From Page to Stage: The Deep Dive

Once the preliminaries are over—the table read, the initial preparation–it’s time for actors and director to buckle down to the real work of rehearsing a new production. Just as authors, once they have a sense of their book—on paper, in their heads, or on innumerable post-its—have to buckle down and dig into the specifics.

Leader of my Zoom course on the play rehearsal process, Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington DC’s Theatre J, let us see how the he and the actors dissect every line. As an avid listener to audiobooks, I’m well aware of how a talented narrator wrings so much more juice (and often humor) out of a text than I’d get from scanning words-on-a-page. They have a way of making it sounds like there’s a perfect way to read each line; this experience with actors and their director showed how not true that is!

Both Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell, the actors helping with the course, were quite comfortable with this iterative process. Immerwahr pointed out that the scant stage directions Shakespeare provides force director and players alike to figure everything out. It’s fantastic training for interpretation.

Immerwahr, Norris, and Nickell began with the set-up for our “test-case” play, Neil Simon’s comedy, Last of the Red Hot Lovers. As the play opens, middle-aged restaurateur Barney peeks into the door of his mother’s apartment. He believes she’s away for a few hours, and he’s arranged an assignation for the afternoon—a first for him. He calls out, “Hello? . . . Mom? . . . .”

We don’t get any farther before Immerwahr asks, what would Barney have done if his mother had answered him? Nickell’s reflection on that possibility suggests a number of ways to approach those two-words. Is Barney hesitant? Apprehensive? Confident?

In posing such questions, Immerwahr is trying to nudge the actors in a particular direction, toward a common understanding of what’s really going on. Text and subtext. It’s painstakingly slow, and even actors who are not in the scene benefit, Nickell said, because “they have to get on that train.” In writing, we don’t have the benefit of the actor’s intonation, raised eyebrows, chair-flop. We have to clarify what we’re trying to convey as precisely as possible, especially in key scenes.

Neil Simon’s long stage direction describes how Barney fusses around the apartment, checking his watch, trying not to leave evidence he’s been there, shutting the blinds. These simple actions show the audience how nervous and indecisive he is. He makes a chatty, unnecessary phone call to his restaurant and in the middle buries his real questions: “Did my wife call? . . . And you told her I’m at Bloomingdale’s?” Ah, his alibi is intact, and we see he’s a clumsy liar. You can see this kind of action and phone call easily adapting to a story.

Bringing out a multitude of revelations from such seemingly commonplace actions and dialog demonstrates how much art is involved. As an audience-member, you get the “right” impression of Barney seemingly effortlessly. But, as Immerwahr emphasized in a class last fall on how to watch a play, “In theater, everything’s a choice.” In novels too.

This is just one of many entertaining Theatre J classes expressly designed for people who love (and miss) live theater. Check it out!

A Prosecutor’s Tale(s)

Last week, I had the privilege to be in a Zoom conference with Gianrico Carofiglio (above), a former Italian prosecutor who has turned his hand to writing thrillers. Yesterday I reviewed his newly translated book, The Measure of Time, and in the past, The Cold Summer.

The Measure of Time features lawyer Guido Guerrieri, and readers of the series, who have a bigger context, might have appreciated the character’s dive into the past more than I did (the book was on the Italian best-sellers list for quite a while).

I really did admire The Cold Summer, not part of the Guerrieri series, about a case occurring around the dangerous time the Italian prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were murdered by the Mafia. Those real-life events prompted intense turmoil and social reflection, which made every decision by Carofiglio’s fictional authorities that much more consequential and, therefore, dramatic.

The conversation was launched by Paolo Barlera, Attaché for Cultural Affairs of the Italian Cultural Institute in New York, with questions to the author by Chicago-based lawyer Sheldon Zenner, who has served as both a prosecutor and defense attorney.

Interestingly, Carofiglio said he considered the book as two separate novels, one the retrospective view of Guerrieri’s affair with the woman Lorenza, whose son he is now defending, and the other, the preparation of the son’s case and the courtroom proceedings. If you read my review, you’ll know that I much preferred the latter. The story of the affair was an exercise in melancholy nostalgia, as the protagonist probed the scars of an ideal and thwarted love, “the excitement of discovering things for the first time.”

His observations about the judicial system were fascinating. He thinks all judicial systems are flawed to some degree. They are an imperfect effort to establish what happened at some point in the past, using the tools of science and human memory. We have to remember, he said, that “our freedom is connected to a system that exposes us to mistakes.” He was probably smiling when he added, “The flaws of every judicial system are a friend of story.” Amen to that!

Participants in the justice system—from prosecutors to judges—may be well-versed in the law, but may be blind to other aspects of society, the context in which a crime occurred. You see a reflection of that “cognitive tunneling” in news stories about some legal cases, when the official adopts a single hypothesis that doesn’t admit of any alternative.

When Carofiglio was a prosecutor, he trained the police officers and junior prosecutors he worked with to identify every possible doubt they could think of and address it, through further investigation, expert testimony, or other means. Better them in a conference room than a defense attorney in the courtroom.

The many interesting insights in this session it made me want to read more of Carofiglio’s work and further explore his perspective.

History Mysteries – Part 2

New Orleans-based author Michael H. Rubin attended the Deadly Ink! Conference around the time his historical, The Cottoncrest Curse, was published, and I met him there, then read and reviewed his book. His academic publisher, LSU Press, insisted on historical accuracy of the book’s two time periods, 1893 and the 1960s Civil Rights era. To make sure, they had “a bevy of historians” vet the manuscript. That sounded like a nail-biter to me, because historical events don’t have a single interpretation, and we’re always learning more. Think how, after 3400 years, we’re still making new archaeological discoveries in Egypt!

In the current issue of Mystery Readers Journal, Paul Vidich’s essay, “A Personal Historical Murder Mystery,” struck a chord with me. His novel, The Coldest Warrior, was inspired by the death of his scientist uncle who “jumped or fell” from his 13th floor hotel room in New York City. Only years later did the family learn he’d been given LSD in one of the CIA’s ill-considered experiments. He had several false starts in trying to fictionalize this story, mostly because he was too close to it.

It wasn’t until he took a step back and examined the events not from his family’s point of view, but from that of the CIA officers engaged in—“murder, cover-up, and a power struggle over the repercussions of the case”—could he make headway. Ultimately, the story showed the psychological burdens on them, and Vidich makes the broader point that “Honorable men who work in covert operations inevitably bring some of the darkness into themselves.”

This resonated with me after a failed attempt to write a short story that would bring in highlights from the fascinating (to me) genealogy of my great-great grandmother. Like Vidich, I was much too close to the subject, so I sent an early draft to my editor, Barb Goffman, more than a little embarrassed because I knew it was awful! All the elements that engaged me came out, and a completely different story resulted. It’s “The Unbroken Circle,” published last summer in Pulp Modern. Despite the magazine title, this story is a historical, set in the late 1800s. The editors must have found its evergreen themes of family loyalty and connecting to the past “modern” enough.

History Mysteries – Part 1

To be considered a “historical” mystery, a story’s events don’t have to have occurred in ancient Athens or Rome, as long as they happened at least 50 years ago. Lou Berney’s award-winning November Road, involving the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, Play the Red Queen set in the early days of the Vietnam War, and Kate Quinn’s new Bletchley Park spy novel, The Rose Code (World War II), certainly qualify.

In some ways, the difficulty of mastering the historical details—especially for near-past milieus where readers actually remember fashions, transportation, and pop culture references and may be delighted to ding an author who gets it wrong—is balanced by not having to deal with today’s instant communications and surveillance tools.

It’s hard to maintain tension when your reader is thinking, “Why didn’t he just pick up the phone?” This explains why characters are always leaving their cell phones in the truck or losing signal or battery. “Why didn’t he just Google it?” Having to devise plot workarounds for these difficulties makes a writer occasionally long for simpler times, in technology terms, at least. The stories of 12th century Brother Cadfael suddenly gain appeal.

Janet Rudolph’s current highly entertaining issue of Mystery Readers Journal (Spring 2021) takes on Historical Mysteries with author perspectives, articles, and reviews. Rhys Bowen’s essay “Why I Write Historical Mystery” made a number of thought-provoking points. She opts for glamour in her long-running Royal Spyness mysteries and the lure of romance in the popular standalone, The Tuscan Child.

About World War II as a setting, Bowen says it was “the last time when we had a clear sense of good versus evil.” (True, at least, for Eurocentric countries, less so in other parts of the world, I fear.) As Rose Code author Quinn explained in a lively interview with the Princeton Public Library, the main reason she’s not tempted to turn her mountains of research into some even-handed non-fiction account is that in fiction, “you get to pick a side.”

The MRJ essay by Renee Patrick (nom de plume of married couple Rosemarie and Vince Keenan) discusses their series of Hollywood golden age mysteries in “Crimes of Fashion.” The protagonists, New Yorker Lillian Frost and legendary costume designer Edith Head, embody “tenacity, hard work, and an uncanny ability to read people,” which also make an ideal sleuth. It wounds like the duo’s experiences prove once again that “clothes make the man.” Third in the series, Script for Scandal, came out last December.

What are your favorite historicals? Mine include the Maisie Dobbs series (WWI), the early novels of Alan Furst (WWII) and the stories of Ben Pastor from inside the Third Reich and, and, and . . .

Insights from more historical mystery writers in Part II tomorrow!

Book Sightings

What makes a good book cover? An important questions because, as we all know, people are going to judge our book by the cover before they even pick it up. The old admonition not to do that is for naught.

While you might think your cover should be “unique” and “uniquely you,” marketing consultants say no to that. They say it should look the same as the cover of the books the reader typically chooses. Comfortably familiar. This must be the reason we see so many thriller covers with silhouettes of women walking alone at night, often into the woods. (Who does that? First of all, you’d ruin your shoes.) Here are the covers I’ve liked best far this year (and one outstanding cover from 2020). Maybe the best advice is, “if it works, it works,” in which case none of the other rules count.

Play the Red Queen – From the moment I saw this cover, I knew I had to read the book. It is part of a growing number of books with a graphic cover rather than a photograph, it looks interesting, it has action, and I liked the mesmerizing pattern. I felt the same way about The Aosawa Murders. Loved both.

Absentees and Infinite – both of these covers work very well with the book title, subtly and graphically reinforcing it, which is helpful on those extremely rare occasions when you can’t quite remember something. And they use the popular cool teal color scheme. Haven’t read either book. Any good?

Blacktop Wasteland – the derelict cars, the relentless daylight, the Black man seen, but not actually in the picture. Symbolically powerful. And the white type works both with the light sky and the darker car bodies. This is the cover of the audio version, so the format’s more square. (Another great book!)

Hotel Cartagena – Orenda Books has given Simone Buchholz’s police thrillers similar black night, neon-infused covers that are jazzy and unmistakable (so much for looking like everything else). A good fit with her lively protagonist.

Educated – This cover is a triumph of metaphor. The book describes a girl’s struggle to use education to pull herself up from the dominance and isolation oof her survivalist Idaho family. Look like a #2 pencil to you? The scatterings of black “graphite shavings” are her, standing on the mountain of obstacles she’s overcome.

The Place in Your Book

Shaker Heights, Ohio

Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the leafy suburb just east of Cleveland where she grew up. In a vintage interview with David Naimon for the late lamented lit mag Glimmer Train, he asks about the particular characteristics of Shaker Heights that come through so strongly in her novel.

Ng explains that she lived there from age ten until she went to college, and the way life is organized there was normal to her. With a little distance and time, like all of us, she came to recognize (and in her case, appreciate) the unique characteristics of her community. Shaker Heights was one of the nation’s first planned communities, a garden-style suburb built on land once owned by the North Union Community of Shakers. That group of utopians inspired the later property developers, a pair of railroad moguls, and the suburb’s name.

The quest to create a perfect environment ultimately led to a lot of rules. Strict building codes and zoning laws restricted what color you could paint your house, the requirement to keep the yard tidy and mowed. (I don’t know whether the town fathers imposed the rule in my parents’ gated community that you had to keep your garage door closed. Who wants to see all that junk?) Ng explained that the community even used a fleet of tiny garbage trucks the size of golf carts that travel up and down every driveway, in order to collect the trash from the back of the house. No unsightly curbside obstacle course on trash day. In the old days, this was the function of the alley.

More important, and salient to those who’ve read the book or seen the television version with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, a strong thread in the community has been support for racial integration. It was the community’s deliberate response in the era of  blockbusting and “white flight,” Ng says. Community leaders believed that encouraging diversity among residents—in other words, embracing change—would, ironically, be the best way to keep the community the same, stabilizing it against the potential destructiveness experienced in so many other locales.

White residents went through a period of self-satisfied delusion, claiming a person’s race didn’t matter to them. They believed they were race-blind, suggesting that they, as one of Ng’s characters says, “don’t see race.” Many of us have heard people say things like this at some point or other.

Ng says the problem with such statements is clear, in Shaker Heights and elsewhere. “If you don’t see a huge aspect of someone’s life and experience, you are devaluing all the experiences they’ve had walking around in that skin.” In Little Fires Everywhere, despite articulated good intentions, the “little fires” of racial tension are flaring up, marking out the well-known road.

That idea, of people seeking to understand others, even other family members, and failing to do so permeates Ng’s work, including her 2015 debut novel, also set in Shaker Heights, Everything I Never Told You (my review here).

One of the chief values of fiction, she believes, is that “it actively asks us to empathize with other characters, with people are aren’t like us.” Even in a community ostensibly committed to bridging divides, understanding can be elusive.

Beyond the Human Gaze: Writer Jeff VanderMeer

octopus

Now that every issue in my complete set of the literary short story journal Glimmer Train is on its way to true vintage status, I’m taking a look at some of the essays the editors provided over the years—content I’d skip over to get to the stories!

In the fall 2018 issue, David Naimon interviewed Jeff VanderMeer, an award winning author in the vast realm of fantasy and science fiction, plus the landmark writing guide Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Consider adding that to your list of possible birthday presents for author-friends.

Their conversation began with a discussion of VanderMeer’s post-apocalyptic novel Borne, which includes a character that is a piece of biotechnology. Writing about non-human creatures, including animals, is a big blind spot in fiction of all types, VanderMeer believes. Writers do plenty of research to create a fictional world that’s believable, but, when it comes to animal behavior, blow it completely. We perpetuate the folklore that owls are wise; he says they’re not. (Don’t tell Harry Potter fans.) If an animal is cute, or if we believe it’s intelligent, it’s considered more worthy of attention, at least for fund-raising. We think of sharks as loners (not loaners, that’s something different), when some are quite social. “We do, I think, have to get beyond the idea of trying to find human-like intelligence in other animals, because their intelligence is very different.” Whoops! There’s my cue to mention octopuses.

Ursula K. Le Guin believed scientists’ reluctance to anthropomorphize animals’ behavior and emotional state has backfired. While we shouldn’t ascribe human motives and feelings to them, sure, we shouldn’t go too far in the other direction either, presuming they have no intention or emotional component to their actions. “It’s an act of empathy and imagination to at least try to get beyond the human gaze,” VanderMeer said.

VanderMeer is a believer in the ineffable. The more you explain about the science imbedded in a story, “the less the reader usually believes it.” Over-explaining signals a lack of confidence in what the story is saying. I personally like technothrillers with a generous amount of precise explanation, at least of things I can understand—the assassin’s requirements for the gun in Day of the Jackal, for example. But if the science is beyond lay understanding, best to assume the reader will accept the outcome and move on, VanderMeer said. A miracle happened. Now that’s something people will believe.

The State I’m In

Last week the New York chapter of  Mystery Writers of America sponsored a Facebook panel on “New Jersey writers.” It was a lot of fun, at least for me. On the panel, which was led by RG Belsky, whose books I’ve reviewed here, were Mally Becker, whose new historical mystery, The Turncoat’s Widow, is set in the Revolutionary War, Jeff Markowitz, past chapter president, also with a recent book, Hit or Miss, and me, who will have a book out later this year.

The first issue we dispensed with was “who IS a New Jersey writer”? There are people who live in and write about New Jersey (at least sometimes). There are people who live her but write about other places. And there are people who live somewhere else and write about New Jersey–wannabees. We can usually identify them.

Panel members agreed there’s a New Jersey sensibility—a bit of a chip on the shoulder, being constantly looked down upon by our near-neighbors across the Hudson, a lot of attitude, and a lack of shrinking violets. I complained (again, but I live in New Jersey, so why not?) about the Akashic book of short stories, New Jersey Noir, many of which for my money could have been written about almost anyplace. I didn’t get a chance to plug Bill Baer’s new book New Jersey Noir: Cape May, which hilariously captures several perfect specimens from the New Jersey ecosystem.

Some of the well-known crime/mystery writers who call New Jersey home are Harlan Coben, Joyce Carol Oates, and Janet Evanovich, whose protagonist, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, works out of Trenton. Equally witty is Brad Parks, whose early books drew on his experience as a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger. A newspaperman like Belsky, he’s deserted the Garden State for Virginia.

The diversity of New Jersey crime writers is reflected in the day jobs they’ve held: Joe Hefferon (law enforcement), Steven Max Russo (advertising executive), N. Lombardi, Jr. (groundwater geologist, who has decamped to Cambodia), Nikki Stern (professional musician), Al Tucher (librarian), the aforementioned Baer (college professor and award-winning poet), and Sergio de la Pava (public defender). Their books are just as diverse! Me, I gave away money. Don’t call. That was a long time ago.

Even if these writers all chose New Jersey as the setting for their books, they still have a lot of choices—New Jersey Transit (a world unto itself), the notable universities scattered across the state, the honky-tonk and environmental treasures of the Jersey Shore, the densely populated north, self-contained communities of myriad ethnic groups, the Pine Barrens (where Markowitz likes to set stories. It’s the big green area in the southern half of the state), and the rural western and southern counties. No matter where you are, though, you’d be hard-pressed to escape the heavy Italian influence: pizza, pasta, and Sinatra.

Goalposts Moved for Spy Writers

Desmond Llewelyn, Q, James Bond, Spycraft

The Cipher Brief presentation this week from John Sawers, former Chief of the British Intelligence Service (MI6) covered a lot of ground, including how the world of espionage is changing in the networked age. John le Carré taught us how to understand the motives and tradecraft of Cold War spies, but those days are over. Writers about espionage, like those in the trade itself, must learn new skills.

Tradecraft Trends

Sawers emphasized the shifting importance of the data analyst versus the case officer. In the old days, case officers recruited, trained, and ran their agents. They were, in a way, laws unto themselves. Not any more. James Bond’s “Q” (pictured, as played by Desmond Llewelyn) is no more; agents don’t ask the technologists for help solving a problem, the data analysts and technologists help design the intervention from the outset.

This evolution takes place at a time when the domestic security services of target countries have upped their games considerably. They too may have sophisticated analytic capability, which changes how foreign agents must operate. An example Sawers gave is the availability of facial recognition software and biometric identification. The old methods of disguise—so integral to the spectacular television series, The Americans, set in the 1980s—are next to useless. “The technology is neutral,” he said, and security services have to make it an ally. Our fictional spies can’t put on a wig and run rampant in foreign nations any more.

Strategic Trends

Like many analysts, Sawers keeps a wary eye on China. The country’s behavior around the pandemic has led to “the scales falling from the eyes of EU countries” who’d been less prone to criticize it. While, as writers, we recognize that the Xi Jinping China of today is not the same China that Deng Xiaoping led just over thirty years ago, I admit to being a fan of Tang Dynasty China (700 AD), so I’m really 1300 years behind the times.

Sawers says Western nations are good at identifying security challenges originating from China, but it’s harder to counter Chinese economic strategies, like the Belts and Roads Initiative. Yes, that is an effort to improve the infrastructure of various low-income countries, but it’s also a way to tie the economies of these countries to China and attempt to influence their politics.

Despite recent bumps, the relationship between the US and the UK runs very deep, Sawers maintained, and the two countries’ intelligence agencies’ relationship is solid. The longer-term unease will be between the US and other countries with which it is not as close. Can they trust us not to whipsaw them every four years? That lingering tinge of suspicion should inspire some juicy plot points.

Sawers says the political upheavals and divisions that have occurred in both our nations are at least partly an aftershock of 2008’s economic collapse. This is especially interesting in light of a 2/10 Washington Post report that nearly 60 percent of people facing charges from the January 6 insurrection have a higher-than-average history of serious money troubles: bankruptcies, evictions and foreclosures, bad debts, lawsuits over money owed, or unpaid taxes. Something to keep in mind if these disaffected folk are characters in your new story!

The Short of It

On the Writer Unboxed blog last week, publishing guru Porter Anderson speculated about reasons the changeover from the old year to the year always seems to generate news about short-form fiction. Perhaps, he suggests, the end/beginning of a year is a time writers have short fiction on the mind, intending to try out ideas they might spend the rest of the year working up into a larger project—that is, a book. Maybe so.

I went the other direction. To reduce the word-count of a novel, I cut way back on secondary characters’ stories. I liked these guys, but . . . These cutting-room floor episodes became three short stories, all of them now published. While possibly a commendable exercise in prose recycling, there were unanticipated pitfalls. First, they had to be real stories, not “excerpts.” That was relatively easy. Second, once those stories were out there, I had to take them into account when I made further changes to the novel itself. Probably not one reader in a million (should I have that many) would go back, find those stories and object to any discrepancies. Of course, that one would have an active online presence and a snarky temperament.

Anderson cites four international developments bearing on the status of short fiction:
1. A new independent publisher in France (L’Ourse brune) focusing on short stories written in French. Formidable!
2. Later this week, London’s Costa Short Story Awards will reveal the voting public’s favorite among three unpublished short stories.
3. The 16th BBC National Short Story Award program opened for submissions last week; cash prizes to be announced in early October
4. Spain’s Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize consists of cash, an artist’s residency in Umbria or the Writers’ House of Georgia, plus publication opportunities and more.

There’s (fairly recent) U.S. news in the world of short fiction, as well. You’ll remember that the long-running annual Best American Mystery Story anthology has moved from the purview of its founding editor, Otto Penzler, to the guiding hand of author and editor Steph Cha (Your House Will Pay), starting with next fall’s edition. It will have new title, too: The Best American Mystery and Suspense.

Penzler’s Mysterious Press reportedly will launch a competing anthology this fall: The Mysterious Bookshop Presents: The Best Mystery Stories of the Year. The attendant kerfuffle was covered by J. Kingston Pierce in The Rap Sheet.

Finally, the annual Best New England Crime Stories anthology, previously published by Level Best Books, will henceforth be published by Crime Spell Books, with Susan Oleksiw, Ang Pompano, and Leslie Wheeler as editors. Write on!

Photo: Pexel for Pixabay