Monday, July 29, 2013

Barbara Rogan on Writers, Agents, Editors, and Her New Mystery

Hello, Barbara!  I enjoyed reading your new mystery, A DANGEROUS FICTION, and once I got about halfway through I really couldn’t put it down until I finished it!  Thanks for agreeing to chat about it.

Let’s begin with the title: it’s a clever one, referring both to the publishing business, in which the main character works, and the heroine’s tendency to embellish her history. What came to you first: the title, or the plot?

I'm glad you enjoyed the book. I agree, it is a very apt title; but as usual with my books, I didn’t come up with it. It was the brainchild of my editor at Viking. While I was writing the book, I was calling it “Can You Hear Me Now?” which I quite liked; but “A Dangerous Fiction” really nailed the novel and I loved it as soon as I heard it.

Your main character, Jo, is tough, yet vulnerable, and she goes through a lot in this novel, both personally and professionally.  Is she utterly fictional, or is she an amalgam of agents you have known?

I subscribe to the great Ivy Compton-Burnett’s take on creating fictional characters.  “People in life hardly seem definite enough to appear in print,” she once said. “They are not good or bad enough, or clever or stupid enough, or comic or pitiful enough.”  I drew from my own experience and that of my friends in the industry to write this book, but Jo Donovan, the character, was who she needed to be for the story.
The book offers us an inside look at a successful literary agency and some of the work that is done inside. I was shocked by the uncertainty of it: the fear of colleagues who might bear grudges, of media that might affect the agency’s reputation, of clients that might leave, seeking greener pastures.  Is agenting, indeed, not for the faint of heart?

Publishing in general is not for the faint of heart, whether you’re an editor, agent, or writer. When I first started my agency, there were times that I had to worry about putting food on the table. But most people who work in that field do it because they love books and writing, and both agents and editors take great pride in their writers' work. 

The cop in the novel, NYPD Detective Tommy Cullen, is an attractive man. He reminded me of Joseph Cotton’s character in Dial M for Murder.  Do you happen to like that Hitchcock flick?

I do, though I haven’t seen it in ages. In the back of my mind, though, as I wrote A DANGEROUS FICTION, I was hearing dialogue from those classic Thin Man movies and Dorothy Parker’s stories.

Cool!!  Jo’s past is littered with memories she doesn’t want to confront: the deaths of her parents; the abuses perpetrated by her grandmother; the marriage she insists was perfect. Why would someone as brilliant as Jo be so limited in analyzing her own experience?

Because it worked for her to compartmentalize her life, instead of integrating all its disparate parts. That integration is part of the journey she’s on, and one of the reasons I feel compelled to write more about Jo. But don’t we all tweak bits of our lives to make it a better story?  Fiction is so much tidier than real life: more reason, less chance.

I was particularly fond of a character named Mingus, who happened to be a dog.  Is Mingus based on any German Shepherds you have known?

All of them. So glad you liked Mingus! A good German shepherd is pretty much the ideal dog for me. Except for the shedding.

Jo has quite a few men in her corner.  Are they protective of her because she is vulnerable, or do they naturally want to help a beautiful damsel in distress?

She has women in her corner, too. And she’s pretty tough; I don’t see her playing the helpless woman card.

While we’re on the subject of beauty—you have quite a few truly beautiful characters.  Two gorgeous young interns, a beautiful protagonist, and a former lover whose nickname was “Prom King.”  Do you think audiences are more sympathetic to beautiful people—even fictional ones?

Subconsciously they may be. Studies have shown that in real life attractive people have a pronounced advantage; it’s not unlikely that that carries over to fiction. But I’d like to think there are functional reasons my characters look the way they do. Certainly it’s true in Jo’s case, because she’s used her looks, along with brains and determination, to make her way in the world.

You once ran a literary agency in Israel. What are the notable differences between agenting in Israel and agenting in New York?

New York is tougher, because it’s never one person who decides to buy a book, a number of people have to weigh in, and any one of them can veto it along the way. In Israel, editors seemed to have more autonomy. But I haven’t been an agent in many years, and things may have changed.

You once met Madeline L’Engle.  What was she like?  How did you happen to meet?

I represented her U.S. agent, Theron Raines, for Hebrew rights, which meant I handled her books among others. I took the opportunity of introducing myself, because I pretty much worshiped her. She was my favorite writer as a kid, and I still remember the experience of reading A WRINKLE IN TIME one day when I was 8 or 9 and thinking, for the first time, that I wanted to do this; I wanted to make up stories and write  books. We met a few times at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, had lunch and talked about books and writing. When my second novel, CAFÉ NEVOwas published, she wrote that it was “a wonderful novel with richly developed characters acting and interacting… the café and its clients will long remain in memory.” What was she like? Some writers put the best of themselves into their work and don’t have much left over. Madeleine L’Engle was as kind and gracious as she was gifted.

I always got that vibe from her dust jacket photo--it's nice to know it was true. What are you reading now?

Ruth Rendell’s THE ST. ZITA SOCIETY and Elizabeth Strout’s THE BURGESS BROTHERS.

Are you writing another mystery?

I’m currently writing the second of what will be at least two more Jo Donovan mysteries. She interests me strangely.

Awesome! You’ve done it all in publishing: agenting, writing, teaching, leading seminars.  What advice do you give writers that they seem to find the most helpful?

I also teach writing, at my online school so I am a fount of advice. Very generally, I advise writers to work on the craft and not to rush a story into print just because it’s so easy to do in the era of easy self-publishing. Novels are complicated; they take time and multiple drafts to fully emerge.

You’ve traveled many places; is there a place on Earth that you’d love to visit but have not yet done so? 

Kenya and South Africa. I want to do a safari, though preferably one with comfortable beds and no bugs.

Which of the places you’ve visited was the most beautiful?

The west coast of Ireland; the Adriatic coast around Dubrovnik; parts of Switzerland; and Ein Gedi on the shore of the Dead Sea.

Thanks for chatting with me, Barbara! 

My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Find out more about Barbara Rogan on her website.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Sarah Weinman Salutes the Women of Suspense

I was excited to receive this in the mail last week: Sarah Weinman's awesome compilation of suspense tales by women.  As a life-long mystery fan, I recognized just about all of the names of the authors Weinman has selected, starting with Margaret Millar, one of my favorites from way back. I never felt Millar got the credit she deserved, perhaps because she was somehow seen as the writing spouse of Ross MacDonald, as though it was his profession and her hobby.

I read Millar's story first, something reminiscent of a really good Twilight Zone episode and definitely a fun thing to read right before bed!

Other writers in the book include the great Charlotte Armstrong and Patricia Highsmith (author of The Talented Mr. Ripley).

For those who loved Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" (which used to be in just about every grade school anthology, guaranteeing nightmares for generations of children), Weinman has provided a different Jackson tale, equally eerie and memorable.

It's so refreshing to see a book focused on the talented women in mystery fiction--the undersung writers whose accomplishments, if you read the biographies listed here, are multitudinous.

Hurrah! May more books like this be forthcoming.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Crime Writer John Barlow: Leeds and Crime Fiction

 John Barlow is a British crime writer who has just released the second book in his LS9 Crime Series, called FATHER AND SON.  In this guest blog, he explains why Leeds has been underused as a site for crime fiction.  

The case for Leeds

by John Barlow

Crime writers often base their novels in a specific place, and become identified with that city or area: Ian Rankin (Edinburgh), Peter James (Brighton), John Harvey (Nottingham), Peter Robinson (North Yorkshire), Ann Cleeves Northumberland, Shetlands), Nick Quantril (Hull). The new wave of self-published writers has continued this tradition: Kerry Wilkinson (Manchester), Bill Rogers (Manchester), Mel Sherratt (Stoke)...

The setting for these books become part of the works themselves, almost characters in the fiction. When you open a new novel by one of these writers, you sink back into the familiar atmosphere of a familiar place, just as you reacquaint yourself with the main character.

Looking back at that (very incomplete) list, there’s a lot of northern towns and cities. Whereas ‘literary’ fiction is often associated with the south, especially London, the same cannot be said of crime writing, where both Tartan and Northern Noir are squarely on the map.

Except for Leeds. England’s third largest city (after Birmingham and London) is more or less absent from the list. Sure, there’s David Peace. But his novels, for some reason, don’t resonate with the city in the same way as Ian Rankin’s do of Edinburgh. We do have Kate Atkinson’s STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG there, but apart from that, Leeds really lacks a major presence in crime writing. Which is strange, because rival city Manchester is bursting with crime fiction, so much that at any moment we might expect the city’s Tourism Office to take out ads in the national press reminding people that this is fiction, and that Deansgate and Peter Street are not in fact littered with bleeding corpses.

A couple of years ago I wrote my first crime thriller, and decided to set it in Leeds. As part of the research for the book, I contacted the West Yorkshire Police, explained who I was, and was allocated an official contact on the city’s CID. I asked him what it was like working on serious crime in Leeds. The best place! he said, grinning. He went on to tell me how interesting and varied crime was in the city, and that for a CID officer there was no better posting.

I started to realise that Leeds was in fact perfect for crime fiction. It is large, with a varied economy and a rich social mix. There’s the broad swathe of 1960s social housing to the north of the city, which at one point included Quarry Hill, at the time the largest social housing project in the UK. Then, just a few miles further out are the millionaires’ residences and golf clubs of the city’s rich folk, many of whom are extremely rich, and absolutely fair game for any fictional criminal...

Leeds also has a long history of immigration, with a number of very well established ethnic communities. For example, when young Polish immigrants began to arrive in the city in recents years, they found the remnants of an earlier wave of Polish immigration, including social centres.

Then, inevitably, there’s the Ripper. The hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper was coordinated from Millgarth Police Station in Leeds city centre. It was a watershed in British policing, and showed how inadequate the investigative practices of the time were; at one point, the floor in Millgarth used to store the huge card index system for the Ripper inquiry had to be reinforced, since it was threatening to bring down the whole building.

A direct consequence of this was the HOLMES nation database, which figures in most police procedural novels these days, since all serious crime is entered into its vast digital store. Every police officer I have talked from the city to carries the Ripper investigation deep in their psyche, part of the DNA of policing there.

To say Leeds could be the new Edinburgh is not stretching the imagination. And given that the Harrogate Festival is just a bus ride away (OK, a short drive in your BMW), it seemed a good place to celebrate Leeds in all its (fictional) criminal glory. The Tartan lot may have had all the headlines up until now, but I think Northern Noir is ripe for a surge, with Leeds at the helm. I’m doing my bit, with a series set right in Leeds city centre. I don’t know to what extent this is a risk, but when the first novel came out, last year, a blogger from Australia not only reviewed the book, but wrote a piece about the city itself.

So, if you’re looking for a new destination in your crime reading, give Leeds a try. The streets are not littered with bleeding corpses just yet, but I’m doing my best.

John Barlow’s second novel set in Leeds, FATHER AND SON, is out now. Buy it here:
Amazon (US)
Amazon (UK)
 Or find him at his website,