Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Every now and then I turn on Dr. Phil for company while I do some chore that doesn’t require concentration. Dr. Phil is primarily an entertainer, but like Oprah, he does more good than not. At any rate, the last time I "watched" he had a twenty-something woman on who was having trouble remembering details of her friends' lives. She worried that she was suffering memory impairment. Dr. Phil told her the problem wasn't with her memory, but with her attention. Trying to attend to too much at once can wreck havoc with one's ability to set down long term memories. To demonstrate, he had his audience all talk at once, then asked the woman what was being said. She couldn't say. Too much noise drowning out the signal.
It seems to me that our culture as a whole suffers from this malady. Texting while driving is only the most obvious symptom. When was the last time you went out for a beer or pizza and there weren't two or three TV sets blaring around the room? I had dinner with my son at Lou Malnati's last night, and although the sound was off, the constantly changing pictures on the TV screens were eye magnets that kept interrupting the calm flow of our conversation. A few months ago a friend and I dined at Maggiano's. We won't go there again. The music was Frank Sinatra, which I don't have strong feelings for or against, but it was loud enough to make conversing a challenge. Billboards today don't just shout out their messages, they flash them on giant screen TVs. Cars come equipped with DVD players--heaven forbid someone should have to pay attention to mere scenery, or start conversations with fellow passengers. And you can't get gas at many gas stations without being assailed by TV-talking gas pumps. Ads assault you on public buses and even in theaters where you pay large sums to see uninterrupted films. Everywhere the commercials are getting more strident in an attempt to be heard over the competition.
I may be an old curmudgeon, but I think many people keep the noise level up to avoid coming face to face with the strangers inside their own heads (and I'm not talking about schizophrenics here). I think silence is scary for many of us. But I also believe that people need quiet—visual quiet as well as the audio kind—in order to think clearly and remember things, in order to get to know themselves.
Am I wrong?
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Banned Books Week...
Yes, it's that time of year again. This is the week we turn our attention to the dunderheads who spend their time trying to get books banned from libraries and schools.
Truth is, we should be concerned about this every week, but with so many encroachments on our freedom these days, it is easy to forget about this particular threat.
If you think this is a small problem, you're mistaken. If you think it is a problem confined to the bible-belt states, you're mistaken.
Have a look at this map, which shows book bans and challenges from 2007-2009. Scary, isn't it?
Each year, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom records hundreds of attempts to have books removed from libraries and schools. Here are some of the most frequent targets:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Ulysses by James Joyce
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
1984 by George Orwell
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Native Son by Richard Wright
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Now, I guarantee you that the morons calling for book bans have not read Ulysses, but they want it banned just the same. And I'm sure they completely miss the irony of trying to ban 1984. It would be funny, if it weren't so damn scary.
Why scary? Because sometimes, they succeed.
What can you do about it? Check out these organizations:
First Amendment Center
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation For Free Expression
The ALA's Freedom To Read Foundation
I realize that many of you won't click through the above links, so here's another thing you can do to celebrate Banned Books Week. It's easy, fun, and rewarding.
Go to your local library and check out a book that is on the banned books list. Read it. Return it (on time).
That's it. This year, I'm re-reading George Orwell's 1984, and loving it all over again. Happily, it remains a terrific novel, and unhappily, it remains as relevant (perhaps more relevant) than when it was written, 60 years ago.
Finally, I leave you today with video of some misguided Puppet Book Banners:
Monday, September 28, 2009
And Now For Something Completely Different...
I’ve been fooling around with my webcam, mostly to prepare for the Poisoned Pen Virtual Webcon, (on October 24, for those who are interested – it promises to be a grand experiment, with Lee Child, Dana Stabenow, and more!) In the process I’ve discovered some interesting things. First off, know that I am NOT a techie. I’m barely computer literate. I’m the kind who just wants to know the time, not how the watch works.
So… I learned the webcam I bought – though it promised I could be Martin Scorsese -- didn’t come through. It records me out of sync, and it was only because a good friend took pity on me that it even approaches normalcy.
The other thing I learned has to do with performance. You’d think after working in TV news and video production for decades, I’d realize you do repeated takes for a reason. But no. I forgot, and it took at least a dozen takes to get a three minute video recorded. It’s still not perfect: you can catch a few instants of panic where I totally forget what’s coming next.
However, the main thing I learned is that this stuff is awesome! I’ve had Skype for a while, but now I have Skype video calls. I’ve had a way to record audio, but now I can record video. It really makes me want to go back to doing post-production, which was always the most creative and satisfying part of the video/film process for me. I’m leery of doing that, because knowing me, I’d spend all my time editing video and laying in special effects instead of writing. (sigh…) But it’s there, if I want it. Tantalizing and teasing me.
I’m about to go on tour in a week. Btw, those of you in Chicagoland are cordially invited to my launch party:
Sunday, October 11
Hanson Brothers Tavern
Shermer and Willow Rds.
OK. now that you're primed, here’s the video I recorded. It's about the ideas that triggered Doubleback.
If anyone has suggestions on what kind of webcam to get, or anything else, let’s hear them.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Life on Two Tracks, Michael Black, Guest Blogger
Michael A, Black has been a working police officer in various capacities in the south suburbs of Chicago for over thirty years. He has a BA in English from Northern Illinois University and an MFA in fiction writing from Columbia College, Chicago. The author of 14 books, his first novel featuring Chicago based private detective Ron Shade, A Killing Frost, came out in hardcover in 2002. It was subsequently released in paperback in 2007. He's written two novels with television star Richard Belzer (Law & Order SVU). Black also writes a police procedural series featuring the investigative team of Francisco "Frank" Leal and Olivia "Ollie" Hart. The second book in that series, Hostile Takeovers, came out in September 2009. He has been a friend of Sara Paretsky and other members of the Chicago Outfit for years and says he is honored to take Sara's spot with this guest blog.
When you’re a cop your life is lived on two tracks. There’s the long haul track that stretches out over time, pausing occasionally to twist you into the knots that everyone is subjected to during the trials and tribulations of modern living. Then there’s the short track, which unfolds in little vignettes, often tragic, often funny, and sometimes violent. When I wrote Hostile Takeovers I had hopes to capture a cop’s view of those two tracks. Sometimes these vignettes can unfold in an instant, and sometimes in bits and pieces leading up to a confrontation. But you know they’re coming, you just don’t know when.
I’d been working midnights and the roll calls over the past few weeks had briefed us on this robbery crew. Three male blacks that were hitting guys as they were coming out of bars, taking their wallets and forcing them into the trunks of their cars. The bad guys then drove around for a while and then abandoned the cars, with the victims still inside. Like most such briefing notices, I filed this one away and went out on patrol. This particular shift unfolded into the usual Saturday night activities: suspicious autos, loud subjects, bar disturbances, domestics, traffic accidents . . .
It was about three-fifteen in the morning and the bars were letting out. Traffic had picked up slightly and I was parked in a closed gas station on a rather busy street, finishing an accident report, with two motorists in the back of my squad car. It was late autumn and the night was cool, but not yet settling into the winter chill that was just around the corner. Suddenly a guy came running up to my squadcar with a panicked look on his face.
“Officer, I’ve just been robbed,” he said.
I asked him where this had happened and he pointed toward the street. About 100 yards away, under the train viaduct, I saw a car sitting in the middle of the street.
“That your car?” I asked.
“No, it’s theirs,” the victim said. “They rear-ended me and took mine. And I think there’s somebody in the trunk.”
I ordered the two guys from the traffic accident out of my squad and I called it in as went down to check the other ride. Sure enough, the car that had rear-ended this new guy had someone in the trunk who quickly related that three black guys had come up to him as he was leaving a bar, robbed him, and made him get into the trunk of his car. The informational bits from the past several roll calls came rushing back to me and I knew who these guys were. Moreover, this had just happened so I was sure they were still in the area.
As more units arrived at the scene we spread out, setting up a perimeter and slowly closing the circle. As I rode down those deserted side streets looking for the car with the smashed-in trunk everything felt intensified . . . Silent, yet teeming with deadly potential. Down the street I heard the distinctive sound of several shots. I zoomed forward. It was our robbery crew, and after a brief shoot-out they surrendered. I still had the adrenaline rush as I moved up and handcuffed one of them. The guy looked to be only about seventeen or eighteen. We had recovered their gun, the proceeds, and the second victim’s car in about ten minutes. I didn’t see the robbers again until the case came up in court, and then it was rather brief. They were wearing DOC orange and took the plea bargain for a couple of years in the joint.
I still remember how that little vignette unfolded, with crisp images and sudden violence on that fast track. I wanted to try and capture that, as well as the trials and tribulations of the longer track of life in a book. Like my previous Leal and Hart novel, Random Victim, Hostile Takeovers contains a lot of stuff that happened to me and to officers I know. One of the highest compliments paid to me was from another copper whom I greatly respect.
“You got it right,” he said.
I hope that those of you who read the novel will think so too.
PS Having included one of his short stories in the anthology Chicago Blues, I can attest that Mike gets it right... all the time!
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Reality TV about Novelists?
For years, I used to mock reality TV. Then I started watching things like Top Chef and Project Runway, and I was hooked. This week, I saw The September Issue, a reality documentary about Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue magazine, which follows her and her posse as she shapes the September version of Vogue, their biggest issue annually. You wouldn't think that putting together a magazine would be that exciting , but the documentary makers did a great job. Which got me to thinking –why aren't there reality TV shows about novel writers?
Now, I know what you're thinking: novelists essentially sit in their pajamas, glaring at their laptops, muttering things like, "He wouldn't say that. Damn it!" or, "God, that is so freaking stupid," as they hit the delete button. But as novel writers, we have to do much more if we're lucky enough to be published and in the occasional public eye.
So here's what I see for a reality TV show featuring wannabe novelists: While the show is taping, the contestants would have to finish a novel (or at least a novella, a book of about 50,000 words). The prize is publication with a top publisher. As they're writing their books, the contestants engage in tasks many authors do if they are fortunate enough:
- Give press interviews, sometimes to a fabulous magazine, sometimes to a grocery store newspaper in Dickeyville, Wisconsin where the writer is a freshman journalism student at the local community college.
- Perform book readings and signings. The way I see it, contestants would have to do readings and author events at bookstores where: 1) two people show and they're both family members; 2) Seventy people show (hey, it happens to at all of us every once in a great, great while, and you have to use a different skill set); and 3) eight people show—four of which are your friends, two of which simply want directions to the books on colon cleansing, and two of which have stumbled over from the bar next store and begin heckling you.
- Appearing on local television where the host thinks your book, Burning the Map, is a novel about map burning, asking, “Isn’t that like flag burning? It's illegal in some countries, right?”
- Doing an overnight radio appearance where the host continually directs the conversation to the size of your breasts, (or if you're a guy, to the size of your ... whatever).
- Driving in a car for hours to a Midwestern town to speak at what is purportedly a mystery writer's conference, but where you are asked to sit on a panel about romance in the sci-fi genre. (This happens more often than you think).
The list could go on and on. There are so many things both glorious and humiliating that authors experience which are visual and don't just involve us mumbling in front of our computers. So what do you say, should we get our own show? And what would we name it? Top Author? Top Dude-Who- Works-For-Five-Years-On-a-Book-Only-To-Have-3,253-People-Read-It-In-Hardcover? Whatever we call it, I’d watch it, would you?
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
The most important lessons are always the simplest ones. I sometimes think of that book “everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten” or whatever it was called. The basic rules for writing well are the same. I’ve written about some of them before. They’re not hard. They’re mostly obvious. And yet I continue to violate them. I continue to need reminders. And then, lucky you, I mention them in my blogs, assuming you might appreciate the reminders.
When I was face down in Springfield in 2007, buried under an avalanche of Rod Blagojevich attacking my boss Speaker Madigan (which by extension meant attacking me), and being forced to cancel my book tour for my fifth novel, I tried to explain to my publisher in New York about this crazy governor we had. “Then write about him,” they said. “It would be interesting to people.”
Well, fast-forward, yadda yadda yadda (if Elaine can yadda-yadda-yadda sex, I can yadda-yadda-yadda Blago), and now Rod has become a wee bit interesting-er.
All the more reason to write about him. So, my seventh novel, coming out next year, is about political corruption. I’ve written here before about it. I mentioned that it was weird writing about something to which I am so close. It still is, by the way, but that’s not my point here.
What is interesting in the development of this novel is not just that it’s not turning out as planned (mine never turn out as planned), but the way it’s diverted from the original specs. I had originally envisioned a book that chronicled a flawed man who became governor and didn’t know how to handle it. Yes, I would draw on the foibles of one Mr. Blago, but only as a launching point and nothing too on-the-nose. No matter, it seemed like a compelling topic on which to write.
And if I have any mind for marketing at all—I’m getting there, but trees grow slowly—I would capitalize on this impeachment that brought me some short-lived notoriety. Oh, and look: His criminal trial is coming up next summer, so it will be just in time for my book’s release!
All good, right? A cool idea and a built-in marketing plan?
Maybe not so good. Because I’m approaching the end, and it really isn’t all that much about a corrupt governor, after all. It’s much more about my series protagonist, Jason Kolarich, than it is about any of the corrupt public officials sprinkled in the novel.
And now I find myself trying to force a square Rod into a round hole. I’m not thinking about what’s best for the book. I’m allowing external forces to dictate my story. I’m thinking about what I “should” be writing about from an outsider’s point of view. I “should” be writing a character study of a governor like RRB, because I saw him up close and it’s what readers will expect.
It seems so obvious when I write it here: Write whatever’s best for the story. But I’ve spent the last two months or so essentially violating that rule. It took me much longer than it should have to realize that what readers “expect” is the best I have to offer. So I’ve liberated myself now and focused on what is the best story, regardless of how may cameos my flawed governor makes.
The most important lessons really are the simplest ones. I’m not sure why I keep forgetting them.
Monday, September 21, 2009
The endgame is in sight
A cop sent me a text message last Thursday morning asking whether I’d heard that some former Special Operation Section officers had just turned themselves in at the First District station. Immediately, I knew this would blow up my day at the Trib, where I and three other reporters have been busting our butts working on stories about Chicago’s Olympic bid.
I don’t cover the Chicago Police Department anymore, but this SOS scandal was a nearly full-time job for a couple years, and it’s not finished, so it’s still my case to cover.
Three years ago when the SOS scandal broke, there were seven cops charged with running a robbery and home invasion ring that netted them hundreds of thousands of dollars. They started out ripping off drug dealers—allegedly—but ended up preying on anybody who kept cash on hand and would think twice about complaining to the authorities (Read: undocumented Mexicans.)
I knew the case was big when I first heard all the charges back in September 2006. But the detail that really illustrated the magnitude of the SOS scandal was the news a few weeks into the case that more than a dozen officers were cooperating with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s investigation, including testifying before a grand jury.
Getting cops to testify against each other is no easy task. Getting a dozen to do it means something enormous is going on. Eventually the U.S. attorney and the FBI took over the SOS investigation.
So that text message last week was my first sign that the investigation is finally coming to a head. A couple hours later we were able to report that some of those dozen or so cooperating cops were finally surfacing. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-sos-plea-deals-18-sep18,0,5318911.story They all made deals with prosecutors back in 2006 that once the investigation was complete, they’d be charged in the case, plead guilty and get lenient sentences in exchange for their cooperation.
Four of them closed their deals last week—getting charged on Thursday and pleading guilty on Friday. Six months in jail, probation for a few years, their pensions gone. We hear there may be more in the coming weeks, and then the federal indictments will finally start coming down in the case. If there are convictions in federal court the sentences are likely to run into decades. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-sos-chargedsep20,0,1659077.story
It’s hard for a scandal to hold the public’s attention very long in this day and age, and Chicago has more than its share of malfeasance and corruption to offer new distractions. But this SOS mess is really a monster of a case. Its tentacles cost the last superintendent his job, prompted Mayor Daley to bring in an ex-FBI honcho whom the rank and file really hate. The case also has waylaid the careers of several cops who didn’t really do anything wrong.
I wrote about it here a couple months ago when some of the cops who got caught up in the fringes of the case got their badges back after two years of humiliating desk jobs. But the internal affairs investigator who tried to blow the whistle on the scandal back in 2004—Bridget McLaughlin--remains stripped of her police powers and answering phones for reasons that have never been clear.
The feds got into the case because there was some evidence that police brass were covering up for the SOS officers, ignoring the fact that over several years hundreds of people were making almost identical complaints—Officer Jerry Finnigan and others on his team were arresting them without cause, and then ransacking their cars and homes looking for drugs, guns and money. They’d write phony police reports to make it all look OK, and if they found money most of it would disappear.
One night Finnigan and two of the men who pleaded guilty last week caught a drug dealer with $450,000 in cash. They split it three ways—each man taking home $150,000 in cash that night, according to the two officers’ confessions. More than twice their annual salaries for each of them. In cash. In one night.
When I was writing about SOS regularly, people would always come up to me and say, “Do you watch ‘The Shield’? This is just like ‘The Shield.’” I never really watched the “The Shield” but I know the TV show was loosely based on the Rampart scandal in the LAPD. And I know that this SOS scandal is sort of like Rampart. Only bigger.
Most of the time their victims were Hispanic gang members, but somewhere along the way they started preying on people who weren’t crooks. Many of the court documents I’ve combed through show immigrant laborers, pulled over and handcuffed and then interrogated about where they kept cash. While they were held, some of the officers would ransack their houses while their families looked on in terror. They’d take cash, tools, anything of value. It went on for years.
Whenever I dig too deep into the SOS stuff, I have to take a step back and think about some of the cops I’ve met over the years covering the beat. The cops who are working side jobs and scrounging for overtime to pay Catholic school tuition.
I think of the cops who work in some of the most violent neighborhoods in America, the ones who show up at one murder scene after another trying solve crimes, trying restore some sense of law and order to the streets of Chicago. They’re the ones who see the drug money, who make the arrests and have the chance to stick a little in their pockets, but instead make sure every penny of it gets inventoried at the end of the night.
They’re the cops who say they’re fed up with this city, the hypocrisy and the corruption and the completely debased lives led by too many of its residents. They say they’ve had and they’re thinking about taking a soft job on some suburban department. Or moving out West.
But at the end of the day I know most of them can’t really imagine leaving this mess—and the job--behind. It’s the only family they’ve got.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Easy, You Know the Way It's Supposed To Be
We generally try to keep the self-promotion around here to a minimum, although we also try to give props and hoorays, not just to each other, but to other writers we like. The publishing business is fraught with jealousy and envy, but I've never seen a community that embraces the philosophy of "all boats rising together" the way the mystery/thriller/suspense family does.
In boating analogies, this season for The Outfit is like the Chicago to Mackinac race.
David Ellis's new book, THE HIDDEN MAN is out this month. The Chicago Tribune's Julia Keller had a terrific profile of David on the front page of the Live section in yesterday's paper. (BTW, I also took a year off from writing novels, although in my case you can cross out "directing the prosecution of a corrupt and unrepentant governor" and substitute "potty training.")
HARDBALL, the much-anticipated next installment of Sara Paretsky's beloved V.I. Warshawski series comes out next week ("Paretsky is in full Furies mode..." Marilyn Stasio says in this Sunday's NYT Book Review. "It’s a distinct pleasure to hear her unapologetically strident voice once again."). Libby Hellman's new novel DOUBLEBACK is out on October 1. Anyone who read Libby's EASY INNOCENCE has already pre-ordered, I assure you.
Laura Caldwell released three acclaimed Izzy McNeil novels this summer. I'll repeat that. RED HOT LIES came out June 1. RED BLOODED MURDER was released July 1. RED WHITE AND DEAD came out August 1. This is only marginally less difficult than having all your readers stand behind you and read over your shoulder while you type.
Barbara D'Amato is contributing to a book (with Jeanne Dams) called FOOLPROOF, out December 3. David Heinzmann's novel, A WORD TO THE WISE will be released December 9.
Sean Chercover's TRIGGER CITY has just been released on audio. You can download Marcus Sakey's most recent, THE AMATEURS at Audible as well.
But enough about us. What new and upcoming books are you excited about?
Oprah, Obama, Olympics, Oh My
On October 2, the International Olympic Committee will decide whether Chicago will host the 2016 Olympic Games. Michelle Obama will travel to Copenhagen to make a case for Chicago to act as host.
Over the last few weeks, friends have lobbied me, both for and against Chicago hosting the Olympics. As if I have any say in the matter. But they want to convince me their view is right.
Con: The traffic congestion downtown will be horrible.
Pro: Transportation has all been worked out. And yes, Oprah’s block party, arguably a dry run, seemed to go well. [Duh]
Con: the construction ahead of time is going to mess up the whole area. Well, I live nearby, and I can imagine it will be dusty and noisy.
Pro: Construction will create jobs. And the buildings will be useful later.
Con: somehow the taxpayers will get stuck with the bill.
Pro: Mayor Daley says donors and developers are already lined up.
Actually, our own David Heinzmann is an expert on this, and I know next to nothing, so I’ll leave it at that. Opinions differ. But do I think some people are going to make a lot of gray money from this? Uh, yes.
Pro: it will showcase Chicago as a world class city. The events and Chicago’s many real excellences will be seen around the world—our incomparable architecture, our lovely lake, our parks.
Con: Who needs it?
And that’s an interesting question.
Is it worth it? When you see Chicago on the news worldwide—and for something other than yet another governor heading off to prison—does it make you feel proud to live in Chicago?
Does it make your heart beat faster?
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
We could have Googled Morris...
Morris, IL. But what fun is that? When My sister asked me to go with her to the central Illinois town to check out antiques stores and look up a woman she’d heard about at an estate sale, I was game. I’m always game to go on some expedition that will let me put off writing for another day. I did look the town up on MapQuest. And Dorothy brought her Garmin. And a scrap of paper with all the information she had on the woman we were looking for.
What Dorothy’d found out from Mr. Wood, the man from whom she’d bought an old fashioned paper cutter originally from Madge's Shoppe, was that his aunt Madge had owned the Morris, IL, store, and that she’d died some time ago. And Madge’s husband’s name was Ernest Fessler. That should be enough to find somebody in this day and age. Right?
We started off by ignoring the Garmin and taking I-90/94 S to The Stevenson (I-55) because any fool could see a diagonal is shorter than two sides of a rectangle. (Turns out I was lucky with that guess.) If you take I-55 S to I-80 W, then go south on IL-47, you can’t miss Morris. IL-47 runs right through the east side.
When we got into town, our first stop was the public library. Actually, our first stop was at the intersection of Liberty and Jackson Streets where The Glass Castle antique shop and The White Elephant resale shop drew my sister in. I checked those out quickly, then went across the intersection to Buy the Book, where I found a 1940 edition of John J. O’ Connell’s Modern Criminal Investigation. Meanwhile, Dorothy examined the Glass Castle thoroughly.
We then proceeded to the library. With help from an anonymous lady researcher—who stopped her own work to help us use the library’s old telephone directories—we found the address for Madge’s Shoppe—108 E Jefferson Street. (It's now an insurance agency.) The phone numbers were so old they only had four digits! Our research guide suggested we next consult Deborah Steffes, coauthor of Morris: A Nostalgic Portrait, who works at the Grundy County Historical Museum. Sounded like a plan.
On our way to the museum, we stopped for lunch at Weits Café, 213 Liberty Street. It was hard to find; the big sign over the front sidewalk was completely hidden by a large tree and the windows were obscured by blinds. We passed it twice before we gave up searching for a restaurant and looked for a street number.
Weits had been recommended by the White Elephant’s owner as being an old time diner with great food. It was. Oil cloth tablecloths and little vases of flowers on the tables, photos and murals of historic buildings on the walls. None of the patrons looked to be under 70. Janice the waitress, a friendly, mature woman, served us coffee in mugs that touted “John W. Callahan, Grundy County Coroner,” with a phone number on the back for the “Medication & Sharps” Take Back Program. (When I asked if I could buy one, Janice gave one to me.) We asked Janice if she’d known Madge Fessler—she hadn’t, but she then asked her other patrons if anyone had known Madge, and a very sweet older woman volunteered that her mother had bought baby clothes at Madge’s Shoppe. She also informed us the shop was originally located on Main Street.
When this lovely stranger left the Cafe, she told us we'd convinced her to visit the Historical Museum. Which she did, because she called the restaurant from there to ask Janice to tell us the museum was closing shortly and we'd better hurry if we wanted to get in.
We made it with 15 minutes to spare. I took pictures while Dorothy looked up Deborah Steffes. Ms. Steffes started to give us instructions for using the library's catalogs to find the Fesslers, then she told us it would be easier if we met her at the library so she could show us.
Twenty minutes later, she was digging up microfiche rolls of old newspaper articles for us—Madge's obituary; a paragraph stating that in 1929, "Ernest Fessler bought four lots west of McCormick's Garage" for the purpose of erecting "refreshment and lunch houses"; and a marriage announcement stating that "Miss Madge Wood and Ernest Fessler went to Chicago" to be married. And "They went alone." We also found from Madge's obituary that she died in 1981 and that her parents were Stephen and Maria Wood.
Ms. Steffes showed us a catalog of the graves in Mt. Carmel Cemetery and located the plot numbers of the Wood Family. (Since the Wood Family are all buried in the Catholic Cemetery and the Fesslers aren’t, it's a fair guess that she was a Catholic and he wasn't. And her family didn't approve.)
Having discovered all she could from the library's materials, Ms. Steffes took her leave, and Dorothy and I asked a librarian if we could use the computer to find the address of Mt. Carmel Cemetery. As she was looking it up, one of her colleagues offered to lead us there in her car; it was very near the subdivision where she lives.
Which is how we found the Cemetery, and the gravesites of the Wood family including Madge's parents.
One of the many wonderful people who'd helped us to this point, suggested that if we couldn't find Madge and Ernest in Mt. Carmel, we might find them in the Evergreen Cemetery. We were on the way to the police station to ask directions, and we'd parked across the street from it, in front of the Fruland Funeral Home, when it occurred to us that the funeral home staff would be more familiar with cemeteries than the cops would. We went inside and met Funeral Director Ken Gauthier, a man as helpful as all the other people we'd met so far. Ken hadn't heard of the Fesslers, but he called Sue, at the Evergreen Cemetery, and asked about them. To our amazement, she not only found them in her directory, but gave Ken detailed directions on how to locate the graves. And Ken not only relayed those directions, but drew us maps!
Which is how we found Madge Wood Fessler and her husband Ernest.
And had a wonderful adventure in Morris. Which would make a terrible mystery as there were no setbacks and almost no drama. And why I recommend Morris as an incredibly friendly town.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Writing in Slow Motion
After I wrote about Richard Poirier, and his desire that we "read in slow motion," I started thinking about all the things that are better done slowly.
Nicole Hollander once did a Sylvia episode that shows the devil offering a man "life in the fast lane" in exchange for his soul: "Fast cars, fast women, fast food."
The Slow Food movement encourages us to savor what we eat, and pay attention to it, instead of wolfing down a burger and fries on the run.
I have to do about 40 minutes of exercises every morning so that my neck--seriously injured in a car accident a few years back--feels good enough to get me through the day. I have to do them slowly, so I can be attentive to what my body is doing--do them too fast, and I can exacerbate the injury.
And finally, there's writing. Everyone writes at her or his own pace, in our own way. For some people, that means they're incredibly prolific. Two people in the Outfit write three or even four books a year. They may be gifted, or perhaps afflicted, with what Edgar Allen Poe called, "The Midnight Disease," a compulsion to write that's so overwhelming that they're unable to turn it off. Most sufferers actually only write gibberish, but a handful, like Poe himself, or Robert Louis Stevenson, turn the disease into enduring literature. Stevenson wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a week -- and that was by hand. So hats off to Marcus and Laura for joining that fast-working company.
For most of us, though, slow writing is how we work best. That's certainly true for me: thinking through the story, discarding it when it isn't working, living with characters until they come to life--it takes me much longer than it did Stevenson, and I couldn't do that if I had to write on a treadmill, churning out so many pages a day.
Everything in America works in the opposite direction, though--we're supposed to text as we commute--however dangerous it is, and however much it leads to anomie, because we need to do more faster. Eat while we commute, read, write, everything, done all at once, faster, faster, faster. Regardless of the pleasure we lose along the way, both as readers and as writers, the publishing industry seems to think that if we're not churning out texts at top speed, we'll lose our audience and our market. For some reason, losing readers because we've let ourselves be bullied into being sloppy writers never seems to be a consideration .
Well, to quote the incomparable Lily Tomlin, "The problem with the Rat Race is, even if you win, you're still a rat."
So--fast or slow, write at your own pace, try to keep some semblance of sanity in these perilous times. Flaubert spent five years writing Madame Bovary, and we still read it today.
Now Hear This...
I talked last time about how seeing Trigger City in paperback made the book feel more real to me. A few days later, my friend Jared sent me an email, letting me know that he'd seen the paperback on the racks at his local Wegmans supermarket in upstate NY.
Wow. To my knowledge, this is the first time I've been in supermarkets. My books, I mean (I'm in supermarkets all the damn time). It's quite a thrill.
Then another very exciting thing happened. Audible.com made Trigger City and Big City Bad Blood available on audio. How cool is that?
Very cool, as it turns out.
The narrator is Joe Barrett, an incredibly talented reader who has also recorded important books like A Prayer For Owen Meany. So when I downloaded the books, I knew I was in for a treat.
I've often talked in general terms about how I see the novel as a collaboration between the author and the reader. This is why over-writing is so deadly; there isn't room for the reader to fully participate.
No two readers read the same book. Each brings her own experiences, attitudes, values, and prejudices to the experience. Each reads with his own inflections. And this is really brought home when you listen to an audiobook that you wrote.
Listening to a talented, professional reader's interpretation of my books was an eye-opener. At first, there were moments when the nervous writer in me wanted to say, "Wait! That's not the way I heard that line in my head when I wrote it!" Or, "That's not the accent I heard in my head!" Like some insecure screenwriter storming the set and giving line-readings to the actors. But Barrett's performance was so good that I soon just let go and went along for the ride.
I don't normally re-read what I've written after it has been published, but listening to it was a hell of a lot of fun. And it confirmed my ideas about the collaboration between writer and reader.
So big thanks to Joe Barrett and all the fine folks at Audible.com.
Oh, and I should also mention that Libby's excellent Easy Innocence also recently became available at Audible.
Finally, I leave you today with Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros:
Sunday, September 13, 2009
I Have Always Depended on the Kindness of Mystery Writers
Over the weekend the Chicagoland Sisters in Crime chapter sponsored a one-day conference in Schaumburg, a Chicago suburb. It was a lovely event, and the hard work Annie Chernow and librarian Susan Gibberman invested was appreciated. Any time they let us out of our cages to interact with people, it’s a plus.
As authors, we were treated to lunch and during the meal a group of us sat together. Normally we talk gossip and shop: who’s publishing, the future of publishing houses, bookstores, the impact of e-books, or the Biscottes they serve on Northwest Airlines. This time, though, it was different, and it’s one of the reasons I love being part of the mystery community.
I don’t think I’m talking out of school to say that Outfiteer Laura Caldwell brought up a plot problem with the mss she’s currently writing. As she described it, suddenly all of us started brainstorming possible solutions. One of us came up with one idea, someone else had another, and finally, someone else (OK, it was Joe Konrath) came up with an idea that we all said, “Yes. That will work!” Laura said, “OMG, I never thought of that!” Problem solved.
That emboldened me, and I described a problem I was having in my mss. Before I'd even finished, people were firing suggestions. I was reminded that my protagonist has to be active, not passive, and that the motivation for murder has to be carefully crafted. You know that moment when someone gives you an idea, and you know unquestionably that it’s the right one? Well, that happened, and I found a way around my problem.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been rescued by other authors. A few years ago Michael Dymmoch, Barb D’Amato, and I were driving to Indianapolis for an event. At the time I was going through a divorce and my best friend was dying of cancer. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I’d written myself into a corner. They spent nearly the entire drive helping conceptualize my way out of the abyss.
There are other times I recall, as well: driving cross-country with Cara Black brainstorming plots, riding around the Midwest doing the same with Kent Krueger, phone conversations with Joe Konrath or Sean Chercover.
What other community can you think of in which your competitors take the time and effort to make sure you produce the best product you can? I can’t think of any. That’s why I love this community. And will always depend on the kindness of mystery writers.
Friday, September 11, 2009
September 11 and beyond
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Update on a fascinating Chicago case
I wanted to provide a personal update on a Chicago situation reported on this year by our own Sara Paretsky. Briefly the story is this—Alton Logan (now one of my clients at Loyola’s Life After Innocence Project) was convicted of being an accessory to the killing a security guard on the south side of Chicago, and he did twenty-six years in jail before he was freed. We hear often of DNA evidence which exonerates someone. This was not the case with Alton. Instead, lawyers for a man named Andrew Wilson knew that their client (who they were representing on an unrelated cop-killing case) was the real perpetrator of the crime. Andrew Wilson had confessed to them almost immediately. What were they to do?
The attorney-client privilege in our country, for some very good reasons, provides that an attorney may not disclose anything a client has told him, unless under extreme circumstances, such as if the client discloses an intent to kill someone in the near future. In this case, their client had told them that he had helped killed someone in the past. In looking into it, they realized that another man was in jail for that crime. The attorneys couldn’t convince their client to come forward, so they had him sign an affidavit stating that upon his death they could disclose his confession. So many years later, when Wilson died, that’s exactly what happened, and Alton Logan was exonerated.
When I first saw Alton speak at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, I was struck, as I have been by so many other exonerees, at his lack of bitterness. He was speaking on a panel and sitting immediately next to the attorney who, because of the attorney-client privilege, felt he was forced to wait all those years to disclose his client’s confession, and yet Alton did not seem to harbor any resentment toward the man. Much debate has been had about the attorneys and what they should have done. Many experts I’ve asked have indicated that it is a trickier situation than most people think. By breaking the attorney-client privilege, the lawyers could, hypothetically, have lost their law licenses. But many of those experts think they should have hired outside counsel to find a way to disclose the confession within the ethics rules and the laws.
But coming back to Alton. As I mentioned, he is now a client of the Life After Innocence Project, of which I’m the director. At our project, we aid exonerees, after they’ve been found innocent to reclaim their lives—get their records expunged, help find state money, locate jobs and housing, obtain counseling if necessary and a lot more. In Alton’s case, we’re helping to get him some much-needed medical attention, ensuring that his conviction doesn’t keep showing up on his record, getting him some financial counseling, and working with the state to obtain the relatively small amount of funds he will eventually receive.
But when I think of his case, I keep returning to Alton himself. He is employed and is in a relationship. He is working hard to learn the ways of the world—Google, email, cell phones, automated everything—and he is succeeding. In large part that success is due to that lack of bitterness. We see this same thing in all our clients. They tell us that they choose, every day, sometimes many times a day, not to be bitter, not to be angry, because somewhere along their journey they realized that those emotions will hurt no one but themselves. I often wonder if I could do the same thing. Could you?
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
Slack-Jawed And Wide-Eyed
Life has a way of seeming very important. I don’t mean capital-L Life, like, you know, biological entities. I mean our lives, the details of them. The run to the drycleaner and the deadline that’s got you freaked out and the one-liner you wish you’d been clever enough to think of in the middle of the fight, but weren’t.
Natural, I suppose. Collapsing the world to a pinhole view is a survival trait. Thinking that our world is the world can make a big difference, whether that means success in the hunt or getting to work on time.
But every now and then we’re able to break from that a little. To lean back and really try to see the big picture. It never sticks. But the effort is worth something.
I watched a video the other day that did that for me. Actually, I watched it six times. And I thought you might like to see it.
I didn’t embed it, because I don’t want you to watch it in a 250-pixel window. Instead, click the link, which will take you to the YouTube page. Hit the button that runs the video full-screen. In HD, if you’ve got a decent connection. Turn up your speakers. Close down your email.
Take four measly minutes to lose yourself in the majesty and grandeur and sheer, staggering wonder of it all.
Click here to open a new window to the YouTube video
And when you're done, let me know if it did the same for you that it did for me.
Friday, September 04, 2009
In the Shadows We Are Free, and I Walk You Through It
Good morning, everyone, it's 7:30am. Today, it's going to be in the 70s and sunny, making it a bit warmer than it has been recently. Anyway, I'm not sure about this, but I may head out later to get a haircut (which I'm long overdue for). Sometime this week, I'll be heading out by myself for the first time ever, so my family can see how I do things, which is great news :). So, here's crime for today.
That was the opening paragraph for Wednesday, September 2 in the Avondale/Logan Square Crime Blotter. It is representative of a new genre of blogs dedicated to specific neighborhoods (and in various cities). But what makes this one worth a second look (and a third and a fourth) is the author.
Timmy is 16 years old and lives with his mother in Chicago's Avondale neighborhood. He is also autistic. Every day this summer, Timmy has risen early from bed, usually before 9 AM, turned on his police scanner and live-blogged every police call in the 25th District, sometimes until midnight when he goes to bed. Often, the only breaks in the day are when his mother calls him to the kitchen to eat. In short intros each morning, he also talks frankly about his everyday life and living with autism.
As noted in Jake Malooley's Time Out Chicago story just last month, "repetitive, solitary behavior" is characteristic of individuals with autism, but there is clearly something else motivating Timmy to be so dedicated to this project:
(F)requent readers know Timmy is motivated by a sense of civic duty, a feeling that his blog is making a difference, however small. “Believe it or not, I’m concerned for the safety of all of you. You guys are my neighbors,” he wrote in a July post after reporting a stabbing. “I do it out of concern for all of you. Aldermen like Reboyras or Colon won’t address it, so someone has to, and I chose to.”
Timmy's earnestness is also on display at The Broken Heart of Rogers Park, another neighborhood blog where he provides occasional updates on life as a student at Sullivan High School.
I first stumbled on Timmy's writing earlier this summer and although I don't live anywhere near Logan Square, I quickly became hooked. Initially I made a connection between Timmy's blogging and one of my characters, Kimball Dent, an electronics repairman who obsessively monitors the police scanner in the short story Zero Zero Day. But eventually I became interested by the many ways the site succeeds as memoir. The short strokes Timmy provides about his life juxtaposed with just-the-facts reporting of emergency calls on the scanner feels far more revealing and sincere, somehow, than one of the thousands of kitchen sink confessional blogs that are the gravitational center of the internet time suck. Timmy is an individual who sincerely wants to engage with his community and nature has provided him a unique path to that goal. Timmy's blog provides the rest of us not only with a valuable, real-time snapshot of the neighborhood in which he lives, but a small window into the life of an extraordinary kid.
Somewhat related, I encourage everyone to read A Mugging on Lake Street, which appears in the September issue of Chicago magazine. It starts as a fascinating first-person account by the outstanding investigative reporter John Conroy of his own mugging (and its aftermath) while riding his bike home through Chicago's west side. It ends up being a critical meditation on crime and race in the city. (Photo by Matthew Conroy, from the article.)
Thursday, September 03, 2009
I received an email recently from a person who had read DEATH OF A THOUSAND CUTS and took me to task for using the word “autistics” to refer to people with autism. The writer—I haven’t asked to use her name, so I won’t—said quite rightly “a kinder way to reference people with this diagnosis is people with autism or a person with autism.”
Since the book is about a doctor who treats autistic children, and is based on Bruno Bettelheim, who claimed autism was caused by cold parenting, and since I kill him horribly at the start of the book and criticize his beliefs quite clearly, I felt I was good on autism. Even my correspondent says that she appreciates that I have taken this opportunity to educate people about autism. But she’s right; unintentionally I was insensitive.
In my defense, people I talked with who treat persons with autism as well as parents of autistic children often say “autistics” too. It’s a shorthand. I used it without thinking.
This made me remember a lot of books I’ve read, many of them written in the 20s, 30s and 40s, that used words we now object to as racial, religious, or ethnic slurs. Most of these writers were probably unaware of being insensitive and, judging from their bios, were open-minded and liberal people, even ahead of their time. We wince when we read these words now. I feel sorry for the authors, because most of them were using terms in general use and they meant no harm.
How do we describe characters we want the reader to dislike? I’ll bet that a lot of us give him or her physical characteristics that in the real world we know the person can’t help and shouldn’t be blamed for.
Of course, when quoting a character in fiction, you need to use the language and the opinions of that character. But what about narration? What about the text that is in no one’s head but the author’s?
I have a couple of questions for all of us. What words or descriptions have you used in past books that you now wish you hadn’t? How politically correct are you today?
A lot of us complain about the political correctness ogre. You can’t write vividly or vigorously while you are hobbled, can you?
Nevertheless, I often feel its chilly breath on the back of my neck when I’m writing.
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
Hear the word and you think buzzards. Right? Or rats. Or mangy dogs in third world cities. Or maybe small children in the garbage dumps of Mumbai or Rio. If you live in a city, you may envision homeless entrepreneurs who roam the streets with purloined grocery carts, collecting cans and freegan food . Or scrap metal collectors in pickup trucks with weird assemblages of metal objects projecting upward from their truck beds. Yup. Pariahs.
But think writers, too. Think photographers. Think artists. All of us take our materials where we can. One of my first writing teachers advised me to hang out in restaurants, bus stops and bars to eavesdrop. Great advice. Some of my best lines are borrowed (Okay stolen—I’m never giving them back). Some of my best settings are places I came across in transit or discovered when I was looking for somewhere else. Many of my favorite characters are riffs on real people I’ve seen or clashed with. Like Poke Salad Annie…
Thinnes had asked the District Nineteen, Twenty and Twenty-three officers to keep an eye out for the bag lady. Patrol found her sitting on the steps of a doorway to the apartment over a store on Argyle. She had all her earthly belongings in a wheeled, wire shopping basket, and she knew her rights well enough to insist the officers bring her stuff along to the station. They brought her to the District Nineteen desk and waited with her until Thinnes came down to take custody.
He hadn't spoken to her at the scene of Thomas Redbird's murder, but he recognized her—a small, skinny black woman, much older, according to her record, than she appeared. Her teeth were too perfect to be original equipment, and her hair too black. The wig was so excessive it reminded him of Dolly Parton's. She was sitting on the bench next to the Community Relations office. He watched her for a few minutes before going over to introduce himself. Poke Salad Annie, a.k.a. Layde Bird Johnson, a.k.a. Melanie Moonshine, a.k.a. Alice Mayhem. She must have had enough gray matter, once, to have a sense of humor. Now, she seemed kind of vacant.
She also had an extensive arrest record: possession, prostitution, assault, and aggravated battery. Her most recent arrests, though, were bullshit: trespassing, disorderly conduct, and petty theft.
He didn't even consider dragging her upstairs with her stuff. He sat her down at a table in one of the district interview rooms. It was small and close, and breathing the same air with her was almost enough to make you high. She must have had a BAC two or three times the legal limit. She took off her coat—a ratty fur—and carefully laid it on the far end of the table. She seemed to be wearing a whole jewelry box full of costume jewelry, and three or four outfits, one on top of another. It reminded Thinnes of a little girl playing dress up. He didn't comment as she fished a pint of cheap whiskey out of a pocket, opened it, and took a swig. Her trinkets jangled as she threw her head back and slugged it down. "You know why they call me Poke Salad Annie?"
Thinnes grinned. "You were busted for marijuana possession and told the arresting officer it was poke salad greens."
She gave a whiskey-voiced laugh and nodded. "I was beautiful once. Men wanted me." She leaned back and squinted at him. "Bet you find that hard to believe."
"No. You've got a sense of humor. That's more important than looks."
She pointed at him with an index finger bent by arthritis. "You all right. I s'pose you want I tell you 'bout the man was killed." He nodded. "Elvis done it."
"Hunh! I ain't that drunk. I never been that drunk."
I guess I’m a writer because I’m not fast enough to be a great photographer. If it’s standing still, I may get my camera out in time to capture it, but moving subjects either wander out of frame before I can focus or blur because I moved the camera.
Images I store in my head are usually easier to file and retrieve than photographs. (I have a great photo of a guy with all his possessions in a grocery cart, but I don’t remember where I put it. ) I’ve taken thousands of shots over the years, but when I don’t recall the date or venue, I might as well not have it. On the other hand, when I can’t remember the details of a memory, I just make something up.
A rusty grocery cart blocking the curb lane of LaSalle Street, downstream from an intersection and in front of a bus shelter similar to this one.
The cart is filled with plastic bags from various retailers and has an aluminum gutter jutting upward like a ship’s mast sans sails. Adjacent to the shelter, the owner of this dubious conveyance is leaning casually on one of three newspaper boxes with his newspaper spread out across the box tops. He’s dressed in the uniform of the homeless—ball cap and nondescript hoody, baggy pants and high-tops. He appears oblivious to problems his cart creates for motorists and CTA riders. Where is the ticket brigade when you need them? (Yes, some of these details are confabulated. I wish I’d had my camera with me.)
I believe all artists are scavengers, just a socially acceptable variety.
What do you think?