Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Eavesdropping Habit . . .

by Sean Chercover

I was drinking alone in a bar. Calling the place a dive would be charitable; it was a dump. A drunk woman slid off her stool and weaved her way to the ladies’ room. As she passed the jukebox, she stopped short, thrust an accusing finger at the music and said, “That can’t be Gene Autry. Gene Autry’s dead.”

I wrote it in my notebook, convinced that it would someday find its way into a story.

A few months ago, I sat in the waiting room of an auto dealership’s service center. There were a half-dozen customers sitting around the room, some reading magazines, some watching the morning news on television. One kid was plugged into an iPod. Across from me sat an elderly couple. And by “elderly” I mean old. Very old. Very frail. I wondered if either of them should still be driving, and thought how sad it will be to lose what little is left of their freedom and independence. The service department cashier stood in the doorway, reading a work order. And then called out to the room.

Cashier: Edgar Batista? Is there an Edgar Batista?
Old Woman (to her husband): What?
Old Man: She said, does anybody want a pizza.
Old Woman: I don’t know anybody named Lisa.

I jotted the exchange down in my notebook. Had I been plugged into an iPod, or watching the morning news, or reading a magazine, I’d have missed it. Had I left my notebook at home, I’d have remembered it incorrectly.

One more: Last October, I sat in a generic chain coffee house in a generic strip mall in a generic suburb. Reading a book and drinking coffee, killing time before an appointment. Two generic suburban yuppie women sat at a nearby table and chatted about their generic suburban yuppie lives. The women were named Susan and Gail. They mostly complained about their kids, who had names like Dakota and Kyle and Brittany. I tuned them out and returned to my book.

Having just categorized the women according to stereotype, I almost missed what came next. But the tone of their voices changed. I heard Gail say, “I’m afraid to ask, but how’s Paul doing?” I closed my book.

“He’s got less than a year . . . maybe six months. They discovered it too late, and it’s a fast-moving cancer.” Susan then told Gail that she asked her husband what he wants, what she can do for him. “He said he wants go to a Blackhawks game and sit down front at ice level. I’ve already ordered the tickets. And he wants me to dress up as Olivia Newton-John from Grease for Halloween, and . . . you know.”

“Isn’t that kind of insulting?” Gail said. “He wants to fantasize about someone else?”

“He’s dying, Gail,” Susan shot back. “If he wants to fuck me and pretend he’s fucking Olivia Newton-John, I’m happy to do it for him. Christ.

I’ve got a dozen notebooks filled with snippets of overheard conversations, observed situations, random graffiti. I browse through them every now and then. A few entries made their way into Big City, Bad Blood.

They usually need some rewriting, or at least tweaking, to fit into a piece of fiction. A few are perfect just as they happened. Some will never make it into a story, but will provide inspiration for a character, or a scene. And of course there are many that leave me scratching my head, thinking Why the hell did I write that down?

To aspiring writers: Do yourself a favor, leave the iPod at home and carry a notebook instead. Get into the eavesdropping habit, and you’ll be richly rewarded.

To writers who’ve already cultivated the eavesdropping habit, what are your favorite places to listen? And what have you heard lately? Crack open a notebook, and share.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day -- Chicago Style

by Libby Hellmann

The Chicago Tribune ran a story a couple of weeks ago on “colorful” Chicago characters, most of them elected officials. Included in their “Colorful Servant Hall of Fame” were

Big Bill Thompson, maybe the most corrupt mayor the city has ever known

John D’Arco, a convicted felon, state senator, and self-proclaimed poet

“Bathhouse” John Coughlin, a 1st Ward alderman and another poet .
(come to think of it, what that says about politicians with literary pretensions is probably best left to posterity) who, along his partner/alderman “Hinky Dink” Kenna, were the kings of graft and protection money at the turn of the last century

Betty Lauren-Maltese, Cicero’s town president who eventually went to jail for fraud. Betty, the wife of mob bookie Frank Maltese (for whom she named the town’s police and fire stations), was quoted (among other outrageous things) as saying the US Constitution didn’t apply to the gangs she wanted to kick out of Cicero.

So, on this Memorial Day, I thought it might be fun to remember a few other characters who didn’t make it into the article but have swaggered their way into Chicago history by their cavalier actions, personalities, and sheer chutzpah. Not all of them were elected officials, but all of them are part of the tradition of “bad boys and girls.”

Ed Vrdolyak: Has Fast Eddie finally had his comeuppance? The once powerful
Alderman (known as “Fast Eddie” because of his speed at rushing through legislation) and one-time head of the Chicago City Council was generally a major thorn in the side of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. But he is also known as a mob lawyer, and is known to be the power behind the throne in Cicero (see Betty above). The one time head of the Cook County Democrats made a fast switch into the Republican Party so he could run – unsuccessfully -- against Mayor Daley. Unfortunately, just a few weeks ago, Fast Eddie was indicted for fraud and bribery related to a kickback scheme involving Gold Coast real estate. Shocking.

Jane Byrne: The first female Mayor of Chicago served only one term: from 1979 to 1983.
I like to call her the “Snow Queen” – her election came after a series of bizzards that paralyzed Chicago and made the current mayor, Michael Bilandic, seem incompetent. She was the one who installed Fast Eddie as the head of the Cook County Democrats (he repaid the favor by becoming a Republican), but, in the long run, she wasn’t able to muster the necessary political clout to survive. After Harold Washington won the Democratic primary, she played the spoiler, waging a write-in campaign, which split the white vote (Richie Daley was the other candidate), and made Washington’s election inevitable.

Richard Bailey: He probably couldn’t be elected dog-catcher, but he’s a creepy guy who’s now in jail for his role in the murder of candy heiress Helen Brach. Bailey, a con-artist who specialized in fleecing wealthy older women out of their savings, was connected to the horsey set. Racing, that is. "His favorite prey were women who were wealthy due to having been widowed, women whose thinking was not as straight as it should be because perhaps they were dying, very sick or acutely lonely," said one investigator. He’d con them out of their money by proposing they invest in horses, then skim most of the money for himself. As it happens, I have a personal note about Bailey. My former babysitter, a very attractive young woman, took a job with him and his girlfriend for three weeks and moved into their North side home. She became convinced she was being drugged, and we had to help her get away from him.

OK -- this post is getting a little long, so it’s time to quit. But don’t forget Commander Jon Burge, the former police commander who, for 20 years, tortured suspects to make them confess.

Or George Ryan, the Republican governor who, despite ending the death penalty in Illinois, was convicted of corruption and racketeering last year.

Or – going back in history – .
the famous and enterprising Everleigh sisters, whose Chicago bordello on South Dearborn at the turn of the century was possibly the most luxurious of its time and counted as their patrons politicians, writers, actors, and even royalty.

Clearly, I’ve just skimmed the surface. Who are some of the other Chicago “characters” you remember? And why do Chicago’s scoundrels and criminals seem so much larger than life than other cities? Although that just might be a subject for another blog.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Shine On You Crazy Diamond

By Kevin Guilfoile

I'm completely tone deaf when I'm trying to make up names. If my wife hadn't stopped me, our children would have been named Gipper and Gilligan. Gipper and Gilligan Guilfoile.

This wouldn't be a huge problem except making up names is about 15% of a novelist's job. I'm like a pro golfer who needs work on his putting. An NBA center who can't make free throws.

A few of the characters in my stories have names that have some kind of meaning. Those were created on my good days. Others are people I knew in high school. Most of the time when I start writing a new character I open up the Tribune and I take a first name from Business and a last name from Tempo and if they sound good together that's the character's name. Last year I wrote about a terrific interpretation of Cast of Shadows that came about only because I started writing a character on the day Martha Stewart was indicted.

I often pick names from baseball players. Years ago, when I needed to create a persona so I could pretend to be a Chicago sports columnist (long story, another day) I went to my baseball card collection. I found a card of an old-time player named Topper Rigney next to a card of a player named Preston Shanks and I became Topper Shanks, Bulls beat writer. Topper was a regular pundit on Wichita sports talk radio during the Michael Jordan days.

I repeated the technique when I wanted to write humor under a pen name. A pair of White Sox legends, Carlton Fisk and Larry Doby, were pressed into service as Carlton Doby, McSweeney's puzzlemaster.

I am always humbled when I discover a real name I wished I had made up. Right now, I'm obsessed with Sox third base coach Razor Shines. I'm not sure exactly what kind of character he'd be. In fact I'm convinced it wouldn't matter. I think a series of Razor Shines novels would be a gigantic success no matter the subject.

So who is your Razor Shines? What real people have names so good that you wish you had made them up?

And I'm open to suggestions for my Razor Shines character. Homicide Detective? Serial Killer? FBI? Forensic Orthopedist?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Dream Funerals by Sara Paretsky

Sunday's Chicago Tribune had a story about us Boomers and our last rites; it seems the Woodstock generation wants happenings even in death. The Tribune said that Chicagoans were behind the curve, that it was in California and New York that more avant-garde obsequies take place. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Does no one remember Flukey Stokes? The south side drug dealer buried his son, "Willie the Wimp" Stokes in a cadillac-shaped coffin, his body propped at the steering wheel, $1000 bills clutched in the Wimpster's fingers--and that was after Flukey allegedly offed his own son. Seven thousand turned out to see Flukey go to his great reward two years later. He didn't get a cadillac-coffin, but he was perhaps the first person to be buried with a portable phone at is side.

Since I come from Kansas, I follow events there with a certain morbid pride. That includes the Phelps family, who in the name of Jesus have been disrupting funerals of slain servicemen for reasons I can't quite follow, but have to do with the Phelps's hatred of Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and Bisexual Americans, whom he believes make up most of the armed forces. Yesterday, at Jerry Falwell's funeral, the Phelps family turned out in force, all thirteen of them, to denounce Jerry Falwell as a lover of GLBT's. Go figure.

For my funeral, I want to be pulled into Lake Michigan on a barge drawn by twenty matched Golden Retrievers. My friends would follow on another barge, listening to fifty horns playing Mozart, and drinking champagne. At a signal from the horns, the dogs would swim away from my barge to join my friends and my barge would go up in flames.

Now I'm wondering who should picket the event? Perhaps Joe Scheidler, who's picketed me in life, could chant slogans at me in death (in life he's yelled, "Christ killer, baby killer," at me; who knows what my elegy might be.) Of course, other things being equal, which they never are, he'll likely predecease me, since he's about 20 years older than me, so maybe we could work out a reciprocal picketing arrangement.

Who would picket your own funeral, and why?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Reading, Writing, and Being Arrested

by Barbara D'Amato

You’re eighteen years old and a straight-A student. Your senior year creative writing teacher asks you to write an essay expressing emotion. You do.

Shortly thereafter, you’re arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. You are forbidden to return to school.

Bomb threats, falsely ringing a fire alarm, even dialing 911 for no reason could be called disruptive behavior. But completing a school assignment?

The ACLU Illinois spokesman says that the element of “disruption” does not occur when an act is done in private, as when a paper is handed to a teacher.

This happened to Allen Lee of Cary, IL. The April 25 Chicago Tribune carried the story and then several suburban papers, various editorials, and eventually a huge number of blogs. It’s become a major Chicago area issue, as maybe it should be.

The kid was asked to produce an essay expressing emotion. Express an emotion? Well, let’s see. Is there a teenager who is NOT angry about something? Well---mm. Gotta be one around here someplace. Hand up over there? No? Well—

If a teacher wants a student to write about emotions and let himself go, maybe the teacher had better say what emotions are permissible. Love, hope, and fear, in this case, but not anger, apparently.

Tell you what. Maybe you can write about how warm and fuzzy you feel toward your parents, and by the way, puppies are cute, too.

The kid had never been in trouble with the police. He had begun the process of enlisting in the Marines, who then discharged his application.

The content of the essay had not been made public at first, but more inflammatory parts soon were, leading the kid and his parents to release the whole thing. Yes, it had nasty language. What may have caused the whole uproar is the part that insults the teacher, calling her a control freak.

In any case, there’s no need to explore the details of this particular case. It should have been handled by an experienced counselor, to try to decide whether Lee was actually a threat to anyone. Not by calling the cops. Not by throwing him out of school a month before graduation. People have been skittish since Virginia Tech, but the gunman there had given off many bigger warning signs.

It’s not necessary to eviscerate creative writing classes to achieve some sense of safety. I wonder whether those of us who daily put ourselves in the minds of angry and murderous people can give some help to the creative writing teachers. How do we do it? How personal is the bad emotion? How do we know where to stop?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

What ELSE are we gonna judge by?

by Marcus Sakey

What makes you pick up a book?

This question is weighing on my mind right now, as my publisher is in the process of designing both the mass market cover for THE BLADE ITSELF and the hardcover for my second novel (currently called AT THE CITY'S EDGE; click here to read about Title Hell). So as we're looking at concepts, I'm also watching myself when I go in a bookstore, because it's a competitive environment, and I want people to grab my book before they grab its neighbor. Actually, I want them to grab it, then rub it against themselves while humming the theme from Shaft. Does that make me greedy?

Here are a few that hook me:

I love this one. Clean, stark, moody. Grabby as hell.

The palette is tremendous. The typography is timeless but inventive. The photo seems like it should be everyday but isn’t--the graininess and the god rays from the cloud combine to make it skew our perception.

I'm lukewarm on Rushdie (brilliant stylist, but never seems to get anywhere) but I bought the thing the moment I saw it.

No way I could walk past this novel.

The image puts you right in the moment without revealing too much--maybe I’m a sucker, but a hand and a cigarette, a view through a window, and I’m hooked. The duotone scheme is dramatic, and the dominant orange is at once unsettling and compelling.

Also, I think that the uneven weighting of the title lends a nicely cinematic feel.

This simple cover pulls off mass-market tone with aplomb—there’s something hypnotic about it.

The photo is dynamic, conveying a sense of motion, but the soft focus leaves everything to the imagination. Again, it reflects the story—the police car, the dark city street, and two figures that suggest the two main characters.

Dig the diagonal orientation, also, the way it makes things seem just a little unbalanced.

I love white space, and the only thing better than a Swiss grid is one that’s been slightly busted.

I also love the way the desolate photo combines with the minimalism of the typography to evoke the story. ROBBERS is about two criminals on a disintegrating, nightmare run--something you can practically guess from the cover.

Phenomenal book that not many folks know about, by the way. Well worth picking up.


Atmosphere thick enough to choke. The railing and lights take on a larger character--they come to look like a parliamentary building or a factory, something imposing and moody.

I also love the treatment of the title and Bruen’s name. That kind of branding, built across multiple books, can make a big difference.

(These are all from my personal collection, but if you're interested in more great covers, be sure to check out The Book Design Review, a fascinating blog that analyzes the covers of new books with an emphasis on NYT Bestsellers.)

Anyway, how about you? Which books just leap off the tables at you? I'd really like to know. Especially if Isaac Hayes comes to mind.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Vice is Nice

by Michael Dymmoch

Pride. Avarice. Lust. Anger. Gluttony. Envy. Sloth. Shakespeare may have cribbed his plots from history, myth, and lesser writers, but his plays are still staged because his characters were driven by the urges that trip us up today. The seven cardinal sins are great inducements to villainy.

Change is the essence of story, but conflict is its life-blood. Not only are the vices terrific motivators for an antagonist, they're a perfect source of conflict--internally for the protagonist, and between him and his significant others. (In a pinch, insanity is useful but it's used overmuch of late, and it’s difficult to portray convincingly without specialized training or major research.) Vice is something every writer has experienced, every reader can relate to.

It's a cliche that sin is more interesting than virtue. Almost nobody says why. One reason is that right conduct and good habits are so boringly predictable. Sin, on the other hand, is exciting. Someone who'll break the rules, has unpredictability in common with madmen--either might do anything. (We all like to be frightened a little--but only a little. We like the adrenaline high, but walking the mean streets in a character's head is so much safer than doing it in a bad part of a real town.) Vice speaks to the dark side of emotion. And emotion is what makes a story lift off the page and strike the reader's heart.

The variations and combinations are limited only by the writer’s imagination. Check out Law and Order, or 24, or Shark. What drives the villians if not pride, lust, greed, or rage? Even the “less interesting” vices have plot potential—what is obsessive hoarding but a form of gluttony, whether it’s Imelda Marcos collecting shoes or some crazy old lady with 200 cats? Didn't they both start out with one? Didn't they fail at some point to rein in their appetites? And before you decide that sloth doesn’t motive malfeasance, remember what Edmund Burke said on the subject: The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


by Libby Hellmann

A good friend of mine left the business world 10 years ago to become a teacher in the Chicago public schools. He went back to school, earned a Masters of Education, and now teaches fourth grade. When I asked him why he gave up the lucrative income of a financial planner for the more modest salary a teacher makes, he said he wanted to be remembered as someone who gave rather than took. He wanted to leave the world a little bit better than he found it.

Over the years, he’s done some terrifically creative things on a shoe-string budget. Things his students will remember for the rest of their lives. Like the murals in these pictures that depict “technology through the ages.” The kids researched, designed, painted the mural all by themselves. They did such a wonderful job, in fact, that the mural hung in the Art Institute of Chicago for a few days. Students brought their families down for a special viewing. They drank punch and cookies and explained what they’d created to parents and friends. Chances are those students will never forget the experience. Or the teacher who made it possible.

Don’t all of us have a teacher who we’ll never forget? Who inspired us to reach just a little farther, and in doing so, changed our lives? For me, it was my high school history teacher, now herself an accomplished author. She taught me how to think, analyze, and most of all, how to write a paper. The secret, she said, was “T.E.C.” (Thesis, Evidence, Conclusion). It always worked. It made college a breeze, graduate school too. I still use it for articles and speeches I write professionally, and I taught it to my children. (For a price I’ll teach it to you). In fact, T.E.C. just might have been what eventually turned me into a writer.

But enough about me. What about you? Graduation time is upon us. Who’s the teacher you’ll never forget?

P.S. For all the mothers out there, you are the most important teachers your children will ever have. Enjoy your day!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I Got No Papers Show You What I Am

By Kevin Guilfoile

I have told the story many, many times.

I was thirteen and my mother and father and I were having dinner at home with Ken and Emmy Smith, a retired couple who had lived in our house for several decades before selling it to my parents and downsizing to a nearby apartment. Ken and Emmy wouldn't have topped nine feet standing on each other's shoulders, but their eccentricity was big and tall. Ken was a former New York sportswriter and he had a warehouse of anecdotes about famous athletes he'd known.

At one point during the evening he told a story about the night, decades before, he brought Joe Dimaggio back to the house--this house, my house--for dinner. I was enthralled. He went on about what a terrific fellow the Yankee Clipper was and the witty conversation they had that evening around the very table at which we were sitting.

After a while, Emmy said, "What was the name of that nice girl he brought with him? The blond one who helped me with the dishes?"

Ken shoved a forkful of meat loaf into his mouth and said, "Marilyn."

Now two things are funny about that story. One, that Emmy didn't seem to know who Marilyn Monroe was, and two, that Ken didn't think her presence in his home was important enough to mention earlier. Whenever I told it I added a third element--the hormonal shock and awe that is visited upon a boy in the flush of puberty when a bunch of grown-ups force him to imagine Marilyn Monroe washing dishes in his kitchen. That's the memoir-y part, and it's what gives me license to pass along the tale.

Last Saturday I was unpacking boxes in our new house and I came across an essay my father wrote years ago in which he tells that same story. My dad's version is exactly the same as mine in every detail except one.

I wasn't there. I couldn't have been there. No way in hell was I there when Ken Smith told that story. My father hadn't even been there. Another sportswriter who knew Ken and Emmy told dad he had heard it when he was over at the house for lunch. Years before my family even bought the place.

Obviously, I had listened to my dad tell it and over the years I added details--thirteen years old, meat loaf--that probably leaked in from dinners we actually did have with Ken and Emmy. I had been remembering the story (vividly) instead of the actual event. Nevertheless I have told it so many times that I felt a real jolt when I discovered it wasn't true. The anecdote might be true (if you knew Ken and Emmy you'd believe it, even third hand), but the memoir part is not. My license to tell that story is lost because the listener's connection to that event--my presence when it happened and the subsequent rush of hormones--is a lie. Fiction. I had subconsciously inserted myself into a good story so I could have an excuse to tell it.

Such is the stuff of every memoir scandal.

This discovery happened at the same time I was reading an actual memoir, Writing In an Age of Silence by The Outfit's own Sara Paretsky. I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't know Sara had just published this book until someone pointed it out to me in a store last week, but I'm very glad to have read it. It's really part memoir and part rant (instead of rant the jacket copy calls it part meditation, but if this is the way Sara "meditates" remind me to bring Kevlar to her yoga class). It's also a beautiful and honest discourse on memory, childhood, family, writing, feminism, social justice, and free speech. It contains some of the loveliest footnotes ever, including this one: "For the interested reader, my brother became a Dominican priest. He taught in Rome for many years but currently works in New York. Daniel, two years younger than I, is a veterinarian in northern Wisconsin. Jonathan, nine years younger, is a Kansas lawyer, a magician, an astronomer. He and Nicolas, the youngest, used to play table tennis together in a room in our basement that had once been a hiding place on the Underground Railroad..." Seriously Sara, the magical, ping-pong-playing astronomer/lawyer with a priest and a vet for brothers needs a book of his own. Or maybe a series.

I don't suspect I'll ever write a memoir. Especially now that it won't include a scene in which Marilyn Monroe washes dishes in my kitchen. That was some of my best stuff.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Book Reviews by Sara Paretsky

Oh, how we love to gloat over the good ones, and fume over the imbeciles who misunderestimated our work in the bad ones. And oh, how those days are disappearing fast. All over the country, newspapers are closing their book review, shortening the sections, folding the reviews into a few short lines on entertainment pages, or using canned reviews of 100 words or so from a barrel of syndicated words.

The Chicago Tribune is talking about moving its book reviews from Sunday to Saturday--they'd print 400,000 fewer copies because the Saturday paper has their smallest distribution. This is the most important newspaper in the upper Midwest in terms of its circulation reach. When I was trying to sell my first novel, New York publishers didn't want to buy it because, they said, a book set in Chicago had regional interest only and not enough people read in the Midwest to merit publishing a book set here. Perhaps the Tribune agrees that there aren't enough Midwest readers these days, so why tell us about books? Let's hope not; you can always let them know before the old review section is put in cement booties.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution just folded its book review section completely, claiming it was unnecessary. You can read about books in the blogosphere, they say, which is true, if you have the time and the savvy to thread your way through that needle and get to informed reviews from sites that have access to enough new titles to let us readers know what's out there. Newspapers get review copies of books. Bloggers don't. And we don't have the paid staff to winnow through them and make sure the interesting voices in the crowd get heard.

Readers and writers are signing a petition beseeching the Journal-Constitution to rethink this policy. If you want to join Mike Connolly, me and others on that, it would be a mitzvah.


Friday, May 04, 2007

Movies With Guns

by Marcus Sakey

I love movies. I especially love crime movies. I don't mean gangster films, or at least not specifically those; I mean movies that explore the seamier side of life, that are unabashed about having a plot and yet also handle character with grace and explore a larger issue.

Here's the problem. There aren't enough of 'em. And a lot of great ones slip through the cracks.

Ever see Spy Game? Odds are you didn't. It was badly trailered, promoted as a sort of pretty-boy actionfest. In truth, there's not much of what you'd call action. But it's a masterful film about loyalty, about country, about the things we can convince ourselves to do for a cause we believe is larger than ourselves--and what happens when we're wrong.

Plus it's damned entertaining.

How about The Peacemaker? George Clooney and Nicole Kidman chasing a load of stolen nuclear weapons. Not new in its own right, but handled with sophistication and subtlety, and every character, good and bad, is smart, motivated, and believable. The subject matter, timely when it came out, now plays as damn-near prescient. And it's even fairly accurate about nuclear weapons, something you just never see.

Obviously, no one needs me to recommend The Usual Suspects, or Goodfellas, or Silence of the Lambs. But did you ever see Manhunter, the first movie to introduce Hannibal Lector, chillingly played by Brian Cox? Okay, the soundtrack is a little eighties, but the film is otherwise fantastic, in many ways the equal to its Academy Award winning sequel.

Miller's Crossing may be the smartest (and oddest) gangster movie ever made. Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels is a perfect film, without a wasted scene or throwaway moment. Bound is so painfully tense it's hard to sit through. I watched Layer Cake three times in two days, and I could fire it up again right now.

So those are some of my favorites. What are some of yours, and why? Help a brother out--otherwise I'll just end watching Training Day for the fifteenth time.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


By Barbara D’Amato

Here is another in my long list of worries about what I am doing and why: Shall I include my political views in my books, and if so, how much?

The question, which is always hanging someplace in the back of my mind, came forward a couple of weeks ago. Two of the various mystery and writing listserves included messages of annoyance at specific authors who were too political, or, in these cases, “too Democrat.” The posters claimed that the books spent too long making a case for one political point of view. In one case, the politics was called gratuitous.

I won’t name the authors involved, except to say that they are both well known and I like their books. These were recent publications.

Suppose you include strong political opinions? Do you lose readers? Some, I suppose. Well, maybe you could give your opinions to one character in your book and a contrary political view to another character. Does that even-handedness take care of the reader who objects to your real views? And should it? Aren’t you more honest letting it be clear where you stand?

Of course, you can slip your views in subtly. Show the evils of the Whosis and the virtues of the Whatsis. Like Dickens showed the evils of the workhouse. But is it as simple as show-don’t-tell? I don’t think so. Readers are not stupid. If your cruel Texas sheriff is also a bigwig in the Republican Party and thinks family values means keeping down folks who aren’t “our kind” – well really, how mystifying is that? In a long-ago book, Hardball, I explored, if not pushed, the idea that our drug laws may be causing the drug problem. The competing views were expressed by characters, not the narrator, but my opinion was probably clear.

I kind of like having an author fervently try to convince me of something. But I suspect most readers don’t. And I suspect most writers worry as I do about how far to go with their personal views.

As writers, ultimately we should be ourselves. Many years ago, when my younger boy was in middle school, a teacher became worried that he was reading some iffy books. She meant sex and violence. My response was that if he was reading I was in favor of it. Reading takes you into the mind of another in a way nothing else can. It is truly broadening.

And yes, I think fiction is a force for Good.

But still, how far do you go?