Marcia Clark: I was a big reader from the first moment I was able to sound out "See Spot Run." The next thing I did was investigate what was making Spot run. I knew there was some nefarious crime afoot. :-)
Marcia Clark: I was a big reader from the first moment I was able to sound out "See Spot Run." The next thing I did was investigate what was making Spot run. I knew there was some nefarious crime afoot. :-)
Join us for a Google hangout with Lauren Beukes, author of The Shining Girls, as she talks about all things crime and fantasy with authors Jesse Bullington and Paolo Bacigalupi.
The chat will be taking place next Monday the 22nd at 2pm EST. Do you have any questions for Lauren?
Three weeks ago, the family and I moved into a new home. We'd been renting a place in Alhambra until we could find a house both within our budget and big enough to accommodate our ever-expanding need for space, and we finally lucked into a four-bedroom, single-story mid-century number in Glassell Park that fits the bill. It was a great blessing. The new joint needs a lot of work, God knows, and most of the heavy lifting has already been done, but there's still a hell of a lot of sweat equity left to invest to make it our "home" --- starting with unpacking all these @!*#%!*@ boxes we've vacuum-packed our lives into. Boxes just like this one:
If you've ever made a similar move yourself, you know what I'm talking about. First you spend weeks stuffing and taping everything you own into cartons three sizes too small, and then you spend weeks yanking it all out again in a different place, always thinking along the way:
"What the hell is this?"
"So that's where that damn thing went!"
"Why in the world do I own one of these?"
"I've got absolutely no use for this, and I probably never will --- but as soon as I toss it, I'll find a use for it, so I'd better hold onto it."
You learn a lot about yourself as you take this item-by-item inventory of your earthly existence, and one of the most fascinating is all the things you've accumulated not with the intent of using it in this life --- the one you're actually living --- but in the life you hope to have someday. Clothes you plan to fit into; brochures for exotic cars you intend to own; toys you're going to play with just as soon as you're making enough money to slow down a little. Some of this stuff is as new as the day you acquired it; it comes in packages that have never been opened, inside plastic bags that are still sealed air-tight.
These possessions are pieces of a dream you can't let go of. Giving them away or selling them off at your next yard sale would be a form of surrender, an admission that time has run out on the future you've always thought would be yours.
So when the time comes to change addresses, you stick these things in a box, rather than leave them behind, and then you find a place for them in your new home --- the closet, the garage, the attic --- when the box gets opened again. If it gets opened again.
Some things go into boxes that stay sealed forever.
Of course, as I'm a writer, most of my moving boxes are filled with ideas. Fragments of stories yet to be written, dogeared notebooks brimming with single-line plot synopses and half-formed character profiles. Throw this stuff away? Are you nuts? There's a bestseller in there somewhere, I know there is, and one day I'm going to find it.
Ultimately, for all our mindless attachment to them, it's not the things inside the boxes that really count. It's the things we can't box up: the people we love, the memories of good times past, the hope that tomorrow will only bring more of the same.
As I write this, late at night in my new office upstairs, I see boxes all around me; numbered and labeled, every one filled with odd bits and pieces of this poor man's treasure. But what I value most isn't in any of these boxes, nor anywhere here in this room. They're downstairs, occupying three different beds in three different bedrooms.
And that's what makes this home.
Brace yourselves, people. You're about to meet Schreck.
No, not "Shrek." Schreck. Tom Schreck. This guy:
Tom Schreck is a multi-talented author who's written on topics as diverse as boxing, business, pets, fitness, psychology, relationships, golf, diners, drive-ins and prison, all for publications that include The Business Review, Fightnews.com, Westchester Magazine, American Health and Fitness, Professional Counselor and Catfancy, among others.
So far he's written five novels, including his latest Duffy Dombrowski mystery, THE VEGAS KNOCKOUT, which was just released today. Tom's a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and has both a master’s degree in psychology and a black belt. (Don't those two things always go hand-in-hand?)
Having formerly worked as the director of an inner-city drug clinic, Tom today juggles several jobs: communications director for a program for people with disabilities, adjunct psychology professor, freelance writer, and world championship boxing official.
Now, about his Duffy Dombrowski mysteries: These books chronicle the life of a not-so-social social worker who's always on the brink of getting fired. Duffy's a bad professional boxer by night, part philosopher, part Robin Hood by day, and he's always all heart as he throws himself into helping those who can't help themselves.
But the real star of the series is Al --- Duffy's obstinate basset hound, who prefers cheeseburgers for their laxative effect, hates sparrows, and prefers good looking Corgi's as sex partners. Oh, and Al seems to show up exactly when it matters.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Schreck . . .
Gar: Okay, let's get the obvious question out of the way first: How many times a day do you get a "green ogre" joke?
Tom: More often I get the knowing smirk and a shake of the head. I love the twenty-something hotel clerks who have no idea that anything else ever existed before the last decade.
I use the stock line, “Hey, I had the name first.”
Gar: Duffy drinks a lot of Schlitz. For those in the audience who think Schlitz tastes like a warm Budweiser poured out of a septic tank, please make your best case for drinking the stuff.
Tom: Man, defend Schlitz? C’mon Gar, how about a little willing suspension of disbelief?
Actually in the early 90’s Men’s Health said it was one of the best values in beer so I tried it and it wasn’t half bad. Since then the company has been sold a few times and I’m not so sure. They now make a sort of “craft brew” that has returned to the original “60’s recipe”. They can’t keep it on the shelves in Milwaukee.
I want to be careful here, I’m still looking for an advertising endorsement deal.
Gar: What fighter, alive or dead, do you most wish could be a fan of your writing, and why?
Tom: John Duddy.
The Derry Destroyer just retired and I had the privilige of judging a few of his fights. He was a blood and guts fighter who the NYC fans love. He’d sell out Madison Square Garden with Irish nationals. His uncle Jackie, his namesake, was the first man killed on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland.
John got out of the game a couple of years ago and I admire him for that.
If my books were published in Spanish I’d like Hector Camacho to read them too.
Gar: The previous owners of Duffy's basset hound Al (Allah-King) were members of the Nation of Islam, yet there's no indication in the books that he's partial to bean pies. Why not?
Tom: One word: flatulence.
Gar: How would you compare writing to the sweet science?
Tom: It hurts less.
Both take concentration and the ability to empty your mind while you perform. Boxing asks you to do that while being punched in the face.
Both require strategy and forward thinking.
Writing taxes the cardio vascular system less—have you seen many of our peers at cons?
Gar: What's the hardest you've ever been hit in the ring, and who nailed you?
Tom: I was sparring with a pro that I heard was mad at me. The last time we had got in the ring he hit me in the head and broke a small bone in his forearm. A couple of years later we were in the ring going nice and light which is how a pro will work with a guy like me.
Then he threw one shot that knocked me down so fast that I was disoriented because of going vertical to horizontal so quickly. Oddly enough, because I went down so fast it didn’t hurt my neck that much but my head swam for a little while and I was actually kind of giddy.
Nothing was ever said. It might have been a coincidence. Whenever I see him now we do a big bro-hug.
He was a good pro and at one point was like 15-0.
Gar: If book reviews were judged like fights, what would your record be?
Tom: I’d be undefeated, of course. Four and O. Though one or two might have been split decisions based on who the judges/critics would be.
Gar: They say the kind of dog a person owns says a lot about them. What does your love of basset hounds say about you, besides how difficult you are to house break?
Tom: Gar, my incontinence was a secret between me and you and mostly with the medication I can control it.
As for what it says . . . I think it means I’m a masochist who has the distinct need of being humiliated by long-eared short-legged creatures that believe I was born to serve them.
Gar: Duffy's boss Claudia Michelin is a real pain in the neck. Considering her last name, in what ways is Claudia similar to a steel-belted, all-weather radial tire?
Tom: They are both inflexible, unattractive and round.
Gar: In your opinion, which game is more fair and honest? Professional boxing or the publishing industry?
Tom: Fair, huh? Like you could fight your heart out and still get screwed by judges? And fair like you could write a book that’s heralded and loved by everyone who reads it but the publisher doesn’t back it and it never makes it to shelves?
At least in boxing you can knock someone out in the ring and they can’t take that from you.
Gar: Complete this sentence: "If I could get ten rounds in the ring with anyone in the world, it would be _____."
Tom: There’s this guy who does reviews on Amazon . . .
Gar: You and Duffy are both huge fans of Elvis Presley. Who is your favorite among all the King's leading ladies in film?
Tom: Man, you’re asking me to pick from Ursula Andress, Ann-Margaret and Juliet Prowse? You know what --- I’m going off the board --- Shelly Fabares.
Gar: Duffy lives in a converted Airstream trailer. Why an Airstream and not, say, a Winnebago?
Tom: C’mon Gar, it’s class thing. Airstreams are THE RV for those of us with style and class.
Gar: Who would you rather have watching your back in a dark alley --- Floyd Mayweather or Reed Farrel Coleman?
Tom: Easy, Coleman’s from Brooklyn and wouldn’t fight fair. Plus he might have Ken Bruen with him.
Sure Mayweather is a brilliant counterpuncher but if you crowd him and put pressure on him he can’t turn a metaphor like Reed.
Gar: The plot of THE VEGAS KNOCKOUT involves the Russian Mafia, prostitution, and illegal immigration, among other things. If you could have crammed one more hot topic into the book, what would it have been?
Tom: That’s even easier, I would’ve added more basset hounds.
(Yeah, I know what you guys are thinking: "Two posts by Haywood back-to-back? Really?" Well, don't worry, it's not a sign I'm taking over this joint. It's just a Murderati scheduling quirk. Won't happen again soon. I hope.)
This weekend, like many of you, I'll be attending the Left Coast Crime Convention in Sacramento, and one of the two panels I'll be sitting in on is all about noir.
I find this somewhat amusing, as I don't really write noir. I skirt the edges sometimes --- ASSUME NOTHING, my latest novel, comes the closest to making the noir grade, as I perceive it --- but I don't "do" noir. And this isn't by accident.
Not so long ago, I did something I really didn't want to do: I watched the movie Precious. Lord knows I'd tried to avoid it; critical acclaim or no, any film about a poor, obese, teenage black girl growing up as the live-in slave of an equally obese, abusive, welfare-queen mother has to be the cinematic equivalent of root canal surgery, right? Why would I ever want to subject myself to that kind of misery?
Well, surprise, surprise --- the film was brilliant. Well written, smartly directed, and performed by a cast of actors deserving of every accolade and award nomination it received. In short, I'm glad I saw the movie.
But yeah, sitting through it was a living nightmare.
In part because its subject matter was cringe-inducing, yes, but mostly because it was real. The people who made this film --- and I would assume this is also true of Sapphire, the author of the book upon which the film was based --- didn't pull any punches. Hell, no. They took a story dealing with some incredibly sordid characters and situations and presented them in all their horrific, obscene, and gut-wrenching glory. It could be argued that the language in Precious alone should have earned it an NC-17 rating. I mean, nothing Linda Blair ever regurgitated in The Exorcist comes close to the bile that comes out of the mouth of Precious's mother, in particular, throughout the course of this film.
And all for only one reason that I can imagine: authenticity. A commitment to depict these people exactly as they would appear in the real world, grotesque warts and all. Choosing to hew this close to the ugly truth could not have been an easy decision; the filmmakers had to know that doing so would cost them a sizable part of the crossover audience movie studios so covet. Yet they held to their convictions and did it anyway, trusting that the quality of the film would win out over the criticisms it was bound to receive for its almost unrelenting darkness and vulgarity.
So what does any of this have to do with my aversion to noir, you ask?
Well, only days before popping Precious into the ol' DVD player, I'd finished reading my first Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake) novel, THE HUNTER. Following my reading of James Crumley's THE LAST GOOD KISS, this was Step Two in my ongoing effort to finally read masters of the mystery/crime/espionage genres I should have read a long time ago (Ian Fleming, George V. Higgins, Rex Stout, etc.). I had a particular interest in THE HUNTER --- one of a series of books Stark wrote about a ruthless professional thief simply named "Parker" --- because it served as the basis for one of my all-time favorite movies, 1967's Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin.
In the film, Parker (renamed "Walker" for some odd reason) is a single-minded, sociopathic killer relentlessly blasting his way through the Mob in order to get somebody, anybody to pay him the $93,000 they owe him. Walker is also driven by revenge --- his former partner double-crossed him, stole his wife, and left him for dead in the aftermath of a heist, then used Walker's share of the take to buy his way back into the Mob's good graces --- but his primary interest is recovering his money. Because it's his money, he earned it, and he wants it back, goddamnit: $93,000, not a penny more and not a penny less.
You've gotta love that kind of manic tunnel vision.
(Of course, were the film remade today [as it was earlier in the form of the 1994 Mel Gibson stinker, Payback], Walker would find his motivation in the fact that his backstabbing partner, who raped and killed Walker's parents and kid sister fifteen years before, is now holding his wife and two children hostage in an impenetrable Mob fortress guarded by an army of ex-Special Ops psychopaths blah-blah-blah-blah-blah...)
I'd been warned by fans of Stark/Westlake that Point Blank's Walker, as cold and violent as he was as portrayed by Marvin, paled by comparison to THE HUNTER's Parker, so I was prepared to meet a somewhat less likable protagonist. But damn! Parker makes Walker look like a Salvation Army Santa Claus. It isn't so much that the body count in THE HUNTER is higher than it is in Point Blank, it's the ease with which Parker adds to it that makes for such a jarring contrast. Parker may only kill those who "need" killing in THE HUNTER, but it doesn't take much in his estimation for someone to meet that qualification. Simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or knowing something he doesn't want getting around, is enough to make you better dead than alive in his book. And remorse? Forget about it. That's for relative softies like Darth Vader to fret over.
What I'm describing, of course, is the archetypical noir protagonist: a deeply flawed, self-serving lead character, who's usually surrounded by a supporting cast cut from the same nasty cloth. Altar boys and Girl Scouts need not apply. To write fiction deserving of the "noir" designation, an author has to accept the fact that his work will probably turn off a lot more potential readers than it turns on. He has to write about unpleasant people doing terrible things to innocents and scumbags alike, without remorse or regret, and to do it realistically, he has to show little or no regard for the reactions of his reader. I call this "going there," "there" being a place not everyone will care to visit, and I think embarking upon this journey is one of the most courageous moves any writer can ever make.
Because "going there" is entirely counter-intuitive to what we authors are hardwired to want from Day One: a wide, all-encompassing readership. Deliberately choosing to write the kind of book you know going in will have only a limited appeal, and then writing that book as faithfully to the form as possible (which is to say, without artificially toning things down to soften the blow), is gutsy as hell, and not every writer has the cajones to do it.
Most only have enough to do the job halfway. These people write, either consciously or subconsciously, what I like to call "Noir Lite": novels that feature noirish characters and situations, but none of the hair-raising dialogue or on-screen violence that should naturally follow. The latter elements have been either sanitized or, worse, excised altogether, to better reduce the author's chances of offending those readers for whom "noir" is a dirty word. This, to me, is a joke. A kinder, gentler noir? There ain't no such thing.
Which is why I've actively avoided trying to write a legitimate noir novel to date. I don't want to go there. I've got no problem writing dialogue that could peel paint off a wall, or describing certain acts of violence in gruesome detail, but I don't want to write stories in which the good guys are, to all extents and purposes, completely indistinguishable from the bad, and can only end on a definite downer, as all true noir stories must. It's just not my thing.
And neither is faking it.
To write noir, you have to do what the people behind Precious did: You have to go there. Not part way, not halfway, but all the way to that dark, funky, foul-smelling place in which noir resides. Some readers won't be able to stand the heat of your kitchen, but those are the breaks.
As I'm sure Parker would say were he around to ask for an opinion: "Deal with it."
Questions for the Class: What examples of "Noir Lite" --- or, worse, downright fake noir --- can you name?
Like far too many Americans these days, I'm out of work. Which is to say, I don't have a day job that pays my bills. I haven't had one, in fact, for over three years now, or since I was laid off as a production artist for these people. (The most rewarding and enjoyable work I've ever done, by the way.)
I've been in this position before, just as, I suspect, many of you have. The writer's lot, after all, is not generally filled with long, unbroken stretches of gainful employment. So this vicious cycle of apply, wait, get rejected is nothing new to me.
Part of the problem in landing something is that I'm very rarely applying for the perfect job. I apply for things I can do, and do well, but postings for work I know, absolutely know I could hit out of the goddamn ballpark are few and far between.
Go ahead and say it. All together now: "Awwww, poor Gar!"
And that's the proper response, of course, because there might be one person in every thousand in this world who holds his or her "perfect job." A job that is absolutely, ideally suited to one's unique skill set and personal interests. Everyone else, if they're lucky enough to be employed at all, is doing work just for the sake of the paycheck. Respectable work, maybe even enjoyable work, but work that falls short of making them deliriously happy, nonetheless.
Hey, there's nothing wrong with that.
But, hell. This is Wildcard Tuesday, isn't it? If a man can't dream on Wildcard Tuesday, when can he dream? Today, I think I'll stand this whole job search process on its head and, instead of yearning from afar for the positions of my fantasies, I'll just openly state my interest in them here and hope the right personnel directors take note. What have I got to lose?
Here, then, are my seven Perfect Dream Jobs:
Screenwriter of Dirty Harry 6
I've shown my mad man-love for Clint Eastwood's seminal Harry Callahan character here before, so it should come as a surprise to no one that I'd love to write the last---and it would, sadly, have to be the last---cinematic chapter in that series. Eastwood's reluctance to play Callahan again, at this late stage in his life, is understandable, but I think I've come up with a story that addresses all the credibility issues such a sequel could present. All I need is a phone call from Malpaso to run out to the Warners lot and pitch it to the man himself.
It would make my day.
Joke Writer for Bill Maher
Maher can be a sexist ass at times, but when he's on, he's funny as hell. While, generally speaking, we see eye to eye politically, I think it's the thing we least have in common that would make our partnership a winning one: Maher's a raging atheist and I'm an imperfect Catholic. Sometimes, when worlds collide, funny happens.
I'm down to write a few New Rules if Bill's willing to give me a shot.
Staff Writer on Justified
Television and I don't often get along, I must admit. The only two series I've ever written for taught me I'm about as well-suited for turning out standard boob-tube fare on a timely basis as Rick Santorum is to be a tattoo artist. But given the right, smart, kick-ass show to work on---say, one not only based on a character created by Elmore Leonard, but actually committed to representing that character faithfully---I'm sure I could churn out a teleplay or two worthy of WGA accreditation.
Publisher's Weekly once called one of my standalone thrillers "the best Elmore Leonard rip-off since Elmore Leonard," and I've never been prouder of a potential blurb in my life. If I can do it in prose, why not in television?
Graphics Designer for the Los Angeles Lakers
I don't often mention it here, but I am a crazed fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, and more than once I've used the team's victory in a championship series to strut my stuff as a poster art designer. For instance:
My skills as a renderer are severely limited---I can only draw something with any degree of accuracy if it's sitting directly in front of me---but I wield a mean copy of Photoshop. Should Kobe and company find a way to win it all again this year (and right now that seems rather unlikely), I'm sure I'll create another masterpiece suitable for framing just to celebrate their achievement.
But I'd much rather do it not as a sycophantic fan, but as an employee on the Lakers payroll.
Audio Book Reader for the Works of Daniel Pinkwater
As stated here, Pinkwater is a favorite author of my entire family, and I used to get a real kick out of reading his wacky books aloud to my two youngest children at bedtime. I'm quite a ham, as anyone who's ever seen me perform at conventions can attest, so I never did fewer than six different voices when reading a Pinkwater book. It was loads of fun, and the idea of getting paid to do it all over again, for middle-grade readers around the globe, damn near moves me to tears of joy. Hamlet? Forget about it. But a Daniel Pinkwater recital?
I'm your man.
Book Cover Artist for the 6.4 Million Self-Published Authors Who Desperately Need One
Los Angeles Lakers championship posters aren't all I like to design. Every now and then, I try my hand at doing book covers, as well. Severn House had their own ideas several years ago regarding the cover art for my novel CEMETERY ROAD, and fine ideas they were, too, as things turned out. But before the ink was dry on my book contract, I'd created two mock-ups based on ideas of my own. Like this one:
And this one:
Most recently, I did the cover art for SHAKEN, the short story anthology Tim Hallinan put together to raise funds for the earthquake and Tsunami victims in Japan last year:
Again, as I admitted in my paragraph about Lakers poster art design above, I can't do everything a real artist can do. But give me a premise and a subscription to a few good stock photography sites, and look out. I can be dangerous.
An Actor on The Good Wife
Okay, I'm no Sir Laurence Olivier, but I've got a pretty face and I once had a speaking part in an Audubon Junior High School production of The Pajama Game. Plus, I have real on-screen presence, as this clip from the book trailer for Michael Connelly's ECHO PARK clearly demonstrates:
No, I couldn't carry a show of my own, but I think I could handle playing Archie Panjabi's latest love interest quite easily. Or a witness being grilled in the courtroom by Julianna Margulies. A FedEx guy delivering a package to Christine Baranski?
How about a lawyer being fouled by Josh Charles in a basketball game at the gym? You haven't heard someone cry "And one!" convincingly until you've heard me cry "And one!"
What about you, my fellow 'Rati? What are some of your Perfect Dream Jobs?
A warning to all you Brad Parks haters out there: Get used to seeing this guy's pretty face because he's going to be around for a while.
Brad is a Dartmouth College grad and former investigative reporter who spent a dozen years writing for The Washington Post and The Newark Star-Ledger, and now that he's turned his attention to writing crime fiction, he's damn near taking over the world.
His debut novel, FACES OF THE GONE, won the Nero Award for Best American Mystery and the Shamus Award for Best First Mystery, a feat no single book had ever accomplished in the combined 60-year history of those awards. FACES OF THE GONE, which Library Journal called "the most hilariously funny and deadly serious mystery debut since Janet Evanovich's ONE FOR THE MONEY," launched the career of Brad's fictional investigative reporter Carter Ross, who was just recently named by the readers of Jen Forbus' terrific blog, Jen's Book Thoughts, "the World's Favorite Amateur Sleuth."
Brad's second Carter Ross novel, EYES OF THE INNOCENT, was even better than the first, or so said Library Journal and almost everyone else who read it.
Now his third Carter Ross novel, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, has just been released, so naturally Brad's spanning the electronic globe pimping it like a daddy whose baby needs new shoes.
Because that's exactly the kind of shameless behavior I engage in when I have a new book out, and because Brad is actually as good at what he does as his press clippings would lead one to believe, I am happy today to introduce him to the Murderati faithful via the following Q & A.
But before you leap to any conclusions about this being just another boring, predictable Q & A, let me disabuse you right now of any such notion. Brad's a very witty guy, as his Carter Ross novels clearly demonstrate, and everyone here knows how hilarious I am, so we both thought we'd try to have as much fun with this interview as Brad's readers will have reading THE GIRL NEXT DOOR . . .
Gar: You and I first met in the hotel bar at Thrillerfest a few years ago, when you weaseled your way into an incredibly personal conversation I was having with legendary book blogger Sarah Weinman. Shortly thereafter, Sarah shut down her popular blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, for good. Coincidence?
Brad: C’mon. Any good mystery writer – and, Gar, you’re one of the best – knows there’s no such thing as a coincidence. You just happen to be the first to put it together. The fact is, Sarah’s tastes are pretty high-brow, and I’m not a 50-years-dead Icelandic author whose achingly beautiful and hauntingly spare novels are crying out for rediscovery. One brush with me convinced her the whole genre was heading straight into the crapper. She folded up shop, right then and there.
By the way, sorry to horn in on you that time, but I did want to say it was really courageous of you to tell Sarah about your gonorrhea.
Gar: After you won the Private Eye Writers of America's Shamus award for your first novel, FACES OF THE GONE, you celebrated by posting photos of yourself posing with the award in locations all over San Francisco. Any idea what you'll do to celebrate when you inevitably win the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award?
Brad: Yes. I’ll do the exact same thing in New York. But I’ll be naked.
Gar: You and your series character, investigative reporter Carter Ross, would seem to have a great deal in common. In fact, I applaud you for resisting the temptation to name him "Parker Bradley." But in what ways are the two of you quite different?
Brad: Well, I’m left handed. And color blind. And otherwise… can I get back to you on this one?
No? Okay. Truth time: there’s a lot Carter and I obviously share, but I don’t really have Carter and I confused. He’s a separate person in my head. When I envision a scene, I don’t see myself as Carter. (He actually looks like a guy I used to work with). I think, more than anything, having Carter share certain traits with me is a convenience that allows me to write certain things with a little bit of extra authority. I know what it’s like to be a starchy, 6-foot-1, 185-pound white guy walking into a housing project in Newark. I know how people reacted to me and how it made me feel. And I can put some of those feelings into Carter.
Gar: You've been writing full-time, away from the daily grind of the newspaper racket, for a while now. Besides the occasional threat of a libel suit, what do you miss most about your former occupation?
Brad: Without question, going into the newsroom. Up until the industry totally imploded, your typical American newsroom was the greatest working environment in the world. It was full of bright, witty, irreverent, malcontented people, many of whom ended up working for newspapers because they were incapable of coexisting with polite society. Collectively, they were experts on just about everything – and yet nothing at all – and there was always someone around who could give you an education on any topic that interested you. There was a lot of yelling, some seriously off-color jokes, and we could have all sued each other for sexual harassment ten times over. Yet, every day, we managed to overcome all that dysfunction just long enough to put out a newspaper. It was a great place to grow up.
Gar: In your three novels to date, Carter Ross is surrounded by a cast of colorful, amusing secondary characters. Tommy Hernandez, a gay, Cuban intern at the paper for which Carter works, is a prime example. If you could sit down for lunch with all of Carter's people, would you pick up the check or insist on dutch?
No, no, just joking. Here's the real question: Who among these fictional characters would you most like to have a long, heart-to-heart with, and why?
Brad: I reserve the right to change this answer depending on my mood. But at this very moment, I’d say Buster Hays – the cranky, cantankerous old newsroom salt with the four Rolodexes full of sources. Buster is one of those guys who have a million stories, but he won’t just volunteer them. You have to ask him. Oh, and making sure he’s well-watered with Scotch doesn’t hurt.
Gar: Another great supporting character in your books is Carter's boss Tina Thompson, a smoking hot city-editor who's constantly trying to get Carter between the sheets. Aside from your wife, if you could have any one woman in the world desire your flesh as desperately as Tina does Carter's, who would it be?
Brad: Gar, you must have one of those open marriages – y’know, the kind Newt Gingrich supposedly wanted from his second and/or third wife (I can’t keep Newt’s wives straight). Being as I do not have one of those marriages, there’s no way I’m answering this question. Because my wife never reads any of the stuff I put online. But you just know if I answered this question, this would be the one thing that would somehow end up in front of her eyes.
(Okay, okay, fine. My wife knows anyway: Taylor Swift. Throw me in jail if you want to. But she is over 18 now. And she’s also the most talented and beautiful woman in the world – other than my wife, of course).
Gar: Over the course of a long career as an investigative journalist, you must have had a close scrape or two with some angry people. Any near-death experiences you'd like to share here?
Brad: Most of the people who threatened to kill me were really just blowing off steam (obviously, because I’m still here). But there was this one time... I was doing an investigative piece about doping in horseracing and I had been trailing this one trainer from his barn down in Freehold, New Jersey to the Meadowlands Racetrack up in the northern part of the state. I had been told the cheaters often pulled off the New Jersey Turnpike just before they got to the track and treated their horses on the side of the road (because once they reached the track, they had to put their horses in the detention barn, where the horses were put under watch). Sure enough, I saw this guy veer over to the side of the Turnpike. I watched him go into his trailer for a few minutes then get back on the road. When he got to the track, I followed him into the paddock area, then hopped out of my car and asked him, point blank, what he had been doing. Things got pretty heated pretty fast. He kept saying, “I’ll kill you . . . I’ll kill you. . .” and then added that lovely caveat, “I’m going to find out where you live.” (He later called me up, apologized, and said he had pulled over because of engine trouble).
Gar: When Jen Forbus asked readers of Jen's Book Thoughts last year to name their favorite amateur sleuth of all time, your man Carter Ross beat out 63 other contenders to win the title. Putting aside the fact that the final showdown matched a 30 year old man in the peak of health against a woman who could be his grandmother---Agatha Christie's Miss Marple---why do you think Carter won?
Brad: Easy. Agatha Christie isn’t on Twitter. Some folks were a little incredulous about that result – one guy from New Zealand suggested I must have stuffed the ballot box – but it was completely legit (I mean, c’mon, you think Jen would allow cheating?). Fact is, Carter put a hurting on that ol’ bat Marple because I was able to muster a get-out-the-vote effort on social media. That’s politics, baby: It’s not the will of the people that counts, it’s the will of the people who actually take the trouble to vote.
Gar: I have a real fascination with plagiarism and the people who engage in it. If you could steal from any one author, alive or dead, without fear of ever getting caught, who would it be?
Brad: I rank plagiarists only slightly ahead of people who trip old ladies as they cross the street. Maybe behind. (After all, old ladies eventually heal). And as a journalist, plagiarism has always baffled me. All you have to do is add “it’s like so-and-so once said…” and then you can lift anything you want. Why not just give credit where it’s due?
But to play along with the question, I would probably reach into some of John D. MacDonald’s classics and start transcribing. Maybe an exchange between Travis McGee and Meyer. Maybe one of McGee’s great rants. Some of them are a little dated – and his sensibilities about women could probably use some modernizing – but a lot of it is still just great stuff.
Gar: I'm a devoted subscriber to The Los Angeles Times and you're an ex-newspaper man. In 100 words or less, make your best case for why people in this electronic age should still read newspapers in hardcopy form.
Brad: Because The Times would be dead in three weeks if they didn’t (that’s 12 words, if you’re counting). Newspapers continue to have a terrible time monetizing their digital content. The bulk of their revenue still comes from the print product. I’m making up these numbers, but as a print subscriber, you’re worth, say, a dollar to The Times in advertising revenues. As a web-only reader, you’re worth about five cents. But don’t get me started on this subject, because I’ll get wound up for a lot more than 100 words.
Gar: My affection for memorable, original titles---and contempt for monosyllabic, ubiquitous ones---is legendary here at Murderati. Fortunately for us both, I think the titles of all your novels---FACES OF THE GONE, EYES OF THE INNOCENT, and your latest, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR---are quite good. Are unique, evocative titles important to you, as well, or were these three just a fluke? (Please don't tell us, for instance, that the working title for Carter Ross #4 is DEADLINE.)
Brad: I didn’t have that pet peeve until now. But I think I like it. Can I adopt it? (Don’t worry, I know how you feel about plagiarism – I’ll quote you when I do it). I’m glad to hear my titles meet your high standards, because I actually feel like I struggle mightily with them. I give my editor, Kelley Ragland at Minotaur, a long list of possibilities. She bounces it off this cabal of editors and marketing people – a group I think of as the “they” in “that’s what they say” – and then she comes back to me with what “they” have decided. I’m usually just relieved to have it over with. (Carter Ross No. 4 is currently THE GOOD COP, by the way… you like?)
Gar: In your new book THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, the obituary of a young woman who died delivering copies of the New Jersey newspaper Carter works for, The Newark Eagle-Examiner, inspires him to do a personal interest piece that, quite naturally, turns into a murder investigation.
If you could write Carter's obituary yourself when the time comes to put him down (unless you'd like some hack hired by your estate to continue his adventures after you've passed on), what would it sound like?
Brad: I’m rather fond of Carter. And I’d like to give him a good send-off. So let’s go with:
Carter Ross of Bloomfield died yesterday when, while having rigorous sex with an intern, one of his eight Pulitzer Prizes fell off a shelf and knocked him unconscious. He was 107.
Gar: Finally, your books have received starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal. Harlan Coben called your first novel, FACES OF THE GONE, a "terrific debut," and Michael Connelly wrote that EYES OF THE INNOCENT "is the complete package."
All of which begs the obvious question: What the hell does Lee Child have against you?
Brad: I think he’s threatened by my sales figures. But I keep telling him: Don’t worry, Lee. Good things’ll happen for you. Just keep plugging.
* (And expect anyone to believe it)
A true story:
This past Valentine's Day, the wife and I were on our way to a restaurant to have a nice, romantic lunch together when her Honda CR-V broke down. (Yeah, you read that right --- it's a Honda!) No sooner had I pulled off the freeway than the damn thing died, dash panel aglow with seemingly every warning light in the manual.
I managed to re-start the car and pull it around a corner just to get it out of traffic, but that was it. The beast was dead. Time to call the tow truck.
Later that day, the service tech at our local Honda dealer called me with a question: What unlicensed hack had worked on the wife's car before this? Because whoever it was, they'd left the radiator so misaligned with its mounting bracket that the associated fan had, over time, sliced through a hose, draining the radiator of all its coolent.
Nobody, I said. The only service that had ever been done on the car had been of the minor, regularly scheduled variety, and that had been done at the very same dealership from which the tech was calling.
Well, the tech said somewhat uncomfortably, that was rather hard to believe, considering the mangled mess of an automotive undercarriage he was looking at. Did I want to come down to the dealership to see for myself?
And then I remembered . . .
Around six months earlier, the family and I had just piled into the CR-V on our way to a birthday party. I was tooling up the hill on Glendale Boulevard when a flash of white ran directly across my path: a bulldog the size of a baby grand piano. He'd run across the street to go after some poor guy getting into his parked car and chosen to sprint back just in time to acquaint himself with my moving vehicle. I never even had a chance to hit the brakes.
We ran over the dog.
WHUMP THUMP BLAM KABAMM BOOM!
I pulled the car over to the curb and killed the engine. My hands were frozen to the wheel. My two kids were crying hysterically and the wife was white as a sheet. "Oh, my God," Tessa kept saying. "Oh, my God . . ."
I got out of the car and started back toward the point of impact, wondering what the hell I was going to say to the animal's owner when I presented him or her with the poor thing's pulverized remains. Remains that were, when I reached the spot in the middle of the street where they should have been waiting for me, nowhere to be found.
I looked over at the guy the dog had been chasing, who was safely inside his car now and was about to drive off as if nothing unusual had happened. "Where'd he go?" I asked, openly bewildered.
He rolled his window down and pointed to a corner house across the street. "He ran home," he said, matter-of-factly.
"He ran home?" How the hell did he run home?!
"He ran home," the guy said again.
After he explained his non-existent relationship to the bulldog in question, I left him to go find the animal and apologize profusely to its heartbroken owner for having reduced a beloved pet to the wretched, broken creature I was certain it had to be.
When I peered through the gate surrounding the house to which the man in the car had directed me, I saw the dog sitting straight up on the porch, tongue out and wagging this way and that, a young Hispanic man in a wifebeater T-shirt stroking his ears affectionately.
I couldn't believe it.
"Is he all right?" I called through the gate, incredulous.
The owner just stared at me, the way you might stare at me were I to punch your favorite grandmother in the face and then post video of the assault on YouTube.
I asked my question again and received the same response. Deciding to quit while I was ahead, I went back to the CR-V and gave my still-hysterical family the good news: The dog was alive and well. Daddy wasn't a puppy-killer after all.
The CR-V? Well, it looked okay, as near as I could tell. Aside from a huge dent in the plastic belly shield beneath and behind the front bumper, the car had suffered no apparent damage. We went on to our birthday party that day and have been driving all over creation in the wife's Honda, without incident, ever since.
Or until six months --- six months! --- brought us to last Valentine's Day, when the bulldog got his revenge.
But that's not the kicker to this story.
The Honda dealership eventually decided a body shop was better suited to make the repairs to our car, so off to the body shop it went. We got ourselves a nice little rental car and proceeded with our lives. Two days later, I was driving the kids to school in the rental when the unbelievable happened.
I hit a dog.
A big, hairy lab mix had just crossed a busy intersection, happy and slow as you please, as I was passing through it. And wouldn't you know, the big hirsute galoot was being chased by a little dachshund-terrier hybrid running at full tilt --- much like that bulldog had chased a stranger getting into his car six months earlier.
WHAM BAM CRUNCH!
Two very small consolations immediately occurred to me: 1) I hadn't completely run over the animal this time; and 2) the two kids in the car's back seat weren't mine. They were members of our carpool for whom I was responsible that day, and unlike my own children, this pair didn't view such accidents as cause for a catatonic seizure. They were stunned, but not horrified.
I gingerly backed the car up to get it out of traffic and braced myself for the terrible sight I knew awaited us.
Sure enough, there the little dachshund-terrier mashup lay, on its side, its back turned to us. A pedestrian who'd been crossing the street when the collision occurred crouched down to, I could only assume, deliver the Last Rites . . .
. . . and the little dog got up and ran away. No limp, no whimper of pain, nothing.
Can you say, "Déjà vu?"
So let's review, shall we? I run over a dog in my car. It gets up and runs away, seemingly unharmed. Six months later, the damage caused by the collision kills my car. I get a rental while the car's in the shop. I'm driving that rental when I hit another dog, which like the first, gets up and runs away, seemingly unharmed.
What's wrong with this picture? As fact, absolutely nothing. But as fiction, NO READER IN THEIR RIGHT MIND WOULD BUY IT FOR A SECOND!
Did it all happen exactly as I've described it? Sure did. Is this not a sterling example of how wildly improbable life can sometimes be? Sure is. But here, finally, is the writing-related point of this blog post today:
Just because something really happened doesn't mean it will make a great story, because a great story has to be more than just fascinating.
It has to be somewhat credible, too.
Questions for the Class: Do you have any true-to-life stories that no one would believe if you tried to pass them off as fiction?
Austin Grossman had three pressing questions for THE ROOK author Daniel O’Malley. Here they are, in no particular order.
a) What would you say the greatest super-secret organization in SF and F? What were some models used for THE ROOK?
I don’t know that anything was actually a model. But some fictional secret security organizations really made an impact with me.
I remember that the White Witch’s secret police in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe made me feel deeply uneasy at the time. “Some of the trees are on her side.” And it’s led by a wolf. So, I’ve always held a soft spot for them. Although, in retrospect, what kind of secret police leave notes signed ‘Captain of the Secret Police’?
And I don’t know if they count as super-secret, since everyone knows they exist, but the Militia in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station really struck me when I read about them. Police that walked around in disguise all the time, only to emerge out of nowhere when there was crime. They pull hidden masks out of their collars, and sometimes they are riding flying jellyfish. They’re scary police, I don’t want them in my town, but they’re pretty damn cool.
With The Rook I wanted to give the sense of a regular office where bizarre things were happening in the background, or incredible occurrences were being discussed in a perfectly serious and deadpan way. I think the Men in Black movies did a good job with that sort of thing. I also wanted a place where many of the staff, from the elite commandos through to the phone receptionists, might have supernatural powers. Alan Moore, Gene Ha, Zander Cannon and Todd Klein did a terrific comic called Top 10, and it was about the police in a city where everyone had super powers. So, the guy cooking your hotdog might be doing it with heat vision, or the boy band on the radio might all be former sidekicks. My organization is not quite so saturated with powers, but I remembered that, and thought it was fun.
b) If you knew you were going to have total amnesia, what’s the first note you would write to your future self?
It depends, I guess. In The Rook, the amnesiac character has to fake being herself, but I think if I were going to have total amnesia, I’d try to make it as easy on my future self as possible, and concealing that sort of thing can’t be easy. So, I’m going to hedge my bets here.
If I have to conceal my amnesia, and fake being myself, well, it’s really not going to be that difficult for my new self. I’m not terribly complicated, and I don’t have the sort of job like Myfanwy Thomas. So, my first note would be a list of things to keep in mind. It would probably include such hints like:
You will need to master the art of reading while walking.
You will not need to brush your hair.
You have to jiggle the handle of the toilet for it to work.
If I’m free to acknowledge the amnesia, then I like to think it would be a very gentle, reassuring note, letting my new self know that his family will support him through anything, and it will all be all right. And also not to break any of the spines on my/our books.
c) Why do people in secret organizations structure their org chart using chess as a model? Would any other games (Cribbage? Clue? Angry Birds?) work better?
Chess is handy for a number of reasons. It’s so iconic – it’s old-world and intellectual and classy, so people can feel good about themselves. And it’s got that hierarchy thing going on, so the executives can swan about, knowing exactly where they stand. And I expect that it’s much easier to send your flunkies off to dangerous situations when they’re labeled as ‘Pawns.’ Oh, and the pieces make for good icons when you’re working up your stationery and your business cards.
If one absolutely had to go for another game, well, my two favorite games are Carcassonne (which is a tile-laying game where you put down pictures of a miniscule Medieval French landscape) and Liar’s Dice (that game they play in the second Pirate of the Caribbean movie, with the cups, and the dice and everyone looking intent.) I expect neither of those would work well, since no boss wants the title of ‘that tile with a bit of road, and the end of a city’.
Maybe Monopoly? Different people could be different streets, and you’d know who was more valuable. And, in fact, that would work extremely well because there’s all the different versions for the different countries (which I was not aware of when I moved to America. I played Monopoly with some friends, and thought I had lost my mind when Mayfair wasn’t the most valuable property on the board.) So international organizations would have their different streets. And the colour coding could probably come in handy.
Dan O’Malley graduated from Michigan State University and earned a Master’s Degree in medieval history from Ohio State University. He then returned to his childhoom home, Australia. He now works for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, writing press releases for government investigations of plane crashes and runaway boats.
Austin Grossman is a video game design consultant and the author of Soon I Will Be Invincible, which was nominated for the 2007 John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize. His writing has appeared in Granta, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. He lives in Berkeley, California. Mulholland Books will publish Grossman’s second novel YOU, a novel of mystery, videogames, and the people who create them in March 2013.