Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Just another naked blogger

Hello. My name is Jim. Not Grippando but Born. James O. Born to my publisher. I am very happy I was invited to join the Naked Authors blog. I visited Mr. Grippando when he stopped by Murder On the Beach book store last Thrusday. I picked up a copy of When Darkness Falls and was not dissappointed.
The two James. Born and Grippando

I’ve had a blog on Amazon for a few months and have enjoyed hearing comments from people I had no idea read my blog or cared about my novels. I recently may have offended a few people with my concern that girls are not taught how to knife fight in the U.S. I hate sexism. Then Paul Levine wrote me and asked if I’d like to join the fun and here I am.

Paul introduced me on Tuesday in a most flattering way. Then Jacqueline, Patty and Cornelia all made me feel very welcomed. Like walking into a group of friends who ask you to join them at the bar.

I like to blog about writing and my experiences in publishing. However I realize that I have little experience in the industry and wonder about the value of any of my thoughts on the subject. But as I have learned, there are only too many people happy to point out errors in logic, experience or even spelling.

I have been writing since June of 1989. I can be so specific because I started my first novel the week my son was born. I continued diligently on my quest to write a novel worth publishing for the next fourteen years. In the summer of 2003 Putnam purchased my third novel, Walking Money. That’s right I had two novels no one wanted. I now see their wisdom. Those novels had little value in terms of style, substance or entertainment.

I never told anyone I was writing. Like being a fan of Jackass, I felt it was important to keep it my secret. I maintained a day job during that whole time. First, as a Special Agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration then as a Special Agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A position which I still hold today.

So here I am, a closet writer with my fourth novel coming out in two weeks. A working cop who has two kids, a wife, a dozen hobbies and now a blog to maintain with the great writers on Naked Authors, oh yeah, and Paul Levine.

I take writing very seriously even if my writing is not always serious. I read quite a bit because I don’t believe you can be a good writer and not be a reader. I like to laugh and find humor, from juvenile pranks to urbane satire, to be my favorite pastime.

I’ll try to mix up the topics here and hope there aren’t too many people who read this blog that are sensitive, caring, easily offended, or Canadian. Just kidding, that’s a Florida joke.

One thing I’ve noticed on the blog is that the authors occasionally blog about several subjects in one post. I don’t intend to hit on too many news topics. That’s what Chris Matthews is for. But things happen to me occasionally that I like to talk about. One simple, possibly profound event occurred yesterday afternoon.

I was working out in my neighbor’s garage. My friend Anthony has the most elaborate and complete home gym in the western hemisphere. I prefer it to the commercial gym where I’m a member because he’s got a TV with cable that I can put on any channel. Anyway, after a few minutes my son walked over. My teenaged, independent son and he wanted to workout. With me. For those of you who are not the parents of someone who is seventeen this is as close to a miracle as Al Sharpton making sense or Bill O’Reilly being pleasant. After working out for a while we just hung out for a while. Then, our favorite little kid, Robert, the son of our host, came out and we all played Jedi Knight with his light sabers. We tore it up for a good, long light saber duel where he was Anakin. I lost a hand and my right leg twice. My son joined right in and I had as good a day as any father can expect to have.

John Born (left) blocking a shot

It takes an afternoon like this to put all the publishing news and book tours into perspective. And give me something I really like to blog about.

Feel free to give me guidance in the future. If you have a question or something you’d like to see discussed, drop me a line or leave a comment. I love to hear from people.

See you next week.


Well I've Never Been to Haiti, But I Kinda Like the Voodoo

By Cornelia

Crazy busy week again, so I am doing another repostos refritos number here, something I wrote about rum and voodoo on several years ago:

Barbancourt four-year-old Rum has so many uses it reminds me of the old Saturday Night Live routine about the miracle product Sparkle. Like Sparkle, this Barbancourt spirit is so multi-faceted that "it's a floor's a dessert topping!"

Okay, I lied. Barbancourt is a really lousy floorwax. Other than that, though, it's a pretty damn good all-around liquor. For sipping straight, the older rums in this line are much preferable, but those are so good that using them in mixed drinks or cooking is a travesty.

The four-year-old Barbancourt is still a bit rough to drink neat, though you will get a brief hit of vanilla and gorgeously rounded spice before the discord and alcohol take over your mouth. When mixed, however, this elixir imbues even the simplest cocktail with an unbelievably mellow and buttery warmth. Its callow youth means you don't have to feel guilty about allowing it to frolic with tonic or cavort with Co' Cola, and I guarantee you you'll never taste a superior Cuba Libre. This stuff is to Bacardi what freshly squeezed blood-orange juice is to Tang.

For cooking, too, the youngest Barbancourt has no equal. One of the finest desserts I have ever eaten was a dense chocolate torte topped with unsweetened cream that had been flavored with a shot of this stuff and then whipped. This summer, I look forward to making a batch of Barbancourt-raisin ice cream. I fully expect it to rock my dinner guests' worlds.

My first exposure to this rum, however, was not as any form of food or drink, but in a New York Times Home and Garden section article about the resurgence of Vodou as a religious practice in upscale Harlem. A bottle of Barbancourt was prominently featured in an impeccably arranged altar offering, as a gift to the Loa and the ancestors from whom the woman who designed it desired favor.

Barbancourt is, of course, the most famous rum of Haiti, and as such has played a great part in the island nation's economic and indeed spiritual history. I will attempt to translate from the French the Barbancourt website's historical information on both rum production in general and the house of Barbancourt in particular.

Sugar cane was introduced to the Antilles from the Azores after 1493, the year of Columbus' second voyage to the New World. By 1518, there were 40 sugar cane plantations operating on the island of Santo Domingo, which is today divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It quickly became apparent that rum production was a profitable corollary to the business of sugar production. In the 16th and 17th centuries, rum was known to the French by several names: eau de vie, clairin, taffia, ratafia, and guildive. It was not until the end of the 18th century that the drink came to be known as "rum," or "rhum" to the French, in order to make clear its English pronunciation.

The first rums were produced from sugar by-products, and were harsh tasting with "une forte odeur." In an example of the sort of arrogance that led to the only successful slave uprising in this hemisphere, this liquor was named "rum des negres" by the French and given to the slaves working in the canefields and sugar mills. Eventually, the production of a more mellow and sweet tasting liquor was perfected, incorporating only molasses and the juice pressed from sugar cane. It was this rum which became so popular in France, and indeed all of Europe, that in 1763 the King of France issued an ordinance constraining production and limiting the amount of rum which could be imported to that country, in order to protect the native wine industry.

The House of Barbancourt was founded in 1862 in the heart of Port-au-Prince. Run today by the sugarers Jean Gardere and Company, this rum is still pot-stilled from fresh cane juice. Barbancourt is thus what is known as an "agricultural" rum, as opposed to the more common industrial rums, which are molasses-based. This rum is produced exclusively from cane grown in the fields of Plaine du Cul-de-Sac. According to the Barbancourt website, "It is common belief that this cane is evocative of its genuine soil, the terroir. A unique wild yeast, originating from this area, probably exists, which proliferates on the cane stalks, thus producing these peculiar esters, taste and aroma of Barbancourt brands, during the fermentation process."

Once this cane has been harvested, it must be crushed and processed quickly, before the cane begins to dry out, allowing the sugars to deteriorate. The cane is cut into small pieces, to ensure proper sugar extraction, before it is sent to the three sets of mills needed to begin rum production. After the first milling, water is added to the cane so that the last of the sugars can be extracted, but the juice is never diluted to less than 14 degrees Brix, at which optimum fermentation occurs.

This juice, called Vesou, is filtered again and mixed with a proprietary yeast before being stocked in vats. After 72 hours, the juice has fermented into a sugar cane wine, known as wort. In the second step, the wort is distilled to remove unpleasantly flavored alcohols, and then aged in oak casks in a manner similar to that employed in cognac production.

This is the technical side of Barbancourt, but it has insinuated itself into the culture of Haiti in remarkable ways, particularly as something of a sacrament in the rites of Vodou, the Haitian hybrid of Roman Catholicism and African animist religions known more widely as "voodoo."

Bottles of Barbancourt are routinely incorporated into the Mange loa, or "feeding the gods," the most frequently performed ritual in vodou. Food and drink offerings are placed on an altar, to nourish and fortify these divine spirits, the vodouin equivalent of saints. The Mange loa is performed to allow a devotee to make contact with a particular loa. Each of these beings has favorite foods and totems, but all are partial to Barbancourt, which is poured three times on the ground for the loa's delectation.

In the vodou tradition, anyone may construct an altar, also known as a kay myste (from the French caille des mysteres, or "house of mysteries.")

In Haiti, a kay myste is usually a small house, usually no more than ten by fourteen feet in area, which contain individual altars dedicated to the particular loa the owner of the kay myste serves. Traditionally, these altars are constructed on a dirt floor, though it is not necessary to do so.

In the United States, a kay myste may consist of a small area in your bedroom or living room, although Haitians avoid sleeping in the same room with objects consecrated to the lwa, especially with a member of the opposite sex. It is acceptable to do so during initiation, but sex is strictly prohibited during those rites. The area can be screened off, or can take up an entire room if you have the space do to so.

To set up a basic altar indoors, without a dirt floor, you must first obtain a white cloth. This should be washed in water, mixed with with some of your first urine of the morning (vinegar can be substituted for the urine of the squeamish). The cloth should then be air-dried, preferably outdoors in the sun. The table on which the altar is to be constructed is covered with this cloth, which should then be sprinkled with a favorite perfume or Florida Water.

Next, gather four small stones near your house, and clean them by scouring with salt and water, rinsing well. Place one stone at each corner of your altar. Choose a glass or crystal vessel and clean it well--this can be a wineglass, cut glass bowl, or other container, but not anything made of metal or earthenware. Fill this with water, and place it at the center of your altar. This ritual vessel should be baptised by adding three splashes of anisette or white rum as you bless the water and vessel by splashing it with a basil sprig. While doing this, you should give the vessel a name. My favorite online Mambo, the vodou priestess Bon Mambo Racine Sans Bout Sa Te La Daginen, recommends "almost anything appropriate, fanciful, and positive--'Water of Life,' 'Gurgle Mama Brings Spirit,' or whatever!" According to traditional vodou beliefs, you have now created "a powerful passageway for spiritual energy."

Partially fill glass candleholder with some earth from near your house and a few grains of salt. Then take a white candle, and with pure vegetable oil rub the candle from its center up to the top and then from its center down to the base. As you oil the candle, direct your energy into your hands and pray for spiritual awareness. When you have done so, insert the candle firmly into the candleholder and then place it in front of the vessel of water. Do not light the candle at this time.

Now the altar is ready for objects defining the divine principles you wish to serve. An ancestor shrine boasts images of deceased ancestors (never anyone still alive). An altar to Ogoun should include a machete and a red kerchief, while Erzulie Freda's shrine should be filled flowers and jewelry, and so on.

According to Bon Mambo Racine Sans Bout Sa Te La Daginen:

Now that you have constructed a basic altar, you are ready for the first step in Vodou practice - reverence for your ancestors. However you have built your altar, remember always that it is a door between the world of human beings and the world of the ancestors and the lwa. Let it get dusty, let the water become murky and stale, use it as a convenient resting place for housekeys and pencils. ignore it, and you will find yourself tired, drained, unlucky, and uninspired. Treat it with respect, keep it immaculately clean, visit it often, and you will be rewarded with energy, spiritual growth, personal victories, and remarkable coincidences.

Your ancestors love you. They will come and visit you, accept your offerings, and point you on the way. They will instruct you, protect you, fight for you, and heal you. They will bring you messages through your intuition and your dreams.
Obtain a picture of a deceased relative of yours whose love for you is beyond question.

If you have no deceased relatives whom you can remember well, either by blood or by adoption, you can choose an image of a person who represents to you ancestral wisdom and love, and give that person a name. You may also obtain images of ancestors of all branches of the human race.
Place these images behind the vessel of water on you altar, either propped up on picture stands or attached to the wall behind your altar. This wall can also be draped in white cloth and images pinned or tacked to it.

Arrange the images until their grouping seems right to you. You may choose to work with one image or many.

Sit in front of your altar. You may ring a small bell or shake a ceremonial rattle to signal the start of your meditiation. Light the white candle on your altar, and if possible light some coconut or vanilla incense. Tie your head with a white cloth if you wish. Gaze into the water in the central chalice.

Relax and do any meditation exercises you are familiar with. Deep breathing, counting backwards from ten to zero, or opening the chakras all work fine. Think about your chosen ancestor. If possible, recollect scenes from the past in which you appear with that ancestor.

Feel the love between you which connects you. imagine that love beaming from your heart as a ray of light, passing through the water and to the ancestor's image. Call the name of your ancestor out loud, repeatedly. Tell the ancestor that you love him/her, and that you want to work together with him/her. It is a basic tenet of Vodou that the living and the dead work together to help each other.
When you feel the ancestors' presence, tip a little water three times on the floor to welcome them.

Do this meditation often, until it is a comfortable routine. Within a week or two, you should make an ancestral feast to offer to your ancestors.
This feast should include foods that were favored by your ancestors in life, with the exception that the food should not be salted.

"Generic" ancestor offerings include grilled corn, grilled peanuts, fresh coconut, and white foods like rice pudding, milk, and flour dumplings.
Place each type of food in a bowl, and place a white candle in the middle of the food. Liquid offerings can be placed in glasses and the candle put in a holder next to the glass. Touch each plate or bowl to your forehead, heart, and pubic area, and then breathe on the food.

Talk to your ancestors, remind them that they were once part of the world of the living, and that you will one day come to join them. Ask them to drive away all evil, such as poverty, illness, unemployment, fatigue, discord, sadness. Ask them to bring to you all that is good, including love, money, work, health, joy, friendship, laughter.

Light the candles, put the food on the altar, and leave the room. When the candles have finished burning, and preferably the following morning, take the food and throw it away at the foot of a large tree. If that is not possible, put it in a garbage bag and dispose of it separately from other garbage. Wash the plates, bowls, and glasses, scrub them with salt, and put them away. Do not use them for ordinary meals.

And, of course, don't forget the Barbancourt, if you really want to suck up to the dead. For more information on vodou history and practice, as well as descriptions of the many loas, I check out the further writings of Bon Mambo Racine Sans Bout Sa Te La Daginen. She sounds pretty trippy.

If you'd really like to throw yourself whole hog into vodou practice, though, you can join in the annual pilgrimage to Saut d'Eau in Haiti. This is recommended by the book 100 Things To Do Before You Die as one of life's peak travel experiences, which recommends companies running tours to the festival in Haiti. According to the author:
During these two days at Saut d'Eau, Voudou coexists very naturally with Christianity. Among the pilgrims to the Virgin are thousands of Voudou practitioners who trek over 2 miles to the Saut d'Eau waterfall, an oasis of freshness that is the home of loa Erzulie.

The waterfall descends over 100 feet, among vines, shallow pools, and mossy ledges. Hundreds of Voudouists strip and bathe nude under the waterfall to purify themselves, and many shake and cry when they become possessed by Erzulie.

Erzulie Freda

One thing that makes the Saut d'Eau rites so special is that the biggest Voudou personalities and most loyal devotees in Haiti congregate there for these two days. This fosters a carnival-like atmosphere with many Voudou camps. All around, people consult with houngan priests, Voudou drums beat incessantly, and sacrifices of chickens and oxen are made to Erzulie. With its mixture of the Virgin, the Goddess of Love, and earthly influences, Saut d'Eau is a bazaar of blessed celebration and sensory overload. As they say in Haitian Creole, "Bondye Bon," or God is good!"
While I find all this fascinating, I am in no great hurry to vacation in Haiti, I must admit, and have yet to set up a vodou altar in my house--especially since the kids would be sure to slime it with peanut butter and cream cheese at the first opportunity, and I don't want to get those loas worked up. So my indulgence in Barbancourt is limited to utilizing it as your basic alcoholic beverage, and is likely to remain so, at least in the short term.

I prefer it mixed with tonic and a slice of lime, or in orange juice on the rocks.
Bondye bon, et la Rhum Barbancourt aussi! Now that I've revealed the abysmal level of my French, I will go pour myself some Barbancourt and toast you all.

If you were going to construct a vodou altar, whose pictures would you put in it? What other objects? What's the name of your loa?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Welcome, Special Agent James O. Born

By Paul

Jim Born is baring all. Stated another way, he's joining Naked Authors. Look for his first post on Thursday.

Since I've known Jim longer than the rest of the team, I've been chosen to introduce him. A cop for 20 years, Jim is a "Special Agent" with the FDLE, though I don't know what makes him so damn special.

(And no, Patty, the FDLE is not the "Florida Department of Lingerie Enthusiasts." It's the Florida Department of Law Enforcement).

Jim is also the acclaimed author of "Walking Money," "Shock Wave" and "Escape Clause." His much anticipated (by his creditors) "Field of Fire" will be on the shelves in about two weeks. Jim has a big national tour on tap, and I'm sure he'll be flogging and blogging the hell out of it shortly. Jim's work has often been compared to that of cop-turned-novelist Joseph Wambaugh. I'm not saying Jim's books have been compared favorably, but still...

Ah, but I jest. Joe Wambaugh says, "Jim Born really knows his cops and their turf." And blood-and-guts wordmeister Ken Bruen, who even eats his rice pudding hard-boiled, says "James O. Born is the future of crime fiction."

Jim is a resident of Palm Beach County, Florida and a family man with the requisite wife and two children. If you are unlucky enough to land on his e-mail list, you'll receive numerous mundane photos of their summer vacations. Here are some photos Jim won't send you.

First, a young Jim guards a massive load of pot. (News Update: the 50 missing kilos may have set back Jim's law enforcement career, but did not derail it.)

Next, a more mature Jim Born busts Zoe Sharp and Laura Lippman for alleged "solicitation" in an insidious attempt to extort them into blurbing his latest novel.

Finally, Jim pulls the same stunt (which has become known as a "Sharp-Lippman") on Joe Wambaugh.

Because Jim travels heavily armed, I will have no more to say about him at this time. If you are dying for more information, you may try his website.


Do not fear. Jim Grippando is not abandoning us. With rave reviews in his pocket and door-busting crowds in the stores, he's s currently touring with his new page-turner, "When Darkness Falls, and he's the featured thriller writer in February on the Barnes & Noble website. So, catch his blogs there. But come back here, because James will be posting in the nude whenever he has the chance.


The A.P. reported last week:

"An elderly man who wrote in a letter to the editor about Saddam Hussein's execution that 'they hanged the wrong man' got a visit from Secret Service agents concerned he was threatening President Bush."

S.S. agents (Sorry, I mean, Secret Service agents) interrogated 81-year-old Dan Tilli of Bethlehem, PA, searched his apartment and took his photo. The agents then decided that Tilli posed no threat to President Bush and did not send the old codger to Guantanamo.

The story caught my eye, and not just because I was once married in a hotel in Bethlehem, PA, a story I will save for another time.

I was just wondering: What the hell's going on here?

Will the Secret Service interrogate me if I hit the President with an old Yiddish curse? Er zol vaksen vi a tsibeleh, mit dem kop in drerd! (He should grow like an onion, with his head in the ground!)

Note to Mr. Tilli. Do not wish ill health or misfortune upon President Bush. Under our Constitution, or what's left of it, he would be succeeded by Vice President Cheney. Unbeknownst to many, the President and Vice President occasionally hunt quail together. Here they are, from the V.P.'s point of view.


For a pithy take on the “daffy disconnected mind” of Vice President Cheney, check out Carl Hiaasen’s excellent column"In Veep's World, We're Safer now than before Iraq" in Sunday’s Miami Herald.


For a wild and wacky welcome to Miami for Super Bowl visitors, check out Dave Barry’s
Be Alarmed; Miami Isn't So Weird"
, also in Sunday's Herald. I should probably add that Dave's column was written before the City of Miami Commission proposed an "official celebration" with bands, food and t-shirts when Fidel Castro goes on to his just desserts, which I might add, will not be a great sugarcane field in the sky.

And for those of you who didn't realize it, Dave is running for President, a difficult task for someone who neither wears a suit nor spreads his cheeks in return for campaign donations. Because of the threat of assassination (or more likely, plagiarism), Dave never travels without a trio of Secret Service Agents. (Not the ones who rousted 81-year-old Dan Tilli of Bethlehem, PA).

In the dark glasses, flanking Dave, that's me in front, Scott Turow on the left, and Ridley Pearson on the right.

So far, no one's taken a shot at Dave...not even with a Key Lime Pie.


Many thanks to everyone who e-mailed me with congrats on the Edgar Allen Poe nomination for "The Deep Blue Alibi." And my own huzzah-huzzah for Cornelia's nomination for "A Field of Darkness." Cornelia and I will have fun hanging out together and rubbing shoulders with the publishing pooh-bahs in New York. More later.

(Final note: If Poe were alive today, Special Agent Born would bust him for possession of opium with intent to distribute...unless old Edgar agreed to blurb him).

By Paul

Monday, January 29, 2007

Me versus John Grisham

Patty here…

Last October at Bouchercon, the granddaddy of all mystery conventions, which was held in Madison, Wisconsin, I was sitting in the bar with my agent, talking about my career.

“I feel invisible,” I said. “What should I do?”

“Stop comparing yourself to John Grisham.”

He was right. There wasn't much to compare. Or was there...

I’ve thought about my agent's comment a lot in the past few months. So on Thursday, feeling more invisible than usual, I went on to compare my sales numbers with John’s. It wasn’t all bad news. His last novel got fewer stars than mine did. Then I checked out the reader reviews. Some of them were really unkind. I suppose if I had as many people reading my novels as John does, I’d receive more negative comments, too. Invisibility has an upside.

John Grisham probably doesn’t read the reviews of his books on Amazon, but if he did I wonder if they would hurt his feelings. They’d hurt mine. After all, we writers are human, too. At least most of us are.

I’ve always wondered why people write hurtful remarks on sites like this. I can only surmise that they haven’t a clue how difficult it is to write a book, how a writer often writes to the exclusion of everything and everyone else in order to meet an impossible deadline, how, when most authors calculate the amount of time it takes to write and polish four hundred pages of text, the hourly wage isn’t much.

I’m not talking about negative reviews by honest critics. That comes with the territory. It’s hard to take, but we writers do take it and survive. I was in a critique group for nine years. Every week nine brilliant writers who were also gifted critics exposed the flaws in my work, but the criticism was always constructive and it made me a better writer. On the contrary, review-by-personal-attack and name-calling adds nothing to the literary conversation. It’s schoolyard bully stuff as well as being just plain ignorant.

Look, I don’t like all of the books I read, but I would never write a review in which I attacked the author personally or pan a book because I didn’t like the cover art, which I’ve also seen done. At least criticize something over which the writer has control. I believe what goes around comes around. Mean-spirited behavior has a way of coming back to bite you in the ass.

To compensate for snarky reader reviews, I'm sure the cosmos sends John Grisham occasional gifts to lift his spirits. I get a few of those, too, especially last week. I spoke at a charity fund-raiser in front of a super group of women who laughed at all of my corny jokes. I had lunch with my writing posse, the Gang of 4: Barb our effervescent surfer-dude who regaled us with the intriguing first chapter of her latest novel, Elaine—writer, mom, and EBay maven whose short story collection will soon be on bookstore shelves, and Mims who is brilliant and sage and possesses an uncanny gift for finding metaphors in the most unexpected places. She brought pages from her work-in-progress, a novel that will set the literary world abuzz one day soon. I asked the Gang to read a synopsis of my 4th Tucker novel, which I'm writing now. They loved the premise and suggested a change in the order of scenes that was spot on, just like in the old days when we were all members of the same writer's workshop.

And as if all of those cosmic gifts weren't enough, I got the news that Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine had just bought a short story I wrote. It’s a noir-ish tale about an old copper on the eve of his retirement. So today I feel a little less invisible. Hope John had a good week, too.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The American Dream

from Jacqueline

I know I must have been one of millions who were quite taken aback by Dick Cheney’s “We’ll do it anyway” response to the growing rearguard action against the planned escalation of US troops in Iraq. I refuse to call it a “surge” because it makes our diplomatic ambivalence seem so very menopausal. Ooops, George is having a hot flash, and he’s sending in the marines! But, truly, all joking aside, I found the comment such a sad response, such a demonstration of the arrogance that is creating a chasm between us and our allies, between us and the rest of the world, let alone the effect it’s having on our enemies. It has the ring of adolescent temper, which is wholly inappropriate a response to those who are representing their constituents when they voice such doubt – makes you wonder, yet again, what happened to “We the people.”

I have been wondering exactly when that teenage enthusiasm, that sunny optimism, that legendary generosity - the mythical representation of the can-do county – degenerated into such demonstrations of selfishness. Perhaps I feel this acutely because I am an immigrant, and I know my path to America began with that golden image. So, instead of dwelling on the skin-crawling know-it-all attitude of the Bush-Cheney leadership, or lack thereof, I will tell you a story – an ordinary little story really – because I want to believe that the America dream, that youthful goodness, is alive and well in the people of America, whatever their political or religious stripe.

Imagine London in 1944. The British, especially those in London, Liverpool, Coventry, Glasgow, and other blitz-blasted cities, are garnering every ounce of spirit to get them through who knows how many more years of rationing, of the “Blood, toil, tears and sweat,” promised by Winston Churchill and duly served up by Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe. It’s August 7th, and three teenage girls have a day off work (most ordinary kids started work at 12 or 14 in those days) so they go to Hyde Park for a walk in the park on a summer’s day. It’s the 17th birthday of one of those girls, which is why they are walking in the park. Three pretty girls in the park are a bit of a magnet for three young American airmen, who soon follow them, and start chatting them up. Who can blame them. They find out that there’s a birthday girl in the trio, and ask what she had for her birthday. The girls laugh, rolling their eyes. You Americans! They inform the boys that, if they hadn’t already noticed, there’s a war on, and what with rationing and the bombs, you’re lucky if you get a card, let alone a present. The airmen were shocked. No gifts on a birthday? Then they had a talk among themselves and said, “Meet you back here in a couple of hours.” And off they went. The girls rolled their eyes again. Americans! But two hours later they were at the allotted place, and even as they walked towards the boys they could see the bouquet of flowers they carried and the huge box of American chocolates. There may even have been a packet of nylon stockings in there somewhere. The birthday girl hadn’t tasted a chocolate for years, and had certainly never had a box of them. They laughed, joked, and walked together, the boys being boys, jumping on and off benches, arms stretched wide, and yelling, “Watch me, I’m a B29!” Soon it was time for the girls to leave, because you had to be down the air-raid shelter before dark, and there would be trouble if they were late. And the boys had to get back to their base, and they were definitely late already. That evening, when my mother brought her birthday chocolates down into the shelter, people refused her when she offered them to her neighbors, because they jumped to the wrong conclusion regarding the means by which she acquired such bounty. So, as the bombs dropped around them, my mother savored each chocolate one by one, announcing out loud that she was now eating the cherry cream, or the coffee crunch, and here’s a – oh, really lovely – caramel. She wasn’t going to let Hitler or anyone else, for that matter, rain on her parade.

When she told me that story, she said she always wondered about those boys, the fact that they had been so kind, so generous, and whether they had made it through the war. I remember her shrugging and saying, “We were all just kids. And it was wartime.”

That story is part of my journey to America, because it’s part of my American Dream. And I get so hurt, really, when I see these politicians making mincemeat of what America meant to the rest of the world, once. When I see the country’s youthful exuberance, that optimism and willingness to help, take on a dark aura. I, for one, cannot wait for this stage to be over, and some of the gravitas, the measured consideration of adulthood take its place. But I would still like to keep the part of America that gives chocolates to a stranger in Hyde Park, because it’s her birthday.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Clueless in Seattle

from James

Touring. I’m doing it now to promote “When Darkness Falls.” I’ve been accused of doing it all my life, which is to say that if I were blonde, I’d be the unending butt of dumb blonde jokes, at least when it comes to my sense of direction. Last year, when “A James Grippando novel” was 38 Across in the New York Times crossword puzzle—the answer was “Under Cover of Darkness”—my wife remarked “Oh, look, honey: you’re no longer clueless.” So with a lifetime of experience, you would think that “touring” to promote my books might come naturally. It did—for a while.

Before Tiffany and I had children, she would travel with me. It was actually sort of fun, and if the tour ended in Boston we’d stay over in Martha’s Vineyard for a few days, or if it ended in New York we’d take in the City. For Tiffany, the novelty wore off around book three, however, so I sleep alone now on book tours.

The latest stop on the “When Darkness Falls” tour was Seattle. The American Library Association had its midyear conference January 19-22, and on Monday I was supposed to speak at a lunch event with Sara Gruen, author of “Water for Elephants.” I first met Sara last year at Books & Books in Coral Gables, before her book exploded onto every bestseller list in America. Tiffany and I enjoyed talking with her and storeowner Mitchell Kaplan over a glass of wine afterward, and I was looking forward to the ALA event—and of course everyone wanted to congratulate her for her Alex Award, which had just been announced that morning. Unfortunately, Sara’s eardrum burst on the flight to Seattle. Obviously she had to cancel, but the show went on. Here's wishing you a speedy recovery, Sara.

Actually, Seattle is one of my favorite tour stops. My sister has lived in Selah (near Yakima) Washington since sometime before Mt. St. Helen blew her top, so I always get to see family on this tour stop. I’ve been traveling to this part of the country about every two years for the past 30 years. In fact, the aforementioned “Under Cover of Darkness” is actually set in Seattle. That book credits the J&M Café (near Elliott Bay Bookstore) for having the best nachos in the city. That bit of culinary trivia earned me a spot on Seattle’s “literary map”—literally. There is a map of “Underground Seattle,” which points out places of interest that are mentioned in literature. I thought that was very cool. So far, no one has voiced any disagreement about the J&M Café nachos.

Seattle is also blessed with great bookstores. My two favorites are Elliott Bay (not just because it’s across the street from great nachos) and Seattle Mystery Bookshop. Elliot Bay is the kind of bookstore I wish every city had—knowledgeable and friendly staff, perfect “surrounded-by-books” atmosphere. And for mystery buffs, SMB has no equal in my book. I love going there and seeing signed books by every mystery writer in the business. In fact, while I was there I sold a few copies of Cornelia Reads’ and Paul Levine’s novels, bragging on them for their Edgar nominations. Cornelia’s were even signed.

So, there’s really nothing to complain about in Seattle. Except for one dispressing experience. That’s technically not a word, but there was one development that I find both depressing and distressing. I discovered that, somewhere on this tour, I left my favorite pair of blue jeans in a hotel room. They’re gone. Have you ever lost your favorite jeans? Man, it hurts. Not as much as a busted eardrum, but still, it hurts.

Downright dispressing, I tell you.

P.S. I'll be the featured thriller writer for the month of February for the Barnes & Noble book club at Check it out!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

So happy and so sad...

By Cornelia

This past week may well have been the most incredible sequence of days I've ever experienced. I feel incredibly lucky and happy, but have also been hit by some sad news.

Here is the happy and lucky part: as Jacqueline and Patty very kindly announced, I found out early last Friday morning that I've been nominated for an Edgar award for best first novel. I am still in profound but giddy shock about that, to the extent that I remain prone to bouts of Snoopy dancing around the living room:

My fellow nominees have written very, very fine books, and I am honored to have my own work considered worthy of inclusion among them--especially in a year during which there were so many remarkable debut novels in our genre.

I am fit to bust with pride in our Paul, and so so so happy he'll be at the Edgars banquet in April. GO PAUL!!!

I've also heard wonderful news from two great friends over the last few days: First, Sandra Ruttan told me over the weekend that she and Ken Bruen will be co-writing a novel. On top of that, Heidi Vornbrock Roosa called half an hour ago to tell me that she's signed with my agent Rolph Blythe, who is tremendously (and justifiably) excited about her novel Taking the Village, which I read last week and was completely wowed by.

I am weepy with joy for both of these chicks--fine writers, but even finer people and friends, the pair of them. And Ken Bruen is just completely awesome all around, which goes without saying but I'm saying it anyway because he IS.

But in the midst of all this wonderful stuff, I read something on DorothyL that knocked the wind out of me, honest-to-God as literally as if I'd just taken a roundhouse punch to the solar plexus. This post contained the awful, horrible, awful awful awful news of Barbara Seranella's death.

I just stared at my computer monitor and started sobbing, which made my husband and daughter run into the living room to see what had happened to me. I couldn't even speak to tell them for a couple of minutes, and then finally said, "I didn't even know her... except she gave me an onion at a convention this one time and I could barely even say anything when she did because I wanted to know her so damn much, and I'm so stupid because I should have just told her right then how much her work means to me, and how much I admire her... and GODDAMN IT, she was so cool and such a survivor and IT SUCKS THAT SHE'S DEAD!!!!!!!!"

And it does suck.... shit shit shit shit it does. There are not enough writers in the world like Barbara Seranella. There are not enough people in the world like her--the ones who you just know have a take on the world, when they walk into a room, that changes everything... that changes you, just by being around it and them. I don't know how to describe that, to do it justice, what she had. The cliches--that she had an old soul... that she was wise--don't cut it.

I can only say that she had a depth of compassion so palpable it had become luminous, as though she had perfected alchemy, transmuting pain into light.

There is not enough of that. There is never enough of that.

When Julia Buckley interviewed me for her blog two weeks ago , she asked which writer I would most like to meet at a conference. I said Barbara, adding that I was sure I would just blush hugely if I were introduced to her, then say "Dude, you are so awesome," and then faint.

Louise Ure emailed me to say she'd be happy to introduce me to Barbara at Left Coast Crime, as long as I promised not to say "Dude, you are so awesome."

Here's the thing:

Dude, she was.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Barbara Seranella, Wordsmith and Warrior

By Paul

Such terribly sad news. Our colleague Barbara Seranella, author of the highly-praised Munch Mancini series, died Sunday at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Her husband Ron and her brother, Dr. Larry Shore were at her side. As many of you know, Barbara battled heroically against liver disease. Barbara's friend and publicist Debbie Mitsch is planning a celebration of Barbara's life next month. I believe that details will be posted on Barbara's website.

Just three weeks ago, Barbara wrote a heart-rending column in the Los Angeles Times. Under the headline, "NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS; Ring It In, I'm Ready," Barbara told us of her battles with his customary wit, eloquence, and charm. Here is the column in its entirety.

I HAVE DEDICATED every shooting star, broken wishbone and blown-out birthday candle to the same thing during the last year: I want my health back.

You see, I have been chosen. Don't get too excited or wish that it could have been you. I'm one of those people in the midst of a "courageous battle," the kind you read about in the obits once the battle is over (read: "lost").

In the summer of 2005, I had two liver transplants. The liver is a huge organ in the right front of your trunk. I didn't always know that. Now I know where my spleen and my inferior vena cava are and what bile ducts do. I know that the liver stores vitamins, minerals, iron and sugar. It also keeps hormones at their correct level, regulates cholesterol and produces blood-clotting agents. All in all, it's pretty important, unlike my gallbladder, which the surgeons lopped off and tossed.

My scar from the first operation is impressive. Picture a Y-incision made during an autopsy, only mine is inverted. There is a straight line over my sternum that splits into an upside-down peace symbol or a Mercedes-Benz emblem, depending on your perspective. The right half of the incision is longer and ends with a Nike swoosh. I also have numerous indented holes, left by tubes. They look like gunshot wounds. Some day, that might be the tale I tell.

The second transplant came only three days after the first. Death was imminent, I'm told. I wasn't really there, so it's all hearsay to me. I saw no bright lights. I didn't hear anyone calling my name. No tunnel to speak of. I didn't know I was in a hospital, much less in East Los Angeles. I thought I was in a ski chalet or Redondo Beach. When asked, I told the doctors that Jimmy Carter was president. They corrected me.

When I awoke, my body was skin on bone, no muscle, no fat. I remember thinking that they would give me the rest back on checkout. My skin was a remarkably deep yellow, like that woman Goldfinger killed by spraying her whole body with gold until her pores clogged and she suffocated. Yes, I was a Bond girl.

"Do you know how lucky you are?" my mother asked.

If I could have spoken, I would have asked her to run that down for me because I was having trouble seeing it. The next day she held up two boxes of thank-you notes. "I thought we'd get started."

Later I found out about all the prayer chains people started for me that spanned the globe. I was blogged about, with constant updates. I was eulogized without having to actually die.

I won't bore you with all the complications, but the longest stretch I've gone without being in the hospital since then is five weeks, and I've had another surgery on my liver. I know the entire staff of USC University Hospital's sixth floor, and most of the fifth. They know me well enough to get my jokes. We hug when we part.
These days I exist in a state of grace. I don't get angry; there is no one I argue with. Nothing is a big deal. I'm not worried about my career or signs of aging. I feed the birds and watch them eat. In my lack of hustle, mysteries have been solved. I've figured out how to use the fabric softener and bleach dispenser on my washing machine. There are these written pieces called "directions." What a wonder they've turned out to be.

I can go to the store, shop, drive home and put away the stuff. After weeks of walking in the pool and swishing my arms, I can swim again. I'm writing.
I have gone through my house many times, each time finding more stuff to give and throw away. In all my organizing, I've rediscovered what I like to do, what makes me happy. I love tools and fixing things. I have so many projects lined up that it is a bother to stop and eat.

My friends and extended family call and e-mail me. I still get cards. I have a handicapped placard, so I always get good parking spaces. People visit. I am blessed with good friends and family. I also see a side of strangers most people don't, acts of incredible kindness and compassion. A hotel concierge in Marina del Rey recently refused the tip I tried to give him. "You just get well," he said.

I have been e-mailing a psychologist in Alabama who specializes in people with chronic pain and illness. I told him that I was going through another round of immuno-therapy with interferon. The last time I took the drugs, the side effects were so horrendous that I swore I would die before I went through that again.
"Yet here I am," I wrote him, "sticking that needle in the fleshy regions of my body once a week. It's amazing to what lengths we are willing to go."

He wrote me back. "The fight is not optional. It's designed. You have been chosen." He also spoke of his own chronic pain since the age of 23 and said that he considered it a blessing. "At 61, I am more alive, more aware, more in tune than people half my age. Life is about relationships. Nothing else carries on. Nothing else transcends. YOU are connected to more people than most people can ever hope to be."

So I am the lucky one. Odd as this might sound, I wouldn't change a thing. I earned my suffering and the wisdom attached.

That said, I am ready to carry those lessons forward into the future. Please Mr. Wizard, I want to go home. I am ready to be healthy again. I am having another transplant soon. It will restore my health. I will no longer have yellow eyeballs, or hippopotamus legs. I will have the stamina to stay awake all day and play with my friends and my dog. I will travel and not need a wheelchair. I will be a sightseer in my own town and take walking tours of Los Angeles. I have never seen the Watts Tower or Disney Hall. I will go treasure hunting at the beach and maybe try to learn salsa dancing.

Oh, the places I'll go and the things I'll do. I can't wait. Bring on the new year. --Courtesy, Los Angeles Times
Photo of Barbara accepting the Anthony Award, October 2006, by Iden Ford

Rest in Peace, Barbara.


Monday, January 22, 2007

All the news fit to print

Patty here...

Our J covered this news last Friday, but it’s fabu enough to repeat. Mega congratulations to fellow blogmates Cornelia Read (Best First Novel) and Paul Levine (Best Paperback Original) for their nominations for the Edgar Award. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Edgars, they are judged awards presented annually by Mystery Writers of America at a gala dinner in New York City. Only five books are chosen in each category from hundreds of submissions, so it's a huge honor bestowed on a writer by his/her peers. In fact, the Edgar is considered the Oscar of crime writing. I might also add that our own Jacqueline Winspear’s novel Maisie Dobbs was a nominee for the Edgar for Best Novel in 2003. It was only the second time in the history of MWA that a first novel was nominated in this category. Let’s all raise our Dark and Stormies to Team Naked. In fact, let's raise our glasses to all of the nominees, especially to FONA (Friend Of Naked Authors) Naomi Hirahara.

It snowed in L.A. last Wednesday. Yup. I kid you not. They were building snowpeople in the Republic of Santa Monica. It’s been cold for the past week, but an unexpected storm plowed through the area, blanketing Westside streets and the canyons above Malibu with snow and pea-sized hail, which I learned is called graupel. Who knew? All this leads me to believe that “when hell freezes over” may be sooner than we think.

I have a friend who sold his business when he turned 50. I asked him why he retired so young. He said he looked at his bottom line and decided that even though he wasn’t rich, he had “enough” and didn’t want to waste the rest of his life accumulating "more."

Charles T. Munger, are you listening? One-point-seven billion dollars is what Munger’s Bershire Hathaway stock is worth. I’m sure he has other investments in his portfolio, but that’s not bad for a single stock. Apparently it isn’t enough, which is why he’s tearing down the buildings that house a funky Westside independent bookstore to build a “mixed use” development with shops and trendy condos. As if L.A. needs more of those, especially in the traffic-clogged Westside.

The threat to Dutton's Brentwood Books was covered on the front page of the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, January 17th, right next to headlines like “70 killed in Baghdad university bombings” and “Obama raises stakes among Democrats.” We Angelenos make up the largest book-buying market in the U.S. That this story made the front page of a major newspaper gives you an idea of its importance.

According to the article,
Dutton’s, with its irregular layout, ripped carpet and books overflowing their shelves onto old flagstone floors, is considered by many to be not just a city institution but one of the nation’s great idiosyncratic bookstores. What’s more, in a neighborhood where median housing price approach $2 million, neighbors fear the loss of a quirky, laid-back community gathering spot.

The Brentwood store is the last of the Dutton’s triumvirate. The original Dutton’s Books and Art closed last spring after almost fifty years in business, and Dutton’s Beverly Hills store closed at the end of 2006 because the city of Beverly Hills refused to renegotiate the rent for its property to allow the bookstore a fighting chance at survival. Just goofy, since bookstoreless Beverly Hills spent years enticing Doug Dutton to move into the area. And BH was a beautiful store. My mother bought her first copy of False Profits there, and I held two spectacular launch parties at the Brentwood location pictured below.

I hope the Dutton’s story has a happy ending, but it won’t unless somebody other than my retired friend explores the distinction between enough and more. I understand the property belongs to Mr. Munger and he has a right to develop it, but he's in his 80s and at some point shouldn’t he ask himself how many billions are enough? Even in our money-grubbing, bottom line business environment, isn't there anything besides wealth that's worth preserving?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Our Very Own Cornelia - You Done Well, Girl! And Our Very Own Paul - What a Great Guy

from Jacqueline

I will not sully this morning’s post with other mindless subject, other fripperies rattling round in my un-nimble Friday brain. Instead, I will loiter upon the most exciting news of the day, nay, the year, if not the whole bloody decade:

First, Cornelia:

Our Cornelia, First among First Authors, soon to be a Second Author, has been nominated ... did you get that? Are you hearing me? NOMINATED (she said, shouting), for the Edgar Allen Poe Award For Best First Novel. This is, indeed, news that was – let’s face it – expected There would have been a major Naked Authors Inquiry had her illustrious name not graced the vital page of the MWA website. So, seeing as the comittee saw fit to see it the way it should have been seen, we do not have to reason why, we do not have to do or die, we just have to fill, and refill out glasses (I believe Black Velvet might be in order, if I may make so bold) and say:


And may I be the first to ask the question that will rest on many a lip, and may even be uttered countless times in the months ahead, as the star-studded event of thy mystery genre looms ever closer:

So, whaddaya gonna wear on the night?

If I were as dexterous as you, dear Cornelia, with the inner workings of this laptop, this is where I might add a photo of a crown. Let me say, Helen Mirren in her many queenly roles, has nothing on you.

Have a wonderful day, a wonderful week and here’s a tip – take a breath and remember every second of the next three months, for you are that rare bird, an Edgar Nominee and though you probably will be nominated many, many times in the future, you will never be nominated for your first novel again. You star, you.

If you will join me, people:

For Our Cornelia – Hip, Hip, Hoooooorayyyy!!!!!!!!

PS: And the good news is that, on the night, you don’t have to sit through all those speeches wanting to barf, because they present Best First Novel first. Now, next year, when you’re nominated for Best Novel – that’s the killer, last on the slate.

And Second, though not last ... PAU LEVINE, Our Very Own Paul, Nominated for The Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Paperback Original for his stunning work: The Deep Blue Alibi.

Yes, those of you who got here fast know that I missed Paul on the first go-round, that was because I hadn't read further than Best First Novel in the email from MWA before I leapt to the computer to compose my post.

This news, Paul, is startling, amazing, and wholly expected,for if anyone should be up for an Edgar Award, it's you - well done. Now the question again - what will you be wearing? I hear Dolce and Gabbana is very big this year, or (seeing as I am not really up-to-date with such things) is it Armani? You always look so elegant, in any case, that I am sure you will wow the crowd - Daniel Craig, eat your heart out!

I should like to reflect here, what very good company we find ourselves in. Have you all really looked at that list of authorial accomplishments under Paul's name? (and James' for that matter). WOW! And the guy hangs out with us!

I am thrilled for you, Paul. You are a wonderful writer, as we all know even from the pages of our blog here - you richly deserve this accolade.

And once again, with a cocktail in your hand, if you don't mind, "For he's a jolly good fellow ... and so say all of us!"

Well done, mate - we'll be rooting for you on the night! Wish we could all be there with you, but will be thinking of you and sending good vibes your way.

PS: You may have to sit around a bit longer waiting for your slot, but at least you don't have Cornelia's barfing issues.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Dear Dad

from James

My latest novel, When Darkness Falls, is dedicated to my dad, James Vincent Grippando. Here's why . . .

When Darkness Falls—A Personal Note
© Copyright James Grippando 2006. All rights reserved.

"Ball one," I say. "Inside."
My eight-year-old son Ryan is digging in at home plate, doing his perfect Derek Jeter batting stance. My father is on the pitcher’s mound. He winds up and tries his knuckle ball.
"Ball two. High."
My son picks up the errant throw and rolls it back to him. My father winds up and hurls a fastball. Ryan swings and taps a grounder back toward the mound. My father knows the ball is near him. He bends over and gropes for it in the grass.
"To your right, Dad. Half a step."
He finds it and smiles. Baseball still makes him smile—even though he’s going blind.
My father has macular degeneration, a catch-all name for diseases that attack the critical collection of cells in the retina known as the macula. His is the more devastating "wet" form, which involves leakage from blood vessels in the eye. Every year, MD robs 200,000 Americans of all central vision and causes another 1.2 million to suffer severe central vision loss. Another case of adult macular degeneration is diagnosed every three minutes in this country, and it is the leading cause of blindness among people over the age of sixty-five. The cause is unknown.
Watching someone lose his sight—whatever the cause—is a painful process. It is especially difficult when it happens to someone you love, someone who has looked out for you all your life. I’ve seen my dad walk straight into a fire hydrant and nearly break his shins. I’ve picked him up off the street after he missed a curb. I’ve watched him stab at his food on the plate when there was nothing there, and I’ve seen him reach for a glass of wine on the table, having forgotten that he’d left it on the counter. Every time he comes to visit us, he shows up with a new bump, bruise, or cut—badges of honor in his fight against his disease.
Through it all, he manages to smile as he finds his way through our front door, and he smiles as he leaves. He lives by his motto: "It’s all about attitude, dummy."
It was this kind of courage that inspired me to create Vincent Paulo, the blind hostage negotiator in When Darkness Falls. (My father’s middle name is Vincent, and "Grippando" was either "Grippaudo" or "Grippaulo" before it was recorded incorrectly at Ellis Island). Vince is not exactly my father, but I put just enough of my father into that character to keep Vince from becoming a kind of "blind mystic"—the mythical superhero who loses his sight and magically develops a bloodhound’s sense of smell and bat’s inner radar. Sure, I wanted Vince to become a better listener, to be more intuitive, to reach inside and use all he has to better himself as a negotiator. But I also wanted him to be that guy who occasionally still walks into a lamp post and keeps smiling—like my dad.
One scene, in particular, is very personal to me. South Florida gets more than its fair share of rainfall. Usually, it’s just one more thing to complain about. But when you are blind—or know someone who is—your perspective changes. I try to convey this in one of my favorite passages in the book, as the ongoing hostage crisis begins to take a toll on Vince, and the rain starts to fall:

Rain was Vince’s new best friend. The bond had formed on his first rainy day without sight, just moments after he’d stepped out the front door and onto his porch. His mind was gearing up for the usual mental exercise, the memorized flowerbeds, shrubbery, and footpaths that defined his morning walk. But the rain changed all that. More precisely, it was the sound of falling rain that brought the outdoors and all of its shapes, textures, and contours back into his world. Where there was once only blackness, suddenly there was water sloshing down a drainpipe. The patter of raindrops on the broad, thick leaves of the almond tree. The hiss of automobiles on wet streets. Even the grass emitted its own peculiar expression of gratitude as it drank up the morning shower. A sighted person would have heard nothing more than rainfall in its most generic sense, a white noise of sorts. To Vince, it was a symphony, and he reveled in his newly discovered power to appreciate the beautiful nuances of each and every instrument. Nature and his old neighborhood were working together, calling out to him, telling him that everything was still there for his enjoyment. He heard the drum-like beating on his mailbox, the gentle splashing on concrete sidewalks, and even the ping of dripping water on an iron fence that separated his yard from his neighbor’s. Rain, wonderful rain.

So Vince has an unlikely new friend, and that’s a good thing. A guy can never have too many friends. Especially when darkness falls.
James Gripppando

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The True Stuff

By Cornelia

I'm working on a "Dear Reader" letter to be published with the paperback of A Field of Darkness this summer. My editor suggested writing about things in the book that are true/autobiographical, which is a tall order as there are a lot of little bits stolen from life mixed into the fictional stuff.

Here's a bit of a random list:

1. The character Lapthorne Townsend, my protagonist Madeline Dare's favorite cousin, is named for a sailmaking company, Ratsey & Lapthorn. Colin Ratsey was my mother's godfather, and crewed on the boat which won the 1958 America's Cup, the Columbia:

The company was founded in Cowes, and first supplied the Royal Yacht Squadron. They also have a sail loft in New York, and have made sails for America's Cup contenders since 1851.

When my mom drove us to the Oakland airport this last Christmas Eve, she looked at this beat-up old blue duffel bag in which my stuff was packed, told me it was made by Ratsey & Lapthorn in the early Sixties, and that she'd had the zipper replaced on it three times. In my family, we do not give up our luggage until it has completely disintegrated.

2. I really did "come out" at the Junior Assemblies in New York, in the winter of 1981, wearing my mother's deb dress with the "pointy-atomic boob darts," along with long white three-button kid gloves:

The buttons are a big pain to do and undo yourself, especially when you want to smoke. Mom showed me how to wad up the finger part and roll it up under the wrist of the glove, to keep my hands free. I have a big lump of rolled glove on top of each hand in all the pictures.

The dress was totally shredded by the end of the evening, because the fabric was kind of rotting and people kept stepping on the hem.

3. The pictures were taken by Jill Krementz, who went to boarding school with mom. She took them at a dinner before the actual party, and made a really nice collage of all of them for me. One of the pictures in the collage is of her husband, Kurt Vonnegut, who also came to the dinner party. This is not in my book. Jill is an amazing photographer, and usually takes pictures of people like Eudora Welty, so she was very kind to bring her camera.

I have lost the cord to my scanner, so can't post one of them. I did bring a tin of Copenhagen in my purse that night, however, at the urging of my mother:

4. Lester Lanin's orchestra played at the Assemblies, and also at the rehearsal dinner given the night before a cousin of mine got married, outside Baltimore that same year. An uncle tried to fix me up with a guy that night who was, some years later, convicted of serial rape.

Lester Lanin threw out cotton beanies like this, at parties (50,000 of them a year, supposedly):

He was said to have played "Night and Day" as his opening number at every party, so I used that in the book.

5. I changed the name of a lake outside Syracuse in the story--from Onondaga Lake to Lake Oncas. Onondaga Lake really is the most polluted body of water in the United States. The Solvay Process Company dumped 40,000 pounds of mercury in it. I changed the name of the company to Lapthorne, and had it run by Madeline's Great-Great Grandfather.

6. That man's daughter is supposedly on the maiden voyage of an ocean liner which burns at sea. I named this the Glamis Castle, after a David Austin rose which is itself named for the British Castle in which the Queen Mother grew up:

I have four of these planted here in Berkeley. They have terrible blackspot, year-round.

The real ship was the Morro Castle, which I've blogged about here before. My grandmother christened it, but no one I'm related to was aboard when it burned at sea.

7. Madeline's great-grandfather died in the fictional fire. In his memory, his wife planted hundreds of old garden roses in the family cemetery on Centre Island, including the two types found around the heads of the first two murder victims in my book, Felicite-Perpetue:

and Baron Girod de L'Ain:

The white at the ends of the petals, above, is called a "picotee edge."

8. There is indeed an old family cemetery on Centre Island, with a gravestone reading:

Behold and see as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now you soon must be
Prepare for death to follow me

But there aren't any rosebushes in it. There are, however, a number of slave graves. These are marked by little wedges of slate at the head and foot. No names or dates. The distance between the head and footstones is usually about four feet.

Here is what Centre Island looks like (between A and B):

You can see it from above if you're flying north out of Kennedy Airport.

Here's a view of Oyster Bay from Centre Island, painted by William Jonas, which is my favorite image ever from there:

The boat is Pete Seeger's Clearwater.

Here's the Tiffany version, from a slightly different angle:

The spit of land closest to the foreground in both images is called Cooper's Bluff.

9. There really was a Nazi gardener working for my mother's boyfriend on CI. He used to reminisce about drinking linden blossom tea, back in the Hitler Youth.

One year when I was in college he grew a bunch of pot plants in the vegetable garden. Talk about dirt weed.

10. There is mention of a portrait of Madeline's great grandmother, Dodie. This is based on a painting of Grandmama Read, which her children nicknamed "Nice to See Your Back Again." I don't have a color version, but her dress was bottle green. There's an emerald pin below her hip here which also makes an appearance, near the end of the book:

Unlike Dodie, Grandmama Read was not addicted to Chloral Hydrate, although she did have a chauffeur during the Forties who was a stone junkie. At least according to Dad, who was driven to school by the guy when he was little.

11. I mentioned the annual butter sculpture at the New York State Fair:

This is usually more than lifesize.

12. Lapthorne drives a 1984 Porsche Carrera with a whale tail, which looks like this, except black:

This one is guards' red, like the one I had between 2001 and 2004, which rocked. Except for the repair bills.

After I sold it, I drove one of these for a year:

which was a whole lot less fun. Especially going uphill. The first morning I saw it in the driveway instead of the Porsche, I said, "how the mighty have fallen." My daughter Grace replied, "but ah, how the tiny have risen."

On the bright side, the interior of the Honda did not fill up with water every time it rained, which was an improvement over the Porsche since we do not have a garage.

13. Meanwhile, my dad lived in one of these for about 13 years:

His was rustier.

14. The 1637 massacre of the Pequot tribe in Connecticut was led by an ancestor of mine and Madeline's, Captain John Underhill:

Between 400 and 700 people--almost all of them women and children--were burned alive in under half an hour. It has been called "the most gruesome act of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by European colonizers on American soil."

Here's the monument erected in his memory by an association of his descendants in 1911, in the Underhill cemetery in Oyster Bay:

As in the book, a bronze bas-relief at its base depicts Underhill reading to the two Indians laying at his feet. The words on the page he's reading from are "love one another."

15. Here is a photo of something which doesn't appear in the book anymore (edited out after early drafts). It is my Grandfather Read climbing into his autogyro, an early helicopter-esque thing:

This was shot inside the hangar he had built for it, a "Butler building."

A childhood friend of my father's died just outside, some years after this was taken. The two of them had been shooting strike-anywhere matches from slingshots, making them hit the concrete floor and catch fire. One of the matches bounced up and landed in a barrel of varnish, which blew up. Dad told his friend to roll on the ground, but the boy's sister convinced him to get up and run toward a nearby brook. I think they were about eight years old. Dad's parents never spoke to him about what had happened, just took him to their camp in the Adirondacks early the next morning.

16. I used that camp as a setting in Field. I think it is the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life. Madeline feels the same way.

This is a photograph of the walkway to the dining room, looking down from the main building:

The dining room is octagonal, built on a boulder at the edge of the water. Here is what the inside looks like:

There's a big moosehead over the fireplace to the right, which you can't see in this shot.

It was built in 1906.

Madeline goes up there for Dodie's funeral, near the end of the book.

The whole place gets burned down at the end. By the killer. Accidentally.

I write noir, after all. Which I guess isn't too much of a surprise, considering.