Friday, April 20, 2018

The Writing Room

If you are lucky enough to have a dedicated space for writing, you have to decide what goes in that space. Sometimes the space dictates that - if you're working in an empty closet, you have room for a small desk, a chair, and maybe a picture or two. If your space has to pull double duty as a guest room, there's going to be a bed (or at least a pullout couch). If you have to share you office space with your spouse, that's a whole different issue. You're better off consulting an Ikea and a marital counselor than this blog.

But sometimes what goes in (and what stays out) is important. When we moved  few years ago, I went from working at a desk that straddled the living room and dining room in a 900 square foot house to having a room with a door that I could fuck off to and spend all day working. The first thing that went in were bookshelves, and books. Almost every room in our house (including the kitchen) has a bookshelf in it, and my office would be no different. I picked my favorites, arranged them autobiographically over too long a period, and moved on to hanging cool art, old posters, and finding the right pull out couch (it does, after all, occasionally have to double as a guest room). I made my office a small wonderland complete with a coffee machine and action figures on the shelves to provide both decor and something to fiddle with when I'm trying to sort something out. There's no TV, because I can't see what purpose it would serve, to plug a third distraction machine into my writing room (my phone and laptop are temptation enough).

The only thing I didn't have, that I wanted, was a stereo of some sort. I love music, and it plays a big role in my writing routine. It's the one thing I can take with me even when I'm writing on the road, or in a hotel. The books, the couch, the ambience - all stay in the office. I got by with my phone and a Bluetooth speaker, or sometimes just playing music through my computer with headphones. My office contains one last thing, which is a cabinet holding assorted music I should have gotten rid of a million years ago. A plastic tub full of cassette tapes, a suitcase full of CDs, even a couple of VHS tapes with performances on them, and, three or four records.

I haven't had access to a record player in so long I don't actually remember the last time I played vinyl, but I had records. Some of them came as extras when I ordered other stuff, some of them were thrift store finds I couldn't pass up - but all of them were unplayable in my house. I started thinking - if my office is my little wonderland with coffee, books, and cool art, shouldn't I have a record player?

This internal debate went on for years. Crosley makes cheap record players in cases - one of which matches the color scheme in my office perfectly. It's small and unassuming and wouldn't take up much space. But then, I would think about how it only had the built in speakers, and wouldn't I want better sound quality out of it? I didn't have room for something much larger...

Without filling you in on four years of justifying the purchase and then not buying the damn thing - I eventually got a record player.

Me, picking out the right record for a bank robbery


I set it up in the kitchen.

What stays out of the office is as important as what goes in. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that a record player was too participatory for a writing room. When I put on music to write, I make long playlists with songs I already know well enough that I don't perk up trying to understand the lyrics. I don't play DJ, going through my list of songs, picking the exact right one, and then pausing again in a few minutes to do it again - who could write like that?

Every interruption costs at least twice the amount of time. You have to stop and deal with the interruption, and then find your place in the writing, get your head back in the game, and try to hit flow again. So each time I had to flip a record, each time I had to put one away, sliding it into it's sleeve and then the jacket, pick a new one, etc. Look - don't get me wrong, all of this is what makes listening to records a different experience than just plugging your phone into a speaker and hitting "shuffle."  The fact that you have to pay attention is a big draw for someone like me who loves music. But it's not for writing.

Having the record player in the office would have been more about set design than functionality. It would have taken time I already waste on other crap, and multiplied it by how long it takes to decide which record best fits the mood of the scene I'm writing, since my writing playlist can't be easily pressed on vinyl.

So my wonderland is missing one thing - but that's what makes it a writing wonderland. My shitty Bluetooth speaker isn't going to retire any time soon.


Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Return of No One Wants To Read Your Book



By David Nemeth

Last month I wrote a post here called "No One Wants to Read Your Book" and today is a variation of that theme, if you are part of the small/indie press scene, getting your book read is a difficult thing, maybe an impossible thing. Last month’s post got its genesis from J. David Osborne’s interview with Mark Sellinger, this podcast was about a lot of things but one of the big topics was pricing paperback books at extra-ordinary low pricing, what Osborne and Sellinger called Raman pricing.

A week or two later on Osborne’s JDO Show, he interviewed former publisher Ben LeRoy who had started both Bleak House Books (2001) and Tyrus Books (2009). This interview is a must listen to if you’re a writer or fan of small/indie press crime fiction. There is a lot in this podcast, but one of the takeaways is that trying to get your book read is nigh impossible. You might be able to get your books into the right hands but after that . . . . you just don’t know. The books can become dust collectors in a messy office somewhere in Delaware, a chew toy for an overgrown Labrador puppy, or they could be pilfered by an intern and sold to a used bookstore. What's definitely going to happen is that no one is going to read your book.

At one point in the podcast, LeRoy asked Osborne to give his “bummer talk” which he gives to writers when Broken River Books accept a manuscript. This talk ain’t pretty. Trust me. Osborne has some specific ways he groups his authors, but the result is always the same: in the end, your book will not sell.

LeRoy brought up one of the biggest problems writers (and even book critics) face, we live in a social media echo chamber. One’s popularity on Twitter and Facebook does not correspond to book sales at all. Piercing your own bubble and getting out of your own comfort zone may be the first step in trying to get more sales. But, probably not. With the release of King Shot Press’ Nasty!, edited by Tiffany Scandal, Michael Kazepis and the book's various authors are doing special events throughout the States from Los Angeles to an upcoming show in Philadelphia. They are going all out to get the word out and get the books in front of people who might not normally see it. Will it work? Who knows?

But let’s say you and your publisher have limited resources, i.e. all your money is going to silly things like rent, clothes, and food. Look at the work Alex Segura is doing for the release of his new book, Blackout or the work he did last year for Dangerous Ends. Spend some time looking through his Facebook posts and Twitter feed, the guy is a monster in getting the word out of his book. Eryk Pruitt, the author of What We Reckon, is storytelling at The Monti and producing a true crime podcast, none of which have anything to do with his books. Will it help? Who knows?

But another thing Pruitt and Segura both do is that they are always ALWAYS promoting and recommending other people’s work. If all you do is promote your own work, I’m turning you off. A great example of a writer who out there hustling his own work and work of other people is Gabino Iglesias. If you follow him on social media, he’s always writing essays about books and writers, and he’s tweeting reminders that he’s got a book out called Zero Saints. You might get a bit tired of his Zero Saints tweets, but at some point, like I did,  you will end up buying his book because he spends so much of his time promoting the work of other people.

Hell, Chris Irvin is probably going to start selling baseball caps with Maurice, one of the characters from his most recent book, Ragged; Or, the Loveliest Lies of All.  And Chris Dewildt needs to sell white t-shirts with SUBURBAN DICK in bold letters on it. I’d buy one, okay, you got me, I'd buy two.

But none of this is a guarantee that your book will be read. As LeRoy said, "You can’t spend on social capital." Being popular on Twitter does not equate to book sales, it’s just another tool to try and sell books. Both Osborne and LeRoy agree that getting one’s book published is not the end, it’s just the beginning. There’s a lot more work to do. And just a reminder and I'm paraphrasing Osborne here if you gave a shit about making money, why the fuck would you enter the book publishing world?

In a recent blog post by Dietrich Kalteis at 7 Criminal Minds – or is it Criminal Minds, someone please let me know –, he laments over the fact that he is spending valuable time at promotion rather than writing. Kalteis does a lot to promote his work such as “ speaking engagements, writer events, interviews, podcasts, book launches and tours. Updating my website, writing blogs, soliciting reviews and keeping a presence on social media are all part of it.” But he also writes:
Where do I draw the line on marketing and promotion? That’s easy. It’s not just about making money, but of spending time. If too much of my focus is on marketing and promoting then who’s writing the books? So, while I do my bit, I avoid becoming distracted by anything that keeps me from writing. And that’s the best effort of all, writing a book worth marketing and promoting, earning some good reviews, building a body of work and gaining an audience. 
In a perfect world, Kalteis would be right, but this isn’t a perfect world and sacrifices need to be made if you want people to read your book. If the writer, especially in the small/indie press world, isn’t going to go balls to the wall at promotion, how do they expect to find readers? As LeRoy says many people write to be heard. But if no one reads your book, have you been heard?

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Guys, it's not her, it's you.

As has been known to happen more frequently since the end of 2016, one aggrieved man on Twitter can cause a true fecal tornado.

No, this wasn't that guy, but one who will remain nameless, because I'm sure he was loving the torrent of attention his conspiracy theorizing received. What was his theory?

That "misandry in publishing" not only exists, but caused the 2008 Depression, the mortgage crisis, and is why agent Lauren Spellier rejected his book.
I didn't make any of that up, but I did reverse the order of what he blamed it for. I'm guessing alcohol was involved, or faulty logic by an uniformed man who believes that he can reason his way into becoming the next Isaac Newton, if he wasn't oppressed. You can read all the details here, where agent Spellier condenses it all nicely. Note that she says this is nothing uncommon. This just happened on a slow news day (remember those?) and blew up because of how ridiculous his claims became, blaming the global financial crisis on boys not reading, because there are "no books out there for boys."

Now, I have heard male writers complain that publishing is "overrun with women," and even that crime fiction is. If they don't say it outright, you can catch a whiff of what they're shoveling when they sneer at cozies, or amateur sleuths, domestic suspense, "chick lit," or whatever isn't manly enough to put hair on your eyeballs from reading the first paragraph. I like cozies and noir, personally. I've noticed that when Lawrence Block writes cozies about burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, who seldom swears, where the violence and sex are off-screen, and every single book ends with a parlor room mystery style gathering, "you're probably wondering why I brought you here," no one says "ew, that's a cozy." I wonder why that is?

"Oh, not him, I mean that other stuff. That stuff I haven't read, but the cupcake on the cover and the pun in the title casts a spell on me that shrank my organs." --Strawman guy

To each their own, not everyone likes graphic violence, and not everyone likes small town mysteries. It doesn't mean you're a prude or a misogynist dinosaur, unless you're a berk about it. (I do love me some Cockney rhyming slang). If you think the market is skewed toward "unmanly" subjects, blame capitalism. More women read. But that didn't stop publishing from releasing drivel by Sean Penn, a physically abusive human disaster. Time was not "up" for him, which you think it would be, if a Coven of Penis-Shrinking Witch Women ran publishing from a hot tub full of Nutella.

But the misandry guy had one point. New York publishing is extremely white and mostly women:
Survey of workforce at 34 book publishers and eight review journals in US reveals 79% of staff are white and 78% female

If anything, this has whitened the books we get to read, but it hasn't emasculated them. When I walk into my favorite bookstore, with its all-woman staff, I don't have to look far to see testosterone-soaked novels, covers out. My barbed-wire spangled cover for Life During Wartime: Stories is one of them. I don't think women in publishing have made it any harder for men to get published. I do think publishing has been playing it too safe for decades, but having worked in the ugly corporate world, my guess is that's due to the enemy of all humanity: too many meetings.

I wanted to work in publishing, when I graduated Rutgers University back in 1995. But I'll admit, I was a coaster. I do very well on tests, I can write an essay on the fly, I can pull trivia and historical tidbits out of my beard like a chipmunk from its cheeks, so I didn't work very hard in college. And I sure didn't dig too deeply researching the industry, and how internships were key even then, just as they began the great purge of assistant editors that launched a thousand literary agencies. So I'd missed that boat, and blamed the only person to blame: myself. Things worked out. I traveled west to Minneapolis for a tech writing job, just as they announced a hiring freeze, in the middle of a transit strike, which led me to a long and fruitful career in I.T., which makes journalists and fellow English majors glower at me when I opine, "I wish I'd started at a newspaper." But really, I do. I learned way too late in life that struggling is good.

I mention my martial arts background a lot, I know. I'm just a mat rat, a fight gym goon, a terminal blue belt (in BJJ parlance). I'm no pro, though I've served as their training dummies. But getting to that molehill of ability took me years and years. It takes me a long time to learn anything physical. I spent six months on the straight arm bar, the basic move of the grappler. And I still can't do it well, but I built a tool box that works for me, and as a now older gent, I know to trick the young fast technically better opponents and pit my strengths against their weaknesses. Too many of us aren't used to struggling, especially men. We are told to pursue what we're good at and then that becomes part of our self-image. I am good at writing. I have an English degree.

Yeah, well maybe you're not good enough.

That doesn't mean you can't be. You just have to struggle again. Work harder. After you graduate school, that can be something you never want to do again. You get a job, you coast, you don't learn new things as the world changes, and you shake your fist and blame everyone else because you didn't want to struggle anymore. It's daunting. But it's not their fault, is it? You saw the writing on the wall. With books, it's disheartening. We thinking writing that book is the struggle, and once it's done, we get to lift it atop the mountain like the baby in The Lion King for all to worship and behold. Yeah, us and a hundred thousand others. The struggle has only just begun.

In Spellier's words:
...I’m not rejecting their books because I hate men. I’m rejecting their books because they aren’t ready for publication in my eyes, or because the book simply isn’t my cup of tea. And while that may feel personal, it’s not. Because here’s the brutal truth: not every book is ready for publication. Some books are overwritten, or ill-conceived. Others are simply not right for the market, or are too similar to existing titles. Some just aren’t very good.
     I  know that’s hard to hear. I’m an author myself, and that truth pains me even now. I wrote one of those “not good enough” books. In fact, I wrote three. But when the rejections came in, I didn’t take to Twitter and cry foul. I did what writers do: I kept writing. And eventually that work paid off when I sold my first book.
     But while it’s true that I worked hard, it’s also true that I’m a white, married woman living in America, and that affords me a lot of privileges. So while it was heartening to see so many people of all gender identities overtake the #MisandryInPublishing hashtag, and thus acknowledge that publishing has a long way to go when it comes to not prioritising male voices, we also need to recognise that this problem is even worse for other marginalised communities.

But back to "misandry" in publishing. At your first Bouchercon, you may notice that as in publishing, the audience is overwhelmingly white and female. The easy thing is to assume as a privileged guy, is that you will not be welcome, and to snark about all the cozy panels, say there's no room for dudes. There is plenty of room, you just need to get used to not being the default in the room. And "Bouchercon" isn't a secret cabal. Each city "bids" to run it, and a board of people elected by attendees chooses. They aren't putting it in Toronto to keep people with DWIs and other records out, the Toronto fans organized and bid best, and why shouldn't Toronto get their turn? If you want a con that doesn't move, there's ThrillerFest and NoirCon, Deadly Ink, Killer Nashville. Bouchercon still has issues of inclusiveness and sexual harassment--you'd think guys, being outnumbered, might police ourselves, but no such luck--and writers have successfully been elected to the board, to specifically to address these issues. That takes more struggle than coming up with conspiracy theories about misandry.

In the larger scope, I do think we need to get boys to read more, but I don't think the financial collapse was caused because the mortgage bros who invented derivative swaps were playing Xbox instead of reading Harry Potter. I don't have an answer for that. Schools have had to enforce recess, for a mere 27 minutes a day, because American public schools have been consumed by government-mandated testing. Maybe another 27 minutes for reading? But if you aren't reading by the time you are in pre-K, you're behind, and working multiple jobs can make it tough to sit and read with your kid, boy or girl, especially if you were raised without it as well. I was privileged enough that my mom read with me, but we can't blame women in publishing for children who don't have that privilege.



Tuesday, April 17, 2018

That Book You Read and Your History With It

Sometimes it's fun to think back on the tangled history you've had with a particular book.  It's almost like thinking back on a relationship, for good or ill or a combination of both, that you've had with a person.

One book I go back a long way with is Roberto Arlt's novel, The Seven Madmen.  I discovered it in college while reading Jorge Luis Borges.  Arlt lived most of his short life (1900-1942) in Buenos Aires, and Borges talks about him in some of his essays.  After starting with Borges, I got into a number of Argentinian writers while in college - Julio Cortazar, Ernesto Sabato, and Manuel Puig to name a few - and one reason, obviously, is because I could find these writers in translation either in books then in print or out of print but in used bookstores or in the school library.  Arlt's novel, published in 1929, praised as a rough, violent, surrealistic look at life among the underclass in late1920's Buenos Aires, seemed like something completely unlike the other Argentinians I was reading.  Piece after piece I read by or about Argentinian fiction cited its huge influence on the country's lit.

"Have to read this," I told myself, quite excited, only to discover that The Seven Madmen had never been translated into English.

Okay, I couldn't do anything about that.  I figured I'd have to forget about reading The Seven Madmen.

Then, very soon after I graduated from college, I was browsing in a Manhattan bookstore (B Dalton, a chain that no longer exists) and what did I see in the new novels section but a stack of Roberto Arlt's book, in hardcover.  I was thrilled, but I had little money on me and no credit card.  I let the buying opportunity pass, figuring I'd return soon and purchase the book.  Needless to say, I didn't make it back to that bookstore anytime soon, and when I did, with money in my pocket, I couldn't find The Seven Madmen.  The book didn't come out in paperback here, nor, as I remember, did I ever see it in a library or a used bookstore.  This is, I should add, before Amazon and before the Advanced Book Exchange; libraries and bookstores were about the only places to find a book you were looking for.   A few more years went by, and every now and then, I'd shake my head in annoyance at myself for not having parted with the money when I had the chance to buy Arlt's novel.  If I'd wanted it so much, why had I been so cheap?  Was being almost broke an excuse?  Now it was possible that I'd never get to read The Seven Madmen, and I would have to content myself with reading other writers talking about it.



Could I learn Spanish just to read it?  I doubted it.  I've never been good at learning languages and knew myself well enough to know I never would be.

Then, in the mid-nineties, more than a decade after I'd left college, the Advanced Book Exchange came into being.  I think it was my father who told me about it.  Hard to believe now, but the idea that you could go online and search for a book and be connected to hundreds of used bookstores around the world seemed incredible.  I tried it out and found that my father hadn't been exaggerating.  But still, I thought, let me put this thing to the test.  Let's see if this ABE is as advertised. Can I find The Seven Madmen?

I typed Arlt's novel in "Search" and, sure enough, there it was.  The English edition that I'd passed on buying years back.  The Advanced Book Exchange must have had 25 copies, all affordable, that I could buy. I found myself happy but also a little bit disturbed.  How could it instantly be this easy to find so many copies of a book I thought I'd blown my chance at ever getting?  Happiness won out, though, and I ordered the book.  It took a week or two to arrive, and I tore open the packaging it came in as soon as I had it in my house.  How satisfying it was to hold it in my hands, this long sought-after work...


Why I put it in a box in my closet where I had piles of other unread books I intended to read I can't quite say, but as a matter of fact, once I had The Seven Madmen, once the joy of actually having it in my possession wore off, I lost a lot of my desire to read it.  It sat in my closet with the unread books another ten or eleven years.  Sometimes I'd say to myself, "You should read The Seven Madmen.  Come on.  It's there, it's waiting.  Borges says it's good.  And Cortazar.  And so many others.  How could it not be?  What's keeping you?"  Then I'd think that after so long a time looking forward to reading it, the novel would not meet my expectations. 

Well, one summer, around 2006 or 2007 (I remember because I'd recently started the job I have now), I broke down and took it out of that box and started reading.  There was fear in me, let me tell you, as I worried that it would be a letdown, but there need not have been.  The Seven Madmen is the great book I was hoping it would be, a crazy impassioned gutter tale set in a Buenos Aires approaching the era of fascism.  It involves desperate characters of all sorts committing various types of crime and plotting the destruction and rebirth of society...



You can look it up yourself.  It's there for the taking and it's instantly available.  But every time I think about The Seven Madmen or look at it sitting on my shelf (now that it's made it out of that box), I'm reminded of my history with it and how long it took me to find my way to reading it.  

We've been through a lot, that book and I.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Monday Interview with Alec Cizak


Gritty. Dark. These two words often emerge when discussing Alec Cizak and his tales of struggle. Sobering. An artist who paints stories of poverty and hopelessness, he's both a writer and filmmaker. His work has appeared in Beat to a Pulp, Unloaded, and Crack the Spine. He is also editor of the fiction journal Pulp Modern. With publication of his latest work, BREAKING GLASS, set for July it's time to learn more about Alec Cizak.

                                     Amazon Author Page

On the hardboiled label and his love for the genre...

"I personally think of hardboiled as an entertaining form of brutal honesty. Hardboiled books and the language they’re often written in convey truths most literature does not. In fact, as literature goes right along with all the other popular entertainment that’s desperate to be nice and not “offend” anyone, hardboiled crime fiction is going to be one of the last places writers will be able to describe the world in an honest fashion. Attempts to avoid offending readers is a one-way ticket to fantasyland (and not good fantasy, either). You can’t write about crime and sugarcoat it. In fact, having had multiple discussions with police officers about the cases they’ve worked on, I feel even the most honest writers in this field haven’t come close to what really goes on in this world. If someone were to write about the average detective’s day in, say, the sex crimes unit, readers’ eyes would probably fall out and bounce in their laps from shock.


If someone wants to refer to my work today as hardboiled, I won’t get upset by it. I still think we need to push for separation between crime fiction and mysteries, as they are, in my mind, very, VERY different genres. Mysteries are inherently conservative in that they demand “order” be restored by the end of the book. A good crime fiction novel, on the other hand, has no such obligation and, I would argue, is much better when order is not restored."



Indianapolis...

"Well, I was born and raised in Indianapolis. It’s a city that’s not often written about. Especially in the genres I like to work in. There are a couple of YA authors from Indy who write nice, safe fiction for young people to consume. Our most famous contemporary writer (even though he’s dead), Kurt Vonnegut, almost completely ignored Indianapolis once he left (he’d always have a token character or two from Indianapolis in his books and not much more). As Indianapolis gets too big for its own britches, however, I get less and less interested in writing about it. I’ve lived in other places and I’m slowly branching out and writing about those places as well as towns I invented (similar to Stephen King’s Castle Rock) located in northern Indiana, where my grandparents lived when I was growing up."

The breakdown on BREAKING GLASS...

"So, BREAKING GLASS tells the story of Chelsea Farmer’s life after the awful things she goes through in DOWN on the STREET. It’s not a sequel, it’s not part of a series, it just has a character from a previous work in it. I felt I wasn’t very fair to Chelsea in DOWN on the STREET because the book was told from Lester’s POV and a scorned, middle-aged man’s perception of a younger woman is, more often than not, going to be a bit skewed. I got the idea shortly before DOWN on the STREET was released to write two more books involving those characters, each titled with a song from the Unholy Trio of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and David Bowie. I discussed it with Jeremy Stabile, who owns and operates ABC Group Documentation, and he liked the idea. That means a third book will follow, that one named after a song on my favorite Velvet Underground record.

In BREAKING GLASS, Chelsea is an opiate addict living with like minded people roughly her age. They perform home invasions in order to steal things they can trade for dope. We realize, however, that Chelsea is much smarter than Lester ever gave her credit for, and the book involves her attempt to find a new life. It has crime elements in it, for sure, but it’s a bit more dramatic than my usual stories. It’s also a full-fledged novel and it’s the first one of mine that’s ever been published, so I’m very excited to see how folks react to it.

Later this year, or maybe early next year, ABC will also publish LAKE COUNTY INCIDENTS, a collection of Weird Fiction stories I’ve written that take place in those previously mentioned northern Indiana towns I invented.

BREAKING GLASS is scheduled for a mid-July release. Just in time for beach-reading season! I have been working on the third book for some time now, plotting it out. I sort of envision this series (which isn’t really a series) as similar to the Dollars trilogy – things started relatively curt with DOWN on the STREETS, they expand quite a bit in BREAKING GLASS, and then the last book will be epic (of course, anything over 40,000 words for me is epic)."



A few favorite writers, old and new...

"The writer who made the light bulb go off in my own head was Jim Thompson. The first time I read POP. 1280, I realized crime fiction was much broader than mysteries and drunk detectives. Thompson, to me, symbolizes freedom. Anything that disrupts polite society is crime fiction. It’s liberating. I’m also a big fan of Elmore Leonard. I can’t say I read much of what’s on the bestseller list. I know I should, but that stuff is so clean, so safe, I don’t see any risks being taken and that bores me as a reader. As for writers you don’t ever hear Oprah talk about, I’m a big fan of Grant Jerkins’ work. He’s probably the most literary writer I’ve read recently. I also enjoy Scotch Rutherford’s work for the total lack of care he has for social niceties."



The call of other genres...

"I would love to write science fiction. I haven’t written too much because I’m not really a scientist, so I can’t write “hard sf.” My favorite science fiction writer is Philip K. Dick and the world pretty much already looks like a dystopia, so it’s tough to figure out what I would write. I have a lot of respect for serious science fiction writers, though I often find their prose isn’t aesthetically pleasing and that makes it difficult to read their work. The imagination involved, however, is amazing."

Sunday, April 15, 2018

New Crime Fiction - Cobra Clutch


I met A.J. Devlin at last year’s Bouchercon in Toronto. When he started telling me about his debut novel, I was immediately hooked. A former pro-wrestler gets dragged back into the dirty underbelly of that world and the criminal side of Vancouver. Plus, snakes! Here’s A.J. to tell us more. - Claire

There really is nothing quite like pro-wrestling.
Part soap opera, part stunt show, part live-action improv – no other sport or form of entertainment can really match the distinctive, multi-hyphenate combination that is professional wrestling.
I must say, it’s kind of perfect timing for me to be able to write this guest blog post on the heels of Wrestlemania, the biggest professional wrestling spectacular in the world, as well as after the always rowdy post-Wrestlemania episode of Monday Night RAW, and this week’s release of the incredible HBO Andre The Giant documentary. Thank you to author Claire Booth and the Do Some Damage crime writing blog for the opportunity.
There were indeed a few factors that inspired my debut pro-wrestling mystery-comedy novel Cobra Clutch, of which I would like to share.
The first was real life behind-the-scenes professional wrestling documentaries and biographies that gave me a glimpse into the reality of the business. The original inkling of an idea for an ongoing mystery series first came to me after I watched the 1999 movie Beyond The Mat, which featured a spotlight segment on WWE Legend Jake “The Snake” Roberts. As a boy growing up I had watched Jake “The Snake” absolutely electrify 90,000 plus fans at Wrestlemania III, only to find him in this film to be an out-of-shape, down on his luck, former pro-wrestling legend struggling with addiction and wrestling in a barn in a remote corner of a rural U.S. state for a handful of cash (I also highly recommend following up Beyond The Mat with the recent and very inspirational documentary The Resurrection Of Jake “The Snake” Roberts, where he courageously overcomes his personal demons and is inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame).
How could someone who was once so dynamic, talented, and larger than life have such an epic fall from grace? That was my first exposure to the dark underbelly of professional wrestling – an industry rife with catastrophe where dozens of pro-wrestlers have died before the age of forty due to endless amounts of overdoses, addictions, suicide, accidents, steroid abuse, and even murder.
Despite how cartoonish and over-the-top at times professional wrestling can be, that ridiculousness is regularly offset by real-life tragedy. And even the wrestlers who are able to avoid the aforementioned afflictions still spend three hundred plus days on the road, enduring tumultuous personal lives, with many divorces and broken families resulting due to the demands of the job – yet they still do it. Willingly. Day in and day out, because they love it so much. And, incredibly, most seem to have no regrets (to truly appreciate this dedication I suggest watching the ESPN 30 For 30 documentary Nature Boy about Ric Flair).
That is the second thing that attracted me to setting a mystery novel in the world of professional wrestling – the fierce, potent, and perhaps even sometimes illogical passion these people have for their craft. As a writer who has spent the last nineteen years trying to break through and become a professional, I very strongly relate to being driven by such a passion. Something that is literally in your veins and that you are driven to relentlessly pursue, regardless of how unlikely achieving that dream may seem.
My late professor, mentor, and friend, Academy Award Nominated screenwriter and crime novelist Leonard Schrader, was the person who really turned me onto mystery novels as an alternative to screenwriting. While studying writing for film at Chapman University and later The American Film Institute, Leonard and I spent many late nights at a Hollywood diner collaborating together on screenplays and sharing our mutual obsession for great storytelling. However, I will never forget his words when he presented me with the first three Elvis Cole and Joe Pike mysteries, a series written by one of the all-time great crime writers Robert Crais, as a graduation gift for earning my M.F.A. in Screenwriting from the AFI: “Never forget that a screenplay is a blueprint for a film, of which many hands will make their way into the pot, whereas a novel will always be a complete piece of work.”
One of the most rewarding things for me personally about getting published has been being able to dedicate Cobra Clutch to Leonard, and I like to think that the book itself is a fusion of one of his many, many, talents (creating complex and damaged protagonists) with my classic Canucklehead personality (quirky and sarcastic).
Finally, the third and final element that led me to conceive of and eventually write Cobra Clutch is that for years I have been a big fan of what I have dubbed the “hybrid-athlete detective” mystery sub-genre. From Harlan Coben’s ex-basketball star turned sports agent-amateur sleuth Myron Bolitar, to Tom Shreck’s boxer-amateur sleuth Duffy Dombrowski, to Jeff Shelby’s surfer-detective Noah Braddock, to Martin McKinley’s ex-hockey player-amateur sleuth Martin Carter – there were many different sports playing key roles in shaping these protagonists personalities. However, I realized that to the best of my knowledge no one had ever written a mystery featuring an ex-wrestler-amateur sleuth before and from there I was on my way. The last puzzle piece that fell into place before I started writing “Hammerhead” Jed Ounstead’s first adventure was the realization that in order to do justice to a mystery set in the world of independent professional wrestling I had to capture both sides of the coin with regards to the industry – the sometimes absurd in-ring antics and the consistent outside-the-ring tragedy – which is why humour became a vital and essential part of the story and why I prefer to call the book a “mystery-comedy.”
In conclusion, I would just like to say that professional wrestling has a lot in common with mystery novels, or with any fiction really, because in the end, the best matches are the ones that tell the best stories. Shawn Michaels achieving his boyhood dream of becoming WWE Champion for the first time, The Undertaker carving out arguably the greatest achievement in sports entertainment with “The Streak,” or Daniel Bryan’s recent return at last week’s Wrestlemania and re-igniting the “Yes! Movement” while telling a great story inside the squared circle with his athleticism and unique in-ring style – because at the heart of both, it’s simply what it is all about.
“Hammerhead” Jed Ounstead thought he’d traded the pro-wrestling world for the slightly less dangerous one of a bar bouncer and errand boy for his father’s detective agency, but the squared circle wasn’t quite done with him yet. When his former tag-team partner draws upon their old friendship for help in finding his kidnapped pet snake, Jed finds himself dragged back into the fold of sleazy promoters, gimmicky performers, and violence inside and outside the ring. As the venom of Vancouver’s criminal underworld begins to seep into Jed’s life, a steel chair to the back of the head is the least of his problems. Cobra Clutch is available on Amazon or iTunes.


A.J. Devlin grew up in Greater Vancouver before moving to Southern California for six years where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Screenwriting from Chapman University and a Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting from The American Film Institute. After working as a screenwriter in Hollywood he moved back home to Port Moody, BC, where he now lives with his wife and two children. Cobra Clutch is his first novel. Find him on Facebook, or on Twitter @ajdevlinauthor.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Shadow: The Shadow Unmasks

by
Scott D. Parker

(Note: I am busily putting things in order for a big May announcement so I don't have much to add today. I'll be ready to let everyone know what's going in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, here's one of my favorite novels of 2018.)

Hot on the heels of my first Shadow novel, PARTNERS IN PERIL, I have now read my second, THE SHADOW UNMASKS. And I loved it just as much.

In order to kick start my Shadow experience, I decided to listen to the new productions at Audible Studios. They feature a main narrator and multiple voice actors for the cast. Both I’ve heard are fantastic and recommended. As a result, however, I’m reading these Shadow novels out of order, which means what I learned in UNMASKS surprised me.

Up until now, I’ve always thought The Shadow was, in fact, Lamont Cranston. If my memory serves me, that simple one-to-one equation was on the radio shows and it certainly was on the Alec Baldwin movie. As I started in with UNMASKS, I was expecting the same, and it started out that way until the story took an interesting turn.

The main plot of UNMASKS involves a crook named Shark Meglo (great name!). He and his gang have a straightforward plan: find, attack, and kill the buyers of some rare and valuable gems before the buyer can utter the name of the seller. For you see, the master crook behind the entire operation recycles the gems in new settings. Every three weeks or so a new member of the wealthy class dies. All of them had recently purchased gems.

Naturally, the story begins with the most recent murder. The Shadow tries to thwart Shark’s evil plans…but fails. He learns vital clues to what’s going on, however, information needed to prevent the next death. But a distant accident lands on the front pages of New York’s newspapers. A plane accident in England injured a few Americans. The story not only listed the names of the individuals but splashes their photos. There, for all to see, is the real Lamont Cranston. The problem is, especially if you are police commissioner Ralph Weston, who reads the newspaper standing outside the Cobalt Club, is that you are literally talking to Lamont Cranston. Only it’s The Shadow in his disguise. There follows a fun subterfuge as the Agents of The Shadow basically try and convince Weston that he didn’t really see Lamont Cranston but Cranston’s nephew. And the commissioner bought it.

The odd turn the story took for me was when Kent Allard, famed aviator who crashed in the Guatemalan jungle a dozen years ago, has made a reappearance. He arrives in New York to great fanfare and very quickly, we learn Allard is really The Shadow. And, lest anyone (me included) wasn’t hip on how it all shook down back then, The Shadow visits the house of an old ally, Slade Farrow (another great name!) and reveals his true identity, complete with the entire background. The reasoning is spot on—The Shadow uses the identity of Cranston as long as Cranston stays out of New York—but I couldn’t help wondering how many times in this series and, of course, the comic book masked heroes, that the characters revealed their identity to others. It also makes me wonder if, after this August 1937 issue (number 131 overall) if Lamont Cranston was ever used again. Long-time readers of The Shadow: please let me know.

Anyway, after that startling revelation, the story continued until the inevitable end. Two things struck me about this ending. One, the big finale was somewhat low key. I guess you can’t have every novel end in a big shoot-out or something. The second thing was that The Shadow is very much like Sherlock Holmes in that he knows the likely ending far in advance and just moves the various chess pieces along the way, usually with his agents none the wiser.

I’ve now read two Shadow novels and I’m not gonna stop now. They are a blast. And, as a lifelong Batman fan, I’m really fascinated to research more in depth how Bill Finger drew on his love of The Shadow and helped shape the Dark Knight Detective.

So, fellow Shadow fans, where does this story rank in the all-time list?