Thursday, November 29, 2007

It's That Time of Year . . .

It's that time of year. Yes, when the world falls in love, but also when I am grading research papers. This is a solemn and noble duty, and, as Inspector Clouseau once said, "A part of life's rich pageant." :)

Based on what I've read so far, I can assure anyone reading this that young people can still think like scholars and write intelligently--that wasn't exclusive to our generation, although I have chatted with some adults who believe it was.

I say, if an eighteen-year-old can push away the cell phone and the text messaging, the computer, the television, and sit down to write a paper which assures me that Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov and Camus' Meursault share an existential isolation, and can proceed with a lucid argument supported by examples, then the world of scholarship is in good shape.

So I am grateful for my scholars, even if I am not grateful for the pile of papers that seems never to grow smaller. Maybe I am the one in existential isolation . . .

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Songs of Experience

On this day in 1757, British poet, printmaker, and painter William Blake was born. Blake was considered great for many things, but I am fond particularly of his poetry; in Songs of Innocence and Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, Blake did as his title promised. The first book celebrates moments of innocence, happiness, and joy in the world. The second examines the loss of innocence from a variety of causes, including the material world. One of my favorites from the latter is a companion piece to a poem from Book One called "The Lamb." This one, naturally, examines the lamb's natural predator.


By William Blake

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand forged thy dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


In Blake's poem is the examination of another kind of mystery--the one at the heart of creation, and the question of how "evil" can exist next to goodness, and what sort of world, what sort of Creator, would put them together.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ancient Mysteries: The Sator Square

While looking on the W.W.Web for something else, I ran across something really interesting. It's called the Sator Square; it's an ancient Latin palindrome. Its meaning, though, is subject to interpretation. The phrase reads "Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas" in every direction, frontward and backward, up and down.

According to a 2003 article by Rose Mary Sheldon in Cryptologia, "The sator square is one of the oldest, unsolved word puzzles in the world. Examples of the square and numerous variations on it, have been found in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. Examples date from first-century Rome to the nineteenth century. Many questions have plagued scholars: Who composed it? What do the words mean? How has it been used in magic, religion, medicine and superstition ever since? Does the solution lie with mathematicians, philologists or theologians? All these questions remain unsolved, but the number of attempts by scholars to answer them grows yearly."

I found that there are endless websites dedicated to solving the mystery of this square and its meaning. One source, here, suggests that there are several possible interpretations:

"The usual translation is as follows:

'Sower', 'planter'
Likely an invented proper name; its similarity with arrepo, from ad repo, 'I creep towards', is coincidental
'he holds'
'(with) work', '(with care)', '(with) effort'
Two possible translations of the phrase are 'The sower Arepo holds the wheels with effort' and 'The sower Arepo leads with his hand (work) the plough (wheels).' C. W. Ceram read the square boustrophedon (in alternating directions), with tenet repeated. This produces Sator opera tenet; tenet opera sator, translated: 'The Great Sower holds in his hand all works; all works the Great Sower holds in his hand.' (Ceram 1958, p. 30)

The word arepo is enigmatic, appearing nowhere else in Latin literature. Most of those who have studied the Sator Square agree that it is a proper name, either an adaptation of a non-Latin word or a name invented specifically for this sentence. Jerome Carcopino thought that it came from a Celtic, specifically Gaulish, word for plough. David Daube argued that it represented a Hebrew or Aramaic rendition of the Greek Αλφα ω, or "Alpha-Omega" (cf. Revelation 1:8) by early Christians. J. Gwyn Griffiths contended that it came, via Alexandria, from the attested Egyptian name Ḥr-Ḥp, which he took to mean "the face of Apis"."

I find the whole thing fascinating; as one of the articles pointed out, though, this is a mystery that can never be solved--only analyzed. And those, to me, are the most compelling mysteries of all.

(Photo image:

Sunday, November 25, 2007

CHAT 100: Crime Writer Martin Edwards on The Lure of Ciphers, The Beauty of Venice, and The Stories That Linger

I'm celebrating my 100th blog interview by chatting with Martin Edwards, a British crime writer who has won international accolades and whose style, according to Crime Time, blends "the style of the traditional English detective story with a darker noir sensibility."

Hello, Martin! I’ve been investigating your site and there’s a lot to see. I was struck by Ed Gorman’s words: “Martin Edwards is one of the finest stylists and most perceptive crime writers of his generation.” Other critics have similar praise. How did you get started writing crime novels?
As a child, I loved reading and always wanted to tell my own stories. When I was nine, I saw the film Murder Most Foul based (loosely, I later realized) on an Agatha Christie novel, and that led me to her books. I was immediately hooked and decided I wanted to become a detective novelist. However, my debut novel, All the Lonely People, which featured Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin, didn’t appear for another twenty six years, so I can’t claim overnight success! But it was an ambition fulfilled, and after that first novel came out, there really was no stopping me…

And we're lucky! You have a degree in law. Are you still a practicing solicitor?
Yes, I’ve been a partner in a firm based in Liverpool and Manchester for over twenty years. I’m the head of the labor law department and my first book to be published (when I was in my mid-twenties) was about the legal side of buying a business computer. I continue to write legal books, mainly about employment issues such as race, sex and age discrimination, but crime writing is my first love. If I ever feel weary, I remind myself I’m very lucky to have not one fascinating occupation, but two.

You went to Balliol College, Oxford. Wasn’t this the college of Lord Peter Wimsey?
It certainly was. I once wrote an essay about Balliol’s crime writers – there are over thirty of us, and they include present day writers such as Robert Barnard and Tim Heald as well as the late WJ Burley. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Balliol, and as a bonus, at a party there one night, I met a fellow student who eventually became my wife.

How fitting. You were born in Cheshire. Do they ever reference Lewis Carroll’s famous cat there?
Yes. I live a few miles from Daresbury, where Carroll grew up, and the church there is full of mementoes. We have an Alice trail in our garden and I was delighted when, for an anthology I edited, Edward D. Hoch wrote a Carroll-related story which later won an award.

In your blog you admit to being fascinated by codes and ciphers. Was this something that you enjoyed even in childhood? What’s the most fascinating cipher story, real or fictional?
I’ll overlook Dan Brown and my own The Cipher Garden and vote for Dorothy L Sayers’ Have His Carcase. In a very different way, Robert Harris’ Enigma is also very enjoyable. Ed Hoch and the late Michael Gilbert wrote some good short cipher stories.

Have His Carcase is my favorite!

You have written many books—both fictional mysteries and non-fiction legal books. You’ve edited anthologies and written more than 600 articles. How do you find the time to do all this writing? Would you say you’re an obsessive writer?

I’ll admit to that. I tend to think life is short, so it’s important not to waste it. And what I want to do is write. I tend to explain my prolific record by reference to determination and self-discipline, but my wife is probably closer to the mark when she says it’s because I’m lazy about ironing and washing-up.

Tell us about your Lake District mysteries and your protagonists, DCI Hannah Scarlett and historian Daniel Kind. How did these characters come into being? Did they begin talking in your head, or were they born of careful construction?

I’d written seven Liverpool books, and Take My Breath Away, set in London, when my publishers asked me to consider a new rural series with a male protagonist. The Lakes was an obvious choice – I know the area, and it’s not been over-used in crime fiction. I had the idea of a historian who became involved with crimes of the past, and at first Hannah was a subordinate character. But the more I wrote about her, the more fascinated I became. I like the challenge of writing from a female perspective and she rapidly grew in importance. When my old friend Peter Robinson read the ms, he said that Hannah’s character was key to the story. And he was right.

You completed a novel begun by the late Bill Knox entitled The Lazarus Widow. How did you happen to be chosen for this collaboration?

I’d edited a couple of anthologies published by his publisher, and the editor knew I’m as much of a fan of other people’s crime fiction as I am a writer. It struck me as a real test of my craft to write in Bill’s style so that readers could not ‘spot the join’. What I hadn’t bargained for was that nobody knew how Bill meant to finish the story. So I had to solve his final mystery. What detective fan could resist such an offer? Incidentally, an unexpected bonus was that, although I never met Bill, I became – and remain – friendly with his family.

I often like to ask people what they consider to be the most beautiful place in the world. I’m guessing that you’ve traveled a great deal—have you discovered a place that exceeds the beauty of England, or would you say your home turf is the loveliest place you know? If it’s the latter, what parts of England are particularly beautiful?
For me, Venice is the most beautiful city. [That's Martin on a gondola in the top picture] As for countryside, the Lake District is very special, not least because there is such astonishing diversity within such a small area. The ruggedness of Wasdale, the more obvious delights of Windermere and Derwent Water; I could go on and on. I’m lucky to live within an hour’s drive of Kendal, gateway to the Lakes. And to live in a house overlooking a lake of its own and classic English woodland and countryside. I’m admiring the scenery as I type these words!

Are your family members also mystery fans?
My wife’s keen, and the children have accompanied us to Crime Writers’ Association weekends since their earliest days. My son organizes my website and blog, and my daughter makes posters for book sales and helps with other marketing efforts. So I owe them all a lot. Most of our friends are involved with writing in some way and I must say that, from the time I joined the CWA twenty years ago, I’ve found the kindness and generosity of people in the crime world to be extraordinary. The same’s true when I attend conventions in the US.

Is there a mystery you’ve read that has stayed in your mind long afterward?

Plenty; here a just a few. Psychological suspense: Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion, and Thomas H Cook’s Red Leaves, plus an oldie, Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought. Golden Age whodunit: Christie’s And Then There Were None, Anthony Berkeley’s Trial and Error, and Francis Beeding’s Death Walks In Eastrepps. Eurocrime: Boileau and Narcejac’s The Prisoner. Modern mysteries: Reg Hill’s Dialogues of the Dead. Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue. One-offs: Joel Townsley Rogers’ The Red Right Hand, Cameron McCabe’s The Face on the Cutting Room Floor. Race against time: Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock and Cornell Woolrich’s Phantom Lady.

What are you writing now?
I’ve just finished the new Harry Devlin, Waterloo Sunset, a book that was truly exciting to write, so I am now starting work on the synopsis for the next Lake District Mystery and wondering what Fate has in store for the relationship developing between Hannah and Daniel.

Thanks so much for chatting with me, Martin!
Thanks for the conversation!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Blog Hurrah!

The forthcoming chat with English crime writer Martin Edwards will be my 100th blog interview! Hurrah! Confetti! Fireworks! Etcetera!

Please join me in a glass of virtual champagne. Y Y Y Y Y Y

Friday, November 23, 2007

Seasonal Etchings

We took a walk today and I noticed that the leaves had made an imprint on the cement, creating an almost fossilized appearance. It was rather lovely, and it reminded me of the work I saw recently in a print-making class. First the students created a pattern, then they made templates and produced their own prints with their design.

Here nature has done that, echoing its own art.

These are the little details I love to see in fiction.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

With Gratitude

May you all enjoy this holiday of gratitude knowing that while you are being grateful, others are being grateful for you.

I share a reflection from Kahlil Gibran's THE PROPHET:

"There are those who give little of the much which they have - and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.

And there are those who have little and give it all.

These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty.

There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.

And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism.

And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue;

They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space."

(Photo link here).

Monday, November 19, 2007

Roberta Isleib on Mystery Writing, Good Food, and Sound Advice

Roberta, you are a clinical psychologist, and you have likened a detective’s work to a psychologist’s. Can you expand on this?
Of course! For about 13 years I had a private practice in clinical psychology. When a patient would come to see me, I’d start with this question: How can I help? Usually they would describe the problems and symptoms that led them to consider professional help. In the psychologist/detective analogy, this would be the so-called “crime.” As often happens with the crime in mystery fiction, the obvious facts often turn out to be much more complex than originally presented.

Next I would ask lots of questions about what exactly was happening in their life and relationships, and explore their history, going all the way back to nuclear family. This would be the “investigation,” as we looked for clues to their distress and tried to bring old feelings and conflicts to consciousness.

Then with the patient’s help, I would try on possible theories, looking for ways they might be bound up in old patterns and carrying dysfunctional history forward into the present: “the solutions.” Of course, no one goes to jail in psychotherapy—more likely, they’re cut loose of historical baggage and end up feeling a lot freer.

Very interesting! On another note, you were just elected president of Sisters in Crime. Congratulations! This sounds like a big job. What tasks will you perform for that organization?
It is a big job, but also exciting and a great honor! Over the last two years, we’ve been focused on celebrating our 20th anniversary with library and bookstore displays, the SISTERS ON THE CASE anthology, and many other projects. Now it’s time to look ahead. The publishing world is changing and our goal is to figure out how to continue to support women crime writers even as publishing gets more challenging. We will be thinking of ways to strengthen our chapters, help our published authors get the most out of their books, and educate our pre-published writers.

You do many public appearances. Did you have a great deal of experience in public speaking before you became a writer?
I had very little experience with public speaking before I became a writer. Ditto, promotion. My husband is astonished at how vigorously I’ve taken all this on—he calls me the marketing juggernaut. When I had my own therapy practice, I needed to market my services but I was horrible at it! At any rate, I’ve grown to love speaking about writing.

That gives hope to the rest of us. Your book Deadly Advice came out in March. What’s it about?

When Dr. Rebecca Butterman returns home to find her neighbor an apparent suicide, she's wracked with guilt. As a psychologist and advice columnist, she should have been able to help the young woman. But the girl's mother suspects foul play, and soon persuades Rebecca to investigate. Before long, the newly single Rebecca wishes she had someone to advise her as she navigates the world of speed-dating and web-blogging, where no one is who they claim to be. As she uncovers the family secrets that tormented her neighbor, she's forced to confront her own personal tragedies. In the conclusion, Rebecca's quick wits and psychological training help her to capture a killer whose public face masks a twisted mind.

Will your upcoming novel, Preaching to the Corpse, continue the series?
Yes, it picks up at the holidays a couple of months after Deadly Advice. Dr. Butterman gets a call in the middle of night from the minister at her church. He's being questioned by the police after going to a parishioner's home and finding her dead. The murdered woman was the leader of a search committee charged with finding a new assistant pastor after the previous assistant left in a rush. Rebecca learns that the committee was divided and has to wonder if someone tried to eliminate the competition.

I’m turning book three of the series into my editor this week, and I believe it will be out next September. Right now it’s called Line in the Sand, though titles are always subject to change!

Sounds good! I just started Preaching, and I'm really enjoying it.

Since you are well versed in both psychology and detective fiction, I have to ask you if you’ve read Crime and Punishment, and if so, what you think of Dostoevsky’s famous psychological portrait of a murderer?

I have to admit I haven’t read C and P :).

Oh, you have a five hundred page treat waiting for you! But I'm guessing you won't get to that in the near future.

It says on your blog that you are hanging a “Go Away” sign on your door because you will be so busy in coming weeks. Still, I’ll be sending you these questions like the most annoying of reporters. :) Is it overwhelming to have so many deadlines? Or are you a person who thrives on a tight schedule?

I guess I must thrive on it because I surely should do something to change it otherwise, right? It’s a very exciting time for me, writing this series, heading up SinC, working on the steering committee for the New England Crime Bake, promoting my books. I feel very fortunate to be doing something I love, and I feel it’s my responsibility to give back to the community that has been so supportive. I also want to give my work the best possible chance to succeed and so I work at it constantly—both the writing and the promoting. I will look forward to a slightly slower time after the holidays. But knowing me, I’ll fill that time up with more projects!

Your fictional protagonist, Rebecca, likes food (as do I) and your blog contains some recipes that look so good, I was actually fatter after I read them. Do you cook for your family? Do you enjoy cooking?
Let me first assure you that these books are no-calorie reading! I like to cook, but I really love to eat. And eat good, but not fancy, food. And I enjoy reading about food and cooking—I love the descriptions of cooking in Diane Mott Davidson’s series. Since my last protagonist was a junk food junkie and never cooked anything, Dr. Butterman is fun to write about. And she uses her cooking time as a way of processing problems. I do cook for my family, but not the way she does! I also love to bake when I have time. Especially cakes. I make a chocolate cake to die for. Or there’s the yellow sponge with whipped cream frosting and strawberries…

Oh, yum. You were at Bouchercon in Alaska. Was it your first time in that state? What did you think of the Alaskan scenery?
I had never been to Alaska and found it to be just amazing. As my friend Lori Avocato says, you can’t take a bad picture in Alaska. I was so lucky to have the opportunity to see the Kenai peninsula through the authors to the bush program. Gorgeous scenery and lovely people! I don’t envy them the long dark winter however…

I have never met you, but in your photos you look like a person with great energy. Is this something people have noted about you?
My sister told me just this morning that I’m an overachiever! I recognize that I’m very determined, and if I get involved in a group, I’m likely to end up running it.

Well, we all rely on leaders. What drew you to psychology?
I wandered through a number of possible fields after college—my degree in French literature seemed more like a process than a destination. My first job was in a bookstore in New Jersey. Then I went to the University of Tennessee to get a master’s degree in Vocational Rehabilitation. After working at that for a couple of years, I realized that I enjoyed the psychological part of the job most of all. So back to school I went for a doctorate in clinical psychology. My father couldn’t believe I was giving up all those years of school to write mysteries! I tell him it’s all being put to good use…

Your last name sounds German; I could not find it in my German/American dictionary, but I did find that “leib” means “body,” and the German idiom “Mit Leib und Seele” means “With heart and soul.” Are you a person who does things with heart and soul? Are you in fact German?
Oh, oh you’ve stumbled into my husband’s favorite teasing story! I do have both German and Swiss ancestors. At first we thought the name must mean “is stomach.” All of my family enjoys eating and relaxing, while his family has to always be busy, usually engaging in as many sports as they can fit into the day. At a family celebration a couple years ago, he was talking about all the athletic equipment you’d need for a reunion with his family. My cousin noted that Isleibs need only bring a knife and fork. From there my husband determined that the true translation of Isleib is “large lunch followed by a restful nap.”

That's a great translation!

Do your friends ask for psychological advice? Sort of like Charlie Brown asked Lucy van Pelt? What do you think of Lucy’s advice to Charlie Brown? Was it psychologically sound?

Gosh I hope neither Dr. Butterman nor I are like Lucy! She was a crabby character with a sadistic streak, from what I remember. But I’ve always enjoyed reading advice columns—still do. My character’s advice is pretty much common sense—she says people usually have a sense of the best path even as they ask for help. She simply shines a light on the path.

In a related question, you have an “Ask Dr. Aster” feature on your website, but you warn people that “advice should not be considered a substitute for therapy!” Do many people take advantage of this feature?
Very few! With the proliferation of blogs, everyone’s an advice columnist. So Dr. Aster doesn’t get a lot of business!

Well, I just may send her a question, then. Thanks for chatting with me, Roberta!
Thank you very much for hosting me Julia. You do a wonderful job with your interviews and I’m honored to be included.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

November Mood

One of my favorite poets, Robert Frost, captured much about November's mood in the poem below, but I disagree in one respect: I like November even when I'm not depressed. :)


by Robert Frost

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

(from A Boy's Will. Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915.)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Author Chats

I got away from the housecleaning last night to go see my pal Tim Maleeny at Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore. Tim's on the West Coast, but he's been to Chicagoland a few times now promoting his mystery series, the latest of which is entitled Beating the Babushka.

After the signing, we went to a very smoky bar (Tim pointed out that smoking's not allowed now in California and New York bars--something I hadn't known), and we dished about writing and publishing until the smoke got to my contact lenses and they started to peel off of my eyes. :)

Today Tim was off to Minneapolis to promote at a bookstore there, and then he was winging back to the coast to be home for the holidays.

It got me thinking about the whole notion of writers and promotion. It's a huge job, and as far as I can tell, it falls largely on the writer's shoulders these days. If a writer has the misfortune of not having thousands of disposable dollars to spend on touting his or her work, they may just be out of luck.

This seems like an odd way to celebrate talent.

Tim is someone I've interviewed before; you can see the whole conversation here.

Now I have some terrific things to read over the holidays: Tim's new novel and the new mystery that I just received from my friend John Dandola, whose work I also recommend.

Okay, back to the cleaning and the grading. (And yet, nothing is ever entirely clean or completely graded. There's an existential problem for you.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Good News for Mary Stewart Fans

Chicago Review Press
has reissued two classic Stewart suspense novels: The Ivy Tree and Nine Coaches Waiting, with moody new covers and trade paperback formats.

While I wouldn't re-read most books simply because I saw them with different covers, Stewart's books are an exception. The cool new covers are just an excuse to read her books again, so one or both of these are going on my Christmas list.

I'm also glad to see Stewart in the trade size, since the old books I have, which may well be relics from the 60s or 70s, are hard to read in mass market size with the extremely tiny print that many books had back then.

Nine Coaches Waiting is a book with a Gothic feel, and this new cover captures that with its mysterious dark look and red lettering. Kudos to whomever decided to re-imagine the cover for this classic tale.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Monet Birthday

I blogged about this great artist's birthday and about the irony of Impressionism on the Inkspot today. Check it out and celebrate the birthday of Claude Monet, the father of the Impressionist Movement.

This famous painting is Study of a Figure Outdoors (1886). Photo link here.

Monday, November 12, 2007

November Reflection

The weather has been so unseasonable and balmy that it almost belies one of my favorite November poems by John Clare; then again, this warm weather may eventually become what is "seasonal" for this time of year. I hope not. Anyway, here's that lovely poem:

So dull and dark are the November days.
The lazy mist high up the evening curled,
And now the morn quite hides in smoke and haze;
The place we occupy seems all the world.

John Clare

(photo link here.)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Birthday Girl

Happy Birthday to my sister Linda. I'm lucky to have her in my life.

To quote the words of Jane Austen (from Emma), "Where shall we see a better daughter, or kinder sister, or a truer friend?"

Have a wonderful day, kind sister.

The Mystery of Bloated Holidays

Nancy Gibbs wrote an interesting essay for TIME Magazine this week, in which she examines our tendency to extend holidays:

"It's as though we've supersized our holidays, so that they start sooner, last longer and cost more, until the calendar pages pull and tear, and we don't know which one we are meant to be celebrating."

I couldn't agree with Gibbs more. Aside from my horror at the radio station that started playing Christmas songs BEFORE Halloween, I have been jarred to note Christmas items for sale in stores long before I am contemplating Christmas. As ever, our consciousness is dictated by our merchants, which of course means what we're really celebrating is a culture of money.

The mystery, though, is why we go along with it--why we don't rebel and demand that the merchants allow us our space in the interim--space to think and reflect and be at peace between holidays which, while happy, are stressful as well. The stress itself is a mystery--who are we trying to please when we attempt to have a Rachael Ray Thanksgiving or a Martha Stewart Christmas when we don't possess the energy of Ray or Stewart?

Are we trying to please ourselves? If that were true, at least some of us would be ordering a Thanksgiving pizza and just enjoying the time with our families. Is it tradition we cling to, then? Do we feel we must do exactly what our parents did? What our grandparents did? What the pilgrims did?

Our behavior is a mystery, and that makes our culture mysterious, especially at the holidays. Gibbs points out the irony of demanding too much holiday and therefore too much pleasure:

"As meals and sleep and work and recess pace the days, so do holidays pace the year. Clump them together, and they lose their fizz and juice, the useful little monthly boosts turned into a pileup of duties and lists. When every day is a holiday--or more precisely, part of the holiday season--none really are."

Inspired by Gibbs, I'm going to resist the retail lure as long as possible and try to live the holidays more closely to what is on the calendar, thereby rendering nothing so big a deal that I can't handle it. And I might enjoy myself more in the process of simplification.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Susan Wittig Albert's Blog Tour

In honor of Susan's blog tour this week, I'm re-running a previous interview that I did with her. Susan's new book is The Tale of Hawthorn House. Susan is also sponsoring a free book drawing; find the link here. You may enter this drawing any time between Nov. 8 and noon on Nov. 11, when we'll draw three winners. Your name will be automatically entered for the grand prize drawing.

Hi, Susan! Thanks for chatting with me.

You are a writer who seems to have followed her heart into all sorts of writing. Your popular mystery series featuring China Bayles and Robin Paige have brought you great acclaim and made you a best-selling author.

Your newest series features as its protagonist the author and illustrator Beatrix Potter. Why did you want to write about Potter? How did you happen to conceive of The Cottage Tales, as your series is called?

I learned to read with Beatrix Potter. My mother read her little books aloud to me so often that I memorized them, and then “read” them to myself. (Who knows what kind of influence that had on my writing style!) I didn’t know much about her, though, until my husband Bill suggested that we use her as a character in the second book of our Robin Paige series, Death at Gallows Green, which is set in 1896. I began doing the research, and simply fell in love with her, and with the place she created in the Lake District. We visited there, and I knew I had to write about it, and about her. And since I’m a mystery writer, I naturally thought of writing mysteries—British cottage/village mysteries. Natalee Rosenstein, my Berkley editor, was encouraging, and we took it from there.

The series is lauded as one for “adult and young adult readers.” Was this something you thought about when writing the books?
I think about it often, and try to design and craft the books so that they are appealing to younger readers. I’ve created some younger characters, both girls and boys, and although the animals weren’t created specifically for young readers (grownups like talking animals, too!), I think the animal plots appeal to youngsters. The books are being read by homeschoolers (I know, because I get email from them!), in part because a teacher/mom/dad can build a unit around them, focusing on the setting, on Beatrix’s life, on the history of the time, and so on. And I love it when I hear from a family—mom, dad, kids—reading the books aloud together.

In your first book, according to your website, Potter “gradually moves away from her London life as a dutiful Victorian-age daughter, and into an independent life that offers new hopes, new love, and the possibility of self-determination.” Was it challenging to write from the perspective of a woman in 1905 England?
Bill and I were writing the Robin Paige books at the time I began the Cottage Tales. The Paige series is set from 1895-1903, and features quite a number of women, both fictional and real. So quite a lot of the background research had been done, and I’d already begun to feel rather like a woman of 1905 myself! When I’d finished the first book, I learned that Linda Lear was writing a new biography of Potter. We connected via email and became close friends. Linda was good enough to share her research with me, and I read the manuscript of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature as it developed. So I was living with Beatrix in a variety of ways.

Booklist calls your first cottage tale, The Tale of Hill Top Farm,
“perfectly charming,” and many other noted reviewers had similar responses. Have you always gotten good reviews?

Print reviews, yes. PW gave the second book, The Tale of Holly How, a starred review. But when you read the Amazon reader “reviews,” you’ll see that there are people who don’t like talking animals, on principle. And there are people who would like a more intense mystery and stronger dramatic action. I’m delighted to say that they appear to be in the minority. I hear every day from people who remember Beatrix fondly from their own childhood reading and who are pleased to be able to read a “charming” book that gives them a pleasant introduction to a world in which life was slower, quieter, and (from our perspective, anyway), much simpler.

You write the Robin Paige mysteries with your husband, Bill Albert. How did you decide that you would collaborate?
Big smile here. Actually, we figured that out when we were still dating (this was in 1986). I was writing one of the “new” Nancy Drew mysteries, and asked him for some plot advice. He told me what I needed to know, and I thought, “Hey, this is the guy for me!” We collaborated on over 60 young adult novels, from 1986-1992, including books in the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series. (There’s a list on our website). After I started the China Bayles series (on my own, although he reads every book and gives me valuable feedback and suggestions), we wanted to continue to write together, and chose England in the Victorian/Edwardian period because both of us loved the time/setting.

Neat! What a great way to stay in touch with your spouse. :)

Back to the Cottage Tales for a moment. In these stories, the reader is given insight into both the animal and the human world. When the animals “speak” to each other, it is written in italics. Did this ever become difficult, merging these animal dialogues with the human ones?

It’s a kind of crazy thing, but in these books, I can think through the animals more easily than I can through the people. I wouldn’t have predicted this when I started the books, but what did I know? I had never done anything like this before. I was helped by going back and rereading Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, which became something like benchmarks for me. I was aiming for that kind of tone, that kind of native naturalism. And of course, Bill and I talk to and with our own cats, dogs, chickens, cows, etc. (don’t you?), so it feels very good to me.

I do, but I'm afraid I'm often saying "You naughty dog! I can't believe you did that! :)

You grew up in Illinois and now live in Texas. What difficulties did that present when you wanted to set a book in England, especially when that book was partly based on true events?

I grew up reading Dickens and Thackeray and Jane Austen and have always loved Victorian English—-so the language of the period comes pretty easily. We’ve traveled extensively in England, and have a very large library, so setting hasn’t been as much of a problem as it might seem. But I’m writing about the past, which is (all by itself) a whole other country. A lot of my research is necessarily done in books. I use primary material when I can (books, newspapers written at the time); I use secondary materials when that’s all I can find. Until the Internet came along, my biggest challenge was finding the library that held a particular book I needed. Now, the Internet makes historical/foreign research much, much easier.

The Magical Web. All of your books fit into the “cozy” category. Have you ever aspired to write something edgier?

Not really. I feel that we live on the edge as it is, given the uncertainties and challenges of our real lives: wars, hurricanes, earthquakes, political storms. And there’s already enough torqued-up fiction out there to satisfy readers who want something that’s harder-core. I’ll keep on writing what I like to read, which is easier on the heart, a little closer to the spirit.

Your cottage tales contain maps, a cast of characters (as in a drama), a glossary of terms like “betimes” and “nawt,” and recipes that relate to the story. When did you decide to incorporate all of these neat details? Did you conceive of all of these extras when you wrote the first book?
The extras were all part of the original design of the series (which, maybe we should mention, is a limited series: eight books, spanning the years 1905-1913). I love maps, and since the village is real (and many readers have visited there) I coveted them. I use the recipes to give readers a glimpse into the history of that particular regional cookery. The glossary is necessary, if I’m going to use dialect—although I don’t use as much as I’d like because it’s too confusing to the eye. The historical note is really important, since it gives the actual background against which the fiction is created.

Did you aspire to be a writer as a child?
Yes, I did. I wrote my first “novel” at nine, sold my first short story at 19, to a magazine called Jack and Jill. Wrote lots of poetry, too.

Your website is quite elaborate. Do you maintain it yourself?
I have a wonderful webmistress who maintains the sites (there are now actually three). But I’ve designed (and re-re-re-designed) them. They are a work in progress!

Susan, you’ve written, by my count, 35 books. When do you find the time to write, and what inspires you?
Actually, that’s just the work since 1992, when China Bayles solved her first case. There were 60+ kids’ books before then (1984-1992) and my academic writing before that (5 or 6 books, lots of articles, etc). I’m the original “woman who spilled words all over her life.” I am privileged (and oh! how lucky I feel about that!) to be able to write full time, and prefer to write without a break (no weekends off) when I’m working on a project. Life inspires me, and this wild, wonderful world in which we live it. I read something, see something on TV, and imagine it as a piece of a book.

I admire the fact that your life has taken many turns as you explored your interests. I’m especially interested by the part of your bio that says, after earning a Ph.D from the University of California at Berkeley, you taught and held administrative positions at the university level for fifteen years, at which point you quit, because you were “fed up with academic politics.”

Good for you! Was there a “last straw” sort of moment? Had you already started writing at this time?

Oh, wow, yes. Too many last-straw moments, mostly having to do with faculty politics. I think the thing that tipped it, though, was the realization, one Monday morning, that I had put in a 60-hour week the week before, all on university stuff, and that the coming week promised more of the same, and the week after that and the week after that. There had to be a better way! I began thinking about what I might do if I weren’t at the university, and consciously made the decision to try writing YA novels. I hit with my first effort, wrote several more (writing evenings and weekends). Buoyed by that, I turned in my resignation. I have never regretted it, not one single moment.

I'm reminded of a Johnny Paycheck song . . . :)

Your bio says that “Susan and Bill live on 32 acres in the Texas hill country, 60 miles northwest of Austin, with two black Labradors named Zach and Lady, a matching black cat named Shadow, and an ever-changing assortment of ducks and geese who flock together under the watchful eye of Major Gander, a Toulouse goose of outstanding merit.” This sounds idyllic. Is it?

Well, we’ve had a heckuva lot of rain this summer, the road’s a wreck, the garden’s a mess, we can’t do the mowing because it’s too wet, and yesterday’s high temperature was 99. (Life in the country is a great deal of work—-if you want somebody else to take care of the potholes, you probably want to stay in town). Other than that, it’s pretty wonderful. I’m writing a book about it, in fact. It’ll be out from the University of Texas Press in 2009.

You are a dynamo! How can your readers find out more about you and your newest mystery series?
That’s easy! Go to and sign up for our eletter. While you’re there, sign up for China’s herbal eletter, too. Sorry—Beatrix doesn’t have one. :)

Thanks for chatting, Susan.
You’re very welcome. I enjoyed it!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Deconstructing Failure

One of my students inspired and humbled me today with an essay she was writing for a college application. In it, she suggested that failure was more important to her than was success; her assertion was that she learned more from failure, and that ultimately it was a more valuable experience.

This wise interpretation of life's setbacks had me thinking of the various setbacks I've suffered lately, and I continued to ponder it as I drove home. For a writer, every setback, every perceived "failure," is a slap to the ego, or so I have always seen it. And my ego has taken quite a drubbing over the years. :)

But if I apply Jacques Derrida's notion of Deconstruction, then I can look at success and failure as binary oppositions, with success being the privileged term. However, my students' interpretation of the two make failure the privileged term, and suggests that through failure, one learns, grows, and ultimately is more successful, so that failure itself guarantees a level of success.

However, deconstruction also asserts that language is ambiguous, uncertain, ever-changing, and that existence has no center. Derrida would suggest, I believe, that the undecidability of any text, including the one I just created above, implies a multiplicity of meanings, and therefore ultimately has no meaning, or at least not one ultimate meaning.

My brain hurts. And you'll have to make your own decisions about the notions of success or failure, but my young student has me leaning in a more optimistic direction.

Looking for Mr. Goodbook

Granted, I have a huge pile of books in almost every room from which to select the perfect read. And yet, sometimes I have that feeling that I need something special--something to suit the mood I'm in. Okay, something I can get lost in. I have that yearning for the book I wish would never end.

Have you ever had that feeling? If so, what was the book?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Follow the Raven

To the Poe's Deadly Daughters site today for a fun article by Susan Wittig Albert about her new book. She's hosting a give-away, for those of you who like the swag. :)

Susan's blogs, which are listed at the bottom of her article, are good additions to the BLOG CARNIVAL entries below.

And now, as your Monday mental warm-up, recite "The Raven" with me:

Once upon a midnight dreary,
While I pondered, weak and weary
Over many a curious volume of something something. Okay, I didn't get far, although I remember "while I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping."

Back to my Poe.

(art link here).

Follow the Raven

Saturday, November 03, 2007

More Carnival Rides

Here are some late additions to the blog carnival:

Diana Vickery's Cozy Library is chock full of fun mystery links, from reviews to blogs to author biographies. Diana will be an upcoming interviewee on this blog.

Mysterious Matters is, according to itself, "designed to educate and entertain both writers and readers of mystery and suspense novels with tips, comments, and the inside story of the mystery publishing business." That makes it rather a necessity for those in the mystery scene.

More to come . . . I have a sick little boy to tend to today. :)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Carnival Continues

When Barbara Fister suggested a blog carnival, I was quick to volunteer, because there are so many fun blogs to visit. For example, I love to visit Static, the blog of mystery writer Anne Frasier. Today Anne has posted the prologue from her new book, Garden of Darkness. It has an appropriately spooky Halloween tone.

Scott Monty's Baker Street Blog is a treat for Sherlock Holmes fans. There's always something interesting to link to Holmes or his creator, Arthur Conan-Doyle, and Scott's latest post is about a National Geographic article which suggests that Holmes, in his dialogue from A Study in Scarlet, was right: forgetting can be beneficial. Holmes compares the human brain to "an empty attic."

Bill Cameron's blog is a fun combination of thoughts, writing excerpts, encouragement of other writers, even poetry. An added bonus is that the posts are often funny. In recent entries Bill has pointed out ironies resulting from Amazon rankings and Google alerts.

Peter Rozovsky's Detectives Beyond Borders is always well-written and insightful, and a wealth of information about foreign crime novels. Today he celebrates the U.S. publication of Declan Burke's The Big O.

Eric Mayer co-writes mysteries with his wife, Mary Reed, and their historical mysteries have received wide acclaim. Eric's latest post raises the topical question about compensation and the artist. What should be free? He cites some recent "free music" promotions and compares it to trends in the publishing industry.

The First Offenders consist of mystery writers Karen Olson, Lori G. Armstrong, Jeff Shelby, and Alison Gaylin, who debuted together. In today's post Karen Olson, like Bill Cameron, takes issue with the way that Amazon had identified her book. She also discusses the notion of Amazon ratings.

On Good Girls Kill For Money, Tasha Alexancer is discussing what it feels like when Hollywood calls. I'm glad she's telling me, because otherwise I would never know. :)

On Julie Hyzy's blog, the topic is Magna Cum Murder, the midwestern conference in Muncie, Indiana, from which she has returned in high spirits.

Keith Raffel's blog is always a link-o-rama packed full of information and humor. And check out Keith's Dashiell Hammett style photograph! Very noir. Today Keith demonstrates the action-packed schedule of an author on the go.

I always enjoy reading librarian Lesa Holstine's book critiques; she's a book lover who shares the joy. Today Lesa sums up all of her October reads and gives a brief review. Get out your pencils so you can add to your TBR list.

Little Blog of Murder gives us a taste of the Ohio experience from the point of view of five Ohio mystery writers. Today Casey Daniels reflects on Halloween, her favorite day of the year, and memories of Halloweens past.

Over at Murderati, Robert Gregory Browne chats about ghosts and haunting, but not the sort you'd expect him to discuss on Halloween.

Cornelia Read is one of my favorite people, and she has a hilarious post on Naked Authors today--a tongue-in-cheek "what if" that changes the fate of certain notorious characters. Read it and laugh.

I am a part of the blog Poe's Deadly Daughters , so I guess I'm biased, but I have to point out today's post, in which Sandra Parshall interviews new writer Sherry Scarpaci. An interesting interview, which includes details about Scarpaci's book, Lullaby.

Roberta Isleib's wonderful blog is packed full of fun and recipes, as are her books--you have to stop by. Today she's chatting about an outing with some Sisters in Crime, and she shares a delectable French toast recipe that made me fatter when I read it.

Sandrablabber is Sandra Ruttan's blog, full of fun, humor, intellectual discussion, and chat about the publishing world. Sandra is currently discussing her new book, What Burns Within, and the joy of a good cover.

Similarly, on the Secret Dead Blog, Duane Swierczynski is celebrating the release of the paperback version of The Blonde.

Bob Morris, who writes about food in a way to make your mouth water, talks about lobster in a way that makes you want to leave your home, your job, and go to his house for some Florida lobster and melted butter. Check him out at Surrounded On Three Sides

At The Inkspot (Midnight Ink Writers Blog, Mark Terry philosophizes about the notion of villains, citing some very recognizable and time-tested examples.

Marcus Sakey posts at The Outfit today in answer to the question "Are books a dying breed?" Sakey speaks frankly about the publishing industry and the ways that computers may change the way we read in the future.

On The Rap Sheet, J. Kingston Pierce reflects on the career of Lee Grant, who celebrates a birthday today.

There are many more fun blogs that should be a part of the carnival--I'll try to post some more in the coming week.

Photo Link here