Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Tayari Jones on Finding the Story

This past Sunday, I went to the annual Brooklyn Book Festival, and at one of the panels there, I heard an author talk a bit about story creation.  In about five minutes, she told an anecdote that I found valuable to listen to and think worthy of repeating.  The author was Tayari Jones, editor of Atlanta Noir and four novels, including An American Marriage.



In response to an audience question that, if I remember correctly, had to do with finding story ideas, Tayari Jones related how at one point in the recent past she had a grant to do research on wrongful incarceration in the United States.  During the course of her work, she collected lots of data about wrongful incarceration. She found herself with loads of statistics.  But in all these facts and figures pertaining to this grave problem, she had, well, no story.  How from all this information, socially relevant and compelling as it was, would she create a narrative?  

Then one day around this time, in Atlanta where she lives, she was walking through a mall.  In the mall, she saw a couple talking, a man and wife of about the same age, well put together.   

The wife said to her husband, "You know you wouldn't have waited on me for seven years."

Now I can't replicate how amusingly Tayari Jones told her story at this point, but essentially she said that when she heard this, and as she observed the couple, one thing was crystal clear.  She knew that the woman was speaking the truth.  There was no way that the husband would have done for his wife what the wife had done for him - wait seven years.  Tayari Jones said something like, "I knew he wouldn't have waited, the wife knew he wouldn't have waited, and the husband also knew he wouldn't have waited. Everybody knew he wouldn't have waited on her for seven years."

But then the husband said, "What are you talking about?  This wouldn't have happened to you in the first place."

And that, Tayari Jones said, was the genesis for an idea that turned into a novel (An American Marriage).  It's when she has characters who each are partly right that she can see a way into exploring a subject.  There had been no story, no ambiguity, not the complexity she needed, in the data she amassed on wrongful incarceration.  It is what it describes, she said: "Wrongful." We know that.  Yes, but a story revolving around a wrongful incarceration told from the perspectives of a husband and wife who each have their takes on the matter? That, not so cut and dry, she could work with.

As I say, I found this anecdote Tayari Jones told entertaining and instructive (as did the audience, which applauded), and now, in addition, I really do want to read An American Marriage. 


Monday, September 17, 2018

You can't keep Beau Johnson down.

You can't keep a good man down, but you can crush him like a soda can and drive him towards inspiration. Beau Johnson tells us how he bounced back from a few bad breaks.



A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE BIG MACHINE EATS



You got that right.  I mean, there I was, my first book, A BETTER KIND OF HATE, just about to be released and my publisher asks me: so I guess the question becomes what’s next?  Truth be told, I never expected such a question, always figuring myself a one and done type of guy.  The reason for this is because I seriously believed I was finished with Bishop Rider, the main protagonist from my collection and a Dude so fuelled by hate.  Hadn’t heard from him in over a year is what I mean to say. 

And then this question from my publisher as to what comes next. 

Gobsmacked, I said what any insane, rational writer would say: I’ve been working on some things.

                Enter ultimate Frisbee and a family function in the summer of 2017. 

               Long story short, my oldest boy, Donnie, wanted to try this game with his cousins, brothers, Uncle, and father.  Sure, why not.  It’s part Frisbee.  How hard could it be? Perhaps some of you sense where this is heading.  If not, little hint: pain. 

One of my nephews throws far and wide, over my head, and seeing as you cannot let the Frisbee touch the ground or lose possession in this game, I decide to run like I am twenty-four instead of forty-four.  Going down I try the old tuck and roll.  The earth and my left shoulder would have none of this, however.  One cracking snap later I stand, walk two feet, and feel my collar bone fall apart.




                Should I explain the pain before they put in the metal and screws?  Fuck no.  I’ll leave that to your imaginations.  Maybe envision glass though, shifting each and every time you go to fill your lungs.

                Anyway, this injury lands my bum in a recliner for eight weeks where I proceed to gain forty pounds, re-watch all of Friends and Lost on Netflix, and use my one good arm to write stories on my phone.

Write, you say?  How so?  I thought you believed you were a one and done type of guy?

Well, as the title says: a funny thing happened on the way to THE BIG MACHINE EATS.  Bishop Rider started speaking to me again.  Might be because I was bored as hell.  Might be because it was meant to be.  I’ll never know for sure.  Not really.  All I do know is this book, this version of this book, would not be here without my son and a sport I have now retired from.  It was the first time I’d ever played ultimate Frisbee, sure, but hey, you take your wins where you can get them.  Somewhere down the line I might have been able to put another book together, but the way most of this one occurred, how it’s so far from anything I could imagine, I now think I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

The pain.  I’d backspace the shit outta that part for sure.

Hell, wouldn’t we all?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

People I Wish I'd Known, or the Power of Obituaries


Today I’m going to start an occasional feature called PEOPLE I WISH I'D KNOWN. I read the obituaries every day (yes, I still get the actual physical newspaper on my doorstep every morning). Every life is interesting, but there are some that stand out. Maybe it’s the photo, where you can see a sparkling personality shining through. Maybe it’s the military record, men and women who served in World War II or Vietnam. Maybe it’s an unusual life story.
Whatever aspect draws my attention, I’m privileged to glimpse a little bit of these people’s life stories. And a lot of times, they are lives that I wouldn’t otherwise be fortunate enough to be exposed to.
The first thing about Jack Barnes that caught my eye was his Milton Berle smile. And oh, does that seem to fit. (To see the photo, click here.) Here's the obituary his family submitted to the Sacramento Bee. The writer did a wonderful job illustrating his life, and makes me wish I’d known him.
                                                * * *
Jack Hollister Barnes, Sr. passed away on September 5, 2018. He was 94 years old.
Jack was born in Oklahoma on May 30, 1924, and then grew up in Placerville, CA where he attended high school. At 17, he enlisted in the Navy during WW2, where he served as an Aviation Machinist Mate, working on airplane maintenance on the USS Pine Island in the South Pacific. During this period of his life, in addition to serving his country honorably, he also fixed a major boxing match between Army & Navy, convinced a nurse he was a French Spy, got a belligerent drunk foreign sailor tattooed with a US Army flag on his chest, and any other number of ill-advised adventures which required his superiors to ship him out early. Repeatedly.
He wrote a book, about this period of his life, entitled "By Your Leave, Sir," which is a bit scandalous and not to be read by the faint of heart or the easily offended but it is a fascinating look at the war era and immediately after, through the eyes of a complete and utter, scamp.
After the war, he lived in Alaska, started shoveling coal on the Alaskan Railroad, and then worked his way up to be the youngest Engineer on the Alaskan Railroad. He also flew his small airplane as a bush pilot. Upon returning to the Sacramento area, he worked at Mather Airforce Base as an airplane mechanic. August 1, 1959, he married the love of his life, Mona West, and later they moved to Oregon where he lived for many years working as a Farmer, Soil Conservationist, Real Estate Agent, and later a Real Estate broker with a chain of offices. In the mid-1980's they moved back to Sacramento area where they both finished out their careers working for the government as civilian employees.
Jack was a member of the Fort Sutter Motor Cycle Club and after he became a Christian, and Deacon of the West Sacramento Seventh Day Adventist Church. He is survived by his wife, Mona; and his three stepchildren who he helped raise, Harold Smedley Jr., Larry Smedley, Sr., and Jeanie Wilhelms; his children from his first marriage to Barbara Keaton, Eileen (Neelie) Nelson, and Steve Barnes; his adopted son, Singh Hoang; and his two children with Mona, Laurie Blanchard, and Jack Barnes, Jr.; as well as too large a number of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews to list, all of whom loved and respected him. He taught us to be ethical, keep our word, to be generous and kind, and to face adversity with bravery and a sense of adventure. This world is a much less interesting place, without him in it. His last words were, "Let's wrap this thing up. I'm ready to go."

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Let Your Creativity Shine: The Inspiring Message of Brad Meltzer

By
Scott D. Parker

Sometimes, a guy is exactly who he seems to be.

I’ve enjoyed Brad Meltzer’s work as a comic book writer and as the author of adult thrillers. His blend of history and exciting, page-turning books is right up my alley. His latest novel, THE ESCAPE ARTIST, is one of my favorite books of the year and has one of the best hooks I've ever read. Here’s my review. Meltzer is also a fantastic interviewee, especially when he deep dives into the stuff he loves. I wrote about one particular interview back in 2015.

This past Thursday, I finally got to meet Meltzer when came to Houston (at Katy’s Books-a-Million) to promote his latest book, I AM NEIL ARMSTRONG.


It is the latest entry in his series of children’s books featuring heroes from history from which we can learn. The genesis of the ongoing project was to remind his own children who were the real heroes. They were ordinary men and women who sought truth, justice, and to achieve something never before accomplished. Here’s one of the quotes from his website: ““These aren't the stories of famous people. This is what we're all capable of on our very best days.”

It is an admirable goal. It is also one that seems to be seeping through. There were something like eighteen kids there. Most held a copy of one of Meltzer’s books in their hands, and not just the Neil Armstrong book. A few had written him letters or drawn him pictures. All because of the stories he told in his books and were illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos.

Speaking as a Houstonian, I’m very glad Eliopoulos captured the moment when President Kennedy declared the moon as the ultimate goal of the 1960s. You see the background? That’s Houston’s Rice Stadium.



In his his 30-minute talk, Meltzer talked about the genesis of selecting Neil Armstrong. I appreciated his history talk, especially the comment about heroes. In the Depression, when all looked bleak, Superman burst onto the scene. In the months after 9/11, the first Spider-Man movie arrived. I wore my Aquaman shirt (and stood next to a dad wearing a Flash t-shirt) so we had a little of the Justice League present and accounted for.

But heroes don’t always wear capes and tights. Heroes are like Armstrong who did something no other man had ever done. Heroes are Jackie Robinson and Lucille Ball, people who also accomplished things for the first time. And Meltzer—always cognizant of the children sitting on the floor right in front of him—kept reminding them that they could write their own story, be the heroes of their own stories, and make the world a better place. In fact, he uttered a sentence so inspiring I took out my notebook and wrote it down:

“You can use your creativity to put good in the world.”

Frankly, it made me want to get home as soon as possible and work on my stories.
After the talk, we all got back in line and waited for a chance to meet the author, get him to sign anything we brought, and snap a photo with him. The kids went first, of course, and Meltzer treated each one of them like they were the only kid in the store. Actually he did that for everyone, adult and child alike.

In the meantime, I struck up a conversation with some of the folks standing in line around me. All were women, and all were avid readers. We pointed at some of the books lining the shelves and talking about them. We talked about audiobooks. We talked about ereaders like the Kindle (I was the outlier). But there was a funny moment when one of the ladies asked the deadly serious question: do you bend down the corners of pages. Like a rousing chorus, all of them said no. It was so good to stand and chat about books with avid readers. I discussed my books, but like a dunce, I didn’t have any of my business cards with me. [Shakes head] But I got to meet Meltzer, let him know how much I enjoyed his thrillers, his comics, and how glad I am that Scott Brick—my favorite audiobook reader—is the narrator of his adult books.



Let me circle around back to the quote I captured: “You can use your creativity to put good in the world.” Think about that today. Then follow through.

Best News of the Week
Here at the Parker house, we got great news this week. My wife, Vanessa—jewelry artist extraordinaire!—is featured in HoustonVoyage Magazine. Here’s the link with her interview and some spectacular photos of her work. Need a hint at how good her work is? Here you go.

Friday, September 14, 2018

What’s My Motivation?

I try to stay away from wagging my finger and telling people how to write. When it comes down to it,   I have preferences like any other reader or editor, and that goes triple for how I write a story. But a man asked me a question at BoucherCon that I’ve been chewing on since.

He wondered what the taboos of crime fiction are, and lamented that he thinks he sometimes crosses them.

Given my experience in crime fiction, I don’t know that there are any true taboos. One of my most popular stories deals with pedophilia, and lets be clear about what we do: we murder the fuck out of people on the page. Certainly though, as an editor, there are stories that make me cringe. Not because they cross some taboo, but because I don’t understand why they bothered.

We talk about character motivation all the time - if you keep asking “why” a character is doing something, eventually you’ll be mining gold. Most of the stories that make me cringe could use that. But what I think they could use even more than that, and what we rarely seem to discuss, is why did we sit down and write it? What’s the writer’s motivation?

It’s okay if your motivation is simply “To entertain the hell out of crime fiction readers.” Some of my favorite movies are entertaining stories about crime that don’t offer much else. But is it appropriate to write a five hundred word “entertaining” rape scene? Or spend a chapter torturing and beating a woman for “entertainment”? Let’s take it away from “women’s issues” and expand it. Would it be okay for me to try to “entertain” you with pedophilia? How about animal abuse or spending hundreds of words gleefully describing a junkie dying of overdose with no motivation other than to “entertain”?

First - none of these examples sound entertaining, at least not to me. But I can imagine, and have read, stories about the above topics that moved me, blew my mind, and made me want more of that writer’s work. The writer’s motivation in those cases was clearly beyond simple entertainment. In my case, my motivation was to explore what could make a mentally healthy, loving mother, get a gun and kill her teenager. People read it and probably guess different motivations, but there it is. A writer’s motivation could be to make the reader feel a certain way, to explore how trauma affects a person, to shine a light on some ugly part of our society we forget. There are a million reasons to tackle a “taboo” topic. If we know WHY we’re doing it, and do it with skill and care, someone out there is going to want it (in honesty, someone out there is going to want your torture porn, too, but not me). And it’s going to do more than entertain for a little while or make your reader feel queasy.

Next time you’re thinking about a story you want to write - whether it be a “taboo” or something that can be approached as pure entertainment (like a fun heist story), I challenge you to ask of yourself the same questions you have to ask of your protagonists. “What do I want out of this?” “Why?” And then keeping asking why until you hit the goldmine.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Five Little Known Facts About Doc Holliday

Guest post from David Corbett, author of The Long-Lost Letters of Doc Holliday, now available

John Henry “Doc” Holliday represents the iconic American antihero. Gambler, gunman, devoted friend of Wyatt Earp—and virtually no one else—he perfectly embodies the ethos of the “Good Bad Man” that characterized many of the Old West’s most notable figures.

But it’s some of the lesser known details of his life that make him truly intriguing.

1. His Going West Had Nothing to Do with his Health

It’s commonly believed that Doc, who was suffering from the same disease that killed his mother—consumption (tuberculosis)—left the South for the West for the sake of the drier, healthier climate. Put simply: no.

First, Doc’s initial stop was Dallas, which was hardly healthier than his native Georgia—it was just as humid, had experienced a yellow fever outbreak only two weeks before his arrival, and had so much horse manure fouling the streets they let pigs loose to eat it. (What they did with the pigs is lost to history.)

Second, there were several notable hot springs much closer to home, including a few quite close to Holliday family properties, where Doc could have convalesced if his health were the real issue.
Third, when Doc arrived in Dallas, his first order of business didn’t concern his lungs. He teamed up with a local dentist named John Seegar, a stern moralist, and also joined both the local temperance society and the Methodist church—all of which suggests Doc hoped to turn over a new leaf.

Before leaving Georgia, he had been chastised by family elders for his volatile temper and increasingly dissolute lifestyle, including not just gambling and drink but consorting with an accused murderer, a local gambler and bartender named Lee Smith.

That said, Dallas at the time of Doc’s arrival was a wide-open frontier town, and Doc heard the call of the saloons and gambling parlors all too soon.

2. Doc Himself Gave Two Conflicting Reasons for Leaving the South

Doc told Bat Masterson that he had to decamp for the frontier because of an incident at a swimming hole on the Holliday family property near the Florida-Georgia border. A group of black youths often swam there, and on one occasion Doc took exception to their presence. When they refused to leave, and in fact defiantly told Doc that he and his white companions were the ones who would have to find a new place to swim, he returned with a shotgun and opened fire, killing two as the youths fled.
No official sanction arose from this episode, nor is there any historical record; yes, it was Reconstruction, but still the South. However, per Masterson, the family thought it best that Doc “go away and allow the thing to die out.” (Other accounts have Doc either shooting over the youths’ heads—the version offered by his uncle, Tom McKey, who claimed to be present—or slaughtering them all.)

However, Doc told a much different story to Gillie Otero, the son of the then-governor of the New Mexico Territory. In this version, Doc was jilted by a young woman back home, and that became “a turning point in his life.” Otero recounted this long before rumors concerning a possible romantic connection between Doc and his cousin Mattie ever became publicly known.

3. The Issue of Religious Conversion Played a Significant Role in Doc’s Life

On her deathbed, Doc’s mother turned away from the Presbyterian faith of her husband, Doc’s father, and converted back to the Methodism of her youth. She did so for Doc’s sake.

She did not want her only surviving child convinced, in accordance with Presbyterianism’s advocacy of election (predestination), that his eternal fate was already decided, and his actions in this life meant nothing. Rather, she wanted him to embrace Methodism’s belief in the availability of God’s grace through good works—“deeds not creeds,” as the saying went.

It has sometimes been conjectured that it was his cousin Mattie’s Catholicism that created the barrier to her and Doc being together. First cousins are forbidden from marrying in the Catholic Church, and her faith ran deep.

Interestingly, when Mattie subsequently joined the Sisters of Mercy, she chose the name Sister Mary Melanie. What makes that especially intriguing is the fact that her namesake, St. Melanie, before renouncing this world for the sake of the next, married her first cousin.

Adding even more intrigue, Doc reportedly converted to Catholicism shortly before his death, as though preparing himself to be with Mattie beyond the grave.

4. Doc’s Capacity for Conversion Wasn’t Limited to Religious Faith

Doc left Georgia a committed Democrat, as antipathetic to the Party of Lincoln as any other young southerner of his generation.

While out West, however, he eventually embraced the vigorous ethos of investment, expansion, and progress that the Republican Party championed, specifically as it related to the mining interests he pursued along with gambling.

In contrast, Mattie never forgave the North for the devastating effect that imprisonment by Union troops had upon her father. Six years after the Civil War’s end he died a broken man, mentally and spiritually as well as physically. She remained a “unreconstructed rebel” even after entering
the convent, which she postponed until an opening arose in the South—a nun who couldn’t forgive.

5. Doc Never Fired a Shot at the Man He Hated Above All Others

Mattie wasn’t the only one who couldn’t forgive. Throughout his life, Doc harbored a deep-seated animosity toward his father. The older man absented himself a great deal while Doc’s mother lay dying at home, then remarried a mere three months after her death. Not only did his new bride live just down the road, she was only 23 years old—a mere seven years older than Doc.

As if that weren’t indignity enough, the elder Holliday added further insult by heading the local Freedman’s Bureau for a time, which as far as his son was concerned made him a “scalawag,” as such traitors were known at the time.

------------

David Corbett is the author of six critically acclaimed novels: 2018's "The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday;" 2015's "The Mercy of the Night" (starred review, Booklist); "The Devil's Redhead" (nominated for both the Anthony and Barry Awards for Best First Novel); "Done for a Dime" (a New York Times Notable Book); "Blood of Paradise" (nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar, and named both one of the Top Ten Mysteries and Thrillers of 2007 by the Washington Post and a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book); and "Do They Know I'm Running?" (Spinetingler Award, Best Novel 2011 -- Rising Star Category).

David's short fiction, collected in 2016's "Thirteen Confessions," has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, from "Las Vegas Noir" to "Smoking Poet" to the upcoming "CRIME + MUSIC" (Oct 2016).

His story "Pretty Little Parasite" was selected for inclusion in "Best American Mystery Stories 2009." The story he co-wrote with Luis Alberto Urrea, "Who Stole My Monkey?", was included in "Best American Mystery Stories 2011." 

David has also contributed a chapter to the world's first serial audio thriller, "The Chopin Manuscript"--which won an Audie Award for Best Audio Book of 2008--and also to its follow-up, "The Copper Bracelet." 

His book on the craft of characterization, "The Art of Character" ("...will rest close at hand on writers' desks for many years to come" -- Cheryl Strayed) was published by Penguin Books in 2013. His nonfiction has appeared in Writer's Digest (where he is a contributing editor), the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, Bright Lights, The Writer, and numerous other venues. 

For more, go to www.davidcorbett.com.

------------

NOW AVAILABLE FROM BLACK OPAL BOOKS

The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday


The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday
The most notorious love letters in American history—supposedly destroyed a century ago—mysteriously reappear, and become the coveted prize in a fierce battle for possession that brings back to life the lawless world evoked in the letters themselves.
Lisa Balamaro is an ambitious arts lawyer with a secret crush on her most intriguing client: former rodeo rider and reformed art forger, Tuck Mercer. In his newfound role as expert in Old West artifacts, Tuck gains possession of the supposedly destroyed correspondence between Doc Holliday and his cousin and childhood sweetheart, Mattie—who would become Sister Mary Melanie of the Sisters of Mercy.
Given the unlikelihood the letters can ever be fully authenticated, Tuck retains Lisa on behalf of the letters' own, Rayella Vargas, to sell them on the black market. But the buyer Tuck finds, a duplicitous judge from the Tombstone area, has other, far more menacing ideas.
As Lisa works feverishly to make things right, Rayella secretly enlists her ex-marine boyfriend in a daring scheme of her own.
When the judge learns he's been blindsided, he rallies a cadre of armed men for a deadly standoff reminiscent of the moment in history that made Doc famous: The Gunfight at the OK Corral.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Cons of Empathy

Hello again, folks.
I'm back to let you know that I can really shake 'em down.

Last week I'd gotten to the point where I was taunting the CEO of Twitter in the hope that he would ban me, so I could achieve a sort of digital hermitage and go cold turkey from the drug of social media. Seeing new and old friends at Bouchercon was a welcome respite from the news, though I did take a peek at the cover of USA Today for my daily dose of dread. (You can't quit dread cold turkey, the withdrawal symptoms can be fatal).

I have a love-hate relationship with conventions or any social gathering, as meeting people makes me nervous. My writing came from being a quiet observer in social situations, the kid hiding under the dining room table at family events, drawing bizarre tapestries akin to the caverns at Lascaux with my crayons on the underside of the furniture, emerging only to sneak abandoned pony bottles of Rolling Rock and to stuff a meatball in the heel of a loaf of bread and dunk it in the pot of tomato sauce. I have always felt like an anthropologist from another planet, the reverse of Oliver Sacks's "An Anthropologist on Mars." I'm the Martian, observing the strange species of soft, hairless, and physically and emotionally violent apes we call humans.

And they still puzzle me. Conventions are an interesting place to people-watch because like a Carnivale of sorts, people feel free to be themselves, or put forth the personae they want so desperately to be. Either allows for brief glimpses of the person behind the mask, as they take a breath when they think no one is looking. To quote Gerald Kersh, one of the most criminally under-read writers of the 20th century, whose collection Clock Without Hands I was honored to write an introduction to:

"...there are men whom one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armour, the writhing of something nailed down and in torment."

That is from his story of a crabby old landlord who breaks down when his beloved dog is struck by a lorry, "Busto is a Ghost, Too Mean to Give us a Fright," and can be found in the collection Nightshades and Damnations, edited by Harlan Ellison and reprinted by Valancourt Books. I have carried it with me since reading it, first quoted by Ellison in an essay, then later when I tracked down the story (after contacting Ellison, which I've written all too much about). And I try to recite it whenever I find myself loathing somebody, whether for their narcissistic behavior, their virulent clinginess and stalking, snarky insults, or just plain cruelty. I first used it as a mantra for my father, who before we elected a President who "tells it like it is," used that excuse to insult whomever he liked, and yet somehow be affronted when the mildest criticism was aimed his way. "I'm just telling it like it is." But like Doctor Lecter, as Clarice Starling said, he never aimed that intellect at himself.

At first I sympathized with those "somethings nailed down and in torment," because that is what empathy does, it puts you in another's shoes. I was younger then, and unfamiliar with accountability and responsibility, two of the cornerstones of maturity and adulthood. You can make mistakes, but if you choose not to atone, if you expect to be forgiven with no redemptive actions on your part, you are the one driving the nails into your inner self, and the torment you endure is punishment inflicted upon yourself. It is not up to your victims to forgive you. Threatening legal action, telling people it's okay to be friends with you "because your lawyer cleared you" don't make you sound like you have redeemed yourself, they make you sound like someone I don't need in my life.

I have let my empathy be used against me. As a country, we have as well. We want to give seats at the table to people who want to kill the other people at the table. We tell ourselves that we're being civil, when we are being cowards. No more. People who stalk, abuse, and threaten violence to other people do not get to sit at our tables and abuse our kindness. If we can't agree on that, I'm not sure what else there is to agree upon.

Then there are people like Louis CK, who want to set the terms for their own redemption. That's not how it works. I don't recall him apologizing to anyone. And how is his life "destroyed?" I don't see him eating out of a dumpster, he'll be fine. He can touch himself in the privacy of his own home. Here's another strike against empathy. I bet Louis CK feels sorry. Not only for the consequences, even. But that's not enough. His ickiness was predictable to me when I first saw his act eight years ago in Red Bank, at the Count Basie theater. He had that self-deprecating "men are all horrible people" shtick which is so often used as misdirection to distract people from looking too closely at the speaker's own behavior. And no, I'm not saying "not all men." We live in polluted water; we are all affected by it. We can try our damnedest to "be better" (or best?) but until we stop crapping in the pool or rolling our eyes when another man does--instead of kicking him out of the pool, as was done with Louis CK--we are going to be wallowing in a feces-clogged patriarchal swamp.

Which brings me to Jay Stringer's blog post about his recent resignation from the board of Bouchercon. Give it a read. It's vague at points, but what it's about is how difficult it is to change things when you feel sorry for people who are adults and should know how to behave. I believe in second chances, but you don't get those while you are still on your first chance, like Louis CK. Or the sex offender than Shane Black keeps casting in his movies, a friend of his who was caught trying to set up a meet for sex with a 14 year old girl. I actually have more sympathy for that guy, because he served jail time so his first chance thus ended. I respect Olivia Munn for speaking up--at minimum, there should have been protocols in place to keep him away from any minors on the set of The Predator. (You can't make this up.) Hollywood sucks at this: Victor Salva raped a boy on set, whose family was then sued by Francis Ford Coppola's production company. Salva then was allowed to make creepy teen-obsessed movies like the Jeepers Creepers flicks.

And this isn't "virtuous reading" or whatever the status quo ding-dongs want to call it. You want to read a book by a stalker creep, go right ahead! But don't ignore the victims who say they were harassed by men who are then allowed to attend your convention because you have a "policy." I'm not sure how this policy is enforced. I saw one drunken writer dragged out of Noir at the Bar by hotel security after he nearly got the event shut down. At Thrillerfest, they have convention staff who wear shirts labeled SECURITY and that made me think twice about trying to enter the signing line for George R.R. Martin a second time. It probably keeps the thigh massaging stalker creepos from behaving badly. Women attendees of Thrillerfest haven't spoken out. I'll ask friends who attended and see what they thought. Anyway, Bouchercon was a good time this year. There were some problematic issues with a panel, but I will leave the telling to those who were there.

Kellye Garrett made a great speech when accepting her Anthony Award for best debut novel, for Hollywood Homicide. She read Frankie Bailey's statistics for how many nonwhite, non-straight writers have been published in the mystery/crime field in the U.S. That number is 177, and it is mindnumbing. 177, all time. She won the debut Anthony, Attica Locke won for best novel (Bluebird, Bluebird is great and deserved it), Gary Phillips won best anthology for The Obama Inheritance. And what she said afterward stands--"we need to stop looking at diversity as a trend, and make it the status quo." And she's right. Color, creed, gender and orientation, and as I'm known to pipe about, class, as most crime fiction comes from a very bourgeois middle-class perspective where we sneer at the lower class or revel in their squalor. The Anthonys last week were a good start.

I'm looking forward to Left Coast Crime this year. I am told they mixed panels last year, with seasoned pros, rookies, midlisters, noir, thriller, cozy, traditional writers all together like we're a community. It viewed askance, but the feedback from writers and readers has been positive. So I am going to LCC next year, to give them a shot. I have been going to Bouchercon for 8 years, and while I am grateful for the work of all the people involved, I keep seeing the same panels with the same people. I was miffed that I wasn't on the criminals in fiction panel with my buddy Josh Stallings, but that's the only panel I've seen him on. I've moderated cozy vs noir, sex & violence... but I see the same people, except at the bar. Bouchercon is much bigger and there are many panels, but sometimes it feels like the titles are what change most. Here's a great interview with Octavia Butler where she complains about being on "the race panel" for 20 years at SF conventions (most of which have since learned to mix up panels so readers are introduced to new writers).


Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Stick to the Vision (But Let Things Come)

By Scott Adlerberg

Many years ago, on a TV talk show, I watched an interview with a film director. It's so long ago now (I was in college at the time), that I forget who the director was.  But I do remember that the interviewer asked the director something about what he finds most difficult, or challenging, about film-making.  After a moment's thought, as I remember it, the director answered by talking about all the distractions one faces as the director of a film, the hundred and one things that come to your attention and take up your time since you are in charge on the set.  Actors complain, crew members have technical issues, the producer is calling you about something, the weather is not cooperating for the outdoor scene you need to shoot, and so on.  He said that sometimes on the set (and this part of his answer I remember well), he simply stands still and closes his eyes to visualize how he first saw the film.  He blocks out everything around him so that within himself he can reconnect with his original conception of the film - the images he had in his mind, the moods he wanted to conjure, the ideas he hoped to evoke.  He reminds himself not to be distracted by everything swirling around him and to channel his energy and concentration into getting on film the closest approximation he can to what he first had in his head for the movie. There was a vision he had for this movie, an excitement he felt about doing it, and he uses that moment he's taken for himself to recall what the vision and excitement were before all the distractions began.  He tells himself that his goal, no matter what, despite everything, is to create a film as close as possible to that pure idealized version of the film he has in his brain.

Everything he said applies, I think, to writing as well as film-making, and never more so than nowadays.  In a sense, the distractions come not only from the constant daily bombardment of images and the surround sound of social media, but the urge that arises to reflect in some way, a direct way, the events and conditions unfolding around us.  But this urge can lead to something akin to trying to stick a needle through quicksilver.  Of course one wants to be relevant when one writes.  And relevance can mean topical.  It can mean obviously au courant. Then again, it doesn't have to. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating for living in a precious writerly bubble where what's outside is considered beneath one.  It doesn't seem wise that any writer be out of touch with the outside world and social issues.  I'd venture to say it would be ridiculous and lead to some embarrassing stories. But chances are that if you are up on things and concerned about things, or upset about things, or amused by things, your stories will reflect what's happening in at least an indirect or elliptical way.  Your original conception, if it's strong, will do just fine, and you'll layer in, maybe not even consciously, themes and tidbits that couldn't but be layered in except during this particular time.  How writers handle politics and social issues varies among each individual, but I know I've never been one who considers either in the forefront of my mind when developing a story.  Yet I'm a political junkie, an avid devourer of news, in my daily life.  How to reconcile the two?  I don't try.  I just know that when I have an idea I love, I work on it and craft it as best I can, and I remain vigilant about not letting the issue of the day, and the next day, and the next day, mess with that idea.  I'm pretty confident that my follow the news and media side will infiltrate the idea anyway, but maybe in a way not quite so obvious either to me or the reader.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Concept Writing

Years ago, we became fans of the show Face Off. We were at the height of the kid-friendly-but-not-cartoon programming era in our house and latched on to shows that everyone was interested in watching. And Face Off had a lot to like. For me, I enjoyed seeing the creations contestants came up with each week in the challenges. I always felt like it inspired writing, and that I could end up with a good idea for a horror story or something outside my wheelhouse.

Recently, Face Off dropped on Hulu, thank the TV gods. I'm always looking for a good streaming show with lots of seasons, because if I'm having one of my rough nights I have something I can watch or (hopefully) fall asleep to. I was happy to add it to my queue.

Something I had forgotten from the show was how important concept was. It might be easy for people who aren't in that industry to think of this as slapping on some paint and make up and costumes. As molding a bump for the nose or whatever it takes to make a person look like an alien.

It was never that simple.

Time after time after time, as the judges evaluated the characters contestants made, the started off wanting some specific information.

What was the concept?

The judges expected every single creative decision to be grounded in the character's story.





Now, these guys missed the mark, but notice that the evaluation started based on concept. Story.



This one is a better example, in a way. While it doesn't focus on the judges talking to the creator, the judges express all the reasons why this was such a memorable creation. As Neville Page puts it, the success was in the character.

Writers can really take something away from this. Some people might think of writers as making up stories and artists as drawing pictures or molding clay or whatever. Yet the origin is often the same. We're creating characters, and when you look at what they do on Face Off you see that every decision made in design is supposed to be informed by factors related to the character.

Writers could really do worse than to watch the first few seasons of the show and listen to what the judges have to say.

I found myself thinking about how concept writing applies to my own work. My recently published short story, 'Crossing Jordan', was centered on two factors. One was that the objective was to write something that fit the anthology theme (noir, police procedural or crime-related, with a kick-ass dame as your character). I chose noir, and opted to write about a post-op trans woman who wants to die, because I have a family member who is trans.

I was ecstatic to see someone really get the story when a recent review came out.

Crossing Jordan by Sandra Ruttan doesn’t feature murder or a shoot-out but does get us inside the head of a trans sex worker as she tries to unsuccessfully kill herself. But it’s not just A Man Called Ove done up in high heels.  It is a story of persistence and strength in the face of misunderstanding, rejection, and violence. A story that will stick with me.

It meant a lot to see how much of Jordan's character came through for the reader.

When I wrote The Spying Moon, my character presented different challenges for me. In many respects, reading a book can be like stepping straight into a character's mind, particularly if there is a single POV character. But what do you do when the character is an exceptionally focused person? Moreau was tough because of her background and upbringing. As a person who is part-Native, who spent much of her life in foster homes without family or a cultural anchor, she's almost like a blank slate. Instead of figuring out who she was and what she was interested in, she focused on getting answers about what had happened to her mother. She set a goal and every single thing she did, from working hard in school to earning good grades to becoming an RCMP officer, was in service of that goal.

Moreau doesn't think about clothes or music or relationships. She doesn't think much about having a personal life.

She simply focuses her energy on doing what she needs to do to get the answers that she seeks.

The only variation to that goal and her choices stems from principles that her mother did impart in her, things she does remember her saying and telling her to do. She strives to be the person that she believes her mother wanted her to be, while having a singular personal mission. And when the job she needs to properly investigate her mother's disappearance interferes with her ability to further that investigation, she remembers what her mother told her about doing the right thing.

In many respects, Moreau was a hard character to write because she's a hard character to know because she doesn't know herself. What I really found was that her story was a journey of discovery.

The Spying Moon is a welcome, gritty addition to Canadian crime fiction. Ruttan is a thoughtful and original writer, and Kendall Moreau is a compelling detective in the vein of Jane Tennison and John Rebus.”
– Sam Wiebe, award-winning author of Cut You Down, Last of the Independents and Invisible Dead
"With a keen eye for Canadian detail, Ruttan crafts a grim thriller with a unique social conscience. We need more stories like this one. Kendall Moreau is a Mountie you won't soon forget." --Sarah L Johnson, bestselling author of Infractus and Suicide Stitch: Eleven Stories

It's cool to see others relate to the strength of the character. It speaks to the strength of concept. I've worried that readers may find her a little distant as a POV character because of her lack of personal indulgences.

One of the things that is really important for me is to show how poorly Indigenous people are treated. In the midst of the #metoo movement, there's a lot more to talk about than just sexual harassment; racism is rampant and it is something that many people have to deal with every single day. Since Moreau had been cut off from family and her cultural heritage for many years, The Spying Moon focuses on all the barriers she must overcome. They're layered throughout the story. Detours from road construction, stacks of boxes from building renovations, bad attitudes from co-workers and sexist and racist remarks from potential witnesses and suspects are just some of the examples of obstacles Moreau faces. They're purposeful, because they represent the challenges she's had to face and the ones that she still has to deal with on a daily basis.

No single group of people in Canada is at greater risk of violent death than Indigenous women.

Given her concerns, I can see Moreau connecting to what Iskwe has to say. I hadn't seen this when I first wrote The Spying Moon but it certainly got to me when I did listen to this interview.




I can't change my own cultural heritage, but one thing I can do is make sure that my stories reflect real challenges that real people face and model inclusion, with characters of different ethnic backgrounds, genders and issues.

When people are cut off from their language and culture, they lose a part of themselves. It was a specific tactic used by the English, when they outlawed Irish. It was a tactic used by the Canadian government when they put Indigenous people on reservations and took their children away and sent them to residential schools.

When we talk about crime we think of murder or assault or drug-dealing. We rarely talk about the crime of robbing people of their cultural identity and sense of self.

That's Moreau's origin. Should her story continue, I expect she'll have a soundtrack in the future, as she fills in the missing pieces of her life.

PS: The book comes out next Monday. Amazon lost pre-orders of many titles, including mine, so if you did pre-order it that may have been canceled. That's the last I heard (as of a few weeks ago). 

***

As Anthony-Award winning author Kellye Garrett recently said on Twitter, "There have been just 81 black writers traditionally published in mystery all time. Of those 81 many aren't publishing today." 

Congratulations to Kellye on her Anthony win. May this be indicative of a turning of the tide, and a big step forward for inclusion in crime fiction writing.