Books, workshops, and more stories

A round-up of author/member activities

Kate Flora reports that her new book (a co-written project) is now out in Good Man with a Dog Cover-2the world: A Good Man with a Dog: A Game Warden’s 25 Years in the Maine Woods by Roger Guay with Kate Clark Flora. Skyhorse Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-5107-0480-0

She also has a short story, Anonymous, in the Malice Domestic collection, Murder Most Conventional.

 

 

44FunkBBGary Phillips has several short stories coming out over the summer and into the fall including his second Decimator Smith story in Black Pulp II (an anthology he co-edited); his first Sherlock Holmes story in Echoes of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Holmesophiles Laurie King and Les Klinger; a car and crime tale in The Highway Kind from Mulholland Books; with the peripatetic Robert Randisi, has his third Silencer (a character who is a homage to 1970s paperback vigilantes) outing in 44 Caliber Funk; and a tale in the Bronze Buckaroo collection that revives the black cowboy character popularized in several 1930s films played by singer-actor Herb Jeffries — who wasn’t any parts black but that’s a story for another time!

Katy Munger is busy conducting a number of special events, workshops, readings, and appearances as part of being named North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate for 2016. To read her blog and obtain the latest information on upcoming events as well as how to register for them, please visit the Piedmont Laureate website

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Taffy Cannon is pleased to announced that her nonfiction guide, SibCare: The Trip You Never Planned to Take will be published shortly. This guidebook for people dealing with sibling illness or disability can be previewed at SibCare.org.

 

 

The Bluejay Shaman new coverLise McClendon is finishing editing her next Bennett Sisters novel to be released in August. In the meantime she’s serializing her first mystery, The Bluejay Shaman, on Wattpad, as part of the Smashwords/Wattpad Mystery/Thriller promotion. This novel debuts Jackson Hole art dealer, Alix Thorssen, working in western Montana to clear her brother-in-law, an anthropology professor at the University of Montana, of murder of a New Age seeker. Check it out on Wattpad — it’s free!  In preparation for the new novel subscribers to her newsletter will receive a free e-book copy of Blackbird Fly, the first Bennett Sisters novel. Sign up here.

Lise will again be leading a day-long novel workshop with Deborah Turrell Atkinson at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference on June 22. Details here.

BSL AUDIO CoverThe five Thalia Authors Co-op authors who wrote a novel together as Thalia Filbert— Kate, Katy, Taffy, Gary, and Lise– would like to thank readers who have generously offered their reviews and comments on this unique project. Beat Slay Love: One Chef’s Hunger for Delicious Revenge is still free for Kindle Unlimited readers and as an audiobook for new Audible subscribers. We’d love to hear what you think of it! Write a short review like Martha did:

Tasty novel
By Martha Mon May 5, 2016
As one who has followed cooking shows and loves mysteries, this gave me a wonderful taste of both. There were absolute laugh out loud moments that had my tears flowing! Thank you. Please write another.

 

The Broken Bus, Dead of Night, Gone to Prison Blues

by Taffy Cannon

A funny thing happened on the way to prison.

I awoke at four-thirty in the morning in Southern California’s Tejon Pass and discovered that the bus on which I was riding was no longer moving.

We seemed to be parked on the shoulder, as enormous semi-trucks whooshed by at dizzying speed, often shaking the bus as they hurtled north. The trucks passed in nearly-constant blurs of light and sound, sometimes edging left a bit but often remaining in the far-right lane. That’s the lane trucks habitually use to cross this notorious pass on Interstate 5 through the Tehachapi Mountains, known as the Grapevine. It’s the primary route between Northern and Southern California.

I sat up right away.

Eighteen-wheelers were passing what seemed like inches from my head, the head that had been sleeping peacefully on a pillow propped against the bus window. Okay, maybe not inches. They were probably passing feet away, though you wouldn’t need more than one hand to count how many. And maybe not sleeping peacefully, either. We were, after all, on a bus going to prison in the dead of night.

The other occupants of the bus were mostly the children of women incarcerated in the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, nearly 400 miles north of their San Diego homes. We were participating in the Get on the Bus annual Mother’s Day trip to briefly reunite these kids with their moms in prison. For many this would be their only visit of the year. I’ve written about Get on the Bus previously, and it’s a program dear to my heart. Started by nuns with a prison ministry, it focuses on the youngest and most forgotten victims of crime, children left behind when a lawbreaking mother winds up behind bars. At least one child on our bus had been born in prison.

Chowchilla is midway up the agricultural Central Valley and home to two major prisons, a company town where the product is Corrections. Chowchilla is also remembered as the site of a kidnaping of a busload of children in 1976 by three rich kids. A busload of children. Hmmm.

I’ve participated in Get on the Bus many times, but I’d been mildly queasy about this trip for several days, without any logical reason. Now I had a pretty good idea what had been bothering my subconscious. I could only hope that my earlier anxiety did not also include a next act in this drama, something like the bus exploding after being struck from behind by an eighteen-wheeler going 65 uphill.

What we were told by the bus drivers and what I could overhear was not reassuring. One of the alternators had gone out, they told us, and they hoped to get a push start from the tow truck they kept calling. The truck was taking its sweet time showing up and was based seven miles north, or maybe fifteen south. There might also be a bus that could come up from San Diego (or, ideally, someplace closer) if the push-start didn’t work, but there was no indication that alternate transportation was being arranged. It was all disturbingly vague and the semis just kept roaring by, shaking us over and over again.

Also, nobody seemed terribly sure where we were.

Three green-and-white highway signs stretched across the road too far ahead for any of us to read them, taunting with the prospect of civilization and help. My phone locator showed us just south of 138, the Lancaster Highway, and the general consensus seemed to be that we were somewhere around Gorman. Landmarks were no help, however, since it was pitch black except for the lights on the passing trucks.

It never occurred to me until much later that we might have stopped on the side of  a precipice, though I found it very disconcerting when we coasted downhill a bit to edge slightly farther onto the extremely narrow shoulder. But I did spend a lot of time figuring out the best and fastest way to get everybody off the bus in a hurry should we need to. Like when some trucker drifted absentmindedly and smashed a semi into the bus’s rear end.

Once the engine was going again, the drivers told us, we would get to Chowchilla with no trouble. Absolutely. Guaranteed. Furthermore, the braking system was entirely unaffected by this problem, so going down the far side of the pass—a much steeper grade than the incline where we were now stuck—would be no problem.

Time passed.

Mercifully unaware of our predicament, most of the kids on the bus slept soundly through it all. The adults accompanying them—mostly caretaker grandmothers—sat upright, wide awake and calm, with the dignified resignation of people who learned a long time ago that they have very little control over their lives.

More time passed.

The sun began to rise, briefly bathing the surrounding hills in soft rosy light. Alas, that soft rosy light revealed other issues that I hadn’t noticed when we boarded the bus at 1:30 am. The rest room, for instance. Previous travelers had crammed the toilet cavity full of tissue, so the toilet was unusable, though on the plus side it didn’t smell too bad. The rest of the bus was filthy and strewn with trash. When I pulled down my tray table, a wad of garbage fell out. And the seats themselves had basketball-like protuberances in the lumbar area.

We served the now-awakening passengers brown-bag breakfasts we had brought, and after a couple hours—yes! a couple of hours—the tow truck showed up. It was a pretty good-sized vehicle, but not remotely capable of pushing a bus full of people uphill, much less fast enough to push-start its engines. I’ve owned Volkswagens, and I know about push-starting. You want to be pointing downhill with a tail wind.

Once the mechanic began performing last rites on the engine, the official call for a replacement bus went out. Around then, we also learned that we weren’t the only Get on the Bus vehicle having engine trouble. Another one was broken down seven miles ahead of us. Or maybe fifteen behind. (You know, by the home base for the tow truck.) We plotted how to cram everybody into the replacement bus.

And where, you may be wondering, were the police during the three hours that this bus full of sleeping children teetered by the side of a mountain pass as the goods of America roared past to market?

The Highway Patrol, responsible for Interstate traffic in California, showed up just as the second bus arrived. Three hours after our abrupt stop.  It was never clear why they hadn’t come a whole lot sooner, or when they learned there was a broken-down bus filled with children and grandmothers in the Grapevine. That bus, come to think of it, had anonymous black windows and might well have been filled with cadres of terrorists.

When the replacement bus arrived, suddenly everything was all a-scurry. We emptied the dead bus down to the bottle of hand sanitizer we’d duct-taped to the wall of the nasty rest room, and transferred everything and everybody onto Bus #2. This bus turned out to be clean and comfortable, featured a working engine, and didn’t even need to be shared with the other broken-down bus passengers. I’m not sure what happened to them. Maybe they hitch-hiked.

Did I mention that it was raining on and off through the entire trip? At one point the wipers on Bus #2 shut themselves off during a torrential downpour, but Replacement Driver stopped for gas and made a mechanical adjustment to the wipers, which behaved for the rest of the trip.

*****

Our prison visit was the customary fusion of heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Our group of volunteers had originally been slated to arrive first and was assigned to take informal group portraits as mementos for both inmates and family. We actually arrived last, but slid into the second shift of the photo booth operation. I shot dozens of pictures against two backdrops that tantalized with desert and garden scenes unknown here behind the miles of razor wire, and I loved every minute of it. These pictures would be all that remained at day’s end—sometimes posed seriously, sometimes clowning, always brimming with an agonizing blend of joy and loss.

And then it was time to leave, as always too soon. We boarded the bus and headed south into our own realities while the mothers we had visited were strip-searched and locked back in their cells.

*****

We stopped for a fast-food dinner just north of the Grapevine, and I noticed that southbound traffic appeared sluggish as it began the climb. Still, it was Friday afternoon and I’d just learned that even Fresno has rush hour traffic, so I didn’t pay too much attention as I turned my phone on for the first time since sunrise.

I stopped cold at a Google News headline announcing that the Grapevine had been closed mid-day in both directions, following a flash flood and mudslide. Flash flood! Mudslide! Two more potential problems I’d never thought of in the dead of night as we waited for the tow truck and the bus and the Highway Patrol and maybe also Godot.

But by now we were back on I-5 and climbing, albeit slowly. And if we were going to be detoured off the Interstate there wasn’t much we could do about it anyway.

The northbound lanes across the median were eerily empty, with occasional maintenance vehicles pushing around rocks and debris, and stretches showing giant wet brush marks on the pavement where previous work was complete. Up ahead, we saw northbound traffic being routed off the road at Highway 138, the same Lancaster Highway exit near where we’d stopped fifteen hours earlier.

Moments after we passed the first of the stalled northbound traffic waiting to head out onto its lengthy high desert detour, the bus driver turned and pointed.

“That’s your bus over there,” he said. And by golly, it was.

It’s been almost two weeks now. I hope somebody has finally gotten around to moving it, or at least to checking it for terrorists.

“I DON’T READ WOMEN WRITERS”

Recently, author Gay Talese caused a firestorm when he answered a question during a Q & A at a literary event about what women writers had inspired him. Talese was clearly a little nonplussed by the question: “Uh, I’d say Mary McCarthy was one. I would, um, [pause] think [pause] of my generation [pause] um, none.”

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By the time he’d gotten home, the 84 year old Talese, who’d penned such classics of literary journalism as “Honor Thy Father”, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” and “The Kingdom and The Power,” was being told by the Red Caps at the Amtrak station that he’d “gotten himself in trouble” up in Boston (according to the account in the New York Times). His wife told him “Welcome home. You’re all over Twitter.” And so he was. The online service had exploded with tweets calling him “sexist” and “out of touch.” They reacted with disbelief to his further remarks that, in his day, women weren’t tending to do “exploratory” journalism like he was doing, “Because…women, educated women, writerly women, don’t want to, or do not feel comfortable dealing with strangers, or people that I’m attracted to, sort of the offbeat characters, not reliable.” They pointed out female non-fiction writers like Joan Didion, Gloria Steinem, Mary McGrory, Ellen Willis, Edna Buchanan—the list goes on and on.

Now, Talese claims he misunderstood the question, and maybe that’s true. And this was Twitter, after all, which is famous for demonizing and ruining people before its hive-mind has had a chance to think.

But I myself have heard people dismiss female writers, especially in my own area of crime and thriller fiction. I’m thinking in particular about a fellow who asked me at one signing who I was reading at the moment. I mentioned how much I was enjoying one of Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan novels. The man (who really did seem like an otherwise nice fellow) pursed his lips in distaste. “I don’t read woman writers,” he said. I was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t answer for a moment. Finally, I just said “well, you’re missing out on a lot,” which was certainly a lot nicer than what I wanted to say. Since then, other writers have told me they’ve heard the same thing, and I’ve seen similar comments online. “I don’t read female writers.”

To which I can only reply:  WTF?

picard_rikerWTF

I can kindasorta understand the people who tell me “I only read non-fiction.”  I certainly don’t feel that way, but I can see how some people might.

But if I’d said “I don’t read women writers,” I’d have missed out on the above-mentioned Laura Lippman’s amazing work. I’d have missed Val McDermid and Karin Slaughter and Megan Abbott and Barbara Seranella (RIP). I’d have missed the work and thus most likely the friendship of some of my favorite people, like Tasha Alexander and Toni McGee Causey and Margaret Maron and Alexandra Sokoloff. I’d have missed the work and the friendship of the extremely talented ladies on these blog: Sarah and Kate and Lise and Taffy and Sparkle.

In fact, if I’d turned my back on female authors, I probably wouldn’t be writing crime fiction today, at least not in the way I do now, because it was our very own Katy Munger who gave me my earliest encouragement and whose Casey Jones PI novels taught me by example that my native North Carolina could be a pretty cool place to write about (Thanks, Katy).

So, Thalians and friends of the blog: have you ever had someone tell you “I don’t read women writers?” And what would you suggest for them, other than a long walk off a short pier?

Tricksters and Pranksters

The origins of April Fools’ Day are shrouded in a bit of mystery but probably hark back to the time when, in the Middle Ages, the calendar was changed. March 25 had been the beginning of the new year and in some places in Europe it touched off a weeklong celebration, ending on April 1. Whatever the beginnings, April Fools’ Day or something similar, has a long tradition in many cultures around the world.

Loki
Loki

Why would a practice of scamming somebody, embarrassing them and making them look ridiculous, be so popular, you ask? We have only to look at the long list of tricksters and pranksters in mythology and literature to see that playing jokes, taking authority down a peg, and generally creating a little chaos where the heavy hand of tradition rules, have always been widespread practices. They make us laugh, they lighten the heavy load of life— which was much heavier in the Middle Ages when most of us would have been peasants or slaves— and gave hope that the future will be brighter than the present.

220px-Édition_Curmer_(1843)_-_Le_Chat_botté_-_1
La Chat Botté, or Puss ‘n Boots

Famous tricksters include the Norse god, Loki, whose tales helped explain natural phenomena like earthquakes while providing a naughty, often nasty foe for Odin and Thor. In many Native American cultures Coyote is a trickster who can shape-shift as man or coyote and is often portrayed as being part of creation myths.

Some pranksters are helpful, some harmful. Often they are mix of both. Puss ‘n Boots, a French-Italian character, helps his master, the third and lowly son in the family, find wealth and love through deception. A German trickster, Till Eulenspiegel, was possibly a real vagrant and highwayman whose wicked ways became the stuff of legend, even though many of his pranks were scatological in nature (involving tricking people into touching, smelling, or even eating his… poop.)

Till_Eulenspiegel
Till Eulenspiegel

[When I read about Till Eulenspiegel I thought of the scene in ‘The Help’ when a disgruntled maid tricks her uppity employer into eating a pie made from— spoiler alert— excrement. She deserves a special April Fools Award, no? Shall we call it Der Eulenspiegel? Jawohl!]

Speaking of the South, the tales of Br’er Rabbit circulated for centuries before they were written down, told on plantations among slaves, and originating in Africa. While the Uncle Remus versions may be distasteful today the originals had a purpose, to create laughter, release stress, and show that sometimes you have to use your wits to get out of the sticky wicket. Algonquin and Cherokee tales incorporated many of these same stories of the trickster rabbit, taken from slaves.

Terrorized by Kitsune
Terrorized by Kitsune

Tricksters aren’t limited to the Western Hemisphere. In Japan a nine-tailed fox called Kitsune was originally a Chinese creature. The Japanese lived in close proximity with foxes and during their superstitious periods believed the fox was magical and slightly evil.

Reynard the Fox
Reynard the Fox

Another fox of trickster lore is Reynard who appears in early French tales. His name became so synonymous with ‘fox’ that the French word for fox, goupil, is now archaic. From the Alsace-Lorraine region straddling France and Germany, his stories first appeared in the 12th Century in Latin poems and spread throughout northern Europe.

Doctor Who, Shape-Shifting Thru Time

There are so many more from around the world: Kuma Lisa, a trickster fox of Bulgaria, the Curupira, a red-haired jungle genie in Brazil, and Maui, a Polynesian trickster who hauls islands out of the sea.

We see them regularly in books and on screen: Captain Jack Sparrow, an amoral ‘bricoleur’ who can take a messy situation and somehow make it right, The Doctor in ‘Doctor Who’, the ultimate shape-shifter, and those prankster brothers from another mother: Dennis the Menace and Bart Simpson.

In books and stories we are often drawn to the most colorful characters. Whether we’re writers or readers, villains and jokesters can make or break a book. We love when the hero’s perfect day is shattered by something funny or humiliating, when the heroine is shocked by a little mayhem. Is it any wonder we are fascinated with bad boys, motorcycle gangsters, despicable rich assholes, and the ultimate chaos-creator, the serial killer?

Trickster Russell Brand as Puck

The comical sidekick, or someone like Shakespeare’s Puck, the shrewd knave from Midsummer Night’s Dream, offers a break from the grim business of murder, or falling in love with an ass. Shakespeare knew the incredible value of comic relief in any story. And so did generations of lovers of a good tale before and after.

 

April Fools! Go out and do some dirty work. I’ll be there right after I finish these ‘Kick Me’ signs…

PS: Send nominations for your favorite trickster. Der Eulenspiegel 2016 is on the line.

What makes for a good villain?

hannibal-lecterA good villain is essential to my genre (mystery or crime fiction). In fact, a good enough villain can make a writer’s career—just ask Thomas Harris about Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. But as memorable as Hannibal was, to me the most effective villains are neither obvious nor completely irredeemable. Their evil takes on a far more subtle form. They look and act just like you or me, or they evoke feelings of sympathy—forcing us to look at the world in a more nuanced way than we are allowed to otherwise. Maybe that is why I prefer the villain in Harris’s second book, Red Dragon. He embodied one of the most intriguing kinds of villains: one that is absolutely and completely lethal, yet one you cannot help but feel sorry for.

Unfortunately, such villains are endangered species in our current cultural climate, whether fictional or real. We live in a very polarized world and people are defensive about their worldviews. So many people today cling to the notion that their values and norms are the only acceptable way to live a life. To accept the notion that evil can look, talk, think, and act just like they do is to reject the very point of their lives. They want to be able to blame someone who looks or sounds different as the root of their troubles, or even as the root of all evil. They want a villain that looks like their version of a villain. They do not want to look into a mirror.

Ironic, isn’t it, when you consider the fact that we almost always kill our own kind? Or that the most dangerous villains, those capable of infiltrating and destroying your entire world, are smart enough to know that first they must fit into it?

Sympathetic villains are equally hard to find, both in real life and in literature. They force us to look inside ourselves for why we feel connected to them—and very few people are willing to admit that, perhaps, we all have the seeds of darkness within us. Sympathetic villains also force us to acknowledge that we as a species may have a hand in creating our villains by the way we treat one another or allow others to be treated.

To acknowledge that a villain is not entirely unlike us, or that their evil may have been prevented, is to admit that we are neither invincible nor on the right track as a society. So it’s just a whole lot easier to attribute a villain’s behavior to being born bad, or being born insane, or being born to insanely bad parents. Meanwhile, the truth, like a great fictional villain, is far, far more complicated.

Good and evil. Black and white. Truth and fiction. The lines get blurred. And good writers make the most of that ambiguity.

I have my favorite fictional villains. What I’d like to know is: who are yours? I’d love to hear about some of your favorite villains from books and movies you’ve seen and why you find them so memorable. Let me know and, in the meantime: don’t look behind you. You never know who might be standing there.

The Lifer

Back in one piece from Left Coast Crime, the Great Cactus Caper it was dubbed, in Phoenix. Yakked it up on a panel or two, hung out and talked shop and trash with fellow writers and fans, and played poker — badly . While the act of writing is a solitary one, not all writers are solitary by nature. Many writers enjoy mixing with the public and can be found in the bar holding court as they spellbind with stories of Hollywood deals gone awry or reveal just who was the inspiration for that shoe sniffing pastor in their last book. Certainly many other writers feel their work speaks for itself and while perfectly lovely people and not recluses, don’t dig the “hustle” one can find themselves doing at fan conventions.

Jewish Noir panel
Me and fellow contributors on the Jewish Noir anthology panel.

Not to be crass, but writers, at least those of us plowing the crime fiction fields, have long ago concluded we’re not coming out of pocket for transportation and hotel fees to attend conventions because we sell a ton of books at them. Though none of us are opposed to such should that be a byproduct of these public interactions. Rather we enjoy the camaraderie and ideas for new projects are sparked while talking with your colleagues. There have also been time when I’ve chatted with an editor and not been in hard sell pitch mode, just two pros talking over ideas of interest. Now and then an idea might become a project that will see the light of day from the house the editor works at.

To some extent I’ll admit I still subscribe to the adage expressed by Alec Baldwin’s Blake in the classic film of greed and disillusionment, Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet. Blake has come to give a highly charged pep talk to the harried salesmen trying to unload land parcels of a supposed development.

‘Let me have your attention for a moment! So you’re talking about what? You’re talking about – bitchin’ about that sale you shot, some son of a bitch don’t want to buy land, somebody don’t want what you’re sellin’, some broad you’re trying to screw and so forth. Let’s talk about something important…A-B-C. A-always, B-be, C-closing. Always be closing! Always be closing!”

But you can’t hard sell a book, the work will ultimately resonate with the reader or not. Though you do have to let the potential reader know your book is out there to give it that chance. Yet what’s the balance between the tactics of the abrasive Blake and writers such as Tomas Pynchon who lead hermit-like existences? For instance I get inundated by emails daily with notices that some writer has posted in this or that Facebook group their book in e- format is now on sale for a limited time or why it is you should buy their book. I routinely delete these emails even with the knowledge that I also post in these same Facebook groups promoting my work. Let alone the amount of time and effort writers put in doing social media to maintain a presence.

I seek then to achieve a zen in my journey as a writer, a lifer in the game as it were. It’s about always striving to improve my work, to hone my craft. Yes, I want readers and potential readers to know about my stuff, but there is only so much time in the day and on balance, it’s better to sweat the storytelling than the telling you I’ve written a story. That doesn’t mean I won’t let you know about it, just will do my best not to overdo it.

See you at the next convention.