Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On cooking for Julia Child

Lora Brody visits Jungle Red to celebrate the launch of her blog, "Writing on Air" where she writes about food, fiction, and Julia Child whom she considered a friend and colleague. No slouch herself in the food department, Lora has been a long-time New England food celebrity who ran a successful catering business, wrote more than a dozen cookbooks (including "The New England Table" and "Chocolate American Style"), and teaches cooking classes each year in the Dordogne area of France.

HALLIE: When did you first meet Julia?

LORA: I’d just started my catering business. Ruth Lockwood, the producer of Julia’s TV show, hired me to cater a dinner party. I found out close to the date that it was for Ruth and her husband and Julia and Paul.

HALLIE: What did you do?

LORA: Freak out! And then I killed myself to make that meal.

HALLIE: But it was after that, you got to know Julia as a friend

LORA: I was one of a handful of women who started the first women’s food service organization. Among others there was me, Ruth, Sarah Moulton who is now the executive chef at Gourmet, Margaret Romagnoli, and Julia. We had meetings at each others’ homes, and one day I invited Julia to my house to dinner.

We had dozens of Julia rehearsal dinners. I remember I served nicoise olives. She ate one and tossed a pit into the yard and said, "Oh you’ll have an olive tree out there any day now." Then there was cold beet borscht—I made the consomm√© base from scratch. I served it in soup bowls with handles, and Julia was the first person I ever saw pick up the soup bowl by those handles and drain it.

My boys were eight and ten, and when it came time for the main course, they put on chef’s hats and aprons and Groucho Marx glasses and carried in a silver tray with a rubber chicken, garnished with tomatoes and parsley. Julia grabbed that chicken by its neck and feet and pulled it. “Oh, pollo al dente!” she said. “You can certainly stretch this into quite a meal!”

HALLIE: What a memory. So she really was just as offbeat and delightful as she seemed to us mere mortals.

Lora will be dropping by today, answering questions and reminiscing about Julia.

Please, join in -- and visit Lora at Lora Brody: Writing on Air.

Monday, September 28, 2009

On Jo and Joy and Irene and Elizabeth and Piglet...

HALLIE: "I'm Hermoine!" comes the breathless announcement. Another person with too much time on his/her hands has taken the Harry Potter Personality Quiz. Or "I'm Ginny." Or "I'm Harry!" God forbid you turned out to be Hagrid.

But it gets me thinking about the March sisters as Louisa May Alcott fictionalized her real sisters in "Little Women." She certainly gave her readers a choice of characters to relate to. There was Jo, the tall gangly one (I used to think of myself as tall and gangly), prickly and rebellious, who wrote in her journal and yearned for an independent life. Louisa May, a spinster, based Jo on herself, and said that if it weren't for her readers' expectations she'd never have had Jo get married.

Like Jo, Louise May was the second oldest of four sisters, a 'middle' child. Jo is especially close to Beth, her gentle, shy, sickly and doomed younger sister. The youngest, the artistic Amy with her blond curls, is vain and spoiled and adorable. The oldest, Meg, is nurturing, rule-bound and proper.

Researching the entry for "Little Women" in "The Bibliophile's Devotional" which comes out next month, I discovered that Louise May was pressured by her publisher to write "Little Women." In her journal she wrote, "I don't enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it." (I also discovered that Virginia Woolf doubted the staying power of her own work. Of her "A Room of One's Own," Woolf wrote: "I forecast, then, that I shall get no criticism, except of the evasive jocular kind." Fortunately she was dead wrong.)

So are you a Jo or an Amy? An Alice (in Wonderland) or a Dorothy Gale? A Tarzan or a Jane? Or what other character from literature do you identify with?

RO: I never identified with any of the Little Women...they were all such goody goodies..and the whole Marmy thing put me off. Although my circumstances weren't quite so dire I did have a brief identification with Francie, the little girl in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." I didn't have to sell scrap metal as a child but it was the only book I knew of that was set in Brooklyn...and we were - if not quite as poor - certainly not well off. Then again..I also identified with Joy Adamson who wrote "Born Free." I wasn't exactly an Englishwoman living in Africa and raising lion cubs, but I thought I might be one day. I think it was the fact that she had no real job and got to hang out with animals all day that attracted me. It still does.

JAN: Elizabeth Bennett in "Pride and Prejudice." The intelligent form of Cinderella, isn't that every little girl's dream?? But to show you where my mind is at -- I had to really scrounge around for a female protagonist to relate to, but could immediately tick off three fictional male characters I was in love with....but hey, that's another blog.

HALLIE: That IS an interesting question. I carried the torch for ages for Gilbert Blythe. Points to anyone who remembers whose main squeeze he turned out to be.

ROBERTA: I think I'd have to go with Mole in "The Wind in the Willows." He was very interested in adventures with his pals, especially if they included picnics, but basically a homebody--not a river animal at all. Or maybe Piglet in "Winnie the Pooh":).

HANK: Little Women, no, never connected with them, somehow. Too sad.

I wanted to be Irene Adler, you know? Sherlock Holmes' nemesis and maybe-love? (In Pooh, I'm definitely Eeyore. Roberta, you are, as always, wonderful.) This is an interesting question, actually, since when I was a little girl, I wanted to be a character I can't remember the name of--she was voted the class president in some coming-of-age series of books about teenagers. She was always working really hard, and doing her best, all that. It wasn't Trixie Belden, but it was something like that. And there was some horse-owning girl in a series back then--I think her name was Connemara McGuire. (Oh. And I named my main character Charlotte McNally. I have not thought about that until this second.)

But as a high-schooler, oh, I was in LOVE with Henry V. I mean, I dreamed about him. So I guess I wanted to be...Eleanor of Aquitaine or whoever that was. And oh, Maid Marian, definitely. And Rowena in Ivanhoe.(Or Rebecca, I could never decide.)

HALLIE: Oooh, Irene Adler -- great choice! And I do see Roberta as sweet Piglet or Mole. This question is something of a Rorschach. Does it make you think of the adventures or the clothes or the food or the pets or the men in the characters' lives? Hmm.

So, gentle and not-so-gentle readers... which character is your alter ego? And first person who posts a comment identifying Gilbert Blythe's plucky girlfriend gets a copy of The Bibliophile's Devotional.

And stay tuned. Wednesday we hear from author/chef Lora Brody on cooking for Julia Child (it involves a rubber chicken). Friday Elizabeth Benedict talks about her new book of essays, "Muses, Mentors and Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives."

Friday, September 25, 2009

On State Fairs and County Fairs


RO: This week I spent some time at The Big E, New England’s legendary five state fair. I can’t remember the first time I went .. easily twenty years ago. My friend Alan (or maybe it was old boyfriend #2, Lee)turned me on to it. Milking contests, monster truck pulls, exhibitions of working sheep dogs, cooking contests and blue ribbons for the biggest pumpkins (this year's winer over 600 lbs.) What did a girl from Brooklyn know about stuff like that? It was all new to me and surprisingly enough, I loved it. Call it too many viewings of Green Acres when I was a kid.
Who knew there were so many different breeds of chicken – and that some of them were quite beautiful? Thery made it hard to order the chicken fingers so I went for salmon-on-a-stick and a baked potato – the two Maine specialities which have become my end-of-summer treats and must be consumed on every trip to The Big E. (Up until this year I resisted the infamous Big E cream puff. Be inner calorie counter went off the charts.)

For the last two years in addition to eating, shopping and admiring the livestock, I’ve been meeting readers at the CAPA booth (Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association) in the permanent Connecticut building and I did that again this year. But the main attraction is the fair. All those exhibits...all that food. People with straight day jobs reliving their rock and roll pasts..lots of garage bands performing covers of 80's hits. And what's the deal with the mops and the chamois cloths? Do people wait all year to buy their cleaning supplies?
In any event, there’s something – dare I say it – American about it. Anyone else have those cow dabs between their toes?

JAN: I've been to the Big E, and more frequently the Aggy Fair on Martha's Vineyard. You're right, there is something so American about it, you feel like Jimmy Stewart had got to be in the crowd somewhere. I have to admit the livestock don't do anything for me, but I love the fiddle contest.

RO: Jimmy Stewart. Or Paul Newman, or William Holden. Now that I think of it there were county fairs in a lot of movies from the 50's, which were the first grownup movies I can remember watching on television. Picnic and The Long Hot Summer. Men in suits, with hats and ties at a picnic. (I still love Picnic...Moonglow and I Could Write a Book were the two songs at my wedding.)
How about women in cocktail dresses with white gloves! How cute was Joanne Woodward? one like that at The Big E, but there was a sheep shearing contest that was a little like the scene from The Thornbirds...anyone remember that? Why in the world would Meggy Cleary want a priest when Bryan Brown was available all hot and sweaty? Bryan wasn't there. (Absolutely shocking that there's no pic available online of Rachel Ward salivating over a shirtless Bryan Brown...I must watch that miniseries again.)

No Jimmy Stewart or Joanne Woodward either, but I'll keep looking.

Maybe next year I'll wear a dress.
In the meantime how cool is this - some kid decorated a pumpkin to look like a puffer fish.
Future artist.

RHYS: Living in California, this is something I've never really experienced. We have a county fair and a state fair, but they feel like city folk pretending to relive the good old days. I mean--pie baking contests in Marin? I'm sure everyone got their pie from the same high end caterer who does their own soirees! And the State Fair in Sacramento is always too hot and too high tech, thrill rides etc. One of the things I love about New England is that feeling of stepping back in time. When we were driving through Vermont in the summer we had breakfast on a front porch in a small village. Local people wandered in and out for their morning cup of coffee. Everyone stopped to talk. I almost bought a house there on the spot.

RO: Yup, we New Englanders are just plain folk!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Meet Bruce Harris

I didn't have to go too far to find today's Jungle Red guest. Hank suggested him and since I believe that Hank is practically perfect and right about almost everything, I thought why not?

During his years in book publishing, Bruce Harris has been the founder of Harmony Books, Director of Publishing at Crown, President of Sales and Marketing at Random House Trade Group, and President and COO of Workman. He's now an independant consultant for both authors and publishers. (And, yes...he's also my husband.)

RH: That's a pretty impressive resume. Are there any books or authors you've worked with who have a special place in your heart?

BH: That's a hard question because I've enjoyed working on many types of books from Be Here Now to 1,000 Places to See Before You Die - which I guess is a little like Be Somewhere Else.

RH: And from The Joy of Sex to What to Expect When You're Expecting...which also has a certain symmetry, doncha think?

BH: Certainly two of my favorite authors were Martha Stewart and Douglas Adams. I also really enjoyed touring with General Colin Powell - who I really hoped would run for president. They were three of the hardest working authors I've ever encountered.

Gen. Powell was, of course, already famous when his book was released, but Martha wasn't known outside of a small circle of people in Westport, CT when she catered a book party where she rather serendipitiously met Alan Mirken, one of the owners of Clarkson Potter (Crown), the company that was to publish her first book, Entertaining. They are still her publisher, by the way.

RH: So what did she do when she was first starting out?

BH: Everything! She was just as eager to do an event at a Junior League in Nashville as she was to do The Today Show. It was all about building her platform. Gen. Powell also took a very military approach to getting the job done. He would frequently have lines of over three thousand people, and he would stay until every last book was signed.

Of course, marketing non-fiction is very different from marketing fiction. It's much harder to promote a novelist (assuming they're not already famous) because there aren't as many hooks for the media.

RH: So how do we "hookless" novelists get attention for ourselves? Can you give us a taste of what your Free Marketing Seminar at New England Crimebake will be like?

BH: Well, you'll be addressing what the authors themselves can do. I'll be focusing on a Nine Month Countdown to Publication - what goes on at your publishing house and when. I'll also be giving tips on how to work with your publisher.

RH:...without getting in their hair?

BH: Absolutely! They want to do a good job on your book and the more ammunition you can give them, the better.

RH: Like what...give us an example.

BH: Don't bemoan your lack of publicity. Give your publicist story ideas, don't expect her to think of them herself. Send pix. And think "off the book page."

RH: Bruce will be around to answer questions, and as mentioned he and I will be giving a free Marketing Seminar at the New England Crimebake this November. Check out

Monday, September 21, 2009

Miss-ing Manners

“Rosie, Rosie, young and able keep your elbows off the table…”

RO: I confess despite having heard that a couple of hundred times when I was a kid - why is it I remember that and not…say…all of the kings and queens of England which I also used to know? - anyway…despite the many times I heard that little ditty, I still find my elbows on the table every once in a while. Perhaps it’s not as important to me as it was to my mother. Times change, but do manners always change with them? Should they?

I’m not talking about men walking on the outside so that when the horses pass they don’t splash mud on the women’s dresses, but at the risk of sounding like a geezer, when was the last time you heard someone under the age of twenty say "you're welcome" instead of "no problem"? Or “Excuse me” when they bump into you? (I’m reminded of Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life…. "excuse me, excuse me…”)

These days I don’t really expect it so I rarely miss it, but every once in a while I have to wonder if some of the basic civilities that used to be drilled into kids – by parents, relatives and teachers shouldn’t be resurrected. Has their disappearance (or to be optimistic, erosion) made it okay for us to be less civil to each other? Is this lack of civility what makes a tennis player think she can threaten a lineswoman? Or a congressman think it's appropriate to yell “you lie!” at the president?

What old school behavior or habit would you resurrect if you could? What new behavior would you institute?

JAN: I'm happy to report that both my kids (20 and 22) take a lot of pride in being polite, and they aren't unique. Rude teenagers have a way of turning into nice adults. But I still agree with you Ro, I think in general, our culture doesn't just excuse but exalts bad behavior. There isn't the same pressure to be civil -- and since we're all sheep, we need that pressure.
Not that I'm without sin, but I'd like to return to a time where only the mentally insane dared use the F-word in public. And where everyone thought about a more intellectual and precise way to express their frustrations.

My brother used to have a theory that people in Georgia were more polite drivers because they knew at least half the other drivers on the road were packing shotguns! So maybe we should resurrect duels--- you know real, life-and-death show downs over silly, mindless insults!! At this point, that might be the only way you'd get people to clean up their language.

RO: Duels..I can't say I expected that one to come up. They would certainly keep me in line.

HALLIE: Do you think it might have anything to do with the blurring of the line between public and private that's taking place, too? People blog/blurt the most personal things to the world. What's inside just spews. Isn't that what happens when people are rude, call names, swear at other people? Sadly, the question, "Tell me what you really think," so rarely needs to be asked. And it's not as if there are negative consequences -- bad behavior is rewarded with headlines and talk show appearances.

ROBERTA: I'm going to join the old fart chorus too! Your post immediately made me think of one of my favorite books as a child, "The Goops."

"The Goops they lick their fingers, The Goops they lick their knives, They spill their broth on the tablecloth, Oh, they lead disgusting lives!"

And so on. Hysterical drawings too. In fact I just looked it up on Amazon and it's been reprinted so I ordered a copy for my nephews. My stepkids are very polite--we used to tell them they'd need these table manners when they had dinner at the White House. And they have strong handshakes too--nothing worse than a limp fish in your paw.

RO: Omigosh...The Goops! That book was a riot!

ROBERTA: We were taught growing up to stand when an adult entered the room. And hold doors for people--that seems to have dropped by the wayside. And wait to dive into dinner until everyone was seated. I think anything that helps kids realize there are other people in their space who should be acknowledged and considered is a good thing.

Speaking of Serena's outburst, it was kind of funny to listen to John McEnroe sheepishly participate in the discussion of how she should be penalized. I was at the tennis match years ago in which he became so outraged by a line call that he literally threw a TV camera to the ground. He didn't have much of a leg to stand on discussing Serena!

RO: Yup, that was an awkward moment! How about the latest exhibition of bad manners..Kanye West? Someone just emailed me that Kanye West interrupted Patrick Swayze's funeral to say that Michael Jackson's was better. :-)

HANK: Oh, just raced in to join the conversation. Late. That's something that's gone by the boards--"late" is hardly noticed these days. People show up when they show up. When did that start to be acceptable? And they always carry coffee. When did they have time to get the coffee?
And ever driven in Boston? The say a yellow traffic light means go, a red

traffic light means go really fast, and a green light means stop--because the other guy is going through the red light.

In a meeting the other day, I was there when a supervisor-type dug a plastic container of body lotion out of her purse, and applied to it to her elbows and knees. IN THE MEETING. Ahhh. I can barely tell you about it. Emily Post, we're so sorry.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dr. Charles Atkins on Mother's Milk

ROBERTA: Today JR is pleased to welcome psychiatrist Dr. Charles Atkins whose new book MOTHER'S MILK has just been released by Severn House. MOTHER'S MILK is his sixth novel, the third in his series featuring forensic psychiatrist Barrett Conyors. Welcome Charles! Please start by telling us a little about the book--where did the idea for this come from?

CHARLES: Like most of my books, MOTHER’S MILK is a fusion of what I find interesting as a psychiatrist and an author. In this case, I have my heroine—forensic psychiatrist Barrett Conyors—embroiled in a thriller that deals with the issues of opiate dependence (pain pill to heroin) and the knotty question of just what happens to all of those kids under the care of state systems (Department of Children, Social Services, etc.) as they turn eighteen and are no longer wards of the state.
While clearly fiction, the ideas for this book are deeply rooted in reality and in the work I do—and have done--as a psychiatrist. A few years back I left a job working for the state of Connecticut’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS)—I had been a regional medical director. My six years with the DMHAS gave me a fabulous view of how state agencies operate: the politics, the over-the-top funding, resources that exceed anything available in the private sector, the constant struggle with powerful unions and so forth. All of this I gave to my heroine, Barrett, who in this book finds herself in the position of being a medical director of a facility that evaluates people with severe mental illnesses who have also committed—or are suspected of having committed--serious crimes.
After leaving my position at the DMHAS I returned to work in hospital-based clinics—I split my time 50/50 between being a writer and being a psychiatrist. One of my current clinics is for people with chemical dependence. Largely because of the relatively recent availability of buprenorphine—a synthetic compound used to treat opiate dependence—I have found myself learning a tremendous amount about heroin addiction and what it does to people and those who love them. Where opiate dependence typically—although not always--starts in the young, often with deadly results, it seemed a natural fit for getting to my final big social theme—what happens to all those kids under the care of the state as they age out? These are the children who’ve been removed from abusive households, or were too wild for their parents to handle, or too mentally ill or….Each year thousands leave the system. Most have little or no social supports, many haven’t completed high school. It’s a new crop each season, and in MOTHER’S MILK, I introduce a pair of likely villains all too eager to swoop down for the harvest.
As it turns out, MOTHER’S MILK is quite a sexy book, and as I think about the nature of addiction and dependence this makes sense. People turn to drugs and other bad habits because they seem to offer something good: a release from pain, excitement, a walk on the wild side. But once hooked, the story changes, and to feed an addiction people can, and will, do horrible things.

ROBERTA: One of my pet peeves as a psychologist is dreadful portrayals of mental health professionals in books and movies. How close is your fiction to your work as a psychiatrist? How do you make sure the fiction rings true without breaching confidentiality?

CHARLES: Excellent question, and I share your peeve! My fiction hangs close to the truth, but not to a specific case. Confidentiality can never be breached, and what I’ve found as a psychiatrist is that over time patterns emerge.
In the case of MOTHER’S MILK, I’ve evaluated many hundred—possibly thousands of children and young adults. So I take a composite of the young girl/boy who is removed from their home at age two because their crack-addicted mother is bringing strange men into the house. They become wards of the state and are placed in a series of foster homes—at least one in which they are molested. What you find is that these kids will behave in particular ways at the age of eight, ten, twelve. At fourteen he/she will fall into one of two large categories—depressed and withdrawn, or on an emotional roller coaster, often with sexualized behaviors and possibly promiscuity. Drugs and alcohol seem a natural, because they are in tremendous emotional pain--contrary to ill-conceived ‘War on Drugs’ campaigns, drugs do in fact work and that’s the problem…they work too well and these kids get hooked fast.
So the clinical part of the writing reads true, while the actual characters are fictional.

ROBERTA: On your website, you mention an article you wrote for Writer's Digest on creating believable villains. Can you give us some tips on that?

CHARLES: This again speaks to patterns of human behavior. Understanding broad categories of personality—and when this crosses into the terrain of a disorder—can be extremely useful to anyone writing crime fiction, or involved with criminals in general. For instance, let’s look at the broad diagnostic category of antisocial personality disorder. This is where a person over time shows little regard for the rights and feelings of others. They are mostly driven by their own desires. In a child who is developing antisocial traits this could be the school bully, or even the kid who gets bullied, but plots their revenge—think Columbine. The budding young thug is driven by desires—“I like your bike, I want your bike, give it to me…or else.” They develop a taste for power, which often goes along with cruelty—both to people and sadly to animals (I sometimes have more sympathy for our little furry friends than the two-legged kind). Sometimes they operate alone, sometimes they hook up with a buddy—here too familiar patterns emerge with one partner dominant over their willing accomplice.
The fun of understanding personality types is that you can easily generate believable characters and put them into whatever shape you’d like. If we stick to the sociopath, and want to have someone truly deadly, give them a high IQ, make them physically attractive and you’ve got a powerhouse villain. And the scary bit is that these dudes and dudettes aren’t just in the pages of fiction they’re out there. They have insight and know enough to keep their nasty bits hidden. So don’t automatically think they’ll get caught and wind up in jail—most don’t. Their smiles are white, they’re everyone’s good buddy, just be careful you don’t cross them, or have something—or someone--they want.

ROBERTA: What's your take on the state of publishing today? Any tips for discouraged new or midlist writers?

CHARLES: MOTHER’S MILK is my eighth published book—six novels and two non-fiction books on Bipolar Disorder and Alzheimer’s. I’m most-definitely mid-list with an eye to becoming a best-seller. And yes, the book business has changed radically. That said I don’t think my advice to new writers has changed…or changed much.
• Be persistent. Rejection is part of the game…a big part. Many talented writers back off from publishing after their first few rejections. Ultimately it’s the ability to stick with it that separates the published author from the wannabee. Like most writers I have enough rejection letters to paper a room.
• If you want to have your book published, get a reputable literary agent. Yes, occasionally publishers will publish without one, but this is very much the exception and not the rule. Increasingly publishing houses are not willing to develop the work of a new—and promising author. By the time your manuscript gets to an editor with the clout to give you the green light, it needs to be in A-one shape.
• Listen to advice from people who know the business.
o One of my very first rejection letters was a form letter that on the bottom had scrawled in red pencil, “this is very unprofessionally formatted!!!” While I associate three exclamation remarks in a row with twelve-year-old girls, I did take the hint, bought a copy of WRITER’S DIGEST GUIDE TO MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING and never had that problem again.
o A well-established author, when I was just starting out, recommended getting some smaller pieces published as a way of establishing credentials. To date I’ve had a couple hundred essays, articles, short stories etc. printed in everything from medical journals to major magazines and newspapers. It does make a difference.
• Write daily. Do it at the same time. If you don’t practice the craft you’ll never get good.
• Develop a support network of readers. Starting with your mom who loves you, to people who are in the business and can give you solid criticism.
• Be persistent
• Be persistent
• Be persistent

And with that, thanks so much for having me on your Blog.

Psychiatrist and author Charles Atkins has published six novels—the last three with forensic-psychiatrist heroine, Barrett Conyors. In addition to fiction (mysteries and thrillers) he has written books on Bipolar Disorder and Alzheimer’s disease and has published hundreds of short stories, columns and articles. Visit his website at

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jeri Westerson on Sidekicks

Jungle Red: Today we welcome L.A. native Jeri Westerson, who writes a medieval mystery series with a decidedly hardboiled twist. Her newest release, SERPENT IN THE THORNS—A Medieval Noir, blends her love of medieval history with her other love of noir.

We Get our Kicks from Sidekicks
By Jeri Westerson

Sidekicks can serve an important role for a sleuth. Though Sam Spade started off with partner Miles Archer, it was clear his sidekick was really Effie Perine, his faithful and not faint-of-heart secretary. A sidekick does the legwork (and what legs!) and in some instances, can also be the source of the sleuth’s finding an important clue (it’s the sleuth that has to really solve the case, however, otherwise there’s no reason to spend three hundred pages with him!)

A sidekick can also be the source of some much-needed comic relief when the action gets dark and heavy. He’s a sounding board for the detective to bounce ideas off of. He—or she—can be in jeopardy, the damsel in distress, for the heroic detective to save.

Whatever the purpose the sidekick serves, he had better be more than a cardboard cut-out or there can be no empathy for his thankless and often tireless work.

A sidekick can be as cunning as Bunter for Lord Peter Wimsey, or the conscience of the piece as Sancho Panza is to Don Quixote. Without Dr. Watson to write it all down, we’d never know about all of Sherlock Holmes's adventures. And Robin Hood would have no one to mourn him without Little John.

A knight’s sidekick could very well be his squire, but since my hero Crispin Guest is no longer the knight he was, there can be no squire as such. Only an orphaned street urchin would be fitting for a man who now had to eke out a life on the mean streets of fourteenth century London. And so Jack Tucker--orphan, cutpurse, thief and street urchin--stumbles into Crispin’s life. More comfortable on the streets and with the low-lifes he and Crispin encounter, Jack is often a go-between. He may be young—eleven when we meet him in the first in the series, VEIL OF LIES—but he’s whip-smart, even though he can’t seem to give up the “habit” of cutting purses, the medieval equivalent of picking pockets (no pockets yet). Jack often humanizes the plight of the poor and uneducated to Crispin who has come from wealthy and intellectual origins, who had no inkling of the lives of his servants on his erstwhile estates anymore than he had a clue about the lives of the people he passed on the streets of London.

We need our literary sidekicks. And it’s even more wonderful when we want to know more about them. What motivates them to play second fiddle to the hero? What sort of rewards can they expect? While Marshall Dillon slinks off with Miss Kitty, what’s Festus up to?

And will Robin ever get to drive the Batmobile?

Crispin writes his own blog (yeah, everyone’s got a blog these days) and he sometimes writes about Jack Tucker.
For more on the newest release in Jeri’s medieval noir series, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, go to

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Kristan Higgins on Romantic Angst, Breaking In, and more!

ROBERTA: if I had the nerve to completely swerve away from the structure of writing a mystery, I would love to write the kind of books that today's guest, Kristan Higgins, writes. Since 2006, she's had four romantic comedies published, with the fifth due next February. And CATCH OF THE DAY won the coveted Rita award for best Single Title Contemporary in 2008. Welcome Kristan, we're delighted to have you today!
KRISTAN: Thanks, Roberta! It's a pleasure.

ROBERTA: Coming from a background of writing series where the main characters carry over from book to book, I'm in awe of the way you're able to manufacture an entirely new cast of characters and in fact a new world for each book. How do you manage?

KRISTAN: Sweating seems to be a big part of the process...a little bleeding, some flagellation. The truth is, I've only written single titles, so I don't really know another way. I admit that it's a big job to create everything from scratch...setting, family, career, friends, coworkers. Sometimes those things just leap to life; other times it's a bit more of a deliberate approach (I greatly preferred the "leap to life" variation, just for the record). I like to visit a setting to get a feel for the people and mood of an area, which definitely jumpstarts some of those elements. No matter what, I find that I have to really immerse myself into the characters...their personalities, their families, their neuroses, even their pets. Once I get there, the book really starts clicking along.

ROBERTA: We're interested in the deep dark secrets of your writing process. How much of the story do you know when you sit down to write a book? Do you work on a schedule? How do you keep yourself motivated?

KRISTAN: Well, I write full time, so it's my job. I'm motivated to write a really good book, and that means showing up, first and foremost. So I write almost every day...I try to throw in a day off here and there so I stay at least a little sane. I work when my kids are in school, and rather than having a set amount of hours a day, I give myself a page count. I start each day off by reading what I wrote the day before, fix that up, then get to work cranking out the pages. Once my first draft is done, I let it sit for a week or three, then rip and tear it to shreds. Because I'm a masochist, I don't mind revising...that's when my book starts to really spark.
I'm an outliner...don't believe in pantsing (for myself, that is. If it works for other writers, God bless). I like to know as much as possible before I start the first draft. I believe in's so much easier to change a few sentences than rip out an entire chapter. That being said, something always surprises me during the actual writing. Usually something pretty good, too!

ROBERTA: What was it like to break into the world of romance? And how about that Rita?? Who are your role models? what do you like to read?

KRISTAN: Well, it was relatively easy for me to break in for a couple of reasons. First, I was a copywriter for 12 years before I tried fiction, so my writing muscles were quite buff (the actual human body muscles...not so lucky). Secondly, I began my fiction writing journey with a cold and calculating viewpoint...I wanted to sell a book. The whole "write the book of your heart" works if you're writing for the love of the activity, but it might not work so well when it comes time to sell. I wanted to do both: write the kind of book I loved and sell it fast. I'm very hard on my own work, and honestly, that helps a lot in terms of getting out the best product I can. At any rate, the gods must've been smiling, the timing was right, and voila! I got a fabulous agent (Maria Carvainis), HQN took a chance on a new author, and my first book came out about two years after I sent out that fateful query letter.
Winning the Rita was just amazing. I was operating under the model of "it's an honor just to be nominated." When my name was called, I practically spit out my teeth, I was so shocked. It truly was one of the happiest nights of my life. Plus, I got to wear a gown!
Role models? Hmm. Michelle Obama is a great role model, I think. She's well educated, well spoken, happily married and seems like a great mom. I like the fact that she compartmentalizes her days so that she's not always trying to be in every one of her roles...she's doing her mommy thing in the morning, then she sits down in her office, works till the girls come home, and tries to give them as much time as she can, the same way I do. We also both like cardigans. Honestly, I think Michelle and I are best friends waiting to happen. I can't believe she hasn't called me to the White House for drinks.
I read a wide variety of genres...I love historical fiction (just read a mystery called Silent In the Grave by Deanna Raybourn and can't recommend it enough). I read a lot of literary fiction, and of course, I love humor...Merrill Markoe, Elinor Lipman, Monica McInerney and Carl Hiassen are some of my favorites in that genre. And I love mystery, especially when the protagonists are people I can relate to. When it's someone who's a Jason Bourne type, I don't feel the connection quite so much, as I'm not a trilingual-black-belt-stunt-driver-assassin type (though Matt Damon is extremely cute).

ROBERTA: We know you're happily married so the romantic angst can't all come from real life. Where do you get the ideas for all those broken hearts?

KRISTAN: Well, I'm happily married NOW! You didn't have to screen the other guys!
In all seriousness, I try to find a universal feeling to base my books around. For example, in Catch of the Day, the heroine has a huge crush on the local priest. I think most women have fallen for someone completely inappropriate and have been trapped in some kind of helpless, impossible love. And heck, we writers are all thieves, aren't we? We just open the front door and look around, and it seems that everyone has a story.

ROBERTA: With mysteries, there is a structure: crime, detective, clues, suspects, red herrings. Does something like that exist for your genre?

KRISTAN: Sure, there's structure in a romance novel. It may be more of an emotional hero's journey rather than a plot that needs to be solved, but the structure is there. And just as you can pretty much expect a mystery to be solved by the end of that type of book, you can expect that the hero and heroine are going to end up better off when the sun finally sets on a romance novel. Better off for having loved each other, that is. I think that's pretty dang nice.

ROBERTA: And finally, tell us a little about the book that came out this summer. And what's up next?
KRISTAN: TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE is the story of a woman who makes up a boyfriend when her ex-fiance starts dating her younger sister. As I said, I try to tap into something universal when I write, and I'd bet the farm that most women have faked a boyfriend or three. (Yes, yes, of course I have!) I thought it would be fun to see how far Grace, my heroine, could take this while exploring the reasons why the fake boyfriend was more satisfying than a real flesh-and-blood guy.
THE NEXT BEST THING will come out in February. It's about a young widow trying to find another husband...but this time, she's going for someone she doesn't love quite so much, since her first husband's death just about broke her. She comes from a long line of widows, and she's definitely bucking tradition by trying again. This subject is near and dear to my heart, as I myself am from a long line of young widows. And my hubby's a firefighter. Taking out a hefty life insurance policy was one of the first things on my list, let me tell you! But the book is also about putting the past to rest and taking chances, even when the worst has already happened to you.

ROBERTA: Thank you Kristan for visiting Jungle Red! She is standing by for your questions and comments...

Monday, September 14, 2009


ROBERTA: The New York Times this week has been full of the Beatles--news of their freshly-released video game and the new boxed set of juiced-up albums from the fab four. My husband and I have enjoyed the press--we both grew up loving the Beatles. He was a ninth grader and remembers well their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was in grade school and sent off to bed before it aired. Naturally, I watched it from the top of the stairs. My man was definitely Paul--no contest. (Though I never did send him a package of homemade birthday hats and decorations, as I did Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees several years later.) I don't even play video games and yet I'm tempted to buy this one. In my mind, they were a prodigious talent--and it was fascinating to watch their evolving personal and musical styles as times changed. I believe my favorite album of all time was Rubber Soul.

But obviously not everyone feels this way. Here's a quote from Ian Bogost that could put any nostalgic Baby Boomer in her place: "So I ask: must we appreciate The Beatles? Must we reminisce with the newly aged about their privileged lives as naive youthful radicals, and then later as greedy yuppie centrists, and then finally as truculent conservative majority?"

Ouch. Now off to you, JR. Beatle mania or aging boomer madness?

RHYS: As another huge Beatles fan, my devotion to them is simple. Their music was tuneful, intelligent and made me feel good. None of the stuff written today does anything for me, and I don't think it's because I'm approaching my mature years.

JAN: I think we baby boomers are an easy target for nostalgia marketing, and let's face it that's what any of this reminiscence stuff is really about: MARKETING.

But hey, who DIDN'T love the Beatles? I had a crush on George Harrison. Believe it or not, Paul never even appealed to me. And who could argue the Beatles weren't a dynamic influence on the culture? What I loved best about them though -- and this is from learning their tunes on guitar -- is how much they evolved and grew musically as a band. And what is also little known about them is how hard working they were -- which is a fascinating anecdote in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers.

HALLIE: Confession: the Beatles never really did that much for me. Though I loved the movie Yellow Submarine so much I even bought the calendar. Note: the calendar, not the album. I still have it somewhere. Music's never been a big thing for me...nor is any kind of celebrity. Talk art or food and I can get passionate.

RO: I don't have the Beatles chip either. It's not that I don't like the music - it just doesn't have any magical, mysterious hold on me. I'm sure we own the last Beatles tome that was released a few years back and it's still in its shrinkwrap. Now..Eric Clapton, that's another story.

HANK: Oh, dear. Mania. I'm with you, Roberta. I watched the Ed Sullivan show, glued to the couch, sobbing. Sobbing! Age, what, 13? I was vice-president of the Midwest Chapter of the National Beatles Fan Club. I saw them, in concert, twice, at the Indianapolis State Fairgrounds. I mean, I kind of saw them, because I was screaming and crying too much. You name a Beatle song, I can sing it.

Plus, if Mom hadn't thrown away all my Beatles memorabilia, I'd be rich. I'm totally a Beatles fan. It was John, for me. My favorite album--oh, Abbey Road. Or maybe Sgt. Pepper. No, the White Album. You get the picture.

ROBERTA: Of course you were the prez of the Midwest Chapter of the Beatle fan club Hank! Priceless! JR readers, Paul, George, and John seem to be taken, but that leaves Ringo for some lucky fan...

And PS, come back often this week--we have three fantastic guests lined up. Tomorrow, the incomparable Kristan Higgins on writing romantic comedy, Wednesday, medieval mystery writer Jeri Westerson, and on Friday, Dr. Charles Atkins, psychiatrist and thriller writer.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

RHYS: Since it's the US Open as I post this, my thoughts have been exclusively on tennis for two weeks. My bottom has been glued to a chair and I have cooked with the background thwunk of tennis balls making me turn around every time there is a good shot. So naturally I had to blog once about tennis.

About a year ago I did a long radio interview. Usually interviewers ask the same questions and answering them merely requires me to push the correct button in my head. So when I find an interviewer who throws me off balance, I find I am sitting on the edge of my seat and I give much fresher answers. Anyway this particular interviewer suddenly said, "If you could be anyone else in the world for fifteen minutes, who would you be?"

I really didn't have time for much thought but a clear picture came into my mind. I said, "I'd like to be the world's number one tennis player, coming out onto Center Court to play the final at Wimbledon." I didn't choose the moment when I had won and was holding up the trophy. I chose the moment of supreme anticipation, feeling the cheers of the crowd echoing around me and knowing that all I had to do to win was to play my game. Delicious.

So who would you be?

ROBERTA: If we're sticking with tennis, how about Melanie Oudin, the 17 year old American in her first open who's just slain three major dragons? She's the absolute darling of the US Open crowd because she has not one visible iota of attitude or baggage. She's just so happy to be where she is and so happy to dig in and take every point. And she's so damn young:) That all might be fun for fifteen minutes!

RO: Who knew I had so much in common with my blog sisters? I am practically useless during the grand slams..I've been known to get up early for the Australian and stay up way too late for the US Open. I knew Flavia Pennetta when other people thought she was a sauce. Someone asked me this question eight years ago and I didn't hesitate before answering - Venus Williams. She had just won the Open and I thought - "what must it be like to be the best in the world?"
(Now I'm reminded of the homicidal beauty in The Natural..."are you the best there ever was?" BANG!) On the court I'd have to say Roger Federer. See above.

Off the's really not so hard to be me, but maybe for a day..don't laugh..Oprah. Think of the power.

HALLIE: Not Oprah, but on about the same level I would mind 15 minutes as Heidi Klum. To be that gorgeous, that slim, and wear all those great clothes...sigh. Then I tell myself to get a grip...because the person I'd really like to be is Sonya Sotomayor. Fifteen minutes would probably be plenty.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Visit from Juliet Blackwell

Today JRR welcomes mystery writer Juliet Blackwell, author of the new witchcraft mystery Secondhand Spirits.

RHYS:Hi and welcome to someone I first knew as Hailey, then Julie and now Juliet. I'm confused. Please set me straight on your multiple personalities.

Juliet: I’ve been accused of being in the witness protection program, but there’s a good reason for the multiple personalities! I wrote the Art Lover’s Mystery series -- about an ex-art forger making a living as a faux finisher in San Francisco-- with my sister Carolyn. We wanted the books to have a unified voice and a single name on the cover, so we finally settled on an old family name, Hailey Lind, as our mutual pseudonym. But now I’m writing the new Witchcraft mystery series on my own, so I needed to come up with a new pseudonym. Juliet is very close to my real name, Julie, so I thought I stood a good chance of answering to it, even after a couple of drinks at convention cocktail parties. I just learned that my great grandmother was a Cherokee named Mary Black, and as I was doing research for the Witchcraft series and reading about the history of women healers I came across the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive an official MD in the United States. I found Blackwell’s story inspirational, and too rarely told. There is a strong overlap of women healers and women accused of being witches, so I chose Blackwell as something of a personal tribute to her. On a more prosaic note, it’s easy to spell!

RHYS: Your protagonist in Secondhand Spirits is a witch. What made you decide to write about a witch? Are you secretly a witch yourself (gee, I hope I've never offended or insulted you) and if not, how did you learn about witchcraft.

JULIET: I’ve always been drawn to the idea of magical women. As a child, my favorite aunt would come for visits and read my tea leaves and playing cards –her readings were accurate to the point of being scary! She was a joyful, down-to-earth woman without any particular agenda, but right before she passed away at the age of eighty-six, she confided to me that she considered herself a witch. As an anthropologist (which I was in a former life) I studied different cultural systems of health, health care, and folk medicine, and as I mentioned above, this led me to the study of witches and witchcraft.

When my editor and I were kicking around ideas for new series, she asked me if I had ever written anything paranormal. I pulled out an idea I had jotted down some time ago: a magical protagonist with a complicated past who feels a particular connection to botanicals, and the vibrations of vintage clothing. As I wrote the novel, I did a lot of research into the history of witchcraft. I attended a handful of coven meetings, interviewed a number of witches one-on-one, and even participated in the spiritual “cleansing” of a home believed to be haunted. It’s fascinating stuff.

RHYS: Did you ever worry when you were around witches? Did you ever sense any real dark power? Did you learn any useful spells--like how to make the NYT bestseller list?

JULIET: Ha! If only I had the secret for the NYT bestseller list! No, I’m afraid I didn’t find out anything like that, and in truth all the witches I spoke with emphasized how dangerous it is to mess around with spells and incantations when you don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t know whether I believe there are people with the ability to manipulate reality through the focus of their intent –ie, real witches—but I do know that I’m not willing to rule out the possibility. I do know there are some scary folks out there – I interviewed one self-proclaimed witch who had a truly charismatic personality, and she did not shy away from talking about hexes and curses. I wouldn’t want to cross her….

RHYS: Why do you think paranormal stories are so popular right now?

JULIET: I think they’ve always been popular; I find it amusing when reviewers and observers talk about the paranormal as though we’ve never seen it before. Obviously there’s a venerable history in literature: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Edgar Allen Poe’s supernatural stories. More recently we've had many years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and then Harry Potter. It’s not as though Twilight came out of the blue. Elizabeth Peters was my favorite author in high school –and the one who inspired me to try my own hand at mysteries; she wrote early “paranormal mysteries” under the name of Barbara Michaels.

That being said, it is true that paranormal stories are “hot” at the moment and publishers are looking for more. I imagine readers are looking for a pure escape from the complicated matters of our times. But in this, as in everything, I think there are cycles in the publishing industry: periods when people are more interested in historical novels, or thrillers, or medical dramas. I’m just glad to be writing at a time when there seems to be special interest in characters who go slightly beyond the norm in their efforts to unravel murders and mysteries.

RHYS: Tell us a little about the story.

JULIET: In Secondhand Spirits, Lily Ivory has just arrived in San Francisco after traveling the globe for several years, searching for a place she feels safe. she sets up shop in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, which as any local knows is as good a place as any to feel safe as a practicing witch. In the final analysis, Secondhand Spirits is as much about a woman learning to trust enough to create friendships as it is about witchcraft.

Shortly after Lily opens her vintage clothing store, a client is found murdered and a child is taken by a demon called La Llorona, or the “weeping woman.” La Llorona is a powerful folktale from Mexico and the Southwest about a woman who was abandoned by the father of her children; compelled by grief, she drowned her children in the river, then drowns herself. Now she is condemned to walk forever the banks of the river, crying for her babies…and if she finds a child out after dark, she will add him or her to her brood.

Lily has been trying to keep her powers undercover, but finds she’s the only one powerful enough to figure out the murder, to stand up against the demon, and to save the life of a child.

Oh, and Lily has a wannabe familiar: a goblin-like creature who shape-shifts into a miniature Vietnamese potbellied pig. I think he’s my favorite character.

RHYS: So which of your multiple personalities is up next? Is there something new for Hailey or more Juliet?

JULIET: Hailey Lind will be coming out with the fourth in the Art Lover’s Mystery series next summer. Entitled Arsenic and Old Paint, it deals with erotic art, tunnels under Chinatown, and an exclusive men’s club atop Nob Hill.

Wearing my Juliet Blackwell hat, meanwhile, A Cast-Off Coven, the second in the Witchcraft series, comes out in June 2010. And finally, also under the moniker of Juliet Blackwell will be a new series about an ex-anthropologist who takes over her father’s high-end construction business renovating historic homes – and of course, she finds a good many spooky things in the walls. The first in that series, If these Walls Could Talk, will be released from Obsidian (Penguin) in December, 2010.

Thank you so much, Rhys, for inviting me to stop by the fabulous Jungle Red and yammer on about myself and my various series! I invite folks to stop by my website,, where they can read the first chapter of Secondhand Spirits. And feel free to write me any time, especially with their own tales of witchcraft, ghosts, and supernatural mischief. I’ve been hearing some amazing stuff from readers!

RHYS: Good luck with all your endeavors, Juliet, and thanks for visiting JRR.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Thoughts on Luxury

RHYS; I've just finished the first draft of my latest Royal Spyness book called Royal Blood, and the whole premise of these books is a heroine trying to survive with no money among those who are used to palaces and yachts on the Med.

There is a sale at Bloomingdales this weekend and it dawned on me that I don't need anything. Isn't this one of the big ironies of life? Now I have money to buy clothes, I really don't need any more. Now that I have money to get a good perm, straight hair is in. Now I could go out to expensive restaurants whenever I like, I have to watch what I eat

And this got me thinking about luxury and dreams, fulfilled and unfulfilled. When I was young one of my fantasies was to stay at a Five Star hotel and having room service. This dream was fulfilled early on as my husband worked for an airline and we stayed at places like the Taj in India where our every whim was catered to. Recently I've been on book tours and stayed at plenty of first class hotels, and had to order room service as I don't get back from an event until nine-thirty or ten. And I'm usually so tired that I don't appreciate the decor in the room (unless it's very weird, like one tres modern room last year that was all white curtains to knee height and everything black below that.

So what is luxury to me now? Time. Today I noticed that some of the maples were turning red and I realized that summer was over and I didn't spend a single day sitting on a beach or in the shade with a good book and a cool drink. It's my own fault, of course. I could choose not to write two books a year and spend the summer just hanging out. But it's hard to say no when things are going well. And it do enjoy the writing, and the touring. And I have to confess that I know myself. If I had nothing to do all summer, I'd find something. I don't veg out easily.

Time is one luxury I still crave. I can think of some luxurious travel I haven't yet accomplished--a good safari, a cruise around the Eastern Mediterranean and up the Nile. But apart from that I'm really quite content. I don't crave Prada or diamonds. I enjoy eating at a top restaurant occasionally, if the food is something I couldn't cook myself. But if I had to choose my perfect day, it would be a picnic in a beautiful spot with good cheeses, crusty bread, chilled wine--and maybe a few oysters or a cold lobster--it is supposed to be luxury after all. And I've discovered that what is important to me is the people I'm sharing my time with. I'm happy surrounded by friends and family.

So, dear JRR sisters--what is your definition of luxury and how has it changed?

HALLIE: Like you Rhys, I find myself at this point in my life extremely contented. Knock wood, and I do all the time: good health, happy kids, and husband who laughs at my jokes are basically what I want in this life, and I have them.

Having said that, the one luxury I yearn for is flying first class. But every time I go to book a flight, an upgrade seems like a ridiculously expensive indulgence, even when we’re using frequent flyer miles. But I recently flew to Australia scrunched into Coach for 18+ hours and 3 Valium barely blunted the jealous rage I felt toward those folks in first class getting treated to filet mignon and champagne as they lounged in their fully reclining seats. And to add insult to injury, what's playing on our ceiling mounted TVs? The Food Channel. PLUS, and this really burned me, those entitled folks up in first class kept coming back to use the bathroom in coach.

I reminded myself, once upon a time just getting to travel to a place as far away and fabulous as Australia would have been my dream of luxury. Australia IS fabulous. Good thing it's not closer or it would overrun with Americans.

RHYS: Oh Hallie, I agree one hundred percent. Traveling first class--now that's a luxury I do crave. I'm heading to Australia and about to face the dreaded flight in coach. Just one teeny weeny real bestseller--that's all we need!

JAN: It's not that I'm immune to a nice dinner, a lovely hotel or first class airefare (I agree with Hallie, especially on a long fight, and especially when you have long legs), but for the most part, luxury is wasted on me. My husband took me to the St. Regis Hotel in New York, and basically, it made me uncomfortable. I really don't need a butler showing me where the bathroom is or how to work the TV. (A remote? oh, how unlikely.)I prefer a smaller, more modest hotel with character, and I even prefer to carry my own bags.

I'm with Rhys, to me luxury is time with the people you love. And of course, really good seats at a Red Sox game.

RO: Yup. Time is the greatest luxury for me right now. Every once in a while I have a found day and I find myself looking over my shoulder - as if my conscience will be there telling "you really should be doing this.." And space. I don't really want a bigger house, but I'd love more of a buffer between me and the outside world. Not seeing another house from my window is a big thing to me.Lest you think that I have achieved some higher state where only intangibles like time and space mean anything to me.. I flew business class to Dubai last month and coach back and let me tell you, business is way better. Other luxuries..? Good champagne, professional blowdrys, personal trainer, my ridiculously expensive dermatologist..that's all I'm prepared to reveal right now.

ROBERTA: I guess we're all down home kind of girls--or else not willing to admit otherwise:). A number of years ago, we did stay at the Ritz in Palm Springs because it was a business trip and we could write it off. The experience irritated my hub to death as they nickled and dimed us even though the room itself cost a fortune. Why not roll it all in to the already whopping fee instead of charging an extra twenty bucks for valet parking, a cup of coffee in the am, etc? We ended up parking a half mile away and hiking to the hotel rather than paying the extra--just for the principle.

But I'm like the rest of you--first class on a long flight means a lot. Last summer we flew to Istanbul and used miles (a lot of them!) to upgrade to business. Feather pillow, reclining seats, tasty meals--it made the overnight flight and arrival a lot less painful. We flew coach on the way home and it was truly like rats crammed into a cage. The stewardess had to come and mediate a fight right in front of us over the angle of incline in someone's seat.
HANK: Luxury? For me? Right now, it would be being able to relax. Somehow I'm having a difficult time with that. I always think--there's MORE I should be doing. Writing, planning, promoting, organizing, mailing, blogging. Working on my stories at the station. Not to mention laundry and cooking and fall clothes and--I even had to force myself to go out and pick the dahlias, a project I usually adore.
Last night at 11 PM, I was stuffing envelopes. And I thought--well, this is pretty hilarious!
But, like Hallie, my husband laughs at my jokes. And we allow ourselves great wine and food. And my big luxury--nice closets. And expensive shower gel. Yes, I admit it.

RHYS: What a serene and saintly bunch we are. Nobody wanted face lifts, botox or visits to a spa--although now that I write about it I think a week at a desert spa retreat doesn't sound so bad.So, dear friends--any sinful luxuries or cravings?

Friday, September 4, 2009

what I learned on my summer vacation

Jan: By now you are all heartily sick of hearing about my summer in Aix-En-Provence France, the fresh markets, great food, inexpensive wines. Enough already. But you haven't heard....

WHAT I LEARNED ON MY SUMMER VACATION (told in broad strokes with sweeping generalizations.)

1.The French are actually very frugal people. Women may buy expensive clothes, but not a lot of them. They never wear sweat pants, go without makeup, or look even remotely dowdy. But they seem to think nothing of wearing the same outfit two days in a row.

2.The French Women Don’t Get Fat concept is a myth. Yes. They don’t get fat, but it’s nothing magical. It’s not the smaller serving sizes at restaurants or the heavy smoking that is still popular (this was my daughter’s speculation) My American friends who live in Aix all the time laughed at this notion. “They simply don’t eat anything. Total deprivation. If you look at French women closely on the street, the expressions on their faces are tortured. They look miserable." (okay, maybe not true for all of them, but after she said it, I did start to notice...)

3. Contrary to popular belief, the French do not make fun of you when you try to speak French. They are grateful you are trying. And a French friend of mine told me that they think it's really cute when we constantly mix up the feminine and masculine. Apparently that happens to even the mostly fluent. The French do, however, make fun of the Belgians and French Canadians for their accents. But that’s because those people actually think they can speak French.

4. The French really do say VOILA. And they say it all the time. For almost everything.

5. They also really do say Oo-la-la. But not quite as much.
So now that I've mercilessly exploited my month in Aix for every last inch of blog content, it's your turn. What did you learn on your summer vacation?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

James Hayman on WHERE YOU WRITE

JAN: A native New Yorker, Jim Hayman spent nearly thirty years working for Madison Ave's ad agencies before moving to Portland, Maine. There he decided to follow in the footsteps of some other former madmen like James Patterson and Stuart Woods and begin a new career writing thrillers. His debut novel is The Cutting.
“Bookstores have been looking for a writer of popular fiction who can reliably produce a bestseller. James Hayman…has invented a cop with sophisticated tastes. If your summer reading includes a psychological thriller, this one’s for you.”-Mandy Twaddell, Providence Journal

JAN: I met Jim via email when I helped line him up as a panelist for the New England Crime Bake mystery conference this November (14th, 15th, 16th at the Dedham Hilton outside Boston, mark your calendars). I'm thrilled to introduce you to his writer's insight today.

JAMES HAYMAN: A Writer Retreats.

“Where do you write?”

I’m sure most writers have been asked that question. I know I have more times than I can count. At least once at every public event and private gathering I’ve attended since my first suspense thriller, The Cutting, leapt its way onto bookstore shelves at the end of June. (Author’s Note: Okay, leapt is a bit hyperbolic. But, as a writer of stories involving sex, violence, murder and mayhem, I do like action verbs, and “leapt its way” seems more appealing than the more sedate, though possibly more accurate, “found its way” or the more passive, but definitely more accurate, “appeared.”)

Anyway, for me, the short answer to the question of where I write is: Not At Home. A lot of people who know where I live find that puzzling.

Thanks to a couple of decades spent churning out detergent, car and army recruiting commercials for the likes of Procter & Gamble, Lincoln/Mercury, and the US Army, home for me is now a beautiful light-filled house set on the rocky coast of Maine. From its many windows I can watch the waves crashing onto the shore and gaze at a series of islands receding into the distance across the water.

Sounds idyllic, right?

It is.

Sounds like the perfect writer’s retreat, right?

It ought to be.

So, that’s where you wrote The Cutting, right?

“Uhh, well, no. Not exactly.”

Turns out, that for me at least, the perfect writer’s retreat only works perfectly as long as my mind is in gear, the plot is unfolding as planned, and my characters are behaving exactly as I want them. In other words, when I’m writing the easy parts.

However, when I get to one of those places where I’m not quite sure what Mike McCabe, my hero, and Maggie, his partner, ought to be doing next. Or exactly how bitchy I ought to be making McCabe’s ex-wife Sandy. Or how graphically I should describe the next slaying or autopsy, well, then what seems to be the perfect writer’s retreat unfortunately morphs into the perfect place for procrastination.

It’s the place where I can stop writing for any of a million reasons. All valid, all rational, all stupid.

“Gee, shouldn’t I be checking my emails?”

“Gee, shouldn’t I be checking that stock I bought last week and see if it’s recovering yet from its precipitous fall?”

“Gee, I’m almost out of clean underwear. Shouldn’t I be washing a load?”

Annie Dillard, a writer whose work I admire, once described the perfect place to write fiction as a small cinderblock cell without windows, without telephone and without Internet access. A place where one’s imagination can stay in its imaginary world because there are no other choices.

My choice of the perfect writing place isn’t as extreme as Dillard’s. I chose a fifth floor carrel in the library of a nearby university. Once there I can’t log on to the Internet because I’m not a registered as either a student or a teacher. I can’t stop for a snack because there are no snacks to be had. I can’t even go to the bathroom without lugging my laptop with me.
Yes, I miss the view of the waves and the islands, but my carrel is ideal. Without it I wouldn’t get the next book done.

To learn more about Jim Hayman or his terrific debut book, The Cutting, check him out at

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

On Air Time

“Sassy, fast-paced and appealing. First-class entertainment.”
**Sue Grafton

“I love this series!”
*Suzanne Brockmann

“AIR TIME is a fun, fast read with a heroine who's sexy, stylish, and smart. I loved it."
**Nancy Pickard

Smart and savvy Boston TV reporter Charlotte McNally is back. This time she’s taking on the fashion industry, where she learns “When purses are fake – the danger is real.” I chased down Hank – Hank Phillippi Ryan –Emmy-winning Boston television reporter and our own, Agatha-award winning mystery writer to tell us more about Charlie’s latest adventure. Air Time is in bookstores now!

JAN: Tell us more about the glamorous world of high fashion Charlie enters and the fun I know you must have had in putting her there.

HANK: Imagine the research I had to do into the world of designer purses! It was tough, but someone had to dive in…

Actually, Charlie’s investigation into the world of counterfeit couture came straight from been there-done that. In my day job as a TV reporter, my producer (not Franklin!) and I have done several in-depth investigations into the world of knock-offs—not only purses and scarves, but blue jeans and watches and DVDs and videos.

We went undercover and with a hidden camera—like Charlie does—into various back-alley stores where counterfeit merchandise was being sold, and also into some suburban purse parties where women—certainly knowing they were fake and thinking was fine—were scooping up piles of counterfeit Burberrys and Chanels.

You should know— law enforcement tells us, it’s not illegal to buy the purses—unless you’re buying large amounts that are obviously for resale. The illegality is in the copying and manufacture and sale of what’s clearly a trademarked and proprietary item. (As the elegant fashion exec Zuzu Mazny-Latos tells Charlie in AIR TIME—it’s like taking Gone with the Wind—and putting your name on the cover.)

JAN: Something I've always wanted to do, by the way. So much easier than all that darn writing!

HANK: Anyway—lots of AIR TIME is based on research and reality—besides the undercover work, and the research, I’ve done may interviews with the federal agencies in charge of battling counterfeiting, the attorneys who help big companies protest their products, and even the private investigators the designers hire to scout out counterfeits.

JAN: Charlie is smart, savvy, compassionate, witty and hip. Is she an effortless creation or are does she ever give you trouble some days?

HANK: Oh, yeah, effortless is exactly the word. (Pausing to laugh.) Well, thank you. Yes, I like Charlie. But some days she does fight me. And actually, I love that. I have put her in situations…where she just won’t do what I say. There was one day when she was in a room with some others—in a draft of PRIME TIME—and she put her hands on her hips and said—“Hank. There are too many of us in this room!”

I remember it well—I burst out laughing, and rewrote he scene with fewer people. She was right. In this case, at least. And in AIR TIME, there’s a scene (which, spoiler-wise, I can’t tell you about now) where she absolutely would not do what I planned. Would NOT. And in her head she said exactly the sentence she now says in the book. I loved it—she was right--and we can talk about that later.

JAN: It sounds like Charlie faces more direct danger in this book than in PrimeTime and FaceTime. Did that present new writing challenges?

HANK: Face more direct danger. Well, yes she does. And that’s an interesting question, because I didn’t plan it that way. Or even think about that.

I had what I think is a pretty great idea for a counterfeiting scheme—and when I talked to law enforcement types about it, they had to admit it would work! So I just took my criminal enterprise and played it out to the logical conclusion.

In writing, I always ask myself: what would really happen? And then that’s what happens. So Charlie’s in more direct danger, yes, she is. Because the people she’s dealing with are more desperate and more malevolent and the stakes are higher.

JAN: What does Charlie learn in this particular adventure?

HANK: I always knew my years of being devoted to Vogue would be valuable! And now I can probably deduct my subscription, right? But I must admit—lots of the inside scoop on the fashion industry in AIR TIME is, um, made up. The company Delleton-Marachelle, and it’s history, and its atelier and methods—all fictional.

Oh, Charlie learns a lot in AIR TIME, and it’s not all about fashion.

The theme of AIR TIME is authenticity—how do you tell the real thing?

Of course, that’s what counterfeiting is about—trying to fool someone into accepting a fake.

But also of course, in a 40-something woman’s search for true love, there are going to be exactly the same kinds of questions. In love: How do you know it’s the real thing?

In AIR TIME Charlie has a split second to decide who’s the real thing. Her life depends on it.

JAN: Finally, how do you an Emmy-award winning reporter who delves into investigations and still jumps on a breaking news story --- like Charlie – balance it all? An exhausting news career while writing and promoting three novels and pitching in to help the Boston mystery writing community the way you do.

HANK: Ah, thanks Jan. When I was writing PRIME TIME, I was about 40,000 words in, about halfway through, and I realized I had NO idea what I was doing. I called my mother, and said—Yikes, (or something like that.) I love my book, but I have no idea if I can finish it.

Mom paused and then said: You will if you want to.

And I think of that every day.

JAN: You know, you told me that once a while ago and I STILL THINK of it all the time, too.

HANK:Plus, Jonathan does the laundry and we get a LOT of take out food.

And although some days are SO BUSY I can barely think straight…all in all it’s so wonderful it brings tears to my eyes.

JAN: Come back tomorrow when debut thriller writer James Hayman , author of The Cutting, will be talking the strategies of reclusive writing.