Friday, February 12, 2016

Brenda Buchanan changes her perspective writing TRUTH BEAT

HALLIE EPHRON: Writing her new Joe Gale mystery novel, TRUTH BEAT, Brenda Buchanan made her own journey examining her own faith and biases. The book has the kind of raw energy that only a personally meaningful story can generate. I asked Brenda to talk about how she came to write the book, and how writing it changed her.

BRENDA BUCHANAN:  There’s a scene in the Academy Award-nominated film Spotlight when Boston Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer—played on screen by Rachel McAdams—sits by while her grandmother reads the blockbuster story about the Catholic Church’s cover-up of decades of sexual abuse committed by parish priests. Pfeiffer was a tough-minded member of the Globe’s Spotlight Team, which won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing decades of denial and deceit. Her quiet
presence at the kitchen table is powerful testament of her love for her devout grandmother, who was devastated to learn the church she loved had closed its institutional eyes and ears to the sexual abuse of children.

The scene is more than a poignant touch in a film that successfully demonstrates why good journalism matters. It shows a seldom-visible side of the news business—a reporter’s empathy for someone stunned by a difficult, disturbing story.

When I was a college student working at the Boston Globe it was my job to write about missing teenagers, car crash victims and young families
driven from their homes by midnight fires. The old hands in the newsroom taught me to be human in my interaction with survivors, explaining that professional detachment could be misunderstood as insensitivity.

I relearned this lesson when writing Truth Beat, my third Joe Gale Mystery, which was released February 1.

Truth Beat is about the death of a Catholic priest more than a decade after the clergy abuse scandal exploded. I began constructing the plot when I heard about the closing of parishes in my Central Massachusetts hometown and in Southern Maine, where I now live. As the crime and courts reporter at the fictional Portland Daily Chronicle, I thought, my protagonist Joe Gale would have written about the allegations of abuse in the Portland diocese. When empty pews led shrinking parishes to be shuttered, he would have covered that, too. The plot outline wrote itself.

Father Patrick Doherty—who insisted people ignore his title and call him Patrick—is found dead in the rectory’s garden. The police soon conclude he was murdered. Patrick had gained local fame when he publicly criticized his church’s defensive approach to the priest abuse scandal. A decade later, the bishop took him down a peg by putting him in charge of consolidating failing churches. Overnight, adulation turned into enmity.

It had all the ingredients—good characters, strong conflict and a topic about which I had plenty of knowledge, having been raised Catholic and educated by nuns. I jumped right into the writing, but after a few chapters ran headfirst into a bias that demanded examination.

I left the church decades ago for a variety of personal reasons. After the abuse scandal broke, I was surprised that some of my friends and family members continued to go to Mass. I had conversations with a few, steered clear of the subject with others. Because I’d made my decision long ago, I didn’t work particularly hard to understand their perspective.

The process of writing Truth Beat forced me to do exactly that.

The still-faithful Catholics who were an essential part of the story were coming across as either haughty and sanctimonious or depressed and pessimistic. I struggled and fought with those passages until I took my newsroom mentors’ long-ago advice and looked for a connection with those characters. It took some soul-searching, if you’ll pardon the expression, but the result was Peggy McGillicuddy, one of the book’s crusaders against parish consolidation. During an interview, Joe asks a grieving Peggy about her dedication to the cause:

“Why have you stayed with the Church, Peggy? Why do you put so much time and energy into an institution that infuriates you?”

She fingered the silver cross around her neck while considering her response.

“Because my Catholicism is central to who I am. I’m not mad at God. I haven’t lost my faith. My anger is directed where it should be, at the abusers and those who turned a blind eye to it. I’m not willing to cede my church—my beloved refuge—to them. They stole the innocence of children. They stole the consolation of the Church from the faithful. Now they’re trying to steal the holy places themselves, the walls that witnessed so many happy times—weddings, baptisms, confirmations—selling them off to pay for their sins, though those are literal payments for literal sins, not the kind of sins they’ll answer for some day.”

I’d heard Peggy say similar things at public forums over the years, but never at close range. Had her Church been willing to ordain women, she’d have been a natural in the pulpit.
Peggy McGillicuddy started out as a minor character in TRUTH BEAT, but she soon took on a central role in the story. Her voice is familiar from my Catholic girlhood, a person of faith who isn’t blind to human failure, but accepting of it. Through writing Truth Beat I gained a new level of respect for all the Peggys who have stuck with the Church, and a deeper understanding of their struggle.

I didn’t expect writing a book about a murdered priest would leave me with a changed perspective. It is a bit of grace for which I am thankful.

Have any of you experienced a similar epiphany through writing or reading fiction? Has a character changed you? What novels have given you new insight?

Brenda can be found on the web at, on Facebook at and on Twitter at @buchananbrenda TRUTH BEAT is available in digital format wherever fine ebooks are sold.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Emily Arsenault's Evening Spider & the haunted baby monitor

HALLIE EPHRON: I remember in 2009 reading Emily Arsenault's The Broken Tea Glass and thinking, who is this writer?! I'd ever seen anything like her book. It's set in the editorial offices of a dictionary publisher where clues to a murder are found in the files by a young lexicographer. The book has a bizarre sense of humor and it's a literary page turner. I've been a fan ever since. 

Turns out Emily worked for Merriam-Webster from 1998-2002, and since then she's since then had  daughter I wasn't surprised to discover that motherhood figures prominently in her new novel, The Evening Spider.

I asked her to join us on Jungle Red and talk about motherhood as grist for a murder mystery.

EMILY ARSENAULT: When I agreed to do a post on how early motherhood affected my writing, I realized that there are two different answers for me.

There’s the subject of how motherhood affected my writing generally. And then there’s the subject of how it influenced my most recent book, The Evening Spider. And that’s a little more spooky of a story.

My daughter was born just a few months before my third book (Miss Me When I'm Gone) came out. It took me a while to start my fourth novel—not just because I was caring for a newborn, but because I wasn’t thrilled with the direction my books were taking. My first book had been a light and funny book, and each subsequent book had become darker and heavier in tone.

As a new mother I didn’t want to dwell in tragedy or violence. It surprised me that I felt this way, but in any case, I started my fourth book, What Strange Creatures, determined to write a funny book. And while some wouldn’t call that a “light” book (there is an untimely death, as in all of my previous books), the heart of the novel is a funny brother-sister relationship.

I was thrilled to get a contract when my daughter was about six months old, and started working on the book in earnest. Writing felt different than it had before—more like a “break” from baby duty than work—a luxury, even. Most days I didn’t have more than two hours to write at a stretch—so I became much more disciplined about producing pages each time I sat down in front of my computer. I didn’t just grow more disciplined, but more grateful to be writing a book. How lucky was I to get to be a mother and a paid writer at the same time? It felt like a nice balance—although I never had much time for housework in this “balance,” and still don’t.

And so all was relatively well, at least on the surface. But while I was busy writing that fourth book—when my daughter was six-to-twelve months old—something strange was happening in my house. One night, I awoke to the sound of my daughter crying, followed by the sound of someone saying Shhhhh over the baby monitor. I felt relieved that my husband had awoken before me, and was tending the baby. Then I turned over and saw that my husband was still lying next to me. So who was with the baby?

I ran down the hall, found my daughter alone in her crib, and picked her up. The next day I forgot about it, but a few weeks later it happened again. And then a few weeks later, again.  Shhhhhh. Often I would spend the following day trying to come up with logical explanations from what I’d heard. Then I’d forget about it—until it would happen again. On a week when it happened a few nights in a row, I held my sleeping daughter well into the night, and couldn’t sleep after I put her down. And then, when I was just about to become entirely unhinged, it stopped altogether. (The picture is Emily's haunted baby monitor.)

It wasn’t until at least a year later that I considered putting this experience in a book. (And I still don’t have an explanation.) But eventually, I wrote it up as one of my opening scenes of The Evening Spider. And so begins a novel that was a departure for me. The book is part psychological suspense, part ghost story, part true crime, and on some level, an exploration of the potentially bizarre psychological effects of new motherhood.

Writing about this experience made me feel better about it—and made it feel more like a “story” than an “experience.” It was fodder for one of my books and therefore somehow less real. And I was in control of it—what it meant and where it led. The result is The Evening Spider.

My daughter no longer has a monitor in her room and I no longer hear phantom shushing at night. Recently, my daughter got up in the middle of the night to report that there was a “visitor” in her room. Yes, that is the word my three-year-old used—“visitor.” And yes, I know how creepy that sounds, and no, I absolutely have not told her of my experiences with her the room or encouraged her to speak this way. Perhaps she’s just inherited my ominous imagination.  Or maybe there is a gentle presence in her room, after all. And whoever or whatever it is, maybe I haven’t written it away, after all. 

HALLIE: Is that spooky or what? I love the book's title because when I saw it I immediately thought about Miss Muffet and the spider who sat down beside her. Gives me chills thinking about a spider in my baby's crib. Nooooo!

Has anyone else out there experienced anything akin to a haunted baby monitor? It would make a great X-Files episode, dontcha think?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

LIKE yourself more and share feel-good posts LESS on Facebook

HALLIE EPHRON: Every day I spend much more time UNsubscribing to newsletters I never asked for than actually reading one. And for the first time in months I recently subscribed to one!

It's all because of Facebook. I posted:
Speed bump: I just "liked" my own post
I'd inadvertently LIKED my own post. In the comments, a familiar name popped up (from Facebook and she comments here.) Yochaved Miriam Russo said:
Actually, it's a good idea to 'like' your own posts -- I haven't gotten into the habit, but it makes sense to do so. 
She included a link that introduced me to Rick's Daily Tips. Rick Rouse writes a newsletter chockablock with very useful tips for clueless Internet dwellers like me. Stuff like: Facebook algorithms tip in your favor when you like your own post.

His latest newsletter had something that shocked me.

He warned against clicking on or liking or sharing what he calls "feel good posts on Facebook." You know, the kind that you click on and share because they're cute... Like:

Adorable, right?

I am very careful about what I click on and rarely get stung, never open emails from sources I don't recognize, but when I saw this tip I knew I had some learning to do. 

Rick says what looks completely innocent could be “Like and Share Bait.” After it's been LIKED and SHARED a lot, it gets replaced by something offensive or a spam image or links to a virus that downloads when the next person clicks on it. 

So thanks to Rick I'm done SHARING those kinds of posts - and LIKING myself a whole lot more.

Here are some of Rick's other posts that you might like... and maybe like me you'll end up signing up for his newsletter. There are worse ways to waste your time.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Would you rather be productive or creative?

HALLIE EPHRON: A few weeks ago I found a new word: pre-crastinate. I discovered it while not writing my book – in other words, roaming the Internet. AKA PROcrastinating.

The Scientific American blog talked about pre-crastinators (turns out most of us are) who are likely to hurry and get something done so we can cross it off our mental to-do list, even if the rush ends up being wasteful.

You’re a pre-crastinator if you need to…
  • Deal with emails as soon as they come in
  • Write thank you notes the week you get the gift
  • Return phone calls the same day
  • Get to the airport at least an hour before you know you need to be there
  • Pack the night before
  • Start and finish assigned work long before it’s due
Guilty as charged, your honor. As long as what needs doing is a relatively easy task to knock off. The low hanging fruits of a busy life. And it FEELS like I’m being so productive as I check them off my to-do list.

But the ugly truth: I do them in order to put off writing. I do the easy stuff in order to put off doing the hard stuff. 

In other words, for me pre-crastinating can be a form of PROcrasinating. (Like right now I’m dashing off this blog instead of chipping away at my novel.)

Fortunately (for me), though procrastinating is lethal for productivity, it turns out to be something of a boon for creativity.That's according to Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School. (Another article I read while I was NOT writing my book.) 

Procrastinating isn’t such a bad idea if you’re involved in a creative endeavor. And you're in good company. Steve Jobs was a procrastinator. Ditto Bill Clinton and Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Writing is a creative endeavor, right?

I can relate to this, because my first ideas are rarely my best. When I hit a fork in the road, which is every other day in the course of writing a book, the options need to incubate. Gestate. Stew in my brain while I’m knocking off my email and blog and updating my web page. Until voila, what I hope is a golden egg pops out. Hopefully not weeks or months after my manuscript is due. 

What about you? In writing and in life, pre-crastinator or procrastinator, or "it all depends"? 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Destination reads: Books to travel with

HALLIE EPHRON: I love to travel, and on every trip I bring books along. This summer we're going to Iceland, and I'll probably bring along a novel by one of my favorite Icelandic authors like Arnaldur Indriðason or Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Books by Deborah Crombie, Peter Robinson, and Ruth Rendell went with me to London. I took Denise Mina and Ian Rankin to Scotland.

But I never do the same thing when I'm traveling in this country. I should have been re-reading Pat Conroy's The Great Santini when I was in Beaufort, SC, and one of James Lee Burke's Dave Robichaux novels when I was in New Orleans. Missed opportunities.

Here are the most visited cities by tourists in the US. What books would you recommend as a take-along for any of them? Fiction, nonfiction, what book would give someone to read for special insight into the place.

#1 New York City
#2 Chicago
#3 Charleston
#4 Las Vegas
#5 Seattle
#6 San Francisco
#7 Washington, DC
#8 New Orleans

LUCY BURDETTE: for New York, I'd recommend SJ Rozan's Lydia Chin series. For Washington, anything George Pelecanos. You didn't mention Australia, but I read Bill Bryson's IN A SUNBURNED COUNTRY before we went last year. I had to stop halfway through because of all the poisonous creatures he was describing--although he's a fabulous writer and very, very funny.  Also, western Australia, ML Stedman's THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS. A disturbing but lovely novel taking place on a small island across from Perth. I'm sure I'll think of more as soon as I hit save.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: As a former DC resident, I love books that show Washington for the dynamic, diverse urban center it is. So of course, I'd recommend almost anything by George Pelecanos, who has been chronicling life and crime in the non-touristy parts of town for two decades. DC is an African-American city, And no two books capture the breadth of that experience like LOST IN THE CITY, a collection of neighborhood stories by Edward P. Jones, and Stephen Carter's THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK, spotlighting the members of the city's black elite.

To  explore the other Washington - white, powerful, political - I suggest the very funny NO WAY TO TREAT A FIRST LADY by Christopher Buckley, wherein the first lady clubs the president on the head with a Paul Revere spittoon and is put on trial for murder. And finally, for a jaundiced look at DC's movers and shakers, HEARTBURN, by Nora Ephron. It's a wickedly sharp portrayal of one couple's marriage falling apart in the leafy, cobblestoned confines of Georgetown.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Ah, New York! For fantastical New York, I'd recommend Mark Halprin's A Winter's Tale, for historical New York, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. For Brooklyn, anything by Paul Auster, Betty Smith's a Tree Growns in Brooklyn, and for snark about (fictional) Brooklyn mommies, Amy Sohn's Prospect Park West.

For Boston, I like this author — maybe you've heard of her?— Hank Phillippi Ryan.

RHYS BOWEN: Exactly what I was about to say, Susan. You actually have a group of writers here at Jungle Reds who bring places to life for us. Hank's Boston, Lucy's Key West, Debs' London, Julia's upstate New York. My Molly Murphy can take you on a good tour of New York a century ago. Susan gives a great feel for London during WW2. And Hallie--you absolutely nailed Hollywood in the sixties!

I'd also agree on S.J. Rozan for contemporary New York. Kelli Stanley brings 1940s San Francisco to life beautifully. Janet Dawson's Jeri Howard series evokes the contemporary Bay Area. But when I think about sense of place it's always Pat Conroy who comes to mind first.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Aw, Susan, thank you! And so funny--do you know A Winters Tale is my favorite book of all time? I've never read "cold" like the Lake of the Coheeries in that book, and never read beauty like his magical New York. (Edith Wharton is my other favorite, especially House of Mirth and  Wharton's Custom of the Country.  Also for turn of the century New York, Caleb Carr's The Alienist. What an amazing book. For the 1980's New York? Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, completely amazing, brave and rule-breaking.

For Boston, Dennis Lehane's Mystic River. And Chuck Hogan's Prince of Thieves.  (The movie of which, The Town,  had an entirely different ending.)

Now I'll be thinking about his for the rest of the day.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: So many books I've loved already mentioned! And so many I would like to read... For another fascinating look at New York, I'd recommend City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (although I have to admit I haven't finished it.. Good but a bit daunting.) For Chicago, Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden novels. You'll never think of Chicago quite the same way again. And for Charleston, how about Kathy Reichs? And one more for Seattle--a new series by Glen Erik Hamilton, featuring ex-Army Ranger and former thief Van Shaw. The first book, Past Crimes, is nominated for an Edgar for Best First Novel. The second, Hard Cold Winter, is out in March and is definitely one to watch for.

HALLIE: Please, weigh in! What books would you pack for a trip to a great US city?