Friday, October 30, 2009

There’s a Kind of Hush

By Kevin Guilfoile

Two weeks ago I posted about little coincidences outside of your reading that often increase your appreciation of a novel. I talked about it with respect to Theresa Schwegel's great new book, Last Known Address, but I also mentioned that I had just finished reading our own Sara Paretsky's outstanding new novel Hardball. And son of a gun if it didn't happen to me again.

In Hardball, VI Warshawski is investigating the disappearance of a young man from Chicago's South Side more than 40 years ago. In fact the last time anyone saw Lamont Gadsden was on January 25, 1967. That's significant because on January 26, the worst snow storm in Chicago history hit the city. Vic, who grew up on the Southeast side, remembers the day well, and she describes it in the book this way:

Oh yes, the big storm of 'sixty-seven. I'd been ten then, and it seemed like a winter fairyland to me. Two feet of snow fell; drifts rose to the height of buildings. The blizzard briefly covered the yellow stains that the steel mills left on our car and house, painting everything a dazzling white. For adults, it had been a nightmare. My dad was stuck at the station for the better part of two days while my mother and I struggled to clean the walks and get to a grocery store. Of course, the mills didn't shut down, and within a day the mounds of snow looked dirty, old, dreary.


I've been engaged in a fun, year-long project of digitizing and editing dozens of 8mm reels, home movies taken by my wife's family from about 1935 to 1975. They also lived on the South Side. And shortly after I read Hardball, I came across the following video, taken by my father-in-law, of the aftermath of the 1967 storm. By itself, it's a pretty typical home movie. But having just read Sara's book, it was almost like a DVD extra, like evidence in Lamont Gadsden's disappearance.

video

Well, in the context of Sara's book, I thought it was cool. But here's where I confess that I showed you that video just so I would have an excuse to show you this next one. It's also from my in-laws' 8mm archive, and it's also of a snow storm, but it's a lot less typical. This was taken in January of 1939 (during the seventh-largest snowfall in Chicago history) and this time my wife's grandfather actually got his camera out in the storm. In addition to family and dogs playing in the snow, he filmed the wreckage of two El trains which had crashed on the Garfield Park Line. And in the final frames you can see the horse drawn carriages that were used to haul the snow away from Crawford Avenue (now called Pulaski). The footage is in excellent condition and pretty remarkable, I think, as a snapshot of one Chicago neighborhood on an historic day more than 70 years ago. No one has even looked at it for probably half a century. I haven't seen too many videos quite like it.

video

Anyway, if you want to set your next novel during Chicago's Storm of the Century of 1939, there's your reference. And while you wonder with the fellows in that video how they are ever going to get that train off the elevated tracks, here's an outstanding story about how the CTA rail lines got their color-coded names.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Winter's Coming! Whee!

by Barbara D'Amato

I get exasperated with TV news anchors who turn to the meteorologist and say, “Don’t tell me we’re going to get any of that nasty white stuff.” I like snow.

No, I don’t ski. Not downhill and not cross-country. You might as well nail boards to my feet.

But I like things to happen. The glory of Chicago weather is that it’s always changing. It’s not boring.

When I was a child, we used to visit my mother’s uncle and aunt in Florida. No matter what time of year we went, it was always the same. Warm, maybe afternoon rain. Warm, maybe afternoon rain. Warmmaybeafternoonrainwarmmaybeaft— Okay, in the summer I guess it was warmer and buggier. With maybe afternoon rain. It was boring.

The upper Midwest is the hardest place on earth to predict the weather.

I’m not a masochist. I have memories of going to classes at Northwestern in Evanston, parking the car on the lakefront in blizzards and walking to campus in sleet storms. I’d get there with a turtleshell of ice on my back. It wasn’t comfortable, but it wasn’t boring, either.

Now that I don’t go out to work, I can choose my weather to walk in, but there is still nothing as wonderful as walking in that first fat falling snow.

Ninety degree days with hundred per cent humidity are less fun. They make me feel sluggish and stupid, but they are a change.

The only weather that actually frightens me is the occasional extremely high wind. Jeanne Dams, Mark Zubro and I were walking back from the Newberry Library when that big wind hit—the wind that blew the scaffolding off the Hancock Building and killed several people. There was siding and glass and insulation shooting past, and we huddled in a hotel lobby for a while.

Some years ago I was out walking in a very high wind and foolishly had my jacket open. The wind picked it and me up like a sail and dropped me on my back.

But still it was an event.

Chicagoans –you who complain about the weather—is Chicago compulsory? Or do you really like our weather? My guess is that most Chicagoans have a sneaking affection for it that they don’t want to admit to.

Tell the truth, now. Do you HAVE to live in Chicago?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Windy City Metals

by Michael Dymmoch
Great thing about being a writer is you get to use things you stumble across in your everyday life—sort of like getting free materials when you manufacture widgets. I discovered Windy City Metals (4617 W Division St) when someone in my building threw out a 60 pound compressor. I didn’t want to see it buried in a landfill, but it wasn’t on Waste Management’s approved recyclables list. And my building regulations don’t allow me to leave stuff in the alley for Laura Caldwell’s Shopping Cart Guy. I recalled seeing an ad for WCM on one of their trucks. It turned out to be a pretty cool place (and clean, relatively speaking), populated by real characters.



Like Gerardo, who started to sway, then two-step, and finally sing along with the salsa music that employees were playing at disco volume. Gerardo got me smiling, and tapping my foot. Which prompted me to ask his name. Which prompted him to ask me, “Queres bailar?” I noticed he was entertaining several of the other customers as well. Actually, some of the other customers were pretty entertaining too—at least for a geek like me.

A couple of them backed their truck up near the waiting line and pulled an enormous metal frame off the back, onto the concrete floor. The frame supported two— I don’t know what they were called—some kind of motors or compressors. The guys proceeded to beat the frame apart with a sledgehammer (components sell for more if separated).





Even in line, one of them was dismantling while he waited his turn.






As the recycling volunteer for my building, I visit WCM at least once a month, and I’ve started carrying my camera because, frankly, some of the stuff I notice while I’m out are unbelievable. Like the guy entering the yard on his bike, towing a bike trailer, with a shopping cart full of assorted junk attached to the rear. (Didn’t get my camera out fast enough to get that one.) Or the fuzzy trailer I spotted along Division Street on the way to WCM.


I’ve been recycling things since my conversion on Earth Day 1970. When I was a single mom, a trip to the junk yard with aluminum chairs I’d scavenged, helped me out when the money ran out before the month did. Now, I donate my proceeds to the employees' holiday fund and just keep the characters, the locations and the things you couldn’t make up.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Writing Spaces . . . George Foreman . . . Prizes!

by Sean Chercover

I'm insanely jealous of writers who can work on planes and buses, in coffee shops, and so on. I see you people at the neighborhood Caribou Coffee (or Timothy's, in Toronto) and on buses and in airplanes (or, in Laura's case, poolside in Vegas), happily tapping away on your keyboards, oblivious to all the people flapping around clucking at each other, unfazed by the insipid muzak or the squeal of the milk-frother.

I can't do it. I can write in dingy bars, but once in a dingy bar, I start drinking, and my writing goes to hell. I enjoy working in coffee shops with notebook and pen, but for me, longhand is mostly about brainstorming.

When it comes down to writing the actual prose of the book, I have to retreat to my own cave.

And I have a new cave

I recently rented a place above a vacant storefront.

It's walking distance (a mere 6 minutes) from my house.














My office isn't quite set up. Boxes everywhere, some walls still bare, I haven't unpacked my Ernie Banks and Incredible Hulk bobbleheads, and I'm still looking for my Page Points. But my desk area is up and running.

The reason I've not finished unpacking is ... I'm busy writing. The phone doesn't ring 367 times a day, and there's no tug-of-war in my head between family time and work time. When I'm at the office, I'm at work. When I'm home, I'm not at work.

Easy to understand, even for a simple man like me. No confusion. As a result, my productivity (read: word-count) is way, way up.

I also dig the atmosphere.

The stairway features cracked linoleum, peeling paint, and naked lightbulbs. Sets the mood perfectly as I arrive to work.















Across the street, a convenience store and a Chinese take-out joint (bedsheets seem to be very popular window-dressing on this street).














When Agent 99 and I first moved to the neighborhood, we ordered dinner from this place (undoubtedly sold by their claim of "Famous" Chinese Food).

We both got sick.

So I won't be picking up lunch at the joint, but as atmospheric set-dressing, something to gaze upon when I look out my office window, it's perfect.

Oh, and did I mention that my office has a small kitchen?

It does. And that's important, since I'm now renting an office, and do not have money to spend on take-out, famous or otherwise.

The oven and two of the stove-top burners don't work, but two burners is plenty for a guy alone in an office, right?

Besides, my dad gave me an office-warming gift that renders such last-century cooking appliances obsolete.

I am now the very proud owner of the greatest kitchen appliance since the spatula.

Yes, it is a George Foreman Grill. And I love it.

Now, if you've read this far, bless you. This post was sparked by the awesome Writer's Rooms series that the Guardian has been running for some time. Check it out, it's addictive.

And if you'd like to win prizes (yea! prizes!) then take a pic of your own writing space and send it to me (email link on my website). Include a word or two about what makes the space work for you.

I'll collect photos for a couple weeks, then post an assortment here.

Let's share...

Monday, October 26, 2009

...Son, always be a good boy; don't ever play with guns

By David Heinzmann

In the little central-Illinois town where I grew up just about everybody I knew kept firearms. Our own home was loaded with them.

We had an old gun cabinet with brittle glass doors in our basement that contained four or five shotguns, a .22-caliber lever-action rifle that looked like it had been drawn directly from the saddle scabbard on John Wayne’s horse, as well as a .22 Ruger revolver that also looked like a cowboy gun.

On the top shelf of the cabinet behind the boxes of shotgun shells, there was a badly tarnished, nickel-plated .32-caliber revolver that no longer fired, though my father kept it around for some unexplained sentimental reason. That one also looked like it came from the movies, but something starring Humphrey Bogart instead of the Duke.

Then there was the loaded Smith & Wesson .38 that my dad kept in his top dresser drawer for protection. I know, to urban and suburban sensibilities it probably sounds absurd, but it was a one-cop town, the middle of a recession, and, well, who knows. All I can say is that my dad was an educated and reasonable man of his time who worried about the well-being of his family. Anyway, it was heavy and black, well-oiled, and definitely serious business.

I learned early the basics of handling a gun, where the safety was, and how to always be conscious of where you’re pointing the thing. My dad would occasionally take me out into a ravine in the woods and set up a few soda can targets. I’d shoot the little .22 revolver, which made a sound like firecrackers and compressed air. And then that big, heavy .38 that always sounded like a bomb going off to my tender ears.

My dad hunted and by the time I was an adolescent, my older brother was an avid hunter, as well. I never took to it, but weekends in the fall I usually accompanied them to a friend’s small farm on the edge of town where we’d shoot trap with shotguns. They were practicing to down pheasants and geese. I was just tagging along.

Five or six of us would stand in a line with this spring-loaded throwing contraption set in the dirt in the middle of us. Pulling a cord would release the arm and send clay pigeons, these little Frisbees made of crude, lightweight ceramic, spinning into the sky. I could probably hit six out of ten on a really good day.

But one afternoon I was waiting my turn, standing next to the guy who owned the farm, a .20-guage shotgun under my arm pointed at the ground. All of the sudden my gun went off, shredding the long grass and sending a cloud of dust into the air about ten feet in front of the man next to me. His name was Dick Herring. Everybody looked around, and Dick gave me an easy-going, “Careful there, David.” I think it was my brother who said, what the hell?, and in the moment, I couldn’t explain why the gun had gone off, though I’m sure my finger was on the trigger when it shouldn’t have been.

Nobody was hurt, but I had a what in God’s name am I doing here? moment. I’m not a hunter; I’m not much of a shot. All I’m really doing is spending time with my old man and my brother. As I look back, that was a pretty good reason. My father would be dead of cancer less than five years later, and I cherish all the time I spent with him. And the camaraderie and amiable bullshitting of those afternoons are part of a why I loved growing up in a small town. But that was the beginning of the end of my time playing with guns.

It was a good lesson. You really don’t want to be careless for even a second with a loaded gun in your hand.

I think of this 25-year-old episode fairly often. I thought of it a few weeks ago when my mother shared the news that Dick Herring—in his 70s—had died. And I thought of it again last week when a cop friend was recounting how he had to tell a writer acquaintance of his that the elaborate and technical gun stuff in her book was all wrong. None of that stuff matters to me.

In my own novel, A Word to the Wise, I put a sawed-off shotgun in a villain’s hands at one point. When a gun-nut friend read it, he questioned whether I had the bad guy using it correctly. I thought I did, but in the end I just took the technical stuff out. It didn’t matter a bit to the drama of the moment.

As far as I’m concerned, guns are either big or little; long or short. And people either know how to use them, or they don’t.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Avast there, me hearties


The October 4, New York Times business section offers a disturbing look at piracy--not in Somalia, or even the music industry, but in books. With e-readers becoming widespread, the electronic piracy business isn't far behind. For those of us who write for a living, a bleak future has been looking bleaker. The publishing industry, which has been aware of the impending problem for some time, doesn't have any advice to offer beyond going every day to look for all your titles and report them when found. In the UK, if someone pirates your material, they are fined heavily, as is the website that offers the free download. Here, we have to go through the cumbersome business of finding which files are out there, whether they're audio or text, reporting them to our editors, and hoping that the site will respond to a take-down letter. Right now, all I know to do is have a google alert for each title and check them all daily--not how I most want to spend my time. So--who out there in the blogosphere has a better suggestion?

P.S. For those who wanted to know what I actually wrote about trees in the Bouchercon panel on Poe, you can read it here. It was great fun to be on the panel with Peter Lovesey and John Lutz, both of whom know a huge amount about Poe, and to see Sue Grafton and Michael Connelly again--it's been awhile.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Literary Dumpster Diving

by Laura Caldwell

So I have a confession to make: sometimes I engage in the urban pastime of dumpster diving.

No, no, no, I don't send myself headlong into a garbage receptacle searching for food (although the pepperoni Pat's Pizza my neighbors tossed last night looked pretty delish). Rather, occasionally, if there's something good hanging out of a dumpster or left next to a dumpster, I'll grab it. (My neighborhood has a friendly homeless gentlemen who will, for $20, take the loot anywhere you want on his grocery cart).

Once, I found an antique entryway mirror set in carved wood. It's now in my cabin. Another time, I discovered a fantastic chair with questionable stains that I had reupholstered. One man's trash….

So I've been thinking we should have a literary dumpster. You know all those plot points and characters you reject for whatever reason? Let's put them in a literary dumpster and whoever wants them can have them. And if you think they're trash, just leave 'em alone.

Here's a plot point I tossed recently: a man is caught by his wife watching a video and being... uh, energetic. Unfortunately, the video was one he made, secretly, in his 12-year-old daughter's bedroom. On the video, his daughter and a friend are seen changing clothes. The wife wants to have him killed before he can take his fantasies too far.

Before you hate me for this, let me say that the children in the story were never going to learn of the video, nor were they ever going to be injured. Still, I just couldn't go there. But someone else wants it, get out your figurative grocery cart and have at it. Got anything for me?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My Playlist

by Marcus Sakey

Many posts here are carefully considered editorials on topics of importance. This isn't one of them. Sometimes I'm just in the mood to drop a few notes about what day-to-day life looks like right now, what I'm listening to and reading.

Musically, neither of my two new discoveries is actually new. The first is Drive-By Truckers, specifically the album "The Dirty South"; the second is Modest Mouse and "We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank".

I've had the Truckers recommended to me a couple of times, but didn't get around to them till about a month ago. It's southern rock of the grungy and mean school, sung badly and played without finesse but with balls and swagger to spare. And the lyrics are pretty impressive; they're story-based, and they are impassioned, class-conscious, and compelling. Great music to blare while working hard or working out.

As for Modest Mouse, I realize I'm late to the party. I've had the album for awhile, but never got more than a track or two in; if you're not really listening to the lyrics, the sound can be kind of off-putting. But the other night I threw it on headphones while making dinner--chicken chile verde, it was awesome, thanks--and really dug it. Hard for a writer not to love lyrics like "While we're on the subject, can we change the subject now," or "It didn't seem we'd lived enough to even get to die."

On the reading front, I urge you all to pick up a short story collection called STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN, by Kelly Link. This goes double for any aspiring writers. Her prose is unbelievably good--precise, evocative, and spare--but what really knocked me on my ass was the way she taps into and re-channels mythic structure. These stories have a haunting familiarity that worms right into your brain.

On the geek front, the Batman XBox 360 game is awesome. A well-balanced system of play that manages to accomplish an obvious feat many videogames miss, which is just to make you feel freaking cool.

Finally, I'm intrigued by the two episodes I've seen of Flash Forward. It's a great premise: the whole world passes out for two minutes, during which time everyone experiences a vision of the future which may or may not be inevitable. The writing is a touch condescending at times--note to TV writers: we're smart--but that is a frequent problem in the early episodes of a series. And philosophically, they're exploring some interesting ground.

So there you go. As promised, definitely not deep, but that's what my media looks like right now. How about you? I'd honestly love to hear what you're listening to, reading, playing, or watching.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Come see Kogan in his natural habitat

Congrats to David on the new shorty. And just a quick note to alert everybody that Rick Kogan--friend of the Outfit and all Chicago writers--is having a book launch party for his own new collection of Sidewalks columns, and the beautiful Chuck Osgood photos that go with them. There's no livelier place in Chicago than the Billy Goat when it's full of reporters...

PLEASE JOIN CHARLES OSGOOD AND RICK KOGAN

TO CELEBRATE THE PUBLICATION OF THEIR NEW BOOK

SIDEWALKS II

FRIDAY OCTBER 23
5 P.M. TO 10 P.M.
THE BILLY GOAT TAVERN
430 N. MICHIGAN (LOWER LEVEL)

--David Heinzmann

My Gratitude

by David Ellis

In my last blog entry, I went on a rant about the state of politics in this state and the media coverage of it. It was the first time I didn’t write about writing itself. And it was the first time I went negative, so to speak. Today, I’d like to spend a little time talking about some things for which I am grateful.

I feel like, when I write on this blog, typically tips or observations about writing, that I usually just restate the obvious. But I still think it’s helpful. And I think this point is also obvious, but also a good reminder: We should constantly remember how good we all have it. We have our highs and lows, some of us have more success than others, but dammit, we live in the greatest country in the history of the world, we have houses to shelter us and meals to feed us, friends and family that love us, and the things we typically worry about? They pale in comparison to what the vast majority of the people on this planet have to worry about.

I’m grateful for my beautiful new daughter, Julia Grace, who came into my life last week. Sorry, Bouchercon, I really did want to attend but Julia decided to make us wait and make a fashionable entrance. My daughter Abigail is now tied for most beautiful girl in the world, as judged by a panel that includes me, my wife, and their grandparents.

I’m grateful that I get to write for a living, or at least for part of my living. There are few things more fulfilling than creating something, molding it and tweaking it, and getting to share it with the world. And other people buy it. And I get paid for it. Wow.

I’m grateful for the chance to read wonderful works of art, many of them by friends and colleagues like my partners on this blog. Reading enriches my life like few other things. You think, you react, you marvel. I still get that rush whenever I realize I’m going to have the chance to steal away a few moments to read a chapter or two of whatever it is I’m reading.

I’m grateful for the new energy breathed into literature by new authors. How exciting, the untested, mysterious new author. I remember when I was first introduced to new authors like our own Marcus Sakey or Blake Couch or Theresa Schwegel, wondering how they were so damn good so quickly, whereas I felt like it took me years to be even decent. Or Laura Caldwell, whose work I started reading even before she made it onto bookshelves. It’s amazing to me, the diversity of authors in our crime/mystery/thriller genre. People who don’t read the genre have no idea.

I’m grateful for New York strip steaks and dirty martinis and sautéed spinach. If I’m ever on death row and eligible for a last meal, someone call Gibsons. I’m also grateful for the carne asada burritos at La Pasadita, corner of Ashland and Division. When I was in law school, you needed a bullet-proof vest to visit the place. Now it’s trendy. It doesn’t make the burritos less tasty.

Most of all, I’m grateful for hope. It means different things to different people. I don't know what the future holds, but I’m going to keep writing novels until someone tells me to take a hike—and then I’ll probably still keep doing it—and who knows if that day might come that I’m on the best-seller list. I have absolutely no idea what the likelihood of this happening is, but I do know that it’s possible, for each of us, and it won’t happen unless I keep trying and keep hoping. And if nothing else, I will sure enjoy the ride.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

This Was My Bouchercon... How was yours?

by Libby Hellmann





















What was the best part of Bcon for you?

Btw, a free copy of DOUBLEBACK for anyone who can identify everyone on the page...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where It Comes From, Baby, I Don't Know

By Kevin Guilfoile

Tuesday night I was at the Northfield Public Library to participate in a panel discussion with The Outfit's own Libby Hellmann and Edgar-winning Chicago crime novelist Theresa Schwegel. It was a terrific crowd, standing room only, and we had a fun conversation. At some point a reader asked us for some of our favorite writers, and Theresa happened to mention David Foster Wallace. Regular readers of this blog know that I spent the summer reading Wallace's masterpiece, Infinite Jest and I mentioned that.

After the discussion I picked up copies of Libby's latest, Doubleback, and of Theresa's newest, Last Known Address.

The next day I had to go to the Secretary of State facility in Lombard to settle some address confusion on my car registration. I had just finished a book (our own Sara Paretsky's Hardball, which is every bit as good as you think) and since I wasn't sure how long I'd have to wait at Jesse White's place, I snapped up Last Known Address, on my way out the door.

The wait wasn't long (helpful note--Wednesday morning is apparently a very good time if you need new plates or your license renewed) but on like page five of Last Known Address I came across a character the narrator calls "Moms." And having just finished Infinite Jest, I immediately recognized "The Moms" as the name of a character in that novel. I sat in my government plastic molded chair connecting the dots--Theresa likes DFW, DFW had a character named The Moms. Theresa has a character named Moms. It must be a little tribute. But one I never would have noticed if not for a certain unique confluence of events and coincidences.

And I started thinking about how often I do this in my work. The character of Dr. Davis Moore in my first novel, Cast of Shadows, is a little nod in my head to Dr. Tom More in Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins. It doesn't mean anything. I never expected anyone else to put that together. In that same book, a character orders pumpkin ravioli at a restaurant because that's my wife's favorite dish at a certain place we go to and it made me smile to type it. (One critic bizarrely and hilariously chastised me for being the "kind of thriller writer" who considers it "essential to tell us, when two people are out to dinner, that one of them is eating pumpkin ravioli." Since I am apparently that kind of thriller writer, I've vowed to have someone eating pumpkin ravioli in every novel I write.)

I'm sure all novelists do this. You have to make so many arbitrary decisions when you write a novel--names of people and places--and some of them have significance, and some of them don't, and many of them have significance only to you.

Of course sometimes a reader assigns significance that isn't there, and that's okay. I could be wrong about Moms. It might mean something else altogether to Theresa, or it might mean nothing. But coming across it believing I knew where it came from, that I was sharing a little secret with the author, is one of the tiny thrills of reading.

Has this ever happened to you? You're reading a novel and you happen on some little detail that you're certain must be an obscure reference to something, maybe even a reference you weren't even supposed to get. Or to the writers in our company, maybe you've inserted something in a novel or story that means something only to you.

What are the tiny personal details--the Easter Eggs--hidden in your work?

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Death is my beat, and let's hope it stays that way

By David Heinzmann

It’s been a rough few years in the newspaper business and it feels like the waters won’t be smoothing out any time soon. Next week we’re expecting to see new circulation numbers across the industry that reflect a further slide in the number of people buying the paper.

As everybody knows, consumer trends are driving more of our operations online, but nobody has so far figured out how to make a decent buck on digital presentation of the news. We continue to give it away for free, and advertising revenue on the web site is a tiny a fraction of what we get from print ads. It's mean lots of layoffs and other cuts. Fewer reporters and fewer pages, meaning declining resources to really explain what's going on in the world. It’s ironic that some of our best reporting is reaching more people than ever because of the Internet.

Last week I went to a Mystery Writers of America meeting in Madison that was attended by several novelists (including fellow Outfit blogger Laura Caldwell), and the conversation turned to the state of publishing—paper and ink vs. digital books, etc. Several people worried that bound volumes may go the way of newspaper—crawling, and now sliding, toward oblivion.

Most of us agreed that the fate of books isn’t so bleak. Kindle will take a slice of the market. And maybe print-on-demand will play a role larger than some people like. But nobody’s giving away novels for free the way we have in the news business. And just as there’s no lack of demand for news to be reported, there is a strong demand for writers to tell stories and to reveal pieces of our world, at length.

And I don’t think that book production has quite the same industrial headaches as printing and delivering millions of pages of newsprint every day.

Let’s hope all of this looks a little more promising in a year or two when we can actually see whatever this recovery is going to be. Here's to people have a little more money to buy crime novels, ad space in the paper moving at a stronger clip, and the general public swallowing the idea of shelling out a couple bucks every once in a while to read the news online. We're going to confront that issue soon, one way or another.

Anyway, I think my hopes are modest.

Later this morning, I'll jump in the car and head to Indianapolis to attend my first Bouchercon. I’m excited just to be going, and am thrilled to be on a panel discussion Saturday afternoon with other journalists-turned-novelists. The panel is titled Death is My Beat, and we’ll be talking about using journalism and reporters as themes and protagonists in our fiction.

When we were kicking around ideas for the discussion several weeks ago, I suggested we talk a little about the pressure the industry is under. Another writer quipped: Nobody cares about that. That’s why we’re screwed. Funny. And pretty much correct. Still, not a completely useless idea. Read Michael Connelly’s recent book, THE SCARECROW, in which the downsizing at the L.A. Times (which is owned by the same Tribune Co. that employs yours truly) provides great tension for the novel’s protagonist.

Now on to Bouchercon. Most members of the Outfit will be there. So if you’re in town for the conference make sure you drop by our panels, or find us in the bar, to say hello.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I wouldn't make a good vampire...

by Michael Dymmoch

I love the sun. It lightens my mood when I'm depressed. Its light makes colors brighter and keeps plants healthy. It turns cholesterol into vitamin D.

Last Saturday afternoon was very sunny—at least in Wisconsin, where many of us writers were invited to hawk our wares at various venues around the state capitol during a program titled Legends of the Fall. Jerry Peterson set me up at a Borders signing with fellow writers Laura Caldwell and David Walker. Attendance was average as signings go, but the signing was above average. The folks who showed up (including author and publisher Ben LeRoy) seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say. Abby Ryan, the Borders rep who hosted us, was enthusiastic and prepared.

I navigate by the sun. I'm lost in strange places on cloudy days. That is, I get lost more on cloudy days, especially in towns like Muncie, IN; Evanston, IL; and Madison, WI, which all have one-way streets in inconvenient places.

I drive a lot but since Gov. Blackguard doubled tolls for those who won't buy into the electronic toll way trackers, I've been avoiding toll roads. [Okay, I'm paranoid. That doesn't mean they aren't out to get me. I also don't like crowded roads or being stuck in traffic, and I've noticed that—according to the traffic reports—I spend no more time taking side roads than people who take the toll way and end up sitting in back-ups at construction zones or accident sites. (At least they don't get lost.) But I don't mind getting lost. You can always backtrack and start over.]

Anyway, last Saturday, coming back from Madison, I decided to take I-90 as far as I freely could. Traffic was light and speeds were ten mph over the limit. It looked like a faster way home than the 3.5 hours I spent (including pit stops) on the way up.

Eventually you get to the end of the freeway; I got off at the last exit before the tolls, A Rock-something Road. It looked okay—pavement, traffic signals, signs. It was heading in the right directions (east and west), so I took it east.

I quickly got the feeling that maybe I was in Kansas—lots of cornfields, few houses, no traffic. But it was a bright afternoon. The shadows were pointing me in the right direction. I pressed on. On the accelerator—Kansas is kind of flat.

Of course the road didn’t keep going east. And it didn’t stay paved. And the signposts got farther apart and more ambiguous. But the turnings were in the right direction—east and south, so I continued.

And I noticed what I always do on road trips—things I cannot find at home. Like a small unmarked cemetery



with stones so old the names have weathered away.



As soon as the road turned it seemed to change names, from whatever is was to something else. But the cross streets were interesting: White School Road and North Boon School Road,



Free Church Road





and Grade School Road. I was sensing a theme.

My faith that if I kept going in the right directions—south and east—I would get back to Chicago was not misplaced. I ended up on IL-72 and followed it through Genoa and Hampshire and West, then East Dundee (where it splits off from IL-68).

In the Village of Hampshire, I spotted this:


IL-72 intersected, in time, with IL-58—Golf Road, terra cognita for those who’ve grown up in the north suburbs. I never did get lost.

My mother taught me to tell directions by the sun about the same time she taught me to read. Faith in my ability to find my way geographically is a gift, like reading, that’s kept me from getting lost most of my life.

A writer needs his own sun (or muse or God or Garmin, Ruby Slippers, or a self-confidence bordering on arrogance) to light his journey, illuminate his view, give definition to the topography of his mental landscape, and lighten his affect. Once you’ve found yours, you’ll never ever get lost.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fiction Is The New Dumb...

by Sean Chercover

Wanna see something really dumb?

The Daily Beast just published their list of America's Smartest Cities. As they say on their website, "We’ve gone out and ranked the relative intelligence of every major American population hub [metro area pop. over 1 million], from first-to-worst."

You might think I'm going to complain that Chicago came in at #24 (tied with St. Louis), with a civic IQ of 108 - or, as the Daily Beast says, "a big fat C+." But no, I don't care about that.

My problem is with part of their criteria. TDB came up with an (admittedly) unscientific formula to measure the per-capita IQ of each metropolitan area. A significant component of their formula came from "nonfiction book sales."

They explained it thusly:
"We focused on nonfiction as an imperfect proxy for intellectual vigor, because overall sales are dominated by fiction works that, while entertaining, aren’t always particularly thought-provoking."
Here are a few bestselling nonfiction titles, which The Daily Beast seems to think better represent "intellectual vigor" than that silly fiction stuff:



THE BON JOVI ENCYCLOPAEDIA


I'll give them credit for spelling encyclopaedia correctly. But an encyclopaedia of ... Bon Jovi??







HUNGRY GIRL: 200 RECIPES UNDER 200 CALORIES

With just one book, you can teach your daughter to cook, and get her started on her body-image disorder!






STUFF ON MY CAT: THE BOOK

Here's the deal: Put stuff on your cat, take picture of said cat with stuff on it, submit picture to publisher. Then, I kid you not, they publish an entire book of such pictures.

Hi-larious.





MASTER OF THE GAME: BECOME A CHICK MAGNET AND ATTRACT WOMEN EFFORTLESSLY

This one speaks for itself.



Once again, the reason that The Daily Beast excluded fiction is because works of fiction, "while entertaining, aren’t always particularly thought-provoking."

Looking at the above titles, it is obvious that works of non-fiction are the flip-side of the equation: always thought-provoking, even when they fail to entertain.

Pu-lease.

Sure, there are plenty of dumb novels in the world, just as there are plenty of dumb non-fiction books. But to read fiction (at least, to read it well) requires thinking in abstraction and metaphor, requires the simultaneous use of both the intellect and the imagination. In short, reading fiction requires the use of more of the reader's brain. To suggest that non-fiction is inherently more intellectually demanding is, well, just dumb.

And yet, we've all encountered people (never extremely bright people, but...) who somehow equate non-fiction with intellectual rigor and fiction with fluffy entertainment.

Why is that?

Stuart Kaminsky Too

by Barbara D'Amato

I want to talk about Stuart Kaminsky. Sara’s fine post Saturday brought up many memories, and as far as I’m concerned we could post about Stu from now to the end of the year and not go overboard.

Stu’s productiveness was amazing enough, fifty-five novels by my count and eleven non-fiction works. But more--the range of his talent was astonishing. There was the funny, wry Toby Peters series—named for two of his sons. There were his darker books—Rostnikov, Lew Fonesca, and Lieberman. And standalone thrillers like WHEN THE DARK MAN CALLS [1983]. I don’t know of anyone who mastered so many genres.

But I want to talk about his generosity.

When my first novel came out, a paperback, and was receiving zero attention and of course no reviews, my husband called Stuart, whom he knew slightly since they both taught at Northwestern. Stuart gave him many suggestions, including to join Mystery Writers of America, which I did not even know existed. MWA has given me help and camaraderie over the years.

When Mary Shura Craig came up with the idea for Of Dark and Stormy Nights, the first ever mystery writing workshop, a completely unprecedented venture, it was Stuart who got us the venue, the Annie Mae Swift building at Northwestern. Because he was teaching at Northwestern, we didn’t have to pay for Swift. We could never have risked taking on the workshop otherwise.

Stuart was keynote speaker for Dark and Stormy at least twice. Over and over again I saw him buttonholed by aspiring writers. He took the time to listen seriously to them and to respond at length. He was very serious about explaining that there was no magic he could give them, just the directive to work. And to READ.

He could easily be regarded as the father of MWA Midwest.

Stuart served as general awards chair for MWA national, chair for many of the individual awards, and as MWA president. He attended the banquets, encouraged nervous nominees, and celebrated the winners. He was nominated six times himself, won once and was named Grandmaster in 2006.

And yet he was always quiet, humble, and accessible.

What a guy!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Stuart Kaminsky 1934-2009

I just got home, and just received word that Stuart Kaminsky died on October 9. I don't know any more than that, except I know he struggled with Hepatitis C for a number of years--he was a CO and a medic in the Korean War, and I think he may have contracted the disease then--but I'm not sure. Stu was a prolific writer, and an important mentor for many writers, including me. No one understood the history of the noir form better, but his many different series covered many aspects of the genre. His Rostnikov books were so carefully researched that when he finally made it to Moscow, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Mayor of Moscow came to meet him personally to praise Stu for his deep understanding of a city that he'd never visited.

Please add your own recollections of Stu here. I understand that the funeral will be in St Louis on Monday. Stu's energy was so phenomenal that it's hard to believe he isn't just around the corner, ready to turn in two or six more manuscripts.
The that has a bit more news than I was able to give.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

by Laura Caldwell

Last week I toured Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security men's penitentiary in Joliet, Iillinois. I went with my law students so we could better understand our Life After Innocence clients who have been wrongfully convicted, many of whom were imprisoned at Stateville for decades before proving their innocence. As a writer, there was an added bonus for me because the background of a minor character in my new book includes imprisonment and execution at Stateville.

The long debated question, "Should you write what you know?" has been by batted around authors forever. I have always been firm in my answer: certainly, it helps to write what you know, but when you can't? Do the research. It's a close second. I've written books about Russia based on talking to locals and studying maps and guidebooks. I've written about a member of a covert op in Vietnam after reading books and interviewing men in the same position.

Now that I've spent five hours in Stateville, many of those hours in the general population of prisoners, I could write what I know, I suppose. I can tell you what it looked like to stand in a room painted powderish green with 4 floors of cages (or "cells" if you want a nicer, cleaner word). I could tell you what it would look like to watch one man in his cell urinate while we stood a foot outside and our guard/guide spoke about prison procedure. I can tell you what it looked like to watch another man do sit ups, to hear another prisoner hurl insults at my law students (surely those weren't meant for me). I can tell you what it looked like when one of my law students waved at someone on the fourth tier, and what it sounded like when a chorus of shouts, hoots and lewd screams erupted.

We can tell you what we saw when we walked in the "round house", the only round house prison left in the world. The room was cement and steel gray; 5 floors of cages, circling around a guard station in the middle, shotguns at the ready. Prisoners threw themselves against the bars of their cells or the plastic that had been put there to protect guards from urination or spitting. I can describe the madness in the eyes of some as they watched us, free, standing and observing them as if in a zoo.

I can tell you what it was like to walk into the death chamber - the kleig lights making it look like a tiny stage, the exhaust fan with mint green paint chips hanging from it, remnants of days when executions were done by electrocution. Silver brackets hung on the wall, ready to be adorned with IVs and used for lethal injections. Despite a moratorium on executions in Illinois, the red phone was still on the wall, awaiting a call from the governor to halt everything. And a few steps down and visible through a Plexiglas wall was the gallery. Where people could watch someone else be killed.

I can describe all these things in more detail. I will in my future book. But I don't know if I will ever be able to describe the energy of the place, the feeling of being in that round house, the vibrations that coursed through our bodies as we stood in the death chamber. How do you write those feelings? I suppose I "know" them now. But I can't find the words. "Jumping out of my skin" is way overused. So I need some suggestions. Got any? To use another cliche, I'm all ears.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Laughing At The End Of The World

by Marcus Sakey

So I went to see Zombieland the other day. It was a riot, totally over-the-top fun with a little postmodernism sprinkled amidst the disembowelments. Woody Harrelson was pitch perfect, and the cameo—I love how the whole world seems to be respecting the ban on silence about the actor’s identity, by the way—just killed me. I’d definitely recommend it.

But the reason I bring it up is actually to talk about the previews.

I love previews. I don’t go to the theatre that often, but when I do, my ass is in the seat in time to catch them. They’re like tapas: I get to sample a little of this, a little of that. I can be snarky about the ones that look lousy and get excited about what’s coming next. Often, by the time the actual movie starts, I kind of wish I was watching one of the ones I just saw trailered.

One of the things that I love about them is that they serve as a condensed read on the current popular mood. What we as a people are thinking and feeling is generally reflected in the stories we chose to tell, and so watching six or seven previews gives you a nice overview. You have to look at it metaphorically, but it’s all there.

You can do the same thing looking backward, by the way. The monster movies of the fifties? Responses to fears about atomic energy and weapons. Serial killers in the eighties? Isolation, loneliness, and the sense that something was rotten in the system.

Usually, seeing trailers gives you a range of topics. You can get some psychological insight, but from the trailers at least, it’s hard to draw overwhelming conclusions. Not this time. There’s a trend that’s like a slap in the face.

They were all about the end of the world. Stranger still, they all seemed gleeful about it.

Now, I’ll grant you that they preceded a movie about a joyous rampage through the end of the world. I get that these wouldn’t all have appeared before Michael Moore’s new flick. But that doesn’t change the fact that all of these movies were made, that they all share the same topic and theme, and that they are all coming out about the same time.

Here are two of the trailers:






And here’s the trailer for Zombieland:




Add to it that in the next few months there’s The Road, plus not-exactly-end-of-the-world-but-pretty-bleak-horror films Saw VI and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and you’ve got an interesting mix of stuff.

So what do you think? Reaction to our political climate? Economic worries? Looming loss of global supremacy?

Or are we just laughing at the end of the world?


Follow Marcus on Facebook or Twitter

Monday, October 05, 2009

My Rant

by David Ellis

I try not to be a media-basher. It’s hard in my job—that other one I have by day, as the lawyer for the Speaker of the Illinois House. It’s hard because more often than not, I am frustrated by the media coverage of the things we do in Springfield. Usually, it seems to me that the press is only concerned with conflict. Not who was right and who was wrong, or even what points were raised on the issue by both sides, but simply who is blasting whom over the issue. And there is always someone blasting someone else in Springfield.

After we removed Blagojevich from office, the theme for the following legislative session (2009) was reform. And there was plenty of it that session. We changed both the composition of government pension boards and how they did business—a direct response to one of the principal wrongdoers in the Rezko/Blagojevich scandals, Stuart Levine.

We changed the procurement laws—how the state purchases things and how it enters into contracts—again, a direct response to the pay-to-play scandals. We isolated the decisionmakers from the influence of the governor, so decisions couldn’t be based on who was giving campaign contributions to the governor.

You heard all about those reforms, right? The ones that cut to the essence of the problems under Governor Blagojevich? Um—well, to be fair, there was a small amount of coverage on those issues. There were “report cards” and the like, and I recall hearing favorable reviews on the pension and procurement reforms. But largely the media did very little to cover these two reforms, which in my mind were the two most direct responses to the Blagojevich scandals. I mean, look, there’s nothing wrong with taking the opportunity to do more than just address the Rod problems—but that was the impetus behind this whole thing, and the main things we did hardly received mention.

We did some other things, too, but let’s talk about the two things that got the banner headlines.

First, the Freedom of Information Act. Yes, Governor Rod famously abused it. His abuse was not the stuff of which criminal indictments—or impeachments—are made, but FOIA needed some work, and this was an opportunity to do it. Keep in mind, though, that on this issue, the media wasn’t playing watchdog. They were a participant. They negotiated with us. Ultimately, our reform of FOIA was a sweeping improvement over the current law. I simply don’t see how a fair-minded person could say otherwise. We simplified it, we made it easier to make FOIA requests, and we installed a watchdog under the Attorney General to resolve FOIA conflicts between citizens and local governments and the executive branch. But to listen to the media, you’d think it was nothing more than a half-baked measure. There is a legitimate separation-of-powers concern, for example, with letting an executive-branch body tell the legislature how to handle FOIA requests. And there are certain exemptions to FOIA that are based on sound public policy that we wouldn’t eliminate. Did the media air our side of that issue, or just their own? Go back and read the articles and decide.

And then there’s campaign finance reform. You know, caps on political contributions, that kind of thing. The idea is to prevent people from buying influence through campaign contributions. Was that a Blagojevich-spawned problem? In my mind, no. A governor could have shaken down companies or individuals for contributions, in exchange for government contracts or state jobs, even under a capped system. A crooked person can easily find his or her way around that kind of restriction. But others disagreed and said we needed campaign finance reform. To be fair, I absolutely can see how people would draw the connection between Rod and the need for contribution limits. I don’t agree but I see it.

The vast majority of those people are good-hearted people who truly want a fair and honest government. Do their obviously good intentions mean their proposals are the right ones? Obviously not. But it doesn’t mean they’re wrong, either.

It’s a legitimate debate. The idea of limiting how much one person or company can give to a politician has some logic to it; you can’t “buy off” a politician with $2,500, but you could with $25,000, the theory goes. Okay, that’s a fair point. But have federal limits cleaned up Congress? Some fair-minded people think federal limits are an “incumbency protection” plan—incumbents raise boatloads of money thanks to incumbency and plenty of loopholes, while challengers struggle to match them financially under very low caps. And there is a legitimate argument that the First Amendment protects that giving of campaign contributions as free speech, and no law—or bureaucrat from the Federal Elections Commission—should decide the parameters of our free speech. People hear the free-speech argument and roll their eyes, thinking it’s code for preserve-the-status-quo. To those people, I say, watch what the U.S. Supreme Court has to say, some time very soon, about this issue.

Look, I see both sides here. I’m not sure who’s right, and the answer may be somewhere in the murky middle. But are both sides fairly presented in the media? I think not. And that’s my only point. I don’t think the issue receives a full presentation. If you’re against contribution limits, it couldn’t be because you think they’re ineffective, unfair, or contrary to the First Amendment—it can only be because you’re corrupt.

We ultimately passed a campaign finance reform bill that pleased nobody. The criticism came from all sides, and perhaps rightly so. But to read the headlines, you’d think that the entire reform package in Springfield didn’t exist because this one bill, on this one issue, didn’t pass muster. (I recall reading an article entitled “How Reform Failed in Illinois” by someone who I like and respect, and thinking to myself, “Reform failed? All of it failed?”)

The reason I try not to be a media-basher is because I know a lot of the people in the media, and I think they’re largely trying to do the best they can. They can’t know some issues like the people in the trenches know them. It’s simply not possible. They don’t have the time or the resources to do it. I understand that. But sometimes it seems like the only thing I read is a brief description about the topic, followed by some political opponent blasting away at someone else. The conflict, I guess, is more interesting than the substance. The rub is that I don’t have a solution. Just a complaint.

Here's to whatever comes next

By David Heinzmann

I always get annoyed when I have to listen to someone with deep ideological leanings—more often than not they are to the right—harangue the press for its perceived liberal biases. Most of the good political reporters I know have been around long enough, and seen enough of the sausage being made, that they really don’t lean one way or the other. In fact they all lean heavily in the same direction—toward general skepticism.

Along the same lines, in the last weeks of my time covering Chicago’s failed Olympic bid, people kept asking me whether I was for or against the city winning the 2016 Summer Games. I had a hard time persuading some of them that I really felt disinterested in the outcome last Friday in Copenhagen.

When the word came in that Chicago had been knocked out of the competition by International Olympic Committee members in the first round of voting, I was as shocked as anybody. But I didn’t feel disappointed or elated. I merely felt the urgency needed to get our first report ready and posted online.

I was sitting at a keyboard in the Tribune newsroom, playing the role of rewrite guy, taking reporters feeds from Copenhagen and Daley Plaza, cleaning them up and fitting them into our stories going online.

When the smoke cleared after lunch, a colleague and I sat down to rewrite the Sunday “now what?” story we had already prepared. Before the IOC vote, the story had been geared to telling readers what to look for first as Chicago started to build up for the Games. We rewrote it to tell people what little lasting legacy there would be in the wake of the failed bid.

Mostly, the answer to that question is the 37-acre Michael Reese Hospital campus on the near South Side, which the city paid $86 million for in anticipation that developers would snap it up to build the Olympic Village. Now, it will be developed as regular old real estate, and since Chicago didn’t get the Games, the price for the land goes up to $91 million. And real estate experts say that, in this market, no developer is going to want to touch that land for about five years.

Covering the Olympics would have been a roller coaster ride, for sure. But by the same token, seven years is a long time to report about the buildup to anything. One of my first jobs in journalism was working in the Associated Press’ Atlanta bureau two years before the 1996 Olympics there. I covered a lot of Atlanta Committee to Organize the Games press conferences and don’t remember relishing any of them.

My firmest memory of that time is one Saturday morning sitting in a conference room at the ACOG headquarters for a “press conference” with IOC officials. When I got there, it was me, three or four other reporters and a handful of TV cameramen, our attention directed to the speakerphone sitting on top of the polished wood conference table. The IOC members were on the line from Switzerland. I’ll never forget those poor TV guys focusing their cameras in on that speakerphone in an empty room.

In the aftermath of the Chicago bid, there could be some good stories. For instance, what discussions went on between bid chairman Pat Ryan, Mayor Daley and the White House? Did Chicago people promise the White House that it was safe for President Obama to go to Copenhagen because the city had the votes? On Meet the Press yesterday, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post suggested as much. And as he pointed out, boy, were they wrong.

But that’s not likely to be my story. On Friday, I gave a phone interview to BBC radio on the Olympic decision. I had figured I would be asked about the reaction in Chicago, but when the interview started—live—I was thrown into the role of national political analyst. All they wanted to know was how damaging this incident would be to Obama’s efforts to pass health care legislation. I winged it.

Anyway, there are plenty of next stories out there. And I will admit to being a bit relieved to have a normal work schedule back for a bit. My novel, A Word to the Wise, comes out in two months and I really need to spend some of my energy focusing on getting out there and pushing it.

I start in earnest this weekend, heading to Booked for Murder in Madison for an event Friday night, and then to Books & Co. in Oconomowoc on Saturday. And I’m hoping to meet a bunch of you, readers and fellow bloggers, at Bouchercon the following week.

Onward.

Wine, Women and Books

during a Launch party for Hardball on Wednesday, October 7, at 57th Street Books, 1301 E 57th Street in Chicago. I hope to see you there

Sara

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Beer, Band, Books, and Baggos!

If you're in the Chicago area, you're invited to the launch party for DOUBLEBACK next Sunday. (The Bears have a bye so you have no excuse...)

Sunday Oct 11
3-6 PM
Hanson Brothers Tavern
Willow and Shermer Rds
Northbrook, IL


Hope to see you there.

Friday, October 02, 2009

If You Wanna Win You Gotta Learn How to Play

By Kevin Guilfoile

UPDATE 2: Interesting pattern in the Olympic voting. Tokyo actually lost votes in the 2nd round, which shouldn't happen if everyone is voting their first choice and there are only minutes between rounds. But what if you are a group of Rio supporters confident Rio can beat Madrid and Tokyo, but worried about a close head-to-head showdown with Chicago? You might vote for the weakest bid, Tokyo, in order to push it over Chicago. With Chicago out (and presumably many Chicago voters switching their votes to Rio in order to keep the games in the American time zones) you can then switch your votes to Rio in rounds two through four.

(Note that odds-on/sentimental favorite Rio finished 2nd in the first round to Madrid.)

I have no idea, but it explains the pattern. And it would be poetic if Chicago lost the bid due to backroom political trickery.

MORE: Philip Hersh in the Chicago Tribune: "The answers include the nature of a secret ballot, sympathy votes, some flawed intelligence gathering, and skilled Rio electioneering to make sure Chicago did not make the final round."


*****


UPDATE: Oops.

*****

Just before Noon Central Time today, a guy with an accent and an expensive suit is going to step in front of a podium in Copenhagen and say something like, "The International Olympic Committee awards the 2016 summer games to the city of..." and then he'll pause just slightly to heighten the drama before he says, Rio de Janeiro. Or Chicago. Or Madrid. Or Tokyo.

But probably not Madrid or Tokyo.

I wasn't born in Chicago but I choose to live here over anywhere else, which should be proof enough that I love this city. Nevertheless, I'm at best ambivalent about a Chicago Olympics. I like the Olympics a lot, but I also like sunsets. I've never felt an urge to be any closer to either of them than I already am.

The people who want to bring the Olympics to Chicago promise the event will deliver jobs by the tens of thousands and that cash will rain on the city like shotput-sized hail. Other people who study the history of such things say, maybe, but it's never happened before. When you take into account all the costs of staging an Olympic games, no municipality, including Los Angeles in 1984, has ever shown a net profit from the Olympics. Montreal spent 30 years repaying its Olympic debt.

Maybe that guy in Copenhagen should announce instead, "For agreeing reluctantly to take on the cost and inconvenience of the summer games, the International Olympic Committee wishes to thank..."

Of course, there are intangible benefits to having the Olympics, and if we get them I don't doubt I'll feel both excitement and pride when the games actually roll around and this beautiful city is showcased for the world. I'll be thrilled for local athletes who suddenly find their backyard transformed into the biggest stage on the planet. I have friends and family in Atlanta and none of them seem to have any regrets about the Olympics there. Still, I'm not sure what I'd risk for such abstract and distant pleasures and the bid team knows this, which is why they make it sound like the very economic future of the city depends entirely on javelins being tossed about in Washington Park.



Last spring I got a call from a guy at a decent-sized advertising agency in Chicago (not the one for which I used to work). They were producing some videos for Chicago 2016 and they had an idea to ask some Chicago writers to contribute copy for the voice over. There was a catch, though. Several actually. It had to be done fast, it had to be great, and they were working pro bono so they couldn't pay me.

I was too busy to work on a fire drill project so I didn't have to sift through my Olympic ambivalence before coming up with an answer. But after I hung up, something bothered me about the request. It wasn't just that they didn't want to pay me. I wondered more about why Chicago 2016 wasn't paying the ad agency.

The old joke ad folks usually tell clients when they walk in the door is this: "We can do great work, we can do fast work, and we can do cheap work. You get to choose two." But from this agency the bid committee was asking for all three.

Chicago 2016 isn't a charity case. They have a budget of almost $50 million just for the pitch. Somebody's getting paid for all these presentations. Somebody's getting paid a lot of money, in fact. The answer, obviously, is this particular shop was betting that if Chicago gets the Olympics, their pro bono work on the bid would be remembered and they'd get some high-paying, high-profile assignment for the main event. It was a campaign donation, essentially, but instead of giving money to a politician in hopes for some quid pro quo, they were donating their billings to a politician's pet project. Only people on the inside are making money now. The agency, which is on the outside, was giving away its work so it could get on the inside, where it could make money later.

The whole Olympics is going to be like this--a game in which Chicagoans will be made to feel like they should be emotionally invested when the real players will be behind the scenes: the guys with contracts waiting to be signed, and properties on the Olympic venue Monopoly board (Note: The Outfit's own David Heinzmann has been doing some terrific reporting on this at the Trib). Maybe the games will lose money on the whole, but some people, people on the inside, are going to make Benjamins by the bagful. These are the people who exaggerate the benefits, who make it sound like Chicago needs the Olympics more than the Olympics needs Chicago (a dubious claim if only because the IOC stands to make another half billion or so in television rights for summer games on US soil) so that you'll support an endeavor that will line their pockets. It should be our responsibility to consider their promises skeptically, to shed light on their conflicts of interest.

Ben Joravsky, one of Chicago's most eloquent skeptics, has an excellent piece in the Reader this week, detailing all the reasons Chicago shouldn't want the games. I won't repeat his arguments, although you should read them for yourself, especially if Chicago wins this morning. Joravsky ends the piece asking why, if so many aldermen have so many concerns and doubts about the games, the city council voted unanimously to put the city on the hook financially for any cost overruns:

"There's no point in voting no—it only pisses off the mayor and I don't need that," I was told by one alderman who didn't want his name used in print.

Besides, he added, "We're not getting the games—Rio's getting them. You heard it here first."

And if you're wrong? I asked him.

"We're screwed."


NOTE: Ben Joravsky will be on WGN720 AM after 7:30 tonight to talk about the bid.

Follow Kevin on Twitter.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Second Deadly Sin

by Barbara D'Amato

It’s the second deadly sin if you go by Pope Gregory’s count, but sixth by some other reckonings. Envy.

The last couple of weeks have seen many and varied responses to Dan Brown’s new book THE LOST SYMBOL. The ones that are troubling seem angry that Brown is selling so well and making so much money. “He can’t write!” “It’s the same old same old.” “Clichéd characters.” “What’s wrong with the book-buying public?”

It wouldn’t be troubling if remarks like this came from reviewers and critics. That’s their job, after all. But I‘m seeing them on writer chatrooms, socialnets, and blogs written by other authors. And in those cases, it smells a lot like envy.

I like some books better than others—who doesn’t?—and some books not at all. But I don’t think the ones I don’t care for are my enemies.

Yes, I am envious of book sales I wish were mine, but not too envious and not without a touch of gratitude that the books are selling. I like it when the big news is a book. Not a bridge collapse. Not a tsunami. Not a movie. Not even or the wedding of some mega-star. Or the wedding of a mega-star to another mega-star. A BOOK!

Huge bestsellers keep publishing companies afloat. No, not those celebrity books they pay millions for and which then don’t sell. But books that really sell help the companies’ bottom lines. You’re going to say that the money doesn’t trickle down to the midlist author? Sadly, that’s pretty much the case. But if the company folds, I’m a no-list author.

The rising tide raises all boats. We hear this a lot, but it’s mostly true. If John Public buys a book and enjoys it, he’s more likely to buy mine. And if John has rarely bought books before, and isn’t much of a reader, but suddenly finds reading is a fun thing to do, he’s far more likely to buy another.

And if Johnny Jr. liked reading Harry Potter, he’s a lot more likely to go on to read more. Yes, I know there’s a drop-off in kids’ reading in their teens, but teenagers have a lot to deal with. If he remembers liking Harry Potter, he’s more likely to buy Dan Brown. And then Hellmann, Chercover, Paretsky, Dymmoch, Heinzmann, Caldwell, Sakey, Guilfoile, Ellis, and all of that ilk when he gets into his twenties.