Saturday, April 23, 2011
by Libby Hellmann
It’s spring. Chicago is about to swear in a new mayor, the tulips are almost up, and the lake has lost all of its ice. Hopefully, the Outfit is coming out of hibernation too… except for Jamie, who, I’m convinced, never sleeps.
So, armed with great intentions and energy, I’d like to ask those of you who are still reading us (bless you) some questions about a classic noir novel. (So much for the beauty of spring…☺)
Last year I conducted workshops on THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE by the father of noir, James Cain. I adored getting into the story, the amoral characters, and the capricious nature of evil… and fate. The workshops must have gone well, because I was asked to do another one this summer… this time on DOUBLE INDEMNITY.
So I’m re-reading the novel, and I watched the film again (what would we do without Netflix?). The film was better than I remembered -- casting Fred MacMurray as the good/bad guy was a stroke of genius – but the novel is troubling me a lot more than I recalled.
I have a pretty high tolerance for noir. And despair. And the evils that men and woman are capable of. But -Jeez – every time I put the book down, I want to take a shower. What is it about DOUBLE INDEMNITY that makes it even blacker than POSTMAN? Is it that Huff (the Fred MacMurray character) is really a nice guy – unlike Frank in POSTMAN -- who’s just fallen in lust? Is it because he shows some kind of remorse, again, unlike Frank in POSTMAN? Is it because he’s willing to kill the object of his lust in order to make it with another woman?
I’m not sure, which is why I’m asking you. Do you think DOUBLE INDEMNITY is more noir than POSTMAN? If so, why? If not, why?
Would love to hear your comments…
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Thursday, April 14, 2011
I just came home from seeing Robert Plant and his Band Of Joy at Chicago's Auditorium theatre. Up until two days ago I had no idea I'd be there, but on Friday morning I heard Mr. Plant interviewed on the local radio. He sounded intelligent, thoughtful and interesting. A far cry from the man in the band known for its excess and I was surprised by the interview. And since I've lately been on this "why aren't you grabbing at life more?" kick I thought, Well, here I am, living not three miles from the Auditorium Theater and I'm letting this concert roll by. How foolish is that? I got home, hit the web and found last minute tickets.
Less than twenty four hours later I was sitting twenty feet from this artist and watching him sing songs that bore little resemblence to his Led Zeppelin days. No problem for me, because the band broke up before I began to buy records with my own money. I've never bought a Led Zeppelin album. In contrast, I do have his latest Gone Gone Gone with Alison Krauss and Angel Dance on my ipod.
Like Steven Tyler on the recent country music awards, Plant hits his notes and is a consumate professional. These rock and roll guys can make it happen, can't they? Indeed, the man's voice was astonishing. In this age of auto tune and backing vocal tracks it's always obvious when an artist who didn't work with such crutches appears on stage.
After opening with an unusual arrangement of Black Dog and making the crowd crazy, it became clear as he sang his new music that the audience, though respectful, was itching to hear another Zeppelin song. And as I sat there I thought about artists and how they become brands. How some of the readers I know tell me, "I love John Sandford, but only read his Davenport novels, never his Flowers stuff." But at least those two protagonists belong to the same mystery genre. What Plant was doing was blues infused alternative, far from the hard rock and roll of his Zeppelin days. I wonder if the Sandford fans would tolerate it if he wrote a romance along the lines of Nicholas Sparks? Would they reject him? Force him back into the mystery world?
I was discussing this with a few other writers I know and some pointed out the obvious successes, Nora Roberts/JD Robb, Grisham's crime and family novels. And yet, one author friend stated it pretty succinctly: "I don't think authors that are brands can branch out too far. Imagine if Beyonce decided to sing country. It could be the best country album ever, but the fans would probably reject it because it would be too much of a stretch."
But as an artist, part of the creative process requires stretching, learning, imagining and attempting. While the corporations that manage an artist's career may shudder at creative need to try new genres--they know all too well that there are fans who will reject the attempt no matter how well done-I think the artist needs to take that risk. Having done it allows him or her to return to the familiar with a renewed sense of imagination and possibility.
Plant eventually launched into (just two more) Zeppelin songs (Ramble On and Tangerine) and wow, did the audience go wild. As a man who gave me the impression that he rarely laughs out loud, I was heartened to see his face break into a large smile as the crowd roared and rose to its feet. Whatever he must think about being locked into the past, it was clear that he understood that for these fans that part of his history will never go away and his rendition of these old favorites had a fresh new sound. No Jimmy Page shredding and heavy bass, but a cool bluesy vibe that worked.
I also was heartened by the fans. It was clear that they loved him and while they wanted the past, they paid money and listened to his present, which is what I thinks readers do, too. Watching both Plant and his fans embrace the new and honor the past to create a vibrant, still relevant career made me happy that I'd taken the plunge and got off the couch. And I guess it's obvious now that I'm going to have to keep getting up and getting out. Because life-- and art-- should be lived and enjoyed. Don't you agree?
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
We have a special treat today. It gives me great pleasure to introduce Julia Spencer-Fleming. Julia has been nominated for or won pretty much every award there is, and with good reason. Her new book, One Was A Soldier, comes out today, and I can't wait to get my hot little hands on it.
Besides her thoughts on the maddening downward spiral that seems to be our world today, Julia is also offering a remedy--the one most of us fall back on, the kind that comes between covers. And this isn't metaphorical, either. Julia has a couple of advanced copies to give away. To enter, all you have to do is post an answer to the question she poses at the end.
READING AT THE END OF THE WORLD
by Julia Spencer-Fleming
I used to start my days by listening to Morning Edition on NPR. Then after I got the husband and kids off to school, I’d sit down at my computer and enjoy my first cup of tea while reading the New York Times and HuffPo and whatever news items looked interesting off my Twitter feed.
Not any more. I think it started with the relentlessly bad economic forecasts - or worse, the happy-happy good news on Marketplace about the recovery of stock values and the rising market. It’s hard to cheer on Wall Street when you’re listening to this while driving past closed businesses and houses whose for-sale signs are two years old.
Then it started to seem like every other story made me want to crawl back in bed and pull the covers over my ears. Revolutions. Rockets. Radiation. I began to dread the dulcet tones of Scott Simon and Renee Montagne. I’d let my eyes skim over the headlines and instead open “news” stories about comical crimes or fashion bulletins from the Spring Collection. I know the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, I’d think. Now show me the goddamn baby red panda video.
Some people escape into television, but most of the programming seems designed to drive home the point that we’re sliding into a culture of voyueristic debasement as we repeat the history of empires before us and fall from within. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out 3rd century Rome had a wildly popular “Baia Shores” play starring Snookia and Casus Averus.
Music can elevate you for a time, yes, but my family objects after the first couple hours of Gilbert and Sullivan or the Metropolitan Opera. Besides, five minutes after blissing out to the sublime Nessun dormi, I’ll remember that arts funding is going down the drain, along with teachers’ salaries, decent bridges, and the space program. Next thing I know I'm in the pantry, making lists of what we need to stock up on when society collapses.
I need something upon which to sail away for hours, until that nasty kink beneath my shoulder blade unloosens and I can contemplate the future without wanted to stab myself in the eye with a spork. There is no frigate like a book. Yes, indeed. But what to stock in the library at the end of the world? Cutting edge experimental fiction? The Man Booker shortlist? 19th century Russian novels?
Hell, no. When everything is circling the bowl, I want a complete escape. I want happy endings. And I want a guarantee that I'm going to enjoy the read.
For the first, I’m partial to apocalypses, disasters and dystopias. Reading about a future immeasurably worse than anything I forsee is very soothing. Flesh eating zombies? You bet. Plague wipes out nine-tenths of the earth’s population? I’m there. Mysterious force leaves most of America an uninhabited wasteland? Oh, yeah, baby. Spending a couple evening trapped in a dying community surrounded by vampires helps put those school board meetings in context.
Know what else I stock in the hold of that frigate? Romances. Specifically, romances set 200 years ago, when the telegraph was a still-undreamed of technical innovation and Napoleon threatened all of Europe. I can deal with Napoleon; he’s dead and his penis is stuffed and owned by a professor at Columbia. Between the covers of a Regency, he’s a convenient bogyman, adding a shiver to the story of love, loss, adventure and, inevitably, a happily-ever- after.
The last thing I want when I weigh anchor are old friends. I find myself revisiting my favorite fictional places; Barrayar and Aurora, MN, Three Pines and Longbourn House. I already know where I'm going, I know I'll enjoy the trip and I know I'm in good hands. No uncertainty, no disappointment, no risk; just pure satisfaction, like sinking into your own freshly-laundered bed after a long day. I don't know if we're going to be stuck in Libya for the next eight years. I don't know if Michele Bachmann is going to run for president. But I do know that Margaret Maron will always deliver a story that makes me forget these dreadful possibilities for a few hours.
Where, dear Reader, do you find your escape from reality?
Julia Spencer-Fleming is the Agatha and Anthony-award-winning author of the upcoming One Was A Soldier, the seventh Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery. You can find her on Facebook and on Twitter.
Friday, April 08, 2011
I am often approached by writers who ask me if I think they need a writing group. My answer is always a resounding yes. And don't tell me that your spouse reads everything you write, or your mother or father and you consider them your writing group. They are not. They love you too much to be objective. (I'm reserving judgment on brothers and sisters because they can be brutal and that's exactly what you need). Not all writing groups are worth the time, however, and it becomes a bit of an art to find one that works for you. Here are my ideas on the subject:
1. Make it convenient. I always start any new project with an eye to convenience; of meeting hours and commute time. If it's a hassle to get there you are much more likely to drop out.
2. Make it affordable. I've paid for one revision group that was worth every penny. The moderator kept it tight, organized and really pushed us to produce page after page of revision. For the most part, though, my mantra before I was published was: don't pay for anything that isn't absolutely required. Conferences in your town are worth every penny. Once the manuscript is ready to pitch, conferences elsewhere are also worth it. There are those who ride the circuit running paid workshops about writing. Some give good advice, many not. Always check it out before dropping that cash.3. Listen to the advice, even the bad advice. I've found that even as I listened to someone's impression and thought that I disagreed with every word, there was usually something the person said that had a grain of truth. Admittedly, there have been some groups where I've been appalled at the advice, but usually even the bad ones provide one small takeaway that you can learn from. Take that and dump the rest from your psyche.
4. Assume most published authors won't read your manuscript. It's a shame, but once you're published it becomes much more risky to read unsolicited manuscripts. Once you've read and signed the 21 page contract from a "Big Five" house you'll be afraid to do anything other than write your own story. The list of "don'ts" is so long you find yourself a little shell-shocked. (Of course, that may be because I'm a lawyer and take these contracts really, really seriously). There are some conferences that allow for manscript review and have published authors handle it and this can be ideal. You're only allowed to submit a few pages, but it's a much safer environment for the published author and gets you some great input. There's nothing like listening to someone in the trenches to get you pointed in the right direction.
5. Open writing groups can be great. My first was an open writing group held at a Chicago Public Library branch. Some of the best writers that I know are there. Sure, we got the occasional crazy person (this is Chicago, after all) but for the most part the group consisted of the same people and most could write and review really really well. Check out your local library branch and give it a whirl.
6. Don't bring your good stuff. If you are attending for the first time, okay, then bring something that shows your chops. You want to let the others know you're serious and you'll still get good advice on that polished chapter. However, after that bring the chapter that's driving you crazy, the idea that you love but that you're not sure works and the experimental stuff. This is not the place to bring your best work month after month. I was in one group where the writer brought in only polished, perfect short story work. When it was my time to comment I always said, "This is excellent. Start submitting it." I learned over the course of months that this writer had been in various groups for years and wasn't submitting anything for publication. Perhaps there was a huge insecurity there, but it was a shame because those stories were great! Don't be that person. Once the story is polished send it out into the world and bring in your next awful chapter to the group
7. Eat drink and be merry. When the group goes out for drinks, go with them. The best times are now and the best friends are those that graciously offer their help on your dream project.
Monday, April 04, 2011
How’s this first sentence?
Reading the fine first paragraph of Barbara D’Amato’s new novel (congrats, Barbara!), I realize I’ve grown curious about reviews on Goodreads or DorothyL or Amazon that single out the “first sentence” of books.
Maybe too curious.
As a journalist for more than thirty years, I’m hooked on hooking readers with that first sentence of a newspaper story, the “lede.” One of my favorites was on a Pulitzer Prize-winning story by Associated Press reporter Mark Fritz on the genocide in Rwanda:
KARUBAMBA, Rwanda--Nobody lives here any more.
The story goes on to describe in unflinching detail a town in which all of the inhabitants have been murdered, “a flesh-and-bone junkyard of human wreckage.”
A lede that grabs you by the throat seems more crucial than ever to a newspaper story, because papers and their websites are filled with other stories, photographs, graphics and other items all competing for the reader’s attention. Not too mention all the other websites, blogs, youtube videos and other digital distractions. Time-pressed readers scan headlines, look at some ledes, and read few stories beyond the first two or three paragraphs.
That imperative I understand. But in a book? Must the first sentence or paragraph really be so grabby?
I assume reviewers who take the trouble to note a book’s first sentence do so because they think it’s important. And certainly there are plenty of great novels that announce their greatness in the first line or two. The Catcher in The Rye, Slaughterhouse-Five and The Old Man and the Sea are good examples.
But does it follow that all first sentences or paragraphs in novels must hook the reader? Or even the first chapter? I will stipulate that the reader has to be engaged with some scrap of plot or some fascinating character in the first ten pages or so. But even before she or he has even turned the first page?
I wonder. When somebody buys or borrows a book, they’re obviously aware they’re going to be spending more time than the matter of minutes it takes to read most newspaper or magazine stories. It would seem they’ve made an implicit contract with themselves that they’ll give the book a bit more time to get them involved.
I’m currently reading Richard Russo’s excellent Nobody’s Fool. Contrary to much of my mystery/thriller reading, I find that I’m actually taken by Russo’s leisurely pace. The main character, Sully, barely appears in the first twenty pages or so. Things happen, but they happening in the languid rhythm of the New England town where the story is set.
Russo isn’t shy about stopping to tell you leisurely back stories about the town and its characters. On their own, these tales don’t appear to be moving the plot forward, but they’re in fact shaping characters and setting scenes and defining conflicts that, in their subtle, nearly invisible ways, make the overall story work.
As a reader myself, I’ve grown wary of first sentences, paragraphs and chapters, because there are also lousy books that look start well, as if the author had spent so much time perfecting the opening that she neglected the rest.
Browsing in a bookstore, I’ll often open a book to the middle and read one or two random paragraphs. If those are well wrought, I have more faith that the writer has paid attention to the entire story, not just to setting the hook.
I’m hardly an example of a great first-line writer. I loved the first line in my first novel (“You can never look into their eyes.”), but then my editor made me write a prologue, which had its own first line that, by dint of coming first, trumped the one I liked.
In my second book, I also liked the first line--“I have learned that you can be too grateful for love.”--because, like some good newspaper ledes, it raised a question that, I hope, compelled the reader to read on.
One reviewer disagreed. She argued that a line appearing a few pages later—“They found her hanging in the shoe tree at the edge of town.”—should have been the first sentence. Well, hell, I thought: she might be right. I told Kent Krueger about it at some festival we were attending. “Hm,” he said. “It does grab your attention.”
I thought I had a good opening to my next novel, The Skeleton Box, which I turned in to my editor last week. My pal the author Jonathan Eig is reading the manuscript. He sent me an email today: “First chapter really sings but I'd lose the first two grafs.”
He’s probably right, damn it.
I’d love to hear what others think about first lines.