Friday, August 29, 2014

On The Abuse of Women

from Jacqueline

Many years ago, when I was a young woman “professional” working in London, I went along to a discussion led by Australian author Dale Spender on a panel with two other female writers whose names now escape me.  Never heard of Dale Spender?  She is the author of the then best-selling “Man Made Language” – a groundbreaking book in its day, about the way in which language was created by men, and contributes to the disenfranchisement of women, mainly because it has not evolved to encompass women’s experiences and responses to the events of their lives.  The presentation was very interesting, bringing up aspects of language I had never considered. Then one of the women dropped a bomb, so to speak.  Here’s what she said:

“Most people will never appreciate how much men hate women.”

I almost fell off my seat. I mean, I’d had my problems – gropers on the Tube going to work; men who assumed I would be interested in them, then became nasty when it was clear I wasn’t, and I’d suffered put-downs from men.  But I also knew I was quite capable of coming back with my own stinging repartee, and I could look after myself.  Yet this was something different, and my shock came as a result of my own experience – I had a father who showed utter respect for his wife and daughter without compromising his self-worth, and a brother who was raised to be respectful to women in the manner of his father.   I’m still not sure how I feel about that statement, and perhaps it was spoken to start a conversation – certainly the conversation deserved a long hearing. 

Anyone paying attention to world affairs and current events could not fail to grasp how women are used in certain parts of the world. In Darfur, women leaving places of refuge to scavenge for food to feed their children were captured by “rebels,” then raped and left for dead.  ISIS in Iraq – deranged nutcases who wouldn’t know a Koran from a Krispy Kreme – have attacked communities via acts of terror against women first – again, rape, torture and murder.  Here in the USA, there have been horrific cases of abduction, rape and imprisonment – from Elizabeth Smart, to Jaycee Lee Dugard, to the three women kidnapped, raped and imprisoned by Ariel Castro in Cleveland, Ohio.  There have been cases of similar kidnap and violence in Austria, in France, and Germany – and I read that police had been dispatched to Fletcher Christian's Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific to investigate a deep culture of abuse against girls and women.  And it goes on.

When I left the UK earlier this week to fly home to California, a story was breaking about the sickening failure of authorities in Rotherham, Yorkshire – in the north of England – to stop the repeated sexual abuse of some 1400 young girls by a ring of mainly Pakistani men. The children were chiefly those in care situations, though not all – and it appears society failed those children, with police dismissing complaints, and a local authority so fearful of creating racial tension that it allowed the most terrible abuse to continue.  The story is still unfolding, but it seems police refused to intervene even when faced with young girls who were being beaten and repeatedly raped.  It is beyond a nightmare, and it has been going on for years.

I’ve been wondering about this hatred – does it come from men in societies threatened by women?  Or individuals threatened by women?  And why are girls and women so often not listened to when they complain?  Or scream?  With these thoughts on my mind today, I “Googled” Dale Spender – it was well over thirty years ago that I last thought about her, so I wanted to see if she was still writing and campaigning.  It appears she is.  Here’s what she says on the home page of her website:

“I am old enough to have lived in a world without sexism and sexual harassment. Not because they weren’t everyday occurrences in my life but because THESE WORDS DIDN’T EXIST … When women had no words to name offensive and unwelcome behavior they had to try and describe why they didn’t like comments on their appearance – such as ‘sex appeal’. They didn’t accept gropes and whistles as signs of endearment. THEY HAD TO COMPLAIN. This generally put them in the wrong! They were being difficult, too thin-skinned, were up themselves, couldn’t take a joke.”
That’s food for thought.  But here’s a personal story.  When I was a child we lived in a very rural area.  Kids ran free because everyone knew everyone else and there was always someone to look out for you.  Until I was eleven, my mother worked on the local farm, which was wonderful for my brother and I.  We never strayed that far, and we knew to watch out for farm equipment and vehicles, but there were woods to explore and trees to climb, and we were always within calling distance of my mother.  There was an old railway station nearby – the trains had stopped running in 1964, but there was still a coal supply yard, and the tracks remained; the best blackberries grew alongside them.  And because the trains had been steam trains, there were black huts along the tracks about a mile apart where coal was stored.  On this day I had gone for a short walk along the tracks with my brother – I was nine and he was five – and we were picking blackberries.  Suddenly a man leaped from one of those black huts and grabbed me – I can still feel his fingers wrapped around the top of my arm.  I was more worried about my brother, so I pulled free, picked him up and ran with him all the way back to my mother – one of those times when physical strength comes from a sheer adrenalin rush.  My chest was heaving with great sobs as I told her the story – but I hadn’t finished before she took off at a sprint to find the man.  She knew exactly who he was – a man who worked in the coal yards, and she'd never liked the look of him.  Had she found him, she would have killed him.

A policeman came to the house and interviewed me, then I was sent out of the room while he spoke to my parents.  They could do nothing about what had happened – I was a fast kid, and the man hadn’t managed to drag me off, plus I wasn’t hurt, physically, and there were no witnesses.  But above all, my parents were told it was the word of a little girl against the word of a man.  That man, as it happened, had not long been released from prison on charges of sexually assaulting a girl, and was still on probation.  Some time later, the women complained about him to police and his employer, for making a nuisance of himself – “exposing” I think it was called at the time.  Nothing was done about it.  They were only women complaining, plus they had the choice, they could look the other way.

I don’t have answers to the points I’ve raised. I know this post might seem inflammatory to some, and I’m sorry about that – personally, I have for the most part always been in the company of respectful men.  But when I look around the world, when I read the news of the way in which women in so many cultures have been abused physically, emotionally, and mentally, with their spirits crushed, I wonder what women ever did to inspire such hatred.  And I fear there will be no solutions.

And to close, though I don't want it to diminish the seriousness of this post - this is one of my favorite pieces of graffiti.  It happened in Britain about twenty-five, thirty years ago, and Fiat is still getting over it.  

Oh, and guess where the following photo was taken:

Answer:  Afghanistan in the 1950's, before the Taliban took power.  The women are in a library.

Monday, August 25, 2014

In Praise of Silence

Patty here...

I'm thrilled to have my friend and fellow author, Kim Fay, as our guest today. Her evocative Edgar-nominated first novel The Map of Lost Memories is set in Seattle and Cambodia in 1925 and sweeps the reader on the harrowing journey of museum-curator wannabe Irene Blum as she attempts to save her reputation by finding the temple believed to house the lost history of Cambodia's ancient Khmer Civilization. 

by Kim Fay

Recently, I spent two and a half weeks at my parents’ house. They live in Tucson in a development overlooking the Santa Catalina Mountains. It was quiet there, very quiet, and not just because it’s in the middle of the desert. I was alone, choosing to go when my parents were out of town. The reason? Why waste time applying for writing retreats or spend money to stay in a writing colony when I had a perfectly good escape just an hour’s flight away?

A Writing Room with a View
On leave from work, I covered all the clocks, and for more than two weeks I wrote, researched, wrote, napped, wrote, sipped wine, wrote, took walks, wrote, wrote and wrote. I had dinner with a friend once. Otherwise, I did not even talk on the phone more than a handful of times, and I checked my email every few days, if that. Ideas had space to roll around in my mind. Plot and characters filled my uninterrupted thoughts. It was divine.

Returning home to L.A. with 50 new pages of my work-in-progress in hand, I was immediately greeted by the noise.

I’m not talking about the sirens, neighbors power lines, leaf blowers, garbage trucks, enraged squirrels, and and and. Yes, that was overwhelming after more than two weeks of near total silence. But the noise I’m talking about is the noise that invades the head of the 21st-century writer.

Kim Fay
Are the Big 5 overrated? Should I self publish? How do you price/format an ebook? Amazon versus Hachette. Tweet this. Like that. Here comes another message from our Yahoo group. Can you believe how hard it is to promote a book these days? Why does my publisher ignore me? Check out what some butthead wrote about my book on Goodreads. Ping ping ping (email notification). Whoosh whoosh whoosh (Twitter notification). Quack quack quack (Facebook notification). Oops, gotta go write another guest blog post, and write an Amazon review, and write a Goodreads review, and comment on another blog … Crumb! I haven’t even written for my own blog in six months!!

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy much of this – especially the camaraderie with my writing friends, both in person and online. I enjoy my Sisters in Crime Yahoo group. I enjoy writing guest posts like this one. I even – gasp! – enjoy Twitter. It’s just that there’s so darn much for a writer to do these days. All the time!

After I graduated from university (in the days of the typewriter), my life was spent writing, working in a bookshop and hanging out with friends. Sometimes I would pass an entire Sunday afternoon on the sofa reading Muriel Spark or Graham Greene. I wrote long letters to my great-aunt and taught myself to cook Greek food, and everything I did was pristine, untouched by the ping whoosh quack of today.

I’m not naïve. I know that as we get older, life naturally gets busier. But these days the life of a writer isn’t just busy, it’s frantic. It’s a pressure cooker as you work on your platform and connect with your Goodreads’ fans and wonder about the fate of independent bookstores and, most importantly, tap dance as fast as you can to make sure you stay in the game.

My first novel was published in August of 2012. It did fine but certainly didn’t earn out its advance. In addition, I’m a slow writer. This combination, I was assured by the machine that is modern publishing, guaranteed my failure. In a panic, I actually spent last year working on a commercial novel. Gotta stay in the game, gotta stay in the game. The result: the knowledge that I am not a commercial novelist and a valuable year-long lesson learned. I am back to working on what I want to work on. A mystery series that explores anxiety, ethnicity and L.A. in the 1970s.

Here’s the truth. I don’t want to join Google+. I don’t even understand it. Likewise, I’m not sure what to do with LinkedIn, and I find Facebook overwhelming and terrifying. I am bolstered by the support that comes from fellow writers through social networking, but at the same time, there are days when I just want to slam my computer against the wall.

I need quiet. We need quiet. As writers, quiet in our heads (space in our brains) is essential. I know I can’t make the Internet go away; I don’t want to. But I’ve decided that I can’t just wait for once a year to roll around and my parents to go away for me to find the peace I need to be the best writer I can be. It’s going to take deliberate effort, and to that end, I would love to hear from one and all about what you do to find that quiet place in your head.

Kim's bio:

Born in Seattle and raised throughout Washington State, I lived in Vietnam for four years and have been traveling regularly to Southeast Asia for more than eighteen. A former independent bookseller, I am the author of the historical novel The Map of Lost Memories, a 2013 Edgar Award finalist for Best First Novel by an American Author, and the food memoir Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam, winner of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards’ Best Asian Cuisine Book in the United States. I am also the creator/​editor of the To Asia With Love guidebook series. I now live in Los Angeles. I am represented by Alexandra Machinist at ICM Partners.

Professional affiliations: PEN USA, Authors Guild, Historical Novel Society, Sisters in Crime, Sisters in Crime LA and Mystery Writers of America. For more information, visit


Friday, August 22, 2014

Something You Might Not Know About 9-11

from Jacqueline

Just when I thought I could not watch another documentary or newscast revisiting 9-11 – I find it incredibly painful – a documentary produced by Britain’s Channel 5 TV aired last week here in Britain – and it caught my attention, keeping it there for every second of the 45-minute broadcast.  Entitled, “The Last Secrets of 9/11” it detailed the painstaking and deeply committed work of the New York Medical Examiner’s Office their staff moved a mountain of debris from Ground Zero – and it literally was a mountain – and time and again pushed the boundaries of scientific innovation in their quest to identify the remains of the almost 3000 souls from around the world who perished on that terrible day.  It was compelling viewing, and it should be shown on US TV without fail, if only to shed light on the people involved in this arduous journey, and the professionalism with which they have honored their duty to the dead. 

The Office of the New York Medical Examiner investigates some 5000 deaths year, determining the cause of death of anyone who departs this mortal coil from the city of New York.  Dr. Mark Desire, head of the Crime Lab – which he describes as “One of the most advanced in the world” – described how one entire department has been dedicated to the 9-11 inquiry for the past 13 years.  On the day of the attack he was with his team in the midst of their regular weekly meeting.  Word came in that something had happened at the World Trade Center, so they were about to dispatch a team to begin work immediately – then from the office they watched as the second ‘plane hit its target.  It was a case of “All hands on deck” as they rushed towards what became known as “Ground Zero.”  Desire described what he encountered as a “Hellish crime scene.”  His first thought upon arrival was, “This is how I am going to die.”

A good documentary is like any good story – it depends upon character.  And this documentary was no exception, coming back time and again to the characters involved – but with no shortage of data to stun the mind.  Focusing on a handful of family members, it brought home the great need we have to mourn, and the importance of having something of the deceased so that we can lay them to rest.  This was paramount in the minds of the forensic team.

In the first 6 weeks of the investigation, some 8000 body parts had been found across a 16-acre site– from matter less than an inch long, to a torso.   Many of the fragments were unrecognizable and testing methods at the time offered little hope.  Says Mark Desire, “We weren’t going to make many ID’s unless we had a better way of testing.”  People like the brother and mother of 31-year-old Geoff Campbell from Sussex, England were waiting for news.  Geoff, a consultant for Reuters and working high in the World Trade Center, had, without doubt, died in the attack.  Geoff’s brother and his mother scoured the hospitals, but said that, once they visited Ground Zero, “You knew there was no chance.”

Within days of the attack, the wreckage was being moved to a site 23 miles away on Staten Island named – unfortunately - Fresh Kills.  Fifteen hundred men and women from the New York Department of Sanitation worked around the clock going through every single minute scrap of debris in a 1.8 million ton mound. It took ten months.  Said the Director, “We were going to make sure that everything that came in here was searched – it was not even an option to us that we would leave material that wasn’t touched.”  They investigated down to ¼ of every inch of that 1.8 million tons.  By July 2002 another 4257 body parts had been recovered in addition to those found at Ground Zero.  Problems mounted – identification generally depends upon photos, fingerprints, dental records etc., but most of the fragments were too small or damaged, and there was the added issue of co-mingling of remains and tissue degradation.    Samples were badly decomposed – with everything that could destroy DNA present at Ground Zero – heat, sunlight, mold, water, insects, fuel, bacteria.

The documentary painstakingly recounted the process of identification, with scientists returning to the material time and again as they refined their methods and new processes were tested and found to work.  Jacqueline Fanning, daughter of Fire Chief Jack Fanning – whose remains were never found – said, “You accept that you don’t get anything back.”  Since the disaster, Fanning has struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol as she slipped into the depths of grief over her father’s death on 9-11.  She has his charred and melted helmet, and that’s all.

Over time the Campbells received two tiny fragments identified as part of Geoff.  But for a Catholic burial, they needed three pieces.  On July 20th another piece arrived in Sussex, and he was buried in the churchyard of the village where he grew up.  The lab file on Geoff Campbell identified fragments of his scapula, femur and sacrum – and those fragments were tiny. 

On April 22nd, 2005 the investigation was coming to a halt – there was no more that could be done with available technology at the time.    The Director of the Medical Examiner’s Office, Bob Shaker (I might have the name wrong), spoke about the closing of the site.  “We still had so much work to do,” he said, of the applause that accompanied the men and women of his office as they filed into Ground Zero.  “We didn’t feel like being applauded.”  He then described the scene, recounting the moment a gust of wind came through and seemed to carry itself aloft.  “It felt like the spirits were being taken out [of Ground Zero].”  At that time, the remains of 1600 victims of 9-11 had been ID’d.

Seven months later, 300 tiny bone fragments were found on the roof of the Deutsche Bank building, adjacent to Ground Zero - discovered by demolition workers. The structure was so undermined by the attacks that it had to come down.  The discovery led to deeper searching.  All told, another 783 body parts were found at the site – but five years of exposure to the elements had rendered them almost impossible to read. Almost. 

A new procedure was developed using liquid nitrogen to freeze bone fragments before grinding them to a very, very fine powder.  Bingo!  The DNA information released by the procedure – which allowed greater access to the cells – was, as Mark Desire said, “Amazing.”  The relatives of 30 passengers and crew from the first airliner to hit the towers received a precious part of a loved one.  The implications for the Medical Examiner’s office were huge – and led to a massive retesting of all the material.    In 2008, another part of Geoff Campbell was found. His brother said they felt that he’d “Really come home.”  And the fact that hair was clearly identifiable on the bone – without any evidence of flame or heat or burning – eased his mother’s fear that his last seconds were spent in hell. He had been killed instantly.

And so it went on.  With every new development in testing, so all unidentified remains went through the process.  Two, three or four more families at a time received something of a dead relative.   2013 saw another phase of testing – the latest development involved heating and cooling of fragments, with longer incubation – again, a leap forward in DNA yield.  Slow and painstaking was the process – but the team was committed.  By the end of this year, over 8000 existing remains will have been tested and retested time and again, and for some of those remains, a positive ID will be made.

Earlier this year, Geoff Campbell’s brother, Matt, attended a solemn ceremony at Ground Zero and witnessed the dedication of a new memorial. The existing remains were placed together in three caskets to be interred underground – the City of New York had decreed that testing on those remains should end.  Matt and his mother chose to have a fragment of Geoff’s upper arm included in a casket, so his American fiancée – who still so deeply bears the grief of his loss – has a place to go to, if she wishes. At the time of the documentary, she had chosen not to.

Since 9-11, the work of the department represents one of the most formidable and groundbreaking forensic examinations ever conducted, with over 21,906 fragments of human remains being received from Ground Zero, then tested and retested time and again.  60% f the families of those lost have received something, some small piece of someone much loved. But for the rest – like Jacqueline Fanning - the wait goes on.  And so does the work. The excavation has been extended to include additional blocks around the site where the World Trade Center once stood.  Dr. Mark Desire said, “Our team is as committed today as it was in 2001.

Most of us never think of the men and women who have toiled day and night over microscopic remains of those who perished on 9-11.  But one thing I was left with above all else – they have never forgotten that they are touching something that was once human, that lived and breathed, and laughed and loved – and was loved in return.  A person who had a family.  They never forget that people still wait for word - so they’re still working.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Less Reading, More Pictures -- No, That's Not the Motto of the University of Alabama

As I searched books and the Internet for different ways to provide information about how to write a novel, I came across a number of posters and cartoons which struck me as funny or insightful. Some have already been used, but some I'm going to post here now. This is not a way of getting out of writing the blog.  In fact, it takes more time to upload these images than it does to actually write the 500 to 700 words I usually put into a post. But we all need a break and a laugh once in a while.

Writing can be a lonely business. It doesn't necessarily have to be, but I think, if most writers are like me, they would rather be left alone to work on a project at least for part of each day. I find I’m more easily distracted by instant access to news and entertainment on the web, but I haven't gotten to the point of having to cut off my Internet connection.  I hope you all enjoy the results.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

In the Details

James O. Born

We’ve gone over a lot so far in our discussions about what it takes to write a novel.  There's the big picture of whether you are a writer versus a storyteller and how to get your story across in an interesting manner, whether it is by action or dialogue.  I throw up a lot of quotes and posters I find all over the Internet and in books.  And yet the one thing you should take away from all of this is there is no one rule to follow and today's topic is no different.

Punctuation may seem like something we learned in elementary school and we revisited it every year through high school.  It should be simple, a couple of splotches here and there on the page tell the reader when to pause or stop.  As with everything in writing a novel, it is not that simple.  And I am no grammar titan.  In fact, I’m a Floridian.

But I can't over emphasize how important details like punctuation can be.  One of the first things an editor will notice when reading your manuscript is poor punctuation.  You can try and keep it simple, but frankly there are times that call for something out of the ordinary.  Maybe it's something as simple as a semi-colon or an exclamation mark.  Personally, I use things like this very sparingly.  But these are choices you have to make.

Years ago, an editor read one of my manuscripts and felt like the sentences as a whole were too short and consistent; meaning I used no variation in the construction of each sentence.  Of course, he was right.  I have many faults, but admitting a mistake is not one of them.  I made use of the Word for Windows statistics that can review any document and learned that although my earlier books averaged about fourteen words per sentence, this book averaged ten.  That takes into account one word sentences.  But as my statistical background forces me to admit, this was a significant change in sentence structure from an earlier book.  It made me reread my early books as well as several authors I admire greatly, including Michael Connelly, and study as well as enjoy the novels.  Now, without conscious thought, most of my manuscripts are between fourteen and sixteen words per sentence.  A seemingly insignificant issue, which had completely escaped me, but was obviously impacted my storytelling. 

I'm not saying that was all punctuation's fault.  I think it was just a phase I was going through making each sentence blunt and to the point.  One of the things I truly hate is what some authors and editors referred to as "over writing," putting too many descriptors or flowery language into the text.  I'm not saying that I don't like this in some situations, but in crime novels generally I do not.

So let's look at the basics quickly.  What is in our toolbox of punctuation?  (And keep in mind this is extremely difficult to write using Dragon NaturallySpeaking software).

Now let's just wait a second.  Hold your horses and think for a minute.  After the tone of conversation we've had for almost half a year, do you really think I would be so condescending as to lay out a list of actual punctuation marks? 

That’s not the way things work here.  We need to have a simple and basic respect for each other.  I have to assume that if you are reading these blogs and interested in writing a novel you already have the basics of punctuation.

The point I'm trying to make is that simple mistakes like confusing their and they’re or your and you’re will turn off an editor almost instantly.  An excellent book to get some of this clear in your head and at the same time be entertained is Eats, Shoots and Leaves by  Lynn Truss.

The book explains the title well:

"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.” 

Admittedly, this is not a problem I often see an unpublished manuscripts.  Generally this is one of the easier things to correct.  But I felt it worth mentioning in the grand scheme of things.

This week’s quotes are:

“No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, "Good food at it's best", you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.” 
― Lynne TrussEats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

“The almost-always-ghastly exclamation point has been lately compared to canned laughter.” 
― George F. WillOne Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation

Monday, August 11, 2014

OUTLANDER: When books come to life on screen

Patty here

Has anyone seen the first episode of Outlander on Starz? For now, you can get it for free by visiting I watched on my computer but it’s also available On Demand if you have Time Warner Cable or similar.

I always cringe when a movie or TV series is made from a favorite book. We’ve all seen unsuccessful attempts and worry: Will the action be true to the book? Will the actors resemble the people we’ve imagined?

The official poster

A friend recommended OUTLANDER shortly after it was published in 1991. Her description sounded genre bending and not at all appealing, but she insisted I read it. So I did. And I loved it. I have since read all of the books in Diana Gabaldon’s series, except for WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART’S BLOOD, which was released in June. The author has an interesting history. She holds degrees in Zoology, Marine Biology, and a Ph.D. in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology. She wrote OUTLANDER in secret, just to see if she was capable of writing a novel.

The books are part time-travel, part historical novel, part steamy romance and totally engaging. The history fascinated me because I have Scottish kin on my father’s side and I loved reading about that period in history. I’ve also traveled in the highlands of Scotland and found it enchanting.

As for OUTLANDER, the casting is inspired. Claire and Jamie look mostly as I imagined them. As Claire, Caitriona (pronounced Katrina) Balfe’s acting chops seem up to the task. She reminds me a bit of Cate Blanchett.  

Caitriona Balfe as Claire

Sam Heughan is Jamie Fraser.

Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser

Production-wise, I thought there was an over reliance on voice overs and the pace was—shall we say—leisurely, but seeing it made me want to reread the book.

Most authors wonder who would be cast to play the characters in their novels. Who would make a good Maisie Dobbs? Jake Lassiter? Tom Eriksen in BORDER WARS? A friend once told me she envisioned Hilary Swank as Tucker Sinclair. I was surprised but later thought her observation was spot on.

For the uninitiated, OUTLANDER begins at the end of WWII. Claire Randall has spent the war years working as a combat nurse where she has become accustomed to making life-and-death decisions. In other words: She's no wimp. Now that the war is over, she and her husband Frank travel to Scotland on a second honeymoon to get reacquainted after years spent apart. During their stay, Claire visits a group of standing stones.


While there, she touches the rocks and is transported back to 1743 Scotland in the midst of the Jacobite rebellion against English rule. And that’s when the real fun begins.

With the positive buzz, including a good review in the Los Angeles Times, the STARZ series seems headed for a successful run. I'm glad the OUTLANDER powers-that-be got it right. Congratulations to all involved.


Friday, August 08, 2014

Saudi Arabia, Bacon Sandwiches, and Media Escorts ...

from Jacqueline

I wrote this column several weeks ago, at the beginning of my book tour.  I have been really busy – all that traveling – so it’s taken me until now to get it onto the blog.  Finally, here’s my post for this week, from the road …

July  10th, 2014

It’s a funny thing, how stories converge, and how events in one’s life intersect.  We don’t need to go far to prove the six degrees of separation – that particular mathematical hypothesis can be proven in our own history.

Let me explain …

I’m in the midst of a long book tour, in fact, I’m writing this on a flight from St. Louis to Boston.  Yesterday I was in Chicago.  When I talk about a new book, I like to tell the story of the story – where the kindling came from, and what I saw/read/experienced/observed that gave me the fuel for the fire, and I add some detail on the sparks that lit the story.  It’s a way of engaging an audience without revealing too many plot spoilers.

One of the themes in The Care and Management of Lies is that of food as a flashpoint for emotional nostalgia.  In my talk in Chicago, I illustrated that point with a story about the experience of craving something recognizable from home, foods that bring a sense of belonging, of family.   I described being 21 years of age and in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for an extended period of time.  You’ve heard me talk about my experiences as a flight attendant, the job I went into straight out of college because I wanted to travel – well, I’d been flying about three months when I was “positioned” out to Morocco and Saudi for six weeks during the Hadj – the Pilgrimage.  We only worked one flight each week, taking pilgrims from Rabat to Jeddah, dividing the week between those two places – we flew back to Rabat empty. And believe me, we needed the week to get over that outbound flight!  I remember being at an outdoor restaurant in Jeddah, eating something strange, something I wasn’t that happy about consuming, probably because I was getting a bit fed up with Middle Eastern food after a month’s worth of it.  Suddenly, I had a craving for a bacon sandwich. Not any bacon sandwich – no, I wanted my dad’s bacon sandwich, with bread cut in doorstep slices, dipped in the fat on one side then buttered before the rashers of lovely thick British bacon were laid across. Two important things of note here:  You will not find bacon anywhere in a Muslim country.  And I was a vegetarian.  That, my friends, is emotional nostalgia, as represented in the desire for a certain food.

Bill Young, the terrific media escort in Chicago, had taken me to my event, and on the way to my next event, he asked me about my experiences in Saudi Arabia – he added that he was interested because he was reading a really great thriller, I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes.  Much of the plot is focused on political intrigue in Saudi.  I told him a few stories, then added another media escort/Saudi story.  Stay with me on this one – you know how my stories ramble ….

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, another disaster appeared to be looming – Rita, a hurricane-force storm heading for Houston, TX.  I was on book tour at the time and I, too, was heading for Houston, TX.  It seemed we’d make landfall around the same time.  A woman in the boarding line for the flight asked me if I lived in Houston, and when I said “No” she asked, “Then why in God’s name are you going there?”   To add weight to what transpired later I was seated next to a senior photojournalist from Associated Press, one whose specialization was natural disasters.  He was headed to Galveston, to look straight into the eye of the storm.  The 'plane had less than ten passengers on board.  The AP fellow told me he’d only just arrived home from New Orleans when he received the call to get going again – he’d barely had time to buy a new hazmat suit.  We talked about what he’d seen post-Katrina – things you would never have read in the press – and we talked about the then war in Iraq.  I remember saying to him, “Now I’ve got one of you guys on my own – why is the press rolling over and playing dead with this Administration?”  He answered, “Two words – Karl Rove.  He’s got something on almost every news editor or owner.”  And he wasn’t yanking my chain.  That’s interesting, I thought, and considered again the machinations of our government at the time.  Not that any of them are perfect, I know, but that was a special case, methinks.

Mary Ann Loweth, another amazing media escort, was there to meet me in Houston.  We left the airport in her Chevy Suburban only to run into a long tailback at a major intersection nearby.  We didn’t have a lot of time to get me to my hotel for a quick change of clothes before my event at Murder By The Book.  The tailback had been caused by massive police activity, closing the road so that very specific cross traffic had immediate right of way - a convoy of black Suburbans.  Blue flashing lights were everywhere ahead of us.  “Surely Bush isn’t coming in,” said Mary Ann.  “Hell no,” I said.  “It’s way too dangerous here!”  Mary Ann took matters into her own hands – ever the pro, she had to get an author to an event and a slew of black cars with some sort of get-past-the-traffic free card wasn’t going to stop her. She swung the steering wheel to the right and headed off across an adjacent field, joining the highway well past the roadblock.  We didn’t have to wait long to find out who was being given a diplomatic pass to get out of town before Rita cruised in.  As we approached the hotel, more black Suburbans – of government issue, it was clear now – were lined up outside.  Men in black suits (a secret service detail?) were holding up traffic coming into the hotel while a number of Saudi Arabian families - or maybe a cluster of one man's wives, plus children - clambered aboard the SUV's, followed by servants carrying their many bags containing purchases from posh stores.  Amazing what having a bit of oil can do – friends in high places indeed.  And don't you love seeing the guys in black suits with curly wire coming out of their ears, while they talk into their wrist watches?

Mary Ann parked as close as she could, as I leapt out and ran into the hotel with my bags. I stopped to talk to a lurking hotel employee, asking him what was going on.  “Oh, a few of our guests felt uncomfortable here with the approaching weather, so they’re being given some assistance," he said.  Yeah, I thought, I bet they are.

I recounted this story to Bill, who said, “You should get that book.”  So I did.  And I have reached the point where Jeddah is mentioned for the first time, and memories are flooding back. I was there over 35 years ago. I was not a writer then (more of a recreational scribbler), but I have always had one of the key skills required of a writer – I'm observant, possibly to the point of being nosy.  Details interest me.  I remember what I’ve seen and heard, what smells assault my olfactory system, and what touches my soul about a place and people.  Jeddah may have developed a bit in the intervening years, but I have my doubts as to whether the spirit of the place has changed. Corrupt is the first word that springs to mind. Brutal is another.  Princes are ten a penny, and every one has enough money to buy anything and anyone.  The desperately poor are everywhere.  Alcohol might be banned, but go to any party given by the rich (and there are truckloads of them), and all manner of alcohol is there for the taking – and I mean the expensive stuff.  And I have seen people “bought."  It’s amazing what some people would do for even a sniff at that kind of wealth - it's a bit like watching dogs roll in something nasty and seeing the sheer pleasure on their faces.  "Gee, I stink and I'm loving it!"  

I read something about Saudi Arabia today, that it’s one of the "Top 5 Most Corrupt Countries in the World" and one of the most ruthless.  It’s also where 15 of the 19 “9-11” highjackers hailed from.  Interesting – I think many of us have forgotten that little factoid, seeing as we went to war in Iraq.

Here’s something else I remember about Jeddah, and I think this conversation happened on the same day and in the same place where I had my craving for a bacon sandwich.  I had been out walking earlier in the day – not on my own, I might add – and a dog came up to me, obviously hungry.  I’m used to attracting homeless, hungry canines – I should open a shelter, really - so I bought some sort of pastry (it was all I could find), gave it to the dog, and went on my way.  At that lunch, one of the crew members told us that there were no dogs in Jeddah, as the government had euthanized every dog to deal with a rabies epidemic.  “But I’ve seen a dog,” I said.  “You can’t have,” said the guy.  “There are none.” 

That sums up Jeddah for me – someone tells you there are no dogs, that the place has been cleansed of them.  But you know what you’ve seen, and the dogs are still there, rabid as all get out.

Oh, and I Am Pilgrim is my favorite thriller of the year so far – very dense plotting, excellent character development and super-fast pacing. I was out of breath by the time I finished it.  If you are one of Our Jim's students (and we know you are, after reading his amazing series about writing here on Naked Authors), read this book and make notes - then go back to Jim's lessons on plot, on character, and time and place, and see how the story stacks up.

Enjoy your weekend, one and all ....