Tuesday, June 30, 2009
YES, WE READ OUR MAIL! John D. MacDonald once said that "writing is like dropping feathers down a well. Any echo is appreciated."
So, do writers read their mail? You bet. You never know what you can learn from an alert reader. About two years ago, I received an e-mail from a reader in Tennessee. He dropped a couple compliments about my "Solomon vs. Lord" series and asked about my next book.
I wrote him back with a quick summary of "Illegal," which involves human trafficking on the Mexican border and offers a sympathetic view on the plight of undocumented immigrants. The reader asked if I ever heard the Tom Russell song, "Who's Gonna Build Your Wall?" I hadn't. But after I listened, the song became a favorite of mine and of Jimmy (Royal) Payne, the hero of the book.
Russell also wrote "Tonight We Ride," a tale of good-natured violence. The song speaks longingly of scalping, whoring, horse rustling, and robbery. Needless to say, it is one of my favorites.
Here's Rusell performing the son on "The David Letterman Show."
LIFE IN THE COOLER: Here I am, working away in the Dade County Morgue, 1994. Yes, those are real bodies. (Photo by Jim Virga, South Florida Sun-Sentinel).
MAJOR LEAGUE SMARTS: There are 750 major league baseball players and 30 managers. What's your guess as to the percentage of college graduates in that group? Twenty-five percent? Ten percent? Try 3 per cent, 26 out of 780. (Does this explain chewing tobacco?) I'm guessing there's a higher percentage of college grads in prison.
LEVINE'S BEHIND THE TIMES: I'm going to stop opining about the sorry state of daily journalism. Why? I just realized how far behind the times I am. When I started work at The Miami Herald, John S. Knight was chairman of the editorial board. One day, I wrote a feature story about Jackie Gleason, referring to the funny man as "The Great One." I received a handwritten note from Mr. Knight, informing me that "There is only one 'Great One,' and He is not Jackie Gleason."
NEWS BULLETIN: I have just discovered there is something called the "Jonas Brothers." I will keep you posted as events transpire.
Monday, June 29, 2009
Fran is a former teacher who taught high school students English, drama, communications and various other literature-type studies. At a fork in her career path she decided to indulge her passion for books and went to work as a bookseller. She is an eclectic mystery reader and enjoys everything from cozies to humorous to historical to science fiction. She also enjoys discovering new authors.
"I'm looking for a book. It's new and the cover's purple or something and it's set in the 1800's or so, and everyone says it's the best. About a girl named 'Sadie" or 'Janie" or something. Do you have it?"
"It's a true story about a crazy lady who blows up a school, and my friend said I need to read it, and she says I'll like it even though I don't like much violence. Or cursing. I don't like strong language. Do you know what book I mean?"
"It's about a lawyer, or maybe it's by a lawyer, and it's like that Grisham guy only not, because it's kinda funny, and the name sounds something like a department store. You know what I mean, right?"
"It's a mystery about finance. And it's not romantic at all, but I remember the cover was red. Or blue. And the hero's a guy. Or a girl with a guy's name. Where can I find that one?"
"I don't know what he writes, my friend said I had to read it. He co-wrote a bunch of books with this famous guy and everyone says his stuff is good on its own. It better not be fantasy stuff, 'cause I hate that, but if he's got something set, I dunno, in the city, or even in the country, that'd be okay. He's maybe a musician? Who is he, again?"
I'm sure by now you know who all these people are, but you're the smart one. You're the customer we love to see coming in the door, and we think you're the best possible person on the planet!
However, being a bookseller frequently means being psychic. And patient. Working in a specialty shop means that we have fewer totally clueless customers, but I have to say that there are times when I feel like I could use a Magic Eight Ball.
It's not the customers who wander in thinking that by "mystery," we mean "universal mystery." Those folks are fine. They want New Age stuff or religious stuff, and while we have New Age and religious mysteries, they generally just nod pleasantly and wander out again, and we wish them well.
But oh my, some of the questions we get!
"I want something for my dad, and he likes that Jim Grisham guy, but he doesn't like anything violent. He's read all the books by Jack Reacher and, is it Mallory O'Connell? But yeah, can you recommend something that isn't too, I dunno, mean because he doesn't like stuff like that."
Honestly, that does give us more to go on than "It's blue and has mystery in the title. Or death. Something like that," although we can work with that if we have to.
Because when you come down to it, people who buy mysteries are willing to experiment. They're willing to try new authors, new titles, simply because in general, mystery readers are voracious. They can read more than any twelve authors can write, and they can often do it in less than a week.
We love our customers. A lot. Even the clueless ones.
There was a young man who came into our shop and wanted the books by Sherlock Holmes. My co-worker at the time took him to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle section, but he shook his head. No, he wanted the real stories, the ones written by Holmes himself, not the ones made up by Doyle. He was insistent. She was patient.
When it finally sunk in to him that Holmes was a fictional character, that he hadn't ever really been alive, she said she felt like the world's biggest heel. She wanted to give him a hug and a teddy bear, he was so completely devastated. His eyes welled up and he dragged himself out of the store, shoulders slumped.
That's a tribute to excellent writing, and that's part of why I love my job. Not because I get to destroy people's illusions -- that part's really the worst part -- but because the worlds that are created in the books written by the great authors around us and exemplified by the fine writers featured in this blog are so very real.
"I want a mystery with something strange in it. Like balloons. Or tarot cards. Or hurdy gurdies. Or accordians! Yeah, you got a mystery about accordians?"
Charlotte Armstrong has balloons.
David Skibbins has tarot.
Dorothy Gilman has a hurdy gurdy.
Accordians? Hold on, it'll take me a minute. . . Nancy Means Wright!
Now as to whether or not it's still in print, that's a whole 'nother question!
Saturday, June 27, 2009
So, here’s a post from Rhys (and there’s a treat involved - Rhys will be giving away some brilliant prizes as part of a “Contest Extra” – including signed copies of her book and English tea goodies to those who respond to this blog by visiting her website and including the name of this blog when they email Rhys. More competition details at the end of the post).
What's In A Name
from Rhys Bowen
A writer, I believe it was Elmore Leonard, once said that once he knew a character’s name, he knew all about him. I tend to agree with that. I think the names we give our characters are incredibly important. I have, on occasion, given a character a name, only to find the story creeping along at a snail’s pace. Then one day the character says to me, ‘You know, I’m not Jim, I’m Michael.” And once I’ve changed the name the story comes together and I am there with my character, experiencing events as the story unfolds.
In my Constable Evans series I enjoyed portraying the funny nicknames of the Welsh. Because they only have so few last names, they often find themselves with ten Evanses or Joneses in one village and thus have to differentiate them with nicknames. In my books Evans-the-Meat is the butcher and Evans-the-Milk is the dairyman. There are even funnier ones—a village that had a travel agent called Evans-there-and-back and an undertaker called Evans-One-way.
But in my Royal Spyness series names have taken on a whole new dimension. I’ve used them to poke fun at the British class system. I think Brits take the cake for really silly names. I have to confess at this point that I married into an upper class family with a hyphenated surname (and a pain it is too as most computers can’t handle a hyphen). We have all manner of cousins with funny nicknames, including a distinguished elderly lady called Puff (I’ve no idea what her real name is). So I’ve made my heroine’s brother, the duke be nicknamed Binky and his wife Fig. Their son is Podge. But it’s with surnames that I’ve really had a ball. Who wouldn’t? After all I really had a girl at school called Amanda Featherstonehaugh-Skelley (pronounced Fanshaw-Skelley. The last name Chomondley is pronounced Chumley, Beachamp is Beecham and Fotheringay is Fungey. Aren’t they delightfully silly?
In my new book, Royal Flush, I have a young man whose last name is Beasley-Bottome. Imagine being saddled with that. Actually I hardly have to exaggerate at all to come up with names designed to produce a chuckle. The onjly challenge I have had is to fit in the names of people who have won the right in a charity auction to appear as a character in my books. I had a real challenge with a woman who wanted her three daughters to appear. Their names were Jensen, Reagan and Danika Hedley. Hardly the sort of name that Georgie’s friends would be called. So I made them American girls, who went to the same ladies seminary as Mrs. Simpson. And then there was Merion Sauer. Another challenge. I elevated her to the peerage and made her the Countess Von Sauer, which I hope pleased her.
So if you win the right to be a character in one of my books one day, I may have to give you a silly nickname! And if you come across a particularly silly English surname, please let me know about it.
Thanks to all the Naked Authors (I’ve tactfully averted my eyes) for letting me visit their blog. Lady Georgie’s third madcap adventure, Royal Flush, is in stores on July 7th. Details of my tour schedule are on my website, www.rhysbowen.com, and click on Rhys on the Road.
Friday, June 26, 2009
I come from a fairly matriarchal country – our Queens are far more powerful and effective than our Kings could ever hope to be (well, OK, we’ll skip over Queen Anne), and we had one of the first woman heads of state in the world. In the Middle Ages women were slaughtered throughout Britain and Europe, mainly because they were becoming the richest landowners – following all those wars and the inheritance that came when hubby copped an arrow in The Crusades – and also because men were getting interested in medicine and were beginning to cook up all kinds of drugs, and didn’t like the fact that the women had the market in curing people with the tinctures and potions they made from herbs. Thus it became expedient to call them witches and get rid of the pesky nuisances.
But from the earliest times, across the continents and cultures, there have been more than a few strong courageous women who have led nations, cared for the sick and the poor, who have taken up arms alongside men, and who have kept the farm from going under while those men were away – which is yet another reason why events unfolding in Iran, with women at the forefront of the demands for a more democratic way of life, should make us all sit up and watch. And this isn’t a matter of whether or not anyone wants to wear the veil and keep their arms covered (many women prefer such modesty, as they feel it gives them freedom from the prying eyes of men), but the sheer guts of women in Iran who are stepping forward and saying “enough” as they lead the charge is just mindblowing.
Last year I was a guest at the annual Santa Barbara Women’s Literary Festival and while I was there had the great pleasure of listening to a wonderful poet – Dima Hilal. She was there with her Irish husband – her family left Iran when she was a child, and they had settled in Ireland. She now lives in California. When she began to speak – she did not read her poem, she seemed to be part of it – I was absolutely transported by her words, so of course I rushed to buy the book in which Dima’s work was published: The Poetry of Arab Women, edited by Nathalie Handal. As I read some of the poems in the book, I remembered meeting another Iranian woman some years ago, who had shared her verse with a small audience. I said something about her being a thoughtful and sympathetic poet, and she blushed, saying that in her culture, to be a poet is such an honor, and it is such important work, that you would not readily refer to yourself as a poet unless you had written far more deeply and for much longer than she. In the midst of the rhetoric about the Muslim world and about Iran in particular, it is easy to forget that it was once considered to be a country of intellectuals, of writers, artists, poets, indeed, of seers and sages. It was a country where to have a voice was honored.
I think President Obama has done no more or no less than he should, in terms of a response to the events in Iran over the past two weeks. It’s a tricky position to be in, and one that must be handled with utmost care. But I wish there was a tangible and realistic way to stand up and support those – especially the women – who would give their lives for the freedom to have a their votes counted, for the right to a leadership of their choosing. As Tom Friedman noted in his New York Times column last weekend, there is only one Arab country with a history of demonstrating in the streets – and that is Iran. Some thirty years ago they ousted the corrupt Shah of Iran, and now they are trying to get rid of more oil-fueled corruption (he pointed out that the oil money keeps the leaders up on their pedestals). But these demonstrations took on the stuff of mythology when the young woman whose image in death was seen the world over after she was shot, has a name that means “Voice” in Farsi (and I am sure someone will correct me if I have that wrong).
When I read about this terrible event, I remembered Dima reading to us. Here’s a partial verse from one of her poems:
I hear the prayer of my family
a tight canopy against the falling sky
while you count mortalities, I see faces
that look like mine
Let us give thanks for the freedoms we enjoy. Let us take a moment to reflect upon the women, in particular, who have given their lives, in one way or another, for that blessing – the freedom to be heard.
In Iran, Neda Agha Soltan, apparently not a particularly politically motivated young woman, stepped out of her car while in a traffic jam so that she could get some cool air. And she was shot. Neda may never have wanted to be a guiding light, but it makes you consider destiny, and why it was that a woman named Voice was chosen by the Fates to inspire so many who are clamoring to have their voices honored by the leadership of their country. I cannot imagine living in such a place.
And here’s a really funny thing. I tried to look up Dima’s website, so I could ask permission to quote from her poem (I probably don’t need it, but it seemed like the right thing to do). Instead of a home page, a Google warning came up saying that this site has “malicious software” and makes the point that it is unknown to the user but says that if I do open the page, basically the world will come to an end and no one will ever read my next book because, heck, it’s on my hard disk and I might not have backed it up properly and the cooties will leap off that site and have at my words with invisible ink. Well, it didn’t say all that, but the meaning was there. I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist, but I wonder ....
PS: And I am sure John Knox never imagined what he was doing when he wrote The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women in 1558 - he effectively created an advertising slogan that's been used for and against women for centuries.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
A subtle way to give a few quick book reviews.
I like the feel of a book. I’m not knocking the Kindle nor am I disrespecting those people who have shelled out a few hundred bucks for one of the electronic wonders. But of the three main forms of books, hardback, mass-market paperback or trade paperback, I have come to really like the trade paperback. I just went on a trip and needed books to read on the way. I bought a couple of trade paperbacks. One of them, Bernard Corwell’s The Archer’s Tale was recommended by Raymond Hinst of Haslem’s Bookstore in St. Pete, Florida where I was signing. Last year Raymond recommended The Road by Cormac McCarthy and as a result his recommending privileges had been suspended. The Archer’s Tale was so good Raymond’s recommending rights have been restored.
So here are some reviews based on format. Also, life too short to waste time on a book I didn’t like. I probably wouldn’t waste space on a negative review (aside from my jokes about The Road and Atlas Shrugged. But they can take it. At least Ayn Rand can). So here are a few books I liked.
One Second After by William Forstchen -- Hardback
I liked the story so much that I overlooked the hard cover. That’s high praise. Forstchen, a real life historian and college professor has written some excellent alternative history books with Newt Gingrich. I’ve read them, all about the civil war, and I liked them very much. I’ve mentioned how much I enjoy alternative history but it has to be written by people who know the real history and are good writers. Forstchen knows history and writes well.
This is a simple contemporary tale of a college professor in North Carolina and how his life changes when an electro-magnetic pulse wipes out virtually all electronics. The isolated North Carolina town must weather the crumbling society, lack of supplies, roving packs of raiders and politics of where stranded refugees must go.
Forstchen really looks at issues that I would not have considered. The characters are direct and likable and the sense of doom grows page by page.
A very good novel.
The Archer’s Tale by Bernard Cornwell – trade paperback
This was my first Cornwell novel and it will not be my last. It has it all. History, adventure, politics and great characters. No muss, no fuss, just a good book. I’m hunting for the sequel, Vagabond, right now.
Thomas, in school to be a priest, loves bows and archery but his father is not happy about his son’s hobby. Then a raid on his small fishing village forces him to kill a few of the French raiders with his bow and finds his calling. His family dead he joins the English army.
I now understand how England dominated Europe with a small population and the Channel to negotiate. Arrows made the difference. The book explains it all.
The Big, Bad Wolf by James Patterson – paperback
I found this copy on the library sale shelf and picked it up a month or so ago. This is when Alex Cross has just entered the FBI academy and is trying to cope with myriad personal problems as well as searching for a Russian crime boss known as “The wolf”.
Patterson has someone in the FBI who knows his stuff and he gets the culture right. He also writes one compelling book. He keeps the reader turning the pages and that’s what it’s all about.
I’ve read several of Patterson’s books, including the young adult series Maximum Ride. I get why he’s so popular. Anything that gets people, especially kids to read, is a good thing.
Just my quick take on format and a few books.
What about you. Which format do you prefer? Drop us a quick comment on a book you liked recently.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
(Written last week before we departed Shanghai. Now back in St. Louis preparing for Killer Summer publication next week. Tweeting on RidleyTheWriter)
We mustn't ever lose track of friendship in our lives. As our family prepares to leave Shanghai after a year in residence, we are forced to say goodbye to two wonderful women who have made our life here so effortless and enjoyable. One, our housekeeper, has become such a member of the family that my wife and I are overly emotional at just the idea of saying goodbye. It is impossible to think we may never see this woman again. She has become that close to us.
As we looked to help her to someday visit us in the US, the impediments were many. Celebrate a free society, it's a real blessing. But it's just another in a long string of reminders these past few months of the human importance of friendship--how we so often take it for granted without meaning to.
So (to proselytize) take a moment today to call or email your friends and remind them how much they mean to you. Contact that cousin you've fallen out of touch with. Celebrate life. It is fleeting. And too often we look back and wish we'd had the chance to tell someone how influential or important or meaningful they are or were to us. Now is that chance. Now is that time.
Who knows? You may never get back to Shanghai...
In case my Internet was occasionally spotty... here is a look at our phone and electric lines on the outside of our house:
And of course, a person needs a way to get the duffel bags to the corner. Our gate keeper loaned me the community carrier... (vintage 1940's by the way, and still going, like EVERYTHING in Shanghai).
(posted from St Louis)
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
WORKIN' MAN BLUES: Times are hard. No one is singing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend." (Or "Diamonds are Forever." Not even Ruth Madoff). Help me compile a list of songs for the recession. Here are some of my favorites, with a slant toward Americana, country, and folk:
1. "We Can't Make It Here Anymore," written and performed by James McMurtry
2. "Our Town," written and performed with an incomparable Arkansas twang by Iris Dement.
4. "Workin' Man Blues," Merle Haggard
5. "Old Calloused Hands," Hazel Dickens
6. "The Mountain," Steve Earle
7. "Tired," Willie Nelson
8. "T.B. is Killing Me," John Lee Hooker
9. "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Recorded by many artists beginning in 1931.
10. Okay, readers. Help me out here.
RECESSION SWEETS: I hope this doesn't upset Janet Rudolph, but I'm economizing on chocolate. Janet is a connoisseur of both fine chocolates and fine mysteries. She writes two of my favorite blogs. "Dying for Chocolate" has the recipe for the original Toll House cookie and directions for making a grilled chocolate sandwich. I'm there! "Mystery Fanfare" is a savvy blog devoted to...well, you know...what we do here.
I love chocolate. In the past, I've spent my allowance in search of the best. I've ordered Recchiuti Chocolates from San Francisco. Fancy and pricey. The two-pound, two ounce box shown here (which I've never ordered) costs $160 plus shipping.
I've picked up delicious and expensive truffles from K Chocolatier in Beverly Hills.
I've ordered chocolates from Hawaii because of a story I read in the New York Times. I've ordered chocolates from a highly touted sweets boutique on Cape Cod.
But now, forgive me Janet. I buy all my chocolate at Trader Joe's, and you know what, it's fine. Here are my favorites, all for about $5 or $6: Trader Joe's Belgian Dark Chocolate Non-Pareils; Chocolate Truffles (imported from France), and the Dark Chocolate Mocha Crunch Squares.
I'd take some photos to show you...but I've eaten all the evidence.
LOW-CAL CHOCOLATE TREAT: Another alternative...instead of shelling out for store or bakery desserts, make your own. I recommend my friend Rona Lewis's "Does This Cookbook Make Me Look Fat?" Rona is a top L.A. physical trainer and a former sprinter at Penn State. Check out her recipe for Chocolate Cheesecake made with low-fat cream cheese, fat-free sour cream and dark chocolate. Only 239 calories per slice! Plus 9 grams of protein, about the same as a glass of milk. More info about the cookbook here.
RONA WON'T APPROVE OF THIS: A.J. Liebling (below), who was not a sprinter at Penn State, dedicated "Between Meals," his gastronomic tour of Paris, to Yves Mirande, a theatrical producer and legendary gourmand...or glutton, depending on your definition.
"Mirande would dispatch a lunch of raw Bayonne ham and fresh figs, a hot sausage in crust, spindles of filleted pike in a rich rose sauce Nantua, a leg of lamb larded with anchovies, artichokes on a pedestal of foie gras, and four or five kinds of cheese, with a good bottle of Bordeaux and one of champagne, after which he would call for the Armagnac and remind Madame to have ready for dinner the larks and ortolans she had promised him, with a few langoustes and a turbot -- and, of course, a fine civet made from the marcassin, or young wild boar, that the lover of the leading lady in his current production had sent up from his estate in the Sologne."
Helluva long sentence, helluva lot of food. I don't know what half the items are, but I'm impressed by the sheer volume.
Monday, June 22, 2009
A year ago when my fourth novel COOL CACHE debuted in hard cover, my friend Harley Jane Kozak asked me to guest blog on The Lipstick Chronicles. Fast forward to June 2009. Cool is now available in paperback, so I decided to share that post with you Nakeds. Here goes...
My fourth book just came out, and my mother has “read” all of them. I use quotation marks because my mother is what we euphemistically call “getting up in years,” and now lives in an assisted living apartment. Her mind is sharp but her body is frail from the ravages of age, the worst of which is the loss of sight from macular degeneration. Because she can no longer see to read, she has listened to the audio version of all of my novels except the latest.
Cool Cache is dedicated to my parents. When I gave my mother her copy of the book, I guided her finger to the spot on the page where her name was printed.
“Is it there?” she asked.
“Daddy’s name, too?”
“He would have been so proud!”
“Read me the first chapter.”
With the first words, my mother pushed the button on her blue recliner and drifted into peaceful reverie. When I finished, I glanced up and saw her staring trance-like into space as if she was the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.
No response. My mother’s hearing is perfect. There was no way she couldn’t hear me. On closer inspection, she seemed unusually still. Her facial muscles were rigid and her eyes glassy. All I could think of was OMIGOD! I’ve killed her!
She blinked with a start. “Why are you shouting?”
“I thought you were…well, never mind.”
“I was just caught up in the story. Is that the end of the chapter?”
“It was very exciting. What comes next?”
“So? What are you waiting for?”
I stopped reading after the second chapter because I had to leave for an appointment. A couple of days later I was talking to her on the telephone. She told me the suspense was killing her (bad choice of words, if you ask me), so she asked her caregiver to pick up the slack. In no time, they were on chapter nine.
“Lita keeps laughing,” she said.
“Maybe she’s tired. Exhaustion can make you hysterical.” I could say this with authority, because deadlines have made me an expert on hysteria.
“No, she’s laughing at your writing. Today she was giggling at lunch about something you said, and she didn’t even have the book with her.”
A little bit of family history here. My mother doesn’t have a sense of humor. If life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel, my mother is a big-time feeler. As a result, I live to make her laugh, sometimes by shocking her reserved sensibilities. Example, during a recent discussion on global warming, I asked if she knew that excessive farting by sheep in Australia and New Zealand was destroying the ozone. She laughed, which was a miracle because when I was growing up, the word “fart” was never spoken in our home. In fact, all references to flatulence were verboten. My sister and I were told that those strange sounds coming from my father’s direction were, in fact, barking spiders. I had a serious case of arachnophobia until I entered first grade and sniffed out the truth.
I digress. So, it was not surprising that my mother wasn’t laughing. I just hoped Lita was laughing with me and not at me.
“Lita and I think you’re talented,” she continued.
Thinking a daughter is talented is the primary job of mothers and those who work for them. Truth be told, my mother isn’t a reliable arbiter of my talent, because she thinks everything I do is brilliant: navigating L.A. freeways, clearing my throat, folding laundry (If she could see those naughty little Victoria’s Secret thongs in my laundry basket, she would definitely drop laundry-folding from the list.)
That night, I told my husband the story.
“I think you should redirect your marketing strategy,” he said. “It’s clear that seniors are a material audience.”
“You’re basing your hypothesis on one person, and she’s my mother.”
“Okay. Ignore the empirical evidence, and do so at your own peril.”
Despite the fact that I live with a man who uses “empirical” and “peril” in the same sentence, his words caused me to ponder. My books are very popular among my mother’s friends, but I’d always assumed that was because she carries a publicity poster in the basket of her wheely-walker and makes Lita slip my bookmarks under everybody’s daily dish of breakfast prunes.
Frankly, it’s difficult for me to narrowly define any specific audience. Still, on those days when I find myself alone at a book signing or stung by a critic’s tart words, it’s comforting to know there is someone sitting in a blue recliner, hanging on every word I write. Lita’s laughter is just frosting on the cake.
I know you can’t read this Mother, but thanks for being in my corner.
Friday, June 19, 2009
My mother in law (90 years old next month) tells some wonderful stories– and granted, some very sad – about her experiences as a nurse with the American Army Nursing Corps in the Second World War. She shipped out on the Queen Mary bound for England in 1942, and didn’t return home for four years. A couple of days ago she had a long telephone conversation with one of her best buddies from that time – as you can imagine, surviving friends are far and few between now, and this lady just happens to be a retired General. In any case, they laughed, as they always do in these not so frequent calls, about times gone by, and my mother-in-law couldn’t wait to tell John, my husband, about one of the memories they were still in stitches about.
Apparently the American medical contingent in England at the time was of great interest to doctors from the United Kingdom, and there was a lot of liaison in terms of medical matters between the Brits and the Yanks. During the Battle of Britain in 1940, we had made great strides forward in the use of plastic surgery for reconstructive work (thanks to a New Zealander, Dr. Sir Archibald McIndoe), and of course the Americans were involved in intense preparations for the invasion of Normandy. Following a couple of days off when she and her friend went to Stratford-upon-Avon, my mother-in-law, who must have been about twenty-three at the time, was given the job of showing some British doctors around the wards on the American base. While taking them around, they asked her if she had seen much of England, so with great enthusiasm told them about her visit to Stratford, so much so that she informed the group that, “That’s where Shakespeare’s from, you know,” and went on and on about the Bard and what he meant to Britain. It was only later that, blushing, she realized she must have sounded really, really silly – going on about British history to the British.
She and the General have barely stopped laughing about it since. Mind you, it doesn’t beat the time they shared a train carriage with a man who introduced himself as Clement Atlee (at the time Deputy Prime Minister, and later Prime Minister), who asked them if they were enjoying England, and then said if they were ever in London again, he would have someone show them around the sights. The two young American nurses put his card away and, after the journey ended, said to each other that he was probably just an old man on the make – that was until they went to the movie theater and watched a news reel with Clement Atlee, and once again my mother-in-law was shrinking into her shoes.
When I listened to that first story yesterday, I started thinking about all the things I’ve said and done that made me want to drop into the nearest hole in the ground. Sometimes they’re little things, such as the time I had a conversation with a hairdresser that led me to think it would be best if I didn’t have her cut my hair anymore.
Hairdresser: “Haven’t seen you for a while, Jackie.”
Me: “Yes, it’s been months – well, you weren’t pregnant then.”
Hairdresser: “And I’m not pregnant now.”
When I was a teenager, and attending a boys’ school (I know, the things you have to do to get the classes you want – seriously, a handful of girls were accepted at a local boys’ private school as an experiment in coeducation. And what a laugh that was!) ... anyway, while attending this school, it was not unusual for our house to be inundated with boys who came round, I am sure, because my parents served the best fry-up suppers anyone ever had. On this one occasion, we were all in front of the TV, plates on laps, because we were supposed to watch a certain science program in preparation for a class. My parents had joined us and we were all cracking jokes because the program was a bit boring. At one point in the show, a scientist began injecting cell samples onto a slide, and of course the slide went under a microscope and all you could see was a moving mass of bacteria.
“Oh look at all those little orgasms,” said my mother.
The room went quiet. I looked sideways at her, in the way that teenagers look when they are horrified. Mum looked at me.
“I don’t think I meant that, did I?” said Mum.
“Um, you meant organisms, Mrs. Winspear,” said one of my friends.
And I blushed red to my roots, knowing I would never live it down at school the next day.
Finally, before I invite you to tell me about the things you’ve said that made you blush (whether a malapropism, a genuine error or perhaps you said something without a thought in the world - until later), here’s one a friend of mine told me years ago, when her kids were teens. She suspected her then seventeen year-old daughter was getting rather too involved with her boyfriend, and that the two of them might be sleeping together (or not sleeping, I should say). She decided that, being a modern mother, she would just sit them down and broach the subject with them rather than creep around it – honesty is the best policy, after all. She called them into the living room so that they could all sit on comfortable chairs for an adult discussion, and put it to them that she knew they were enjoying a greater intimacy than she was comfortable with, and that she wanted to talk to them about it. Her daughter immediately sat up straight and, very grown up, announced, “We’re using condominiums you know!” At which point the mother had to excuse herself so that she didn’t fall about laughing in front of her own daughter and boyfriend when she was supposed to be having a serious talk with them. I imagine that daughter is still blushing to the roots – and hopefully laughing herself – every time she thinks back to the conversation.
So, what have you said that made you want to take a flying leap into the nearest hole in the ground? And in the interests of full disclosure, I have enough of those situations to ensure I glow red for the rest of my life.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
If you’re reading this I’m . . . . .
It’s Thursday morning and you’re reading my blog. But right now, as I’m writing, it is last Wednesday, June 10. I know this sounds a little like a science fiction time travel thing, but I have no way of knowing what will happen in the ensuing week. I will also confess to being a little superstitious. That’s why I didn’t finish the first sentence. In fact, I rarely write about things that might happen. Just a little quirk because I don’t have any others.
But tomorrow, or last Thursday, depending on how you look at it, I leave for a week long trip to the Central American country. I got back last night, I hope. So I decided to write the blog a week early.
With any luck I had a good time taking my daughter through the jungle trails, snorkeling in the Pacific, wrestling crocodiles (maybe more of a spectator) and generally having a good time.
In the photo on the right that's me in the front left.
Traveling with family can be challenging, especially to another country. I’ve been to Costa Rica twice. One time I was search by Costa Rican Customs. And I don’t mean a pat down and move along search. I also forgot my passport and snuck though immigration. I don’t recommend it. This is just a simple family trip which should be less eventful.
In the photo to the left I'm in the Tulin River. There's a special on one of the nature channels about the Crocodiles in the Tulin River.
A couple of years ago my Priest’s wife (we’re Episcopalians and allow that kind of thing) asked if I would consider being a chaperone on a mission trip to Central America. She knew I had been there while with the DEA and speak rudimentary Spanish. When I told her I was nervous about going back she said, “Are you worried about drug dealers wanting to get you?” And I replied, “No, I’m worried about a bunch of seventeen year old blonde kinds running around.”
Now I’m bringing a blonde kid with me.
If I answer the comments, I made it back safely. If I don’t, someone check on me.
What’s an adventurous, intentional or not, trip you have taken?
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
To pass the time here in the empty rooms of our Shanghai lane house, that we'll be leaving in just a few days, my wife and I started watching Firefly, the space-western-adventure-comedy by the brilliant Joss Whedon. Extremely entertaining, and possibly served as a jumping off point for JJ Abrams' Alias (Paul would know this stuff!).
It led to me think about people's favorite non-mainstream TV series that may have been passed-over by most of us. Anybody want to chime in?
It also got me thinking about hearing my wife crying each morning. I work on the third floor of the lane house, and each morning around 8:30AM I hear crying downstairs. It scared the hell of me the first few times! It turns out it's my wife working out in front of "Ellen." So what about talk shows, favorites and otherwise? Suggestions? I can't bring myself to watch Conan; I still see Johnny Carson up there and Conan's a tough fit for me. Spare me the combative daytime shows where white trash battles on stage. But "Ellen" seems smart and funny -- what little I've seen of it. Are there others?
Maybe, with some suggestions, we can download something from iTunes for the long flight home...
By next week, I should be able to post photos again. This post comes to you, once again, by sneaking around the firewall imposed by those where I live...
POST SCRIPT: This just in from the New York Times [you may need to cut and paste into browser: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/17/world/middleeast/17media.html?hp] A fascinating look at what all of us in the blogosphere are engaged in, and the stakes it represents. Sorry for the cut and paste, but I'm somewhere they haven't yet turned back on the very networks mentioned in this piece.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
"Has the jury reached a verdict?"
"I have, Your Honor."
"And what say ye?"
"Guilty of 19 counts of felony animal cruelty. To say nothing of being a mean little shit."
"The jury of one having returned its verdict, I now pronounce sentence. The defendant shall rise..."
Okay, let me back up. Let's start by saying I have no idea if 18-year-old Tyler Weinman brutally tortured and killed 19 cats, gutting them, gouging out the eyes of some, and cutting off their snouts. Maybe he's a sick, twisted, depraved serial-killer-in-training. Or maybe he's innocent.
He is, of course, presumed innocent. And he doesn't look like Charles Manson.
Maybe that's what makes the allegations even more sinister. He's the son of a Miami dentist. He's grown up in a nice neighborhood a short hike from my old home in Gables-by-the-Sea. So, is he a dangerous criminal or a mentally ill kid who needs help? Or both?
If he committed these heinous acts, what's the motive? None other than a cold, bloodless heart? A sociopathic personality? Is this a clue...his stepmother owns cats? Who the hell knows?
(Innocent or guilty, he's still a prick who smirked in his booking photo, as if the whole thing is a joke).
The judge has ordered a psychiatric exam and expressed concern for Weinman's safety if he is released on bail. The story has inflamed passions and caused a media sensation in South Florida. Here's the Miami Herald account, "Suspect in Cat Killings to Stay in Jail, Get Evaluation."
If that link doesn't open, please tell me in a comment. The Herald is updating its story several times a day, as if it's the invasion of Normandy. I'm not kidding. Here's a map showing the locations of the deceased felines. It could be Marine placements on Omaha Beach.
Let me state my biases...and they would undoubtedly keep me off any jury. I am the owner -- make that, "parent" -- of a rescue cat and a rescue dog. Taxi, the cat, pictured here in kittenhood, showed up outside the house one day and surely would have been eaten by one of the neighborhood coyotes, if not rescued. Or snatched from the ground by a neighborhood hawk the size of a Gulfstream.
If this had happened to my pets, what would the fitting punishment be? "An eye for an eye; a snout for a snout."
But we must distance ourselves, jurors. Putting ourselves in the places of the victims is not allowed. In fact, a prosecutor who asks -- "What if this would have happened to you?" -- just created a mistrial. (It's called the "Golden Rule" argument).
So, let's be calm and impartial. And I ask again, what is the fitting punishment for such a crime? My first rational and restrained response is that the guilty party should be tossed into the tiger cage at the Miami-Dade Zoo. At feeding time. Or maybe locked in a room with the owners of those 19 cats, each of whom carries a Louisville Slugger. Okay, maybe I'm wrong.
What say ye?
Monday, June 15, 2009
Kenny Rankin died on June 7, 2009 of lung cancer, just three weeks after his diagnoses. He was just 69.
“In a remarkable recording career that spans three and a half decades, Kenny Rankin has established an impressive set of creative credentials, as an insightful songwriter, a distinctive guitarist and, above all, a world-class singer possessing an uncanny ability to cut straight to a song's emotional heart.”
From the Los Angeles Times obit: "In a review of a 2000 Rankin performance at a San Fernando Valley jazz club, critic Don Heckman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "Rankin has been -- for a decade or more -- a singer whose unusual improvisational skills and innate capacity to deliver a melody with a strong sense of swing stamp him as a consistently appealing jazz artist."
I discovered "The Kenny Rankin Album" in the 1970s. I remember sitting in front of my stereo in the living room of my Seattle apartment enraptured with his pure tenor voice singing songs like “While my Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Groovin’” and "When Sonny Gets Blue."
A few years ago, I went to hear him play at a Los Angeles nightclub. He sat on a simple wooden chair under a baby spot, mesmerizing the audience with music and stories about his life. I’m not musical, so the loss of artists like Kenny Rankin seems beyond tragic.
I feel the same way about these artists.
Who are your favorite musicians who died too soon?
Friday, June 12, 2009
I’ve been writing so hard over the past two weeks, that my eyes hurt and I’ve a constant splitting headache. The deadline for my new book approaches with the speed of an express train, so I rather feel as if the walls are closing in on me, the ceiling is coming down on my head and, oh dear, here comes the floor! But the words are at least flowing – I don’t know what shape they’re in, but they’re flowing. In fact, I have the most accommodating of editors in that she knows the manuscript that arrives in her inbox following the point at which my wavering finger finally hits the SEND button, is the first, the very first draft of a new novel. She also knows that while she is reading and editing that first draft, I am also taking on the task of my first revision, so by the time she sees the manuscript a second time, incorporating both our edits, the bricks will have mortar and there will be a roof on the house. Landscaping takes place when I work on the second draft, by which time the copyeditor is ready with that red pen, and the race is on. That’s the race I’ve been running since I began my research for the new novel, a story which begins in California, in 1914.
The thing with the research component is that it’s ongoing. Almost as soon as the kernel of a story begins to germinate in my mind, I am on the lookout. I troll Barts Books, that most wonderful of used bookshops, which just happens to be in Ojai, where I live (though we are on our way north again soon). I noodle around the antiquarian and used books on the web, mainly because much of the information I need for my stories is to be found in old books. The advantage of such research is that as well as being steeped in the events of the time, I am also immersed in the rhythm of language, which is as much a part of time and place as the clothing, architecture and modes of travel. And all that brings me to a shameless act of copying, which is actually OK, because the book in question is out of copyright.
In the past eight or nine months or so, I’ve read a few books written by wandering scribes of the early 1900’s, and I’ve been increasingly impressed with the language, the use of words, phrases and descriptions of places I have known and loved – albeit from the perspective of an early 20th century traveler. However it was a book purchased at Barts for the grand sum of twenty bucks that lifted me into another world. I even read passages out loud to my husband, who is usually not eager to have his attention drawn away from the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times. “That’ll be something for your blog,” he said, having listened for quite some time. So, dear reader, here you are, the opening paragraphs of Under The Sky In California by Charles Francis Saunders, published 1913.
“While the following pages touch upon some matters with which the tourist who travels along conventional lines in California is familiar, the main concern of the author has been to draw attention to an immensity of almost unexplored mountain, desert, canon* and flowery plain, which the average tourist sees – if at all – from the car window. This is the real California; and but for man’s unceasing battle with Nature, the artificial wonderland of palms and roses and orange groves which his boundless energy and patient cultivation have evoked, would relapse almost in a night into this wild, majestic solitude. Like all genuine things, it has the compelling charm of the primitive and to the lover of the unartificial it appeals with freshness and power.
Hunters, anglers, forest rangers and prospectors know this region; the cowboy and the miner know it; above all, the Indian knows it, and when he is taken from it, he dies. To the thousands of travelers, however, who yearly visit the Golden State, this California of Nature’s doing is an unknown country; and however much some of them might wish to become better acquainted with it, their mortal frames accustomed to trains de luxe and dining cars, would be absolutely helpless if subjected to the rough conditions which are accepted as a matter of course by the cow-puncher and iron-framed camper.
Yet with some foreknowledge of how to go about seeing this lesser-known California, the task is not difficult of accomplishment even for men and women of delicate frame to whom some daintiness of living is inseparable from enjoyment. This book, written out of the personal experience of man and wife of very limited physical strength, is designed to combine with some hint of the beauties and interests which lie outside the regulation sights, certain practical directions for travelers who may desire with comfort and safety to taste something of California’s wilder side.”
(* pertains to the Spanish spelling of canyon used throughout the book, but I can’t find the squiggly thing that goes over the ‘n’ - oh, and the "car" is not an automobile, but train car.)
Needless to say, the whole book has entranced me. And what have I done all this research for? One scene at the opening of the novel. It’s been worth it.
And just to sign off – here’s the kind of transport in use by Mr. Saunders for his pilgrimage off the beaten track in California:
And I've got two of 'em to keep gassed-up!
Have a great weekend, wherever you may wander.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Worst Dating Mishaps
I should start this post by stating that I’m married. In fact, I’m married to a wonderfully tolerant, loving, compassionate, extremely intelligent, beautiful, adorable woman. We have even been blessed with a pretty nifty little guy named Sam.
But things weren’t always so rosy.
I think I was affected by some kind of brain disorder in my youth that lasted pretty much until I was twenty-seven. We’ll call this disorder “He Never Says the Right Thing-itis.” You won’t likely find this mental disorder in your copy of the DSM-IV, but I am living proof that the disease exists.
In the tenth grade, I fell so hard for a girl who sat in front of me in Civics class that I didn’t stop to realize that I was creeping her out. It was embarrassing to say the least, but I ended up asking her rather awkwardly if she would go to the winter dance with me at my high school.
Of course, my general creepiness and the way I approached her was all wrong and she said, “No.” I was crushed, and I didn’t handle my being crushed with Hemingway-esque grace under pressure.
I think I started crying actually. No, I know I started crying. It was awful. And like all small Southern high schools the entire student body knew by 2:30 PM that I had been reduced to tears… and was without a date.
This pattern pretty much emerged in every scenario involving someone of the opposite sex from 6th Grade into adulthood. I swear I was the most un-cool, awkward, emotionally-retarded guy on the planet.
When you’re in the tenth grade, it’s just heartache and painful and embarrassing, but you eventually move on. However, when an adult male behaves in this same way, it can genuinely frighten people.
At twenty-six, I drove two hundred miles to profess my love to a woman five years older than me. In my mind’s eye, I had all these images of Tom Hanks / Meg Ryan movies where the guy professes his love to the woman at the end of the picture, and they all break down in tears. And live happily ever after.
This doesn’t happen in real life. Or not in my life. The Meg Ryan in my story was genuinely disturbed by my advance and actually ordered me to leave her apartment. I think I basically freaked her out, and it felt like a borderline stalking incident.
How do we ever move on? How does anyone ever mature out of that awkwardness into a functioning, healthy adult? Or was it just me that suffered from emotional retardation?
The irony is that the healthiest relationship of my life came when I made the ultimate advance. I swore myself off women altogether and moved to a little cabin in the remote desert town of Oracle, Arizona. My unibomber-esque abode and lifestyle at that time was maybe the most disturbing period of my life. I was unemployed. I had no heat, no hot water; I had scorpions that crawled across my kitchen floor in the night like some people have roaches. Not to mention that I was physically removed from the world. The nearest “dating” town was Tucson some thirty miles away.
And yet it was under those conditions that I met Susan. She saw something in me that no one else had ever seen. She saw a guy capable of love.
It was either that or the scorpions. Or maybe she just felt sorry for me. I really don’t know.
But I do know that we have something special now. And our relationship feels rock-solid; almost divinely-touched rock solid.
So how about you? What was the worst dating experience of your life? And how did you find your soul-mate?
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Well... I was all set to post a number of photos to show why I'm too busy to post a blog this week. But alas, a certain government has not only blocked the blog from a certain country, but my sneaky workaround to get "out" and be able to post (I'm using it now), is somehow blocked from accepting images. So maybe this is why we're coming home!
Suffice it to say that all our bedrooms and our living room and dining room, small as they may be, are TOWERING with boxes. Here's the hardcore facts: we arrived, I kid you not, with one duffel bag and one roller bag each. And I had a very full backpack with routers, computers and the like (we have 4 computers here with us and full network in the house with two wireless repeaters, because the house is tall and narrow). We are going home with... ready for this? 31 giant boxes of "stuff," and about a dozen pieces of furniture. It turns out this has been a year of acquisition... For the record: I account for one of the thirty-one boxes. So, thirty boxes for the girls, and one for husband/daddy.
Today... my blog day... the movers come to take it away and put it in a container, and a ship takes it all to Tacoma, and then an expediter (supposedly) gets it to us. We'll see. But at least we've got it packed and ready to go.
Today is also the day I turn in the corrected and graded final exams for my course at the university. I'm SO sad to be leaving that part of my life. The teaching experience has been one for the ages. I might even get a non-fiction book out of it. Who knows?
I will be on a very short book tour for KILLER SUMMER. June 30, Barnes and Noble, Fenton, MO July 1 Poisoned Pen, (Scottsdale); July 2 Murder By The Book (Houston); July 9 St Louis County Library (Frontenac); July 16 Community Library, Ketchum, Idaho; August 4, with Dave Barry, Hailey Library, Hailey, Idaho. The book will be mentioned in a summer read round-up on Good Morning America, on June 29th. Would love to meet some bloggers on the road!
I'm signing off... I hear the packing tape calling me. (I now Twitter as RidleyTheWriter)
Tuesday, June 09, 2009
Some people read one book straight through, then go on to the next. ">Maybe it's my Attention Deficit Disorder, but I hop from one book to another and back again. I sample writers' work by reading a few chapters, sometimes for pleasure and sometimes to learn.
How far into the story is the inciting incident? How many characters does the writer crowd into one scene? Where does Act I end? Is the story fresh? Are the characters distinctive and real? Are the plot twists logical? In crime fiction, has the writer played fair with the reader? Is there any glimmer of humor? Is character development woven smoothly into plot (and vice versa)? Do the characters talk like real people? How's the pacing? Does the writing pack punch? And of course, how are the sex scenes?
So, here's what's on my desk and nightstand:
BOOKS I'M READING AGAIN: "Thy Neighbor's Wife" by Gay Talese; and "On Writing" by Stephen King.
BOOKS I'M READING FOR RESEARCH: "Havana Nocturne" by T.J. English; "Sins of South Beach" by Alex Daoud; "Cuban Miami" by Robert Levine and Moises Asis; "Tough Jews" by Rich Cohen; and "Tropical Deco" by Laura Cerwinske.
BOOKS I'M READING FOR PLEASURE: "Blue Heaven" by C.J. Box; "The Winter of Frankie Machine" by Don Winslow; "Between Meals" by A.J. Liebling; and "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin.
BOOKS I'M DYING TO READ: "The Human Disguise" by James O'Neal, so titled apparently because his alter ego James Born is in the Witness Protection Program; "Strong Enough to Die" by Jon Land; and "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.
So what are you guys reading, or have just read, or must read before you die?
IN OTHER LITERARY NEWS: Alaskan stud muffin Levi Johnson, the unemployed high school dropout who is the father of Bristol Palin's love child, has hired a lawyer to shop his memoirs.
ARE WE A NATION OF FATTIES OR WHAT? On this week's New York Times "advice and how-to" bestsellers, six of the top ten are diet books, including number one: "Cook Yourself Thin" by the staff of Lifetime Television. Yummy.
IS JAMES BORN "INTRIGUING?" In the current issue of Florida Magazine, our James Born was selected as one of the 21 Most Intriguing Floridians. I know what you're thinking. Florida must be a very boring state. At least the magazine didn't try to tell us that Jim is:
THE MOST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD: That title belongs to the suave gent in the Dos Equis commercials.
STAY THIRSTY MY FRIENDS
All joking aside, it's a great honor for our Jim, who, like the Don Equis man, leads a life so interesting, he lives vicariously through himself.
Monday, June 08, 2009
Last week I was privileged to attend a 40-hour Homicide Investigation training course with members of various law enforcement agencies. The curriculum included lectures by experts in interrogation strategy, serology, child homicides, murder and the law, and coroner protocol. All week I looked at gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos and listened to horror stories without even wincing.
Then came the forensic entomologist.
The “bug guy” was hilarious. In fact, he could be doing stand-up at The Comedy Store. He passed around vials of parasites floating in alcohol and talked about the implication of finding stinkbugs at a crime scene and how long it takes for cockroaches to skeletonize a dead body. All good stuff if you are a homicide detective or a crime fiction writer.
I don’t like bugs but like everybody else, I deal with them. On at least two occasions, my garbage can has blossomed with maggots. It was icky but a few sprays from a can of bug killer made them melt faster than the wicked witch of the west.
I was confident I could handle anything Bug Guy threw my way. Then he showed the photo.
I will spare you the details since some of you may be enjoying a cheese Danish about now and I don’t want you to have a physiological response near your keyboard. We all know how delicate they are. I’ll just say the picture was so gross that a week later I still can’t get it out of my head. It lives with me day and night, scuttling into my consciousness whenever my mind is free to wander. I tried to banish it with reason and meditation but the image is an alien that has invaded my brain.
Later, I confessed my wussitude to a homicide detective friend of mine. As predicted, he wasn’t fazed by any bug action. However, he had a confession of his own. He is freaked out by horror movies. He said, “Anything you shoot five times and it’s still coming at you? I’m out of there.”
I presume we all have an “ick” threshold. What’s yours?
P.S. On Saturday night, I attended the annual Twice a Citizen banquet honoring the hundreds of Los Angeles Police Department Reserve Officers. The LAPD command staff (chiefs and such) selected my partner and me as the Department’s Co-Reserve Officers of the Year. Police Chief William J. Bratton presented us with the award. Pretty cool.
Friday, June 05, 2009
There’s an article in this week’s New Yorker addressing that age-old question: Can creative writing be taught? It focuses on those MFA and other university/college-based programs that concentrate on providing a core curriculum for the writer. Apparently, the number of creative writing programs has increased from 15 in 1975, to one hundred and fifty-three today. And that’s without all the workshops, short-courses, conferences and so on that are presented each year for writers of every stripe. But does that make us all better writers? This is such a vexing question that someone has written a book about it: The Program Era ($35 or $25.20 on Amazon).
Now this all interests me, to some point, because I have always loved school, loved being in a “learning” environment where ideas are thrown around like so much wheat and chaff in the grist mill. And right now I am in the midst of helping bring together the next Book Passage Mystery Writers’ Conference (one of the best out there) of which I am co-chair. We always like to say that it has a “collegiate” environment, and I would like to think that we have a significant impact on the writers who plunk down good money to attend. Mind you, there is a sterling alumni from which to draw faculty – the likes of Cara Black, Cornelia Read, Tony Broadbent, Tim Maleeney – and that’s without the many authors who clamor to be part of lineup. Oh, and I began taking my writing seriously by attending a memoir class at BPU – Book Passage University.
That's me (with clipboard, trying to look co-Chair-ish) with Tony Broadbent and David Hewson, and - eek - I can't remember the name of the man on the right.
We may not be Iowa – although I am sure we’ll push out a writer who wins a Pulitzer one of these years – but each year we look at our delivery systems (should this be a lecture or a workshop? Is this topic best taught in small groups or with panel input? How do we cater to everyone’s unique needs as a writer, and also bring them together in a synergistic group?) and we match the skills of our author faculty with the program. It’s no small task, and I know we take it all very seriously.
So, can writing be taught? Here’s what I think. That urge to write, that rush of creative energy that spawns the idea for a story – cannot be taught. But it can be nurtured, it can be burnished by practice, by example, by in-depth reading. It can be nourished by practice in other aspects of writing – learn rhythm by writing poetry, learn how to describe a scene from studying memoir, and learn endurance – oh, we need that endurance – from the practice of sharing work with a group. That’s when you really learn that much of writing is in the rewriting (When I wrote my first novel, I thought the rewrite was accomplished by hitting the spell-check). I guarantee that if you do those things, you’ll have more of those singular moments of inspiration. And I have just noticed that I've used the word "practice" several times in one paragraph - the sort of repetition that's usually a big no-no, but in this context, maybe it was meant to be.
Apparently the majority of students in creative writing programs never publish a poem, essay, novel or short-story. The experience is never wasted though, because creativity is never wasted – I read somewhere else that in Silicon Valley and other such areas of innovation, they look for arts graduates on the basis that you can teach the nuts and bolts of computers (or whatever) but ... you can’t teach creativity. On the other hand, I happen to think that among the broad range of people attending ad-hoc writing workshops around the country there will be a significant number of published authors – and if Book Passage is anything to go by, a steady stream.
But here’s another story for you. Since I published my first novel in 2003, I have, on and off, attended the memoir/creative non-fiction courses offered by the wonderful Barbara Abercrombie at UCLA Extension. I’ve written about her before. I call it my writing gym, my chance to flex the muscles in other ways. In her classes, Barbara will often give a five-minute writing exercise – could be poetry, a scene, a short-short story – and you just sit there and write until she says “Time!” Now, I can write pretty quickly, so I always managed to get a lot down in my five minutes, but I do what I guess we all do – stash the writing away or lose it somewhere in the catacombs of my computer. A few weeks ago, my UK publisher asked if I had any short stories to submit to a magazine – if I did and they were accepted, the magazine would do a spread on my work. But I’m not a short story writer, and I thought, “Rats! Another opportunity lost.” Then a light bulb went off and I remembered Barbara’s’ five minute exercises. To cut a long story short (forgive the pun), I had written two short stories in those five minute assignments – one was based on the task to “write a piece using the senses” – and I wrote a Christmas story from the point of view of an assistance dog accompanying his owner to a family dinner; and I can’t remember what the other task was, but I wrote about a women who runs away after being in a train crash because she knows her husband will think her dead anyway. I dragged them out, dusted them off – and because I am on an eye-watering deadline to deliver a manuscript, I didn’t spend more than another five or ten minutes – and sent them off. And they’re being published!!! I have never published a short story, and I am so excited.
And the moral of that story is – never underestimate the power of going back to school, whatever your subject of choice is.
I’m going to see one of my favorite vocalists this weekend – Julia Fordham at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood – and I am SO excited!!
What are you up to?
Thursday, June 04, 2009
I hate to say that I was born before President Kennedy was elected. Not much before but Ante Camelot. By any measure, like most Americans, I have had an easy life physically. Any injuries I've incurred were doing things I chose to do and sometimes not well.
I didn't realize that after this photo circa 1965 it was all downhill physically.
I have recently suffered my first serious job related injury and even it is not too bad. I tore my rotator cuff on my right shoulder during a training excercise. The real issue. The cause of this post. The phrase that has pissed me off is, "At your age . . ." If another healthcare professional starts a sentence off with that phrase again they will learn that I can draw and fire between nine and seventeen bullets (depending on which gun I'm carrying) at my freaking age.
I was 45 in the photo to the right. It was an undercover where the suspect believed i was also arrested. If I had to do it now I would have to be cuffed in the front because of my shoulder.
To add insult to injury I've noticed that recent photos of me have been taken with poor quality cameras that distort features. I was always called "Young Looking" even into my early forties. I never had injuries. I ran marathons at 200 pounds and my knees never even clicked. Now. Never mind.
The two karate photos show me at twenty five and forty. By the way that is legendary Shotokan practicioner Mas Nakayama on the left and Kickboxing champion Bill Wallace on the left.
What the hell. Jackie, do all you Brits look so good as you age? If so I'm on board with socialized medicine.
But it could be worse. I could have gone from this
Dammit. He still looks pretty good.
On another topic, just a couple ophotos from my book launch last Friday at Murder On The Beach Bookstore in Delray Beach Florida. Good time was had by all and, perhaps because of age, I was dragging all day Saturday.
I'm away for a week in lovely Costa Rica, diving, rafting, surfing and trying not to think about the aging process.