Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Spooky Part

By Cornelia

So I did a Q&A last week with author Jeff Cohen ['t make the link thingie behave this morning] for an upcoming issue of Mystery Morgue []. One of the questions he posed concerns a topic that’s been on my mind a great deal recently-- The Sophomore Effort: “Your first novel, A Field of Darkness, has been widely praised and extremely well-reviewed. Does that relax you or increase the pressure for a second book?”

I began my response by saying, “I’m a total wuss so it’s terrifying. I’m convinced the first book was a fluke. The initial response to A Field of Darkness has been so kind and generous that I worry a great deal about readers finding the sequel a disappointment.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about why the idea of my first book doing at all well has a tendency to make me writhe in terror. It’s not a question of glass-half-full / glass-half-empty perspective, it feels more like, “oh sure, the glass is half full… of some tremendously volatile explosive,” which I’m meanwhile supposed to ferry across a hockey rink, riding a shoddily manufactured pogo stick.

A couple of weeks ago I read Sidney Sheldon’s autobiography, The Other Side of Me.

Sheldon not only wrote eighteen phenomenally successful novels, but seven Broadway plays and the screenplays for twenty-five films, including Easter Parade and Annie Get Your Gun. He created The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie. And yet the man was himself often subject to bouts of terrified writhing—usually in response to pinnacle moments in his career.

Immediately after receiving the best original screenplay Oscar for The Bachelor and The Bobby-Soxer, for instance, Sheldon’s date for the evening, Dona Holloway, said to him, “That’s so wonderful. How do you feel?”

Sheldon recalls thinking,

How did I feel? I felt more depressed than I ever felt in my life. I felt as though I had stolen something from people who deserved it more than I did. I felt like a phony.

The awards went on, but from that moment, what was happening on stage became a blur… Everything seemed to go on forever. I could not wait to get out of there.

When Dore Schary told Sheldon that MGM had decided to make him a producer, he writes,

I went back to my office and thought, I’m thirty-four years old, I have an Oscar, and I’m a producer at the biggest motion picture studio in the world…. I was overcome with a feeling of dread…. There was no way I could do this. I would call Dore and tell him that I could not accept it. He would probably fire me and I would soon be looking for a job.

I’ve heard Lee Child quote Graham Greene on what success means to a writer: “failure deferred.”

It’s somewhat reassuring to know that the terror thing isn’t just my own invention, but I’ve been wondering a lot about the root of it. Why the fear? Where does that three a.m. conviction that you’re hanging over the abyss by your last broken toenail come from?

I kind of doubt that it’s a state of mind common to CPAs: “well, there went the last spreadsheet I’ll ever create where the numbers all added up twice in a row….” Or that, say, Lee Iacocca lay awake at night after designing the original Mustang convinced the thing’s wheels would fall off for no apparent reason. And there are probably writers who finish a manuscript and say, “gee, that went fine and I bet it will do okay. Can’t wait to start on the next one, soon as I top up my coffee mug, here.” I just haven’t met them.

Why is that? What is it about writing that leaves us feeling shaky? My friend Muffy said to me the other day, “I’m working on this treatment for a screenplay, and somehow I appear to have utterly lost my balls in the process.”

With my usual penchant for high-flown diction, I replied, “Dude, oh my GOD… I so totally relate!”

WTF is that sinking loss-of-balls sensation?

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure it out, and the only thing I can come up with is that successful writing is, at least for me, dependent on what I think of as “the spooky part.” Those little epiphanies that appear out of nowhere… sparks of illumination or insight or wit thrown off by the back burner of one’s consciousness when you least expect them… the juice, the juju, the mojo—the tiny-but-full-blown Athenas popping into the head of Zeus.

I’ve heard Our Jackie say that Maisie Dobbs leapt into her head when she was stuck in traffic one day. Most of us are familiar with J.K. Rowling’s response when she’s asked how she got the idea for Harry Potter: “I was taking a long train journey from Manchester to London in England and the idea for Harry just fell into my head,” she said in one interview, adding in another, "It was extraordinary because I had never planned to write for children. Harry came to me immediately, as did the school and a few of the other characters such as Nearly Headless Nick, the ghost whose head is not quite cut off. The train was delayed and for hours I sat there, thinking and thinking and thinking.”

The. Spooky. Part.

Favors of an evanescent muse, serendipity… et cetera, et cetera. If I try to picture the source from whence they cometh, the image that comes to mind is this ancient well into which you can drop a stone and have time to sing at least three verses of “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?” before hearing the splash.

I’m not sure what all’s down at the bottom. Maybe Golem lives there, my preciousssss, dining exclusively on paper-thin slices of sashimi made from all those indigenous spiky blind glow-in-the-dark fish. Maybe it’s Rumpelstiltskin--cracking his straw-into-gold knuckles to pass the time. It could be Baron Samedi. The Minotaur. Even Bunnicula. Whatever its earthly form, I figure the well’s occupant is capricious since it sometimes throws up glittery ideas which are total crap, after which it goes “mwa ha ha ha” and belches in malicious satisfaction.

Right now, Baron Gol-Stilts-Cula-Taur has my second novel in its fiendish lap, along with my balls. I’m just sitting here wondering whether it wants a tribute of carrots, rum, incense, or the proverbial unblemished set of seven youths and seven maidens. I plan to lower my offering down into the spooky darkness with the aid of Janine’s green plastic bucket—keeping my fingers crossed that the rope’s long enough to reach bottom.

If the bucket comes back up empty, I might just take a long boring Amtrak ride to seal the bargain.

I just hope that Geoffrey Holder playing Baron Samedi isn't riding on the front of the train going "mwa ha ha ha," the way he was at the end of Live and Let Die.

Because that would suck.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


By Paul...

Let’s duke it out, Jacqueline.

Yesterday, the Southern California Booksellers Association announced its book award nominees for 2006. Yep, PARDONABLE LIES and SOLOMON vs. LORD are nominated for best mystery. The very formidable other nominees are T. Jefferson Parker’s THE FALLEN, Barbara Seranella’s AN UNACCEPTABLE DEATH, and Denise Hamilton’s PRISONER OF MEMORY. Hey, it's a privilege just to be mentioned with these terrific writers.

For all the other categories (nonfiction, fiction, and children’s books), check out the SCBA website. Winners to be announced at the “Authors’ Feast” October 21, Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.


KILL ALL THE LAWYERS goes on sale today, and as you can already tell, I’m engaged in unabashed flogging and shameful strumpeting (Dave Barry’s term) of my own work. A quick synopsis of the new book.

Why does an ex-client want to kill Steve Solomon? When Victoria Lord learns the reason, she’s angry enough to murder law partner, too. Or at least break up Solomon & Lord. . This time, a psychopathic ex-con comes between the squabbling Miami lawyers, but his real target catches them both off-guard.

Here’s Chapter One.


The Legal Times says I’ve “gone Hollywood.” Tony Mauro, the savvy journalist who’s covered the Supreme Court for a couple decades, wrote a very kind profile of me yesterday. How kind? He called FIRST MONDAY, the CBS show I co-created, a “well-meaning stab at dramatizing the Supreme Court.” He could have called it a “bloody disaster.” Here’s the opening of his piece:

"Paul Levine, the one-time Miami journalist and big-firm lawyer, has gone Hollywood. But he still writes Florida — comic Florida legal thrillers, to be precise.

"His rapid-fire Solomon vs. Lord series — three books published in the past year, and one more due out next spring — has earned him a rightful place in the upper tier of Florida mystery writers. That genre, capturing the sun-baked depravity and zaniness of the Sunshine State, has boundaries wide enough to embrace John D. MacDonald, Edna Buchanan, Carl Hiassen, and even the humorist Dave Barry.

"Now Levine, who first joined their ranks a decade or so ago with the Jake Lassiter series, has outdone himself in a new series by moving toward the screwball Hiassen end of the spectrum, but with a dash of John Grisham’s empathy for the underdog lawyer."

Complete Legal Times article here.


Okay, it didn’t happen this week. But it’s a doozy. President George W. Bush, commenting on the so-called medical malpractice crisis. “Too many good OB/GYN’s aren’t able to practice their love with women all across the country.”


“Has the wide wounded world of sports ever been so befouled with such a variegated cast of bums, bores, preening egotists, miscreants, felons-in-the-making, abusers of drugs, drink and women, liars, cheaters, thieves, hypocrites and just plain creeps as it is now?” – John Crumpacker, in the San Francisco Chronicle.

By Paul

Monday, August 28, 2006

Giddy Delight

Patty here…

Being so new to this writing game, everything that happens fills me with giddy delight. I just received a copy of the latest Reader’s Digest Special Editions volume in which COVER YOUR ASSETS is included along with books by Jeffrey Archer, Nicholas Sparks, and Rosie Thomas.

At the end of the book they profiled me but also my Westie, PJ, the prototype for Tucker’s dog Muldoon. He’s handsome, eh?

Even more amazing than having my book condensed in a volume for the venerable Reader’s Digest is seeing how they edited the manuscript to fit their format. Impressive. Even more impressive is that I discovered a whole new career: Condenser. I don’t know about you, but my high school guidance counselor never told me about that one.

There are so many jobs out there that I never knew about or if I knew about them, I certainly never viewed them as realistic careers. Take writing for instance. I was always an avid reader, but I never imagined that I could write an entire book. The idea didn’t take form until I was in graduate school working toward a masters degree in business. Now I’m starting my fourth novel and still scratching my head in wonder. Sometimes we find our passion late in life. The hard part is finding it at all.

I began working when I was thirteen, and I’ve been at it ever since. The fact that I’ve had so many jobs has made me fearless about changing careers, mainly because I’m not big on regrets.

“No man ever said on his deathbed, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’” –Anna Quindlen

“Success is often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.” –Coco Chanel

“You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don’t try.” –Beverly Sills

A writer friend of mine, who is also a job gadabout, once suggested that we list all of our work experiences and compare notes. It turned into a pretty hilarious exercise. I won the goofy job contest with this one: Easter bunny at a children’s party. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen me in bunny feet.

Coincidentally, I'll soon be heading to Bouchercon, The World Mystery Convention in Madison, Wisconsin, where I'll be on a panel on Thursday, September 28, 2006 at 1:30 p.m. with Don Bruns, Barbara D'Amato, Chuck Zito and moderated by David J. Walker. The title? "But what I really wanted to do!" We'll each be talking about the wacky and wonderful non writing jobs we've held and how they figured into the plots of our books. And that's why I don’t regret working at any of those jobs. Each has provided rich soil for growing novel ideas.

So what’s your wackiest job ever?

p.s. Here are some shots of my trip to Maine

On the boat after many days without a shower. Be thankful this post isn’t scratch-and-sniff.

Castine, Maine

Relaxing at the Castine Yacht Club.

Boats anchored in Pulpit Harbor

Happy Monday!

Friday, August 25, 2006

My Two Obsessions - An Update

from Jacqueline

PS: I thought I would add the PS first, to explain todays adventures in cyberspace. In short, I couldn't for the life of me get the correct page to come up so that I could add my blog today. Thinking it was my computer, connection or plain old fault, I whizzed over to my friend Kas (to whom I emailed the text of my blog) so that I could execute the post using her computer. I wanted to execute myself after twenty minutes of not being able to access the page. Now I'm in an hotel again, and let's see if this works. Here's my post for today, if anyone's out there to read it:

The last time I wrote about Sara, my horse, I was about ready to visit her in the equine hospital, where she had – I thought – gone for treatment for a sinus infection. Intuition is a funny thing, sometimes coming out of the blue with a thought so scary that you perhaps try to ignore it, or tell yourself that it’s just ... well, whatever it is. I had a dreadful thought while driving to that hospital, and chilled me to the bone.

As soon as I arrived, clutching my bag of apples and sweet oat treats, I bumped into the veterinary surgeon, who asked me to come to his office. Uh-oh. Banish that thought, I told myself. Then he asked me to sit down on the sofa. Big uh-oh. When anyone in a medical capacity asks you to sit down where it’s comfortable, you know the conversation is going in the opposite direction.

In a nutshell, he told me to have my horse euthanized. That the condition could not be cured, and eventually I would have to have her put down anyway. I asked a few questions, remained calm (thinking, “I can take care of myself later, now I have to take care of Sara”). Eventually I said I needed time to think about it all, and that I would like Sara to be kept as clean and comfortable as possible. Then I went out to see my girl, my breath of southerly wind, as the Bedouin saying goes. And I wept into the soft coat of her neck. I tipped the whole bag of goodies into her feed bin, saying, “There you are, have the lot my love.”

Apart from her, admittedly very bad, sinus infection, Sara was in great health. A shining coat, good muscle, and a work ethic second to none. All she wanted to do was to get back to her pals. I eventually left her and wept all the way home. Then the fighter in me came to the fore, which is just as well, because I have a horse who I knew was up for duking it out with fate and a poor prognosis. My husband said to me, “You’re the research queen, it’s what you do for your books – do it for Sara now.” I brought her home to her ranch the next day, hit the ‘phones and almost broke Google.

Cutting a long story short, since that time Sara has been seen by everyone from a veterinarian who is also an expert in Chinese Traditional Veterinary Medicine, to a Reiki Master. And I spoke to her regular vet, who said to me, “You’re doing the right thing – do your homework, then give Sara your very best shot at a cure.” So, three weeks ago Sara was admitted to one of the best equine hospitals in the country, Alamo Pintado, set in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley. There they saw a few things on the x-rays that had been missed – like an infected tooth with a spur right into her sinuses. Following an extraction she’s on the mend, dancing on the spot to be back to work. Any optimism must be cautious, because a horse’s head is almost all sinus, and infections are notoriously hard to fix. But they have some cutting edge therapies there, including a hyperbaric oxygen chamber – oxygen kills infections like Sara’s. It’s an amazing facility and I know she’s in the best place for her best shot at a future. And I want her to have a future more than anything else.

Amid all of this activity, I’ve started my almost three-month book tour, kicking off with an event at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California on August 22nd, which was the publication date for MESSENGER OF TRUTH, my fourth novel. Time rolls around – it seems like only yesterday that MAISIE DOBBS was published. And I still feel so fortunate, so lucky to have been published – not only because there are thousands upon thousands of great writers out there who are still waiting to be published, but because publishing a book really does represent a leap of faith by the publisher – that an investment in a book and its author will at least break even, that the booksellers will like it and choose to stock it, and that the readers will pick it up – especially at a time when there are so many things upon which to spend discretionary income (and for most people, there’s even less of that nowadays).

So I have much to thank the universe for, don’t I? People came out of the woodwork to help me with Sara, pointing me in the right direction, providing special therapies, driving her back and forth to the hospital for me. And here I am with my fourth novel, when I am still getting over the surprise of actually publishing my first.

I’ll be criss-crossing the country in the coming weeks, so if you are able to come to one of the bookstores where I’ll be speaking, I would love to see you there. Go to the following link for details:

And my two obsessions? As if you didn't know - writing and horses.
Have a lovely weekend.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Writing the Bestsell-out?

from James

A very recent young adult novel (which I have not read, and which is not important for this blog, so I am not going to mention it) has sparked considerable debate about product placement in novels. According to Publishers Weekly, the novel helps to promote a cosmetics product that is popular with young girls, and the cosmetics company has thrown some serious marketing dollars behind the book. The author is reportedly very excited about the arrangement.

We’ve seen it for years in movies—the soda can on the table, the billboard in the background, the logos on the shirts. It’s all over reality television (do Simon, Paula and that other guy on American Idol ever really drink from those Coke glasses that are fixtures on the table in front of them?)

But books?

Books certainly have the power to sell products. It’s been over a decade since I read Grisham’s novel The Firm, but I can’t even mention that book without craving a Red Stripe beer. Of course, Grisham didn’t take money to have his characters drink Red Stripe. It was all part of the Caribbean Island experience.

Occasionally I get e mails from readers who don’t seem to care if the author has taken money or not. Or, they assume that because an author mentions a product that he is in fact getting paid to mention it. I once had a reader tell me that he closed the book and would never by another one of my novels after reading in Chapter 2 that my character was drinking a Diet Coke. I should have written “diet soda.”

Let me say for the record that I’m against product placement in novels—at least to the extent that it means an author is getting paid to put it in the novel. But I’m not against mentioning products in novels. If I write that a guy got out of his car and put on his black jacket, does that tell the reader as much about the character as a guy who steps out of his Porsche and puts on his Armani jacket? Do you know as much about the character who got dressed and went shopping as the woman who put on her Chanel suit and didn’t even bother to check the price tags at Hermes?

And what about restaurants? I have lots of favorite ones in Miami, and from what I hear from readers, they like the local flavor. But for people who insist that my characters should drink only “diet soda,” do I have to make up nonexistent restaurants? Or is it OK to have Jack Swyteck like the same places in Miami that I like? Maybe a better question: If I go to that restaurant after the book comes out, is it unethical for me to accept a free glass of wine from the appreciative owner? A free meal? A 10% ownership interest in the establishment? (NOTE: I do always make up the restaurant if something bad happens there, like murder or heartburn).

There's also a humorous component to brand names. Dave Barry, for example, seems partial to Buicks, as in: The president spoke eloquently to a group of dignitaries, unaware of the fact that he had a booger hanging from his nose the size of a Buick. Is it really just as funny if it's the size of a "car"?

But maybe the reader who complained about Diet Coke had a point. There are many people who would probably argue that you can tell a lot about someone who drinks Diet Coke as opposed to Diet Pepsi, but maybe in some circumstances it’s enough to say “diet soda.” I don’t know the answer to that one. I do know, however, that if Pepsi or Coca Cola Company is paying me to have my characters drink their product, then my characters no longer have a life of their own. They are defined by forces outside the world in which they exist. And why would I want to screw up THAT world?

Red Stripe, anyone? Cheers.

Vermonty Python

By Cornelia

[So, two apologies are in order--one is that this is a rambling and relatively pointless blog post (although with lots of pictures) and two is that I didn't post last Wednesday because the day before I went to Vermont PG&E did some roadwork and cut off our power, and then I had to go to Vermont. That being said....]

My mother often sent us off on our travels with a cheerful wave at the front doorframe as she called out the words "talk to strangers!"

Maybe that's why I ended up being one of those people who love to chat on airplanes (unless it's really bumpy, in which case I am one of those people who discovers a sudden passion for the Lord's Prayer and any random mantras that come to mind, while I keep my eyes squinched shut and maintain a good grip on each armrest... but that's a whole other story.)

Anyway, I've met some great people over the years because they happened to be my seatmates on various flights here and there. Last week I got to fly to Vermont to see Aunt Julie and Uncle Bill, who pass as the "straight" people in our family, given that they've stayed married and stuff, though they're admirably wacky in all other respects.

I admit that I slept on the Oakland-to-Atlanta leg of the flight, looking like a complete geek in my Ghost and Mrs. Muir Charles-Nelson-Riley-homage eyeshade thingie,

not to mention with earplugs in, but I had a great time talking with a guy named David Morse on the Atlanta-to-Albany portion. Morse lives in Santa Cruz and makes violins, and I was way psyched that I got to say, "so, you're a luthier?" which I only know because I am a fiend for Robertson Davies novels, and he had a pack of Gypsy violin-makers in one of them.

We talked about his trips to Yugoslavia to buy trees for lumber, the war in Vietnam, gallbladders, novel writing, whether or not violinists are the most high-strung people in an orchestra, and his fortieth high school reunion in Albany that weekend. Great guy.

Our flight landed in Albany at 11:58 p.m., and I was a little nervous about the whole rental car thing, since all the car rental counters shut promptly at midnight. I raced out of the plane and sprinted for the Hertz counter, at which I met this really cool Greek lady who upgraded me to a Subaru Outback wagon since my daughter had just come home from Greece and we had a great time talking about Crete and stuff.

And then I set out on Route 7 for Vermont, up and over the state border to the east. It was great to tune the radio to WEQX just like old times when I lived in the Berkshires, and as I was passing Bennington, the Isley Brothers' "Shout" came on, which cracked me up because that's the song Otis Day and the Knights play at the toga party (I think) in Animal House,

and there's that great scene later in the movie where all the Delta house dudes take a road trip to the artsy chick college--which could so totally be Bennington--where some co-ed they don't actually know has recently died in A Tragic Kiln Explosion and everything. Anyway, they all run into Otis et al again in some roadhouse there.

So I got to think it was cool that Peter Riegert would like to make a movie out of my book, and I raised my soda in a little toast to him, there in the car, since he was in that and stuff. Although I am not sure I would actually TELL him that, because it must get a little tiresome to have practically everyone wanting to talk about the first movie you ever made, all the time--especially when you've made a lot of extremely fine ones in addition to the first.

(Here at the Chateau Ultra-Trashy, we like him especially since, when my Intrepid Spouse said, "I would like him to get me a no-show job on the Esplanade Project, as part of your option deal," Mistah Riegert replied via email, "I have spoken with Tony Soprano, and while there are no more Esplanade openings, we have agreed that your husband may be able to get work as a tour guide at The Museum of Science and Trucking.")

But the actual REASON I was in Vermont was that Aunt Julie very kindly harassed a local bookstore into inviting me for a signing--Misty Valley Books in fashionable Chester, Vermont, in fact. MVB is run by the inimitable Bill and Lynne Reed, who are tremendously cool people despite the questionable spelling of their last name (*cough*).

They do a lot of wonderful book-related events, but my new favorite is their "Gourmet Mystery Series." This is where, once a month, they invite a mystery author to do a signing, and then everybody goes next door afterwards for a dutch-treat dinner at the Fullerton Inn (a place which makes a very nice chicken piccata and seriously excellent roasted carrots, by the way.)

Aunt Julie mustered the troops for this, which was way cool. There were lots of people I have known since practically birth in attendance, because it seems as though just about everyone who used to live on Long Island, way back in misty antiquity when my parents were still married, has now moved to Vermont--and who can blame them as it is a very nice place indeed. I mean, here is another view of downtown Chester:

Which, hello, for quaintness you pretty much can't beat with a proverbial stick.

One of the people who came out for the signing was Mimi Neff, who stood up during the Q&A portion of the evening to say that she had known me since BEFORE I was born, and that I used to take naps alongside her son Michael in his crib when I was a little kid, and we both started to tear up a little over all of that.

It was actually at Mimi's house that I once sampled a bottle of liquid Lemon Pledge, on a hot summer afternoon when the two babysitters each thought the other one was watching me, and it was nice to live through that as you might imagine. This was while Mimi and Mom were out doing some regatta for Ladies' Sailing at Seawanhaka on Oyster Bay, and they had to send the launch out to get Mom off her boat so she could go to the hospital with me in Mineola.

The launch, by the way, looked like this, even years later in 1964:

I did not mention that when Mimi was talking however, since everybody was having a pretty good time and it seems a little ridiculous to bring up near-fatal infant poisonings in the middle of a book signing, at least when you were the infant.

I think the signing went pretty well. I didn't puke, which is always nice, and people seemed to be enjoying themselves. One of the kindest responses to my schtick was that of Dr. Roger Fox, a polo-playing Brit dude who was enticed to come to Vermont and run a medical clinic "for a couple of years" in the mid-sixties, but has never managed to leave, for which we are all grateful. He told me he hadn't realized I was related to Sandy Read, an uncle from my dad's side of the family who lives in Manchester, Vermont.

Dr. Fox said, "it all made sense to me, though, when you were speaking, as if I'd shut my eyes it could have been Sandy up there--you have the same talent with a throwaway line." Uncle Sandy is pretty much the most charming Read ever, so that was high praise indeed. He wrote and illustrated one of my all-time favorite books, The Bear with the Orvis Rod:

Which is the story of a bear who finds an Orvis gift certificate and outfits himself with a mess of trout-fishing gear, whereupon he lands a prize-winning Brookie. Great stuff.

He and my Aunt Signe lived for many years in Peru, Vermont, and I once had the pleasure of house-sitting for them for a long weekend, shortly after graduating from college. Unfortunately, I did not know that they had installed stereo speakers on the outside of their house, and when I decided to play the original cast album of The Threepenny Opera at tremendously high volume one night, I had cranked up Lotte Lenya singing "Mack the Knife" in German so very loud that I think I gave the horses a heart attack.

They are all very cool people, and talented in many-splendoured ways. Like, here is a sculpture by my cousin Susie Read Cronin:

Titled, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Nut." Her stuff always reminds me of very excellent New Yorker cartoons done in bronze, which I think is a way fine thing.

So the signing (I think I was actually talking about the signing?) seemed to go pretty well, and people were wonderfully generous and bought lots of books, and then we all had cocktails and dinner at the inn next door, and I got to table-hop and talk to everyone, and the Reeds are totally great people and I hope they invite me back next year to do this again.

And after that we all went back to Aunt Julie and Uncle Bill's house and had more cocktails with a few of the heartier folk, which eventually devolved into Julie and me breaking out her wedding scrapbook because I was the flower girl and everything, and a good time was had by all--plus I got to sign more books and tell everyone to look for Aunt Julie's cameo appearance on page 262.

So all of that was a lot of fun, and I got to go to the Vermont Country Store the next day with cousin Kimberley and her beau David, to pick up these toothpicks that Intrepid Spouse is fond of,

And the Vermont Country store is a wonderful place jam-packed with all kinds of old-school stuff--from cobalt blue bottles of "Evening in Paris" perfume

to ginormous containers of Necco Wafers:

And Lanz nighties:

Which, granted, are not exactly Fredericks-of-Hollywood wear, but I suppose it's nice to know SOMEBODY still sells them, if you have a flannel fetish (which I do not, by the way. Because, ewwww, that would be entirely too goyish. Especially in Vermont.)

And here is what it looks like inside the store, just because I think you should know:

Soooo, it was all good until I tried to LEAVE to come home, which United Airlines seemed hell bent on preventing, to tell you the truth. I got to the airport in plenty of time and returned the nice Greek lady's Subaru and everything, only once I got through security--having carefully checked the bag with all my gels and liquids in it and taken off my bracelets so that the only thing that would beep in the metal detector thing was my underwires, which is always a tad embarrassing, and then I get to the gate and everything and there's NO PLANE.

First they start announcing that the plane is still in D.C., with mechanical troubles, but is expected to arrive in Albany around 9:35 p.m., which happens to be about five minutes AFTER my second plane was due to leave Dulles for Oakland, so that entirely sucked. But, as I emailed a friend later that night,

On the bright side, I grabbed prime position to be first in line the minute they announced that the plane was still in D.C. with "mechanical difficulties" but did not harass the counter guy with "does this mean I'll miss my connection?" questions before they officially tanked the flight, and so was the only one who got a hotel voucher and had my bag sent back to ticketing while we were all still standing upstairs at the gate. Nice to have the old Manhattanite Machiavellian moves kick in as reflex, without even brain-stem involvement. Decent hotel despite extreme cheese factor of plastic-gilt-framed bad foxhunting print plethora, not to mention fake "rural village" courtyard/atrium (under glass) for winter guests, and apparently some sort of skeet shooting range in the swamp outside my window. Fuck it, there's a free bed and a hot bath with my name on it. And I'm all about gratis Business Center emailing.

Also, I felt kind of bad for the male staff at the Hotel Desmond (think Norma, only more plastic),

since the management forces them to wear ersatz Colonial Wear, including knee breeches--even the poor guy who has to drive the shuttle van back and forth to the airport:

But they did a really really nice job with the 4 a.m. wakeup call the next day, so that was decent of them, and I made my flight with plenty of time to spare as soon as I'd once again checked my bag with the gels and liquids in it and gone through security with my underwires beeping and having to do the whole pat-down routine. It all would have been fine if Intrepid hadn't had to take ANOTHER morning off work, on the day when they had some out of town IT guy in to do training, so he was pretty cranky about the whole thing even though I said if I could have fixed the plane myself I would have been out on the tarmac with a wrench lickety split.

Not that I blame him, since he has been remarkably patient about the whole childcare thing during times when I've been on the road for book stuff. And despite the fact that I was always remarkably patient when HE went on the road for work, so you might think it's only fair that he sucks this up without complaint, the difference is that he actually got paid for it and it's still kind of debatable whether or not my travels will enhance the familial bottom line here. Plus which I am hoping to butter him up to cover the home front when I travel again, especially since these other movie people would like to fly me to L.A. after Labor Day, to discuss a possible screenplay, which is not something you want a cranky spouse having to pitch in for, you know?

Next time, I am flying Jetblue, even if I have to hitchhike at the end. I love Jetblue.

And here is something that made me laugh, speaking of airports--I tried to check Naked Authors from a mil-spec coin-op computer terminal at O'Hare, and the ISP wouldn't let me log on here because of "questionable content" which they felt might "offend your fellow travelers."

So, we must be doing something right, I think.

And now I will stop rambling, with just a few last words of parting advice

Never order the quesadilla in a midwestern airport.

Especially with chicken.

Because it will NOT taste like this:

It will taste like THIS:

And now I am really and truly finished with all of this random babbling.

As such, I bid you to "arise, go forth, and conquer".... and don't forget to talk to strangers.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The End of Reading?

By Paul...

“Oh, this is depressing.”

That’s what I wrote in a posting on the “DorothyL Digest” over the weekend. I was talking about Michael Skube's op-ed column in Sunday’s Washington Post. Entitled "Writing Off Reading," Skube, a journalism professor at Elon University, bemoaned the current state of reading (or non-reading) among college students.

Let's admit up front we all have vested interests in the continuation of reading. Let's also say that all of us -- writers and readers -- cherish the written word. What's the future if college students have given up on reading for pleasure.

At Penn State's College of Communications, my alma mater, there's a "Paul Levine Reading Room," provided with the generous support of Hollywood TV executive and unrepenant New York Yankees fan Carmen Finestra. Does anyone use the room? I hope so...and not just to play Madden College Football./>">" border="0" alt="" />

Here's what Professor Skube has to say, in part, about the reading habits of his students at Elon University in North Carolina:

We were talking informally in class not long ago, 17 college sophomores and I, and on a whim I asked who some of their favorite writers are. The question hung in uneasy silence. At length, a voice in the rear hesitantly volunteered the name of . . . Dan Brown.

No other names were offered.

The author of "The DaVinci Code" was not just the best writer they could think of; he was the only writer they could think of.

In our better private universities and flagship state schools today, it's hard to find a student who graduated from high school with much lower than a 3.5 GPA, and not uncommon to find students whose GPAs were 4.0 or higher. They somehow got these suspect grades without having read much. Or if they did read, they've given it up. And it shows -- in their writing and even in their conversation.

Click here for the entire article.

I received several thoughtful e-mails in response. Here are some excerpts.

From Neil Plakcy, a Florida novelist (“Mahu”) who teaches at a community college:

I heartily second everything Skube has to say.

Last winter I experimented by adding three mystery novels to thedevelopmental writing course, figuring that just by reading, our students might improve their writing. In their exit questionnaire, 50% said they had never read a full-length novel before, and only one or two students had ever read a mystery novel before.

Our students have a terrible problem with cultural literacy as well. I asked
them to keep a vocabulary journal-- words from the books that they did not
understand, and then quizzed them at the end of the unit. The words they
didn't know included anchor, barge, debris, dock, forlorn, hiatus, idle and

I figure I am educating the next generation of mystery readers. This
experiment was so successful (and the faculty thought it would be more fun,
too) that this semester six different classes are reading Christine Kling's
Cross Current,” which is particularly appropriate to us because of the setting (Fort Lauderdale's New River and environs) and the elements ofHaitian culture (we have a large Haitian community.)

* * *

Way to go, Neil. If reading mysteries doesn't grab them, what will? From Diana:

This is extremely damn scary. Extremely.

For at least 5 years I've been telling people that the educators and the publishers are missing the boat somehow, and nobody gets it. “Book people” are as a group complacent, and we need to be shook up so that we can make noise out there and push those who can, to do something.

* * *

A different point of view from Lula:

I don't think that kids who go to better universities and schools have the time to read for pleasure. I think that most of the kids who go to those schools are focused on what they need to do to get through school with good grades, which pretty much takes all their time. If they're lucky,
later on in life they will turn to reading.

* * *

From Kathrin:

I'm 22, I study law - and I'm a reader! It is the most important fact about me. You won't get "me" if you don't get how important reading is to me. It is like breathing. A day without at least one page read (for fun and pleasure) is a wasted day, it is as if I didn't live that day.

I know I could be much better in university if I spent less time reading "my" books instead of reading "university" books, but would I feel well? The answer is easy: No! It wouldn't feel right if I didn't read for pleasure whenever I can.

* * *

Okay! A young person who reads.

And this, from Cindy, a librarian in Hawaii:

During the summer I bribe teenagers to read and during the school year send them to all of the skinny Steinbeck books for their book reports.

Jane Austen doesn't exactly fly off of the shelves. But man, my manga collection and X-men graphic novels are in pieces after a few months of overuse.

Harry Potter has left me clinging to some hope, as how often do you have kids waiting in lines to buy a book? And while they may not be as rabid as Lord of the Rings fans and learn the entire elven language, some will at least wear the funny hats and glasses.

With all of the afterschool appointments, sports, and intense Playstation time, teens don't seem to have time for leisurely reading. But there is still this core audience of kids (aka "outcasts") who use the library often, read daily, and give me hope. I think that if there's encouragement (parents) and access (libraries), kids can be taught to read for fun.

* * *

Thank you, Cindy, and keep up the fight! Cindy, by the way, is a fan of both my old novels and the new Solomon vs. Lord series. "I love Jake's pathetic love life," she writes. What can I say...other than Jake's love life was modeled after mine?

Any ideas out there? If you're reading this, you love books. How do we get young people to read for pleasure?


Saturday, August 19, 2006


Patty here...

I'm in Martha's Vineyard sitting on Peter and Betsy's screened porch in their vintage glider, surrounded by the ghosts of Dash and Lilly. It's the type of warm and lazy summer day when your mind is free to think about literature, life, and metaphors.

I just concluded a ten day sailing adventure off the coast of Maine from Yarmouth to Sommesville and back in a 30-foot boat. Sailing in Maine is not for the faint of heart. We were often traveling in remote areas pushed by 30-knot winds and choppy seas through narrow passages of shallow water lined by rocky shelves that have laid over boats skippered by even the most experienced mariners. For those days there were no NakedAuthors, no email, no cell phone coverage, and few showers (and I'm not talking about rain here, folks).

On our passage from Tenant's Harbor to Linekin Bay we lost our engine in one of those narrow passages. The water was shallow and the wind was threatening to blow us onto the rocks. We moved quickly to set the sails and short-tacked through the passage and into Port Clyde, Maine, for repairs.

I've done a fair amount of cruising, so I knew before I committed to the trip that it wouldn't all be smooth sailing. I accepted the challenges because I anticipated that the rewards would be worth the hardships.

It's quiet here in the woods of East Chop. As I play fetch with a yellow lab named Chloe and watch the breeze ruffle the leaves of the trees, it strikes me that sailing the Maine coast is an apt metaphor for writing novels and getting them published. The literary life isn't always smooth sailing, but overall it's a great adventure.

I recently sent my third novel to my editor, the incomparable Kristen Weber of NAL/Penguin. Before mailing the manuscript I asked several friends to read it. All of them told me that it was my best book yet, but still...they're friends. You worry.

So here I am in Martha's Vineyard checking email on Betsy and Peter's computer and I find a message from Kristen. She loves SHORT CHANGE. Her words are pure mojo. They make up for all those writing days when my creative data bank seems either trite of vacuous. Having Kristen's support feels like reaching a safe harbor and finding an expert mechanic with a spare fuel pump. Minor repairs will be made and I'll soon be off on my next big adventure: book four.

p.s. A belated thanks to all of you who responded to Fan Mail. A special thanks to Louise Ure for her wonderful post last Monday. I'll be back in L.A. on Monday eveninig. Until then, here's wishing you all fair winds in writing and in life. p-

Friday, August 18, 2006

Ashland, a Book Tour, and a Long Overdue Pardon

from Jacqueline

Amid my post on airport security last week, I forgot to say why I was actually in Ashland, Oregon, home of the world-famous Shakespeare Festival. It was my pleasure to be the guest of the mystery book group in Ashland (also home to over 100 book groups), along with the library and others. I had never been to Ashland before, so this was something of an adventure - particularly after the adventure at the airport. I was there to speak to members of the book clubs, who had dragged themselves away from good old Will to listen to me. What hospitality! Not only was that a lovely evening, but on the Saturday I was treated to a boat-trip down the Rogue River - actually, a very fast, waterlogged boat-trip down the Rogue River in one of those hell-boats driven by water-cowboys who do wheelies anytime the passengers look like they might have dried off. Then there was Shakespeare, being taken to see a gorgeous production of A Winter's Tale. I'd already been treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the festival which made the play even more enjoyable.

It's full-knotted-stomach week, with my new book being published on August 22nd. The book tour is more or less set in stone, and you can read all about it by going to the following link:

I'm already a bit nervous, but unlike Cornelia, I do not upchuck, no, instead my old ticker tends to play up a bit - and that's what happened this week. After two days of a racing heart, extra beats - and more worrisome - missing beats (you begin to wonder if it will start up again, bit like driving an old VW Beetle) my husband said, "You don't look so good," and dragged me off to the emergency room. Wired for sound with an irregular beep in my left ear from the heart monitor, I could summon only two words: "Oh, shit." Funny thing was when the doctor asked if I had been under any stress lately, and I said, "No, not really." The he asked me if I was sure. I framed an honest reply in my mind. "Well, I've been back to England - my mother had a stroke a few months ago and I'm trying to get back as often as possible. My horse is in the equine hospital - I was told to put her down last month and this is my best shot at finding a cure for her. Then I was flying last week - I am scared of flying, which is a bit tricky as I'm about to start a 14-city book tour, and of course I have a new book to write on a bit of a tight deadline and I am really nervous about whether anyone will like this book, and ... Instead I replied, "I guess there might be a few things."

But don't worry, all's well now, and I have a little stash of tablets to get me on an even keel if it happens again - and I'm taking my yoga and meditation tape on the road with me.

Those of you who have read my first novel, MAISIE DOBBS, will know something about the military practice of executing "deserters" in the Great War 1914-1918. Some 306 men and boys were "shot at dawn" for their so-called crime. Often that desertion was as a result of shell-shock, fear or, through sheer exhaustion, falling asleep at their post. When I made my pilgrimage to the battlefields of The Somme a couple of years ago, I visited what is now a small restaurant and guest house, where the owner has had the cellar excavated, along with the subsidiary trench that led from the cellar. (You can read about it at: In the war the cellar was used as a first-aid post for a while, and later, sadly, to incarcerate an 18-year-old soldier awaiting death. During the Battle of the Somme he had been found, not with his battalion on the front line, but, having seen his pals blown apart, and become completely shell-shocked and disoriented by the battle, was back behind the line wandering around half clad and half out of his mind. He was labeled a deserter.

Now that young man is among the 306 soldiers who are being pardoned by the British government ( And not a moment too soon. Now their names will appear on war memorials in the towns from which they marched to war. Now poppies will be laid in their names on November 11th at 11 o'clock in the morning. It's late, far too late, but finally the powers that be have done something right.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

For the Love of Art

from James

I got my arts fix this past week.

The traveling Grippandos had time for one more family trip before the kids go back to school, so we spent it in the Berkshires. (Many thanks to my friend Carlos Sires, who turned 50 on Aug. 11, and to his wife Margaret, who turned—uh-hem—29 on August 10 for hosting us in their beautiful new summer home) The last time Tiffany and I visited the Berkshires was in the fall of 1992, and we were not yet married. A little different this time with our son sleeping in the bed between us, but that’s another blog. We were talking about the arts. And summer in the Berkshires is heaven on earth for a lover of the arts.

We did some-thing every night—theater (a top-flight perform-ance of “The Night of the Iguana”), dance (Shen Wei, very modern Chinese performance that I’m still contemplating), and of course Tanglewood. The highlight was definitely Tanglewood. We happened to hit it on “Film Night,” which is an annual event that I highly recommend. Thousands of people out on the lawn beneath a blanket of stars, drinking wine while listening to the Boston Pops and Yo Yo Ma perform the many musical scores that John Williams composed for films such as Star Wars, Schindler’s List, Memoirs of a Geisha, and many more. (Williams has received an astounding 43 Academy Award nominations). The best part is that John Williams is actually there conducting the orchestra. Steven Spielberg was even in the audience.

But art takes many forms, and that came clear to me just as soon as we returned to Miami. Just landing at the airport reminded me why I love this place—particularly as a writer. The flight from Boston was continuing on to Lima, Peru (that tells you something about Miami right away). Walking through the concourse I spotted Jamaicans in dreadlocks, Haitians speaking Creole, Orthodox Jews reading the Holy Book, Cuban Americans drinking expresso so caffeinated that it could double as jet fuel (mind you, it’s midnight), and on and on.

And before we even reached the baggage claim we happened upon a true artistic masterpiece. It’s the floor. The bronze and terrazzo floor in Miami International Airport is a work of public art by Michele Oka Doner. The domestic terminal is white and silver, and the international terminal is black and gold. The international terminal is so magnificent that it inspired me to write this scene in my next novel, as Jack Swyteck (my serial lead character) is saying goodbye to his girlfriend at the airport:

"They were walking side-by-side across what was arguably Miami’s greatest work of public art—the striking black terrazzo floor at the airport’s international terminal. Michele Oka Doner’s “A Walk on the Beach” was exactly what the name implied. Thousands of inlaid bronze sculptures reminiscent of the ocean and the artist’s native Miami Beach dotted the mile-long concourse. Jack’s gaze shifted from two-dimensional brain coral to driftwood to starfish, his thoughts churning . . ."

There was also something very “Miami” about watching my ten-year-old daughter skate across this masterpiece in her Heelies (that’s tennis shoes with wheels for those of you above the age of 10).

Occasionally I get e mails from irate readers who tell me that they are offended when a novel mentions the ethnicity or religion of a character. They say those things don’t matter and that I should leave them out. I say I love Miami and its many forms of art. I love writing about it. And I love coming home to it . . . even if it is the heart of hurricane season.

P.S. Michelle Oka Doner's website has some fabulous pictures of her work at Miami International Airport.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Mendocino on My Mind

By Paul

I love small towns.

I grew up in a small town in the middle of dairy farming country of central Pennsylvania. Not exactly a haven for tourists and nowhere near a body of water other than Muncy Creek (pronounced “Crick”).

I spent last weekend in Mendocino on the rugged coast of California, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. It’s the site of the annual Mendocino Writers Conference where published and aspiring authors gather to talk, eat, and drink ample quantities of wine.

With its Victorian homes dating from the 19th Century when lumber was king, Mendocino is a gem of a small town. High cliffs. Raging surf. Morning mist. Wineries tucked among strands of redwood trees. Wildflowers exploding along the P.C.H. And a ton of Bed & Breakfasts. We stayed at theAgate Cove Inn, high above the water. Each cottage has its own fireplace, and you need it in the chilly evenings. Here’s here’s the view from the sprawling front yard.

Artists and writers (and marijuana growers and ex-hippies) have long made their way to the scenic little towns of Mendocino County. It’s not hard to figure why. The coastline is inspiration enough.

Many thanks to Charlotte Gullick and all the kind folks at the College of the Redwoods in Fort Bragg for inviting me to speak at the event. Thanks, too, to Christie Olson Day at Gallery Books in Mendocino and Linda at Cheshire Books in Fort Bragg. They’re the first two bookstores in the nation to stock KILL ALL THE LAWYERS, my newest SOLOMON vs. LORD novel. (Publication date is September 1).

So are writers conferences worthwhile? Do you get your money’s worth? I think the answer depends on your goals. If you aim to be the next Tom Clancy or Danielle Steele, if you’re hoping for a seven-figure advance for that manuscript or a Hollywood bidding war for the script you’ve banged out at Starbucks, well maybe you’ll be disappointed. But if the goal is to see your work in print, the Mendocino Conference, like many others, boasts success stories every year. Short stories published, plays performed, an occasional contract for a novel or memoir.

I spoke on two topics, mystery writing and working in network television. As always, I focused on the three-act structure of the novel (Exposition, Complication, Resolution) that comes to us from Aristotle (Protasis, Epitasis, Catastrophe). I recommended Brian Garfield’s concise article,“Ten Rules for Suspense Fiction," posted on the International Thriller Writers website. Tongue in cheek, I quoted Raymond Chandler: “When things slow down, bring in a man with a gun.” And, when discussing screenwriting, I quoted David Mamet: “Hollywood is collaborative. Now, bend over.”

But enough shop talk. One of the pleasures of traveling is the discovery of new restaurants. Our new favorite is Nit’s Café in Fort Bragg. You won’t find “Nit’s” in Zagat. There’s no website. There’s no advertising. It’s a tiny place with nine tables and one cook, the owner Nitaya Holmes, a native of Thailand.

My wife Renée (“She Who Must Be Fed”) went for the wild Pacific salmon over Pad Thai while I feasted on an unusual dish: a hollowed out pineapple filled with fried rice, sauteed crab, and steaming chunks of pineapple. We dined with David Skibbins, author of EIGHT OF SWORDS, and an expert on the north coast. David had the salmon over polenta cakes. We shared an appetizer of dungeness crab cakes over organic greens and for dessert, had homemade vanilla ice cream with a strawberry and blueberry compote. Fabulous.

In summary, a weekend of good companionship with fellow writers working on their craft...and a weekend of enjoying fine food and fine wine on the cliffs above the Pacific. And what could be better than that?