Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Double-Booked Tour: Shannon Baker Interviews Jess Lourey

Guest Post by Shannon Baker & Jess Lourey

Holly's note: I'm very happy to host Shannon Baker and Jess Lourey on the blog today, because in the world of delightful authors in which I'm fortunate to reside, they are two of the delightfulest.

Shannon here: Thank you, Holly, for clearing some space on your virtual couch for me and Jess Lourey to plop down for a chat. I’ve poured some virtual bourbon and we’re settling in for some fun.

Let me introduce you to Jess Lourey, in case you haven’t met her, which would be a real shame. Jess has published 13 books, and might be best known for her award-winning and gut-bustingly funny Murder-by-the-Month series. By my count, she’s got two more months to go there, but we’ll get to that. In 2014, she released the most amazing magical realism book, CATALAIN BOOK OF SECRETS, that you should all read. But today, she’s going to tell us about her newest thriller, SALEM'S CIPHER. It hits the shelves September 6 but is available for preorder now.

And I’m Shannon Baker. My debut book in the Kate Fox mystery series, STRIPPED BARE, is also due to release on September 6 and is also available on preorder. (Thus the Lourey/Baker Double Booked Tour) It’s been called "Longmire meets The Good Wife," featuring a woman sheriff in rural Nebraska. I also wrote the Nora Abbott mystery series, a fast-paced mix of Hopi spiritualism, environmental issues and murder.

So let’s get going on the interview.

SB: First off, I’ve made my bourbon into a delicious Sazerac. Jess, I understand you aren’t fond of this heavenly mixture. Care to elaborate?

JL: I have a fun story about Sazeracs. I was in New Orleans, and I tried one, and it was gross.

Haha! I just made myself laugh out loud. That’s actually a true story, but to elaborate, I was in the French Quarter, relaxing after leading a writing workshop, and sitting across from David Morrell (who wrote FIRST BLOOD) and lots of other great writers. One of them suggested we try a Sazerac, a drink I was told was born in New Orleans. I am fond of alcohol. Some of my favorites are dirty martinis, red wine and whiskey ginger with three limes. The Sazerac, not so much it turns out. It tasted like Nyquil with a dirty diaper twist.

Why don’t you explain what it is you like about this drink, Shannon?

SB: *shaking and pouring over ice* What’s not to love? Bourbon, a little sweet, a whiff of absinth and lemon. *slurp* 

What drove you to write SALEM'S CIPHER?

JL: I wrote SALEM'S CIPHER inspired by three motivators: an offhand (I think) Facebook post Chelsea Cain made about how she wished there were more female thriller writers, a desire to explore the ramifications to a child of one of their parents committing suicide and a deep wish to finally make money off of my books. How about you, Shannon? What led you to write STRIPPED BARE?

SB: I’ve been thinking about writing a Nebraska Sandhills book for a long time. I lived there for 20 years, always an outsider, and left because my husband had an affair and didn’t seem inclined to give it up. The Sandhills is a unique place, in many ways still the old west. But I didn’t want to go back there while I felt bitter (and I felt bitter as scorched coffee). Time really does heal, and finally the clouds lifted high enough I could write about it with humor. For instance, I can have Kate have a cheating husband and not kill him, and actually give him some admirable qualities.
But what really prompted me to write this book is you, Jess. You were in Denver to give a writing workshop and we were heading to hike at Chautauqua in Boulder. We were talking writing and books, of course, and I told you about wanting to write this one set in the Sandhills. You encouraged me to do it. And I did. So, if I haven’t said it before, thank you! 

JL: Hearing that makes me feel so warm inside. You are an amazing writer, Shannon Baker, and all the credit for that goes to you.

SB: Jess, I love the CATALAIN BOOK OF SECRETS. Do you believe in magic?

JL: I absolutely, truly do. I see it all the time. For example, last April, I put my house on the market. A couple days later, walking to work, I thought to myself, what would be the absolute best day to close? After May 28 so my kids would be done with school, after June 22 so I wouldn’t have to move before I gave my TEDx Talk, and if we’re staying that long, why not until the day after the 4th of July because my house is a block from the best fireworks in this part of the state.

My realtor had emailed me on my drive, and I read it when I got to work. She had an offer on my house, and they wanted to close on July 5. A week later, I was worrying worrying worrying because my fiancé had been laid off, we didn’t know if we could sell his house, and I wasn’t getting an offer on the book I had out on submission. I was walking at the time of the worrying, and a fortune cookie fortune blew across my path. I picked it up. It said, “Don’t worry. A life of luxury is on its way.”

Wonderful, magical moments like this happen to me all the time, and the more I look for them, the more I see them. And that’s not even talking about the magic that brings two people together, or that blesses us with amazing children, or that helps us to evolve every day. Uff da. I get worked up talking about magic. Do you believe in it, Shannon?

SB: I believe in something like magic. Or maybe it’s Santa Claus. Because when my daughter was 6 and probably her last year of believing in Santa, she wanted the toy of the year, a PJ Sparkles doll. We lived in the Sandhills, where the nearest K-Mart was an hour drive away, and way before Amazon carried anything but books. Online shopping was a fantasy. I shopped everywhere in a 150 mile radius. I started calling stores from Cheyenne to Rapid City. No PJ Sparkles.

Then, on Christmas Eve, a friend called me from the town next to ours, population 250. Mable’s was a dry goods store, with a plank floor, only the front windows, which hadn’t been washed since the Eisenhower administration, run by Mable, who wore glasses so thick she had to anchor them to her head with duct tape.
On a back shelf near the ceiling, in the darkest part of the store, my friend spotted the last available PJ Sparkles doll in the western hemisphere. I drove there like Santa’s elves were chasing me. Mable had no recollection of ordering that doll, and frankly, I doubt she did. But because of PJ Sparkles, I believe anything is possible. 

Jess, you’ve got ten books in the Murder-by-the-Month series, are we going to see March and April? 

JL: If PJ Sparkles will help me to write them.


Jess and I are giving away a copy of SALEM'S CIPHER and STRIPPED BARE. For a chance to win, just leave a comment.

And wait, there’s more:
If you order SALEM'S CIPHER before September 6, 2016, you are invited to forward your receipt to to receive a Salem short story and to be automatically entered in a drawing to win a 50-book gift basket mailed to the winner's home!

If you order STRIPPED BARE before September 6, 2016, you are invited to forward your receipt to to receive a Kate Fox short story and be entered for a book gift basket mailed to your home.

Jump on the side car as we strap on our helmets and swing over to chat with Diana Belchase on Book Smart TV, where we’re going to do a woman protagonist throwdown.


Shannon Baker moved seven times in less than ten years, from the Nebraska Sandhills, to Boulder, CO, Flagstaff, AZ, back to Boulder and a short stint in southwestern Nebraska. It might be schizophrenic, but helpful for writing great western settings. She’s hoping to let a little moss grow on the rolling stone, as she’s settled in Tucson with her favorite person, and her dog, Jezebel, the crazy Weimeraner. Visit her at

Jessica (Jess) Lourey is best known for her critically-acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which 
have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft's 2014 Excellence in Teaching fellowship, and leads interactive writing workshops all over the world. SALEM'S CIPHER, the first in her thrilling Witch Hunt Series, hits stores September 2016. You can find out more at or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Surprise, Despair, Perfection

by Scott Adlerberg

I was discussing Brian De Palma's Blow Out the other day, and the talk about it turned to what a great ending it has.  It's a film that has one of the most devastating, sad but perfectly set-up endings you're going to find anywhere.  It's the kind of ending that I find occurs rarely, one that follows a story of tension and suspense, that could believably end well for the main characters, but that concludes on a note of surprise, ruthless logic, and complete despair.  

"It's a good scream.  It's a good scream," says John Travolta's character to finish the film, and this simple line hearkens back in a bleakly ironic way to the very first scene in the movie. Except what was amusing to open the film, after all that has gone on during the course of the narrative, is no longer amusing at all.

Talking about De Palma's movie got me thinking about other films with endings that have hit me with the same force Blow Out's does.  What's another film with an ending you didn't see coming and that leaves you reeling in darkness but that, as soon as it falls, strikes you as absolutely perfect?  

The one that occurred to me is Georges Sluizer's 1988 Dutch film, The Vanishing.

Adapted from a novella called The Golden Egg, The Vanishing involves a young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, vacationing in France.  It's clear they are in love and relaxed with each other.  Needing gas for their car, they stop at a rest area gas station, and afterward they play catch with a Frisbee and bury two coins by a tree to mark their feelings for each other. Saskia walks back to the rest area to pick them up some drinks. From that rest area she will never return, and the story goes from there, with Rex starting what will become a three year search for her.

It's difficult to talk about The Vanishing's plot without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that Rex is obsessed with discovering what happened to Saskia.  He feels he must stay true to his promise never to abandon her.  In time, he encounters the man responsible for her disappearence, and Rex's chilling odyessey will indeed lead him to the place where, as her abductor promises him, he finds out exactly what happened to her.  He experiences her fate for himself, and in fact, as horrible as this fate is, he even perhaps achieves a certain satisfaction imagining himself reunited with Saskia. As he swore to her the last time he ever saw her, he has not left her alone.

Not unlike with Blow Out, The Vanishing's denouement echoes something seen at the film's opening, in the very first shot.  Everything comes full circle in a manner that's not predictable but seems to have been inevitable.  With both Jack Terry (Travolta's character) and Rex, it's a case of be careful what you wish for, because what you get may be the product of your worst nightmare. This is narrative irony of the purest kind.  And the sensation it creates, at least for me, is positively thrilling. There's sadness and despair over what happens but appreciation for the story's formal brilliance.  The contrast provides a potent kick, a supreme sort of aesthetic excitement. It's a combination you don't find too often, but when you do, it's storytelling gold.

Monday, August 22, 2016

In memory of Jon Tuska

Short post today, just something quick to say.

It's no secret that for the last year plus, I've been reading primarily westerns. Western novels, short stories, cowboy poetry, non-fiction, analysis and criticisms. One person has been a constant touchstone as I've interrogated, thought about, and had conversations with the genre.

Jon Tuska.

One of my most heavily thumbed through books has been the Encyclopedia of Frontier & Western Fiction by Jon Tuska and Vicki Piekarski. I often refer to its entries and consult it often.


Because Jon Tuska was likely the greatest western fiction scholar of the last 50 years. There are two traits that are worth mentioning. First, the amount of research, reading, and watching he did was immense and it was obvious he had a love for the genre and loved writing about it. Second, his writings were easily accessible. They weren't locked up in academic or dedicated journals, they were available to readers in readily available books, introductions to anthologies that he edited, talks that he gave.If you thought about westerns at all, there was a good chance you came across his work.

The Encyclopedia is an interesting book. It was published in 1983, a year before Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry were published. It's interesting, unintentional, timing to say the least. Two atom bombs went off in the genre and this is a book that doesn't deal with them because it can't. 

I would have liked to ask Tuska about that timing, and what his opinions were of those two books. It was that stray thought that made me wonder if any contact info was out there for him, and sent me to Google. Which is when I discovered that Jon Tuska died earlier this year.

I don't always agree with some of Jon Tuska's conclusions (I think he was, perhaps, more of a traditionalist than I was), and sometimes he was just wrong ("I seriously doubt that Clint Eastwood will have Duke Wayne's staying power")but I continue to respect his opinion and the work that went into forming it. There have been times when I have formed an opinion or drawn a conclusion, only to discover that Tuska got there first

I'll leave you now with Jon Tuska, in his own words, on the Western.

The story of the American West, truly, has nothing to do with heroes and romance; it is rather a question of human endurance in the face of tragedy and defeat. But in tragedy combined with human endurance, in spiritual resilience in the face of disaster, as writers since Aeschylus and Sophocles have known, there is the potential for human nobility. Most of the best fiction about the American West is about man in nature, not the denatured, mechanical, sterile world that has come increasingly to serve as a backdrop for human activity in other kids of fiction. Indeed, in finding some  good in our American past, albeit in these more realistic terms, we might well entertain some hope for the future. In this way the American West remains what the Native Americans always thought it to be; the land beyond the setting sun, the Spiritland. The Delphic γνῶθι σεαυτὸν [know thyself] is deepened and broadened by the new experiences on a new continent; our collective idea of humanity is strengthened through a more truthful understanding and assimilation of our historical past.  -- From Jon Tuska's introduction to the Encyclopedia of Frontier & Western Fiction (1983)
 And finally:
I suppose the Western motion picture symbolizes and compresses a basic view of the changing morality, ideals, ambitions, , aspirations, and the fears, insecurities, doubts, and self-interrogations of the American people. In the end, the Western may indeed propound the American philosophy of life and the manner of confronting adversity amid hostile elements of raw nature and human evil. The conquest of a continent and the conquest of the personality are, to me, the Western's most dominant themes. it isn't reality, nor has it ever generally pretended to be. The Western is a living legend of our frontier history, altered to meet the differing needs of changing times. It frequently represent an innately heroic concept of man and his possibilities. The Western, even in its latest evolutionary forms, captures the game atmosphere, the optimism toward life true of our adventurers, the mythical cowboys of the great Southwest, the easygoing and capable fashion with which frustrations are met and solved, or the anguish with which the self-divisions and despair at the barren futility of an unsympathetic environment threaten, even destroy, but cannot extinguish the integrity of the individual's right to be himself. For me, the Western is the infusing of the human soul with the expanding and always imperiled vision of liberty. -- From Jon Tuska's The Filming of the West (1975)
 I just wanted to take a moment to point out the passing of a great writer. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Life is Like a Bowl of Tomatoes

Where I live, summer is measured by two things: the number of days that are 100 degrees or hotter, and the quality of your tomato crop.
This year, we’ve had 23 triple-digit days so far. We complain, but that’s about average for a California Central Valley summer. I don’t mind too much, because it’s the perfect weather to hole up indoors and write.
The other summer obsession has the opposite effect, however. Tomatoes make you go outdoors. They also make you crazy – at least this year.
The tomatoes in the above photo? Not this year’s. These were big and fat. Heck, last year, I got heirloom tomatoes so big, one slice would do you for a whole sandwich. This year, doing the exact same thing, I have produced this:
Not a sandwich-worthy one among them.

But I’m not the only one. In talking about tomatoes – which a ton of people do, starting about mid-summer – I’ve found that other people also have experienced late blooms, cracked fruit, and various other calamities. The newspaper even did a story on it.
This made me feel much better. Knowing there are others in the same gardening boat really helped. And the same holds true for everything else in life, really. Finding someone who knows what you’re going through – whether it’s a health scare, car trouble, a tricky writing plot problem, or anything else – makes it more bearable. So here’s hoping you have a support group, and a tomato big enough to make a BLT.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

A New Schedule Calls for Precise Writing

Scott D. Parker

We’re a week in for the new school year and I’ve already had to adjust my writing schedule.
One of the best things about the end of school this past May was that I had the mornings to myself again. I’ve always woken before the family on weekends and holidays, and that’s where I get a lot of my writing done. But the weekdays are different. Starting the Tuesday after Memorial Day, I’m on my own, the boy having his summer break. I still wake at 5am, but I not longer have to stop at 6:15am to help him. Now, I can write and write and write all the way to 6:30 before I have to stop and get myself ready for the day job. Thankfully, my commute is literally around the corner, so I can leave at 6:55am and still be at work by 7:00am.

As one might expect, when I had my summer months to myself, I occasionally slept in. Didn’t feel like rising out of bed precisely at 5:00? No worries. I can sleep in an extra ten, fifteen, or even thirty minutes and still have an hour’s time to write. It was a great system.

That system is no more.

The boy now carpools with another dad. That dad is a teacher at a nearby school. He has to be in his classroom by 7:05am. That means he has to leave his house—around a different corner from my house—by 6:30am. I think you see where this is going. Backing up, I now have to wake the boy up at 5:45am. Yikes both for the time, but also for the writing schedule.

I quickly realized a week ago Thursday that I’m down to a good 40 minutes of writing time. I subtract five minutes for waking, getting coffee and my warm lemon water, and feeding the animals. Do I have time to sleep in now? Nope. By the end of this week, I was actually setting my own alarm for 4:55am. What?! Yeah, really. I want to sit at the keyboard and start writing as close to the top of the hour as possible. Then, after I walk him to the neighbor’s house, I tend to have about 20 more minutes to myself. I’ll typically finish the scene and then head to work.

It’s worked pretty well. On the mornings in which I’ve known exactly what happens in the next scene to write, I can almost finish it in that time frame. But when I don’t, when I’ve sketched the scene so broadly, leaving it to my future self to ‘fill in the blanks,’ I’ve gotten into trouble.

So I’m falling back to precise writing. This is my own term I just created that basically means outlining. With so little time left for writing—the evening is still and has always been family time; I don’t like the idea of sequestering myself away during those time unless absolutely necessary—I need to know exactly what I have to do in the time I have. It’s almost like a mini Pomodoro time keeper.

I’ve reached 10,000 words on the new book. That’s not precisely where I want to be by this date, but it is where I am on this new schedule. I’m hopeful to catch up this weekend and get back on pace. But I’m also going to revisit my notecards and put in more details before I get to those scenes so that I can use the time I have and produce the most optimal results. Or I have to write faster. Perhaps I'll do some more dictation. Who knows, but it'll be fun to experiment.

Friday, August 19, 2016

On Bonnie & Clyde and Tropes.

It's no secret that I love working with tropes. Tropes get a bad name because it often feels like an excuse not to do the work of creating something new, but I don't think that's the full truth. A lazy writer will write lazily regardless of tropes and archetypes, and even a mythical "original idea" can be ruined by a writer unwilling to do the work.

The reason tropes exist in the first place is because people relate to these stories and archetypes strongly enough to repeat them over and over again. And as Joe Clifford is fond of saying, "there are really only two stories - a person goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town (which are really the same story from two different perspectives)." I gave up the desire to create something "wholly original" not because I'd rather riff off other people's work, but because I'm a realist. People have been writing fiction for thousands of years, and it's all "a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." What makes fiction compelling, interesting, and original, is what we do with those two premises.

So when I set out to write my modern Bonnie & Clyde story, I wasn't worried about inventing a new story. I was worried about creating two characters that are interesting and compelling, and putting them in situations the reader doesn't fully expect. I focused a lot on what made the real Bonnie & Clyde so popular in their time - which isn't all that different from today, really. Historically, Bonnie & Clyde got a lot of adoration for sticking it to the banks during a time that poor people were really fed up with the financial status quo, watching people lose everything while the rich still managed to get richer (sound familiar?).

I worked with this idea a lot through the first ten thousand words (and that first ten thousand actually got started and ditched a few times, so maybe the more accurate number is thirty thousand words). It's a story for our time, as much as it was a story for theirs. The thing that jumped out at me, reading up on their lives and the conflicting details that have managed to work their way into the popular consciousness is that the reason they were popular then, and the reason they resonate now - is not the reason their story has lasted over the decades. It's been over eighty years since they died in a hail of bullets. In those eighty years, the economic climate has rippled and spiked enough that their long lasting appeal can't be attributed totally to sticking it to the banks.

When it hit me, goddamit it was so obvious. 

Bonnie & Clyde is a story about two people who opted out of the American Dream, sure. It's a story about sticking it to the banks. The power of celebrity. The way we view violence and crime.

It's all those things.

But it's also the stuff of romance novels. It wasn't Bonnie & Clyde against the banks, or Bonnie & Clyde against the police. It was Bonnie & Clyde against the world. It's a powerful romantic trope that has infiltrated almost every genre. I talked about the film From Dusk Till Dawn here before, and the things Rodriguez and Tarantino did to make you root for characters that were inarguably really fucking terrible dudes - but the other thing that makes those characters relatable? It was the Gecko Brothers against the world. It's not romance in this instance, but it is about love.

Depending on which version of the story you believe, Bonnie was a garden variety hybristophiliac, turned on by Clyde's criminal past and eager to join in the fun. Others seem to believe that Clyde would have been okay if Bonnie hadn't pushed him further in her thirst for fame. There are a dozen different variations on their specific story, and a million ways to tell a story like theirs.

My characters aren't a whole lot like the public image of Bonnie & Clyde, but they are criminals who've seen the lie inherent in the American Dream and they are two people bound to each other for a variety of reasons that have to face off against a world full of people who'd sooner see them dead or behind bars. The more I work out what makes their story special and meaningful, the happier I am that I'm taking old stories, tropes, and archetypes, and fucking with them until I get what I want.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Your book is not my book

By Steve Weddle

For whatever reason, I live on the same planet as lunatics. Sometimes they attack writers online because, heck, I don't even know anymore. Not even writers. Ellen DeGeneres got called a racist.

I see folks online going after a movie star or an author or someone who works at Taco Bell for something or other. Your characters are homophobic. You need more Lithuanians working at your store. No one in your book looks like me. I think your main character is a stereotype.

OK. You think someone doesn't have enough women in their novel? Or enough people of color or enough rural Americans. Yeah, I get that. Cool. Let's discuss it, if you want. These are important discussions for us, especially on a planet with lunatics. Let's understand each other, listen to each other. Yelling and threatening aren't nice.

It's great that you're passionate about the novel you saw reviewed or about photos posted on Twitter or comic books that are changing. The Hulk is Asian-American. Ms. Marvel is Pakastani-American. Captain America is African-American, unless you're talking about the other Captain America who is a Nazi.  We have all kinds of new stuff happening and if you're attached to characters, I get that you're passionate about them. Coolio.

But attacking authors -- or Ellen -- online for a posted photo or a novel doesn't seem helpful.

When everyone is a racist, no one is. (I think that was in The Incredibles movie.) If you call Ellen a racist, then what happens tomorrow when someone does something that's really, for real, truly racist? Or when you see some subtle form of racism that's more pervasive and can't fit into 140 characters? Or when you've hit five racists today and five tomorrow and so on, what's left this weekend when you really have something to say? Believe me, there's racism out there, and Ellen ain't it.

And when social media is used as an attack zone, many creatives will retreat and avoid social contact with folks, and that's a shame. Twitter is a great leveller in that I can tweet to some of my favorite authors, jugglers, musicians and maybe they'll hear me and tweet back. How cool would it be to get into a conversation with your hero on Twitter? But if we're attacking artists, maybe they'll just sign off altogether. We make the fellowship hall so toxic, no one will hang out. Lauren Zuke left, as have many others. Soon, Twitter is just a billion angry people and my 47 fake accounts. Where's the fun in that? Social media is supposed to be kinda social, you know? We should be nice.

And, I guess the point that really stands out for me is this: If the people in a book don't look the way you want, then write your own book. If you don't like a movie in which all five people on the rescue party are white, I get that. I totally get that. And maybe something could be done about it. Maybe after all the outcry with the new Star Wars movie being almost all white, maybe that caused them to do better. That's cool. A discussion. A working together without the assumption that the artist is evil. But what really helps, at least in my thinking, is for more folks to write more stories with different folks in them.

Jonathan Franzen got blown up on social media when he said he wasn't the person to write a race relations novel because he didn't have many "black friends." So Twitter went after him. Well, would you want to read a Franzen novel about race relations? Would the people yelling at him read that? Or were they just seeing another dumb thing someone said and going after him because it's kinda fun to kick people around? I don't know that Franzen is the dude for the job. I would imagine the world is full of folks with honest experiences who would do a better job. So instead of bashing Franzen, write your own damn book.

If you don't like Franzen's books, don't buy them. Use that money to buy some pens and paper and write your own damn book. Please. Tell the stories you want to share. Your book is not my book. My book is not your book. You don't have to kick Franzen in his testicles, you know. Please, tell your story.

That being said, we could all probably do a better job of sharing positive stories about people doing good things, you know? Look what yelling and being mean have gotten us. Sad!

Being nice is cool, but sometimes that's asking too much. Maybe we could share nice when we see it?

Oh, and Alyssa Rosenberg at WaPo says the some I would have said if I were smarter:

Anyway, be nice and write your own book, I guess. And when you see a book or comic or movie doing a good thing in terms of uplifting us, let us all know. Some of us are still on Twitter and would like to hear about the good stuff. Thanks.