Monday, March 2, 2015

Tale from the OUT file: An encounter with Synanon

HALLIE EPHRON: Hey kids, it's that time again: WHAT WE'RE WRITING week.

Mostly at the moment I'm dealing with a book launch (3/24 Night Night, Sleep Tight!) and still basking in a starred PW review: "Old Hollywood glamour, scandals, and lies infuse this captivating thriller set in 1985." All righty!

If you're curious about the new book, and I hope you are desperately so, there's an excerpt in Facebook -- a generous first three chapters.

Today I'm reviving another outtake from Night Night. Its OUT file is longer than the book. That's because the book began life as a quasi memoir about growing up in Beverly Hills and it took me forever to find the story and peel away the bits that didn't work. I'm hoping its OUT file will be the gift that keeps giving.

Here's one bit that got peeled away: channeling memories from 1964 when
I was sixteen and going to weekly “games” in the San Fernando Valley run by Synanon, the drug rehabilitation commune founded by charismatic Charles Deidrich. They called their technique for breaking down the defenses of drug addicts “attack therapy,” and their star pupils ran games for “straights” (non addicts) which included a fair number of idealistic teenagers from well to do homes. That's where I came in.

I used my experiences as the basis for this scene in which two teenagers reminisce about what happened twenty years earlier at their first Synanon game.

A Memory of Synanon

      "Remember our first game?" Joelen asked.
      "I do," Susan said. "It was right in here. All there was in the room was a circle of folding chairs."
      "And not enough of them."
      "Never enough."
      Susan's group had filed in, only to find that several people had nowhere to sit. Turned out that was deliberate, just another part of the manipulative "game." How people reacted -- who offered to share or stand, express hurt or outrage -- was, in fact, very revealing.
      It was just one of the many ways that Raoul, the charismatic young Latino and former drug addict from Synanon, manipulated the group. She could still see him, sitting there, superior and smug, a petty tyrant surveying his serfs as he gazed around the circle at the rest of them, many of them tender young straights like Susan and Joelen from left-leaning, comfortable families.
      "What are you thinking?" Joelen said, jolting Susan from her reverie. "I recognize that look."
      "Do you?" Susan said.
      Joelen gave her a knowing smile. "I didn't used to know what it was but now I'd call it contempt."
      "I was remembering Raoul."
      "Good old Raoul."
      "He ran that first game, didn't he?"
      "He goes, 'Who wants to start?' And I'm like, such an idiot." Joelen waved her hand. "Pick me, pick me!"
      Susan hadn't remembered that -- she'd only remembered how uncomfortable she'd felt, worried that someone would make her go first. But now it came back to her, how Joelen had jumped right in, fearless as always, and blurted out how unhappy she was. Her father was dead. She hated school. Her mother's boyfriend was a creep. 
      When she told them that her mother was an actress they were merciless. Poor little rich girl!
      "Remember that bitch?" Joelen said. "The one who said she was a receptionist in some plastic surgeon's office? Said I reminded her of the snotty women who came sailing into their office with their daughters in tow for mother-daughter nose jobs. I had my issues, but until that moment I'd never had a problem with my nose."
      Susan remembered that moment vividly. Something about Joelen had touched a nerve in that woman. She came uncorked, releasing all the vitriol she must have stored up being polite, day after day, to patients for whom she had only contempt. She was beyond mean, and of course it had had nothing whatsoever to do with Joelen.
      Still, with Raoul egging her on, the woman soon had Joelen in tears. The group quickly moved from Joelen's wealth to her body, honing in like a pack of feral dogs. 
       Do you always dress like that? the woman had asked. Joelen wore a loose fitting butterfly blouse with fluttery elbow-length sleeves.
      What are you hiding in there? one of the men asked, and everyone snickered.
      Does your body make you uncomfortable? Raoul said, because it sure looks like you're hiding in there. What are you afraid of?
      Joelen had folded her arms in front of her. Cleavage bunched up in the V-neck of her blouse. Her look said, Stop looking at me. All of you.
      Even now, with the meanness twenty years in the past, Joelen's eyes brimmed with tears. "He said I craved attention. That's why I made myself look like a slut."
       Joelen had screamed back at him that she was not a slut. Why would he say that? But that was the trap he must have hoped she'd fall into. He came back at her with something like What’s it like letting other people's judgments control you? What’s it like to live that lie every day?
      "But you know, he was right," Joelen said. "Remember, he asked me what I was thinking about myself, right then at that moment."
      It was a moment Susan would never forget.
      "I hate you," Joelen whispered, echoing the words she'd said at the time.
      But no, Raoul couldn't leave it at that. He'd had to pin Joelen to the wall. Say it again. Say it so we can hear you. He wasn't satisfied until Joelen's face was red, her eye makeup smeared down her face, snot running from her nose, and she'd worked herself up to the point that she was hitting herself and screaming I hate you hate I hate you I hate you! You're fat. You're pathetic. You're dumb. You're ugly.
      "I couldn't stand it," Susan said. "They were being so awful. I was desperate to get out of there. But I couldn't leave you there. You needed someone on your side. Remember what happened next? He said you were beautiful."
      Sitting next to Joelen that night, Susan had felt the heat rolling off her body. Yes, she was a crybaby, Joelen admitted. A loser. Fat. A slob. Yes, she was beautiful. At that point she'd have said anything Raoul wanted her to say.
      That was how "the game" worked. They were experts at tearing you apart but way out of their depth when it came to stitching you back together.
I stopped going to games after a rumor went around that one of the straights had gone home and tried to kill herself.

So what sketchy activities did everyone else get up to in their teens?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"Oh, Kaye!" Chats About Women - The Lovely and The Horrid

All in all, I think I'm a pretty positive person.

I'm pretty happy with my life, most times.  We all, of course, have those times that are trying, or sad, or just damned hard.  We all handle those times differently, as we should.  We own them and they're ours to do with what we can.

But.  If you know me, you also know I get angry and tend to speak my mind about the things that I see as injustices.  This piece was prompted by an email I received from a young woman I've gotten to know through the internet.  She read "Whimsey," sent me a very nice email about how much she enjoyed it, and we've exchanged the occasional note over the past couple of years.  I'm going to call her Jane.

Jane confided in me that she had been writing since she was quite young and was working on a manuscript.  She asked if there were books about writing that I would recommend, and it's just been that sort of on-line relationship - not "friends," but "friendly."  And I like her. 

But a couple weeks ago I received a note from her that broke my heart.

Jane had shared some of her writing with a close friend who proceeded to ridicule her efforts, and then told her she was delusional if she thought she was ever going to be an author.

Jane was crushed, of course.  Hurt, of course.  And her self-confidence shattered.

When she told me about this incident, she asked if I had ever had something similar happen and you know, I had to admit that yes, I had. 

Without going into all that, when Jane asked me what would I do, my advice was to keep writing, of course.  And to write about this.  This heartbreak - write about the hurt. Write it out. And I sent her a copy of Neil Gaiman's "Make Good Art Speech" book.

I did not tell her we should perhaps look into hiring a hitman.

In the meantime, I have fretted about Jane and the fact that she's had her heart broken by a "friend."  And, I knew I had to write it out, just like I had advised her to do.  This is the sort of thing that breaks my heart and makes me crazy.  What is with someone who is capable of hurting someone this way?

So, I vent.  I vent by writing.  It's the way I've vented since forever.  I know you know exactly what I mean, and I'm betting most of you do the same thing.  Write it out.  Getting the bad things out by letting the feelings flow onto paper.  It is amazingly cathartic.  And not at all surprising that therapists will encourage their patients to do this very thing.

And in case you haven't figured it out yet, there's a rant coming as I write it out.

During her keynote speech at the "Celebrating Inspiration" luncheon with the WNBA's All-Decade Team in 2006, Madeleine Albright said:

“There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."

It struck a chord with women.

It certainly struck a chord with this woman.

It's a sentiment I try to live.  Something I believe in.  Something I love, admire and respect in other women who also embrace this attitude in their life's creed.


Being the pragmatic, mouthy, prickly, outspoken soul that I am, I also believe the statement contains an unspoken caveat.

And that is this  -  not all women deserve our help.

I'm sorry if this offends some of you, truly, I am.

But here's a fact as I know it.

Mean girls we knew growing up, oftentimes have grown up to be mean women.

Mean, competitive in a not so nice way, manipulative, and the scariest thing of all, is when they're capable of hiding these things behind a kind exterior with charm and phony grace wrapped firmly around their own agenda.

You know them.  Or, if you don't, God has blessed you because you are one lucky, lucky soul.

Women who just don't "get" the importance of women friends.  They might profess their support, only to slyly undermine your efforts behind your back. This is, of course, rooted in insecurities so deep that it's sad, really. And to be pitied, I suppose.  I revel in the fact that 
because mean sly souls aren't as smart as they give themselves credit for and because true nature will always show itself, they're eventually found out.

I know, I know. I sound cranky, paranoid and pretty insecure myself.  

Having been burned, however, my radar is now extremely accurately and finely tuned.  NASA's engineers and scientists have nothing on me when it comes to this well tuned radar of mine, I promise.  Because I have been burned, and because I know others have, people I care about, here's a promise I've made to myself -

To the Polyanna self that resides in my soul.

I will cast aside the mean girls who grew into mean women.

I will rejoice in the women who are strong enough to support other women who are deserving.  I am thankful every single day that I have always had more of these in my life than the other.

I will remember that these women are a blessing to be celebrated. Their numbers are many, may they multiply. May they teach us, so that we may in turn teach others. May we embrace one another's differences and praise one another's talents in their uniqueness.

And let me, please, remember who they are - the good and the bad - so that I may praise the good, be one of their number, speak out on their behalf, and speak out against those who are not.

And help me, please, be one of those who will continue doing what she can to support and help those who need it and deserve it.

Dear Reds, I wish you all well.  Always.  It's lovely beyond words to be a part of this group where everyone so generously supports everyone else.

Any of you have women they would like to praise, or a mean girl/woman story they feel like sharing?  Let 'er rip.  Write it out.

Your Sunday Moment of Zen — "Saint Edna" by Jon Stucky

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Miss Edna was quite picky about the company she kept. And although she loved her "handsome young men," she also wanted to be surrounded with people with wit, humor, and kindness. And so of course she fell for our friend, outsider artist Jon Stucky — and they spent many happy hours together, usually watching what most would consider some truly terrible TV — yet the running commentary was priceless.

After Miss Edna died, Jon immortalized her in a painting. Noel and I both think it captures her spirit perfectly. (Although I can hear her saying, "Why didn't he paint me in my wig? I spent good money on that wig!")

Happy Sunday, all.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

"You Can't Make this Stuff Up!" Lourdes Venard & Characters Inspired by Obits

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Delighted to introduce Lourdes Venard, seasoned journalist, freelance editor and editor of First Draft, the newsletter for the Sisters in Crime Guppies chapter, who's come up with a brilliant (and rather poignant) inspiration for creating characters — writing obituaries. Yes, obituaries. She has also self-published a book, Publishing for Beginners: What First-Time Authors Need to Know. The ebook is free on Kindle this weekend hereRead on....

LOURDES VENARD: One of the hardest things for writers may be to create a character, with all their eccentricities and mannerisms, as well as a rich backstory. Sure, you can sit in coffee shops and listen in on conversations, or even plumb your own life. Or you can read the obits.

When I was a young reporter at The Miami Herald, I was offered the chance to move from one of the neighborhood bureaus to the main City Desk—a coveted spot for cub reporters. The catch?  I would also be writing obituaries.

Morbid as it sounds, this was actually appealing. The Miami Herald’s obituaries were little biographical gems, insights into the lives of the famous and not-so-famous. I found I loved it, and hard as it was sometimes to make that initial call to family members, I found the relatives wanted to share their stories. It was almost as if they had been waiting for that call: so tell me about your grandmother, your aunt, your cousin. I listened, sometimes open-mouthed, sometimes with tears in my eyes, as the stories spilled out.

I wrote about well-known Miami politicians, celebrities and Florida pioneers. But I also wrote about those who readers had never heard of. There was the Olympic fencer from an aristocratic Hungarian family who, when he immigrated to the United States, had to work as a gravedigger for a time before he became a fencing teacher. There was the Dixieland jazz musician who was a musical child prodigy at age 4 and as a teenager ran away to New Orleans, where he discovered jazz; he later played with The Jackie Gleason Show orchestra. There was the teacher with the wonderful name of Bain Lightfoot, whose earlier careers included professional ice skater, newspaper reporter and tavern owner. “He had read a lot, he was intelligent,” his wife said. “He found he could do a whole bunch of things.”

I even wrote about the Miami Beach civic activist who was a prolific writer of letters to the editor, which The Miami Herald printed—until the paper implemented a policy limiting the number of letters it would print from one person. The letter writer was devastated, but found a way around it—he would send letters signed with his wife’s name. I guess he got the last laugh: a full obit in the paper.

I wrote several times of long-married couples who died just a week or two apart. But perhaps one of the strangest obits I wrote was about a divorced couple who died together. The couple, in their 80s and married 57 years, had divorced nine months earlier. A few weeks before their death, they had begun dating again. They were on their way home from one of those dates when they died in a car accident. “They couldn’t live with each other. They couldn’t live without each other,” said one relative. “As luck would have it, they died together.”

As humorist Dave Barry (a Herald colleague at the time) always likes to say: You can’t make this stuff up!

I always tried to be respectful in the obits, but I also strove to make them interesting, looking for those offbeat or unique tidbits. This style of obit writing first gained favor in the 1980s. In the book The Dead Beat, by Marilyn Johnson, she writes about this focus on “regular people”: “People whose lives had been considered dull as linoleum to the general public were offered up as heroes of their neighborhood and characters of consequence. Even more important, every particular of their quirks and foibles—the brand name of their cigarettes, their taste in horror movies—was presented as a clue to the mystery of their existence in the fascinating story of their lives.”

The truth is, as I found out as a young reporter, was that everyone does have a fascinating life story, even if it’s not always apparent at first glance. In these stories, I found what fiction writers strive for: to build well-rounded characters whose lives are not always neat and tidy, but filled with heartbreak, humor and persistence in the face of adversity. In short, life in all its messiness.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Readers, do you read the obits regularly? What's the most unique one you've ever read (not using names)? What else do you want to talk about this lovely Saturday? Please let us know in the comments!

In addition to working at major American newspapers for 30 years, Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and editor of First Draft, the newsletter for the Sisters in Crime Guppies chapter. She has also self-published a book, Publishing for Beginners: What First-Time Authors Need to Know. The ebook will be free on Kindle this weekend — click here.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Cara Black Researches MURDER ON THE CHAMPS DE MARS in Paris

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I'm thrilled to introduce novelist Cara Black, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of fourteen books in the Private Investigator Aimée Leduc series, set in Paris. Her latest, MURDER ON THE CHAMPS DE MARS is set in Paris (bien sûr!) in April of 1999: 

Aimée Leduc has her work cut out for her—running her detective agency and fighting off sleep deprivation as she tries to be a good single mother to her new bébé. The last thing she has time for now is to take on a personal investigation for a poor manouche (Gypsy) boy. But he insists his dying mother has an important secret she needs to tell Aimée, something to do with Aimée’s father’s unsolved murder a decade ago. How can she say no?

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Reds and lovely readers, please welcome Cara Black, one of my very favorite novelists. I feel as though her Aimée and my Maggie Hope are fictional sisters in their love of both red lipstick and solving mysteries.

Cara, Kirkus Reviews gave MURDER ON THE CHAMPS DE MARS a starred review, saying, "Aimée's 15th outing is a killer, with all the suspense, all the surprise and all the Parisian flavor you'd expect from Black.” How does that feel when you’re so far into the series?

CARA BLACK: I choked on my coffee, Susan. Really amazed me and I kept pinching myself while I cleaned up my splattered key board. Who knew after after so long in the game? I never intended to write a series set in Paris, I was thrilled to even get published in 1999. My first book was a story about my friend’s mother, a hidden Jewish girl, that I felt passionate to tell. When my editor asked for another book saying ‘what’s Aimée up to next? you are writing a series, aren’t you?’ I lied and said yes and ran to the keyboard. She launched me into my life of crime. Now on Aimée’s 15th outing she investigates a missing Gypsy in the elite quarter of Paris, the 7th arrondissement. I wanted to get this part of Paris right. I’m honored to keep going and have reviewers appreciate the story I’m trying to tell. There’s so much about Paris that I haven’t plumbed, so many stories and such history that I still want to capture.
SUSAN: So, let's talk research in Paris - cafes, croissants, and shopping right?

CARA: I wish! Well, sometimes a little, no actually a lot in the cafes. I’m an eavesdropper in a cafe, on a bus, in the Metro, in a shop, at the park on the benches. Shopping for me is mostly old books, old photos, trinkets from the 90’s or earlier that I find at old bookstores, in the flea markets, and things from the 90’s which is Aimée’s era. Often it means I’ve got to buy another roller bag to bring my finds home. 

I know some ‘flics’ Parisian cops who I take to lunch/dinner with a lot of wine and ask them about procedure, old cases, what it’s like now as opposed to then (90’s) working a homicide, ask for introductions to other police branches. I’ve hung with our FBI a bit who work at the Paris Embassy and have they got stories!!  I go to to archives, libraries and crawl in the sewers and quarries and climbed into a reservoir and cut my knee.

SUSAN: Aimée’s a single maman with a 5 month old bébé and just going back to work - even though it’s her own detective business and office  - how did it feel to write that? Did you put in your own experiences as a mom?

CARA: I drew on those feelings, a new mother leaving my son for the first time, and it’s what a lot of women feel. Guilty, nervous and yet also wanting to use their skill set and re-join a ‘normal’ world without dirty diapers. Aimée gets spit-up on her vintage Courreges and she’s still nursing and leaks, my own experience, on a silk blouse at a meeting. She’s trying to balance going back to work, the responsibilities of being a single maman and get some sleep. 

SUSAN: Historicals have a new meaning these days, don’t they? If we’re talking time frame how do you handle all the technology and dating the book?

CARA: Good question, Susan. In Maggie Hope’s world there’s documented history, it’s a rich world, and communication was simpler. No FB, Twitter, texting, Instagram, CCTV - how lucky is that? But in the 90’s, the time of Aimée’s stories, no FB, Twitter, Instagram either. I’m so glad. A young reader told me last year ‘you’re writing Historicals, right?’ In a way, I guess since it’s the recent past. Aimée still pays in Francs (the Euro is 2 years away) and uses a cell phone and computer and hacks with the best. It’s the era of pagers and Europe was ahead in their cell phone use.

SUSAN: Rumor is you and Rhys Bowen will get into trouble again - can you address that?

CARA: Yes, Rhys’ new book comes out the same day as mine so we’ll do a launch together in Scottsdale. Then a bad girls redux mini tour in LA. I love traveling with Rhys and we have been known to misbehave.

SUSAN: OK, more on you and Rhys misbehaving in the comments, please! And are you really taking someone to Paris? Can I come too?

CARA: Yes, and you know I want us to meet there and visit Paris, Brittany and Normandy for research for a new Maggie Hope book, right? That thing we talked about? Everyone is welcome to enter the Sweepstakes for a trip avec moi in October - there’s an entry coupon in the new book or go here. Please update your passport and pack a bag… So who will I take to Paris?

SUSAN: Me, me, me! (Oh, wait — was that out loud?) Reds and lovely readers, there's so much I want to talk about with Cara — how Aimée's changed during the course of the series, what it's like when your protagonist becomes a mother (personally, I adore reading about Aimée's trials and triumphs with her bébé), and — um, hello? — when did the 1990s become "historical"?

Please let us know what you think. Cara will choose one lucky commentator to win MURDER ON THE CHAMPS DE MARS!

Cara Black is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 14 books in the Private Investigator Aimée Leduc series, which is set in Paris. Cara has received multiple nominations for the Anthony and Macavity Awards, a Washington Post Book World Book of the Year citation, the Médaille de la Ville de Paris—the Paris City Medal, which is awarded in recognition of contribution to international culture.