Thursday, April 25, 2019

A ME TOO Fiction Anthology

I'm proud to have a story in Liz Zelvin's upcoming anthology, ME TOO SHORT STORIES: An Anthology. The volume has gotten some great early press. You can click the link to check out the various authors in the book.

My story is called "Subterfuge," and it focuses on an eighteen-year-old girl in a dead-end town.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Suspense Author Louisa Luna on Her Kick-ass Female Investigator, Her Nail-Biter Plot, and Her Dream Writer's Retreat

Louisa Luna is the author of Brave New Girl and Crooked. She lives in New York City. Her new mystery, Two Girls Down, is available now; Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, saying, "The brisk plot combines psychological suspense with solid action, while providing a realistic look at a family under siege, as it builds to a shocking finale."The story line teams a tough former bounty hunter with a disgraced former cop, and they work well together, both in the novel and with readers.

Louisa, thanks for visiting the blog. First and foremost, I’m sure readers want to know—is Two Girls Down a stand-alone, or will readers see Vega and Cap again? They both seemed to have secrets that could emerge in later books.                                                                                            

Oh, they’ll both be back. I’m happy to say the sequel is done – it’s called The Janes, and it will be out in about a year, published by Doubleday. There will also definitely be at least one more book after that. 

Alice Vega was a paradox—she broke rules, but she did it for the right reasons. I would love to have her fighting on my behalf. Did you have anyone, or any particular concept, in mind when you created her?

When I started writing, I just knew I wanted a tough woman protagonist. Salander from Dragon Tattoo was an influence but I wanted mine to be a little older and well-established in her career path. 

The challenge was to make her realistic – I wanted her to take no shit and do anything to get the job done, and I wanted her to be the smartest person in the room. And I wanted it to be believable that she could fight anyone at any time. All the research I did about bounty hunters (Vega’s former job) indicated that there are very few women in that line of work, and the women who make that their livelihoods are physically built for the job – tall and burly and able to take a bail jumper down through hand-to-hand combat. I wanted to build Vega average-size, but very strong but I knew in order to sell it on the page, she would have to use every other tool at her disposal as well – namely words and weapons. That informed a lot of her character along with her ability to read people and figure out what they need the most.   

The mystery has a terrible reality at its center—the endless narrative of missing girls. Did you do extensive research about abductions of women and girls in America? If so, I imagine it was depressing.

I pulled a lot from my own imagination to begin with. But then I did a lot of reading about missing persons and children, both girls and boys, which were all harrowing, deeply sad and disturbing stories. The grief that the parents and families of missing persons/children feel is just bottomless and never goes away. The three books on the topic that stand out in my memory are Bringing Adam Home by Les Standiford and Joe Matthews, The Last Place You’d Look by Carole Moore and People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry. They are excellent reads, but tough subject matter.

After immersing yourself in this content for so long, what is your response to the recent and unexpected news that Jayme Closs has been found alive?

I would not call myself any kind of an expert on the topic, but this did seem like an unusual case because such a small percentage of abducted kids are abducted by strangers, as I recall. And even more unusual that the abductee survives, I would think.

But honestly I think I’m coming at it the way most people are, which is to say thrilled and happy that she is alive and astonished by her bravery. She has already beaten incredible odds.

I hope she can get to the other side of the trauma she’s been through; I saw that picture of her with her aunt and her dog and read her aunt’s statement – she has a lot of people who love her and who are pulling for her, which is all you can ask for in a situation like that.

One of the things I love about Alice Vega is that she simply refuses to be intimidated. Is this something she had to cultivate, or is it innate to her character?

I think the key to Vega is that she has no fear of pain or death. Once you take that away, there’s a great deal of freedom because she literally has nothing to lose. She’s also a pretty economical character, and I don’t mean in the monetary sense; I mean she only deals in what is useful to her.  I think she has found that fear is not useful in her life and work so she excised it at some point. Of course she is a human so she’ll still experience fear and guilt and love but she’ll do her best to stop it if it’s not serving her in some way.

I appreciated the fact that in creating your various law enforcement officials, who faced some internal conflicts, you stayed away from clichés and stereotypes and let the readers see some good in every one of them. Was this a conscious decision?

Absolutely. I find character clichés so lazy, and I get frustrated when I’m reading a book or watching a show/movie, and there’s a c*ckblocking FBI agent or an-impulsive-yet-talented rookie or a bad girl with a heart of gold. It’s not that these people can’t or don’t exist; I just always want them to be full real characters. That’s what I tried to do with all the cops and Feds, give them faces, names, quirks, bad sides, good sides. 

Also I have a good friend who is a cop who advised me a lot on procedural stuff, and from his stories on the job, it was very clear that law enforcement is like other workplaces in that some people are great and trying to do the right thing and some people are jerks and absolutely not trying to do the right thing.

I am assuming you are a mom based on the way you wrote the character of Jamie Brandt, and for this reason I am guessing her character was the hardest to write. Was it rather terrifying to imagine how it would feel to have your child abducted, almost under your very nose?

I am a mom! When I had my daughter, I felt like I suddenly understood something beautiful and terrifying about life. I started writing the book when she was two, and the plot kick-off was pretty much my deepest fears laid out on the page, so I suppose it was therapeutic in a way. 
There were times when we’d be at the playground or somewhere, and I’d be chatting with another mom or looking at my phone and then I’d glance up and not see her for thirty seconds, and well, there it is, that’s the fear, and every parent has felt it.

As for Jamie, I just tried to get inside her head and walk through those moments. I wanted them to feel excruciatingly real. 

Your dialogue was a pleasure to read. It was sophisticated, immersing me in the story, but it was also an opportunity to insert much-needed levity into a grim tale. I especially love the dialogues between Cap and his daughter, but also some that Cap had with his former colleagues. Is writing dialogue something that comes easily to you?

It feels that way. I love dialogue because it can do so much in such a small space. I think I also find out who my people are through dialogue more than prose. I knew Cap was going to have a teenage daughter who was sort of thoughtful but I didn’t know who Nell was until she started talking. Now it’s like she could have her own spin-off.

As for Cap and his buddies, again, I tried to work against cop clichés and layer shop-talk with humor and familiarity. But dialogue definitely crystallized these characters for me – Junior, Em, Traynor – all of their images sharpened up through the dialogue.

What got you started writing in this genre?

I’ve always loved mysteries/thrillers/noir. When I was in my twenties I was lucky enough to publish three books in a row. The third one, published in 2004, was my crack at a modern noir, and it was not particularly successful (narratively or commercially-speaking), but I was just starting to play around with the format.

So I read a lot between the time I finished that one and the time I started 2GD, and for some reason, I thought I could pull off writing a suspense novel. I didn’t know the ending when I started, but I think one of the things the most successful mysteries have in common is atmosphere, tone. And I thought if I could get that along with good characters, I’d be halfway home and could figure out the plot later.
Are there any particular authors that inspire you, in the mystery genre or elsewhere?

Oh, so many. I love a lot of authors are that can’t be genre-ized, or that create new genres, or are just really good at what they do. And as you see, they are all over the map. Some are: George Saunders, Rachel Kushner, Donald Ray Pollock, Carmen Maria Machado, Anna Quindlen, Lee Child, Mo Hayder, Donna Tartt, Elizabeth Strout.

What are you reading now?

As I wrote above, I recently finished the sequel which had an intensely complicated plot, and after that, I just needed to cleanse my brain of fiction so I read a great non-fiction book on a topic about which I knew absolutely nothing: What The Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing by Brian Seibert.  It is fantastic and totally accessible and beautifully-written. Now I’m a little obsessed with tap dancing.

Also I read a bunch of short stories but there’s one I can’t stop thinking about: “Two Lasagnas” by Elisa Albert in Tin House magazine. Talk about tone. I was sad when it was over. I would have been up for reading a Knausgaard-length autobiography in that character’s voice.

If you could go to a beautiful writer’s retreat anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Bolinas, California. My parents lived there for a while while I was in college and in my twenties, and something about the ocean and the beach and the fog just makes me want to slow down and let the ideas come in.

Where can readers found out more about you and your books?

Someday I’ll have a Twitter and an IG, but that day is not today.

Thanks so much, Louisa! I look forward to THE JANES.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Feminism Can Be Funny

Penguin/Plume was kind enough to send me a copy of New Erotica For Feminists, a funny little book that looks at popular culture, dating, parenting, literature, and history through a distinctly feminist (and satirical) lens. Penned by four authors (Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Witmer), this book has something for every reader who wants a good laugh, but the scenarios imagined within also give pause--why shouldn't a man offer a woman interesting conversation instead of a sexual proposition? Why DO we as readers tend to demonize Jordan Baker simply because we see her through the eyes of Nick Carraway?

My favorite passage was a re-imagining of the dialogue between Paris and Helen of Sparta as he prepares to whisk her off to Troy.

Helen tries to explain why this would be a bad decision, reminding him of some historical context around her beauty and things it has made men do, and the problems he would engender by angering Agamemnon, King of Mycenae:

Helen: How do you not know this? It's like you haven't even read Herodotus. You really need to brush up on the geopolitical history of this volatile region, tiger.
Paris: But you're so pretty!
Helen: (sigh) I wish I'd been born a centaur. 

A fun little book, small enough to fit in a Christmas stocking, weighty enough to engender many fine discussions, and funny enough to make you laugh out loud

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Joy of Talking About Books

“Nothing bonds two people so well as loving the same books.”

--Lena London, A Dark and Stormy Murder

              I am a member of two informal book clubs. One is a four-times-yearly gathering of interested faculty at the school where I teach. I am the unofficial “leader” of the club because I always come with about 30 typed questions that I hope will generate interesting discussions. These aren’t downloaded from book club sites; I always write my own because that is more authentic to my reading experience, and—well—I’m a bit obsessive.
              The group has enjoyed many wonderful conversations, and in two cases we Skyped with the authors themselves and directed our questions to them. Those were wonderful experiences that allowed us to take our questions about text straight to the creator, the generator of that text for some deeper insight.
              In every one of our meetings, I find myself getting to a point at which my heart beats faster, my face grows hot, and I become sort of enraptured by the way that literature can lift us to higher understanding. We learn things, discover things, TOGETHER—in a way that only this type of gathering can achieve.
              And so I would conclude that for the same reason I love to discuss literature with my students (who are themselves amazing, insightful observers of human nature), I love to discuss a good book with my book group.
              My other book group is a recent creation, born of an e-mail that I sent to people on my block. It said, “Is anyone interested in starting a block book group? Not the kind where people just use a book as an excuse to drink wine, but the kind where we actually read and discuss a book?”
              To my great pleasure, many people responded. I have nothing against wine—my husband sells it for a living—but when I have a book gathering, I want us to focus on words, on chapters, on thematic meaning. And many other people wanted to do that, too!  Our first meeting was a gathering of five women (a few more couldn’t make it). Our second had only four people (again, schedules were a problem), but our third looks like it might be a very large gathering because word has spread—we met to talk about books, and it was fun!
              I don’t always feel as if I have time in my schedule to prepare for book group. But when I read the book and then meet with my book friends, I am always glad that I made that time.
              If only more people knew how much joy, how much deep satisfaction was at their fingertips at any given time in the form of a good book, and how even more wonderful that experience can be when enriched by the insights of other people who have studied the same text.
              This Thanksgiving, I’ll be grateful for many things, including (as ever) books, the people who write them, and the people who read them, and the powerful culture of learning, sharing, and insight we can build together.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

An Enhanced Reading Experience: The Annotated Big Sleep

I am thrilled to have received an advanced copy of THE ANNOTATED BIG SLEEP from Vintage/Black Lizard Books. Raymond Chandler died in 1959, six years before I was born, but I always feel connected to him when I read his mysteries. His words effect that special intimacy with a reader that only the best writers can achieve; in fact, his books are so alive with wit and intelligence and satire that a reader feels almost collaborative when encountering Chandler--reading is not a passive event, but a conversation.

As the critical notes (written by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Rizzuto) make clear, Chandler was more than a mystery writer. His work was a commentary about a pre-and-post-war world that seemed to have been consumed by a general corruption, and his words contained such unblinking honesty that they can apply just as well to the depravity of the current era.

The annotated version contains a foreword by Jonathan Lethem, and an introduction by the three annotators, who suggest that "If Superman or John Wayne is the Zeus of American myth, and Marilyn Monroe is Aphrodite, then Marlowe is Prometheus: the noble outsider, sacrificing and enduring for a code he alone upholds." Perhaps this is the biggest part of Marlowe's appeal for a world that had been battered by war and which descended into an existential abyss.

One of my favorite details so far is that, in exploring an existential view of the world, Chandler achieved such spare and impressive prose that one might assume he had been influenced by the French existentialists--but in fact the reverse is true. "Albert Camus had pointed to American detective writers as a prime influence on his portrayal of the quintessential existential outsider, "L'Etranger," in 1942" (107).

Marlowe, too, is an outsider. Readers generally love The Other for the very fact that the societies in question have cast him out. We love the literary orphan (Oliver Twister, Harry Potter), the fictional dream-seeker (Gatsby, Don Quixote, Lily Bart), the rebel in an oppressive world (Hester Prynne, Edna Pontellier, Huck Finn). But Philip Marlowe stands alone, as the man who was forced to create a law unto himself, because he had a vague memory of justice that shaped his understanding of rightness in a world gone awry.

I will savor this book, first as a chance to re-read THE BIG SLEEP, and secondly for the rich textual notes that will deepen my understanding of the man, the work, and the time period.

(According to Amazon, THE ANNOTATED BIG SLEEP can be pre-ordered now).

Thursday, March 08, 2018

French Thriller Writer Franck Thilliez Chats About Sharks, Subliminal Messages and Syndrome E

Since I was just re-reading SYNDROME E, I thought I'd share this interview from 2013. 

Franck Thilliez's new novel, SYNDROME E, is his first book available in an American translation. The movie rights have been sold to Paintbrush Films.

Franck, thanks so much for discussing your book with me.

This novel introduced many themes: neuroscience, police work, schizophrenia, parent-child relationships, a computer-oriented world, violent video games, film technology, and subliminal suggestion, to name a few.  Do you start a novel knowing all the themes you would like to discuss, or does your research and writing lead you to more and more complicated plots?

Yes, I know, in a general way, the main topics I’ll talk about. Concerning Syndrome E, I wanted to talk about all themes concerning pictures and the impact they have on our brain. So, it concerned movies, video games, subliminal pictures, brain studies… But you’re right: the more I researched, the more I discovered plots that I could talk about, like neuromarketing or the way a movie is made. So, I naturally included them in my story.   

Lucie Hennebelle is a single mother of twins; she is also a career cop.  This sounds like an almost impossible combination. Do you think that cops, male and female, spend a lot of time feeling guilty about their family obligations?

I know a few cops and I often talk with them about their job. They are people really involved in their work, they like what they’re doing and are proud of it. When you work in the violent crime department, here in France, you can’t say: “I go to work at 8 am and come back home at 5 pm,” because it does not depend on you, but on murderers! If you work on a big case, it will take all your time, day and night, because, you know, the 2 or 3 first days after a crime is committed are the most important: you can’t lose a minute. So, you’ll not be at home, near your family, and your work will consume you. But, most of time, they do not feel guilty, because this job is a part of their life, as much important as their children. It’s not easy to be the wife of a cop (or the husband of a female cop), because, adding to that, this could be a dangerous job…

Someone in the novel suffers from hysterical blindness. I’d heard the term before, but had never really seen it applied to a situation.  How common is this condition?  How did you research it?

It’s an amazing condition. I heard about it when I talked with a psychiatrist. He said to me: “One day, I treated a woman who did not hear her husband when he talked to her. She heard her children, but she couldn’t hear him! This is what we call hysterical deafness. She’s not really deaf, but her brain makes her believe she is… ” It was amazing. By doing research, I discovered that there were all sorts of such hysterical problems: people thinking they’ve lost a leg or arm, people thinking they’re blind… All those conditions have a psychological explanation and can be solved.

Franck Sharko is a great name for a detective. Did he become Sharko because he is predatory to the bad guys?  Or did you have other reasons for giving him this name? (And is there a reason that you share a Christian name?)

Here, in France, most readers ask me : “Why did you call your detective Sharko ?” It’s great that you are American, because you immediately see that in Sharko, there is the English word “Shark."  Shark, because Franck Sharko never abandons, he’s really a hunter of killers and will work and work until he catches them! And for the first name, Franck, the same as mine: I just wanted “Franck Sharko” to sound hard, like German. Because he’s a hard guy!

One of the many facts that stood out for me was a film expert’s claim that François Mitterand attempted, in 1988, to subliminally influence voters by splicing his image into the credits of the evening news.  How did he achieve this?  Did he pay off a producer?

In France, the “Chanel 2” is a public channel, so it belongs to the French State. A president can choose the head of the channel, and he can decide to squelch publicity, … I don’t know how it really happened with François Mitterand, but because he was president since 1980 he had the power to put a subliminal image of himself on the evening news a few weeks before the election of 1988 to re-elect him! You must also know that during this period, there were no laws that forbade someone to use subliminal images in films or advertising…

Wow!  How worried should we be, in 2012, that we are being manipulated through the medium of film or things that we see on computer and television screens?

As I say in the book, we must protect our children, who are always watching violent pictures, in video games, on Internet or television. Most of them (under 7 years old) can’t distinguish reality from fiction. With the new technologies (phones, i-pads, Internet), times are changing; now our sons and daughters are growing up with violent pictures around them.

In extreme cases, we can perhaps see the consequence of this in the news: look what happened in Norway with Behring Breivik, look at the different massacres in schools over the last years, or the awful killing in the cinema during the broadcast of Batman, a few days ago. Some killers even try to post their acts on the Internet.

So, I don’t think we are manipulated, I just want to tell people: be careful of all those screen broadcasted pictures; they could be dangerous…

Are you an old film buff yourself?  Do you collect films?

When I was 15 years old, and for many years later, I used to watch all horror/thriller/suspense films that would be broadcast on TV! Sometimes, films were broadcast late in the night, and I remember going to bed and setting my alarm clock to wake me up just before the beginning of the film. It was also the period I was a member of a small video club, near my house, so I could rent of all the tapes I wanted. I used to collect video tapes, and then DVDs, but I sold most of them when I grew up, because I needed money! I always loved Hitchcock’s films, Dario Argento, Andrew Romero, David Cronenberg; and nowadays, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan or Ridley Scott are some of my favorite directors.

You must have loved Inception.  :)

Your description of Egypt, through Sharko’s eyes, is not flattering—it talked me out of ever visiting Egypt.  Have you travelled there?

Talking about the Egypt in tour guides with the Pyramids, Sphinx, nice places in Cairo was not interesting me. A crime novel must be more than a diversion; it must inform readers of the reality of our world. So, I wanted to show the country as it really is.  Most of people there are poor; they have difficulties surviving and they live in awful conditions. There are more than 8 shantytowns at the border of the Cairo, containing thousands and thousands of people. I say in the book that the police and government are corrupt. Revolution exploded in Egypt only a few months after the publication of Syndrome E in France, and I proves that I was not completely wrong…

And no, I never travelled there, but did a lot of research on this country, watching Egyptian films, reading books, talking by email with people there.

A small story : I tried to be in contact with the police there, just to ask single things, like “how are you clothed?” or “what are the grades in your police?,” but they never answered, they said top secret!

At one point Lily and Sharko feast on Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Is this American chain popular in France?

It’s starting to gain popularity, but it’s not as popular as McDonalds!

Ah, the ubiquitous McDonalds!  :)

There are many airplane journeys in the novel—Sharko finds them wearying, almost existential experiences—and yet they retain a certain glamour for the reader, linking the characters to far-flung locales.  What’s your attitude toward airplane travel?  Do you enjoy it?

In the last two years, I travelled a lot because of the publication of my books in many countries. I really like airplane travel. I love being in an airport, seeing people going abroad, and others coming back home. An airport is a particular place where you can touch the world. I read a lot during my travels, and sometimes I write. The most difficult is, of course, the jet lag, but it’s such a good thing to discover new countries and people.

Great point! On to Lucie Henebelle. Lucie is compared, by one character, to Jodie Foster.  Are you a Jodie Foster fan?  Did you see Lucie Henebelle as sort of similar to Foster’s Clarice Starling?  Or do you just like Foster’s combination of toughness and femininity?

I’m absolutely a fan of Jodie Foster! She’s a great actor and she would be perfect for Lucie, the main character of my book, if she were slightly younger. When I created Lucie a few years ago, I had in mind Jodie Foster as she was in The Silence of the Lambs, one of my favorite films.

Who are your literary influences? What are you reading now?

I started by reading Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and classical Anglo-Saxon crime novels. Then I had my period of Stephen King (and still do).  He’s a great writer. I spent night after night reading his books, trying to guess how he could frighten us so much. During my studies, I did not read a lot (but was watching films!). I started reading crime novels again 10 years ago. Nowadays, I read Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, but also books by John Steinbeck.

If I could make only one journey to France, where should I be sure to go?

Everywhere ! France is a beautiful country, with many cultures, great landscape, big towns but also very quaint villages, where the time has stood still. French food and wine are excellent; just spend time in a little restaurant of Paris or by the sea at Deauville or Cannes!

Sounds lovely! Thank you so much for a terrific read and for answering these questions.

You’re welcome. It was a pleasure. 

Monday, January 01, 2018

Getting Lost in a Good Story

On December 30 I received a book in the mail from Delacorte Press; they had kindly sent me a copy of S.T.A.G.S, a new novel, perhaps in hopes that I would read and review it. I am lucky enough to receive books with regularity, but not all of the stories catch my fancy, and often I start one and put it aside again.

Who knows what sort of alchemy is involved when a reader and a book find that they are a good match? I only know that when I opened this book and read the first page, my brain said "Yes!"

December 30 happened to be my birthday, and I sat down in the afternoon to enjoy the unexpected gift. For the first time in a long time, I finished a book in one sitting because I just couldn't put it down.

Don't we all long for that very reading experience?

S.T.A.G.S had an interesting premise: a middle-class British girl is accepted into the school known by the title acronym. It stands for St. Aidan the Great School, a prestigious boarding academy that is the realm of the very rich. From the start the heroine, Greer (named after Greer Garson because of her father's love of movies) knows that she is an outcast, but she's determined to keep her head down, do her work, and just get through the semester. She doesn't need to be popular. And yet, like any teenager, she does sometimes crave approval, and like everyone on campus she dreams of being noticed by The Medievals, the beautiful, privileged six who dominate the campus with their wealth and breeding. The leader of this group is Henry: tall, blond, charming as a prince. Or so it would seem.

When Greer and two other misfits are invited to Henry's estate for a weekend of "huntin, shootin, fishin," the reader knows that The Medievals are up to no good, and deep down Greer knows it, too, but she can't resist the invitation and the chance to be popular.

One has to suspend some disbelief in order to enter into the St. Aidan's world, but the book was well-written, capturing the tone of The Other as Greer tries to negotiate the exclusionary behaviors on campus. Although this is meant on one level to be fun suspense, the novel does a good job of interrogating wealth, white privilege, and arbitrary class distinctions.

I'm sure it will be made into a movie, and I for one will go to see it.