Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Snows of Yesteryear

I'm feeling very grateful to my parents today, especially to my mother, who gave birth to me on this day in 1964.

She also took me out to lunch today in honor of my birthday--a tradition she has followed pretty much ever since I left home.

Look at us in the picture there--my mother a glamorous 1960s gal, and me a little bundle in footy pajamas. (Yes, my mother dressed up around the house. Look at those stockings! I wonder if my children will reminisce about my sweats? Or on special occasions, sweats with a racing stripe?)

As a late December baby, I have the honor of ushering out the old year and seeing in the new. We turn together, the calendar and I, and it seems more poetic and appropriate as I age.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Suspenseful Reading

I finished THE JANUS STONE today and can confirm that it's a book which should be read in one sitting. I took it to bed, then to my mammogram appointment, then back home, stealing a chapter or two whenever I could.

I loved Elly Griffith's first book, THE CROSSING PLACES, and this one continues with all the familiar characters from book one, specifically Ruth Galloway, who not only has to deal with more unearthed human bones (are they ancient? are they modern?) but with the more prickly problems of her personal life and the beautiful yet dangerous setting she lives in.

While THE JANUS STONE has a very similar format to the first book, the plot was still pleasing and suspenseful, and I am looking forward to the third in the series.

Moving on now to Ian McEwan's SATURDAY, which I've been meaning to read for ages, and then it's on to my brand new Kindle and an investigation of the possibilities of downloaded text.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Time to Read!

One of the best things about the holidays is the chance to read, something I don't always have during the work year. And one of the nicest things about blogging is that you sometimes get books in the mail that you absolutely weren't expecting!

I'm reading two books right now, kindly sent to me by HMH:

THE DIVINER'S TALE, which is not what I expected it to be. It's much more a study in character than it is a mystery, really, and yet the human psyche is compelling enough, and it is keeping me turning the pages of Bradford Morrow's delicately written novel about a woman with psychic leanings who happens upon what seems to be a crime.

I haven't yet opened THE JANUS STONE, but it is on my pillow; I loved Elly Griffith's first book, THE CROSSING PLACES, and I look forward to more adventures with her character Ruth Galloway, an archeologist who lives in one of the loneliest places I've ever encountered in a mystery.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Christmas Mouse


The mouse is actually a small cat; she has snuck past the manger scene and stopped batting the low-hanging ornaments in order to steal some fresh pine tree-flavored water, which all three of my cats prefer to their plain ol' bowl water. This cat, Rose, is my littlest and shyest feline, but she manages to be in things that are none of her business on a regular basis. :)

Even cats like the holidays.
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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Writing In a Midwestern Maelstrom

My cat Mulliner looks mighty cozy while he scans the results of the storm outside; Chicago got hit hard today, with many inches of snow, a plunge in temperatures, and a soul-chilling wind. It died down briefly, but now it's picking up again, providing work for me and a fun, snowflake-dancing visual for my cat.

If I ever get finished with the shoveling and errands, I'll sit down to write, which is really all I want to do when winter blankets my house, my town, my world. As long as the PC still works and my brain can weave tales, I'll grab my cup of tea and start writing--probably about a tropical island somewhere in my imagination.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Suspense Magazine

John Raab, publisher of Suspense Magazine, has announced that they are giving 4 free electronic issues of their zine.

The magazine, he notes, is available throughout the United States and on their website.

This month's issue features the top writers of 2010 and a short story contest.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Realist's View of Gratitude

This is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read. Thank you, Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Wandering Minds Aren't Happy

People spend almost fifty percent of their time thinking about something other than what they're doing, according to this article in Science Daily. In addition, the magazine reports that the less people focus on the tasks at hand, the less happy they are. The study's conclusion: a wandering mind is not a happy one.

How might this experiment be skewed by a group of writers? Their minds undoubtedly wander a great deal of the time, but those minds are immersed in the act of creation. Is that the same thing as daydreaming or lacking concentration?

The study suggests that the only act which receives a person's full attention is the act of making love (although don't many people say that they enjoy fantasizing during sex?)

The notion that we would be happier if we focused on our tasks is an interesting one. It backs up Camus' existential idea that one need only embrace immediate needs and desires because nothing else ultimately matters.

In an age of multitasking, we have apparently trained ourselves to do our many tasks without giving them much thought. Perhaps be reclaiming our thoughts we can improve the quality of our thinking--but this is where science meets philosophy.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

"One need not be a chamber to be haunted;
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place."

- Emily Dickinson

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Kindle Debut

The first of my Madeline Mann mysteries is now on Kindle! This novel, originally titled Pity Him Afterwards, follows the plucky Madeline as she investigates the disappearance of an old high school friend.

Kirkus Reviews called it "a bright debut," while The Library Journal called me "a writer to watch."

For more information, check out my updated website:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Thriller Writer Alan Jacobson Shares the Work Behind the Works

My guest blogger is Alan Jacobson, the national bestselling author of the critically acclaimed thrillers False Accusations, The Hunted, Crush, Velocity, and The 7th Victim, which was named to Library Journal's "Best Books of the Year" list. Alan's years of research and training with law enforcement have influenced him both personally and professionally, and have helped shape the stories he tells and the diverse characters that populate his novels.

Alan's books have sold internationally, and both The 7th Victim and one of his forthcoming thrillers, Hard Target. are currently under development as major feature films. He lives in Northern California.

Visit Alan Jacobson at and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter. Learn more about Velocity and the Karen Vail novels at

In the Trenches with the FBI Profiling Unit: First Female FBI Profiler Shines in Thrilling Series
By Alan Jacobson

Seventeen years ago, I was sitting in a room at the California Department of Justice with FBI agents, detectives, homicide investigators, and forensic scientists viewing blood spatter patterns. Gruesome crime scene photos filled the screen as the lead forensic investigator explained what we knew about the killer based upon how the blood was sprayed on the walls. I was beyond intrigued, and thus began my journey into the depraved minds of serial killers.

Before and after our blood spatter pattern instruction, I spent hours talking with one FBI agent in particular, Mark Safarik, who one day asked me if I'd ever fired a gun. I had -- a BB gun. I think he laughed -- and then said, "As a novelist writing about law enforcement, don't you think it's important to know what it feels like to shoot a gun?" That afternoon, he taught me how to fire pistols in the Department of Justice's indoor range. Though Agent Safarik was soon promoted to the FBI's elite Behavioral Analysis Unit, he and I talked often, for hours at a time. Months later, I flew to Quantico for my first visit to the Academy.

Over the next 17 years, I attended several FBI Behavioral Analysis training seminars; I made numerous trips to the Academy; I viewed hundreds of crime scene photos and watched interviews with serial killers; I shot an MP5 submachine gun at the Academy, then disassembled and cleaned it under the direction of the head firearms instructor; I edited four published FBI research papers on serial offender behavior; and I became good friends with Agent Safarik and his partner. Several years into my "education," I'd amassed enough knowledge to create compelling, credible characters whose lives were touched by the most heinous acts of person-on-person violence humankind has seen.
My first novel utilizing this material (and third book overall) was The 7th Victim,featuring Karen Vail, the first female profiler in the FBI: a daring, compelling, bright and sometimes troubled soul.

Those who are familiar with my novels know that my characters are often people touched by hardship or tragedy, with problems, obstacles and challenges woven into and through the story. My primary goal is to emotionally engage the reader; I want her/him to care about what happens. That was one of my prime concerns when I began writing the Karen Vail series.

Though I'd created Karen Vail early on, after my third visit to the unit I met Agent Safarik's partner, Mary Ellen O'Toole, who, in one of those jaw-dropping moments of fact meets fiction, looked and acted much like Vail. Subsequently, Agent O'Toole's insight became instrumental in understanding how a female fits in (or doesn't) to the FBI as a whole and to the profiling unit in particular. Mandisa Manette, one of the characters on Vail's task force, came from conversations I had with detectives I'd met at FBI training seminars over the years. In the early nineties, there were detectives who felt that profiling was unsubstantiated guesswork that carried little value. Although their opinions changed over time, I used that sentiment to create the Manette character as a foil to the assessments Vail makes when creating her profile of the Dead Eyes killer.

The 7th Victim debuted to rave reviews from critics and readers -- including those in the law enforcement community, who appreciated that I'd done my homework and cared about portraying them accurately. As the early feedback came rolling in on 7th Victim, my publisher told me I had to make Karen Vail a series character. I'd never intended to write more Vail novels. Although I loved writing her, I felt I'd written the ultimate serial killer novel. Robert Ressler, a founding FBI profiler, said The 7th Victim surpassed The Silence of the Lambs, "redefined the genre, and brought it into the 21st century."

So I sat down and thought. I gazed at the ceiling, I gazed at my navel. And then it hit me. The ideas started flying from my fingertips -- and the concept behind the second Vail novel, Crush, took shape.

A key element is that Crush brings Vail to the Napa Valley. To keep Vail fresh -- and me fresh writing her -- I had to remove her from her comfort zone, take her to places she'd never been, to an environment she wasn't accustomed to functioning in . . . and have her encounter a type of killer she'd never before faced.

Although I was extremely familiar with the Napa Valley, I spent considerable time there searching for the right locations; I spoke with area professionals to uncover insider secrets about the wine industry. In addition to well known wineries, I worked with the Napa County Sheriff's Department and related agencies in the region. The result was Crush, a twisting, one-of-a-kind story that is unlike any other novel set in the wine country. I was determined to make Napa a character in the story, and the response has been tremendous.

When I conceived of Crush, I realized the story was too big for one novel. I decided to split it in two, with a defined story arc that concludes at the end of Crush-- but with threads that continue into the follow-up novel, Velocity . Thus, Velocity picks up where Crush ends, tying together the loose ends left over from Crush while taking us on a journey unlike any Karen Vail has yet encountered.

The research for Velocity was once again complex. It took me three weeks to get clearance for the federal agency I needed to work with. They're careful of who they share their knowledge and procedures with because their work is sensitive and their agents in the field could be jeopardized if anyone mishandled the information I needed. Approval went all the way to a Congressional committee and was granted. To be certain I didn't compromise anyone's security, I sent my contact in their Washington headquarters the final manuscript to review.

Velocity is a terrific ride, one that takes Karen Vail from the vineyards of Napa to the monuments of Washington, DC, the wealthy beach enclaves of San Diego and the bright excesses of Las Vegas. Along the way, secrets are revealed -- secrets Karen Vail may not be able to live with. It's a novel Michael Connelly calls "Relentless as a bullet"; Publishers Weekly, in a coveted starred review, says Velocity "sizzles with nonstop action and startling details."

Working with Agents Safarik and O'Toole these past 17 years has been an enriching experience that has shaped me as a writer -- and enabled me to forge longtime friendships I'll always cherish. And it's allowed me to write a series of novels of which I'm extremely proud. I hope you enjoy The 7th Victim, Crush,and Velocity as much as I enjoyed writing -- and researching -- them.
© 2010 Alan Jacobson, author of Velocity

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ode to Autumn

"No Spring nor Summer Beauty hath such grace
As I have seen in one Autumnal face."
--John Donne

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Writer's Retreat

Yesterday circumstances brought me to Chicago's North Avenue Beach; it was cold and gray and windy--the perfect weather for contemplation. In my view were the skyline and--you can see it in tiny silhouette--the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier.

There's nothing like a beautiful landscape to get a writer thinking.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Farewell to Grace

On this day in 1982 the world learned that Princess Grace had died in an automobile accident. All sorts of speculation swirled around the incident, but the apparent reason that Grace's car plunged down a Monaco cliff was that she had suffered a stroke at the wheel. Both Grace and her daughter Stephanie were injured, but Grace far more so. The treatment that Grace received after being pulled alive from the wreckage is still controversial, as some experts think that Grace, for all of her fame and power, actually received shoddy medical care.

In any case, the world lost one of its loveliest stars that day--not only because Grace Kelly lit up the screen in several notable movies in her short Hollywood career, but also because Princess Grace did much for others, notably children, and was known more as a philanthropist than an actress by the time of her death.

image link here.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lincoln's Wisdom

"Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it."

"I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day."

The words of Abraham Lincoln, quoted here, seem most applicable to our inability to comprehend the events of September 11th, then and now.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Sleepless Night Suspense Reading

I am re-reading RED LIGHTS, by Georges Simenon, which I read two years ago and have thought about many times since. It's as much a psychological exploration as it is a suspense tale, but Simenon really kept me--well, not on the edge of my seat, since I was lying on my tummy, but AWAKE until the end of the book. (And that is a feat that is harder and harder to accomplish). :)

This mystery is all about MOOD and the city at night and all of the scary possibilities of the dark . . . .

The story begins when Steve Hogan and his wife Nancy are getting into their car to pick up their children from camp. It's dark on the road, and Steve is distracted by the lights on the highway and by his strong desire for a drink (he had two before he started). On the radio they hear of the predicted fatalities for the weekend, because it's a holiday. Steve eventually stops at a bar, against his wife's wishes, and hears that a man has escaped from prison.

The more Steve drinks the more he wants a drink, and when he stops at yet another bar his wife, who has been arguing with him, tells him that if he goes in, she will drive on without him. Maliciously (and drunkenly), Steve takes the keys from the ignition and goes in. He drinks more whiskey, and when he comes out, his wife is gone . . .

This was the first Simenon I'd read (I might have read a couple of Maigret novels in high school) and I was impressed. I've been meaning to look up a biography of this writer, but in the meantime RED LIGHTS is going on my most-suspenseful list.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Had-I-But-Knowns of Ogden Nash

The wonderful Ogden Nash, who was born on this date in 1902, once wrote a whimsical poem about detective fiction called "Don't Guess, Let Me Tell You." The speaker of this particular poem complains of mystery novelists who "belong to the H.I.B.K. School--" that is, the "Had I But Known," and suggests that too many mysteries fall into this category of rather ridiculous plotting.

The poem appeared in the April 20th, 1940 issue of THE NEW YORKER, and for nostalgia's sake, and in Nash's memory, I spent five dollars to read the poem online. I won't plagiarize from the magazine, but I will give you the link if you're a Nash fan: click here to get the specific issue.

Nash was always playful, but sometimes in a pessimistic way; he started his poem "A Bas Ben Adhem" with

"My fellow man I do not care for.
I often ask me, What's he there for?"

Nash had more than one poem about mysteries, so I assume that, like me, he was a fan of the genre. All of his poems were rhymed verse, and Nash said he had tended to think in rhyme from the time he was small.

Thanks to his tendency to think in couplets, we are blessed with an abundance of Nash poetry.

(Image: The Ogden Nash postage stamp, 2002. Link here).

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Why Thomas L. Cook Reigns Supreme

When I started reading Thomas L. Cook's THE LAST TALK WITH LOLA FAYE, I thought, slightly disappointed, "Oh, the action is all going to take place in one hotel bar."

Then I kept reading, and the suspense layered on, and I thought excitedly, The action is all going to take place in one hotel bar!

Such is Cook's control: he can take a relatively mundane setting like a St. Louis hotel and make it a place of growing tension, of intriguing revelation, of horrifying possibilities. And LOLA FAYE, like the other Cook novels I've read, is everyday life laced with potential menace.

At the root of a story is the murder that binds Lucas Page and Lola Faye Gilroy together, and though the crime happened in the distant past, one chance meeting makes the details come back with surprising new dimensions.

When I interviewed Thomas L. Cook at the end of 2009, he spoke of his fiction as opposed to his non-fiction, suggesting that the latter "freed [one] from the very different rigors of the imagination." But it is Cook's imagination which rules the mystery world, because he writes not only about crime, but about the many dimensions of the people who commit them and the victims who suffer them. In his poetic prose one can read Cook's sympathy for flawed humanity even as his story proves that people can be nothing but flawed.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Impact of Writing

For all you writers and aspiring writers out there:

9TH ANNUAL FUNDSFORWRITERS ESSAY CONTEST and Literary Database team up to co-sponsor the 9th Annual FundsforWriters Essay Contest.

Theme: Writing that made a difference.

Both entry fee and no entry fee categories. First place winner receives $300. Six awards given. Limit 750 words. Deadline October 31, 2010. Winners announced December 1, 2010. /

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Beth Groundwater Chats about Distant Stars, Whitewater Rapids and Beautiful Colorado

Beth Groundwater writes the Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery series (A REAL BASKET CASE, nominated for the 2007 Best First Novel Agatha Award, and TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET, May, 2009). Beth also writes the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventure mystery series (the first, DEADLY CURRENTS, will be released March, 2011). Her science fiction novella, THE EPSILON ERIDANI ALTERNATIVE, was published December, 2009, and she has published eight short stories. Beth lives in Colorado and enjoys its many outdoor activities, including skiing and whitewater rafting. She enjoys meeting with book clubs in person or via Skype or speakerphone to discuss her books. To find out more, please visit her website at and her blog at

Thanks for chatting with me, Beth!

I’ve always been curious about your surname. Does it have Native American roots?

That’s what a lot of people think, people who haven’t met my husband, that is, who is a light-skinned, freckled guy. The name and his family originate in Scotland. The legend behind the family name is that the Groundwaters fished and farmed, making their living from the ground and the water. I like having the name because it’s fairly unique, so if you Google my name, all you find are references to me. And so far, there’s only one Beth Groundwater on Facebook!

That's handy. Your first mystery series is about a woman who owns a gift basket business. Have you ever worked at a place like this?

No, but a hobby of mine is making gift baskets for family members, friends, charity auctions, etc. To learn more, I read how-to books and trade magazines for gift basket business owners. Also, I interviewed two women who owned a gift basket business and toured their warehouse/work area, so I could become more familiar with the “behind the scenes” aspects of the business. Now that I’ve written two books in the series, people think I’m an expert at it and I get asked to make gift baskets more often. I’m not as creative at making them as Claire Hanover is, though!

How did you come up with the idea for the “basket” mysteries?

I wanted to write a cozy mystery series and thought a craft-based series would work, since craft cozies are so popular. I’m a klutz when it comes to most crafts, though. Making gift baskets, however, was one of the few crafts I’ve tried that I thought I could do well and write knowledgeably about.

All of your fiction is set in Colorado, where you reside. Is this an example of “write what you know?” Or maybe “write where you know?

Yes, and it’s also an example of “write what you love.” My husband and I chose to move our family to Colorado because we fell in love with its scenery and opportunities for outdoor recreation. We’ve never regretted our decision!

Your science fiction novel is particularly intriguing to me. When you wrote The Epsilon Eridani Alternative, were you trying to choose the title with the most syllables ever?
Very funny, Julia! Actually, the “Epsilon Eridani” part of the title was a given, since the space colonists are sent to establish a colony on one of its planets. It is a real star, and it is one of the closest stars in our galaxy which space scientists have discovered has at least one planet. This mission is one of a few missions to different near-by planets, trying to find one or more that are hospitable for humans, so that’s where the word “alternative” came from.

Seriously, though, I love the premise: “Space colonists from Earth crash-land on a planet orbiting the star Epsilon Eridani and immediately wrestle with an ethical dilemma. They emerge from their stasis pods 33 years older than when they started and must decide whether or not to harvest stem cells from alien infants to counteract the effects of human aging... even though the process will kill the infants.”

Obviously you’ve done a great deal of thinking about the stem cell debate and its moral complications. What made you take this modern-day ethics issue and put it on a distant star?

That’s almost like asking “Where do you get your ideas?” ;-) Every fiction author struggles with that question, because in reality we don’t usually know the answer. Our subconscious works on problems, issues, and ideas while we sleep, and when we wake up, scenes start appearing in our heads. At least that’s the way it works for me! I started this novella with the “What if?” question of “What if space colonists woke up from their statis pods after a long journey and discovered that they were all old, that the pods hadn’t worked?” The moral issues of stem cell use, evolution, and natural selection, all fell out of what those colonists had to do to survive and perform their mission.

You’ve recently sold a new Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures mystery series about Mindy Tanner, a whitewater ranger. Are you a whitewater rafter?

Yes, I am a true “river rat” and love the adrenaline highs I get from running rapids. I started paddling canoes filled with floatation bags down whitewater rivers back east in the 1980s. Those were the days before self-bailing rafts were invented, which have now replaced canoes on whitewater rivers. The “river rat” language, subculture and techniques for reading the water and finding routes through the rapids has remained the same, though!

Did you interview rangers while you were researching these books?

I interviewed two river rangers who worked for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, where Mandy Tanner works. One of them teaches the spring Swiftwater Rescue course that new seasonal river rangers take each spring, along with local firefighters and other rescue personnel. He invited me to audit a class, and I observed the last day of the three-day course. Most of that day was spent practicing techniques on and off the river for rescuing people and rafts from rocks and “keeper” holes in the river. I chatted with some of the students during breaks, including the female river ranger trainees, to get even more information.

What’s your biggest challenge when you’re writing a novel?

Nowadays, it’s staying on schedule. With my recent Midnight Ink contracts, I’m now on a book-every-eight-months production schedule, and I’ve never taken less than a year to write a book before. My children are grown and I don’t have a “day job,” so I certainly should be able to meet that schedule, but I’ll have to crack the whip on my own back to do it.

Do you follow a particular process when you’re in the midst of a writing project?

As a retired software engineer, as one would suspect, I tend to “engineer” my mysteries. Before writing the first draft, I spend 2-3 months doing research, creating character profiles, and creating a scene-by-scene outline. That doesn’t mean I don’t allow for innovation to occur during the writing process, but by knowing where I’m headed, I can veer that innovation in the right direction to still arrive at the ultimate ending I planned. When I’m writing the first draft, I try to produce about 20 pages a week, which requires me to spend 1-2 sessions lasting 2-3 hours at the computer every workday (Monday – Friday). After finishing the rough draft, I spend 2-3 months editing.

Very organized! Who are some authors whose work you love to read?

Since I’m working on an outdoor-oriented mystery series, I’ve been reading authors with similar sleuths/settings, such as C.J. Box, Dana Stabenow, William Kent Krueger, Nancy Pickard, Craig Johnson, and Margaret Coel. I’ve really been enjoying all of these authors.

You’ve already written in two genres—do you plan to explore others?

I think I’ve bitten off plenty right now—almost more than I can chew! I hope to be able to focus on and write books in my two mystery series for quite awhile. After experimenting with the hard science fiction genre, I’ve decided that it requires too much research. Mystery is the genre I really feel comfortable writing now.

I can think of a million things that seem appealing about Colorado, but you live there—what’s the best? Are there any drawbacks to living in this apparent paradise?

What I like best about living in Colorado is the outdoor ethic among the people who live here. Most try to keep in good-enough shape to enjoy being active outside. The only drawback is the need to protect your skin from the sun when you’re outside in Colorado. Because of our altitude and the thin-air, sunburn and skin cancer are major concerns.

If you had to relocate but could pick anyplace on earth, where would you go?

After living near skiing, but having to travel to go to the ocean, I think I’d try the reverse, living on a beautiful beach in Hawaii, with access to flights to Utah or Colorado to feed my appetite for skiing.

Lovely choice! What’s your favorite hobby aside from writing?

It’s too hard to pick just one! In the winter, I like to be out on the snow skiing, and in the summer, I like to be in the water, either on a river in a raft/tube/duckie or in the ocean snorkeling.

Do you have fun plans for the last of summer?

I’ve already had my three weeks of summer fun with a trip to the Hill Country of Texas, followed by a couple of whitewater rafting trips and my two grown kids coming for a visit over July 4th. Now it’s time to buckle down and get to work on the third book in the Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery series.

Thanks for chatting with me, Beth!

About Beth's book, Deadly Currents: When Mandy Tanner, a 27-year-old river ranger for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area in Salida, Colorado, rescues a man who fell out of a raft on the upper Arkansas River and he dies on the river bank, she feels driven to find out what—or who—killed him.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

RIP Dick Buckley, jazz radio legend

RIP Dick Buckley, jazz radio legend This is a good listen--it helps one appreciate jazz, their loved ones, and the transitory nature of things.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Farewell to a Jazzman

My father-in-law passed away early this morning. He was a Chicago legend, a jazz deejay popular with true jazz fans; I can't even begin yet to formulate a tribute to him. Much to our family's pleasure, Chicago is making the tributes for us.

According to the Chicago Tribune, "Author-broadcaster Studs Terkel once told the Tribune, "Dick is in the tradition of the old-time jazz critics I loved so much. There's always that thread running through Dick's commentary, the connection of past and present, respect for those long gone." "

WBEZ, his employer for more than 30 years, wrote in their tribute, "If microphones could speak, they would sing the praises of Dick Buckley."

And Justin Kaufmann of Vocalo said that "He was the gold standard for music radio in Chicago."

Best of all are the comments from the fans--many, many comments from people who listened to his show way back in the 70s and became loyal followers of Dick's "Jazz Showcase." As one of my friends put it today, "Everything I know about jazz, I learned from Dick Buckley. Everything."

Nothing is more comforting in a time of loss than the knowledge that your loved one will be remembered. Based on what we're reading, Dick will be remembered by many.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Inger Ash Wolfe on Ghost Crime, Human Cops, and Canadian Bacon

Inger Ashe Wolfe is a pseudonym used by a renowned Canadian writer. THE TAKEN is the second in the Hazel Micallef mystery series.

Inger, thanks for chatting on my blog. I’m curious about the name Hazel Micallef; even in the book people mispronounce it, and Hazel corrects them (and, in the process, the reader who might have gotten it wrong). How did you choose this distinctive name?

Names are hard! I chose Hazel’s first name easily—she just struck me as a Hazel from the get-go. The name suggests hardness and intelligence to me (a hard-won kind of wisdom, too), but there’s also something lonesome and soft about the name too. The last name was more calculated: it’s originally a Maltese name that spread across the globe and is found especially in British Isles. You find it in Wales and Scotland now, tough places to prosper. So the last name also suggests a hardness I like. I like, also, that it means “judge” in Maltese.

Hazel pleases me because she’s a female cop who possesses qualities that mystery fiction usually only bestows on male cops: she’s older, divorced, lonely, battling a physical ailment, tied to her job despite its miseries. This seems realistic, yet few of mystery’s female heroes are allowed to be old. Were you consciously trying to address this double standard when you created Hazel?

Well, there is Miss Marple, and Jane Tennison is in her forties, but yes, there are few female detectives in their sixties in continuing series like this one. I wasn’t trying to right a wrong when I created Hazel, but I did hope she would feel new to readers. Also, breaking away from the template of who detectives tend to be in modern crime fiction, I thought I’d feel more freedom to innovate, and I do.

Yes! In the prologue, a nameless person reflects upon suicides, and the distinctive way that they dress themselves for death. Is this a well-known truth, or is it simply a fictional reflection of one individual?

It’s a fictional reflection, although I also know it happens.

In this book, Hazel must not only battle crime and bureaucracy, but also advanced technology. We know that technology is changing the way that we solve crimes, but is it changing the way that criminals commit them, as well?

Absolutely. People will use whatever is at hand to beat the odds, and criminals are especially savvy in this regard. Technology introduces new challenges to both the detection and resolution of criminal activity. Stealing money without entering a bank or a private home? Sounds good. Communicating anonymously with either your victim or your co-conspirators? Much safer. Modern law enforcement is dealing more and more with ghosts and it takes considerable effort to stay one step ahead of them.

There is an obvious prejudice against Hazel’s more rural police force in Fort Dundas when she visits the 21st Division, where Superintendent Ilunga suggests they should “return to fining people who have too many trout in their coolers.” On the one hand, this seems like the basic distrust one law enforcement group may have for another; but I’m wondering if there’s something distinctly Canadian in this particular clash of forces?

Well, I want to be careful here. Ilunga is fictional, as is the entire Port Dundas OPS attachment. (And the OPS is fictional, too.) Is there an urban/rural divide in general in Canada? Yes. So it’s not a stretch to consider that it might exist within different police forces, too. But The Taken is not meant as an exposé of the thoughtlessness of Toronto police, nor is it a condemnation of anyone or any institution. But to make it believable, it had to be written in terms that, particularly, Canadian readers could identify with. The conflict with Ilunga and his division is entirely plausible. But would it have panned out the way it did in The Taken? It’s highly unlikely.

Hazel is burdened by many family issues; her lingering love for her divorced husband, her worry for a grown daughter, her continued dependence upon an elderly parent. Just as it is inevitable that cops take work home, is it also inevitable that cops take home to work?

Cops are no different than anyone else, except that playing a very public role, the public tend to believe that they’re not like everyone else. But the stresses of home and the stresses of work take their toll on cops just as they do on you and me. With Hazel, these stresses are perhaps a bit more literary than they are in life, but I think they resonate fairly accurately.

In some ways, Hazel puts me in mind of Linda La Plante’s DCI Jane Tennison (to whom you alluded earlier), except that Hazel’s subordinates are more accepting of her authority. In THE TAKEN, I don’t get the sense that Hazel’s gender is a problem for men on her staff; will this be different in other books?

I think it’s a possibility, but I don’t want to get too deep into that territory because it strikes me as being too easy. Also, after two books, I think I’ve established pretty firmly that if someone tries to put Hazel “in her place,” they’re in for a blast of reality. She’s not the kind of person to even take part in that dynamic. If she meets someone with those attitudes, Hazel’s more likely to do an end-run around them than she is to engage with them (although they’ll know in short order what she thinks of them).

Hurrah for Hazel! Will there be more books in the Hazel Micallef series?

As of this writing, I’m planning the series to be between ten and a dozen books. Inger Ash Wolfe may write other books as well.

One of my favorite scenes with Hazel involves her doing something that an action hero would do in some blockbuster movie—except that it doesn’t seem unrealistic, tied as it is to what she does and to the particular criminal she is tracking. Does Hazel’s heroism emerge from a desire to do her job, or from the basic morality of her nature?

Hazel is, at base, a fighter. She will do what it takes to get the outcome she wants, even if it means bending the rules, risking her neck, or pissing off someone she cares about. She cannot stomach failure, which is why the end of her marriage and the breaking down of her body drives her as crazy as it does. So yes, she’s doing her job, and her nature is basically moral, but Hazel is mostly driven by the urge to win, and because she sees her role in her community as an inalienably moral one, she allows herself all kinds of leeway in how she gets her results.

I like the relationship between Hazel and Wingate. Does she view him as the son she doesn’t have?

No, but it’s a nice idea.

Some parts of this book read like horror fiction. Are you a fan of the horror genre?

Not really. I’ve read some of it, but I don’t like horror divorced from its human roots. The things people are capable of doing to each other deserve to be shown in fiction in a completely honest and realistic way. I don’t need vampires and telepaths to help me grasp how deep human cruelty can go. The horror in my books are intended to show how significant the stakes are in solving the crime, not to disgust or titillate.

At one point Hazel requests a “peameal bacon sandwich.” This sounds delicious, but I’ve never heard of it before. What is it? Can I get it in America?

Ask for “Canadian bacon”. It’s unsmoked back bacon that’s been rolled in cornmeal (altho it used to be rolled in peameal.)

In your own reading of mysteries, which novels were most influential?

Well, this is a hard question. I go for character over plot, although I have been known to gobble down potboilers. My main touchstones are Patricia Highsmith, Henning Mankell, Ruth Rendell, P. D. James, Richard Stark (and the rest of Westlake, but I adore Parker), Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, the Martin Beck books, Ed McBain, and early Thomas Harris. I dip in and out of the pocketbooks just for fun—Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Mo Hayder and company.

A stellar group. What are you reading now?

Just finished Found in the Street, one of the Highsmiths I missed, and I’m reading Ian McEwan’s new novel, Solar, and finding it absolutely hilarious.

There has been some controversy about your pseudonym, Inger Ash Wolfe, and the name of Danish crime writer Inger Wolf. Do you think that the name similarity will continue to be a problem in the way that it was for John D. MacDonald and John Ross MacDonald (who eventually became Ross MacDonald)?

It was made into a problem; it never was one. I’m glad we distinguished my eventual pseudonym from Ms. Wolf’s, and she was very gracious and undistressed about the whole thing, but there has never been any confusion or conflict apart from that which was created in the media prior to the publication of The Calling.

Thank you so much for chatting with me, Inger!

My pleasure.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Cat Problem

When you like cats and you like flowers, you often have the problem of the former trying to eat the latter. Here a certain malefactor named Mulliner is caught in the act, and he was not at all repentant; in fact, he posed proudly for some photos.

Friday, July 09, 2010

A Room With A View

My writer friend recently made herself an office in her home. She chose one of the smallest rooms available, but the view out of its window allows one to see into the house where Ernest Hemingway grew up. From her creative space, she can see into his.

Sure, a writer can write anywhere. It shouldn't matter where she does it. Yet I found myself feeling envious of her writer's space--clean and white, with book-lined walls and creative little writery toys on the desk--and a view of Hemingway's house!

A writer needs a lot of things: talent, determination, a work ethic, and a willingness to spend time alone. But it never hurts to have an extra little something: classical music, maybe, or a burning candle, or--just maybe--the knowledge that you live next door to the home of one of the greatest American writers ever.

What else sparks a writer's creativity? In my case, it's playing Lexulous on Facebook. Something about that scrabble-like game really stimulates my brain.

How about you?

(pictured: Hemingway's childhood home).

Sunday, July 04, 2010

A View of Independence

“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.”

– Albert Camus

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Summer Idyll--Farewell, June!

It was beautiful today--the yin to the yang of endless storms we had last week. We decided to venture out into nature before we had to bid adieu to June for another year. We took our little picnic basket to a nearby watermill and wonderland.
We crossed a tiny bridge where we could see the reflection of the sky and trees in the water, as well as minnows and tiny jumping frogs. Happy fishermen (and fisherwomen) stood in shaded nooks along the bank, some with lawn chairs, ready to wait longer than the fish did.
Every shot (and I took about a hundred) looked like a picture postcard, thanks to nature and a beautifully-maintained forest preserve.
The green was often relieved by a burst of wildflowers--purple clover, orange tiger lily, and delicate white Queen Anne's lace. My favorite part of summer is the way that these flowers smell in the sun. Nothing else like it on earth.

As a final treat, we got to see a giant blue heron (who is of course tiny in this picture--but I managed to crop it so that he is more visible).

We also fed some little ducks who swam under the bridge until we saw the sign that said "Don't feed the wildlife." Oops. So the ducks got an unexpected (but illegal) snack.
Overall, my sons were very happy with our lunchtime backdrop. (And one was actually willing to pose; the other was harder to catch than the heron). All that beauty and splendour, and it was free to anyone who wished to partake.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Out of Commission

The summer storms hitting Chicago have been particularly violent; the second big thunderstorm has knocked out power, Com Ed assures me, to over 200,000 customers. Frankly, after yesterday's storm, I'm relieved that all I lost was my electricity. I've heard tales from neighbors about terrible flooding, downed trees, and shattered glass.

In the meantime, though, I have to face the modern person's withdrawal: no computer (except at work, where I am), no television, no telephones (ours are plugged in), no refrigerator, no light.

In this new 19th century existence, I will not be blogging for a while. Com Ed tells me it could be "several days" before I have power.

This should help to build my character.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Discovering the Past

I just saw THE A-TEAM with my violence-loving sons (and the movie wasn't as bad as some reviewers are saying), and was surprised to note Gerald McRaney was one of the main characters. The surprising part was that McRaney, when I wasn't looking, got sort of old.

So when I got home I went straight to my Netflix queue and looked up Simon and Simon, that wonderful show starring McRaney and Jameson Parker. I was a big fan of this long-running series about the brothers who ran a detective agency.

I also snagged the first season of Moonlighting, which in its day was one of the cleverest detective dramadies on tv.

It's so nice these days, with Netflix and You Tube and Hulu, to be able to hop right on the train to the past and visit it briefly (or longer, if the shows turn out to be as good as you remember). :)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Thriller Writer Mike Lawson on Believable Heroes, Great Books, and Faulty Politics

Mike Lawson writes the popular and much-lauded Joe DeMarco series of thrillers. House Justice was just released, and involves DeMarco in the fallout of the death of a CIA spy in Iran.

Mike, thanks for chatting with me at Mysterious Musings.

Before you were a writer, you were a nuclear engineer for the U.S. Navy. What did that job entail?

A whole bunch of stuff – but most of what I did was related to overhauling and refueling nuc subs and aircraft carriers. I was a senior manager, had several thousand people working for me, and I worried about the typical things managers worry about: safety, meeting the schedule and the budget, hiring good people, quality, etc. The job was stressful – but it was never boring.

Your book, HOUSE JUSTICE, was hard to put down. It did not, however, do anything to reduce my already jaded attitude toward American politics. Are there really this many backroom deals and moral compromises in the halls of Congress and the CIA?

I’m not so sure about the CIA – they tend to get a bad rap because we only hear about the mistakes they make and not all the good things they do. And basically the CIA is implementing policy set by the Executive Branch. Congress is a different story. I’m not making up how corrupt Congress is and can be. It seems about once a week we hear about some congressman taking a bribe, diddling somebody of the same or opposite sex, sending pork to aid rich folk more than ordinary folk, etc. Like I said in House Justice, there’s a reason companies pay lobbyists so much money and hire so many of them and, cynical as it sounds, I sometimes think we have the best government money can buy. And I’m not sparing either party.

Good. Your hero, Joe DeMarco, is refreshingly different, because he is NOT the guy with a gun. He is a lawyer, and while he can defend himself, his job is not always to storm in and get the bad guys. How did you happen to create DeMarco?

I wanted a protagonist that somebody else didn’t have. There are already too many good detectives, lawyers, ex-special forces operatives, etc. in fiction. I wanted a) someone different and b) someone connected to D.C.– and thus DeMarco, a guy who works for a shady Speaker of the House. And most of the time in the books, DeMarco reacts to a situation the way I would react – which means he’s not super smart or super brave because neither am I.

Before you majored in engineering, had you considered writing as a career?

No, never considered it. I got a degree in engineering mainly because my dad was a steel worker and was under the misguided impression that engineers ran the world – and he kinda pushed me in that direction. But it was a good field in which to get a degree because you could almost always find a job to pay the bills. I did a lot of writing, however, as an engineer – technical stuff, reports, etc. – and was fairly good at it. And I’ve always read a lot – and some place along the way I said to myself: Self, why don’t we try to write a novel?

Good thing you answered yes!

I couldn’t help but notice that you make politicians, in general, very physically unattractive. The men are often described with jowls and big guts, and two women I recall were the one with “a face like a hammerhead shark” and one who made Eleanor Roosevelt look attractive. Is their ugliness symbolic of something in the book, or is it just a general stereotype that people in politics are not, as a rule, good looking?

To tell you the truth, I never noticed. Some of the characters just seem to me like they shouldn’t be good looking – or I don’t want them ordinary looking. I don’t make them all unattractive though – like the bad guy in House Secrets was a handsome senator and so was the bad guy in House Rules. Another trick to writing is you have to make the characters stand-out in the readers mind – and a description like “she had a face like a hammerhead shark” will probably stick in your mind more than “she had long, flowing locks, perfect features, and emerald green eyes.”

Good point. In your book, at least two of the women in the CIA are mistreated because of their gender and their good looks. Would you say this is the status quo?

I would say, in all seriousness, that there is a gender-gap in the business world. When the boss is a man, he tends to feel more comfortable having other men in management positions and, thus, can tend to overlook the talents and abilities of women. Having said that, the gender gap is clearly closing. We have women CEOs and in the last election you had one woman running for president and one for vice-president – I’d say that’s getting pretty close to touching the glass ceiling.

Did you ever consider going into politics as a career?

Not on your life. Although I tend not to be too happy with a lot of politicians, I sincerely believe most people go into politics not for the money or the power but because they truly want to serve the country. But it’s a brutal business – and I think the pressure of trying to get reelected, the party pressure, and the influence of lobbyists is corrupting - and nothing about being a politician appeals to me. Having said all that, I guess that makes me like most people – throwing rocks at the system rather than becoming part of it and trying to fix it. Shame on me.

What would be the first change you’d make if you ran the country?

Congress. I think it’s broken. I think we need major structural changes to make Congress work. It’s not the people, it’s the system. Things like term limits, ways to minimize the influence of lobbyists, less people in Congress and those that are there, representing broader geographical areas to make them less parochial. I don’t think the two-party system is serving us well, and sometimes I wonder if the concept of individual states serves us particularly well. Now I suppose I have to worry about how many people I’ve just pissed off with that little rant.

Whose books do you like to read?

Thank God. I’m glad were off the political questions. I like to read mysteries, thrillers, and the occasional sci-fi book. I like Michael Harvey, John Sanford, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, James Lee Burke, Thomas Perry, Carol O’Connell, Gillian Flynn, to name a few. I also like non-fiction. I just read two books by James Bamford on the NSA – the National Security Agency. I read them partly as research for my next DeMarco book but also because I like that sort of stuff. I finished Tim Egan’s book The Big Burn not too long ago – the book about the big forest fires in Montana in 1910.

Are you writing another Joe DeMarco adventure?

DeMarco #6 is currently in the hands of my editor for his final review and will be out next summer. DeMarco #7 is 80% done. DeMarco #8 – maybe – is sort of done – but it’s a book I’ve been dinking with for years and can’t seem to get quite right. I’m also working on a non-DeMarco novel and just starting a screenplay.

Even though some of your characters did not receive justice in its truest sense (as your title implies), there seems to be a sense of Karma at work here. How did you determine which characters got away with things and which did not?

I just don’t think everything needs to be tied up in a neat bow in a novel. Every bad guy doesn’t have to get bumped off or end up in jail. Normally, the major bad guys have to get the axe literally or figuratively, or the reader will be somewhat unsatisfied. But sometimes the bad guy is not totally a bad guy – like the florist in House Justice – or he’s just a pawn of the really bad guy, and therefore doesn’t necessarily need to get whacked. And sometimes you want to save your bad guys for another book. And I’m a big believer in luck or Karma in real life – a lot of what happens to us good or bad is often a matter of luck – being in the wrong place at the wrong time – or vice versa – and it should be the same in novels.

Did it surprise your friends and family that you retired and suddenly bloomed into another career?

I think everybody was surprised except my wife. She saw me toiling away for over ten years, re-writing books and getting reject letters from every agent in the country, but she also saw me keep trying. So she wasn’t totally surprised when I finally succeeded. All my friends were totally surprised because none of them even knew I was writing novels in my spare time and trying to get published. Even after publishing five books, I imagine some of my friends still can’t believe it.

What are your plans for the summer?

Unfortunately, because House Justice was just released, I’m doing a lot of book-touring in June and July, and I’ve also been trying to wrap up DeMarco #6. After July, although I’ll still write every morning, I’ll be able to slack off a little. When I’m not writing, frankly, I just sort of goof around – fish, play golf (badly) and do whatever my wife tells me I’m supposed to do.

Thanks for talking with me, Mike!

Thank you, Julia, this was fun.

Visit Mike Lawson's website at website

and follow him on twitter @MikeLawsonBooks.

Friday, June 04, 2010

John Harvey Redux

I'm a big John Harvey fan, and I really enjoyed his book FAR CRY. Since the hardback comes out this month, I'm re-printing the interview I did with Harvey in February. I highly recommend the book.

John Harvey's new mystery novel FAR CRY comes out in June; it is his 100th book. Harvey's much-lauded Charlie Resnick novels are among Britain's best police procedurals; his novel LONELY HEARTS was named by The Times as one of the 100 Greatest Crime Novels of the Century. FAR CRY features the duo of Will Grayson and Helen Walker. Harvey lives in London.

John, thank you for talking with me. Your new book, FAR CRY, has a horrific premise: a woman suffers the abduction of not one, but two daughters, years apart. Did you envision that the book would become a deep examination of the psychology of that loss?

I don't see what else it could be. Unless you leave the woman permanently in the background as a character and concentrate solely on the investigations.

The ideas behind FAR CRY came out of a conversation with the writer Jill Dawson, who lives in the Fenland where much of my book is set, and whose home is close to a village where an abduction and murder of two schoolgirls had happened several years before. Affected by this, as a mother of two young children as well as a writer, Jill had written a novel, WATCH ME DISAPPEAR, based around her responses to these murders. When Jill and I met and had our conversation, the disappearance of a British child on holiday was very much in the news; her parents believed their daughter had been abducted but was still alive and made the decision to use the media as a way of securing her release - something which backfired on them and made them suspects in the eyes of many people.

Jill and I talked about the ways in which parents might react in such situations, the emotional havoc it wreaks on their own relationships and the degrees to which they might become obsessed not solely with their own loss, but with the wider area of child abuse and abusers. We talked about the possibility of writing a book which explored those issues and I came away convinced that was what I wanted to try and do.

Before starting to write, I talked through my initial ideas with a friend who is a very experienced psychotherapist, just to check that the lines on which I was planning base my story were credible.

It was always my intention to place the mother at the heart of the book and, in retrospect, I regret that she isn't as central - doesn't have as much space - as I'd intended. The scenes with her and her missing daughter were always going to be the big challenge for me as a writer - carrying them off convincingly. The are the most important scenes in the book for me, the ones that I can get excited about having written,though, of course, they're very short - a tiny part of the book as a whole if you're counting pages.

An epigraph from Macbeth appears before chapter one—the words of MacDuff when he hears that his family has been slaughtered. Did MacDuff’s character inspire you to write this story, or did you make the connection between your character and Shakespeare’s after the writing?

In no sense a direct inspiration, there's no connection between the stories, but MACBETH is a play I know well and those lines came to me when I was thinking about the book, so that epigraph was in place before I started on chapter 1.

FAR CRY is also a crime novel. Aside from the main storyline, the detectives, Will Grayson and Helen Walker, face endless examples of man’s cruelty. What motivates your detectives (or any detectives, perhaps) to stay in their jobs in the face of such sadness?

It's an odd question for me as a writer to answer. As the writer of the book, the mover of the plot, I need them to progress the investigation; they do their job because if they don't there's no story, no book. It's like moving chess pieces (or so I assume, since I've never played chess.)

But they're police officers, it's what they do. Come face to face with all manner of awful things and do their jobs. As the writer, I think I have to provide reasons for why, in certain situations, they might do the job badly, be over-zealous et cetera. There are times in this story when Grayson is in error as a police officer and that's because, as a father of two young children himself, he allows himself to become too emotionally involved.

One of the main requirements I have as a writer is to flesh out the lives of these officers, make them believable and, in some ways, attractive, so that the reader will want to accompany them through the investigation.

The women in your book are admirably strong. I don’t really have a question here; I just wanted to thank you for that. :)

Thanks! I try.

There is something existential in the idea of waiting to hear news of a lost person. Did you find it difficult to write scenes from Ruth’s perspective—that is, from her growing hopelessness?

As I've suggested above, the scenes with Ruth were key to me - my particular challenge in this book, to get her right. So they were difficult in a way, but once I'd got them started, once I 'saw' her, they came surprisingly easily. They were what I was primarily interested in, after all. It's the procedural stuff that I find difficult because I find it so boring and the task, which I think I sometimes fall down on, is not to make it boring for the reader too.

Not to sound cliché, but the abduction of a child really is every parent’s nightmare. So why do I, as a parent, find this book so compelling? Do you think your readers might take a certain satisfaction, even as they sympathize, with the fact that it is happening to someone else, someone fictional, and not to them?

You've answered your own question in a way. It's exactly because harm coming to one's own children is such a great fear that the book is compelling. I think it's why readers might sympathise with the parents in the book, but as to whether they will take some satisfaction from the fact it's happening to someone else I can't say.

You are a jazz fan, as is one of your most famous fictional creations, Charlie Resnick. Sue Grafton calls him “complex and capable, a man who not only loves justice, jazz and cats, but who can turn the construction of a sandwich into a work of art.” While I wouldn’t assume that Resnick is a fictional you, I wonder if many of Resnick’s jazz preferences are in fact your own?

More or less. We share a great love of Thelonious Monk, certainly.

You are also a fan of classical music, and on your blog you wrote of its dwindling numbers of fans. Why do you think this musical form, so rich and full of history, is losing popularity?

It could be something to do with the fact that we live in a culture that is increasingly devoted to the easy fix, to instant gratification, that finds things which require a degree of effort and concentration - well, too much effort. It could be something to do with the way music is taught - or not taught - in education. But when I go to concerts in London I'm frequently cheered not just by the fact they are well attended but also that there is a good proportion of young people present. Far less the case in smaller cities like Nottingham, I fear, where it's generally a middle-class, late middle age pursuit.

You are a poet, which is evident in your prose. F. Scott Fitzgerald wove jazz into the very pacing of his diction; do you think that your own love of music and rhythm informs the way that you structure your words on the page?

Maybe, other people - critics - have suggested this is the case, so who am I to disagree! I do think the fact of my having both written and, as a small press publisher, edited poetry for some 30 years, has - hopefully - given me a sense of the rhythm of a sentence, a phrase, or helped my choice of the right word. I spend more time rewriting my work according to the sound they make in my head that anything else.

Charlie Resnick loves cats. Do you have pets?

Have had cats, off and on, in the past. We have a cat now, really my youngest daughter's. I'm not really an animal person.

You are taking a course on the history of art. Are you enjoying it? Is there an artist or an artistic movement that you particularly admire?

Loving it; enjoying some - most - of the teaching; the relationship/exchanges of views with other students; the forced opportunity to visit more galleries and buy more art books than before. I've found writing academic essays after a 30 year gap quite a chore, but they do concentrate the mind.

I'm particularly drawn to American art of the 50s and 60s, partly because of the way it interlocked with the New York poetry scene at that time - Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, John Ashbery. So, I respond very positively to Abstract Expressionism - we took my youngest daughter over to New York for the big Jackson Pollock retrospective when she was less than a year old - and have a strong interest in women painters of the so-called second generation of AEs - Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan. I wrote about the period and included a fictitious woman artist from the period in the novel In a True Light, quite deeply flawed as a book and one of my personal favourites. Right now, I'm preparing an essay on two realist painters from that period, Alice Neel and Fairfield Porter.

You once taught a film course. What were some of the films that you showed to your class?

Oh God, so long ago! I can remember a few - Out of the Past; Bonnie & Clyde; Le Boucher ; La Femme Infidele; Night Moves.

You’ve written a great many Westerns. What drew you to this genre? Did you admire the work of Zane Gray or Louis L’amour? (My father, a Western fan, always said ‘Gray, yes. L’amour, no.’ :)

My father had a copy of Gray's Riders of the Purple Sage permanently at his beside; I might have tried reading it,but gave up - too verbose. Recently I saw a copy for sale and bought it, but still didn't manage to get beyond a few pages. I've never tried L'amour. I did read some westerns as a kid - Mulford's Hopalong Cassidy books were big favourites when I was in my early teens, and later I remember reading books by Charles Marquis Warren and Elliott Arnold - Blood Brother? One of my all-time favourite books as a boy was the Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual. But what really drew me to the genre was my dad's love of western movies - we went to see almost everything in the genre that ever played north London while I was growing up, and I used to skip school to see B westerns featuring Wild Bill Elliott, George Montgomery and - once, gloriously - Lash LaRue.

As an adult, I've much enjoyed the western fiction of Oakley Hall and, if it counts, Jim Harrison.

But the reason I wrote so many westerns was that there was a market for them when I began writing. I fell in with a few other writers - notably Laurence James and Angus Wells, now both sadly dead before their time - and we worked together on a number of series, usually under joint pen names.

So now I must ask--are you a fan of John Wayne, or do you think he's overrated?

Like anyone who make a lot of films, Wayne coasts much of the time, but when a director challenges him and brings out his darker side - as Hawks in the marvellous Red River or Ford in The Searchers, he can be pretty wonderful. The by-play between Wayne and Angie Dickinson in Hawks' Rio Bravo is comparable to Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep; and he's moving and believable in The Shootist.

You have a Master’s Degree in American Studies. Have you been to America often? If so, have you travelled widely? What was your favourite American place?

I used to go over on a small book tour every year when the Resnick books were published there by Henry Holt. So 8 or so trips of that nature. I have good friends in New York City and Washington DC, as well as Downeast Maine and I used to travel regularly to see them, but I've scarcely been to the States at all in the past ten years. This is mainly due to a growing discomfort with and fear of flying and dislike of traveling and the fact that there's no longer a US publisher inviting me over and offering to pay my fare!

I did go to Baltimore last year for the Bouchercon Crime Convention, as I was International Guest of Honour, and was treated royally! It was good to meet a lot of people, book dealers et cetera, who I hadn't seen for a long time and I may go out to San Francisco this October to Bouchercon.

Favourite places ? Downeast Maine. San Francisco. Manhattan. Montana.

Was your time in Montana related to the research you did for your westerns?

Not at all. I visited with my son, Tom, to stay with some friends who live most of the year in DC, but have family and a cabin in Montana.

I’m glad to read that you’ll be bringing back the character of Cordon from FAR CRY. Cordon was a good cop whose instincts told him when something wasn’t right. Will Cordon stay in touch with Helen Walker, the cop who traveled out to Cornwall to investigate with him?

No such plans as yet, but I'm only on chapter 10 and she is there, isn't she?

Finally, what are you reading these days (aside from your art course homework?)

That aside, not so much!

But this year, so far ...

So He Takes the Dog : Jonathan Buckley

Our Game : John Le Carré

Memoir : John McGahern

Absolute Friends
: John Le Carré

The Looking Glass War : John Le Carré

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
: David Wroblewski

Two terrific books towards the very end of last year :

Truth : Peter Temple

Even The Dogs
: Jon McGregor

John, thank you so much for your time.

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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Brett Battles on Hidden Messages, Inconvenient Corpses, and Suitable Tensions

Brett Battles writes a series of books about Jonathan Quinn, a "cleaner" who makes bodies disappear when his clients need the service. Battles' book, SHADOW OF BETRAYAL, came out in paperback this week.

The plot of Shadow of Betrayal is complicated. Do you write outlines before you write books?

I usually do a 10 to 15 page synopsis/outline, which I give to my publisher before writing each book. I then also create a lot of notes both before I begin and as I’m going along. At one point for SHADOW I actually stopped working on the draft for a couple of days, and spent that time writing bullet point lists of the story from each of the main/important characters points of view. It really helped me get everything straight for the final push to the end. I should point out that though I create that 10 to 15 page synopsis, the final story doesn’t always (as in never) stick completely to it.

Makes sense. The main character, Jonathan Quinn, is a “cleaner.” What exactly is this?

Quinn's job is simple on the surface. He’s an expert at making bodies disappear. If you work in the world of international espionage, and you’re pretty sure you’ll be having a body that needs getting rid of--that you don’t want anyone to ever find-- Quinn’s your man. And though he’s not hired to be the one who does the shooting, there are many times when he has to pull the trigger.

The events of the story happen all over the world; within the first few chapters the reader travels to Ireland, Africa, Canada, and the United States. Is it important that a thriller not be limited to one location?

I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There are many excellent thrillers that take place in limited locations. It just so happens for Quinn that he plays on an international stage. My next book, a standalone called NO RETURN, takes place entirely in a small Mojave Desert town that’s home to a Naval Air Base.

A careful reader will note homages to other writers in your text. A character named Chercover seems to reference mystery writer Sean Chercover, while the company called Cameron-Kadash Industries seems a link to writer Bill Cameron and his protagonist, Skin Kadash. Have I missed some others? Do you always reference real people in your books?

You’re the first other than Bill to catch the Cameron-Kadash reference! Nice job. There are plenty of other references in my work, but not just to other writers. I also do little nods to old friend from high school and college and other parts of my life. Kind of my way of saying hi if they happen to read the book. Plus it makes it fun for me.

Your name, Brett Battles, seems perfect for the spine of a book, especially in this genre. Did you always see yourself as a writer?

I remember in the fifth grade telling my friends that I was going to be a novelist. But that had nothing to do with my name. I was too young to be thinking that way. I just loved stories and loved to write. I still don’t think too much about what my name looks like on a book. I do smile when people tell me it’s a good writer's name. Still, the credit for that is not mine at all, it’s my folks.

Quinn’s love interest is a tough and beautiful woman named Orlando. How did you happen to name her that? Is Orlando inspired by anyone?

She’s not inspired by anyone in particular. She just kind of came to me and developed as we went along. (That’s how most of my characters come. Few, if any, are actually based on someone I know or have met.)

As for the name, there was a movie several years ago with Tilda Swinton called ORLANDO (which, itself, was based on a book by, I think, Virginia Woolf.) Now, the plot and the character of that story has nothing to do with mine at all; I just liked the name and went with it.

Quinn has an assistant named Nate about whom he feels very conflicted. It is hinted that, in a previous book, Quinn made a bad call and Nate ended up losing a limb because of it. Is a character’s conscience a difficult thing to put on the page? Do you find it to be an effective way of maintaining tension?

It’s only difficult in the fact that you need to walk the line of neither over playing nor under playing it. But, if you know your characters well, this should be fairly easy to do. I do like using it when it is appropriate not only because it does as you mention (maintaining tension), but it also is a great tool for revealing character. But, again, it definitely needs to be used only when appropriate.

Children—particularly special needs children—are a focus of this book. As a father, do you find it difficult to write about children in peril?

I do. And I doubly did in this because I am a parent of a special needs child. Like Iris in SHADOW, my son has down syndrome. So, yes, it was difficult to write at times, and there was one particular scene that I had to stop in the middle of and take a walk because it touched me deeply. These are some pretty special kids (beyond their needs), and I was glad to be able to show them on the page.

Iris is a very lovable character. What are you writing now?

Well, I have two books waiting in the wings. NO RETURN, which I mentioned above, is a standalone about a TV cameraman who returns to his hometown in the Mojave Desert to shot an episode of a show and in the process witnesses a navy jet crash. He’s first on the scene, and, at that point, the pilot is still alive. Unfortunately he is unable to save him.

Then the next morning, when he’s reading an article about the crash in the local paper, he is stunned by the photograph of the man purported to be the dead pilot, because he’s not the same man the cameraman attempted to save. Naturally at that point, things go from bad to worse. NO RETURN is due out in Apirl of 2011.

The other book that’s ready to go is the next Quinn novel, THE SILENCED. It is the most personal Quinn book yet, one in which readers will learn a lot about the life he had before he became a cleaner.

And as far as what I am working on, I’m working on outlines for some new books, and am writing a book I’ve wanted to work on for a while. No details yet on that, but hopefully soon.

Do you have literary heroes? If so, who are some of them?

Of course. There are the heroes of my youth, those who taught me to love reading: Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Alistair MacLean. And there are the heroes I found as an adult writer: Stephen King, Graham Greene, Haruki Murakami…among many, many others.

Will Jonathan Quinn be back in future books?

Yes. As mentioned, the next Quinn book is already written (THE SILENCED). And I definitely see at least a few more after that. So he’ll be around. Count on it.

James Rollins calls your writing “addictive.” Is it interesting to be someone’s addiction? :)

Absolutely! It’s a honor.

Do you write full time?

I do. It’ll be two years this coming September.

How will you spend the summer?

Mostly either writing or spending time with my kids. The two things I love most.

A great combination. Thanks so much for chatting with me, Brett!