Friday, March 30, 2007

The Big O.

by Marcus Sakey

One word for you: Oprah.

On Wednesday, Lady O. announced her latest book club selection, and it's a doozy: Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD (incidentally, one of two finalists in The Tournament of Books).

I should begin by saying that I think McCarthy is one of the finest writers working today, and that I loved THE ROAD. It's not my favorite of his--I prefer BLOOD MERIDIAN, even if, as Stephen King pointed out in ON WRITING, there are great wacks of it I don't fully understand. But favorite or no, THE ROAD is terrific: bleak, haunting, and chillingly effective in its juxtaposition of a delicate flame of love against a world of icy-cold winds.

Still, I have to admit, Oprah threw me for a loop with this one. It's not that the books she selects aren't good; almost without exception, they are, and most are downright spectacular. Nor are they sweetness and light (by and large), or, god help us, entitled THE SECRET. (That retching sound you just heard? Me.)

But I have to think that THE ROAD is going to startle some of her readers. Though I suppose that's the point, right? To open people to new books, new experiences, things they might not have picked up on their own. And boy, does she open them, at least their wallets--being selected for Oprah's Book Club is an automatic route to bestsellerdom, good for moving a million copies.

Yet many people, both readers and writers alike, seem to feel a lot of ire towards her for it. Scorn and jokes abound. Her picks are frequently dismissed. And I remember people thinking Jonathan Franzen came off cool for rebuffing her--when he should have been on hands and knees rubbing her feet and asking which of car she'd like him to wax first.

Is it just her name? The Oprah label, suggestive of a day spent watching empowerment-oriented television, of chicken soup for our collective souls? Or is it something deeper? Do we hate the success that accompanies it?

When--and why--did it become a bad thing to be an Oprah Book?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Misdemeanors and felonies

Today’s blog was going to be Michael’s advice to new writers, but a couple of recent misdemeanors and another trip to 26th and Cal made the subject of crime seem more urgent.

First the misdemeanors: Certain vendors and delivery people regularly dump stacks of unsold papers in corner trash baskets in my neighborhood. Individually, it’s a minor theft of service but if you add up what goes down in a year, we’re talking truckloads of waste. The papers could be recycled. Animal shelters like The Anticruelty Society and Orphans of the Storm can use clean newsprint—you just have to deliver it during business hours. There are also recycling centers and We’ll-Pick-It-Up operations that take clean paper (and other recyclables). Usually, nobody notices these fly dumpers. Apparently no one ever calls them on it. But do you suppose the city workers who empty the trash work for nothing? Do other businesses get free trash pickups? Does the city get landfill space for free?

This weekend, a telephone book delivery guy (or guys) dumped enough brand new, still-in-their-plastic-six-packs of telephone directories to fill a two-yard container in my condo’s trash room. Who do you suppose is going to pay for their disposal? How many other places in the city are getting ripped off this way? What are the people doing who were supposed to get those directories? Aren’t the businesses that advertised in those unread directories getting ripped off as well?

The purpose of my trip to criminal court was to be a presence for the Court Advocate program—to let court officers know that someone in the neighborhood gives a damn. The two defendants had 23 felony counts between them. I showed up on time for the 9:30 AM court call. I guess the defendants were on time—they were in custody and were herded in by a Sheriff’s deputy when their case was finally called. (then herded right back out because one of their attorney’s was absent. The case was continued. Again.) The state’s attorneys were on time for the 9:30 call. The public defenders were present, as were two sheriff’s deputies, a court reporter, the clerk, six subpoenaed witnesses for two separate cases, several defendants who were not in custody, and a bench full of defendants’ family members. The judge finally showed up at 10:15. There was no prior announcement of or subsequent apology for the delay. Before he got to his own cases, the judge disposed of a number of cases for another judge who was absent. Before he recessed the court (around 11:00 AM), the judge told all the subpoenaed witnesses they would have to come back on other days. If they don’t, they might be arrested.

I don’t know what all those people get paid, but if you added it up, I’ll bet the theft of their time would be a felony amount.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Minnesota Nice, Or Crime Fiction Nice . . .

by Sean Chercover

So, I’m sitting in a hotel room in Minneapolis, at 3:00am. And I’m not alone. I’m with Jon and Ruth Jordan, publishers of Crimespree Magazine. We are eating processed brie-like cheese food and listening to my iTunes in a Minnesota hotel room. The Spinners . . . John Holt . . . Isaac Hayes . . . AWB.

As you may know, Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes. Some people may think that Michigan has many lakes, but those people don’t know lakes, or Minnesota. Minnesota has lakes, and lakes to spare, and is the home of Marvin Windows, to boot. I switch the music to Chaos And Disorder, an underrated album by one of Minnesota’s most talented exports.

Why am I bragging on Minnesota at 3:00am, full of vodka, processed brie-like cheese food and pride? Because tonight, I am an honorary Minnesotan, thanks to the generosity of Pat and Gary, owners of Once Upon A Crime, a truly great mystery bookstore. Today was Once Upon A Crime’s annual “Write of Spring” event. Over 35 authors (including William Kent Kruger, Anthony Neil Smith, Carl Brookins, Ellen Hart, Anne Frasier, and others) hanging out with readers, trading stories, and having a great time.

And, as so often happens at such events, today I was again overwhelmed by the sense of community and camaraderie among crime fiction authors and readers.

I have it on good authority that romance writers are less romantic in this regard. And literary writers seem to rip each other’s limbs off for sport. But those of us who bludgeon and betray in print, enjoy a supportive environment unmatched in other genres.

Anybody have any ideas about why that is?


PostScript: Two weeks past International Ken Bruen Appreciation Day - Jon, Ruth and I are still loving the man long-distance, as we do every day. You don’t need an official day to appreciate the man and his writing. Go buy a Ken Bruen book today. You won’t be sorry.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Chicago Blues

A few months ago I blogged about the Blues in Chicago. How the music’s irony and desperation elicit the noir qualities of the city. How its rawness and energy underscore the passions, power, and sins of the people who live here.

Little did I know it would lead to editing an anthology. But it has, and Chicago Blues, a collection of 20 dark crime fiction stories, will be out in October from Bleak House Books.

Simply put, Chicago Blues will include stories from some of the best Chicago crime fiction authors writing today. Everyone in the Outfit will have a story in the collection. There will also be stories from

Stuart Kaminsky
Max Allan Collins
Joe Konrath
Kris Nelscott
Deb Brod
Sam Reaves
Sam Hill
David Walker
Steve Mandel
Michael Black
Mary Welk
Jack Fredrickson
Brian Pinkerton

And Rick Kogan, the prolific author, broadcaster, and guru of Chicago neighborhoods and all that goes on in them, is writing the introduction.

I am not kidding (although I might have just a slight bias) when I say these stories ROCK. The idea was to interpret the “Blues” loosely, so we have stories that are about the music itself. We also have stories about cops and the mob, stories that feature PI’s, stories with strong female characters, and stories that take their theme from the location, like Lower Wacker. Some of the stories have paranormal elements; some historical; all of them make irresistible reading. In fact, I've loved editing this anthology – every time a new story came in, I felt like a kid opening a Christmas present.

There’s only one problem. Ben wants me to write jacket copy. I HATE writing jacket copy. I’m no good at it. Not at all. So I thought I'd turn to you. What should it say? What would make you say, “Hey I’ve got to buy this anthology”? Can you come up with a description, a phrase, or even an adjective that perfectly expresses Chicago Blues? The only thing I’ve come up with so far is:

“Blue is the new Noir…”

It’s not carved in stone; feel free to come up with something better.

In fact, how about if we make it a contest? If your words end up on the jacket, you get a free copy of the anthology, and we’ll buy you a beer at the book launch. (More about that in due time)

So, go put on a little Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, and Luther Allison, and let it rip.

And thanks.

PS Once again Chicago showed its dark side as Al Sanchez, the former head of Streets and Sanitation and aide to Mayor Daley, was indicted on 9 counts of mail fraud. He was a leader of the city’s Hispanic Democratic Organization, and the indictment alleges, in part, that HDO members were handed jobs and promotions in return for campaign work. He’s now the 47th or 48th city official to be brought up on charges associated with the Hired Truck scandal.

But maybe there is a silver lining – not every city can claim such diversity in corruption...

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Yes, There Must Be More To Life

I have a friend who used to ask me to buy a watermelon for him whenever I went to the store.

I was reminded of him when writing commentary for a recent match in the Tournament of Books at The Morning News. Jessa Crispin (whose Chicago-based litblog Bookslut I much enjoy) praised Claire Messud's prose in The Emperor's Children but came down hard on her for "rely(ing) on stereotypes." Specifically she said, one gay individual "is about as believable a character as Jack from Will & Grace."

That can be a valid criticism and I might have cringed along with Jessa if I had read that book. But it got me thinking about the double-edged nature of stereotypes and how it fits into the context of the ongoing conversation we've been having here about Political Correctness.

More than ten years ago I was living on the North Side of Chicago in a house with four buddies and in the summer we always had a watermelon in the fridge. Another friend, who was a frequent guest although he didn't live with us, asked me if I would also buy a watermelon for his house when I went to the store. Not because he was pressed for time or because he didn't have a car but because, as a black man living in a mostly white neighborhood, the old stereotype had robbed him of the simple dignity of walking through the market with a watermelon in his cart.

Stereotypes, after all, aren't insidious because they are never true, but because they rob us of our individuality.

The character of Jack on Will & Grace was thought by many to be a stereotype and it's certainly true that most gay men are not as, um, demonstrative. It would be a bad thing for someone with no first-hand knowledge of homosexuals (a rare soul in this age I would think) to use him as his only model. But anyone who has been paying attention certainly knows actual gay individuals with far more exuberant personalities than that. One night in college my neighbor, having spent the entire night loitering outside the stage entrance to a theater showing a revival of Pippin, burst into my room at three in the morning and made me smell his hand where Ben Vereen had just shaken it. As I said over at the ToB, that dude made Jack on Will & Grace look like a bounty hunter, and he was far more interesting than most homosexual characters I've encountered in novels or on film. But if I ever based a fictional character on him, I'd probably be vilified for it.

Which puts a writer in a bit of a pickle.

We novelists like to think we're telling truth about people and making keen observations and that we are all Grand Masters of nuance. One of the biggest insults you can probably hurl at a writer is that he traffics in stereotypes. But we're also writing about individuals, not groups of people. How far do we go to avoid the perception that we're relying on stereotyped characters, even when we know that in real life there are plenty of flamboyant gay men and macho Hispanics and drunk Irishmen and Chinese launderers and Italian gangsters and racist Southerners and Arab terrorists and oversexed Spaniards and on and on and on.

So anyway, how conscious are you of the stereotypes that pop up in the fiction you read? And if you write, how often have you changed some element of a character--changed her race or his gender or nationality or religion--just to avoid the perception that you are falling back on a stereotype? Frequently you can discover some terrific and unusual characters that way and it can be a great thing. But do you ever resent the feeling that outside pressures are limiting the kinds of individuals that can populate your story?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Rape in time of war and other woes

Sunday's New York Times has an article called the Woman's War; it's a disturbing account of the traumas the 165000 women in our armed forces are facing as a result of their service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many say they are raped or harassed by the men who command them. About 300o such incidents were reported last year; many women say they don't bother to report such crimes because it only leads to more abuse, and because the army doesn't take action against the offenders. Women who complain are often given the most dangerous assignments and are further demeaned. 16 percent of our women soldiers are suffering from PTSD, compared to 8 percent of men.

The article made me think about the lives of women in prison, which I investigated when I was working on a novel called Hard Time. Powerless women, often the victims of assault by the guards, can't report the assault because it makes them more vulnerable to further assault.

Women who join the military are more likely to have been sexually abused as children than the average for the population (although, since 1 in 4 girls is sexually abused in this country it's kind of hard to find a low number of sexually abused women in any cohort.) The same is true of women in prison.

Women who've been sexually abused as children are more likely to be prostitutes as well. They are used to having no sense of boundaries, and no rights to their own bodies. Women on the streets in turn suffer a lot of violence and often turn to drugs as a coping mechanism, which leads them more vulnerable to arrest and to disease.

When I read all these things, I have to wonder why crime fiction and film so often depict women as hookers, and treat them either as throwaway objects--such as Tatjana Petitz's character in Rising Sun--or the contented animal who has an easy camaraderie with men through her body. The Spanish government recently banned a D & G ad that showed a women being assaulted by one man while another man looked on contemptuously. Is this an example of the kind of PC thinking that we on this blog so often rail against? Or is it an unusual demand that women be treated with respect?

Sara Paretsky

Friday, March 16, 2007


“Procrastination is the thief of time.” Edward Young 1683-1765

My father used to quote this, with a chuckle. He would then add, “But I need a wide margin of leisure to my day.” For years I didn’t know where this second quotation had come from, even though I knew it had to be from somebody. Recently, I discovered it was Thoreau.

My father was industrious, which you might not think from his wide margin of leisure comment. He worked five days a week and a half day on Saturday. But he did believe in letting yourself sit and think or daydream a while. Which leads me – of course -- to a problem writers worry about all the time: procrastination.

Michael Allen Dymmoch talks about her methods of procrastination:
Court watching--greatest free show in town, Monday through Friday. Call a friend and arrange to have lunch, dinner, or coffee. Meetings--MWA, Sisters in Crime, Society of Midland Authors, CAPS. Recycling opportunities are endless. She says, “Chicago has the greatest collection of diversions in the world. I belong to the Shedd, The Art Institute, Chicago Botanic Garden and Field Museum, and can tell you about art Galleries (free admission) all over downtown. Book hunting in resale stores or at garage and rummage sales. (And all my recent purchases are catalogued and covered.) Movies. TV. Research. Answering e-mail queries. Housework. Yesterday I washed my car. If all else fails, repot or wash the houseplants, and brush the cats. Once I do sit down to write, I spend a lot of time repaginating my outlines.”

Libby Hellmann says, “My most common procrastination technique is surfing the web, usually reading blogs. It’s a curse. But it is fun... I try to limit myself to a few minutes at a time, but time has a way of expanding, don’t you know....”

Marcus Sakey says, “Email. That's my number one procrastination tool. I close it, try to write, stare at a blank screen, and watch the clock tick. One minute. Two. Maybe I better check my email. Something important might have happened."

One reason writers procrastinate is that writing is scary. There’s the monitor [or clean sheet of paper if you work that way] saying, “Sit down. Now be creative. Be funny. Be suspenseful. Be evocative. Do what you want, but BE INTERESTING.” Who wouldn’t be scared?

A second reason writers perceive themselves as procrastinating is that the book is always with you. It’s never done until it’s done. It’s always hanging over you, isn’t it? It’s not done at midnight and it’s still not done by breakfast time. And after you finally send it off, you’re supposed to begin work on the next one.

For years I’ve heard writers complaining about their time-wasting habits. It used to be that FreeCell was the biggie. Now it’s WarCraft or blogs or email.

My big time-waster is reading other people’s crime novels. I tell myself this is market research, but it isn’t. It’s fun.

However, in a general way, I’ve come to realize that I cycle in roughly twenty-minute segments. After twenty minutes of writing, I feel like I’m inputting garbage. So I go read for twenty minutes or so. Then I do something more physical. It may be really physical, like going for a walk, or just hand work, like chopping vegetables for soup. But once done, I come back to the writing fresher. I beat up on myself less now than I used to.

There is the procrastination you do because you’re blocked by something in the work. There’s the procrastination you do because your body needs a change. There may be procrastination that happens because you’re weak and lazy, as you fear, but I’d bet most of the time that isn’t it. Maybe you should cut yourself some slack. Procrastination may be your brain’s little way of telling you to take a break.

Of course, I waited until the very last moment to post this.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Anti-Hero Mystique

by Marcus Sakey

I'm in love with a man.

His name is Jack Reacher.

Reacher, as I imagine most of you know, is the hero of Lee Child's wildly popular series, beginning with KILLING FLOOR and running through to the upcoming BAD LUCK AND TROUBLE. The character is a former military policeman turned wanderer, the archetypical cowboy who rides into town just in time to get caught up in the most tangled of situations.

There are a lot of interesting things at work in the books. For one thing, they successfully explore all kinds of genre territory, from mystery to thriller to adventure novel. And for my money, Lee doesn't get nearly enough credit for the calibre of his prose--he's a beautiful writer with an uncanny sense of rhythm, employing clipped Hemingway sentences and carefully chosen echoes to create a sense of velocity that's at least as compelling as his plots.

But I'm curious about something, and I hope you'll all chime in, because I'd really like to know.

Why do we like Reacher so much? And specifically, why do women like him?

I don't know sales figures, but judging by the women I've spoken to--and the estrogen comet tail following Lee at every public appearance--I'd say that there are at least as many female readers as male.

Which is surprising to me. Because though they are written with intelligence and grace, the Reacher novels feel like classic "boy books." There's a high body count and a lot of gun play. Frequent female jeopardy (though none of the 'helpless damsel' nonsense--he's way too good for that.) There's a hero who kills regularly and with little remorse. There's torture and prison and macho behavior of all sorts.

Understand, I'm not criticizing. I love these novels. I'm just curious. Is conventional wisdom wrong in stating that these elements deter women readers?

Or is just something in Reacher that overcomes those obstacles? And if so, what?

I've got my own theories, but I'd love to hear yours.

Monday, March 12, 2007

A Thing Or Two About Ken Bruen . . .

by Sean Chercover

It has come to my attention that this is International Ken Bruen Appreciation Day.

Haven’t read Ken Bruen? You are in for a treat. Ken Bruen’s novels are, quite simply, some of the best crime fiction written in this day or any other day. His novels touch both the sacred and the profane, and show us that sometimes they are one and the same.

Yes, novels, but you could also use the term prose poetry and you wouldn’t be lying. Ken’s use of language is that good. He’s a jaw-droppingly great wordsmith, and if you write fiction, you must be jealous. I know I am. What the rest of us need a page to say, Ken says in one sentence. One perfect little sentence that packs more emotional wallop than all the ham-fisted heaping of words upon words. How the hell does he do it?

And something more. Ken’s books take us to very dark places, but they bring us back again, with a new perspective on the world. At once funny and tragic, his novels leave us emotionally shattered, but somehow spiritually cleansed. Bruen’s characters may not catch a glimpse of redemption, but his readers do. No White Hats and Black Hats for Ken Bruen. Ken doesn’t sit in judgment over the characters he creates, doesn’t label them Good Guys and Bad Guys. More determined to understand than to judge, Ken introduces us to some of the most deeply disturbed, pathologically antisocial members of our odd little species, and does so in a way that makes us say, “Yes, this too is what it means to be human.”

That’s a thing or two about Ken Bruen, the writer.

And then there’s Ken Bruen, the man. But that shit is personal, and I’m not really good at talking in public about people I love. Suffice it to say that Ken is one of the most warmhearted, generous, honest and brave people I’ve ever had the good fortune to call a mentor, and a friend.

So, on International Ken Bruen Appreciation Day, raise a pint of Guinness and a slug of Bushmills in the general direction of Ireland, and then go out there and buy a book written by the man himself.

Hell, buy two; they’re small.


Last Friday I went to the dentist and came home with four books. With 3,000 + titles, I needed more books slightly less than I need another cat, but I had to pass the Mt. Sinai Hospital Resale store on my way to the El. And since I’m looking for another tall bookshelf, I had to check out their furniture. They didn’t have what I need, but they had what I crave—books. Hundreds of them. I was almost relieved to find that I already have most of the titles that caught my eye. But I didn’t have Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy: the Science of Shopping, or Margaret Maron’s Storm Track, or The Warrior’s Gift, which won an award for author Faith Mack in 1985.

A week ago, I went to the Library to write and bought The Kinsey Institute’s New Report on Sex for a quarter to go with The Science of Orgasm, which I was checking out. While I was there I called the Book Bin and ordered two books that I wanted to read—which I knew I’d never return by the due date—and I read Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat (by Caroline Burau) so I wouldn’t have to check it out and remember to bring it back. I also got excellent copies of Innocents Abroad, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and Kim for $.25 each.

The Newberry Library had a mystery book sale on March 2nd, where I got a fine first edition of Donna Leon’s Uniform Justice for two bucks and The Scold’s Bridle by Minette Walters for one. The 1959 edition of The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft was only six dollars. How could I pass it up?

Lest you think I buy only used books, let me assure you I recently bought five new hardcovers the last time I was in the Book Bin (last week), and a new hardcover on each of my last two visits to Centuries and Sleuths (Saturday and Sunday). Nearly everyone in my family got The Book of Lost Things for Christmas, and I’ve distributed half a dozen copies of Courtroom 302 to people I thought would read it.

I have sixteen bookshelves—all full, which is why I need another. I have three shelves of children’s books, two of books on Vietnam. 1 ½ shelves each for gardening and photography. Some of the books I only use for reference—physics and chemistry texts, books on chess and soccer and the Tarot, The Bible, Dine Bahane and Bullfinch’s Mythology, and my English, French, Spanish, Latin, and slang dictionaries. The 1987 PDR and the 1998 AHFS Drug Information are purely for research. I’m not sure what I’m doing with a Vietnamese dictionary, since it contains no English words—but I have it if I ever need one. I have books on writing and books on cops, books on coping and poetry and math, books I’ve never read, and some I reread annually.

Writing all this down, I’m forced to admit I’m an addict. But I know people who are much worse off—some who own 10,000 titles. I can trace this mental disorder to a traumatic event in my early life—I caught the Library discarding its only copy of Another Country. Admittedly, it’s not the greatest novel ever written, but it was written by James Baldwin, for God’s sake!

Though I know my book jones is threatening the health of my bank account, I keep reminding myself that books are mind-altering but not fattening. And I never drive under the influence—I swear I don’t own a book on tape.

Besides, my building engineer reassured me that the floor in my condo is reinforced concrete—it can take the weight.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Queen For A Day

Every once in a while, a mid-list author gets a break and is treated, well, like royalty. That happened to me this week, and I wanted to share it.

About six months ago I got an email from the chair of the Brandeis Women’s Organization in Tucson, Arizona. Would I be interested in appearing at their Book and Author luncheon in early March? Hmm, let’s see: 20 degrees in Chicago vs. 80 degrees in Tucson; I give a 20 minute speech. They sell my books. Pick up all my expenses. It’s a no-brainer, right?

As it happens, my son graduated from Brandeis a year ago and loved the four years he spent there, so I am predisposed toward any organization associated with the university.

So I packed my bags, making sure my special Eileen Fisher “author event” clothes were clean and relatively wrinkle-free (sadly, I’ve decided people really don’t want to see my color-coordinated sweats and crew socks.) And while I did spill diet coke on my pants during the flight, and the flight itself was 90 minutes late, I did arrive safely.

At which point I was picked up by my “escort” -- thank you Sylvia -- whisked to my hotel, picked up two hours later, and driven to the country club for a gala dinner. OK, we’ve all been to author dinners and banquets, but how many have you been recently to where there was a Swing Band, and everyone danced? There was something sweet, even nostalgic, about it -- a reminder of a kinder, gentler time.

The next morning the “luncheon” started at 9:30. Again I was escorted back to the country club where I signed books, spoke for 20 minutes, ate another delicious meal, and signed more books. Then I was driven back to the airport --I wanted to stay longer, but couldn’t – and boarded the plane back home.

What made me feel like a queen, though, wasn’t just the royal treatment. Part of it was listening and talking to the other three authors who were there.
Gail Sheehy, whose first book Passages, was the template of my life in the 70s, has a new book out called “Sex and the Seasoned Woman” (I listened carefully to that). I also enjoyed humorist Bruce Cameron, who, btw, is a dead ringer for Tom Hanks, although he and I may be the only ones who think so. And children’s author, Marjorie Sharmat, who’s written something like 150 books. The woman deserves a crown for sheer output. Talking to them reminded me of why I do what I do.

But the part that really made the difference for me was the audience's appreciation. Sure, we know people don’t read as much these days, or buy as many books as we’d like, but you wouldn’t know it by this crowd. So many women went out of their way, not only to buy my books, but to say how much they enjoyed what I said about writing; how they love to stay up all night reading just to see how it turns out; how they truly care about the characters we create... the tales we spin... the magic we weave. Hearing people tell me that for 24 hours made me feel part of something important. Something necessary for the spirit.

Michael Dymmoch and I are in the same writing group, and I remember asking her -- just after my first book came out and I still was in that new author haze – “when did you know you were a real writer?” She said she’d known for a long time. That writing was as natural as breathing. That when people asked what she did, she’d automatically say, “I’m a writer.”

It isn’t that way for me. I sometimes still can’t quite believe that I’ve published 4 novels… with more on the way. Except for events like this. I feel like a writer. I feel like a queen.

What about you? When did you know you were a writer? Do you always think of yourself as one?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Hope Springs Eternal . . .

by Sean Chercover

It is snowing outside as I type this. 21 degrees, heading down to a low of 16. That’s minus 9, for those of you in Metric Land. And that’s not very cold, by Chicago standards, but it’s still cold enough to freeze my tired ass.

And of course Marcus and I (being, perhaps, not the sharpest knives in the drawer) just spent the better part of February driving around the Midwest to promote our debut novels.

But you know what? Spring training has begun, and the Cubs just earned their first win of the 2007 campaign. Granted, the Cubs play in Arizona during spring training, but let’s not pick nits. The point is, the boys of summer are back, and if spring is not yet in the Chicago air, it is once again spring in my heart.

And baseball makes everything good again. This summer, my apartment is walking distance to Wrigley Field. My six-month-old son is already decked out in Cubs gear, and I will take him to his first ballgame this year. There will be hot dogs and peanuts and the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd.

There will be baseball.

And Chicago will again be hot and humid, as Chicago is prone to be in summertime. Tom Skilling (as reliable a weatherman as you will ever meet) says that we’re but three weeks from our first 70-degree day. Come mid-season, the temperature will reach triple digits, which is fine by me.

Speaking of triple digits. . . the last time the Cubs won the world series was 1908. Yes, 99 years ago. Will the Cubbies go into triple digits without a championship? Or will Lou Piniella, Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Kerry Wood and the gang put up triple digits in the wins column and restore dignity to a franchise so long mired in mediocrity?

It’s that time of year again, and hope springs eternal in the heart of this long-suffering Cubs fan.

Play Ball!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Mr. McFly! This just arrived! I think it's your novel!

I remember the thump on the porch. The thump when the UPS guy dropped that heavy box of hardcovers a few weeks before the pub date. I wanted to wait until my wife came home but I couldn't hold myself back and as I was splitting it open with my keys I couldn't help think of the final scene in Back to the Future when Crispin Glover opens a similar box and pulls out his novel, A Match Made In Space.

See Marty, if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything!

As exciting as that was, though, I'm not sure it matched the day in New York, probably six months earlier, at a very nice restaurant filled with publishing types, when my editor handed me the Advanced Reader Edition of Cast of Shadows. Before that I can't remember if I even knew what an Advance Reader Edition (or an ARC or a galley) was. Basically it's a paperback version of the book, printed many months before the actual publication date, that goes to reviewers and booksellers and other influencers. That afternoon, in that restaurant, was the first time I saw my book in book form. And it was incredibly exciting.

Probably as a result I still have a thing for ARCs. It's a thrill when I get my hands on an early copy of someone else's novel, especially one I've been waiting for. For instance tomorrow, Stephen White's 15th Alan Gregory novel, Dry Ice, will hit shelves, and as someone who was able to read it months ago I just can't say enough about it. It is tense and dark with terrific writing and characters that have just gotten better and more complex with age. Over the course of the series White has explored psychological and philosophical issues with thoughtfulness and depth and the mystery plots themselves are always top shelf. One of the pleasures of the Gregory novels is the way characters are allowed to evolve--they meet and get married and get sick and sometimes expire. Even beloved characters sometimes die unexpectedly. Pick up Dry Ice and I predict that within pages you'll do what I did when I discovered the series a few years back. You'll go straight to the beginning and read them all in a mad rush.

Another book I read in galleys last year was Julian Barnes's Arthur & George, which is one of the entries in this year's Tournament of Books at the Morning News. The ToB is an idea I had three years ago (after a few drinks, frankly) that I didn't really take seriously but made the mistake of mentioning to a couple of guys who had the means and the desire to make it happen. Basically we take sixteen of the most hyped books of 2006 and seed them in an NCAA basketball type bracket, pitting them against each other in a "Battle Royale of Literary Excellence." Both a book award and a silly parody of book awards, the Tournament of Books is, shockingly, in its third year with a corporate sponsor and coverage in the New York Times and judges that include Sasha Frere Jones of the New Yorker, Colin Meloy of indie rock fave The Decemberists, a writer for The Onion, and The Outfit's own Marcus Sakey. Of particular interest to Outfit readers, I think, will be not only Arthur and George, but the second book in Kate Atkinson's excellent detective series, One Good Turn.

Anyway, the competition begins on Thursday and in the meantime there's even a chance for one reader to win every book in the competition. Along with my frequent co-conspirator John Warner, I'll be providing color analysis throughout the tournament and I hope you'll stop in. It is always great fun for book folk. And if you've read any of the books in competition and you have a prediction for this year's tournament, let's hear it. Wagering, as always, is encouraged.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

PC or TC

I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago when the protests against the Vietnam War were at their height, and what's now called Second Wave Feminism was just beginning. Heady times, frightening times, it all depends on where you were, what you wanted, what you saw. After Kent State, the rest of the graduate students appointed me to go to the department chair to ask for an extension of final exam week so we could take part in the national cycle of mourning and protest. He refused, we argued, and then he said, "I am not insensitive, Ms. Paretsky: you can read in the New York Times how sensitive I am." (I won't name him because I have a lot of affection and admiration for him and this was a small coment in the middle of hot times.) But his remark made me laugh and it's always stuck with me: we all believe we are truly sensitive, and that's why we're always taken aback when someone questions it. Of course, we can't all point to the New York Times to vindicate us.
Recently, Kevin Guilfoile told me about a review in the Wall Street Journal of Patrick Anderson's Triumph of the Thriller; the Journal called me "left-leaning," which shows Journal reviewer Micah Morrison hadn't done his homework: there's nothing to my left for me to lean on. But aside from all the pros or cons of Anderson's book, it's interesting to me that someone with left or liberal or progressive politics is labeled, even excoriated: we ride under the banner of political correctness, while it's not easy or acceptable to criticize discourse on the right. I just turned in the manuscript for a new novel, set in the part of rural Kansas where I grew up. My editor called me to say that it was hard to believe in the mean-spirited Christians I describe, and readers would find it a hard hill to climb. I hope not, but I do wonder whether the author of a book that shows mean-spirited feminists would get a similar editorial phone call? I can't speak from personal experience, but if you've dissed the sisters, or African-Americans, or even the ACLU in your work, what kind of reaction did you get from your own editor before you went to press? Do we have to be theologically correct even when we're proud of our political incorrectness?