Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Birthdays and Books

My family members got lots of books this holiday season. My son has a December birthday and so do I, so we got birthday books and Christmas books and now we just have to find the time to read them. :)

Among the loot I got today were The Piano Teacher and A Beautiful Blue Death--can't wait to dig into those. And I still have my Christmas gift of U is for Undertow, which I started last night: classic Kinsey Millhone with a great beginning. There are plenty of unanswered questions, and it's clear that Kinsey will have to extract those answers one by one. Ah, the start of a good mystery is almost more satisfying than the ending.

What better gift than a book? Except perhaps the retro velour sweatsuit my husband bought for me. Very comfy for reading the above-mentioned novels.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Fair Maiden is a Great Read

Before I read A Fair Maiden, I'd never read anything by Joyce Carol Oates. I suppose this was based on a prejudice against what I considered "literary" writing that I didn't necessary want to read in my free time. (Which speaks ill of me, I know). I saw her work, book after book, for years, and never picked it up, despite the blurbs and accolades, despite the mention of the book awards on the back cover.

When I opened her new book, A Fair Maiden, I was forced to admit the folly of my prejudice. Oates had me hooked from the first word. This book is a blend of a Gothic romance and a mythical fairy tale, with a touch of horror and with unrelenting suspense.

It begins when Katya Spivak, a working class girl from New Jersey, takes a job as a nanny for a wealthy young couple in Bayhead Harbor, an affluent area on the Jersey Shore. Katya is not Jane Eyre, and yet there are traces of Jane in Katya's insecurity, her longing for independence from her often cruel family, her yearning to be loved by someone. Katya is sixteen, so it is a shock when, in the first sentence, Oates reveals that she will develop a relationship with the wealthy Marcus Kidder, who is 68 years old.

Publisher's Weekly jeered at this book, calling it 'derivative.' and claiming it was one of Oates' lesser works. Since it's the first book I've read by Oates, I didn't feel burdened by any comparisons, except to the myths and gothic tales to which Oates vaguely alludes with her fairy-tale tone.

My curiosity was piqued by the notion of the old man and the young girl. They both have flaws: he is proud and rich and desirous of beauty at any cost. She is poor and jealous and potentially grasping. So who, in this story, will use whom? That was my driving question as I plowed through A Fair Maiden, even toting it to the doctor's office with me so that I could read in the waiting room.

The book certainly didn't go where I thought it would, but it was fascinating, nonetheless. For me, the premise was buttressed by Oates' graceful writing and oddly inverted diction that bespoke of fantasy.

A good read is launched by a promising beginning. And Joyce Carol Oates? You had me at creepy old man. :)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Far Distant Voices

"These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves. From each of them goes out its own voice . . . and just as the touch of a button on our set will fill the room with music, so by taking down one of these volumes and opening it, one can call into range the voice of a person far distant in time and space, and hear them speaking to us, mind to mind, heart to heart."

--Gilbert Highet

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Space

Ah, the holidays. The first time since summer that I've had a smidgen of extra time. Sure, there's still work to do, but there will be reading time, as well. So tomorrow I'm taking U is for Undertow to my doctor's appointment.

And later in the week, when I've finished that one, I'll read a few of my son's stories in his James Herriott companion. (Such lovely writing in there!)

And then I might still have time (between grading papers, of course) to take a peek at the new Max Allan Collins book, written with the late Mickey Spillane.

So much to read, and a bit more time than usual. This is good. They are truly happy holidays. :)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Why, It's Christmas Day!

"A merry Christmas, Bob!" said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. "A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I'll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!"

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him."

--From "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens

Photo: my Christmas tree!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Thomas, Cats and Winter

"It was on the afternoon of the Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero's garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes. The wise cats never appeared. . . ."

From "A Child's Christmas in Wales"
by Dylan Thomas

Saturday, December 19, 2009

What I'm Reading

I'm immersed in a delicious Italian mystery called Suspicion, by Laura Grimaldi (Il Sospetto, translated by Robin Pickering-Iazzi).

Grimaldi's tale has a taste of the Gothic, focused as it is on an older widow who lives with her adult son and comes to suspect that he is "The Monster," a serial killer who has been terrorizing her town and surrounding Italian towns for years.

I enjoy foreign mysteries for their sense of place--a little trip away for me each time I open the cover. Grimaldi's style is spare, but she manages to convey the beauty of the Italian countryside and the scent of the lemon trees that the main character brings in for the colder months.

Each little detail adds to the growing suspense. This has been bedtime reading, but I'll have to finish it tonight because I can't wait any longer for a resolution.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Saddest Movie I've Ever Seen

Last night I watched the Japanese film Nobody Knows (2004), in which an irresponsible Japanese mother with four children by four different fathers settles her children in a new apartment, then leaves them alone for longer and longer periods of time, until she finally leaves permanently.

The eldest child, Akira, who is only twelve years old, is left to fend for himself and for his three younger siblings. When the money runs out, Akira must find other ways to support his little family. He will not go to social services, because he fears being separated from his siblings. Their mother has never allowed them to go to school, and so they live a life on the outskirts in the middle of Tokyo, unwitnessed and unaided.

There are poignant details in this movie--little details that emphasize the beautiful love the siblings have for one another, the primal bond of family, and the amazing adaptability of children. Beautifully filmed, beautifully acted. But the final scenes had me crying harder than I thought I would ever cry at a movie, and today I cannot forget the experience.

Saddest of all is the fact that this movie was based on a real story, and that the true story was apparently much worse than the one which made me cry last night.

This movie is wonderful, if you can bear your own tears.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Savoring the Bad

"“I like these cold, gray winter days. Days like these let you savor a bad mood."

--Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin and Hobbes)

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Noreen Ayres on the Power of Faulkner, the Discretion of Cops, and the 'Little Fictions' Within Poetry

Noreen Ayres (N.J. Ayres) has written mystery novels, short stories, screenplays, and poetry. Her latest publication is the short story "Rust," which appears in Otto Penzler's 2009 The Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Jeffery Deaver.

Booklist says that you write “hard-hitting crime fiction that's vivid, graphic, and visceral.” How did you begin to explore the craft of writing?

I didn't come from a family that read books. But they read the "funny papers," as we called them, and we did have a few magazines. I don't know when I thought I might be able to write something entertaining or why I took a creative writing class in community college, but the first story I wrote was of a murder, and the last one I wrote in that class was too, and it was published in the college journal and read to other classes, I was told, after I graduated.

The first book I read as a teenager was Pearl Buck's My Several Worlds, and at 18, while I lay in my hospital bed after having a baby, I somehow came to read Somerset Maugham, and I remember wondering how he could possibly know all the things he knew, and I wanted to be like him, knowing the names of things like trees and plants and defining humans as he did. But I didn't write stories again for many years, having only time for poems, which I soon believed to be little fictions even as they might reflect real experiences.

The police ride-along you describe on your website gave you “a deeper understanding and respect for the complexities of the difficult and dangerous job of law enforcement.” What surprised you most about your real-life cop experience?

The discretion officers have. As one told me, he enjoys the fact that he has a certain independence, no boss breathing down his neck in the usual way, and that every day is different. I was also surprised that he didn't call for backup before he stopped two rough-looking men after midnight who were driving a pickup truck. A check of the pickup's tags told him the owner had warrants out for him. There was a boarded up building on one side of us and an empty park on the other, no life anywhere else. The officer had the men step out of the vehicle with their tattooed arms raised, and while I was concentrating on the scene, my car door opened! A female officer with a gun trained ahead asked me to work the spotlight while she kept the men covered. I was also surprised that the officer later let me come with him while interviewing a stabbing victim, so that the witnesses were talking to me as though I was a cop too.

Wow. What an experience!

You have a Master’s degree in English. Do you have a favorite writer or era of literature?

I feel like a newcomer to writers' work all the time, still learning, still in awe. In grad school I came upon William Faulkner and fell in love. I painted a picture of him and wrote to his biographer and photographer, the latter of whom sent me a photo he had not used out of several he took for Life Magazine, and then I made a collage of the two plus the letter and framed it and hung it on a wall. So Faulkner was my favorite for a long time, and now I would say I like the writers who are a bit bleak, who tell stories of men and women who struggle with conscience as they make their way in a hard world.

If I come upon a bit of the poetic as I read them, so that I see things in fresh ways, then I am happier still. Daniel Woodrell, James Lee Burke, Thomas Cook, Rick Bass are a few of today's writers I like; I know I'm forgetting names. I also know I am missing out on great entertainment these days because I don't read as much as I used to, don't go to conferences where I am exposed to new writers and inspired to read their works. Preferences for types of fiction are just that, though: humorous work is not lesser work, "cozies" are as valued as noir fiction, objectively. Who knows why we lean toward what we do?

Good point. You’ve “toured prisons, jails, crime labs and morgues” to aid the authenticity of your writing. Why did you choose the mystery genre, specifically the grittier side of mystery?

I hope the first of my answer won't disappoint you. There was no passionate urge to create. I wanted to get away from commuting on the freeway at six a.m. to a job in Southern California's aerospace industry. I was lucky enough to find a writers' group in the mid -80s whose members were published in all the genres. Their excellence humbled me, for, with my–ahem!–Master's degree, I thought only "literary" stories were worth reading. I listened and learned. As to why the grittier side, I suppose it's because my own upbringing showed me people on the lower end of the socio-economic scale, and so their worlds seemed truer to me.

The sleuth in your mystery series, Smokey Brandon, is “an ex-cop and an ex-Las Vegas Stripper.” How did you happen to conceive the idea of Smokey?

My mother, father, and a brother lived outside Las Vegas at the time, so I suppose my occasional trips to see them set off the idea. I know that we can be more than one persona in our lives; that we are this, as defined by a job, and that as defined by another. I've always found it curious that when you have met someone when you were, say, an insurance clerk, you can become a wealthy and erudite art collector someday and still be perceived of as "that insurance clerk." Smokey was smart; she was just disadvantaged, and so she took what she could get at the time.

A really great point--we're just prone to labeling, I think. You have a trilogy of Smokey Brandon books. Will there be more?

I'm afraid not. In truth, I never thought I could write a second book my agent suggested I contract for. To even finish one seemed impossible. Now that I have, though, I see it's doable, but I missed the opportunity to make the Smokey character into a "franchise," and there are reasons for that, but the bottom line is that the story of stripper/cop is an old one now, and so I must move on. Quite frankly, the publishing business has tightened its belt to a degree that startles everyone. New voices are needed. New angles, new stories, new characters.

Your latest piece, a short story called “Rust,” appears in The Best American Mystery Stories for 2009, edited by Jeffery Deaver. I’ve read the story, and it’s terrific. What gave you the idea for the trooper narrator and for the plot involving his knowledge of his superior’s affair?

That story surprises me, because it was "invited into" a second "Best of..." anthology as well, and I am very grateful to know it has its effect. Geographical places often get me started. Pennsylvania is a big state, with much for me to learn about it. I loved the local names of Indian heritage and of Biblical origin, the latter reflecting the religious orders of Quakers and Brethren and the Amish. So I knew I wanted to set a story in Bethlehem and Nazareth, first thing. Then, I tried to think of some moral quandary I had myself endured, and it was (I am ashamed to say) that during a stressful time of my life I followed someone. Spied on someone because of a suspicion. And I could not stop doing it though I loathed what I was doing. That's the heart of it, Julia, and I am not proud!

But that is a great source of fiction--the mistakes we ourselves have made.

Sparkle Hayter was quoted as saying that you are “pretty cool, for a petite blond bombshell,” and added that you know how to shoot a gun. This is high praise from the talented Hayter! How does she know you can use a firearm, though?

You said that right, about Sparkle being talented. If I could write like that I wouldn't write what I do! She knows about the guns because I and my then-husband took her shooting with us when I lived in Texas. She's shot a military rifle herself, as I recall, a rapid-fire weapon, like an AK-47. I may not have scared her on the firing range, but I'm sure I about gave her a heart attack driving in a Houston rainstorm like none other, with windshield wipers that would not go fast enough and that sometimes stuck for seconds at a time. She probably swore to never venture out from New York City again, and I'm surprised she still has mention of me on her website.

I read that in an interview with her, actually.

You’ve written all sorts of things—novels, short stories, teleplays, poetry. Is there one particular form that is more difficult than the others?

Interesting question! You've no doubt heard that Faulkner said he wrote novels because he couldn't write short stories and wrote short stories because he couldn't write poems. I understand that, and the poem is a hard thing to get right, but I'd say the novel is toughest for me, with screenplays second. Screenplays should probably be recognized as the hardest, because they are never entirely yours and that can break your heart. Also, the form must, MUST, have a focused structure. But novels are toughest for me because there is so much to bring together sensibly, and it all takes so-o-o long!

On your website you are posing with a dog. Would you call yourself a dog lover?

Aw-w, I'm touched that you'd ask. I can never have a dog again. My heart is much too fragile. Dogs are too much like humans. I do, however, with my significant other, now rescue homeless cats and get them neutered and vaccinated, and then, in alignment with a national practice called TNR, for Trap-Neuter-Return, release them back into their environment or adopt them out if they are kittens. This animal advocacy has cut deeply into my writing time. I must choose between, soon.

What are you writing now?

I am compiling two collections of short stories and then must seek an agent for them. Tough duty. The agent part, I mean. I also would like to get another book of poems out, just to be done with them, and I have a completed novel for which I must also find an agent, a mystery featuring an African American private eye. I am most eager to start on a Depression-era novel concerning a young boy's search for his sisters, who were farmed out to a Catholic church just to put them somewhere after a divorce.

What are you reading?

Ah, you devil, you. Well, here goes. Two mystery story collections (I truly love short stories). A book of best essays, 2008. Books, Larry McMurtry's memoir of his experiences as a bookstore owner. And a library book on oil painting. Busted!

I think it's great that you are an artist both in words and on canvas. On your site is a link to Books on Tape. Do you enjoy listening to books? Do you have a favorite narrator?

I used to listen, you bet. That's when I lived in cities where the commute was long to a place of work or simply to do errands, as in Texas. I don't listen now because my trips are short. I loved the work that actress Judith Ivey did for Books on Tape, and Lawrence Block's own reading of his work, and John LeCarre's.

The holidays are here; have you ever set one of your books or stories during Christmastime?

No, but I love a challenge. Maybe someday....

Thanks so much for sharing, Noreen! I look forward to reading more of your work.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

A New "What Book Are You?"

I once posted a fun book quiz on this site, and the makers notified me that a new and updated book quiz was available. I took it, and found that I am JANE EYRE.

You're Jane Eyre!

by Charlotte Bronte

Epic in scope and vision, you like looking at your own complete
history. That said, your complete history is pretty much crazy. You seem to be
followed by suitors, craziness, fires, and incredible turns of both good and bad
fortune. Through it all, you persevere while maintaining adherence to your own somewhat middle-ground moral code. While you have confidence that everything will
work out in the end, you sometimes wonder if it's worth it along the way. Oh sweet sweet Jane.

Take the Book Quiz II
at the Blue Pyramid.

Want to take the quiz yourself? Go here!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The German Christmas Market

At Inkspot today I posted this picture and a reminiscence of a German Christmas.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Welcome, December

Victor Hugo once wrote, "Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart." Today it was easy to embrace that philosophy, because the sun shone brightly on the brown bark of the newly barren trees, and the weather hovered around fifty degrees.

On the horizon, however, lies the specter of cold. Tomorrow the temperatures are supposed to plunge, and by Friday Chicagoland may see its first snows.

So welcome, frigid weather. I'm working on that eternal spring.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Seneca Thanksgiving Prayer

Oh Great Spirit,
Whose voice I hear in the winds,
And whose breath gives life to all the world, hear me!
I am small and weak; I need your strength and wisdom.

Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes
Ever behold the purple sunset.

Make my hands respect the things you have made
And my ears sharp to hear your voice.

Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people.

Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock.

I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother,
But to fight my greatest enemy: Myself.

Make me always ready to come to you with
Clean hands and straight eyes.

So when life fades, as the fading sunset,
My spirit may come to you without shame.

(Photo: JB 2007)

Monday, November 23, 2009

I Worked With a Genius

Years ago Brian Darovic and I taught at the same school; today he is being lauded in the press for his latest "project," the building of his own electric car--something he did for very little money and which will save him a large amount of it.

If you go to this blog, you can read the article about Brian and the car he built himself, avoiding the 40,000 dollar price tag that goes with some electric car kits.

According to this article, "Darovic estimates his Voltessa will cost about $1 per charge or a little more than 2 cents per mile.

Electric cars are also low maintenance. Tires, brakes, shock absorbers, lights, horn, radio, seats, glass and body work remain the same as those of a gasoline-fueled engine.

But there is no more need for oil changes, antifreeze, belts, exhaust systems or tune-ups. Electric motors are essentially zero maintenance and last the life of the vehicle."

Brian Darovic is one of those unsung innovators that will help to lead America in a new direction. I'm proud to say I knew he was brilliant long ago--but that was because of his wicked sense of humor.

Way to go, Brian!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hurrah for Edison

On this day in 1877, Thomas Edison presented the phonograph to the world. There has been so much advancement in technology since that time that we might take this amazing feat for granted. Here's a reminder of what made Edison such a stellar figure in history.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I am Accused of a Crime

This morning I experienced a bizarre phenomenon--an accusation levied at me about a crime that never existed, and yet it created problems in reality.

I was sitting at a red light with my husband at my side; I was driving him to work, and we were stationary, sleepily contemplating the sky, when a driver somewhere behind us began blowing his horn. We looked back. Who was doing that? It was obvious that no one could go anywhere; the light was still red. The man behind me emerged from his car, talking to himself, and began to approach my window. I locked my door. The last think I wanted was to engage a man I assumed was drunk in conversation.

When the light changed we proceeded through the intersection and on to my husband's place of employment. I let me husband out and turned my car to find that the man in the other car had followed us, and was yelling at me through his open window.

Curious now, I unrolled my window and heard him say, "How dare you leave the scene of an accident?"

"What are you talking about?" I said.

"You hit my car! You reversed into me!" he yelled. I noted that he had a baby in a child seat in his back seat. It made me feel bad.

"I haven't put my car in reverse all morning," I said. "It would have been impossible for me to hit you. And we were all sitting still."

He ranted and raved, insisting that I had hit his car (which, by the way, didn't have a mark on it). It was a strange moment; he was so passionate I was scanning for alternate possibilities: had someone else hit him? Had he experienced one of those weird optical illusions in which the car NEXT to him moved and it felt as though he was propelled forward?

What I knew was that I hadn't hit him, and I didn't feel obliged to hang around and listen to his accusations, despite the fact that he was calling the police.

My husband remained to tell our story, if it came to that, and I had children to take to school.

I left.

Later my husband told me that the police did in fact arrive, and that the man sat with them for some time, talking. Eventually an officer came to my husband and asked him for his side of the story. They asked why I left the scene of an accident.

"Because there was no accident," he told them in disbelief.

This man, to me, was employing a sort of terrorism: seizing the power of situation to try to force us into compliance with his view of reality. We had to keep reminding ourselves that just because he was insisting it was the truth didn't make it the truth.

The cop listened to my husband, went back outside, and drove away. We assume that is the end of the story.

But here is my question: are you obligated to stay at the scene of an imaginary accident? Is there a legal obligation to remain if someone is merely SAYING there is a collision, but when in fact no collision occurred?

I've heard that sometimes people purposely rear-end someone and then try to blame them for it, but that didn't happen here. There was never an impact: only a solitary individual yelling and accusing us of a crime, while we sat still on a road.

Didn't Albert Camus write a novel about this at some point?

Art link here

Friday, November 13, 2009

Happy Birthday to the Creator of Jekyll and Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson celebrates a birthday today--he was born in 1850. I still marvel at the story of the creation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; the fact that Stevenson was awakened by his wife from a fever dream and then cross with her for waking him from "a fine bogey tale." He wrote half the story and read it to his wife and houseguests, then ran into his room to write more, still feverish and mumbling to himself.

I sometimes envy both the creative spark and the speed with which he wrote his tales, but RLS was, in fact, a man with a very short time to live, and I certainly don't envy him that, nor do I relish having a lifelong illness, as did this fine Scottish writer.

But any writer today would envy the fact that, 150 years later, his books are still on the shelves.

One of my favorite Stevenson quotes expresses his basic optimism and appreciation of life:

"The best things in life are nearest: Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you. Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life."

--Robert Louis Stevenson

Happy Birthday, Robert! Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Great Reading continues

I'm still reading Otto Penzler and Jeffery Deaver's 2009 Mystery anthology; I just finished a great story called "Rust" by N.J. Ayres and a terrific story by Tom Bissel called "My Interview with Avenger." Really top-notch stuff here that's making me fall back in love with the short story form, which I have sadly neglected for the past several years.

Love That Rotary Dial

You can read my defense of old technology in Tuesday's Inkspot post.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

What I'm Reading

This group of stories is the latest in Otto Penzler's series, edited by Jeffery Deaver. I'm enjoying the rich variety and the stylish prose; I just finished a wonderful story by one of my favorites, Alice Munro, whose mystery is so layered that it has stayed with me, days after I first read it. I've digested it slowly, thinking about the possibilities suggested by the details.

Alafair Burke and James Lee Burke have stories side by side in this volume, and I look forward to reading them both.

There are more mystery hardhitters here, from Michael Connolly to Joyce Carol Oates, from N. J. Ayres to Kristine Kathryn Rusch--and even more, twenty in all.

This book is an education in short fiction, and I'm greatly enjoying the schooling.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Writer Ron Riekki's Dream Interview

R.A. Riekki is an author with Ghost Road Press who has always dreamed of being interviewed by Rolling Stone and Spin. Therefore, he pretended that they did interview him in this stream-of-consciousness (and reportedly fever-induced) faux interview. Here he pulls real questions from other interviews and gives them his own creative answers. Riekki's book U.P. has earned top reviews for Ghost Road and is currently being made into a film.

R.A. Riekki: Let me start out by saying this is really exciting to be interviewed by Spin. I used to read you guys all the time as a kid because you gave me a free subscription. True story. Thank you so much for that, by the way. Again, really, really excited for this interview.

Spin: Dig Out Your Soul sounds like you ordered in the ingredients, and all the labels on the jars read ROCK or MORE ROCK.

R.A. Riekki: I--I do not have a clue what that means. What are you talking about?

Spin: Surely the whole process wasn't all fun.

R.A. Riekki: Are you talking about my novel? I loved writing the novel. It actually was a blast to write.

: Would the name be different if they were Magnum or Trojan condoms?

R.A. Riekki: Oh. Oh, I get it. You're being postmodern. Um, I forgot what you asked, something about condoms.

Spin: Well, you know, you could be sanitary and throw it away?

R.A. Riekki: Throw what away? The condoms?

Rolling Stone: So it's safe to say that now that you are free of your contracts you're not going to be rushing to sign a new deal?

R.A. Riekki: Wow, I didn't know I was going to be interviewed by Rolling Stone too. Um, well, contracts, yes, I just signed two contracts--one for my novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Bogey Man to come out on Ghost Road Press in spring 2010 and then another one for my novel Hunger and the Ass to come out on Ghost Road in fall of next year, so it's exciting to be having two novels coming out in 2010.

And then a producer in L.A. is supposed to call me today about finalizing some contracts for my novel U.P. to be turned into a film, so it's a crazy time for me for contracts, yes. But they're not finished. We're still in the process. And I think you said something about signing more in the future? Yeah, I mean, contracts are inevitable.

As a matter of fact, before I became a published author, I didn't realize how much time is spent on publicity and interviews and contract negotiations and all of these other things that really have nothing to do with the more creative aspects of writing, which I naively thought was all you did as a writer. But yes, contracts, how the hell did Rolling Stone hear about that, though?

Rolling Stone: A lot of artists love the album form or have some connection to it. Is it going to bother you to be more single-focused?

R.A. Riekki: Single focused? Um, I don't record songs. I used to be in bands, but, uh, I just write now. So no recording singles or anything like that. I'd love to. And this is funny, but I'm really excited about the soundtrack for the film of U.P. if it does get shot as a movie, which is kind of funny, that I'm fired up for the soundtrack of the film, but music is so central to the novel that I feel it's got to be at the heart of the movie version if that comes to fruition. I mean, we're still in the early stages of contract stuff that we were just talking about, so don't mean to count chickens before they're hatched.

Spin: Butch Vig, who produced New Wave, helmed the new one as well. What makes him exciting to work?

R.A. Riekki: I don't mean to be rude, but I understand the questions a lot better from Rolling Stone. I just don't know what you're talking about again. And what do you mean by "exciting to work"? Do you mean "exciting to work with"? Because I've never worked with Butch Vig. I'm not even sure who he is. Didn't he work with Nirvana? Or Garbage? Is he in publishing now or something?

Spin: You're having your first kid any second now. Are you ready?

R.A. Riekki: No, I'm not. I'm not having a kid. I'd like to, but I don't even have a girlfriend, so . . . Not to be rude, but can I get a question from Rolling Stone instead?

Bill O'Reilly: Do you think Hillary Clinton is soft on terrorism?

R.A. Riekki: Is that--who let Bill O'Reilly in here? Am I supposed to really answer that?

Bill O'Reilly: We'll have more with Mr. Bush in a moment, including why the Taliban is gaining strength again in Afghanistan.

R.A. Riekki: I'm definitely not George W. Bush. Thank God! Quick question: can I not be interviewed by Bill O'Reilly, please?

Bill O'Reilly: All right. I don't want to--

R.A. Riekki: I would actually not mind going back to Spin's questions.

Bill O'Reilly: I don't want to debate world politics with you.

R.A. Riekki
: Look, I'm just gonna take three more questions, OK, one more from each of you. This was just supposed to be for Julia Buckley's Mysterious Musings book blog in Illinois, and I'm very sick right now, and I'm realizing I should have prepared for this. I mean, Bill has an earpiece and staff all around him and I'm in a tanktop and sweats on my bed.

Spin: The idea of very personal beliefs seems to lead into your views about rock criticism in general. A lot of more literary writers have been dabbling in music criticism tinged with personal essay, and your work is like that, too.

R.A. Riekki: That felt like a real question. Thank you, Spin. OK, yes, I agree, U.P.'s really influenced by that Gonzo New School, Truman Capote, High Fidelity, Hunter S. Thompson mix, you know, Lester Bangs and hip-hop and old Cream issues I'd read as a kid. Yes, and Spin too and Rolling Stone, I mean, it's a musical novel--I filled it with Subhumans and Slick Rick and Lou Reed and N.W.A. and Ice T and Megadeth and Sex Pistols because those bands rule and because I wanted my love of music poured into the book, and I've gotten a lot of great responses from readers who like that Nick Cave Henry Rollins Richard Hell I Am the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo style of writing where music plays a big part of the novel's construction, its references, its rhythms. I like that question.

Rolling Stone: Did you get any nice Christmas presents from your bandmates?

R.A. Riekki: When did Rolling Stone and Spin swap seats? It's November and I don't have any bandmates. You're wasting my time. Last question.

Bill O'Reilly: You’ve got MI-6 and Russian intelligence because they’re all saying the same thing that’s why. You’re not going to apologize to Bush, you are going to continue to call him a liar.

R.A. Riekki: Bill, that's not even a question, that's--I'm not even sure what that is? Paranoia? Or just rambling, I guess? Like some crazy old guy who's pretending he's in a Tom Clancy novel. And why is Bill looking at me like he's an eagle? Why is he so mad? Can someone get Bill O'Reilly a whiskey or something with a lot of alcohol in it? Or maybe have him leave? I tell you what, let's have the last question be from Rolling Stone.

Bill O'Reilly: Je ne vais pas vous faire avouer ce n'était pas mentir. Allez-y.

R.A. Riekki: Why is Bill O'Reilly speaking French? I think he's saying in French that he wants to leave. Last question. In English. From Rolling Stone.

Bill O'Reilly: You'd love to get rid of me.

R.A. Riekki: Yes. Rolling Stone, final question. Hopefully about my novel. I-I'm trying to plug my novel.

Bill O'Reilly: Because they couldn’t, it was a Gestapo-led place where they got their heads cut off …

R.A. Riekki: Just talk over him. I think he's getting senile. Ignore him.

Spin: You had a duet with Tegan Quin on the last record. Any collaborations this time around?

R.A. Riekki: Ignore Spin, too. They're back to being idiots. Just yell the final question Rolling Stone.

Rolling Stone: So you're saying that if I bring up your Satan worshipping that it would be an inaccuracy!

R.A. Riekki: You're not going to seriously end with that question, are you? I mean, seriously. I wrote a novel that has been on Ghost Road Press's top ten bestseller list for the last 36 weeks straight and that's what you're going to ask me? It was nominated by a National Book Award winner, John Casey, for the Sewanee Writers' Series, and that's what you're going to ask me.

Rolling Stone: Never mind. I think we're done.

R.A. Riekki: Do you know Terry Gross has interviewed several puppets by now? Kermit the Frog, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. The list goes on. Puppets! And she still asks them penetrating, insightful, brilliant questions.

Julia, can you please start a campaign for me where your blog readers write into NPR asking them to have Terry interview me. I've earned it after this interview.

I think a lot of people want to be interviewed by Terry Gross. But I'll keep my fingers crossed for you, Ron. :)

Monday, November 02, 2009

Winners and A Mantra

"It is only possible to live happily ever after on a daily basis."

Such are the wise words of Margaret Bonnano; may you all have a happy November Day.

And now for the winners! That's right, there were so many entrants for the book drawing I decided to give away two. So would kaisquared and janel please e-mail me at with your snail mail addresses--I'll get THE DARK BACKWARD right out to you!

Thanks for playing, everyone!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hallapalooza #20: Keep Following the Trail!

"I had thought we might do lunch today," Sonya Reyes said, looking around the small room with the mirrored wall. "But I had in mind asking you to join me at my club, not someplace like this."

Milla stared at the woman in the tailored suit, pearls, and designer shoes. She certainly didn't look like a crazed drug addict wandering around greenhouses in the middle of the night putting detectives in garbage bags. She also had perfectly manicured fingernails.

"What did you want to talk about?"

"Carla Jordan, of course. I needed to talk with you privately about something Carla told me."

"You didn't want to tell me about your cocaine habit?" Milla dropped her little bomb and waited to see Sonya Reyes' reaction.

The woman didn't deny it, Milla had to give her that. She calmly described several failed trips to rehab and how concerned she was that her little habit was going to be the reason her husband would never reach higher office. She also admitted that cocaine was an expensive habit to support.

"Who were you buying drugs from?" Milla was laying odds it was either the "dead Sunflower" Carla or the "it'll give you wrinkles" Liza.

"Frieda Rosen."

"The caterer? Did Carla know?" Milla supposed that made sense. She hadn't heard any raves about the food, yet the couple was invited to work an "A-list" party?

"I don't think so," Sonya answered. "She was kind of miffed that G. Winston Howard didn't use some caterers she'd picked out."

Milla stood and walked around the room. She knew Fletcher was videoing their conversation. She also knew he'd advised Sonya Reyes of her legal rights.

"What did you want to tell me when you called last night?"

The mayor's wife sighed. "I wanted you to know that Carla had been blackmailing my husband."

"Over your drug use?"

"No." Sonya's eyes met hers. "Over some missing building funds. She thought Juan was padding building contracts and taking kickbacks from Steven McCall."

"Was he?"

The woman shook her head vehemently. "No, no. Juan would never do that. He has too much respect for law."

Milla wondered how much old cop show residuals really paid.

Next Clue Location -

Leave a comment here for a chance to win my spooky-covered mystery, THE DARK BACKWARD.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Approaching the Witching Time

This time of year make me think of Hamlet's brooding words:

'Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world."

Nowadays the contagion people fear is called The Swine Flu--not very Shakespearean or poetic.

But those Shakespearean lines, spoken out of Hamlet's murderous desperation, create a wonderfully Halloween-y mood, don't they?

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I saw an online horoscope for my sign, and supposedly tomorrow I will have "a financial reward, possibly unexpected." They're pretty much all unexpected. But of course NOW I'll be expecting it, because the online horoscope told me to. So does that cancel out the chance of the financial reward?

This is my fortune-cookie-like puzzle for the day.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Beauty is Where You Find It

Last week I took a picture of the trees outside work--clothed in autumn finery and brightening the parking lot. Today, after some wind, they are stripped of every leaf.

So in seeking color for this photo, I had to focus on the beauty that remains on the ground.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Happy Birthday, John Le Carre

"We have learned in recent years to translate almost all of political life in terms of conspiracy. And the spy novel, as never before, really, has come into its own."

So wrote John Le Carre, who was born on this day in 1931. He is celebrated for a series of espionage novels, most notably those about George Smiley, an intelligence officer working for MI6. Smiley is the central character of Le Carre's breakthrough novel, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD.

On LeCarre's stylish website, he writes of his isolation--"I live on a Cornish cliff"--and of the fact that the author is always in a precarious position, in that his imagination creates a world that the public believes in, and this makes the author a fake:

"Yet I . . . despise myself in the fake role of guru, since it bears no relation to who I am or what I do. Artists, in my experience, have very little centre. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception."

Photo: my own spies in 2000.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Delicious Autumn

"Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns."

--George Eliot

"It was one of those perfect English autumnal days that occur more frequently in memory than in life."

--P.D. James
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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Congratulations to a Fellow Writer

My friend Kathi Baron debuted her first novel today at a lovely signing. Her main character in Shattered is a violinist, so Kathi had a youth violinist on hand to play a beautiful piece that started off the event. A nearby restaurant made delicious chocolate chip cookies, her character's favorite food (and Kathi's), and she did a reading of a couple of chapters before fielding questions from the sizeable crowd.
Here she is posing with some members of the writer's group to which Kathi and I both belong. Her book, Shattered, explores the idea that music can heal. The book jacket says "Teen violin prodigy Cassie has been tiptoeing around her father, whose moods have become increasingly explosive. After he destroys her beloved and valuable violin, Cassie, shocked, runs away, eventually seeking refuge in a homeless shelter. Written in lyrical prose, Shattered tells the moving story of how one girl finds inner strength through music."

This is a young adult novel written with soul and perception; it draws on Kathi's years of experience as an occupational therapist.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Anne Frank on Film

Here is the magic of You Tube: when some archival footage turns up, it won't just end up in a university library--it will go online and become available to the world.

I recently heard about this rare footage--this only known footage of Anne Frank, on NPR. Anne is seen enjoying the sight of a neighbor's wedding. According to NPR, Anne herself was fascinated by the emerging technology of film; her father had a camera and Anne was learning to use it. She liked the idea of being captured on film, and here, at long last, we can see her.

Monday, October 05, 2009

On Autumn's Chill

"A few days ago I walked along the edge of the lake and was treated to the crunch and rustle of leaves with each step I made. The acoustics of this season are different and all sounds, no matter how hushed, are as crisp as autumn air."

- Eric Sloane

Friday, October 02, 2009

Mystery, History, and Intertextuality

Ah, books. I'm reading them, researching in them, trying to write them. It seems I just can't get enough.

I'm currently reading MY BROTHER MICHAEL by Mary Stewart and CRIME and PUNISHMENT (again) by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Both are great works and suspenseful mysteries which reference other texts. Stewart, because her mystery is set in Delphi, continually cites the ancient Greek plays: Oedipus, Electra, Antigone.

Dostoevsky, because C and P is among other things a Christian novel, consistently references the Bible, especially the New Testament.

This intertextuality makes a book more interesting to me--more cerebral and culturally connected. It assumes intelligence of the reader. In Stewart's MBM, her heroine stands among Grecian ruins under starlight, convinced that she hears the ghosts of ancient souls, and the words of Sophocles echo through her head. This merely increases the tension of the mystery established in the present.

What are some good books that reference other texts within their stories?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Mystery of Talent

Julie Andrews is 74 years old today. It seems that from the time she was born she was singing, as evidenced by this handy clip. I once saw Andrews in concert, and she is more amazing in person than she is on film--either way she's just about perfect.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Groucho on Justice

I was watching the great DUCK SOUP tonight, and I was struck by one of Groucho's funnier lines; the spy Chicolini (played by Chico Marx) is on trial for treason. Groucho recommends that he get "ten years in Leavenworth or eleven years in Twelveworth. Or five and ten in Woolworth's."

That sort of wordplay was commonplace in a Marx Brothers movie, but I have to explain almost all the references to my children; in the case of that one, because Woolworth's went out of business, or at least declined in the 80s, then changed itself into a sporting goods company renamed Venator.

The whole notion of a five and dime seems like a 19th century concept to my children, but of course I remember them--and we had not only a Woolworths in my town, but a Ben Franklin. Remember Ben Franklins?

I wonder what phenomena my sons will have to explain to their own children?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Happy Autumn

The days of September flew by so quickly that when my son told me it was the third day of autumn, I was startled.


"Yeah. Fall."

"Wow--how did you know that?"

"Our teacher wrote it on the board on the 21st. It said Happy First Day of Autumn."

This made me feel nostalgic for grade school days, during which little nuggets like that could be savored and enjoyed. One could hear it in the morning and still be contemplating it on the walk home, while kicking rocks or admiring the sky.

I have the illusion that there was more time then, but of course it was just that I had less to DO with my time, and so there were long luxurious pockets when a kid could just think. That was enjoyable.

I'm going to have to try it some time--right after I cross about ten things off my to-do list. :)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Sum of My Fears

I'll be blogging at PDD Monday about the fear of flying. Judge me if you will, but I know there are others like me out there--people who dread the very thought of leaving the ground.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Mary Stewart Birthday Party

Welcome to a birthday party for the great Mary Stewart! Stewart turned 92 Thursday; hopefully she spent the day happily and quietly in her home in the Scottish hills.

I've written many times about Mary Stewart on this blog; in my estimation she is unmatched as a writer of romantic suspense and as a writer of the literary mystery. Stewart's novels, intelligent and exciting, have remained my favorite for thirty years, and I only hope she celebrated this birthday with people that she loves, and that perhaps she read a good book at her own hearth.

Always a private person, Stewart did consent to an interview with Raymond H. Thompson in 1989, in which he asked her about the writing of suspense. Stewart claimed that it was not entirely conscious: "I've written stories since I was three and a half, and I think you're either born with the storyteller's flair or you're not. You can learn much about the craft of writing, but you either have the storyteller's flair or you don't. It's no virtue of mine. It's just there. In a story, however, each point of rest is also a point of departure; you can't help it."

For anyone who hasn't read a Mary Stewart novel, you must do yourself the favor of reading one in honor of her birthday. NINE COACHES WAITING has been recently re-released by Chicago Review Press (thanks for that info, Janet Reid) with a lovely, mysterious cover. I bought it for my mother for her birthday last August, because she is the one who did me the favor of introducing me to Mary Stewart.

In any case, Mrs. Stewart, I am thinking of you today as you celebrate 92 years.

Here are some virtual birthday candles for your cake: iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii

And here are some virtual cake triangles for all Stewart fans to share in her honor: v v v v v v v v v v v v v v v v v v v v v

And of course some champagne. Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y

Help yourselves, and celebrate this wonderful writer with me!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Abe Lincoln's Recipe for Happiness

"Do not worry; eat three square meals a day; say your prayers; be courteous to your creditors; keep your digestion good; exercise; go slow and easy. Maybe there are other things your special case requires to make you happy, but my friend, these I reckon will give you a good life."

--Abraham Lincoln

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

My Letter from a Wealthy Nigerian

To whomever may have written to me in the last many hours: I didn't get your e-mail. Some anonymous cyberbot hacked into my account, appropriated my e-mail address, and sent out those Nigerian spam mails, changing the name on my account to "Mrs. Jackie Freddie." If you got one, forgive me. I had no idea.

They also managed to divert all of my incoming mail, perhaps so that they could steal all the addresses. Can I find out who wrote to me in those hours? I asked the web support people? No way, they said.

So my e-mail is in limbo and my password has been changed in hopes that this won't happen again.

Meanwhile, evil geniuses continue to hack into what is not theirs in order to try to make money.

As Maxwell Smart would say, If only they used their genius for niceness, instead of evil.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Carpe Diem

"Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will be the brightest gems in a useful life."

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mary Stewart Fans, Rejoice!

I just discovered this wonderful blog devoted to all things Mary Stewart. The latest news posted on Jennie and Julie's Stewart blog is that Mary Stewart has been awarded an honorary degree by her alma mater, Durham University.

I'll be posting about Stewart later this week, since her birthday is on Friday and, in her honor, I am throwing a party. All Stewart fans are invited. :)

Friday, September 11, 2009

In Retrospect

Even after eight years it's hard to contemplate the events of September 11th, 2001. One thing I remember is that I was teaching World Literature to my high school class. Often I forget to write the date on the board, and so that morning I made a point of writing it out: September 11, 2001. Usually I might just abbreviate it like this: Sept.11. I'm not sure why I wrote it out that day; it's a coincidence and nothing more. One of my students, though, after hearing the news, asked me tearfully: "Why did you write out the date? You never write out the whole date like that! Why did you do it?" She seemed to feel that by writing out that now-legendary date I had somehow set events in motion, had precipitated the tragedy that no one, even now, can quite comprehend.

But I wrote the date and then went about teaching, not knowing what would happen any more than the other Americans who went about their morning routines. We were reading The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, and were discussing, ironically, a part in which terrorists kill the president and Congress and take over the running of the country. I was trying to persuade my students that it wasn't as crazy as it sounded--that freedom was a precarious thing unless people were vigilant.

Then a white-faced colleague called me into the hall. Based on her expression, I thought she was going to tell me that one of my children had been hurt or killed; so when she told me that the World Trade Center had been attacked I felt a momentary relief, terrible as that sounds, because my children were safe.

But I didn't feel that they were safe as the day went on, as the horrible footage played across television screens and we saw the aftermath of hatred. Anyone's safety seemed like an illusion at that point, and the dead were like victims of some horrible lottery, some chance decision of an enemy.

Now we have, perhaps, an emotional distance, but it all comes back, feels immediate again, when we see the footage and hear the stories. We'll never forget and, as people predicted on that day, we'll never view the world quite the same way.

(Note: this is an encore posting of an essay I wrote last year. I thought it was worth one more reflection on this day before I retired it).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

PG Wodehouse on Success

Never fear the dead ends. The great PG Wodehouse once wrote that "Success comes to a writer, as a rule, so gradually that it is always something of a shock to him to look back and realize the heights to which he has climbed."

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Sydney Author Gary Corby on Socrates, Bill Gates,'The C Problem' and Athens' Golden Age

Gary Corby's first mystery, The Ephialtes Affair, will debut in 2010 from St. Martin's Press.

Gary, your first mystery about Nicolaos “the unknown but ambitious son of a minor sculptor” in Classical Athens, comes out from St. Martin’s in the fall of 2010. You have all sorts of neat details about the books on your website, but most interesting to me is that Nicolaos has a 12-year-old brother named Socrates.

So, a couple of questions: is this THE Socrates?

This is THE Socrates. Socrates was a child at the time Pericles became the foremost man in Athens. It's certain Socrates and Pericles knew each other. In fact Socrates learned rhetoric from Aspasia, the wife of Pericles.

And why focus on Socrates’ brother rather than Socrates himself?

That's a great question, and the answer is Socrates would make a rotten detective!

By all accounts Socrates had an astonishing ability to irritate everyone around him, and a personality that was impossible to ignore. It's hard to imagine Socrates hiding unobtrusively behind a classical column.

Also, the life of Socrates is very well documented. Nicolaos can penetrate the Persian Empire, travel to Egypt, go to sea with Herodotus, visit the barbarian tribes to the north. If Socrates did any of those things, people would ask how come Plato never mentions it?

So the books are definitely about Nicolaos, not Socrates. Of course, being the brother of Socrates, there's a fair chance Nicolaos is quite bright too. But Nico has a problem . . . his girlfriend, his boss and his brother are all world-class geniuses. What's a poor average guy to do in company like that?

Did Socrates in fact have a brother named Nicolaos?

Very little is known about Socrates’ family. He had no known full siblings. His parents were Sophroniscus and Phaenarete. By popular tradition Sophroniscus was a “polisher of stone”, which is code for a sculptor in marble. I’ve accepted the tradition as true in the absence of anything better, though there’s a fair chance it’s apocryphal; the family trade isn’t mentioned anywhere until the following century. Phaenarete was a midwife, which we know for sure because Plato says so in Theaetetus, one of the many books he wrote featuring Socrates. There was a half-brother who came along decades later.

The fact that Nicolaos doesn't show up in the historical record is no surprise. The early period of the democracy is poorly documented and even some quite prominent men get only a few lines in the histories. When you throw in the fact that Nicolaos is doing discreet investigation…of course no one has heard of him until now.

What spurred your interest in Ancient Greece?

It was an incredibly exciting time! Athens went through a golden age of about 50 years during which the people invented almost everything fundamental to western society.

Here's a list of what's happening 461BC:

The world's first democracy has begun. It's only days old. A sovereign state with one man one vote, free speech for every citizen, written laws and equality before the law, with open courts and trial by jury. Sounds very modern, doesn't it?

Drama as we know it is being invented. Aeschylus is writing his plays; two young men called Sophocles and Euripides are beginning to write their own.

Scientific ideas are about to explode: Anaxagoras is developing a theory of matter in which everything is made of infinitesimal particles. It's the beginning of atomic theory.

Herodotus is traveling the world, writing his book and in the process founding both history and anthropology.

A young kid called Socrates is outside somewhere, playing in the street, and on the island of Kos, a baby called Hippocrates is born to a doctor and his wife.

Nicolaos begins his career right at the start of those 50 golden years. If he survives, he'll live to see the founding of western civilization.

Fantastic setting. You have encountered all sorts of problems as a historical writer, including what you call “The C Problem.” Why is the letter C a challenge when writing about Ancient Greece?

There's no letter C in the Greek alphabet. It's maddening for a writer! All the familiar Greek names, like for example Socrates, are Latin alphabet versions of the Greek. His real name was Sokratos, but if I called him that, no one would know what I was talking about. Same goes for many other names. So in the book, I've stuck to the Latin alphabet versions of names to make it easy to read.

I think you'll be forgiven.

You have worked for, and met, Bill Gates. What’s the most striking thing about this very famous man?

Bill's command of English is outstanding. He's one of the few people I know who you could quote verbatim and it would read like edited text. Most people repeat themselves in conversation. Bill doesn't. He's very precise with his words.

You have a wife and two daughters. Does your very feminine household influence the way that you write your female characters?

There are no helpless, wimpy female victims in the book, and that might partly be because I wouldn't want my daughters to think being a wimpy victim was okay. My heroine Diotima was a real person who is known to have been intellectually brilliant. She was always going to be a strong character.

Having a female household has made me aware of details I would otherwise never have known. Ask a woman to describe someone, and she's very likely to begin with what the person was wearing. Few men would do that. If there's ever a scene where Diotima has to read a map, she's going to turn it upside down. Also, I now know how to plait hair!

How many Athens mysteries will there be?

I'll write them for as long as people want to read them!

I have rough notes for at least six books right now, and no shortage of material to work with. The Golden Age was 50 years packed with tales of adventure, war, conspiracy, lust, love, corruption, power politics, assassination . . . you name it and it happened.

Do you read history books for fun?

Definitely. If I didn't read history books for fun I would never have begun this series. The biggest danger with book research is I find some ancient text and read the lot, instead of merely the small part I need.

I also read piles of historicals, mostly historical mysteries, across every period.

What are you reading now?

This week I finished two mysteries: The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin and The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. Both excellent. The Janissary Tree is set at the close of the Ottoman Empire with Yashim, the eunuch detective. I'll be reading the rest of that series. The Broken Shore takes place in a modern Australian country town.

Since your mysteries take place in Ancient Greece, will your characters attend the theatre? Will Socrates meet Sophocles?

I can absolutely guarantee Nico will be meeting Sophocles. I can be so sure because I already have notes for a future book in which Nico is lumbered with Sophocles AND Euripides AND Socrates as co-detectives. Poor Nico! With two of the world's greatest dramatists and a philosopher on the team, you just know we're looking at serious investigation fail.

That book perforce has to be some way down the track. I also have mild plans for a book in which Herodotus guest stars.

I can't wait! What, aside from the writing of these books, are your hobbies?

My wife and I do ice dancing. A very weird sport for sunny Sydney, but there you are. Our coach is a former Olympic skater, who I've managed to drop twice! Any fool can drop his wife; try dropping an Olympian.

Sitting beside my desk is a Fender Strat electric guitar. When I'm stuck on a scene, I can practise playing instead.

A fair amount of non-writing time is spent transporting the girls to their hobbies and sports. Anyone with kids will know how that works.

That's for sure. I’m guessing you enjoyed Greek Mythology as a student? What’s your favorite myth?

The Greeks were brilliant at expressing the human condition through their myths, and they were particularly inventive with cursed fates. If you're ever looking to torture your worst enemy with an ingenious fate, just ask an ancient Greek for recommendations. I think the tale of Cassandra is my favorite.

Cassandra, daughter of Priam of Troy, had the gift of true prophecy. The God Apollo had the hots for Cassandra, but she spurned his advances, so Apollo cursed her always to tell the truth, but never to be believed. So subtle!

And didn't they say she would only be believed when she was about to die? The irony being that she would finally get what she wanted, but she would not be able to enjoy it?

There are a few variations on the death of Cassandra. I'm not sure which one you're referring to here, but possibly Trojan Women by Euripides, in which Cassandra comforts her mother during the fall of Troy that the victorious Greeks will suffer terrible fates after. In that speech Cassandra predicts her own death.

The usual version is Cassandra is taken as a prize by Agamemnon. When they arrive back in Mycenae Cassandra predicts her own death by the two-edged sword. Agamemon goes to his bath, where he is promptly murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, who has been plotting his demise for years, because Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter before leaving for Troy. Clytemnestra is less than pleased to see Cassandra and she gets the chop too.

Yes--and before Clytemnestra kills her, Cassandra predicts her own death, and this time the chorus believes her. Lovely Greek irony. :)

You chat on your blog about Greeks and their dogs, including the dog of Xanthippus, who swam alongside his master’s ship from Piraeus to Salamis, and then died of exhaustion on land. This calls to mind the dog of Odysseus in THE ODYSSEY, who waits 20 years for Odysseus to come home and then dies the moment he hears his voice. How did the Greeks instill such devotion in their dogs? Mine doesn’t even get up when I enter the room. :)

I'm afraid you're on your own with your dog, who I'm sure is very obedient and lovable. If you want to know how the Greeks trained their dogs, you can read about it in their for-real original manual. A man called Xenophon wrote a treatise called Cynegeticus, which means On Hunting With Dogs. It includes advice on how to treat your dog, and even recommends names for your pet! Cynegeticus is seriously out of copyright, by about 2,400 years. You can find English translations online.

How do you get inside the head of your main character? Is he also the narrator? Do you have to work to find an “ancient” voice, or do you write with a modern sensibility?

I've never had the slightest trouble getting inside the characters' heads. Sometimes my biggest problem is getting out of them when they go in weird directions. I think my lack of trouble is because, right at the start, I wrote down all the character motivations, and did little test scenes in which every character has a talk with every other character. The conversations were all throwaway, except I kept the one between Pericles and his Dad because it turned into an interesting argument.

The books are all narrated by Nicolaos in first person. I deliberately wrote idiomatic English. The conceit is that you're reading in modern, everyday English what was originally spoken 2,500 years ago in modern, everyday Attic Greek. It makes no sense to give the characters a fake "ancient" tone that doesn't match what they really said. So for example an angry Pericles at one point says to Nico, "You trashed the Agora? What in Hades were you thinking?"

You worked for Microsoft; but you don't live in California?

Nope. I live in Sydney, Australia. I'm fifth generation Australian; descended from a convict who was transported in the 1830s with a 7 year sentence for stealing a handkerchief, and he couldn't even get away with that. Not a great genetic heritage for a crime writer.

Having said that, I'm rather fond of California. Particularly San Diego and San Francisco.

I hear they are lovely--but I've heard that about Sydney, as well. :) Have you ever been to that gorgeous opera house?

Frequently! The Opera House is a standard part of Sydney life. They don't merely hold operas there; also concerts and plays. Definitely worth a visit.

How can readers find out more about Gary Corby and his books?

Thank you so much for the chat! One thing that's delighted me in turning to writing has been the deep sense of community between book people. It's a pleasure to meet so many other readers.

Likewise, Gary! I can't wait to read your first book.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Close Calls: Abductions That Failed

A girl in my town was abducted a couple of years ago. She was in her back yard playing, and a man came to the fence and asked if she'd like to see a puppy. He told her that her mom had said it was okay. The girl, who was six, agreed. He lifted her over the fence and put her into the back of his car, where he buckled her into a child seat. He drove her several miles into a different town before he pulled over and told her to get out. For whatever reason, the abduction had gone awry. The frightened girl went to a mail carrier and said she needed to get home.

Her parents had a couple of bad hours, but their story had a very happy ending.

My female students have harrowing stories, every year, about the people who follow them when they walk to school, when they get off the bus, when they're out with friends. Luckily they are all smart enough and old enough to know a suspicious character when they see one.

But I've been reflecting lately about how many abductions ALMOST happen. This had me thinking back to my own childhood. I still remember sitting with my dog in the parkway in front of my house, as a child of about ten or eleven, and watching a man stop his car and get out. He walked up to me and asked me about my dog: what breed she was, when we got her, whether I liked to pet her. He said he loved dogs and he just had to ask. At no point did I think he was anything but a dog lover. Eventually my mother's face appeared in the window; the man waved, got into his car, and drove away.

In retrospect, there is much that I suspect about that man's motives. It makes me wonder how close I came to the sort of nightmare many children endure.

There were other incidents, as well: people who offered me rides when I walked to school as a teenager. Because I was vain and wouldn't wear my glasses, I sometimes went close to the cars, thinking it was a friend who had pulled over. And then I'd run away when I realized it was a stranger--a supposedly well-meaning stranger.

Generally people don't attempt to abduct women in their forties, but last year a man who must have been seventy pulled up next to me as I walked to the store.

"Would you like a ride?" he asked.

I almost laughed. "No."

"It seems we're going in the same direction," he persisted. "I just thought I'd save you the trip."

"I don't know you," I said.

And then, to my utter shock, he moved up the block and began talking to another woman. I didn't even know what to make of that situation. Can that sort of thing ever be "innocent?" Was I to believe that he was just a friendly man looking to give another adult a ride?

In retrospect, the world seems full of shadows and near misses for which I suppose we must be grateful.

Does everyone have a near miss story?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Autumnal Euphoria

Fall gave us a preview this weekend with temperatures in the 60s and deliciously cold winds that wafted around under a bright blue sky. This is euphoric weather, the best weather in the world, and I could only dream of a place where it's like this all the time.

Now I'm remembering, slightly early, all the wonders of fall. Soon I'll be craving hot tea and a good easy chair with a pile of books stacked nearby.

I just finished MALICE IN CORNWALL, which ended anticlimactically and therefore disappointingly. But hope springs eternal in the world of books, and I'm looking forward to my next literary adventure.

What are you reading? And have you glimpsed autumn yet?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Simon and Solitude

"Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me. I like being alone in a room. It's almost a form of meditation--an investigation of my own life. It has nothing to do with "I've got to get another play."

--Neil Simon

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Truth and Mystery

It could be the beginning of a P.D. James novel, or perhaps a Julia Spencer-Fleming mystery or a brutal Robert Fate revenge tale. A 61-year-old female pastor is found murdered inside her own tiny Oklahoma church, where she has been, apparently, praying. The district attorney claims that the murder is the most horrific he has seen in his 20-year career. There are no suspects.

A reader might look at a set-up like this and decide they want to read the book in order to get answers. Who would kill a pastor? Who would brutalize a 61-year-old woman? Why? And why kill her in her tiny church? What possible motive could there be? Yes, this would make a fascinating piece of fiction.

But this story is true, and it helps to explain why the True Crime genre is so popular. We still have questions, and we still want them answered; the only difference is that in fiction, they are generally answered to our satisfaction. In cases like this one, the questions are sometimes never answered at all.

(Image link here).