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"The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is ruining the quality of our suffering." --Tom Waits

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Blood on the Bayou - Thursday

Bouchercon 2016 took place in New Orleans September 15 – 18. While I’ve never been to a bad Bouchercon—Albany was a logistical nightmare but the panels were solid—the Big Easy may have been my favorite.

I’m providing my impressions over the next few weeks. Your experiences may not lead you to agree with everything reported here, but it’s not your blog, is it?

9:00 Another Tricky Day: Problems All Authors Face. Scott Adlerberg, moderator.

Wallace Stroby—who looks like Jason Bateman’s somewhat disreputable older brother—says what all former journalists say about getting stuck or being blocked: it’s a job. Get it done. He says he doesn’t miss the news business much, but he does miss being around the people. I’ve heard that from quite a few former journalists. Journalism must have been a hell of a way to make a living back in the day when a living could be made from it.

JT Ellison made contact with the Nashville cops by calling and asking if there had ever been a serial killer in Nashville and the cop told her to come on down, as if they were holding interviews for the position. I’m going to have to get to Killer Nashville one of these days. They seem to have the right attitude.

God, I love listening to writers talk about writing. This was a perfect opening panel: good writers talking about writing. We’re off and running.

12:00 One More Time: Novels and Characters Taking on Another Life on Screen. Lee Goldberg, moderator.

Nina Sadowsky: Don’t remake great old movies. If the original was bad, have at it.

Phoef Sutton and Alexandra Sokoloff agree that set pieces are key to getting a novel adapted. (Filed under “Microsoft Fails:” Word considers “Phoef” to be a misspelling.)

David Morell had an interesting backstory on First Blood. The book is ardently anti-war. The original Rambo movie less so, but still leaning that way. In the sequel, the line “Sir, do we get to win this time?” set off such a jingoistic wave in the country Morell and the book were virtually blacklisted from liberal bookstores and libraries, each of which had been his champions prior to that. After ten years or so the book and films had become so much part of popular culture he and the original novel became acceptable again.

Previously Unknown (by me) Fact: Die Hard was adapted from a book (Nothing Lasts Forever) that was itself the sequel to The Detective, which was made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra.

Alexandra Sokoloff: Producers will want to change your story into whatever they fantasize their mistress is doing.

Lee Goldberg once wrote a story about a TV executive driving in his car when The Big One hits LA, and how he finds his way to safety. A studio executive was interested, but asked could they make a couple of changes. Goldberg assumed the TV exec would have to have a different profession. The studio guy wanted to swap out the TV exec for six Midwestern cheerleaders, and—since LA earthquakes are cliché—change it to a tsunami. Basically a wet tee-shirt movie. Goldberg passed. The studio exec probably still wonders why.

Nina Sadowsky, quoting Nicholas Kazan: They pay us to take the meetings. We’d do the writing for free.

Lee Goldberg: Ideas are easy. Execution is everything. That’s why people who have had previous successes can so often get something else made.

Phoef Sutton, when asked about Robert McKee, believes McKee has inadvertently done storytelling in general a grave disservice. Sutton does not believe McKee intended for his book, Story, to be followed so slavishly. McKee was a charismatic teacher, but the book is indecipherable.

Nina Sadowsky, following up on Sutton’s comment: You can learn structure, not voice.

Phoef Sutton; James M. Cain was asked if having Walter Neff dictate the entire story of Double Indemnity as he dies was Cain’s idea. Cain said, “No, but it would have been if I had thought of it.”

David Morell: It’s not a writer-friendly environment when one has to contend with executives who could not survive in any other environment, and often not even in this one. Example given: Morell pitched an idea for a story about a mutant form of rabies. The exec had just made a movie in which rabies figured, and suggested changing rabies to industrial pollution. When Morell pointed out industrial pollution is not contagious, the exec replied, “Fuck it. No one will notice.”

1:30 Road to Find Out: Research. Harriette Sackler, moderator.

Michael Gear: Always remember the term “Willing suspension of disbelief.” Research is what allows the author to get the details right, which develops the trust the reader needs to suspend disbelief.

Veronica Forand: If you don’t know something, find a book that explains it for kids to get the basics down first.

3:00 Dead Man’s Party: Realities of Death Investigations. Ayo Onatade, moderator.

Jan Burke: Coroners speak for the living, such as victims’ families and others who might be affected by this cause of death.

D. P. Lyle: The ripple effects of murder are enormous and too often neglected.

Jan Burke is appalled at the state of much of what we do forensically in this country. Examples:
  • Each state has different standards for submitting DNA into CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), depending on the crime. Auditing to see if even those standards are met is lacking.
  • There 100,000 unidentified corpses lying around in the United States and we cannot even assume they have been measures and weighed, let alone fingerprinted or sampled for DNA. Not all states require the reporting of unidentified remains to NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System).
  • Homicide investigations do not begin until a coroner rules a death as suspicious, and there are no national standards for coroners.

Jan Burke: Forensic science is designed to be understood by “the biggest idiot on the jury.”

Jan Burke: A missing person is “where hope can become cruel.”

D.P. Lyle, quoting Lee Goldberg on why so many cop shows get the science wrong: If you give me a choice between story and fact, I’ll choose story every time.

Alistair Kimble: Most cases are still broken by talking to people. That will show the investigator where to look, what to look for, and what’s important.

Jan Burke: A real benefit of the CSI shows is the increased numbers of women going into the sciences.

4:30 Telling Lies: Fiction is Better Than Reality. Johnny Shaw, moderator.

Five accomplished liars authors (Ingrid Thoft—who won the Shamus Friday night, congratulations, Ingrid—Lachlan Smith, J.D. Rhoades, Ben Lieberman, Julie Smith) told stories that could have been true or false. Mostly false, but two things were learned amid the laughter:
  1. Truth is stranger than fiction.
  2. The best lies have a lot of truth in them.

7:00 Down & Out Books Fifth Anniversary Event

Paraphrasing Art Mullin in Justified, it gave me a little bit of a writer’s chubby to see the caliber of talent I’m now included with by being a Down & Out author. James Ray Tuck read and emceed a lineup including Eric Beetner, Tom Pitts, Gordon Brown, Jeffery Hess, S.W. Lauden, Ian Truman, J.L. Abramo (who also went on to win a Shamus Friday night, congratulations, Joe), Grant Jerkins, Danny Gardner, Gary Phillips, Jen Conley, and yours truly that wrapped up what would have been a full and rewarding day even if Tim O’Mara had not kept me out at Sneaky Pete’s until 2:00 AM.

On Monday we have an interview with Australian author Andrew Nette that’s worth a read. We’ll get back to Bouchercon doings next Thursday.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Twenty (One) Questions with the Authors of Triple Shot

I’ve said for years the greatest and longest-lasting effect e-books might have on literature is to make novellas financially viable as a form. Instead of being either too short or too long for wither of the main formats, e-books would release the novella from the price and size constraints by removing them altogether.

I still think that’s true, but left out another possibility: get a group of talented authors—three should be sufficient—and hook them up with a publisher who’s willing think outside the box. (Down & Out comes to mind.) Voila! You got yourself a collection of novellas.

Triple Shot launched August 15 from Down & Out Books and OBAAT is lucky to have not one—not two—but all three of the authors here for a special Bonus Question™ edition of Twenty Questions. Each author gets seven questions, with some overlap to be sure no one is bullshitting us.

So, in alphabetical order, here are Ross Klavan, Tim O’Mara, and Charles Salzberg to talk about Triple Shot.

Ross Klavan’s novel, Schmuck, was published by Greenpoint Press in 2014. He recently finished the screenplay for The Colony based on the book by John Bowers. Nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, his original screenplay, Tigerland, was directed by Joel Schumacher and starred Colin Farrell. He has written screenplays for InterMedia, Walden Media, Miramax, Paramount, A&E and TNT. As a performer, Klavan’s voice has been heard in dozens of feature films including Revolutionary Road, Sometimes in April, Casino, In and Out, and You Can Count On Me as well as in numerous TV and radio commercials. In other lives, he was a member of the NYC alternative art group Four Walls and was a reporter covering New York City and London, England. Ross’s contribution to Triple Shot is Thump Gun Hitched.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Thump Gun Hitched.
Ross Klavan: A freak accident forces two L.A. cops to play out a deadly obsession that takes them from back alley payoffs to hard time in prison, then deep into the tunnel networks south of the border to a murderous town that’s only rumored to exist. Before the last shot is fired, everything they thought was certain proves to be a shadow and everything they trusted opens into a trap.

OBAAT: I hate to ask where writers get their ideas, but where did you get this idea? Damn.
RK: One of my guilty pleasures is that sort of gritty style Western, you know, where everything gets peeled away until the characters are left to face off with what’s usually the worst of their own selves. So I wrote one. Added to that, there was a guy I met who was a private hand-to-hand combat instructor who was hired by the military and police. He said that he’d once been a cop but did something really stupid at a cop party and spent a year locked up. I always thought that might be useable.

OBAAT: How did you get involved in Triple Shot?

RK: Each of these pieces was on the way to publication for another company that went under. Tim, Charles and I all know each other from NYC and know that nobody wants to pick up the bar tab. I think it was Tim O’Mara who came up with the idea for the compilation for Down and Out Books, who’ve been terrific. Tim had a great idea and we didn’t even buy him a drink. I guess we’ll have to.

OBAAT: You’ve written both novels and screenplays with success. How different was it to write a novella?
RK: It seemed sort of like the bastard child of a screenplay and a novel. You can’t waste time or words. I wanted it to move and I wanted to keep the writing very physical…so that, too, was a way to mix what you can do in a novel and a film.  

OBAAT: You have quite a creative range, as you’ve acted in addition to you novels and screenplays, and worked on short documentaries. Which is your favorite and how do they influence each other?
RK: I can’t choose a favorite but everything influences the other. In a way, you’re always doing the same thing but in a different form, sometimes pushing the body into words, sometimes words into the body, but you’re always working on rhythm and timing and sound and image and how to make a world and people that somebody can get lost in…including yourself. 

OBAAT: Who are your greatest external influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
RK: I think if you’re smart, you’ll let yourself be influenced by just about everything. Let me steer clear of naming writers, just for laughs, so, I’ve always loved film, even bad ones and I can watch individual scenes over and over, sometimes without sound…but of course, also, the usual great suspects like Kubrick and Scorsese and even someone a little more epic like David Lean. My wife, Mary Jones, is an abstract painter and also teaches at Rhode Island School of Design and School of Visual Arts—she’s taught me incredible things about composition that are as true for writing as for painting. Some odder influences…there’s a painter named Mark Tansey, I’ve always like his stuff. The great performance artist Allan Kaprow. There’s a teacher of theater and clowning, Philipe Gaulier. And then, besides the happenings and history of my own life, my writing’s been formed also by martial arts, tai chi, yoga, psychoanalysis and talking to people in bars all over the world.

OBAAT: If Thump Gun Hitched were made into a movie, who would play the major roles?
RK:  Y’know, I don’t want to influence any possible reader’s imagination—they’ll probably cast it better than I could. And if I actually name somebody—say, Josh Brolin—some clown in the business could say, “Gee, we were going to do this book…but Brolin isn’t available.” So cast it the way you want it and all I’d like is a small under-5.                              

Tim O’Mara has been teaching math and special education in New York City public schools since 1987, yet he is best known for his Raymond Donne mysteries about an ex-cop who now teaches in the same Williamsburg, Brooklyn, neighborhood he once policed: Sacrifice Fly (2012), Crooked Numbers (2013), Dead Red (2015), Nasty Cutter (January 2017). His short story, “The Tip,” is featured in the 2016 anthology Unloaded. The anthology’s proceeds benefit the nonprofit States United to Prevent Gun Violence. Tim wrote Smoked for Triple Shot.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Smoked.
Tim O’Mara: Smoked is a first-person monologue from a sketchy character explaining how he came to be in the uncomfortable position he now finds himself. The structure of the story—no chapter breaks, just thirty thousand words of him talking—was inspired by Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. The reader has to take the narrator, “Aggie,” at his word. Or not. 

OBAAT: You’re best known for your Raymond Donne series of novels. How different was it to write a novella?
TO: “…best known” is a very kind statement. Thanks. The biggest difference/challenge was creating a first-person narrator who was not only NOT Raymond, but also NOT a New Yorker. I enjoyed writing in another voice and making it a monologue instead of the usual dialogue-driven prose I usually find such comfort in.

OBAAT: How did you get involved in Triple Shot?
TO: Charles, Ross, and I each wrote a novella for an e-publisher who ran into some business issues. I had previously written a short story for Down & Out’s “Unloaded” and scheduled a meeting with its publisher, Eric Campbell, to see if he’d be interested in putting together a trilogy of the novellas. He said “Absolutely” and made the rest look easy.

OBAAT: I hate to ask writers where they get their ideas, but where did you get this idea?
TO: My lead character, “Aggie,” is based on someone in my life who lives by prevarications and rationalizations. I had his (or her) voice in my head and said to myself, “What would happen if she (or he) were put in this position?” Man, was it fun to let loose on this person and then humanize him (or her) in a way she (or he) has not been able to do in real life.

OBAAT: You’re a teacher in the New York City Public Schools by day. It’s easy to see how that has affected (for the better) your Donne series. Did your profession have any effect in Smoked?
TO: “Aggie” is basically a grown-up version of some of the kids I’ve worked with who you know are lying because their lips are moving. Beyond that, Smoked is as far away from my New York City teacher life as I’ve ever ventured in my fiction.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
TO: Hitchcock, for sure. He famously said, “Interesting people do interesting things.” I always keep that in mind when creating new characters or developing established ones like Raymond Donne or his buddy, Edgar. I’m also a big fan of Edward Hopper’s paintings. With a single image that—if you take the time to really soak it in—he brings up a lot of questions and tells a different story to each person. Also, I read The Friends of Eddie Coyle once a year just to remind myself how you can tell a story using mostly dialogue. 

OBAAT: What moves you most in a work of literature?
TO: Presently, I’m amazed at how certain writers use poetry in their prose. I just finished Richard Price’s The Whites, and the way he constructs a sentence can only be described as poetry. Reed Farrel Coleman also weaves poetry into his novels, as do Dennis Lehane and Megan Abbott. I’m at the stage now where—when I’m finished with a novel—I reflect and ask myself what I learned from the author. 

Charles Salzberg is the author of the Shamus Award-nominated Swann’s Last Song, Swann Dives In, Swann’s Lake of Despair (re-release Nov. 2016), Devil in the Hole (re-release Nov. 2016), and Swann’s Way Out (Feb. 2017). His novels have been recognized by Suspense Magazine, the Silver Falchion Awards, the Beverly Hills Book Award and the Indie Excellence Award. He has written over 25 nonfiction books, including From Set Shot to Slam Dunk, an oral history of the NBA, and Soupy Sez: My Life and Zany Times, with Soupy Sales. He has been a visiting professor of magazine at the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University, and he teaches writing at the Writer’s Voice and the New York Writers Workshop where he is a founding member. Today he’s going to talk about his novella, Twist of Fate.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Twist of Fate.
Charles Salzberg: Trish Sullivan is an ambitious TV reporter working in a small, upstate New York market who receives a note from Meg Montgomery, a beautiful young woman convicted of murdering her husband and two children. Montgomery claims she’s innocent and Sullivan, smelling a big story that may garner some national attention, investigates and turns up evidence that the woman has, indeed, been framed. What happens next changes the life of both women in unexpected ways.

OBAAT: This sounds like a “ripped from the headlines” story if ever there was one. Was it?
TO: Nope. I guess it could have been but it was completely made up, a figment of my runaway imagination. The idea came to me after thinking about the legal concept of double jeopardy, and I took it from there.

OBAAT: How did you get involved in Triple Shot?

TO: It’s all because of Tim O’Mara. He came back from Bouchercon Long Beach a few years ago with news of a new subscriber website that was going offer brand new crime novellas each month. They were looking to sign up crime writers and Tim convinced me it would be fun and a good idea. I then convinced Ross, an old friend of mine—we have lunch every week at Dos Caminos here in NYC. We all submitted our novellas and they were accepted, but the site never got off the ground and so we got the novellas back. It was either me or Tim, sometimes we’re confused as the same person, but I have no problem giving him the credit, who suggested we package them together. He met with Eric Campbell of Down & Out Books, Eric loved the idea, and that was that. (Editor’s Note: That checks out with what the others said. See what I did there? Separating them like that and not letting them see each other’s answers?  Reminds you of Ed Exley’s masterful interrogation of the Nite Owl suspects, doesn’t it? Oh, come on. Not even a little?)

OBAAT: You’re best known for your Henry Swann series of novels. How different was it to write a novella?
TO: Very different. I didn’t want to use Swann. I wanted to create a whole new story, a stand-alone. I had actually written Twist of Fate as a screenplay years ago with a friend of mine—it was actually optioned several times but never made. I thought it would make a better prose piece because I could go much deeper (and darker).

OBAAT: You’ve written a lot of non-fiction. How much, and what kind, of an effect has that had on our fiction in general, and Twist of Fate in particular?
TO: I started out wanting only to be a fiction writer, but I had to make a living. I knew how to tell a story, which is what magazine writing is, and so I got a job in the mailroom at New York magazine and after three months I quit, sold one story to them and another to the Daily News Sunday Magazine. I found that writing nonfiction was the best thing I could ever have done, even though I looked down on it at first because I thought it didn’t take much imagination and wasn’t very creative. I was wrong on both counts. It also taught me how to write to a word count, which meant making every word count, how to tell a story efficiently, and how to create realistic conversation and dialogue. And beyond that, it gave me ideas for fiction. Swann was a skip tracer because I actually did a profile of a skip tracer once and learned what they did and how they did it. It also taught me research techniques and I was able to indulge my curiosity by doing stories on things I knew nothing about.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
TO: As far as writers, probably Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow and Dashiell Hammett. But I love films and some of my favorites are crime films, especially Goodfellas. But I’ll see every crime film that comes out, and some of them more than once. I especially like the old ones, the classics in black and white.

OBAAT: What are you reading now?
TO: I just finished reading Joe Clifford’s two Jay Porter books and I loved them. I’m also reading T. J. Stiles’s Custer biography, lots of works by students and a whole bunch of crime short stories. Next up is The Art of Fielding.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

World Tour Update

The All Expense Spared World Tour™ resumes for Conference Month 2016. If you’re in any of these places, please stop by and say hello. A willingness to imbibe adult beverages is always welcome, especially if you’re paying.

Thursday September 15 – Sunday September 18

New Orleans Marriott
555 Canal Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
(Room number TBD. Knock once, then twice, then once again.)

Thursday @ 7:00
A Toast to Five Years of Criminally Good Books
1201 Burgundy Street
New Orleans LA 70116

I’ll be reading with several other Down & Out authors, including James Ray Tuck (MC), Eric Beetner, G.J. Brown, Jen Conley, Jeffery Hess, S.W. Lauden, Gary Phillips, Tom Pitts, Ian Truman, J.L. Abramo, Grant Jerkins, and Danny Gardner. A good time is guaranteed. Tom Pitts says he has a surprise for me. (I thought Joe Clifford burned those pictures. Damn it.)

Friday @ 7:00
Shamus Awards Banquet
Pere Marquette Hotel
817 Common Street
New Orleans LA 70130

Did I mention I’m nominated for a Shamus for Best Paperback Original? Must have slipped my mind.

Saturday @ noon
LaGalleries 6

Moderating the panel, “Dark Necessities - Balancing the dark and light in stories” with panelists Heather Graham, Patrick Hoffman, Debbi Mack, and Terrence McCauley.

I’ll be circulating through panels pretty much the rest of the time, so please say hello. There is also a distinct possibility I'll be at the bar in the evenings. It's been known to happen.

Friday September 30 – Sunday October 2

Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference
Sheraton Columbia Town Center
10207 Wincopin Cir, Columbia, MD 21044

Friday, September 30 @ 1:00
Moderating the panel, “Writing Outside the Box: Crossing Genre Lines to Tell Your Story” with panelists Sandra Webster and Michelle Markey Butler.

Friday @ 2:00
Panelist for, “Mysteries – Noir, Cozy, Police Procedural, Detective etc. What makes them so different?”
Moderator and other panelists TBA at press time.

Friday @ 5:00
Book signing open to the public.

Saturday, October 1 @ 3:00
Panelist: “Suspense, Action or Conflict? The prime elements of a thriller / mystery.”
Moderator: Michael A. Black
Other panelists; Austin S. Camacho and Reed Farrell Coleman.

Saturday @ 5:00
Book signing open to the public.

I’ll also be roaming the halls in general for the rest of the conference. C3 is a relatively new conference that has already shown great promise and is well worth working into your schedule. This will be my third year and it’s already earned a permanent spot on my schedule.

(PS. That bar thing I mentioned at Bouchercon? It could happen here, too.)

Thursday, September 1, 2016

August's Best Read

You know how when you go on vacation and you fall behind in the everyday stuff you have to do so when you come home there’s that all backed up but you still have to stay current with what’s going on and another major event is on the horizon that’s sucking away much of your attention and energy so you really don’t have as much time for purely recreational stuff as you might ordinarily? That was August.

LaBrava, Elmore Leonard. The problem with falling in love with a writer as prolific as Leonard is that it’s hard to go back and look at some of his older stuff as long as he kept cranking out new. Then he stops and it reminds you of favorites it’s been too long since you read. I scored a used copy of a three-book Leonard compilation a few months ago; LaBrava was the first in the collection, and one of the handful I’ve never read. Now I’ve read it, and it’s as good as I’d heard. All the usual Leonard stuff is there: the offbeat hero and his even more offbeat foil, the strong female characters, the finding out the villain isn’t quite where you were looking. And the dialog. Leonard’s dialog isn’t the kind of thing well suited for excerpting in a piece like this. He didn’t write great lines so much as he wrote great conversations. His narrative is to the point without being spare and no one was better at leaving out the parts the reader might be inclined to skip. (Duh.) If you’ve never read LaBrava, you should. If you’ve never read Leonard, damn right you should. And if you have, reading him again is never a bad idea.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Twenty Questions With John Shepphird

John Shepphird won the 2013 Shamus Award for Best PI Short Story for “Ghost Negligence.” A writer/director of TV movies, John also serves as the Creative Director of On-Air Promotions for TVG, America’s horse racing network. Noir master James M. Cain inspired John’s three “Shill” novellas, a terse, tense, and twist-filled trilogy with a cast of characters immersed in the art of deception, depravity, and murder. The trilogy’s final volume, Beware the Shill, launched August 1 from Down & Out Books. (To celebrate, Book One, The Shill, is currently free for Kindle.) The trailer for Beware the Shill is also available for viewing.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Beware the Shill.

John Shepphird: The title refers to my character Jane Innes that transforms from a pawn to a rook. In The Shill (book #1) she's naïve, sacrificed, but we like her. But Jane won't be wronged. She's talented and determined. In Beware the Shill (book #3) she relies on smarts and skill to take down the deadly deceivers that ruined her life. It's about rooting for an underdog.                

OBAAT: Readers love to ask where authors get their ideas and most authors reply with something along the lines of “we’re tripping over them. The trick is to find the idea that works best for me.” What made this idea worth developing, and how much development from the original germ was required?
JS: I was drawn to writing a caper and what sparked me was the idea of a girl from the other side of the tracks that uses her skills as an actress to deceive an elite mark. She knows better, but she fell in love with a persuasive con man, and since love it blind…. That was the seed, and it grew from there. The Shill is the caper, Kill the Shill a detective story, and Beware the Shill a thriller.         

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Beware the Shill, start to finish?
JS:  I’d estimate seven months not including other projects that distracted me. I struggled with Beware the Shill more than the others because I had to wrap up my characters and it all had to make sense. I wanted to bring it back to where it had started, California, but not necessarily Los Angeles because I’d already explored that in book #1.

Then I came across a story of California Gold Rush history that lit the pilot light--the shipwreck of the steamship Yankee Blade. This was an incredible tragedy fueled by greed and cowardice. Weaving in elements of that story into contemporary time gave me everything I needed--the setting, motivation, and the basic structure. Once I had that figured out I blazed forward. I’d already touched on Caribbean pirate history in book #2, Kill the Shill, so a dash of historical was not completely foreign. It made sense.                         

OBAAT: Where did Jane Innes come from? Is she based on people you know? Does she have parts of you in her? (Note to readers: Not that way. Get your minds out of the gutter.)
JS: I work in television and Jane is a hybrid of actresses I’ve known over the years that tie their self-worth into their career. Making it becomes all or nothing and this ultimately this makes them miserable and yet another casualty on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Jane is talented and capable, but also flawed. She hangs on her acting coaches every word hoping for just a little bit of praise. Ultimately she just wants love in her life and dreams a successful career will get her there, but her perspective is skewed. Although I was a writer/director as opposed to an actor in my 20s and 30s I was guilty of that too. In retrospect I wish I would have written more and barked up less trees.              

OBAAT: In what time and place is Beware the Shill set and why was this time and place chosen?
JS: The series is a contemporary noir set in Los Angeles, Sarasota Florida, and the Caribbean. Beware the Shill explores Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, and California’s coast in the proximity of Vandenberg Air Force Base.       

OBAAT: How did Beware the Shill come to be published?
JS: I was at Bouchercon in Albany and author Robert J. Randisi introduced me to Eric Campbell from Down & Out Books. This was before The Shill was finished as a novella and shortly thereafter it was picked up by an eBook publisher Stark Raving Press but they folded rather quickly. I reached out to Eric, hat in hand, and he graciously picked it up. I’m fortunate to be with Down & Out and honored to be among their stable of great authors.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JS: I’m a fan of vintage noir and continue to re-read James M. Cain. It’s his economy and fractured love stories that resonate with me most. I’ drawn to capers and can’t get enough of Lionel White and Donald E. Westlake. Contemporary authors I read are Steve Hamilton, Jason Starr, Wallace Stroby, and Megan Abbott.     

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
JS: A love for suspenseful stories. I’m not necessarily a fan of fantasy and science fiction because, for me, the best stories are grounded in reality. I have to believe they could actually happen. There’s always been a lot of storytelling going on in my large Catholic family so maybe that has something to do with it.      

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
JS: The theme of most of my fiction is the art of deception so studying and performing magic was a big factor because it’s all about the twist. Working as a filmmaker in a variety of genres has also contributed.         

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
JS: I actually enjoy the process of writing, and re-writing, playing with ideas and seeing if you can make them work. It’s also great to hang around other writers, especially crime writers, and swap notes. We’re all, in one way or another, ne’er-do-wells that share a dark and often humorous sensibility. The community is extremely supportive.     

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
JS: Cinema and 70s crime television has had a major impact--a spectrum from Jack Webb to Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve always been drawn to antiheroes. My first film as a co-writer and director was titled Teenage Bonnie and Klepto Clyde.     

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants?
JS: Writing fiction I’ll often write the later part of a story first, the final culmination, and then go back and start at the beginning. By the time I get to that chapter it will need a major rewrite but this process helps me to know where I’m going. In screenplays outlines and synopses are vital to establish structure.  

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
JS: I’ll write (compose) and then go back and rewrite the chapter or scene immediately. Then I’ll move on to the end and then rewrite it all again from the beginning. I’m amazed by authors that can compose from scratch with only minor rewrites, but that’s not me. It’s a process of rehash.  

OBAAT: Endings are hard and can make or break a book. Americans as a whole tend to like happy endings, and those are the books that tend to sell best. What do you look for in an ending?
JS: An ending doesn’t have to be happy but it does have to make sense. There are a lot of James Cagney movies without happy endings, but they make complete sense and there’s closure. It’s about the journey and the decisions a protagonist makes along the way should define that ending. Crime and mystery readers expect closure. I think it’s inherent.’         

OBAAT: Who is your intended audience?
JS: Readers that enjoy page-turning crime fiction, both male and female--same that read Gillian Flynn or Lee Child.     

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JS: Carve out time every day to write. A little bit of progress over time adds up. Write what you enjoy. Study structure. Keep it lean and mean. 

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
JS: Escalation (story/plot) is important to me because my aesthetic is structure and not just in fiction and film but music too. If I played an instrument it would be the bass. Then character (the melody) which should drive the structure through his or her wants and needs. Tone and setting tie in third place.                  

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
JS: Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame doesn’t count because that was written over a hundred years ago, so it’s either James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, or John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. These three novels were written in the 1930s, the Great Depression. All embrace working-class characters seeking to advance themselves.             

OBAAT: Coming from Western Pennsylvania, I have a fascination with the origins of names. “Shepphird” is an unusual spelling of a not uncommon name. What’s the family background there?
JS: My father, when he was alive, did a detailed search of our name. There are no “Shepphirds” in the UK but there are in North America. I’m convinced it was originally “Sheppherd” with an “e” but through bad penmanship somehow that “e” became an “I”.  But the mystery writer in me imagines the change was intentional. Maybe my relation purposefully tried to hide identity. More likely it was a combination of an old, leaky quill dotting the “e” and probably bad light.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JS: A whodunit thriller set among the cast-and-crew of a low budget TV movie. It’s titled Bottom Feeders.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A Dangerous Lesson: Jan Rusiewicz

Jan Rusiewicz (rue-SEV-ich) is a Violent Crimes detective for the Chicago PD. Works for Nick Forte’s best friend, Sonny Ng. Jan and Nick were romantically involved for a while until one of them broke it off. Neither was exactly sure whose idea it was to split. Things were touchy for a while, but the original friendship survived the demise of the more elevated relationship and moved into a place where it would be hard to say which actually had been the more elevated relationship.

Jan is working on a task force led by Sonny to catch the Thursday Night Slasher, who has been terrorizing women in Chicago for six months. It’s starting to wear on her.

Jan stood no more than a foot away from me. Impeccably dressed, as always. Nothing expensive. Money never sat idle in Jan Rusiewicz’s bank account. She got more mileage out of Filene’s Basement, consignment shops, and one special thrift store on Fullerton than a hybrid car going downhill with the wind at its back.
Getting called out of bed was nothing new to her, even before she got involved with the Slasher task force. She always had tomorrow’s clothes laid out the night before. Cleaned up and stepped right into them to hit the ground running. Said it gave her an advantage with a suspect, always looking ready to go even if she’d only had time to shower and change clothes in the Area Four station.
Today she showed wear. Blouse not tucked in evenly. A button missed. The suit wasn’t so rumpled anyone but I, and maybe Sonny Ng, could see it, but it didn’t meet Jan’s standards.
I touched her elbow. “Are you all right with this Slasher business?”
“No.” The finality of her answer combined with its tone to set my alarms off. “Do you know I’ve worked over a hundred homicides? I’ve seen shootings and stabbings, family crimes, gang executions, drive-bys, and a baby with its head forced between radiator grates. I worked midnights in a squad, and sat in alleys full of rats to decoy some asshole into robbing me. I’ve been shot at, almost stabbed, and called names I had to ask what they meant. I put up with it because it’s all part of the job.
“Not this guy. See, I’ve been thinking about it, and all my homicides fall into two groups. Either the killer needed to make someone dead, or things got out of hand. This one lives to make these women suffer. I wish something would happen and he’d leave a survivor. I wouldn’t even mind if she couldn’t identify him. I just want to know what he says, how he acts. Does he tell them anything. I really don’t think he does this to kill them. He just wants to see how much they can endure. And that makes it even worse.”
“Are you sleeping?”
“If you can call it that. I stay up reading and looking at photos until my eyes close in the middle of a sentence. Then I lay in bed and pretend to sleep. I dozed off at the kitchen table a couple of nights ago and thought if I just stayed like that, holding my head up with my hand, I might sleep. It wasn’t bad for about ten minutes. Then my arm got stiff and I got up to go to bed and a picture caught my attention like maybe I saw something I missed before and I was there for another hour.” She rubbed her hands together as she spoke. “I promise myself five more minutes, I’ll quit at midnight, then I look up and it’s twelve-twenty-five and I think twelve-thirty, then it’s one-fifteen and I say the hell with it and stay till three. Then I pass out more than sleep and still see the sun come up.”
“Do you want off the case?”
“Goddamn right I want off the case! This is ruining my life. My periods are even fucked up.”
“Then talk to Sonny. He’ll understand.”
“I almost did a couple of times. Then I look at a crime scene shot. I can’t imagine how horrible it must’ve been for them, and I’m feeling sorry for myself because I can’t sleep?” She chewed on her lower lip and I noticed how frayed it was. “This bastard owes me. I want the satisfaction of bringing him in. It doesn’t have to be me personally, but I want to be able to say I had a hand in it.”
“You do already. You know that.”
“And you know it’s not the same.”
Sure, I knew. A little piece of Jan died this morning when she saw what happened to Carol Blessing. A little piece of any cop dies when he sees something horrible, and every cop deals with it in his own way. Some act hard. Some drink hard. The pieces of Jan that died with each of the Slasher’s victims were getting bigger. She usually maintained her balance by talking with her father the retired cop. Mike Rusiewicz had never seen anything like this.

A Dangerous Lesson is available in both paperback and e-book at all finer Amazons. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Movies Since Last Time

The Princess Bride (1987). Sometimes you just want to spend a pleasant evening being entertained with the person you most enjoy sending time with. There’s no better way to spend that time than with The Princess Bride. An adorable and damn near perfect little movie.

Ghostbusters (2016). It rained on the vacation day The Beloved Spouse™ and I were to go to the Kentucky Horse park, so we found a theater and saw the Ghostbusters remake that unfortunately made most of its pre-release news because of how men dissed it in online reviews. A shame, too, because the movie is funny and well done. Not as funny as the
original, but that was brand new and this time we knew what to expect. Kristin Wiig never disappoints, Kate MacKinnon and Leslie Jones are going to be around for a long time, and even Melissa McCarthy—whom I can generally live without as the female Jim Carrey—was good. The movie paid just enough homage to its predecessor and was great fun. Now we’ll see if the sequel can avoid the pitfalls of Ghostbusters 2.

L.A. Confidential (1997). Maybe the most perfectly constructed crime story ever, or at least
since Chinatown. Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson cobble together a fascinating story from a glorious mess of a book to create a completely satisfying experience; their shared Oscar for  Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published was richly deserved. Their efforts are helped greatly by an all-star cast at the top of their games, including Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger (Oscar for best Supporting Actress), Danny DeVito, David Straithairn, and—a true revelation right after his turn as a farmer in Babe—James Cromwell as the gleefully evil Dudley Smith.

The Insider (1999). A wonderful film in the expose vein mined so well by All the Presidents Men, Spotlight, and Quiz Show. Russell Crowe plays a tobacco executive overcome with conscience and Al Pacino the 60 Minutes producer who brings him both in from and out into the cold at the same time. Michael Mann is the director Quentin Tarantino should want to be, always leaving his mark on movie without being a hack about it. His turn as Mike Wallace is my favorite Christopher Plummer performance. Highly recommended.

A Rather English Marriage (1998). I have no idea what prompted my father to add this to his Netflix queue. Neither did he. A quirky little BBC adaptation of an Angela Lambert novel featuring outstanding performances by Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay as a bit of a British odd couple thrust together after their wives die on the same day in the same hospital. Watching the two of them take different routes in coping with their losses is never cliché, even when a reluctant gold digger (Joanna Lumley) complicates matters. Understated, offbeat, and thoroughly enjoyable.

A Walk in the Woods (2015). This has been our week to watch laid-back movies, and we picked two winners. Robert Redford stars as travel writer Bill Bryson, who gets a bug up his ass late in life to hike the Appalachian Trail. Everyone thinks he’s nuts except for an old friend he’s lost contact with who’s up for the challenge. (Nick Nolte, looking like his character in Down and Out in Beverly Hills thirty years later.) Dry humor abounds to keep a sweet movie from becoming sappy. An excellent supporting cast, including Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, and Kristin Schaal (from The Daily Show) provides for no wasted scenes. L.A. Confidential and The Insider will keep you on the edge of your seat. A Walk in the Woods allows you to settle back and enjoy two old friends rediscovering their friendship.