Monday, January 28, 2008

Killer Year Signing in Nashville Tomorrow

Take note: my Killer Year pals and I will be doing some talking and signing Wed night in Nashville. JT and Toni are two wonderfully charismatic women who've both written fantastic books and I'm, well, you know about me. Stop by if you're in that neck. After that it's off to the AWP Conference in NYC. Busy week, indeed.

01/29/2008 - 7:00pm

Panel Discussion with authors J.T. Ellison, Toni McGee Causey and Edgar nominated Derek Nikitas

Nashville, Tennessee
Davis Kidd, The Mall at Green Hills

J.T. Ellison is a former White House staffer who moved to Nashville and began research on a passion, forensics and crime. She worked extensively with the Metro Nashville Police Department, and utilized these experiences to write her critically acclaimed debut novel, ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS.

Toni McGee Causey lives in Baton Rouge with her husband and two sons; a Louisiana native (and Cajun), she has nearly completed a double masters at LSU. She's placed in top tier screenwriting contests, published many non-fiction articles and edited a popular regional magazine. To support her writing addiction, she and her husband Carl run their own civil construction company. Bobbie Faye is the first in a three-book deal with St. Martin's press on a pre-empt; the chaotic, rollercoaster thriller world of Bobbie Faye owes much to Toni having way more experience than she'd like to own up to in the world of trouble-shooting, disaster-prevention and survival.

Friday, January 25, 2008

She Reads Leviathan

Midlake's "Head Home" has been my favorite song for a few weeks now. I'm kind of late on board with Midlake, I know, but you get into the middle of your 30s and it's hard to pay attention to "the scene" anymore. I rely on the stuff that floats to the surface of the collective conscious. Most of the time, that stuff is forgettable. But this... this song seems to have its own realm, its own atmosphere. The whole album, The Trials of Van Occupanther, is a concept album about, I don't know, frontier development or something. It's all about people building houses in the woods, farming, and surviving winters with low rations. I love the risk of writing a 70s throwback rock album about the American frontier. That, in an of itself, is worth the admission price. But the music is also uniformly brilliant, it turns out. Bask:

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


We said a few hurried words about Mr. Poe’s review of Mr. Hawthore’s Twice Told Tales in a recent blog, with a design of speaking more fully in the present. It is also with a certain grim amusement we note that Mr. Poe’s observations about Mr. Hawthorne’s volume of stories are now read much more frequently by students of fiction writing than Mr. Hawthorne’s tales themselves. Be that as it may, we are also endlessly amused by Mr. Poe, not only, as usual, for his literary style, but also for his disconcerting evocation of the first person plural, which techniques we are obviously currently adopting.

We’re impressed by Mr. Poe’s droll attitude, and we chuckle to ourselves when we observe that he devotes a full quarter of his article space toward the purpose of complaining that he does not have enough article space in which to praise Mr. Hawthorne. Another quarter of his article is rather humorously and playfully devoted to accusing Mr. Hawthorne of plagiarizing an earlier work of Mr. Poe’s own fiction. Of course, he is only being facetious. Mr. Poe, you many recall, is an historically renowned rascal.

Yet another quarter of Mr. Poe’s review is occupied with a splendid effort to praise Mr. Hawthorne’s originality and imagination, though, by a stroke of uncharacteristic difficulty, Mr. Poe cannot seem to find any but the most abstract and thematically repetitive words with which to compose his praise. No matter, for we have at the least learned that the mark of highest quality for the prose tale, which is itself inferior to the poem, is that it maintains a single effect throughout. This is one of Mr. Poe’s most famous pronouncements, though he has certainly allowed himself the luxury of a multitude of potential interpretations by posterity.

What, we might ask, is a “single effect?” We are fairly certain that our answer will pertain to what Mr. Poe terms “unity of effect or impression,” by which he might well mean that an excellent specimen of a story will maintain the same mood, perhaps the same setting and dramatic incident, without peripheral accoutrements. We know for certain at least that Mr. Poe would not like to see a work of imaginative prose carry on beyond what can be read in a single sitting, lest the reader be broken away from the story’s effect.

We understand Mr. Poe’s position and recognize its merits, but our observations regarding what is known as, for lack of a better term, the “contemporary literary landscape” do not apparently coincide with Mr. Poe’s somewhat dated argument. In fact, the literary form he provides with the lowliest designation, the novel, now rules the aforementioned contemporary landscape (not withstanding recent examples of literary self-help, celebrity confessionals, and harrowing personal memoirs regarding drug addiction). Whatever intense power the prose tale seems to have held over the readership of Poe’s day appears to have eroded in favor of longer works, at least in regards to the taste of the general pubic. Curious, indeed.

(Par parenthese, an even more curious phenomenon is the seemingly concerted effort among young, novice, male American writers of a certain temperament and in their early apprenticeships to adopt with abandon Mr. Poe’s signature writing style, and, furthermore, many of his most famous and most morbid situational motifs. The present writers are of course not excepted from this charge, and they humbly admit their own culpability in this odd literary conspiracy begun a century and a half prior to our own time at the first by Mr. Hawthorne in his ill-considered act of plagiarism.)

We wonder, at any rate, and with all due respect, if Mr. Poe’s logic were perhaps inaccurate in regards to novels. Perhaps, we would like to suggest, a range of effects carried out over a narrative emboldened by several, yet complimentary, thematic threads might in fact provide the reader with an experience as equally fulfilling as that evoked by the unified prose tale. We might also wonder whether or not a reader of sufficient breeding and education might successfully maintain his emotional investment with a work of imaginary literature even when that investment is occasionally and necessarily interrupted by periods of repose, refreshment and occupation.

It is without reservation that we reiterate our debt of gratitude to Mr. Poe for the literary riches which he has bestowed upon us, not to mention the recent, humbling accolades that he has (posthumously) bestowed upon the editors of this very edition. Therefore, we advance all of our remarks with the utmost respect, though perhaps in the admittedly faulty spirit of mere frivolous inquiry. We wonder, for instance, whether we might as contemporary writers take heed of Mr. Poe’s advice to “not fashion [our] thoughts to accommodate [our] incidents” but to first conceive of an effect and only later to “combine such events as may best aid [us] in establishing this preconceived effect.” Yet, alas, we are ill-mannered practitioners and we lack a full and reasoned understanding of the meaning behind the term “effect;” furthermore, because we suspect that Mr. Poe might be referring to an “idea” or a “point” when he employs the word “effect,” we must regrettably admit our lack of palatable “ideas” and also our inability to develop the logical acumen required for those who mean to make “points.”

Nonetheless, we join together in championing Mr. Poe in his effort to illustrate that the best prose tales are engaged in the act of uncovering truth. This we believe in unison, and with the very core of each of our beings, though when pressed upon to provide the definition of truth we are shamefully incapable. We always, as they say, “know it when we see it.” We have also a few ephemeral assumptions about what Mr. Poe means when he suggests that poetic rhythm and documentary truth do not coincide, but in light of our fulfilling friendships with various contemporary poets, not to mention our own experiences with noticing exemplary depictions of “truth” in published examples of the poetic arts, rhythmic or otherwise, we find ourselves unwilling to address this issue at the current time.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Killer Year!


Today marks the release of Killer Year: Stories to Die For, an anthology of thriller stories from me and my Killer Year friends (most of whom have links to their websites on the righthand sidebar). Here's St. Martin's Minotaur's blurb on the antho. My story is the one about "boys and the trouble they will get into over a girl":

is a group of 13 debut crime/mystery/suspense authors whose books were published in 2007. The graduating class includes such rising stars as Robert Gregory Browne, Toni McGee Causey, Marcus Sakey, Derek Nikitas, Marc Lecard, JT Ellison, Brett Battles, Jason Pinter, Bill Cameron, Sean Chercover, Patry Francis, Gregg Olsen, and Dave White.

Each of the short stories displaying their talents are introduced by their KILLER YEAR mentors, some of which include bestselling authors Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen and Jeffrey Deaver, with additional stories by Ken Bruen, Allison Brennan and Duane Swierczynski. Bestselling authors Laura Lippman and MJ Rose contribute insightful essays.

Inside you'll read about a small time crook in over his head, a story told backwards with a heroine not to be messed with, a tale of boys and the trouble they will get into over a girl, and many more stories of the highest caliber in murder, mayhem, and sheer entertainment. This amazing anthology, edited by the grandmaster Lee Child, is sure to garner lots of attention and keep readers coming back for more.

And here are some nice reviews about the book:

"Why writers who deal with the dark side of human nature are among the most collegial is a mystery in itself. What is not in doubt, though, is the quality of this collection resulting from that collegiality, with 13 of its 16 stories by writers who published their first novels in 2007 and were mentored by established authors under the auspices of the International Thriller Writers organization. Some of these stories—which, as editor Child notes, are ‘far, far harder to write than novels’—push the edge of the genre and snag the memory, among them Marcus Sakey's exploration of love and the difference between wanting and needing in ‘Gravity and Need.’ Sean Chercover's Chicago P.I. Ray Dudgeon keeps a case from going south, Gregg Olsen gives a final twist to his tale of a true crime writer, and Jason Pinter shows how things can go inexorably wrong in an instant. The mentors’ introductions to these stories, plus brief biographies at the end, should entice readers to longer works by these promising new authors. Even amid a recent rash of anthologies in the genre, this one is well worth a look."

--Library Journal

"Three of Child’s contributors—Ken Bruen, Allison Brennan and Duane Swierczynski—are seasoned pros, but the collection’s gems come from the 13 members of the younger set. Derek Nikitas’s ‘Runaway,’ for instance, is a superbly ambiguous chiller about an adolescent girl who may or may not be a real runaway, or for that matter real. In Toni McGee Causey’s artfully composed ‘A Failure to Communicate’ introduces the indomitable and irresistible Bobbie Faye Sumrall, a steel magnolia whose steel will cause three lowlifes to rue the day they took her hostage. ‘Perfect Gentleman’ by Brett Battles and ‘Bottom Deal’ by Robert Gregory Browne are both lean and taut, expertly crafted in the good old hard-boiled tradition. In Marc Lecard’s sly ‘Teardown,’ a hapless loser arrives in the wrong place at what turns out to be exactly the right time. Gregg Olsen’s autobiographical ‘Crime of My Life’ features a surprise ending that actually surprises. The quality is less consistent among the other entries, but, remarkably for a collection this ample, there’s no sign of a clinker.

"An anthology so worthwhile that it comes within an eyelash of deserving the hyperbole Child heaps on it in his introduction."

--Kirkus Reviews

"For this impressive crime anthology, bestseller Child (One Shot) has gathered 13 stories by newcomers and three by veterans. Such established writers as David Morrell, James Rollins, Gayle Lynds, Ken Bruen and Allison Brennan introduce tales by such rising stars as Marcus Sakey, Brett Battles, Robert Gregory Browne, Sean Chercover and Gregg Olsen. Some selections, like Olsen's "The Crime of My Life," hit like a hard swung sap. Battles's "Perfect Gentleman" is more like a knife that slides in easily, then twists in the gut. Browne's "Bottom Deal" features a PI that would be at home in a lineup with Spade and Marlowe. Sakey's "Gravity and Need" lets the reader bleed out slowly, while Chercover's "One Serving of Bad Luck" earns a rueful smile. Not every entry is a winner, but the disturbingly good new talent showcased in this volume bodes well for the future of the genre."

--Publishers Weekly

Monday, January 21, 2008


A favorite sentence of fictional prose? Sure, I said, I can deliver. I didn’t mean to be cheeky, stretch the definition of “sentence.” It’s just that this sentence gave me a vision of literary godhood. It’s from the point of view of a bunch of ragged cowboys who have noticed a band of Comanches coming toward them from the distance. These cowboys (land pirates, really) are about meet near-total annihilation:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

One could spend a whole career aspiring to such a sentence. It comes 53 pages into Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Not that there aren't hundreds of brilliant sentences before this one, but this, I remember, was the sentence that got me. To paraphrases Denis Johnson in Jesus’ Son (a collection of stories that by itself provides about a dozen of my other favorite sentences): I’ve gone looking for that sentence everywhere.

You gotta be careful with McCarthy, though. He’s addicting for writers. His cadences will get into your blood and soon enough you find yourself inverting word order, tossing around biblical-sounding archaism and making lots of metaphors about hell and other- dimensional demons. You’ll not punctuate dialogue, you’ll smash hyphenates into compounds with abandon, and you’ll not translate spanish (which you will spell without a cap because, well, you’re reckless like that). I can’t read McCarthy within a couple days of writing my own stuff because of how he possesses me. And my version of McCarthy is a sad karaoke indeed.

What I love about him, though, is that he’s not self-parodist. Yes, The Road is similar to Blood Meridian in content; hard to tell the difference between McCarthy’s Southwest and his post-Apocalyptic South. But the prose in The Road is much more subdued, simplified, and personal than what you have here.

I love both books for very different reasons, Blood Meridian for its epic breadth and endlessly original imagery and The Road for its relentlessly gut-wrenching sentiment. I don’t think I’ve cared more deeply for two fictional people than I have for The Road’s father and son. Maybe having a son getting up to that age helps me relate. But I didn’t care one whit for anybody in Blood Meridian. They were all devils. Just goes to show—like Aristotle said—it ain’t always about character. Unless you mean The Judge. Now he’s a character.

I’m not alone here. Lots of people like McCarthy. Some can’t get into his language and I respect that concern, though I’m saddened by it. I just want to say: try harder, brother, you’ll be rewarded. But people are hardly ever specific about why they love stuff. To remedy that, here’s why I love the sentence I quoted above:

1. It manages to mimic what cameras do in film. In this particular passage, sentence length is like shot duration (not always true, but true in this case). This isn’t a series of close-up cuts of individual Comanches; it’s a sweeping panoramic of their approach, a bird’s eye view that nonetheless takes in a load of specific detail. It shows us the full spread of the danger this band poses, a long gasp of horror without a catch of breath.

2. Although the passage renders the traditional Western trope of the “imminent Indian attack,” the imagery is startlingly fresh. No war paint, few feathers, no chaps. Just a moving junkyard of materials stolen from the slaughtered over what seems like centuries. Some of the imagery is simultaneously comic and horrific, like the male Comanche wearing the “bloodstained weddingveil;” he’s in drag and he’s probably responsible for the ruthless killing of a bride on her wedding day. Part of the comedy arises from the juxtaposition of domestic items (an umbrella) and this warpath trope, but this is also the very source of the horror. It’s the perversion of the domestic and heroic that haunts.

It’s as if they’re a wave of garbage picking up the detritus of everything they’ve ever destroyed. I mean, the conquistador armor must go back centuries, so these crazy people have been passing down their war spoils for centuries. And of course the implication: if they killed conquistadors, what chance do we have? This is partly what people mean, I suppose, when they talk about how McCarthy wrote a “revisionist” Western. I don’t even know if his vision is more historically accurate than the John Wayne version, but it’s sure as hell made to seem real.

3. And yet, the stark realism of its imagery is offset by the myth-making power of its metaphors. This is where McCarthy goes beyond what the camera can do. He gives us the panoramic sweep of space, but he also give us the sweep of time and even dimension, giving us flashes of slaughters years or even centuries past. Just look at how “done in another country by men whose very bones were dust” careens us through time and space before circling us back to continue the description of the present image without even a comma to help us get our bearings. We’re being tossed around helplessly here.

Then there are the extended metaphors of hell and “those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing,” whatever that is. Some awful other-dimensional place. McCarthy borders on corny Gothicism here, especially with the “where the eye wanders and where the lip jerks and drools” part, but he gets away with it because of the loftiness of the image and the tone. Not to mention: it’s a good description of how this reader feels after reading this sentence. And how the viewpoint characters feel watching this murderous band approach. This interplay of stark realism and mythical metaphor allows the Comanches to have menace on two (or more) levels.

4. I could go on forever about language, though most of McCarthy’s techniques are meant to elevate what we “see” to the level of the epic, quite appropriate for his content. Were he to do this with a small-scale, intimate story, he’d be on the wrong track, which is exactly why he backs off from such extravagance in The Road.

It’s perhaps his inversions and neologisms that have the most power. “Legion of horribles” is pretty abstract, but the unique use of “horrible” as a plural noun punctuates the strangeness that is to come. “Attic” is of course a noun, used here as an adjective. Apparently, the adjectival form of “attic” means “pertaining to Greece or Athens,” which fits with the “or biblical” part for epic scope, but one also gets the more mundane sense of attic, as if these Comanches had raided somebody’s attic for old clothes and are now wearing them like a sick pantomime.

And that’s just one word, folks. To outline all the effects would take pages, proof positive that Mr. McCarthy understands the concept of density—one of the most difficult techniques to teach students. Really, you can only teach it by showing examples. And then you pray that you yourself can ever manage to do it.

To modify a comment of Nabokov’s, you can call these “portmanteau” sentences because you, the reader, will be unpacking each one of them for hours. When density works, the depth and breadth of a sentence’s many meanings hit the reader like a potpourri of smells. The reader doesn’t have to consciously get all the meanings to sense the scope, the array of possibilities waiting inside the packaging. It’s something you generally only notice with great poetry, so when novelists manage it (lowly, Poe-despised novelists), you’ve got a rare gem indeed. Hell, density is rare for all writers, poets and prosets alike. This kind of genius makes me want to weep. Out of joy or despair? Couldn’t tell you.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Full-Throttle Aristotle

Aristotle. No, not Jackie’s other husband. Aristotle, pupil of Plato, tutor of Alexander. Wrote some notes about literature some 2400 years ago. By literature I mean poetry and drama. The Greeks had no word for “literature” in general, and the novel was still a couple millennia away. These musings, he called them the Poetics. They still get talked about today.

Strike that—Aristotle’s Poetics get referenced today, but it rarely gets read. People talk show-don’t-tell. People talk spectacle. People talk character-is-action and plot-twist. Screenwriters love Aristotle, especially the cult of Robert McKee. They talk the three-act structure like Ari invented it, which he didn’t.

So people talk Poetics. Read it? Not so much. No surprise: it’s old, it’s confusing, it’s damn didactic, it gives examples of plays that nobody knows because they’ve been lost in the sands of time. Ari didn’t even like lit all that much, though he liked it better than his mentor Plato. Ari was willing to admit a play is good for one thing: keeping the masses happy. Those masses.

But reading Poetics makes me think about the so-called literary/commercial divide. See, Ari tends not to sit well with the literary folks. They don’t want to be told that plot is more important than character and that beautiful writing is relatively low on the totem pole of what’s important. They don’t want a blueprint for anything, lest it be limiting to their creativity. I’m down with that, sure. Aristotle was musing on how to please the masses, not the elite. In his age, the elite were off reading philosophy, not watching plays.

Then again, Ari claims that tragedy is the highest form of literature. He’s talking plays, of course, and we can debate about how much of what he says is translatable to novel writing. He takes great pains to prove that a unified plot structure with certain magnitude and some revelations and reversals and so forth will give the tragedy its biggest impact. Hollywood has taken Aristotle’s advice to the bank, but, ironically, Hollywood rarely produces tragedies. People don’t like tragedies. They’re depressing. Nobody likes being depressed.

Even commercial books that are full of horror and violence and twists generally tend to turn out all right in the end. Real noir—like the end of Dave Goodis’ Down There or the end of most of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels—doesn’t get a fair shake on the market. Well, fair enough. People have a hard enough time these days, what with the economy. They want happily ever after.

On the other hand, so-called literary writing is full of tragedy—or at least endings that are more ambiguous than all’s-well-that-ends-well. The folks I like tend to be tragic writers, by and large. Thomas Hardy, JCO, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison. Even literary humorists have a dark streak these days. And here’s what’s weird: take a look at the some of novels by these folks I’ve mentioned and you’ll see Aristotle’s plot-talk followed to the letter. I’m not saying Oates and McCarthy mix Poetics like a recipe, but their natural aims sure swing in that direction.

So Aristotle’s good for the goose and the gander, you ask me. Not as a maker of commandments, but as a suggestor of best practices. Take the movie Se7en, one of my favorites, and in my estimation a textbook example of Aristotelian tragedy—man of relatively high standing (Brad Pitt’s police detective Mills) is brought down by his own fatal flaw (wrath) through a series of revelations (“what’s in the box?”) and reversals (killer turns himself in, etc.). The film’s third act is the most Aristotelian and tragic, but also the most divergent from standard Hollywood fare, the most character-based and literary. Yet it is just as tightly and carefully plotted as, oh, I don’t know—Finding Nemo.

It’s refreshing to read Aristotle and see no artificial division between the literary and the commercial. Maybe it’s because in his day all art was considered “low,” but so be it. Ari puts on his best frown face. He’s got his faults, but I think literary writers should be more mindful—cautiously mindful—of what he has to say. Of course he couldn’t have anticipated the hard-to-categorize genre of the novel (much less the short story). Of course he’s got his social class hang-ups (for Ari, virtue and social standing go hand-in-hand). Of course he drastically undervalues character and has nothing to say about inner monologue, but we’ve got plenty of modern-day writing teachers to help us with that.

In fact, I’d venture to say that many writing programs, writing classrooms, writing teachers could stand to evoke Aristotle a bit more frequently. So much tends to be said about character and point of view and language that the nuts-and-bolts of plot can sometimes suffer. Since the Modernists—not to mention the postmodernists—plot has become a four-letter word in some circles. And that’s a shame. Having said that, I must acknowledge that every time I’ve read Aristotle I’ve read him in an academic environment. So he’s certainly not being ignored. It’s just we talk about him for a bit, then forget him when we go to write our stories.

Okay, I admit it: I got one big bone of contention with Aristotle. Though I agree with the guy on many points, I think his whole premise for the purpose of tragedy is dead wrong. He claims tragedy is meant to evoke negative feelings like pity and fear and then purge them through “catharsis.” The word “catharsis” still gets thrown around quite a lot today, but I think it’s total bullshit. After a good tragedy, I’m still feeling the horrible feelings the tragedy evoked in me. I don’t feel better. I don’t feel purged. I’ve received no therapy whatsoever. I don’t think even the greatest literature has a lasting effect on the individual human’s emotions. Sure, we might forever love a movie or a book or a poem for its aesthetic prowess or its intellectual power, but there’s not a book in the world that turns lions into lambs, emotionally. No book has ever cured anyone’s clinical depression.

And I’m cool with that. I’ve never asked that from a book. What I’ve asked is for a few minutes of fleeting emotion, and maybe a few clues about how to be a better writer myself. Catharsis? Never felt it, doubt I ever will. I still remember the empty, angry, terrible weight of my own soul while I stared at the end credits of Se7en rolling up the screen. It was one of the most devastating pieces of art I’ve ever experienced, and I felt terrible for a long time. But I loved the film because of its structure of revelation and reversal, its tricks. I loved it for how intensely and how torn it made me feel, not for how it made me feel. Because it made me feel like crap.

This, on the other hand, makes me laugh:

Friday, January 18, 2008

Good Old Ed Poe

I spent some time with Ed Al Poe last night. Reread his review of Hawthorne's "Twice-Told Tales," in which he famously argues for the single effect in the prose tale. Everything in the story must orbit around this one thing, whatever it may be. By extention, he argues that poetry is the highest form of literary art (as long as it ain't epic). Followed by the short story. Followed by the lowly novel, which to Ed is crap because it's too long and too unfocused. As the author of a novel, some stories and precious little poetry, I think he's dead right. About the ranking, not about novels being crap.

My friend and mentor Wendy thinks we writers are watched over by dead author spirit guides. Kind of like muses and guardian angels rolled into one. I like that idea, even if I'm a raving skeptic about all things supernatural. My spirit guide is Ingmar Bergman, now that he's gone. Wendy decided this, and I'm for it. Only, this morning I got some news that makes me think I've got it all wrong.

Maybe good old creepy Ed Poe is my spirit guide.

Because, you see, I've learned that one of the nominees for this year's Edgar Awards is me. Best First Novel category. And by "me" I don't mean a "medical examiner" or someone with the initials "m.e." I mean "me," the first-person objective personal pronoun. Your host.

First off, I can't fucking believe it. The Edgars are the big kahuna of mystery writing awards. This kind of stuff doesn't happen to me, but I'm sure as hell glad it did. And I got to feel that maybe something passed between Ed and me last night while I read his work, some communion. And here we are.

Ed nominated me for best first novel! All right, not Ed himself--but those folks over at Mystery Writers of America. Those kind and generous, charismatic, athletic, beautiful, genius, hilarious, affluent, sexually potent people over at Mystery Writers of America.

And my friends at Killer Year, all of whom share exactly those same superhuman characteristics as the people at MWA, have been so supportive and just as excited as me. Some of them even more excited.

I don't know if Eddie would've liked Pyres. I like to think he would've been grudgingly amused, though he would've complained that it couldn't be read in one sitting and there were too many subplots. If I could've written you a poem, Mr. Poe, I would've. But thank you, sir, thank you. You have humbled me deeply, completely.

Here's the run-down of book nominees:

Best Novel Nominees
Christine Falls by Benjamin Black (Henry Holt and Company)
Priest by Ken Bruen (St. Martin's Minotaur)
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins)
Soul Patch by Reed Farrel Coleman (Bleak House Books)
Down River by John Hart (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Best First Novel By An American Author Nominees
Missing Witness by Gordon Campbell (HarperCollins - William Morrow)
In the Woods by Tana French (Penguin Group - Viking)
Snitch Jacket by Christopher Goffard (The Rookery Press)
Head Games by Craig McDonald (Bleak House Books)
Pyres by Derek Nikitas (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Best Paperback Original
Queenpin by Megan Abbott (Simon & Schuster)
Blood of Paradise by David Corbett (Random House - Mortalis)
Cruel Poetry by Vicki Hendricks (Serpent's Tail)
Robbie's Wife by Russell Hill (Hard Case Crime)
Who is Conrad Hirst? by Kevin Wignall (Simon & Schuster)

Best Critical/Biographical

The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction by Patrick Anderson (Random House)
A Counter-History of Crime Fiction: Supernatural, Gothic, Sensational by Maurizio Ascari (Palgrave Macmillan)
Deviance in Contemporary Crime Fiction by Christiana Gregoriou (Palgrave Macmillan)
Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley (The Penguin Press)
Chester Gould: A Daughter's Biography of the Creator of Dick Tracy by Jean Gould O'Connell (McFarland & Company)

The awards will be announced at the MWA's 62nd Annual Edgar Awards banquet on Thursday May 1, 2008 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City.

At that banquet, Bill Pronzini, author of the "Nameless Detective" series will be honored with the 2008 Grand Master Award.

Monday, January 7, 2008

College Professors--Crimes Against

Releasing a book--pretty exciting. No shit. Most people can guess some exciting parts: seeing the cover for the first time, reading the first review, seeing it in the bookstore the first time, first autograph. You dream of this, for decades maybe.

There are other, smaller thrills. Ones you might not expect. Like: seeing the font for the first time. Yeah, the font. Important enough that there's a little blurb about it in the back of a lot of books these days. I didn't want my font to be too big. Too big font depresses me. It says: this book isn't as long as it should be, so we're cheating. It says: read fast, tear into these pages, don't linger, no need. But I got good font, turns out.

The ISBN number. A decidedly minor thrill. But something about your book having its own ISBN number is pretty cool. It's very own. Like getting your new baby's social security card in the mail. Unless you fear or hate the government. Then, not so cool. I got no beef with the ISBN agencies, so I like the number. It's nice. It has ten AND thirteen digits. How about that? My book's identity has been established, twice.

Here's one I was actually pretty excited about: finding out what library "subjects" the book would be filed under. You know: the little keywords they used to list under the old card catalogue entries for each book. Some were obvious, like "fiction." But the rest, there's some suspense. I know what the book's about, but what will they think the book is "about." Who are they? The Library of Congress? I don't know. Not that interested, to be honest. I'm sure there's not some guy reading every page of every book and making considered judgments about what two or three words can summarize each.

So here's mine for Pyres: "college professors--crimes against." Sure, it's accurate. There's only one crime against a college professor in the book. Takes place on page fifteen, and then there are 300 more pages. S'okay. I can live with "college professors--crimes against." Freaks me out a little, to be honest. I'm a college professor (well, GTA, but I've been a professor, and hopefully will be again soon). Apparently, you can go into your library's database and look up "college professor--crimes against" and get all sorts of books about it, including mine. This is a whole subject. It's an issue. That bothers me.

On the other hand, I like the way it's written. Not "crimes against college professors," but "college professors--crimes against." The inversion makes it kind of lyrical. Makes you figure there other "college professors--X" subjects. "College professors--degrees of pompousness," "College professors--on sabbatical," "College professors--crimes committed by."

All in all, I don't think I could've done better categorizing my book. There'd be more categories, sure: biker gangs, goths, disgruntled detectives, pregnant criminals, Turkish-American police, Norse mythology, chainsaws--unique uses for, tattoos--bowling pins and skulls.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Class Struggle: 70s sitcoms

Flipping TV channels. TV Land. Good Times. Family tries to get a loan for a startup business, turned down. I have two realizations: one, Tracy Morgan’s shtick on 30 Rock, though a good part of why I love the show, is exactly the same as J.J.’s was on Good Times. Two: sitcoms in the 70s were about real life, real problems, working class, kind of stuff I praised in yesterday’s post.

Exceptions, yes: Three’s Company, The Brady Bunch. But Taxi was about working Joes and Welcome Back Kotter was about an inner city school and a poor schlep who couldn’t make it out of the neighborhood. You got your aforementioned Good Times and All in the Family, and even Cheers was mostly working class (the pretentious characters were the ones most often ridiculed).

Making too much of nostalgia? Maybe. You’ve got King of Queens these days, Rosanne in the 80s. There’s always a market for the class struggle. But for the most part people want white collar offices and suburban families. It’s sitcoms—no real problems, just light laughs. I know.

But it’s not just sitcoms. Not a single soap opera, prime time or afternoon, is about poor people. It’s all lifestyles of the rich and dysfunctional. By contrast, lots of Mexican and European soap operas are about the working class, like the UK’s EastEnders. All American reality shows that are not contests are about rich people. Stupid rich people, but rich people. How is that reality? It’s just fantasy projection for the assholes who watch that stuff.

Why do we avoid the working class in our entertainment? Lots of answers. Marxists will say it’s the culture industry giving us our daily morphine doses, ensuring we don’t get pissed off. A simpler answer: escapism. After a long day’s work, who wants to come home to see somebody going through a long day’s work?

Okay. But ain’t it escapism to give the daily grind some levity via humor? That seemed to be the aim of shows like Good Times and Rosanne. Plus, the grittiest sitcoms tended to air—and thrive—in times of economic trouble, like the late 70s. Times when you’d think people’d want the most escape.

Sitcoms aren’t good examples, probably. Truth is: if a sitcom is funny, it’ll work. Strike that—if a good cross-section of dumbass America thinks a sitcom is funny, it’ll work. Full House and Home Improvement went on for years without a single good joke between them. Not one. Most 80s family sitcoms were vapid and mind-numbingly preachy like that. The Brady Bunch model.

Finally we’ve reached a cynical enough age where sharp-edged sitcoms have a chance in hell, though they’re still not gritty in a sociological sense. I laugh uproariously at least once during every episode of 30 Rock, and several times per Curb Your Enthusiasm—but, yes, both shows are about filthy rich members of the entertainment industry. But who knows—maybe twenty years from now an even more jaded populace will think those shows are too endearingly cheeky. God help us, if so. We’ll need comedy more than ever.

This started off being about class. Again, I’m no commie. I’m all for the free market. If dumbasses want Paris, give ‘em Paris. Hilton, that is. Plenty of channels to choose from. It’s just that those 70s working class sitcoms had an underlying desperation and sadness—a real subtext—that gave them layers beyond the comic surface. Archie Bunker was a complex character who evoked complex reactions in viewers. Not saying they were all complex, but the tones were there, the shades.

You say, who cares? Comedies ain’t supposed to be deep or gritty. I disagree. I mean, I agree most of the time, but I can imagine something even better. I’m not talking intellectual depth. I’m talking emotional layering. If we feel more deeply for characters, if we experience them in more complex terms, we are more emotionally invested in what happens to them. That way, our experiences of them, even the funny ones, are richer. Besides, good narrative art evokes a range of responses, not just laughter.

Maybe it’s all nostalgia. But think of the theme songs for those 70s shows: they were all downbeat, sad—either the lyrics or the music or both. The comedy wasn’t sharp-edged and cynical like today’s, but it came from a world people recognized and that they could attach their emotions to, not just laugh at.

I’m not saying the classic 70s sitcoms were better than our best contemporary sitcoms. I know that’s like saying British TV is better than American TV because of The Office and Monty Python episodes we see on BBC America and PBS. But I can say this: the economic upturn of the Reagan era turned the TV sitcom into a steaming pile of candy-coated crap, just like it was, generally, in the 50s and 60s.

These days we can say sitcoms are better, but they’re also much fewer. It’s reality TV that we’ll all have to look back on in shame (if we don’t already). Hey, maybe with our economy headed down the tubes once more, we can at least look forward to better-quality TV.

(That is, if the industry would hurry up and meet the WGAs reasonable demands. Any of you out there buying TV on DVD right now ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Seriously. That’s why I rent. Ahem—)

TV drama is a whole other mess for a whole other post, though I’ll get in line to praise HBO for their single-handed renaissance. Sure, the “edgy” turnaround that surfaced in the wake of reality show burnout has hailed a whole new world of vapidness (i.e., Nip/Tuck), but it has also brought us The Wire, the greatest show in the history of television.

This designation is the result of a recent poll I conducted with myself, but it also happens to be accurate. No coincidence that what makes The Wire great is its depth, its gritty realism, and its emphasis on class and race. Escapism it ain’t.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Class Struggle

I write the class struggle. I feign ignorance about it, but there you go. I don’t understand it. I try not to think about it. I’m no Marxist red or Capitalist swine. Honest: I don’t care about those things. Least not in my fiction. I’d like to have some cash and I wouldn’t feel bad about it. I don’t want to work hard labor or watch NASCAR or join a bowling league. I’m an aesthetic elitist. I worship Nabokov and think he’s right that the only thing fiction should be about is fiction, “aesthetic bliss.” If I ever realized I was writing something to evoke the class struggle, deliberately, I’d take the Hemingway exit. Have an “accident” cleaning my gun.

Not saying I have a gun. Not saying I don't. I’m just saying.

But proof abounds. I write the class struggle. Nearly all my characters are working class, paycheck to paycheck. They play out their desperation that way. Took me a long while to realize this. I just wrote, story after story, novel, another novel. Then it hit me. Probably never would’ve hit me if I wasn’t seeped in higher ed lit theory all day long—kind of Marxist/Freudian/Feminist mumbo-jumbo that leads one to ponder one’s own work on a lonely night after too many drinks. Theory is the devil, product of European cultural elitists. Sold my soul to it, so I know. Go talk Lacan in a dive bar and see what it gets you.

I write class. Why, I don’t know. Maybe because I’m first-generation college. Maybe because almost everything I’ve written takes place in fictional Hammersport, NY, a place which, by necessity and “truth,” is depressed—economically and actually. Maybe it’s because of my strong conviction that good fiction is conflict, real scraped-to-the-bone conflict. Not the meandering milquetoast musings of some put-upon upper-crust housewife in her vacation beach home that just makes me want to yank my teeth out from boredom (yeah, I’m talking to you Woolf, but we’ll save that fight for another blog). I ain’t against inner turmoil, but it’s got more bite when it’s fueled by life: piss-poor wages, bad breaks, late child support, trailer park tiffs, black eyes, tooh decay, air conditioning on the fritz, mouths to feed, medical bills, dirtbag relatives, cockroaches, kids in jail, DWIs, AA, layaway, hard work back pain, temporary layoffs, easy credit rip-offs. That’s conflict. That's also a lame list of stereotypes, but you get my point.

Ain’t because I write what I know. I’m a poseur. Sure, I’m a thirty-something poor-ass PhD student who rents and has to watch his checking account, but I stew in academia all day talking Foucault and the Affective Fallacy with theorists. I go to parties where cheese from other countries is served. I personally know vegetarians and have seen the inside of a couple art museums. But I don’t want to write that shit. I want to write about people who’d never bother to read what I write.

I told you I don’t know why. I’m no activist. I don’t care to see things change. After all, if we were all comfortable, what would there be to write about? Yeah, that’s sick but I said it. It’s because my torch is aesthetics. Got a friend here in grad school, name of Melissa. We have debates, lots of debates. She tells me I only care about aesthetics because I can afford to care about aesthetics. If I had real problems, I’d care about real problems. She’s probably right. She’s also happy to do her lit crit karate on my fiction: tell me where I’ve been culturally and ethically blind. Turns out my novel Pyres demonizes the working class. Who knew? Not me, not till after the final edits.

“But I care about story and words and people—not society, not culture,” I say.

“And that's because you’re an asshole,” she says.

Maybe she’s right about that, too. Maybe it’s guilt. I came from hunger, but my family broke away before I got sucked into the grinder. Mom met a guy with a college degree, he lifted us out, the rest, as they say… but part of me feels like I can’t forget. The Proddy work ethic part. See, Biodad still breaks his back for weekly wages. He bought my book but admits he won’t get around to reading it. Why? Because he works sixty hour weeks and his eyes shut when he gets in the house at night. Because some people can’t read a whole fucking novel, not because they’re stupid or illiterate, but because they’ve never felt the need to work up the mental endurance for endless steams of words words words going nowhere but their own sweet way.

That’s what I do for a living. Well, "living" is the wrong word. But I feel guilty. So maybe that’s why I write class. Or maybe it’s just a desire to know, to understand what might have been and what it means to need way down at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. But I can’t say I don’t enjoy me some elitist fiction myself, Virgee Woof excluded. I chuckle at the joke about how many surrealists it takes to change a lightbulb (answer: fish). I like a good Wes Anderson flick. So the truth is probably more pedestrian. I write class because people with real problems make for more exciting stories. Is it that simple? God, I hope not.