“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?

Rides the Black-and-white Horse

Some years back at a mystery convention in Boulder, Colorado, I performed this tone poem with John Harvey on tambourine, Bill Moody on drums, and a variety of semi-volunteers snapping their fingers to the beat. I wrote this as an homage to the mystery novel. Recently someone quoted snippets of it on twitter with illustrations, and I liked it so much I’ve added a few of my own.

I’m always amused at reactions of people who don’t read mysteries and thrillers, who don’t know the excitement of entering a frightening world of evil or an everyday town where strangers wait their turn to make mayhem. Got the shivers yet?

Here’s how the book sees you the reader.

 

I am a book.

Sheaves pressed from the pulp of oaks and pines
a natural sawdust made dingy from purses, dusty
from shelves.
Steamy and anxious, abused and misused,
kissed and cried over,
smeared, yellowed, and torn,
loved, hated, scorned.

I am a book.

I am a book that remembers,
days when I stood proud in good company
When the children came, I leapt into their arms,
when the women came, they cradled me against their soft breasts,
when the men came, they held me like a lover,
and I smelled the sweet smell of cigars and brandy as we sat together in leather chairs,
next to pool tables, on porch swings, in rocking chairs,
my words hanging in the air like bright gems, dangling,
then forgotten, I crumbled,
dust to dust.

 

I am a tale of woe and secrets,
a book brand-new, sprung from the loins of ancient fathers clothed in tweed,
born of mothers in lands of heather and coal soot.
A family too close to see the blood on its hands,
too dear to suffering, to poison, to cold steel and revenge,
deaf to the screams of mortal wounding,
amused at decay and torment,
a family bred in the dankest swamp of human desires.

I am a tale of woe and secrets,
I am a mystery.

I am intrigue, anxiety, fear,
I tangle in the night with madmen, spend my days cloaked in black,
hiding from myself, from dark angels,
from the evil that lurks within
and the evil we cannot lurk without.

 

I am words of adventure,
of faraway places where no one knows my tongue,
of curious cultures in small, back alleys, mean streets,
the crumbling house in each of us.

I am primordial fear, the great unknown,
I am life everlasting.
I touch you and you shiver, I blow in your ear and you follow me,
down foggy lanes, into places you’ve never seen,
to see things no one should see,
to be someone you could only hope to be.

 

 

I ride the winds of imagination on a black-and-white horse,
to find the truth inside of me,
to cure the ills inside of you,
to take one passenger at a time over that tall mountain,
across that lonely plain to a place you’ve never been
where the world stops for just one minute
and everything is right.

I am a mystery.

-Rides a Black and White Horse”
Lise McClendon

What I Read On My Summer Vacation

So I’m back from my  long-awaited and sorely needed vacation, in which  the missus and I spent a week on lovely Oak Island, NC. There’s just something about the ocean that makes it impossible to hold onto stress for long. A few days next to that immensity and that steady, eternal rhythm constantly in your ears is better than a truckload of Valium, IMHO.

I confess, I’m pretty boring at the beach. Some people seem to regard the beach as a place for vigorous physical activity. They bring volleyball nets, footballs, Frisbees, etc. Me, I tend to sit by the water and read, pausing only to take a dip when it gets too hot or a walk (and by “a walk” I usually mean a trip back up to the beach house for more beer). It’s great to have that leisure time to really be able to focus. It also helps that I’m usually away from the Internet. This time, my only connection was a weak (and let’s be honest, not totally legal) connection to the unsecured Wi-fi next door. So my web surfing, Facebooking, Tweeting, etc. was nearly non-existent, which gave me more time to read and fewer available distractions from it. And when I have that kind of time, I really plow through them.

So, this is what I read while at the beach:

 HOSTILE WITNESS, William Lashner: Dave White was raving about this underappreciated author a while back,  and Dave’s a damn fine writer himself. So I downloaded this one, and let me tell you, it’s great.

Victor Carl is the perfect noir protagonist: grasping, resentful, bitter that his legal career never put him amongst the elite of Philadelphia society. When he’s offered a chance to take over as counsel for what seems to be a minor player in a Federal racketeering and extortion trial, he jumps at the chance to play in the big leagues. Victor initially balks at the fact that the trial is in two weeks, but the blue-blood society lawyer defending the main player, a flamboyant city councilman, assures him that all he has to do is follow the lead of the big boys, show a united front, and keep his mouth shut. Pretty much everyone but Victor can see he and his client are being set up to take the fall. Fall he does, in spectacular fashion, including falling for the councilman’s mistress, a classic femme fatale if ever there was one. But he keeps getting back up….

This is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time, and I can’t wait to read the next ones in the series.

 NEVER GO BACK, Lee Child: Jack Reacher finally makes it to Virginia to meet the woman who he’s been trying to get to for the last two books, an Army Major (and commander of his old unit) who he only knows as an interesting voice on the phone. When he gets there, she’s in jail, Jack’s charged with the murder of someone he barely remembers, AND he gets hit with a paternity claim from a woman he doesn’t remember at all. Clearly somebody’s trying to make Reacher run away and abandon the damsel in distress, and we all know that’s not going to happen. Asses are kicked, names are taken, Jack does what Jack does. It’s the same old thing, but it’s the same old great thing. Recommended.

CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE, Don Winslow:  Disgraced former cop Jack Wade, currently an arson investigator for the titular insurance company, is convinced that the fire that  destroyed the house of real estate mogul Nicky Vale and incinerated Vale’s beautiful estranged wife Pamela was not, as his former colleagues in the Sheriff’s Department ruled, an accident. No, he thinks it was arson and very possibly murder. As he digs into the evidence, both literally and figuratively, he discovers a web of deceit, betrayal, and counter-betrayal that may just lead to his own immolation.

All I can say about this book is: Wow. Only a writer as skilled as Don Winslow could make a plaintiff’s lawyer like me love a book with a claims adjuster as its protagonist. A surfing claims adjuster, of course, because this is, after all, Don Winslow. But he keeps you guessing, twist upon twist, until the final surprise and an absolutely perfect twist at the end. Highly recommended.

THREE GRAVES FULL, Jamie Mason: “There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard,” this book begins, and there’s even less for hapless nebbish Jason Getty when the landscaping crew he’s hired turns up two other bodies, neither of which are the man he killed a year ago and buried to cover up the crime. When a pair of engaging small town detectives (and a dog who always follows her nose) pursue the investigation into the two bodies in the front yard, they turn up evidence of another crime they can’t identify…and then things get a little crazy.

One of the cover blurbs compared this to a Coen brothers movie, and there are definite similarities, particularly in the Fargo-esque setup of good hearted small town cops vs. a Casper Milquetoast scrambling to cover up the crime he committed when pushed too far. But Jamie Mason’s worldview isn’t quite as bleak as the Coen’s. The book’s a lot of fun, and I have to admire the skill of a writer who can use a dog as a viewpoint character and not make me roll my eyes. Recommended.

THE SECRET SOLDIER, Alex Berenson: Pretty standard stuff for an international thriller. Troubled ex-CIA agent John Wells is your usual two-fisted thriller hero in the Bolt Studly mold, who gets called in to set things right in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by no less than King Abdullah himself. There’s some interesting stuff about the House of Saud and how they came to power, and the villain is suitably scary and believable. There’s a long stretch in the beginning where Wells and his sidekick are chasing a renegade CIA agent turned drug dealer which I kept waiting to connect with the rest of the book, but which never really does.  Still, it was entertaining, and good for a beach read.

 THE LIVES OF TAO, Wesley Chu: Human history has been influenced since the dawn of mankind by a group of non-corporeal aliens who crashed here millennia ago and have been possessing human hosts ever since, using them to try and nudge human progress to the point where humanity has the ability to get the aliens home. A while back, they split into two factions, one more ruthless and violent than the other. When one of the more peaceful aliens suffers the unexpected and violent loss of his host, he winds up in the body of overweight and aimless computer geek Roen Tan and is forced to make the best use of his raw material. The “Zero to Hero, with hot ass-kicking chicks in leather along the way” trope is pretty obviously aimed at what the publishers assume is SF’s core demographic. The book takes a while to get going, but eventually ends up being a fun action romp. Still, I don’t think I’ll be getting the sequel.

FIDDLEHEAD, Cherie Priest: The final chapter in Priest’s “Clockwork Century” series (or so she says) ends up being the best one I’ve read so far. It’s got all the wild inventiveness of BONESHAKER (how can you resist an alternate Civil War history steampunk zombie story, with airships?) and the breakneck action of DREADNOUGHT (same thing with steam powered mecha and armored trains), without the clumsy characterization and stilted dialogue of those two. I liked it a lot.

So, what are you folks reading?

 

 

Summertime, and the reading is easy

But the writing? Not so much.

I’m not complaining. Summer for me has always been a time to regroup, to stare into the horizon and dream nonsense dreams, to lie in the hammock reading whatever book you want. With no big trips planned and the heat overtaking my mental faculties, this summer has turned into one giant reading festival chez moi.

Sisters + Hammock
Sisters in the Hammock

As a child we went to the little cold-water cabin we rented on the Chesapeake Bay every summer. After we cleaned out the mice and poured lime down the outhouse we did as little as possible: swimming every day, fierce badminton, swinging in the hammock, endless games of crazy eights and solitaire, and reading after lunch. I was not, I hesitate to confess, one for lying around in the heat of the day, book or no book. I preferred tearing through the woods, searching for the feral cats, running down the cliffside steps to the dock and jumping in the water. When my father came on weekends he took us sailing in his little turquoise boat. Or in the cute but tipsy yellow bathtub boat he made us, with the polka dot sail. Or the red canoe. Anything to be out on the water where it was cool and lovely.

When we moved to the midwest all that came to a screeching halt. No more boats, no more cabins, no more easy-breezy summers. But we were getting older. Mother signed us up for the library’s summer reading program. I discovered Daphne du Maurier and fell in love. It took awhile for me to curb my wayward summer ways, running wild in the neighborhood, teaching swimming lessons so I could swim for free, cruising the city with my friends late at night. I had summer jobs but nothing that really interfered with my summer goals: having fun until school started again.

Now my idea of decadence in the summer is reading all afternoon by the pool. A dip to cool off then more reading, a cold drink, more reading, a nap, more reading. What do I read? Anything I want. Which is the real freedom of summer and adulthood.

I’ll have time to write when the weather turns cold and the leaves change. I’ll want to write when the chill stirs my imagination. But for now there’s only this one afternoon, this book, and a stretch of time.

☀ ☀ ☀

 

Lise McClendon just re-read ‘Chocolat’ by Joanne Harris because she could. Now she’s moved on to the second ‘Chocolat’ sequel, ‘Peaches for Monsieur le Curé.’ Sooner or later she’ll rouse herself from summer to write more fiction. Her latest novel is ‘The Girl with the Empty Dress.’

One Picture, One-Thousand Words

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.

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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.

reading-life.jpgI 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?

child-watching-movieDuring 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. 😉

Cross posted at lisemcclendon.com

Rereading your favorite novel, love or leave it?

They say that every time you read a book it’s a different book, because you are different. If you read a book when you’re twelve you bring one set of experiences, opinions, and influences to that reading. Read it again at twenty-one, it’s a new book because you’ve survived to your majority, studied, read, and maybe even written something yourself. So if you keep reading that book, at thirty, forty, fifty, does it keep changing for you?

I submit that it is possible to read a book too many times. Unless you are dissecting it for the purpose of figuring out its structure you can bore yourself. There are so many books in the world! Read a new one! Only my most favorite novels hold up time after time, offering up nuggets of humor and wisdom again. My favorite novel is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen precisely because there is so much left out of it. I read it first at seventeen. I reread it looking for more, sure there is something I missed. Most novels, even ones that I absolutely adored, stories that make me gasp and cry, leave it all on the page. Because, frankly, that’s where it’s at, writing-wise.

I’ve been thinking about reader reactions, and rereading, since reading this piece in the Guardian. Authors are generally voracious readers and sometimes reread novels out of necessity (nothing else in the house) or to study the way an admired author got the job done. Poetry, of course, and classics like Shakespeare, Doestoevsky, and Jane Austen are definite rereads. The classics hold up because they are dense and enjoyable and fulfill a reader’s need for philosophy of living, human emotion, or just plain excitement.

As you can see from the article authors have a diverse list of favorites that are often very personal. Reading is like that. Have you ever given someone a book (that they didn’t request, written by someone they’ve never read) and wondered why they never read it? You loved it so they should too. But like jewelry and perfume, novels are an individual taste. Often as readers we don’t know exactly why some stories resonate, holding us captive and nestling deep in our subconscious, while famous novels loved by millions leave us cold. It doesn’t matter what you read as long as you’re reading for pleasure (unless you are in a Nazi book club. If so, my condolences.) Pick a novel, new or old, fresh to you or as familiar and comforting as an old sweater, and read it. Enjoying reading is one of the most basic, simple pleasures of life.

Reader reactions fascinate me. As a writer you can only write the book you can write, and hope that it appeals to someone (or many someones.) In the age of online reviews anyone who reads a book can offer his or her opinion of it to the world, uncensored and often poorly spelled. It’s sort of like fan mail. One of my novels now has nearly 40 reviews on Amazon (a consequence of a giveaway campaign last summer) and as much as I hate the bad reviews and cherish the good ones I find the whole thing amusing. How can one reader write: “something for everyone, intrique, romance, murder and all tied up neatly together,” and another have the opposite reaction: “too much nonsense in it. It took me forever to read as I was very bored with parts”? Well, because one might be fifteen, the other seventy. One might be used to reading romance novels, another might be into ‘Twilight.’ You never know. I couldn’t have written this book when I was twenty (Blackbird Fly, by the way, written when I was 50ish. I couldn’t have written any novel at 20 but I loved my journalism classes.)

I bring to the table my own experiences, just as the reader does. I love that I can hear what they think. It makes writing a lot less lonely.