Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bookstores and The Random Chat: An Appreciation

Scott D. Parker

One of the more enjoyable reads this week was one from James Reasoner. On Wednesday, he blogged his final installment of Favorite Bookstores series. In this post, “Hometown Favorites,” he waxed nostalgic about the places at which he bought books and comics in his youth. While his history wasn’t mine, he tweaked a nerve.

For me, my hometown is Houston, Texas, the city in which I still live. My book world revolved around Westwood Mall, and the two chains—B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. They were at either end of the mall, almost as far away from each other as possible. Perhaps that was a contractual thing, I don’t know. My parents are readers and just about every time we’d visit the mall, we’d step into one or both bookstores. Naturally, I’d usually find something I thought I needed. With Star Wars, The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, and KISS around, it wasn’t too difficult. The key for me getting something was embodied in a single question I’d ask of my parents: “Did you find anything?” If the answer was yes, I got to get something. If not, then I’d have to bargain or walk away empty-handed. Either way, unless it was a YA book, my parents would inspect that which I thought I needed and make a ruling.

Comics were a different story. I started reading comics in the latter days of the comic book spinner rack, located at just about any convenience store or grocery store. Almost as soon as I entered the sliding doors, I’d peel away from my mom and lavish my attention on the racks. In a cringe-worthy move to comic book collectors (of which I am not, at least not in the investment sense), I’d bend all the titles back and flip them upward, scanning the titles and stopping on one that interested me. There was also the “bagged” collections, where Marvel, DC, or Harvey would package three random titles together for one price. I got pretty adept at forcing the plastic back to reveal the middle book. Also, back in those days, before comics became an investment, you could find boxes of old comics at antique stores or flea markets. Plop down a few dollars and you could walk away with hours of enjoyment. Often, I’d have only one part of a larger story, but that proved not to be a bad thing as I’d finish the tales myself.

Then, one day, I discovered Roy’s Comic Shop. All they sold were comics. I didn’t know the word “nirvana” but I knew I had hit the mother lode. They had back issues! I could finally find the conclusion to stories I had read and re-read for years. It was a special, mostly weekly treat to visit my grandparents and return to Roy’s.

It was during this time (later elementary, early middle school) where I stopped being quiet in these kinds of stores, especially Roy’s. I’d ask questions about certain books. I wasn’t yet into knowing authors, but I knew artists, and I’d poll the dudes who worked at Roy’s for information on other titles drawn by certain artists. Jim Aparo was my first favorite artist, and I particularly enjoyed his lean, lithe Batman. Gradually, as I expanded my reading of SF and other books, I’d talk with other folks at Roy’s, B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and the many used bookstores my parents frequented. In those years of discovery and learning about the larger world of reading, I had many guides.

Even though Mr. Reasoner and I grew up I different times and cities, we share a common experience: the stores we used to frequent are now gone. Roy’s moved away (Third Planet took its place and, thankfully, is still in business), Westwood Mall ceased being a retail space, and most of the used bookstores around southwest Houston closed. The big book chain of Barnes and Noble is now the default seller of books in Houston. Nothing wrong with that because they have most everything I need, but the diversity is lost. So, too, is the human contact. Where the guys at Roy’s would recognize me each week, there’s no longer that common community that Mr. Reasoner experience in his small town and I experienced at the same few stores in my youth. You have to go to smaller, independent bookstores now—like Houston’ splendid Murder by the Book where I still am greeted by name—to get that human interaction. Sure, you have to make an effort to travel to a store like this, but isn’t it worth the effort.

Many of these thoughts occurred to me in the minutes while I was reading Mr. Reasoner’s piece. Another thought also occurred to me: e-readers diminish direct human contact. I am an e-reader enthusiast (I’m one week with my new iPad and I am loving its reading capabilities) and you just can’t beat the offerings you can get electronically. Back in the day, if you were interested in the John Carter books, you were limited by that which you could find in bookstores. It also caused you to read books out of order. Intrigued by the new John Carter movie in 2012? Any number of sites has all eleven Burroughs books nicely listed, in order, mind you, and ready for you to download. Heard about Twilight, The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Stephanie Plum, Eve Dallas, or Spencer? No problem. All the information you want is literally at your fingertips. More information that you really wanted to know, truth be told. And you can have that data instantly, without talking or even communicating to another human soul.

Can you learn that which you want to know? More than likely, and within seconds. Might you have learned just a little bit more had you engaged in a discussion at a bookstore with another patron about the very same subject? Absolutely.

Let’s be fair: there are innumerable online places where book fans can communicate. I’ve been to them and I’ll visit more in the future. But there’s something about a random chat with a fellow book lover that’s special. Even now, I can easily remember an impromptu discussion of time travel based on Back to the Future with three of my friends and a fellow SF reader back in 1985. That spontaneity is what book stores give you, and it used to be more prominent back in the day.

Think I need to get back to Third Planet or Murder by the Book soon. I need to start a random conversation.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The name's Bond... not quite Bond...

By Russel D McLean

The news this morning that William Boyd is to write the next James Bond novel (I've never read Boyd, so can't speak on his suitability) has got me thinking about series characters outliving their creators and how in novels, as in very few other media outlets, certain characters seem intertwined with their creators.

I've recently been reading some of Titan's New Adventures of Sherlock of Sherlock Holmes. Some are good – maybe even very good. Some are not so good. But none of them feel Conan-Doyle-ish. Much of this is to do with distance. Doyle was a product of his time and place and much as one might replicate his choice of word or sentence structure, one cannot carbon-copy the essential essence or “the voice” of his work. Something like that is beyond mere mechanics.

When I read comic books or watch TV shows, I am usually fine with a change of creative team. Yes, the Spidey of Stan Lee is different to the Spidey of JMS or Bendis or whoever, but I can roll with that, perhaps because the character has just rolled on and on. There was no gap between Lee leaving the character and another writer taking him on. And the same goes for a number of different comic series with some noteable exceptions (If Groo were to return for a new number 1 issue with a creative team that was not Arargones and Evanier, I would weep like a menidcant).

On US TV, different creative teams write different episodes of long running series. I can take JUSTIFIED having a new writing crew each week, or THE WIRE using different scripters in different episodes (albeit under the strict control of a creative showrunner – although, while THE WEST WING was certainly a little different when Aaron Sorkin left, I still found it enjoyable, perhaps because the actors retained the essence and voice of the characters).

I think sometimes we have to know when to leave well enough alone. And as much of an honor as it might be to play in, say, Flemming's sandpit, do we really need anyone to do it? Did we ever need any more Bond beyond what Flemming wrote? Could anyone ever really re-create that special thrill that came from reading Flemming's original novels? In filmic terms, Bond works well with different interpretations from different creative teams at different times, but in the literary, he had always been Flemming's creation.

Let's say that now that Rankin has let him go, someone else took up the mantle of Rebus. Would we be accepting of that? Would anyone really be able to write Rebus books in the way that Rankin did? Or would anyone be able to write Lincoln Rhymne like Jeffery Deaver? I could ask the same of a thousand different creator-owned series characters. And I think we all know that the truth is no one can replicate their voices or the thrill that readers got from discovering these characters for the first time. Not even a skilled writer like Faulks could fool anyone into thinking he was Ian Flemming. But why is it so different from film and TV creations or certain literary series that were always written by varying creative teams?

The thing is, I'm not decrying writers who play in other's sandboxes. I have often talked about the fact that I'd love to write a Doctor Who novel (in fact the first novel I ever submitted was for Virgin's New Doctor Who Adventures) but I do think that things are different where writer and character have become so utterly connected. Holmes and Conan Doyle are linked. Flemming and Bond are linked. Ludlum and Bourne are linked. These series and their authors share a very special chemistry. And in the case of something like Who, the world and the brand were created by multiple creative teams rather than one in isolation and the very essence of the brand relies on reinvention and the injection of new and unique voices.

I realise that in the modern world, brand is all. Audiences, so they're told by those who feed them, like the familiar (something I would ardently disagree with – audiences, even if they don't admit it, like to be surprised) and nothing is more familiar than a strong brand. But what happens when a brand is not just about the character or the setting but the creator? I don't pretend to have the answers, but I find it odd that I feel differently about characters associated with a single author than I do about those who are the product of an evolving creative team.

The Crime Interviews: Volume 2, by Len Wanner

By Jay Stringer

I get sent a lot of ebooks to read and review. To be honest a lot of the stack up simply because I don;t have a dedicated e-reader yet. Soon I'll be treating myself to a shiny kindle touch, and then I'll catch up, but for now everything I read digitally is read on my laptop. And if I'm sat with laptop, then I tend to think I should be writing or researching (or playing Football Manager.) Sometimes a book lands on my inbox that just demands to be read straight away, and when you see one that collects interviews with Ray Banks, Tony Black, William McIlvanney and Helen Fitzgerald, well, I HAVE to check it out.

First let me get out of the way and say what the publisher BLASTED HEATH has to say;

In his foreword, Ian Rankin describes THE CRIME INTERVIEWS: VOLUME TWO as "Fascinating stuff, whether you are a fan of any particular author, or of the genre as a whole, or even of the wider world of Scottish and British Literature in contemporary times. In fact, I may just have to go back and read both volumes again…"

VOLUME ONE brought us page after page of unique insights into how writers think and into the professional secrets of some of the genre's greatest exponents. With THE CRIME INTERVIEWS: VOLUME TWO, once again Wanner's encyclopedic knowledge of Scottish crime fiction is put to expert use in his enthralling and revealing conversations with another inspired line-up of stars of tartan noir. His latest interview subjects include William McIlvanney, Tony Black, Doug Johnstone, Helen FitzGerald, Quintin Jardine, Gordon Ferris, Craig Russell, Douglas Lindsay, Ray Banks and Denise Mina.

I've interviewed writers, both in print and on podcasts, and it comes with a huge pressure to try and find good chat. Len Wanner as a talent for good chat. I'm sure there are more intelligent ways to put it, but it boils down to that. He knows how to sit and have good conversations with his subjects, and to get more involved and open responses than the usual oft-rehearsed lines.

There are running themes that run through the collection, such as Scottish identity and the changing mood of the country. McIlvanney's answers show a man who went from chronicling the lives of the working class, to campaigning for a political party, to now having a more distant and almost philosophical view of the game. Banks on the other hand speaks of letting your subtext do the talking. But this isn't a political book, nor is it a marketing brochure for Scottish fiction. It's a book full of good questions and interesting answers, and really comes to life when the authors start talking craft and content. Does Helen Fitzgerald start with character or plot? How does Tony Black manager to write whilst he does all that grappling with symbolism? How does Ray Banks maintain a balance between writing about violence and celebrating it? And why would I give you the answers to all these questions when you can pick up the book and let the authors do it themselves?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Last Night by James Salter

By Steve Weddle

I'm going to do you all a big favor today--I'm going to get out of the way. You're welcome.

First, though, let me point you over to the new CD from Chris LaTray. His band, American Falcon, has new tunes out, which you can snag right here. I've been listening to the songs for the past week, and I guess you could describe them as a mix between Urge Overkill and The Cult. You'll want to listen for yourself, of course.

Now, please allow me to point you to some additional awesomeness. I was reading an article in TheRumpus called "Beyond The Measure of Men," about the alleged war of women's fiction vs literary fiction I mentioned last week.

Vying with works from Bonnie Jo Campbell and Alan Heathcock and a couple others, one of my favorite collections of literary fiction this past year has been THE NEW YORKER STORIES from Ann Beattie. A remarkable collection. The story called "Coping Stones," in particular, is amazing in its ability to exist as both crime fiction and literary fiction. Well, those New Yorker kids have done it again.

The Women V. Literature article at TheRumpus mentioned a James Salter collection called LAST NIGHT. This one could be my new favorite.
In another story, a group of friends catches up on their lives and at the end, we learn that one of them is dying, doesn’t know how to share that news, and so she tells a stranger, her cab driver, who in the wake of her confession, frankly assesses her appearance.
That sounds like my kind of story--sad, awkward, with a glimpse of beauty. So I read "Last Night," as it was available at The New Yorker online. The story is soul-wrenching and can be found here.

And as if that weren't enough, Thomas McGuane picked that James Salter story to read and talk about in a New Yorker podcast here. So if you'd rather hear Mr. McGuane read it and discuss it with Deborah Treisman, there you go.

By the way, The Paris Review recently celebrated Salter's writing here, including this interview.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Advice From an Ass

Back in my younger days, way back in the aughts, I used to love doling out writing advice on blogs. It was ego, I think, plus the fact that I wanted feedback on my advice from other writers. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.

Most times I came off looking like an ass, I'd imagine.

Occasionally, I still write about what works for me, and hope other writers maybe gain something from it. Mostly, if you've followed my DSD posts, I've been whining about not writing.

But, I'm back, baby!

I'm writing something just for me. After nearly 6 months off, I'm about 5000 words into a new piece. I'm writing it because it's been in my head, like a loose end that needs to be tied.

And one piece of advice that I've always followed is jumping out in my mind.

When you have the chance, blow up the novel. I don't mean stick a literal explosion in it (though I love those), and I don't mean stop writing it, scrap it...

No, I mean, when you as the author come to a crossroads, where the book can go one of two ways... go the harder way. Kill the character you thought you'd follow for seven or eight novels.

Put another character through hell.

Don't worry about longevity. Because readers are savvy. They know when a characters not about to be killed. They know when you're taking the easy way out because you HAVE to get the character to another point in the story.

So, don't do that. Torture your characters, put them through hell. Series characters be damned.

If you're surprising yourself, you're surprising most readers.

And you want your readers saying "Holy shit" every time they turn the page. That's what keeps readers going: loving a character and wanting to see that character get fucked up.

(Readers are weird. They love a character, but they don't really want to see that character make dinner, go to bed, wake up, have coffee and then say "Wow, that was a good day.")

I'm at that tipping point now. I have an opportunity to twist this novel into something surprising.

And I'm going to do it.

I think.

Because if I'm saying "Holy shit" then so should the reader.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Why I decided to publish Mori Obscura by Nik Korpon

I decided to publish the story "Mori Obscura" by Nik Korpon for one simple reason. Because he's from Baltimore and we stick to our own.

Nah, just kidding. But it's great to have someone in Speedloader who knows what Natty Boh is.

Seriously though there were three things that made me love this story: setting, character and an interesting ending.

Nik's story takes place in the claustrophobic confines of an abandoned Baltimore Rowhouse that has been turned in to a shooting gallery. I've seen numbers as high as 16,000 abandoned row houses in Baltimore. The number is probably higher. They are a ubiquitous part of some parts of the city and anyone who has seen The Wire has seen them.

Broken down, dilapidated, forgotten, these buildings scream at anyone who sees them. When boarded up and lacking light they become something more sinister. Nik's writing effectively captures all of this.

Thrown into this hell is our protag. A recovering addict who takes pictures for The Baltimore Sun. He seems like a good guy but truthfully we don't know that much about him. But he is trying hard not to slip into his old ways and and we instinctively support him.

Then he runs into trouble. And that's the meaty dilemma at the heart of the story.

The ending stops right before the protag is to make an important decision. He's at a crossroads really. Nik Korpon stops the story at the perfect place because either option seems like one that the protag would make and the reader ultimately pushes him in one direction or the other.

"Mori Obscura" is a great crime fiction short, with some local Baltimore flavor from one of the rising stars of dark crime fiction. That's why I decided to publish Nik' story in Speedloader (and will be publishing him again, Bar Scars is coming soon).

Currently Reading: Submissions (like you didn't see that one coming) and Young Blood by Sifiso Mzobe

Currently Listening:

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A day of rest...

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Happy Easter. Or Happy Passover depending on your religious affiliation. Or perhaps I should just say – happy Sunday. The day of rest.

Writers don’t get many days of rest. We have to sit at the computer when other people are frolicking through the tulips or being fed grapes while laying on a chaise lounge. (Ok…maybe the whole grape thing is just what we think other people are doing, but you get my point.) Writers don’t punch a clock, which makes it the best and worst job in the world. We can set our own schedules. Trouble with that is that lots of other things get in the way because…well…we get to set our own schedules. We can just say “I’ll do X now and write later.” It’s easy to put off the writing because there will always be time for it later. But, for me, the more I put writing off, the harder it is to get back to it.

This is why when I’m working on a manuscript I write 7 days a week. I try for a minimum of 1000 words a day. Depending on the project, I write much faster, but I never count on it, because…well…life happens. So does other work stuff. Last week, I mentioned all the other things that an author has to do. Well, I’ve had to do a lot of them in the past week and a half. Most notably, I had to proof the typeset pages for Murder for Choir and do copy edits for Skating On The Edge. Both are very important steps in the process of getting a book from the screen to the shelf. The only problem with these steps are they interrupt my 7 day a week goal on my current work in progress.

What’s a girl to do?

Well, this girl got those jobs done as efficiently as possible in order to get back to her manuscript. I sent copy edits for Skating On The Edge back to my editor Friday morning and when the tot took a nap, I opened up my computer fully preparing to launch back into my manuscript after reading my new e-mails. That’s when I learned copy edits for THE TESTING would be arriving yesterday.** I sharpened my pencil and got ready to work…but…UPS never arrived.


Now what? Technically, I should get back to that work in progress, but knowing that I’m going to be interrupted on Monday makes me do something I almost never do. I’m taking the day off.

Time for a glass of wine. Some laughs with family. Watching baseball on the television and enjoying my son searching for Easter Eggs. Today is a holiday and I plan on celebrating it to the fullest.

So, to all of you my friends, have a wonderful Sunday. May the Easter Bunny bring you lots of chocolate rabbits (which is kind of a strange tradition when you think about the fact the Easter Bunny is bringing you one of his friends to eat) and lots of wonderful moments with your families.

**And for all you sports fans keeping track – YES, these books come out at very different times. MURDER FOR CHOIR (July 3rd, Berkley), SKATING ON THE EDGE (Oct. 2nd, Minotaur), THE TESTING (April 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). The publishing process is very different for each, which just goes to show that publishing likes to keep you on your toes!