Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Red Sox Redux

"I think that the task of an American writer is not to decribe the misgivings of a woman taken in adultery as she looks out of a window at the rain but to describe four hundred people under the lights reaching for a foul ball

...John Cheever

HALLIE: Back to the Red Sox for just a sec. I watched the beginning and the end of every game in the series. In between, I watched with my eyes closed--a habit I got into in the bad old days when every good thing would inevitably be followed by something bad, stupid, horrifying, or all of the above in rapid succession. What this "eyes closed watching" usually involves is falling asleep until my husband vaults off the bed in ecstasy or agony.
And that rhythm section in the bullpen--those big guys playing eensie weensie triangles and cymbols and water-bottle maracas? (Shades of the Nairobi Trio--Ernie Kovacs old gag--or am I dating myself?) Now that's comic relief. Shades of the Nairobi Trio.
In the bad old days, the game WAS the comic relief. Anyone besides me looking back fondly at being perennial losers?
HANK: I watched, too. I'm from Indiana, so I grew up with basketball. Football is fun to watch because it's so easy to multi-task. You don't have to look at the screen the whole time. Hockey, forgive me, I don't understand.
But baseball. What gets me is that when it's two outs, bases loaded, and everything on the line, the world is divided exactly into two kinds of people. The ones who want to be up to bat. And the ones who don't.
The Red Sox--want to be up. And I love it. Ortiz with his congenial ease and oozing good karma. Manny, who is the most hilariously droll--I can't believe he doesn't run. Lowell, who always comes through. Pedroia, the new kid.
Perennial losers? Gets old. I 've watched so many segments of Red Sox games between my fingers, hands in front of my face. When you work at it, isn't it supposed to pay off?
And--heading to writing now--that's persistence. And when you persevere, you win. Just do it, right? Just write the book. And I promise it won't take as long as it took the Sox.
JAN: Sorry Hallie, I'm not looking back fondly at the years of perennial losses. Except to say that those years of agony led to complete esctasy when the Sox became World Series Champions in 2004. The present victory is terrific, but not quite as mind-altering.
What I love best about baseball is the ongoing story. Every player is a protagonist with his obstacles and reversals. The at-bats were clearly set up to build a crescendo of suspense. And there's always a climax (world series) and a resolution. (The Red Sox rock!)
RO: I'm a Mets fan; I'm still licking my wounds and trying to figure out what the hell went wrong. But I grew to - if not exactly love the Red Sox - love the fact that they never give up. What's really bugging me now is how good the Celtics are going to be this year. You guys are going to be insufferable.
HALLIE: The Celtics just don't do the same thing. Seems like pro basketball (and football) players are outsized and extraordinary, whereas baseball players are more merely mortals. Just like (yeah, right) the rest of us.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Book 'Em

At seven thirty Saturday, on a rainy morning best for long hours of sleep, the last thing I wanted to do was get up and drive two and a half hours to Lebanon, New Hampshire. But promises are promises, and this was a good cause. What could be more up a mystery writer's alley than supporting an organization dedicated to increasing literacy, decreasing crime and helping police solve unsolved crimes?

And even better. Because my son had a rugby game nearby in Hanover, I was able to talk my husband into coming (and he drives a lot faster than me.) Fueled by Dunkin Donuts, we charged north.

The Book 'Em Foundation is a national organization, founded by theWaynesboro, NC police, but the Lebanon event was hosted by the local police department and the city itself. Authors, sixty of them in Lebanon, NH alone, included such names as Jodi Picoult, Archer Mayor, Michele Martinez, Bill Tapply, Nancy Means Wright, Jenny White, Tom Tancin, and Vicki Stiefel. All donated the bulk of the book sales to the cause.

Okay, so I was tired and bleary eyed, and the rain did not let up. The windshield wipers wrecked the promise of leaf peeping at its peak. But I can't say enough about the warm welcome and the great job these organizers did. They greeted authors with coffee and bagels and a high school gymnasium full of eager book buyers.

But the best part was the panel with mystery authors Archer Mayor and Michele Martinez who addressed the difficulties of the publishing industry with humor, honesty and insight.

This is a tough business that often brings out the negatives. But these two successful authors had very different approaches to the problems that plague writers. I found inspiration in both of them.

I want to thank the organizers of the Book 'Em Foundation for inviting me to their event. For the most part, writers sit alone in front of their computers, making up people, struggles and resolutions. It felt good to be with a group of real people with a real objective. As if to mimic my mood, the rain cleared and the sun highlighted all the red leaves on the ride home. And there was the most amazing rainbow. A real one. Not a metaphor.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Reading maketh a full man..Francis Bacon

RO: According to the Baltimore Sun, reading also maketh a fullback, a halfback, and a quarterback as the Sun reports that the NFL's Baltimore Ravens are apparently quite addicted to James Patterson.,0,2547755.story

Who'd a thunk it? I think it's wonderful. Who else would you like to see with books in their hands..and what books?

I'd like to give James Dobson a copy of The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta.

JAN: I'd like to give Venus Williams a copy of Yesterday's Fatal. She's one of my tennis heroes and apparently, she's a big mystery reader. There's also a famous women's tennis coach from Stanford University whose name is also Jan Brogan, only her USTA rating is much, much, much higher than mine. I'd like to give her a signed copy of my book and check and see if our signatures are anything alike.

HANK: I think I know what you're going for here, RO, and it's fascinating. I'd like to give the Tao De Ching to--well, any number of politicians. But we won't go there on Jungle Red, is that the deal? Give 1984 (War is Peace...remember the rest of that slogan?) to--well, just imagine. The Great Gatsby to Donald Trump. Not that it would matter. To Kill a Mockingbird to Clarence Thomas. Little Women to Britney Spears. Presumed Innocent to OJ Simpson. (But if we're doing the wishful thinking mode, okay, I'll play. Please get Face Time to Renee Russo. Or Jane Kaczmarek. Just a thought.)

HALLIE: When I did a Sisters in Crime talk for Massachusetts prison librarians, we asked them what authors prisoners favor--turned out to be James Patterson (#1), followed by Janet Evanovich. Go figure. Did everyone see Doris Lessing won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature? We should all give ourselves The Golden Notebook and read (or re-read, as the case may be) to remember why.

BREAKING NEWS: FACE TIME makes the Boston Globe best seller list! And is now number 7 in paperback fiction.

RO: Holy Cow!!! And I know the author...

On Having HEART

Heart (from Damn Yankees)
You've gotta have....Heart! All you really need is heart!

When the odds are sayin' you'll never win, that's when the grin should start!

You've gotta have hope! Mustn't sit around and mope. Nothing's half as bad as it may appear, wait'll next year and hope.

When your luck is battin' zero,get your chin up off the floor.

Mister, you can be a hero. You can open anydoor.

There's nothin' to it, but to do it.
You've gotta have heart! Miles and miles and miles of heart!

Oh, it's fine to be a genius of course! But keep that ol' horse before the cart! First you've got to have heart!

A great pitcher, we haven't got!

A great slugger, we haven't got!

A great pitcher, we haven't got!What've we got?

We've got heart! All you really need is heart! When the odds are sayin', You'll never win, that's when the grin should start!

We've got hope! We don't sit around and mope! Not a solitary sob do we heave, mister'cause we've got hope.

We're so happy, that we're hummin'. Hmm, Hmm, Hmm

That's the heart-y thing to do. Hmm, Hmm, Hmm.

'Cause we know our ship will come in!Hmm, hmm, hmm.

So it's ten years overdue! Hoo, hoo, hoo.

We've got heart! Miles and miles and miles of heart!

Oh it'sfine to be a genius of coarse, but keep that old horse before the cart!

So what the heck's the use of cryin'?Why should we curse?We've got to get better..........'cause we can't get worse!

And to add to it; we've got heart! We've got heart! We've got Heart!

I'm a Mets fan, but you've gotta hand it to those Red Sox for not just cleaning out their lockers, taking their dough and going home.
Go Sox! (At least until next year..)


Monday, October 15, 2007

On Preconceived Notions

"Criticism is prejudice made plausible."
H. L. Mencken

You could call it prejudice, but I'm not talking about race, sex, or ethnicity, here. I'm talking about our silly notions on character.
For example, even though I am a night owl myself, or maybe becauseI am a night owl myself, I have this notion that early risers are better people. They are not just good at waking up early, they are more efficient, harder working, and pure at heart.

So I make my protagonist, Hallie Ahern, an early riser.

I might chalk it up to my own weirdness, except that a good friend always makes her protagonist a bit messy. Why? My friend is almost Felix Unger-neat, and she swears that people like messy people better than neat people.

Why does sneezing through an allergy make a character seem weak, I wonder, when suffering through a more major illness, like a heart attack, make a character seem dramatic?

My brother confessed that he thinks people who wear a lot of purple are overly emotional. But that's completely wrong. People who wear a lot of purple are more artistic than the rest of us.

Seriously though, early risers aren't more noble, messy people aren't more loveable, and the kind of illness you suffer doesn't say anything about your inner core. I'm wondering where these connections come from, whether they are universal or idiosyncratic, and how they work themselves into our fiction.

HALLIE: I think a lot of us make our protagonists more noble, taller, thinner, and handsomer, and generally just plain better on all dimensions than we are ourselves. Our villains, the opposite. I knew a writer who was constantly dieting and all of the bad guys in her novel were fat.

Which points out a pitfall--we often write from cliche. It is, as you suggest, sort of a built-in to be aware of. This is why, as Jan is always pointing out, your first idea is rarely your best. And my own aphorism: if you don't surprise yourself, you'll never surprise your reader.

RO: Yes, I have to be careful not to make all of the tall, thin blondes evil or stupid. (What does thst say about my average brunette self?) I have a blonde bimbo in book two and Stuart Kaminsky called me on it. It is a cliche, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. I don't know if she'll make it to the end of the book, but she's still there.

HANK: But this is Blink, isn't it? Malcolm Gladwell's fascinating book that posits (in part) that we all make snap decisions based on exactly the things Jan's bringing up. How our experience with how someone looks, or dresses, or their gestures, or attitude--causes us to make a decision, in the blink of an eye, about who they are and what they'll do. If that's true, and it feels like it is, how can we separate that from the choices we make in creating characters? Maybe we're not really "deciding"--the character is real, they're going to do what they're going to do. It's already all in there.

There's also that recent study that says more attractive people are more successful. More people who are bosses are taller. And certainly many TV reporters have put on a "fat suit" to show how people who are overweight are treated as invisible. And have you taken that online test that'll prove--whether you believe it or not--that you're ageist?

(And Ro, you are not average.)

JAN: Now that you mention it, Hank, maybe that's why I loved Blink so much. I guess all of humanity comes up with some kind of short-hand analysis. For good and ill. Some of it is cliche. Some of it is a real stretch. But I'd like to hear about it from all of you out there, because I think it tells us something about ourselves. Maybe something really deep. Or maybe just where our mothers bought our clothes.

Sunday, October 7, 2007


Talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams; years can pass in a second and you can hop from one place to another. It’s a language made of image. And in the real cinema, every object and every light means something, as in a dream.
**Federico Fellini

Dreams have a poetic integrity and truth. This limbo and dust-hole of thought is presided over by a certain reason, too. Their extravagance from nature is yet within a higher nature.

**Ralph Waldo Emerson

HANK: I used to have a recurring dream where I am supposed to write a story for the 6 o'clock news, and I'm in the car on the way to the station to edit my video. I know, in order to get it done, I have to write my script in the car. (In reality, this happens every day for a general assignment reporter.) But in my dream, I can't find any implement to write with. All my pencils break. All my pens are dry. I finally wind up writing my story using my fingernail to make indentations in my notebook, hoping I'd be able to read them.

The first time I had this dream, I was so freaked out when I woke up! My husband said I should put that time on my time sheet as having worked--I was certainly as tired and stressed as I would have been if I were awake through it all!

Clearly this is a TV stress dream, and I had it over and over. (Anyone have the "I have to take a test and I can't find the classroom and why didn't I study" dream? I certainly have. I think it's so prevalent they call it the "Yale Dream." And I've always wondered whether they have it in other cultures, or what stress dreams are in, say, Siberia.)

But the last time I had the TV dream, I said to my sleeping self, and I remember this clearly: Oh yeah, this is that stupid pencil dream. And it stopped. And I've never had it again.

What do you think about that?

And is there a book dream? A writer's dream?

RO: A lot of people seem to have "The Test Dream." Anthony Soprano even had one....he was "unprepared." If I've ever had that I don't remember. I do have one recurring dream - all of you wannabe shrinks out there, get your pencils sharpened.

I'm in a one story house in the middle of a barren landscape. It's warm and everything in the dream is some shade of brown or gold. There are a lot of doors to the house. I'm outside and so is a pride of lions. They start to approach me and I manage to walk slowly to the house and get inside. One of the lions comes in another door. I go out a third door. I'm concerned but, I never run. This goes on for a while, but the lions never catch me.

Then there's the dream where Julia Roberts options my book. (Just kidding.)

HALLIE: Ah, anxiety dreams. I used to teach, so I have teaching anxiety dreams. I can't find my classroom. I can't get the class under control. Lately, it's that I've taken a job teaching and I'm going to have to do it, all year. That's a real nightmare.

What I love is when I realize I'm dreaming and I can make the me in the dream do what I want. Like fly.

Oddly, I never dream about the book I'm writing.

JAN: I have the reporter dream, where I've filed the story and there's nothing I can do but wait for it to appear in the next day's paper. I suddenly realize that I've gotten some key piece of information wrong. Like the name of the subject I'm writing about. Or the correct charges. Or whether the company made money or lost money for the quarter.

Lately, I've had a new dream . Now that my youngest is off to college and by husband and I are officially empty nesters, I keep dreaming I've adopted more children. Last night, I dreamt that I thought I was adopting one more child, only she came with two younger siblings and I was starting childrearing all over again! I don't think I need Freud to analyze what that dream means.

HANK: And if I might add, sometimes dreams do come newest Charlotte McNally mystery, FACE TIME, goes on sale this week! Sara Paretsky says "FACE TIME is a gripping fast-paced thriller with an important story line and an engaging heroine..." There's more from the divine Sara (whose anthology with other Sisters in Crime is on sale right now and a MUST read) but check my website for all the info.

And now--tell us your dreams! Or, if you dare, what ours mean...

Monday, October 1, 2007

Ode to a great store...

A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.
-- Jerry Seinfeld
HALLIE: A lot of us knew it was coming, but that big FOR SALE sign out in the front of the Kate's Mystery Books gives me serious separation anxiety about potentially losing our wonderful independent mystery bookseller in the red Victorian house on upper Mass Ave in Cambridge and, for years, the heartbeat of the Boston crime fiction community (she as one of the founders of Sisters in Crime).

I had my first signing there...September of 2000 and a line snaking out onto the sidewalk in the rain, friends there to cheer for my first (finally!) Her Christmas parties where you can count on a Robert Parker sighting--are legendary. She has to schedule signing authors like a fleet of buses coming into South Station because there are too many of us to be docked there at one time.

JAN: I interviewed Kate once for The Improper Bostonian and she told me a wonderful story about the early years of the store. Authors who would become big names were still newbies, and helping her out on a nuts and bolts level. Robert Parker came in to install bookshelves, which she showed me, noting that they weren't perfectly level. She said he really had no choice but to become a bestselling author because carpentry wasn't an option for his career.

Anyway, to me that story illustrates Kate's longstanding impact on the mystery world. She's not just a bookseller, she's an incubater of new talent. Still, life moves on, so I wish her the best of luck with the sale of her store.

RO: On a totally personal level, I'm sorry that when my first book comes out in February, it doesn't seem as if I will get to experience the rite of passage that hundreds (thousands?) of mystery writers before me have, a signing at Kate's. I was looking forward to it as a sign that I had "made it." That I was finally "real", like The Velveteen Rabbit.(Don't mean to sound obnoxious, but I think you all know what I mean.)

As a New Yorker/CT'er Kate's was not my local shop; I heard about it, and Kate from NE'ers, and at Crimebake. Although I live closer to Borders and B&N, I'm going to make a conscious effort to spend my mystery dollar at the wonderful Partners&Crime in the NY's west village...
Good luck, KM!

HANK: I happened on a pal, more of a friend of my husband's than mine, on the street the other day. He's a judge, very erudite and thoughtful. Kind of--ivory tower, as judges sometimes are. Makes life and death decisions--well, not death, since it's Massachusetts, but 30-to-life, that's for sure.

Anyway, he was kind enough to have read my book, and said he loved mysteries set in Boston. And in fact, he said, he was off to Kate's to pick up his latest stash.
Really, I said? You go to Kate's?

I picture him, more easily, sending off some frightened clerks to the stacks at the courthouse library. Or ordering from Amzon where he didnt have to deal with real people.
But no, he said Kate was the only one who really knew her stuff. He just reads what she gives him.

Where will he go, if she closes?

There are lots of great bookstores here, no question. With wonderfully knowledgeable staffs and owners, and they are lovely places to visit and I've spent waaay too much money in them.
But Kate's brain, and her history, that's what you can't replace.There's an open storefront here in West Newton, Kate! Come move to my neighborhood!

HALLIE: Great idea, Hank. We'll all be waiting to hear...who knows, Ro, we may be able to fete your book in February at Kate's after all. She specializes in making authors feel Real.
QUIZ: Name a mystery novel with Kate's Mystery Books in it. HINT: There are LOTS of them, and it may even be the scene of the crime.