Monday, November 30, 2009

Getting the Scoop from Hannah Dennison

Rhys: Today I’m delighted to welcome my good friend and fellow Brit Hannah Dennison to JRW. Hannah is the author of the Vicky Hill Mysteries featuring an obituary reporter desperate for a front-page scoop. Hannah began her writing career doing just that—writing obits for the local newspaper deep in the English countryside. Eager to live a more “adventurous life”, she spent a decade working as a flight attendant on private jets before moving to Los Angeles as a single mother with her daughter and two cats. After several years as a story analyst in the entertainment industry, Hannah switched to long form narrative and enrolled in the UCLA Writer’s Program. Her third book, Expose! (Berkley Prime Crime/Penguin USA), is out this month.

Rhys:: It's great fun to have a fellow Brit on Jungle Red. Tell me how you came to wind up in California like me.

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 16 years now but it was the one place in the entire world, I never wanted to be. One Friday night, after a particularly brutal week—I lost my job, my home and also ended an unsatisfactory relationship (revenge to come in a future book)—I was drowning my sorrows with a bottle of red wine and wondering who I could call at midnight to share my pain. It just so happened that during a recent vacation to Disneyland, I’d been casually introduced to a certain Melissa in HR (who was later fired, but hopefully not because of me), at New Line Cinema who had gaily said, “You should come and work for us!” Fortified by wine and remembering it was 4 pm in Los Angeles, I did a “drink and dial.” Recalling our conversation in the cold light of day I realized I’d agreed to take a receptionist position in Hollywood and start “On Monday.” To cut a long story short, I emigrated 3 weeks later, miraculously armed with a J1 Trainee visa (I still have no idea how I qualified) and ultimately got my green card thanks to my knowledge of Pitman Shorthand—a defunct form of speedwriting.

Rhys: So you've made the choice to live in California and yet your books are set in a charming English village. Is this nostalgia for the old country or do you just think murders are more fun in England?

It’s a mixture of both. I’ve never lived in a city. I’m a country girl at heart (which is why Los Angeles is such a strange place for me). I grew up in a small village where the shenanigans of country living make Hollywood celebrity scandals dull in comparison. For the Vicky Hill mysteries it was a case of “write what you know” but it also gave me the chance to exploit the eccentricities of my fellow countrymen. Everyone knows the British are mad as hatters so perhaps that’s why I can get away with unusual backdrops and quirky murder scenarios.

Me: We met Vicky Hill, budding journalist stuck in the obituaries but looking for a big break in Scoop! Now she has a new adventure out this month. Can you tell us about it?

Vicky fantasizes about being the next Christiane Amanpour of CNN fame but she’s more like Lucy Ricardo. Her adventures have found her dealing with hedge jumping in A VICKY HILL EXCLUSIVE!—no, it is not an Olympic sport—and hedgelaying in SCOOP! Feel free to google the National Hedgelaying Society for more information. In EXPOSE! Vicky is determined to solve the mystery surrounding a dead local celebrity during snail racing season—my friend’s ancestors lost their entire family fortune on snail racing in the late nineteenth century.

Rhys: So what's next for Hannah Dennison and Vicky Hill?

I am currently writing THIEVES!, the fourth Vicky Hill which features Morris dancing. Hopefully the series will continue since poor Vicky’s worst nightmare is dying a virgin. It would be such a tragedy if she were to end her life, literally, on the shelf.

I’m also working on an idea for another series that is set in the world of executive flying—writing what I know!

Rhys: What do you miss most about England? For me it's that sense of continuity, that feeling that everything has been there for ages and will continue in the same way. The pubs. Sitting outside with a Pimms on summer evenings--oh, now I'm getting too nostalgic. Over to you.

Top of my list is the English countryside, walking in the woods, tramping through muddy fields and visiting Stately Homes—as you say, it’s that sense of continuity. I listen to a tape of English songbirds when I write—which confuses my cat. I still subscribe to Country Life and Devon Life. I absolutely adore our Queen. However, I definitely don’t miss the weather.
But, America has been very good to me. I got published—and I met and married my soul-mate. I’d never have imagined in a million years that I’d be happy here. My mum was right when she said you just never know what’s around the corner.

Rhys: Expose will be in stores this week. Makes a great stocking stuffer, hint hint.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thoughts on Fame

I've been thinking recently about fame, because it's a strange characteristic, not linked to human survival. Why do some people have a need to be famous? Why do other people go ga-ga over a person because he or she is famous? What, exactly, is the point of fame?

What got me thinking about this was observing my grandchildren. I have Meghan and Lizzie, equally talented. Meghan enjoys showing off her singing and Irish dance skills. Lizzie hates to perform or be noticed. And then I have Mary Clare, who is a born star. She comes into a room and she's the immediate center of attention. . She interacts with strangers everywhere she goes. She gets the lead in the kindergarten play. Is this just a case of introvert versus extrovert or is there really some kind of fame gene? Haven't we all been to plays and there is one person on stage we can't stop looking at? Not always the most handsome person or the best actor but they just have something that fascinates us.

I was a movie buff as a child. I remember standing for hours in a crowd in London for a chance to glimpse Joan Crawford. She was an awful old woman in those days with make-up caked like a mask and false eyelashes a mile long, but I was so thrilled that I really saw her--it was almost a religious experience, as if she was a reincarnation of the Buddha or something.

I have to confess that when I was a child, I dreamed of being a movie star. I loved to perform. I still enjoy speaking in front of a crowd. So that fame gene has to be there, doesn't it? On the other hand, I am intensely embarrassed when fans come up to me and stammer and gush over me. I never know what to say. So I don't want fame to be adored. That's obvious. So what do I want? Why do I keep plugging away at my writing, hoping for the bestseller one day? It's not the money--although a few million would be nice. Is to know that I'm good at what I do? That I'm close to the top of my chosen profession? that I've achieved my goal in life?

Why do people like us keep striving while others are content to accept a paycheck and desire nothing more than no stress, a quiet life, a few beers and a godo retirement at the end?

The whole fan culture is strange to me. Some musicians whip fans into a frenzy and yet they are not as good technically as lesser known musicians. Some of the best actors never make it to the top. So what defines star quality?

I'd appreciate any enlightenment on this subject. Also I'd be curious to know: who is the most famous person you have met? With me it's a toss between the Queen, The Pope and the Beatles.

HALLIE: What I've observed is that when people get really famous, then they become a lightning rod for sneers. Others take great glee in knocking them down a peg. That famous I don't need to be.

Most famous person I ever met? Gotta be Marilyn Monroe. My parents were screenwriters and six-year-old me got to go on the set at 20th Century Fox while they were shooting the Heatwave number ("We're havin' a heatwave, a tropical heatwave. The temperature's risin', it isn't surprisin', she certainly can can-can") for NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS. Marilyn danced and sang -- you can see the amazing results on YouTube

Afterward Marilyn came out looking like nobody wearing black pedal-pushers, a white blouse, sunglasses, and a scarf tied around her head. I also met Danny Kaye (my parents wrote a movie he was in called On the Riviera), Katharine Hepburn (Desk Set), and Fred Astaire (Daddy Long Legs). Groucho Marx once came from the house and smoked a cigar. I got the very strong impression that he didn't like kids. And I once answered the front door and there was Ray Bolger singing "Once in Love with Amy" to me (my sister's name is Amy.)

RHYS: Hallie, you definitely have an unfair advantage! I would have been in heaven if I'd met Danny Kaye or Fred Astaire.

HANK: Rhys, you met the Queen, The Pope and The Beatles?? And people stammer and gush over you? Yikes. You win. :-) But Hallie, you're in another name-dropping league altogether.

I interviewed Prince Charles. (Very cute. And truly charming.) And I did long interviews with President Carter, and Warren Beatty and Cybill Shepherd and Dustin Hofffman and Ansel Adams, and I worked closely with (and toured with) Hunter Thompson and Richard Avedon.

Fame. Yeah, I sometimes wonder it's what happens to kids when their parents don't praise them enough. Or when the kids think they don't. If they say--"watch me dive!" and the parents don't.

RHYS: This is no measly list either, Hank. Do you find that being a TV personality makes you visible when you're out in public? Do people treat you differently because "you're on TV?" Does it interfere with your normal life?

JAN: I met Patty Duke once. She'd been famous since childhood and you could tell. There was this protective shell around her. It was as if there were a couple of feet of celebrity shield between her and the humanity around her. Not that I blame her, but I think it would be a burden. I think when I was young, I dreamed of being famous. But to tell you the truth, I don't think I could live that way. It even makes uncomfortable when people think its a big deal I'm a mystery writer. I keep wanting to set them straight.

ROBERTA: I was going to say that Hallie was the most famous person I've met:) but my husband reminded me that George W, George Sr, and Jeb Bush once played through us on the golf course. While we waited for them to finish the hole, Barbara Bush came up to watch. I introduced myself and my mother-in-law to her and offered condolences about Millie the dog. I said we'd recently lost a beloved guinea pig so we understood the loss. She was gracious but not certain at all that a rodent could be compared to her Millie.

RO: I would hate to be famous. I can't imagine people going through my garbage or staking out my home hoping to catch me in an unguarded or unmadeup moment.

Famous people I've met...I've bumped into a number of famous people at parties and great meeting of the minds - and no one's ever sung to me (like Ray Bolger...very cool.)Okay, included with the soap opera, classic movie stars, athletes, wrestling and porn stars I knew in the video business there were three first ladies, two presidents, and one olympic gold medalist, Brian Boitano, whose thighs were as big as Emmett Smith's. William Hurt, Christopher Walken, Ron Jeremy and Governor Hugh Carey all, um, chatted me up (in my younger days)and I sat in the back of a limo with Frank Gifford who let me try on his Hall of Fame ring. I did shake hands with the Mick - Mantle, not Jagger. But no one made my heart beat faster than Bryan Brown, who must have thought I was a complete stalker when I met him at a party at the Australian consulate.

I haven't mentioned any women by name..that's terrible. I did meet Jeanne Moreau once. She was extremely cool.

RHYS: Hey, between us we've pretty much covered famous people in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, haven't we? My observation has always been that the really famous people, those who have made it to the top, are extremely nice, but those who have just brushed with fame--new stars, new wannabe stars, are objectionable. But of course we six Jungle Red babes have remained humble and loveable.
And nobody has enlightened me on why we crave fame. Is it as the song says, "I want to live forever?" Are our books just a quest for immortality?

Friday, November 27, 2009

On Cranberry Souffle

JAN: Okay, here it is, my friend and former room-mates, cranberry souffle recipe. It's not my favorite -- but then, I'm not a big fan of cranberry sauce either. Also, I'm not crazy about meringue. But this dish is extremely easy, very pretty, and always impressive. It was popular at the big table I served yesterday (sixteen.)

Cranberry souffle
1 bag of fresh cranberries
1 cup sugar
six egg whites
1 cup water

Combine the cranberries, sugar and water in a saucepan. Boil and cook, stirring for 5 to 8 minutes until the fruit becomes a thick puree. Cool.

Beat egg whites until they hold firm peaks. Pour the cranberries over them, folding until no streaks of egg whites appear. Although this photo features small individual cups, I pour the souffle into a single buttered and sugared 2 1/2 quart baking dish and bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.

When I make it, I separate the eggs first and have the egg whites ready in the mixer. Then I heat the fruit on the stove and leave it in the pan to cool until the turkey comes out of the oven. I turn the heat up and make the souffle. It's always the last thing to come out of the Thanksgiving oven.

(I think you aren't supposed to open the oven door during baking or the souffle could drop. Although I've never had that happen.)

Print and save for next year!!! Anyone have any Thanksgiving recipes they'd like to share?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

On what NOT to make for Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!

It's a great holiday, no gifts required, lots of good food. And of course, tradition.

JAN: Which leads me to this confession: There are certain foods I make or MUST have for Thanksgiving that I don't recommend. Foods I am compelled to serve and sometimes eat that, in all honestly, should be avoided at all costs.

Kielbasa on rye rounds: I don't really like Kielbasa. But I'm half Polish and for every holiday, my mother, an otherwise good cook, served Kielbasa on those little rye breads that are always stale. Now I feel compelled to serve Kielbasa, especially at Thanksgiving, even though its actually too heavy an appetizer before a huge turkey dinner. I try to improve it. I hand make the rounds out of regular rye bread, which are a nice touch and never stale. I make a sauce of horse radish and dijon. But there's no getting around the kielbasa. It must be served.

Green Bean casserole: Let's face it, those french fried onion rings are kind of gross. It doesn't matter. My mother served it. Plus, my daughter loves it, so she puts it together. It can't be left out.

Cranberry souffle: This one I got from my former roommate. You make a sauce of fresh cranberries, whip up six egg whites and put it in the oven after the turkey comes out. To tell you the truth, it doesn't taste all the great, but it looks incredibly impressive, so I serve it. Not every year, just when I want something pretty on the table.

Turnips: I hate turnips unless they are slow roasted and there is no time for that with a full Thanksgiving oven. So they must be boiled and mashed ahead of time. They are bitter vegetables that remind me of that moment when Scarlett O'Hara comes back to Tara and pulls up a vegetable from the ground that makes her throw up. But they were my mother's favorite. Last year I made them, this year I'm leaving them out.

Home made gravy: It's the prima donna of Thanksgiving dishes. It has to be done after the turkey comes out while everyone is getting restless for the meal. I'm a pretty cool cook, but I find this whole process nerve-racking. You are supposed to get the grease out -- which is impossible, since the whole thing is just grease. And God forbid there are lumps. I don't eat it anyway, but for my guests who do, I find a good store-made gravy and microwave it.

Is it just me? Or are there mandatory Thanksgiving dishes you serve, eat or feel everyone should avoid??

HALLIE: Good gravy--how can you possibly get it out of a can? Travesty! It's easy to separate out fat. You pour all the juices into a pyrex cup and let the fat separate from the juices. Pour off the fat, and use just a 3-4 tablespoons of it to start the gravy. I just have to be sure not to drink too much wine before I start the gravy.

JAN: Just to clarify, I don't get the gravy out of a can. You can get sort-of-home-made but store bought gravy at Roche Brothers (Willow Farm) and Whole Foods. They come in cartons. Like Ice cream.

HALLIE: What I don't like are cranberry relishes made from ground up raw berries. Pucker time. And I used to hate Brussels sprouts but I've made my peace with them.

ROBERTA: Oh me too, must have the homemade gravy. Must have it the next day for leftovers too! But I totally agree with Jan on the fresh cranberry relish--ugh. (this year I bought a can...)

My mother-in-law is coming for dinner tomorrow so I'm doing the creamed onions that I would otherwise let fall by the wayside. And stuffing--I don't care that much about it, but my family does so I make it. Recent years, I've been making it with homemade cornbread and sausage, but since we're out of town in a small kitchen this year it's PEPPERIDGE FARM FROM A BAG! And just by the way, I love mashed turnips--one of my sisters-in-law taught us to mix the turnips with the potatoes and mash them all together so that's what I'll do this year!

HANK: I just did a WHOLE BLOG about gravy. It's my nemesis. Though I won't give up. Check it out on I love gravy. And I only have it on Thanksgiving. I also love roasted Brussels sprouts--Hallie, you taught me how to make them! And I adore the real cranberry relish I make with triple sec and orange peel and pecans.

Yuck: creamed onions. Roasted chestnuts. Pecan pie. (yes, I know, But I think it's tooth-grittingly sweet.) Parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, any of those root things. To me, they taste like--ah, mud.

That cranberry souffle sounds kind of cool. How long does it cook? NO NO, don't tell me.

JAN: So enough of that warm and fuzzy "what we're grateful for" Thanksgiving conversation. Come tell us what you HATE about Thanksgiving. But food only. No relatives.

(And come back tomorrow when I'll post my cranberry souffle recipe--especially for Hank. The kids won't eat it, but most adults will rave - at least before they taste it. And if you were ever going to write a Thanksgiving murder mystery, it would be the perfect place to put the poison. )

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On Lola

Misa Ramirez is the author of the Lola Cruz mystery series: Living the Vida Lola (January ’09) and Hasta la Vista, Lola! (2010) from St. Martin’s Minotaur Books. A former middle and high school teacher, and current CEO and CFO for La Familia Ramirez, this blonde-haired, green-eyed, proud to be Latina-by-Marriage girl loves following Lola on her many adventures. Whether it’s contemplating belly button piercings or visiting nudist resorts, she’s always up for the challenge. Misa has a Middle Grade series, is hard at work on a new women’s fiction novel, is published in Woman’s World Magazine and Romance Writers Report, and has a children’s book published.

JAN: Welcome to Jungle Red, Misa and please tell us about your protagonist.
MISA: Dolores Cruz (Lola for short) loves shoes, chicken mole, kung fu (she’s a black belt) and her close-knit family. When her brother’s hunky old high school friend Jack Callaghan moves back to town, Lola falls hard. Now, after a year and a half as an underling at Camacho and Associates, a local private investigation firm, her oh-so-sexy and mysterious boss, Manny Camacho, assigns Lola her first big case: solving the mysterious disappearance of Emily Diggs. Can Lola juggle two men, her loving but demanding family, her PI exams, solve her all-important first case, and shop for fabulous shoes?

Lola’s single, a good Catholic girl (usually), but willing to do a lot to live her dream of being a detective. She works for muy misterioso Manny Camacho, has always loved old high school crush Jack Callaghan, and has a modern day rogue for a brother. The long and the short of it is that Lola can definitely hold her own in any situation, even when her mother’s berating her for having a career instead of marriage and children, when her mafioso grandfather has her doing ‘family’ work, and when her grandmother thinks she’s a ghost.

JAN: Are you and Lola anything alike?

MISA: There’s one thing that I’m asked (and sometimes not asked verbally, but with raised eyebrows) as a writer of a Latina mystery series. Bet you can’t guess what the question is. I’ll give you a hint. I’m not Latina.

JAN: Why do you write a Latina character, and how did you manage to make her authentic?”

MISA: The short answer is: “I’m a writer so it all comes so easily! Why not a Latina?”
That’s a complete lie (the part about it coming easy, not the part about me being a writer). Writing is hard work, and it’s true that you have to write about what you know. So here’s the long answer. As I’ve already stated, I’m not Latina. I’m a white girl from California now living in Texas. But I married a smokin’ Latino man (almost 20 years married now) and I’ve learned so much about his culture through the years of our relationship so I do know (in my own way) this culture, and as a result, I know Lola. I know her from the outside looking in. I know her though my children’s eyes. I know her through my husband and his family. My husband’s parents lived with us for several years, his sister is one of my best friends and is the sister I never had, and I love so many elements of the Mexican culture because of all of this.

So I write this series and write Lola because there is so much beauty in the Mexican culture and it truly speaks to me.

When we had children, it became even more important that we find ways to bring that culture into our American lives, to show our kids the culture that is part of their history, and for them to embrace that part of themselves. When the character of Lola Cruz came to me, it felt right because in so many ways I felt that this family that I’d created in my mind represented so many things I wanted to emphasize about the Mexican culture for my kids. The family, the faith, the language, the food... But I also wanted to show how these elements can be balanced within an American life.

Lola balances (or struggles to balance) life with the cultural and familial expectations placed on her and her own passions and desires which stem from her life as an American. As a person removed from the culture, I think I was particularly careful and conscious not to slip into stereotypes
JAN: What’s next for Lola?
MISA: Lola’s next adventure (Hasta la Vista, Lola!) has her investigating her own death–and the death of a mysterious ex girlfriend of romantic interest, Jack Callaghan, a newspaper columnist with a past and some baggage that prevents him and Lola from moving forward

Hasta la Vista, Lola! comes out February 2, 2010. Here’s the teaser:

What’s a girl to do when she finds out she’s been killed? Pinch herself to make sure she’s not a ghost, for starters. When Dolores Cruz comes home to her parents’ house to find every relative she has mourning her death, all hell breaks loose. With the help of on-again/off-again love Jack Callaghan, and juggling a new case thrown at her by muy misterioso boss Manny Camacho, it’s up to fledgling detective Lola to find out who’s behind the identity theft and suddenly wants her dead.

Click here to read an excerpt from the second installment in the Lola Cruz Mystery Series.


Meet the characters! Read Lola and her crew’s On-Line Dating profiles.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On Amelia

JAN: Like every little girl growing up, I was fascinated by Amelia Earhart, not just because she was one of the few female historical figures we ever learned about in grade school, but because she was so unconventional, so in-your-face courageous, and of course, so tragic.

But what did I know really know about the first woman pilot to solo across the Atlantic? Not much. Not until I read the first draft of Rose Duncan’s novel-in-progress, Surviving Amelia, which is filled with surprising details about Amelia Earhart. Details that have nothing to do with aviation.

The book is still in the fine-tuning stage, but in the meantime, Rose Duncan has created a new blog which brings Amelia to life in a way that Hilary Swank just couldn’t.

Rose Duncan is a pseudonym. Widely published under a different name, her alter ego is an award winning fiction writer who has written three well reviewed mysteries, short stories and lots of non fiction for national magazines and newspapers. She's here today at Jungle Red to tell us how Amelia became so much a part of her life.

JAN: When did you first become interested in Amelia? What is it about her that captivated you? What is it about Amelia that captivates all of us?

ROSE: I was a fan of Amelia Earhart in middle school. At that time, I was really most interested in how adventurous she was. Plus, I loved those outfits. The leather jacket and pants, hey it was modern. Obviously I think she’s one of those iconic women who represents what we might become for those of us who are ambitious. Is it still a man’s world? Not exactly, but being a successful woman is not a cakewalk. Her single minded devotion to her passion inspired women then, and I think it does now. Plus, no one really knows how she died. And everyone loves a good mystery.

JAN: Tell us a little bit about your new blog and what are you trying to accomplish with it?
ROSE: I’m basically searching for Amelia, or to be more specific my Amelia. Earhart is an iconic figure; we know about her exploits, but I wanted to discover a different part of Amelia. She kept so much control over her public image. I wanted to delve into her, warts and all. I think that people have a very sanitized version of who she is/was. My Amelia isn’t nearly as tidy as the one we know about.

JAN: Where does your Amelia come from?
ROSE: She is grounded in three year plus of research and fueled by my imagination. My Amelia goes against what most people have written about her, for example I focus a great deal on her relationship with her sister. Many people don’t know about it. She kept her private life quite private. It’s part of her fascination, not quite knowing who she is and being able to imagine her as better, sweeter, kinder, her image is purposely non-threatening. In reality, she couldn’t be that person and accomplish all she accomplished.

JAN: Who is your target audience?
ROSE: I’m not sure I have a specific one in mind. I would think anyone interested in Amelia and in how a writer deals with weaving a real historical public figure and her less famous but still quite real sister into a novel. In the blog, I write about questions I’m posing myself, and the answers I’ve come up with. It’s a progress report of sorts.

JAN: Share of the more interesting lesser known things about Amelia? Any myths you’d like to bust?
ROSE: I think the movie tried to touch on her decidedly utilitarian marriage. Amelia wasn’t faithful to her husband. She made that clear on her wedding day, the letter she wrote was basically a marriage contract. She had one well known affair, with Gene Vidal. I’m guessing there were others as well. She was ferociously independent. And incredibly careful about her public image. When you read her own writing, you have to work hard to figure out who she is. What I found interesting was comparing her story to the one her sister told. There’s a lot of hubris and a lot of self interest if you look at what she did, versus what was said. Not that she wasn’t generous . . . but it often seemed to come at a price. My book centers on the relationship between Amelia and her sister Muriel. One thing Muriel writes about, and biographers note, is how Amelia insisted on flying to get to her rehearsal dinner, then was grounded because of bad weather and ruined the moment. I thought that was kind of telling. She was fixed on the grand entrance.

JAN: Tell us about your book Surviving Amelia. How did you get the idea for the book?
ROSE: I wanted to write a book about friendship between women. And Amelia was there from the beginning. She popped into my head and I couldn’t rid myself of her. I began writing this novel several years ago and finally am getting close to the finish line.

JAN: Having read an early draft, I can honestly say, this is an Amelia you've never learned about in grade school. I can’t wait until the finished novel version is on the book shelves, but in the meantime, I’m getting my Amelia fix at:

Tomorrow, I’ll be interviewing Misa Ramirez, author of a new mystery series featuring Latina sleuth Lola Cruz

Sunday, November 22, 2009

On clothing keepsakes

JAN: I have a night shirt that I bought at least 24 years ago. Originally, it was red and in the style of a football jersey. But after all those years of washings, it's faded to a deep coral. Last time I took it out of the laundry, I realized, the cotton had completely deteriorated. The back is so full of holes, it's not even useful as a rag.

Here's the problem. The football jersey has the number 12 on the front. A year after buying it, my daughter, was born on December 12th.

I keep taking the night shirt from the drawer and putting on the bench next to the waste basket. The first step in throwing it out. But hard as I try, the night shirt finds its way back into the drawer.

I can't get rid of it. I'm emotionally attached. I think we all have at least one of these in our closets. Come on, fess up, is there a big ugly sweater your fond memories are hanging on to?

ROBERTA: I'm not only going to fess up, I'm going to model it. This is my utterly favorite shirt for hanging around home in. It has no sentimental value, it's just so comfy. You can't really see the gray cargo sweatpants in the photo, so you'll have to take my word that the elastic is gone in both the waist and the ankles. I know one day I'll come home and find they've mysteriously disappeared from my drawers...except that John guards his old favorites just as closely so maybe we're even. Though there was a pair of puce green sweatpants that did ultimately vanish. I had to agree that was for the best!

RHYS: My mom was a big Snoopy fan. I bought her a nightshirt with Snoopy on the front. When she died I used precious cargo space to have that nighshirt shipped back to California. I've worn it regularly ever since. I noticed recently that it's on its last legs. But I really don't think I could throw it out. I know some people take pieces of beloved old clothes and make quilts of them, but I'm not a quilt maker, nor would a quilt look right in my home. The other ridiculous thing that I hang onto is my ice skates from my teen years. I was so thrilled to get my own white boots and they've been dragged around the world with me ever since. They are too small for me now, but each time I put them to be donated, they somehow find their way back into the cupboard.

JAN: I have a pair of tap shoes in the basement I feel the same way about!

HALLIE: Jan, a suggestion--cut out the "12" and stick it in your daughter's baby book. Then THROW OUT THE SHIRT. The thing I can't throw away is a short, dark brown mouton coat, like super-thick velvet, with a mandarin collar. I just look at it and feel warm. I'd still be wearing it but I've grown and it hasn't. I keep hoping that one of my daughters (I bought it half-price at Ann Taylor's after Xmas sale when my 33-year old was in a stroller) will one day want it.

ROSEMARY: I love the ice skates - it reminded me of Jean Paget's ice skates in A Town Like Alice. (After being a POW in Malaysia for years she vows to go ice skating again back in England after the war. The rink has been bombed out of existence but she holds on to her skates. Good book.)I have too many of these things to mention. Starting with my wedding dress. Why am I keeping that thing? The falling apart t-shirt I bought in Rio when my friend failed to meet me at the airport and I was stranded for four days. The black sequined miniskirt which may be, ahem, a little young for me these days. The Chanel shoes which have somewhow gotten too small (eegads, can you gain weight in your feet?) The Talking Heads/Speaking in Tongues sleeveless tee which is so threadbare you could probably sift flour through it. The black Coach briefcase which was one of my first big-girl purchases (think Working Girl.)

And of course, there's this, the polka dot silk tuxedo jacket which I wore to parties in the 80's, with the sleeves rolled up, of course. I had shoulder-grazing earrings which went perfectly with them (still have 'em.) I may have even worn the sequined mini.

HANK: Jan, did Jonathan put you up to this? I bet he did. Here's why. See the photo of the ballet shoes? Instead of bedroom slippers, I wear pink Capezio ballet shoes. Yes, this is an all too obvious throwback to my failed dreams of being Maria Tallchief. But the ballet slippers are pretty, and packable,l and non-slip, and somehow make me feel graceful, even when the rest of my ensemble is tank top and sweatpants.

Anyway, you can see that the slippers in the photo are newish. Not broken in. The little elastic bows are still stiff. That is because the previous pair--which literally, I wore for about--two years, maybe more, mysteriously disappeared.

When that pair got a little rip in the sole, I "fixed" it with duct tape. Then it needed a little more duct tape. And finally, one whole shoe was pretty much wrapped with duct tape. Jonathan said, "Why dont you get a new pair of ballet slippers?"

"Why?" I wondered. "These are perfectly good." Soon, the other slipper had to be "fixed" with duct tape. And finally I was walking around with more duct tape than ballet slipper. But I loved them.

I wish I could show you a photo of them. But they disappeared. Ver-ry mysterious.
(Ro, you have to keep your wedding dress. I have all three of mine. :-))
JAN: So please, tell us, any clothing keepsakes you can't just throw out?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

True Confessions

Norb Vonnegut is back. Because he has a confession. And we could not resist an object lesson.

That Morning in Brisbane

I have a confession to make.

It took me about thirty years to become a published author overnight. Top Producer is my first novel, and after a career on Wall Street where everybody avoids the limelight, you might say I wasn’t ready for primetime.

And every word is true.

First a little background: Top Producer will be published in other languages and in countries outside the USA—Australia, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, and Hungary. My Australian publisher, Murdoch Books, released Top Producer on September 1, 2009. They were first to print my novel and will, therefore, always occupy a special place in my memories.

It was exciting to attend the Brisbane Writers Festival. During my first week as a published author, I was having a blast Down Under. There were parties and author panels. After three or four radio interviews and at least one television appearance, I began operating under an illusion.

I’m a celebrity.

I woke up—literally and figuratively—on a Friday morning at 1 am in Australia. My publicist had scheduled an interview with Buddy Cianci (ex-Mayor of RI and radio talk-show host) at 2 am Brisbane time which was noon in Providence. I had set the alarms on my BlackBerry and the clock next to my bed. When the hotel reception also called at 1 am, the three ring tones sounded like a four-alarm fire in the neighborhood.

Hey, I didn’t want to sleep through the radio interview.

After a week of big parties and late hours, I was a wreck waking up in the middle of the night. Bed head. Groggy. Not a pretty sight. I pulled on a pair of old shorts but stayed with the flannel pajama tops that have been part of my wardrobe since last century. Outside, BlackBerry in hand, I tried to wake up in the fresh air by replying to e-mails. What did I care how I looked.

Nobody’s out in Brisbane at 1 am in the morning, right?

Wrong. I sat on the bench in front of my hotel, slowly gaining consciousness before my radio interview. Two guys and a woman approached me from the distance. They were returning from a big night out, Aussie style, and the woman pointed at me.

Not now, I thought. I don’t want my fans seeing me like this. Bed head.

Nasty pajamas.

The trio drew closer, and the woman pointed again.

They want me to autograph a book. I’m not ready for fame.

“Look,” The woman said, “he’s homeless.”

I glanced back over my shoulder and, finding no one behind me, realized she was talking about me.

The woman persisted. She shredded my illusions and tore out my heart.

She asked, “Do you think he needs money?”

I gazed at her in much the same way a deer eyes oncoming headlights. My hands rose involuntarily. I didn’t know what to say.

No. No. You have it all wrong.

And the woman sighed, a note of relief in her voice, “It’s okay. He has a BlackBerry.”

Friday, November 20, 2009

Hornet Gak (Yes, that's what we said.)

"The gold standard for financial thrillers."

*Publishers Weekly starred review of Top Producer

HANK: Coming up: Hornet Gak.

But first: Financial sharks take on a whole new meaning in Norb Vonnegut's acclaimed debut thriller. Let me just give you a hint: it begins with a gala party at the Boston Aquarium. And a certain large fish is no longer hungry at the end of the evening.

But swimming with the fishes is not what's on Norb's mind today. The female mind--if there's such a thing--is what's on his mind.

And also, Norb says:

Hornet Gak

To be brutally frank, I have an ulterior motive for being here.

For my next novel, I’m collecting words and expressions that only women use.

No guy, for example, ever says, “She’s adorable.” My buddies would hoot if they heard me say, “too cute,” particularly in reference to knee-high boots. Hank sent me an e-mail, signed it “xoxo,” and observed, “There’s another one, right?”

See what I mean?

Will you comment with a few expressions unique to women, as I recount what is perhaps the most horrific author experience of all time? I’ll send a free copy of my Wall Street thriller, Top Producer, to the person who submits the best word or phrase. (The contest ends at 11:59 pm on Friday, November 20.)

What about the author horror story?

In fact I was not a published author that Sunday morning during August 2007—just hopeful as I worked through my literary agent’s redlined edits of Top Producer. I heard an odd, semi-rhythmic clicking just over my desk, annoying as all hell. It sounded like dripping water, but it wasn’t raining outside.

Get ready for an “ewwh” moment.

I tapped the slanted ceiling over my desk, gently at first, nothing too aggressive. To my surprise the wallboard split, and hundreds of insect legs poked through the crack.


That’s when I decided to suck out with a vacuum cleaner. It worked great at first. The bugs made a pleasing and fairly regular “thump” sound as they barreled into the canister.

The calm before the storm.

A chunk of the wallboard gave way, though, and a thousand "bald-faced hornets" swarmed into my office. These yellow jackets sting repeatedly, not just once. They're vicious. When they sting, they leave a scent—a homing device for their brethren to attack the same spot. I got lucky. The hornets didn’t sting me once.

Even so, you could hear me screaming all the way to Boston.

With the yellow jackets buzzing everywhere, I ran from the room and slammed the office door shut. Using a rolled-up towel, I sealed the crack under the door so the hornets could not strafe the rest of the house.

An exterminator—a guy in a Hazmat suit fresh off the set of Ghostbusters—arrived several hours later with two tanks of poison strapped to his back. There was a pitched battle, man versus insect, winged carnage everywhere. And a three-by-three section of wallboard collapsed over my desk, exposing the mother lode of all nests.

There is no word in the English language that adequately describes the fallout. I'll go with "gak." Hornet gak–writhing wasps, wriggling slugs, and grey catacombs oozing with white maggoty larvae gasping their last breath–crashed onto Top Producer.

The gak buried my agent's redlined edits, his meticulous markings and thoughtful suggestions for improving the story. The gak dealt Grove O’Rourke, my fictional hero, a major setback in his quest to help a widow find her missing fortune.

I took one for the team, rolled up my sleeves, and fished the be-gakked manuscript from the slime. Things got safer, I’m pleased to report, post publication. There are no trace elements of hornets anywhere in the hardbound copy of Top Producer, just a few sharks.

When’s the last time you heard an author describe writing as a life-and-death experience?

Norb says he'll stick close to his computer today--isn't that--adorable? What a sweetheart, I mean, OMG. Cutie-pie. ;-)

He also told me a great story about his most embarrassing moment as a newly published author, so I convinced him to confess it to you, too. So come back tomorrow to hear all--and Norb will announce the winner of the free Top Producer during halftime of the Harvard-Yale game. (Shall we make a list of things only men would say?)

**NORB VONNEGUT is a wealth adviser who writes about Wall Street’s behavior behind the headlines. His first novel, Top Producer, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. He is now editing The Fund, a thriller scheduled to print in the winter of 2010-2011. Norb built an extensive career with Morgan Stanley, Paine Webber, and other Wall Street institutions. His author’s website is His blog, Acrimoney, has non-fiction insights into today’s financial news.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Do You Drive A Dog?

Quick, who's one of the most beloved and funniest mystery authors in the country?
Yes, that one, and sure, her too, and we do love so many of them. But Elaine Viets is on everyone's list.

Here she is with her new car. And it has a name. But more about that in a moment.

I swiped this from her web page bio:

"As a young girl, Elaine Viets was taught the virtues of South St. Louis: the importance of hard work, housecleaning, and paying cash. She managed to forget almost everything she learned, which is why she turned to mystery writing."

I mean---what can I say. If you know Elaine, you see how truly complicated this bio snippet is . Hilarious, and full of truth and irony. She would never admit that. She'd say it's just--true. Which is what makes her such a good writer. And such a wonderful person. And such a good pal of Jungle Red.

Plus, she loves cars. And today--she has a confession to make.

I Don’t Drive a Dog

I am a cat person. I have two house cats, and drive a 1986 Jaguar sedan with a leaping cat hood ornament.

The Jaguar, with its sleek curved hindquarters, is the most beautiful car on the road, in my opinion. Except for the needle-nosed Jaguar XKE. But that wasn’t a car, it was a sculpture.

I’ve spent most of my adult years driving cat cars. In the mid-1980s, I had a silver Cougar XR-7 that looked like a satisfied tabby. In 1990, I bought my first Jaguar, a used 1986 owned by an accountant who only drove it to IRS audits. I named the car Ralph.

Other car owners joke about Jaguars being unreliable. “Buy two,” I was told. “That way you’ll have another one to drive while your Jaguar is in the shop.”

But Ralph was faithful. He never stranded me on dark roads or in dangerous neighborhoods. When he was ailing, he waited until he was home and I could safely call a tow truck. Ralph and I spent some 175,000 happy miles together. Earlier this year, I noticed light coming through Ralph’s floorboards. Peter, my mechanic, patched the hole, but Ralph was terminally ill. He was rusting out. I wept for his death.

Peter knew a man who had to sell one of his aging Jaguars. I bought another 1986 sedan. What can I say? It’s an addiction. My new-old Jaguar is Black Beauty, Blackie for short. So far, Blackie has been a paragon of beauty and faithful service.

I wrote my newest Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper novel in the middle of this car drama, and wondered why there were no cars named after dogs. Cats are seen as lazy and aloof. Dogs are supposed to be steady, hard working and faithful. So why are cars named after animals ranging from Mustangs to Rams? Where is the faithful dog?

Wouldn’t Chihuahua be the perfect name for a small, cute car? A Collie would epitomize faithful service. I’d feel safe driving my loved ones in a 2009 Collie, confident that I giving them the best protection. A Dachshund would make a good name for a long van. The Rottweiler could be a cool muscle car. Young drivers would streak down the highway in fast black Rottweilers with brown spots over the headlights.

Of course, dog cars could have perception problems. Who wants to drive a dog when that is a synonym for lemon?

Here’s a sliver of dialogue from “The Fashion Hound Murders,” where Josie Marcus and her best friend Alyce discuss the issue.

“I might like to drive a Golden Retriever or a big friendly Labrador,” Alyce said.
“Who wants to drive a Pit Bull?” Josie said. “And buying a Doberman is asking for trouble, especially if I had an accident. I could see a lawyer telling a jury, ‘That woman’s 2009 Doberman ran a red light and attacked my client’s innocent 2007 Golden Retriever.’
“And I’d be the bitch behind the wheel.”

I’m afraid cat cars will continue to rule the road. After all, a female cat is a queen.

HANK: Oh, now I'm obsessed with thinking of a good dog-car name. Do you have a 2009 Poodle? You know what that would look like. And once your car is all dented, it's clearly a Sharpei. What do you think?


The Fashion Hound Murders is available now!

(Josie Marcus has been hired to check out a big pet store's involvement with puppy mills. When an employee who clued her into the mills' existence shows up dead, Josie realizes that sinking her teeth into this case could mean getting bitten back...)

Win a free autographed copy of Elaine Viets’ new Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper mystery, “The Fashion Hound Murders.”

Tell us your best idea for a dog-car name. (A Labra-4-door?)

Or cat name. (A Chevy Catmaro?)

The Jungle Red team of highy-trained top-notch accountants will choose a winner from today’s comments!

And what's more:

Check out the first chapter of “Fashion Hound” at

And buy your autographed copy at

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Every Time We Say Goodbye

"It would concern the reader little, perhaps, to know, how sorrowfully the pen is laid down at the close of a two-years' imaginative task; or how an Author feels as if he were dismissing some portion of himself into the shadowy world, when a crowd of the creatures of his brain are going from him for ever."

**Charles Dickens from the preface of David Copperfield.

HANK: Go get a box of tissues. Then come back.

Sharon Wildwind (and this isn't the sad part) became one of my first colleagues in mystery-writing world. We've never met in person, but we connected because she's a friend of my old pal Laura Palmer (are you out there, Laura?) who was a reporter during the VietNam war. Sharon was in the war. A nurse. Here she is, in the early 70's signing someone into the Pleiku Emergency room.

She came home safely (obviously still not the sad part) and eventually wrote five mystery novels. Her main characters were drawn from her own experiences...and in country and back home.

Now Sharon has decided that the series has come to a logical conclusion.

And that is the sad part.

Empty Nest Syndrome

I already have plans for the spare room. Making plans for the spare room is what mothers do, isn’t it, when their kids leave home? I’m a little hazy on this, never having had any real children.

The children who are leaving home are my Vietnam veteran characters. Benny Kirkpatrick, child #3, is headed for the altar in the fourth book in the series, Missing, Presumed Wed, which was released in September of this year.

Let me say that there are problems with the wedding, like Benny’s mother being kidnapped and Lorraine Fulford, Benny’s fiancĂ©e, not sure that she wants to marry into Benny’s strange family. Regardless of whether the wedding comes off or not—you’ll have to read the book to find out—Benny and my other three fictitious children, Elizabeth Pepperhawk, Avivah Rosen, and Colonel Darby Baxter, are leaving home.

I’ve told them so in no uncertain terms, and encouraged them to start packing.

Their fifth and last adventure, Loved Honor More, is almost finished. At the end, everyone gets a chance to be brave and most of them have to make a choice between love and honor. Tough calls.

Last week a reader asked me how I knew that it was time to end the series. One nice thing about writing stories that take place thirty-five to forty years in the past is that it’s possible to pick specific dates with which to bookend the story arc. When I began the series, I decided to cover a period starting when Pepper came home from Viet Nam (July 1971) and ending in the weeks following the fall of the American Embassy in Saigon (April 30, 1975).

I hoped at least three stories would fit comfortably into that time frame. As it turned out, I found five. In the words of the Australian song writer, Eric Bogle:

And I watch my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving old dreams of past glory . . .
But year after year their numbers get fewer
Some day no one will march there at all
~The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

By the time the American Embassy fell, most of my protagonists were in their thirties. Pepper, the baby of the group, was twenty-eight. Even the most militarily gung-ho among them found their memories changing. Days would go by without Viet Nam intruding. Nights would go by without bad dreams. Paying the mortgage had become more important than paying the piper.

One of the nice things about ending this series is that I can use up my treasure storehouse. All the snippets of dialog, partial scenes, etc. that I’ve held on to because they were too good to use up are going into the final book. It’s the mental equivalent of cleaning a closet.

The day I send the final book out into the world looking for a publisher, I’m holding an emancipation party. Each of my characters will get a certificate stating that he or she is now an emancipated minor. Small gifts will be exchanged and there will be balloons and noisemakers and, of course, cake. Always have cake.

I won’t mind if they drop by from time-to-time to let me know how their lives are going, but they will no longer be required show up for literary roll call Monday to Friday at 0800 hours. I think most of them will be relieved about that.

As for all that spare mental space that their departures will create, I’ve already got tenants waiting. A few years ago I had another emancipation party, for characters in a series set in northern Alberta that I realized stood very little chance of being published as it was then written. The characters went away, had further adventures, and now they want to move back in. I understand this also happens with real children.

They’re going to have to share the space with characters in a stand-alone about love and knowing when to quit. It’s going to be interesting to see whether the new series or the stand-alone wins first place as the next book in the queue. Whichever one does, I only hope that the readers and I have as much fun with the new group as we’ve had with Pepper, Avivah, Benny, and Darby.

I’ll send you a postcard from my new headspace.

Want to get back into a cheerier mood? Click here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


"Before you can understand the story of the body in the falls and everything that happened after, you have to get a grip on the geography around here."
*** from Hollis Seamon's Al Blanchard Award winning story "Sleep is the New Death."

HANK: Don't you love to watch the previews of coming attractions at the movies? How those little snippets can tempt you! And how wonderful it is to be able to get such instant gratification. There, in thirty seconds or so, is a theme, a character, a highlight--and if you're lucky, a mystery.

Don't touch that dial. Here are your very own previews of coming attractions in the newest short story anthology from Level Best Books! It's called Quarry. Does that mean a precipitously deep crevasse from which you (or your victim?) may never emerge? Or the elusive subject in a criminal pursuit? Ah--it all depends on which story you're reading.

You should have seen the line at Crime Bake to purchase Quarry! (Anyone have photos?)

Oh, yes, you'll want this book--and you can get it right now by clicking here.

Or hey...take a moment, if you dare, and step into the...Quarry.

****Mike Wiecek lives in Boston-- he's won a Shamus and two Derringers.
Here's a taste of his story “The Gas Leak.”
When Sue Ann in dispatch got the 911, she called out the fire department, then immediately rang up the sheriff. Sue Ann knew that any action at the Granger place was unlikely to stop at firefighting. The sheriff didn’t answer, not surprising, considering it was lunchtime, but instead of phoning down to the diner, Sue Ann hunted around on the radio until she scared up a deputy. And that’s how Carleen Boyd, twenty years old and the town’s first-ever female officer, came to show up with the pumper and the ambulance and the fire chief’s old Blazer.

***Vincent O'Neil is the Malice-award winning author of the Frank Cole Mystery Series. Vinny's hilarious. And he lives in Rhode Island. His story is
"Finish the Job."
The girl came down the pole quickly, but with great stealth, a variety of electronic gadgets swinging from her utility belt as she descended. The heavy coveralls and baseball hat did not conceal the fact that she was athletic and pretty, or that she wore an impish smile when she finally touched he leaf-strewn ground.
"I know that look." The man turned his head, as if expecting bad news, his dark eyes staying fixed on the girl.

***My first short story. And I'm thrilled. Charlie McNally is nowhere in sight. Meet Rachel, in
“On The House”
"School? Family relationships? How does he get along with his mother? Does he have sisters? Do you have his bank records? What's his favorite food? Was he married before?"
By the time we'd finished, all the brie and crackers were gone. We'd given up tea for Chardonnay. Least I could do. And plan Get-Ron was underway. My divorce was going to happen. I was convinced.
And what's more, Camilla said I could watch.

***Joseph Souza lives in Portland Maine. In 2004, he won the Andre Dubus Award for short fiction. You've got to wonder what happens in
The Devil’s Dumping Ground”
The corpse would be weighted down. Then we’d toss the poor stiff in, waiting long enough to hear the echo of splash far below. For years we ditched bodies in almost every quarry up here: Tit, Blue Rock, Goldfish, Rampa, to name just a few.

***Nancy Gardner is an experienced hand at publishing short stories. Her newest is the haunting
"Where There's Smoke"
She tucks wayward gray-red curls under the brim of her purple knit hat, rewraps the scarf, masking all but wary blue eyes. Eyes that flit to her lap, her mittens. Eyes that wince when she removes the mittens, reveals grotesquely burn-scarred hands, one of which she sets to work tracing a crimson rose embroidered on her bag.

***Stephen D. Rogers has published more than 500 stories and poems in 200 publications.
"Bottled Up" makes it 201.
My husband would kill me if he ever learned I was sitting in my cruiser with a bottle cradled between my thighs.
Why did I need a bottle of hot water? So I could prepare formula.

***This is Norma Burrows' third Level Best Anthology. (When I got to the end of this story, I burst out laughing. Be afraid. Be very afraid.)
Confessions of a Telemarketer”
No one in their right mind would give a postal worker a hard time. Their tendency to go “postal” is well documented. However, it is socially acceptable to harass and be rude to telemarketers over the phone. I am here as a telemarketer to ask you, “Do you have a death wish?”

***Alan McWhirter is a criminal defense trial attorney from Connecticut. This is his first published short story, too. But I bet it won't be his last.
Don’t Call Me Simon”
I have this fantasy where I get stuck in an elevator with the most gorgeous girl in the world. It might have happened that day in the Ebony if Plain Jane hadn’t beaten out Gorgeous to the lift. The fates weren’t with me or with Gorgeous. On a good day fantasies come true. On a bad day, they end in murder.”

Oh, there are so many more. Judy Copek's "Bad Trip." Steve Liskow's "Little Things." And--with a nod to The Lady or the Tiger?--Glenda Baker's The Verdict.

Congratulations to the Level Best gang! This book is a treasure. (Click here to see the whole list of wonderful writers.) All of the stories are terrific--all about New England, and all from, as Level Best puts it, "writers who together have been nominated for or won all the major awards for crime fiction." We promise a couple of them will surprise even the most experienced readers. And Quarry is the best possible stocking (or fishnet) stuffer for your favorite mystery-lover.

Better get your copy soon. Just

(Thinking about writing a short story yourself? The editors are standing by to answer your questions. And what's your favorite short story ever? Let us know--and you'll be entered to win a free copy of Quarry. TWO winners tomorrow!)

Also tomorrow--a visit from Canada! And fair warning: Get out your handkerchiefs.)

Monday, November 16, 2009


We interrupt our regularly scheduled chat today--because it's time for Quarry!

HANK: OKAY--wait. We'll chat. What's the best short story you've ever read?

HALLIE: Mine is "All that you love will be carried away." It's a very un-Stephen-Kingy short story by Stephen King that was published in The New Yorker.

King wrote the story when he was recovering from that terrible car accident that nearly killed him and left him crippled. In the story, I see the author facing the decision of whether to keep living...and writing.

JAN: Bernice Bobs her Hair, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Also, I devoured two volumes of shorts stories by Somerset Maugham but can’t remember one by name. They were all terrific.

HANK: Well, we all might have some new candidates soon--and they may come from Quarry. (And see below for a CONTEST! to win a free book!)

Quarry is the seventh collection of crime stories by New England authors from Level Best Books. Level Best is the result of a decision by northshore writer Susan Oleksiw to use the medium of the short story to take a “snapshot” of New England mystery writer’s minds. Were there things unique to our culture, our history, our geography, that influenced the way our writers saw the world, particularly, the world of crime?

Oleksiw invited two other writers, Skye Alexander and Kate Flora, to join her as editors. The result was an eleven story collection, Undertow, published in 2003. Level Best Books published Ruth McCarty's very first short mystery in their first anthology, Undertow. Ruth became a partner and editor with the publication of Seasmoke in 2006.

Kate told me they love titles that have double meaning, like last year's Deadfall (which, with the cover, also became a pun). They’re also looking for something that reflects New England character or geography...thus Quarry...which, of course,also suggests prey.

Susan says--We picked Undertow for the first book, thinking about the dangerous undercurrents in a beautiful day at the beach. We liked the double image of beauty and danger. The next title, Riptide, followed this pattern. By the third, we decided to stick with wind/landscape images that seemed true of New England--the landscape that was both inviting and ominous. We considered and discarded the idea of a single name carried from year to year, and decided to make each volume unique in both title and content.

HANK: SO! Tell us about Quarry!

KATE FLORA: The project was so much fun, and it was so satisfying to sit on the editorial side of the table, discovering exciting work by established authors and introducing readers to work by undiscovered authors, that the editors decided to do it again. Seven years and one editor change later, we’re still doing it.

SUSAN OLEKSIW: Quarry grew out of an attempt to offer a publishing venue to New England writers of short crime fiction. More and more people are turning to writing short fiction, but the venues are fewer and fewer. Even the ezines don't seem to last very long. We've lasted seven years and given a lot of good writers their start, promoted short fiction, which holds a special place in crime fiction, thanks to Poe, and shown what writers with no office and no services except a telephone can accomplish.

JRW: What makes Quarry special?

KATE: We like to think that each of our collections is special, and unique. What is different about Quarry is that, judging from the quality and number of our submissions, we seem to have “arrived” as an established regional publisher.

As editors, there will always be particular stories in each collection which are our individual favorites. Sometimes a collection will tend to have more dark stories, some are lighter. This year, we’ve got a beautifully balanced collection of strong stories that richly represent the region’s diversity. The stories in Quarry run from the downeast lobtermen practicing a Nigerian-type scam on a guy from away to a policeman turned marginal detective in rusting Connecticut city. Whether they explore the way hardscrabble small town life can turn neighbor against neighbor or suburban workers turning to a self-styled guru for ways to magically improve their lives, these stories probe the secrets of the heart and the dimensions of courage. These are stories that linger in the imagination long after the book covers are closed.

JRW: How difficult is the selection process?

KATE: The selection process is always difficult. In order to keep the books affordable, we have very tight space limitations, and are always forced to reject stories we would like to include. This was by far our hardest year. Our process is to each make a list of our top stories. Then we sit down and compare lists, trying to find the right balance of short, medium, and long, of stories lighter or darker in tone, of stories that represent the diversity of the region and include, as much as possible, writers from all the New England states. This year, our “yes” lists were each twice the size of the book we could publish.

It is terribly painful to send rejection letters to writers whose stories we admire, to writers who are our friends, to writers whose stories are “almost there” but not yet ready for publication.

SUSAN: Every year is challenging, but this year was especially difficult. We have length limitations, and we had to turn down some wonderful stories. Usually we can filter out a lot of the submissions as just not ready for public view, but that wasn't so this year. We have a lot of good stories that are sometimes not quite in the genre--more ghost or paranormal, for example--but this year everything was so good that we found ourselves turning down things we really liked.

JRW: What have you learned about short story writing from reading the submissions?

SUSAN: New England writers have quirky, unique imaginations, and they use the landscape well.

KATE: Oh, a zillion things. I’ve learned how important voice is in a short story. How sometimes three or four writers will submit stories that have essentially the same plot, but one will stand out because the writing grabs me, or the character’s voice is so distinctive. I’ve learned that, at least in arena of the crime story, plot logic matters just as it does in a crime novel. If the cops are cartoons, or the cleverly plotted murder would instantly be discerned by a competent detective, if the police procedure is crummy without being deliberately crummy—all of these things are turn-offs for me as an editor.

I’ve learned how one of the best ways to tell if a story works is if it leaves me with a small sigh of contentment at the end, a frisson of surprise at the author’s twist, or an indelible character or situation in my mind.

JRW: Stories from your anthologies have had some wild success…tell us about that ?

RUTH: Our favorite story, of course, is about Mark Ammon’s “The Catch.” This is a story that was submitted to us the year before we published it. We didn’t feel it was quite ready to go, nor that it had enough mystery, so we sent it back to Mark suggesting he rewrite and resubmit. According to Mark, he did what many of us do with rejections, he stuck it in a drawer. But sometime in the middle of the year, I ran into him and asked about the story and whether we’d be seeing it again, so he took it out, reworked it, and sent it to us again. It went on to win the Robert L. Fish Award that year for best story by a first time writer, and was nominated for an Edgar for best crime story. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

KATE: Our stories have been nominated for Agathas and Macavities, and won several Derringer Awards, including Ruth McCarty’s this year at Bouchercon for “No Flowers for Stacy.”

JRW: Whoo hoo Ruth! And now: because you cannot wait to read Quarry, we’re going to present a few excerpts from some of the wonderful short stories included in this year’s anthology (including mine..).

Oh, wait—you mean we’re out of time for today?

Well—then come back tomorrow for a special preview of Quarry!

If you can’t wait and want to buy it right now—for yourself or a lovely holiday gift—just click here!
Any questions for the Level Best gang? Or--what's your favorite short story? Do you read them?
**(Hank's note: I'll draw from the fave short story submissions for 2 copies of QUARRY--U.S. and Canada only, please!)
(And coming up this week: tomorrow, previews of short stories! Wednesday--a visit from Canada. Thursday, one of your favorite and funniest authors ever. Friday, a new guy in town who needs your help--and Saturday, his amazing true confessions. And Sunday--well, we might have some photos from CrimeBake!)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Are we sick yet?

HALLIE: Only one of us at JRW has come down with it, but we're all, to varying degrees, obsessing over H1N1.

At a recent ‘no handshake’ conference, hundreds of folks were bonking elbows, like we were doing a demented version of the chicken dance. Hugging and air kissing without inhaling. You could barely turn around without knocking over a bottle of hand sanitizer, and people were whipping them out of pockets and purses. We all heard about one of the organizers who came down with the flu on the first day of the conference, and I agonized over how long I’d stood chatting with her, envisioning the little H1N1 vermin-y creatures frolicking in the air between us.

The CDC does nothing to allay our fears. It says those who are infected “shed virus and may be able to infect others from 1 day before getting sick to 5 to 7 days after.” And yes, little balls of spit or perspiration from an infected person can survive on surfaces and remain infectious for 2 to 8 hours. It’s not just other people you have to worry about. Your pet ferret can infect you if he gets sick with H1N1.

How to prevent catching the virus if it’s on your hands? The CDC recommends that when you wash those hands -- with soap and warm water -- keep going for 15 to 20 seconds. This is roughly equivalent to singing Row, row, row your boat… all the way through twice. You could get arrested for hanging out in a rest room that long.

RHYS: On the West Coast we seem to have become blase about it. Last spring we were passing around hand sanitizer and not shaking hands as a sign of peace in church. Now we're back to hugging again. My two granddaughters were home last week with flu. Was it swine flu, do they think? I asked. Probably, my daughter replied. They weren't very sick and I suppose it's good news if lots of kids have it mildly and will then be immune, but there's no vaccine available. There isn't even regular flu vaccine available, so there's not much we can do.

I did hear a recommendation that one gargle with salt water regularly and put a little alcohol inside the nostrils. Personally I go to the sauna at my health club. That degree of heat should zap most viruses!

HANK: I carry little packets of hand sanitizer, and I'm always swabbing my desk and my phone. And the phone in the edit booth. I do shake hands, but I know I hesitate, and afterwards I do kind of think about hand sanitizer. We drove a pal to work the other day, and when he coughed, I freaked. But when a grape fell on the floor of my office, and I picked it up and ate it. So, I guess it depends. Luckily, (in so many ways),I don't have a pet ferret.

JAN: Back from the doctor who told I'm in recovery from the swine flu. It was one really, really bad day. One not so good day, and a killer cold afterward. But hey, I got steroids!! Which of course, means no major league baseball for me for at least six months! -- good thing its off season.

HALLIE: No baseball. No ferrets. What's life coming to?

How nutty have you gotten? Take the Jungle Red swine flu quiz and find out just how sick are we...

1. When you meet someone, do you:
a. Shake hands (0)
b. Shake hands and within minutes spritz with a hand sanitizer (1)
c. Bump elbows (2)
d. Wave and say hello through a surgical mask (3)

2. If your eye itches do you
a. Rub it with your hand (0)
b. Rub it with a tissue (1)
c. Squint and suffer (2)
d. Wipe it down with hand sanitizer (3)

3. Your good friend invites you to a party. Do you:
a. Go and have a good time, as always (0)
b. Go but bring your own dishes and food and drink (1)
c. Go wearing a gas mask with a hepafilter (2)
d. Stay home--feels like you're coming down with something. Besides, who needs parties? (3)

4. When you have to sign your credit card bill, do you:
a. Use the pen provided (0)
b. Use the pen provided and then spritz your hand (1)
c. Spritz the pen with hand sanitizer and then use it (2)
d. Eschew the communal pen and use your own (3)

5. When you walk up a staircase, do you:
a. Hold onto the railing (0)
b. Pull your sleeve down over your hand and hold the railing (1)
c. Pull out glove that you have for just this purpose, put it on and hold onto the railing (2)
c. You’re tough—who needs railings? (3)

6. If someone in the room with you sneezes or coughs, do you:
a. Cringe (0)
b. Stop inhaling (1)
c. Duck and cover (2)
d. Gargle with hand sanitizer (3)

7. How many times in the last month have you felt sick enough to check your own temp?
a. None (0)
b. Once (1)
c. Three times (2)
d. Several times a week, in fact, right now I don't feel so good (3)

8. Have you stopped eating (drinking):
a. Food that someone else coughed over (0)
b. Water from a drinking fountain (1)
c. Water from the tap (2)
d. Pork (3)

How much are you obsessing over the flu?
If your TOTAL score is 0-4
**Go check your temperature right now - you've probably come down with it.
If you scored 5-15
**Nice try - but like the rest of us you'll probably get it, too
If you scored 16-24
**Getting H1N1 is probably the least of your worries

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On A Fortunate Age - homage to The Group

Joanna Smith Rakoff's debut novel A FORTUNATE AGE received the kind of attention authors dream about -- it was among Booklist's Top Ten Debut Novels of 2009, a New York Times Editors' Pick, winner of the Elle Readers' Prize...and on it goes. An homage to THE GROUP (Mary McCarthy's scathing satire of eight Vassar graduates, class of '33), it tells the story of a group of 20-something Oberlin grads in hipster Brooklyn in the late 1990s.

JRW: Can you talk about how you built on THE GROUP?

In the spring of 2001, I began writing a short story set in Manhattan, about a couple of native Brooklynites in their twenties and a college friend who comes to visit from Boston—and is sort of inculcated into their world, which is rather more sophisticated than his. The story kept getting longer and longer—and involving more and more characters--and I eventually realized that it, of course, wasn’t a story. But it wasn’t necessarily a novel either.

A year later, after the attacks of September eleventh--which is to say, during a period when my perspective on the world, in general, and my own life, in specific, was radically changing—I read THE GROUP and realized, by the time I’d finished it, that I wanted to take my now-hundred-page short story and turn it into something akin to a contemporary retelling of THE GROUP.

McCarthy’s novel is, of course, about a bunch of Vassar grads who move to New York during the Depression and try to lead their lives in a style very different than that of their haute bourgeois parents. It’s brilliance lies in the way McCarthy lays bare the ways in which her ostensibly rebellious, artistic, intellectual characters are hopelessly defined by received information and mainstream, middle class societal expectations. I was trying to do something similar. I was also, like McCarthy, attempting to chronicle a very particular cultural moment in New York history (and, ultimately, in American history), a final gilded age.

JRW: So how did you reshape your growing novel?

I spent a good year or so developing those characters, and part of that was thinking about the ways in which they resembled McCarthy’s. Each character generally has one core dilemma—or, defining trait—that, in my mind, he or she shares with the corresponding character in THE GROUP.

Dave is my version of Libby. Someone who’s read both novels might not see any resemblance between the two, but to me, they’re both ultimately unable to be honest with themselves.

My first draft of the novel slavishly followed the structure of THE GROUP, but that—not surprisingly—didn’t work at all. In the next two drafts, I took the novel fully apart and put it back together again, and banished THE GROUP from my mind. It was only then that the novel began to work.

JRW: How did your characters turn out different?

JOANNA: Mine are, I think, more aware of themselves in the world—aware of their limitations and shortcomings—which means they’re also more aware of their own unhappiness.

One small, specific thing: All of McCarthy’s characters are seriously WASPy and inhabit a Manhattan curiously absent of anyone unlike themselves. While I was reading the novel, the first time, I didn’t think much of it. But then I realized how bizarre it was—how indicative of McCarthy’s world view—that there were no Jews, in particular, in a novel about actors and playwrights and writers and Communists in New York in the 1930s. As a sort of joke—almost a dare with myself—I decided to make all my characters Jewish.

JRW: The "Friends" in this group are Beth, Sadie, Lil, Tuck, Dave, Tal and Emily -- they're all Jewish, grew up wealthy, and now they are creative idealists, decidedly unwealthy artists and writers and the like. Where did you find these characters, and are any of them you?

People often assume that the novel is essentially true, that these characters are fictionalized versions of my close friends from college, but it’s not. None of them are me—not in any straightforward way—but there are parts of me in all of them. Even Dave, whom people constantly tell me they hate, and who is definitely despicable in certain ways. And there are pieces of each character—traits and tics and experiences—that have come from the people I’ve met over the decade I’ve lived in New York.

When I began devising them, I thought of each character as possessing a certain defining characteristic. So, for instance, Dave came out of my curiosity about certain men in my acquaintance, men who possessed that awful combination of overinflated ego and crippling insecurity. And Sadie Peregrine, of course, came out of my thinking about commonalities between the women I know who come from rather privileged backgrounds.

JRW: You don't seem to feel any of the contempt for your characters that Mary McCarthy did for hers.

JOANNA: I think that’s the big difference between the two novels. As the novel evolved—and I became increasingly aware of what I wanted to do with the novel—my characters became more developed and I felt more and more sympathy for them. Ultimately “The Group” is a comedy—there’s an extent to which McCarthy’s characters are caricatures—whereas “A Fortunate Age” is really a tragedy.

JRW: Characterizing the time, one of your characters says: "Everything just feels so pointless. . . . It's all, like, where are we going to eat for dinner? What movie are we going to see? . . . There's no urgency to anything. No reason for anything." How do you think these characters would have changed if we could drop in on them today?

JOANNA: It’s funny, just last night I had dinner with a close friend, who said something to the effect of, “Remember how we used to go to dinner all the time? It was so stupid. I don’t miss it at all.”

For her, that period ended perhaps five years ago, when she had her first child, as did I. And I think, if we were to meet my characters right now, we’d find them similarly transformed, their purposes sharpened. By the end of the novel, most of them have a child or two, and their lives have taken on the sort of urgency that tends to come with having a family. When you have two hours to yourself—while the baby naps and the toddler’s in preschool—you tend to make those two hours count. I suspect that Sadie, by now, is writing screenplays for Ed, and Beth has written a book, and Emily is in medical school.

JRW: You've set the bar high for yourself, and I'm sure you're working on the next novel. Can you tell is a little about it?

Yes! You’ve caught me at a moment when I’m pretty excited about the new novel, which I’m just starting. Like A FORTUNATE AGE, it will likely be a big, sprawling thing—that’s what I tend to read, so I suppose that’s my inclination as a writer—about a family, the Baughmanns, who are in the midst of a particular sort of disintegration.

JRW: We Jungle Red Writers all write mysteries, so I have to ask if you: When you're wrote this book, were you thinking (as we would when we write our books) about the secrets your characters have that will be revealed by the end of the book?

JOANNA: I was, most definitely. I actually love mysteries and in devising a structure for the novel I thought a lot about what my characters had to hide—and how I’d go about slowly bringing their secrets to light. This is, in a way, why I so loved—and partially adopted—the structure of The Group, which is episodic, so it allowed me, as the omniscient narrator, to give the reader glimpses of various characters before fully exposing them. I was really attracted to the idea that a reader might think of a character one way—as utterly confident, in the case of Sadie Peregrine, or as bold and bombastic, in the case of Emily Kaplan—for much of the novel, then enter that character’s head and realize that, egads, she’s riddled with anxiety.

But, in terms of mysteries, I was very influenced by Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, which I love and have read over and over. The first, CASE HISTORIES, was fully on my mind over the years I was writing A FORTUNATE AGE.

JRW: Thanks, Joanna!

Joanna will be visiting JRW today. Have you read A FORTUNATE AGE? Were you riveted by THE GROUP as many of us were? Please, share your thoughts.