Thursday, June 8, 2023

Cover reveal for The County Line

The cover for The County Line is now live. The novel is pitched as DEADWOOD meets BOARDWALK EMPIRE, the story of a small town boy who returns home and becomes embroiled in some ill-conceived ransom plans with local scofflaws and ornery characters, set against the unyielding backdrop of the Great Depression.

Nick Kolakowski said the book is William Faulkner meets Elmore Leonard, which I think nails what I was aiming for. 

You can read a chapter from a draft of the book when it had a different name right here.

Publication date for  is set for January 16, 2024, and you can pre-order here.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

FDR, Ted Lasso, and The Value of Kindness


Scott D. Parker

Television this week boiled down to two things: the three-part, six-hour FDR documentary on The History Channel and the series finale of Apple TV’s Ted Lasso. In reflecting on both shows, I realized both programs demonstrated how one man can show those around him the value of kindness.


Based on the works of Doris Kearns Goodwin, “FDR” highlighted the life, career, and presidency of our 32nd president. Privileged from birth, FDR’s life was turned upside down when he contracted polio at age thirty-nine. His incapacitation meant he had to rely on others for nearly everything. It was in the long, slow process of learning to live with polio and paralysis that he deepened his compassion for his fellow Americans. He saw and experienced the toll the disease took on families and he always made sure his fellow polio sufferers were treated with dignity and respect.

It was his compassion that led him to try things on the state government level when he was governor or New York during the early days of the Great Depression and as, as president, he continued the practice. Try something. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, try something else. 

The focus, however, for nearly all that he tried, was the common citizen. He wanted to help people. He felt sympathy for them in their plights—whether an out of work woman in the Depression or a soldier he sent off to war—and he also felt empathy. He could understand because he, too, needed help. It was a trait he literally strived to live up to until his final breath.

Ted Lasso

If you know the show, you know that American football coach Ted Lasso accepts a job coaching an English soccer team. What started out as a fish-out-of-water comedy morphed in a truly unique and special show that had less to do about soccer, er, football, and more to do about, well, helping people.

Ted Lasso the character possesses a wonderfully optimistic view of life. Yes, he hides some of his own personal traumas and mental health issues, but he also seeks help. He finds it not only with a professional therapist but also his group of co-workers, all of whom are guys not used to sharing their feelings. Gradually over the three season, they develop a deep bond of friendship and respect. The players themselves also start to understand there are more important things that just soccer. Even the team owner learns the Ted Lasso lesson.

In a recent podcast interview, Jason Sudeikis, the co-creator and star, said that during the development of the show, one of the themes he wanted the show to have was less snark. There was enough of that in the world and he outwardly wanted to show a different side of humanity. He wanted, in a word, to be kind to viewers. He wanted the various characters to bring out not just sympathy in the viewers but empathy. I happen to think he and the entire crew of the show pulled it off splendidly. 

The Money Quote

It might seem an odd comparison—a real-life president and a fictional TV show—but the themes are common. FDR’s sense of optimism helped guide and comfort the country in a dark time. Ted Lasso’s optimism did so on a weekly basis on TV. I actually kind of laughed when these thoughts merge in my mind late on Wednesday night as I was in the afterglow of Ted Lasso’s series finale.

Ted Lasso is chock full of wonderful quotes. If someone hasn’t already compiled them, it’s something that needs to happen. One in particular really struck me this week. One of Ted Lasso’s group of guys—called the Diamond Dogs—asks if they think people can change. Another character dropped this truth:

“Human beings are never going to be perfect, Roy. But the best we can do is keep asking for help and accepting it when you can. And if you keep on doing that, you’ll always be moving towards better.”

A crucial component to being better is being kind. Not only kind to others, but kind to yourself. It is a lesson that needs to be on an endless repeat in our daily lives. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Ten Year Story

I wrote a story almost ten years ago. 

The exact date, or even the year, is kind of hard to pin down. That's the way it is with creative stuff, I find. The composition, the editing, the idea, it's all nebulous, pulled from the ether before you grab at it and try to nail it to the board, and in between all those fumbling grasps, life goes on around you. And the story. Some stories come quick, all at once, but others, they sit there, in different forms or shapes, for years. If you're lucky, you can remember the moment the story clicks. When it becomes more than an idea, and is, suddenly, something else, something you can share with the world. But I don't think that happens often. 

In my experience, a story comes in fits and starts. It's less blasting a shape out of stone and more the gradual wearing away of layers, experience piling up, both as a writer and as a person, until you look at it and think, Oh, this is something. But sometimes, the something you have doesn't match what was in your head, so it goes back in the drawer. It goes back to the subconscious process of sanding away and becoming something new. Molting into a different form. Sometimes you don't see those stories ever again. Life runs out or you simply have too many ideas, so only the strongest survive. But sometimes they come back. 

The story I first wrote almost ten years ago was published this week. I looked for the original draft, but that was at least three computers ago, so while it's probably on an external hard drive somewhere around here, it's definitely not easily accessible. And besides, I think I'd be embarrassed to read it. To watch myself grasping at things I did not yet have the ability or experience to emotionally convey. 

Back ten years ago, I was a new writer. In some ways, I think I still am, but if thats the case, then ten years ago I was goddamn green. I'd written and published a couple of short stories, and was very much in the I-Need-To-Write-And-Publish-As-Much-As-I-Can mode. The idea, which everyone around me (also young, hungry writers) was to get enough stories for a collection. To make it into the great magazines. To get noticed. 

So I played that game with gusto, and I got into a lot of the magazines I desperately wanted to be in. And a lot of those stories? They're pretty good, even now, with my more experienced eyes. "Moses on the Hill, with Fire Following" in ThugLit? Hell yeah! "Lights in the Sky" in Plots with Guns? Goddamn right. "Blood and Pavement" in the legendary Needle? Still a banger. But, the first drafts of the story I've been talking about, the story I published just this week? I never sent it out, despite knowing, at least on a plot and character and thematic level, it was pretty okay. Not great, maybe, not what it is now, but at the time, what the hell did I know about what I could do now? Nothing. I thought it was a good story. 

But I held it. 

A few years later, an editor heard I had a few things in reserve and asked to see them, so I sent a draft of the story I've been talking about. He liked it, but wanted me to punch up the ending to feature more action. If I did that, he'd publish it. And I didn't know why I did this, but me, Mr.-Hungry-For-Credits-And-Successes, told him "no".  It was a gut feeling. Something that said, "this isn't the right home for it."

And so I held it. For even longer this time. 

But that story, it's one of those stories I mentioned above, the kind that, as a writer, stays with you. That haunts your mental drawer, taking on new shapes, refining itself, the edges sanding away.

And those edges sanded away because I changed, too. I became a husband and a father. I became 10 years older than the main character of that story. I came to a place where I could see both the characters a little more clearly. I looked at the world and was scared by what I saw.  And all those things, finally, brought me to a place where I understood what the story was actually about. And when I understood what the story was about, when I rewrote it and reshaped it and pulled on the edges it make it better, I still held it. Because I understood what it was about wasn't something to be taken lightly. That feeling was back. The gut feeling. The one that said, it wasn't a story to be placed wherever. That I had to be intentional about it. So the story sat, no longer changing or refining itself, but instead waiting for the right home. 

That home came in the form of Meagan Lucas. I've followed Meagan for a long time, and read a good number of her breathtakingly beautiful short stories. And I've followed her magazine, Reckon Review for as long, always impressed with their stories and the obvious care they put into the work. But I'd never submitted there, in part, because of their Appalachian / Southern focus. My friends who published there were almost all from the South, and their stories are usually set in the South. I just didn't think it'd be likely they'd be interested in a gothic noir set in Nebraska. In other words, I self-rejected. Continuously. But, while reading submissions for Rock and a Hard Place magazine, I read Meagan's story, "The Stillness at the Bottom" and knew, instantly, that not only had she written one hell of a story, but also that she was the home my story had been waiting for. 

My concerns about regionalism were still there, but if anyone would be moved by the story I'd written, if there was anyone who could feel the things that had animated the story of a young man back home, helping his father cover up a grisly deed, an intimate act of shattering violence that still holds the power to shock despite how commonplace it is in our world, and the motivations and generational trauma that drive that character's willingness to help, it would be Meagan. So I sent it, hopeful that I could finally be free of this story that had haunted me for so long, and, thankfully, she accepted it. 

The story was published on Monday this week, and I am beyond thrilled. Not because I finally have a story at one of the best journals out there. Not because I have another credit. I'm thrilled because it feels right. Because I know the story doesn't just have a home, now, it has the right home. That it's finally arrived at the place that was waiting for it. 

If there's one thing to take from my experience, I think it's that. Publishing stories is a wonderful thing, and I still believe that, especially when you're starting off, you should try to publish as much as you can. But publishing isn't the only thing. Sometimes, you'll have something, and you'll know it's got a special kind of power over you (but maybe no one else!). And when you have that, you need to hold on to it. You need to trust your gut. You need to make sure you get the story right, no matter how long it takes, and you need to take care it ends up in a place that treats the story right. That cares about it just as deeply as you do. 

"The Color of Bones" is now available at Reckon Review. I'd be thrilled if you checked it out. 

Here in the Dark: Stories by Meagan Lucas is now available for pre-order at Shotgun Honey. Trust me, you'll want to buy this. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Live by the Pen, Die by the Knife

Over the weekend, which was one of gorgeous late spring weather in New York City, warm but not quite hot, sunny, cloudless, with no humidity, I got it into my head to watch Rene Clement's 1960 film, Plein Soleil, or Purple Noon, starring Alain Delon, again. It's based, of course, on Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, with Delon playing the Ripley character, and I think the reason I had a yen to watch it is because so much of it takes place under a cloudless, sunny sky like the one we had over the weekend in New York.

When I saw the film's credits, I realized I'd forgotten that the screenplay adaptation was co-written (along with director Clement) by Paul Gegauff. He and Clement, in fact, received an Edgar Award for their script for the film. But Gegauff is probably best known for the 14 films he collaborated on as screenwriter with director Claude Chabrol, who is often referred to as the French Hitchcock for the large number of twisty thrillers he made over the course of his long (1958-2009) career. 

A prime example of Gegauff's work is the script to the Chabrol-directed Une partie de plasir, from 1975. In it Gegauff, an actor, not to mention a novelist as well as a screenwriter, stars opposite his former, then divorced, wife, Danielle Gegauff. The story has them playing a married couple living a fairly happy, middle-class life with their young daughter until the husband says they should add a charge to their marriage by going to bed with other people and then describing their sexual escapades to each other. This is the 1970s, after all. It's not a shock that things go quickly wrong with their adventures, primarily because the husband can't deal with them and gets extremely jealous over the pleasure his wife derives from the extra-marital couplings. In the end, tragedy results, and the once solid bourgeoise family is destroyed. How much of this is based on actual experiences the Gegauffs may have had is not known, though it should be noted that their real-life daughter, Clemence, plays the daughter in the movie. 

Gegauff was a talented guy, no question, but all the stories about him make clear that while he had a strong and colorful personality that made quite an impression on his French New Wave director friends -- Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, and company, besides Chabrol -- he was also an inveterate womanizer and just all-around son-of-a-bitch. He drank a lot and apparently never held women in high regard; it's safe to call him an obnoxious and misogynistic personality.  As his frequent collaborator Claude Chabrol said, "When I want cruelty, I go off and look for Gégauff. Paul is very good at gingering things up…He can make a character look absolutely ridiculous and hateful in two seconds flat.” This was a guy who was a bastard in real life and could write them well in fiction.

With all that said, Gegauff did get the death he deserved and perhaps craved. In the year 1983, he was living with his second wife, a woman much younger than him named Coco Ducados, from Norway. They had met in 1979.  By 1983, Gegauff's drinking had only increased, and there must have been a considerable amount of tension between them. For Christmas, the two were in a cabin in Norway, and one of their arguments broke out. Whatever else was said, Gegauff threw in the lines, "Kill me if you want, but stop bothering me"  To which Coco obliged, stabbing him three times with a knife.  That marked the end of Paul Gegauff, on Christmas Eve 1983, to be exact.

Gegauff's list of screenwriting credits working with many directors is long and very impressive. He was the superb writer as quintessential toxic force, though in this case what you might describe as just desserts was served to him. And it was served extremely cold, through a sharp blade, with no more meals, or anything else, required for him to indulge in ever again.

Addendum: I can't seem to find out whether Coco Ducados ever went to prison for killing Gegauff, but she did go on to work, in Norway, as a screenwriter and dramatist.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Review: A Truffle Load of Good Writing (And Dogs)


Unfortunately doesn't have scratch-and-sniff, but is otherwise perfection.

By Claire Booth

I’ve never had a truffle. I’ve never even wanted to try one. But I was on board instantly with Rowan Jacobsen’s Truffle Hound, an effervescent, sensorily spectacular unearthing of the world’s truffle industry.

My bedtime reading is always nonfiction, and I go through dozens of books a year. I read them as ebooks, a switch I made for only my nonfiction after dropping Ron Chernow’s three-pound Grant on my face multiple times as I needed off. My ereader thankfully doesn’t cause as much injury, and it comes with a very nice benefit. I can download the first pages of a book before buying it. And I always do, because—and I’m going to be brutally honest here—I need to see the writing. The book could be about a topic I love, but if the writing isn’t good, I can’t do it. That said, it’s actually rare that a sample completely fails with me. Most fall in the middle, are worth committing to, and turn out to be good-to-great reads. But it’s only once in a great while that something grabs me from the first page and has me pledging to follow the writer anywhere.

“It was hardly a food scent at all. It was more like catching a glimpse of a satyr prancing across the dining room floor while playing its flute and flashing its hindquarters at you. You think, What the hell was that? And then you think, I have to know.” 

Yes, I do.

So I followed the James Beard Award-winning Jacobsen to Italy, France, Bosnia, Hungary, Spain, and both coasts of the U.S. And enjoyed every minute. But aside from some late nigh back-room dealing in expensive fungus, what does truffle hunting have to do with crime fiction? A lot, if you write like Jacobsen. His book is a master class in the art of the character sketch. He introduces you to people all over the world in delicately perceptive, big-hearted strokes. The resulting portrayals are so vivid you feel like you know them—which is what every fiction writer aims for, isn’t it?

“Voldemort picks me up in Budapest, buys me an espresso, and we drive south in the early light,” he writes of a Hungarian truffle hunter whom others have warned him about. “Istvan Bagi has a sharp nose and a black goatee and would actually make a decent bad guy on TB. He’s soft-spoken and focused in a way that can imply either spiritual advancement or supervillainy.”

Or this one:

“Ivana’s boyfriend, a strapping young Croatian with a black bear and ample tattoos, loads four dogs into the back of a Citroen minivan. When I ask him his name, he says, ‘Call me Ban, it’s my last name, but you can’t pronounce my first.’ (It’s Hrvoje, if you want to give it a shot.)”

Plus, he’s so clearly obsessed with his topic that me-the-novelist thinks he would make a great mystery character.

Truffle Hound: On the Trail with the World’s Most Seductive Scent with Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs



And for more of his journalism:


Saturday, May 27, 2023

What Are You Going To Do With the 99 Days of Summer 2023?

Veteran writer Dean Wesley Smith dubs the summer months the Time of the Great Forgetting. It’s that point in the year when the good intentions of New Year’s Resolutions made in the depths of winter fall by the wayside in bright light of hot summer days when the pull to do just about anything other than writing draws writers away from their keyboards. It’s only in later summer and early fall when writers remember their annual goals and either charge full-stream ahead and barrel to the end of the year, desperately hoping to achieve their milestones, or just give up and do something else.

He speaks the truth.

But I’ve come to see the summer months as an almost perfect time capsule to get things done, including writing.

Bookended Time

Starting with Memorial Day and ending on Labor Day in September, summer has a definitive beginning and ending. The only span of time that rivals this is Halloween-to-New Year’s Day. Unlike the holidays—which a chock full of known events and Christmas pageants visits to friends and family—the summer months are largely unstructured. School’s out, vacation season is in, and we all get to collectively breath deep for a few short weeks before we do it all again in the fall.

The summer vibe is looser. We wear different types of clothes. We read different kinds of books, the beach reads if you will. And we watch certain types of movies. I’ve already seen one of my favorite movies of the year—Fast X, a rollercoaster in a movie theater—and canNOT wait until both Michael Kenton’s Batman and Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones share the multiplexes for the first time since 1989. 

The clearly marked beginning and ending of summer also is the perfect time to do something creative, including writing. There are 99 days this summer—97 if you don’t include Memorial and Labor Day. Just imagine what you can do. Write a 99,000-word novel if you write 1,000 words per day. Or maybe two shorter works of, say, 45,000 words each. In the 14 weeks we get this year, you could write 14 short stories. Writing is merely a habit, and if you get into the habit of writing, it will be difficult to stop it.

Just imagine, come the Monday of Labor Day, the tremendous sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when you look back over Summer 2023 and marvel at what you’ve done. It’s just like your New Year’s Resolutions but for a shorter period of time.

Your Summer Resolutions

Come to think of it, why not think of them as Summer Resolutions. Or your Summer Goals List. 

So spend some time this weekend thinking about what you want to write or accomplish this summer. Make a list—on paper—hang it on the fridge, and look at it everyday. Then, each day, when you open the fridge, ask yourself if you have moved the needle forward on those goals. When you do the incremental daily work, the end result will be greater than you could imagine.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Martin Amis and Elmore Leonard

When news came of Martin Amis' death, I, like many, thought not only about his fiction but of how good his non-fiction writing is. In this vein, the first thing that popped into my mind, of all things, was the review he wrote on May 14, 1995 of Elmore Leonard's Riding the Rap for the New York Sunday Times Book Review. This is a review I read at the time, on that Sunday, since in those days I bought the physical edition of the Sunday Times nearly every week and read the Sunday book review regularly.

You can't improve on what Amis says about the book, so I'll quote him a little bit, talking about Leonard's thirty-second novel: 

"LET us attempt to narrow it down. Elmore Leonard is a literary genius who writes re-readable thrillers. He belongs, then, not to the mainstream but to the genres (before he wrote thrillers, he wrote westerns). Whereas genre fiction, on the whole, heavily relies on plot, mainstream fiction, famously, has only about a dozen plots to recombinate (boy meets girl, good beats bad and so on). But Mr. Leonard has only one plot. All his thrillers are Pardoner's Tales, in which Death roams the land -- usually Miami and Detroit -- disguised as money.

Nevertheless, Mr. Leonard possesses gifts -- of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing -- that even the most indolent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet. And the question is: How does he allow these gifts play, in his efficient, unpretentious and (delightfully) similar yarns about semiliterate hustlers, mobsters, go-go dancers, cocktail waitresses, loan sharks, bounty hunters, blackmailers and crime syndicate executioners? My answer may sound reductive, but here goes: The essence of Elmore is to be found in his use of the present participle.

What this means, in effect, is that he has discovered a way of slowing down and suspending the English sentence -- or let's say the American sentence, because Mr. Leonard is as American as jazz. Instead of writing "Warren Ganz III lived up in Manalapan, Palm Beach County," Mr. Leonard writes, "Warren Ganz III, living up in Manalapan, Palm Beach County." He writes, "Bobby saying," and then opens quotes. He writes, "Dawn saying," and then opens quotes. We are not in the imperfect tense (Dawn was saying) or the present (Dawn says) or the historic present (Dawn said). We are in a kind of marijuana tense (Dawn saying), creamy, wandering, weak-verbed. Such sentences seem to open up a lag in time, through which Mr. Leonard easily slides, gaining entry to his players' hidden minds. He doesn't just show you what these people say and do. He shows you where they breathe."

I remember reading this in 1995 and finding it such a sharp look at Leonard. It's admiring, of course, but doesn't just talk in semi-vagaries about "Leonard's great dialogue" or "Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing", but analyzes what is at the crux of all novels no matter what type of fiction the author writes, regardless of what genre the author navigates: language.  How the author uses language is where everything in writing starts, and it's surprising how often conversations about fiction and writing touch on everything related to writing except this core thing.  Anyway, I hadn't known before reading this review that Amis was such a Leonard fan, and if you want to read the full piece, you can Google it easily.

Also worth checking out is a co-interview Amis did years ago with Leonard, a most interesting talk between two writers who are so different, working toward quite different aims, but who so strongly value how they use language. The interview, perhaps unfortunately, is on the old Charlie Rose program, but you can't have everything. The draw here is Amis and Leonard talking writing.