Thursday, March 31, 2016

New Donald Ray Pollock coming

By Steve Weddle

Weird week. I only escaped to tell thee about the new Donald Ray Pollock coming this summer.

The Heavenly Table
by Donald Ray Pollock
From Doubleday Books
Pub Date 12 Jul 2016

From Donald Ray Pollock, author of the highly acclaimed The Devil All the Time and Knockemstiff, comes a dark, gritty, electrifying (and, disturbingly, weirdly funny) new novel that will solidify his place among the best contemporary American authors.

It is 1917, in that sliver of border land that divides Georgia from Alabama. Dispossessed farmer Pearl Jewett ekes out a hardscrabble existence with his three young sons: Cane (the eldest; handsome; intelligent); Cob (short; heavy set; a bit slow); and Chimney (the youngest; thin; ill-tempered). Several hundred miles away in southern Ohio, a farmer by the name of Ellsworth Fiddler lives with his son, Eddie, and his wife, Eula. After Ellsworth is swindled out of his family's entire fortune, his life is put on a surprising, unforgettable, and violent trajectory that will directly lead him to cross paths with the Jewetts. No good can come of it. Or can it?

In the gothic tradition of Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy with a healthy dose of cinematic violence reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, the Jewetts and the Fiddlers will find their lives colliding in increasingly dark and horrific ways, placing Donald Ray Pollock firmly in the company of the genre's literary masters.


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Why I Went the (Sort of) Traditional Route

Guest Post by Dharma Kelleher

Holly's note: I was happy when Dharma agreed to write about her path to (sort of) traditional publishing since her route (and reasons for pursuing it) are similar to my own. Before we begin, some takeaways: Dharma sent queries to ninety agents and four were interested in pursuing her project. Four out of ninety. These numbers are depressing, but par for the traditional publishing course. The important thing to note is that querying widely is a vital part of the process. It doesn't matter that eighty-six agents didn't feel they could sell her book, it only matters that one did. And a good one, at that. 

There's a perception that self-publishing is somehow easier and perhaps in some ways, it is. But it's by no means the easy way out and some of the rejection that occurs in the front end of the traditional publishing biz often happens on the middle and back end of indie-publishing in the form of cost, marketing and closed industry doors for self-published books (reviews, bookstore shelf space, awards and such). 

Regardless, the work involved in writing and publishing books is staggering and sometimes demoralizing, no matter what path you take. Persistence and educating oneself about the business are some of the keys to success, but in the end, the most important key is writing the best book you can. Then, write the next book and the next.

But I'll shut up now and let Dharma tell her story.

There’s not a lot traditional about me. I’m a rebel at every turn. I’m a Zen punk, transgender, lesbian biker chick who’s done just about everything from broadcast news to web development.

So as untraditional as a I am, why would I publish my debut novel with one of the “Big 5” publishers? Especially with the popularity of self-publishing?

To make a long story short: goals, professional standards, and money.

As a kid growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I was writing short stories on a manual Smith Corona typewriter, religiously reading Lawrence Block’s Fiction column in Writers’ Digest, with dreams of one day publishing a book with one of the major houses.

Cut to 30+ years later and when I rediscovered my love of writing, that dream was still on my bucket list.

Part of it was the challenge. Writing a quality novel was daunting (because it’s freakin’ hard). Getting an agent (most agents accept less than 1% of submissions) was even more challenging. And the coup-de-grace, breaking out of the pack to sign a deal with a big name publisher. Yeah! I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.

You can call it an ego thing or whatever, but that was one of my goals. Not simply to see my name in print, but to know that my book had risen out of the slush pile and caught a publisher’s eye.
You may have different goals where self-publishing or a small press might be appropriate. Maybe you’re a consultant looking for an additional income stream and you have the money to invest in a freelance editor, a book formatter, and a cover artist (don’t skimp on these), so self-publishing seems a better choice for you.

Or maybe you write something really niche with a small audience like Pakistani steampunk or hardcore senior citizen erotic thrillers (to each their own, right?). A small alternative press with lower sales expectations might be a better fit.

But for me, my childhood/bucket list goal put a +1 in the traditional publishing column.

Professional Standards
My time is precious, as is yours, I imagine. I don’t want to waste it reading something that was poorly written and barely edited. Likewise, I wouldn’t want to waste my readers’ time by publishing something that isn’t as engaging as the stories I like to read.

I wanted my book to have a high level of professionalism. This meant that a professional editor (and maybe more than one) would go through my book on multiple passes, helping me work out any structural issues and plot holes, along with eliminating crutch words and typos.

An experienced professional book cover designer would create the cover that would immediately enthrall my target readers. A professional formatter would turn the books interior into a work of art.
And a publicity team would help me market that book and connect me with people, organizations, and events that I otherwise had no access to.

A small press would get me part of the way, but wouldn’t necessarily have the connections a big publisher would. At the same time, small presses often give more personal attention to debut authors than a traditional press. So a small press was still in consideration.

The self-publishing route was less favorable on this issue. The stigma associated with self-published books (caused by the majority of indie authors not hiring professional editors, formatters and cover artists) has blocked access to many networking and distribution channels.

So in this case, I gave points to both traditional and small press.

Here is where the rubber meets the road. Writing is both a craft and a business. While I am no business guru, two mantras are burned forever in my tiny, twisted brain.

It takes money to make money.
Whenever possible, use someone else’s money.

Why should I pay thousands of dollars to a professional editor, formatter, cover designer, or publicity manager, when a traditional publisher could do it for me and the two of us can split the profits 50-50? And maybe even an advance to boot.

Some fear that signing with a traditional publisher or even a small press means giving up creative control, but it doesn’t have to. Not if you have a good agent.

Based on all of these factors, traditional publishing was the best route for my literary goals, professional standards, and financial situation. Small press (like Midnight Ink or Poisoned Pen Press) was a backup plan if I couldn’t sign with a big house. And self-publishing was a last resort. So I decided to swing for the fences.

The Deal I Struck
I sent queries to ninety agents, four of whom were interested. I signed with Sharon Pelletier of Dystel & Goderich, a New York–based agency with a solid reputation. After a few rounds of edits, she shopped my book to publishers for a few months.

I saw rejection after rejection from publishers who loved the book, the writing, and me, but consistently said they “didn’t know how to market it.” Turns out that’s code for “we ask for stories with more diversity but only buy manuscripts about straight, white men.”

Then my agent notified me that Alibi, a digital-only imprint of Penguin Random House, was offering me a two-book deal. Yay! Wait, what? Digital only?

Yeah, no print books. And yet they insisted as a matter of company policy that they purchase the print rights (perhaps to avoid diluting e-book sales).

I was torn. I wanted to see my book in print. On my bookshelf. Next to the Pulitzer I would one day win.

Teri Bischoff at Midnight Ink was interested in reading my manuscript after I pitched it to her at the WriteNow! conference.

I knew from talking with other Midnight Ink authors that Teri does a lot for her authors. Not uncommon for small presses with a limited stable of authors.

Compare that to the horror stories of authors who sign with a big publisher who are all but ignored because they’re not a famous celebrity with a huge following.

Then again, I had no guarantee of an offer from Midnight Ink. And because Alibi was part of Penguin Random House, they had access to resources that Midnight Ink might not due simply to PRH’s behemoth size.

It was a gamble either way. There are no guarantees in publishing, especially with constantly changing technology and thousands of new books published daily.

I read that article John Scalzi had written a few years ago all but calling Penguin Random House the anti-Christ over their four digital-only imprints. I also talked with several Alibi authors who loved what Alibi had done for them. And I had some deep discussions with my agent and my wife.

Ultimately, I decided a bird in the hand was worth more than the two in the bush. I signed with Alibi and I am glad I did.

First of all, I get 50% of net sales (minus my agent’s well-earned cut). And I retained creative control over editing, title, and cover design, as well as foreign rights, audio rights and TV & film rights. Because you never know.

My editors at Alibi have blown me away with their ideas about how to improve the story. The design team created a badass cover. And the publicity team is doing all kinds of things to spread the word about my book including designing marketing materials, an appearance at Phoenix Comic-Con, a blog tour, blurbs, BookBub (and related services) and much more.

My debut novel, IRON GODDESS, launches June 28, 2016. The support I’ve already received and the pre-sales at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc. have shown me that going the (sort of) traditional route of publishing with Alibi was the right choice for me.

You have your own goals, your own professional standards (I hope they’re high), and your own financial situation. Make your own decisions. Live with the consequences. Don’t whine about them.

And in the words of Neil Gaiman, “Make good art.”

Dharma Kelleher writes gritty tales about outlaws, renegades, and misfits. Her hobbies include riding her motorcycle, picking locks and getting inked. Her debut novel IRON GODDESS will be published by Random House’s Alibi imprint on June 28, 2016. Learn more about her and her writing at

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Messing with Icons

by Scott Adlerberg

If nothing else, the many Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice discussions going on reveal the peril writers and filmmakers face presenting their own version of iconic fictional characters.  Alter that icon in any way, however slight the alteration, and there may be hell to pay from a substantial portion of fans.  A comic book character around for a long time or a novel series character who's revered has come to have certain defining traits, and obviously it's those traits the fans of the characters love, or they wouldn't be icons.  Superman, the thinking goes, with his innate decency would not be a brooding figure, wondering whether he should continue helping a fickle and ungrateful mankind. The Man of Steel should not be causing collateral damage while he's fighting villains.  He would find some way to take the fight to a place where the destruction won't cause peoples' deaths.  (Hard to argue against this point, which is NOT a slight alteration of Superman's character.)  Batman has a code against using guns and implacable as he is in fighting crime, he does not kill criminals.  For what we might call traditional Batman, these two points are crucial to his crime fighting ethic.  It's not that Batman has never used guns in his comic book incarnations, but basically through his 70 plus years of battling criminals, it has been established that Batman doesn't use firearms.  So in movies, when people see Superman brooding or see him oblivious to the utter chaos he's causing in his pursuit of victory over an enemy, when they see Batman driving a car with mounted machine guns or shooting a gun from his flying vehicle or using a rifle (these things happen in Batman films made by Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan, and Zack Snyder), people comment on what they're seeing in their heroes. They question the motivation behind making such changes to these characters.  Do the creators actually hate the characters they have been entrusted with?  Don't they understand these characters? Do they even care about them?  These are certainly the types of questions popping up now, with Batman v Superman in theaters, and the various conversations set me thinking about other iconic characters who've seen themselves changed, sometimes drastically, by people who crafted stories around them but who were not their original creators.

James Bond

It's 54 years and counting for Ian Fleming's spy.  Discounting David Niven's 1967 Bond in the comedic Casino Royale, there have been six Bonds.  Everyone has their favorite Bond, their least favorite Bond.  And at least since Sean Connery quit playing the part (twice), there's been a segment of Bond fandom that had reservations with the successor Bonds.  

1) George Lazenby: Too stiff as an actor or too vulnerable in how he portrays a more human Bond.
2) Roger Moore: Too elegant to be a tough Bond, a lightweight, with too much emphasis put on one-liners and a tongue in cheek attitude.
3) Timothy Dalton: Too brooding and humorless, a touch neurotic, playing the role with more gravity than necessary.
4) Pierce Brosnan: A welcome relief from the overly intense Dalton, but perhaps too pretty and polished and suave for a man who's supposed to be a ruthless assassin.
5) Daniel Craig: Remember the furor that greeted the announcement Craig would be the next Bond. He's too short, screamed some.  He has blue eyes. He has blond hair.  He's not handsome enough.

Can the people casting Bond and the actor who winds up playing Bond ever win? Not with everyone, not a chance.  But in this case, it must be said, that no one seems to doubt that the people running the franchise, producing the films, have ever had anything but the best in mind for the character and series.  Maybe not every Bond choice worked to everyone's satisfaction, but I've never heard the sort of disparagement leveled at the filmmakers as I have at Zach Snyder, for example, where the very idea that he's the one shepherding the Warner Brothers DC film Universe is an affront.

Sherlock Holmes

There have been too many Sherlock Holmes' on film and TV to count over the years, so I won't go into every one. My favorite rendition was Jeremy Brett's in the PBS television adaptations, followed by Peter Cushing in Hammer's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and Basil Rathbone in the first two films he did as Holmes - the original Hound and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (both 1939).  But the version that truly messes with the prevailing image of Holmes is The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, from 1976, taken from Nicholas Meyer's bestselling novel.  

If you don't know, the story portrays Holmes as brilliant but hopelessly high strung. He also happens to be a cocaine addict.  Watson and Mycroft Holmes manage to come up with a pretext to get Holmes to leave London and go to Vienna, where the great detective of the streets meets the great detective of the mind, Sigmund Freud. Against his will, Holmes winds up undergoing drug therapy (the cold turkey treatment) and psychotherapy to deal with his inner demons.  The Holmes we usually know as the pinnacle of rationality is here a man suffering from delusions, the main one being his insistence that Professor James Moriarty is a criminal mastermind.  In this telling, Watson has never seemed to buy the idea that Holmes has an enemy who is the Napolean of Crime.

There is some serious icon messing going on here, but in fact, at least as I remember, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution got a very good response when it came out.  As had the book.  I read the book when it first became a paperback and saw the movie when it opened, and even as a 14 year old, I could tell that Meyer was playing around with Holmes in a way quite consistent with how he's presented in the original stories. Holmes of course can be high-strung in the Conan Doyle tales, and we know he resorts to cocaine when bored.  But the cleverness of Meyer's re-imagining extends to "The Final Problem" itself, since in that story, as Doyle wrote it, almost all we learn about Moriarty comes from Holmes himself.  We don't get much outside objective evidence that Moriarty is indeed an evil genius.  Watson takes Holmes' word for everything and so do we as readers, but if you step outside that construct for a moment, it's conceivable that everything Holmes says about Moriarty comes from his own fevered mind.  It's a possibility, let's say, and that sliver of possibility is what The Seven Per-Cent-Solution builds on to give us a drug-addicted paranoid Holmes persecuting an innocent man.  Or maybe not so innocent; the new story reveals that Moriarty does have a connection to Holmes stemming back to the detective's childhood (It has to be childhood. Freud is involved.). Moriarty is guilty of something but it's nothing so grand or extreme as what Holmes has been saying about him.

The-Seven-Per-Cent Solution, for my money, is one of the best examples of a work that plays around with an icon successfully.  It gives us a different Holmes but it's a Holmes created entirely and believably from the fabric of the original Holmes.  I should add that by the time Holmes is both cured of his cocaine addiction and made to understand the roots of his obsession with Moriarty, he gets back on a case and solves it in typical Holmes fashion.  His mind remains razor-sharp, his energy and athleticism are undiminished.  All bases get covered here.

Philip Marlowe

Again, there've been a bunch of different Marlowes depicted on screen, and I don't want to go into every one.  I like Robert Mitchum in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) best, with Bogey in The Big Sleep (1946) second. But wait a minute.  There's also the Marlowe in the film that's my favorite of all the Raymond Chandler adaptations - Elliot Gould's version of the character in The Long Goodbye (1973).  This is the Marlowe to watch for yet more icon monkeying, and it's actually the movie that came to my mind as I started hearing the reactions to Batman v Superman.  I know way more people than not who love The Long Goodbye and consider it among Robert Altman's very best films, but I have met quite a few people who can't stand it.  They feel that what Altman did to Marlowe in the movie, treating him without due respect, and like an antiquated oaf, Rip van Marlowe, wandering around a Los Angeles he doesn't understand, is akin to insulting Chandler.  Altman himself aimed to create a Marlowe who's a "loser".  Worst of all, at the end of the movie, Marlowe simply shoots a man he can't bring to justice otherwise, and then he walks away looking carefree - something that would never happen in the books.  

The critics at the time weren't friendly.  A lot of the initial reaction was withering. Jay Cocks' Time review is typical.  He lays into the movie by saying, "Altman's lazy, haphazard put down is without affection or understanding, a nose-thumb not only at the idea of Philip Marlowe but at the genre that his tough-guy-soft-heart character epitomized. It is a curious spectacle to see Altman mocking a level of achievement to which, at his best, he could only aspire".   

Does any of this language sound familiar?  

With The Long Goodbye, critics eventually came around (though the film flopped at the box office), and the film settled into its place as a 70's classic. It took awhile for it to get that appreciation, though.  When you play with a character people love, people get upset.  We saw it then, we're seeing it now.  And no, I don't think  it's likely, down the road, that Batman v Superman will take on the stature of The Long Goodbye.  But it is interesting to observe old battles fought anew, people debating whether this hero or that one should have been placed in the hands of so and so - "who fucked it all up".

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Why So Serious?

By Jay Stringer.

Bear with me on this post, guys. I don't think this actually works as a cohesive article. I'm just letting off steam for my own sanity. This is more like a really long tone poem, and that tone is 'AAAARRRRGGGGHHHHH'. 

I've been trying for a long time -long before the film that has inspired so much ranting in the last few days- to find the right term to describe what I'm here to talk about today. The closest I can come is empty cool. There's a culture of empty cool that pervades storytelling at the moment. 

A lot of storytellers of my generation (and rather than our own ages, I'm defining this generation as the people who read comics between, say, 1985 and 1995) have bought into this idea.

I noticed it in the 90's as my own tastes were really forming. I was learning what kinds of stories I wanted to read and write. There were characters becoming hugely popular who didn't seem to have much actual character to them. Fans started to talk about things that were 'cool.' Fight scenes. Costumes. Swearing. Death. Explosions. Splash pages. Wolverine. Deadpool. Cable. (Not that these characters can't be well done. They've all had good stories. A couple very good films. But at the time they were simply coooool.) This is an era that has been much lampooned for the way every hero had to start wearing armour, and become dark, and possibly even die. (Hey...anybody seen the movie yet? This description sounding familiar?)

I noticed that there was a comics culture that I simply wasn't a part of, even when I was at the right age. It should have been my thing, but it felt alien, and I couldn't talk about it because that would alienate me further; I'd sound like a pretentious hipster prick. (Imagine that.) And then I started to notice it in films, too.

It's not so much a culture of style over substance, as a culture that thinks they're the same thing. Style is the substance. Cool, bro. Cool. 

It's, "oh man, you're going to love this fight, it gets wild," rather than, "oh man, you're going to love the reason these characters are fighting." I praise the hallway fight in season one of DAREDEVIL  to anyone who'll listen, and it's got almost nothing to do with the fighting. I love it because the scene is pure character, and is a brilliantly effective final act to that episode's story

For similar reasons, I've never connected with THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Reading it is a cold and mean task. Frank Miller writes these characters as if he hates them, and that's never a good place to come from. To me, the book is just a hollow reactionary tale that happens to have some brilliant images. And yet, for fans of my era, and many since, TDKR is a holy book, a touchstone. On the other hand, a book I enjoyed for a long time was THE KILLING JOKE. But you know what happened? I grew up.

And let me pause here to clarify that. I don't mean 'I grew up' as in I outgrew comics. That would be a  ridiculous and condescending thing to say of a whole medium. But there is a weird form of arrested development in certain corners of the superhero comics -and in geek culture in general, I think- where it's like they tell adult stories as defined by a thirteen-year-old. All this edgy and gritty bullshit, that fetish of darkness. Maybe that's what adult looks like when you're a hormonal teenaged boy, but it bears no resemblance to any part of actual adult life. So when I say I grew up, I'm meaning that I outgrew that bullshit. I still enjoy the hell out of comics, but I live in the real world, and TKJ isn't adult, it's just mean. Frank Miller's work isn't adult, it' a weird fever dream of hormonal male bullshit. 

I find it interesting that Frank Miller's storytelling style has leaned ever more into this hollow style, whereas Alan Moore -who often gets cited alongside Miller as making comics more 'grown up'- has spent thirty years trying to push stories back in the other direction. Miller's career is defined by TDKR. Moore has disowned TKJ.

I don't know. Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm out of step. More and more, from MAN OF STEEL to now, I see people telling me that 'DC is not MARVEL.' DC is 'more adult.' It's 'darker and edgier.' Well, they're correct in that DC has pushed a certain aesthetic for most of the last 30 years. I'm just not sure why we culturally agreed that this was more 'grown up.' I'm 35. I'm the exact kind of vague-30-something that DC characters tend to be, and I see way more of the tone of my adult life reflected in MARVEL movies than DC. 

DC pushes this fake version of adulthood. The adolescent pastiche. And I guess some people just want that because it's nostalgia, it's what they liked at 13, and it's what they want to see on the page or on screen. But it has zero emotional truth. 

MARVEL movies do lean more towards the comedic, sure. And with actors like Robert Downey Jnr and Chris Pratt, they're going to play to the jokes, and I understand that's not everyone's cup of tea. But they have a lot of different flavours. A variety of tone. Especially when you throw in the Netfllix shows. And that -from my perspective- is real life. That is adult. Real life is not all one thing. It's happy, it's sad, it's dark, it's light, it's serious, it's goofy....and all at the same time. If you don't like the tone of one MARVEL movie? Hang around five minutes, there'll be one that suits you better. (And I'm not ignoring that many people feel there are way to many of them, but that's an argument for another day.) MARVEL gives us action movies, fantasy movies, heist movies, comedies, crime TV shows, space operas. We're surely only a few steps away from a musical. And DC? We get the one thing. DC could have an even more varied roster, if they tried. Their potential movie characters include sandman, Swamp Thing, Plastic Man, and Billy Batson, for fucks sake. 

Bring in some comedy filmmakers, bring in some horror filmmakers, bring in some social realists, bring in some goofballs. Don't just deliver a bleak, nihilistic vision. 

(There is a similar trend in crime fiction, and I probably lose friends every time I talk about it; the race to the bottom of noir)

DC comics led the charge in the 'silver age' of comic books. Long before Stan Lee dreamed up the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, DC gave us Barry Allen and Hal Jordan. These guys were heroes. Adventurers. And most of the best DC comics of recent years have been works that reminds us of what was great about characters pre-Miller, books like ALL STAR SUPERMAN and WORLDS FINEST. I would love for DC movies to be doing the same now, and to be kicking MARVEL's ass in terms of diversity both on-and-off screen. 

Much was made in the early 2000's of there being a new era in comics. 'The age of the writer.' I think that's bullshit. Writers generally (with exceptions, like Bob Kane) are always the ones who get the credit. The greatest artists in the history of comics had to fight tooth and nail to receive their due, and in many cases it wasn't given until after their death. What I do think happened around then is we got a bunch of writers coming through -Bendis, Rucka, Brubaker, etc- who weren't just interested in empty cool. They knew story. Character. Structure. Empathy. They also had a love of an older age of comics, drawing largely from the 70's. It's possibly revealing of a behind-the-scenes culture difference that most of these writers got to make way more of a mark at Marvel than DC. 

(And don't read this as the rantings of an anti-DC fanboy. My favourite character is Daredevil, sure. And I have a lot of love for Captain America. But most of my childhood/teen reading was with DC. Batman is easily my second favourite comic book character. And the others -John Constantine, Jesse Custer, Zatanna, Dick Grayson, Captain Marvel (Billy Batson), Green Lantern, more recently Superman- betray a heavy DC bias. I hold WATCHMEN as one of the finest pieces of literature ever. I devoured Vertigo books. I want DC to be brilliant.)

(I also want them to stop screwing over creatives, and to give credit where it due, and to have less old-time artists and writers dying in obscurity and poverty...)

I've been told numerous times in the last few days that the Superman I like (i.e, the actual character) doesn't work in the modern day. The times are too dark, apparently. It's not like the aw shucks old days. Bullshit. You know what was going on at the time Superman was being created? A little thing called The Great Depression. Immediately after that his sales soared during an even smaller thing we like to call World War 2. Are people seriously going to tell me that what we have going on in the world now is somehow darker than two of the most difficult periods in American (and world) history? could it maybe, just maybe, be that dark times need one or two brighter characters? That as our pop culture turns inwards and fearful, and our stories reflect the grim and desperate times we live in, it's important to have just one or two icons that represent something better?

I'm starting to feel that the only genuinely transgressive move in storytelling these days -in comics, movies, and crime fiction- is to tell some stories about the good guy. Because everybody is telling the other story. We all seem scared to do anything else. And that scares the hell out of me, because it means we're not doing our jobs.

DC -and by extension their movies- seem stuck. Pushing this weird, fake version of adult storytelling. They've had great creators and stories in that time, but nothing that can seem to take hold in their mainstream stories. WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS may have given the company a huge shot in the financial arm, but creatively they can't seem to get out of the shadows cast by those stories. 

I wonder how different their film universe would be looking right now if they'd gone with Joss Whedon's BATMAN pitch over Chris Nolan's? Or his WONDER WOMAN? Or if they'd not rewritten Greg Berlanti's GREEN LANTERN script into a mangled botch-job? If they'd given MAN OF STEEL to someone like Brad Bird? 

And now there is a generation of these empty cool storytellers who are in positions of power in Hollywood. People who grew up with this hollow, splash page mentality. 

When Zack Snyder remade DAWN OF THE DEAD I was pleasantly surprised. It's a popcorn version of a horror flick. It has some wit, some style, and a deftness of touch. I enjoyed that film way more than I expected to. But I have hated everything since. 

This was crystallised way back during the making of WATCHMEN. I saw him give an interview in which he talked of them making a rubber copy of Comedians hand, so that during the opening fight sequence the camera could get in real close, and we could see that hand get punched really hard. In slow motion. Cool. He talked about this rubber hand for about five minutes, which is five minutes longer than I've ever heard him talk about a character's story arc. That's not why I go to a film. Not why I re-read WATCHMEN on an annual basis. The film is an exercise in seeing someone who loves the imagery, but has zero interest in digging down into the subtext (or even the text, really.) Is this style? Because it sure ain't substance.

His version of deep is basically the same as West Wing's episode about ten word answers. We all know people who can talk politics by reeling off slogans ("we just want more freedom, not less.") But can they talk beyond those trite lines? Can they talk policy? Can they back up their arguments? Snyder is the filmic equivalent. "Look, I can reference Jesus. I can show Hercules. Here's something that invokes the samurai." That's nice, Zack, but those are images. Can you explore what they mean, or why you're using them?

(And don't get me started on the fucking stupidity of turning Superman into a Christ figure. Look, I'm an atheist, I don't care either way, but Superman is Moses. You wanna do Jesus? Then go get J'on J'onzz.) 

This is the TDKR mentality. A bunch of cool images, some over-the-top dialogue, a vague awareness of iconography and mythic images, and zero depth or empathy. Snyder makes splash page films. 

He kills off one of the most beloved Superman characters in the first fifteen minutes of BVS. This character is never referred to by name, and is executed by terrorists. Now, I'm a storyteller, and I understand that killing characters is part of the job. So it's not the choice to kill that's the problem. But do it as part of a fucking STORY. With emotional arcs. With structure. With meaning. Snyder's reason for this death? To "have a little fun with the character." Yeah. A little fun. Killed by terrorists. Yeah, that's empty cool. I've read an interview where he says they had many discussions over whether Batman should swear in the movie. That seems to take up more thought than whether Batman should kill, or if the most anti-gun character in comics should use guns. Cool, bro, cool

And so, I guess I just need to accept that he and I will never agree. He is not going to make films that interest me, and it's pointless getting angry over that. 

That's also not to say that the fans of his films are wrong. I can't say that. Maybe it's me that's wrong. I know the way I talk about the whole empty cool culture is loaded with implied snobbishness. But I've honestly spent a long time trying to think up a better way of describing what I see, and I've failed. 

I know there are people who love 300. People who love WATCHMEN. There are people who have tried to convince me of the artistic merits of MAN OF STEEL. I hear what they're saying, I simply can't cross the bridge they've tried to build. Just as I remember conversations with friends when I was younger, and they would try and convince me that I was missing something with Spawn. They would say Todd McFarlane was correct to believe Batman and Spider-Man should kill, because "this is the 90's." Yeah, cool bro, cool. 

I have to call it the way I see it. If you're a fan of this culture of storytelling, I apologize for not being able to describe it in less condescending terms. All I can really say is that this little rant is me agreeing not to keep shitting on you; you go do your thing, and I'll go do mine.

And that goes double for the director. He tells stories that I just don't like. That I've never liked. But if I simply don't engage with it, it's pointless losing sleep over them. He can just go do his thing, I'll go do mine.

And I guess mine is going to need to be to try and tell some stories about the characters that empty cool isn't interested in.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

I Have Seen the Future of DC’s Cinematic Universe and It’s…

Scott D. Parker

NOTE: There will be spoilers. I advise you not to read this review of the movie until you’ve seen the film or never plan to.

NOTE 2: This is long, but I have a lot to say.

It took me almost the entire movie of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to figure out what kind of movie it really was: a 1970s Treasury edition comic. Typically, the treasury editions were reserved for reprints of older titles a 1970s kid could never find. But the special editions of these types of comics were reserved for the special titles. Superman vs. Spider-Man (twice). Superman vs. Shazam. Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. Batman vs. the Hulk. Superman vs. Wonder Woman. Events like these were just too big for a regular comic. You needed the space for a story to breath and, with it’s 64 pages and an 10 x 14-inch size, it was the best place for epics like this.

And, in each and every case, there would be some convoluted reason the heroes fight each other. One of my personal favorites is in the second Supes vs. Spidey book where Superman faces the Hulk and, after Hulk knocks Supes across the bay, Big Blue flies back and just stands there while Hulk wails on him. Anyway, the heroes have their fight—and neither side ‘wins’—and then team up against the read bad guys, usually another team up.

That’s what this movie was: a giant Treasury edition of a movie.

Before we start, a word. Look, I understand the need to have Batman and Superman to meet and have disagreements. They have different philosophies. That’s part of the modern way of these characters since John Byrne’s reboot. I know you can’t have them be ‘super friends’ right off the bat.

First of all, there are lots of things to enjoy.

  • In the opening credits, Bill Finger's name is finally given credit as co-creator of Batman. It only took, what, 70 years or so. About dang time!
  • The opening of the movie, where you get the flashback to the end of MAN OF STEEL but from Bruce Wayne’s (and every non-powered person) point of view is gripping and truly harrowing. It gave a great sense of peril. The image of Bruce Wayne running into the destruction. That's what makes this man a hero.
  • The ‘mystery’ plot that takes up the bulk of the first half of the film I enjoyed. I liked how different characters were all searching for something just out of reach and just mysterious enough to move the story forward.
  • I loved the introduction of Wonder Woman/Diana Prince via espionage. Turns out she and Bruce Wayne are after the same thing. It’s information Lex Luthor has on metahumans.
  • Overall, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is awesome. When she shows up and fights Doomsday, there is almost glee on her face. Reminded me a bit of Legolas and Gimli in The Two Towers charging into battle with grins on their faces. And she’s far from a shrinking violent. She is just badass, whacking off one of Doomsday's arm with her sword, then lassoing him to prepare him for the finale. Her movie, coming out next year, should be golden. Gadot is just the right type of alluring and beguiling. More of her. Please.
  • The sequence with Batman taking on a roomful of goons is truly the comic book of Batman come to life. It’s magnificent to finally—FINALLY!—see this type of Batman on screen. He was using batarangs, ropes, and every non-lethal means at his disposal to take these guys out. And it isn’t easy, but he’s still brutally efficient. Arguably my favorite sequence in the film. Had a goofy grin on my face the entire time.
  • And can I get a high five for Batman finally using a voice modulator?
  • Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne is a great choice, especially as a Batman who has been in the trenches for 20 years. I liked his physical presence in scenes, but he still came off as aloof. Guess that was his “Bruce Wayne” act. Definitely what the modern Wayne in the comics—i.e., Bat-God, the man who is 10 steps ahead of everyone—is like. I tend to prefer my Batman more man than god. Nonetheless, props to Affleck. He did a great job and I look forward to more of his Batman.
  • Jeremy Irons as Alfred. Please give me the Alfred prequel. Heck, I can’t wait for the solo Batman film. Loved Alfred in this film. Much more like the “EARTH ONE” version of the comics. The chemistry between him and Bruce is a wonderful treat.
  • The *visuals* of Superman are almost all great. It was actually kind of shocking when the headlights of the Batmobile shined on Superman's suit and the true blue comes out. I was like "Hey, it's color!"
  • I did like the idea that Lex, using the Kryptonian technology not only builds Doomsday but, it seems, paves the way for Darkseid to come to earth. That’s pretty neat.
  • The visual of Batman atop the huge crane at the pier. A living comic book splash page.
  • The MAN OF STEEL musical cue. I still love this. No, it’s not John Willams’s march, but that’s okay. It’s arguably one of the more joyous things of the film. 
  • Speaking of musical cues, Wondy has one that rumbles along when she shows up. Makes me wonder what a true theme might've been.
  • I like that most everyone knows everyone's secret identity, even Lex. That'll be interesting later on.
  • The cameos! We got glimpses of Aquaman, Cyborg, and the non-Grant Gustin Flash. More than that, we actually got Flash in costume in a completely wonderful vision to Bruce from the future. Loved that part. Obviously we'll have a moment, probably late in Justice League Part I, where something will happen and Flash will have to warn Bruce from the past. Actually, that starts to sound like the Rock of Ages story from JLA by Grant Morrison back in the 1990s. They could do worse.

Okay, so before I get into the bad stuff, let me say this: BvS is all set up for something in the future. That’s all well and good, but the filmmakers’ first responsibility is to tell a good story in *this movie.* They didn’t do as good a job at that with this movie. As a comic book geek, I saw the through line, weak though it was, and was able to follow it. Heck, I even mostly understood it. I think. But it bored my wife. How in the world can you bore people at a SUPERHERO movie? That takes talent.

  • It’s a long, long film. To be honest, I am okay with it. We’ve waited this long to have Bats and Supes in a feature film together, just bring on more minutes. But do it in a good way. Some of this stuff could have been trimmed. Do we need yet another flashback sequence to Wayne’s parents being murdered? Not really, although I *did* appreciate the connective tissue between the two Marthas. [How did I read comics for 40 years and never realize Bruce’s mom and Clark’s mom both were named ‘Martha’?]
  • Superman/Clark Kent. Henry Cavill looks stellar as Superman and even Clark Kent. But it’s okay for him to smile once in a while. Most of the time, he just stands there or hovers there and scowls. I understand Clark having a crisis of conscience, but he’s kinda had one for two movies now. Get over it already. Remember the scene in MAN OF STEEL when he learns to fly and he laughs? More of that. He can do things no one else can. To borrow a theme from THE DARK KNIGHT, Superman needs to show the world, by his example, that he's good. He can take the worst of the world and not be deterred, just like Batman took the rap for Harvey Dent's death.
  • Humor: frankly, it’s so out of place in this movie that it jolted me out of the movie. You’ve heard one in the trailer when Bats and Supes comments on Wondy. The only other one—not kidding here—that I can remember is when Bats saves Martha Kent. It felt weird. If you're going to make a serious movie and, in your world, "serious movie" means grimdark, then go all in. Don't try and shoehorn in jokes. By comparison, the Marvel movies have high stakes and funny lines from day one. Heck, even in Avengers 1 when NYC is being pummeled there was room for lightheartedness. It’s a comic book movie. Lighten up.
  • Okay, sure, the filmmakers say they want to get serious. I’m okay with that. I was a teenager just when The Dark Knight Returns comic was released. I was ready for it, being more mature and all. But that story was forty years in the making. It had earned the fight between Supes and Bats. BvS didn’t.
  • And the Big Fight. At lunch afterward, I asked my wife “Okay, so Lex’s plan was to blackmail (using Martha Kent as bait) Superman to fight Batman and kill him so that Supes could be exposed to the world as a fraud that Lex thought he was? Or was it that Lex hated Batman for some odd reason? The aliens from Superman vs. Muhammed Ali (1979) has a better storyline than this. Beside, Lex had already created Doomsday. Why?
  • Moreover, when Supes lands, he *immediately* tries to talk to Bruce into helping him. But Bats doesn’t listen. He won’t listen. He’s too friggin’ blinded by his insane desire to kill Superman. Really? The World’s Greatest Detective doesn’t have time for chit-chat? Come on. That’s not Batman. If the filmmakers are going to make a Bat-God version of Batman, give him the brains as well as the brawn. On the other hand, Supes might've gotten less angry so fast. He should have kept talking, trying to reason with Bats.
  • Superman’s death. Way too soon. Yeah, he ain’t dead, but still: way too soon. I understand now that director Zack Snyder is helping the world love Superman by having him sacrifice himself. I guess all the saving of other people throughout the world wasn’t enough.
  • Oh, and Batman kills. WTH? What is it with comic book Bats hardly ever killing and movie Bats (1989-2016) blowing stuff up with goons inside. Yeah, they’re goons, but still. I *think* what the filmmakers are trying to infer, as voiced via Alfred in his “…make good men cruel” line, is that the arrival of Superman made Batman darker. Not sure why, but whatever. Even my wife commented on that.

I think I’ve gone on long enough. A few more stray thoughts.

  • Just three short months ago, the doorway to my childhood was opened again with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That was a joyous film, even with the downbeat ending. I was hoping for a second helping of that. Didn’t get it.
  • As a diehard DC guy, I enjoyed—and caught—most of the references. This movie will likely not work for the general audiences. It’s a real shame, too.
  • I’ve said before seeing this movie while enjoying the wonderful DC shows on TV that I’m looking forward to the next generation of DC movies after all this grimdark stuff. Still am.
  • My wife is a good barometer as a general audience person. She’s not a huge fan of superhero films, but enjoyed BATMAN BEGINS and really loved THE DARK KNIGHT. Loved IRON MAN, too, but that was because of Robert Downey, Jr. She had two quotes that I literally wrote down they were so good.
  • “I don’t like a movie that makes me not like Batman.” [To her, heroes fighting each other is stupid. They’re good guys. Good guys don’t fight each other. When I pointed out that they often do in comics, she was nonplussed.]
  • “This is not the blockbuster it pretends to be.” [Sheesh!]

So, I Have Seen the Future of DC’s Cinematic Universe and It’s…

Worrisome. Is this how all the movies are going to be? Is it too late to change the tone of some of these future films, maybe lighten it up a tad?

But, fear not. Happiness is on the horizon, and it's only three days away! All you have to do is turn on your television. This Monday, tune in to Supergirl on CBS for the crossover with The Flash. It’ll make you smile, it’ll show you a couple of heroes who don’t fight each other, and you’ll be reminded of how much fun live-action superheroes can be.

Here’s a little video of the cast talking about it. Key phrase from Supergirl herself: “…they have such good chemistry because there’s such joy about them, and humor, and lightheartedness.

Superhero films do not have to be all happy happy, bright and shiny, but it sure as heck shouldn’t all the other either. A blend is what makes this stuff work. And the blend of BvS was too much of grimdark dour and none of the joy. To borrow a phrase from the Star Wars prequels, there's no Han Solo in this film. Perhaps that's Flash's job?

Don’t be saddened by my thoughts. I saw BvS on a regular screen. I will still go see it again on IMAX. And I’ll buy the DVD later this year mainly to see the extra 30 (!) minutes and how those new scenes fit in the movie. But I’m officially a little nervous about Justice League. Not Wonder Woman solo or Batman solo, but Justice League. 

Yes, it is good finally to see Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman on screen together. Yes, there really are lots of little nuggets that are really, really neat, especially for a comic book guy (DC in particular) like me.

I wanted to love this film. In the end, I like it a lot despite all the issues. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Easter - Crime Time

In Norway, the tradition of reading crime fiction over their longer-than-usual Easter break is so entrenched in the culture that if you search "Easter Crime" you get a page full of results discussing the phenomena. This is particularly interesting because when you search "Easter" and a specific crime, like say, murder or robbery, the page fills with local and international tales of complex heists, family disputes gone bad, and people knocking over ATMS.

What is it about Easter, our goriest of holidays, that leads us straight into the open arms of sin, rather than, you know... Jesus?

I'm not a psychologist or a sociologist, so rather than trying to answer that, I'm going to share a few of my favorite Easter true crime stories. Some of these are ripe for adaptation.


This year, in Chicago, clergy ask their city for an Easter without violence, as the city is plagued by violence and murder every day of the year. Do they know, I wonder, how Easter Sunday has been plagued by violence for what seems like eons? The first occurrence of "Easter Massacre" I found was in 1916. Also called "Easter Rising" and "Easter Rebellion", Easter week of 1916 marked a bloody insurrection in Ireland against English rule.

A bronze angel with a bullet in her chest still stands at the site of the insurrection, who's history seems to change significantly depending on who is doing the talking.

The other result for "Easter Massacre" has no such nuance. It's a tragedy that, in our current climate is all too imaginable, but still gut churning. 

An early Easter, much like this year's, prompted the Ruppert family to come together for an Easter egg hunt at Grandma's. Jimmy Ruppert shared the home with his mother, and though the house full of children and happy laughter should have been a welcome celebration, instead, his brother said something that clicked with his mounting paranoia. "Uncle Jimmy" went back upstairs to his gun collection, then came down and calmly shot each member of his family multiple times.


So you're sitting in the car with your baby while your husband gets some cash out after a long, and hopefully happy, Easter Sunday - now a bunch of men with guns are coming at you, and they want the cash your spouse is getting from the ATM.

Not the best way to cap off the Easter holiday, but at least the four jack-offs were almost immediately apprehended, and no one was harmed.

Easter Sunday and armed robbery seem to go together like Peeps and hollow bunnies - gas station attendants left alone to sell candy and cigarettes to people who've had too much candy and not enough cigarettes seem to be the people most at risk for a gun in the face on Easter. It's not always a lone desperate man or a group of teenagers testing the limits of their newfound criminal mindset - no, there are love stories, too.

Russel Frohmuth and Ashley Wells are hardly Bonnie and Clyde. They didn't have the glamour, the guts, or the vision. What they did have was a box cutter and the lack of forethought to hold people up in public parking lots. In a crime spree not even fit for a Dateline episode, they held up three different people around town before being caught and having all their ill-gotten gains recovered from their mini-van.


You may be familiar with Hatton Garden if you're really into jewelry and have been to London a few times. It's the center of the UK jewel trade and home to a bank of safety deposit boxes rumored to hold billions of dollars worth of jewelry. With plans for the local stores and traders to be closed for Easter, just about everything in the district was locked up tight in the boxes, and the people of London set about their holiday.

There was just one problem - a gang of retirees, ripe for a crime movie, were ready to pull off "one last job." A fire was set just before the weekend, and authorities thought that was the end of their bad luck, but when everyone was gone, enjoying their time off, these men cut a hole in the wall and lowered themselves into the vault. Over a period of two days they cracked the safety deposit boxes and filtered the jewels out, until one of them accidentally tripped an alarm, cutting their heyday short. 

The seven men, all senior citizens, made off with about 300 million dollars worth of diamonds and other jewelry, that was thought to be out of the country and on it's way to buyers before the heist was even discovered.

The men were eventually caught, but that was hardly the end of the story. The leader of the gang, known as "Guv'nor", facing jail time and the end of his nearly forty-year career as a professional thief, has a bone to pick about how the investigation of a previous robbery was handled. No, he isn't trying to get off on a technicality - he's horrified that the photos he and his gang left on the floor of the vault - photos that allegedly showed a high profile British politician sexually abusing children - were ignored. He claims the gang found them in one of the boxes and purposely left them for authorities to find, but nothing seems to have come of their attempts to reveal the horror.

It seems there is honor among thieves, and his speaking out has lead to an investigation, though the politician's name has not been released.

I'm surprised the movie adaptation isn't already in development, but maybe Hollywood isn't paying attention to what's going on in London.

One thing all of these Easter crimes have in common, though, is that the perps all got caught. So this Easter, maybe focus on eating ham, not going HAM.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A conversation with Neely Tucker

By Alex Segura

You should be reading Neely Tucker.

Whenever someone asks me for a crime fiction author suggestion, one that might be flying a little under the radar, Neely comes to mind. He writes great mysteries and makes it seem easy - an impressive feat.

Tucker’s Sully Carter books - The Ways of the Dead and Murder, D.C., out now, with a third, Only the Hunted Run, on the way - paint a realistic, compelling and eye-opening picture of the nation’s capital through the eyes of a flawed and all-too-human protagonist. It has the ingredients of some of of my favorite private detective series - think Lippman, Pelecanos, Connelly and Lehane - with a flair and rhythm all its own. Carter’s petulant, smart, thick-headed and brave. He’s a guy you can root for and curse at in the space of a few pages. Tucker’s prose is vibrant but compact, befitting a journalist of his pedigree. The only downside to his novels? I usually read them in a few days and have to wait for the next one.

I was first introduced to Tucker through mutual journalism friends and finally had the pleasure of meeting him in person at Miami Book Fair last year. Trust me when I say you won’t regret picking up his books.

Thanks to Neely for swinging by and chatting. This interview was edited for space and clarity. A version of this interview will show up in my newsletter this week, too - you can sign up for that here.

Neely, thanks for taking the time to chat. Can you give readers a quick introduction to you and your work?
Sure. By day, I'm a reporter on the Washington Post's national desk, currently assigned to the 2016 Presidential campaign. By night, I'm a novelist and non-fiction author. I've been a journalist for thirty years,  sixteen of them at the Post, eight of them abroad. Worked in sixty plus countries or territories in Europe, Africa, the Mid-East, lots of it in conflict situations. Published four books (three fiction) and a chapter in another. Three kids. Wife. Dog. Grill. Football. Bourbon. Seventh-generation Mississippian now living just outside D.C.

What was the inspiration for the Sully Carter books? What made you want to shift to writing fiction after your success in newspapers and nonfiction?
When I came back to the U.S. in 2000,  the Post assigned me to the courthouse as a way of getting to know the city. There was a fascinating case of the last serial killer to work in D.C., a guy named Darryl Turner. He killed prostitutes in a rough part of town. Got away with it for years. That was the inspiration for the novel. In the first draft, Sully  was just one of several primary characters involved the case. He was a reporter who'd come home from covering the Bosnian war, damaged psychologically and physically. He was an amalgamation of things that I and a lot of other reporters had been through. My agent thought he was the strongest character in the draft, and, besides, he had the possibility of being the narrator of a series. So I rewrote it from his point of view.

As to the switch....I wanted to be a novelist since I was a kid. I grew up outside of a tiny little town in Mississippi and loved to read and write stories. I don't know why. My parents were very conservative but they'd let me read just about anything in the town library. So I was reading "Lord of the Rings" and Hemingway and Stephen King and the Hardy Boys and Faulkner and "The Exorcist" and Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote and Eudora Welty, even when a lot of it was WAY over my head.

I got interested in journalism only halfway through college. Willie Morris, the first actual writer I ever met, said that since I wanted to travel as well as write, there was always a newspaper where ever you wanted to go, and then you could meet interesting people all the time and never have to get a real job. Plus, you need to learn how to write sentences, and newspapers can teach you that. I may be the only person who  took career advice from an inebriated southern writer at a Saturday night baseball game and didn't wind up in a holding cell.  

And the advice paid off! 

Like some of my favorite detective series, the Sully novels feature a strong sense of history and place. I know you’re not a native of DC, but what made you want to set the first few books there? And why was it important to give Sully a journalism background?
Practicality, mostly. I wanted the books grounded in reality, but I also wanted them to have a natural way of taking place in a national spotlight. Ergo: Gritty crime in D.C. that gets tangled up, one way or another, with the "ruling class" of federal D.C. In the first book, the teenage daughter of a powerful D.C. appellate judge who might be the next Supreme Court nominee - hello, today's headlines! - is killed in a bad part of town. Like that.

As far as the sense of place....thank you. I think reporting from so many different places around the planet gives you a pretty good idea for what's distinctive about a place, and how to dive into that. 

The second book in particular, was steeped in D.C. history - some fictional, most real. What was the research for that like? Do you find that aspect of writing fiction - the research and organization of data - easier to handle with your background as a journalist?
Murder, D.C. is about the death of the scion of one of the city's wealthiest black families. He's killed in a waterfront park that's long been a haven for drugs. Which, as it happens,is on the site of a former slave-holding pen before the Civil War. The park is wholly invented, but not that much -- the nation's biggest slave-selling auction house was just across the Potomac in Virginia, a distance of about half a mile.

I would argue that the background as a journalist both helps and hurts the research. It helps in that you know how to find what you're looking for and how to synthesize large amounts of information. It hurts in that you tend to rely on that too much.

In fiction, readers don't care if you describe the interrogation room exactly as it is. It only matters you describe is so authoritatively that they believe it. I once profiled Richard Price, who is famous for doing tons of research. He'd go out riding with cops and hanging out in bars and take all these notes and then....never look at it. Never opened a notebook while writing. He said his job was to understand the plausible and then lie responsibly. I thought that was brilliant. (Even in "Clockers," perhaps his most famous book, the title is not actually slang for a street dealer. He just made it up, but now everybody thinks that it was real. The Oxford English Dictionary even called him about it.)

That's a great Price story - and such a relevant point about fiction. It's all about making someone believe your story. My own novels feature a washed up journalist in Pete Fernandez. Sully’s career is much more successful, though they both seem to suffer from similar problems - drinking and a dangerous curiosity being the most obvious. How important was it for you to have a protagonist who wasn’t a seasoned detective, per se?
Very. Sully needed to be a reporter in order to bring in the mysterious workings of the media (some good, some not so much) in these high-profile murder cases. That was something I wanted to write about. Also, so that  he could be a surrogate for the reader. He's not a cop or detective. He doesn't have subpoena power. He can't make people talk to him. He doesn't get to analyze fingerprints or DNA or shell casings. He is bound by a fairly strict ethical code. So he's just this guy on the street, behind the yellow tape,  trying to figure out a violent crime. Of course, everybody's lying to him about their role in it, or might be, or they might be telling the truth as they know it, but they might be factually mistaken. He has to figure out who's telling the truth, then publish the public narrative of the crime...but if he gets it wrong, he gets fired. Or worse. High stakes all around.  

Your third Sully book is on the way. What can you tell us about it?
Only the Hunted Run, is based on the very real assault on the Capitol Building by a schizophrenic named Russell Weston. In 1997, he made it into the building and killed two security guards. In "Hunted," a killer makes it much further into the Capitol and eventually winds up at St. Elizabeths (no apostrophe), the gothic-era  mental hospital on a hill in Southeast DC. Happily, in real life, it really does overlook the rest of the city, which it also does in "Hunted." (Take that metaphor as far as you wish.) Sully is in the Capitol when the shooting starts. Like all the Sully books, it's sort of a crime story about the American Dream gone really, really wrong.

I can't wait to read it. Now, I have to ask this, because his books played a huge part in my own decision to write crime fiction, and I see a lot of echoes of his work in your own - are you a fan of George Pelecanos’s work? The D.C. you portray isn’t identical to his, nor would I expect it to be, but you touch on a lot of the same issues afflicting the city. Mainly things like the dangerous racial divide and the stark contrast between the political elites and the nameless poor that are sometimes just a mile apart. Can you talk about that a bit?
George and I are both greatly influenced by the late great Elmore Leonard, particularly the dialogue. I think what you're seeing in both of us is the ghost of Dutch. I worked in Detroit and got to know him. We were friends for twenty years. You learned from Dutch just by being around him. Lovely, lovely man.  I've only met George once, but we've talked several times by phone and e-mail. He's great. We share a lot of the same likes and dislikes, and I really admire his writing. I stopped reading him, though, as soon as I started my books in the city. I didn't want to be unconsciously influenced in how I was doing my stories set on the same turf. You've got to do your own thing. But, man, I'd love to work with him on a script or something. How fab would that be?

Sign me up. I see the Leonard influence, too - that makes a lot of sense. What an amazing person to learn from.

Are there any books or movies that you’ve been enjoying lately?
I've got two jobs and three kids. I'm way behind on everything. The wife and I just watched all five seasons of "Game of Thrones" in about three weeks. It was awesome. Just read All the Light We Cannot See, which I really liked. Read So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell's classic. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. Into the Heart of the Sea. At the moment, I'm picking through stories in The Annotated Lovecraft. As a journalist, I should be thrilled that "Spotlight" won the Academy Award for Best Picture....but I would have voted for "Mad Max: Fury Road."

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Lori Rader-Day: The LITTLE PRETTY THINGS Interview

by Holly West

The only thing better than reading one of Lori Rader-Day's books is getting to sit down and have a conversation with her. I recently had the opportunity at Left Coast Crime in Phoenix and let me tell you, my cheeks were hurting from laughing so hard.

After I read her latest novel, LITTLE PRETTY THINGS, I knew I wanted to interview her about it and she kindly agreed, in spite of her busy schedule. And in spite of the fact that I keep calling the book PRETTY LITTLE THINGS.

HW: First, I want to talk about LITTLE PRETTY THINGS. I’ve been pretty vocal about how much I like it, so I was happy to see it was nominated for the 2016 Mary Higgins Clark Award like its predecessor, the Anthony Award-winning THE BLACK HOUR. Tell us, briefly, what it’s about.

LRD: LITTLE PRETTY THINGS is about Juliet Townsend, who is ten years out of high school and stuck in a bad job, cleaning a hotel in her small Indiana hometown. She used to have a lot of potential as a high school track star, beaten by only one person, her best friend, Maddy Bell. The two friends have been estranged since things went sour over their last race, so when Maddy sweeps into Juliet’s workplace and then is found dead the next morning, Juliet decides to take on the task of figuring out what’s happened to Maddy and also what went wrong in her own life. Friendships between women, regret, and I got to take my readers into the yearbook staff room, which is where I spent my high school career.

HW: One of the things I like most about LITTLE PRETTY THINGS is the setting, which might sound odd considering it’s a little (okay, a lot) depressing. There’s just something about cheap roadside motels, which are the only places my family ever stayed on our yearly vacations, that mixes a sense of dark hopelessness with a sense of freedom and even anonymity. Obviously, the perfect place to set a murder. What inspired the location and were there other menial jobs you considered for your protagonist, Juliet?

LRD: I love old buildings, and not just the architecturally significant ones but the ones that remind us of our own childhoods. I was inspired to create the Mid-Night Inn by two very different hotels near where I grew up. They’re both gone, now. One was a classic single strip of five or six rooms right alongside the highway called the Sunset Inn. By the time I was young, it was ruins, but the nearby building was being used as a café. It’s someone’s house now, believe it or not. My grandparents used to take us there for “coffee”—my sister and I got cheeseburgers. The other hotel wasn’t nearly as dilapidated as the Mid-Night, but I borrowed its location almost precisely. My dad recognized it, so I must have stolen very liberally. I actually had a few ideas for what Juliet could do next—different jobs, in case I wanted to continue Juliet’s story. I haven’t ruled that out, actually, so I’ll just say that Juliet was always a hotel cleaner for LITTLE PRETTY THINGS, but she has plans to get out of there and move up.

HW: Like Juliet, you grew up in Indiana, but you’ve lived a very different life beyond that. Is there anything else of her in you? In what ways do you relate to her and is that relating important to the writing of this book? I suppose the larger question is whether we as writers need to write about something we can relate to, sort of like “write what you know.”

LRD: I don’t think we have to write only what we know, but what we know can inform what we write. People who know me pretty well find plenty in my books to attribute directly back to me, which makes sense since I’m the one who wrote them. For LITTLE PRETTY THINGS, I did borrow from my hometown and other places I have lived but I also borrowed from the what-if file of my own life to create Juliet. I was wondering one day what the hell I’d be doing for a living if I hadn’t gone to college, and it was not too out of the realm of possibility that I might have Juliet’s kind of job. I worked for a couple of factories and a restaurant as summer jobs on my way to paying for college. I didn’t like that work at all, but lots of people don’t get the choice to like what they do. I come from a long line of blue-collar workers, and I think that perspective needs to be visible in our fiction. The problem is that most people who work those long hours don’t have the luxury of sitting down and learning how to write. Juliet is important to me in that way and, even though she gets a lot of stuff wrong, I like her.

HW: LITTLE PRETTY THINGS has sparked comparisons to Megan Abbott’s recent novels, and for me particularly, her novel, DARE ME (which if you haven’t read, you should, because it’s great). There is, I think, an inherent darkness in the world of teenage girls that I didn’t quite realize when I was actually a teenager but am now aware of and it discomfits me somewhat. I certainly wouldn’t want to revisit that time in my life. What made you want to explore this world and in effect, go back to it?

LRD: I’m a pantser, so to ask me why I did something like go back to high school in my books—well, you’re asking an impossible ouroboros question I’m not sure I can answer. I wanted to talk about friendships between women and I find that many of my close women friends I have today are from when I was younger—college, for me, and in my early jobs. I wanted to write about someone who was just at the moment where she might rescue herself or she might not succeed, someone who has, in fact, a lot of potential, even if she doesn’t realize it. Also, I think that when you’re writing about young people or about people still living in the towns they grew up in, it’s pretty easy to think that their high school lives aren’t as far away as it might be for someone who doesn’t drive past their school every day, who won’t be sending their own kids there someday. Plus, yeah, there’s a lot of material for drama when it comes to high school girls. I love Megan Abbott’s books!

HW: With two books published and a third soon to be released, do you feel like you’ve finally got this writing thing down?

LRD: Oh, hell no. I got to see Mary Higgins Clark speak once a couple of years ago and she said with every book she still thinks, “Maybe is the time I can’t do it.” So if Mary can admit it at book eighty-whatever, I feel OK about the truth.

HW: I’m a big advocate of becoming involved in local writing communities. You’re currently the president of the Midwest chapter of MWA, but your involvement in your own local community began long before that. Would you say it’s had a significant impact on your writing success or has it mostly been about the support such communities offer?

LRD: The best advice I could ever give a writer hoping to make headway in their craft and career is to find a tribe. I found two—I got an MFA in creative writing from Roosevelt University in Chicago and am still friends with many of the writers I met there. We read for each other, encourage each other. When I first found out I was a mystery writer (yes, I had to be told), I didn’t know many mystery writers, so I went to my first Bouchercon knowing only one person in the building. Overwhelmed is an understatement. But I met Clare O’Donohue there, who gave me golden advice: go join Mystery Writers of America. I got highly involved, made myself useful, got to know so many great people, read some great new books, and listened in as people who were further along this path than I was talked about the business. Now I’m the person talking about the business to people who want to learn, but I still get a lot from going to meetings and events, and I’m still meeting wonderful people.

Lori Rader-Day’s debut mystery, THE BLACK HOUR, won the 2014 Anthony Award for Best First Novel and was a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her second novel, LITTLE PRETTY THINGS, also a finalist for this year's Mary Higgins Clark Award, received a starred review from Booklist and was named a 2015 “most arresting crime novel” by Kirkus Reviews. She lives in Chicago.