Sunday, July 23, 2017

Face in a Book

By Claire Booth

Last night I had a terrific time at the official book launch for Another Man's Ground. The wonderful folks at Face in a Book, an independent bookstore in El Dorado Hills, California, were kind enough to host it.

There was time for some socializing before things got started, which was great because I was able to catch up with quite a few people, including fellow Do Some Damage author Holly West. Thanks so much for coming, Holly! Then I talked a little bit about where the inspiration for the novel's precipitating crime came from and read a passage from the book.
Then came the actual signing, which also allowed me to talk with everyone individually.
If you've never been to a book signing, take a look around at your local bookstores. They're sure to have something soon that matches your interests. And - trust me on this - it will mean the world to the author. There's no one more valuable or special than readers, and we appreciate every single one of you. Thank you.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Try and Avoid [Squirrel!] Distractions When Writing

Scott D. Parker

This past Tuesday, I got a chance to see Jason Isbell live here in Houston. It was a thrilling experience and I wrote about it the next day.

And there’s where the rub comes in.

Even though it’s summer, I still wake up early to write. When I do, it is usually in a direct line: bed to kitchen (for apple cider vinegar and coffee) to office. Open the laptop and start writing. Don’t check email, don’t check the news, don’t do anything other than write. It helps with the brain and the creativity.

Naturally, Wednesday morning’s session was the time I didn’t write on my current Calvin Carter novel but I used the time to write my thoughts about the Isbell concert. (Loved it, by the way. Y’all really should give him a listen. Here he is in June performing three songs on CBS.) I knew going into the session I was doing this, wanted to do, needed to do it, and that was that.

But what came after proved a distraction.

The opening line of the post reads like this: “Have you ever had an experience when you discover something new to you, it blows you away, and you look around and see if anyone else knows about it?” I was so excited about the show and my piece that I truly wanted other people to read my post and be introduced to Isbell’s music. I put it on Facebook—both my personal account and my two author accounts. I tweeted it, three times, in fact, giving props to Isbell as well as Houston Revention Center and Radio Paradise (the online station where I first heard Isbell).

During my workday, when I have a few spare minutes here and there, that’s when I like to write a few paragraphs on the current fiction project. It is one of the reasons why I can get a first draft of a novel done in under a month. But on Wednesday, when I should have been writing, I was too busy refreshing Twitter and Facebook, hoping that Jason Isbell himself read my post. Oh! I liked one of my tweets! Yay!

Complete blew apart my writing for the day. Words written on Monday: 3545. Words written on Tuesday: 2219. Words written Wednesday: 728. See what I mean? By the end of the day, I was pretty irritated with myself for allowing myself to get distracted the way I did.

Distractions don’t always come in the form of alerts on our phones or computers. They can be purely of our own making. I made my mistake on Wednesday. I corrected myself on Thursday and yesterday, but it was a reminder that I need to maintain the focus of my writing time throughout the day.

Y’all ever get distracted like that?

Friday, July 21, 2017

Service Guarantees Citzenship

The coolest part about being a writer is supposed to be writing a perfect sentence, or seeing your name on a cover of a book - and I'm not saying that isn't cool, but I'm nothing if not honest. And here's the honest truth - the coolest thing about being a writer is meeting other writers. Beautiful, ridiculous, creative, and fun writers who always have side projects going and let you jump in and have fun with them.

I mentioned that I will be at MidSummer Scream next weekend, and I really can't wait - but wait, I must. Lucky for me, my friend Kit Power got ahold of me last week to ask me back to his killer podcast Watching RoboCop with Kit Power. If you're unfamiliar with it - it's exactly what it sounds like. Awhile back I was on to... watch RoboCop with Kit Power, and watch it, we did. We provided our own commentary track, sometimes completely off topic, and had a fucking blast.

If you missed it, you can listen here.

This time, I'll be joining Kit for a bonus episode, to talk about my favorite Verhoeven film - Starship Troopers. I'm not sure when it will air, but you can listen to us wax philosophical about the anti-Oprah in RoboCop in the meantime. This episode should be a lot of fun - I love Starship Troopers, but since Kit and I had thrown the idea of doing this around several months ago, I decided not to give a re-watch. I can't remember the last time I saw the movie, so it'll be a little like the first time all over again.

A preview of things I will more than likely say:
-Something about how Jake Busey was really popular for a moment.
-Something about co-ed showers being considered futuristic.
-Something about the bugs where I used to live looking exactly like the bugs they fight.
-Something about the USMC Commandant's Reading List.
-Something about not fucking remembering that!

And more!

Can't wait to share it with all of you, and/or jump in on your next fun side project.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

And boy are my arms tired...

I recently returned from a 13 day, 2400 mile, 7 country road trip across Europe with my wife Sarah and my friend Johnny the ginger Marine. I did the driving, they did the navigating. We had a great time, and I only visited two bookstores if you don't count museum shops.

The first was a lovely little place in Bruges called Books and Brunch. How could I pass it up? They had waffles AND books! And they had a nice selection of both. I admit only partook of the waffles, but I nearly grabbed a copy of Underground by Haruki Murakami, his interviews with survivors of the Tokyo sarin gas attack. Cheerful reading! I lugged too many books on vacation as usual, so I was given a moratorium by Sarah.

If you haven't seen Martin McDonagh's In Bruges you're missing out on one of the best crime films of recent vintage. It showcases the beautiful city very well, uses the scenery to make it integral to the plot, and stars Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes. Brutally funny.

Here's a look at Books and Brunch.

If you zoom in you can see they have good taste. Megan Abbott, Michael Koryta, Richard Price, all in Dutch. No Dutch Leonard, though. Damn shame.

A few days later we visited our friend Courtney in Maastricht in the Netherlands, and she took us to bookstore that truly worships books... Boekhandel; Dominicanen, a huge bookstore in a former Dominican church. The front door is a rusted metal masterpiece, and inside the vaulted marble ceilings make you reverent, even if you're giggling at a copy of I Love You Dick, by Chris Kraus.

Take a look:

Make a pilgrimage there if you happen to be in the area. It's not far from Aachen, Germany, home of the Aachendom, the church where Charlemagne's throne and grave sit. 

It's one of the most beautiful bookstores I've ever visited. I bought myself a fancy pen to commemorate the occasion. And I bought I Love You Dick. Because no one tells me I have too many books!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Iain Ryan on The Student

In less than 2 years, Australian writer Iain Ryan has put out 5 novels.  He started with Four Days, a fierce novel set in Queensland state in the 1980's, when police corruption was endemic there, and he went on from that impressive debut to his pitch-black Tunnel Island trilogy: Drainland, Harsh Recovery, and Civil Twilight - books in which he continued to explore the intersection between nasty criminals and corrupt cops, with the cops often being more flawed and violent than the criminals. Now he's turned in a different direction, a college campus set novel, though that doesn't mean he's brightened his material. His new novel, The Student, goes to the same dark places his Ellroyesque procedurals did, this time from the point of a view of a university student.  I asked Iain whether he wanted to talk a little about the book, and he said sure.

Here we go.

SCOTT ADLERBERG: After Four Days and then your Tunnel Island trio, four novels centered around the doings of criminals and morally compromised cops, and where those two groups often intersect, what prompted you to write a college campus novel, albeit a very dark one?

IAIN RYAN: In the 2015/16 Australian summer I needed to sit down and write a textbook for my job at a university. This was not a task I was particularly looking forward to and as I started, I soon found that I needed to write a bit of fiction to get the gears turning and warm-up. Of course, I didn't want the book to require more research than I was already neck deep in so I opted for a period setting from my own biography: a rural campus town in the mid-90s. I really love campus novels, especially The Secret History by Donna Tartt and The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis, but I can't really remember the exact motivations for writing a crime novel set on campus. Which is all to say, I made decisions about this book very quickly, thinking the manuscript would amount to very little.

So this was a wing it as you go sort of novel, or did you plot much out beforehand? Sounds like it grew as a book pretty naturally

I always outline but it definitely evolved past the outline more than anything else I've ever worked on. And as my first book for a traditional publisher, there was a full structural edit too and I took a lot of that on board. It's one of the things that's most sold me on traditional versus self-pub/small press. I think 5 or six people ended up working on The Student in one guise or another and I welcome all the help I can get. They definitely improved the book. Definitely.

You envisioned this book from the start as a book for a traditional publisher? How did you settle on Echo Press? And having worked with a traditional publisher, do you see yourself going back in the future to self-publishing or are you going to try to stick with the traditional publishing route?

Oh no, I thought I'd self-publish the book. I came so close to self-publishing it that I had it edited and I had the cover for it. But then I got cold feet. One thing I've learned from the trenches of self-publishing is that standalone books are a tough sell. 

Self-publishing is a commercial marketplace. If you want to succeed there, you generally need to write a series and you need to hit the genre tropes square on. You need a likeable protagonist. You need a clearly resolved ending. You need the book to move quickly forward and for the style to be nonintrusive. The Student didn't really tick these boxes. 

Around this time, Angela Meyer from Echo Publishing read my first book Four Days and despite rejecting it for a local release, she asked me to send her whatever I wrote next. Figuring I had literally nothing to lose, I sent across the manuscript for The Student and that was that. I didn't formally submit anything. My entire pitch was 200 words long -- no cover letter -- and I sent the entire manuscript as an attachment. It was very informal. 

I don't think there's any real lesson for anyone in all this except that this could stand as a gentle reminder that we're not always the best critic of our own work. And that it's foolish to get to indebted to one mode of publishing. The idea that I nearly self-published the book because 'It's what I do' is something that keeps me up at night. It would have been a disaster. 

As for whether I'd go back to small press or self-publishing? I'm sure I'll be back at some point. I love writing. And putting your work out there -- however you can -- is part of writing.

I read Four Days, your first book, and really liked that, in part because you took your clear love of James Ellroy's books and used it to craft a book entirely your own, with your own feel and sound. With The Student I can see some Bret Easton Ellis influence, especially The Rules of Attraction, which you mentioned. But do you think your crime fiction influences came into play at all with this book? It sort of blends campus debauchery novel with a violent grimy crime novel sensibility and it makes for something tough but refreshing.

I still see a lot of Ellroy still popping up in this book. It's more White Jazz than LA Confidential this time round, is all. I'm not sure I'm ever going to outrun his influence. That said, I'm a bit Ellis fan too and I definitely reached for Rules of Attraction when I was planning the novel. I really like how he wrote the teenagers in that book, especially their lack of empathy -- or more generously, their underdeveloped empathy. Which is something I see all the time working with teenagers. Even as a late teen, you're not really set up to process the full spectrum of adult situations yet. In fact, that's kinda what becoming an adult is all about. The links between the two -- between Ellis and Ellroy -- are also not as far apart as you'd imagine. They're both deeply invested in how various elites perpetuate and profit from their sociopathy, be it the nameless bad men of American Tabloid or the despondent rich kids of Less Than Zero.

I never thought of them as linked, not even thematically, but that's a really good point. 

It's a awhile since you've been in college, so in portraying teens and college students, did you draw upon memories primarily or what you observe in college age students now or a combination of the two? And how much of yourself, if anything, did you throw in the mix? I assume you had your share of fun and excess in college.

I think that's it exactly. Nate is a combination of what I remember from that period of my own life combined with the young people I teach. The naivety about the world comes from me. The almost-Stoic self-determination of Nate is more from my students. No one ever really comments on this but late-teens are pretty hard-boiled. I've taught lots of young men and women who view the world as one giant bureaucratic system obstructing them (ala the 'mean streets' of crime fiction). And they don't ask for help. In the novel I put together a fairly detailed subplot as to why Nate doesn't just call the cops but I'm not sure I needed to go to that effort. Anyone who teaches has met that kid that won't ever ask for help, no matter the situation. Nate's one of those. 

As to my own hedonism, all I can say is that when you *really* think back to that moment in your life, you realize it just is a more hedonistic moment. Maybe not you, specifically, but your friends and such. University students don't behave like adults. They just don't. Most 40 year olds don't experiment with new drugs, sleep with strangers and forego any responsibility at whim but this is not overly excessive behavior for a young university student.

What do you have in the works next? Will you be going back to straight crime and dirty cops, or do you have plans to branch out, as with The Student, in yet another direction?

I'm working on another novel. I'm not going back to straight-up crime/detective fiction yet but I'm still firmly working within the genre. Part of me desperately wants to return to the warm confines of straight-up police procedural / detective fiction but my current publisher is really supportive and while I have that support, I want to turn in work that is slightly more adventurous. That said, the crime fiction scene -- even at the trade/commercial level -- is really opening up. I mean, I'm writing this stuff and looking to Megan Abbott's hard-boiled gymnasts and Sarah Gran's Clare Dewitt and Gillian Flynn's multiple POVs and such. I'm not sure I'm capable of a cop novel that can cut it with these people in the mix.

Ha, yeah.  It's always good to be pushed though, right?  Anyway, I'll be looking forward to whatever you have coming next.  

You can pick up The Student on Amazon right here.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Do Girls Bite?

The latest in First World problems sees the internet collectively losing its mind over a girl.

Some people, it seems, think a girl can't be a doctor. Who knew? In 2017, apparently, there's still a list of what different genders are permitted to do. Online articles pulled responses from Twitter to talk about the backlash.

This brought to my mind The Shield. CCH Pounder's character "Claudette Wyms was originally supposed to be a man, but Pounder's agent called creator Shawn Ryan and convinced him to change the detective to a woman. However, Pounder still requested that none of the original dialogue was changed so her character would be able to "hold her own" alongside other male detectives."

Another thing this brought to my mind was the ridiculousness of people who are afraid to write about people of the other gender. People are people. They all have hopes and dreams and fears and likes and dislikes. There's a male in this house more terrified of spiders than any girl that lives here.

I suppose, for me, the idea of true equality means there's a smidge of hope for acceptance for some of us. If you thought sexism was a thing of the past, you only needed to hit the internet yesterday as people were losing their minds over Dr. Who, but the bench of those who perpetuate gender stereotypes is deep. One place I worked at was a perfect example. They were supposed to champion the rights of people with disabilities, but they had a clear preference for female staff who were cutesy and dumb. A supervisor told me early on that I may have a problem because I'd worked in more professional environments in the past.

If I smiled and laughed a little more and thought a little less I'd do fine.

For real. In this decade.

You know what I say to that? Fuck them.

I shouldn't have to be a bitch to be treated equally, but I also shouldn't have to be a little cute and stupid to be liked as a woman. Yet I still feel this is a reality; it's part of how girls are taught to flirt. It's how they learn to manipulate people to get what they want.

There are no spoilers in the first few minutes of this; it starts with episode 1. The critical bit I was thinking of is from 4:48-5:45 approximately; as Sansa is getting her hair done, she moons over a boy.

It's so typical of what's almost expected of a girl when she has a crush; she loses her mind and rushes headlong into her obsession without thinking things through.

It's actually interesting to watch the bit just before that scene, when the king arrives and greets the Starks. Sansa isn't even a name to him; she's assessed on appearance alone. It is Arya, the rebel sister, the one who is more interested in the sound of a bow than the needlepoint in her hand, that earns her identity with the king.

The author behind Game of Thrones has taken a lot of criticism for how women are treated in his stories, but I find nothing to fault him on. He has female characters, like Sansa, who are trying to fit into the mold of society's expectations. He has other characters, like Arya, who have no interest in conformity. Martin said:

The books reflect a patriarchal society based on the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were not a time of sexual egalitarianism. It was very classist, dividing people into three classes. And they had strong ideas about the roles of women. One of the charges against Joan of Arc that got her burned at the stake was that she wore men’s clothing—that was not a small thing. There were, of course, some strong and competent women. It still doesn’t change the nature of the society. And if you look at the books, my heroes and viewpoint characters are all misfits. They’re outliers. They don’t fit the roles society has for them. They’re ‘cripples, bastards, and broken things‘—a dwarf, a fat guy who can’t fight, a bastard, and women who don’t fit comfortably into the roles society has for them (though there are also those who do—like Sansa and Catelyn). 

 I think that Gwendolyn Christie pretty much nails her assessment of what Game of Thrones has really done with the female characters.

“This was a television show that would put women at the forefront,” the actress, who plays Brienne of Tarth on the HBO series, says in The Top 10 Game-Changing Game of Thrones Moments, a special on the PEOPLE/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). “We were going to explore female characters in a way that conventionally doesn’t happen.”
With characters like Sansa and Arya Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister, and Brienne, she says the show’s women are as independent and complex as they are powerful. “They wouldn’t simply exist as the mother role, the girlfriend role, the wife role, or the sister,” Christie explains. “They would be people in their own right.”

If for no other reason, Game of Thrones is actually well worth watching just to see the extent of the character development at work. The women who start out controlled, meek, submissive do not stay that way.

As my husband says, the show is really about the fall of the patriarchy and the rise of the matriarchy, because it's long been clear that the women are asserting control and having the most significant impact on the events that are unfolding in Westeros.

While it's fair for someone to say they aren't convinced about an actor who's earned a specific role, if they refuse to give them a chance just because of their gender, that's sexist.

There's a reason that The Handmaid's Tale entered the pop culture mainstream this year, and has become a symbol of public protests. It's tragic that in this day and age, in the western world, that women working for the White House earn 80 cents to a man's dollar. Not based on credentials. Not based on experience. Based on gender.

This, right here folks, is why my husband has been right in his Disney princess aversion. He never wanted his daughter thinking she just needed to be someone's little princess. He was never so sexist that he called her his princess. She wasn't reduced to being a man's possession.

Instead, they were watching Princess Mononoke.

If western culture is still so backwards that people are financially penalized for having ovaries, then we must cheer for the creators who are putting women at the forefront, showing that they can hold their own and do anything that a man can do. For me, it isn't about dominance. I love a great story about a man; I love writing male characters too.

But thankfully, it's now far more common for people to write about women who are more than some man's eye candy. Those are the women I want to watch. It may be that Game of Thrones is one of the first shows I have a really hard time choosing a favorite character from, but of the top five, only one man makes the list, and it isn't because there aren't a lot of great male characters. The bench is deep, which makes the fact that so many female characters

I personally haven't been a Dr. Who follower in the past, but I say that whether the new actress in the role works on not will depend on a number of factors, starting with the writing, and can only be determined once seen. For anyone that finds it hinges solely on the lead's gender, well, I guess they have to ask themselves why they are okay with perpetuating discrimination.

“And then there’s the whole issue of sexual violence, which I’ve been criticized for as well. I’m writing about war, which what almost all epic fantasy is about. But if you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that. Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today. It’s not a strong testament to the human race, but I don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t exist... I want to portray struggle. Drama comes out of conflict. If you portray a utopia, then you probably wrote a pretty boring book.”
-- George R.R. Martin

The women on my favorites list have overcome abuse, have overcome rape, have overcome loss. They are not strong women because they've been spared these horrors. They are strong women because they refuse to let others dominate them. They see themselves as equals.

And perhaps, sadly, that's the part of Martin's stories that's more of a fantasy than dragons, because apparently we still live in a world where women need a strap on and flat chest to be treated as equals.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

When You Accidentally Recommend a Bad Book

Scott D. Parker

It was the perfect set up.

I’m a part of a book club with four other gentlemen all of whom love science fiction and fantasy. Some years back—eight years ago!—we all decided we’d love the opportunity to do outside of the office what we kept doing in the office: chat about SF/F book and movies and TV shows. We just thought it would be a good idea to do that somewhere other than our shared office hallways.

So we made a SF/F book club. But recently, another member and I got to talking: what if we expanded our sphere just a little bit. You know: make it big enough to include some books that weren’t exactly SF/F. Not Pride and Prejudice or a romance, but something “manly!” I pitched the idea to the collective and we all agreed.


And boy did I have the perfect book. No, I hadn’t read it yet because it was being published in June 2017. Yes, I had read other books by this author and I enjoyed them. The origin of the novel was perfect. Moreover, this book was tailor-made for our next expansion, and man did it have an awesome cover.

Yeah, that cover is one of the best ever done by Hard Case Crime. One of the guys said he’d read the book based on the cover alone. We all did.

But the book didn’t deliver.

Fair Warning: I’ll be spoiling some aspects of this story.

Let me put it another way: it didn’t deliver on the way the book was marketed. It was all but a dream team-up: crime fiction author extraordinaire Donald Westlake writing a James Bond story that was to have been Pierce Brosnan’s second Bond film. That film ended up being Tomorrow Never Dies, a movie I quite enjoyed, not the least being that Brosnan’s Bond had a “Bond Girl” in Michelle Yoeh who was an equal. When 1995’s Goldeneye was a bona fide hit, the producers needed to rush through the next movie. Westlake’s writing style didn’t match that pace and the two parted company.

But Westlake enjoyed the story he had created so much that he ended up writing a novel—Forever and a Death—using many of the pieces. He certainly couldn’t write an outright Bond novel…but he at least could have had a spy in it.

Forever and a Death isn’t a horrible book by any stretch. It’s competently written as one might expect from someone of Westlake’s caliber. But it just didn’t gel for me. It didn’t get very much either for my compadres. We all had a similar complaint: we kept waiting for one of the good guy characters turn out to be an actual spy. None were. You’d think if Westlake had crafted a good Bond story, he’d at least keep a spy in it.

Too many of the characters seemed to just be there for the purposes of the story. The leading lady—a twenty-three-year-old girl—is nothing like the woman on the cover. She served her purpose for our hero—a girl to rescue—then hung around for no reason other than to do a thing at the end. The leading man literally drops out of the story for a long stretch. The villain is probably the most fleshed out character, but you’d certainly like him to be really villainous. He’s half-hearted. And the ending is just about as abrupt an ending as I’ve read in a long while.

There’s an afterward where the producer who brought Westlake on board tells the tale of how this all went down. The best aspect of the Afterward is him saying which parts in the book we just read were in the final film treatment that was abandoned. You’d think Westlake could have done more.

Which brings back to my book recommendation: I wanted to love this book. I wanted my friends to love the book and go read more Westlake. I thought this book was going to be a slam dunk. It wasn’t. And I hope my friends will give Westlake a chance.

So, my lesson learned from this experience: Before I recommend a book, actually read it first.

Have y’all ever had a similar experience?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Tarantino and True Crime?

If you've been reading my weekly posts here for any amount of time, it's safe to assume you know two things about me: I love Tarantino movies, and I have major reservations about true crime as entertainment.

The recent announcement that Tarantino would be tackling the Manson Family in an upcoming film has left me deeply ambivalent. The things I love about Tarantino are the exact kind of things I can't imagine loving in a film about real people, real crimes, and real victims. The Hollywood Reporter states that "one of the stories" will be based on the murder of Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and four other people.

The copious amounts of fake blood, snappy dialogue, and brutal depictions of violence that Tarantino is known for aren't the kind of care I'd hope for in a true crime film. Lifetime Original Movies have made bread and butter of movies based on violence against women, and despite having an almost exclusively female audience, they over-sensationalize (and almost always over sexualize) their true crime stories. Imagine if they had free range to get as brutally violent as an R rated film?

None of this is to say that Tarantino can't possibly get it right. Recent years have him going in different directions with his films. Where he hasn't felt the need to be historically accurate in his historical films, I hope he won't lean sensational in this venture into true crime. It's almost an odd move for someone like Tarantino. It seems like true crime is having a huge moment in popular culture, and he's jumping on the bandwagon. Tarantino has been accused of a lot of things (fairly and unfairly alike) but being trendy isn't usually one of them. 

Given no precedent in his oeuvre to work from, it's impossible to know how this will shake out. I'm hoping for the best but fully aware I might be signing up for the worst when I inevitably go see it.  When the news notification popped up on my phone, I think I made a face. I've always thought crime fiction and true crime serve different purposes, and it generally makes me nervous when they cross too far. Given what I know of Tarantino from my long time love of his movies, I just can't imagine what this movie will look like - or, perhaps the problem is, I can. And it's not a look that makes me feel good.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Helping the Abbotts

By Steve Weddle

The jacket copy for Jeff Abbott's new book, BLAME, sets the hook.
The crash that killed him…
Two years ago, Jane Norton crashed her car on a lonely road, killing her friend David and leaving her with amnesia. At first, everyone was sympathetic. Then they found Jane’s note: “I wish we were dead together.”
A girl to blame. . .
From that day, the town turned against her. But even now Jane is filled with questions: Why were they on that road? Why was she with David? Did she really want to die?
The secrets she should forget…
Most of all, she must find out who has just written her an anonymous message: “I know what really happened. I know what you don’t remember…”

I recently interviewed Abbott for the Los Angeles Review of Books (posting soon) about BLAME and his 20 other books, including the amazing Sam Capra series.

It's often weird when successful crime fiction folks publish a stand-alone thriller from Money Grab Publisher, but that's clearly not the case here. Everything that Abbott got right in his mystery books, he nails a hundred times over here. The suspense. The characters. Heck, getting the reader to care about the characters. Honestly, at the 90% mark of this book, I could see the killer being one of seven or eight people. Everything in this books is so well set up and, more importantly, moves. What an amazing book. And, reading the book as a writer, I appreciated what a remarkable accomplishment hitting on all cylinders can be.

Then, last week, the Abbotts house was struck by lightning and burned down. The family all got out safe, but the devastation was, well, devastating.

Now would be a good time to check out BLAME, and snag a copy if you want to help out a good guy and get a great book in return. You can think of it like donating to PBS if you want, but instead of giving them $100 and getting a DVD of Arlo Guthrie's poems, you hand $20 to a bookstore and get a copy of BLAME, a book you wanted anyway.

If you'd like to do more, there's a GoFundMe set up by family friends of the Abbotts that's aiming for $20,000. Find out more here.

Either way, read the damn book. It's one of the best books I've read all year. And I read many, many books. Well, the first 40 or 50 pages of many, many books. They're not all this good, you know.

Oh, and be sure to keep an eye open for my LARB interview with Jeff Abbott, posting soon.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Crime, Punishment, and Poverty

by Holly West

The other day, Ben LeRoy shared this link on Facebook:

My Mother Wasn't Trash

The post resonated with me, not because I have personal experience with the type of extreme poverty the writer describes, but because my recent work has me researching the lives of people who do. All I can think of as I piece together their stories is, christ, they never really had a chance, did they?

Before I continue, I don't mean to imply that anyone's life is hopeless. As an outsider looking in, I can't make assumptions about others' lives based on what I think makes for a satisfying existence. Nor do I think a person's unfortunate circumstances, no matter how bad, excuse bad behavior and/or choices (and murder is about as messed up a choice as you can make). We're all born to disadvantages of one sort or another and we must power through without inflicting too much damage in the process.

But I think we can all agree there are disadvantages and then there are disadvantages. Let us not forget a large percentage of the population has been dealt a tremendously difficult hand and if you're tempted to shout "but, personal responsibility!" in response to this truth, you might be letting your privilege get in the way of compassion. Either that or I've just outed myself as a bleeding heart liberal.

As if you didn't know that already.

I've written before about the case I'm researching. Three teenaged girls were murdered in my hometown in 1984. A year later, a man was convicted of all three killings based on witness testimony alone. Note there was no physical evidence, largely because the victims' remains were reduced to bones by the time they were found. He was sentenced to die for the crimes. It's 2017 and he still sits on California's death row, awaiting execution.

Some people might be outraged to read that thirty-two years have past since his sentencing and he's still alive. I'm not one of those people. I used the word 'compassion' above and while I reserve mine solely for his victims, I've never favored the death penalty. Quite simply, I don't think the government should have the legal power to kill its citizens.

Instead, I'm compelled to take a closer look at the players involved, the victims, the witnesses, and yes, the killer. What brought them together? Why did this happen? What's the story behind the story?

My heart aches for the victims, two of which lived in foster care (they were two of a set of identical triplets). One of my first questions when I learned about the case was, why were they in foster care? I learned that their mother's first husband died unexpectedly when she was pregnant with one of their older siblings and that the man she re-married, their father, was at some point convicted of sexual assault. He's required to register as a sex offender but hasn't done so for a number of years.

I don't know whether their father's violent behavior contributed to their move into a foster home, but according to a post on a message board on a few years ago, the surviving triplet hadn't seen her father since 1985, the year after her sisters were killed. I don't know what kind of support she had after her sisters' deaths, but a loving father wasn't part of it. I haven't yet interviewed the remaining triplet. I don't know if I ever will.

What about the witnesses who testified at trial? At least two of them also lived in the same foster home as the triplets. Again, I had to ask, why? In both cases, I uncovered generations of drug addiction, broken families, and poverty--cycles that continue to this day. A friend of mine recently told me she'd read a passage claiming violence (or, for our purposes, dysfunction) takes at least three generations to overcome. I'd suggest that in many cases, it takes far longer than that.

Finally, we have the killer. Much of his misfortune in life was laid out by the defense during his sentencing hearing, so I didn't have as much digging to do to find it. None of it excuses what he did. Let me repeat: None of it. But daily beatings and molestation by his stepfather (among other things) contributed to his rage, alcoholism, and drug abuse. And as with the teenagers he murdered and the girls (now women) who testified at his trial, the cycle of dysfunction continues in the family today.

I know far more about these stories than I'm revealing here and as a result, my argument is rather flimsy. I get that. I still don't know what form my telling will ultimately take and I won't go into it more fully until I do. But Ben's link was so reminiscent about the lives I'm reading about lately, I wanted to talk about it today. I firmly believe approaching life with compassion rather judgement can go a long way in helping victims and ourselves break these cycles.

Maybe this is the reason I'm doing this?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Vicurious or: Welcome to Alcatraz

Scott's Note:  David James Keaton guest blogs this week.  He has a long list of fiction credits to his name, and now he's the co-editor of a brand new story collection, Hard Sentences: Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz.  He and Joe Clifford have put it together, and as the back cover says, you get "19 stories detailing the cold, strange history of The Rock, nightmares real and imagined..." The very strong lineup of writers looks at Alcatraz from a variety of angles: its famous prisoners, its Civil War incarnation, the 1970's Native American occupation of the island, the day-to-day routine of the families who lived there, including the children who grew up playing within earshot of murderers. Great idea for an anthology, and perhaps it should come as no suprise considering David Keaton's longstanding interest in prison narratives.  But....let him tell you about that.

by David James Keaton

I've seen a lot of prison movies, Cool Hand Luke, Get the Gringo, and Bad Boys probably being my favorites, not because of the stories or directors or actors but because of the unique living, breathing institutions depicted in those films. You get to know every nasty nook and cranny of those joints, sometimes more than the characters. That’s why Oz, for example, still lingers in our memories. And that might be why the newish prison movie Escape Plan with Stallone and Schwarzenegger was kind of a bummer. Because that prison was so interesting, but them, not so much. Stallone was weirdly robotic and Schwarzenegger strangely smiley, not that it matters with Arnold really. It's definitely a testament to his unrivaled fame that 1.) I just typed “Schwarzenegger” correctly without looking and 2.) spell checker did not flag it (though it did flag “spell checker”). But the prison in that movie was undeniably fascinating, sort of a high-tech boat/labyrinth deal, with lots of superplastic (flagged again even though “superplastic” is totally a word). The funniest part of Escape Plan though is when Stallone uses a piece of wax from a milk carton to cover a keypad in order to figure out the 4 code numbers they're punching in by studying all the greasy fingerprints the guards leave behind. He explains to us, "It was just a numbers game," and bam! types in the correct sequence. But quick calculations reveal that this "numbers game" he’s talking about actually has over 10,000 possible combinations. Wait a minute, so Sly's like Good Will Hunting all the sudden? Why isn’t Will Hunting in prison, by the way. He punches cops!
But speaking of numbers games, I wish there were 10,000 possible combinations of prison films because I’d watch them all. And after seeing maybe 53 prison movies, I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve only read maybe 3 prison books. All nonfiction, too, or at least tangentially based on truth. The Executioner's Song was the big one. Probably in my top ten books of all time, which makes sense because it’s like ten books in one. And, of course, how the fiction and nonfiction are divided up in that thing is pretty inscrutable. So even though Gary Gilmore is a real person, I mostly think of it as Norman Mailer's best novel, partly because of the amalgam of prisoners he channeled to create it, and partly because of the embellishments the author and inspiration made. But more on that later. The other two prison books that stand out in my memory are actually memoirs by inmates. The first is Iron House by Jerome Washington, which has my all-time favorite prison quote, partly because it really takes the piss out of Shawshank Redemption:

“I used to have a large, nude pin-up on my cell wall. It was there, across from the bed, doing time just as I was, until I woke up from a wet dream and, in the half light, thought a naked woman was in the cell with me. When fantasies become that real, it’s time to give them up. The next time I pin up a photograph, it will be of something I can use. Like a helicopter.”

And the last prison book I read, In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Abbott, might be the weirdest story of all (at least the story surrounding the story anyway). When I first read In the Belly of the Beast, I was coming off a couple overheated prison pulp stories, so I was mesmerized by the clear authenticity of it. The prose was ragged, but it felt real, sort of like Ben Hamper's Rivethead, based on his Tales from the Assembly Line columns from the Flint Voice that were published throughout the ‘80s. It was an era of authentic, non-professional, blue-collar voices popping up in literature all of a sudden, and it was pretty clear that Mailer’s obsession with Abbott’s gritty routine is what inspired a lot of The Executioner's Song, as well. Of course, there was also the massive stockpile of Gary Gilmore’s correspondences he had to work with, but Abbott had reached out to convince Mailer that Gilmore’s accounts of prison were mostly exaggeration. He was going to set Mailer straight, you see, so it was Mailer’s famous correspondence with prisoner Abbott, who was serving time for bank robbery and murder, that must have really gotten Norman’s muse dancing during that crucial first draft of The Executioner’s Song, sort of a “Will Graham visits Lector in jail” situation, to get the scent. Makes sense though, as there was no way to correspond with Gary Gilmore after 1977 without a Ouija board.

But after I finished reading In the Belly of the Beast, I was amazed to discover there was a much-less publicized sequel to Abbott’s seminal memoir. I stumbled on this book in the microfiche at my previous bookstore job one day while seeing how many copies of In the Belly of the Beast were at the warehouse. "Holy shit," I whispered when I saw that the follow-up was called The Return. “He got out?!” I said to a confused customer.

Well, yeah, he did. Sort of. And then he got right back in again. Because when I got a copy of The Return in my hands, I was horrified to realize that Abbott, who had been championed by Mailer and his writer friends at the time, had been sprung from prison after a successful letter-writing campaign to the parole board, and everyone was convinced Abbott had a great future in writing and lawfulness. So many famous people were convinced, whether it was the literary crowd on the East Coast or the Hollywood crowd on the West Coast (worst rap battle ever) that they all joined forces to get him out. But no one was prepared for the final twist.

You see, the title didn’t just refer to this return to society, as I’d thought, but instead to his return to prison. Tragically, once released, Abbott murdered waiter/actor/playwright Richard Adan during an argument at a restaurant about using the restroom. Trivia note: When Abbott killed Adan on July 19, 1981, it was one day before The New York Times published a glowing review of In the Belly of the Beast. I hope there weren’t any impressionable writers out there eager to snag a write-up in the The Times by imitating this method.

But I was truly shocked I hadn’t heard about Abbott going back to jail. Because I’d heard quite a bit about his release, and the famous letters to Mailer and all that, but apparently everyone had skipped telling me the big ending, at least in Toledo, Ohio, anyway. As my friend Scott Adlerberg patiently explained to me, Abbott’s last crime was big news outside the Rust Belt, particularly in New York, where Abbott had gone on the run, and apparently a hotshot detective found a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces in Abbott’s apartment and followed this clue all the way to New Orleans, where Abbott was found selling hot dogs from a street cart just like Ignatius Riley did in Toole’s novel. So as it turns out, Mailer was influenced by fact, and Abbott was influenced by fiction. An interesting bit of symmetry.

But, like I said, I didn’t hear that stuff till way later. Back in the ‘90s, it was like the first half of the Mailer/Abbott saga was common knowledge, while the second half, where shit got real dark, remained a mystery. This was back in the pre-internet days, sure, but there also seemed to be a certain sadness surrounding the conclusion of this story. Mailer barely mentioned it in interviews, which seems really strange, and a real missed opportunity, since here was his chance to finally write that real book about prisoners. That’s gotta be as close as someone can get to the prison experience and still remain relatively untouched.

But the fact that Abbott couldn’t assimilate outside of jail was tragic. And, as he details in The Return, maybe he never really wanted to. The Return is a real mess, by the way, and tough to recommend, even if you can find a copy. It includes a play, including stage direction (!) where you can act out the murder in the restaurant if you want to understand why he “had no choice” but to kill the guy over a toilet (yikes), but mostly it’s just a much more unhinged version of In The Belly of the Beast, which is understandable because we all hoped he’d been puked out of that belly for good, even after being state-raised and in and out of jail since age 12. And maybe swallowing someone and spitting them back out so many times makes everyone a little queasy, reader and author alike.

For the epilogue, Jack Abbott eventually committed suicide in his cell, 20 years later, and other artists have paid tribute to Abbott in their own way; John Hillcoat’s prison film Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, for example, partially based on Abbott’s story, was also inspired by his own correspondence with the prisoner, as is Nick Cave’s song “Jack’s Shadow.”

It's probably offensive to suggest a connection between Abbott's inevitable pull back to a harrowing but oddly comforting institutionalized existence and the strange infatuations normally law-abiding citizens, readers and writers alike, have for stories based on incarceration, but what the hell, I'm going to do it anyway! This urge is powerful. And there must be something else to it, as it doesn’t just make people write about the experience of being in prison, but also makes people write to them. I know I’d write letter to the prisons themselves if I could, though an envelope just labeled Alcatraz probably ends up floating in the San Francisco Bay. If I had the time, I’d Google the stats on how many more people seek out prison pen pals than, say, astronauts. But I’ll just take a guess that it’s 10,000 times more. But there are a lot more prisoners than astronauts in the United States, and more every minute, so it’s a numbers game.

So maybe it’s more than a little gross to claim that we, as readers or writers, are drawn to the experience of prison, while doing the time without the crimes, but maybe it’s okay to say we’re drawn to the people who are drawn to it, like Jack Abbott. There is this urge to attempt to live vicariously through murderers, whether it’s on the screen or on the page, so is it better or worse to be drawn to the experience of punishment instead? Okay, maybe not live vicariously though them, exactly, because that’s too much of a dangerous mental commitment. So how about “vi-curious” instead, which rhymes with “bi-curious,” and also gets flagged by the spell checker. And it’s not a great rhyme either, so East Coast rappers would probably use it with impunity and lose that battle.

Hard Sentences: Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz, edited by David James Keaton and Joe Clifford (Broken River Books) is available now right here:  Hard Sentences: Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Beau Johnson Wonders What The Hell Is Going On

Finally. You’re getting published. In a week. Maybe a month. Soon. Dream come true.

Of all the activities you may engage in to promote your work, speaking about yourself or your story publicly, yes writing is often uncomfortably singular and intimate, may be the most difficult. It's an important requirement that you should try to make peace with, if only temporarily.

Podcasts. Blogs. Magazines. If lucky, you'll be asked to contribute to any number of these media avenues. Maybe you’ll be invited to a new writers group. For people to learn about your book you need to talk about your book, so get cozy with sharing.

If it helps, don’t think of it as self-promotion. Think of it as doing your part to support the publishers who’ve given you a chance. Continuing with that thought I would like you to meet a new writer practicing the timeless art of promotion.

Beau Johnson hails from Canada. His stories have haunted crime fans for several years, on the darker side of town. Such places might include Underground Voices, the Molotov Cocktail, and Shotgun Honey. His first published collection of down and dirty short stories will debut August 14 with Down and Out Books.

                                        A Better Kind Of Hate

“Beau Johnson is a lawless writer. Several—but not all—of the stories in his collection, A Better Kind of Hate, feature his renegade cop alter ego Bishop Rider, a battered and bruised, world-weary hero forced to operate outside a corrupt system to find justice. And that's just what these stories have in common: justice, in all its muted, corrupt glory. Whether showcasing Rider or another flawed hero, Johnson operates in shades of gray, where sometimes all it takes is for a bad man to kill a worse one. A stark and sobering reality, and a stellar debut.” —Joe Clifford, author of the Jay Porter Thriller Series.


I have often thought about these things.  First starting out and hey, just last night.  Why last night?  Well I, me, Beau Johnson, have a book coming out if some of you didn’t know.  A collection of short stories.  It’s called A Better Kind Of Hate. 

Kinda hard for you to not know this though, with me clogging up your feeds with blatant self-promotion and all.  Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon.  Promise.  Of things in regards to post-promotion and reviews I can neither confirm nor deny.

            So, Voice.  Mine in particular.  More than once I’ve been told it doesn’t match with the person I am.  What?  But I have to admit, I did once consider this to be a bad thing.  Upon further review, I changed my mind, coming to regard it as me doing my job as a writer, i.e. creating characters who are not me but come from me.  Agreed?  Clear as mud?  Good, glad we got that out of the way. 

Now for Place, or as I sometimes put it: the peanut butter to my jam.  Long story short: I have always liked to write.  From kid to teenager to punk who comes to realize he will never know it all.  You see where this is going?  Yup: Life.  As in it got in the way: friends, parties, work, a wife and kids.  You know, the norm. 

Wasn’t until my youngest boy turned three that I found any real time to put towards what I hadn’t done in more than 15 years.  You know what I found?  I found I loved to write even more than I remembered.  Fast forward a year later and Bartleby Snopes agrees to publish a short story of mine called Darnell: Waiting on the Day.  Ecstatic I was, on the cloud named nine, but what came next was the hard part: my voice and place would not see eye to eye, not for all the times I continued to try. 

I was told repeatedly they liked what I had written but it was not for them. Silly me, I believed this meant submit again.  And again.  Wrong.  So very wrong.  But I remained compelled, the voices inside my head louder than ever, failing to close what I envision to be toothless, gaping maws. 

This caused me to branch out, looking for a different kind of peanut butter to go with my particular brand of jam.  As I believe it was meant to, this brought me to the world of crime fiction/noir fiction and here I have remained. 

Not the most glamorous of origin stories, no, but it’s mine all the same.  And yes, I know what you’re thinking:  is there an insight or moral to this story, or does this guy just like to hear the sound of his own keyboard? 

For truth, I think I’ll have to get back to you on that one.   Or maybe I don’t.  Maybe you just talked me into it.  Don’t give up, ever.  That’s what I want to say.  It means if this guy here can do it, dammit, you can too. 

This brings me to Out of the Gutter Online, Joe Clifford, and Tom Pitts.  All three playing a part in putting me on this path to getting an honest to God book published---perhaps I’ve mentioned this book, that it will soon be coming out?  Eric Campbell at Down and Out Books being the brave soul responsible for taking me on?  Oh, I have.  Awesome.  You’ll do fine on the quiz.

Then in 2014 Out of the Gutter, in their infinite wisdom (re: submissions page), said they would no longer accept stories by anyone who doesn’t have a Facebook account.  Crap!  Me at the time being the Dude who always said he would never bow to the monster known as Facebook.  Ha!  Tool.  Moron.  Pick your word poison. 

Anyway, I love it.  Facebook, I mean.  Would not be here now, writing this, if not for Facebook.  I would have never met the very gracious Marietta Miles, Eric Campbell, Ryan Sayles, Paul Brazil, Gary Duncan, Ron Phillips, nor any of these writer types who have welcomed me into the fold. 

So, Place and Voice, two of the things which helped in getting me where I am today.  There are many, many more, of course.  Tons.  From people to thank to writers I love to read.  And don’t get me wrong, I know I’m still a novice at this, but if there’s one thing I can tell you for sure it’s this: I have a book coming out!  Perhaps you’ve heard?

See you when I see you,