Friday, May 30, 2008

I Wear Shakespeare

I'm saving my pennies for this: a sterling silver necklace with a quote from THE TEMPEST engraved upon it.

Because I was not nerdly enough before, I have found that lately I crave all things literary in my dress and decor. I wear a watch with Shakespeare's face on it, have little Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare action figures, and even, to my students' ultimate disdain, a Shakespeare Beanie Baby.

But this: this takes it to a new level. First of all, the line comes from one of my favorite speeches, when the all-powerful magician Prospero is on the verge of giving up everything: his daughter Miranda, his beloved servant Ariel, and his power. In contemplating this, Prospero becomes downright existential, realizing that none of his earthly power and possessions really matter, since in the end "our little life is rounded with a sleep" and we ourselves become illusions, or "such stuff as dreams are made on."

It's a speech that I think resonates far more with the over-forty crowd. Usually the listeners in the desks wear expressions suggesting that Shakespeare sure toiled a lot just to create words that would someday bore the 21st Century. But I relate to those words, and love them, more with each passing year. And so I choose to drape myself in them.

Didn't some fashion person once say that we are what we wear? That means I am a dumpy pantsuit and a pair of dowdy shoes--but it also means I am Shakespeare. :)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Remembrance of Things Past

My husband Jeff and I were married on this day in 1988. Happy 20th Anniversary to us!

I blogged about this more extensively at Inkspot, in case you want to read the bizarre story of our blind date meeting. :)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Cat's Not Out of the Bag

That's because my cat, Rose, prefers to be in the bag. :)

More interviews to come!

Have some fun today. Let Rose be your inspiration.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Last Full Measure

No one says it better than Abraham Lincoln said it:

" . . . But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

From Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
November 19, 1863

Thursday, May 22, 2008

An Elementary Observation

Happy Birthday to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was born on this date in 1859.

Doyle, of course, created the detective Sherlock Holmes. Holmes, while fictional, is still assumed by some people to be a real historical figure--perhaps this can be attributed to Doyle's gift for characterization.

Happy Birthday, Sir Conan-Doyle!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mystery Writer Marcus Sakey Chats About Good Luck, True Suspense, and Beautiful Places

Marcus, first of all, congratulations on all of your successes. Your website is filled with great news. So my first question is—is this a dream come true? Have you always aspired to be a writer? Or did you happen into it and find that you were quite good at it? Or some other thing I didn’t mention?

Thanks! I’m delighted but a little dizzy. I’ve had an awful lot of luck.

It’s a dream come true. I’ve wanted to do this pretty much my whole life. So, knowing that, I promptly went to college to study something else, then got a job doing something else still. Ten years later, hating my job, I decided to quit, and was fired before I could get a word out. True story. So it seemed like an opportune time.

Your reviews have been terrific. I was struck by the quote from the Chicago Tribune on your website, indicating that your work is “even better than they say.” I would be happy if someone said this about my talent in any context. But—weird as this may sound—are good reviews ever intimidating?

You know, they are, because by the time you get them, you’re deep into something else. So you get about ten seconds of happy glow followed by a double handful of pressure. While I like my finished work, in process I’m wracked with doubt—is this interesting enough, big enough, new enough, good enough. And someone saying nice things about something I’ve already done adds to that.

That said, to any reviewers out there, please, don’t feel the need to “help me” by gratuitously bashing my books.

You give much good advice on your website about how to sell a novel. One of the memorable lines is “New ideas are the lace lingerie of writing, but novels aren’t made of one-night stands.” Why do you think it’s tempting for writers to dump the project they’re working on to pursue something else?

Thanks. I got a lot of good advice from people when I was starting, so I wanted to try to give back.

New ideas are always tempting because whatever you’re committed to is hard work. Simple as that. It’s 300 or so pages of hard work, and so the greener-grass factor comes into play. I recommend writing down those new ideas and then getting back to your novel. No other way to make things happen.

Plus, to be dead honest, when you come back to them clean, you’re going to realize they weren’t all that magical anyway.

Before I ever met you, I attended the Madison Bouchercon and some of the men
in the bar were grumbling about your good looks. The word "breathtaking" was used, as I recall. Do you have fans who feel this way?

The men were saying that? Damn that plastic surgeon. I knew he screwed me.

As I once told you, I read The Blade Itself after drinking a 20-ounce Diet Coke, and it was sheer torture trying to finish the book before my bladder exploded. Do you consciously try to create suspense, or do you just tell the story in your head and let the suspense emerge?

I love that compliment. While I’m glad you didn’t suffer internal damage, there’s no nicer thing to say to a writer than that you simply couldn’t stop reading.

I work hard to create suspense. Every scene, every page, should have something that propels the reader forward. It doesn’t have to be a gunfight—in fact, it definitely shouldn’t be—but suspense is what makes most people read. You can have anything else in there you want, use it as a pulpit, explore your characters or your ideas, so long as you make sure suspense is always present.

Your book At the City’s Edge also won raves, but you suggest that Good People, which comes out in August, is your favorite so far. Why?

Partly because it’s my last, I suppose, and partly because it went more easily than either of the others. But mostly because I just like it. Sorry—not too technical an answer.

In your list of favorite authors, there is only one woman. Are you branching out and reading more books by female writers?

Yikes. I’ve been busted on this one before, and I really should update that list. I swear, I like and respect women.

Rather than go into it again, let me direct you here, to Marshal Zeringue’s fine blog, where I answered this at some length.

You love traveling. Is there a location that would earn your “most beautiful place” award?

Wow. Most beautiful?

Call it a tie between SCUBA diving in Belize, rock climbing in Utah, wandering in Amsterdam, café-sitting in Prague, and watching monkeys in Costa Rica.

Oh, and café con leche in Sevilla.

And strolling New York in winter.

Swimming in Greece.

Hmm. Shit.

The producing duo of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have purchased the rights to your first novel. This is cool on many levels, but I can’t help but reflect on this: Jason Bourne bought your book! What was your feeling after you made that sale?It was something like this:


Sorry. I swear a lot.

Funny thing is, and I have no idea whether he’d be interested or their company would want to take it this way, but Matt Damon was one of three people I pictured in my head while writing the book.

That sounds odd.

Pictured playing the roles, I mean.

The other two were Mark Wahlberg and Edward Norton. Any of them could just kill as either of the major characters.

Do you know when the movie will be made? Will they keep the title?

Well, I don’t actually know that it will be made. It’s only optioned at the moment. Things are looking positive, but I’m not counting on it until I’m sitting in a seat. As for the title, I have no idea. I’d like for them to keep it, but it wouldn’t upset me if they changed it. I worked in advertising for years, so I got over my moral compunctions about whoring some time ago.

Do you want a role in the movie? Any interest in making a brief Hitchcock-like appearance in all of your future films?

Hell yes. There’s a scene where a character gets his throat ripped out with a set of keys—I’d love for that to be my debut.

Gross--but it would be memorable. What are you reading now?

I just finished an ARC of Ken Bruen’s forthcoming novel ONCE WERE COPS. Blew my hair back. I read it in a day, 50 pages in the morning, another 250 at night, until 3 a.m.

This morning I started Pete Dexter’s THE PAPERBOY. Loving it, of course. He’s a black magician.

Are you at work on a fourth book, or are you letting yourself have a vacation?

I wish. I’m 65 pages into book four, as yet untitled. Still in the part where I like it—around page 150, I’m sure I’ll lose all faith.

But I have learned how to make Sarin gas. It’s easier than you’d think.

Your books have come out in rapid succession; do you ever suffer from a dearth of ideas?
That’s been a quirk of the publishing industry more than anything else. I finished BLADE in 2005, if I recall. Basically, I’m a book a year guy. GOOD PEOPLE is something of an exception, but it has to do with me following my editor to a new publisher. Still wrote it in a year, they just shortened the lead time to publish it.

One last thing: what was the most influential book you read as a young person, mystery or otherwise?

Way, way too many to mention. I got through school by sitting in the back row with a book held under the desk. At the time, I thought I was pulling one over on the teachers, but lately I’m thinking they were smarter than I realized.

Thanks for chatting with me Marcus, and good luck with everything. :)

Thank you! It was a pleasure.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Access To Courtroom 302

The speaker at our final MWA meeting was the modest but compelling Steve Bogira, the author of the much-acclaimed Courtroom 302. You can read all sorts of wonderful reviews of the book here, but this one really stood out for me:

"Stunning . . . What ails our system of criminal justice isn't news . . . What is news is the why of it all. And that's the book's central revelation, which Bogira articulates in prose that's first rate . . . The heart of the book is observation and world-class reportage . . Statistics are deconstructed back into human beings. We get the smells, sights, and sounds of the big city criminal courts in precise, unforgettable detail . . . Anyone considering working as a prosecutor or a defense attorney must read this book.... one's perceptions of our criminal justice system, and the larger system that created and continues to shape it, will be permanently altered."

--Theodore L. Blumberg, New York Law Journal

Mr. Bogira told us some of the stories that he included in his book, and while some were amusing, many were unbelievable or simply heartbreaking. He is committed to writing not so much about law as about poverty, and in this case, the legal and social problems that poverty can create.

It was a very interesting presentation; I shall certainly read the book based on Steve Bogira's very intelligent discussion and fielding of questions.

Here Steve Bogira (right) poses with mystery author Michael Black. To read my interview with Mr. Black, click here.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Coming Soon . . .

I'm afraid my blog has been rather boring this week as I slough through my pile of research papers. I have four left to go, and light beams wanly at the end of the tunnel.

So I'll give you a taste of the more vibrant blog to come, which will include interviews with:

Marcus Sakey

Doug Cummings

and a cast of thousands. Meanwhile, I'm off to the MWA meeting!

Happy Sunday.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Note To Self

--Winston Churchill

I need this mantra today. How about you?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

One Path, One Chance

"I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good thing, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."

--Etienne de Grellet

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Technological Time Travel

Remember these? I never miss the lack of convenience, of course, but sometimes I miss the sounds they used to make: that deep clunk of the letter going down and the schtook-BING! of the carriage returning, not to mention that lovely rhythm of really getting going on a good thought, pounding away before the notion left me.

When I was in high school typing class we learned on both the manual machines and the more modern electrics, so that we'd be able to adapt to whatever future offices offered to us. Little did we know!

I held out against computers for a while. I was loyal to my typewriter and all it represented for me. But the first time someone showed me that all I had to do to correct an error was press "backspace," I betrayed the typewriter without a second glance. Never to have to use those annoying white papers again! Never to have to scroll up the paper to fix an error and then scroll back down, trying to get back on the exact same line (and never succeeding)! It was too much temptation.

Now thoughts of my old typewriter are similar to those one has for a far-distant lover. I smile fondly--but I'd never go back.

(Please excuse this re-post of an old blog from 2006, but I am still grading research papers. I fear at this point I will never be finished. :)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day

It's a gray and rainy Mother's Day in this part of the world, but it's nice all the same. My sons made me pancakes (well, one son stayed in bed, but he's thirteen and generally contrary) and brought them to my room in the time-honored tradition.

One of my favorite film moments honoring mothers is this clip from My Left Foot, in which Christy Brown, assumed to mentally disabled even by his family, takes the painstaking time to write one word--with his left foot.

Try not to cry.

And Happy Mother's Day!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Bury My Heart Under This Pile of Papers

I'm grading research papers this week, so my blogs will most likely be short and sweet. Each year I'm convinced I can get through them quickly and efficiently, but each year I am inundated with notecards, outlines, VERY rough drafts, and a slight headache right between the eyes.

I am learning, however, some interesting things about Ibsen's Nora Helmer and her quest for independence; Hermann Hesse's fascination with Eastern religion in the writing of Siddhartha; Fate as a driving force in Oedipus Rex; and why both Camus' Meursault and Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov create their OWN alienation. :)

It's an important time, though, when students begin to think of themselves as scholars, and that needs to be nurtured. So off to the great pile of scholarship I go!

(Disclosure: This is a reprint from LAST year at research paper time. Second Disclosure: I am lazy).

Thursday, May 08, 2008

My First Mystery

I was reminiscing today about my earliest books--the first ones I read alone. I think this one may have been my first mystery.

Big Max was a wonderful book: the tale of a detective who traveled by umbrella and was hired to solve a case for the King of Pooka Pooka, who had lost his beloved elephant.

I can still remember the joy of discovering that book, but also the thrill of mystery. I'm not sure if I figured out the ending or not, but I know it was satisfying, even to my seven-year-old self. Eventually I moved on to such sophisticated fare as Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, and after that I read single-title suspense novels by authors like Mary Stewart, Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt.

Big Max is still in print and available to a whole new generation of children (and perhaps future mystery lovers). Thank you, Kin Platt, for my first mystery reading experience.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Dana Fredsti on AUGUST MOON

My guest blogger today is Dana Fredsti, who is reviewing Jess Lourey's new book, August Moon, the fourth in the Murder-By-Month series. Take it, Dana.

I read a lot of books. I read before going to sleep, in the bathroom (you all do it, come on, admit it!), on the Muni and while I'm walking. Seriously. I've perfected the art of reading while walking without a: tripping, b: bumping into fellow pedestrians or other obstacles, or c: getting hit by cars. I read quickly too, so I go through at least five books in a week. Very rarely, however, do I read books that make me laugh out loud, especially in public. AUGUST MOON, the fourth in Jess Lourey's Murder by the Month series, is one of those rare books that did just that. We're talking the kind of laugh accompanied by a snort. You know. The kind of involuntary snorting that increases in frequency with age. Luckily the embarrassment factor decreases with each passing birthday. Good thing 'cause I was snorting up a storm while reading AUGUST MOON on a recent plane trip. The people in my row no doubt thought they were sitting next to some strange hybrid of woman and warthog.

Seriously, though, AUGUST MOON is just plain funny. It's also a cracking good mystery with a well thought out plot, plenty of suspense and a bountiful selection of suspects and assorted eccentric characters adding to the mix. To shamelessly quote the back cover of AUGUST MOON here: Our sassy young heroine suffers more than just unrequited lust during a Minnesota scorcher of a summer in this fourth Murder-by-Month mystery. A dead cheerleader and various oddball fanatics are uncovered in the small town of Battle Lake, "where the women are churchgoers, the men like to hunt, and the body count is above average."

At the beginning of AUGUST MOON Mira James, sassy young heroine in question, is stood up by a Brad Pitt-esque gardening expert, thus motivating her to give notice at her job as Battle Lake's librarian and move back to Minneapolis. Before she can put her plan in effect, however, petty theft and the death of a cheerleader draws Mira into the investigation of newcomer Pastor Meales and his evangelical bible camp. To add to the confusion, Mira's replacement at the Battle Lake library is a member of Pastor Meales' congregation, a mysterious, cape-wearing wood tick expert arrives in town and another cheerleader goes missing. Mira's work is cut out for her as she juggles the logistics of solving the various mysteries, meeting deadlines for her other job as (reporter) writer for the local newspaper, and attending a Creationist science fair at Christ's Church of the Apocryphal Revelation (think Jesus Camp).

The science fair brought on the major snortfest. Such exhibits as "My Great Great Grandpa Was a Christian, Not a Monkey," "Biology Proves Women Designed for Housework," and (my favorite) "Thermodynamic Readouts Confirm Satan Is More Active Than Ever" had me laughing out loud. There really are religious groups who promote these nutso theories, which is both funny and kinda scary. To quote Homer (Simpson, not the Greek epic poet), "It's funny 'cause it's true!"

And that pretty much sums up what I love best about Jess Lourey's writing: her characters, even the over-the-top eccentrics, all have a core of believability that allow the reader to lose themselves in the story. The plot is woven together carefully, but never feels contrived or forced, and Mira is a flawed (and therefore believable) yet extremely likeable heroine. I'm looking forward to a full year's worth of murder, mayhem and Mira!

Dana Fredsti, today's guest blogger, will be touring the west coast with Jess Lourey beginning May 21. They met at Left Coast Crime in Denver in March and haven't looked back. To see their tour dates, visit their websites (, To win a copy of AUGUST MOON, be the first person to email Jess through her website and tell her what the best winery on the west coast is (and it has to be between San Francisco and Seattle).

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Mysterious Mountain Journey

Someone sent me this via e-mail; I find the footage amazing, but also mysterious. How was it filmed? That is today's mystery. Check it out and tell me what you think.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Iron Man Evokes The Ancient Greek Hero

As the mother of two sons and the wife of a man-child who loves superheroes, my fate was to see Iron Man in the weekend that it came out. We have been marking the days, literally, on our calendar until the exciting debut of this latest Marvel-inspired film. I've seen lots of superhero movies with my bevy of men--Spiderman 1-3, Batman in all its incarnations, Superman, Hulk, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, X-men. They were all fun according to this pattern: superhero takes on a villain and saves the city (usually New York).

But Iron Man is different. Iron Man is not just about the evil nature of the villain without, but about the dual nature of the man within. It is about violence and conscience, power and accountability. And Robert Downey, Jr. makes it work with a very nuanced performance.

On the way home I was buzzing about the movie, trying to get the men to think about it on a symbolic level. They didn't really want to. They liked the testosterone of it, the giant metal suits, the pure power that perhaps every man, and some women, dream of.

To me, Tony Stark, the arms dealer who becomes Iron Man, could have been a character written by Sophocles, if Sophocles could be brought to Hollywood and asked to write a screenplay (and I'm sure Sophocles would have a lot to say about Hollywood . . .).
Stark is a flawed man, a man who may have wasted his life in the pursuit of power and pleasure. But he has a moment of redemption, and that moment fuels a new passion. Still, he remains flawed, and the Ancient Greeks would suggest that he must take responsibility for those flaws, no matter how often he himself is a victim, and no matter that he has changed his worldview. He will always be burdened by his past.

I like the fact that a modern-day movie raises some of the questions of the ages: Why does power so often corrupt? Why do people seek to solve problems with ever-escalating violence? Where is the logic in thinking that we can make weapons ever larger, ever more powerful, and can somehow still remain unscathed?

I recommend the movie, both as a fun superhero romp and as a thought-provoking examination of the modern world and its weapons. Jon Favreau, the director, seems to enjoy asking those big questions, and I intend to keep watching his movies to see if he comes closer to an answer.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Now Cut That Out!

On May 2, 1932, Jack Benny's first radio show debuted. His humor is so timeless that it's still funny now (unlike some "comedies" from the 70s and 80s).

Here's Benny in 1955 with my all-time favorite, Groucho Marx. The two are doing a skit on The Jack Benny Show in which Jack plays a contestant on Groucho's show, You Bet Your Life.