Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Sorry in advance if this blog entry is a little short. I was just in Paris, and I planned to write today’s entry there, but then there was an incident, and I had to leave in a hurry before the authorities could question me.
I read in Sean’s entry a few days ago about how hard it is to get a book started. A lot of what he said rang true to me, but slightly altered. My problem isn’t the beginning, and it’s never the end—I always know how a book is going to end when I start it. (Probably the trial lawyer in me, start preparing your case by planning your closing argument.) No, for me, it’s those pesky 350 pages in between that are the problem.
I love openings. They are easily my favorite part of the book. You introduce yourself to the reader. You set the tone. You grab hold of them. You tell them, this is how I write, these are my characters, get in and buckle up.
I especially love opening sentences, a micro-version of what I just described. You can outline the hook. You can set a dramatic first scene. You can reveal your protagonist’s personality. On a good day, you can do all three. So many possibilities, because you haven’t yet backed yourself into a corner, something I’ve done in every book.
“Allow me to be frank at the commencement. You will not like me.”
That might be my favorite opening, from The Libertine at the Steppenwolf, John Malkovich in the lead. Such a self-indulgent, ominous and challenging warning to the viewer.
I remember Victor Gischler’s opening in Gun Monkeys, where Charlie is driving down a highway, bemoaning the fact that he forgot to put plastic down in the trunk of his car, which he now regretted in light of the fact that a decapitated corpse resided back there. I pretty much understood what Charlie did, who he was, and how he felt about it in that opening sentence.
I also have to say that Lee Child’s new one, Gone Tomorrow, which I haven’t finished, has a terrific grabber. Lee’s usually good for that, but this one is the best he’s done, in my opinion.
Maybe it’s all in how you approach writing. I know what Sean means, and what Joyce Carol Oates meant, as well, but unless I have a firm idea of where the book is going, I usually begin writing my novel by searching for the most compelling opening I can write and then trying to keep up, so to speak, with the car rolling down the hill. I let the tail wag the dog. (No other clichés spring to mind, sorry.) And yes, sometimes my directionless opening will reach a dead end, and I will go back and change the opening to match what I have ultimately written. But starting that way is usually the best way for me to get the blood flowing, and it’s the most fun. Hey, I still have the next 350 pages to be miserable, before I get to the finale. The end is my second-favorite part of the story.
By the way, it looks like that incident in Paris is going to work out okay for me. They couldn’t find the weapon. And they never will.
Is it Alzheimers or just CRS?
I forgot I was supposed to blog yesterday.
Sorry about that.
I've been forgetting a number of things lately. Yesterday, I forgot to look at my calendar.
My sister claims my memory is perfectly normal, that I just need to slow down and pay attention to what I'm doing. Maybe she's right. Paying attention is what makes most writers different from non-writers. Writers notice things.
Come to think of it, I haven't been writing much either.
Friday, June 26, 2009
Where a Man Can Lose His Mind
On an August afternoon in 2007, John Mullarkey sent a text message (by some accounts to his mother) with his blood-splattered cell phone: I stabbed my self at demi.s i love you.
That same instant, Gayle Slomer of suburban Pittsburgh heard a desperate, frantic shriek outside her daughter's window. She ran out the door to find her daughter's 16-year-old neighbor Demi Cuccia bleeding in the front yard from more than a dozen stab wounds. Moments later Mullarkey, Cuccia's on-again-off-again boyfriend, emerged from Cuccia's house, a 10-inch, self-inflicted gash across his own neck. "Get away from me! I hate you!" Demi screamed at Mullarkey.
It was one of the last things she ever said.
Mullarkey confessed to the brutal murder at the scene. Later in the hospital, still unable to speak, Mullarkey wrote on an eraser board and handed it to an Allegheny County homicide detective: If somebody did something bad and they were taking medication, Mullarkey wrote, would that be a defense?
Approximately four months before the murders, Mullarkey began taking the powerful prescription acne medicine Accutane. According to the defense, Mullarkey stopped taking the meds just days before the murder because he was concerned about side effects, which included radical mood swings. Friends of Cuccia's however, paint a picture of Mullarkey as always having been controlling and jealous, and in the days before the murder, Mullarkey sent Cuccia a series of increasingly desperate emails and texts concerning the state of their relationship.
It's a shocking story, but many of the details will sound horrifyingly familiar to Chicagoans, as well as to readers of this site.
On October 24, 2006, respected dermatologist Dr. David Cornbleet, was viciously stabbed to death by Hans Peterson, a former patient for whom Cornbleet had allegedly prescribed Accutane several years earlier. Like Mullarkey, Peterson claimed to have stopped taking the drug after he became concerned about side effects. In fact, Peterson claimed to have taken only a couple of doses. Nevertheless for more than four years afterward Peterson would describe a series of persistent and unbearable side effects that he blamed on the small amount of Accutane he had taken in 2002.
Accutane has had a long history of both success and controversy. Many, including Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak, whose son committed suicide while on the drug, have tried to link it with depression. Roche, the pharmaceutical company that distributes Accutane includes a hefty warning label as required by law, but claims no causal link to depression, suicide or violence has been found.
The Mullarkey case, which has gone to trial this week, appears to be the first time a defendant has claimed his judgment had been impaired by Accutane. The results will be watched very carefully in Chicago, and in Peterson's native Eugene, Oregon, and also in Basel, Switzerland where Roche is headquartered.
If the Accutane defense succeeds, we will no doubt see it again.
Even if it doesn't succeed, I suspect we will see it again.
The story of Dr. Cornbleet and Hans Peterson is just as tragic but far more bizarre than the Mullarkey case. The tale includes a lengthy manhunt across several states, the nuances of international law and extradition, the television show Dexter, online poker, Barack Obama, a strange claim about Asperger's syndrome, and the heroic intervention of an Iraq war veteran. More than anything, though, it's about fathers and sons. I won't repeat all the details here, but if you follow this link and start at the bottom you can get, if not the whole story, a good sense of it.
As John Mullarkey sits before a jury, Hans Peterson sits in a jail cell on the island of Guadaloupe. He has been there for almost two years. The French government refuses to send him back to the US to face judgment, but they also seem reluctant to deal with his crime themselves. No charges have been filed and none seem to be coming in the immediate future. Under French law, Peterson can be held for another two years without trial. Although they serve a different system in a different jurisdiction, Peterson's court-appointed lawyers no doubt will also be watching the outcome of the Mullarkey case with keen interest.
Finally, a meaningless but eerie coincidence: I first wrote about the murder of Dr. Cornbleet 11 months after the crime, on August 15, 2007. The post went up around 9:30 Central Time.
John Mullarkey murdered Dana Cuccia just seven hours later.
UPDATE: A pharmacist testified in the trial yesterday that Accutane likely caused Mullarkey's depression and a mental disorder. On cross examination the pharmacist admitted that his experience with the drug was limited to what he'd read. "I don't think the FDA would (require those warnings) unless there was a problem with the drug," he said.
TOTALLY UNEXPECTED UPDATE: Roche pulls Accutane out of the US Market after an unrelated jury verdict in a class action lawsuit awarding more than $30 million dollars to users who experienced inflammatory bowel disease. More later.
UPDATE: A jury in Pittsburgh took just two hours to convict Mullarkey of first-degree murder.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
The passing of Ed Gilbreth last week got me to thinking about critics and what makes a good one. He and Anthony Boucher, who reviewed for the New York Times for many years and for whom the Bouchercon is named, were what fine critics should be—well informed, open-minded, and fair.
Some people use the terms reviewer and critic differently, claiming that a reviewer simply describes the book and gives the publisher, price and such info. Critics, they say, go on and give criticism. I’ll use both terms here, since I think the distinction is unnecessary.
What makes a good critic?
It’s okay to include negative criticisms. Often they help the writer. Even if I disagree with a negative remark, it tells me something I need to know.
It’s not okay to have a hidden agenda. Of course a reviewer has his or her own tastes. It’s not okay to keep them hidden and sabotage books. I never object when a reviewer says something like “I usually don’t enjoy large amounts of gore and violence, but SPLATTERFIEND is fast-paced, well-written, and has believable characters.”
It’s not okay to make fun of the book or the author. A friend of mine who had reviewed for years and then had several novels published told me he winced thinking of the nasty/funny remarks he made about books just because he thought the phrasing was amusing. Writers know this can happen. Mark Zubro wrote a book about the murder of a Chicago alderman, which he wanted to title WHO CARES? Amusing, yes, but he knew it would tempt reviewers to say, “I didn’t.”
It’s not okay to review a book without reading it. This occurs more than anyone would wish. I have a friend whose flap copy contained an error. One reviewer repeated elements of it over and over in his review, making it pitifully clear he hadn’t ready the book.
And there was the famous case of the reviewer who accused an author of bigotry because the reviewer had not read far enough into the book to realize the nasty stuff was the viewpoint of a character the author was presenting as a bad guy. Unlikely, you say? The review wrote for a major publication and the whole thing caused a major stink. As it should have.
It’s okay not to have the depth of knowledge that Gilbreth and Boucher had. Few people have read that many books or have that wonderful, detailed recall. But I get the feeling that some critics read only the books they are forced to and jump to the handiest reference. For instance, if a book has a native American character, for a real reader, there may be a comparison more apt that Tony Hillerman.
It’s not okay to hold the flap copy, the cover art, or other publisher’s decisions about which the author has no control against the author. I read a review recently that took an author to task for the quality of the PAPER the book was printed on. Really.
It’s not okay to give away the ending.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
"Great Bodily Harm"
It was hard to miss back in the spring of 2007 when it was played over and over and over again on cable and Internet news sites. The grainy image from a neighborhood bar security camera of the huge man in the flannel shirt, his long hair spilling out under a ball cap, tossing the woman to the floor like child hurling a toy in a tantrum, and then swinging and kicking at her curled body while the jukebox blared Johnny Cash’s "Sunday Morning Coming Down," and none of the drunks sitting at the bar lifting a finger to stop him.
If you’re in Chicago you may have heard yesterday that the cop, Tony Abbate, won’t be serving any time behind bars in the case even though he was convicted of felony aggravated battery. The judge, John Fleming, gave him probation, causing an uproar from the public about how the fix was in, and cops get away with anything in this town. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-abbate-24-jun24,0,5965992.story
Well, actually, this case might not be a great measure of those claims. While I was reporting and writing the Tribune’s story on the Abbate verdict, most of the lawyers I talked to said they thought it was a mistake that the judge didn’t give Abbate at least a little time behind bars—say 30 days in Cook County Jail—just to make a point. But the fact was that Abbate was never going to get serious penitentiary time for this crime.
Anytime probation is an option for the judge, and the convict doesn’t have any criminal background, it’s likely he won’t be shipped off to the joint. Some made the argument yesterday that because Abbate was a cop he should be held to a higher standard, and the judge should have sent that message in a harsh sentence. The judge chose not to do that.
One of the reasons Fleming gave was that the bartender, Karolina Obrycka, did not suffer serious physical injuries despite the savagery apparent in the video. (The argument has been made that Abbate was so drunk he failed to squarely land a punch or kick.)
I thought about that reasoning as I was typing up my phone interview with Obrycka. She described the nightmares, anxiety attacks and general feelings of paranoia she’s suffered since the beating. Every time she goes out she worries she’ll be pulled over for something and the cops will recognize her, and they’ll be friends of Abbate’s, etc.
She also said she can’t fathom the idea of working anywhere alone, as she was that night in the bar, having nobody there to back her up and protect her.
She was describing psychological injuries that can be as debilitating as physical injuries. But psychological injuries aren’t covered by the aggravated battery statute used to convict Abbate. The crime describes only “great bodily harm.” Even though she didn't sustain serious physical injuries, there’s a quirk in the law that allows the felony aggravated battery charge to be used for lesser injuries if the crime takes place in a public place, like a bar. If the beating had happened at a backyard barbecue, Abbate probably would have been charged with a lesser crime.
As it is, Abbate is an unemployed cop with an infamous name and serious drinking and anger-management issues. He’s been suspended without pay for two years, and the department is going through the process of firing him. His lawyer says that’s punishment aplenty. What do you think?
Switching gears, I wrote a few weeks ago about my anticipation and anxiety over the cover for my book, A WORD TO THE WISE. Not long after that post, I got an early version from my publisher’s designers. I had some ideas, and ran them past a graphic designer friend at the Tribune, who came up with some tweaks. Five Star’s designers were wonderful to work with and in the end, I was pretty happy with the result. Many thanks to Deirdre and Chris Wait, and my colleague Shanna Novak. Here's the cover:
The First Six Weeks Are Like Hell
There’s a video (embedded below) of Joyce Carol Oates talking about writing. She says that she always starts with characters, and setting (which she also considers a character).
She says some stuff about the various personalities of dogs and cats and horses that I found a bit odd, as much as I love animals (Hi Edgar! – if you’re reading this, which, since you’re a dog, I guess you’re not).
She talks about writing her way into a novel by listening to the way the characters express themselves as she writes, and the desire that new writers feel to give up at this early stage.
She says, “I know, the first six weeks of writing a novel for me are like hell. I’m very unhappy and very frustrated, and actually very miserable. But I keep on going. ”
I don’t delight in her misery, but it is reassuring to know that this happens to everyone. Even Joyce Carol Oates, who probably wrote three short stories in the time it took me to write this sentence.
Facing the blank page is always challenging, but at the beginning of a story, the page is really blank. To help get past this, some people write detailed character biographies, others do free-writing exercises where they interview their characters, or where the characters interact with each other in scenes that probably won’t end up in the novel. And each of those techniques is great, if it works for you.
But there’s a fine line between “developing your characters” and procrastination, just as there is a fine line between “researching” and procrastination, or “plotting” and procrastination.
Eventually, you have to face the blank page. Eventually, your fingers have to push down on the little buttons with the letters on them, making words, and putting those words in order to make the sentences that comprise your novel.
Most writers*, no matter how prolific, will tell you that the beginning is hell. But you keep on going. And then you hit a point – page 20 or 30 or 50 – where you’ve got a handle on your characters, you understand their goals and problems, and you can see where they are headed and the obstacles in their path.
At that point, you love your story and you love your writing and the world is beautiful and you are a genius.
You know it won’t last, and it doesn’t. You cruise along for a while, then doubts arise and the voices in your head get louder, and by the time you hit the halfway point in your manuscript, something breaks in your head and you become convinced that you’ve written the worse POS in the history of writing, and that there is no way to fix it.
And, somehow, you get past that little bump in the road.
But today I’m focusing on the first bump, at the beginning. I recently got an email from an aspiring novelist who wanted to know about finding an agent. I asked him if he’d finished his book, and he answered at length about all the research he’d done. I asked again if the novel was finished.
He hadn’t even started.
You must start. Like Ms. Oates, you will be “very unhappy and very frustrated and actually very miserable.” But if you want to write a novel, you must start. And you must keep going.
As Bugs Bunny said, “Watch out for that first step. It’s a doozy!”
*changed from "every writer" - see comments.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Once Upon a Time in Iran
by Libby Hellmann
Not long ago I went to a high school reunion and talked to a classmate I hadn’t kept up with since graduation. She was one of those people you're not friends with, but you aren't enemies; we just traveled in different circles. For some reason (maybe because I was published, maybe not) she came up to me and said she wanted to tell me her story. Naturally I said sure and grabbed a glass of wine. We sat down in a corner.
From high school she went on to college where she became an activist against the Vietnam war. A few years later she met a young Iranian man who was studying in the US. They fell in love, she married him, and they moved to Tehran. There was only one problem. It was 1978, and within a year, the Islamic revolution shattered their world. She observed first-hand the optimism and hope that first accompanied the fall of the Shah, the gradual realization that the freedom and democracy Iranians had hoped for wasn’t coming, the rise of fundamental Islam, the oppressive dictates of Sharia law.
As a sophisticated young woman raised in America, she especially chafed at the restrictions on women. After a while, she found the situation intolerable and begged her husband to let her go home. He refused. And since a woman needs her husband’s permission to legally leave the country, she became a virtual prisoner. Ultimately, she couldn’t even leave the house without his permission.
Somehow she managed to get herself smuggled out of Iran and into Turkey where she eventually made her way back to the US. In some ways, her story is similar to Not Without My Daughter but in her case there were no children involved.
End of story, right?
No. Last fall I’d just finished DOUBLEBACK and was casting around for my next book. My former classmate’s story -- and the issues it raised kept picking at me: a powerless woman, an epic revolution, international politics, and conflict in all sorts of permutations – it wove a powerful spell. I couldn’t resist, so I fictionalized her story, added a murder, and started to write.
I’m just about half way through, and the recent post-election events in Iran have mesmerized me. I’ve been following them on Twitter (btw, Marcus, Twitter has more than proved itself in my mind). In fact, I feel as if I’ve stepped into a time warp. The revolution 30 years ago was extensively covered and written, and there's a wealth of information-- and novels -- about it, but seeing the passion of today’s protestors is unsettling. We all know what happened after the protests then, and it seems to be happening again.
I am in touch with several Iranians who now live in the US. As you might expect, their reactions have been cautious, even jaded. Most feel that because the power is now disbursed among the mullahs, not concentrated as it was under the Shah, any real hope of change is illusory. At the same time, the mullahs are divided --some champion reform, some don't. So, underneath the cynicism, I sense a kernel of hope. How can there not be? The cycle has begun again, and even if nothing happens immediately, it’s clear that the repressive nature of Islamic fundamentalism is fraying.
For the sake of my Iranian friends, as well as everyone involved in today’s post-election protests, I continue to watch and hope for a happy ending. Meanwhile, I'm going back to finish my classmate's story.
Btw, if anyone wants to know what life in Iran was like just before the fall of the Shah, I highly recommend ROOFTOPS OF TEHRAN by Mahbod Seraji. It’s a compelling story, and beautifully written. We’ll be hearing a lot more from Seraji.
Enough from me... what do you think about it all?
And Glad News
The 13th annual Barry Awards nominations for books published in 2008 include our dynamic duo. Nominee for Best Novel is TRIGGER CITY by Sean Chercover, and for Best Thriller GOOD PEOPLE by Marcus Sakey.
Friday, June 19, 2009
Sad, sad news
I'm extremely sad to report that Edward S. Gilbreth has passed away. Ed reviewed mysteries and crime novels for the Sun-Times for many years, after a distinguished career in the newspaper business. Ed was the most wonderful reviewer you could hope to have discuss your book. He was deeply well-read in the field, but more important, because he knew what was out there, he was fair. Ed liked certain books more than others for his own reading--who doesn't?--but when he reviewed your book, you wouldn't know whether it was his cup of oolong or not. He could say that it was a good book of its type. I wish there were a thousand others like him.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
The End is Near
The man named Panic
By Laura Caldwell
I have a book due on July 1. In the past, I have written fiction. I have written mysteries, thrillers, chick-lit novels, magazine pieces and legal articles. This current project, however, is my first book-length work of nonfiction. It's about a young man I represented in a murder trial a few years ago, along with my friend, Catharine O'Daniel, the well-respected criminal defense lawyer who did all the heavy lifting. The book is about a fight the young man saw and walked away from in his Southwest Chicago neighborhood. It’s about how a man tragically died in that fight. It's about the young man's arrest and subsequent odyssey of justice—six years in a holding cell at 26 & Cal before receiving a trial. It's about the immense challenges and cruel realities of the Chicago criminal justice system. It's about starting over with nothing. It's about odd friendships and their profundities. Anyway, that is what I hope the book is about. I have been working on it for a while, but I can't tell if I'm getting it right.
The book, tentatively titled Unlikely (like it or hate it? I'd love to know), will be published by Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster. It’s my first book with them. Recently, in New York, my agent and I had drinks at the Hudson Hotel with my Free Press editor, Hilary Redmon. I asked her if I could turn in the manuscript a few days late, after the 4th of July holiday. I'll be at my house in Long Beach, Indiana over the 4th, and I imagined the final spit-shining I could give the manuscript after the 4th of July parade (comprised of decorated golf courts, kids in red wagons, and usually one guy - the guy from the neighborhood everyone loves - who dresses up, usually as a woman). I imagined I could squeeze in some editing around the beer-drinking /brat-eating festival on the lawn of the old school house or maybe before the late night fireworks. By then, I hope, the guy following me around will be gone.
This guy—no I take it back, this man—he has a name. It’s Panic. He won’t be ignored, this man. He lurks, reading over my shoulder as I'm typing my manuscript. He smirks at a lame phrase, gives a grudging nod after I revise it. He is behind me, too, while I'm teaching at law school, whispering in my ear that I should be back in my writing chair. When I invite a friend over for dinner or meet someone out for a drink, he isn't so polite. He doesn't whisper then. He shouts at me that I shouldn't be doing this. I shouldn't be doing anything, but writing, writing, writing the manuscript that is due in eighteen days.
When I close my bedroom door at night, he shakes his head at me and takes a seat at the foot of the stairs outside the room. We both know I won't forget him during sleep. We both know I'll wake up more than once, feeling him waiting out there. When I get up in the morning, he’ll stand again, ready to follow me around the rest of the day.
I do my best to ignore him, to act like he’s not following me, that I don't see him, don't feel him. If I were to let him in, to shake his hand and offer to listen to what he has to say, I know he would be belligerent, rattling off everything I should be doing to finish this manuscript, all the things I should be canceling. He even wants me to cancel events celebrating my new book—Red Hot Lies—because Panic is only about himself and his client, and his client is Unlikely, the book due July 1st. (No, July 6!) I ignore him because he and I disagree about his worth. He thinks he's integral to the book-writing process. He thinks he actually helps me get the manuscript done and done well. He won't listen to me telling him to stay the hell away, to go lurk around someone who needs him, like maybe a senator in Springfield, trying to manage the Illinois budget. Come to think of it, the senator doesn't need him either. I can't send Panic his way. I wouldn’t transfer him to my worst enemy. He’s that scary. And so he will haunt me. He will lurk and whisper until the manuscript is done. And then I will send it off to my editor with a jaunty, hopeful email that mentions nothing, absolutely nothing, about him.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Excerpt: THE AMATEURS
I'm in Los Angeles researching my next novel, so today I thought I'd leave you with something a little different: an excerpt from my upcoming novel, THE AMATEURS, which hits August 6th. It's short, just a teaser prologue, but I thought you might enjoy.
Also, I did decide to give Twitter a try--if you're interested, follow me at http://twitter.com/MarcusSakey.
Later, Jenn Lacie would spend a lot of time trying to pinpoint the exact moment.
There was a time before, she was sure of that. When she was free and young and, on a good day, maybe even breezy. Looking back was like looking at the cover of a travel brochure for a tropical getaway, some island destination featuring a smiling girl in a cream sundress and a straw hat standing calf-deep in azure water. The kind of place she used to peddle but had never been.
And of course, there was the time after.
So it stood to reason that there had to be a moment when the one became the other. When blue skies bruised, the water turned cold and the undertow took her.
Had it been when they first met Johnny Love, that night in the bar?
Maybe. Though it felt more like when she’d opened the door at four a.m., bleary in a white T-shirt and faded cotton bottoms. She’d known it was Alex before she looked through the peephole. But the tiny glass lens hadn’t let her see his eyes, the mad energy in them. If she hadn’t opened the door, would everything be different?
Sometimes, feeling harder on herself, she decided, no, the moment came after the four of them did things that could never be taken back. Not just when they decided; not even when she felt the pistol, the oily heaviness of it making something below her belly squirm, a strange but not entirely uncomfortable feeling. Like any birth, maybe her new life had come through blood and pain. Only it hadn’t been an infant’s cry that marked the moment. It had been a crack so loud it made her ears hum, and a wet spattering cough, and the man shuddering and staring as his eyes zeroed out.
But late at night, the sheets a sweaty tangle, her mind turning relentless carnival loops, she wondered if all of that was nonsense. Maybe there hadn’t been a moment. Maybe that was just a lie she told herself to get through the day, the way some took Xanax and some drank scotch and some watched hour after numbing hour of sitcoms.
Maybe the problem hadn’t come from outside. Hadn’t been a single decision, a place where they could have gone left instead of right.
Maybe the road the four of them walked never had any forks to begin with.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
But hey, this is a blog about writing, so here goes.
An interesting thing has happened to the current novel I am writing. Not the one coming out in September—The Hidden Man—but the one for 2010, with the working title Pretenders. I started writing that novel last summer and fall, with an eye toward finishing by year’s end and before the new General Assembly session in January, 2009. Then a funny thing happened: Rod Blagojevich was arrested on December 9, 2008, and I was thrust into the impeachment of our governor. The novel stopped in its tracks.
Ironically, the novel I was (am) writing is about political corruption. It was loosely based on what I saw happening around me. Pay-to-play corruption, that kind of thing. I thought it would be interesting for people to see how these things happen, from the viewpoint of someone who was watching it from a distance, but not much of a distance.
But selling a senate seat to the highest bidder? “I’ve got this thing and it’s f---in’ golden?” Extorting the Chicago Tribune to fire its editorial board? I mean, people, you can’t make this stuff up. Our idiot governor actually trumped me. He made the scandal I was writing about look like a jaywalking ticket.
That’s part of my problem, the effect of external circumstances. I'm the guy who convicted Blagojevich, so when I write a book about a crooked governor, people are going to be expecting to read about what I experienced. I have touched on political corruption in the past with my novels, but I have never gotten too close to fact. I write a fictional city, not Chicago and not Illinois, so I can distance my characters from real politicians, many of whom I know. I keep a distance, in short. And that’s going to be difficult here. If I write too close to truth, I violate my rule. If I don’t, I disappoint some readers.
But that’s only part of it. I mean, I’m a grown-up, I can work through that problem. The other problem is this write-what-you-know concept. I definitely know how to write about political corruption, but maybe I am too close to it. I am too demanding of myself when it comes to this topic. I want it to be too perfect. Tell me to write about a cop, and though I’ve never been one, I can research and ask questions and, frankly, avoid anything that I don’t know well enough and make it work. But political corruption—I have to do this just right, and I am struggling to hit it right on the head. I have hit the “delete” button and cussed like a truck driver more than ever before as a writer.
I am writing about this in part because it’s mildly cathartic, and I thank you for letting my lie on your couch. And don’t take this as self-pity. My assumption is that this roller coaster I am on will result in the best novel I have ever written. I’m not sure why I think that; something about the investment I have made in it, I suppose.
And as frustrating as this is for me, I also find this experience to be fascinating. It makes perfect sense to write about an area in which you have expertise; we authors do it all the time and I am no different. But how close is too close? How do you set boundaries? I have never confronted this before. It’s like I am at war with myself. I am competing with a real-life experience.
I wish I had a snappy conclusion to this blog. I don’t. I am fighting through it and probably boring my lovely wife to tears complaining about it. (When I say I don’t talk about existing writing projects, my wife is the exception; she has the good fortune of hearing me whine. I should nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize.)
I have enjoyed reading the other authors on this blog, particularly when we talk about the craft. I have learned a lot, and I offer this as another experience of the wretched, the depraved, the lonely, the insane—the novelist. When I work through this, I promise (threaten?) to let you know. And if anyone has any thoughts for me, by all means …..
Monday, June 15, 2009
Tripping down Halsted St to study DNA
On June 10th, the Illinois Academy of Criminology (IAC) held its Spring Institute at UIC. The program was on DNA, a subject dear to the hearts of many crime writers. Since the round-trip bus fare was less than half the parking fee, I let the CTA be my chauffeur.
I don’t do nothing well, so when I couldn’t see the # 65 bus coming down Grand Avenue, I started walking toward the Halsted Street bus stop. You always know when you do that, the bus will fly past you mid-block. Which is just what happened. But the walk gave me the chance to note a few interesting things along the way.
The view from the bridge over the Chicago River:
This could save your hero’s life if he/she fell/was pushed into the river. Or it could snag a corpse.
A pair of like-new shoes abandoned against the bridge railing:
There’s a story there. Or at least a clue.
And who knows what might occur at the Funky Buddha Lounge?
As I expected, the #65 bus passed me midway between home and Halsted, but the #8 Halsted bus was waiting when I arrived at the stop.
Halsted is an interesting street. Farther North, it winds through Cabrini Green, Yuppie Lincoln Park and Guppie Lake View. From Grand south, it transects Greek Town, crosses I-290 and the Blue Line, and passes through the UIC campus on its way toward the South Side. You could do a series set just on Halsted, or at least Winesburg Ohio collection of shorts.
Spring Institute speakers Garry Bombard, Ph.D., Detective James Hennigan, retired CPD Superintendent Matt Rodriguez, ASA Mark Ertler, and Cecelia Doyle, ILSPCL.
The DNA seminar was hosted by former CPD Superintendent Matt Rodriguez, who told the audience that the FBI lab started in an old lounge in 1932 with a sink, a microscope and a machine for examining the threading in gun barrels. Today, the lab at Quantico VA employs more than 600 people and hosts the National DNA Index System (CODEX), the world’s largest repository of DNA samples. (Visitors are usually underwhelmed by the small room in which CODEX resides, with it’s banks of interconnected computers.) In 2002, the FBI processed 5,000 DNA samples per year. By 2010, they expect to process 90,000 per month.
Mark Ertler, the Assistant States Attorney who supervises Cook County’s DNA review, explained that DNA is involved in three areas of law enforcement. In investigations, it is especially useful in solving cold cases. In addition to exonerating persons wrongfully convicted of crimes, evidence collected before DNA analysis came into widespread use is now being tested and found to implicate offenders arrested for subsequent crimes.
DNA isn’t always the answer. During trials, DNA is useful if available, but “If you don’t have DNA in an assault case, you’d better be able to explain why.” The “CSI effect” is also a problem for prosecutors—jurors expect to hear DNA testimony. There is also a developing area of law connected with DNA databases. In Illinois, all convicted felons are required to submit DNA samples to CODIS, but if an individual’s DNA is in CODIS, will it prejudice the jury? Some prosecutors tell jurors the defendant’s DNA was found in a database without mentioning which database, allowing jurors to assume the reference is to CODIS. Defense attorneys are increasingly asking that DNA evidence be tested by their own labs or with a defense expert present. The former demand raises chain of custody issues, the latter shuts down the state lab for the time the independent expert observes. (For privacy reasons, no other testing can be done while outsiders are present.) Defendants’ rights are also a consideration when DNA testing comes up. A bill stalled in the Illinois legislature would require DNA testing of everyone arrested for a felony; some states have already enacted such laws. But since citizens are considered innocent until proven guilty, this raises constitutional and privacy concerns. In Illinois, the crime lab works for law enforcement agencies, but the question could be raised to whom does the evidence belong?
The latest hot uses of DNA in forensics are mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), and Y-STR DNA, which is only contributed by the male chromosome and, consequently, is especially useful for solving rapes. In all DNA cases, the Frye test applies—a court must determine of the test is generally accepted in scientific communities. Y-STR testing has passed in Illinois.
Other issues that come up in DNA testimony are the use of abandoned DNA—DNA left somewhere by a suspect and not given to law enforcers voluntarily or by court order; Red herrings—DNA left at a scene earlier by someone not involved with the case; and opinion testimony by non-experts—testimony by managers of companies to which DNA testing was outsourced. These individuals may have supervised the testing but didn’t perform the tests themselves. Their testimony would seem to be unconstitutional, since defendants are guaranteed the right to cross-examine witnesses. Whoever testifies, outsourcing tests to a private lab is problematic because it may cost up to $2,000 per occurrence for the witness to testify.
Cecelia Doyle, Chief of the biochemistry Section or the Illinois State Police Crime Lab (ILSPCL), explained the difference between real life and TV with respect to DNA testing. In reality, DNA cannot “prove” a defendant guilty. DNA evidence can link a victim to a suspect or crime scene; a suspect to a victim; or two separate crime scenes to each other. It’s up to the prosecution to “prove” the defendant’s guilt.
Evidence comes to the lab as a “biology case” and is first examined to determine if it is likely to yield DNA. About 60% of items become DNA cases. Turnaround time for processing is affected by a number of factors: the number of samples; mixtures vs. straight profiles; the amount of sample provided. Rush/high priority cases (heater cases in CPD cop speak) can take two to three weeks for a small case (two samples + two standards). If the sample size is limited, the case may take two to three weeks. If numerous samples and standards are involved, the whole process will take longer. Every case is peer reviewed. Higher priority cases are supervisor reviewed. Very high priority cases are reviewed by special experts. All tests are done using clean techniques. Unlike on CSI, ILSPCL researchers wear gloves whenever they are in the lab. When processing evidence, they wear gloves, masks, and clean lab coats with sleeve covers. VISITORS ARE NOT ALLOWED IN THE LAB. ILSPCL has a ”scrape-down room” for examining clothes and bedding for body fluids.
Ms. Doyle reported that CODIS has state, local and National levels (ENDIS), which receive DNA data from 170 labs in 25 countries. The ILSPCL has its own case work data base. Other data bases to which law enforcement may refer are the convicted offender database (everyone convicted of a violent felony in IL); the missing persons database; the unidentified human remains database; the biological relatives of missing persons database; and (in some states) arrestees databases. CODIS hits are not part of the chain of evidence, so if someone in CODIS is implicated in a crime, a new sample must be collected from the individual with a chain of custody maintained. DNA casework is now automated; biological examinations cannot be. ILSPCL is working toward a 30 day turnaround for both.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (MN BCA) does mtDNA testing (also used for paternity tests) where necessary, because they have the set-up for it. MtDNA testing is very labor intensive.
Crime lab quality assurance standards are set by the National Academy of Sciences. ILSPCL is audited annually for quality of data, integrity of testing results and interpretation, and qualifications of personnel. Before they are allowed to work on their own, employees must have a 4-year physical science degree; a clean life style (and pass drug and background tests); must pass a lie detector test; have one to three years of formal training; and a period of supervised casework analysis.
[Other IAC Spring Institute speakers were CPD cold case detective, James Hennigan, and Garry Bombard, Ph.D., Chief of forensics Studies at Loyola University about which more in a later blog.]
Friday, June 12, 2009
Walkie Talk and Tambourine
Several months after Cast of Shadows was published I was doing a signing and a woman approached with the (16-hour) unabridged audiobook version of the novel. She took an excited breath and grinned and I gave her a gracious smile in anticipation of the kind words she seemed to be assembling in her head.
She got to the table and pushed the box out for me to sign and said, "I can't wait to get to this book--I listen to everything Scott Brick reads."
In the following months I had many similar encounters with readers. Usually they would say something like, "How were you able to get Scott Brick to narrate your novel?" I had to tell them I had nothing to do with it, but I was certainly grateful the person who did sought out one of the legends of audiobooks to read my work. Scott reads for Harlan Coben, Nelson DeMille, Clive Cussler, Preston and Child, Joe Finder, Barry Eisler, Steve Berry, and David Baldacci. He did the audiobook for Michael Pollan's bestseller In Defense of Food and worked on the upcoming 40-hour version of Roberto Bolaño's 2666. He narrates the Dune series. Scott has recorded over 400 novels in just the last ten years, and won more than 40 Earphones Awards. I can't even estimate the number of readers who discovered my work only because they are a fan of Scott's.
This month, Scott is running an unusual and exciting contest over at his web site. To celebrate his tenth anniversary in the audiobook business, Scott is holding (for lack of a better term) Audiobook Idol.
Voice acting takes a special gift and audiobook narration is something like an Ironman competition--it requires a versatility and endurance not everyone has. I imagine it's a difficult field to break into. But for the rest of June, Scott is inviting aspiring narrators to send him a three-minute demo in the form of an MP3 file. The winner will receive personal instruction from Scott, followed by actual recording work from a number of major publishers. The judges will include representatives from some of the biggest publishers in the business, including Random House Audio, Audible.com, Harper Collins Audio, Books on Tape and more.
I produced hundreds of voiceovers in my advertising years and I can tell you that not everyone with a pleasing voice is cut out for this work. But if you think you might have the storytelling gift, I've never seen an opportunity quite like this.
Tell a good story well and it might change your life.