Sunday, June 30, 2019

A Family Dilemma

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I’ll never forget the day my mom called me, all upset, and, I’ll admit, enraged. She was very unhappy with me, to say the least, because she’d decided that I’d modeled Charlotte McNally’s gorgeous but hyper-critical mother after her.  And moreover, that this person had gone to Boston to have a facelift. And now, she complained, everyone would that that was her.

I explained my way out of it, and ended by saying—Mom, it’s fiction. Charlie McNally is fictional, and Mrs. McNally is fictional She’s not you.

And there we left it.

Mom was right, of course, but I never admitted that.

Families can be tricky. As the wonderful Bryan Reardon explains.

       By Bryan Reardon

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.
             George Bernard Shaw

Is that good advice for a writer? I wonder. Recently, at a book festival in Michigan, someone asked me if I write a series. The easy answer was, 'no.' When I thought about the question, my mind made a new connection between my first two books, and my third which comes out this year. The first book is about a school shooting. The second about the bombing of New York's Penn Station. The third book about an abduction. They've been categorized as thrillers, but that never felt 100 percent accurate to me. 

When I got past the action of the concepts, I realized that the three had something much deeper in common. Not a series, but a trilogy of thematically themed stories, all focusing on family.

THE PERFECT PLAN (June 18, Dutton Books) is the story of the two brothers. Together, they seem to have survived a horrible childhood. People see them as strong, resilient and fiercely loyal. That's on the surface. If anyone looked too closely, though, they might see the cracks. They might catch a glimpse at their skeleton.

The older brother, Andrew, is a rising politician, running for office. The younger, Liam, is dangerous and unpredictable. Their story begins with Liam stalking one of Andrew's campaign staffers. When he abducts her in a parking lot, things get worse. Liam seems to taunt Drew with behaviors that seem out of control. 

But, when it comes to the Brennan brothers, things are never how they appear. Their family secret runs deep and dark. And by the end of their story, it will be dragged into the light.

It is in their back story, that I realized this story focuses on family. The brothers grew up in an abusive home, the children of an alcoholic mother. I dove deep into that portion, painting their childhood as vividly as I could. But there is a very real danger in doing that. See, as a writer, if you write about family, your family is automatically going to think you are writing about them.

I certainly don't write about my family. When you plot a story, you need your character to be a certain way, make certain decisions, all to further the arc. If I was to actually write about my family, I doubt too many people would want to read it. My life is normal. Boring. Certainly no one has been abducted. So, I make stuff up.


Here's where it gets dangerous. Although no one in my stories is an actual real-life person, I can't say that about some settings, or incidents. In The Perfect Plan, some of the story takes place in the backyard of my childhood home. My brother did teach me to tie my shoes. There are a few real-world nuggets thrown in there. I find myself doing that to help me ground the story. Make the characters more believable. The problem is, if some is true, then people might believe all of it really happened. When you write the kinds of books I write, that is not a great thing.

As writers, it can be scary. We are putting ourselves out there in a very real and vulnerable way. As our stories unfold, we might come across a choice. Use something that might resemble a person in our lives. Or shy away, afraid of what they might think.

 Right or wrong, I have chosen the former. It is a risk. There are still people in my life that don't speak to me because they think they were in my first book (though they weren't). But I do it because it works for me, despite the risk.

The funny thing about family, though, is that we tend to keep it all locked inside. On the surface, everything looks great. Just check our Facebook pages. But that's never the whole story, is it? We do anything we can to keep that skeleton locked away. We certainly don't let it dance in front of the neighbors. And I find myself asking the same question over and over again. Do we really know the people we are closest to? And, more interestingly, do they truly know us?

HANK: Yup, that’s a tough choice.  Is what’s best for the book what’s best for the real people? And how do we even know?

What do you think about using your real life in a book? Or—even more difficult—appropriating someone else’s?

And a copy of THE PERFECT PLAN to one luck commenter!

(And yesterday’s winner of  A LONG WAY DOWN  is Margaret Hamilton! Email me your address! Yay!)

From New York Times bestselling author Bryan Reardon comes a tense, twisting story about two brothers locked together in a dangerous game—and an unforgettable tale of a family’s dark secrets.

Liam Brennan teeters on the edge. Early one morning, he snaps, kidnapping a young woman who works for Drew Brennan, Liam’s older brother and the upstart candidate in a heated election. This sudden, vicious attack appears to be the beginning of an unthinkable spiral. But when it comes to the Brennan brothers, nothing is what it seems.
To the rest of the world, Liam is the troubled problem child who grew up to be his brother’s enforcer, while Drew has always been the perfect son and a charismatic leader who has his sights set on the governor’s mansion with his charming and beautiful wife, Patsy, by his side.
Now, as Liam tries to stay one step ahead of the authorities and his brother, every passing minute provides a deeper glimpse into the brothers’ past, long hidden behind a picture-perfect suburban veneer. With the threat of the truth surfacing, Liam and Drew are driven toward one final, desperate act...

 Bryan Reardon is the bestselling author of Finding Jake and The Real Michael Swann, and now, THE PERFECT PLAN (from Dutton.).  Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Bryan worked for the State of Delaware for more than a decade, starting in the Office of the Governor. He holds a degree in psychology from the University of Notre Dame and lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania, with his wife and kids. 

Saturday, June 29, 2019

When The Silence Speaks

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  So. Happy Saturday. Do you have ten minutes? No matter how you answered--yes, you do.
How many times have you heard someone ask: Where do you get our ideas? How many times have you seen authors wince, then make up some answer?
But I think that’s the most fascinating question ever. Where did Narnia come from? The sonnets? Kinsey Millhone?
The brilliant Randall Silvis has some thoughts about it. And that’s why you will be delighted you spent your ten minutes. And there’ll be more minutes to come as a result.
The Silence That Speaks

I don’t particularly like it when I am referred to as a crime writer or a mystery writer. Those words put the emphasis on a novel’s plot, and I don’t write plot-dominant stories. I write stories about the relationships between people, some of whom might be engaged in actions that include murder or another crime.
  Crimes are a great way to put a character under maximum pressure. Under pressure, our true natures are revealed. And only through an examination of our true natures can we (and our fictional characters) grow and evolve. An unexamined life is not worth living or worth reading.
 My goal with the Ryan DeMarco Mystery series is to follow DeMarco on his own spiritual journey through a course of demanding events—whether murder investigations, romantic and other relationships, betrayals, losses, even brushes with death—that will force him to assess not only his true nature but the true nature of reality. He is at an age when human beings do that kind of thing.
 Carl Jung called it the stage of Spirit, the fourth and final stage of life. It is when we realize that our lifetimes of accomplishments and our possessions are not all we are. We are more than that. In this stage we become the observers of our lives and learn to view life from a different perspective. These are the years of wisdom—if, indeed, we are equipped to receive it.
          DeMarco is an inherently compassionate person, but for a long time his thoughts were filled with the noise of anger and guilt that interferes with spiritual development. One of the most important things a person can do for him/herself is to court and cultivate the silence that speaks. In the novel series, with the help of Thomas Huston, Jayme, and his love of nature, DeMarco is learning to listen to that silence. This is also an essential facility for any writer who hopes to produce more than merely escapist stories.
So what is the silence that speaks? None of the world’s scientific geniuses has ever been able to explain how brain chemicals and electrical impulses produce ideas. That’s because they don’t. We know that the physical brain is somehow associated with consciousness—the mind and its infinite creativity—probably as a receiver of some kind, a filter and storage compartment.
 But we also know, from tens of thousands of documented and corroborated personal experiences, that an individual’s consciousness can continue to function (often even more keenly) when the brain is clinically dead. So it is clear that the physical brain does not create ideas or any other facet of what we call consciousness. They originate from the silence that speaks, that vast reservoir of consciousness and creativity that permeates everything.  
Einstein claimed that imagination is the highest human faculty. Max Planck, the father of quantum physics, was among the first contemporary scientists to understand that mind, i.e consciousness, precedes and in fact creates the illusion of matter. J.K. Rowling, during a train ride, experienced a spontaneous flood of imagination that gave birth to the entire Harry Potter opus, the highest-selling fiction series in history. Spiritual masters from the beginning of time have been inspired and guided by knowledge that seemed to come to them out of the silence.
My best ideas have always come to me unbidden during some non-thinking activity, such as meditating, dreaming, washing the dishes, mowing the yard, walking in the woods, taking a shower, or riding my motorcycle. At such times, brain activity is low, especially in the neo-cortex, the reasoning, analyzing part of the brain.
Several studies show that low activity in that region of the brain is associated with heightened states of consciousness. I belief that the state of non-thought Taoists call wu-wei allows us to “hear” inspiring whispers that have no relationship to personal experiences. This is the magic of creative thought. It often possesses some deeper, indescribable quality that will not yield to analysis or logic.
In The Book of Embraces, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano introduced a word for that quality, coined by fisherman along the Colombian coast: sentipensante, the language that speaks the truth, and does so not through thinking, not through analysis and reason, but through feeling. Love, I think, is sentipensante. As is joy. That exultant sense of gratitude and hope bequeathed by a sunrise or a star-filled night. That profound bond between a parent and child that cannot be articulated nor even understood unless one has experienced it.
This is the quality I sense every time the silence speaks. Not just the beauty of cadence and rhythm and image, which I attempt to build into my prose, but the beauty of an inexpressible truth. When Hemingway stated that the job of the writer is to write “one true sentence,” this, I think, was what he meant. From that truth, everything else will follow.
And that’s where DeMarco has landed in Book #3, A Long Way Down. He is learning not to worry so much. Not to feel so guilty about his past or to feel responsible for all of the sadness in the world. And to understand that there is a greater reality of which the physical one is but a fragment.
I can’t wait to see where he ends up in Book #4!
HANK:  So now I will ask you—where  (and when) do you get your ideas?
(and a copy of A Long Way Down to one lucky commenter!)

      --NOW From Poisoned Pen Press/Sourcebooks
Just when you think you’ve reached the bottom... Ryan DeMarco would rather not go home. Not now, maybe not ever. But when his estranged wife attempts suicide, he has no choice but to return to western Pennsylvania, and all the memories that wait for him there. Unfortunately, it’s not only ghosts from the past waiting to greet DeMarco upon his return. An old high school classmate has risen through the ranks to become a county sheriff, and he is desperate for help investigating a series of murders that might tie into a cold case from his and DeMarco’s school days. DeMarco and his new love, Jayme, agree to join the team working on the case. But it’s not easy for DeMarco to be walking the streets of his troubled past, and the deeper he and Jayme dig into the disturbing murders the less likely it is that either one of them will escape the devastation. 

 Randall Silvis is the internationally acclaimed author of eighteen books. His sixteen novels, one story collection and one book of narrative nonfiction have appeared on Best of the Year lists from the New York Times, the Toronto Globe & Mail,, and the International Association of Crime Writers, as well as on several Editor’s and Booksellers’ Pick lists. His work has been hailed as “masterful” by the New York Times Book Review as well as Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Mystery Scene magazine, and others. His new Suspense novel, A Long Way Down, will be published by Sourcebooks/Poisoned Press) in June 2019. 
 Also a prize-winning playwright, produced screenwriter, and prolific essayist, Silvis was the first Pennsylvanian to win the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize, whose final judge was Joyce Carol Oates. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his short fiction, Silvis was also a two-time Hammett Prize finalist for his crime novels An Occasional Hell and Two Days Gone. His magical realism novel In A Town Called Mundomuerto was named a Top Ten Fantasy Novel of the Year by the editors of SF Site magazine. Two Days Gone and Only the Rain were both Amazon #1 Bestsellers.
    The recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowships, a Fulbright Senior Scholar Research Award, and six writing fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for his fiction, drama, and screenwriting, Silvis  was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania for “a sustained record of distinguished literary achievement.” 
A multi-genre writer, Silvis' fiction has been marketed as literary, magic realism, mystery, thriller, and psychological suspense. His creative nonfiction ranges from personal essays to biography, history, and nature writing, and he was a contributing writer of cover and feature stories for the Discovery Channel magazines. Silvis has taught creative writing at the undergraduate and graduate levels for the past thirty years, including stints as the writer-in-residence at Mercyhurst College and the Ohio State University. He co-hosts the podcast The Writer’s Hangout  

Friday, June 28, 2019

What Would Hitchcock Do?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  It’s a conflict that faces every author—and reader—of crime fiction. What we’re writing about—and reading about—is usually terrible . So how do we balance the reality that we are focused on crime—without making it exploitive and sensational?

Then add to that true crime—where in real life, there’s no fictional literary buffers to call into play.  It’s heartbreaking—and it’s often  violent.  Difficult to look at, difficult to think about, and difficult to report.

So the juggle for the experienced and skillful Lis Wiehl was to take a riveting and ghoulishly gruesome real life story—and show why it mattered.. And do so without relying on the hideous details that gave the Manson murders a place in the annals of inhumanity.

How Hitchcock Did It

My daughter and I got lost the other day on our journey home, and I decided to make a quick u- turn in to a circular driveway in front of an old hotel in order to get back on to the road home.  The hotel was run down and kind of creepy looking, and the day foggy and overcast. My daughter said, “It looks like the Bates motel. By the way mom, did he kill all of the people that stayed at that hotel?” And I replied, “The only one that any one remembers is the woman in the shower. And the images of his dead mother in the rocking chair.”

Norman Bates may well have been a serial killer with dozens of victims stacked up in the basement of that fictional Bates Hotel. But what is important to us, what resonates and sticks with us, is the horror of the shower scene, complemented with terrifying music.  We feel the fear and panic of one woman, as we imagine the likelihood of many more victims whose stories we will never hear.  That is the key to the genius that was Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock was able to convey fear and horror in fiction while spilling relatively few drops of blood on screen.  True crime is different because it demands showing true crime scenes. And true crime scenes are, by their very nature, full of blood and guts and gore.

We live in a world saturated by images of man’s inhumanity to man. Our evening news splays those images every night on our television screens, and the internet carries images of absolute brutality that can make it hard to sleep at night.  As a writer of true crime, I do not feel compelled to add to arbitrary images and then move on to storytelling about the humanity or lack thereof behind the action.

In writing “Hunting CharlesManson”, for example, I devote only two chapters in a 36-chapter book to the actual murders in August of 1969. The narrative is linear, but there are no bloody crime scene photos in the book. I write about facts descriptively, but not overly colorfully.  

 I assume that if you’ve picked up a book about Charles Manson you’ve probably heard something about the murders, so I’m less interested in the gory details of the murders than in the preamble to the murders. What lead up to Charles Manson’s amassing his following, for example? How did he get his ‘Family’ to murder all those people, while he stood by in the wings without so much as lifting a knife? And what was this grand scheme of Helter Skelter?

After the Manson murders of August, 1969, the LAPD completely bungled the investigation. And, for a while, Charles Manson was a free man.  How could the police have missed the clues that were literally written in the victims’ blood at the crime scene? Why were the different investigative agencies not communicating with each other and apprehending Manson and his followers earlier? These were the questions I was interested in asking in my book.

Once the police finally did get their man, the prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, had a not to be underestimated task before him: How was he to convict a man of multiple murders who had never wielded a murder weapon and who not even at the crime scene during the time of the murders?! 

Bugliosi masterfully used Manson’s own theory of Helter Skelter to prosecute him: his plan to use the murders for starting a race war in Los Angeles which he could stop at will and thereby assume leadership of further actions. Bugliosi persuaded a jury that Manson had effectively convinced Tex Watson and the “girls” to commit the murders, i.e. “do something witchy”, in the pursuit of Helter Skelter. And it worked. Manson was convicted of all seven murders. And sentenced to death. (Which was later commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.)

In writing “Hunting Charles Manson” I made a deliberate decision not to focus on the gory details of the murders.  Instead, I studied the man before the murders, his followers, the police and their investigation, the prosecutor’s tactics. And I studied these things and events with a goal: to understand why these events happened, so we may learn from history, lest history repeat itself. 

I believe that if we learn from the mistake that was Charles Manson and his playbook of wooing young women in to his “family” and using them to murder innocent people, then maybe we can spot and stop fledgling Manson’s out there today. 

I, for one, would be happy to have fewer real life stories of blood and guts and gore to write about.  It would challenge all of us true crime writers to aspire to be more like Alfred Hitchcock and tell a spell binding story without bloody crime scenes.

HANK: Yeah—I have to admit I’ve found myself reading scenes in some books that are hauntingly gruesome—and you know? I skip them. And then, often stop reading the book.  But that's just me. And so many writers—and terrific writers—do not shy away from the close up descriptions.  In my own books, I write about the search for justice more than I write about the elements of crime.

So where do you fall in the close-up-to-crime spectrum? How do you feel about that?

And LIs will be stopping in today! What would you like to know about her book? And a copy of the new paper back to one lucky commenter!

Lis Wiehl is the author of HUNTING CHARLES MANSON (Nelson Books; available in paperback on June 25, 2019) and former legal analyst for Fox News. She has appeared regularly on Your World with Neil Cavuto, Lou Dobbs Tonight, and the Imus morning shows. The former co-host of WOR radio's “WOR Tonight with Joe Concha and Lis Wiehl,” she has served as a legal analyst and reporter for CNN, NBC News, and NPR’s All Things Considered, as a federal prosecutor in the United States Attorney’s office and was a tenured professor of law at the University of Washington. She lives near New York City.