Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Nuances of Genre

I currently have two cozy mystery series on store shelves. They have both been generally well received, but some readers have expressed dismay that one series (which begins with the book A Dark and Stormy Murder) is not a traditional cozy. The book and its sequel, therefore, disappointed them.

This is fair; the traditional Classical mystery which eventually birthed the "cozy" genre does have certain distinctive features. Because writers are creative and like to put their own spin on things, however, there are diverse definitions of cozy these days, and genres have formed within genres as authors seek new territory and topics that haven't been mined by others.

These books in the Writer's Apprentice series have many cozy elements; small town, "cozy" relationships between characters, an isolated setting, picturesque scenery, a romantic entanglement, cute animals, and a "cozy" occupation for the main characters (writing).

In addition to being cozy, though, the books were meant to be an homage to the great romantic suspense novelists of the mid-twentieth century, particularly Mary Stewart, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Victoria Holt. Elements of the Gothic have been woven in as a part of this tribute, and so some people were disappointed to find that the books felt more like romantic suspense than like cozy mysteries. Other readers never noticed any deviation from the cozies they've read in the past; I think it all depends upon the reader's focus and criteria.

In any case, writers can only write their vision and hope that people enjoy the story that emerges. There will be at least one more Writer's Apprentice novel, and it will continue the romantic suspense tribute-based style (the final book is dedicated to Victoria Holt). The next book, a culmination of the story that has been building over two novels, will be titled A Dark and Twisting Path.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Transitioning into Summer

Last Sunday my husband and I attended our final high school graduation. We listened, in blistering heat, as almost 900 names were read and the young people, dressed in black suits and white dresses, approached the dais for their diplomas. It was bittersweet, as these events always are.

Sweet because my son and his classmates worked hard to get to this day, and they were proud.

Sweet because it's wonderful for my son to contemplate the wide open future and the limitless possibilities for his life.

Sweet for his parents because we succeeded in guiding him to this milestone and helping to form him into the nice, funny, smart person he is today.

Bitter because I will never drive him to school in the morning again, chattering with him about silly things and discovering new pieces with him on the Classical music station.

Bitter because two of the students who should have received diplomas with my son did not live to see their graduations; their parents were there to accept their diplomas for them. How brave of these parents to come to this event in the midst of their grief, and how humbling to the rest of us and our inconsequential problems to see this reality of life: that nothing is guaranteed to us, not even those we love.

This summer will be a transitional one for our family. My eldest son will visit Europe for the first time (the first in our family to do so!), and when he returns he will be looking for a job and an apartment. My younger son will be working to claim the space his brother leaves behind and to gear up for his college career. And my husband and I, like zillions of parents before us, will have to get used to a house that is quiet far more often, and a life that is so, as well.

This, too, will be bittersweet. But just as the future is limitless for those graduates, it is limitless for all of us. 

We just have to ride those waves of transition and find the peaceful waters we can enjoy.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Two Wonderful Reads

Thanks to Soho Press and Skyhorse Publishing, I enjoyed two wonderful spring reads.

The first, WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS (Soho Press), by Danish mystery author Agnete Friis, is a chilling and atmospheric suspense novel about a twenty-seven-year-old woman who is unmarried, unemployed, and suppressing a major trauma that is making it hard for her to function in her everyday life and putting her in grave danger of losing her son.

The main character, Ella, witnessed the murder of her mother when she was seven years old, but remembers nothing about the incident. Instead, her body does, and she suffers seizures whenever something reminds her of the night she lost everything--her mother to death, and her father to jail, for killing her mother.

Author Agnete Friis takes readers on a fairly predictable ride into Ella's past, but the book is compelling because of Friis' gift for description and characterization. Ella is prickly and vulnerable, and the ghosts of a twenty-year-old crime loom over her throughout the story, ready to emerge at any moment.

The book also raises some interesting questions about the nature of poverty, welfare, trauma, and essential humanity. Ella cannot hold a job, and she is judged harshly by a world that did little for her when she was broken by a terrible event.

While the novel holds few surprises in terms of the plot, it is stylish, compelling and hard to put down!
A totally different reading experience was Julian Lennon's beautiful TOUCH THE EARTH (Skyhorse Publishing). This book seeks an audience of very young readers who have the potential to save the earth by learning of our inextricable relationship to the environment.

I always loved BLUE'S CLUES because of the way it allowed young viewers to feel that they were taking an active role in the adventure. Lennon does the same here (along with his co-writer, Bart Davis) by letting young readers sit inside the White Feather Flier and take control of the instrument panel. He teaches them the four directions, and the way to use a compass. And then he lets them fly up and down, all over the earth, learning about the importance of water all over the earth--for people, animals, and the maintenance of all life on earth.

The book, in a simple and entertaining format, with beautiful illustrations by Smiljana Coh, includes young people in the important questions that face humanity. It encourages them to see that clean water is crucial to life, and that we can do things to help make the world a better and more ethical place.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Amateur Scientist Gordon Holmes on Scotland's Loch Ness, The Legendary Monster, and The Scientific Unknown

Back in 2007, I wrote this blog post about the Loch Ness Monster, in which I referenced Gordon Holmes, the man who took footage of a mysterious creature in the Loch. Recently I had the pleasure of chatting with Gordon, who provided many insights into the world's fascination with both the Loch and its reputed "monster."  Here's our interview--all photos supplied by Gordon Holmes.

 Are you a scientist by profession?

For twenty-two years I worked my way up from a Machine Tool Craftsman to a Design Engineer.

Then, when manufacturing went duff, I worked at Bradford University, Yorkshire, as an IT/Media Technician for another 22 years. Now I've retired early, so I have much more freedom.  

What got you interested in searching for Nessie?

Like most people, I have always been interested in the scientific unknown. So in 2003, I decided to finally  investigate the so-called Loch Ness Monster phenomena.  During the next four years, I visited the Loch on six occasions, armed with 7 X 50 Binoculars and Video Camera. However, there was no sign of Nessie.

Do you live near Loch Ness?

I live in a Yorkshire town called Shipley. Which is about 350 miles South of Loch Ness in England via roads and motorways. Journey time is about 10 hours, having several stops on route.

 You seem to have invented a great deal of sophisticated equipment. Do you have patents on your inventions? Do you work with a team, or alone?

No, I cannot patent anything on the equipment side since, I basically am utilising several units into a complete assembly. Anyone can do this, it just needs a bit of imagination and some technical know-how in mechanics, dynamics, electronics and, say, instrumentation. I have been fortunate to have experience in these topics during my career and hobbies. Most people could achieve all this; the main challenge is overcoming the fear to attempt it in the first place. Belief in the force, Luke or Lucy!

On the day that you got your famous footage, were you taken by surprise? Or were you expecting to find something?

On Saturday 26th May 2007 at about 9 PM (British Summer Time) I began to have doubts about my past 4 years and approx 160 hours attempting to observe the Loch Ness Monster, but with no luck. I had virtually decided not to investigate it in future. Although, one hour earlier I observed a good omen, a rainbow across the Loch. Then, whilst I was sat in the car, 70 foot above the loch (parked in a small parking area), around
 9: 30 PM, I noticed something moving tangentially across my line of sight about 150 yards away. I grabbed the camcorder and dashed next to the edge of the parking area. 

It took me about 20 seconds before I caught in through the camcorder viewfinder. For the next 2 minutes, I recorded, panned and zoomed in and out on the moving object. It seemed to be moving about 6mph. During this time, I also looked at it with just my eyesight. It was jet black but, appeared to be a couple of feet above the loch level with the water flowing over it. It was very aerodynamically shaped, like a Dolphin or a Big eel's head. Finally, it went out of visible range. When I stopped filming, I started shaking, for I knew this was going to be a massive sighting. A year later, Scottish TV told me their webpage showing my sighting, had about 1.8 million hits in the first 2 weeks!

DId you read about the Loch Ness Monster as a child?

 I was aware of the Loch Ness mystery from about the age of 10 years (1962) when my Mother bought me a small glass-like Nessie (actually, it was probably meant to be a stylish swan). My oldest Brother took me camping in Scotland during the early days of Skylab. For I remember seeing a large solar flare flowing off the low down, hazy sun. We had stopped near the shores of Loch Ness when it happened. (Note: Gordon warns that people should not look directly at the sun.  :) )

Why do you think the legend of the Loch Ness monster is so enduring?

When you observe tourists standing next to the Loch, they are praying to see Nessie. Whether they are from the US, Canada, Japan or Europe, they all are desperate for a Sighting. They want to believe, but should Nessie move quickly towards them, everyone would scream and quickly vanish, not surprisingly. 

Do we really want mysteries like this to be solved? Or is the joy in the quest?

As you say, it is the quest to solve the mystery that brings out our efforts. If we then solve it, the challenge has dissipated. I suppose if we knew all the Universe's biggest mysteries, then what would we search for? Fear not, though, is it likely we Humans will solve everything? Very unlikely, since we will probably be extinct long before then.

You've been to Loch Ness many times, but to most of us in America it's just the name of a famous body of water. What is the most striking thing about Loch Ness?

Since 2003, I believe I have had seventeen visits to investigate the Loch and Nessie. One year I visited four times. Usually, it is for a one week duration.

Loch Ness has many different aspects/treasures to it. One of the major influences is the weather. 

A foggy, murky loch has a mystical, frightening feel to it.

A bright, sunny loch would be wondrous and delightful.

Four days of continuous rain at Loch Ness would obviously be depressing.

Your 2007 webpage blog mentioned a romantic legend, which is something I never thought of, Julia. 

A child would be excited, but would also experience a scary-like sense.

To me it's a vast expanse I know well, a sort of friend, a second homecoming. The weather can change within minutes, so its never boring. However, the Real Monster of Loch Ness ia the Midge, a tiny biting fly thing. If the loch is calm and it is about to rain, beware of the Midge - aaarr!

Do you believe in the Loch Ness Monster?

Reports of Monster sightings at Loch Ness go back centuries, even to Saint Columba - 565 AD. For many years the locals would not discuss, if they had a sighting, since, they were very superstitious. However, based on hearsay, they describe a horrible looking Beastie. From the 1930s, there have been many hoaxes, and unfortunately it still happens up to the present day. The Experts agree that my footage was genuine, but they do not agree what it was. There is a TV Programme called, 'River Monster' and the Chap it is based around, catches very large and rare fish all over the world. He proves the local legends are indeed, true. 

Therefore I believe one or more large, scary looking Monsters could exist in Loch Ness over the centuries. Based on my footage, I would guess I filmed two large eels or dolphins (about 8 to 12 foot long), although, I don't believe anyone else has observed Dolphins in the loch before.

Thank you so much for chatting with me, Gordon!

Finally, here's an interview with Gordon on YouTube from the time of his sighting.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

English Thriller Writer Jane Corry Shares Her Thoughts About Serpentine Plots, Sea Views, and Second Marriages

Jane Corry is a writer and journalist and has spent time as the writer in residence of a high-security prison for men—an experience that helped inspire My Husband’s Wife, her debut thriller, published by Pamela Dorman Books. Corry runs regular writing workshops and speaks at literary festivals worldwide, including The Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, Italy. Until recently, she was a tutor in creative writing at Oxford University.

Jane, thanks for chatting with me!!

Thank you.

      This is a complex story; it spans many years and alternates between two points of view. Every character has secrets.  What gave you the initial idea for the novel

      Three things! Working in a high-security male prison for three years.  Getting married again during that me. And my love of twists. I couldn’t help wondering about the relationship between first and second wives. Everyone assumes they shouldn’t get on. But what if a second wife had to ask the first wife a big favour? And suppose that involved a criminal who might actually be innocent. The book leaps forward fifteen years in the middle. So almost anything could happen….

You’re a journalist as well; what made you want to delve into fiction, specifically the thriller format? 

       I always wanted to be a novelist. I started writing little stories and poems from the age of three. I only became a journalist because I needed to earn my living and journalism seemed the best way because it involved writing. But then I had my own columns and was also bringing up three children – so had to put my original plan on the back burner until now. But it was worth it! 

The title is intriguing; we don’t really get to know its significance until later in the book. Did you go through several titles before you decided on this one, or was this always the one you had in mind? 

      It started out in my head as ‘My Husband’s New Wife’ but then evolved into ‘My Husband’s Wife’. I like contradictions! It makes people think twice….

Your characters are all flawed in one way or another.  Is it easy to guide your creation into making the wrong decision, or are you tempted, as the author, to let them have a different (and potentially more positive) outcome? 

I love flawed characters because it makes them more realistic. We all have flaws. I certainly do. As a reader, I don’t want a perfect character. I believe we are all here on earth to learn lessons and that means making mistakes along the way. Having said that, I do want them to have a positive outcome at the end!

 What sorts of books do you like to read? Which authors are your role models? 

At the moment I’m reading Christobel Kent’s The Loving Husband. I chose it because I met her when we were both speaking on a panel recently. I’m enjoying her style of writing and the riddles. Normally I don’t read psychological thrillers because I like to keep a distance from my own genre. I adore Anne Tyler and also Fay Weldon. I was lucky enough to meet Fay when I interviewed her as a young journalist and we’ve remained friends ever since. 

I’m also a huge fan of Alice Munro. I came across her when my now grown-up daughter was at school. I always used to read my children’s texts so I could test them – preferably in the car where they couldn’t run away!

Several scenes take place in prisons, and you were once the writer-in-residence of a men’s prison. How did this come about? How long did this experience last? What were your most prominent impressions of the experience? 

       I started working as writer in residence in a high-security male prison when my first marriage ended. The original contract was for two days a week for two years but they asked me to stay on for a third year. I was very struck by a number of factors. Although I was scared at first, I lost that fear when I was inside, working with the men and helping them to write life stories, poems, novels and short stories. Words are a great leveller. 

      I was also surprised by the fact that many criminals don’t look like they’ve done something awful. Some could have been a next door neighbor whom I might ask round for dinner. It wasn’t considered polite to ask what their crime was but sometimes they told me. Then I wished they hadn’t. It’s one thing to help a man write a story. But when they’ve confessed that they’ve killed or gang-raped, you can’t help but look at them in a different way. I was also struck by the amount of writing talent in prison. I entered some of my men’s work for competitions and many won prizes. 

      Writing can improve self-confidence and self-worth. It’s been proved that this can reduce the risk of re-offending. I am now a life story judge for the Koestler Awards which give prizes for writing and art to men and women in prison and mental institutions.

You are very good at withholding facts from your reader without them realizing, at the time, that the facts are missing. Is it difficult to plot this way? 

      Often the twists occur to me when I’m writing. Sometimes they come as I do the research (which I often do during the actual writing process). Then I go back and sow the seeds. So to answer your question, it’s complicated rather than difficult. But there’s nothing like that electric thrill when you suddenly think of another twist!

 In which environment can you write most productively?  Do you have any writing rituals?

I need complete peace. I’ve just about trained my new husband not to interrupt me! This is easier now the children are older although I also look after my granddaughter for two days a week.  I write at the top of the house, overlooking the sea. I live in the UK so it’s quite cold although I love to swim for most of the year (in a wet suit!). I also write in the morning after a dog jog along the beach and breakfast with my husband over the crossword. If it’s a grannie day, I’ll  catch up by writing in the evening instead.

That sounds wonderful! I am envious of your sea view. How long did it take you to write MY HUSBAND’S WIFE? 

Three and a half months of writing every day for the first draft. Then another four months for the whole editing process. I’m a journalist. I write fast. It’s what I was trained to do. But after so many years on the keyboard, my handwriting has suffered!

You do not live in the United States. Have you ever visited? 

Absolutely!  I have been to New York four times. Once with my first husband. Then on my own with my youngest son which was a real learning curve as it was my first time alone. We stayed with friends in Connecticut and then went to visit my older children who had summer jobs in upstate New York. 

Then I did a road trip with my second husband and visited Margaret Mitchell’s house in Atlanta – this was on my wishlist as I adore Gone With The Wind. The last trip was a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2 which my second husband surprised me with! Amazing. I’d love to do it again one day….   

For those of us who might visit England, what is a sight that we absolutely must see before we leave? 

The sea. There’s nothing like it. I’d suggest going round the whole coastline! If you could only go to one place, I’d suggest the Isle of Skye. I went there three years ago with some cousins to visit the Macdonald ‘family castle’ which is now in ruins. I had an uncle who married several times so I have lots of wonderful cousins from a variety of nationalities ranging from Chinese to Canadian.  Most of us have parents who died young, but we are all very close and extremely proud of our heritage. Skye has some amazing scenery and people.

Thank you! I will remember that. How can readers find out more about you and your writing? 
      Through Twitter and my author page. Do check out @janecorryauthor on Twitter
and Jane Corry on Facebook.  Thank you for having me! Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy MY HUSBAND’S WIFE. No one is quite  who they seem!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Charles Salzberg and Swann Revisited

Back in 2012 I interviewed Charles Salzberg about his latest Swann novel. You can read that interview HERE.

Now I'm happy to report that Charles Salzberg has released a fourth novel in the Swann series called Swann's Way Out. This Shamus-nominated author has taken his protagonist through some difficult situations, and they continue in book four as Swann goes in search of a million missing dollars.

Back in 2012, Salzberg told me why he wrote a mystery:

"I had no intention of writing a mystery series.  When I was starting out I wrote very literary, very character-oriented novels, not strong on plot.  I wanted to see if I could write a plot-oriented book, and the best challenge I could find was to write a mystery or detective novel because those depend very heavily on plot.  I wrote Swann’s Last Song, which I thought of as an anti-detective novel, because in the original version Swann does not solve the case.  But publishers wouldn’t buy that, so I had to rewrite the ending (you can find both endings in the paperback version.) I was amazed when it was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel, and when I lost, I got pissed off and decided to write another.  It turns out, they’re fun to write and I have a lot of leeway now in what I can write about."

Find more at Salzberg's website:

Now, with the new title, Salzberg continues Swann's quest to right wrongs in a nostalgic, Chandler-esque style that incorporates action and humor. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Thriller Writer Tim Hallinan Chats About His Christmas Mystery, FIELDS WHERE THEY LAY

      Timothy Hallinan is the author of the Simeon Grist, Poke Rafferty and Junior Bender thriller series. His new Junior Bender holiday mystery, Fields Where They Lay, is now on sale.

            Your title, at first glance, is merely a line from The First Noel for a novel set at Christmastime. However, by the end of the book the title resonates with a powerful double meaning that takes the story to higher and more philosophical plane.

Did the title evolve out of the story, or did the story generate from the title?

I had a handful of titles before I started writing, as opposed my usual method, which is to have a title before I get much of anything else. Titles, for some reason, come easily to me. (I wrote an entire book, King Maybe, to figure out why those words were stuck in my head.)

So this time around, I was entertaining half a dozen possibles, and in the very first paragraph, which was supposed to be nothing but a description of the lumpish, rundown shopping mall in which most of the book takes place, I found myself writing this: “The lump, a hulking, windowless, three-story ellipse with a flat roof and stains shaped like dirt icicles running down its outer walls, was in the center of a field where herds of sheep or cattle might once have grazed but which was now covered in flat black asphalt, marked in white diagonal parking lines to create an enormous herringbone pattern.” And it was evident to me, since 100 words in I was already writing about grazing animals, that the title was Fields Where They Lay, and from then on the book sort of adapted itself to that.

And, of course, what happens to the shepherds in the fields not only announces the birth of a new King but also brings into the manger the ordinary witnesses, the shepherds, whose eyes in painting after painting, are glazed with the wonder of what happens there. It's already mysticism of the highest kind, whether you're a Christian or not.

In a fun twist, Junior spends much of the novel prowling around a shopping mall. At one point he goes into a shop filled with cheap reproductions of famous works of art, but the only thing that gives him pause are some framed Calvin and Hobbes cartoons.  It was at this moment that I really began to warm up to Junior.  :)

Are you a Calvin and Hobbes fan? And do you envision Junior as having been a Calvin-like child?

Calvin and Hobbes was the final enthusiasm of my father's life. He discovered the strip during his last decade, and after years and years of reading (and complaining about) the same old comics mostly Peanuts and L'il Abner suddenly all he wanted to talk about was Calvin and Hobbes. He'd had a very Dickensian childhood after his father abandoned the family, and my guess is that it was way short on fantasy and adventure. 

Before he died I got him the first C&H books, and they meant a lot to him. And although I felt pretty much the same way about them as he did; my childhood was much more comfortable than his, but I essentially lived in books, so I understood instinctively the power of the fantasy world Hobbes opened up for Calvin. So I guess that reference in the art store was sort of a salute to my father, who was nothing at all like Junior's.

Dickens makes it into the book twice, once in a reference to Mr. Pickwick, and another with a reference to Scrooge. Does Christmas make you think of Dickens? Is he a favorite writer?

He is a favorite, although I like Trollope better because I think Trollope's women are much more convincing than Dickens'. But Dickens was probably the first great writer in English to celebrate Christmas in stories, and he's probably still the best. The Victorians pretty much assembled the modern Christmas (it had been banned under the Puritans and wasn't even a working person's day off until well into Victoria's reign) bringing back Father Christmas and replacing the traditional holly and ivy of pre-Christian celebrations with the Christmas tree, which Victoria's husband, Prince Albert brought with him from Germany. Dickens wrapped it all up in a ribbon of wonderful prose and sort of froze it in time for us. And I think you could even argue that he played a role in putting children at the center of the holiday.

 I am also curious about some of your existential influences. Junior develops a friendship with a Jewish mall Santa named Schlomo, who alludes to the crucifixion of Christ when he calls Bender “the good thief.” But given Junior’s highly existential outlook, I’m wondering if you were at least partly thinking of Waiting for Godot, and the famous exchange in which Vladimir wonders about the two thieves, and why, despite four different versions of the story, the world only focuses on one: the story of the thief who was saved?

I'm not much of an existentialist. What I love about the Good Thief is the thing Junior says in the book: that his do-not-pass-go route to paradise created an awkward exception to the Church's insistence that they had a monopoly on Heaven because there was no getting there without a priest. 

There was some scrambling in Rome during the 5th and 6th centuries to make it very clear that this was a unique one-off, an impulsive and not-to-be-repeated act of mercy on Jesus' part, rather than a possible short cut to eternity. I'm sure that some cardinal called for a scriptural rewrite at some point. (I would have loved to have been in those meetings.) There's a kind of awful comedy here that appeals to me enormously, rich, fat Italian men of high birth taking charge of the spiritual legacy of a half-starved Jewish pauper. But I've never been a big Becket fan, so “Godot” wasn't on my mind when I wrote that part.

Timothy Hallinan
(photo: Morgan Schmidt-Feng)
Junior is an expert about antique goods and old manuscripts, and in one scene Junior humiliates a snobbish mall vendor who is overcharging people for what Junior terms pretty junk. Here Junior reminded me very  much of Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy, who, like Bender, tends to be an underdog and an Other, but who is a “divvy” who can immediately sense a real antique from a fake one; the history of the piece sings to him, makes his skin vibrate with appreciation. Did you ever read a Lovejoy mystery?

Busted. I loved how Lovejoy's “gong” vibrated in his chest in the presence of the real thing. I can say shamelessly that whenhalfway through the first book, CrashedI realized that a good burglar needs to develop a good eye in order, as Junior says, to be able to tell the “stuff from the duff,” I instantly thought of Lovejoy. I haven't read those books in probably 25 years, but I thought of them in a hundredth of a second. I also admired Lovejoy's extremely equivocal moral code. So I didn't have him in mind originally, but in a scene in which Junior is looking at (I think) some art deco jewelry, all of a sudden there was old Lovejoy in the room with him, gonging away.
He's a great character. Junior meets a shop owner named Bonnie, who sums up Christmas by saying “Everything’s better at Christmas, but everything’s worse, too.” Why do you think Christmas has evolved into this binary opposition?

I think it's the enormous gulf between the event the holiday purports to celebrate―the birth, in a stable, of a desperately poor child who, for millions of people, heralded God's active interest in the world he was supposed to have createdand the way it's celebrated today, a mercantile orgy whose success is measured not in spirit but on spreadsheets. As I say in the book, the modern Christmas theme music is a duet for sleigh bells and cash register.

Jesus' parents, if they were alive today, would be in a kind of agony at their inability to afford to give their child the things the media would tell him he wants and needs. Christ's notion of of giving has been corrupted into gimme through a global campaign to dangle desirables in front of millions of children, and that can be hard on families at virtually all economic levels except the highest. The basic symbolism of Santa in a shopping mall (how convenient), where canned music stands in for the heavenly host, and tinsel and blinky lights stand in for the brilliance of heaven, sums up the problem with a kind of big-league, blunt-force impact.

So well said. These oppositions continue throughout the novel. On the one hand, Junior is depressed and not convinced about an overall meaning of life.  On the other, he is clearly open to small moments of joy or grace, as with the singing of a high school choir or the presence of little children. He says, “It’s impossible for me to be melancholy around small children. They deserve the effort it takes us to do better.”  Is this because Junior is a father, or because children are the best representatives of humanity?

Junior has had four rites of passage in his life: realizing that he wasn't what was wrong with his fatherthat it was his father's problem; meeting Herbie and being initiated into burglary; meeting and marrying Kathy; and the birth of Rina. He hadn't particularly liked himself as a child, and Rina sort of allows him to start over. He adores her, as he should, and like so many parents he realizes the extent to which children need, and deserve, the best that adults can do. If the world is ever going to be a better place, he thinks, it'll be because it's better to its children. He means literally the sentence you quoted.

Ultimately, being with Ronnie may prove to be a fifth rite of passage, but we don't know yet.

Junior extols the value of lists over emotion: “An emotion is a cloud, but a list is a stairway.”  Is this meant to demonstrate that Junior represses emotion, or that he prefers logos over pathos as a way of getting through life?

No, he's just a guy. Many guys react to cloudy circumstances, especially emotionally cloudy circumstances, by taking refuge in a list. There's something deeply reassuring about a) b) c). Just listing b) assumes you'll survive a).

That's a great point, although I am the list maker in my family, and my husband and sons avoid any sort of mental organizing.

Despite his sometimes grim worldview, Junior Bender is very funny. At one point he reveals that “Whole areas of my mind . . . distrust other areas.” Do you ever feel this way as a writer?

First, a comic view of the world that can't handle some pessimism and a few reversals won't outlast baby teeth. And second, I think that humor often arises from internal conflict; you catch yourself again and again doing something that part of you knows is wrong, unproductive, self-destructive, or just plain stupid. There's a narrow range of possible reactions: vowing to learn a lesson that you know from experience won't last; getting furious with yourself; thinking about suicide; or laughing. None of the first three reactions is likely to be productive, so you might as well laugh, even if it does, over the years, give you those annoying wrinkles at the corners of your eyes.

And there is an absolute iron curtain in my mind when it comes to writing, which is, after all, how I spend most of my time. I know that the entire story is somewhere in there, complete and perfect, before even I type the title. But it reveals itself to me in bits and pieces, many of them in the wrong order, as if after one part of me comes up with the whole thing, another part cuts it into jigsaw pieces so it can be fed to the part that sits there trying to get it down in the most confusing possible order. I almost never have the feeling I'm making up a story; I feel like I'm either uncovering something that's already there, like archaeology, or assembling it. like a puzzle.

What a well-written reflection on the mystery of the creative process!

Junior spends a couple of pages discussing keys as things of beauty. I had never thought about them this way, so this was fascinating, especially when he notes that people in the ancient world once wore keys as status symbols.

Did they do this because the keys were physically beautiful, or because of the idea that the keys could open things forbidden to all others?

I think it was partly the Louis Vuitton Syndrome. We all know that Vuitton stuff is actually ugly, but lots of people like to flash it around because of what it's supposed to say: I'm rich, worldly, and I have stuff you don't have.

Keys were the same, on one level. A key implies a lock, and a lock implies that the owner has something that's valuable enough to be locked away. In other words, I have stuff you don't have.
But in an age when metallurgy was a rough art, fine, graceful keys also had an aesthetic appeal. And finally, they were a badge of tank and trust: certain keys were entrusted only to specific members of the household.

Back to the existential for a moment: Christmastime is in many ways a perfect setting for a crisis of belief. Consider the words of Junior in these passages:

  --“I felt a pang for them, for everyone working here, selling their precious hours for small change, sealed away from daylight and moonlight, grubbing in a till, taking money from people who often couldn’t afford to spend it, and running mental addition and subtraction all day on their own bank balances, the strength or weakness of their family ties, the holes in their lives, now that the holidays were upon them. Tis the season.” 

 --“Christmas has always seemed to me to be an empty box, a broken promise . . . the last letdown before the theoretically Happy New Year.”

  --“The edge of sorrow is especially sharp in what is supposed to be a season of joy."

  --“It’s where we all lived  . . . . we’re out there in that darkness whether we’re alone or with someone.”

Despite all Junior’s moments of darkness, there is an implied waiting for the light, and Junior does experience the corresponding light in several ways.  Do you think that one needs to identify the darkness before they can see its opposite?

I'm kind of surprised that this particular book prompts these questions―when I wrote it, I was thinking mainly about the characters and trying to hold the reader's interest and, once in a while, make her laugh. But reading those passages sort of gets my attention. Yikes.

There's a lot of “Wasteland” and “Prufrock” sentiment in that, the mermaids not singing for us, and so forth, but at the center of it are, I think, two things. First is the reality that, for many people, both Christmas and New Year are emotionally complicated holidays. Second is the fact that we no longer live in the age of angels singing in the sky and kings following a star to divinity – and how much easier belief would be if we did. Toward the end of the book, Junior drives up into the hills and thinks about what he's been through.

“The breeze was quite cool—chilly, even—but the hood of my car was warm, and that was where I was reclining with my back propped up on the windshield, looking at the little points of fire in the broad cold expanse of the heavens."

“Must have been something to have been a shepherd, seeing that star. The angels, I remembered, were in Matthew and the star was in Luke. Dividing up the miracles, I supposed. I wondered how it felt to believe fully and unquestioningly in all that extravagant divinity.”

So there may be a little envy there, maybe a feeling that it's not fair to spill miracle after miracle across the earth in a short thirty-year period and then let us sit in the dark for 2100 years. This is, of course, a personal opinion, not an attempt at theology.

It's a starkly beautiful sentiment. Speaking of darkness and light, we just had a momentous election which, depending on how things go, could plunge the United States into a moral and spiritual darkness.  For whom would Junior Bender vote? Would he write in Calvin or Hobbes as a protest?

Junior gave good moneynot even stolen moneyto Bernie Sanders in the hope that our electoral process would be returned to us. In the absence of Bernie, he would have voted for Clinton. Without a second thought. And in this particular election, he would regard a write-in or a third-party vote as being the equivalent of memorizing the Constitution and the complete election laws of the state of California, then getting a ballot, researching the candidates and the propositions, meticulously filling it in, and then using it to polish his car.

      Would that Junior had some more influence on the voters. 

      There are many loved ones in Junior’s life, including his daughter, his ex-wife, and his girlfriend. However, he bemoans the fact that he really does not know his girlfriend at all. Can we fall in love with people we don’t know?

I'm the wrong person to ask, I fell in love with my wife in about ninety minutes. And--three decades later--so far, so good.

How wonderful and refreshing. Do you plan to write more books in the Junior Bender series?

God willing. There's a story to tell that begins in the last scene of Fields Where They Lay that I'd love to write. Also, I've figured out some extremely cool ways to steal stuff and I have several dozen really, ummmm, interesting crooks in mind.

Good to know!! Junior fans will be thrilled. Where can readers find out more about you and your work?

I almost never do anything to it, but my website is, and it's got a REALLY good section on how to finish the novel you begin.

Thank you again, Tim, for this well-written, funny and thought-provoking holiday mystery!