“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.”

07TALESE-blog427

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.

The Writer’s Journey is a Bumpy Ride

Kate Flora, here, on a frigid New England day with temperatures hovering around zero anGood Man with a Dog Cover-2 a wind chill factor predicted to be around minus thirty. Not a good day to be outside tramping around in the snow, but as writers know, bad weather is just another reason to be at our desks. Right now, I’m sitting at mine, doing a form of mental triage as I sort out the months ahead.

Perhaps you’re wondering about that bumpy ride I mentioned? Well, there’s the long story, involving ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner and the ups and downs ever since. And the short one. I’ll tell the short one. When I looked ahead at 2016 from the middle of 2015, I was looking at a very rosy year, a year that was going to carry me from fourteen published books to seventeen. The arrival of each new book is a special moment, and 2016 promised to be full of excitement and the challenge of a whole lot of book promotion for very different books.

What was on the horizon? A book due out in April, A Good Man with a Dog, a retired Maine game warden’s memoir of twenty-five years in the Maine woods that I co-wrote. http://amzn.to/1mz0End A fascinating project. A 2 ½ year process. And finally, a story that surprised both me and co-author Roger Guay. That book, thankfully, is still on track.

And that would have been enough. Except that there was supposed to be another book in May (that is, finally appearing in May after two previous delays). I was looking forward to that book because it was the long-delayed eighth book in my Thea Kozak series, Death Warmed Over. Writing a series with a returning set of characters over many years is like occasional get-togethers with good old friends. When I decided to revisit Thea, after a few years between books, her voice just jumped off the page, she came alive, and it was like getting a chance to catch up with someone I really liked spending time with. Her ironic sense of humor, her world view, and her deep compassion for the little people make her an excellent companion.

2013 Best Crime Writer in Maine
In Maine, you win a literary award and you get a blue balloon!

The book went to my editor a couple years ago and then sat, in limbo, for nine months of silence. Finally, there was a request for revisions, and it went back to the editor’s desk with a plan, first to publish last year, then to publish it this May. It has languished again in limbo ever since and another silence has fallen.

This is not news. Nor a tragedy. In the writing business, we go through this a lot. Books and authors get orphaned. It’s embarrassing to have told readers the book was finally coming, but writers rarely die of embarrassment. It does mean that now I have to find the book a new home or decide to publish it myself.

Which would have been enough. Two books in a year are plenty. Except for the fate of the third book. That one was supposed to publish in November, right on time for our regional mystery conference, The New England Crime Bake. Only, after waiting nine months for a contract, what I got was an e-mail saying the publisher was discontinuing their mystery line. Now my fifth Joe Burgess, And Led Them Thus Astray, is also an orphan.

So here I sit with two books that suddenly have no publishers–and a lot to ponder on. At times like this, after thirty years on this bumpy road, giving up can seem tempting.

I remind myself: In 2014, I had two books published. The non-fiction book, Death Dealer: How Cops and Cadaver Dogs Brought a Killer to Justice, was an Agatha and Anthony nominee and won the Public Safety Writers Association award for nonfiction. My fourth Joe Burgess won the 2015 Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. It was a great year. And now this. If there’s a message from the universe, it is clearly along the lines of “sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down and you have to keep on writing.”

I’m going to listen to that message from the universe. The last time I had a series get

IMG_1973
Accept rejection or be open to what comes next?

dropped, after I got over the initial despair and floundering, I was led into some fascinating adventures. Starting a police procedural series. Saying “yes” to the invitation to help form Level Best Book, a venture into publishing crime story collections that put over a hundred authors in print and led to a project that continues today, though I have long since retired. Deciding to take chances and say “yes” instead of wallowing led me to writing nonfiction, which has been an incredible journey.

Where the bumpy ride will take me next, I don’t know. What I do know is that when I shove self-pity aside and open myself to adventure, it becomes a fascinating journey. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I can’t wait to see what is around the next corner.

Less than a buck

Have you heard? The collaborative novel written by five Thalia Press Co-op writers, Beat Slay Love, is just 99 cents for a few days only!

Lise McClendon

Adobe Photoshop PDFDelicious over-the-top fun!

The five mystery writers who put together the rollicking dark comedy, Beat Slay Love, have discounted the novel for the first time.

It’s now just 99 cents. But don’t delay.

Look for it on most platforms – Kindle  • Nook • KOBO 

Leave a review if you can! Much appreciated.

“You’ll never watch the Food Network shows the same way after reading Beat Slay Love. . . a heady mixture of reality television, misbehaving foodies, murder most-creatively-foul, and determined sleuths. Delicious over-the-top fun!“Mysterious Galaxy 

View original post