Wednesday, October 31, 2007

All Hallows Eve

Enjoy the traditions of the day--and make time to read a nice suspenseful mystery. What more fitting way to spend today?

Stay tuned for tomorrow's BLOG CARNIVAL!! It will continue the wonderful ride begun by Barbara Fister and send you to some of my favorite blog haunts (no Halloween pun intended . . . or was there?)

(photo credit:

Monday, October 29, 2007

Self-Loathing and The Writer

At the beginning of every new writing project I experience a sort of euphoria. I have a great idea, and it's coming together. I'm immersed in the story, meeting the characters, convinced that I'm creating something real and powerful.

Then I read it and revise bits. And read it again, and again, and again, as I try to polish it, and eventually I cross that barrier where I can no longer be objective about my own work. And just a few paces down that road is the town of I Can't Stand It. This happens every time. I don't know if it's a psychological phenomenon or a trick of biology, but with each new creation I go through the predictable stages that begin with love and fascination and end up with that lack of objectivity and something close to hatred.

Is this a universal thing? If so, what is it that makes us ultimately reject our own creation and want to move on to something different? Is it a fear of revision, or a necessary breach which allows us to begin again? Is there a way to reclaim love for one's written words?

Writers and readers, I'd love your opinions.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Enjoy your Life

My kitten Rose will show you how. This is her enjoying the heck out of a bean bag chair.

The best way to read a mystery is in a relaxed position.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Mystery Writer Susan Oleksiw on Sanskrit, Photography, and W.B. Yeats

Susan, I must start with this, because I find it fascinating: you have a Ph.D in Sanskrit. Sanskrit! What drew you to this language, especially to achieving expertise in it?
That’s a pretty common question for me. I have a friend who loves to introduce me to new people because she can then mention of my degree. She tells me she’ll never know another Sanskritist and just loves doing it. I have been drawn to India since I was a young girl, when I received a collection of stories set in Asia. That might have been the end of it but I went to a girls’ school that offered courses on Asia and then again to a college that offered even more. By then I was hooked, and went to graduate school (originally in art history, but I soon switched to Sanskrit—I was in love with a language). I love India, and after I left the field I thought I’d never really be able to go back. But things have changed enormously, and now I go almost every year for two or three weeks, visit friends, and generally become my old self.

How do you pronounce your last name?
It’s actually phonetic, but you have to look closely at it. Oh-LEK-see. Think of the final w as in window.

I’ve known your name for quite some time, because I purchased A Reader's Guide to the Classic British Mystery, and it is a well-thumbed copy. Was this your first published book?
This was my first book in the mystery world. I edited a collection of essays on Asia some years earlier, but I didn’t really think of it as “my” book. When I have to look something up, I go to the shelf and pull off the copy I use for reference, and I feel once again how I felt when I first held it in my hands. This is truly, and deeply for me, my first book. That feeling has never faded.

What made you turn from nonfiction to fiction and your Mellingham Mysteries, featuring Detective Joe Silva?
When I was in college a freshman English professor suggested I try writing stories. Which sort of tells you what my student papers must have been like. But he was right—I tried it and loved it. I started writing stories, and then was soon writing a novel. I think I spent more time on that novel in college than on any of my class work. I think I threw it out in a fit of cleaning, and I would love to find it, but alas I’m pretty sure it’s gone. Fiction fit me well, and although I got caught up in studying all things Indian, I returned to fiction after about a seven or eight year hiatus. But I never stopped writing something.

A terrific story!

You co-founded a publishing company called Level Best Books; tell us about it. How did you come to create what you call a “publishing cooperative?”

Level Best Books grew out of another publishing company. A friend and I started something called The Larcom Press, to publish a literary review, The Larcom Review. This lasted for about 5 years before we ran out of money—the overhead was way too high. But just at the end we had begun the process of publishing a collection of short crime fiction, and I just couldn’t walk away from it. So, I contacted two writer friends I knew and admired, and we went off for lunch in a fabulous restaurant in Gloucester, where, over popovers (they don’t serve dinner rolls), we came up with Level Best Books as a name and a plan—to publish an annual anthology of crime fiction. And we were off and running . . . The fifth anthology is now at the printer’s and just about ready.

You are also a photographer; the snapshots on your web page are arresting and beautiful. Have you ever worked as a photographer, or is it an unpaid passion?
Thank you for the compliment. I like my photographs, but I sort of take them for granted. If I like them, I put them on the website; otherwise I pay no attention to them. My husband thinks I should pay much more attention to them. I have a very different reaction to them from my reaction to my writing.

Photography is something I discovered about ten years ago, and I am wondering if it was an accident. My grandfather became a professional photographer fairly late in life and had two photographs published in Life and another comparable national magazine. My mother was in love with photography for as long as I can remember, and always had a camera with her whenever we went anywhere on vacation. But, the real surprise was when we cleaned out my mother’s house and found cartons—I mean CARTONS—of photographs of relatives and family events, going back to the Civil War. My husband pointed out that lots of families have a few old photographs, but not CARTONS of them. So I guess photography is fixed in the family DNA.

That's an interesting notion--that a love of photography could be inherited. A certain type of perception, perhaps.

You love Sanskrit and you've been to India: would you ever consider living there?

I have lived there when I was studying. I spent all of 1976 there and again, a year in 1981-1982. I have thought about moving there, but I’m not sure it’s practicable. Even though my husband (he does have a name, by the way, Michael) loved it too, I’m not sure he wants to live there again. I’m hoping to spend more time there—three to six months every couple of years, but I’m not sure about that yet.

You seem to be a well-traveled person. Aside from India, where else have you gone on this earth? Do you have a favorite place? (This is a favorite question of mine, because I love hearing about the far-flung places).
When my brothers and I were young my parents took us off on a trip every year. We toured Canada (one of my father’s favorite places), the American West (another favorite spot), all of New England, especially Maine. I’ve been through probably more than half of the States, and most of Europe, most recently Portugal. I think, however, I still love India, and given any chance at all will head there to Kerala. We lived in Trivandrum, Kerala, South India, which was a quiet backwater state capital until about ten years ago, when Indians realized that foreigners would pay to sit out in the sun. No Indian has ever figured this out, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from capitalizing on it.

What a wonderful collection of memories those trips must have provided!

On your webpage you quote Gustave Flaubert: “Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.” Why does this quotation inspire you?

I once went to a conference and at the end of a somewhat rewarding and tiring two days found myself in a party on the tenth floor of a very high end hotel, holding a glass of whatever and listening to extremely well dressed powerful women talk about their programs and fundraising and more of the same. All of a sudden the inanity of it all came over me and I thought I’d lose my mind. I realized I hadn’t held a book or written a sentence in two days. I kept my mouth shut and got out of there as fast as possible. I will never dress that well, and I will never have that level of sophistication, but I will never give up writing—no matter what I’m promised. I’d rather be shackled to my desk trying to figure out what my characters are up to—although I will take the occasional break to enjoy a glass of wine and admire my husband’s orchid.

That is really great to hear, Susan. It's an inspiring attitude.

Your new book is called A Murderous Innocence. I love the oxymoron. What’s it about?

The title comes from a line in Yeats’s poem “A Prayer for My Daughter.” It’s a beautiful poem with many of the allusions we associate with him—his vision of the future and the ending of one era and the beginning of another. In the poem he prays that his daughter have certain qualities despite the new world coming that probably will not honor the modest qualities he wants for his daughter, and that they not be swept away by the values of the future, the murderous innocence of the sea. It is an arresting image, and one that seemed to express the violence that is done to decent people by the sweeping destruction of drug addiction. People hardly know what is happening to them until it’s too late.

I look forward to reading it. How did you come to create the character of Joe Silva? Is there any significance to his last name?
Silva is a fairly common Portuguese name in Eastern Massachusetts, where I live, and Joe represents the long-present Azorean community in his values and culture. When I was struggling with the first chapters of the first mystery novel, which turned into Murder in Mellingham, Joe literally drove down the street, parked his car, got out, and looked over the town green. He decided he liked it well enough, and I knew I had my series character. I liked him enormously right from the beginning—which is a good thing, considering the role he was going to play.

I love to hear about that first meeting between an author and her protagonist. :)

Do you read often, or does writing take up much of your time? What do you read when you are able?

Given a choice between reading and writing, I’m usually writing. I have to schedule reading time—there are so many books on various tables throughout the house. I read both fiction and nonfiction. I recently finished reading Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us, which is a wonderful novel, and am now reading The Working Poor: Invisible in America, by David Shipler, a powerful indictment of our social system in that it structurally produces poverty and maintains it.

You offer editing services to those who need them. Are there particular things you find yourself editing repeatedly? That is, are they style errors, plotting errors, grammatical errors? Other?
I offer editing services, but it has been some time since I did that. I think I’ll take it off the website because I just don’t have time any more. That said, I do the editing for the anthologies and did it for The Larcom Review. I do notice how language is changing—enormity for large, bemused for amused, etc.—but I also recognize that language IS changing, and I can’t shovel sand against the tide. New writers tend to lack balance between plot and character, and sometimes forget that we have to see something in the main character that makes us care—he or she has to feel human.

What advice would you give to someone writing her or his first mystery?
I tell new writers to remember that reading a story is the same as living the experience of the characters. Don’t short change the reader—make the story live for the reader. Tell me if the character is hot and sweaty, or if her shoulders are so tense they ache because she’s afraid to relax in the presence of her new boss, or someone is following her and she can hear the click of his heels on the sidewalk. Tell me what she is experiencing and I won’t care if I forgot to close the window upstairs and it’s raining. I’ll be hot and sweaty with your character, tense and frightened, and listening for those footsteps.

So well put. Thanks so much for chatting with me, Susan!
Julie, thanks for your patience and for inviting me to do this.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Existential Pumpkin Patch

One of my favorite Halloween stories is that of the Great Pumpkin, created by cartoonist Charles M. Schultz. Not only is Linus Van Pelt one of the most appealing creations in all of fiction, but his sincere belief in the Great Pumpkin, who would preside over the "most sincere" Pumpkin Patch on Halloween night, was the crux of the story. Linus represented the optimism that Charlie Brown could never quite muster, and there is beauty in all of Linus's speeches that are meant to make Charlie Brown take heart.

These boys are the Didi and Gogo of cartoon world, the little philosophers who show us the distance between hope and despair. Schultz's great success, I think, lay in the fact that he never condescended with his characters. The Peanuts gang spoke with wisdom, even world-weariness, and they were appealing to all ages.

When the Great Pumpkin never appears (except in the disillusioning form of Snoopy), Linus is dejected, but it is not long before he is planning for the next Halloween, and a more gloriously sincere pumpkin patch. Linus avoids the abyss because he clings to hope; Charlie Brown has been to the abyss, which is why he seeks pyschiatric help from Lucy, who doles out not Prozac, but common sense.

The heroism of the cartoon boys is similar to that of the men who wait for Godot; they may not always have the answers, but there is always hope, there is always tomorrow. Charlie Brown might actually get mail, and Linus might see something magical.

Zen Sarcasm

I got this little list in an unattributed e-mail from my friend Brian Darovic. It seems to be making the e-mail rounds, but I thought a couple were funny, so I'll list them here. Put yourself in Zen mode.

Zen Sarcasm

1. Do not walk behind me, for I may not lead. Do not walk ahead of me, for I may not follow. Do not walk beside me either. Just pretty much leave me the hell alone.

2. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a broken fan belt and leaky tire.
3. It's always darkest before dawn. So if you're going to steal your neighbor's newspaper, that's the time to do it.

4. Don't be irreplaceable. If you can't be replaced, you can't be promoted.

5. Always remember that you're unique. Just like everyone else.

6. Never test the depth of the water with both feet.

7. If you think nobody cares if you're alive, try missing a couple of car payments.

8. Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you're a mile away and you have their shoes.

9. If at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you.

10. Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day.

11. If you lend someone $20 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it.

12. If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.

13. The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it back in your pocket.

14. A closed mouth gathers no foot.

15. Duct tape is like 'The Force.' It has a light side and a dark side, and it holds the universe together.

16. Generally speaking, you aren't learning much when your lips are moving.

17. Experience is something you don't get until just after you need it.

18. Never miss a good chance to shut up.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Atmospheric Writing

Lately, perhaps with my focus on the need for fall atmosphere, I've been thinking about atmosphere in writing. Sometimes I look at the writing of others and learn little lessons, even if those writers happen to be far younger than I.

I don't recall that my writing was particularly good when I was in grade school, although I know I had a fairly large vocabulary, and that I loved to read. I'm not sure why I'm always surprised when children write well, since I see examples all the time. The latest is this poem my son wrote in his third grade class--an acrostic.


Grouchy goblin sitting in a coffin, waiting for its prey;
Howling creatures coming for me.
Owls gliding in the dark night sky.
Slimy locusts creeping up my oozing leg.
Trees broken and dead--makes a great place
for a witch's bed.

I thought this was pretty neat, but I'm sure that third grade teachers the world over could tell me that nine-year-olds are terrific writers. In any case, I love the fact that their teacher, Mrs. Fogarty, obviously told them to use imagery, and this piece comes alive with it.

One of my favorite poems from childhood was Alfred Noyes' THE HIGHWAYMAN. One of the best lines described the sky during the highwayman's midnight ride: "The moon was a ghostly galleon, tossed upon stormy seas." I think of lines like that every time I see the power of visual and sensory imagery. Sometimes I need to be reminded to weave it into my own work. :)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Gray Days and Spooky Stories

We carved pumpkins today, in what is FINALLY fall weather, thanks to yesterday's crazy storms. The gray clouds and bitter wind put me in mind of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and I thought I'd share some of that moody story here. This is the best part, where Ichabod feels he is being followed down a dark road at midnight.

" . . . Ichabod, who had no relish for this strange midnight companion, and bethought himself of the adventure of Brom Bones with the Galloping Hessian, now quickened his steed, in hopes of leaving him behind. The stranger, however, quickened his horse to an equal pace. Ichabod pulled up, and fell into a walk, thinking to lag behind—the other did the same. His heart began to sink within him; he endeavored to resume his psalm tune, but his parched tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, and he could not utter a stave. There was something in the moody and dogged silence of this pertinacious companion, that was mysterious and appalling. It was soon fearfully accounted for. On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow-traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck, on perceiving that he was headless!—but his horror was still more increased, on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of the saddle; his terror rose to desperation; he rained a shower of kicks and blows upon Gunpowder; hoping, by a sudden movement, to give his companion the slip—but the spectre started full jump with him. Away then they dashed, through thick and thin; stones flying, and sparks flashing at every bound. Ichabod’s flimsy garments fluttered in the air, as he stretched his long lanky body away over his horse’s head, in the eagerness of his flight.

They had now reached the road which turns off to Sleepy Hollow; but Gunpowder, who seemed possessed with a demon, instead of keeping up it, made an opposite turn, and plunged headlong down hill to the left. This road leads through a sandy hollow, shaded by trees for about a quarter of a mile, where it crosses the bridge famous in goblin story, and just beyond swells the green knoll on which stands the whitewashed church.

As yet the panic of the steed had given his unskilful rider an apparent advantage in the chase; but just as he had got half way through the hollow, the girths of the saddle gave way, and he felt it slipping from under him. He seized it by the pommel, and endeavored to hold it firm, but in vain; and had just time to save himself by clasping old Gunpowder round the neck, when the saddle fell to the earth, and he heard it trampled under foot by his pursuer. For a moment the terror of Hans Van Ripper’s wrath passed across his mind—for it was his Sunday saddle; but this was no time for petty fears; the goblin was hard on his haunches; and (unskilful rider that he was!) he had much ado to maintain his seat; sometimes slipping on one side, sometimes on another, and sometimes jolted on the high ridge of his horse’s backbone, with a violence that he verily feared would cleave him asunder.

An opening in the trees now cheered him with the hopes that the church bridge was at hand. The wavering reflection of a silver star in the bosom of the brook told him that he was not mistaken. He saw the walls of the church dimly glaring under the trees beyond. He recollected the place where Brom Bones’s ghostly competitor had disappeared. “If I can but reach that bridge,” thought Ichabod, “I am safe.” Just then he heard the black steed panting and blowing close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath. Another convulsive kick in the ribs, and old Gunpowder sprang upon the bridge; he thundered over the resounding planks; he gained the opposite side; and now Ichabod cast a look behind to see if his pursuer should vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone. Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late. It encountered his cranium with a tremendous crash—he was tumbled headlong into the dust, and Gunpowder, the black steed, and the goblin rider, passed by like a whirlwind.

The next morning the old horse was found without his saddle . . . ."

--From THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, Washington Irving

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Tempest

Today Chicagoland is anticipating extremely high winds, stormy weather and possible funnel clouds. This is not my favorite weather, but it puts me in mind of great literature, of course. Aside from remembering Shakespeare, who wrote of storms that were harbingers of significant events, I'm trying to hearken back to my favorite mystery writers, and whether or not I can recall great storm scenes.

One that leaps to mind happens at the end of Mary Stewart's THE IVY TREE; her heroine must brave a storm to save two lives, and ultimately she risks her own. It is a terrific scene, spanning a couple of chapters because it is the climax of the novel.

Can anyone recall another good storm scene in a mystery?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What I'm Reading Now

I'm enjoying an ARC of Karen Olson's DEAD OF THE DAY. Very interesting and hard to put down.

Upcoming interviews:
Karen Olson (on Poe's Deadly Daughters)
Susan Wittig Albert
Susan Oleksiw
Diana Vickery of Cozy Library

That New Kitten Smell

Yesterday my son picked up Rose, one of two kittens we foolishly adopted this past summer, stuck his face in her fur, and sniffed. Then he said, "Rose still has that new kitten smell."

How sad I'll be when it fades. :)

Rose and her brother Mulliner are becoming good little mystery readers, though. They like to sit on the pages of books, especially pages that readers are hoping to turn.

Here is evidence:

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Otherwise They'll Kill You

Today is the birthday of the great Oscar Wilde, who was born in 1854. Wilde would probably make fun of me for noting the date, since he once wrote "Most modern calendars mar the sweet simplicity of our lives by reminding us that each day that passes is the anniversary of some perfectly uninteresting event."

However, and more in keeping with the theme of this blog, he is also quoted as saying "If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you." An interesting motive for murder, but not an unbelievable one. And of course Wilde knew better than most how dearly a person had to pay for his beliefs (or his preferences).

My favorite Wilde words, though, are the ones he is supposed to have said when he was dying: "This wallpaper is killing me. One of us has to go." (It has also been related as, "Either it goes or I do.")

Either way, Wilde, you left the world laughing, or at least making others do so.

(photo link here)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Origins of Fear

I blogged long ago about my fear of planes, but I think that fear is rooted in my basic fear of heights. Last year we went to the city with some European relatives and showed them the sights, which included--gulp--the John Hancock building. My dad, ever the adventurer, whisked us there in taxis and we waited in line to ascend to the very top. I tried various ways to get out of this without looking wimpy, but my children seemed interested enough, and I didn't want to deprive them of their adventure.

Instead, I rode the wobbling elevator with everyone else and emerged on to the skydeck, where the view was spectacular--and high. So high up in the air, where I believe a person like me is just not constitutionally meant to go. One can walk right up to a window and practically press oneself against the glass. You can see my family here enjoying the view; I am at the center of the floor, trying to avoid vertigo and snapping pictures to distract myself.

Is fear of heights hereditary? It could be; my mother has it, or something like it, although she has summoned up the gumption to board a plane many times. Apparently character is lessened with each generation. My eldest son was nervous about ascending, but adapted quickly enough. I'm not sure what causes my aversion to leaving the ground, but it's an instinctive response, and one that seems to increase as I age. I don't see the logic in it; it doesn't even seem rational to build a structure as high as the Hancock, nor does it seem sane to live in it. But that's just my mind talking me into my own fears.

I'm curious about phobias and how they manifest themselves in people. Do we all have them? If so, what distinguishes one from another? Why can someone hop on a plane but be afraid of spiders? Or drive on the expressway but be horrified (as one of my students is) of feet?

What's your phobia?

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Mystery of Small Planes

I blogged a few weeks ago about Amelia Earhart and the small plane that let her down in the end; she disappeared in 1937, and how she died remains the subject of debate. America is still awaiting news of explorer Steve Fossett, who disappeared in his small plane on September 3rd. And on this day in 1997, John Denver crashed in his small plane and died on impact.

Many a celebrity and many an adventurer has died in a small plane crash; Denver's death was particularly sad for me, because I'd always been a fan of his music. While some criticized Denver for not being country enough and others simply labeled him as weird, I always recognized the poet in him--all one had to do was listen to his songs.

Denver focused on nature and positive feelings. His tribute to his first wife Annie, appropriately named "Annie's Song," was one of the loveliest tributes ever written. How could a woman not be flattered when a man claimed "You fill up my senses/like a night in a forest; like the mountains in springtime/like a walk in the rain; like a storm in the desert, like a sleepy blue ocean. You fill up my senses; come fill me again." ?

One of my favorite Denver tunes was a little-known anthem to nature called Eagle and Hawk. It went:

"Oh, I am the eagle, I live in high country
In rocky cathedrals that reach to the sky;
I am the hawk, and there's blood on my feathers,
But time is still turning, they soon will be dry.
And all those who see me, and all who believe in me,
Share in the freedom I feel when I fly . . .

Come dance with the west wind and
Touch all the mountaintops;
Sail oe'r the canyons and up to the stars--
And reach for the heavens and hope for the future,
All that you can be, not what you are."

Denver's crash shocked me, because I had just seen him on a talk show a couple of days before. He was fifty-three but looked ten years younger; he was happy and positive and talking about new music he was going to be making. And then, in an instant, he was gone in the way so many others had been gone before him. Like Earhart and Fossett, Denver couldn't resist flying, and his aircraft was considered experimental.

Denver's website claims that "John Denver’s generosity of spirit colored his music with a pure, simple grace, casting a spell that crossed the barriers of age, economics, geography, language and politics."

I would have to agree. And while Denver accomplished much, not only in his music but in acts of philanthropy, I wish he had been given a bit more time.

Photo link.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Fighting Autumn Prejudice

Here's a mystery for you: why are so many people unhappy with cool weather?

I have no tolerance for the heat. It makes me cranky, sweaty, lethargic--it even gives me headaches. I am less myself in the summer; I am dormant, waiting for fall.

As far as I'm concerned, today was the first nice day in months: cold, crisp, beautiful layers of gray and white clouds as lovely as a Van Gogh. 50 degrees and breezy: sweatshirt and football weather. Comfort food weather. Snuggling weather. What's not to like?

And yet every weather person is bemoaning the loss of the heat, the loss of summer, as if some precious gift had been taken. They face the camera with sad smiles and say, "It was nice while it lasted." Are they CRAZY? This is the first day I was able to teach my class without that horrible droplet of sweat that runs down my spine during every lecture. I had energy! I was vibrant! I have come out of hibernation. A teacher from across the hall came over and asked what had gotten into me today.

"I just like my subject matter," I said truthfully. But it was probably fall, too, and the wonderful cold that made me so energetic.

Tonight I went to an evening graduate class and all of my classmates were frowning and saying things like "It was eighty on Sunday! What happened to the heat?" They all grumbled together, bonding over their love of summer.

Guess what, I wanted to tell them--it's October! It's supposed to be cold! Tis the season!

Why, oh why, do people dislike this wonderful, crisp, refreshing, invigorating weather?

That's a real mystery to me.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Mystery Writer Pat Browning on Good Writing, Great Food, and Beautiful Places

Hi, Pat! Thanks for chatting. You’re a former schoolteacher; what did you teach?
Two semesters of English at Sapulpa (Oklahoma) High School; one semester of English and journalism at Cleveland (Oklahoma) High School.

Is it true you can take the teacher out of the school but you can’t take the school out of the teacher? Or something to that effect?
I don’t know how to answer that. I never felt I really got to teach. There was such a difference between a real classroom and “practice teaching” as done in college that I just wore myself out. Every night I was grading papers, doing lesson plans and devising exam questions.

Some nights I couldn’t even do that, because I was selling hot dogs at a ballgame, or running a meeting of some high school club I sponsored, or attending a PTA meeting, or directing a class play. My tail was dragging before the first semester ended.

I did all that for $200 per month, which went a long way in those days. I bought a fur coat on the installment plan and wore that thing for years.

Mid-year, I got married, taught another semester, moved to Cleveland and said, never again! But of course Cleveland High needed an English/journalism teacher for the spring semester. In those days little schools always needed a teacher, and you didn’t have to fill out nosy questionnaires or suffer interviews about your life goals. Basically they hired you on somebody’s recommendation and you showed up in the classroom the following Monday.

The only extra-curricular activity I loved was putting out the school newspaper at Cleveland High. I could have done that 24 hours a day, which gives you a clue. I never took a journalism class in college but I should have gone into journalism instead of teaching. However, that semester of hands-on experience worked well for me later, when I finally got into reporting as a stringer for The Fresno Bee. I was a part-time reporter for years and finally took it on fulltime after I retired from a job as a legal secretary and after I just hauled off and quit a job as a travel agent.

But you are also a former travel writer. Where have you traveled? Do you have a favorite place?
A shorter answer would be where I haven’t traveled: Australia, Ireland, Egypt, Middle East, Africa (except for Morocco). My traveling was done in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. The world has changed since then, so I’m glad I could flit around when there was still a bit of romance attached to foreign travel.

Favorites? I never got tired of England. I always wanted to go back to India, one of the most beautiful and surprising places on earth, but a second trip never worked out. I loved Morocco. The first time I set foot in Casablanca it was like stepping into the Bogart-Bergman movie. But if I had to pick the most fascinating place I ever visited it would be the old Yugoslavia. You’re hip deep in history when you’re in the Balkans, and the scenery is magnificent.

Wow, Pat! Your travels put mine to shame.

Let's talk mysteries for a minute. Your book is called Full Circle. What’s it about?

Here’s the logline: It’s just another Labor Day weekend in the small California town of Pearl, until discovery of a skeleton in a cotton field leads to murder.

It’s about small town secrets and getting away with murder when you have money and power.

A common theme, that last part, because it's true! Did you have trouble selecting a title? Or did your publisher choose this one?
I self-published, so I had the pleasure. The working title changed as the story changed. The first title was Room Thirteen. The second was Skeleton Crew. For a long time the title was Murder in the Round. About a week before I uploaded the manuscript to iUniverse I changed the title to Full Circle, which was a good fit.

I didn’t check to see if anyone had used that title but the first time I looked for it on I learned that it’s a popular title. So many people use it that now I search for it by Pat Browning, not Full Circle. I kept hoping that a few million people would buy mine thinking it was Danielle Steel’s. Didn’t happen.

Darn. But you have completed a second Penny Mackenzie mystery called Winter Moon. Do you like the adjective-noun title combination?
I never thought about it. Winter Moon is the name of a character, and the title has a secondary meaning because my characters are Baby Boomers and their elders. Unless I change the ending, the only character with a speaking part who is younger than 40 is a parrot.

What conflicts will Penny face in your second mystery?
Here’s the logline: Small town reporter Penny Mackenzie tracks an offbeat Christmas story and finds herself in the middle of a murder and the mysterious desecration of an old Chinese cemetery.

Penny wants to solve the mystery of a long-dead Chinese man, whose records seem non-existent, and she wants to find out who murdered someone who seemed to have no enemies. On another level, she’s resisting marriage to the man of her dreams (and occasional nightmares) because she doesn’t quite trust him.

Very enticing! What sorts of mysteries do you like to read?

Anything that isn’t about rapists, serial killers, cannibals, vampires or child abusers. I like mysteries that make me laugh, and mysteries that make me think. I love mysteries set in the 1930s and ’40s.

On one of your websites you describe writing as “an adventure.” Is it a good adventure, a frightening one, a miserable one? All three?
It’s great fun, a challenge, an emotional experience. Sometimes I laugh when I’m writing and sometimes I cry. I’m my own best audience. Still, if I can’t respond to what I write, how can I expect it to affect someone else?

Exactly. What are you reading now?
Watching the Ken Burns documentary “The War” cut into my reading time, but I did finish two of Marilyn Meredith’s Tempe Crabtree mysteries, Calling the Dead and Judgment Fire. I also read Emerald by Phyllis Whitney, and the screenplay “Good Will Hunting” by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. I have bookmarks in Death and the Walking Stick by Linda Berry, and two Collin Wilcox mysteries, Silent Witness and Except for the Bones.

All people, therefore all writers, have a food vice. What is yours? Do you munch while you’re composing?
My food vice is food. You name it, I like it. Now that I’m living in Oklahoma, I miss California’s fresh seafood, and red snapper. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for some fresh red snapper from the Central California Coast. Oklahoma is a catfish state. I don’t like catfish. Never did, never will.

I drive my two sisters nuts by complaining that I can’t always find good blue cheese here. Two years ago one of them gift-wrapped a one-pound chunk of blue cheese and put it under my little Christmas tree. I keep hinting, but she has never done that again.

Munch? Peanuts, popcorn, candy … I gained five pounds just answering this question.

And I reading your answer. :) Beth Anderson writes of Full Circle, “I’ve rarely read a mystery with such a profound sense of place.” Is setting a primary feature for you when you’re writing? I know that P.D. James says setting is everything. What does Pat Browning say?
That’s kind of Beth and high praise coming from such a gifted writer. Her Night Sounds is an exquisite book and one of my all-time favorites. I’d say setting and character are equally important. Setting does shape character and I’m definitely a “place person.”

For almost 50 years I lived in California’s Central Valley, where there’s a little town tucked into every clump of trees along Highway 99 between Sacramento and Bakersfield. The settlers were the Greeks, the Armenians, the Swedes, the Brits, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Italians and people from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, you name it. Add the local Indians and the Chinese who moved south after the Gold Rush of 1849 and you get a wonderful mix. I didn’t have to look for my setting. I was living in it.

You have lived, then, in both Oklahoma and California. Are there any similarities between the two places?
I was born and raised in Oklahoma, but lived in California for most of my adult life. After my husband died I had no family in California, so I came back to Oklahoma, where I have lots of family.

The two states are as different as night and day. I do miss California. Miss the climate. Miss the lifestyle. Mostly, though, I miss the past. I keep reminding myself that life is a forward motion. The only way to step backward across that line between past and present is to write about it.

I’m doing some of that. A short memoir I wrote about growing up in Oklahoma won second place (and $50, I might add) in this year’s Frontiers in Writing contest. The contest is sponsored by Panhandle Professional Writers in Amarillo, Texas, one of the most helpful and supportive writers’ organizations I know.

Another generous, high-energy group is SouthWest Writers, based in Albuquerque. I wish I lived close enough to attend all their meetings and workshops. Their newsletter, The SouthWest Sage, is available to members in hard copy and to the world online. I was thrilled this summer when the Sage used two of my articles, one on writer’s fatigue and one on charming an audience.

Maybe I should forget fiction and write non-fiction. But fiction is fun to write, and you can say so many things that you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say in non-fiction.

Congratulations! You are moving forward in a very positive way.

Back to the place question: Do people accuse you of having an Oklahoma accent?

When I first moved to California someone said, “I hear the south in your mouth,” but I probably lost that. A real Oklahoma accent is soft and slow, with a bit of a twang.

Does anyone ever insist on singing “Oklahoma” to you, as I probably would once I heard you were from Oklahoma?
Never had that experience! It’s a great song, though, and we hear it often during this Centennial year.

Thanks for chatting, Pat!

My pleasure!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Why Writers Should Thank Stephen Colbert

I will venture briefly into the world of television to say something about the world of writing. And my statement is this: Thank goodness for Stephen Colbert.

There are times when I despair that things in television are being too “dumbed down,” especially the things that are meant to entertain (and sometimes educate) my children. I grow tired not only of scripts that contain too many stock characters, cliché situations, or predictable plots (oh, how very predictable many have become)!

I cringe at the notion of “reality tv,” which I find not realistic at all if by realistic they mean authentic. And the huge burst of reality programs suggests that not only is television trying to create a nation of voyeurs, but that network after network wants to jump on that bizarre bandwagon.

Colbert’s show, The Colbert Report (whimsically pronounced COL-BAIR RE-PORE) is political, satirical, and ironic (he poses as an extremely conservative American), and I appreciate all of those facets, but they are not the reasons why I feel grateful to Colbert. My gratitude stems from the fact that Colbert loves words, and he uses them effectively, hilariously, wielding them as weapons of protest, as swords of debate, as reminders of the broad vocabulary at our disposal.

The opening sequence of the show, aside from showing Colbert literally waving the American flag (hence the ironic tag), presents a visual of Colbert remaining stationary while a slew of words scrolls past his head—words that are humorously supposed to describe Colbert himself, at least in his televised persona. Every now and then a word is selected to remain onscreen; the current word is “gutly.” My personal favorite is “Lincolnish.”

Colbert has fun with words; writers understand this, and first and foremost I view Colbert as a writer. His show was spawned by The Jon Stewart Show, and Stewart is perhaps the king of political satire in this venue. But while Stewart is great at improvisation and cutting edge satire, Colbert is a good writer and speaker. Sure, he has a team of writers at his disposal, but I believe that Colbert, as a lover of words, is much involved in the writing of the show (I base this on his quick wit in interviews, much of which must necessarily be improvised depending on his subject’s responses).

Why are words so important? Unless television begins to challenge our minds and make us think about words, concepts, ideas beyond platitudes and clichés, we will no longer want to read or think at deep levels. We will want only to be entertained (both Stewart and Colbert reach people, after all, by making them laugh), and if the powers behind the networks chip away at our resolve, we will be entertained by less and less impressive things. We will lose our critical edge, our love for language, our cultural depth.

There are still many shows that challenge us, but they may not all have the viewership that Colbert is building in his blatant (but funny) attempts at p.r. I won’t comment here on Colbert’s politics, because this is a blog about writing. I hope Colbert will continue to wield his pen to show viewers that words have power, that their diverse use sharpens our intellects, and that they are pleasurable to hear . . . and to read.

(Photo link here)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Great Beginnings Bode Well

So here's another one, in honor of my week of great beginnings.

"Carmel Lacy is the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal. The only reason that I was having tea with her in Harrod's on that wet Thursday afternoon was that when she rang me up she had been so insistent that it had been impossible to get out of; and besides, I was so depressed anyway that even tea with Carmel Lacy was still preferable to sitting alone at home in a room that still seemed to be echoing with that last quarrel with Louis. That I had been entirely in the right, and that Louis had been insufferably, immovably, furiously in the wrong was no particular satisfaction, since he was now in Stockholm, and I was still here in London, when by rights we should have been lying on a beach together in the Italian sunshine, enjoying the first summer holiday we had been able to plan together since our honeymoon two years ago. The fact that it had rained almost without ceasing ever since he had gone hadn't done anything to mitigate his offense; and when looking up "other people's weather" in The Guardian each morning, I found Stockholm enjoying a permanent state of sunshine, and temperatures somewhere in the seventies, I was easily able to ignore the reports of a wet, thundery August in southern Italy and concentrate steadily on Louis's sins and my own grievances."

Mary Stewart

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

More Great Mystery Beginnings

This book is a favorite, and one that I taught for a few years when I was lucky enough to teach a mystery seminar. See if you recognize it:

"The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open becuase Terry Lennox's left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and no other.

There was a girl beside him. Her hair was a lovely shade of dark red and she had a distant smile on her lips and over her shoulders she had a blue mink that almost made the Rolls Royce look like just another automobile. It didn't quite. Nothing can.

The attendant was the usual half-tough character in a white coat with the name of the restaurant stitched across the front of it in red. He was getting fed up.

"Look, mister," he said with an edge to his voice, "would you mind a whole lot pulling your leg in the car so I can kind of shut the door? Or should I open it all the way so you can fall out?"

The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back. It didn't bother him enough to give him the shakes. At The Dancers they get the sort of people that disillusion you about what a lot of golfing money can do for the personality.

A low-swung foreign speedster with no top drifted into the parking lot and a man got out of it and used the dash lighter on a long cigarette. He was wearing a pullover check shirt, yellow slacks, and riding boots. He strode off trailing clouds of incense, not even bothering to look toward the Rolls Royce. He probably thought it was corny. At the foot of the steps up to the terrace he paused to put a monocle in his eye.

The girl said with a nice burst of charm: "I have a wonderful idea, darling. Why don't we just take a cab to your place and get your convertible out? It's such a wonderful night for a run up the coast to Montecito. I know some people there who are throwing a dance around the pool.

The white-haired lad said politely: "Awfully sorry, but I don't have it any more. I was compelled to sell it." From his voice and articulation you wouldn't have known he had anything stronger than an orange juice to drink.

"Sold it, darling? How do you mean?" She slid away from him on the seat, but her voice slid away a lot farther than that.

"I mean I had to. For eating money."

"Oh, I see." A slice of spumoni wouldn't have melted on her now. . . . "
Raymond Chandler (1953)

Great Beginnings, Part Two

Continuing with great beginnings, here's another favorite of mine. Are you in the mood for mystery yet?

"Sexton never looked for the gatehouse, no matter what anyone thought or said afterward. Neither did he intend it as a ploy, a deliberate excuse to meet Iris Freebody. He came upon it quite by chance, on the Friday before the first week of classes began at the college where he'd come to teach.

He still didn't have a place to live. He'd been combing the town without success and that day he found himself drifting out onto the country on a secondary road, disttracted by the beauty of the afternoon. The smoke haze of autumn hung in the air like a gold mist, the mountains were blue, trees burned in the sunshine, and a farmer was making a pastoral whirr, baling hay on his machine.

Sexton had been skirting a long stone wall on his right for some time. There had to be a house behind it, but though he thought he glimpsed a chimney, trees and shrubs made a screen where the wall left off. Here also were tall iron gates topped by spears, and an "F" woven into them. Then this must be the castle, or Adam's Castle, or Old Adam's Castle--terms used by local residents in speaking of the mansion that the Freebodys owned on the outskirts of town. His friend Jeff had told him about the Freebody family, who had given their name to the town, and their land and buildings to found a college which also bore their name. It was Adam Freebody who had built the Castle, his own rendition of castles he'd seen in Europe, and why shouldn't the old boy have built himself a palatial plaything? Adam Freebody had been as rich as the men who'd owned those castles in Europe, maybe richer. Sexton was curious to see how the lords of the manor lived, and he parked his car and walked over to the gates to look through . . . . "

by Ethel Edison Gordon (c. 1974)

Photo link here.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Great Beginnings, Part One

This week I'm going to devote some time to some of the greatest openers in mystery fiction. I'll begin with a favorite of mine: see if you recognize it.

"The lake was cold, black, evil, nor more than five hundred yards in length, scarely two hundred in breadth, a crooked stretch of glassy calm shadowed by the mountainsides that slipped steeply into its dark waters and went plunging down. There were no roads, no marked paths around it; only a few tracks, narrow ribbons, wound crazily along its high sides, sometimes climbing up and around the rough crags, sometimes dropping to the sparse clumps of fir at its water line. The eastern tip of the lake was closed off by a ridge of precipices. The one approach was by its western end. Here, the land eased away into gentler folds, forming a stretch of fine alpine grass strewn with pitted boulders and groups of more firs. This was where the trail, branching up from the rough road that linked villages and farms on the lower hills, ended in a bang and a whimper: a view of the forbidding grandeur and a rough wooden table with two benches where the summer visitor could eat his hard-boiled eggs and caraway-sprinkled ham sandwiches."
And so begins Helen MacInnes' great thriller, The Salzburg Connection, which gives The Bourne Identity a run for its money. I blogged about this recently here.

Anyone who hasn't tried MacInnes might be pleasantly surprised to find she has many exciting books--if this one looks good to you, give it a read! More fun introductions to follow.

(photo link here)