Sunday, November 30, 2014

Shopping with Your S.O.

 With Tom Wickersham

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I spent yesterday at bookstores...helping with Small Business Saturday! And it was not only fabulous and fun, it was a real time of insight into relationships. How people deal with each other while shopping--that's worthy of a PhD thesis.

I was staffing the "do you have it" computer at Brookline Booksmith for part of the day. It was such fun! (with Michael Blanding of wonderful The Map Thief and Joan Wickersham of The News From Spain, and Joan's son Tom, the social events coordinator. Oh, and young Cleo Blanding, age about 7, who can recite the first paragraph of  her father's The Map Thief and who is a whiz on the "do you have it" computer!) 

  But I cannot begin to tell you how often my question of "can I help you find something?" was answered with --"Yeah, can you find my wife?"  and just as often "Yeah, can you find my husband?"

SO, yeah. Relationships come out during shopping, that's for sure. And thriller author John Caranen has been thinking about relationships, too.  And not just on Small Business Saturday.

What 're you thinking?

by John Caranen

How does a man see inside a woman's head? How does he discern what motivates her? How does he even begin to understand a woman, especially one who is intelligent, complex, and  -  lethal? Sigmund Freud, whose mother dressed him funny, once said, "My God, what do women want?" Or at least, that's the way I heard it.

In my debut novel, Signs of Struggle (Neverland 2012) I introduce a fine young lass of a woman, Wendy Soderstrom. I had no idea at the time that she would turn out to be a killer. All I had in my head was the image of a beautiful athletic woman sprinting down a country lane toward my protagonist, Thomas O' Shea, who happens to be driving by in his pickup truck. Oh, yeah, and she is covered with blood and is screaming. O' Shea, being, according to him, "the most selfish person I know," contemplates not helping her. He has his own issues. He wants to pretend he doesn't even see her.

But he does, and he makes a huge decision to offer his help.

Wendy's husband has been chewed up by a mower and has bled out. A farm accident. O'Shea renders aid to the young widow until the EMS guys show up to take over as professionals. O'Shea sees to it that Wendy is removed from the scene by a kindly neighbor, who takes Wendy into town to be checked out for shock.

It begins to rain, and with the showers come questions. What, exactly, happened to cause Wendy's young husband to fall from his tractor and be flailed to death by the mower? What distracted him? Why?

Well, these are questions, and Thomas starts asking around. And people start trying to discourage him. He perseveres and discovers that there's more to Wendy, and a simple farm accident, going on in the picturesque farm community of Rockbluff, Iowa. Like, there was no farm accident. And more people die, and Wendy Soderstrom, sweet and alluring, flirtatious and mourning, is involved in more than one would guess, if one were naive, and that's something Thomas O' Shea is not.

When I write about women, it comes from years of observation. I know, I know. I said "observation" because I grew up with a mother and two  older sisters, and I paid attention. Then I dated, a lot, and continued to observe and wonder. Now I have been married for decades and have two grown daughters. They're all women! Even if I weren't paying attention, you'd think I'd learn something. I observe (not stalk) and I listen (yes, eavesdrop) and learn stuff. So, there it is.

HANK:  So--yeah. We'll bite. Let's talk about this. John, what did you learn?  Reds, do you go shopping with your spouse? HOw well does that work?


John Carenen, a native of Clinton, Iowa, graduated with an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the prestigious University of Iowa Writers Workshop and has been writing ever since. His work has appeared in numerous popular and literary magazines, and he has been a featured columnist in newspapers in North and South Carolina. A novel, Son-up, Son-down was published by the National Institute of Mental Health.
His debut Thomas O'Shea mystery novel, Signs of Struggle, was published in October of 2012. A Far Gone Night, the long- anticipated sequel, continues the exploits of the enigmatic protagonist and the quirky characters of Rockbluff, Iowa.

John is currently an English professor at Newberry College in Newberry, South Carolina. He and his wife live in their cozy cottage down a quiet lane in northern Greenville, South Carolina. He is a big fan of the Iowa Hawkeyes and Boston Red Sox. 

A Far Gone Night
by John Carenen

Suffering from insomnia, wise-cracking tough guy Thomas O'Shea goes for a late-night stroll through the peaceful streets of Rockbluff, Iowa, and finds himself pausing downtown on the bridge that spans the Whitetail River. When he glances downstream, something catches his eye...something that looks like a body. He scrambles down to the riverbank, pulling the body of a young girl from the water. The girl is naked, with two bullet holes in the back of her head. Ever suspicious of law enforcement, O’Shea chooses not mention the bullet holes when Deputy Stephen Doltch, on routine patrol, discovers him at the river's edge.
When the coroner's report lists the cause of death as "drowning," Thomas goes into action. Confronting the coroner, he is met with hostility. But then the coroner and his wife disappear, along with the body of the dead girl. Once again, Thomas gears up to find answers that will reveal who put the bullets in the girl's head, why she was killed, and her identity, which may hit a little too close to home.
Teaming up with his friend Lunatic Mooning and Clancy Dominguez, an old buddy from his Navy SEAL days, Thomas and the other two men join together to bring justice to the dead girl, a quest that takes them to the Chalaka Reservation in Minnesota, seedy businesses adjacent to the Chalaka Casino, and straight into the world of organized crime.
A fast-paced story, laugh-out-loud moments and familiar, quirky characters from Carenen's debut novel, Signs of Struggle, contribute once again to the complex world of Thomas O'Shea. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Eric Rickstad, literary genre masher

HALLIE EPHRON: It’s pretty exciting when your first novel is published by Viking Penguin and declared a New York Times Noteworthy Book. That’s what happened to Eric Rickstad with Reap. Critics call it  “an American classic that draws readers into the dangerous and claustrophobic backwoods of Northern Vermont to witness a drugged out Gothic thriller of maimed and desperate characters.” “A masterwork.”

Now Eric is out with another chiller, The Silent Girls. It’s dark and literary, and the main character is a PI.

Got to ask: crime fiction, horror, Gothic, literary novel? Does it matter how we categorize your newest book, and what inspired it?

ERIC RICKSTAD: It defies categorization, doesn’t it!? I think most of those descriptions are accurate, with the possible exception of horror. The Silent Girls has been called a dark psychological thriller, and that may wrap it up the best. But most of all it's a novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat, compelled to find out what happens next, even if part of you doesn’t want to know. It is full of nasty twists and turns.

My agent told me that he’d never been so shocked by an ending; even upon reading it a second and third time he said he was left shaken. Best of all, most readers have felt that way, and expressed that the novel earns the ending, and does not cheat to arrive at it. Mystery and crime readers are not easily misdirected or surprised, so I am pleased this seems to be the case.

The Silent Girls is also literary in the sense that it has a clear voice, an awareness of language, hopefully fully-fleshed characters, and a singular setting that makes the novel stand out. 

HALLIE: Setting seems so essential to your story: Vermont backwoods. Do you live there, and how do you and your wife get up the courage to walk your dog? (See Eric's noble watch dog himself below.) 

ERIC: Ha! Yes, I do live in Vermont. I grew up in Vermont. I love Vermont. I have lived elsewhere. But I love it here. And so does my wife. This is where we chose to raise our family. 

I'm inspired byVermont’s beauty and the way it contrasts with the rare violent crimes that take place that shatter not just the communities in which they happen, but the entire state. Such acts feel like a betrayal. It can create paranoia and suspicion, and trigger deep emotions. I like exploring that.
From my novels, you’d think I’d have to go out armed with my Winchester .30-.30 deer rifle (not that anyone would notice or care). I want the setting always to influence the characters, so that description of setting is not just a backdrop, but impact the characters one way or another, and thus the reader. I think it makes the reader more engaged.

I also love the backwoods of Vermont, the Gothic landscape and the severe changes in weather that can suddenly turn a fishing trip or a hike into something perilous. But, really, the everyday Vermont is quite safe and its pastoral beauty reflects pretty
accurately an idyll. I tend to write about the dramatic storms.

HALLIE: Your detective, Frank Rath. Police detective turned PI. What defines him for you, and where did you find him?

ERIC: What defines him most for me is that he is a single father who would do anything for his only daughter. He is devoted, and he is also afraid at every turn, as all parents are, for her safety. But his fear is even greater than most parents, because he came to being a single father through very dramatic and traumatic events that he wishes had never happened. 

He knows that being a single father has made him a much better man than he’d otherwise be. He became a single father as a result of horrific violence, and the experience made him grow up overnight and dispense with his frivolous and empty playboy ways. The irony for Rath is that the most awful event of his life in a way saved him.

HALLIE: We have many writers who follow our blog, and I’m wondering if you can speak from your own experience about the plusses and minuses of an MFA to launch a writing career?

ERIC: It does have advantages and disadvantages. I never intended to earn an MFA. Frankly, I did not even know they existed. A David Huddle, a wonderful mentor suggested I apply. I did not know what to make of the idea. Writers I liked never needed an MFA, and the prospect of earning one seemed too formal for me. Too academic. 

But David put it in perspective by saying, “Look, it will give you two years to write, where all that is expected of you is to write, and the people around you will respect that and understand it and encourage it.”

In the “real” world, when you say you’re a writer, you get one of two responses from people: either they romanticize it as a dreamy life where there is no hard work involved and it’s all just fun and glamor, or they denigrate it: “A writer? Cute. But what do you really do?” 

So what is great about an MFA is you are surrounded by writers and readers who respect what you are doing appreciate the work and perseverance it takes, and can support you in it. And you are exposed to other great writers and mentors. If you are able to find a program that suits your style and temperament, it can be a great experience—one where you can be taken seriously as a writer, where you have an excuse to do nothing but write, and where you can make lifelong friends in the process.

HALLIE: What were your favorite books/authors growing up, and how did that shape you into the writer that you are?

ERIC: Roald Dahl was a huge influence when I was in 3-6th grade. DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD especially, and Dahl’s macabre short stories. Poe’s stories. THE GREAT BRAIN and ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN series. There was a book called ALGONQUIN about a boy and his dog I loved and found again through the miracle of the internet. Then later, Stephen King, especially his short story collections NIGHT SHIFT and SKELETON CREW. And Faulkner, Shirley Jackson, Ruth Rendell, Joyce Carol Oates. So many!  

HALLIE: We writers are all shaped by the books we loved, and your affection for King, Oates, and Dahl -- that says it all. Both the high standard and the sensibility.

So asking our readers, how often are you truly surprised by an ending, and do you love a setting that freaks you out?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Are You Shopping?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  So? Are you shopping? (I MIGHT go. MIGHT. But I am trying to avoid it. )  

We have just hit some kind of  Rubicon with the grandchildren. My 11-year old GC announced yesterday that he had “one additional thing to talk about” and that “If you don’t mind, Grammy” he was asking for “cash” for his holiday gifts so he could save p for a “big, speedy computer.” So much for the days of Thomas the Tank Engine, I guess.

But of course I am grateful for the baby children, and as the sun rises on this day after Thanksgiving, I am thinking about the year to come. And what I’m grateful for.

Ideas. That’s one major league area of gratitude. When you have a good one, there’s just nothing better, right? And the thing we call have to remember, and rely on!, is that you never know when the next good one is coming.  The dedication of TRUTH BE TOLD says “always remembering You Never Know Day” (You know what that is, right? Jonathan and I created it—the anniversary of the day BEFORE we met. Because you never know.)
And as the debut novelist (and the first woman to win the St. Martins/PWA Best First PI novel competition in ten years for  WINK OF AN EYE) Lynn Chandler Willis reminds us, the next good idea could be right around the corner. Even in adversity! Like when you're forced to shop for--tires.

The Thrilling Life of a Writer
by Lynn Chandler Willis

While I waited for the limo to take me to my book launch, I pondered the glamor of it all. No, really. Ok, I made up the part about the limo, but as the day approached, I did ponder. And I did wonder about that glamor part, too.
See, I had a book signing and reading scheduled on release day. Yeah! But as the day drew closer, I noticed my car was driving really wonky. Like really wonky. Kinda possessed like. I mean, seriously, when the road was wet—my car could fly. Airborne. Hydroplane. What ever you want to call it. The wrecker service likes to call it bald tires.

And, I'm kinda OCD about some things. Like driving in bad weather. I know—I know...all you northerners and mid-westerners can stop laughing now. I'm from North Carolina. Me, a car, and anything wet on the road doesn't mesh well together. I once had my son, who was only 16 at the time, drive me to work on a snowy day because I was too scared to. He was 16. Like because he was a guy, I felt safer with him driving. Go figure, right?

Well my book launch was coming up and I was keeping an eye on the weather. Truth be told (Wow! That would make a killer title for a novel.) I started watching long range forecasts six months ago, fretting about some freak snow storm blizzard thingy that could possibly (but probably not) drop a tenth of an inch of snow on our North Carolina roads.

The long range turned into the thirty-day, which turned into the ten-day and then the seven-day forecast and no snow or ice was predicted but we were supposed to have a cold, rainy day two days before my book launch. I needed new tires. If I was going to arrive at my book launch/signing/reading/reason to party I was going to need something with at least a little bit of tread on it to get me there safely.

Know that insurance commercial with the college kid on a “ramen noodle budget?” I'm not quite that bad, but am on a tight budget. I've also got nine young grandkids who still get all excited about Christmas, and, five of them have November birthdays, soooo...from the end of October through mid-December, any extra money goes toward birthday presents and Christmas gifts. New tires certainly didn't fit into my fourth quarter budget.

So I seek out one of those little corner shops that sells, um, gently used tires. As opposed to run ragged used tires. I pulled into the first shop I saw with rows of tires proudly on display near the road. Horseshoe hanging on the wall. It was an old, gently used former full service gas station.  

 No, actually, there wasn't anything gently used about it. Half of the painted on letters in the name of the place were scratched off or through so I was either at Frankle's or ankle's, or maybe it was Frankie's? It was hard to tell.

A guy that was bundled up like an Eskimo, and smelling like a case of burnt motor oil, came out of the cinder-block garage bay and said, “what size?”

Either he looked at my bald tires and assumed that was my reason for being there, or he read my mind and knew I was anxious to get this show on the road. He was not a man of many words. He told me he had a pair of the size I needed and I could wait in the “office” where it was warm while he put them on.
But before I headed to the warmth of his office, a buddy in a Pickup truck pulled up and hollered (we are in the south) “Hey, Muffy, you got a blah blah blah?” I couldn't tell you what he was asking for as all I heard was blah blah blah...Muffy was what had grabbed my attention. A guy wrapped up in an oil-stained coat that could withstand a -80 degree blizzard was named Muffy. I loved it.

As I sat in Muffy's office freezing to death—the portable heater barely worked—I fell in love with the whole thing. The can of hot dog chili sauce in the paint-chipped, broken cabinet. The horseshoe beside the door. The old bench seat salvaged from some old truck. And Muffy.

And that is where inspiration comes from.

HANK: See? You never know!  So—given that your tires are okay—are you shopping today? For gifts—or for ideas?


When twelve-year old Tatum McCallen finds his father, a deputy sheriff, hanging from a tree in their west Texas backyard, he sets out to restore his dad's honor and prove he didn't kill himself. He and his disabled grandfather hire reluctant Private Investigator Gypsy Moran, who has his own set of problems. Like a double-cross that sent him fleeing Vegas in the middle of the night.

Gypsy agrees to help the kid and his grandfather, Burke, because he feels sorry for them. Burke, a former deputy sheriff now confined to a wheelchair is all Tatum has left. When Tatum shows Gypsy a private file his dad had been keeping, Gypsy knows the kid's father was on to something when he died. Eight missing girls, a cowardly sheriff, and undocumented workers are all connected to the K-Bar Ranch.

Gypsy is quite familiar with the K-Bar Ranch. Before running off to Vegas, he spent his summers as a teenager working for ranch owner Carroll Kinley while romancing Kinley's beautiful daughter Claire. But Claire, now married to a state senator, is managing the ranch now and is more involved with the case Tatum's father was secretly investigating than Gypsy wants to admit.

Aided by adolescent Tatum and reporter Sophia Ortez, Gypsy begins pulling the pieces of the puzzle together, but it could end up costing him his life. Or worse—Tatum's life.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Pictures of Thanksgiving

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Hallie, your biscuits are burning!  (Okay, kidding, but you were worrying about it...hope all is well with your dinner--and, dear Reds, with all of yours.)

My plan for today was simple. (First, we did not make the black cherry jello. Did you?)

Anyway,  I had figured all the Reds would be otherwise occupied, and possibly not interested in hanging out here. But, on the other hand, Thanksgiving is a holiday that's meant to be shared, and we Reds don't want to miss sharing it with each other. Especially since we are so endlessly thankful--for you, for our lives, for our families, and health, and...for everything.

So my first idea was to put up a photo which encompassed all of that. And here was what I first chose.

The iconic Norman Rockwell's Freedom from Want. And I do love this painting, but thinking about it, it's not very--diverse. It doesn't look like the world, you know?

Then I saw this Rockwell. 

And I thought, okay. Better. We need to be thankful for this, too.
But there's more to it, these days, so how about his one? Freedom of Speech.

And yeah, we need  to be thankful for this, too. (So much for my one photo idea.)

But then I thought--lighten up, sister. So how about this? We're certainly thankful for laughter.

And of course we're thankful for music.

Obviously my "one photo" day did not work--But you know what? I wish I could post a photo of every single gorgeous one of you. And all of our families and friends. And that would be the true meaning of the holiday.

 Happy Thanksgiving from Jungle Red!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Disasters--Reds to the Rescue!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Okay, Reds, you know we’d do anything for you. If you lived nearby, I would happily bring you some extra folding chairs, a lemon, some cinnamon, two eggs, an extra tablecloth, one more white know, all the little annoying things that you THINK you have but you’ve forgotten on Thanksgiving and there’s no way to get them. I’d be there.

But since you live far away and your sister Reds and I can’t step in to help like that, I’ve put together (from scouring the internet and my experience) a sort of  Thanksgiving emergency kit for you.

Here’s why. There was the time, I remember it all too well, when my turkey just  WOULDN’T COOK. It had been in for HOURS, and should have been done. But it was all pink and yucky in the joints, and the juices were running red. Why why why? The over was on, the correct temperature, I had timed it for the correct weight, the pan was the right kind. WHY?  I plied the guests with more appetizers, watched my Brussels sprouts soufflé rise—and FALL—and kept adding more butter and cream to the mashed potatoes.

DISASTER. But at least there was champagne. (See below for why.)

The Thanksgiving meal is fraught with possible such disasters. But here are some solutions! And then we want to hear from you.

Oh, no, the soup (or whatever) is too salty!
My Mom told me that adding a raw cut up potato would absorb the extra salt, but apparently they know now that doesn’t work.  I’ve read that the only real way to give the salt the correct proportion is to add more of the other ingredients to the soup; in other words, make more soup. And add more of everything except salt.  

Oh, no, the turkey is still frozen!
Use cold water.  Put the turkey (still in its wrapper) in the kitchen sink and cover it with cold tap water. Every half hour, drain the water and refill the sink. The turkey will thaw at a rate of about 30 minutes per pound. And don’t forget to remove the giblets after the bird is thawed. (Yup. And that’s why my turkey took forever to cook. I have NEVER told this story before.)
Oh, no, which eggs are hard-boiled? Which are too old?
  Spin them! The hardboiled ones will spin. And too-old eggs will float in a pan of water. Good eggs will sink.

Did I sift this flour, or not?
   Experts say, when in doubt, sift.

Yeesh, the vegetables are overcooked!
   Make it a feature!  Do a creamed vegetable soup by combining the mushy vegetables with fresh cream and spices in a food processor. You could make a casserole with cheese and breadcrumbs on top. Puree them! Pureed vegetables–add cream and butter and seasonings—are very chic. IF you have wrecked the carrots or sweet potatoes, whip them together with raw eggs and pumpkin pie spices and bake. Voila. A souffle.

The gravy is lumpy!
Mush it through a sieve. The strainer will retain the chunky bits and leave you with super-silky gravy.

The mashed potatoes are glommy!
Spoon the potatoes into a casserole dish, sprinkle on some grated Parmesan and dot with butter. Bake, uncovered, at 325 degrees for 20 minutes, or until hot in the center.

The cream will not whip!
Put the whisk and the bowl with the cream in it into the refrigerator for 10 minutes.

The sauce is burned!
Remove the pan from the heat immediately. Don't stir. Place the bottom of the pan into a sink full of cold water to stop the cooking. Don't stir the sauce! Pour the top 3/4 of it into a new pan, leaving the burned part behind. Taste the sauce. It might still be okay. Sadly, if you detect any burned flavor, you'll have to throw it away and start over. Or just forget the sauce.

The turkey is done too soon!

 Take it out of the oven and wrap it tightly in several layers of aluminum foil. Then wrap it in a big towel. The trick here is to let the turkey hold its temperature without letting it cook anymore. (If you have one, put it in a cooler.) When serving time comes carve and serve.

The cake won't come out of the pan!
Real Simple suggests saving your cake by popping the whole thing in a freezer. Let the cake come to room temperature, then cover it in plastic wrap and freeze it for 6 hours to a day. Remove it and run a butter knife around the sides. Then insert two forks at opposite ends and, using them as levers, nudge the cake upwards. Do this around all sides of the whole cake. Finally, invert your pan and tap one edge at a 45-degree angle on a board.

There’s a disgusting layer of fat on the soup/gravy/whatever. 
Use a paper towel to soak it up. It works. Starting with one corner, the paper towel will just wick up the fat.

It’s too spicy!
Dairy can help here:  add cream or butter to a too-spicy soup or sauce. Or, top over-spiced meats with a large dollop of plain Greek yogurt or sour cream, or even cream cheese! If you don’t want to change your spicy dish, add a mild ingredient, like cooked rice.

The cake is gooey in the middle!
Smashed it up and add whipped cream and fruit. Or chocolate sauce and nuts. Hurray, it’s pudding! Trifle! Chocolate surprise!

HANK: And adding champagne to anything will work wonders.
Dearest Reds, you all must have your own special emergency advice! What can you tell us?