Monday, July 30, 2012

Observations — Telling The Book By the Cover, And An Inept Self-Promotion

I love book covers.  There are a number of places to take a look at the old pulps and a number of blogs will put out a great gallery of cover art.  Seems to me that once a year someone puts out a poll on nominated mystery book covers.  And Rapsheets editor J. Kingston Pierce has another great blog called Killer Covers you should check out.

As a writer who has very little say about what my book covers look like, I have a few I really dislike and a few that I really appreciate.  In my years with St. Martin’s Press and Severn House, I’ve appreciated a number of covers, but two really stand out.  Unfortunately both are out of print.

The first is from St. Martin’s Press and was a stand-alone.  My editor there was the late Ruth Cavin, who responded to my request to take a look at Janet Woolley as an artist for the submitted mystery.  Ruth, after making me change the book title from The de Chirico Landscape to Eclipse of the Heart, agreed to pursue my choice of artist for the cover.  I had no additional input on the art, but I was incredibly impressed with what the artist did. I think it holds up to this day. She had to have read the book thoroughly to get the nuances she did.  The book, which featured a gay protagonist, didn’t get very far though through gay circles. The gay press ignored it completely and my own hometown newspaper at the time, The Indianapolis Star, ran a positive review without ever mentioning the main character was a gay.  The character’s sexual orientation figured significantly in the plot.  Though I have made it a practice to never talk to reviewers, not because I dislike them, but it might come across as manipulative and my one-on-one communication skills need some sharpening. In this case, I was curious enough to make an exception. I contacted the reviewer and asked him why he hadn’t mentioned what I thought to be a key element of the book.  His response was that had he done so, the story would never have seen print…and I suspect the reviewer might have had to turn in his professional spectacles. He had been brave just choosing the book to review. The Indianapolis Star was notoriously conservative.

The second cover that I am very fond of is from the professionals at Severn House for a book in the Deets Shanahan series, Asphalt Moon.  What I appreciated was the bold image of a smoking shotgun, close up. It was not only a powerful image, the art director manifested the very specific horror of the story. It was a simple but also profound reflection of what was between the covers.  Apparently another art director somewhere found the image to be strong as well.  Not too long ago, I came across another book, Blood Men, by Paul Cleave.  And there was my shotgun on his book cover.  It was a great cover as well, but the same damn shotgun, smoke and all. No harm really.  I liked that cover too.

Now, it would be great if I could do a blatant promotion of each of these books.  Both are, in retrospect, among the ones I’m most proud of — and not just because of the covers. I feel really good about the stories.  Reviewers were also very good to these two. But they are both out of print and were published before the e-Book phenomenon.  Then again, maybe something can be done about that.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Film Pairing — A Bad Day To Go Fishing & Young Adam

These are stories about how one unintentional event can change lives forever. While they are crime movies, A Bad Day To Go Fishing and Young Adam are not thrillers. They are not action films. They are not really suspenseful. And in both cases we, as viewers, are entering worlds that are very real but likely very unfamiliar.

A Bad Day To Go Fishing takes place in a small town somewhere in South America.  Since it is a Spanish and Uruguayan film, I suspect Santa Maria is in Uruguay, which is unusual enough.  When was the last time you saw a movie set in Uruguay?  When was the last time you used Uruguay in a sentence?  Critics call the film “quirky,” which means it is odd and not meant for everyone.  That, I suspect, is true.  But I’ve always liked “quirky,” and I really liked this film.

A con man, no doubt self-dubbed Prince Orsini, arrives in a small town with one fine suit and his prize possession, a former grand champion professional wrestler.  They rent a hall where the wrestler lifts things like tractor tires, bathtubs and other random heavy items as an act in a show of jugglers and fire-eaters.  But the real payoff is the final show of their stay, when the former champion of the world takes on a challenger from the village.  If the challenger can stay in the ring for three minutes, he gets a thousand dollars.  The fact is the elegantly decadent Prince doesn’t even have the thousand dollars. He flashes a few big bills wrapped around worthless paper.  If the challenger succeeds, it would be an embarrassment and most likely punishable by jail time. Though the wrestler is a bit past his prime and drinks heavily, he is what he is purported to be — a former champ.  And the Prince has never had to pay off.  No doubt you are ahead of me here.  Basically the con’s bluff is called.  A quality challenger is found.  Behind and beneath the plot is a story about love and loyalty, greed and desperation.  A fine, fine story, well acted and well worth your time if you can stand a little quirk here and there.

Young Adam is a Scot.  The film takes place entirely in Scotland, but not the Scotland that will get you on the next plane to Edinburgh or salivating at being on golf courses where the game was invented. Most of the time, you are in a barge.  What you need to know is that there is a barge and that there is plenty of sex.  For a non-porn film, there’s an immense amount of sex.  We see more of Young Adam (Ewan McGregor) and his women (among them Tilda Swinton and Emily Mortimer) than we are entitled to, considerably more nakedness than I saw in Nudist Colony on the Moon, when I was a teenager.  In the case of A Bad Day To Go Fishing, there is a misjudgment that is at the core of the drama.  In Young Adam, the drama hinges on a totally innocent, but tragic accident. What unfolds is a matter of character or lack of it.

Though the characters don’t live in a world where the subject of sex-addiction is likely to come up, Young Adam is a sex addict.  He’s not only a boy who just can’t say “no,” he is a boy who can always get the girl to say, “yes.”  The idea that he might settle down with the “right” woman is not part of his nature.  He travels light and can pack his bags in seconds.  But there some things you can’t escape, aren’t there?  Even if you find no value in the story — and I say that because the film is morally desolate — Swinton especially reveals a frightening ability to inhabit an empty being.  She is, as usual, incredible here.

Drink Scotch.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Observations — Stairways To Heaven, Or Someplace

Because San Francisco has so many hills, so many steep ones in fact, there are hundreds and hundreds of stairways, some just to get homeowners up the hill to their front door.  Others public pathways that connect one street to another or one neighborhood to public transportation.  Here are four different approaches to the idea of steps.  These, are by far, not the most famous, the steepest nor the most dramatic, but they show different ways steps are incorporated in the everyday lives of San Franciscans.   For a little more on San Francisco stairways, go here.

Neighborhood Stairway

Steps Built Into Sidewealk

Getting from Bush Street To Stockton

Keeping The Theme

Monday, July 23, 2012

Opinion — More Blatant Promotion, Get To Know The Players

We’re still a couple of weeks from the release of Death in the Haight from Penguin's new Dutton Guilt Edged (DGE) Mysteries as they release their first books with this revived imprint. 

If you are at all interested in the idea of getting to know the characters who appear in Death in the Haight, there is a prequel — Mascara, Death in the Tenderloin.  In it, we meet private eyes Noah Lang and his gender-bending, shape-shifting friend Thanh.  And while you can get it in trade paperback, it is also available at $3.99 on Kindle or Nook.

Here’s the cover copy:

“From the very beginning, things just aren’t what they seem. On a late, lonely night, San Francisco private investigator Noah Lang’s eyes deceive him. He makes a mistake. But what should have been simply an embarrassing moment becomes a deadly walk on the wild side. Unfortunately for Lang, before this nightmare is over, he puts his life on the line a second time for a new client who may or may not have a missing husband, who might or might not live on a boat in Tiburon and who seems to have an odd way to settle the bill for services rendered.”

There are also two Carly Paladino and Noah Lang mysteries available from UK publisher Severn House.  Unfortunately Death in Pacific Heights is out of print except for some hard-back books.  The trade paper backs have sold out and they’ve yet to be released in e-book formats. The second in the series, Death in North Beach, is available as an e-book through the usual suspects.

And don’t forget to check the DGE mysteries at their web site as more and more books are released.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Film Pairing — Crime and Punishment, The Way They Do It In Texas

This double feature doesn’t permit you to escape into a better world. Of course, we don’t expect that from films about murder for the most part.  Crime films are often dark and leave the viewer depressed about the human condition. Many though are suspenseful.  They make us curious.  Crimes are solved and satisfaction is achieved because the bad guys pay for their evil doing.  These two films are different. The Last Word and Into the Abyss are documentaries about how murder is dealt with in Texas.  It isn’t pretty.  And rather than having satisfying ends, these films will more than likely just piss you off.

Innocent and Executed
The Last Word presents us with a corrupt system.  I’m not giving anything a way by saying that the person convicted of the rape and murder of an elderly nun didn’t do it.  In an odd twist, this isn’t a story that casts doubt on someone’s conviction because of some “bleeding heart” liberal bias against the death penalty. Seventeen-year old Johnny Frank Garrett did not kill her.  The facts are clear and they had to have been clear to the prosecuting attorney and they had to have been ignored by the defense attorneys appointed by a judge up for reelection in a community out for blood.  The facts of the case were ignored by then Governor Ann Richards, who, it is claimed, reluctantly went along with Texas’ “death machine” to make sure she stood a chance against George W. Bush who was vying for her job.

The first and last few minutes of the film are a little heavy-handed, trying a little too hard to pit good versus evil in a melodramatic otherworldly battle.  However, the story is the story.  The facts are explored.  And they damn the government of Texas. To this day, no one is allowed to examine the records.  But it really doesn’t matter, the truth was available at the time.  And time has only supported the boy’s innocence.

Werner Herzong's documentary on the Death Penalty
Meanwhile, Werner Herzog’s documentary, Into The Abyss, took on a different challenge.  While Johnny Frank Garrett in The Last Word was innocent, it is likely that Michael Perry and his friend Jason Burkett were instrumental in the deaths of three people in the name of a shiny red Camaro.  The film makes no attempt to explore guilt or innocence, or even corruption.  His camera and interviews focus on the death penalty itself.  He talks with both perpetrators and he talks with their families and the families of the victims.

Be prepared to get to know people you think you don’t want to know and understand what you wish you didn’t.  For me, the most powerful testimony came from the manager of the death unit.  He had managed the endgame for more than 120 executions.  He was a professional, carrying out the laws of the land.  One day, this sturdy Texan, who seemed uncomfortable talking about his feelings, tells us he fell apart. They had just completed an execution. It had gone off as planned.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  But he said he just started shaking.  He didn’t know why.  It had never happened before.  He couldn’t stop shaking.  He couldn’t go to work the next day, nor the next.  In fact, he never went back.  He doesn’t regret his decision, even though he lost his pension.

A couple of tough films.  Sometimes we’re in the mood to get a glimpse of some of the harsher realities.  If you can, take a look.  If not, there are a couple of well-done Bourne Identities to watch.  If you do watch these two, drink something hard, maybe just over the rocks.  And do this only if you promise you will not drive afterward and that there are no guns in the house.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Special Release — Penguin Group’s New Mystery Imprint & My Blatant Self Promotion

I am honored to participate in Dutton’s re-launch of Guilt Edged Mysteries.  Penguin, through this Dutton line, is celebrating the 65th anniversary of the imprint that had among its original writers — Mickey Spillane, Frederic Brown and Gore Vidal (writing as Edgar Box) — by publishing new works that reflect the tough, fast reads of the early books, but with a decidedly fresh, contemporary sensibility.  
The launch of the e-book line includes the novella by NPR editor Krishnadev Calamur, Murder in Mumbai as well as “Skin,” a Mike Hammer short story begun by Spillane and completed by the legendary author’s respected collaborator and award-winning mystery novelist Max Allan Collins.  These two are available now.  I’m pleased to announce that my own novella, Death in the Haight, is next in the series of new books released by Dutton as part of this revival and will be available August 21.  Dutton Guilt Edged Mysteries plans to release many more short stories and novellas in the months to come. 
My contribution is a new work that features private eye Noah Lang from the Paladino/Lang San Francisco mysteries.  When Michael Vanderveer goes missing in San Francisco Lang assumes it’s just another runaway escaping to the Haight, San Francisco’s home to the displaced… until the homicide cops pay him a visit. Fifteen-year-old Michael has been implicated in the murder of a prostitute, and the police don’t want Lang mucking up their investigation — especially Inspector Stern, who has strong opinions about Lang’s questionable past. But Lang becomes inextricably involved when Michael’s parents hire him: Michael is being ransomed, and they want Lang to ensure the exchange goes smoothly.   As everyone waits for the kidnappers to make their next move, Lang struggles with the Vanderveers, who are far from their Michigan home; confused by the twisted details of the case; and wrestling with the moral implications of rescuing Michael, only to have to turn him in for murder. All the while, Lang must deal with Stern, whose increasingly volatile behavior may just put Lang’s life in as grave danger as Michael’s.
Death in the Haight will be available August 21 from the usual e-Book sources.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Observations — To Write, Perchance To Dream?

Maybe the only point of being awake is to sleep. 

— Ann Germain, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh, School of Medicine

Maybe we’ve had this wrong all these years.  We sleep because our body demands it.  The body requires we sleep in order to heal physically, and there is a school of thought that our dreams help us file all the stuff that consciously or unconsciously invades our senses while we’re conscious. Without dreams we would go insane and perhaps die.

But what if it were the other way around?  We are awake to take in physical nourishment and to reproduce our kind in order for us to engage in our primary activity — to sleep and to dream?  Maybe souls, our essences, our true selves, are found in the dream state.  Isn’t it there that we might dip into the collective unconscious?  Maybe it is only during what we call dreaming that we are connected to the universe.

Maybe this adds a little body to Chuang Chou’s familiar poetic, and gossamer, philosophic words:

Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.

Let me tell you a story.  It might be true.  Sometime in the early hours of one Sunday morning, I met a man. We were leaving a party and we were walking outside on a balmy night, a night that was nearing morning.  We talked easily, comfortably — as if we’d known and trusted each other for years.  We talked about cancer and friendship as well as disappointment and hope.

The thing is we had just met.  I cannot tell you where we were or who he was.  We had no history.  Further, the whole thing happened in a dream. As far as I know, this kind fellow, whose name I didn’t get or don’t remember, doesn’t exist in the real world or at least in the world I appear to be occupying at the moment.  Yet, he was real.  He had a distinctive face, a particular voice. I spoke.  He spoke.  For at least those flickering moments, he was a being.  This isn’t an unusual experience. I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who didn’t dream.

In our dreams, we create people and places and often a set of circumstances, sometimes wonderfully pleasant, sometimes horribly frightening. Sometimes the story in our dreams unfolds surreally, impossibly — at least as we think of these things this way in our so-called conscious moments.  Sometimes though, they are cut from the same, ordinary, three-dimensional fabric as our everyday lives. Yet — please excuse the redundancy — in many cases, these places and people, however real they appear to be, do not exist. 

The question is this: Everyone has this reservoir of fiction that manifests itself during dream sleep.  Is the writer — and let me broaden that to artist — simply given the ability to pull from the reservoir in the unconscious what he or she wants and bring it to the surface or is it something else altogether?

Then again, we have this question: Which is the awakened state?  Or are these states equal in some fashion?

Could I pose the question that writing fiction is organized dreaming? Controlled dreaming?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Film Pairing — Reality-Based Ransom, Films Set In Caracas and Paris

Many years ago, Jean Paul Getty III, grandson of the legendary oil tycoon was kidnapped. The perpetrators demanded $17 million. To prove they had him, they sent one of the boy’s ears along with the ransom note.  Adolph Coors III was kidnapped as was Frank Sinatra Jr. and Patty Hearst.  Kidnapping for profit has not only happened to children of celebrities and not only to the super rich, it is a real life business where regular folks can be taken away and returned for surprisingly small amounts.  Then again, some are not returned at all.

Kidnapping has been a way of life, far more popular than bank robberies, for gangs in Mexico and in South America.   Extreme poverty amidst the extreme wealth add a political dimension, and to some a justifiable reason for the act.  In societies where the haves must live behind gated communities with hired security and the have-nots in tin huts in rambling slums, this kind of lucrative but dangerous vocation seems to thrive.

In Secuesto Express, we meet the do-gooder daughter of a wealthy man and her shallow boyfriend, playboy son of another wealthy man.  They are the targets of three men whose business model is bleeding the rich by stealing their offspring and returning them for a ransom amount that is relatively modest for the rich, but a tidy sum for the thieves.  The film provokes the one percent vs 99 percent questions.

I had almost recommended that the second film here be Towards Darkness, another ransom film, this one grittily set in Colombia. It is darker than Secuesto and has a tough, bitter end, where the payoff is bigger than the build up. However, it doesn’t have the charm nor the dark, almost Coen Brotheresque approach that Secuesto brings to the screen. In this case, the God of Fate has a sense of humor, it seems.

Most of us, having been weaned on American films, tend to have victims of kidnappings to be sympathetic characters.  Otherwise, why would we care whether or not they are rescued and reunited with their loving families?  And the movie is usually a minute-by-minute, life-and-death thriller about the rescue itself.  Rapt is something else.

It is French and therefore we might expect it to be stylish and intellectual.  It is. The film sets up moral dilemmas slightly more complex than the effects of serious wealth disparities — jealousy, resentment, and retaliation.  A man who seems to have it all — looks, money, power, social status, taste, a beautiful and loving family, and an exotic lifestyle — is plucked from the streets.  The asking price for his safe return, in this case, is not at all modest.

At a point where most films would begin to unfold the thrilling and or intricate ways the good guys get the victim back, Rapt goes somewhere else.  Much of the victim’s fortune is tied up in the business.  In fact, reporters investigating the juicy story uncover a man who loved to gamble and, who had serious gambling debts.  There was also the matter of a second, secret apartment for his assignations with other women.  And questions arise about his management skills. While the negotiations are under way, the second in command seems to be taking care of business quite well and the board learns he has been doing so for quite some time.  Though the rich victim is physically missing, those around him — family, friends and business associates — discover who he actually is — and are not at all sure that they miss him.  Knowing him, how much do they want him back?

Secuestro Express was released in 2005 and Rapt in 2009.  Both were based to some extent on real-life events.  Both were critically well-received and feel very much in touch with the times.

For your trip to Caracas, remember the Venezuelans love cold beer, the colder the better.  Rum would work as well.  For Paris and the French half?  What is your mood?  If you are in the part of the country still suffering from the heat wave, perhaps a chilled dry white wine.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Observations — E-Books, Self Publishing And A Semi-Blatant Self Promotion

It’s been a few months since I advertently plugged my own books.   I intend to do so, but I will be subtle about it — partially burying my shamelessness through the clever mention of other authors.

I am often inspired by the posts on the lively and informative blog Murderati.  Some of the more recent posts center on e-books — the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of their increasing dominance.  An article in the most recent Mystery Scene Magazine by writer/blogger Kevin Burton Smith (also master of The Thrilling Detective web site and blog) talks about living writers whose early works are being reissued in electronic formats. I would add that in some cases even new books are being released only in digital formats — increasingly so by traditional publishers as well.

Life Death & Fog Books
It makes sense in both cases.  Why would a business create an expensive product, one that requires considerable upfront expense and then, if it works, redo it in a format that demands much, much less expense?  A traditional publisher might do it that way if they have a brand name author with predictable sales.  But, for the most part, it seems backward.  It is much smarter when the book is a bit risky, it seems to me, to see if the story works before buying the paper, turning on expensive presses, setting  the distribution channels in motion and preparing for significant returns of unsold copies. If the e-book soars, the publisher can always release it as a trade paperback.  And from my conversations with book store owners, new and used, it’s the hardback that is dying.

This, I believe, is also the attraction of e-books when reissuing the works of popular authors, but whose work has, one never appeared in electronic format, and two, though vetted and extremely worthwhile, might not find room on store bookshelves reserved for the branded best sellers.  The new technology provides at least three electronic approaches for the author:  One is do it yourself.  This is what I did. I set up Life Death and Fog Books and released the early Shanahans (1990-1995) and one never-before-published novella.  And this is what others have done.  Two, do some of publishing work yourself and work with a group of award-winning writers who share your interests and vision to promote each other’s books.  Top Suspense Group is a fine example of a band of talented writers getting together to offer mutual support for the reissue of previous books and, in some cases, to promote new ones.  The third way is to connect with an innovative traditional publisher who is willing to bring these writers into the stable and make these ebooks available in the ebook format.  Mysterious Press, with Open Road Integrated Media, has pioneered this method and is reissuing the work of some highly praised mystery writers never before available for Nook or Kindle readers.
Top Suspense Group

As readers, we have always had access to the legends.  Hammett, Chandler, Stout, Christie, MacDonald and many of the others, are always in print or, at worst, they are periodically reissued in new covers.  It hasn’t always been possible to get the not-quite-yet legendary writers that way.  Some of our best, and still-living crime fiction authors — Gar Anthony Haywood, Janet Dawson, Ed Gorman, Jeremiah Healy to name a very few — provide great reads.  Fortunately, ebooks can make their early novels available again and damn near forever.

The advantage for readers in this process is that it affords us a way to combat the unrelenting onslaught of self-published dreck, which in no way suggests that all self-published books are in that category.  And there is some adventure in the random sampling of books by unknown authors.  There are, no doubt, some diamonds among the glass. I expect they will rise in their own way.  But, for all those who might berate traditional publishers, they do some things most readers appreciate. First, they filter out work that has always given “vanity” press a bad name.  Second, and most important, they EDIT.  If novel passes through the hands and eyes of professionals, it’s not as likely to be a sloppy book.  The books listed by the Top Suspense Group and Mysterious Press are not just two avenues for writers, they help narrow the field to a more manageable size from which the reader can select.

I strongly suspect that the smart, new writers, including those who wish to self-publish in some fashion, will approach the e-book market this way as well.  In addition to their likely comfort with the “new media” in terms of marketing, they will find ways to make sure there are not only means by which their work can be discovered, but also processes that will insure the product is a good one, at least qualitatively.
From Mysterious Press

Meanwhile, I don’t believe there is a single, right approach to meet the changing marketplace and the demands of a wide variety of readers.  Just as innovative publishers will find a way to deal with technology, so too will innovative libraries and bookstores.

On the other hand, as writers, there is a craving for more freedom, some of us anyway.  We can now write longer or shorter works instead of being coerced into writing books based on publisher-imposed guidelines.  And in fact, the idea of varying lengths of fiction and the application of appropriate, variable pricing can make this approach more appealing to the readers.  If I want a book to get me from O’Hare to LaGuardia, I might want a novella, not a short story and not a 500-page blockbuster that I would consider for Maui beach reading.  On the other hand, if I’m commuting from San Francisco to Palo Alto on the train, a short story is just fine for 99 cents.

Personally, I want to be on the bookshelves of libraries and bookstores and on the e-book bestseller list.  I also want to work with publishers who know the process and the marketplace to extend my reach.  AND I want to be able to strike out on my own to take the book from the first sentence to something I can hold in my hand.  This can be good news for the reader as well as publishers, bookstores and libraries who adjust to the changing times.  We all have more options.


Friday, July 6, 2012

Film Pairings — Two By To, Johnnie To That Is

Want a little poetry with your blood and guts?  Initially, I thought about pairing Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s Vengeance with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. There are many parallels.  If you don’t mind changing culture, time and geography, it’s not a bad idea.  Unforgiven is one of my favorite movies.  However, for this double feature, I’m recommending another film by Johnnie To — Mad Detective.

Vengeance is a result of a French and Hong Kong partnership. French singer/actor Johnny Hallyday plays a hitman turned restaurateur who revisits his first profession after his daughter, her husband and children are slaughtered by a Hong Kong gangster.  A little rusty at the game and unfamiliar with Macau where the cold-blooded murders take place, he finds a professional hit threesome to help him get revenge. There is a bit of a twist, and in literary terms, an important one. The viewer learns fairly quickly that Hallyday’s character has a bullet in his brain from a long-ago job. However the bullet is moving and medical opinion is that he is losing his memory. He is compelled to complete his mission before he forgets what it is. The philosophical question is: If you cannot remember the harm that is done to you and the ones you loved, how important is it to avenge it? This lends, for me, a question about the usual satisfaction of seeing justice done. 

Hallyday, with his tiny snake-like eyes, is magnetic.  The cinematography is top notch.  The acting is superb. Anthony Wong, is just one example. He plays one of Hallyday’s hired thugs, creating something strangely, yet believably honorable and tender in his role as a killer. The Cantonese language film was released in 2009.

There was both surrealism and poetry (must be the French questioning the meaning of existence again) in VengeanceMad Detective, an earlier film (2007), offers much more surrealism and perhaps a tad less poetry. Lau Ching-Wan plays a once top detective, but who is now off the force and shunned as dangerously crazy. He is.  I wouldn’t want him watching my kids.  Nonetheless he is brought into the case by a young and admiring young police detective perplexed by a case of a missing cop.  What we see as a viewer is often what the crazy cop sees — the personalities of those he meets, some of them with multiple personalities.  It is disorienting at first, perhaps a little too outside the box. But if you hold on a little longer, you pick it up — a tribute to the cinematographer and to the actor.  Chinese-American actor Andy On shows true leading man abilities as the young detective in need of mentorship, but gets more than he bargained for. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for the police and eventually even for the young do-gooder cop to accept the crazy man’s antics. His actions, while they make less and less sense to the characters in the film, start to make more sense to the audience. It is a bit of directorial magic.

These are violent films. The world is a dark place.  Nobody gets out without paying the price. My guess is that we’re back to sipping the hard stuff.  So stay home and don’t water down the whiskey.

Monday, July 2, 2012

On Writing — How Much Do You Have To Know To Write About What You Don’t Know?

The Other Bridge: After 20 years, I believe I can write about San Francisco

Write about what you know.  This comes up a lot as advice from experienced writers to new or aspiring ones.  There are those who are adamant that this is foolish advice. I’ve thought a lot about this.  As writers, we would be paralyzed if we couldn’t walk out on a limb and create characters beyond the people we are, or devise characters who act in ways beyond our personal experience. I write murder mysteries, but I’ve never killed anyone that I can recall. That doesn’t mean I can’t relate to various motives for the act — far too often.

But how far can we go?  Can a twenty-five-year-old write about a seventy-year-old?  Men about women?  We can and do.   But I think we write at some peril if we don’t understand that there are limitations if you expect your reader to believe you. 

Given all that makes me who I am (born a white, lower middle class male in a Midwestern city, for example) and the experiences I’ve had and haven’t, I can only go so far. I wouldn’t undertake a novel about life from the perspective of a woman born in the Sudan unless I spent a number of years researching what that might be like. I doubt if someone with my relatively narrow cultural credentials could, certainly not in the time I have left.

On the other hand, I can write about a woman born in the Sudan if I’m not pretending to be inside her head. It is possible, depending on how central she is to the story, write from the perspective of a narrator with knowledge roughly equal to the writer’s.  And/or I could do so by doing research comparable to the breadth or depth of the role she would play in the story.

Many of the best spy novelists — Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, for example — were spies.  Many of the best police procedurals are written either by real cops (Joseph Wambaugh), or by reporters (Michael Connelly) who had at least some years on the police beat.  Lawyers (Scott Turow, John Grisham) do pretty good jobs with legal thrillers.  There’s a toughness and a sense of authenticity in George Pelecanos’ work that is astounding.  He writes about gangs in D.C and Baltimore in ways that only someone who has had more than a glimpse or peformed Google search into that reality — or he is a true magician and I have fallen for the tricks.  I have neither the time, nor in this case, the courage to gain that level of knowledge in that world. 

My personal background is broad in some ways and stretches now over quite a few decades. Factory (assembly-line and foreman), construction, military, restaurant, banking, advertising, newspapers, government and politics.  So I do not write police procedurals, legal thrillers, or spy novels.  My world of crime fiction is smaller and less dependent on specialty. What I do is write from the point of view of an ordinary guy who is, by age and disposition, a bit out of his league as private detective in contemporary America, but doggedly determined, dealing with the crimes of other ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

In another example, I write about Indianapolis — and still do — because that is the
San Francisco At Night
city I know.  Born there, reared there. But I must be careful if I write about that city today. I must check back, understand how it has changed and is changing.  It took me the twenty years I’ve lived here in the City by the Bay to consider writing a series set San Francisco.  So even though I might not get the San Francisco, it is definitely a San Francisco. I have a strong enough sense of place to do it now.  I’ve never been to Boston. I think if I tried to set something there it would ring false — even with the help of Wikipedia and Google maps.

I try not to write too far outside the world I know or can reasonably discover.  Research can fill in some gaps, but only up to a point.  To add to the earlier point, when one of my main protagonists, Shanahan, goes to Mexico in Bloody Palms and later to Thailand in Bullet Beach, I don’t try to provide the cultural depths of those countries.  I’ve been to both places.  And my main character’s (Shanahan’s) view, as a visitor, mirrors mine as a visitor. What he sees is honest and what is rendered in the book is honest in that it accurately reflects what the narrator — a visitor — observes.  There is no attempt to create the same rich Thai worlds that Timothy Hallinan, John Burdett and others provide so well, having spent years there soaking up the environment.

I did venture into the mind of a serial killer once for Good To The Last Kiss, but only after saturating my brain with hours upon days upon weeks of tapes and books and articles by serial killers, psychiatrists, profilers, etc. I dug in pretty deep just to get the small glimpses I needed for a pivotal character in a book.  The downside was that it took a little while to climb out of that hole.  On the positive side, if you can call it that, is that the reprehensible character is treated with some level of understanding — not necessarily something every read appreciated.  So it is possible, in my mind, to go, at times, well beyond our own experience if the writer is prepared to invest in the venture.   For now and for me there is enough to draw upon for the stories I wish to tell in the experience I’ve picked up as I’ve lived a life and hopefully imagine a clever, hard-to-solve crime.

It has been said before, many times, you don’t have to die to write a death scene.  That’s true, of course, but as a writer you have to have at least some sense of it. I think a fiction writer cannot write the truth, but a good fiction writer can write in the spirit of the truth, provided he or she is grounded in their fiction.  In fact, a good fiction writer, in the same way a poet does, often gets closer to that sacred but impossible place where the truth resides than those who believe they are just reporting the facts. 

What do you think?