Killer Nashville in the Rearview

Last week’s Killer Nashville was a satisfying excursion on the whole. Not only were the speakers/attendees/lunch buddies great and the panels interesting, I arrived in Nashville several days early and spent them at Tennessee’s beautiful new State Library and Archives downtown. Accomplished a lot, genealogy-wise.

The meeting was at a hotel about twenty miles south of the city in a county whose citizens have been notoriously anti-vaxx. According to information I pried out of the organizers beforehand, mask policies were set by the hotel (there weren’t any or they weren’t enforced), so that only about forty percent of the attendees wore masks. The conference website and Facebook page were surprisingly mum on the subject; it was as if covid (and people’s understandable worries about it) didn’t exist. Perhaps it was repeated questions like mine that prompted a very last-minute letter from organizer Clay Stafford to attendees, but by then quite a few people had cancelled or decided not to attend. The planners’ cavalier attitude is summed up in the conference title: “Killer Nashville: Unmasked.” Stafford made a convoluted argument attempting to justify this choice, but it fell flat, with me at least.

Nor, unless I missed it, did the pre-conference materials mention that restaurant in the conference’s hotel venue is closed. Breakfast only. The bar was open, but not a peanut, not a pretzel stick in sight. Caterers must have brought food in for the two lunches and one dinner that were part of the three-day meeting. Attendees needed a car to get to any restaurant that wasn’t fast-food, chain-type.

Aside from these lapses in planning for attendee comfort and safety, the program was excellent and diverse. Ironically, despite covid concerns, this was the largest Killer Nashville attendance to date! There were right around 300 people, desperate to chat up their friends and fellow authors. People were upbeat, happy to be together, and grateful to Killer Nashville for making it possible. And, of course, when I saw that the bookstore would send my purchases home, at no charge if I bought more than $100-worth, I “saved” myself that mailing fee with no trouble at all!

It’s Magic!

We celebrated a recent family birthday with a Zoom event, as all things are these days, hosted by the Chicago Magic Lounge. Every Friday evening at 6:30 Central Time, the Lounge’s (virtual) Cocktail Hour, sponsors a new performance every Friday night. In an hour and a half four magicians, two men and two women, did excerpts from their magic acts that lend themselves to the not-in-person format. It was a fully-produced, live show.

The Chicago Magic Lounge is “dedicated to the art of sleight of hand, prestidigitation, and Chicago’s contribution to the magical arts,” and, as they say, it’s a brief escape from the real world “because we could all use a little misdirection in our lives.

From an audience member’s point of view, it was great, because the camera took you in so close. Three of them did table magic, and the fourth was standing. They performed a variety of card tricks, coin tricks, and “science” tricks. One of the magicians is a science teacher, in real life. It was fun, low-key, and a great way to celebrate together, but separately.

There was even audience participation and, as a special bonus, the club’s bartender demonstrated how to make the cocktail of the evening.

There’s a modest per household/screen charge. Have an event coming up? In search of something novel? If this sounds like fun, find out more here!

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Who Are These Women?

sangria-colored room, andallshallbewell Tumblr page

Archer Landis, the Manhattan architect at the center of my forthcoming novel, has been married and faithful to his wife Marjorie for thirty-odd years. But Julia Fernández, a new associate in his firm, has unexpectedly stolen his heart. For me as a writer, describing these two women and their worlds didn’t happen all at once. At first, my thoughts were akin to a sketch I kept going back to—adding, subtracting, refining, and shaping details—so that their ultimate descriptions show them to be distinct three-dimensional characters. Writing my first or second draft, I did not understand them well enough to do that.

Where They Live

In the novel’s first chapter, you see Julia’s Chelsea apartment as Archer, with his strong design sensibility, sees it. He’s aware of all the references to her Spanish origins—the sangria-colored walls, the heavy dark curtains, the chaise longues upholstered in deep carmine velvet. “It would require all his French curves and a full palette of rose and violet pigments to reproduce the effect.”

Archer and Marjorie’s penthouse in an Upper East Side high-rise is light-filled, with floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the East River. The apartment is all straight lines, its walls are pale gray, the furniture has white leather upholstery, and a painting by Joan Miró provides only “a confetti of color.” A totally different woman lives there.

What They Wear

Archer thinks of Julia as the bright bird in his office. She wears simple silk dresses in shades like watermelon pink, lime, and saffron. She has licorice-colored hair. You get the picture. In Landis’s eyes, she’s delicious.

Marjorie dresses in long knitted skirts, tunics and drapy attached scarves in the palest rose, taupe, beige, and off-white. Colors so faint that, over successive scenes, Archer cannot always identify what they are.

How He Feels about Them

My intent is that these details say much more about the differences between Julia and Marjorie than their taste in interior decorating and clothing. Much later in the book, Landis muses on his love for them both, calling Julia his dazzling sun, and Marjorie his moon, the one who could regulate the tides within him and light the darkness. This analogy (I hope) recalls to the reader the earlier evocative descriptions constructed from specific details.

Avoiding Cliché Traps

Superficial inventories (height, hair, eyes, clothing, voice) when a character is first introduced tend to be flat and uninteresting. They read like the author is ticking the boxes. They’re akin to the first impression of someone, and nothing like the rich descriptions and telling details that reflect the real person.

Trying for an intriguing first draft detail, maybe, have you noticed how often authors give a female character green eyes? I am one of the two percent of people worldwide who actually have green eyes, so I notice this. A green-eyed woman has become a bit of a cliché. (One of my characters has them too!) In any case, eye color is not a significant detail. Rarely does a plot depend on the color of a character’s eyes (or hair). Height, maybe.

Some interesting research bears out the prevalence of male and female stereotypes in physical description that, thanks to overuse, no longer connect with readers.

Other posts in this series: Why an Architect?

Photo: andallshallbewell Tumblr page

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

If ever a play lent itself to creative interpretation, Shakespeare’s lighthearted classic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is that play. The Princeton Summer Theater production, which opened July 25 and plays Thursday to Sunday through August 4, takes full advantage of that opportunity to innovate.

The plot of confused lovers, a night in the forest, and mischievous fairies is so familiar director Maeli Goren safely pared it down to run in 75 minutes without intermission. She’s added seats to the sides and rear of the stage so that every member of the 200-person audience feels they have ringside seats. This compresses the time and space available to the cast and magnifies the production’s intensity. You aren’t watching the performance; you are in it.

Most of the action takes place within the skeleton of what might be a greenhouse. I especially liked Oberon and Titania’s crowns made of twigs, the feather capelets, and a jacket made of hundreds of translucent white vinyl gloves that mimicked feathers. Small lanterns filled with, naturally, fairy lights looked like they held captured fireflies. There’s a little cast-created music, a bit of singing—and this may be a theatrical first—Puck occasionally plays an accordion. There are even puppets, which refract the shifting relationships among the lovers in new ways. In other words, there is no shortage of things to watch and delight in.

The cast comprises current Princeton students and recent graduates, and their lack of experience with Shakespeare and his rhythms is apparent, with the result that some of the speeches are hard to follow. But every actor enters the fray with enthusiasm, and the familiarity of the story backstops them. Standouts in the eight-member cast include Michael Rosas as Theseus and Oberon, Maeve Brady as Hyppolyta and Titania, Justin Ramos as Lysander, and Allison Spann as Puck. Rosas is notable for his range of gestures and Brady for her ability to convey a sense of wonder. Ramos and Spann display remarkably entertaining athleticism.

It’s a tribute to the dedication of the participants that so much effort and attention to detail goes into a show that will run for so few performances. Though “The course of true love never did run smooth,” this production gets great joy out of the lovers’ journey!

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

Toronto: Backdrop for Mystery

Park Bench, snow

Trang Pham, pexels license

Two very different mystery/thrillers from authors based in Canada, where everyone is supposed to be so nice. !

*****Bellevue Square

By Michael Redhill – A compelling contemporary psychological thriller set in Toronto, Bellevue Square won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award and is now out in paperback.

Narrator Jean Mason runs a downtown bookshop. When customers begin mistaking her for Ingrid—a woman they know from Kensington Market—Jean decides to track down this supposed doppelganger.

She stakes out a bench at the market’s heart, Bellevue Square, and observes the comings and goings of the folk living and trading nearby. The richly described life of the square becomes the center of the novel and of Jean’s attention. The Bellevue Square regulars are “a peculiar collection of drug addicts, scam artists, philanthropists, philosophers and vagrants.” Author Redhill gives them distinctive personalities and preoccupations that are occasionally comic, yet never cruel.

As Jean gets to know them, she likes them and they her. She lets them know she will pay for information about Ingrid and they come up with sightings and information, but should she trust it? Her husband Ian, a policeman, insists on knowing where she’s spending her days, and when she takes him there, his fresh and unsentimental eyes see a collection of loonies. “So this is how you’ve been spending your time? With these kinds of people?”

You hope Jean is successful in her quest for Ingrid, even as its likelihood dwindles. Redhill says Bellevue Square “is a literary novel but has one foot in mystery and a couple of toes in psychological thriller,” and Jean’s reality cracks and splinters around you in unique and unexpected ways. Well worth a read.

P.S. Until recently, the Bellevue Square of the novel was a real location in Toronto. In the spring of 2017, reports Redhill in his acknowledgements, the city’s Parks, Forests and Recreation division razed it. He says, “My regards to the City of Toronto for enthusiastically illustrating some of the themes in my work.”

 ***The Language of Secrets

By Ausma Zehanat Khan – Now also out in paperback, is Ausma Zehanat Khan’s second Toronto-based thriller featuring Esa Khattak,  head of the Community Policing Section, and his sergeant and chief sounding-board, Rachel Getty. As winter sets in, the Canadian authorities are trying to thwart a rumored New Year’s Day terrorist attack and Khattak’s friend, Muslim intelligence officer Mohsin Dar, has infiltrated the plotters. Then he’s murdered.

Khan vividly describes the icy, remote location where key scenes take place, as well as the cramped urban mosque where the police believe the plotters meet. Their putative ringleader is a charismatic but evasive man named Hassan Ashkouri who speaks in riddles and poetry.

Khattak is tasked with finding Dar’s killer. For personal reasons, Inspector Ciprian Coale, who heads the team trying to stop the terrorists, is determined to thwart Khattak’s investigation at every turn. He’s not above suggesting that Dar may not have been playing straight with him and hints Khattak may be equally unreliable.

Politics is thus intertwined with many aspects of this story, and every move Khattak makes is subject to political interpretation by his rivals, the news media, and the minority communities he serves. This slant on police work give his investigation an appealing timeliness. However, the author occasionally stops writing fiction in order to provide a lecture on political topics.

Khattak’s sister Ruksh has a new man in her life, one she plans to marry—coincidentally, the terrorist leader Hassan Ashkouri. In her reflexive hostility toward her older brother and her defiant determination to pursue the relationship she acts more like a sulky teenager than a grown woman. By contrast, Rachel Getty, Khattak’s sergeant, is an appealing character. Khan gives her an interesting background as a competitive hockey player with an important all-star game imminent, yet she doesn’t go to hockey practice once during the entire novel.

Although the desire to learn the fates of these characters kept me reading, Khan’s prose is murky at times; at others, she telegraphs too much, announcing, that a character just made a big mistake, for example. Show, don’t tell.

As a bottom line, this book contains unusual characters and situations that should carry you through the uneven patches in the writing.

Name That Color

DressAuthor Rowan Hisayo Buchanan asks an intriguing question about perception in her recent Catapult article, “Is the Green You See, the Green I See?” The answer to that one is “probably not,” given the 2015 social media uproar over  the question “what color is this dress?” The controversy generated some 10 million tweets, as people variously perceived a washed-out photo of a horizontally striped dress as white with gold lace or, as it really was, blue with black lace. (For the record, I’m a white-and-gold gal).

Buchanan, author of the novel Harmless Like You, describes the challenge of finding the precise term to describe a color, because it makes a great deal of difference whether a “red dress” is described as scarlet (suggesting something about the wearer) or the maroon of dried blood (suggesting something else entirely). My writing coach loves the example of an old, decaying house with shutters of “fungal green.” “Fungal” not only describes the shade of green much more exactly (I see lichen) but conveys something important about the house itself.

In my short story set during the Revolutionary War, an eight-year-old boy sees a frightened woman “go white.” But how to describe that in terms a boy of that age, education, and era would use? “White as chalk” is a cliché, “white as paper” was possibly anachronistic, parchment being ivory. I settled on “white as milk.”

Buchanan’s quest for color enlightenment led her to Sanzo Wada’s A Dictionary of Color Combinations from the 1930s, which describes hues in charmingly evocative Japanese and English. Ivory Buff in English is White Tea in Japanese. Grenadine Pink is Washed Red. And my favorite of her examples, Light Brown Drab is Plum Mouse.

Ballard consulted several other color classification books too, including Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1821) which, she says, “hoped to bring together science and art.” Out in a new facsimile edition, the publisher calls it “a charming artifact from the golden age of natural history and global exploration.” Darwin took it with him to the Galapagos.

In Werner’s, each color was given an animal, mineral, and vegetative reference. For example, Prussian Blue (one of my favorite colors) was specified as “The Beauty Spot on Wing of Mallard Drake,” “Stamen of Bluish Purple Anemone” (vague in itself), and “Blue Copper Ore,” in case you have any of that lying around. However, it does widen the field of people who can appreciate this blackish-blue color, which included the folks outfitting the Prussian Army and Vincent Van Gogh. He used it predominantly, along with other blues, when painting his “Starry Night.” Philip Kerr’s excellent thriller Prussian Blue was not referring to color, but to the compound’s use as an antidote to heavy metal poisoning. What a truckload of associations!

Tomorrow’s Post: “Color is More Than a Shade” talks about why these allusive color descriptors are important.

Your Next Thriller: Idea Goldmine

The July 2018 issue of Wired is a treasure trove of ideas for thriller writers. Here are the ones that got my creative juices flowing.

satellite 2

photo: Alexas_Fotos, creative commons license

Space Wars and Daily Life
“The Outer Limits of War,” by Garrett M. Graff, which bears the provocative subhead “a new arms race is threatening to explode—500 miles above our heads.” A parenthetical factoid declares that 14 out of the 16 “infrastructure sectors designated as critical by the Department of Homeland Security, like energy and financial services, rely on GPS for their operation.” Things you might not expect, like ATMs, cellular networks, and credit card systems depend on GPS. And the satellite array that makes GPS possible is highly vulnerable to deliberate attack, not to mention the 500,000 pieces of debris, marble-sized and up, currently orbiting earth at up to 17,000 mph.

The All-Seeing Eye
In Steven Levy’s “The Wall,” Palmer Lucky’s portable surveillance towers use radar, cameras, and communications technologies to identify moving objects up to two miles away. The virtual reality component of the system tags objects as people or coyotes. Then it reports in to those who will do something about it. Such systems would have military uses, scanning the battlefield, and are being tested at the U.S.-Mexico border. Lucky’s virtual wall would cost about one-fiftieth of the proposed 30-foot high concrete structure under consideration at the border, with all its security, wildlife disruption, aesthetic, and property infringement downsides.

Bitcoins

photo: Mike Cauldwell, creative commons license

Cryptocurrency
“The Blockchain: A Love Story; The Blockchain: A Horror Story,” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. How the Tez went bad. Leaving aside the particulars of this long piece, a good thriller writer can expertly decode the most opaque problem. So I hope you’re working on a novel about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, so I can finally understand it.

Mission Possible?
Oh, and the Mission Impossible movie franchise technologies that have—and have not—achieved reality. Gecko gloves, yes. Covert subdermal implants, no.

That Plastic Gun Isn’t a Toy
Finally, check out this chilling video on the Wired website headlined “Legal Win Opens Pandora’s Box for Weapons.” Forget age requirements. Forget background checks. Forget gun control altogether. Thank you, DoJ.

ICYMI: American Folk Art Museum

American Folk Art MuseumThe free American Folk Art Museum at 2 Lincoln Square, shares its modestly sized space with the Manhattan temple of the Church of Latter Day Saints, across from Lincoln Center on Columbus Avenue at 66th Street. This location is one of the Museum’s two outposts. The other, in Long Island City, displays items from the permanent collection, whereas the Manhattan space has  rotating exhibitions.

When we visited recently, the exhibit was a fascinating display of “self-taught” art, along with the artists’ written commentaries about their work. Twenty-one artists from the United States and numerous other countries are represented, and the exhibition will be on display until May 27.

What the works have in common, over space and time, is the intensity and focus of the artistic vision applied. Many of the artists struggled with mental illness and art may have been a way of coping with and an expression of their challenges. Collectively, the exhibition catalog says, the artists through both their works and what they say about them demonstrate the “idiosyncratic structure of their lifelong, intricate, and nonlinear narratives.”

The first set of pencil drawings we examined, by artist James Edward Deeds, Jr. (1908-1987), was mounted so you could see both sides of the paper on which his drawings of steamboats, horse-drawn carts, and circus wagons were created. The paper on which they were created was unused forms from the state mental institution where he lived for 37 years. A few years after Deeds’s death, a curious teenager rescued the artist’s 283 drawings from the trash.

I was drawn to a display of more than a hundred 8 x 10-inch topographical drawings and paintings fitted together like a map—“Journey to Another Dimension” (photo below)—by Michigan artist Jerry Gretzinger, The full set of almost 3500 of these panels could cover the floor of a basketball court and has been shown in its entirety only once (on the floor of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). A fascinating video shows Gretzinger talking about his elaborate, random process for revising individual panels, which allows for organic change in the set.

There’s a group of 80-year-old drawings of children by Henry Darger (one is featured on the Museum website) that at first look playful until you read the captions; Spanish artist Josep Baqué’s fantastical creatures; and a pattern on paper that looks like dots. The museum conveniently offers a powerful magnifying glass to let you see the dots are very, very teensy words.

It’s fair to say that all the works were intriguing, some even startling, but perhaps not as much as the inspired minds behind them. I hope to go back regularly to see what this museum is up to! A fantastic gift shop, BTW.

Gretzinger Map

photo: Nicholas Helmholdt

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Austin Blunk, Courtney McGowan, & Vanessa Morosco; photo: Jerry Dalia

This staple of outdoor summer stages—Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play—is on view in a delightful production from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through July 30. STNJ’s annual outdoor productions are performed in the beautiful Greek amphitheatre of the College of Saint Elizabeth in Florham Park, N.J. (take cushions).

STNJ artistic director Bonnie Monte directed the production, and she must have had a very precise idea in mind, because she served as the set and costume designer as well, inspired perhaps by Shakespeare’s own words in the play:

“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream,
past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream - 2

Felix Mayes; photo: Jerry Dalia

The sets on the outdoor stage are always fairly simple, but the costumes were knock-your-socks off. Creative recycling was the theme, with iridescent CD’s forming a glittering backdrop for both the forest outside Athens—the fairy world—and a scaly cape for fairy queen Titania. Puck was gleefully porcupinish with headgear and epaulets sprouting colorful chopsticks? pens? A bathtub was filled with wine corks. More than thirty individuals and families received recognition in the program for aid in collecting the hundreds of “items of refuse” that went into the production. This made sense, actually, fairies being notorious pilferers.

We went to a matinee where numerous children were in the audience—an outdoor theater is one venue where sitting still and silent in your seat is not an absolute requirement, particularly for a comedy. Some of the complicated plot—the two sets of characters, the two sets of lovers, the play-within-a-play—may have been difficult for the youngest audience members to follow precisely, but there was such effective physical comedy and so many hilarious touches, like the performance of Ian Hersey as the ass, Bottom, they stuck with it happily.

The cast had many suitably antic performances, including the aforementioned Hersey and Felix Mayes as Puck, Courtney McGowen as Lion, Vanessa Morosco as Titania, and all of the fancifully costumed fairies.

STNJ produces an excellent KnowTheShow guide. Call box office for tickets (973-408-5600) or email: BoxOffice@ShakespeareNJ.org

****Beatlebone

John Lennon

painting by Ryan Oyer; photo: Melissa Bowman, creative commons license

By Kevin Barry – Last Friday, award-winning Irish novelist Kevin Barry was in Princeton to read from his novel Beatlebone. You may recall, as I did not, that John Lennon bought a small island off far Western Ireland and made two visits there. Beatlebone describes a fictional third visit in 1978, two years before he was murdered.

He’s being hounded by media and his own creative demons, and he just wants to get away to this unpeopled dot in the ocean, though heavily and loudly populated by gulls and terns, and slick with guano. He has a driver, Cornelius O’Grady, who began, Barry said, as a peripheral character, but as sometimes happens, became vitally important to the book. He’s John’s guide to the mysteries of Ireland, his goad, and his sounding board.

Much of the book is their dialog, which Barry delivered deliciously:

About my situation, Mr. O’Grady?

Yes?

I really don’t need a f— circus right now. The most important thing is no one knows I’m out here.

Cornelius fills his mug from a silver pot and runs his eyes about the room.

John, he says, half the newspapermen in Dublin are after piling onto the Westport train.

Oh for f—sake!

But we aren’t beat yet. The train’s an hour till it’s in. We’ll throw a shape lively.

The lack of punctuation requires a little extra reader attention, but it isn’t difficult to follow. What you have is a surreal picture of a 38-year-old man who’s known incredible highs and inevitable lows, seen-all, done-all, who just needs to get out from under the weight of himself for a while. He’s a creative genius tied up in his own knots. On the island, he hopes to find inspiration for his next great album, Beatlebone.

I asked Barry how he captured Lennon’s voice. He said it was a real job of work and it took him about a year. He listened to and transcribed an awful lot of You-Tube videos. Lennon “could go from light to dark, from playful to paranoia, all in one sentence.” And because readers of the book are likely to have some sense of Lennon’s manner of speaking, that voice had to be convincing. And, he said, “the difficulty of the project created part of the attraction.” That perverse Irish nature at work, bringing us gifts.

As Steve Earle said in a laudatory review in The New York Times, “Only a literary beast, a daredevil wholly convinced he was put on this planet to write, would ever or should ever attempt to cast a person as iconic as John Lennon as a character in a tale of his own invention.”

Kevin Barry’s previous novels have all won awards, and Beatlebone won the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize for literature that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities for the novel form.” Although he lives in County Sligo, currently he’s teaching creative writing as the Burns Scholar at Boston College. His presentation was part of the fine series sponsored by Princeton University’s Fund for Irish Studies.