Friday, January 29, 2010

A Good Man Is Hard to Find

By Kevin Guilfoile

This is a fan letter—of sorts. I’ve always been an admirer of yours, for your musicianship, and for being one of the few sane guys in your field.

Last year, a friend sent me a link to a story about a missed connection of fan letters between Bruce Springsteen and the author Walker Percy. When I clicked through to the story I think I must have been trembling.

Percy had been an obsession of mine since high school when I first read my sister's copy of The Moviegoer, which she had carted home from college. My devotion to Springsteen went back further, to junior high, when I had raided my older brother's record collection and became fixated on making mix tapes which were not so much mixes as a reordering of Springsteen playlists according to my whims. The fact that there might have (almost) been a connection between a New Jersey rocker and a Natinal Book Award-winning southern novelist seemed to somehow validate the hours and hours I had spent on repeated listenings and re-readings of their work.

The letters are almost perfectly heartbreaking. Percy (who writes near the end of his life) is a devout Catholic who mentions their shared admiration for Flannery O'Connor (a friend of Percy's), but who misreads Springsteen's Catholic upbringing as spiritual devotion comparable to his own. When he received the letter, Springsteen was unfamiliar with Percy and must not have known what to make of it, so he didn't reply.

Years later, Springsteen read The Moviegoer and saw in it many of the same themes that he had been writing about his entire career. He remembered that letter and instantly regretted not writing back. By this time Percy was dead, so Springsteen wrote to Percy's widow:

It is now one of my great regrets that we didn’t get to correspond....The loss and search for faith and meaning have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life. I’d like to think that perhaps that is what Dr. Percy heard and was what moved him to write me.

Every writer gets asked "Where do you get your ideas?" and it's mostly an impossible question to answer. But I usually know I have a good premise for a story when I discover that two seemingly unrelated things bouncing around in my head turn out to have some kind of connection. Maybe it's a real connection or maybe it's one that develops in my mind. But this correspondence that never took place is, for me, an almost perfect tale. (Percy was a terrific letter writer, by the way, and his collected correspondence with his lifelong friend Shelby Foote is one of the best books on writing I have ever read.)

I was reminded of all this last week when I was watching Springsteen on Elvis Costello's show Spectacle, which airs on the Sundance Channel (Spectacle is a fantastic program for any music lover, incidentally. Costello is a terrific interviewer, and the performances are great.) "In the end, my music has always been about identity. Identity, identity, identity," Springsteen told Costello. "Who am I? Where do I belong? What is the code I'm trying to live by?"

That's the place, not in a church, where Walker Percy and Bruce Springsteen would meet.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Troops" - When a Good Word Goes Rogue

by Laura Caldwell

I'm an author, not an etymologist, but I truly like when people create new words or abbreviations (or even use old words in inappropriately creative ways to describe our new world). For example, I'm in full support of texting and emailing with abbreviations like ‘tmrw’ for tomorrow, and BTW for ‘by the way’, or ‘u’ for you. I recognize some people despise such ‘words,' and I get it, but I’m a time-saver more than anything. (For the record, I do, however, have a visceral negative reaction to ‘LOL.’ Too precious for me.)

I’ve been known to bastardized words myself. Much to the consternation of my law students, when I find myself perplexed I often say I’m ‘corn-fused.’ It’s something I picked up from my friend, Dustin. A silly expression, it indicates profound confusion. If my law students and I are discussing an appellate court ruling, it’s easier to me to label myself corn-fused at the wording of the opinion than to say, “I am really, really, really befuddled.”

But there is one word that’s making me nuts these days, one which everyone seems to be using incorrectly, even the President of the United States last night (and all the Republicans who responded, BTW). And no one seems to realize they're using it wrong. (Personally, I think if you shorten a word or turn a phrase into an acronym or simply mishandle a word, you should do so intentionally, otherwise people will be corn-used). But in this case, no one seems to be aware of the misuse. The word I’m referring to is troops.

The definition of a “troop” is a group of soldiers. Therefore, there will not be, as President Obama said this week, 30,000 additional troops sent to Afghanistan. (That would mean that if, say, there were 10 soldiers to every troop, there would be 300,000 additional soldiers heading overseas]. When Obama says 30,000 troops are on their way, he actually means 30,000 individual soldiers.

Why does this make me so crazy? For one reason, given the strict definition of the word, it’s absolute misinformation to say that 30,000 troops are en route to Afghanistan. For another, it seems to depersonalize our men and women in the armed forces. A troop sounds so official, so powerful. Yet when you imagine a lone soldier in her bedroom, packing her bags in order to deploy the next day, it pulls the heartstrings, it’s real. As the linguist John McWhorter wrote for NPR a few years ago, “…using a name for soldiers that has no singular form grants us a certain cozy distance from the grievous reality of war.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Grand Unified Theory of Story

By Marcus Sakey

So it’s Wednesday morning on a bright, chilly day in Chicago. Beck’s Sea Change is on iTunes, and I’m alternately coughing—lousy time to get sick—and engaging in the loosest sort of brainstorming. That’s too vaunted a word, really. Daydreaming is more accurate. Toying with the raw elements of new stories.

This happens to me every time I head into the third act of a novel, as I am about to do with my as-yet-untitled fifth. My head begins to detach, to loose the lines that have kept me tied to a story for a year or more. It’s something I used to fight aggressively, believing that I wouldn’t be able to finish if I drifted too far. And that’s probably true, but over the last few books I’ve learned that my subconscious is apparently cognizant of the need to eat, and it doesn’t stray past the point of no return.

I do, however, begin to wonder what might be next. I drift and sort and look for things that turn me on.

And I’d like your help.

I am by nature a system breaker. I’m good at looking at things and figuring out how they work. It’s a skill I’ve tried to apply to writing. While I don’t believe in a Grand Unified Theory of Story, there is an algebra to storytelling. There are rules and logical forms that can inform your choices.

But, just like in physics, it’s often the most basic questions that are least susceptible to solution. And most basic of all to good storytelling is this: What makes you love a book?

This is where you guys come in.

Here’s what I’d like you to do. Think of one of your all-time favorite books. A novel so good that you had the conflicting desires to tear through it and yet also to savor it. A book that’s lingered in your memory, with characters you missed when it ended. Don’t tell me MOBY DICK—I’m not analyzing enduring scholarly worthy, and besides, I won’t believe you anyway. What I’m interested in is a book that grabbed you and wouldn’t let go.

Got one? Good. Now take a minute and think about why you love it.

Obviously, there are going to be some things that we can count on. You’ll have adored some or all of the characters. It will be a ripping good tale. There will be stakes and consequences and the possibility of disaster.

So let’s take those things for granted and go a little bit deeper. What makes this book special for you?

I’ll give you an example of what I’m looking for. A book I felt that way about was NEUROMANCER, by William Gibson.

Yes, it had all of the above. I loved the characters and the story burned along and it had significant stakes both personal and metaphysical.

But thinking about it right now, two distinguishing factors come to mind. The first is the world, which was thoroughly and convincingly imagined. Gibson created cyberpunk—coined the term, in fact—and his future was one that I felt I inhabited from the first words. I believed in it. I could see the connection between our world and his, a perception that was enhanced by the way the characters took it for granted, maneuvering through it with neon cool and switchblade sensibility.

The second factor is that though it was science fiction, and though it borrowed the trappings and texture of film noir, it was at heart an adventure story. I was the boy reading adventure tales under the blankets by flashlight, and a huge part of me still is. I will always love a good adventure—especially if it feels fresh, as Gibson’s did.

So that’s my request. Obviously there are no right and wrong answers, and you can go into as much or as little detail as you like. But seriously, if you have a couple of minutes, this would be incredibly helpful to me. And those of you who lurk but never post, this would be a great time to bust your cherry.

Thanks in advance!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Serial Killers in Real life

By Jamie Freveletti

Here’s the promised blog about John Wayne Gacy, one of the most notorious serial killers in history. He lived in the suburbs of Chicago, and before he was done had killed 33 men and boys.

William Kunkle, the State’s Attorney charged with prosecuting Gacy, took a job as a partner in my first law firm. Each year Bill would gather the new associates together and give a presentation about the Gacy trial, complete with a slide show of the evidence found on the Gacy property. Gacy buried his victims in his backyard, and bulldozers were brought in to uncover the evidence. Because the speech was given during lunch time, Bill ordered in pizza. As each slide appeared on the large screen, I found myself unable to eat. (Bill, if you’re reading this and still giving the Gacy speech, you might want to rethink the pizza angle).

These images are burned into my brain. Some were so horrific; I wondered how Bill, the police, and especially the families of the victims, could sleep at night. Perhaps they don’t. I read that Bill watched Gacy die by lethal injection and described it as a privilege to be there. After viewing the slides, I can see why he felt that way. It was like staring into hell. I’ve never discussed these photos in detail outside of that conference room, and I doubt that I ever will. No one should have that floating around in their head. I won’t inflict it on you, either.
To this day I have a hard time reading fiction with serial killer plots. Once you’ve seen the actual results of these killers, you’ll never read fictional killers or the new, detailed and violent story lines that a reviewer recently derided as “torture porn” without thinking that the serial killer is added as a form of antagonist shorthand. They don’t convey the true horror of a serial killer, and they don’t convey enough empathy for the victims. And, inevitably, the serial killers in fiction kill women, not men. Yet, the statistics show that 40% of victims of serial killers are men. Gacy’s victims were all male.

Of course, another part of me is glad that the writer doesn’t “get it.” Why should they? Do we really need that much reality in our entertainment? Here I am, protecting you from a detailed description of Gacy’s crime scene, yet I’m complaining about the lack of detail in a fiction book. Perhaps those writers that give the briefest discussion of the serial killer have it right. They want you to know that the antagonist is bad, but don’t want you to lose too much sleep over a story that, in the end, should entertain.

I know I’m not being too helpful here. I read for a good story, an interesting character, and for just enough thrills and chills to keep me interested. If I want to get a “real” story, I can pick up a book about true crime. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing about a serial killer, but I’m afraid I’ll pull up images from the crime scene and write something so detailed that no one will wish to, or should, read it.

I realize that this is just my personal thing. Writers have been using the “wicked witch” motif for years. I use it myself, and my books contain quite a bit of violence as well. Psychologists argue that children view fairy tales, with witches plumping up young children in order to eat them, as a way to release and work through their fears. I get it. But each time I read about another body found in Ciudad Juarez, 300 plus victims and counting, I realize that there’s nothing entertaining about actual serial killers. These people are out there, and while I don’t live my life in fear of meeting one, I do understand that true, predatory evil exists.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


by Libby Hellmann

A few months ago I wrote about people in the mystery community who have made a difference in the way we relate to each other. Who’ve helped create a sense of caring and concern for all of us, whether we’re readers, writers, publishers, agents, or booksellers.

Well, you’ve done it again... this time in spades. Here’s the backstory.

Many of you know Chicago author Eleanor Taylor Bland. She wrote 9 fine novels featuring police detective Marti McAllister. More important, you couldn’t anyone who was more generous with her time, talent, and money than Eleanor. In fact, she was my mentor. I had just completed my first novel (it was never published, and it shouldn’t be), and Eleanor critiqued 25 pages at the Dark and Stormy Nights conference. I remember her saying, “Hey, you have a lot to learn, but I think you have something here. Don’t give up. “ A year later I landed in her writing group, and although it was tough love, it was love. No one was more delighted than Eleanor when AN EYE FOR MURDER was published.

But my story is just one of many. I knew that then, but I know it even better now. You see, Eleanor’s in trouble.

She’s been battling cancer now for over 20 years. It keeps coming back, and they keep taking out organs to get rid of it. Her last bout was grim – she never really recovered 100 per cent. Furthermore, they told her then they couldn’t do much more for her if it returned. Her body is too frail, and she couldn’t take it.

The cancer came back. In addition, it turns out that she’s broke. She hasn’t been writing or promoting for years, and her royalties have dwindled to almost nothing. She has a tiny pension, but as generous as she’s been to writers with her time, that’s also how generous she’s been to her family. A dollar never burns a hole in her pocket if she can give it to someone else. And just to make matters worse, she was recently evicted from her apartment.

A good friend of hers, Chicago author Mary Harris, filled me in a week ago and asked what we could do. We’ve since put out the word in the community that she needed help, and your response has been overwhelming. I’ve had probably about 50 emails, some from people who never knew Eleanor, asking how they can help. People who do know her keep telling me how much she means to them, how they'll never forget something she did for them years ago. Money is coming in every day. In less than a week, we’ve collected enough for her moving expenses, and we are starting to allocate funds for her future rent and medical expenses.

To all of you who have already contributed, I’m keeping records and will fill you in on the exact amounts and how we've allocated it in the spring. To those of you who didn’t know about her situation, email me if you’d like to help.

But most of all, I want to recognize all of you for caring. The people who make up the mystery and crime fiction community are the most generous, giving people I know. You see someone who needs help, and you are there, no questions, no strings. You want to help. Do you know how special that is? I am grateful to be a small part of this community, and I know Eleanor is thrilled.

Thank you.

Friday, January 22, 2010

This is probably gonna start a fight but…

by Michael Dymmoch

Shakespeare’s tragedies featured great historical figures with tragic flaws. Macbeth, Othello, and Lear were all great men—at least by definition—with major flaws that brought them down. I’m not an historian, but LBJ seems to have been a similar figure in more recent times. Revisionists are already writing flattering tomes about the Great Society and the path that brought Johnson to the White House, tomes that bemoan Johnson’s involvement in Vietnam as the evil that men do. Richard J. Daley, Chicago mayor for 21 years and—according to some—“the last of the big city bosses,” was probably another. The first mayor Daley never murdered anyone, so he’ll probably never be the subject of a dramatic tragedy, but he was the subject of a number of great books including Mike Royko’s Boss and Len O’Connor’s Clout.

The current Mayor Daley will certainly be the subject of some interesting books. Mike Flannery recently did a ride-along with the Mayor during which Flannery snatched the Mayor’s infamous notebook, the one in which he writes notes to himself about problems he observes while riding around the city. Staff members are said to be in terror of that notebook because apparently the Mayor follows up. Daley is a favorite of other journalists—he can always be counted on for memorable footage for the local news. I think he also qualifies in the category of a great man with a tragic flaw.

I don’t recall anyone ever impugning Richard M. Daley’s integrity. He seems to be a man who loves his family and his job. There’s no question that he’s done great things for Chicago. And he's managed the city while dealing with numerous unions and powerful interest groups, developers and the Catholic church.

The Mayor may have appointed Matt Rodriguez Superintendent of Police to please Hispanic voters, he initiated the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) to involve citizens in policing their own neighborhoods. Subsequent Superintendents appointed by the Mayor, Terry G. Hillard and Philip J. Cline, have been able men, good leaders, well liked by the rank and file, and respected by the public. Under Cline’s administration, the city’s murder rate declined despite reduced numbers in the CPD. (I personally observed Superintendent Cline in uniform, on the police lines at anti-war and immigration demonstrations.) The current Superintendent, Jody Weis, has been more controversial because of the clash between the existing Chicago police culture and Weis’s FBI training/experience, but there’s no question the Mayor had the best interests of the city in mind when he made the appointment.

He also appointed able men to run the Chicago Public Schools. Paul Vallas and Arne Duncan have gone on to national positions. The current CPS CEO, Ron Huberman started as a CPD patrol officer and worked his way up to Assistant Deputy Superintendent before moving on to the run the Office of Emergency Management and Communications. He’s subsequently worked as Mayor Daley’s Chief of Staff and Chairman of the CTA.

Mayor Daley is a brilliant administrator but he has a tragic flaw. Apparently he cannot be wrong. He seems constitutionally unable to say the words “I was wrong. I’m sorry.” His take-over of Meigs Field, his single-minded pursuit of the Olympics, and his recent leasing of the city’s parking concession (for 75 years!) are examples of mistakes he's made, but the best he can offer by way of apology is “mistakes were made.”

Our Mayor has promoted literacy, the Chicago Public Library and the library’s One Book, One Chicago Program. He’s greened up the city with an ambitious street-tree planting program, even closed—some would say destroyed—an airport to create open space on the lakefront. Almost every time he appears on TV, he promotes Chicago as a world class city. And he seems completely sincere.

Mayor Daley is not flawless, but he’s pretty damn good.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Chicago, crime, writing, and Seinfeld

by David Ellis

Just a few things I want to get off my chest.

1. Dick Adler was always a great reviewer of thrillers for the Chicago Tribune and I just recently found him in the blogosphere. I highly recommend his blog. And it has nothing to do with the fact that he just said my novel, THE HIDDEN MAN, was the best thriller of 2009.

2. I was rocking my baby daughter to sleep this evening and watching a Seinfeld rerun. Although there are many, many memorable cameos in that series, I am now convinced that there is none better than Bookman, the Library Cop. For the life of me, I don’t know how he went through that entire rant with Jerry without bursting into laughter.

3. Congratulations to our newcomer Bryan Gruley on the Edgar nomination for Best First. I’m looking forward to reading STARVATION LAKE and some of the others on the list. But I noticed something missing from that list—BAD THINGS HAPPEN by Harry Dolan. Am I missing something? Was this not released in 2009? Is he not American? Because it’s one of the best books I have read in a very long time. Great fun.

4. The “scandal” surrounding Governor Quinn’s early release program has been—surprise—completely blown out of proportion. From a political and public relations perspective it was a blunder of monumental proportion. But substantively, what they did hardly made a difference compared to the previous policy. Instead of making inmates wait 60 days in prison before being granted “meritorious good time” (MGT), they granted it right off the bat. Sounds bad until you consider that they pretty much always give out MGT in full, anyway, so these inmates getting released from prison after 7 days or 22 days or whatever—all that Quinn’s policy did was shave a month or two, at most, off their sentences. You want to argue that they shouldn’t give out MGT so freely? Fine, go ahead, I might agree, but that’s nothing new. That wasn’t the story. The part that Quinn played just shaved a matter of days off someone’s sentence. That person who got out after 18 days in prison and committed another crime—well, if the old policy had been in place, he’d have been out after 60 days and probably would have committed the same crime. 60 days versus 18. That is basically the whole story.

5. And when the media reports that someone was sentenced to 3 years for battery and only served 35 days in prison, we need to keep in mind that this only could have happened if that person had spent a great deal of time in county jail, awaiting trial (i.e. the person couldn’t make bond and stayed locked up pending trial). You get credited for time served in county lock-up pending trial. Sometimes cases take so long to go to trial, the amount of time you serve in county, awaiting trial, ends up being half or more of the sentence you ultimately receive. So if you are getting a day for a day, and you walk into prison already having served half your sentence—well, yes, you aren’t going to spend much time in prison. But you did serve time—just not in prison. And anyone who thinks county jail is better than state prison is dreaming.

6. I’m just going to say one more thing on this topic. A lot of people think that the 60-day-minimum rule is discriminatory against the poor. It is a fact that in many cases, the people who couldn’t afford bail and awaited trial locked up in jail will ultimately spend more time in prison than those who could afford bond and were living in their comfy homes prior to trial. Same crime, same sentence, the poor person serves more time because of the 60-day-minimum policy. In fact, the current Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, whom I consider to be one of the finest jurists I have ever known, back when he ran the criminal courts in Cook County, held that the 60-day policy was unconstitutional for this very reason. His decision was reversed by a sharply divided appellate court, but even the judges finding it constitutional didn’t think the policy was so grand.

Let’s see … I covered Chicago, writing, and crime. I guess that means I’m done.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

'satiable curtiosity

by Barbara D'Amato

"In the High and Far-Off Times, the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk. He only had a blackish, bulgy nose, as big as a boot, that he could wriggle about from side to side, but he couldn't pick up things with it. But there was one Elephant -- a new Elephant -- an Elephant's Child -- who was full of 'satiable curtiosity, and that means he asked ever so many questions."

Thus begins "The Elephant's Child" by Rudyard Kipling, one of the most charming and wittiest of tales for children. I read it to my grandchildren several times a year, and it's fun for adults as well. Some years ago, an edition appeared in which "'satiable curtiosity" was changed to "insatiable curiosity," thus entirely removing the charm. [The good news is that, as far as I can tell, that edition is no longer in print.]

Heaven forefend some innocent child might think "curiosity" was "curtiosity" or go through life saying "satiable."

This brings me, without too huge a leap, to a subcategory of censorship I'll call well-meaning paternalism.

"Out, crimson spot!"

Yes, that's one of Thomas Bowdler's "improvements" on Shakespeare. Bowdler, who gave us the eponym "bowdlerize", in fact did not fix Shakespeare himself. His sister Harriet did. But they had to publish Family Shakespeare under his name because they could not admit that a gentlewoman even understood Shakespeare's racy passages.

I've heard recently that Harlequin is going to reprint some 1940s pulp fiction--re-edited to make the scenes of women being physically abused by men more PC. As a result, not only is the work of fiction altered, but our ability to study these books and learn about the 40s is crippled.

I think you can in fairness ask a writer to be somewhat ahead of his or her time, somewhat less in thrall to the prejudices of his or her day, and disapprove of bigotry. But is not fair to ask them to be generations ahead. However, that's not my point. My point is that you, whoever you are, don't have the right to make my decisions for me.

Yes, a lot of Raymond Chandler includes homophobia.

Yes, I have a few friends who want the singing crows scene in Dumbo ["I seen a horse fly"] to be cut from the film.

Let this stuff alone.

I can figure out these issues for myself. My grandchildren can figure them out, too, and so can you and so can most people who take time to read.

It's partly the arrogance of "fixing" the words of great writers of the past that is reprehensible. Equally unacceptable is the condescending paternalism of deciding what I, or my grandchildren, or anybody else out there is able to handle. We can make up our own minds. In fact, if we're not allowed to do so, we may never learn how.

Rant over.

But if you had an example to add, I'd be interested to hear it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Starvation Lake Gets Edgar Nod!

Outfiteer Bryan Gruley has been nominated for an Edgar for Best First Novel! Major Congratulations, Bryan! We are all so proud of you...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Port-au-Prince in darkness

By David Heinzmann

First of all, I’ll be Centuries & Sleuths on Madison Street in Forest Park at 2 p.m. next Sunday, Jan. 24, signing copies of A Word to the Wise. Please stop by.

So, I was at a dinner party over the weekend and my host asked me if I’d ever feared for my life because someone I’d written about had threatened me. He was a little surprised when I said no, but the truth is that by the time I get to writing about killers, drug dealers or dirty cops, with a few exceptions, they already have some much heat on them that I’m the least of their worries.

Probably the scariest things I’ve had to do as a reporter have been venturing into high-crime areas of the city at night to try to talk to people. Once when I was working on a series of stories about whether the police department had covered up numerous bad officer-involved shootings, I had to drive to a rough part of the South Side late at night and bang on the door of a cop who had shot a kid several times in the head after he tried to steal her car. She had ignored all of our phone calls and day-time visits and we needed to exhaust all avenues of trying to get her to talk about what happened before we published. I volunteered to go. Nothing happened, of course. I knocked. She shouted at me from the other side of the door and then told me to get lost. (Later, the Cook County State's Attorney's office re-opened the investigation of the shooting based on our reporting.)

Anyway, the question at dinner got me to thinking about the times that I’ve experienced real fear. Like most of us, I suspect, my scariest moments were venturing into the unknown, being taken out of my familiar surroundings and forced to make decisions that could have life-or-death consequences. Lost in the woods at dusk. An out of control car coming at you: do you brake or accelerate to get out of the way? That sort of thing.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about Haiti in the last week after the horrible earthquake that has managed to afflict the Haitian people with new levels of misery. And one of the more vividly frightening moments of my life happened there more than a decade ago. It was all about the unknown.

I went to Haiti in 1997 with fairly ill-defined purposes. Part tourist. Part would-be journalist. All wide-eyed and ignorant.

The cheapest and best place I found to stay was a mission run by a bunch of fearless nuns from Indiana. The Hospice St. Joseph, a walled compound on Rue Acacia, was a converted hotel that housed a medical clinic and school, and provided housing for people waiting for surgeries at the nearby hospital. They also took in lodgers. Like every neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, it sat on a crowded hillside packed with shanty dwellings where people cooked over charcoal fires and more or less lived outdoors.

One night one of the sisters, who had not lived there very long, and I decided we were going to the famed Hotel Oloffson for a drink. If you’ve ever read Graham Greene’s The Comedians, (and I recommend you do) the Hotel Trianon is modeled after the Olaffson, a sprawling and genteel gingerbread mansion on the edge of the city center.

We set off in a little four-wheel-drive Nissan down into the darkness. One of the most ominous things about the city was that despite more than two million residents, it was nearly pitch black at night. It is easy to get lost. And we did.

We made wrong turn after wrong turn in a crumbling labyrinth of dark, unmarked streets. If it’s possible to be off the map in the middle of a capital, we had done it. My anxiety grew because I had gotten lost on foot in broad daylight over the preceding days, wandered aimlessly while suspicious eyes watched me. Even then, I had felt that creeping anxiety of “what am I going to do?” if I run into the wrong folks in this country of desperation and violence. Now it was the middle of the night, just me and a middle-aged woman of the cloth who didn’t know her way around.

Finally, we turned into a dead-end, a cul-de-sac of partly collapsed buildings, driving over rubble, our surroundings an abyss outside the feeble glow of the headlights. When we stopped, with nowhere to go, I could sense we were surrounded, dark shapes cautiously moving toward us. They came closer until an expressionless young man stood by the door of the truck. My heart was in my throat. For a moment no one said a thing.

And then he asked in Creole if we were lost. More men came out of the darkness and they shouted at us, helping us make a three-point-turn without blowing a tire. My companion spoke just enough mangled Creole and the young man spoke just enough mangled English to get us back on a main road. We gave up on the Olaffson and headed up into the hills above Port-au-Prince to the luxurious El Rancho Hotel in Petionville. Guards with pistol-gripped shotguns guarded the parking lot. Feeling relieved and foolish, I drank Barbancourt rum and tonic and watched all sorts of shady “business men” in cowboy boots talk deals and smoke Cubans. One guy seemed to be trying to sell telephone poles to the government.

My fear from that night seems quaint now, doesn’t it, given that I don’t know the fate of the Hospice St. Joseph or many of the other places I visited years ago. The earthquake has destroyed much of the city and taken thousands of lives with it.

I feared the unknown there, and found people willing to help. Those suffering in Haiti now know all too well what they face. Their worst fears have been realized. Again.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Don't You Know This Is Better Than Any Video, Friend

By Kevin Guilfoile

Over the summer I mentioned several times in this space that I was reading (and blogging about) David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. It's a book that a great many people are passionate about (including our own Marcus Sakey) so when it was over and I participated in a roundtable discussion with the the others involved with the Infinite Summer project, I shouldn't have been surprised when I was asked, "Did reading this book change your life?" But I was caught off guard and my not very eloquent reply was this:

When you first say that it sounds hyperbolic, but of course great books have changed my life again and again. I became a novelist because there were great novels I read and admired. To Kill a Mockingbird changed my life. So did The Martian Chronicles. A Confederacy of Dunces. The Brothers Karamazov. Doctor No. The Moviegoer. The Stars My Destination. Lonesome Dove. Rosemary’s Baby. Frankenstein. In Cold Blood. London Fields. The Shining. L.A. Confidential. Too many others to list. I said before that it’s impossible for me to casually rattle off my favorite books because the list changes depending on when you ask me and what I’m working on and thinking about and currently inspired by. But I’m sure Infinite Jest will always be in the rotation now when I attempt an answer. Just being in that company means, yeah, it affected me profoundly.

Then a funny thing happened. In the months that followed I found myself spending a lot less time on the Internet. I checked my email less frequently. I wasn't so tethered to my Twitter feed. I stopped keeping up with the very latest viral videos. I'm not entirely unplugged--even now I'm better wired than most people I know my age--but up until this fall I always had half my head in the Internet. Even when I was watching TV or helping to make dinner or working on my novel, I always had part of my head in this other world. And then suddenly I didn't. I don't want to overdramatize the extent of the change, but I found myself much more focused. More productive. When I was doing things--whether it was working or reading or playing with my kids--I was having more fun. I was less distracted. I was happier.

If you haven't read Infinite Jest there is a macguffin in the book--a video that is so pleasurable to watch it turns anyone who views it into a vegetable. Once you experience the pleasure of this "Entertainment" you don't want to do anything else but watch it, which you do until you die of starvation or whatever. Recently I went back to the Infinite Summer archive to find an exact quote for something or other and I stumbled on something I had written in July. It was a rant, really, but I had largely forgotten about it:

The front page of this morning’s Chicago Trib business section is almost entirely dedicated to the story of Dave Carroll, who wrote a song about how a United Airlines baggage handler broke the neck of his guitar. Carroll posted a video on YouTube and thanks to Twitter and Facebook almost 3 million people have watched it in just a couple weeks and now United is donating a few grand in his name to charity. Certainly I’m happy for the dude. The song is pretty catchy and yay for the little guy striking a blow to humongous indifferent corporations. But airlines break shit all the time. One of them lost my kid’s car seat over the Fourth. This can’t be the most important business story of the day. And it’s not just this story because if I were writing this next Tuesday it would be some other online obsession of the week sprawled all over Page One and I would have already forgotten about this guy’s guitar. More and more news reporting seems to be increasingly Twitter- and Facebook-based. I’m not talking about protesters Tweeting from Iran, which is actually newsworthy, but it’s Ashton vs. CNNBRK, and an Australian TV network says Jeff Goldblum is dead because somebody tweeted it and oh my Demi got fooled by that rumor too, and look this homely British person is a surprisingly good singer, and in yet another section of today’s actual paper–the actual newsy news section even–there’s a story about lifestreamers (or lifecasters) as well as a woman who spends seven hours a day on social networking sites, a woman so addicted to social networking that she wants to Twitter as she walks down the aisle at her wedding and the more we Twitter the more the actual news is about how much we’re all Twittering, and when I think about how much time we (me too) spend on this stuff and how much of the shared experience of our culture is just completely disposable and pointless it really does make me sad and at just that moment I’m reading this book strikes me as just so true it makes my stomach hurt.

I'm not reprinting this to make some self-righteous point or to say I've got a prescription for anyone else's happiness. (And I go on to say that the target of my bluster was not social networking itself--I still find Facebook and Twitter to be very useful tools.) My only point today is that I wish I hadn't been so flippant a few weeks after I wrote that when somebody suggested that a novel I had just read might have changed my life. I should know the kind of power books have.

But it's the kind of power that sneaks up on you, isn't it. Sometimes it changes you and you don't even realize it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chasing the Elusive Coyote

By Bryan Gruley

The coyote hung upside-down from a wire in front of the small-town bar, shot through the back. His brother lay dead on the sidewalk beneath him, bleeding into the snow. Inside the Town Pump Saloon, two tables full of guys in camouflage celebrated with longneck Buds and Miller Lites.

I love northern Michigan.

I’ve been going “up north,” as native Detroiters like me put it, since I was a kid. My parents bought a cottage on Big Twin Lake, about 40 miles east of Traverse City, in 1971. I still make the 335-mile trek from Chicago four or five times a year, mostly for the summer fun of swimming and boating and golf and beer drinking.

But the last several years I’ve been going up, alone, for a few days each winter. I go not as a skier or snowmobiler, but as a writer. I build a fire in the fireplace, plug in my laptop, and write. From Dad’s recliner or my late mother’s rocker, I have a picture-window view of the frozen lake and the snow-dusted evergreens lining the far shore.

How lovely that must be, my writerly pals tell me. How quiet and pristine. How splendid a goad for the imagination, especially for a writer who sets his novels in that corner of northern lower Michigan.

Well, yeah. I do tend to get a lot of words down up north. But the real inspiration, the stuff that centers me in my fictional world of Starvation Lake, comes less from the silence and the solitude than from seeing dead coyotes in front of a bar.

I take walks around Dad’s lake. I can smell the cold, feel it in my nostrils. The bare branches at the tops of the oaks and birches have turned silver. The crunch of ice and snow beneath my boots is the loudest sound I hear. I take note of the beer posters flapping in the wind on the side of the Twin Lakes General Store. “Welcome, Snowmobilers,” they say.

I go for drives between the plowed walls of snow on the county roads. I watch for handmade road signs: “Fresh Turkeys For Sale.” I hear the propane trucks rumble past. I slow to glimpse the tree hung with dozens of pairs of shoes a few miles north of Kalkaska. It never fails to give me the creeps.

I stop in the Hide-A-Way Bar on the real Starvation Lake, order a patty melt, listen to the regulars argue about hockey and Obama and snow blowers. One guy tells me he saw a flatbed full of dead coyotes the other day. The weather forecast calls for a thaw on the big Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend; that would be lousy for business. The regulars shake their heads with worry.

I take a few photographs, jot some notes. But these things may never wind up in one of my novels. I take them in as a lumberjack takes in a hilly landscape and decides which trees must go and which should remain.

In truth, the coyotes and the signs and the smell of cold will do more work on me than I will on them. I go to northern Michigan in the winter so the setting will set itself, partly in my brain, partly in my heart, partly in my gut. Then I can take it back with me to Chicago, and keep writing.

Do you have a place that inspires or informs your writing?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sex in Thrillers: Bad idea, or do you expect something-anything- in those 300+ pages?

by Jamie Freveletti

I just re-read Sara Paretsky’s post on bad sex in mysteries and am still laughing over it, so I thought to address the topic in thrillers. I don’t have sex in my novel, but one can always have an opinion, right?

Question 1: Am I the only one who reads a thriller and waits for the protagonist PI/FBI Agent/Crook/Amateur Sleuth/ Woman on the run from paramilitary guys that are trying to kill her (my novel) to meet up with the opposite sex? Doesn’t it add just that extra bit of interest?

Question 2: Can you think of a thriller where the protagonist doesn’t consider some extracurricular activity with the opposite sex? The rules here are simple: They don’t have to actually do the deed, they just have to think about doing it. I just ran a quick mental list and I can’t remember one without at least the hint of a possibility.

(Wait, here’s one: Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. But that’s a short story, so it doesn’t count. Likewise anything by Poe-clearly sex and opium don’t mix).

Question 3: If it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a protagonist in possession of a mystery must be in want of a hookup, then why do sex scenes in thrillers so often fall flat?

While I agree that it can be a bit absurd for the protagonist to take time out from a firefight to get it on with that good looking CIA agent (although there is the shark tank scene in “Beat the Reaper” to consider), I still think once the fight’s over it might be time for some witty repartee over a smoking gun, or even a celebratory "damn, we're still alive!" sex scene. Sadly, often these scenes just don't work. It might be because as thriller writers we immerse our characters in so much strife that to slow down for something like sex seems contrived.

Question 4: And how about the thrillers where the love scenes worked? More rules: it doesn’t count if the scene skips from the first kiss to the two of them lying in bed smoking cigarettes and discussing Proust.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts. And make no mistake, I’ll be adding the titles of “thrillers with scenes that work” to my reading list!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Where Evil Lives

by Libby Hellmann

It’s hard to believe Hitchcock’s PSYCHO was released 50 years ago, but it was, and there’s a terrific article in this week’s Newsweek about it. The author, Malcolm Jones, does an excellent job explaining why PSYCHO still feels so contemporary half a century later.

The articles notes that PSYCHO delivered several cinematic “firsts.” It was the first film to show a toilet flushing, to murder the star early on in the film, and, of course, there’s the shower scene, which many say ushered in the era of explicit violence on screen.

But the real power of the film, according to the author, is the randomness
of Norman Bates’ act. Evil is random, Hitchcock believes. It can strike anyone, anytime. Janet Leigh in PSYCHO; Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST; Tippi Hedren in THE BIRDS; you; or me. (Coincidentally, I just saw THE BIRDS for about the 4th time a couple of days ago, and this time I couldn’t watch the scenes where Tippi Hedren and the others get attacked. Is there something about getting older and having less stomach for horror? Or am I just becoming a chicken?)

At any rate, this notion of the randomness of evil resonates with me. Jamie, in her inaugural post last week, talked about how evil can be camouflaged in civility. For me, the fact that evil is random is terrifying. And irresistible. In fact, I suspect that’s the case for many of us.

In fact, it makes me wonder if all of us have recurring tropes that come to mind when we’re exploring the random nature of evil. I do -- it’s World War Two. It was a time of profound conflict; a time fraught with danger, mistrust, and hopelessness. Most of all, it was a time that elicited both heroism and cowardice. I’m not talking about the Evil that was Nazism, which wasn’t random at all, but its effect on ordinary people, particularly those in the Occupied countries.

Like Sean, I am in a reading rut, so I joined Netflix and watched 4 films (and counting) on my new Mac this weekend. Three of them: BLACK BOOK (which I highly recommend despite a couple of “coincidences”), DIVIDED WE FALL, and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, all take place during the War. And while there were Evil Nazis in all three films, the most fascinating parts were the way ordinary people behaved and reacted to them. Some became wicked themselves; some didn’t. The point was (at least to me) it is impossible to predict how people will react when faced with evil.

Which means that the fact that others suffer or lose their lives because of that unpredictability is totally random. The people who are terrified they might be reported to the Gestapo; the people whose homes might be razed by bombing raids; the soldiers who are gunned down or executed for some infraction of the rules…. There are infinite possibilities where the randomness of evil affects life and death. Of course, many authors – Alan Furst, John Le Carre, Philip Kerr, Jack Higgins, Ken Follet, Alistair Maclean – have already tapped into this area more eloquently than I. Still, I never seem to tire of it.

What about you? Is there a time, place, or situation that calls to you in your reading or writing or film-making? A place you keep returning to? A place where evil lives?

Friday, January 08, 2010


by Barbara D'Amato

It was going to be so easy. My writing group, Mark Zubro, Jeanne Dams, and I, had been working together for many years, critiquing each other's work, getting together about every two weeks. Then, in December 2003, Mark sent us an email suggesting that we write a collaborative novel. His idea had some good guys "find a disk that has the minute-to-minute election results of the next United States election."

Vote fraud was everywhere on the news. You will remember, of course, there was a bit of a tiff about the presidential election.

It takes me a year to eighteen months to write a book. I thought with three of us working on it, how long could it take? Ten months, maybe?

More like six years.

The result, FOOLPROOF, is just out from Forge, December 2009. Of course, some of the elapsed time was taken up by finding a publisher and the editing process, then ARC-shipping, and final printing. But the writing was at least four years.

It came out like this:

The morning of 9/11, Brenda Grant and Daniel Henderson met to pick up coffee for their office mates before going to their software firm in the World Trade Center. That casual act saved them, even as their friends and Brenda's fiance were killed. Establishing their own software security firm, they can't forget how helpless they felt, and they form a secret division of their very successful company committed to sniffing out global terrorists. When a college friend of Brenda's is killed on the way to an appointment with her, they begin to see the edge of an international plot to seize the presidency by rigging the results of the forthcoming election.

Why did it take so long to write? Mostly the challenge of melding different ideas, dealing with diverging plot lines, and presenting and abandoning characters. Call it negotiation. We would each, separately, come up with scenes. Then we'd get together, use some, enlarge some, delete some entirely.

It isn't easy, and yet there have been wonderful, famous collaborations--the Ellery Queen team, the Emma Lathen combo for instance. Among writers working regularly as a team today are Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child [Fever Dream, Cemetery Dance] and Charles Todd [Charles Todd and his mother Caroline Todd]. It's both a surprise and a delight that they seem to do it so effortlessly.

We had promised ourselves early on that if the book was getting in the way of our friendship we would simply stop. Fortunately, that didn't happen. But I had an earlier collaboration many years ago that ended when the other writer simply didn't send in any work. And I've heard of many that broke up over disagreements--or as my son says, "they ended in tears."

Collaboration has many things to recommend it. You receive the richness of another person's expertise and another's sensibilities.

If you are thinking of co-writing a book, here are some suggestions.

Part of the reason it worked for us was that we were old hands at getting a book together. Mark has published twenty-one books, Jeanne fifteen. We are way past the stage where we think our every phrase is gold and nobody should edit us. My advice, if you undertake a collaboration with a new writer--be very clear about who is going to make the final decisions.

If you are more of a writer than a researcher, collaborating with a researcher can work. Charles Todd recently said that he loves the reseach part.

Also, it's like working with a contractor on home improvements. Allow way more time than you could ever imagine you will need.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Opposites Attract

by Jamie Freveletti

This is my first blog for The Outfit! Been given my marching orders by Libby (best topics: crime, Chicago, writing, but if you have a meltdown and wish to address something else by all means do so) and although I’m generally a happy person I thought I’d start out with a bang and write about evil.

When writing, isn’t evil that much more terrifying when paired with the mundane? We’re all used to thinking of evil as this strange and unusual event that we confront hopefully only once or twice in a lifetime, and with really good luck, never, but evil isn’t always done on a grand scale. It’s the everyday evil that’s fodder for crime writers.

I’m a martial artist, and Monday nights I teach people how to defend themselves. One thing about teaching such a course is that you realize pretty quickly that most of us don’t confront evil enough to recognize it in the mundane. I ask people what acts might trigger their instincts and I get the obvious: the guy in the bushes, the one acting erratically, the one carrying the gun (I teach in a gang infested neighborhood so, sadly, this last suggestion is not out of line).

I suggest different triggers: The good looking guy in a polo shirt who knocks on your apartment door late at night and says he’s there to see your roommate. Something’s “off” and you tell him through the door she’s not in and he persists and rattles the door handle while making a hissing noise, or the priest who marries you who is later arrested as a pedophile. I don’t tell them this to freak them out –okay, maybe a little- but more as a reminder to look beneath the surface. I tell them that when something feels “off” and they can’t put their finger on it, they need to listen to that feeling, not shrug it away. They can’t identify it because the mundane is cloaking the evil below.

I use this juxtaposition in my writing and it works every time. The obvious, broad brush violence and triggers are great for action sequences, but when you want to evoke a creepy feeling nothing beats the devil in civilized attire.

Here’s another one for you. Before becoming a writer I worked as a trial attorney. One of my partners was a former State’s Attorney charged with the prosecution of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy. I’ll blog about the case a little later, because it’s a fascinating story about true crime here in Chicago, but suffice to say that Gacy was evil incarnate. My partner kept a framed photograph of Gacy in his office. In it, Gacy was dressed as a clown, holding a balloon and smiling. I’ll never see a clown the same way again.

(I’m excited to join The Outfit and would like to thank Libby Hellmann for thinking of me. My first thriller novel, “Running from the Devil,” launched last May, and it’s been a great ride ever since. My thanks to the Outfit for adding to the fun).

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

A New Year, A New Outfit

Hi, all. We've made a few changes to the OUTFIT for 2010, and I wanted to give everyone a heads-up. After 3 and 1/2 years (hard to believe we've been around this long), Sara Paretsky is retiring. She'll still be guest posting from time to time, so she won't be far away. Marcus Sakey is also stepping back a bit and will be sharing his spot.

With whom, you ask?

Please welcome Bryan Gruley, author of the acclaimed STARVATION LAKE, who calls Chicago home (even though his book is set in Michigan). His day job is the Chicago Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal, so I'm sure he'll have some interesting takes on what goes on in our fair city. Or not.

Jamie Freveletti, who hit the ground running (literally and figuratively) with RUNNING FROM THE DEVIL is also joining the Outfit. She's an attorney in another life (what is with Chicago, crime fiction, and lawyers?), a Martial Arts expert (do not mess with her in a dark alley), and a Mom.

Please welcome them to the OUTFIT. Rumor has it that Jamie will post tomorrow!

Making lemonade

by Michael Dymmoch

Tuesday morning my vet called to see if the cat I’d brought in a week earlier was over her “problem.” Problem was she’d decided to mark her territory on my couch—something that’s led to homelessness for many indoor animals. I hadn’t noticed any untoward odors since I stripped the couch and trashed the cushion, so I blithely assured the doctor everything was fine.


An hour later I discovered the problem wasn’t fixed—I just hadn’t “looked” closely enough.

By the time I got the couch cover in the wash and the underlying plastic sheet wiped down and re-covered, I had fifteen minutes to get the tech trash to the recycling center—a whole back seat full of it. But I had to stop at the Salvation Army first because there was a donated baby stroller on top of all the old electronics…

And while I was out, I really needed to save a trip by stopping at the grocery store for eggs and the hardware store for a cat trainer (that’s the plastic rug-runner with teeth too close together for a cat to step between them) and at the pet supply for some more of that stuff that’s supposed to neutralize odors…

By the time I got home, I was fit to be tied because three hours had passed and I hadn’t even started on my list of URGENT THINGS TO DO TODAY.

But this is a writer’s blog. So why should anyone care how my non-writing day went?

Because I use all this aggravation to drive my writing. What we as writers are supposed to do is put our heroes in hot water and turn up the heat. Pressure in the cooker can come from a flame-thrower, or from a lot of little fires that all have to be put out RIGHT NOW. It’s easier to describe something you actually feel. The rage that nearly overwhelms you when some idiot cuts you off in traffic is biochemically akin to what you’d feel if someone shot your buddy, just not so intense. So you describe the feeling and extrapolate to show your heroine’s rage when the bad guy slashes her tires or kidnaps her dog. The dismay you feel when your formerly well mannered cat starts— is only slightly less intense than the anguish your hero feels when his sidekick falls off the wagon. And—you get the idea. The worse your day, the more emotions for your story.

Although my day wasn’t thrilling, a simplified outline could be used for a thriller:

Everything seemed to be going well…

When I discovered that…

Meanwhile the clock was ticking…

And then, just to complicate things,….

And, “Oh shit! I forgot” (“Had I but known…”)

Then I got home and discovered that in the heat of the crisis I’d forgotten….

So I….

And I….

Then I….

And we all lived happily until the sequel.

You can do this with almost any loss or irritation. Phone calls to businesses are a HUGE nuisance—it’s almost impossible to get a real person and if you do mange to get a living, breathing human being, it’s probable that he/she doesn’t have a clue about how to help. But not to worry. Be patient. Take notes. You might get a story out of it, or—for your next murder—a victim who has so many enemies the police will never narrow down the suspect list. (Or you might at least have the subject for a blog) For example, I recently discovered (while stumbling through a phone maze) that all you need to get the balance and credit limit for certain credit cards is the credit holder’s card number and zip code.

And did you know that you can cancel certain (someone else’s) insurance policies if you know the insured’s home phone number and DOB? (Wanna make granddad kick the bucket? Just cancel his credit cards and his insurance—he’ll die waiting to see a doctor in the county hospital ER. Or he’ll have a heart attack trying to straighten out his finances.)

In character driven novels family pressures can add to the protagonist’s headaches. In Homicide 69, a Chicago detective has a son fighting in Vietnam to distract him from solving a murder. Sam Reaves puts his hero in a tight spot, then squeezes. In Jamie Freveletti’s debut novel, Running From the Devil, her heroine starts out in a plane crash. Then things get worse. Just what good writers are supposed to do.

So next time you’re having a bad day, grab a pen and paper (or your laptop or recorder) and get the feeling down. You may even discover, as you struggle to capture your dismay or fear or irritation in a way that makes your reader feel it too, you’ll forget all about the event that upset or scared or pissed you off.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Cleansing The Palate...

First, I gotta say I'm deeply disappointed that nobody gave me this for Christmas:

Because, not only do I want my shotgun accessible, I want it so accessible that I can get to it before I'm actually awake. And of course, I want it accessible to my 3-year-old. Oh, wait... "Not intended for homes with children." Or homes that children ever visit. Or homes with sleeping people. Or...

You know, there are plenty of bedside gun safes that provide access within seconds ...


I've been in a reading rut lately. It happens every once in a while. I pick up a novel, start reading, and after a few pages or a few chapters, I put it down. I don't care whodunit, don't care who lives, who dies, if justice is served. I'm bored.

I've learned that, whenever I fall into a reading rut, I need more than a good story. I need to read exceptional prose.

And by that, I don't mean flowery, show-off prose. I just want the writer do be doing something with language. That something might simply be making the language as clean as it can be.

David Ellis posted a while back, asking if good storytelling or good writing was more important to us as readers. Of course we always want both, but I find as the years pass, good writing becomes increasingly important to me.

This time, I got out of the rut by reading MARATHON MAN, by William Goldman. It had been years since I'd read it, but I remembered being impressed by Goldman's prose.

And for good reason. Man, that is a beautifully written book. The prose is lean and clean and evocative, pulls your eye down the page. Just a terrific book. And of course, it's awesome storytelling, too. The complete package.

Last time I fell into the reading rut, it was Elmore Leonard who pulled me out, with RUM PUNCH. Again, great writing, and great storytelling.

So, in preparation for the next rut, I turn to you: What crime novels impress you with both storytelling and writing chops?

Monday, January 04, 2010

The hard, cold, gray part of the year

By David Heinzmann

When I was reading the uncorrected proofs of A Word to the Wise last summer, at one point I was hit full in the face by a passage that basically connected all the dots of the plot.

The problem was the scene was only about a third of the way through the book. What was I thinking?

Not that the book is intended to be an elaborately puzzling whodunit. It’s more of a howdunit or whydunit, but what I had thought was foreshadowing in previous drafts now stuck out as giving the story away. I trimmed the passage, nearly a whole page of a scene between my protagonist, Augustine Flood and his journalist friend, before the book went to press.

This blunder, or near blunder, is evidence that plotting is the hardest part for me. I think it’s too easy for me to get lost in the flavor of a stretch of dialog, the setting, or even the action once it starts. But keeping the plot structured, taut and apace, especially when the story starts to take on a life of its own and find new directions, is where the painful work really lies for me.

I’d love to hear other writer’s thoughts on this. What aspects of fiction do you struggle with more, and how do you keep your problems in check while you’re cruising on other fronts?

I’ve thought about this a bit over the last several days as people I know who have read A Word to the Wise since it was published last month have reached out to me about the places and stories they recognize. A lawyer I met when I was a reporter at the Daily Southtown years ago sent me an email noting the harrowing scene in Orland Park. An old friend who knows well the restaurant on which the fictional Napoli Tap was fashioned called me over the weekend. We’ve eaten together at that restaurant countless times over the last fifteen years. A colleague asked whether a murder in the book was inspired by a now-forgotten but once-famous murder in the south suburbs. Sort of.

Anyway, the feedback has put a finer point on what I subconsciously knew I had set out to do in A Word to the Wise. This is Chicago as I have known it. I’ve lived and worked in the city exactly fifteen years. Because it’s been five years since I actually started writing the novel, I’ll say that the book is Chicago as I experienced and observed it in the first decade that I lived here.

My next novel is a very different book, although it is another Augustine Flood story. But I know Chicago in a different way than I did five years ago and the book explores some of that new territory.

A Word to the Wise is set in exactly this time of year, the middle weeks of January during a brutally cold winter, after the holiday machinery is put away and the city hunkers down for the grimmest part of the season. It’s sort of fitting that the book was published just before Christmas, giving me a hectic few weeks of trying to get books into people’s hands before the holidays. And now… January. Months ago when I started to talk to book store owners about setting up events they all said forget January. It’s not worth it in the post-holiday doldrums. So I’ll be laying low for a few weeks. My next event for the book will be a discussion and signing at Centuries and Sleuths in Forest Park on January 24.

And a couple words of thanks.

When I joined the Outfit last summer I was extremely proud to have my name affixed to a list of writers that included Sara Paretsky. It has been an extraordinary privilege. But beyond that, Sara has gone out of her way to be welcoming and generous. Her feedback on my blog posts about crime in Chicago—especially her concern for the welfare of serious journalism—have given me great encouragement. Many thanks, Sara.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Sex and Love and Leaving

Happy New Year to anyone who's able to open their eyes enough to look at a computer today. I was way over my limit last night but finally, at two p.m. on New Year's Day, in Chicago's 7 degrees, I'm ready to look at the world if not to smile at it.

Because it's the new year, and we all want it to be a good one, I thought I'd start it with sex. Writing about it, to be more precise. We've all heard Elmore Leonard's dictum about leaving out the stuff the reader skips many many times--but I almost always skip sex scenes. Yes, he/she took off her/his clothes. They got naked, they got into bed/backseat of car/faux-skin rug in front of fire/billiard table, and heaved about like demented hippopotami for a bit and then-can we get back to the story?

I also skip sex scenes as a writer. Every year, when the Bad Sex in Fiction Award is announced, I thank my writing muse for steering me clear of any chance of being publicly humiliated at the In and Out Club.

This past December, Philip Roth was shortlisted for The Humbling, in which an aging actor "converts" a lesbian to homosexuality: "This was not soft porn. This was no longer two unclothed women caressing and kissing on a bed. There was something primitive about it now, this woman-on-woman violence, as though in the room filled with shadows, Pegeen were a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal. It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and was not supposed to be. There was something dangerous about it. His heart thumped with excitement – the god Pan looking on from a distance with his spying, lascivious gaze."

The ultimate winner was Jonathan Littell, for a passage in The Kindly Ones. "Her vulva was opposite my face. The small lips protruded slightly from the pale, domed flesh. This sex was watching at me, spying on me, like a Gorgon's head, like a motionless Cyclops whose single eye never blinks. Little by little this silent gaze penetrated me to the marrow. My breath sped up and I stretched out my hand to hide it: I no longer saw it, but it still saw me and stripped me bare (whereas I was already naked). If only I could still get hard, I thought, I could use my prick like a stake hardened in the fire, and blind this Polyphemus..."

In writing about sex,one should ask the same question about anything one's including. Is there a reason to have it there to begin with? Narrative flow? Plot? Character development? Fun? And if there is a reason, how do you do it well?

For my money, Joyce (or, according to some scholars, his wife, Norah) does it best in Ulysses, where Molly says, "He kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower...and I drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

On the other hand, you can't beat Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, for brevity. "The Duke returned from the wars today and did pleasure me in his top boots."

What's your take on good or bad sex writing, or how you do it or not do it yourselves?

Finally, this is my last post for the Outfit collective. My thanks to everyone who visits the site for your presence and your responses. I've learned a great deal from you, and from my fellow Outfitters, and I am grateful to Libby Hellmann for putting the Outfit together and letting me be part of it.