Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Legend Lives On

This is still the best Halloween tale ever . . .

" . . .From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of SLEEPY HOLLOW, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the neighboring country. A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say that the place was bewitched by a High German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson. Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs; are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols. . . "

(From the Project Gutenberg THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW,by Washington Irving)

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Biological Mystery

I once heard in a science class that no one has ever been able to explain why we itch, nor can they explain why scratching makes itches go away.

This phenomenon has plagued my dog recently. He writhes around on his back until he cries, trying to scratch some mysterious ailment. Today the vet told us there was no sign of fleas or anything amiss. She suggested his skin might be reacting to an allergy. As a result, my beagle is now on steroids. :) The vet said the itching should disappear almost instantly. I can't begin to imagine how one thing resolves the other, but I trust her medical advice.

The great thing about dogs, though (unlike cats), is that they take their medicine so willingly. You simply hide the pill in a piece of cheese and then say, "Would you like this cheese?" And the dog, through eager body language, says "Yes." Then he eats it and the pill is gone.

Cats taking pills? Well, that's a post for another day.

Meanwhile, it is to be hoped that the mysterious itching problem has been resolved.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

All Things Halloweeny

The weather is gorgeous, the house is warm, and I've been reading mysteries. While cleaning my attic last week I found a dusty Ruth Rendell paperback called NO MORE DYING THEN which is quite compelling. No spoilers here, but the story involves a missing child.

This weekend I must grade essays and make handouts for a new class, but tucked in between will be autumnal and Halloweeny events and excursions. We haven't yet carved any pumpkins (the guts above are from last year's sacrifice), but we've been painting and hanging leaf garlands and generally preparing for the autumnal celebrations.

Enjoy your weekends, too!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Mystery Writer Ann Littlewood on Wild Animals, Redheaded Boys, and Magical Moments

Hi, Ann—thanks for chatting with me.

You refer to your first mystery, Night Kill, as a zoo-dunnit, and you suggest that very few mysteries are set in zoos. With so many animal lovers in the world, why do you think this is not a more common setting?

I have a couple of theories. One is the association of zoos with children and possibly an assumption that only books for children would use this setting.

Another is that there just aren’t all that many zookeepers, period, and therefore not many who write fiction. Every zookeeper has a trove of fascinating stories, so let’s hope more of them decide to write! Another reason may be that people outside the profession think of zookeeping as rather sweet and undramatic, more appropriate for heartwarming anecdotes than for murder.

Trust me, it’s a dangerous profession, the relationships between keepers and animals are complex, and keepers share the same emotions and conflicts as the rest of humanity. And it's got all those great animals, so it’s a rich milieu for crime fiction. Night Kill is driven by grief and anger—I don’t think you’ll find it sentimental. In fact, I felt I had to go back and lighten it up a bit and add some humor.

You have a great deal of experience working with zoo animals, but your love of animals can be traced all the way back to childhood. Was there any one incident or encounter that turned you into such a naturalist, or do you think it was simply in your DNA?

One vivid memory is a car trip with another family, a Sunday drive in the countryside around Sacramento. We stopped on a little road surrounded by pastures and got out. The father of the other family, noted California conservationist Elmer Aldrich, pointed out an excited pair of killdeers calling and flapping around as though they each had a broken wing. He scooped up something from the gravel roadside. In his cupped hands was a downy killdeer chick, the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. He put it down as soon as we’d all seen it, and we moved away so the parents could relax. I’ve never forgotten that magical moment, that scrap of vivid life.

I think most of us are drawn to the natural world, if we get the chance to experience it as children. Children who are never taken hiking, never hear the names of birds or plants, never get their hands on sticks and worms lose this urge and are easily frightened by the wild. I was lucky in having those opportunities when I was young. I also read for hours every day (I was very introverted) and I loved animal stories—Walter Farley, Jim Kjelgaard, Margaret Henry. In college, I ended up a psychology major because the psych department had pigeons and white rats and even squirrel monkeys. A fluke encounter with The Management of Wild Mammals in Captivity by Lee S. Crandall, a used book I bought while in college, started my fascination with zoos.

This quote is on your website:
“Force-feeding smelt down baby harbor seals, injecting antibiotics into tiny tree shrews, stuffing calcium pills into dead mice, making fake caddis fly larva—we did whatever it took. I once waded into a stock tank with a baby hippo and gave it an enema. Sad to say, it worked.”

First of all, how does one know when a baby hippo needs an enema?

Easy. Food goes in one end and nothing comes out the other!

Second, where does one get the experience to do these kinds of tasks—or do the jobs themselves earn you the experience?

When I was hired, zoos were transitioning from keepers with farm or maintenance backgrounds toward keepers with an education in biology and previous experience with exotic animals. I was lucky to get the job and learn as I worked. Nowadays keepers have more options for professional training. That said, no way can you be trained for all the odd situations that come up. For example, I crated up a young lioness once by tossing an old tennis shoe into the crate. She adored chewing them up and dove in after it. A keeper has to be inventive. Good keepers watch their animals and read about the natural history of each species, and they communicate and learn from each other’s experience.

What’s the premise of Night Kill?

Night Kill is set in fictional Finley Memorial Zoo in Vancouver, Washington. A young zookeeper has a troubled marriage and a passion for big cats. When her lions kill her husband, she is derailed by grief and anger until she realizes that her husband’s death does not make sense. Determined to figure out who fed Rick to the lions and why, she finds that staying alive is also a challenge.

With your busy life as a zoo keeper, a technical writer, and a business analyst, how and when did you determine that you wanted to write a mystery?

I’ve wanted to write a zoo mystery for the longest time! I carried the basic plot around in my head for years after I left the zoo world. But I knew I had to clear space in my life and take writing seriously. That didn’t happen until my kids were grown and I moved to half time work.

Did you read other mysteries for inspiration?

Oh, yes. I’ve recently been reading authors new to me and re-discovered what a marvelous variety the label “mystery” encompasses.

Do you have a favorite animal?

Great kudus. And servals. African crowned cranes. Saw-whet owls. Box tortoises. Green jays. Dholes. Yellow-faced bumblebees. Wombats. Um, I could go on…

Are there common misconceptions that people hold about zoos or zoo work?
Some people still think that zoos get their animals from the wild. That’s rare—almost all zoo animals were born in zoos (and the breeding is very scientifically planned). People also underestimate the complexity, expense, and hard work required not only to keep the animals alive and healthy, but also to keep them psychologically sound.

Zookeepers spend an amazing amount of effort and creativity in keeping the animals entertained in ways that encourage their natural behaviors. This was just starting when I was a zookeeper and it’s been wonderfully developed. Zookeeping still includes, however, a great deal of hard physical labor keeping things clean.

Is there a sequel to Night Kill in the works?
Night Kill features big cats and penguins. The next in the series focuses on orangutans. I hope to see it published next fall.

You say that you had to stop your zookeeping job to help pay for college tuition and violin lessons. How many children do you have?

In zoo code, 2/0 red phase. Translation: two redheaded boys. They have fledged and flown far. One now lives in New York and one in Boston. Since my husband and I are in Portland, Oregon, the family invests a fair amount in plane tickets. The good news is that I can combine visits with book promotion.

Why do you think it is it that some of the most noble jobs pay the least?
Many people would like to be zookeepers—a job opening is likely to have dozens if not hundreds of applicants. In addition, the profession has moved from exclusively male to more than half female. I think both factors tend to keep wages down.

What are you reading right now?

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs, The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz, Stalking Susan by Julie Kramer (a great read and we were on a Bouchercon panel together), Down River by John Hart.

If you could have any job, other than the writing of mysteries, which I assume you will continue to do, what would it be?

Savior of the natural world. If I could figure out how to do it, I’d help humanity reduce its numbers and stop converting natural habitat to the stripped-down landscape that our activities create. Today’s children will inherit a weed patch instead of Eden, and it’s heartbreaking for those of us who care about other species. And of course a weed patch is not a healthy place for Homo sapiens either.

When can readers buy Night Kill, and how can they find out more about it?
Night Kill is available from independent bookstores,, and the chain bookstores. See for more information. The first chapter is posted for readers to sample.

Thanks for chatting with me, Ann! Good luck with your book.

Friday, October 17, 2008

On Wisdom and Truth


"Though leaves are many, the root is one.
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth."

--William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Defending the Poetic

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there."

--William Carlos Williams
from "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"

Monday, October 13, 2008

Tim Cockey Chats About Unlikely Undertakers, Lazy Catholics and True Heroes

Tim, thanks for chatting with me.

I read The Hearse You Came In On this summer and enjoyed it very much. Not too many books make me laugh out loud, but yours did.

Your sleuth, Hitchcock Sewell, is a very handsome man, and tall. This is a trend not only in mysteries, but in classic literature. Do you think that an audience is more sympathetic to a good-looking protagonist?

In a word: yes. In a lot of words: When it came to me that the character I was creating was going to be an undertaker, I cringed. The last thing I wanted to do was to read a book about such a seemingly dreary profession, let alone write one. And so, my antidote to this problem was to determine that the guy would be as humorous and charming as I could possibly make him. Otherwise, how could I expect people to want to spend time with him? So . . . the good looks thing made perfect sense for me. I did a little Cary Grant George Clooney melding in my mind . . . and Hitch is what I came up with.

Hitch is an orphan; as a child he lost not only his parents, but the baby sister who was about to be born when his family was killed in an auto accident. Why did you want your hero to have such a tragic past? Does it help that he is well versed in death, since he runs a funeral home and investigates murders?

A similar answer to the first question. The instant I saw that I was undertaker-bound, I not only when through all that make-him-appealing stuff, but I also wanted to let the reader know right away that undertaking was not a profession he chose out of any particular interest. He chose it because fate landed him in his aunt and uncle’s place, this was their “shop”, and when the uncle passed away Hitch was doing the right thing by helping out with the family business.

And yes, the nice by-product for me was that I now had a protagonist whose profession allowed him sufficient access to the ‘wrongly un-lived’ that I could justify his sticking his nose into murder investigations on a somewhat regular basis. I always marvel at those writers who manage to get a jazz musician or a history professor (or a cat!!!) poking into a murder year after year.

I realize that I have some catching up to do—if I count correctly there are five books in the Hearse series. Will they continue beyond that?

You count correctly. The fifth book doesn’t have one of those world-famous hearse titles (it’s titled BACKSTABBER) so sometimes people are thrown off. But yes . . . five it currently is . . . and five it shall remain for the time being. I am currently writing other books under a different name, as I see your next question is going to prod me about.

That's right. You also write as Richard Hawke. What made you decide to use a pseudonym?

Ah well . . . so many different reasons. For one thing, just like the name. I think it looks great on the front of a book. Hell, I’d buy a book by a guy named Richard Hawke. In part, since the ‘Hawke’ books are a departure from the humorous Baltimore-based books, I thought that making the distinction might be a polite thing to do for readers. I want people to look to Richard Hawke for both series-writing as well as stand-alones, hopefully delving into various of the sub-genres of crime fiction.

On your website you mentioned that you went to a Catholic grade school in Baltimore. As a fellow Catholic grade-schooler, I am guessing that this was both a positive and an excruciating experience?

Did I say ‘Catholic?” I meant to say “Episcopalean” (which I might have described as ‘lazy Catholic’) So no, in my case things weren’t so excruciating as kneeling on peas or having to drum up horrible sins to tell to an overly-curious man in a bathrobe. I got off with simply going to chapel once a week…and that became an opportunity for me and my chums to try to out-sing each other. You know . . . take your lungs for a walk.

This is my most dreadful error. I was making that ever-so-Catholic assumption that Papists have a monopoly on saints, and when I saw St. Paul, I leaped into a denominational abyss. :) And I never had to kneel on peas, but when my dad was little, his mother made him kneel on corn when he done wrong. So you were close.

I read that you are a fan of Batman comics. Did you ever read the one that compared Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, Batman, to Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov and his alter ego, Raskolnikov? As a Batman officianado, do you think it’s a workable comparison?

Wow. No, I certainly never did read that one. And if your question is diabolically intended to reveal that I’ve never read C & P…well, you’ve succeeded. Having said that . . . I’ll go on record as saying that if I ever do reads C & P, I’ll bet I’ll agree with this comparison. I also happen to think that the Batman comparisons work for many crime fiction protagonists. Well-intentioned oddballs, is the short way of putting it. Oh yes . . . with a dead parent or two in the background.

I'm mostly revealing my obsession with that book.

Do you write full time, or must you, like many of the mystery writers interviewed here, wear many hats?

Well . . . I enjoy wearing hats, but I’ve never found that simply wearing one brings in the bacon. I work hard at my writing . . . and then I don’t work hard at all after that. I’m halfway joking here. All to say that I’m currently able to keep crumbs on my table and my lips lightly moistened through my writing efforts. Tomorrow, so I hear, is another day.

You grew up in Baltimore, but now live in New York. You also once lived in California. What’s your favorite place?

I’m going to go with New York. Just yesterday I was walking down the street and was hearing so many foreign accents and foreign tongues I felt as if I was in the Star Wars bar scene. This alone makes New York such a phenomenal place to live. It’s a Star Wars bar scene. I’m afraid I’d get jittery and bored if I were to spend too much time away from here. You know what they say, New York is an island off the coast of America. For me, that’s perfect.

What do you like to read?

Largely non-fiction. I’m currently reading a memoir of Arthur Gelb, who came up through the ranks of the New York Times, from the 40s to …well, I haven’t finished the book yet. My fiction choices are eclectic, and include as many non crime books as crime books. Since I’m in the mood today to give a plug, I’ll tell you that my fairly recent discovery of John Lescroat has made me very happy. This guy writes a really good book. and thankfully, a whole lot of them.

What are you writing right now?

I’m finishing up rewrites on a real departure for me . . . or for Richard Hawke. It’s a book with a large political component, though I’m loath to term it a ‘political thriller’. Let’s say, its overt plot is driven by some classic political shenanigans while equal focus goes to the real lives of the people involved . . . and a look into how the pressures of the plot are playing in their private lives. I’m having a blast with it . . . though at the same time, at this late point in the rewrite, I’m getting worn out. Just the other day I had to go ahead and ‘expire’ a character who had survived the entire first draft. It was a sad moment . . . a poignant end for this particular character. That was bit of a bummer. Being God has its downside. (I’d always heard that was the case anyway)

I believe it.

Your characters are very amusing. Are you considered amusing in person? Do you tend to be the life of the party?

People like me may consider ourselves amusing and the life of the party . . . but we’d be the wrong people to ask. In part, it depends upon the party. Some parties I’ve been to resist life of any kind. But yes…overall, I find the world vastly amusing (and distressing) and for the most part I simply recall for people the things I see and hear, and this seems to be amusing more often than not. (My original typo just now said: ‘ . . . more amusing than hot.’) My general rule of thumb is that if I can make people happy for a second or two, that’s a good thing.

Have you ever written books for children or young adults?

I once wrote Book 3 in a 6-part series about 3 high school buddies who were into baseball . . .and the series took them from Little League into the minors and all the way to the World Series. My contribution was the Spring Training book. I once went back over the ms. to see how many times I had written “He couldn’t believe it!” Many many times. So, as to whether I’ve written a YA or kids book that I would proudly hang my name on (or one of my names) . . . no. I have an idea for a YA or kids book that sits in my head and refuses to budge. It concerns a boy who runs away from the circus to join family. Now that I’ve said it out loud . . . it sounds like the backstory for another damn crime fiction book.

Based on that answer, I think you could write a most amusing young adult book.

You have written that you enjoy tales of “audacious outsiders taking whatever drastic or heroic efforts are necessary in order to put wrong back into right.” Do you see any examples of this in the real world today? Or do we find these people only in fiction?

Oh, there are plenty of people in the so-called real world who do this. Maybe not always on the grand and famous scale . . . but on the micro level. Good people who lead with their hearts. Perhaps they’re not audacious . . . except insofar as anyone who bucks the existing tendencies can be considered audacious. Likewise ‘drastic;’ and ‘heroic’. These words can apply to quiet and subtle actions. Anyone who cares for others more than they care for themselves? That’s my hero.

That's lovely. And it might be your inner Episcopalean talking. :)

What are your plans for 2009?

To get more sleep. To get out more. I suppose I’m going to have to buy myself a hammock if I expect to achieve those two goals.

How can readers find out about both Tim Cockey and Richard Hawke, and the fun books that they write?

Or of course, go Google crazy.

Thanks for chatting with me, Tim.

The pleasure was all ours.


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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sisyphus and Saturdays

Saturdays used to be days for lying around; listening to music, taking walks, reading, watching tv--you know: leisure activities. Leisure is the illusion of youth, though. It's one of those gifts our parents give us while they shoulder all of the responsibility.

Now that I'm a mom and a professional and a full-time worrier, Saturdays don't bring leisure, but I still love them. It's not that I can just sit around when I have chore lists every week, but the difference between weekdays and Saturdays is that I am in charge. There is a certain relief in being able to direct my own actions, to choose to put my nose to the grindstone, rather than be told to do so.

In "The Myth of Sisyphus," Albert Camus argues that even Sisyphus can be happy, despite what seems like a horrifying punishment: to push a giant boulder up a mountain only to have it fall down the other side, where he must muscle it back up again, again, again, ad infinitum. This is his fate in the Underworld.

But Camus, an existentialist, believed that happiness could be found in the notion of personal responsibility. He wrote, "The struggle enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

I am not an existentialist, but I see the merit in Camus' argument that one can find happiness in one's tasks by merely embracing them--by claiming them. So I shall claim all of my tasks today, from the lawn mowing to the grocery shopping to the reading and writing. And one can imagine me happy, too. :)

art link here.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Why I Love Chuck

Have you seen the hip new spy comedy on NBC? It's called CHUCK, and it stars the multi-talented Zachary Levi as a young man--Chuck Bartowski--whose visually absorbent mind accidentally photographs an entire "intersect" of CIA/NSA secrets. The original intersect is destroyed, and Chuck becomes the most valuable commodity in U.S. national security.

Therefore, Chuck must be guarded at all times by the lovely CIA agent Sarah Walker. Walker is played by Yvonne Strahovski, whose retro look helps to make this show feel like something both modern and nostalgic.

It's not just the look of CHUCK that I like, though--it's the snappy dialogue, the unlikely but suspenseful situations, the terrific ensemble cast. And its theme song is the coolest thing since SECRET AGENT MAN. Don't believe me?

Here it is:

Mystery lovers will enjoy this show, as will fans of good acting. Levi is truly a delight, and I predict a bright future for this young man.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Fun with Janet Evanovich

Seasons change, and the Cubs' season is over. I shall spend no more words on their ignominious fall.

To cheer me up, though, Jess Lourey is interviewing Janet Evanovich on Inkspot today. Both Jess and Janet have the power to lift my spirits with their humor, and I know this will be a fun one to read.

Until then, speaking of seasons, this is a particularly busy one at work, so heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's back to work I go. :)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Chore Day

It's a gorgeous fall day in Chicagoland. The Cubs have done nothing so far to earn the faith I spoke of in the previous post, but they have another chance and I'll allow them that. My husband, on the other hand, is finished, or so he says. He claims he won't even watch the game tonight--he's that angry with his baseball team. I'm guessing he'll be sneaking looks at the scores on the internet. I feel bad for him, because his team always loses right around his birthday--which is also playoff time. So either they're out of contention by now or they're losing a playoff game. That's been the pattern for the last 47 years of his life.

In any case, before we can take him out for birthday food and fun, we have to address Saturday chores. That's how it's been for the last 40 some years of MY life. My Saturday chores have only increased with time, but I still love Saturday, especially Saturdays in October. So out in the cold air I go!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Cubs, the Sox, and the Apocalypse

Things are pretty exciting in Chicago right now. The air has turned cold and people seem to have a new energy. Perhaps some of that is attributable to the sense that history is being made in the world of Chicago baseball. Not since 1902 have the Cubs AND the Sox both made it to the play-offs, and the fact that it has happened now brings a sense of unreality. Should we be looking for a solar eclipse? Flying saucers? The four horsemen? Because this is something that Chicagoans figured would never happen.

In addition to the two-teams phenomenon is the fact that the Cubs, who finally seem like World Series contenders, last won the World Series EXACTLY one hundred years ago. This could be their sports Brigadoon. They win, and then disappear into the mist until 2108. :)

I grew up a Cubs fan--that is, I became one by osmosis. My father and my two brothers always had the games on, and I grew up to the summer sounds of 1970s baseball at Wrigley Field, Jack Brickhouse waxing poetic about the strengths of the team. I remember names like Rick Monday, Jose Cardinal, Billy Williams, Joe Pepitone, Bobby Dernier, Fergie Jenkins, Bill Hands. I can hear, in my mind's ear, the moaning of my male relatives when a ball was dropped; the yelling at the umpire who said "out" when someone was OBVIOUSLY safe; the laughter when Brickhouse said something funny.

I ended up marrying a Cubs fan, although that wasn't one of my criteria for a mate. My husband is far more devoted than I am. He watches the games, then the highlights, then the highlights on other channels. He scours the news for different coverage of the games. All summer he knew the schedule, the stats, the magic number.
In the past he always ended up swearing at the television for most of June and July, then went through a period of depression in August as he watched the Cubs remove themselves from contention. He often said, "That's it. I'm done."

As though a Cubs fan could ever stop being a Cubs fan. And now, now, the light is shining at the end of that tunnel, and the trophy waits there. Never mind all this nonsense about billy goats and curses and gypsies. The Cubs have waited a hundred years, and their fans feel that they've been holding their breath for that same century.

The elements have come together; fall is here, and there is a special feeling in the air. The Cubs are going to win the World Series. Sorry, Sox fans. But at least you'll make the play-offs. :)