Tuesday, March 31, 2020

RHYS on Stiff Upper Lip

RHYS BOWEN: My husband John reminded me the other day that he had lived through the war as a child. Everyone had faced nightly bombing raids, rushing to a shelter, grabbing the most precious items, just in case. "And we just got on with it," he said. "Nobody panicked. We got on with our lives." 

Of course he was a boy. He probably never noticed the anxiety on his mother's face as she strove to remain calm for her children. He thought it was a great lark to play on forbidden bomb sites. But I have to say that everything I've heard indicates that the Brits were remarkably calm and stoic throughout the whole ordeal.  They didn't know when it would end or if it would end well. During the early years they fully expected Hitler to invade and had stockpiled pitchforks and garden tools to defend agains a mighty German army.

I have written several times about World War 2 but this experience has made it so personal for me. Now I can identify a little with what the people went through. We don't know how long this will go on or if it will end badly for some of us. It's an invisible enemy and there really isn't much we can do to protect ourselves other than staying home. There are those, as there were in WW2, who are openly defiant: this can't happen to me. Remember the scene in my book IN FARLEIGH FIELD  when party goers dance on the rooftop as bombs fall nearby. Maybe defiance was good then, but it isn't now. Those young people who think they are safe are not. What's more it's as if they were carrying bombs into the houses of loved ones.

And so we soldier on, with good days and bad days, with days when we tell ourselves it's not so bad and days when we ask ourselves how long we can keep going.

So I'm going to remember that I'm British. Eccentric maybe, but
Stiff upper lip, you know. I'll be brave and resilient. And I've made several resolutions:
I will make my bed every morning.
I will dress properly, not stay in pjs all day. I read a book written by a young Brit who was stationed in Kenya a hundred years ago. He was the British officer for a vast territory, the only white man for miles around. And every evening he would put on his dinner jacket and bow tie and have a white tablecloth, silverware all correct and sit alone to eat in his mud hut, even if the food was yams and bush cow, because he knew if he let standards slip it would be the end of him.
I try to remember that. I saw a post by Laura Lippman today that she is putting on a lovely outfit for a few minutes every day. And make-up.  I think I'll try that and take a picture every day. Time to experiment with the strange cosmetics at the back of my drawer. We have time, remember?

And a final word of encouragement:

Monday, March 30, 2020

Rhys on the Gift of Time


The Gift of Time

I know we are all feeling stressed, anxious, helpless at the moment. It’s only natural when we find ourselves in circumstances we can’t control.

But it suddenly struck me the other day that we have been given a great gift: THE GIFT OF TIME.
It seems to me that I have been running and trying to catch up my whole life. Get up, answer emails, get to work on the book I am writing and try to juggle in time to do the copy edits on the book before it, or to write a proposal for the book coming next. Answer fan mail, do interviews and podcasts, write guest blogs and handle my week as the Jungle Red host. Oh, and read a long line of books waiting to be blurbed.

And how many times have I thought “I should check on this person and see how they are doing”. I should read a book I want to read, not one I have to read. I should try a new recipe. I should get back to my watercolors. But I simply don’t have the time.

Well, now I do have the time. I have been given a gift. My day is my own to make of it what I will. Fortunately I still have writing deadlines to keep me focused. I still have my social media to take care of--and lately I’ve been using my Facebook page to spread calm and reassurance to others with my son’s daily chats (he’s a life coach and is giving wonderful little talks every day)i

But I still have time for other things. My kitchen has never been so clean because I wash the counters at least three times a day! I am at my house in Arizona, not my bigger house in California, so there is no garden to take care of and the house is so easy to maintain with its faux wood floors and white quartz surfaces.  So…. now I can paint when I want to. And I tried a torn paper collage. Lots of fun

And I have decided to give myself one treat every day. One of those face masks that have been languishing in my drawers. (not the sort they need in the ER but the one with gold leaf that you leave on for 20 minutes)
At attempt at a pedicure (not spectacularly successful, I have to admit but it’s more fun with blue toes) Playing Scrabble on my phone. OR… just sitting on my patio and enjoying the sound of the fountain pattering, birdsong, watching palm trees sway in the wind and enjoying my meals. 

My lunch is usually something slapped on a slice of bread with a few lettuce leaves. I eat it and have to get back to work. Today I enjoyed my daughter’s freshly baked sourdough with ham, cucumber and avocado and a hint of English mustard. How good cucumber tastes with a little pepper on it. And the avocado with a squeeze of lemon juice. I savor all the flavors. 

And at night I’m working my way through Britbox--all those good old mystery programs: Marple (the real one, not the later ones) Poirot, Death in Paradise, Rosemary and Thyme etc etc. And the old comedies too. I go to bed smiling. And I wake to my children, all checking in for the day, making each other laugh, offering words of advice, posting pictures of the new puppy. It’s all good.

So Reds, how about you? What are your current coping mechanisms? What are your little treats?

HALLIE EPHRON: My husband and I have been distance teaching our granddaughter for two hours each day. It’s amazing the materials that are out there on the Internet, at our fingertips, and our Franny has been a champ. I’m doing reading and writing; he’s doing math and science. Right now he’s putting together materials to teach her to tell time. I’ve warned him, it’s one of the most complicated things to try to teach. 

I can’t say that all this time has made me more productive, writing-wise. Turns out anxiety is not a creativity boost. In fact, it’s a good way to get really fat.

LUCY BURDETTE: Anxiety not good for me either, Hallie, though I’m making a conscious effort to work some each day. I keep thinking our work will matter to someone down the line who needs to get out of her head, her world (or his!) and into the one I’m creating. I’m hearing from people who are re-reading the Key West mysteries (including our Julia!) and finding comfort there.

I am cooking a fair amount so with you on getting fat too Hallie (although my personal trainer, for whom I now long, calls it fluffy.) So I’m either walking or biking or doing yoga on Zoom most days. And staying in touch with you Reds is a godsend--so glad we have more time for that!

JENN McKINLAY: I thought I would be so much more productive during this self-isolation but not so much. I have too many men underfoot and it’s loud and everyone is always hungry. Also, suddenly I’m expected to monitor the hooligans’ schoolwork online. I don’t even monitor their school work when it’s the regular day to day buried in the backpack beneath the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Teachers, I can’t do what you do. Seriously, can NOT. 

My happiness has been found gardening and then sitting on my back porch enjoying the plants that are blooming, the pets frolicing in the grass, and the fact that my men are smart enough to leave me alone when I’m outside. 

I know this, too, shall pass but not soon enough for me!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Jenn, one thing I’ve heard over and over again, from the internet, from the community college where I teach, from Youngest’s university - don’t sweat the school work. Everyone is dealing with the same things your boys’ teachers are dealing with their kids at home, whose teachers are dealing with sharing the office with a spouse, who is trying to learn Blackboard for the first time. We’re all half-assing it. Basically, the command from my college was, “Pick the most important concepts and jettison the rest.” I suggest that as the way forward for the Hooligans.

As for me, I’m cooking more, usually while listening to NPR or a podcast, which I enjoy. It’s still half-winter here in Maine, but I’m trying to get outside once a day for some fresh air and sunshine. I threw my whole getting-off-sugar thing into the wastebasket - remember the NYTimes “Seven Day Sugar Detox” from the New Year’s Day edition, about five years ago? Yeah, not so much. I made a double batch of Toll House cookies and we all binged.

Also, I’m really enjoying the communal evenings with the Smithie, Youngest, and her two university buds, or, as I call them, the Creatures of the Night. We’ve watched a movie, spent an evening in conversation, and I’m going to propose a game night - the boys both like “Clue” and unlike my daughters, they didn’t refuse to play with me (the girls say I have a grossly unfair advantage.)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I'm worrying, too, and vacillate between terror and optimism. I ordered the dahlias for the garden, though--and then wondered if that reflected how I actually feel. If so, great. I made rosemary infused croutons from old frozen hot dog buns, and thought I was so creative--and frugal, right? (And they were fabulous.) And I am realizing I need structure. SO I make daily lists of what I have to do THAT DAY. And I drive myself to accomplish that. My treats? I am talking to lots of people on email, and have reconnected with my next door neighbor. I read in bed in the morning on my iPad, early on, and don't feel pressured or guilty that I should be rushing to work. And Jonathan and I take long walks together, and that's good. And the ducks are here!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Rhys, I so get what you're saying about always feeling behind. I think I've been behind my whole life!! Maybe I was even a late baby... So I've been thinking about having the gift of time, for the foreseeable future. Of course there is work to do, and I've managed some, but not nearly as much as I would like. You would think with not going out, the days would stretch endlessly, but that hasn't been the case. There's been a lot of figuring out how to do things, how to order groceries, etc. etc. Maybe in the next few weeks I'll manage that watercolor tutorial, or the Gordon Ramsay online cooking class!

My treats have been regular phone chats with friends, and this last week at least, spending time outside. After a long rainy spell we've had gorgeous weather. Things are bursting out in the garden, so I walk around and survey things every day.  Normally this time of year I'd be filling all my deck and porch pots with flowers and hanging Boston ferns everywhere, so in lieu of that, I've just been tidying and transplanting things. And the hummingbirds have arrived!

RHYS: and to all our friends and readers out there. Any brilliant coping skills? What are your little treats? Stay safe, everyone. We love you!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Are You Missing the Meetings?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Who’s have thought we’d WANT to go to work? I work in front of my computer now,  and on the phone, feeding zoom video of interviews and standups back to the station where those still working edit it all together.  It is a crazy mixture of primitive and internet age.

And I miss...my pals. And takeout lunches at my desk. And going places. And a little bit of the constant—constant!—office intrigue.  Granted, I’m used to working at home, too, and I do love it.  And as the amazing Andrea Bartz has also discovered, having to be at home is different from wanting to be at home.

Let me say, first—even home alone you can hear the buzz about THE HERD. Right? It’s one of the most discussed, most intriguing, most innovative books this year! But I’ll let her tell you about it.

Oh! And a copy to one VERY lucky commenter.  

   by Andrea Bartz

After lighthouse operators and Antarctica researchers, I should’ve been the best-prepared human for self-isolation on earth.

I haven’t put on pants and gone into work regularly in more than five years. I’m a writer now, cranking out freelance articles alongside annual mysteries; the latest is The Herd, which came out on March 24, a “smart, twisty thriller” (thanks, Publishers Weekly!) set in an exclusive all-female coworking space in New York City. On Friday, the Los Angeles Times said, “Bartz has been widely hailed as a master of the 'feminist thriller,' and both 'The Herd' and her 2019 debut novel, 'The Lost Night,' are deftly constructed page-turners starring flawed female protagonists whose successes are stymied by sexism — implicit, explicit and systemic,” and I think those very nice words tell you what you need to know about my kind of fiction.

(ed note from Hank: Nice words?  Booklist called The Herd “guaranteed armchair escapism” and Kirkus called it “a soapy and fun womancentric thriller.” Yes, womancentric—they invented a word for Andrea! )

But yes, I’m a solitary creature, working on my books and articles in solitude from my “office,” which is in, in fact, an Ikea desk wedged between the foot of my bed and the back of my sofa in my 350-square-foot Brooklyn studio. My cat provided more than enough company, and my Rear Window-like view into back of the townhouses across the courtyard made me feel like a capital-a Author living out her own noirish existence.

Someone’s probably murdering someone outside my window.

And then the pandemic hit, and I’ve realized what a social creature I really am. 

Work dates with fellow writers, drinks with former coworkers, lunches with perky publicists eager to sneak their clients into my articles: all snuffed out like the falling lid of a coffin, whump. Now that I can’t see people, I’m noticing just how starved I am for human contact. Last night I dreamed about a work meeting. A meeting! PowerPoints and agendas and Gen X’ers scribbling in their notebooks while those under 35 type directly into their laptops, possibly listening but probably on iMessage! These are the mundane moments I’m suddenly nostalgic for.

My writing assistant, though cute, is quite taciturn. Until she wants a treat
When I set The Herd inside a bougie coworking space (a space where women, by definition, don’t need to be to do their jobs yet choose to Uber into for the benefit of company), I had no idea I wouldn’t be able to promote it in person. I’ve had more Zoom sessions this week than in all the weeks of the rest of my life combined, but FaceTime is no substitute for face-time, as the savvy businesswomen of the Herd (and all its real-life counterparts—the Wing, the Riveter, the Luminary, etc.) know. Nationwide, workers are realizing how much social nourishment they got from office drama and water cooler chitchat. 

Who doesn’t love a delicious bit of workplace gossip?

Add Portrait of a Writer Accidentally Torturing her Only Colleague

What about you—are you missing your coworkers? Or enjoying the respite from binding office attire and annoying commutes and boring meetings that could totally be an email? Are you enjoying seeing your colleagues’ children and pets and weird bedspread and weird spouse lurking in the background of Zoom meetings? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. 

And hey, if you or someone you love (#gifts!) needs some quarantine reading and you want to feel embroiled in office drama again, The Herd is the word, ya heard?

Stay safe and well and engaged out there!

HANK: I just burst out laughing. Yes I am suddenly obsessed with my background in the zoom shots, and the lighting. Where’s the lighting person? Oh, they can’t come over.  

Reds and readers, what do you think about Andrea’s questions?  Are you missing your coworkers? Or enjoying the respite? Realizing how much faster email might be? And how much fun is it to see your colleagues’ children and pets and weird bedspread and weird spouse lurking in the background of Zoom meetings? (I am loving that part! Oh, lookit that wallpaper? WHAT were they thinking?)

And a copy of THE HERD to two lucky commenters!  (See below for the past week’s winners!)


copyright Kate Lord
Andrea Bartz is a Brooklyn-based journalist and author of the new thriller THE HERD. Her debut thriller, THE LOST NIGHT (Crown, 2019), is being developed for TV by Mila Kunis. Andi hails from Milwaukee and studied journalism at Northwestern University before moving to New York to become a magazine editor. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, Martha Stewart Living, Elle, and many other outlets, and she's held editorial positions at Glamour, Psychology Today, and Self, among other titles. She enjoys wooded parks, good cheese, and her energetic rescue cat, Mona.


of Jennifer Alderson’s THE VERMEER DECEPTION E-book are Kathy Reel and  Grace Koshida
of Tessa Wegert’s DEATH IN THE FAMILY; Kathyc23
of Art Taylor’s  The Boy Detectirve and the Summer of 74. Deana Dale and Kait
Email me your addresses!  hryan at whdh dot com

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Finding Felicia

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: It’s Saturday, in case , like me, you have no idea what day it is anymore. But there are some things you can rely on in life, seriously, there are. 

And one of those things is the genuine wonderfulness of Art Taylor. Art’s probably blushing now, and I hope so. Not only is Art Taylor jaw-droppingly talented -- (HOW many awards have you won? Seriously, tell us. Multiple Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Macavity--and the Edgar! )—but he’s also simply the best of guys. Generous, thoughtful, inspirational. And his terrifically talented wife, Tara Laskowski, as you know, has her big big big first novel out now, One Night Gone—a Mary Higgins Clark award nominee! (And of course, she’s stalwartly staying home, her celebratory events cancelled. Xoxox) And then, their son Dash, who is an absolute paragon.

We are so thrilled to talk with Art today. His new collection—and I am giving away TWO copies today—is fabulous and innovative. And his brain is—relentlessly and irresistibly fascinating. Art’s events for the new book are cancelled, too. With is so sad, in a sea of sadness.

So today—let’s celebrate Art Taylor, and all the contributions he’s made to this students, and his readers, and the writing community, and to all of our lives. 

And apparently, there’s this girl. Felicia.

So Who’s Felicia?

Or: Follow Your Interests and Obsessions—Because You Will Anyway
    by Art Taylor

In his very generous (and much appreciated) review of my recently released collection The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense, Kristopher Zgorski of BOLO Books pointed out that two of the stories feature characters named Felicia: one Felicia a small side-character in the title story and the other taking a more central role in the story “The Care & Feeding of Houseplants.” 

“This is almost certainly a coincidence,” Zgorski wrote, “but in another example of how Art Taylor’s work harkens back to similar themes and motifs, these two Felicias could actually be the same individual at different stages of her life.”

Here’s the kicker: There’s actually a third Felicia, or at least a third use of the name, in another story: “Murder on the Orient Express,” my first published story for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine from back in 1995.

I didn’t realize I had three Felicias here until this reviewed called my attention to them, but it’s easy (maybe) to defend them, to defend my having forgotten I’d used the name before. The stories were published over a span of twenty-five years, after all—with at least a decade, in fact, between each Felicia’s appearance in print! And I purposefully didn’t make any major changes to these stories from their original publication—preserving them as they appeared.

Still… why Felicia?

Or better yet: Who’s Felicia? …because there is one.

Back in elementary school (way back!) in Richlands, NC, I had a crush on a classmate named Felicia. Honestly, I remember very little about her now—what she looked like, for example— only that she lived outside of town, too far for us to see one another afterschool, and that we were never really friends, much less boyfriend and girlfriend (too young for even some early form of that).

What I do remember—clearly: One afternoon, I was sitting in the bathroom (TMI, I know, but it’s necessary), and my brother or one of the guys next door knocked on the bathroom door to tell me to hurry up. Felicia had come over, he said, and she was waiting outside for me to get done.

Spoiler alert: She wasn’t. It was only my brother or one of those friends rushing me along and teasing in the process.

But even today, across all those years, whenever I think about that moment, the feeling of it rushes back—the mix of emotions: excitement, confusion, embarrassment, anticipation, desire, self-consciousness. 

For all their differences, the Felicias in my stories—each of them, as you’ll see—are all touched by some mix of those emotions. But I hadn’t realized it myself until Kris Zgorski pointed it out.

In recent years, several students in my writing workshops at George Mason University have fretted about their fiction being repetitive. “Each of my stories has the same kinds of characters,” they might say, “or the same conflicts or the same themes.”  They talk about being drawn again and again to certain characters or storylines, about not being able to pull themselves away.

The irony here is that these students—these very students—are the ones often producing the best work. And for the record, their stories each to the next never look the same to me.

Rereading my own stories from over a period of 25 years, I see both the many differences—in character and situation and style and structure—but also the core similarities too: Most, if not all, of my stories are ultimately about relationships, whether romances or friendships or family ties, and about what happens when someone betrays that relationship. As I said at the book launch for The Boy Detective and the Summer of ’74, sometimes it seems like I’ve written just one story—and then kept rewriting it in new ways.

All this in perspective, I always tell those fretful students not to worry. Their skills will develop, their storytelling will evolve, their stories won’t all sound the same. They only need write in those directions they’re already pulled toward—following those storylines and themes they keep obsessing over, those characters they can’t shake.  

But in the future, I’ll add an asterisk to that advice: Just make sure not to give too many of those characters the same name.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  I absolutely want to name everyone Elliott. Or Eli. Elias. It’s –crazy. (But do I know any Elliotts? Or Elis? My grandson, certainly. But I pushed the name.)  And my books are about—huh. Betrayal. 

SO what is that? When someone or something you rely on gets pulled out from under you. And bizarrely and surprisingly, and often with NO conscious intent, about mothers and daughters. But every single book I’ve written—and that be true?—have those themes. But they are very different.

Your students are so lucky, Art!  

(OMG. I just realized my newest main character is Ellie. Never, until this very moment, did I realize that. Okay, moving along.) 

In the summer of 74—I was working for Rolling Stone Magazine (with Hunter Thompson)  in Washington DC. What were you doing, Reds and Readers, in the summer of 74?
And a copy of  The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 to TWO lucky commenters!

Art Taylor is the author of the story collection The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense and of the novel in stories On the Road with Del & Louise, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He won the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Short Story for "English 398: Fiction Workshop," originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and he has won three additional Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, three Macavity Awards, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction. His work has also appeared in Best American Mystery Stories. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University.