.)

 

Bonus coverage: TSH also bought me a small notebook I always keep handy. The cover reads, “If I had a choice to have sex with any celebrity, living or dead, I would probably choose living.”

(You’re telling stories, not curing cancer. Don’t take any of this too seriously. Life is short. Have some fun.)

 

Thursday, April 28, 2022

May I Have Your Attention, Please?

 A lot has been written about shrinking attention spans. How the internet and text messages have made people unwilling – maybe even unable - to sustain interest in anything lasting more than a few seconds. This may be true. It could also be blaming the victim.

 

I have said for years that the internet needs editors. Electrons are essentially free, so there are few, if any, restrictions on the length of an article or blog post. In newspapers and magazines, the amount of space is finite and limited. You get a budget for your article and an editor trims it to fit if you run long.

 

This forces writers to make decisions. How much detail should I provide? How much history? Should I include this section at all? Now too many people don’t seem to care if a story runs thousands of words; it’s not like the internet will fill up.

 

It’s also common to blame the young for this lack of attention, likely because it’s always fashionable to blame the young for everything. I see it more as a demand to cut to the chase, as there are too many competing demands on their time to spend too much of it wallowing in the thousand words that will still be inadequate to describe a sunset.

 

I’m not young, but my reading tastes used to embrace beautifully crafted sentences (think Chandler and James Lee Burke). Now that I’ve become exposed to writers like Dashiell Hammett and George V. Higgins, I have much less patience with rhapsodic waxing.

 

A story or article should never have more words than it needs; this number varies by author and style of writing. That said, I recently read a book by a respected author I like and couldn’t help but try to edit the book in my head. “Here are three sentences when only one was needed.” “Wa-a-ay more backstory than we need on this character.” “He’s riding a horse. We don’t need the entire history of the ranch.”

 

Conscious of this, I try to keep blog posts between 600 and 800 words. (Interviews often run a little longer.) That’s not because I’m lazy (I am admittedly quite lazy), but an attempt to be considerate of my readers, who have plenty else vying for their attention. It’s actually more work, as I often cut as much as 25% from a piece, which brings to mind Mark Twain’s famous comment, “I’m sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.” I take the time, which is one of the reasons I’ve trimmed this blog to once a week. (The first draft of this post was 708 words. The final is 627, and it’s a better post because of it.)

 

No better writing advice exists than that of Elmore Leonard: leave out the parts people tend to skip. What writers don’t do often enough is wonder why people skip them. The default is to cite the diminished attention span, though it’s just as likely the author included excessive description, over-explained something, or just plain wasn’t all that interesting.

 

Several years ago The Beloved Spouse™ and I had lunch with The Sole Heir and her then boyfriend, now The Sole Son-in-Law. TSH told a lovely story that flitted from point to point and person to person like a bee collecting pollen. This put me in mind of a story I then told in my own style, which led the boyfriend/SSIL to face TSH and say, “Now that’s how you tell a fucking story.” I have few fonder memories as a storyteller.

 

Always be sensitive to your audience. Maybe their attention spans are too short. Or maybe they have higher standards for what holds their attention than you’re writing for.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Left Coast Crime: The Personal Touch

 Last week I focused on the panels at this year’s Left Coast Crime. I mentioned I might not get quite as much from them as I used to; after having been to so many, what I go for now are the people, and this year’s event did not disappoint. I apologize in advance to anyone I omitted. There was a lot going on and my ability to hold competing thoughts isn’t what it used to be.

 

So, in no particular order, thanks to

 

The LCC committee, notably Lucinda Surber, Stan Ulrich, and Les and Leslie Blatt. (Note the use, and necessity, of the Oxford comma.) They had extraordinary obstacles to overcome, not the least of which was starting things up again in the post-covid world, and they pulled it off masterfully. Kudos to everyone involved.

 

Our police procedural panel. Jim L’Etoile, T.K. Thorne, and Frank Zafiro constituted as close-knit a group of panelists as I have ever been involved with. We got together for drinks after the first day’s panels and spent time with each other throughout the week. I’m looking forward to getting together with all of them at future events.

 

Frank Zafiro (again). I mentioned him above, but we spent a lot of time talking apart from other activities. Frank is a walking library of police information, and an excellent teacher besides being an outstanding writer and a good friend.

 

Colin Conway. I’d met Colin before, but this was the first I got to spend much time with him. Great company, knowledgeable about a wide range of topics, and a good teacher in explaining why some police things are the way they are.

 

James D.F. Hannah. A fairly reserved weekend by his standard: no arrests. Jimmy takes his craft seriously, despite his reputation as a hellraiser. Talk to him about the works of Robert B. Parker sometime. You’ll learn something. Even if you’re one of Parker’s kids.

 

The residents of Albuquerque. Nicer people will not be found anywhere.

 

Lee Goldberg, who spent more time than I could have asked for discussing elements of how books become films.

 

Holly West. She was Holly West, which is high praise right there. Always a treat to see her.

 

Lindy’s Diner. On the corner of Fifth Street and Central Avenue. Only open till 3, but worth hustling over for. They even named a sandwich after me in anticipation of my arrival. (The Fat Bastard burger was excellent.) Ask for Dawn, and tell her Dana and Corky sent you. She probably won’t remember us, but I always wanted to tell someone to do that.

 

Baca Boys. Thanks to Frank for the tip. Outstanding breakfast.

 

Thicc Pizza. Another Frank recommendation. I’d never had Detroit-style pizza before, but I’ll definitely have it again. Look for it in the 505 Central food court, across the street from Lindy’s.

 

On the other hand…

 

Southwest Airlines held our plane at the gate for an hour and a half to load the baggage. Explanations ranged from “We’re shorthanded” to “It’s raining.” This made us late into Austin, but we did not have to change planes. The same was not true coming home; we had to run to make our Austin connection. Alas, our bags were not as quick as we were and took a later flight. It will be a long time before I fly again, and a sight longer before Southwest gets my business.

 

The Clyde Hotel. Formerly the Hyatt. The management change took place a week before the conference, and the new owners made no evident effort to get ready. No restaurant, the elevators weren’t fully functional until Saturday, and the bar was only open from 4:30 to 9:30. Let me repeat that. At a readers’ and writers’ conference, the bar was only open from 4:30 to 9:30. (They attempted to make up for the short hours by making everything exorbitantly expensive.) That tells you all you need to know about the hotel “experience.”

 

The good news is that those last two items will not be what anyone remembers from this year’s conference. The good programs, good company, and good cheer will linger, and there was more than enough of those to go around.

 

Thanks to everyone involved.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Left Coast Crime 2022

 The Beloved Spouse™ and I have become regular conferencegoers, so we pretty much knew the drill for our inaugural Left Coast Crime. I’ve been to more panels than I can remember, so the number of new things I hear or learn gets a little smaller with each event. Still, I am always looking to learn, and LCC did not disappoint. Here are the things that popped out at me, based on my scribbled notes. They often paraphrase what was actually said, and I was unable to get attributions for all of them. My apologies to those whose names were omitted. No slight intended.

 

THURSDAY, APRIL 7

Police Procedurals

I got my panel out of the way right off the bat, and it gave the rest of the conference a tough act to follow, if I do say so myself. James L’Etoile moderated T.K. Thorne, Frank Zafiro, and me in a discussion of the tropes of police procedurals, for better or worse. The four of us hit it off right away, Jim set things up expertly, the audience was into it, and a good time was had by all. So much so that the panelists had a “reunion” in the lounge later in the day.

 

I was supremely chuffed to be included on a panel with actual LEOs, and by the people who approached later to ask questions or pass along a compliment. Maybe my most rewarding panel ever. Thanks to all who were there.

 

Writing a Series: Keeping it Fresh

William Kent Kreuger will write a standalone when an idea speaks strongly enough to him.

 

Glen Erik Hamilton set out to write  a standalone but had so much fun world building he decided to turn it into a series.

 

Matt Goldman – If you pick the right time and place, things will take care of themselves.

 

Kreuger spoke of “Domestic Exotica,” stories set in the US but in places no one knows much about.

 

Kreuger was advised to “Write what you know.” He knew Minnesota and the dynamics of farming and people, so he ran with it.

 

These authors generally write for themselves and trust the readers will follow. They also don’t worry about things from past books. What’s done is done.

 

Celebrating the Short Story

James D.F. Hannah says many of his stories deal with “death by sporting goods.” He goes into Dick’s and looks around wondering “Could I kill someone with this?”

 

Robert LoPresti mentioned a writer who goes through each page and kills the weakest sentence. “Why is this sentence here?”

 

Stephen King has compared unfinished short stories to cups with no handles. He sets them aside until a handle comes to him.

 

FRIDAY, APRIL 9

Thrillers

All books must be readable as standalones. Repeat the descriptions of continuing characters. Regular readers will just skip over.

 

The longest continuous occupation of an American city after a race riot is Cambridge MD.

 

Writing for the Screen

Lee Goldberg – Advice to authors: If offered an option, take the money and run. Tell the producer/showrunner you’re willing to be as involved, or uninvolved, as they want.

 

Lee Goldberg - The upcoming film Fast Charlie (Pierce Brosnan) is based on Victor Gischler’s novel Gun Monkeys. Apparently very loosely, though Gischler is good with it.

 

Lee Goldberg – Many things that are changed from a book to screenplay are due to budget or scheduling considerations.

 

Lee Goldberg – The key to a screenplay is to capture the essence of the book, not to create a slavish recreation.

 

Lee Goldberg – A screenplay is a blueprint for the director, cinematographer, etc. to work from. The writer’s job is to tell the story through action and dialog.

 

Lee Goldberg now writes the first drafts of his novels as screenplays, then fleshes them out. Says it gives him a better idea of the pacing and how well the story holds together.

 

The best pilots feel like Episode 7 on the screen. Best pilots ever: Justified, Magnum, Hill Street Blues, though many excellent pilots never get made.

 

SATURDAY, APRIL 9

Hardboiled

Matt Coyle – Everything that happens to a character has to matter.

 

The Contradiction of Humor and Crime: How do you know what’s funny?`

Cynthia Kuhn – Common advice for thrillers is to make things more serious for the protagonist all the time. In comedies, make it more absurd.

 

Location as Character

Johnny Shaw & Craig Robertson – If you only have a few days to research a place, go to bars. (Audience member asked about where else to go if they (or their character) didn’t feel safe in a bar. Other places were discussed, but the takeaway I got was if you or your character don’t feel safe in a place, maybe that’s not the kind of case/story they should be working on.

 

There was lots more, but some wasn’t as new to me, and much of the truly entertaining stuff fell into the category of “You had to be there.”

 

Next week, individual callouts for those who helped to make this a memorable conference.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

1883

 The Paramount+ series 1883 is the story of how the Dutton family came to found the ranch that is the cornerstone of the popular series Yellowstone. 1883 does a good job of showing why the Duttons have such love and devotion for the land. How the show does it leaves a lot to be desired.

 

The set-up has the Duttons (Confederate veteran James, wife Margaret, daughter Elsa, and son John) hooking up with a party of German immigrants on their way from Fort Worth to Oregon under the direction of Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott). Mishaps and drama ensue.

 

The first few episodes of 1883 are grabbers. Unfortunately, the show can’t maintain that pace and each successive episode loses a little in both quality and interest until by the end we were talking back to the screen as though filming an episode of Mystery Western Theater 1883. We stuck with it more from a sense of duty to see how things came out than for entertainment.

 

Writer Taylor Sheridan makes his points through the eyes of Elsa (Isabel May), through frequent, and often tedious, voice-overs. Emily Dickenson had nothing on this seventeen-year-old in the areas of eloquence, profundity, and melancholy. (More on Elsa’s age later.) The voice-overs are textbook examples of why the technique has fallen into ill-repute. They’re telling instead of showing, and oh my god are they preachy.

 

That doesn’t make Elsa special. Characters will stop whatever they’re doing to utter profundities at the drop of a hat. While much of the acting is quite good (Sam Elliott is always solid, and Tim McGraw as James Dutton is surprisingly so) they too often give recitations rather than explore character.

 

Plotting and pacing are problems. Sheridan earned great acclaim for the screenplays Hell or High Water, Wind River, and Sicario. He appears to function better when he needs to wrap things up in two hours. Given ten episodes to work with, the pacing is often too slow, while at others the action jumps ahead in ways that were not only unprepared, but inexplicable.

 

This expansiveness affects the storytelling in several ways. (Mild spoiler alert.) During a treacherous river crossing, Elsa plays Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata for the cowboys on a piano the setlers must leave behind, as it was too heavy to cross the river. (The piano is in perfect tune and repair, and none of those in charge noticed how much needless ballast the settlers were carrying until it became a crisis.) The scene goes on forever, cut with flashes of a wagon foundering and a woman drowning. I understand the desire to be artistic, but, like truth, artifice should never get in the way of a good story. The drama of the river crossing dies aborning, after quite a bit of time setting it up.

 

There are also sloppiness issues with the continuity. Two episodes have an almost identical scene where James and Margaret discuss exactly the same thing, with exactly the same resolution. It’s near the end of one episode and the beginning of the next, so when binging it smacks you over the head. There’s also the matter of a western-moving wagon train approaching the camera, with the mountains in the background.

 

Then there’s Elsa’s age. Elsa notes in a voiceover that the train left Fort Worth on April 9, 1883, which is her seventeenth birthday, as she was born exactly one year after Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  Later, in an argument with her mother, she notes that now that she’s eighteen, the law says she can do what she wants. If this isn’t enough, in another scene where Margaret talks of being pregnant with Elsa while working for a sharecropper, with James in a Yankee prison camp. I’ll let you do the math on that one.

 

The series is beautifully photographed and reminded both The Beloved Spouse™ and me why we love our trips out west so much. Conditions on the trail appear to be as authentic as anything I’ve seen, and many action scenes are shot panoramically to give a sense of context.  Beautiful as they are, such images too often serve as padding, along with overlong shots of people’s faces to make sure we know strong emotion going on here. Sheridan would have done well to heed the advice of Reverend McLean in A River Runs Through It: “Half as long.” If you reall6y want the feel of moving across the prairies of the western frontier, check out Lonesome Dove. 1883 has many similarities, but provides no real competition is either story or character development.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Breaking News (1 April 2022)

I don’t vaguebook. Avoid it like The Plague. (Camus’s book is too long and depressing.) Still, today is perfect to release information I can’t go into much detail about but is too exciting to keep to myself.

 

I have an offer to write the memoir of a leading political figure. While this person and I differ in our philosophies, we both understand that whoring oneself out for suitable sums of money is as American as racial prejudice. (Which is among the things we disagree about.)

 

There are still a few details we need to work out that stem from the previously mentioned political differences, but these are all on the margins and include

·       Climate change

·       COVID prevention

·       Economic policy

·       Energy policy

·       Foreign relations

·       Hair care

·       Immigration

·       Inequality of wealth

·       Marital fidelity

·       Race relations

·       Responsibilities of a role model

·       Taxation

·       Voting

I’d love to say more, but the non-disclosure agreement I have to sign is as thick as a typical Bible, but on legal-size paper. It’s so complete it may preclude release of the completed book.

 

Such is life. I’m just trying to do my small part in making America great again.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Winter's Best Reads

Nobody From Somewhere, Dietrich Kalteis. Elmore Leonard is dead, but there’s no need to feel a great void. Kalteis’s newest continues in the master’s tradition without being derivative, with the same kind of quick narrative and entertaining dialog.

 

Contrary Blues, John Billheimer. Not what I expected; this is better. Highly entertaining, plausible, and amusing story set in West Virginia coal country. Billheimer has a style that reads easy as warm milk, and the characters and situations are believable without being predictable.

 

Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman. Anyone interested in screen writing needs to read this. Anyone interested in how movies get made needs to read this. Anyone interested in good stories well told needs to read this. Did I leave anyone out? A masterpiece by possibly the greatest screenwriter ever.

 

Hell and Gone, Sam Wiebe. The new Wakeland novel makes Dave witness to a horrifying crime. How much he’ll help the police (if at all), is the main mystery until things break in a manner that forces a decision. Wiebe’s writing makes it easy to forget you’re reading, as the story seems to direct itself straight into your brain.

 

The Hard Bounce, Todd Robinson. A re-read, but just as good as the first time. Boo and Junior are characters not to be forgotten. Why Robinson can get contracts in France and not the US is an indication of how fucked up US publishing is.

 

Ordo, Donald Westlake. Funny, melancholy, thought-provoking. The story of a naval NCO who learns his short-term wife of many years ago is now an international sex symbol and how the knowledge changes both of them. Or doesn’t. Westlake really could write anything.

 

Double Deuce, Robert B. Parker. Much of the book consists of Spenser and Hawk waiting around for something to happen as they’re tasked with providing security for a ghetto project. That’s okay, because there are few more enjoyable things in the canon that Spenser and Hawk passing time, and even fewer better than when they take action.

 

Bread, Ed McBain. Mid-70s 87th Precinct tale. It may not seem like praise to say there isn’t a lot to distinguish Bread from a lot of other eight-seven stories, but that means it’s excellent. If McBain ever wrote a book that wasn’t worth making time for, I’ve yet to come across it.

 

D-Day, Stephen A. Ambrose. Detailed examination of the events, planning, and training that led up to the invasion of Normandy, followed by as good a description of June 6 as you’re going to find. Ambrose had a gift for describing both the forest and the trees in a manner that brings out the horrors, and which of them could, or could not, have been avoided. Not a light read, but important for anyone interested in the invasion, or World War II in general.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Interview with Sam Wiebe, Author of Hell and Gone

 


I met Sam Wiebe at Bouchercon in Raleigh through mutual friends. We shared a table at that year’s Shamus dinner, where I learned he’s as good a guy as he is a writer. Sam is the award-winning author of the Wakeland novels, one of the most authentic and acclaimed detective series in Canada, including Invisible Dead, Cut You Down, and the new one, Hell and Gone. Sam’s other books include Never Going Back, Last of the Independents, and the Vancouver Noir anthology, which he edited. He has won the Crime Writers of Canada award and the Kobo Emerging Writers prize, and been shortlisted for the Edgar, Hammett, Shamus, and City of Vancouver book prizes. His original film/tv projects have been optioned, and his short stories have appeared in ThugLit, Spinetingler, and subTerrain, as well as anthologies by Houghton-Mifflin and Image Comics. You can follow him on Twitter (@sam_wiebe) and learn more about him on his web site.

 

One Bite at a Time: Welcome back, Sam. It’s always a treat to have you. Give us the quick and dirty on your new book, Hell and Gone.

 

Sam Wiebe: Thanks so much, Dana. Here’s the pitch:

 

An act of public violence breaks out on the street in the early morning. Wakeland witnesses the violence from his office, getting a look at the shooters as they drive off. He leaps into action—literally jumping down from the fire escape to perform first aid on the wounded. A hero.

 

But when he enters the building where the shooters came from, he sees something so beyond his experience that when the police ask him what he witnessed, Wakeland refuses to say.

 

Soon Wakeland is caught between a ruthless police chief and a pair of gang leaders, all of whom want the shooters found, no matter the cost in human life.

 

The only way for Wakeland to come to grips with this is to find the shooters—before they find him.

 

OBAAT: Correct me if I’m wrong, but a common thread through the Wakeland books is that, for all its multiculturalism, Vancouver is very much an exclusive society. Am I right to pick up on that, or am I reading things onto the books that aren’t there?

 

SW: Vancouver is a far more troublesome place than the postcards lead one to believe. Harm reduction, gentrification, gang warfare and systemic racism—these are at the forefront of Hell and Gone. As Wakeland says, “We are where the West ends.”

 

OBAAT: Wakeland’s partner, Jeff Chen, straddles a line between his Chinese ancestry and the white Vancouver executive class. Where did the idea for Jeff come from?

 

SW: I didn’t want Wakeland to have a sidekick—my feeling is, if you’ve got a seven-foot sociopath with bad tattoos and a stockpile of weapons on speed-dial, you’re probably don’t have to do much detective work.

 

But I did want someone who contrasts and compliments Dave, a partner with a different understanding of the city.

 

Jeff Chen is a family man, a businessman, the opposite of Wakeland in a lot of ways. Their differences make their partnership all the stronger. If Dave is Steve Wozniak, Jeff would be Steve Jobs.

 

But Jeff has a secret: the financing for their business came from community leader and suspected gangster Roy Long. When Wakeland finds this out, it will stress their partnership to its breaking point.

 


OBAAT
: The past couple of books has taken Wakeland south of the border for insights on some particularly bad shit. Is this a metaphor for the US’s pervasive influence on Canadian business and society, or just that the plot logically took you to Baja Canada?

 

SW: I love America (I’m trying not to sound like the beginning of The Godfather…). My heart lies with the American style of detective novel, the focus on people rather than puzzles. That’s the tradition I write in.

 

I’ve spent a lot of time in Washington State and Oregon, and I’d just done a road trip to Raleigh when I started Hell and Gone. Culture doesn’t stop at the border, and neither does Wakeland.

 

OBAAT: Your debut novel, Last of the Independents, yet you abandoned PI Michael Drayton for Dave Wakeland, a partner in a large agency. Why the change in course?

 

SW:

 

Several reasons, having to do with how Last of the Independents ends, the darker subject matter I wanted to cover needing a different tone, and the nature of publishing. Making Wakeland part of a successful detective agency was a way to open up to different stories.

 

I look at Last of the Independents as my ‘demo tape.’ But Hell and Gone is the best detective novel I’ve written.

 

OBAAT: You and I are both great fans of David Milch. (Deadwood, NYPD Blue, etc.) What is it about his work that resonates so strongly with you? (In case you aren’t yet aware, his memoir, Life’s Work, drops in September.)

 

SW: He deserves much better praise than I can muster on a Tuesday morning, but here goes.

 

Before I’d really committed myself to writing, I found myself in a college class next to a guy who’d just sold a screenplay. He told me about Milch’s “Idea of the Writer” lectures, which you can find online. As someone who never had a writing mentor—had never really met a novelist until I was in my twenties—those lectures were very helpful to me.

 

OBAAT: If you could look back and give aspiring novelist Sam Wiebe one piece of advice, what would it be?

 

SW:  Learn as much about how the business works as possible, so that its ups and downs disrupt your writing as little as possible. It’s easier to “make a living as a writer” if you’re smart with money and averse to debt.

 

OBAAT: And now for the traditional final question: what’s next?

 

SW: Hell and Gone is out March 8th, and I’m thrilled with the response so far. I’ve got a standalone thriller on submission, and I’m revising Wakeland 4 right now.

 

Thanks, Dana!

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Cheers

 The Beloved Spouse™ and I recently completed viewing every episode of Cheers. For those who weren’t around to enjoy the original broadcasts, here’s an idea of why we watched at least two episodes almost every night.

 

First, and most important for a comedy, the show is hilarious. Some of the humor may seem dated – and, to some, bits of it may seem inappropriate – but it’s always clever, and, for a show that builds much of its humor on the cluelessness of the characters, much more intelligent than most comedies, with the possible exception of its spin-off, Frasier. (By this I don’t mean droll, or something high-brow that inspires conspiratorial smiles from the viewer. I mean laugh out loud funny.)

 

The characters are well-drawn, and provide enough variety to help keep the writing fresh for eleven years. Each has his or her own well-defined persona, and they stick to it, though there are still some surprises, just as with the people we know.

 

This works because the producers cast actors suit their roles and are good at their jobs. I’ve always been a Ted Danson fan, but watching the show now made me appreciate how good he really is. Even his background reactions were always in character and complemented the punch line or situation.

 

There are a couple of examples of how well the producers chose their actors. Kelsey Grammar (Frasier Crane) and his eventual wife, Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) came in to fill short term needs. Frazier became a regular and eventually got his own show, which ran as long as Cheers; Lilith became regular enough to get a credit.

 

Necessary replacements provide even better examples. Nicholas Colasanto (Coach), beloved of cast and audience, died after season three, to be replaced by a young Woody Harrelson as Woody Boyd, a character that filled the same role in the repertory company as Coach, but in a much different manner.

 

The big change, of course, came when Shelley Long (Diane Chambers) left the show. Kirstie Alley came in and picked right up. The writers changed the premise mid-stream and never missed a beat. There has never been a better comedic crier then Mary Tyler Moore, but Kirstie Alley is in her league.

 

What makes all this work? The writing, of course. No actor can be better than the material, and Cheers is as well-written a show as has ever been on television. It could have fallen into the trap of being a typical workplace sitcom, but the bar setting allowed the writers to leverage one of the core strengths of Barney Miller by providing opportunity for truly eccentric characters to pass through. I can’t remember any examples in the 272 episodes where I thought, “Well, that was wasted.”

 

Cheers debuted forty years ago. It holds up well despite society’s changing attitudes about such core parts of the show as Sam’s womanizing and Norm’s drinking because, like all classic sitcoms, at its core it’s about people, and these are people for whom the writers have genuine affection. If you’ve never seen Cheers, do yourself a favor and check it out. If you saw it during its original run, stop by again and remember what it’s like to spend time where everyone knows your name.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

It's a Process

Recent posts to Facebook and Twitter about my advancement through the work-in-progress led to several requests for details on my constantly evolving process. I find such requests supremely flattering, because, let’s face it, why should anyone give a fuck about how I write? That people care is validation that I must be doing something right.

 

So, for what it’s worth, here’s how I’m writing the current book, working title “The Spread.”

 

The Outline

Yes, I’m a plotter, though I add some scenes, drop others, and re-arranged throughout the process.

 

I never sit down and think, “What will this book be about?” Ideas for subsequent stories come to mind as I work on each book. I take the notes compiled over the past year, read newspaper articles, and get an idea of where the book is going. I then make slugs on notecards for the scenes I need in order to get there, no more than a sentence or two on each card.

 

The real fun comes when The Beloved Spouse™ and I lay the cards on a table to put them in order, after which I transfer the information to Scrivener for any necessary re-arrangements easier, no matter how far I am into the draft.

 

First Draft

One Scrivener file per chapter. Since dialog comes easier for me, the first draft looks almost like a screen play. Speech attributions are a letter to designate which character is talking. Almost everything except dialog is in all caps, using brief descriptions.

 

Here's the opening from a chapter in “The Spread:”

 

NEUSCHWANDER COMES TO DOC WITH EVIDENCE FROM POWELL’S CAR. HE COMES TO DOC’S OFFICE WITH A COUPLE OF REPORTS IN HAND.

N. I have something from Gregory Powell’s car that might be of interest.

D. Interest me.

The point is to get the story on file without getting bogged down in details. I add, delete, or re-arrange scenes as I go and think of things I like better.

 

Another core element of the first draft is what TBS and I call “resting transparently.” It’s a term we got from a series of lectures by David Milch (Deadwood, NYPD Blue) called “The Idea of the Writer.” Among the scores of worthwhile things Milch has to say is a quote from Kierkegaard: “An artist must rest transparently on the spirit that gives him rise.” I “rest transparently” by trying not to think about the writing until about fifteen minutes before I’m going to do it. Then I sit in my favorite reading chair, in a quiet room, and make my mind a blank. My subconscious knows what needs to happen next int the book; I just have to let it out.  Sometimes I need the full fifteen minutes; sometimes fewer than five. Then I hammer out a thousand words or so, typically in under an hour. (This is imperfect, as thoughts about a book crowd into my mind all the time. It’s just that I only let them have their way while I’m resting transparently. Early on, I also fell asleep more than a few times.)

 

I may go more or less than a thousand words, but I never write for more than 45 minutes to an hour. Again, from Milch: “The ego is the enemy of the imagination.” As soon as I start thinking about whether what I’m writing is any good, I stop.

 

I do this two or three times a day. I’m retired, so I can spread the work through the entire day if I want.

 

Then the book sits for at least a month. I won’t let myself look at it in less than four weeks, but somewhere in the next fortnight I’ll start climbing the walls to get back at it. (I start again after six weeks no matter what.)

 

Second Draft (Re-Write)

I read the entire book and don’t change a thing. I make notes, but that’s all.

 

Then I open the Scrivener file and a clean Word document. Split the screen, with Scrivener on top and Word below, and retype the entire book. For me, leaving my darlings by the side of the road is much easier than having to kill them. Re-typing everything is an ideal opportunity to decide what needs to come over, and, just as important, what doesn’t.

 

This draft is where I add the details I only mentioned in passing in the first draft, such as narration and description.

 

As with the first draft, I write about a thousand words per session, twice a day. I don’t typically need to rest transparently unless the whole chapter consists of a few notes; everything I need should already be there.

 

Third Draft (Editing)

This is a standard edit. I read and make changes as I go. A chapter or two a day, no more. I’d rather stop feeling fresh and raring to go tomorrow than worn out and dreading the next task. I may also run it through a word frequency calculator to see if some inadvertent favorite words (just, enough, etc.) were overdone.

 

Then I let it sit again for at least a few weeks.

 

Fourth Draft (Finishing)

I call this one draft, but it’s actually a four-part endeavor and is probably the most intensive aspect of the process.

 

Day 1:

Read Chapter 1. That’s all. Just read it. Don’t take notes. All I want to do is remind myself what happens to jump start my subconscious, which will work on it for the rest of the day.

 

Day 2:

Edit Chapter 1. This is similar to the third draft, but this time I’m doing it with the idea in mind the book is finished after this edit.

Read Chapter 2.

 

Day 3:

I have Word read Chapter 1 to me a paragraph or so at a time so I can listen to what it sounds like and make changes accordingly. I used to read it aloud to myself, but I’ve found that letting Word do that frees me to be a better listener.

Edit Chapter 2.

Read Chapter 3.

 

Day 4:

Print out Chapter 1 and read it aloud to The Beloved Spouse™. (This is what I do. you can ask her if she’ll do it for you, but it might cost.) Make notes as she or I catch things, then fix them when I go back to the office.

Listen to Chapter 2.

Edit Chapter 3.

Read Chapter 4.

 

Days 5 until the end of the book:

Keep at it.

 

I then have Word’s editor go through the entire book. It’s a much better program than it used to be, though still not perfect. That’s okay. I’d rather have to tell Word to ignore a point of grammar than miss something else altogether.

 

After that’s done, and only after that’s done, I type “THE END” at the bottom.

 

That’s how I’m working on “The Spread.” The previous book, “White Out,” (dropping in July from Down & Out Books) was the same except for the narrative placeholders in the first draft. The next book will likely be a bit different yet.

 

Take what you want from this if you think it will help you. Adjust to suit your needs.

 

Please feel free to comment, either here on the blog, Facebook, or Twitter.

 

This is a much longer post than usual. Thanks for hanging in there.

 

(I know some of you may be thinking “I have a deadline. I can’t write that little each day and take all that time off.” Wah. Having a deadline means you have a contract in hand which means you have guaranteed money. Get over it. The luxury of having a process like mine is one of the few benefits writers such as me get. I’m not apologizing.)

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Reacher

 The first thing the creators of the Amazon Prime series Reacher did right was to cast Alan Richson as Reacher. Not that Richson is the second coming of Laurence Olivier. He doesn’t need to be. He looks like Jack Reacher, facially and physically. No offense to Tom Cruise, who is a fine actor, but Lee Child’s books work because Jack Reacher carries an obvious level of physical intimidation with him. That requires someone who is at least close to Reacher’s description of 6’ 5” and 250 pounds. Wikipedia has Cruise as 5-7, and he's obviously not a millimeter taller. That nearly a foot is hard to make up.

 

I don’t mean to dismiss Richson as an actor. I’ve never seen him in anything else, and Reacher doesn’t stretch his range. He does the low-key banter well, as well as the deadpan humor. His speeches are a little robotic, but anyone who’d read the books knows Reacher doesn’t let out any more emotion than he has to. This may be how they’ve chosen to portray that.

 

What all Reacher Creatures want to know is how well the series captures the tone of the books. Rest easy. They nailed it. I’ve read several Reacher books and tend to look upon them as guilty pleasures. I don’t mean that as a pejorative, but let’s face it: Reacher is a superhero. You can’t read the books – or watch the show - and believe any of this could actually happen. That’s all right. We need a little escapism once in a while, and Child was smart enough to provide enough depth to Reacher’s character that one is never sorry to have spent time with him. He’s just not going to provoke existential discussions afterward.

 

The supporting cast is okay. The primary villain is a bit over the top, but for the most part everyone carries their water faithfully. The standout is Willa Fitzgerald as officer Roscoe Conklin. To paraphrase The Beloved Spouse™, Fitzgerald can be cute as a button and hard as nails almost simultaneously.

 

There are some iffy parts. Margrave, Georgia seems to have forensic capabilities Gil Grissom would be proud of. There is also a disconnect as to who Reacher should have trouble beating up, and who is a worthy adversary.

 

Those are quibbles. The producers didn’t set out to reinvent Deadwood or Braking Bad. It’s a 21st Century Western, where the lone stranger rides into town (albeit on a bus), get sweet on a local girl, kicks serious ass, sets things right, and rides off into the sunset. No one is going to teach college-level classes on the social relevancy of Reacher like those inspired by The Wire. That’s okay. The show knows what it is, and it does that very well. The world could use more of that attitude. I’m looking forward to Season 2.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Movies and TV Since the Last Time

 The Courier (2020) Benedict Cumberbatch in an excellent retelling of the Penkovsky spy situation that took place around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cumberbatch plays a British businessman recruited my M.I.6 to act as the go-between with Penkovsky. A perfect example of how to build and sustain tension and suspense without blowing shit up.

 

Green Zone (2010) Based on another true story, this time set in the early days of the Iraq War. Matt Damon plays a warrant officer caught between politics, the media, and the CIA agent (Brendan Gleeson) who’s trying to make things come out right. Lots of shit blows up here, but never gratuitously. Well worth your time.

 

Galaxy Quest (1999) I forget how many times I’ve seen this*, and it’s always fun. If you haven’t seen it, you should, especially if you’re a Trekkie and have a sense of humor. (* - Note to Mike Dennis: Not as many times as L.A. Confidential.)

 

Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary (2019) First time for this one and it changed my attitude about cosplay. The film not only tells much of how Galaxy Quest was made, it explores the word of cosplayers with a humorous, yet sympathetic light. Galaxy Quest devotees will probably enjoy it more, but, then again, shouldn’t everyone be a Galaxy Quest fan?

 

Bad Santa 2 (2016) I didn’t even know there was a Bad Santa 2 until I stumbled onto this while searching streaming services for the original. The rare sequel that’s as much fun as the original, with humor at least as outrageous.

 

We Were Soldiers (2002) Maybe the best film I’ve seen about what it’s like to be a conscientious military commander. Closely based on a true story, the movie shows the Vietnam War battle for Ia Drang, the first time helicopters were used to ferry infantry to and from a battlefield, and all the plusses and fuck-ups that entails. Mel Gibson and Sam Elliott are excellent as the commander and his sergeant major; Greg Kinnear shines in one of his first dramatic roles as a chopper pilot. Fair warning: this is not the easiest movie to watch, as it’s horribly gruesome in places.

 

Don’t Look Up (2021) Don’t look at this piece of shit at all. I lived through the eras of such brilliant satires As Dr, Strangelove, Catch-22, M*A*S*H, Wag the Dog, and Primary Colors, and have unfortunately lived long enough to see this ham-handed effort to point out what’s wrong with the world today. It’s been a while since I saw so much acting talent wasted like this. I suppose everyone felt good about coming down on the right side of this discussion. If only they’d decided to make a good movie while they were at it.

 

Gladiator (2000) Made when Russell Crowe was arguably the biggest star in Hollywood, Gladiator is among the reasons he earned the spot. Joaquin Phoenix is repulsively squishy as the new emperor and Connie Nielsen as his equally scheming sister, but everything in the movie revolves around what to do about Maximus (Crowe). A damn near perfect example of telling a compelling story in a compelling manner. Was I not entertained? Damn right I was.

 

The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window (2022) Not a movie, but a short (3 ½ hours) streaming series from Netflix. IMDB lists the genres as “Comedy Crime Drama Mystery Thriller.” If you think that combo equates to a mess, you’re not far off. It’s presented as a comedy, but much of the early “humor” derives from a woman who is going insane from grief, which has about as much comedy potential as AIDS. (Things get rolling at 30 seconds into the video.) The comedy picks up as the show goes along, but even then it’s too more clever than laugh-out-loud funny.

 

Striking Distance (1993) Never watch a movie because you learned a fifteen-second scene took place a mile from where you grew up. This one’s a stinker from the get-go, despite the formidable supporting cast of Dennis farina, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Sizemore, John Mahoney, Andre Braugher, and Robert Pastorelli. The film gets the Pittsburgh look well, but not much else. The plot is a mess, the dialog is typical of the renegade cop genre, and the excellent cast is given little to work with.

 

Gorky Park (1983) William Hurt plays Arkady Renko in this adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith’s novel. I saw it in a theater during its original release and thought it would be a nice palate cleanser after the disaster that was Striking Distance. Alas, it did not hold up well, despite the best efforts of Lee Marvin and Brian Dennehy. The film leaves too many plot particulars to the imagination, especially the key reveal of the plot behind everything else, which Dennehy hands to Renko on a platter with us having no idea how an American detective operating as a tourist in the USSR could have discovered it. These back-to-back failures got me suspended from picking movies for a while.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

City on a Hill

 I have been less than flattering about my recent crime show experiences on both HBO and Showtime. (How American Rust keeps showing up on lists as Showtimes best crime show is beyond me.) Just as I was beginning to wonder if I’d reached the age where nothing new appealed to me, a friend told me to check out City on a Hill.

 

Now, this is a good show. Better than good, even.

 

The show is set in Boston, right after the Charles Stuart controversy. (Stuart was a white man who killed his pregnant wife, then called the police to say a Black carjacker shot her. Mayhem ensued when Boston police started rounding up Black males with inappropriate enthusiasm. More details here.) City on a Hill focuses on the racial tensions that flared after the Stuart case fell apart.

 

CoaH leaves this in the background, telling its stories through two main characters. Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon, in a stunning performance) is a corrupt FBI agent living off the reputation he built for taking down a Mafia crime family. It’s never made clear, but the implication is he was the beneficiary of information provided by Whitey Bulger as part of Bulger’s plan to take over Boston organized crime by working as a federal informant. Jackie is a detestable human being, but he’s also charming as hell, and Bacon plays him with a likeability that will often make you feel uncomfortable.

 

Jackie’s foil/partner/antagonist is DeCourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge), a Black state’s attorney despised by most of the Boston police for having worked on the federal task force charged with finding justice for BPD’s racist handling of the Stuart case.

 

Season One focuses on Jackie’s efforts to muscle in on an investigation of an armored car robbery that led to the execution-style killing of three guards. That leads us to the criminal side of things, where Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker) runs a small crew with his wife (Amanda Clayton) as the money manager and his brother Jimmy (Mark O’Brien) as the fuck up. The dynamic there is fraught with tension, as is the relationship among the branches of law enforcement.

 

This could deteriorate into a sensationalistic soap opera pretty quickly, but the people in charge know what they’re doing. City on a Hill is a Tom Fontana/Barry Levinson production (Homicide: Life on the Street) created by Chuck Maclean that has all the elements one needs in a well-told story. Unlike the other shows I have recently been critical of, City on a Hill, for all its bleakness, is laugh out loud funny in places, just like real life. Jackie in particular has a sardonic, often inappropriate sense of humor that lends a feel of realism to the events. (Easter egg: Fontana got his start writing for St. Elsewhere. The primary hospital used in City on a Hill is St. Eligius.)

 

I could go on for a while, but I don’t want to inadvertently spread any spoilers. City on a Hill gets my highest recommendation. If you subscribe to Showtime, watch it. If you don’t subscribe to Showtime, look for a deal, get it, watch City on a Hill, then opt out if you want. That’s what we did. At least till Season 3 releases, when it’ll be time to start looking for another special.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

The Problem With Writing Cops Today

 My Penns River books are police friendly. My cops aren’t perfect, but they’re basically decent, well-intentioned people, just like all of the cops I know. Alas, it is impossible to pay attention in today’s society and assume all cops are like this. Some days it’s hard to assume even most cops are. I’m not talking about corruption per se, though it figures in. I’m talking about an increased tendency to see interactions with civilians as “us versus them” situations. We are not, and should not be, antagonistic forces. Both civilians and cops are safer if both sides cooperate, but it takes both sides giving a little.

 

Some of the problem comes from the growing mantra among police departments that their primary job is to go home safely. Let there be no misunderstanding: I want all cops to go home safely every night, but that’s not what we pay them for. They have sworn oaths to keep protect those of us not entitled to use lethal force, and that involves some risk to them. Sometimes great risk. When I hear of a cop – or, more likely, a union official - say their job is to go home in one piece, my first thought is “This guy’s in the wrong line of work. Is Paul Blart’s job open?”

 

Since I brought up police unions, they worry me more than individual cops. To pick a current controversy, many police unions around the country are protesting vaccination and mask mandates, often claiming these rules violate the officers’ “bodily autonomy.” Pardon me for snark, but I’ve yet to hear a word about bodily autonomy from a police union after a cop shoots someone, or beats them senseless. They took oaths and signed contracts to work for whichever government they work for. They need to be bound by the same rules as everyone else.

 

Standing by everything I said above doesn’t mean I have a millisecond’s time for any “defund the police” bullshit, and that’s exactly what it is: bullshit. We need to move the funding around to enhance training, counseling, and understanding how PTSD affects officers on the job. We also need ways to weed out those who lack the disposition to be cops while encouraging the recruitment of people who would be good at it. Just because I said above that going home safely shouldn’t be the only priority doesn’t mean I don’t advocate going to great lengths to ensure everyone, cop and civilian alike, arrives home in the same condition they left in.

 

Why am I posting this in a blog dedicated to writing? I have become uncomfortable with how I depict my cops. I don’t feel I provide a nuanced enough picture, which isn’t fair to anyone. Good cops should stand out, and they don’t if everyone is a straight up “good cop.” Hell, definitions of what makes a good cop differ. In the outstanding documentary The Seven-Five, I learned there was a time (maybe even still is) when for an NYPD officer to refer to another as a “good cop” meant he wouldn’t say anything about improper conduct.

 

That’s also bullshit, and it has to stop. My personal issue is that, in my universe, it doesn’t exist. I need to find a way to be fair without whitewashing things – which I may have done in the past - or throwing everyone under the bus. It’s a balancing act, but if I pull it off, the books will be better for it.

 

Don’t be surprised to see more on this topic down the road.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

A Conversation With Eryk Pruitt

 Knowing Eryk Pruitt is a treat. Having him as a friend is the whole goddamn cake. Writer, filmmaker, bartender, business owner, podcaster, and raconteur extraordinaire, Eryk is one of those people I’d buy drinks for just to listen to him tell stories to other people. It’s been a while since he’s been here, a fact that came to mind when I attended the horror-themed Noir at the Bar he held at his bar, Yonder, the week before Halloween. Since then he has some big news, so the timing couldn’t be better, though there’s never a bad time to hear from Eryk.

 

One Bite at a Time: We talked about doing this interview when I was at Yonder in October. I managed to dick around long enough for us to discuss recent good news: Your novel, Long Winter’s Wake, has been picked up by Thomas and Mercer. How did this come to be?

 

Eryk Pruitt: Thank you for having me, Dana. It’s always great to talk to you. I had been writing this story for quite a while and my agent, Josh Getzler, told me it was finally ready for submission. We had it in the hands of several different editors just before the Christmas break and things moved crazy fast. When we finally came up for air, I was signing a contract with Thomas & Mercer and I couldn’t be more pleased. Since things shut down for the holidays, we had to sit on the news for a few weeks which was incredibly frustrating. I’m super stoked to be able to talk about it now!

 

OBAAT: Tell us a little about the story of Long Winter’s Wake.

 

EP: Long Winter’s Wake tells two stories: one of a detective in the 70s who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the same time he catches a sensational murder case, and has to keep his condition a secret from his family and everyone else. The second storyline deals with his granddaughter who tries to revive her forgotten journalism career by producing a true crime podcast about the unsolved murder investigation that was her grandfather’s last case.

 

OBAAT: I was never a podcast guy until I listened to the one you put out a few years ago, “The Long Dance.” Did the research and creation of “The Long Dance” have anything to do with Long Winter’s Wake?

 

EP:  Thank you and yes sir. Previous to working on that podcast, a lot of my stories dealt with the criminal element. However, since I was fortunate enough to be allowed to work so close with law enforcement on an actual unsolved murder investigation, I could use my experiences to tell the story of Long Winter’s Wake.

 

OBAAT: I enjoyed your short film “Going Down Slow.” What’s going on with your film work lately?

 

EP: Nothing new, unfortunately. However, I’ve been slowly writing a script based on my first novel Dirtbags which has been a lot of fun. We read a scene at one of Yonder’s Noir at the Bar events where Rob Hart, Todd Robinson, and the inimitable DJ Bost played roles and absolutely killed. The audience responded exactly the way a writer would want them to!!

 

OBAAT: Your bar in Hillsborough NC, Yonder, has developed a cult following among crime writers, as well as being a favored meeting place for locals. How did you get into the bar business?

 

EP: I earned degrees in Literature and in History which all but damned me to a life in the service industry. I started bartending in college and have almost always had a gig somewhere, even if it was just to fill in here or there. I’ve worked at great bars and not-so-great bars, and all the time had ideas on what we could do to make it better. I never in a million years dreamed that one day the opportunity would fall into my lap to run my own place (with my wife Lana and co-worker Alexis) and put all these ideas to the test. We’re very lucky to be HQ’ed in a community like Hillsborough, NC, which has been so receptive to what we’re trying to do. The whole COVID thing has been a challenge and a half, but it’s given me a shit ton of stories to tell so there’s that.

 

OBAAT: With so many irons in the fire, how do you decide what gets priority?

 

EP: The good news about having a full time gig that pays (Yonder) is that I don’t have to be influenced by money anymore. So I get to follow my heart. I’m currently writing a novel that is taking a while and I have no idea how marketable it will be, but it’s one I’ve wanted to tell for a long, long time. Hopefully I am able to do it justice and Josh is able to find it a home.

 

OBAAT: Who would you say are your strongest influences?

 

EP: That is a difficult question, to be honest. There are writers who I love to read, but would not exactly call them an influence. I pre-order everything written by Tana French, Megan Abbott, Daniel Woodrell, and Chris Offutt. I re-read books by Donald Ray Pollock, Lisa Taddeo, and Flannery O’Connor all the time. I’m fortunate to be friends with great writers such as S.A. Cosby, Jordan Harper, and Rob Hart, who for some reason, keep taking my phone calls. However, I would feel weird saying they “influence” me. I guess I would credit that more with who do I read to learn from, or steal from. In that case, I study more from Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, and Clay Reynolds.

 

OBAAT: Long Winter’s Wake won’t release until winter of 2023. What do you have going on in the meantime?

 

EP: I write every day on the WIP then head Yonder at 3 to make some dranks and throw parties.