Noir at the Bar

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

Last Sunday, the Manhattan efflorescence of Noir at the Bar had one of its irregular celebrations of crime fiction writing at Greenwich Village’s Shade Bar (where the food is pretty darn good too). Ten crime fiction authors read from their works in three sets, with intermissions for nonstop talking and grabbing another beer.

Jen Conley and Scot Adlerberg are the m.c.’s, of the Manhattan group, and make an effort to exert some organization (no doubt plenty goes on behind the scenes). But the vibe is more good-natured free-for-all. Jen is an editor at Shotgun Honey and read her short short story about the meetup of two teenage girls’ soccer teams—one preppy, the other from the “New Jersey girls, they have big hair” school. It doesn’t end well. Scott also read from his crime fiction, and he has written novels and short stories and conducts a series or two of Manhattan-based meet-ups about films.

The stories live up to the billing with their emphasis on noir. Dark deeds and dark characters on the underside of down-and-out. Jennifer Hillier’s excerpt from her new novel, Jar of Hearts, featured a woman about to be released from prison; Rick Ollerman’s story about a bunch of lowlifes in Las Vegas (I think), ends with a real ouch! twist; and Danny Gardner read a chapter from new work. At a previous Noir at the Bar I attended, he read from his highly rated A Negro and an Ofay, and the new work sounded just as powerful.

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

What else? Especially enjoyable was the glamorous Hilary Davidson’s excerpt from “Answered Prayers,” a story that appeared in the May/June Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Even though we only heard a few minutes’ worth, the conviction that a diabolical imagination lay behind what she read had everyone chuckling. Shout-outs also to Rob Hart, Alex Segura, and Kenneth Wishnia. My writing group does a public reading in March and October, and I can attest to how helpful it is for authors to have a live audience and get that feedback.

In the book raffle, I was delighted to choose a copy of James McCrone’s Faithless Elector. Now what made him think that the people who actually elect U.S. presidents would be of any interest at all? Go figure.

Many U.S. cities have Noir at the Bar events. Including, but not limited to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Durham, N.C., Washington, D.C., St. Louis, New Orleans, St. Paul, the Bay Area, Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore, Miami, Queens and Staten Island, Seattle, Monterey, and cities around the world, from Glasgow to Melbourne. It may take a bit of sleuthing to find one near you—try Facebook—but it’s a fun evening meeting authors, hearing new work. Treat yourself!

Walter Mosley’s Advice for Author Readings

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter MosleyWalter Mosley—one of the illuminati of crime fiction—spoke yesterday in Princeton, providing good advice for authors invited to read from their work. He prefaced it by noting that, while he loves writing and cannot imagine doing anything else, it’s also his business. It’s how he earns a living. Participating in a lot of readings over the years, he’s developed this nugget: “the longer you read, the fewer people buy the book.”

He once attended a reading for a book that adopted an esoteric analysis of the life of Tolstoy. “Sounds interesting,” he thought. After the author went on to read from it for an hour, “I was never going to buy that book.”

Then he proceeded to read about seven pages from the beginning of his own new book, published last February, Down the River Unto the Sea, leaving us wanting more, enough to buy the book more. He told us in advance that his black ex-detective, a man named Joe King Oliver, becomes involved in the case of a black political activist sentenced to death for killing of a couple of on-duty policemen, with Oliver hired to help prove a wrongful conviction. It’s evident that though the early pages are full of Mosley’s sly wit, there is lots of pain to come.

Mosley has written 55 or 56 books, even he isn’t sure of the exact number, many of them his popular Los Angeles-based crime novels involving detective Easy Rawlins, and other kinds of books too—literature, science fiction, plays, and advice for writers. But he says, “Everyone wants me to write mysteries.” Those people will be happy with this new work, which Richard Lipez in The Washington Post called “as gorgeous a novel as anything he’s ever written.”

He’s received a wonderfully long list of awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and was brought to Princeton as part of a reading series organized by the Lewis Center on the Arts Creative Writing Program.

Check out more of his wisdom in this recent interview.

The Writer’s Essential Tool: Curiosity

Question

photo: Barney Moss, creative commons license

Award-winning fiction author (and fellow U-Mich alumna) Danielle Lazarin’s recent Glimmer Train essay tells how she probes the depths of her characters and their dilemmas by questioning everything, large and small, from the shape of a character’s existential dilemmas to what she wants to be called and by whom. The scribbled questions that litter her writing notebooks, she says, “aren’t signs of confusion or desperation but of sufficient curiosity on my part to propel a story forward.” Curiosity that manifests itself as questions.

In New York City recently, we took two tours. A robotic one that sounded as if it never deviated from the memorized script by so much as a syllable and one from a young guide at the Tenement Museum who was introducing her group to three post World War II families who’d shared a specific two-bedroom apartment.

She asked lots of questions. How did the Jewish couple manage to instill a sense of family tradition in their daughters, being the only ones left from their families? Why did the Puerto Rican mother insist her sons start the pot of beans on the stove when they got home from school? How did the four children of the Chinese family manage to all study (and graduate from high school and college) at the same tiny desk? While our first guide seemed notably uncurious, everything about those families’ lives interested this second guide. She was a perfect illustration of the interrogatory mind-set Lazarin endorses.

When a story idea seems too preposterous, Lazarin expresses it as a question, “easing myself into a space I’m likely afraid of exploring.” The question mark asserts her tentativeness toward the idea that makes it more comfortable. She can “sit with it and remain skeptical.” That idea leads to further questions about the how and the why, as she excavates layers of meaning and the detail that make them real. Two-time Booker Award-winner Hilary Mantel has said that when she’s having trouble capturing a character she imagines interviewing them.

As I write, I compile a list of all the questions I believe the story has raised, large and small. Reviewing this inventory of questions from time to time may suggest where the story needs to go next, how different characters coming at the situation from their different perspectives—and their own knowledge and, indeed, questions—can interact, reinforce, or thwart each other in unexpected ways. When I reach the end, I check to make sure all the questions have been addressed.

While stories generally answer the specific questions they raise, Lazarin says a story also asks a fundamental question of the reader that invites a personal response. Examples she cites are: do people require hope; how do we grieve; why do we continue to disappoint others? The author cannot “answer” that question without coming across as polemical; readers must arrive at their own, individual responses. Careful attention to all the questions integral to the story, Lazarin believes, can “take readers into a space where they can ask the big questions, too.”

Danielle Lazarin’s book of short stories, Back Talk, was released earlier this year to stunning reviews.

“Up-Lit” — What Is It and Why Are We Reading It?

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photo: Nasir Khan, creative commons license

Book publishers, scrambling to find a toehold as the Niagara of new manuscripts cascades over them, have latched onto the concept of “up-lit.” According to Hannah Beckerman in The Guardian, novels that offer “decidedly upbeat accounts of the kindness of strangers” are increasingly garnering publisher and prize committee attention, and more important, the loyalty of readers.

Perhaps it’s a reaction to the long run of dystopian novels or perhaps a reaction to the daily news, but, as HarperCollins terms them, “books that give us hope,” such as Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Cecelia Ahern’s The Marble Collector, and Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, have shown there’s a strong market for books whose subtext is optimism and empathy. We’re not talking lit-lite here: George Saunders’s Lincoln at the Bardo (2017 Man Booker prize winner) is riddled with human compassion. Though it comes from the dead. Hmm.

Says author Joanna Cannon, “I write about communities, kindness and people coming together because that’s the society I wish for. I write what I’d like to happen.” I would put Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow in that same category. Would that there were more people like Count Alexander Rostov, and, hey, why couldn’t I try to emulate him, and hew to a code of unfailing courtesy (even while retaining a bit of private deviousness in service of a higher good)?

We’re not talking Pollyannas, either. Beckerman quotes Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in saying that up-lit stories’ characters can confront all the bad things in life—“devastation, cruelty, hardship and loneliness”—and yet say, “there is still this.” She says, “Kindness isn’t just giving somebody something when you have everything. Kindness is having nothing and then holding out your hand.”

To the extent that people read novels for escape and enlightenment, why not escape to a kinder, better world? Why not be inspired to greater empathy rather than snarkiness? The speculative novel Fever, by South African thriller writer Deon Meyer, takes place after an uncontrollable virus kills ninety-five percent of the world’s population. It could have described a society that devolves into anarchy and rapaciousness (think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Stephen King’s The Stand), and, while there are people in the novel who follow that path, the principal characters envision a better, more equal world and work hard to build it. They face logistical, emotional, and moral struggles, but the fact that their better world can be envisioned at all and collectively pursued is, ultimately, affirmative.

Not having read many of these books, I hope you have and that you’ll leave a comment reporting what you think of them.

Good Health, Good Luck, Good Reading

Beer

photo: Phil King, creative commons license

Here are a few of my favorite books by Irish writers. Grab one of these books and pour yourself something tarry. Sláinte!

Literature

    • Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Man Booker Prize for its recounting of the life of a 10-year-old Dublin boy whose family is on the eve of destruction.
    • The Gathering by Anne Enright, another Booker prize-winner “has more layers to it—of grief, love, lightness, tragedy, absurdity, and trauma—than an onion, and may cause as much weeping” says The American Scholar. I felt privileged to hear her reading last year under auspices of Princeton’s Fund for Irish Studies.
    • The Year of the French is a wonderful historical tale (part of a trilogy) by American writer Thomas Flanagan. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Don’t know who Wolf Tone was? Read this and you will.
    • The International by Glenn Patterson, another writer who has appeared in Princeton, and his The International is the story of a single night in the bar of the International Hotel, while upstairs a consequential meeting forming the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. It’s not about militants at all but about state-of-mind.
    • You may think there’s not much new literary territory to explore in male-female sexual relations, yet award-winning author Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians finds it and mines it. Innovative, immersive, dazzling.

Crime/Thrillers

  • Tana French is an American who’s lived in Dublin for nearly thirty years. In her books about the Dublin Murder Squad, she has created what might be termed an ensemble production, as each department member takes a turn in the leading role. Of these, I’ve read Broken Harbor, featuring Dublin detective “Scorcher” Kennedy.
  • The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville won the LA Times Book Prize for its depiction of an IRA assassin unable to come to terms with his past. Edge-of-your seat.
  • Adrian McKinty writes about crime in his native Belfast amidst the Troubles. His detective, Sean Duffy, is a rare Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Cold, Cold Ground is first in the series. The 2017 entry—which I would want to read based on the title alone—is Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly. I recommend the audio versions for the super narration by Gerard Doyle.


Finally, to quote another notable Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” Any of these is worth more than one pass!

The Friends Book House: Haven for Authors

Albania, books

photo: Rebecca Forster

Guest Post by Rebecca Forster – In the movie, Wag the Dog, the U.S. president’s PR team creates a ‘war’ in Albania to deflect attention away from a brewing scandal. When the mastermind of this plan is asked why he chose Albania, he answered, “Do you know where Albania is?”

But today, magazines and newspapers are rife with travel articles about the country and action/ adventure movies have riffed on the Albanian mafia. I’m not surprised by the interest; I knew it would be only a matter of time. You see, I stumbled on Albania years ago and I will soon be going back for an extensive stay.

My love affair with the country can be explained by the fact that I am a lover of mysteries. The people are at once welcoming but guarded, generous yet clinging to blood feuds over personal infractions. But my affection for Albania is more than that of a traveler; it was fueled by a shared passion for the written word.

From mountain villages that may be no more than a cluster of clan houses to the streets of the large cities, books are everywhere. In the cities brick-and-mortar bookstores stand alongside pop-ups where inventory is laid out. They may run the length of a city block by the river or along the footpaths in a park. An architectural flourish on a building becomes a display shelf where the pages of magazines flutter in the breeze and the covers of books glint in the fading light of day.

Friends Book House

And, in Tirana, there is Friends Book House, a haven for people who write the books.

I found a mention of Friends Book House in the pages of a throwaway visitor’s guide. It said writers were welcome. To reach it I navigated crumbling sidewalks, dashed through traffic that stop for no one, and wound my way through narrow alleys.

At first glance it appeared to be like a thousand other Albanian coffee shops, until I was ushered to a lower level and through a glass door into a large room decorated in red and black, the colors of the Albanian flag. Upholstered banquettes, large tables, and low-slung couches hugged the walls. Wine bottles, brass hookahs, and paintings decorated the room. There were pictures of authors and diplomats who had come to this place to discuss their writings. Classical music played softly. There were books everywhere. I slid into a booth, opened my computer and began to work.

In the month I lived in Tirana, the owner, Lati, and the baristas became my friends. My tea was always waiting. The quiet room was always welcoming. Friends Book House was, quite simply, inspiring, and it was there I began to write Eyewitness, the fourth book in The Witness Series. It is a novel about a clash between ancient law and modern justice. I have Albania to thank for the inspiration.

I am going back to Albania soon. Lati knows I’m coming. I will sit in the red room and write. For three weeks I will be in a writer’s heaven created by a man who admires writers in a country that loves books. I know how lucky I am to have found Friends Book House because every writer needs a special room. Sometimes it is steps away and sometimes you find it half-way around the world.

Albania - Friends Book House

Rebecca and Lati at “her” table in the Friends Book House

Rebecca Forster is a USA Today & Amazon best-selling author of the Witness Series, the Finn O’Brien Thrillers, and more. Her latest in the Finn O’Brien series (just in time for St. Patrick’s Day) is Secret Relations.

American Writers Museum: Chicago

book coversOn the lookout for something new and interesting to do in Chicago? Try the American Writers Museum, the first U.S. museum devoted to authors. If you are a writer, you may find it’s a tangible uplift. It both celebrates American writers and shows their pervasive influence on “our history, our identity, and our daily lives.”

The museum is huge in heart, if not in size, and, unless you’re one of those people who must read every word of every exhibit (in which case you’d better set aside a day or two), you can probably explore it in under two hours. Although it doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, the museum nevertheless includes authors and works from throughout the nation’s literary history—poetry, song lyrics, speeches, drama, fiction, nonfiction, journalism,and more. The displays are well designed and captivating.

So many iconic American writers are associated with Chicago—from Studs Terkel to Nelson Algren to Gwendolyn Brooks, from Carl Sandburg to Sandra Cisneros—it’s fitting that there’s currently a special exhibition on the talent nurtured there, complemented by an exhibit of photographs by Art Shay of writers at work (and play).

When I visited, a school group was there, and it was amusing to hear the teacher explain the operation of a typewriter. “There’s this ribbon thing, see, and there’s ink on it . . . And then when that bell rings, you move the carriage back.” Numerous hands-on exhibits let museum-goers experiment and play with words. Poetry construction. Where words come from. Where writers come from.

You can vote for your favorite novel. To Kill a Mockingbird leads the list, followed by The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. My guess is the “voters” feel less confident about 21st century books and fall back on what they studied in school. That process needs an infusion of more recent stellar work. I’d like to see Jennifer Egan’s Black Box there. Kids could relate to a novel in tweets.

The museum isn’t just about the already-written, though. It also has an extensive educational program, including the Write In Youth Education program for students in middle and high school. And series of panels gave good advice about craft and process for writers of any age.

The AWM, which opened only nine months ago, has been chosen in a USA Today Reader’s Choice poll as “Best Illinois Attraction” and by Fodor’s Travel as one of “the World’s 10 Best New Museums.” Find it at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, Second Floor, Chicago, IL 60601.

Can Robots Write Science Fiction?

pen, writing

photosteve101, creative commons license

Canadian writer Stephen Marche presented the results of his recent experience with “algorithm-guided” writing in a short story published recently in Wired (December 2017). The algorithm was developed by the research team of Adam Hammond and Julian Brooke, who use big data to illuminate linguistic issues. We know automated processes have been writing newspaper stories for some time, so far only basic business and sports stories, using a program developed by another Hammond, Kris. But pure creative work, Lit-ra-ture?

In a nutshell, Marche collected 50 science fiction short stories he admires and gave them to the researchers. Their software analyzed the stories for style and structure, then gave Marche information on what they have in common.

Could this advice help him write a better story?

The analysts first presented Marche with style guidelines to bring the new story he was writing into closer sync with his 50 favorites. Examples of such general guidelines are:

  • There have to be four speaking characters
  • 26% of the text has to be dialog

From there, the analysts developed 14 very specific rules to govern the new story’s content. The usefulness of the rules, though, depended totally on the 50 stories he selected. One rule encouraged greater use of adverbs and even set a quota for the number of adverbs needed in every 100 words of text. That rule probably reflects that, among the 50 stories, were several from decades ago, when adverbs were less frowned upon by editorial tastemakers. Choosing only contemporary stories would probably eliminate that prescription.

Similarly, another rule limited the amount of dialog that should come from female characters—another artifact of an earlier era, one hopes. This, even though the late Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” was included and stories written by women divide dialog almost equally between male and female characters. Those by men (at least the ones he close) clearly do not. Marche was limited to 16.1%.

What did the algorithm “think” of his story?

Marche wrote a draft of his story, submitted it to his electronic critique group of one, and began to revise. As he worked on it, the software flagged areas—words even—in red or purple where Marche violated the rules, turning green when he fixed it properly. (Sounds soul-crushing, doesn’t it?) Marche says, “My number of literary words was apparently too high, so I had to go through the story replacing words like scarlet with words like red.”

I particularly admire Rule Number Six: “Include a pivotal scene in which a group of people escape from a building at night at high speed in a high tech vehicle made of metal and glass.” Could authors reverse-engineer these rules to help them avoid cliché situations and themes? Would it be possible to violate all of them, consistently? Bring new meaning to the phrase “purple prose”?

Submitted to two real-life editors, Marche’s story was panned as full of unnecessary detail (those adverbs again) and implausible dialog—I guess because the women didn’t speak—and pegged as “pedestrian” and “not writerly.”

Marche’s human editor was more upbeat: “The fact that it’s really not that bad is kind of remarkable.” You can read the results here and decide for yourself. But the fact the software could be helpful at all has me watching my back!

A Mysterious Affair & the Ur-Story

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Last Saturday the Princeton Arts Council hosted an afternoon conference featuring an impressive gang of mystery and crime writers who ply their trade between New York and Philadelphia. A first of its kind, in my memory at least, it drew around a hundred writers and readers and fans.

Panels talked about writing stories set in a region—does it matter whether you’ve actually been there? Or, when is Google Earth not enough?—and stories where the author can’t have been there, because they’re set in a different historical time—how much research do you really need? Even stories set in the future, in the case of some thrillers—is research even important? Don’t you just make it up?

Audience members asked the burning question: how do people react when the find out you write about murder? And, while this prompted some humorous replies, in fact, most people are fascinated. They often say they would like to write a mystery themselves, though few end up doing it. Panelists encouraged them to. As to how they manage writing, other jobs, families, and so on, panelist Jeff Cohen (who writes as E.J. Copperman) had the best reply: “If you can swing it, it helps to have a wife with a full-time job.”

Guest of Honor S. J. Rozan, a mystery writer with 15 novels, more than 60 short stories, and  multiple awards on her c.v., gave the keynote. She talked about how genre writers—crime (including mystery and thrillers), romance, Westerns, science fiction, and she’d include coming-of-age—are still disparaged as “not literature,” yet remain wildly popular.

Why is that? She said genre writing can be distinguished by having an ur-story, a fundamental story line. Readers (and moviegoers) expect and take comfort in those ur-stories and in their very predictability, and writers violate the established genre conventions at their peril. The ur-story in the romance genre is “love conquers all”; in science fiction, it’s “what it is to be human.” Mysteries and thrillers, despite their uncountable variations, have ur-stories too, she maintains. In mystery, it’s “here’s why this happened”—attractive in a world where so much seems inexplicable—and in thrillers, it’s “is there time?” This last manifests itself in the frequently encountered literal “ticking clock” that thriller protagonists are trying to beat.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell maintained there is a single ur-story underlying all fiction, ancient to 21c. This has led to the “hero’s journey” school of story construction, in which a protagonist is marched through a call to adventure, begins a quest, overcomes trials, brings home the goods, and so on. That fundamental storyline can be detected in Rozan’s more descriptive genre-specific ur-stories. Whatever it is, however it’s aggregated or subdivided, we love hearing and seeing the ur-story over and over in books, on stage, and in the movies.

The event, sponsored by Princeton’s Cloak & Dagger bookstore, was co-hosted by the local chapters of two organizations I belong to: Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime.

Good Storytelling Works, Regardless of Genre

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photo: Sebastien Wiertz, creative commons license

Genre fiction is no longer disparaged as the poor stepchild to literary (i.e., “real”) fiction. In some ways, writing it can be harder. Jennifer Kitses for LitHub recently discussed why genre fiction is not necessarily easier to create and, more to the point, what lessons it teaches all writers.

The elements of noir she thought of as genre-specific—“high-stakes encounters, a mystery to solve, a protagonist in danger”—are key elements of good storytelling, regardless of genre, she says.

Readers of this blog will recognize in her words the sentiment of late Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, which appear on my website’s home page: “Every good story has a mystery in it.” Think Hamlet—a murder and a ghost story. Think Macbeth—a murder and an inciting female. Think the Greeks.

Kitses cites seven lessons from attempting her own crime novel:

1) don’t be afraid of adding tension – and remember that what ramps up the tension is not necessarily some violent episode. It can be a character’s own ongoing situation. A perfect example is Gin Phillips’s recent Fierce Kingdom, in which the tension is almost unbearable, while all the protagonist is doing is hiding herself and her four-year-old behind a rock. That situation may be internal, as when Melissa Scrivner Love’s Lola has to turn on her own brother.

2) give the reader a chance to breathe. Personally, I had to put Gin Phillips’s book down from time to time because of 1). This is one aspect of pacing, and many authors give their readers a break by introducing humor, typically among the detectives or with secondary characters. Tami Hoag is excellent at this in her Kovac and Liska novels.

3) chapter endings shouldn’t feel like endings. The last lines of one chapter should carry your readers into the next, keeping their curiosity piqued through artful (not cheesy!) cliffhangers.

4) let your reader know whom to root for. Thrillers commonly use multiple points-of-view to present the story. Poorly handled, that can dilute your readers’ focus. Tammy Cohen’s recent They All Fall Down keeps her character Hannah front and center by writing the chapters from her point of view in the first person, whereas chapters from other points of view are third-person, filtered through the narrator’s voice.

5) love your secondary characters. It’s great when they’re real, and not just moved onto stage like cardboard cut-outs. Nick Petrie’s character Lewis is a good example; I grinned when he showed up in Petrie’s second novel, Burning Bright. SO glad to see him again!

6) keep research in perspective. Research can be a way to avoid actual writing. Because I like research, I have to avoid the Too-Much-Already quicksand. What works for me is to do enough to start sparking ideas. After that, I confine myself to just-in-time research as I go along. When you do begin to write, your reader doesn’t need every detail. Feel free to hit the highlights and feel confident about the firm base underneath.

7) remember you’re writing fiction – just jettison plot developments that aren’t working. Characters too. I’ve swept up

characters from the cutting-room floor and put them in short stories. Lessens the pain.