Karin Slaughter: No Sugarcoating

Last week a library consortium sponsored an interview with best-selling crime author Karin Slaughter to discuss her new standalone thriller, False Witness. She told the interviewer that it is a hard book to talk about without revealing spoilers, and since I’ve read and reviewed it for CrimeFictionLover.com, I can attest to the difficulty.

The book centers on two sisters, Leigh and Callie, who in their mid-teens experience a horrible event that has changed their lives in many ways. The book was a way to for Slaughter to explore her abiding interest in the impact trauma has on people. The bond between the sisters is at the book’s emotional core. Sister relationships, she says, are so fraught. “A sister is the person you can love the most and hate the most at the same time.”

The interviewer noted that many readers consider her books very “dark,” and she said “if my name was Ken Slaughter, they wouldn’t say that.” She puts violent situations in context but does not shy away from portraying them as they are. No sugarcoating. When she was a child, her grandmother would often have a black eye or split lip or even a broken bone. Her uncles would always make light of it, saying how clumsy she was, but as Karin grew older, she realized her grandfather was an abuser. The family’s refusal to face or even discuss the violence “only hurt my grandmother” and enabled the beatings to continue.

Tough issues, indeed, but despite them, Slaughter works considerable humor into her stories. In this one, Callie works in a veterinary clinic and gives the animals humorous (and very apt) nicknames. Her boss, Dr. Jerry, entertains her with intriguing animal stories. “This book was my opportunity to put in all the obscure animal facts I’ve collected,” Slaughter said. “You can’t have all the dark stuff without balance.”

As adults, Leigh is a lawyer in a high-priced Atlanta firm, and Callie a drug abuser, intermittently sober. To research Callie, Slaughter talked with current and former drug abusers and wanted to describe their outlook without defaulting into clichés. She wanted to separate Callie’s base personality from the addiction and does so in part through Callie’s love of animals. In my opinion, Callie comes across as the novel’s most engaging and believable character.

She read Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter’s novel about the 1918 influenza epidemic, which contains so many parallels to our covid experience. The new book includes a pointed epigram from Porter too. Slaughter produces a book a year, generally, and has published 21 novels with more than 35 million copies sold worldwide. Several of her books are optioned for television, and the one closest to airing is Pieces of Her, which will be an eight-part Netflix series starring Toni Collette, premiering in late 2021 or 2022 (covid delays).

Still? Again? Men Shunning Women Authors

reading

Periodically authors get motivated to revisit  a persistent question, Why Won’t Men Read Their Books? It’s pretty discouraging to think that a big chunk of the population who might read a mystery/crime book, who say that’s their favorite genre to read, will dismiss out of hand the one they’re working!

An article by the gender-masking MA Sieghart in last Sunday’s Guardian newspaper takes up the issue once again. “Female authors through the centuries, from the Brontë sisters to George Eliot to JK Rowling, have felt obliged to disguise their gender to persuade boys and men to read their books. But now? Is it really still necessary? The sad answer is yes.” Sieghart set about to document that for her new book, The Authority Gap, through a survey she commissioned from Nielsen Book Research. The result? “Men were disproportionately unlikely even to open a book by a woman.”

Take top-selling female authors. Less than one reader in five is male. Then take top-selling male authors. Almost half (45%) of their readers are women. Clearly, women are much more comfortable reading across gender than men are. A question of quality, you ask? No, Sieghart says, pointing out that women authored nine of the ten best-selling literary novels of 2017.

I’ve puzzled over this a lot in previous posts. Now Sieghart takes the issue beyond a marketing conundrum, suggesting a more serious problem underneath. By cutting themselves off from the ideas, imaginations, experiences, and perspectives of women, as expressed in the books they write, men limit their ability to understand half the world. It’s a familiar-sounding argument from another domain when she says, as a result, men “will continue to see the world through an almost entirely male lens, with the male experience as the default.” The stories women tell—and the women themselves—will be niche, when in reality, they are not niche stories; they are human stories.

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.

A Plague of Plurals

Belfast, Writer's Square

English with all its aberrations in spelling and pronunciation is fairly simple when it comes to forming plurals (with innumerable exceptions, of course). For most nouns, you can feel pretty safe just adding -s or -es and be done with it. My daughter arrived at that conclusion by age three, and, one day when she was getting dressed asked for her “clo.” Once you’ve tacked on that “s,” you switch to a plural verb. Easy, right?

Orrin Hargraves in his current Language Lounge column for Visual Thesaurus points out two classes of exceptions. One is the group of words that in earlier English ended in -ik (physik, magike) or the French -ique. In modern English these words generally end in –ic or –ics. Having that “s” doesn’t automatically call for a plural verb, though (“Physics is beyond me”). And sometimes, it depends. He gives the example of “optics.” If you’re talking about the field of study, it’s acts like the word physics and takes a singular verb: “Optics explores light and vision.” But if you’re talking about any number of events in our recent political history, it calls for a plural verb: “The optics were bad.” The ethics too, sometimes.

A second strangely interesting group of nouns that are plural (that is, end in “s”) whose verbs are tricky have to do with disease and illness. (Why? Is this a philosophical question?) Measles, mumps, the bends, rickets, smallpox (plural of pock), yaws are among Hargraves’s examples. An attack of any of these conditions usually has multiple effects (not just one measly measle), yet they take a singular verb. The whole things is simpler if you refer to “a case of measles/smallpox/the bends,” with “case” taking a singular verb, unequivocally.

But singular verb isn’t a universal solution here. He takes up conditions in which the noun is plural (hiccups, shakes, sneezes) and takes a plural verb too—no “My hiccups is embarrassing.”

In reading, I frequently run across passages where the author/editor allowed themselves to be distracted by a prepositional phrase, in sentences such as “The group of teenagers are celebrating.” Clearly the subject is “group,” a collective noun, not “teenagers,” and in American English, collective nouns are singular and usually take singular verbs. However, British and American English differ on this question. Other collectives are class, family, jury, staff, and team. I never have become comfortable with “the staff is,” and don’t trust myself to get it right, so usually amend the phrase to “the staff members are.” That workaround also helps with “members of the press,” “family members,” and in other situations.

The word “number” presents its own challenges. It’s correct to say, “A number of us are . . .” but “The number of victims is . . .” The former example refers to an undefined, possibly malleable number of people; the latter refers to a specific integer, even if the precise number is unknown.

Well, I’m happy to have cleared that up.

Photo: Writer’s Square, Belfast. Copyright, Albert Bridge; creative commons license

Tips for Screenwriters: Police Procedurals 101

ICYMI this “Shouts and Murmurs” satire by Paul Rudnick in the March 22 (I’m catching up) issue of The New Yorker had me laughing out loud.

Here are a couple of Rudnick’s surefire script ideas.” The main character should be a “troubled male detective whose marriage has crumbled because he works too hard and cares too much”; his ex-wife should be “glimpsed only through a screen door”; if the detective is female, she should have a ponytail (that way she can have long, sexy hair at dinner but keep it from blowing over her partner’s eyes and blinding him as they case the bad guys).

Oh, and be sure to write in a fresh-faced (and fresh-mouthed) tech person who can instantly find any details whatsoever on anyone. For example, Rudnick says, he can instantly tell the detective: “Your suspect dropped out of business school three weeks ago, he’s had contact with three known militia members, and he’s headed east on 168th Street in a stolen van.” Plate number?

Read the whole piece, you’ll get a good laugh. Here on Facebook, the author community airs frequent laments.“Enough with the ‘Girls’ book titles.” Or “Not another flawed police detective hunched over her whiskey!” Or “How many serial killers are there, really. Outside of books and movies, I mean..” We all have our favorite pet peeves in television scripts and topics, the too-tired tropes and cliched plot devices. What sets your teeth on edge?

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!

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.

Tennessee Williams: In His Own Words

(Very) recently I discovered a thing called Quote Cards, which seem to be used in Facebook posts, to create cards for book promotion, etc., etc., etc.

So many times I read a powerful/beautiful/resonant sentence that inspires a “Wow!” You probably spot those too. Was there a sentence in the last book or story you read that stopped you in your tracks? That meant something powerful to you in that moment? Put it in the comments! I’ll compile a list for all of us. And I’ll bet you get lots of likes!

Meanwhile, here are quotes from a master. The Zoom class on Tennessee Williams I’ve been taking ended last week, and if you’ve read the previous posts about it (links below), you’ll know how interesting it was. The class was led by Bonnie J. Monte, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. The theater’s next session is on Shakespeare’s Henry V.

For our last class, each of the 45 or so students submittedthought-provoking quotations from Williams’s plays, stories, and poems that particularly struck us. Here’s a sampling:

“I tell you, there’s so much loneliness in this house that you can hear it.” (Vieux Carré)
“Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence.” (“The Timeless World of a Play,” essay)
“I’m not living with you. We occupy the same cage.” (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
“Caged birds accept each other, but flight is what they long for.” (Camino Real)
“A prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.” (Stairs to the Roof)
“Every time you come in yelling that God damn ‘Rise and shine! Rise and shine!’ I say to myself, ‘How lucky dead people are!’” (The Glass Menagerie)
“Mendacity is a system that we live in. Liquor is one way out and death’s the other.” (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
“The girl who said ‘no,’ she doesn’t exist anymore, she died last summer—suffocated in smoke from something inside her.” (Summer and Smoke)
“There’s a time for departure even when there’s no certain place to go!” (Camino Real)
“Make voyages—attempt them—there’s nothing else!” (Camino Real)
“I think that hate is a feeling that can only exist where there is no understanding.” (Sweet Bird of Youth)
“The only difference between a success and a failure is a success knows an opportunity when he sees it and a failure doesn’t.” (Night of the Iguana)
“All of us are in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars!” (Summer and Smoke)
“If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.” (Conversations with Tennessee Williams)
“Why did I write? Because I found life unsatisfactory.” (Tennessee Williams)

Previous posts in this series:
The Deep Dive (2/10)
How to See (2/17)
The Actor’s Challenge (2/24)

Image by sonseona for Pixabay.