Meet Malcolm Cavanaugh Bleekston, most often called McBleak. He appears to be a one percenter, hobnobbing with other millennials of his ilk; excursions on yachts while extolling the virtues of banksters, and enjoying the fruits of his non-labors while the rest of us hustle to put food on the table and keep the wolf from the door.
In the novella The Extractors by Gary Phillips, he lays plans to take a greedy man’s gain while wondering if his girlfriend, who comes from inherited wealth but is dedicated to using her resources to make a difference, is beginning to see through his façade – and if so, can he bring her to his side or will she turn on him? But nothing ever goes as planned, and McBleak has to think fast on his feet or his life might be extracted from him.
Available for $2.99 on its own app bookxy across all platforms as well on Kindle, Kobo, etc.
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Also in Southern California, Taffy Cannon has been lurking at the library.
I was just on a Noir panel for the Oceanside Library’s Big Read program with Lisa Brackmann, Alan Russell, Ken Kuhlken, and Debra Ginsberg. On April 5, I’m moderating a mystery panel at the Carlsbad Library with Denise Hamilton, Vince Aiello, Isla Morley, C.E. Poverman, and Matt Coyle.
• • • • • • •
It’s back to France this summer for the five Bennett Sisters, last seen in Lise McClendon‘s Blackbird Fly. The new book will be out in May (called The Girl in the Empty Dress) but in the meantime you can read installments of Blackbird Fly for free on Wattpad. Suspense, wine, & intrigue. There’s a snazzy new cover too, redesigned by the amazing Lisa Desimini.
Ready to read it straight through? That can be done!
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JD Rhoades reports in with exciting news. Look for his new thriller, Devils and Dust, coming soon.
I’m pleased to announce that Polis Books the digital imprint started by bestselling author and former St. Martin’s Press editor Jason Pinter, will be publishing six of my books this spring: all three books in the Shamus award-nominated Jack Keller series (with spiffy new covers, naturally) , then the thrillers BREAKING COVER and BROKEN SHIELD, all leading up to the release of a brand new Jack Keller novel, DEVILS AND DUST. I’m totally psyched to be working with Jason and Polis.
• • • • • • •
My crime story, Girl’s Night Out, will be published as an e-book by Shebooks, an exciting new internet publishing venture featuring fiction, memoir and essay, by women and for women, in April, 2014.
My Canadian true crime, Death Dealer, which was five years in the making, will be published by New Horizon Press Books in September. Death Dealer fascinated me because while the killing took place in northeastern New Brunswick, it would involve search and rescue teams and game wardens with trained cadaver dogs from the neighboring state of Maine to locate the victim’s hidden body. Two full first degree murder trials, and many appeals later, the killer was sentenced to life is prison.
The fourth book in my Joe Burgess police procedural quartet, And Grant You Peace, will be published by Five Star in October.
Here at Thalia we are word slingers. We craft sentences that lead to paragraphs that morph into scenes that join into chapters and eventually become novels. We love words. They are our clay, our seeds, our bricks, our dirt.
That said, we live in an image-driven world. A world of television, movies, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and the next big photo site. For me writing stories is a way to describe the movies in my head. I am a visual person. I really wanted to be a film reviewer right out of college. I love movies. I love the stories they tell, the subtleties conveyed in a passing look on screen, in a touch, in the twitch of a smile. Film is an emotional medium. A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. An image conveys different emotions to different people. Words work on readers the same way but there is something about a picture.
Assuming then that I have added all sorts of pictures to this post and you are still engaged, I’d like to point out that a thousand words makes a very short story. Like short-short. One-thousand words times five is a short story. One-thousand words times seventy is a novel. So a series of seventy photographs might tell you the story depicted in a novel? In a comic book there are twenty or thirty pages with six or so panels per page. That makes 120 to 180 images per story. Does that mean a comic book is richer and more textured than a novel of 70,000 words? Your call. To each his own entertainment.
I come to you with no agenda. I don’t write comic books or screenplays. I am a novelist. I love the long form story. I can write short stories but I don’t find them as, well, rich and textured and satisfying as a novel. A novel takes months to organize. It takes another big chunk of time to write from that hilarious outline you wrote before you started. Six, ten, twelve months, sometimes much more. Then more time to clean up the mess of the first draft. If a novelist is lucky and extremely organized — and can we say ‘driven’? — writing a polished long work of fiction in twelve months is good, honest work. That doesn’t include time spent promoting your book, blogging (yes, here we are!), tweeting, traveling to conferences, doing public appearances and booksignings and even getting your book copyedited and proofread. And if you’re not with a traditional publisher, getting your cover designed.
The novel, despite its name, isn’t all that new any more. Today the definition is “a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.” Realism is a bit of a stretch these days. Novels of urban fantasy, science fiction, and time travel exist. What ties them together is the understanding they have of the human psyche, human existence, its vulnerabilities and ironies. Is that touch, that indescribable something, more easily conveyed by a film clip or a photograph? Or is the depiction of the journey a character goes through, the barriers, the trials, the highs and lows, more honest?
During Oscars week we can take some collective joy in the stories told on film, and every medium. Some movies are adapted from books we love. We hope they translate well. (If not we can always go back to our books.) More are delivered via letters and words and sentences, between pages, on screens, wherever people read. Wherever we get our stories is fine.
Our stories bring us together, help us connect with one another, and illuminate the fabulousness and ironically deep pain of life. Which makes us all better humans, if only we continue to read and listen to stories.
PS: I was watching ‘A Good Day to Die Hard’ while I wrote this. Not saying it changed my life. Just saying.
by Taffy Cannon
And it wasn’t much money back then, either. When I was a contestant, Single Jeopardy started at $25 and Double Jeopardy ended with $250. In these days of five-figure daily payouts and individuals who’ve earned up to $3.5 million, that sounds like chump change, but back in 1979 it represented the possibility of buying a few more months to work on what would become my first published novel.
Here’s the key: back then, you got to keep the money you earned, win or lose. Today the losers head home with only memories and the Rice-a-Roni, game show parlance for “parting gifts” listed on a crawl at the end of the show. In olden times, you got it all.
Becoming a Jeopardy! contestant in the new millennium involves endless rounds of paperwork and testing and a scouting roadshow that forever circles the country in search of hidden intelligentsia. I know highly-qualified people who’ve been attempting for years to become contestants.
But back then it meant going to a second-floor office up on Hollywood Boulevard and taking a written test. If you did well on the test, you were called back for a practice session with actual buzzers, and if you passed that hurdle, you were slated as a contestant.
Art Fleming was the host, a genial man who had been with the show from its daytime black-and-white beginnings in March 1964. He was the host when I watched with my mother, back when prize money started at $10 and Single Jeopardy invariably featured a category of “Old Testament” or “Five Syllable Words.”
That first era of Jeopardy! lasted peacefully and successfully through 1973, when a Daytime Programming hotshot at NBC began bouncing it around different timeslots, a process which eventually got it cancelled. The last of that first incarnation’s 2753 episodes aired at the beginning of 1975, after which the time slot was added to Another World, creating the first hour-long soap opera. (When Jeopardy!’s second incarnation ended, another half hour was ceded to Another World, bringing it to ninety action-packed minutes a day.) A weekly evening prime time Jeopardy! ran for thirty-nine episodes in 1974-5, and then the show went dark for three years.
When it returned in October 1978, it was as The All-New Jeopardy!, a name change I had entirely forgotten until I looked it up on Wikipedia. The show was tarted up in an attempt to add suspense, including basic structural changes. Three contestants began Single Jeopardy, but only the two highest scorers went on to Double Jeopardy. Whoever was ahead at the end of Double Jeopardy was declared the winner and went on alone to the Super Jeopardy Bonus Board for a chance to earn more through an absurdly complicated mechanism.
This did not produce suspense, as it happened, or success.
The show got cancelled after only five months, which I didn’t realize at the time. All I knew was that a couple of weeks after I was told I’d be a contestant and might expect a call a few months down the line, Jeopardy! called back, all a-bustle. They were going off the air at the end of the next two-week taping cycle, and wanted all of the best contestants currently in the pipeline to participate in those final weeks.
Was I available?
Well, yes. But while flattering, this was also utterly unnerving. The idea of going on Jeopardy! was scary enough. However, if they really were gathering the best and brightest, I was in deep trouble.
I did practice a bit. I made sure I wouldn’t embarrass myself with anything obvious like state capitals, and I used a Jeopardy! board game with tiny red plastic panels that you slid up to reveal answers printed in secret agent ink on the paper beneath. For buzzing in, you used the same kind of cricket clickers we had for New Year’s Eve as kids. Fortunately I did not need to master the clicker since I was playing alone.
I am not sure in retrospect that practicing with this game was any help. I was also pretty certain of this at the time. But it did keep me busy as the show loomed on the very near horizon, and reading almanacs was incredibly tedious.
There was no online game in 1979, of course, and even home videotaping was in its infancy. The only reason I have video of the experience is that a friend of a friend had cutting-edge home VHS recording technology. It was, after all, L.A.
Art Fleming was living in Pennsylvania at the time, and the show taped in Burbank. Taping was scheduled to run through five shows on Saturday and another five on Sunday so Art could pop in and out of town.
We were instructed to bring five changes of clothing, in case we kept winning, and also to provide five interesting facts about ourselves for Art to use in small talk. This was not easy because my life was rather dull, and I don’t remember what most of them were. One that I do recall was that I had managed to delay the departure of an Amtrak train from Fort Worth in hopes that my husband and cat, arriving at the station separately, would make it on board. (I told you it wasn’t interesting.)
The question Art did ask caught me by surprise. Noting that I was originally from Chicago, he asked how I had happened to come to California. Prepared to discuss Amtrak and my cat, I was momentarily taken aback, then listened with fascination as my voice answered, out of thin air: “Manifest destiny.”
Contestants and their families made up the audience, and I was called for the third show. My opponents were a guy who had just smoked his opposition and a previous contestant brought back because they done him wrong. Judges had too-late determined he should have gotten something right or the other person should have gotten something wrong, so they were giving him another chance. Lovely for him, of course, and normally I am a big fan of justice. But my only thought back then was that each of them had experience that I didn’t, particularly in using that accursed buzzer.
Timing was critical with the buzzer. You had to be careful not to buzz in too soon (i.e. before the window fully opened) because then you’d have a time penalty and somebody else would definitely get in first. But if you waited too long, somebody else would get there first as well. Not a problem if you’re running a category you know cold, but something that can turn on you if you come up against a real stumper.
It was terrifying.
Not only were all these people ridiculously smart, but the equipment was unfamiliar and crucial to success, or even survival. I had voluntarily placed myself in a position where I could humiliate myself on national television in a pseudo-intellectual endeavor, a truly dreadful double-header.
I did nicely on some stuff and made horrific blunders on others. The doctor’s daughter did well on “Human Body,” and the news junky aced “Headlines,” winning money for identifying Patty Hearst and the Ayatollah Khomeini within moments of one other. The woman introduced as “a writer from Venice, California” also ran “Women Writers.” As it happened, I’d just lost a bunch of money on wrong answers when I should have known better, so when a Daily Double came up in this category, I bet everything I had left.
Six hundred smackers.
The answer was “She wrote ‘The Lottery’ and ‘The Haunting of Hill House’.”
The Former Contestant had become a former contestant once again by having the lowest score at the end of Single Jeopardy. Shirley Jackson now gave me the jump to catch up with the Returning Champion and tie the score just before our final Double Jeopardy question was revealed. We both knew the answer, but he rang in first and told me later that he didn’t wait to see the question.
And so I was dropped off the boat as The Returning Champion sailed on to the Super Jeopardy Bonus Board. As I recall, he didn’t do very well there.
I wrote the above account of my game from memory, a set piece that has become fairly well established over the years. And I was going to let it go at that, since this was a fond reminiscence and not a term paper. But I got curious, and dug out the VHS tape from 1979.
The criminal justice system, about which I’ve written many fictional accounts, is overloaded with contradictory reports on memory, so I figured I probably had messed up a few details. I knew I had no recollection whatsoever of many categories, and there’d been a dozen. I specifically recalled wrong answers I’d given, but not much that I’d gotten right.
The set, which I recalled as cheesy, was actually even worse. It looked like the play stages I used to put together as a kid for productions of “Rapunzel” and “Rumplestiltskin” in our kind-of finished basement. But we were natty dressers.The Returning Champion and Former Contestant both wore stylish seventies polyester with longish curly hair, one white ‘fro and one unruly rebel. The Returning Champion’s white shirt, unbuttoned to reveal some manly chest hair, had a fifteen-inch lapel span. The points of those lapels looked like high-end pie servers.
As for me, I looked impossibly young and smoker-slim, wearing enormous round tortoise-shell glasses.
(A few years ago at a Sisters in Crime conference at Sony Studios, we went into the current Jeopardy! studio. It is gargantuan by comparison to the humble digs out in Burbank, and several generations of glitz more advanced. The chairs were even comfortable.)
As I watched my own competition again, it began to remind me of the description of war as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. I remembered getting many things wrong, but in reality I barely ever was able to buzz in. The Returning Champion took the lead and played aggressively, and he totally understood how to use the buzzer. Now and then I’d get in and run a category (I’d forgotten all about “Florida”) and they made expensive mistakes more often than I did.
I was astonished to discover that at the end of Single Jeopardy, I was actually in the lead by fifty bucks, with a cool $700. I’d also forgotten betting very cautiously on an audio Daily Double that I knew instantly when I heard it. And who could have foreseen how funny it would seem today that Ted Nugent was an answer in the category “Musical Instruments?”
I most assuredly had forgotten that my last correct answer in Double Jeopardy was “Who was Dorothy Parker?” And I should have remembered that one, because as a teenager I memorized every single one of her bittersweet love poems. I once recited “Resume” as my eight lines of required weekly poetry for high school English.
I had also forgotten the significant stretches of time where I sat demurely between two guys who had those buzzers down, wondering if I would ever get to hear my voice again. They were just so damned fast.
And then I finally caught on to the buzzer myself, and made an incredible comeback in the final minutes of the game. When I got control of the board after watching The Returning Champion run “19th Century History” I went straight to “Women Writers” for $250. At $200 I got the Daily Double, and then I moved over into “Headlines” at $250. I was bouncing all over the board from the bottom up, concentrating on the categories I felt confident about, fast and furious. It really was a photo finish, and the Returning Champion and I both look stunned at the end of it, right before a commercial break.
Next up was Jane Russell for the Playtex 18-hour bra, back in an era when women’s lingerie could not be modeled on actual women in television commercials. Liquid Plumr showed disgusted homeowners bailing water out of sinks allegedly chock-a-block with useless Drano. Other cleaning product commercials were balanced by a portent of YouTube videos to come: a Meow Mix commercial for a contest in which people would submit tapes of their own cats meowing. The cat on camera fiddled with a giant reel of professional recording tape as the rules were explained.
The All-New Jeopardy! was gone after the following week’s shows, and it would be five long years before Alex Trebek returned with the current incarnation in 1984.
How did I feel about losing? Well, I wouldn’t have minded playing again, once I actually had the hang of it. But I had accomplished the mission I set out on and I was satisfied.
I went home with $1750 and the Rice-a-Roni. There was no actual Rice-a-Roni, though I did get $25 worth of Chunky bars, which is way too many when nobody in your household likes them. I also got a little cooler from Kentucky Fried Chicken and some paint. Applesauce and canned soup, plus some quality time with The Rug Doctor. All that Rice-a-Roni brought the taxable income on my IRS paperwork from NBC up to nineteen hundred and change.
There was even a brief coda, as I learned of a game show circuit for which I had now qualified. Networks were hungry, it turned out, for bright contestants to appear on programs which could be won by a persistent parrot. There were even very specific rules about how often you could appear. Since I knew that the questions on most game shows were a lot easier than those on Jeopardy! I found this prospect fairly appealing, at least until I got to my first tryout. There I learned that I am not somebody who can jump up and down and squeal with glee as I identify the river that runs from Minnesota to New Orleans.
When the game show loot ran out, I went back to temping.
I have been fortunate to know a lot of intelligent and interesting people over the years. Several have been Jeopardy! contestants and a couple are five-time champions, which impresses the hell out of me. I even know some people who have been featured in questions.
I also now know a former Jeopardy! writer.
Fast forward a couple of decades from 1979 and my appearance during Art Fleming’s swan song. It’s the turn of the century, and I’m publishing crime fiction and becoming active in the mystery writing community. I meet Jerrilyn Farmer, also a rising mystery writer, and discover that she was a writer on Jeopardy! way back when. And guess what? Turns out she wrote all the questions in that “Women Writers” category for my show, which she remembered clearly because she was the only woman in the writers’ room and everybody thought it was a stupid category.
She also taught me that it is imperative to use an exclamation point in the name of the program, a fact which had somehow escaped my attention. You’re never too old to learn.
So am I glad I did it? Absolutely.
Would I do it again now? Not on your life.
Was the paltry payout worth it? You’d better believe it.
I worked a lot of office temp jobs back then, generally alternating three months of work and three months of writing. That Jeopardy! check bought me three months, a lifetime supply of Chunky bars, and a story that I can still drag out thirty-five years later with relative certainty that somebody will be willing to listen.
Who could ask for more?
“I hate writing. I love having written.” –Dorothy Parker.
I wrote those words today, and I have to ask: are there any sweeter words to a writer? Those last two words that signify that that’s it, the story’s done, th-that-that’s all folks!
For some writers, of course, that’s just the beginning. There are rewrites, edits, proofreading, and more rewrites. I do all of that. But my practice is not to put those magic words on the page until all that’s done and I’m ready to either start getting the thing uploaded (if I’m self-publishing) or send it off to my agent or editor (if I’m going through a publisher, as I am with the one I just completed).
But how do you know when it’s done? How do you know when to stop fiddling and fussing with it and put those fateful words on the screen, save the file with the word “FINAL” in the title, and release the monster on an unsuspecting world?
Sometimes, the question is easier than others, like when you have a deadline, or when (like me) you’ve blown said deadline because pretty much your entire December was an unrelieved personal nightmare. But even when I know it’s got to go, my finger still hesitates when pushing the “send” button. I always feel like there’s one more thing that I should change, one more scene I could tighten up, one more line of dialogue I could have rewritten one last time in an attempt to kick it up from merely very good to awesome.
There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about Bruce Springsteen and his classic album “Born to Run”. I’m a Springsteen fan, and I think it’s one of the best rock albums ever made. I’ve worn out multiple copies over five different formats. So I was kind of shocked to hear that Springsteen almost didn’t release it. He spent months messing with it, re-recording, re-mixing, chasing the sound he had in his head that he couldn’t quite seem to get down on tape. The title track alone reportedly took over six months to get right. Finally, in despair, Springsteen proposed to his producer, Jon Landau, that they scrap the whole thing and start again. “Listen,” Landau is supposed to have said, “you think Chuck Berry was in love with everything he ever released? Put the damn thing out there.” So he did, and rest was history.
I said I was shocked to hear about Springsteen’s travails in getting the record out, because I heard the story before I was writing on a regular basis. After the first time I spent weeks agonizing over whether the book was actually polished enough to let anyone who didn’t love me see, I understood.
So, is this next one my “Born to Run”? Who knows? One of the side effects of all this editing and rewriting is that I’ve spent so much time second-guessing that I can’t tell what’s good about it and what’s not so good. Quite frankly, I can’t even stand the sight of the damn book anymore, which is my usual criteria for writing “The End.”
As for the book itself, it’s the long awaited fourth Jack Keller novel, entitled DEVILS AND DUST. I’m tremendously excited to be working with writer-turned-publisher Jason Pinter and his new venture Polis Books, which will be re-issuing the first three Keller books, then the new one, as e-books. Look for them wherever e-books are sold.
So how about you, fellow Thalians? When do you know when it’s done?
One clear advantage to getting older is that you care less and less about what other people think. That’s why a blog post like this would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. But these days, I am perfectly happy to officially announce that decades of reading has led me to believe that all writers can be divided into three categories: empaths, voyeurs and parrots. Knowing which type you are can help you better balance your books as a writer, and knowing which one you prefer can help you better choose your books as a reader.
Let’s start with empaths. Being an empath can be downright painful in real life — you are often buffeted about by other people’s emotions and motivations. But it is a powerful advantage when you are a writer. The ability to instinctually feel what other people are going through, coupled with the inability to contain your sympathetic emotions, add richness to a writer’s characterizations and give their scenes a level of genuineness that can distinguish a good book from a bad one. When you are reading a book by an empath, the author’s understanding of how others act and feel can be both humbling and moving. Every character comes to life. Every moment counts.
Voyeurs, on the other hand, can be both wickedly entertaining and devastatingly cruel. Their ability to see every move you make and then use it to their own story’s advantage is literary opportunism at its finest. We all know people who specialize in sitting in the corner at parties, watching everyone else, having a grand old time keeping karmic score. They don’t miss a beat and they have the memories of elephants. They can be a real pain in the ass because it’s so hard to hide anything from them and even harder to illicit a genuinely personal reaction from them. They risk nothing but see everything. I can only imagine what life with a writer voyeur would be like. No privacy. Nothing sacred. No real emotional involvement by the writer, just a constant watchfulness – and a willingness to turn your life into words on their page.
To me, though, the very best writers are a combination of both empath and voyeur. To feel for others alone is to lack perspective. To observe without feeling is to lack warmth. But give me a writer who can not only convey what it is like to be someone else, but also fill in the details and put that life in perspective — and you can sometimes achieve greatness. I will give you two wildly different examples of books that fit this bill: A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin and Floaters by the inimitable Joseph Wambaugh. Their characters breathe with life and, as authors, they respect the worth of even the most minor of their characters. Yet they also offer observations about what it is to be human that ring with a wisdom transcending a single lifetime. They are a joy to read.
Then, of course, we have the parrots — and that’s the best word I can think of for writers who emulate other writers or follow a formula they think will bring them success. It is not enough to describe what is happening in your story, as if you were providing people with a television show on paper. It is not enough to pile plot twist upon plot twist unless there is some meaning behind all those machinations. But still people do it, book after book, and many succeed, through luck and a willingness on the part of publishers to clone bestsellers. That doesn’t make them good writers. It makes them lucky writers who wind up in the hands of readers (readers who, upon hearing that a book is on a bestseller list, make the mistake of thinking it must be better than all the others). But reading a book written by a parrot is like eating Lean Cuisine for dinner. The satisfaction is short-lived and you are soon left hungry and wondering, “You mean that’s all there is to it?”
All of which leads me to an irrefutable fact that most writers would like to avoid: to be a good writer, you must first know yourself and you must be willing to dive deeper than simply putting words on paper. You have to be willing to embrace the joys and sorrows of others. You have to be willing to pay attention to the lives of others. And you have to be driven to put it all together in a story that offers readers a glimpse into life as you — and only you — both see and feel it.
Cross posted to www.katymunger.com
Our Thalia buddy Brynn Bonner, whose short story is in our anthology, DEAD OF WINTER, is featured in this post about her Etsy shop and crafts and writing fiction. Check it out.
Originally posted on The Self-Sustaining Prophecy:
Over the last month I’ve teamed up with my mother as photographer, shipping specialist and part-owner of her new Etsy shop featuring handcrafted gift quality jewelry and paper crafts. Nine Stories High is a handmade gift shop with a twist. Each item comes with a tiny work of flash fiction. This shop was just co-founded by the loveliest NC- based fiction writer Brynn Bonner to fund her nightly zen crafting practice. All the items available from Nine Stories High are handmade to order and come wrapped with unique work of fiction! I sat down with my mom in her study in NC to talk about fiction, crafting and her creative processes.
Here is an interview with the co-founder and principle maker behind Nine Stories High:
Things are changing in publishing. (You may have noticed!) Here, a book blogger confesses to her bad experiences with self-pubbed authors and … changes her mind. Sort of like Pride and Prejudice. Who are your favorite book bloggers?
Originally posted on The Mad Reviewer:
Remember one of my first articles I ever did? It was exactly one year ago to this day and it was called Self-Publishing: A Reviewer’s Perspective. While I didn’t exactly say self-publishing was a terrible thing that was ruining literature, my feelings about it were generally negative.
So, first off, let me say I’m sorry.
I’m sorry for judging self-published writers before I really knew what self-publishing involved. I’m sorry for judging self-published writers based on my very limited experience reading self-published books and a few big media incidents. I’m sorry that I jumped to conclusions and pretty much lumped all self-published authors together.
by Gary P.
With Christmas almost upon us and New Year’s Eve after that, I revisit and rework slightly this piece for the holiday season. For while I too hope for peace on Earth and goodwill toward all, I can’t help shake the image of Santa Claus as a bad mother…shut your mouth. As a writer of hardboiled fictive fare, I can’t help myself but always wonder about what lies beneath the smile and twinkle in the eye.
There’s certainly material to be mined about the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, whose lessons of kindness have been recounted in various cultures. Though if the facial reconstruction is accurate as has been postulated (and sorry for your white on white version Megyn Kelly), he looked like an aging customizer from the Pimp my Sleigh shop. Nicholas was said to have been born to wealth. But that like scion Bruce Wayne he would be orphaned at a young age and this would have a profound effect on the rich kid who was deeply religious. While Wayne is not particularly religious, he is driven and dedicated as Nicholas was for like Wayne’s alter-ego, Batman, he would come at night and do good. For example there’s a persistent story of Nicholas delivering three bags of gold to three penurious young sisters to save them from being sold into prostitution by their hard-pressed parents.
In my version the bi-racial orphan Nicholas St. Nicholas, with more than a nod to Dickens, is cheated out of his fortune by his evil, greedy uncle who has the lad imprisoned on trumped up charges of having killed one of the sisters. In prison the young man meets various sorts of cutthroats from cat burglars, street corner magicians to bare knuckle brawlers. Because he is a personable sort he learns various skills and methods from these rugged types. In particular he befriends and protects an older gent named Klaus, imprisoned for unfair taxes, a man who used to be a circus high wire performer who wore a colorful red costume trimmed in white fur for flare. The old fella dies in prison, whispering a secret to Nick.
Our hero engineers a break out and seeks to right the wrong his uncle has done. Unk has used his ill gotten gains to become king of the local rackets – having forced the two other sisters to be on the stroll among other misdeeds. But also seeking to be a symbol of hope to the downtrodden, Nick St. Nick finds old Klaus’ hidden away trunk of wonders and dons his costume to honor him and adding a crimson domino mask, strikes fear in the hearts of his uncle’s blackguards as Saint Klaus, a ghost of justice from the grave.
Let alone in many countries, there’s a tradition of Santa’s opposite who also comes out on his rounds punishing the bad kids. He’s called by many names, Knecht Ruprecht, Certa, Perchten, Black Peter, Schmutzli, Pelznickel, Klaubauf, and Krampus. Sometine s he’s a devil’s imp with horns, cloven hooves and a serious forked tongue, band can also be spotted a Shadow-like dude dressed in black or be a hairy man-beast.
Now that’s scary Xmas, baby! Have a merry one, y’all.
Kate Flora here, inspired by an article in the New York Times Sunday Style Section to think about the demise of the phone booth. The article was about a young man wandering in Europe after college, pining for the girl back home, and unable to reach her. This was back in the days before instant everything, even before answering machines, when you made the call and took your chances, standing in the dorm hallway or on a public street, listening to the unanswered ring on the other end. Four, five, six . . . perhaps you’d let it ring ten or twelve times, hoping the person on the other end was just somewhere else in the house. Then, at last, the call unanswered, you’d hang up, wondering what the party you wanted to speak to was doing. Where they were. Whether you’d ever get through.
Back when I was in college in the 1960′s, someone in the dorm was always scheduled to answer the dorm phone, and then, if a girl got a call (we were all ‘girls’ back in the days before co-ed dorms), the person would ring the floor and someone would answer and go and see if the desired party was in. There were no cell phones. No one had a phone in her room. Somewhere in the dorm there was a phone booth, for outgoing calls we wanted to make. And in addition to the sea of numbers scribbled on the wall to be remembered, there was a pushpin with a bright plastic head. Someone long before me had discovered that if you inserted the pin into the phone line, you could short-circuit the wiring and make a call without inserting coins. That poor line was riddled with holes. It looked like it had been attacked by a tiny machine gun. It didn’t always work, but it was always worth a try.
That small cube with the folding door was saturated with emotion. Romance, hope, break-ups, make-ups, the budding romances and the fading ones. The very air bore an incredible sense of urgency. Back then we left for college and really left. We didn’t call home daily, or even weekly. I think the first phone call I made, in that era when phone calls were expensive and rare, was to make arrangements to go home for Thanksgiving.
Fast forward many years, and I remember standing in a phone booth in Harvard Square. I had just come from an encounter on the street with a political organizer who had invited me to come and hear Jimmy Carter speak, saying he would be “the next president of the United States.” I had laughed her off–a missed opportunity in retrospect–to find a phone booth and make a call. Another fraught moment. As the world dashed past, heading busily in many directions, I was having a conversation that would end one relationship and clear the way for another. Yes, we conducted our business in public, but in the imaginary privacy of those public/private cubicles which sealed us off from the world while we talked, even if an impatient line sometimes formed outside.
Today I can hear people discussing the most intimate details of their lives without the partial privacy of phone booths. Without thick walls and doors that close and the shelter and illusion that the business to be conducted was private. Today I hear people in dressing rooms discussing things I wouldn’t tell to my closest friend within the hearing of dozens of strangers as well as their own small children. I bump into them just outside the doorways of buildings and stopped at the tops of escalators, unable to wait even a moment to share the details of their lives. “Should I buy brown socks or black? Peas or beans? Does Larry wear a large or an extra large? Is he going to call? Do I have to wear underwear under the dress? If Sheryl is coming to that party, I’m not, so you’d better tell that bitch . . .” Or ” . . . and he came so quick I didn’t begin to . . .”
Is it any wonder I long for phone booths?
Still, it is true, as writer, that these public confessions, revelations, and even drivel, can be the source of story and character. There is one phone booth I have been carrying around in my mind for decades, waiting for the story to emerge. I was teaching for a week at the Cape Cod Writer’s Conference, which is held at an old Christian revival site, where people came and lived in tiny cottages, and went to the Tabernacle to get revved up on spirituality. It was a great place for writers to spend an intense week together, getting similarly revved up on craft and creativity. One night, walking back through the darkness, I passed a spot where a lone, doorless phone booth sat. The only spot of light in a sea of darkness. As I passed, I could hear the man in the booth say, “Well, you don’t have to cry about it.”
I’m still wondering what she did, or didn’t, have to cry about. Someday, that one sentence will be a story.
For writers, and especially readers, there is a sea of books out there. Oceans of words, plots, characters, all vying for our attention. Sometimes I feel like the deck is stacked against us as writers, that, to mix metaphors, our little boat will sink without a trace. Sometimes as a reader I feel callous and capricious, picking one book over another based on flimsy evidence, a gut feeling, a blurb, a review, a friend’s recommendation. Sometimes I feel like a complete contrarian with my so-called “rules” like ‘I don’t read bestsellers’ or ‘I don’t read [a genre].’ I’m often wrong if I will just give a book a chance. But as I get older my reading time seems so precious. I want to read what I want to read.
So the question for writers becomes ‘Who do I write for’? And its corollary: ‘Who am I?’
I grew up reading mysteries like Nancy Drew, devouring the entire library collection the summer I was eleven. But I moved away after that and didn’t rediscover the genre until my thirties when women began writing great mysteries, women like Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky, transforming what had been in America a frequently dark and hard man’s world. My first novel wasn’t a mystery but a 1920s western set in Wyoming. I enjoyed writing the sections that dealt with a traumatic/dramatic event in the past, and went on to write my first mystery.
Something happened though, and it was September 11, 2001. I couldn’t write about violent death for a long time after, and I stopped reading anything remotely gory. Death was on the news and in my heart. I needed my reading to comfort me, to provide escape as always but to provide a respite from the awful present. Twelve years on, that really hasn’t changed. Yes, I read mysteries again but I have come to terms with my sensibilities and accept them. And my writing has changed too.
My books written since 9/11 (my last series mystery came out in 2002) are different, and I think, better for facing the horrors of that day. Not necessarily better written, but closer to the person I am. Although I can rubberneck at car crashes with the best of them I’m not really interested in violent death. I don’t want to read about serial killers or psychos or hit men. I am interested in the drama that can come out of violent events, as before, but now I like things like family dynamics, the drama of growing up, of dealing with difficult people, the way people relate to each other. That, to me, is the essence of fiction, what I love the best. I’m not discounting all the other wonderful aspects of fiction that you may like to write or read. Absolutely not. I am just trying to focus on what it means to me. Because fiction writing is one of the most intimate communications in the world. As a writer I am asking you to spend days with me, follow me on a chaotic journey, imagine the story I imagined, to like the people I concoct, to care about them and what happens to them.
In a recent review of my latest book, a thriller with explosions and other violent stuff (okay, I’m not entirely reformed), the reviewer wrote this line at the end, intending I assume to provide a balanced report: “The mystery and intrigue are engaging, the changing landscapes are described subtly but artfully. By the conclusion, everything else seems almost a backdrop for McClendon’s tale of her protagonist’s own self-discovery.” Did that cost me a star? I can live with that. My character’s self-discovery is what all my stories are about, pure and simple. The events that happen, the actions taken, the drama and trauma done, serve one purpose: defining the protagonist’s true inner story.
Not everyone cares about that. There are readers who will never look twice at my books, never read the description, never glance at the blurbs. And that’s okay. I don’t write for them. I write for people who have my sensibilities. It’s all I can do. I would rather give those readers a deep, satisfying experience if at all possible. I write for people who want to examine their own lives along side my character’s, who enjoy a little introspection, who marvel at the way people can hurt and love each other, who feel the strange and wonderful ties to family.
That’s who I am, and that’s why you should read a book of mine. For pleasure, for comfort, for a puzzle, for a secret (I admit: I love a good secret identity), for some laughs, and for at least one sentimental moment. But if you don’t want that in a story, I understand.
I’ve given up murder (mostly) so you don’t need to worry.
Lise McClendon’s new novel (now under construction) will take the reader back to France and the Bennett sisters of Blackbird Fly. For a sneak peek click here.