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?