Saturday, December 17, 2005

Happy Holiday Writing

All best wishes for the holidays, in particular those of you who are gonna get in some writing or good solid reading during those long days when the phones don't ring as often, and you have a break from your jobs.

I leave you with this quotation from one of my favorite writers, who I'll identify the first of the new year:

"When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth."

Sunday, December 11, 2005

No One Writes Violence Like Bowles

I've been reading the Collected Short Stories of Paul Bowles, and have found his matter-of-fact descriptions of violence, particularly in stories like "The Delicate Prey" and "A Distant Episode" to be shatteringly effective. His attitude? "Hey, I'm not making this up; I'm just telling it like it is. And I can't quite muster the energy to get up from my desk, where I'm writing all this down, to help anyone."

One of his central themes—the collision of Westerners with primitive cultures—is striking in what it reveals about Western perceptions.

I think that many contemporary writers who tend to sentimentalize, fetishize, or emotionalize violence could learn much about his cool handling of the topic. The most objective descriptions yield the greatest horror and reader response.

Below is an encyclopedia entry about Bowles for the uninitiated:

Bowles was born in Jamaica, Queens, New York City to Rena (née Rennewisser) and Claude Dietz Bowles, where his father was a dentist, and spent his childhood at 108 Hardenbrook Avenue, then 207 De Grauw Avenue, and later 34 Terrace Avenue. His mother read Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe to him as a child, and Bowles made notebooks of writing and drawing throughout his childhood. When Bowles was 8, his father bought a phonograph and classic records; Bowles was interested in jazz but such records were forbidden in the house. About this time his family bought a piano and Bowles studied theory, singing, and piano. He continued to keep a diary of imaginary goings-on during this time, and also wrote a daily newspaper. In 1922, at age 11, Bowles bought his first book of poetry, Arthur Waley's A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems. In high school he attended a performance of Stravinsky's Firebird at Carnegie Hall which made a profound impression.

Bowles entered the University of Virginia in 1928, where his interests included T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland, Prokofiev, Duke Ellington, Gregorian chants, and the blues, and he published two items in transition. He also heard music by George Antheil and Henry Cowell. In April 1929 he dropped out of school to make his first trip to Paris where he worked as a switchboard operator for the Herald Tribune. He returned home in July and started writing Without Stopping, his first mature book. He left college without a degree in 1930.

France and New York

On a subsequent trip to France in 1931, he became a part of Gertrude Stein's literary and artistic circle and on her advice, that summer he made his first visit to Tangier with his friend and music teacher the composer Aaron Copland. In Berlin, he met Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood, who gives the name Bowles to the heroine of Goodbye to Berlin. The following year he returned to North Africa and traveled throughout other parts of Morocco, the Sahara and Algeria. Throughout the next decade, Bowles composed a good body of music including sonatas, song cycles, and music for stage productions (including Doctor Faustus directed by Orson Welles, the orchestration for George Balanchine's Yankee Clipper at Lincoln Kirstein's request), and also made early recordings of North African music.
In 1938 he married author and playwright Jane Auer (Feb. 22, 1917 - May 4, 1973), and after a brief sojourn in France they were prominent among the literary figures of New York throughout the 1940s, with Paul working under Virgil Thomson as a music critic at the New York Herald Tribune. His light opera The Wind Remains, based on a poem by Garcia Lorca, was performed in 1943 with choreography by Merce Cunningham and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. In 1945 he unexpectedly began writing prose again, beginning with a few short stories including A Distant Episode. He also translated Jorge Luis Borges at this time, and his translation of the play No Exit (entitled Huis-clos in French) by Jean-Paul Sartre, directed by John Huston, won a Drama Critic's Award. The subsequent year, he received an advance for a novel, and began writing The Sheltering Sky, which quickly rose to the New York Times best-seller list when published by New Directions.

Tangier and elsewhere

Also in 1947, he moved permanently to Tangier, and his wife Jane followed him there in 1948. The Bowleses became iconoclasts of the Tangerinos—American and European expatriates centered in Tangier. During the following decade Bowles wrote much of his most famous prose. Prominent literary friends visited Paul and Jane Bowles in Tangier beginning in the late 1940s, including Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. The Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs followed in the mid-1950s. In Morocco, Bowles concentrated on writing novels, short stories and travel pieces, and wrote incidental music for nine plays presented by the American School of Tangier. In 1952 Bowles bought the tiny island of Taprobane, off the coast of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he wrote much of his novel The Spider's House, returning to Tangier in the warmer months.

In 1961, Bowles began tape-recording and translating works of Moroccan authors and storie-tellers, including stories by long-time friend Ahmed Yacoubi, Larbi Layachi (under the pseudonym Driss ben Hamed Charhadi), and Mohammed Mrabet. Rather oddly, Bowles spent one term at the English Department of the San Fernando Valley State College in 1968, teaching existentialism and the novel. Most of the time, however, he remained in Tangier with brief interludes elsewhere overseas.

After the death of Jane Bowles in 1973 in Malaga, Spain, Bowles continued to live in Tangier, writing and receiving visitors to his modest apartment. In 1995 Paul Bowles made a rare and final return to New York for a festival of his music at the Lincoln Center and a symposium and interview held at the New School for Social Research.
Paul Bowles died of heart failure at the Italian Hospital in Tangier on November 18, 1999 at the age of 88. The following day a full-page obituary appeared in The New York Times. Although he had lived in Morocco for 52 years, he was buried in Lakemont, New York, next to the graves of his parents and grandparents.

Selected works

Besides being a composer and novelist, Bowles published fourteen short story collections, three volumes of poetry, numerous translations, and books of travel writing and autobiography.

Saturday, December 03, 2005


Last week's post was the opening line from Camus' The Stranger. And as Ms. Clair was so good to mention, I frequently point out, when inanely asked about the differences between literary and commercial (non-literary?) fiction, that Camus found his inspiration for The Stranger from James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. So stick that in your beret.

Book of the week: recommended to me by director pal John Moore (who shot Behind Enemy Lines, which deals with the Serbian/Croatian/Muslim/not-UN war) - MY WAR GONE BY, I MISS IT SO, by Anthony Lloyd. It deserves to be mentioned with Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Herr's Dispatches (one of the sources of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket). It is THAT good. A stunning, ironic, wry memoir of Lloyd's search for war (while he's kicking a heroin habit, no less). It is simply magnificent writing.

I recommended it to my longtime friend Jess Taylor, who had this to write about it:

" akin (though I would hardly know) to descending rapidly in a submarine to escape depth charges, all the while having those dropping them calculate your rate of descent, so the explosions follow you, and your sub implodes a bit more with each blast.

Remember that riveting part in which he [Lloyd] hears from a group of Croatian soldiers? How they spent a half-day trying to get their commander, a young, small-town athlete (and war criminal) out from under enemy (Bosnian Muslim) fire when he was wounded and down in a field. More men kept trying to rescue him, and getting killed. Finally the commander lying out in the field draws his pistol, puts it to his head, and kills himself.
As the soldier relating the episode summarizes-- 'There are two ways to die here. You can die doing the right thing for the wrong reason, or die doing the wrong thing for the right reason.'"

The above line that Jess picked out is one of my favorites, though there are many more gems in this brilliant book.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Opening Sentence

"Mother died today."

From what book?

Monday, November 21, 2005

A Serious Program Graduate.....

This is a great email I received from a reader - and one helluva character. Thought those of you who "got with the Program" might appreciate hearing from a tried and tested Program graduate. I left out his name and telling details to protect the innocent...

Mr. Hurwitz:

First, KILL CLAUSE and now THE PROGRAM. KC got my attention, TP has me stunned.

An avid and voracious reader, I download dozens of e-books every few months. I will buy the hardcover of THE PROGRAM, as I plan to reread it, something I’ve only done one or two times in my 64 years.

Graduating class of 1960, I lived among the cultists for more than a decade, in my travels to Topanga, Berzerkly, and Eselen, the Pamirs and Ibiza, Southwest deserts and my hometown of L.A.

….sitting in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel on a bus-stop bench, giggling at the traffic, the ‘fact’ of my just having lived 1.5 yrs. in the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan…hitching barefoot to the Baleares…now in a three-piece, selling air freight…soon to be lobster-fishing at 3:00 a.m. off San Nicholas Island, So. Cal. with Naval artillery screaming o’head, clods of the island raining on me…to home here in Idaho with my eight and ten-year-old kids, the three of us….

I'm sure that the statutes have run out on any of the chapters of my reality that I may have misplaced...let's see...1960 thru 1967...haven't a clue....something about Zomeworks in New Mexico...Haight-Ashbury when SuperSpade flew off the bridge...walking into the Psychedelicatessen in NYC, plunking down $$ and wordlessly walking out 30 seconds later with a K of something or other...standing in the middle of Connaught Circus, downtown New Delhi, with a used one-way airline ticket and $200, mumbling 'man...really f****d up bigtime, here...'...breakfast with the King of Chitral a few months and miles my grandfather said "peregrinations in odd places".

Your work rings true and solid. Stark terror in the cults…Lock and Load, yes…common-sensors cannot comprehend, God bless us, everyone….

Must let the 'gotcha dust' settle from your last ride. I'm still seeing events from Troubleshooter out of the corner of my mind as I drive down the street.... Your characters really live.

Thanks for putting it out there. Thanks for the Rackleys…

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Hard Case Crime

Last week's quotation was from Macbeth, the original Godfather.

I just read Stephen King's The Colorado Kid, out from Hard Case Crime. The HCC books are absolutely beautiful - the aesthetics mirror pulp paperbacks from the '50s, and indeed they are reprinting some classic crime novels, as well as commissioning new ones to be released in paperback format (King, Max Allen Collins, Jason Starr and Ken Bruen).

In the controversial afterword to The Colorado King, Stephen King says, "I write to find out what I think." I would guess that this is an intentional homage to Joan Dideon's quotation, which I listed on my blog (see entry two back titled Dante's Revenge).

If you haven't already checked out Hard Case Crime, I suggest you do so. They'll bring back memories. These guys do it precisely right.

Monday, November 07, 2005

T. Jefferson Parker and Our New Quotation

Last week's quotation....Jeff Parker. My favorite thing about Jeff's writing is his characterization, and that sentence is a beaut. He manages to work in a complex psychological take on Merci without it feeling heavy handed, and without giving it too much emphasis. It's funny, even, and it deploys character in the service of the plot.

I had a really funny experience once reading one of Jeff's books. He used the word "skosh," and I looked it up in my American Heritage Dictionary, curious as to its origin (Japanese). The dictionary then offered a usage example from, you guessed it, T Jefferson Parker. I told Jeff and we had a good laugh and then he went out and bought the dictionary. Hell, I would have too.

Next quotation, one of my all-time favorites (in keeping with our crime theme):

"I am in blood stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er."

Sunday, October 30, 2005

And Now, Back to Crime

Last week's quotation was from Joan Didion. What I like about it is how she inverts the usual relationship between thinking and writing. I've found quite often that the process of writing actually clarifies my thoughts about a particular topic, or brings me to a new realization. One that is less "common sense" oriented. Because sitting, staring at the screen and trying to crack the dark heart of a matter often leads to something more truthful. And the truth is usually surprising. Quite often, people think that is reversed, that an author has a particular philosophy and he or she writes to provide a narrative embodiment of that. (See Ayn Rand). I tend to think that yields bad writing or propaganda.

But you all disliked the quotation. So this week, I'm going with something more in our collective roundhouse, from one of my favorites:

"Outside, the bloodhounds started yelping, and Merci swore there was something mournful in their voices but she knew she was eager for self-punishment and if it took personifying three dogs to beat herself even lower she would leap at the chance to do it."

If you know who wrote this, please write about it without giving away the author's name so other people can guess at it too.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Dante's Revenge

Okay - I told you they'd get harder. The last quotation was indeed Dante. It's most frequently identified, at least these days, in relation to JFK, who spoke the famous sentence at the signing of a charter establishing the German Peace Corps in 1963.

And now, a lesser known quotation from a very famous writer:

"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear."

Comments, remarks, agitations, guesses, imprecations are welcome. And no, Jon, you can't have any cookies.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Hottest Places in Hell

Last week's quotation was, as many of you know, written by Raymond Chandler.

"...who is not himself mean" to me is the key element. He can be tough, even vicious, but this cannot stem from an essential meanness. Chandler, masterful in his word choice, would have been aware that claiming that somone is not mean stops short of claiming that he is nice or kind.

I very much enjoyed your various comments and perspectives. A slumming angel indeed. Please, please, please do not look up the quotations or Google them. It's far more interesting to hear your observations when they come from prior knowledge or guesswork.

Now, here's this week's quotation:

"The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality."

Have at it.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Down These Mean Streets

I'm gonna post a quotation about writing every week, and you folks have to guess who said or wrote it. And beyond the simple guesswork, I'd like to know your take on it. Why you like it or don't like it, or in some instances, your interpretation of it.

Since this is the first one, I'm starting with a layup. After this, the training wheels come off.

"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world."

Saturday, October 01, 2005


This is a brilliant trailer, cut by a film student.

It's a great display of 1. how misleading trailers can be, and 2. how important - and often manipulative - music can be in film. It's also funny as hell for those of you familiar with the film. How little it takes in a line reading, a directoral choice, a quick cut, to skew meaning one way or another.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Back in Action

I finally stopped home after the first leg of the tour, and a really fun lecture series I gave on Shakespearean locations in the Mediterranean (and Aegean) for Harvard. It was really wonderful to discuss the plays while on a ship headed to the very places we were discussing. The company was also very stimulating - a very broad range of accomplished people in very diverse fields.

I started by discussing Shakespeare's language and biography, with an emphasis on violence in his day. My second lecture was a Jungian analysis of Othello, the third a talk about Orson Welles's Othello, and I wrapped it up by looking at Romeo & Juliet in popular culture, from West Side Story to Dire Straits.

What was so interesting for me, in revisiting this field that I last studied formally about ten years ago, was all the ways in which my study of literature - and Shakespeare in particular - influenced my writing. It's very indirect of course, but plugging into some of these narratives again gave me a really fresh perspective on how I came to writing and some of the themes I've chosen.

I have a few more tour stops (San Diego, Orange, Milwaukee, Florida, Oakland) but am now home for the most part, getting ready to dig into something new.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Word From New Orleans

Before leaving on the second leg of my tour, I wanted to post a few emails I got from a courageous doc in New Orleans....


Dear Gregg,

I have been reading your novel, "Minutes To Burn" for the last 10 days since the hurricane destroyed my home and too many others here in Biloxi. I'm a physician at the VA Hospital here, and have had to live in my office since Katrina hit in order to be available for duty 24/7. I just wanted to say that I think reading your novel helped keep me sane and in balance through this trial. I started it August 29, at a MOTEL 6 in Hattiesburg, reading by the light of my cell phone while the storm passed outside. I've read a little each night before sleep. Usually I read a book nonstop, but I tried to meter it out to make it last awhile. I really looked forward to getting into the story at days' end; just a little fantasy to get my mind off of this difficult reality. It helped to realize that at least there aren't any overgrown mantids running around loose here.

I'd like to send it to you for an autograph, if you wouldn't mind" to keep as a personal memento of Hurricane Katrina. I can tell my kids, "This is the book that kept me from going nuts during that time."

Thanks so much.


I wrote back telling him that I'd gladly send along a few books to those in the trenches, and I asked what those of us outside the wreckage could do to help. He emailed back:


Gregg, thanks for your kind offer of assistance. Currently I don't have a
mailing address, and have been told not to attempt to receive mail at the
hospital right now. I don't believe any mail is being delivered down here
yet, anyway. I will be glad to take you up on your offer when I have

What we need most down here right now are homes for the 30% or so who have
none. Not much L.A. can do about that, I know. People are actually becoming
institutionalized from long stretches in shelters! I am becoming fond of my
little office as a place to live! Isn't that bizarre?! Those whose homes are
not so badly damaged are being quite generous in accommodating friends and
relatives. FEMA keeps talking about trailers, but they have yet to appear.
Rentals are few and far between. Many have already permanently left the area
seeking new homes and jobs. What people have really lost isn't just houses,
but their HOME, their community, their social contacts and support networks.
That's the real devastation here. It will take years to regain that sense of
community, if we ever can. It won't be the same, that much is certain.

The main thing that will help in the long haul is an assurance that the
country doesn't forget about us down here. Once the media coverage moves on
to the next big story, people will think about other important things, as
they should, but for us it will remain a day-to-day effort just to keep
going, keep rebuilding, trying not to get too discouraged or depressed as
the losses hit home. I know we're in for a long and tedious process of not
just economic but also emotional recovery. It's just beginning.

You really can't imagine what's going on here unless you see it and feel it
for yourself. TV just can't capture it. People are being tremendously
courageous, no doubt about that, but underneath we are one hurting group of
folks. So much uncertainty and insecurity. You can see it in people's eyes.
We are all learning how to live a day at a time, because there is no other
way to cope. The big picture is just too immensely awful to contemplate!

Hey, maybe you could come down here and write a book about us. Not exactly
your genre, but it would be a great morale booster.

Anyway, thanks again for your kind wishes.


I think it's important in this attention-deficit-disorder world to remember those who need our assistance down there after the media spotlight passes on. I have friends fighting in Afghanistan who feel the same way. Despite the allure of Taradise, there's still a war (or two) going on, a city being slowly rebuilt. Our thoughts are with those on the front lines of disaster, and we won't forget you.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Biggest Tour Oddity

In each city I'm heading to on my TROUBLESHOOTER tour, I have an "escort," a person who picks me up and drives me around to various bookstores and to my events.

Today in Boston, after about twenty minutes in the car, my escort and I figured out that we're - quite distantly - related.

Doesn't get much odder than that.

Monday, August 29, 2005

A Chat with Tess Gerritsen

Hi All,

TROUBLESHOOTER launches tomorrow night at Dutton's in Brentwood, then I'm on the road from there - Bouchercon, Phoenix, Boston, Seattle, Palo Alto, San Jose, Orange, Costa Mesa, San Diego and more. To find out where else, check out "the tour" section of my site. Before I head off, I wanted to post this interview with Tess Gerritsen, one of my favorite writers - and people.



Tess Gerritsen Speaks With Gregg Hurwitz About Troubleshooter,
Outlaw Biker Gangs, and Liquid Heroin

TG: You decided to bring back the infamous Tim Rackley in this novel. Why now?

GH: I never set out to write a series, but Tim got under my skin in a way that no other character of mine had. After THE KILL CLAUSE, I had another story I wanted to write, but Tim kept worming his way into the plot. I found that including him in THE PROGRAM gave me a lot of great creative opportunities. By the time I began TROUBLESHOOTER, Tim was fully in the driver’s seat. It’s the first time he’s truly back with the Marshals, with complete federal resources behind him, working his deadliest case yet.

TG: TROUBLESHOOTER focuses on outlaw biker gangs of California. What kind of research did you do to learn about these gangs?

GH: First off, I learned how to ride a Harley (badly). And I rode a lot of the biker routes through the LA canyons, including the Malibu trail where Tim’s first confrontation with Den Laurey takes place. I also spent a lot of time interviewing cops and FBI agents who worked biker units. Some specialized law enforcement articles about handling outlaw biker gangs filled in the blanks.

TG: Who was the most interesting person you met in the course of your research?

GH: One former agent was of great help, having ridden undercover with biker gangs for seven years. I flew out to meet him in Miami and spent a few days drinking beers with him and swapping stories (his were much better than mine).

TG: The use of a very technical, and gruesome, medical procedure in this novel ties together the mysterious death of underprivileged women and the distribution of a highly advanced form of liquid heroin – where did you come up with this idea?

GH: This was another of the fun parts of my research. I wanted to find an ingenious smuggling device, something worthy of Den Laurey and the Sinners. But everything I came up with felt somehow standard. I was doing some related research and a bunch of different ideas all came together at once. A medical journal article I read collided with an agency document I’d gotten ahold of about airport security and the idea was born. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say that the more I looked into my fictional scenario, the more plausible—and unique—it seemed.

TG: You’ve put Rackley in some truly horrific situations, from losing his daughter to being manipulated by a mind control cult. Now in TROUBLESHOOTER you make Tim face the possible loss of his wife and unborn child. Why do you choose to interweave the personal and professional life of Rackley so tightly?

GH: The Rackley series is really an action-meditation (how’s that for an oxymoron?) on vigilanteism. Because of that, I wanted to raise the stakes on the factors that tempt Tim to act outside the law. At the end of THE KILL CLAUSE, he returns to a position he previously held, but with newfound conviction—he recognizes the importance of the law, sometimes even over justice. That conviction is tested in TROUBLESHOOTER in an entirely different manner. And the question becomes: with so many deadly skills at his disposal, can Tim hold on to lawfulness?

TG: Can we expect to see Rackley on the big screen any time soon?

GH: Here’s hoping! I had a lot of fun adapting THE KILL CLAUSE for Paramount, and am looking into opportunities for the other books in the series.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Tim Rackley's Resume

Tim Rackley
Deputy U.S. Marshal
Central District Office
Roybal Federal Building
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Email care of:

U.S. Army
• Enlisted, age 19, Sept 1988
• Joined Army Rangers, 1990
o Close Quarter Combat School, Night Movement School, SERE School, HALO School, Jumpmaster School, Pathfinder
School, Land Nav, Sniper School, Demo School, SCUBA, Urban Warfare, Mountain Warfare, Jungle Warfare
o Eleven years service, honorable discharge

United States Marshals Service
• Central District, California
• Escape Team, Nov 2001-Feb 2003
• Arrest Response Team Member, Nov 2001-Feb 2003
• Three Outstanding Performance Ratings
• Two Distinguished Service Awards
• Forsyth Medal of Valor
• Hiatus: May 2003-April 2004 (aftermath of daughter’s murder and resultant entanglement with the Commission until
invocation of The Kill Clause)
• Return to Service: April 2004-present
• Major Case: busted The Program, a mind-control cult with operations north of Los Angeles

• December 21: Escape of Den Laurey, Laughing Sinner Nomad on Highway 10 outside downtown Los Angeles. Two
deputies U.S. marshals killed during escape
• Laurey accorded Top Fifteen Case Status
• Tim Rackley, aka, Troubleshooter, enlisted as Task Force Leader

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

On The Road – And In The Lab – Again

Usually when I start formulating ideas for my next thriller, the course I need to chart to conduct research is pretty clear. Minutes to Burn—go to Galápagos. Do No Harm—shadow doctors in emergency rooms. The Program—sneak undercover into mind-control cults. But for Troubleshooter, I had an odd mix of sub-topics to delve into.

First and foremost were the outlaw biker gangs. I figured there was no way I could write about bikers without learning to ride a Harley. One of my buddies has his motorcycle license, so I convinced him to rent a Fat Boy and teach me. Off we went to some back roads of the Valley, me taking mental notes before giving it a spin solo (what the hell—the deposit was on his credit card). Then we hit a few biker hang outs and I started to get a feel for the slang and the swagger. The Rockstore, at which a key scene in the book is set, is where we stopped for beer and burgers.

It took some doing, but I tracked down an FBI Special Agent in charge of the Violent Gangs Task Force in San Francisco, who gave me some time and started bringing me up to speed on the inner culture of the gangs. But I realized I’d need even more. I wanted to talk to someone who not just tracked and busted gangs, but who understood them from the inside out. Through one of my Navy SEALs buddies (a consultant for Minutes to Burn), I got ahold of a former undercover agent who’d ridden with biker gangs for seven years. We arranged a meeting, and I flew cross-country to meet him in Miami. He’d grown up in the gangs, and riding in such dangerous company for so many years meant he’d really become part of the culture. He didn’t despise bikers at all—they were a part of his life, even though his inside intel had helped dismantle some of the gangs’ criminal activities. We spent two days and nights talking and drinking, and he really helped me hammer out some of the details, the drug distribution scenarios in particular.

The drug smuggling device I came up with on my own, and that took me into a world of research about body packing. My desk drawers are stuffed with articles from medical journals about gastrointestinal products and procedures (I’m being purposefully vague here so as not to give away a key element of the plot). My father and sister are both gastroenterologists, and their input on the specifics proved invaluable.

I also had to do a crash course on corpses and cadaver preparation. I’d conducted an interview for Do No Harm with a lab tech, during which he’d literally carved up a cadaver to send the parts to various anatomy labs, so I was already familiar with some of the basics (duck when the Sawzall revs up, wear goggles and waterproof boots). But I had to round out my knowledge of the particulars even further, so I got ahold of a few mortician textbooks from tiny educational presses and gave those a read. I spent part of a Hawaiian vacation perusing them, and they drew some odd glances around the pool. It seems I get more used to such looks with every new book….

Friday, August 05, 2005

Requiring No Attribution

"To play Daisy Duke, I mean, that's like an iconish ... is that a word ... iconic figure," she said.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Winning Minds and Minds

Never have I written a novel with the grander social good in mind. I like to think I'm not that arrogant, and I have little interest in writing propaganda (Capitalism is Good! by Ayn Rand). As the good man Seinfeld says, "Not that there's anything wrong with that;" I just don't view it as my job. I've always wanted to put myself in the service of the story that I'm telling - first and foremost - and having an agenda underlying the narrative seems a cheat. I can't know all the "morals" of the story I'm writing in advance and shape the plot to those ends. That said, one of the aspects of writing crime fiction that I love is that I get to punish people - or types of people - who piss me off. Having discussed mind-control cults with a buddy who lost his sister into one, I set out to research them (dark, twisted, psychological - what's not to love?). And I found the research endlessly fascinating. I created my own cult in THE PROGRAM, complete with narcissistic leader, and had a lot of fun doing it.

When the book came out, it drew some interesting remarks from reviewers. More than a few mentioned it should be required reading for anyone before going to college, because it peels back the veneer and shows the strategies which mind-control cults use to recruit. A cult's inner workings, finally on display. Others recommended the book for friends, relatives, people traveling - the list went on and on. I even got invited to UCLA's social psych department to lecture on mind-control techniques.

Though I didn't write The Program as some act of public good, it's certainly been gratifying to see that it has helped some people in ways that are - dare I say? - concrete.

I received the following email the other day (details have been exed out to conceal the identity of the sender - and the email will self-destruct in 30 seconds):
Hi Gregg,
At xxx I sat at your table and asked a lot of questions last year. I loved The Program. In fact that book helped a good friend of ours here in xxx. Turns out their son and wife are involved with some religious cult and they can't seem to get them to realize that all this group wants is money. I loaned them your book to read on how it is done. Now they have a better insight. Can hardly wait for the new book. Are you riding in biker groups to get a feel for your writing?

Maybe TROUBLESHOOTER will be used to help people getting sucked into biker gangs....

Monday, July 25, 2005

Remembrances of Campuses Past

I’m back on campus at Harvard, delivering a speech tonight to the Summer Writing Program students. It’s a bit of an odd experience visiting Cambridge—the familiar brick buildings, the pizza joint on the corner, the particular brand of students (I passed a girl today in the Square wearing a T-shirt that read: GOT DATA?).

But what feels the most surreal is being back here in an official capacity, as a guest of the writing program. It’s something I thought about when I was an undergrad here. I started THE TOWER the summer after my sophomore year (two chapters) and wrote the bulk of the first draft the summers before and after my senior year. And I always wondered what it would be like if I got published to come back and give a talk. The department had a lunch for me this afternoon in the same building where I once sweated through an oral defense of my thesis. And there—the carpeted stairs where I posed for a photo after handing in my thesis senior year, shortly before my roommate and I wandered to the tobacconist and bought huge cigars which we smoked on the steps of Widener and wondered how the four years had gone by so goddamned fast.

I’m speaking tonight to students—one of my favorite things to do—and I hope a few of them will be encouraged to keep writing, even as the (in hindsight, still moderate) demands of life after college press in on them.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Man On Fire

Some time ago on this blog, I posted an entry about the reclusive author, A.J. Quinnell, with a link to the website with the best information on him. The author of MAN ON FIRE, among other thrillers, recently passed away.

To read more about him, and to get hazy answers to questions about who he was and what he did, check out:

When it comes to his life, hazy's gonna be the best we get. And I sorta like it that way.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Rest in Peace

Matthew Gene Axelson
Born June 25, 1976
Killed in action, Afghanistan, June 28, 2005
You will be missed.


Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds --- and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of --- wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew ---
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Note: During the dark days of the Battle of Britain, Magee crossed the border into Canada to enlist with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Knowingly breaking the law, but with the tacit approval of the then still officially neutral United States Government, he volunteered to fight Hitler's Germany.

Flying fighter sweeps over France and air defence over England against the German Luftwaffe, he rose to the rank of Pilot Officer. On September 3, 1941, Magee flew a high altitude - 30,000 feet - test flight in a newer model of the Spitfire V. As he orbited and climbed upward, he was struck with the inspiration of a poem "To touch the face of God."

Once back on the ground, he wrote a letter to his parents. In it he commented, "I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed." On the back of the letter, he jotted down his poem, "High Flight."

Just three months later, Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., was killed. The Spitfire V he was flying, VZ-H, collided with an Oxford Trainer from Cranwell Airfield while over Tangmere, England. The two planes were flying in the clouds and neither saw the other. He was just 19 years old.
A Matthew Gene Axelson Foundation has been set up through his church, FBCLA, to provide camp scholarships for children in the future.

Donations may be made to:
First Baptist Church Los Altos (FBCLA)
Memo: Matthew Gene Axelson Foundation
625 Magdalena Avenue
Los Altos, CA 94024-5225

Monday, July 04, 2005

SF Chronicle Review, Anthology signing

Cynicism and despair are at the heart of "Meeting Across the River," the evocative mood piece that stood out on Springsteen's blockbuster "Born to Run" album like a condemned man at a keg party. In a new anthology of the same title, 20 writers improvise on the lyric's spare tale about a petty criminal and his pathetic plot to score an illicit two grand.

It's a mark of Springsteen's occasional brilliance as a writer that he could sketch his unnamed narrator so fully, in so few words, to inspire such a variety of interpretations. Some, predictably, are more satisfying than others. Several of them are surprisingly inventive, like C.J. Box's yarn about immigrants pirating microbiological secrets in Yellowstone or Gregg Hurwitz's little thriller about a deadly virus set on a timer.

In a period piece, novelist Steve Hamilton imagines an honest mechanic who gets dragged into a mobster's bootlegging scheme. Hamilton's isn't the only story here that describes an unsavory character as a "mug." The lingo is apt, if a little obvious. "Meeting Across the River" is pure noir. The source song, despite its surface serenity, is all tension; it's immersed in nighttime.

San Francisco Chronicle
I will be signing with other anthology authors - and esteemed editor-contributors Richard Brewer and Jessica Kaye - at Hollywood's Book Soup, this Thursday July 7 at 7pm.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Word Jumble

Below is an interesting email circulating the internet, as interesting (or irritating) emails do. I have come across this theory in a number of guises - it seems we image words in whole bites, not letter by letter. For those of you who read extensively, I wonder if you've ever had this same experience on a paragraph by paragraph basis. I used to read non-fiction this way in college - a version of speed reading.


I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to rscheearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Such a cdonition is arppoiately cllaed Typoglycemia :)-

Amzanig huh? Yaeh and yuo awlyas thought slpeling was ipromtnant.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

AFI's Top 100 U.S. movie quotations

All right, beloved blog readers.....what's missing?

I'll go first. "It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again."

What are your favorites that aren't represented?

AFI's Top 100:

1. "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," "Gone With the Wind," 1939.

2. "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse," "The Godfather," 1972.

3. "You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am," "On the Waterfront," 1954.

4. "Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," "The Wizard of Oz," 1939.

5. "Here's looking at you, kid," "Casablanca," 1942.

6. "Go ahead, make my day," "Sudden Impact," 1983.

7. "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," "Sunset Blvd.," 1950.

8. "May the Force be with you," "Star Wars," 1977.

9. "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night," "All About Eve," 1950.

10. "You talking to me?" "Taxi Driver," 1976.

11. "What we've got here is failure to communicate," "Cool Hand Luke," 1967.

12. "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," "Apocalypse Now," 1979.

13. "Love means never having to say you're sorry," "Love Story," 1970.

14. "The stuff that dreams are made of," "The Maltese Falcon," 1941.

15. "E.T. phone home," "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," 1982.

16. "They call me Mister Tibbs!", "In the Heat of the Night," 1967.

17. "Rosebud," "Citizen Kane," 1941.

18. "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!", "White Heat," 1949.

19. "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!", "Network," 1976.

20. "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," "Casablanca," 1942.

21. "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti," "The Silence of the Lambs," 1991.

22. "Bond. James Bond," "Dr. No," 1962.

23. "There's no place like home," "The Wizard of Oz," 1939.

24. "I am big! It's the pictures that got small," "Sunset Blvd.," 1950.

25. "Show me the money!", "Jerry Maguire," 1996.

26. "Why don't you come up sometime and see me?", "She Done Him Wrong," 1933.

27. "I'm walking here! I'm walking here!", "Midnight Cowboy," 1969.

28. "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By,'" "Casablanca," 1942.

29. "You can't handle the truth!", "A Few Good Men," 1992.

30. "I want to be alone," "Grand Hotel," 1932.

31. "After all, tomorrow is another day!", "Gone With the Wind," 1939.

32. "Round up the usual suspects," "Casablanca," 1942.

33. "I'll have what she's having," "When Harry Met Sally...," 1989.

34. "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow," "To Have and Have Not," 1944.

35. "You're gonna need a bigger boat," "Jaws," 1975.

36. "Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!", "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," 1948.

37. "I'll be back," "The Terminator," 1984.

38. "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth," "The Pride of the Yankees," 1942.

39. "If you build it, he will come," "Field of Dreams," 1989.

40. "Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get," "Forrest Gump," 1994.

41. "We rob banks," "Bonnie and Clyde," 1967.

42. "Plastics," "The Graduate," 1967.

43. "We'll always have Paris," "Casablanca," 1942.

44. "I see dead people," "The Sixth Sense," 1999.

45. "Stella! Hey, Stella!", "A Streetcar Named Desire," 1951.

46. "Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars," "Now, Voyager," 1942.

47. "Shane. Shane. Come back!", "Shane," 1953.

48. "Well, nobody's perfect," "Some Like It Hot," 1959.

49. "It's alive! It's alive!", "Frankenstein," 1931.

50. "Houston, we have a problem," "Apollo 13," 1995.

51. "You've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?", "Dirty Harry," 1971.

52. "You had me at `hello,'" "Jerry Maguire," 1996.

53. "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know," "Animal Crackers," 1930.

54. "There's no crying in baseball!", "A League of Their Own," 1992.

55. "La-dee-da, la-dee-da," "Annie Hall," 1977.

56. "A boy's best friend is his mother," "Psycho," 1960.

57. "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good," "Wall Street," 1987.

58. "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer," "The Godfather Part II," 1974.

59. "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again," "Gone With the Wind," 1939.

60. "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!", "Sons of the Desert," 1933.

61. "Say `hello' to my little friend!", "Scarface," 1983.

62. "What a dump," "Beyond the Forest," 1949.

63. "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?", "The Graduate," 1967.

64. "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!", "Dr. Strangelove," 1964.

65. "Elementary, my dear Watson," "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," 1929.

66. "Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape," "Planet of the Apes," 1968.

67. "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine," "Casablanca," 1942.

68. "Here's Johnny!", "The Shining," 1980.

69. "They're here!", "Poltergeist," 1982.

70. "Is it safe?", "Marathon Man," 1976.

71. "Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet!", "The Jazz Singer," 1927.

72. "No wire hangers, ever!", "Mommie Dearest," 1981.

73. "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?", "Little Caesar," 1930.

74. "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown," "Chinatown," 1974.

75. "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," "A Streetcar Named Desire," 1951.

76. "Hasta la vista, baby," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," 1991.

77. "Soylent Green is people!", "Soylent Green," 1973.

78. "Open the pod bay doors, HAL," "2001: A Space Odyssey," 1968.

79. Striker: "Surely you can't be serious." Rumack: "I am serious ... and don't call me Shirley," "Airplane!", 1980.

80. "Yo, Adrian!", "Rocky," 1976.

81. "Hello, gorgeous," "Funny Girl," 1968.

82. "Toga! Toga!", "National Lampoon's Animal House," 1978.

83. "Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make," "Dracula," 1931.

84. "Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast," "King Kong," 1933.

85. "My precious," "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," 2002.

86. "Attica! Attica!", "Dog Day Afternoon," 1975.

87. "Sawyer, you're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!", "42nd Street," 1933.

88. "Listen to me, mister. You're my knight in shining armor. Don't you forget it. You're going to get back on that horse, and I'm going to be right behind you, holding on tight, and away we're gonna go, go, go!", "On Golden Pond," 1981.

89. "Tell 'em to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper," "Knute Rockne, All American," 1940.

90. "A martini. Shaken, not stirred," "Goldfinger," 1964.

91. "Who's on first," "The Naughty Nineties," 1945.

92. "Cinderella story. Outta nowhere. A former greenskeeper, now, about to become the Masters champion. It looks like a mirac ... It's in the hole! It's in the hole! It's in the hole!", "Caddyshack," 1980.

93. "Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!", "Auntie Mame," 1958.

94. "I feel the need — the need for speed!", "Top Gun," 1986.

95. "Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary," "Dead Poets Society," 1989.

96. "Snap out of it!", "Moonstruck," 1987.

97. "My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. My sister thanks you. And I thank you," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," 1942.

98. "Nobody puts Baby in a corner," "Dirty Dancing," 1987.

99. "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!", "The Wizard of Oz," 1939.

100. "I'm king of the world!", "Titanic," 1997.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Hollywood Slump

Box office is in its sixteen week of declining revenues, en route to its worst financial showing in twenty years.

And to this I say….no shit.

For years now, the studios have shifted their model to marketing to teens (with their disposable income and lazy-ass schedules, they represent a large movie-going sector and will see movies they like numerous times) and have geared everything toward a big first-weekend gross. Van Helsing is a classic example. Universal marketed the hell out of it—McDonald tie-ins, endless P&A, talk of TV, amusement-park, and film franchise tie-ins—so it exploded in weekend #1—$52 million, but wound up at only $120 mil (“only” because the budget was $170, P&A $50). The huge second and third weekend declines were due to the fact that, though the special effects were stunning, the story just wasn’t that great. Sure, the studio will recover through foreign and DVDs and not take a bath, but still, the focus, it seems, was more on marketing than creative development.

With how hard it is to develop and produce a quality picture, I believe the studios no longer really TRY—they know with an aggressive ad campaign they can cash in on opening weekend before word of mouth spreads that the movie is mediocre, and they know they can recoup with foreign/DVD/tie-ins. So using this mediocre model again and again is easier than putting in extra time and effort to ensure that a film is sophisticated and good.

A byproduct of this strategy is that movie-going sectors OTHER than teens have been alienated from going to theatres. I have to go to films—it’s essential to my job as a screenwriter to know who’s doing what and how well, and I’m a judge on the Mystery Writers of America’s Best Screenplay Committee and the Chair of the International Thriller Writers’ Best Script Panel—but my wife, for instance, has largely lost interest. Why? Of the last, maybe 20 films we’ve gone to, 18 have been a waste of time. She’s been disappointed so continuously that she’d rather stay home, read a book, rent an old DVD (or better, a new DVD of an old movie). When actual quality adult films (pardon the phrase) come out, they have a harder time drawing grown-ups back to the theaters because they’ve fallen out of the habit of attending.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

DO NO HARM Takes a Dirt Nap

On the sad stretch of Van Nuys where it intersects Ventura Boulevard, there is a Crown Books that went to a Supercrown that is now an unnamed store filled with remaindered copies of Whoopi Goldberg’s autobiography and kitty calendars (which I supposed beats Whoopi Goldberg calendars and kitty autobiographies). From the outside you might think it has been taken over by squatters. My one-time agent, Jess Taylor, was in from Brazil, and desirous of that finest offering of the City of Angels—In-N-Out. So we ate our Double-Doubles and ambled across the parking lot to the not-really-a-Supercrown. Together, we made fun of our various friends and colleagues who had been remaindered in such squalor. Ha! Peter’s latest is at five bucks while Joanne’s still selling at six fifty.

Then what do I spot?

My very own DO NO HARM, the telltale magic marker scrawl staining the page edges.

Without missing a beat, Jess turns to me and says, “I just figured out the name of the store: Ozymandias Books.”


For the record, here is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem.


I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Book Expo America Update

Taxi ride.
Great to see you! Great to see YOU!
Where's the galleys for Lee Child's book? That bitch in the lime-green jacket took two and now they're out.
This food sucks. Where's Rey's Original? Which one? Doesn't matter.
When are you signing galleys? Can't I just take one now?
Don't turn around. That's the agent I fired.
She switched houses but her editor doesn't know so don't tell her when you see her.
Taxi ride.
Where's Judith Regan?
How long have you been at CAA?
Who else is here?
And you are? OH- of course.
Gin and tonic.
Jennifer Weiner's having a penthouse party. Right, but what if I get seen there? She seems nice and all, but IN HER SHOES? It'll ruin my image as a thriller writer. Who cares? Good point.
Taxi. Come on - you can take five. She'll sit in my lap. We'll give you a bigger tip. Where are you from? Really? I have family from Pakistan!
White wine.
EVERYONE'S at the Algonquin. Let's haul ass.
Cheese platter.
More cheese.
Another gin and tonic.
Taxi ride.
Uh oh.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Meeting Across the River

A new anthology is out based on an interesting premise. Edited by Jessica Kaye, and Richard Brewer (of Mystery Bookstore fame), Meeting Across the River is a collection of stories, each inspired by Bruce Springsteen's same-titled song. As Martin J. Smith points out in his compelling introduction, the tune, from BORN TO RUN, has haunting noir under(over?)tones that lend it nicely to interpretation by crime writers.

Stories from Eric Garcia, William Kent Krueger, C.J. Box, Steve Hamilton, Eddie Muller, Philip Reed, David Corbett, the inimitable Barbara Seranella, and others make up this collection.

When approaching the idea, I decided to combine noir elements with a thriller tone. My story, called "The Real Thing," a phrase I stole from the song, opens thus: "Abbud's head had been blown apart by sniper fire, his scalp lying beside the bone like a bad rug or a misplaced halo. Ebi Al-Mansouri stood frozen in place, bits of window glass embedded in his bearded face, his heart hammering so loudly it seemed to jar his vision. Bullet split the fifth-floor flat, raining in from all sides."

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

High Concept Low Quality

High concept is the end-all be-all for Hollywood and, increasingly, for publishing. But what is it? Essentially, it’s a script or book that can be summarized effectively in one or two sentences. And that has a hook—a plot reversal or inherent irony that is (we hope) unexpected and refreshing. A classic example is Armageddon: A giant meteor is headed for earth, and an unlikely crew of deep-sea drillers must land on it to explode it to save Earth. (What makes this truly high-concept is the constitution of the crew.) One of the clearest examples is Top Ten by Ryne Douglas Pearson. A serial killer is last on the FBI’s Top 10 most wanted list, but his ego demands he reach number one, so he decides to kill his way down the list to get there. But number three on the list is an FBI agent.

Some great books and film are high-concept, of course, and when paired with fine execution, they can make for art and entertainment at the highest level (think Hitchcock). But the trend toward high concept increasingly irritates me because as a writer, I find high concept one of the easiest parts of the jobs. I get five high-concept ideas a week. And that’s all they are. Ideas. The whole key, for me, is whether the ideas have story engines, enough meat to demand further exploration and plotting. What I find happening more and more is that novelists and screenwriters come up with a high-concept hook and sell their project on the basis of that, while not committing to the real work that elevates a project above mediocrity. Great high-concept hooks are inevitably exciting (how GREAT is the hook behind The Bourne Identity?) but as with everything, the devil is in the details (which Ludlum ALSO had down for his brand of fiction). Good pacing, plotting, plausibility, character development. So many blockbusters that have passed into popcorn and remainder obscurity suffer from writers who reached the first step and pitched camp there rather than toiling onward.

The job-and the art- is in what follows.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Sir Otto Strikes Again

Otto Penzler, master bookseller and world-leading expert in the genre, is no stranger to controversy. I get a huge kick out of Otto and enjoy spending time with him. He's unafraid to speak his mind and he's got a sharp, cutting wit that makes sitting through awards banquets (when you're at his table), an entirely different kind of experience.

Since I've been misquoted and "edited" enough by journalists in the past, I know not to take the below quotations (reported in The Book Standard) at face value. I know firsthand that Otto has enormous respect for various female authors, and I'm sure that his comments were presented in the most controversial fashion possible. That said, Otto ain't afraid to state his case and he - like many readers of hard-boiled crime fiction - ain't no fan of the cozie.

The comments below raise some interesting issues. Do you have a strong preference for hard-boiled fiction over cozies? Do you think there's a gender bias for who writes what? For my part, I've read my share of brilliant crime fiction by women and seen a few awful cat mysteries by men, but I know I'll take a Boston Teran over a 200-pager where a cupcake attacks a calico.
Genteel? Or bloody? That distinction between two sub-genres of mystery books—“cozies” and “hard-boiled”—may determine who wins the Edgar Award for Best Novel tonight. And the outcome could go to the heart of a debate within the industry: Are female mystery-writers—most often the authors of the more non-threatening, proper cozies—even worthy of the award? Otto Penzler, dean of mystery-writing in America, says no.

“The women who write [cozies] stop the action to go shopping, create a recipe, or take care of cats,” he says. “Cozies are not serious literature. They don’t deserve to win. Men take [writing] more seriously as art. Men labor over a book to make it literature. There are wonderful exceptions, of course—P.D. James, Ruth Rendell.”

Margaret Maron, president of Mystery Writers of America, which doles out the Edgars, and winner of one herself (for Bootlegger’s Daughter in 1993), sniffs at this bias, as she considers it, saying that good writers have been overlooked by the MWA as a result of unfair favoring of male authors and their bloodier plots. “Wit, humor, and domesticity haven’t been considered as significant as blood and violence. Charlotte MacLeod was never nominated,” Maron says, recalling the late author of a series of cozies. “She wrote some very funny mysteries, but they were considered ‘soft.’ She didn’t use the ‘F’ word. She wasn’t walking those mean streets.’ ”

That McLeod and the majority of authors who write cozies are women raises a thorny question. Are the Edgars—and, by extension, the mystery industry as a whole—simply sexist?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Wrst adn Typnig Problems

So I brok emy wrist in a soccer match Sunday and monday found my arm ensconced i a cast (pruple!) from hand to elbow. Im, in the middle ofna editing phase right now, whuich is proving trying sinc e I cant reall y type so well. RThere is a certani amount of rfustratio n for someonme ike me whos used tp typing and wokring at a certain pace tobe slwed down so drasticaly.

But tehrs also somenthing of a freedom inm being permitted toi write emails and blog entries witht eh typos that most poeple use! No more spellchecK! No more porofreading! I wonder if my publisher will hbe happy with a new manuscript that looks like sthis.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Crazy Geek Reader Stats

Amazon offers new stats for books, evidently after incorporating aspects of Schott's Original Miscellany into their website. On the home page for a book, one can click on either a "concordance" or "text stats" link.

These links yielded the following information on The Program:

These are the 100 most frequently used words in this book.
across against arms away bear behind better call came chair chris come
cult day door down dray even eyes face father feel felt few fingers
first floor get girl go going good got gregg group guy hair hand hard
head himself hurwitz janie john know last leah left let light lips
little look looked man might mouth name nancy need new now old open own
people phone program pulled reggie right room said sat say see side
skate something stanley still take tannino td teacher tell thing think
thought three tim time tom took turned two voice want work years

Text Stats
Fog Index: 7.6 (this is a measure of readability - between 7 and 8 is ideal)
Complex Words: 9%
Flesch Index: 71.0
Syllables/Word: 1.5
Flesch-Kincaid Index: 5.8
Words/Sentence: 10.0

Number of: Fun Stats:
Characters: 365,999
Words: 62,171
Sentences: 6,231

So here's my new ad for The Program: BUY NOW AND GET 3,775 WORDS PER DOLLAR!

Monday, April 11, 2005

Rejoice, Baseball has Begun

Since I'm going to be chairing the Best Thriller Screenplay award for ITW and I'm on the Best Film committee for MWA, I'm not allowed to venture publicly (oh, okay, to publicly venture) opinions on thriller and mystery films. Bummer.

But Fever Pitch, the new Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore movie, gladly falls into neither category. So get off your duff and go see it already. If you're a baseball fan, have baseball fans in your family, or have the misfortune to be married to a baseball fan, you'll get a kick out of it.

To that, I will merely add the following quotation, from no less an authority than John Cheever:
"All literary men are Red Sox fans. To be a Yankee fan in literary society is to endanger your life."

Of course, I believe that fans of the San Francisco Giants also tend to be Renaissance men, but then I might be biased.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Blurb Bitching II (The Sequel)

Okay, I got a fair number of emails in response to my Blurb Bitching blog entry (a few back) so I thought I’d answer the main questions being put to me.

What makes you more likely to blurb?

1. A personalized letter from the author. I’ve gotten a few really great letters from editors that made me crack a galley, but for the most part, if the author doesn’t even have time to enclose her thoughts, I generally don’t have time to read her manuscript. So don’t leave it solely to your publicist/editor/agent/friend who walks dogs with Thomas Harris. Have them do the hand-off, but make sure you get your voice in there.
2. If the person requesting a blurb from me is familiar with my work, and makes that somewhat clear in the cover letter. Nothing says arrogance like an unpublished writer asking me to read his manuscript who hasn’t bothered to read one of my books. When it came to the authors I asked for blurbs from, I made sure I’d read virtually everything they had in print. And if their oeuvres were unrealistically weighty, I made sure I’d read at least four or five of their novels.
3. I won’t blurb books from vanity presses.
4. If the damn thing looks good. I don’t care if it’s a social novel or a book of lesbian haiku, the first few pages better sing.
5. (And here I feel like Ms. Curmuckle, your high school college admissions advisor): Don’t make dumb-ass spelling and grammatical errors in your cover letter. If you can’t be bothered to figure out the difference between “it’s” and “its” in a one-paragraph note, you probably shouldn’t be pointing a 300-page manuscript my direction.

Will you always blurb your friends even if their books suck?

No. And Ayn Rand better quit asking.

Do you ever tell people you don’t like their books?

No. They’re not asking for a critique, just a blurb. So I’m not reading looking to be helpful from an editorial perspective. I never want to undermine a young (or old, for that matter) author early in her career with a rejection, so I will often beg off mediocre manuscripts due to exigencies of schedule, etc.. Often this isn’t an excuse; much of the time it’s true.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The State of Publishing (just north of Pennsylvania)

This reply to the question of how publishing works, written by my good friend and former agent Jess Taylor, provides a fine overview for those of you just entering the publishing world on what your expectations might (should?) be. He addresses a number of harsh realities. Published writers, obviously, have a wide range of experiences at the houses, some better than others (at numerous places in my reading, I stopped to be grateful for William Morrow).

Jess is an editorial expert of sorts, though it’s difficult to categorize the unique set of skills that constitute what he does. To hear more from him, check out his website at


As the book agents got fond of saying at the end of the 80s--when the
brand-new, corporate-takeover boom was already showing signs of
weakening, though it had barely begun: editors don't edit and
publishers don't publish.

I thought for a long time (my first several years at Curtis Brown,
Ltd.'s New York office/HQ) that this was a catchy all-purpose kvetch.
But the more experienced I got, the more I realized its literal truth.
Editors are producers responsible for orchestrating the launch of a
production, which is a shame, since the publishers they work for
believe "publish" means "to print and bind" not "to bring before the public.”

40 years ago, when people like GP Putnam, Alfred Knopf, and all the
letters in F, S & G were still alive and running publishing houses, or at least remembered, publishers acquired books and published them not to make money (they had money--that was how they'd been able to go into something as leisurely as book publishing in the first place), but for the satisfaction and prestige this brought them.

They paid out modest advances and got even more modest returns.

20 years ago, when publishing was gobbled up by the entertainment
business, the entertainment conglomerates' blockbuster mentality began
to take over.

It has now done so pretty completely.

The "midlist" is gone. The midlist was the writers who were the
mainstay of a house. Between the 5 or 8 headliners, who got big
prizes, got mentioned for the Nobel and the Pulitzer, and the pikers
who wrote "category" books, often under an assumed name or someone
else's (series Western, or Romance, or Gothic Thriller), the
midlist people put out a book every 12 to 18 months, earned out their
advances, and went on to the next book and next contract. They did not become household names. Their books sold in the tens, possibly hundreds of thousands.
They got invited to speak at the Rotary Club lunch in Kansas City, and

Once Hollywood-centered and international newspaper/magazine/electronic-media empires took over, there was no use for such writers. 100,000 copies?
That's nothing. Nothing to people who were accustomed to knowing
that 30 million viewers tuned in for some movie-of-the-week, or the
gross for a feature topped 100 million, at least when foreign and video were
added to the domestic.

The idea became, as it was pithily put by some higher-up addressing a
group that included a friend of mine at Random House ten years ago:
Either a bestseller or a contender for the National Book Award. If
it's not one or the other, and it's fiction, don't bring it to the meeting.

That is the mentality that prevails today, though of course there are
exceptions: houses, editors, days of the year. Some books still do get published the old-fashioned way, some editors do edit what they acquire, and some houses are able to bring these values consistently to bear.
Be that as it may, the bottom line is indeed the bottom line: your book enhances the prestige of the house (and its titular owner) by getting shortlisted for the Booker, or it tops the charts. If they can't realistically bet on it for one or the other, it's a very hard sell at that Monday-morning editorial meeting. An even harder sell at Sales Conference, because the sales force are the ones who have to go stump B&N and Borders.

So, that's the shift: since WWII, there has been a gradual, and then
precipitate disappearance of the gentlemen-publishers who were in it
for the fun, and the industry has been taken over by a bunch of
essentially misguided media/entertainment conglomerates that think
publishing should be a high-risk, high-return business like movies.
Unfortunately, authors and their agents have been all too happy to collude
with this--one of the reasons I left agenting was the realization that
authors by and large think they should be treated like artists, but
remunerated like Bill Gates. They also fail to realize that the
blockbuster authors generally make the big money BECAUSE they put out formula stuff--but formulaic in a way that the publishers can generate a demand for. And then control the supply. They can’t control the supply altogether, but then neither does OPEC or the Medellín Cartel.

In a better world, perhaps, authors would all be rich like doctors and New York City decorators; in this world, we have to set our sights elsewhere.

Ultimately, very few books--fiction or non--sell enough copies in hardcover and paper to pay back even a $75,000 advance. (Which, for the record, may be fine—the mere fact that the advance does not earn out does not mean the book lost money for the publisher.)

So, combining the corporatization of publishing and the me-too
attitude of the authors you get this:

Any given house's list has a truncated handful of authors who make
$1M+ per year, and another 25 or 30 who make a) next to nothing or b) literally nothing and have to cobble together a living as adjunct faculty, lecturers on cruise ships (you see them leaving Port Everglades daily). When the million-plus
guy doesn't sell enough to justify that, he gets cut way back, and his
agent scrambles to move him to another house that will, at least for a
book or two, humor the idea that it was the publishing, not the
poorly-executed books.

Naturally, this adds up to a mess. And forces the spiral ever-downward.
And in that mess, editors indeed are hardpressed to edit and publishers have better things to do than publish.

Editors acquire and launch; publishers shove a HUGE publicity effort
behind 5-10% of the output, and just print the rest and stuff it into the
warehouse. This is supported by a group of sales people who would,
were they highly talented in sales, most likely be selling something that would
make them real money, but having some kind of attachment to books sell those. The publicists are similarly hardworking, and similarly motivated more by an affinity for literature than by aptitude.

All this is not really such terrible news.

It just means that when you launch yourself as a writer, you have a
brief period--a few years--in which to become a headliner or get
relegated to the never-rans. That midlist position that near-supported a
lot of writers until the 80s is over.

It also means that your editor will almost surely have too little time, if he or she has the ability, to edit your book, so you and your agent must deliver, by which I mean submit at the outset, camera-ready art. Ready to format and put between covers. [This is good news for me; otherwise no one would need my services.]

It further means that you have to watchdog the whole process to be
sure they get the book out there properly. They will still flub it, but you will have the satisfaction when the bank forecloses and your kids return to public school of knowing you did what you could.

One thing is still the same: the great myth in publishing is the same
as the great myth in Hollywood--that there's just all this fabulous
undiscovered, neglected material out there. Go to the bookstore--if
the market were full of terrific stuff that does not get seen, would
they put so much effort into publishing that much garbage around the few titles they really love and believe in?

Every agent tells every client "publishing is in the worst shape it's
ever been in." One of my smartest clients recently told his agent,
Don't tell me that anymore. Publishing has been in the worst shape
it's ever been in since I got involved 10 years ago, so it's not news.
And of course, publishing was in really rotten shape in 1630 and in 56
BC. The whole idea of "author" or "editor" as a job for an adult is a
modern contrivance. [My own job more a contrivance still.]
Moreover, the public is still buying books in record numbers—especially in foreign territories, where the public is still learning to read.
They're just not buying the kinds of books we ourselves like: fiction and interesting, intelligent non-fiction. Not one of the 5 nominees
for the 2004 National Book Award had, at the time the award was
decided, sold even 2500 copies. Narrative non-fiction, at least, continues to gain strength.

All the above means, to repeat (it can't be overstated) you gotta
deliver the publishers a book they believe they can put into the
bookstores, get publicity for, and then watch sell itself. This is
not because they are lazy--they work hard; it's because no one has yet
figured out how to sell a book. It is a product for which, if the
author or subject is not already amply known, there is exactly zero demand
at the point it hits the market.

Publishers spend all their time trying to solve that unsolveable riddle.
So, you pretty much must provide camera-ready art. Starting with the
submission to the agent. From the point the book leaves our hands,
everyone between it and the eventual bookstore customer is a

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Doing Hard Times Right

Stanford University has sponsored a program called Rediscovering Dickens, where readers can experience Dickens's work the way it was intended - in installments. At their website, you can input your email and home address and receive either PDF files or newsprint mailings of a Dickens novel, every Friday for ten weeks.

Last year, they offered A Tale of Two Cities, and in January, they started distributing Hard Times.

The website is:

The program is run free of charge, so the magnanimous souls among you might consider offering a donation, also through the website.


Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Events High and Low

Tod Golberg, one of my favorite smart-asses (and not just because he too has consonant trouble with his first name) posted the following on his blog about an event he and I did. His account genuinely made me laugh out loud and I post it for your consumption.


Every author has an odd story about things they've done for money or places they've signed or read that seem to, uh, compromise their artistic merits. (I once encountered Western writer Matt Braun -- and another gentleman whose name escapes me -- signing their novels in the frozen food section at a Smith's grocery in Las Vegas. It would have seemed tragic had they not been moving product at a fairly high clip.) Not to long ago, my brother Lee, Gregg Hurwitz and I did a talk inside the cramped living space of some people. I say "some people" because I can't remember who they were, why we were there or what confluence of events necessitated that the home in question, which was actually an apartment, be filled floor to ceiling with -- literally, to the ceiling -- bookcases crammed front and back and sideways with rotting paperback books, manifestos of different kinds, hardback books that smelled vaguely like my Poppa Cy's guest bedroom and, oddly, half-written film scripts...all of which tilted forward in such a way that I felt like I was continually being scolded by some other-worldly Book Beast. There were about 15 people in attendance, along with a rather delectable lemon bundt cake, and I kept thinking that at any moment the Feds were going to bust in and arrest us all for being Commie sympathizers. We spent an hour or so talking about ourselves and then another 15 minutes helping Gregg answer questions about his physique ("Why are you so well built and the Goldbergs are so...Jewish looking?") and then another 10 minutes extricating ourselves from our host, who wanted us to know he was also an "independent book editor" and that he could help us should we need it.

Before we all got into our respective cars, Gregg said, "We never speak of this night. Ever."

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Booklovers Rejoice!

This email was sent to me from a friend who has an amazing library. As is clear, he's a great lover of the written word. Some of the manuscripts/editions he touched reminds me of my days at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, where (after being virtually frisked) we could check out early Shakespeare folios and a first printing of Paradise Lost.

My friend's email follows:
Attended the 38th SF International Antiquarian Book Fair this past Sat.
An amazing journey through the literary history of England and America.
It was so much fun and there was so much to learn from the booksellers.

In short, held and touched some of the most important works of literature:
First edition of Ulysses (value $150,000)
TS Eliot's Wasteland $65,000
TS Elitot's Prufrock (signed) $45,000
Faulkner's Sound and Fury (signed) $50,000
Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby $40,000
Salinger's Catcher in the Rye $45,000
Dickens Christmas Carol $45,000
Dickens Serial version of David Copperfield $17,000
Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea (signed) $30,000
The History of King Lear (Tate edition) $28,000
Shakespeare's Third Folio $150,000
A signed copy (by Abe Lincoln, 1864) of the Emancipation Proclamation:
value $1.5 million

I also saw first editions of just about every important work in modern
literature history. Stanford University had an incredible display of
just some of their most valuable rare books:
A second folio of Shakespeare's Works (1632)
A first edition Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) (featured in the
bestselling Rule of Four)
A first edition of King James Bible (1611)
Dryden's Virgil (1697)
Dante's Diving Comedy (1497)

Also displayed were books owned by the founding fathers, each of which
had the owner's signature.

A bibliophile's dream....

Price to enter show: $10. Experience of holding historical
documents/books you couldn't really afford.... priceless.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Blurb Bitching

In the panoply of sources that give rise to book complaint—blog entries, overheard bookstore conversations, friends’ bitching—I’ve noted a particular grievance that gets what I believe is unnecessary air time. Readers feel that the fix is in when an author who is mentioned in the acknowledgements also offers a blurb for the same book. (Complaining about blurb corruption reminds me of a popular joke among professors: “Why are academic squabbles so fierce? Because the stakes are so low.”)

This makes little sense to me (blurb complaining, not academic squabbles). I’ve always taken blurbing quite seriously, rejecting far more books than I’ve blurbed. In fact, I’ve only given a handful over the past few years: Blake Crouch’s Desert Places, Steven Sidor’s Skin River, Harley Jane Kozak’s Dating Dead Men—though neither Harley nor I can remember the blurb since it wasn’t used on the book jacket (we seem to recall this was because her editor felt her mysteries were tamer than my own, but we’re both out to lunch half the time so maybe I didn’t even actually blurb her)—Lee Goldberg for his Diagnosis Murder Series, and Gayle Lynds’s The Coil. Now. In an upcoming book which I’ve elected to blurb, I’m also mentioned favorably in the acknowledgments since I read the manuscript at a very early phase and shepherded the author along through edits, pairing with a lawyer/agent, and an eventual two book deal. My question is: If I believe that strongly in a novel, why WOULDN’T I blurb it also? It’s not some sort of blurb cronyism. It’s the last step in using whatever moderate influence I’ve acquired to endorse a book I believe should be read.

No matter how much talent you have, to make it in publishing, you always need the right help from the right people at the right time. Call it luck, call it fate, call it whatever you please, but though hard work and talent are a necessity (usually), few novelists I’ve met have gotten by on these alone. I caught some breaks early in my career, and I’m always grateful to those who read my work early and took a gamble, putting in their time and making use of their contacts for me. Though writing is fiercely independent, I do see a responsibility to give back to the community, to pass along the good karma that I’ve been fortunate enough to receive. I don’t give back to the writing community by telling author who need improvement that their books are fantastic, and I don’t give back to the reading community by endorsing crap.

I was privy to a conversation a few months ago between two talented gay writers who said they’ve had a hard time getting blurbs from straight authors for their books, because the straight authors are afraid they’ll lose readers over it, or that they’ll somehow be tainted by the association. What a shame. I blurb books strictly on the basis of what I like and what I believe merits commendation. And I do not solely blurb books that fall within the domain of what I believe my readership likes (I’m quite certain that my assumptions about my readers’ tastes are wrong anyways). Lee Goldberg’s Diagnosis Murder series, for instance, may not be the best match for Navy SEALs readers I acquired from MINUTES TO BURN, but guess what? The books say Diagnosis Murder on them. If one of my gritty tough-guy readers is dumb enough to buy Lee’s book thinking that it’ll be filled with demolition explosives and graphic violence, that’s his own problem. Lee is a talented writer who nailed the books he was writing. He accomplished what he set out to do and did a damn fine job of it. If a book’s tone or style is less clear and I have some concern that readers might buy it off my blurb not knowing what they’re getting into, I’ll make clear what the book is about in the blurb: “A touching series of lesbian vampire haiku…” Mike Connelly did this for me in DO NO HARM, making clear it was a medical thriller: “Hurwitz has put together a medical/psychological detective story that sticks in the mind long after the last page is turned.” A great endorsement, sure, but it also ensures that if one of his readers gets nauseas in hospitals, they’ll steer clear.

How each author decides to blurb is his or her own business and to be sure, a fair amount of bullshit clouds the endorsement picture, but please bear in mind: an acknowledgment in addition to a blurb may just mean that the author really liked the book and wanted to see it succeed in more ways than one.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The Good, the Bad, and the Crumley

He’s been recommended to me in bookstores from Milwaukee to Fort Worth. Mentioned conversationally by everyone from Mike Connelly to Bob Crais. Hailed as the next great AND the last great thing.

James Crumley.

I also recall hearing as much about the man himself as his books. (“He once ripped a spine out of a bear with his bare hands!” “I seen him drink a quart of cobra blood at the end of a four-day drunk”). It seems he’s captivated the minds and stoked the overactive imagination of the mystery community for years now.

So finally, at the urging of the inimitable Shelly McArthur (The Mystery Bookstore, Westwood, California) I picked up THE LAST GOOD KISS. An obvious homage to THE LONG GOODBYE (here’s where I risk getting an email from the man himself, saying, “You stupid fuck—I’ve never even READ The Long Goodbye”), it picks up the same twisted, the-mystery-you-think-you’re-trying-to-solve-ain’t-even-the-half-of-it-buster structure. A story leading to a mystery leading to another story, that in turn leads to another mystery. At the center, a drunken writer. Maybe that explains it.

Crumley’s tone manages to be one-of-a-kind AND dead-on, which seems like an impossibility until you read him.

He’s at his best in moments like:

“I knew the men were probably terrible people who whistled at pretty girls, treated their wives like servants, and voted for Nixon every chance they got, but as far as I was concerned, they beat the hell out of a Volvo-load of liberals for hard work and good times.”
(In particular, I love the “every chance they got”).

And, when our irascible protagonist is being, well, irascible:

“Goddamn it, Sughrue, has anybody ever talked to you about your hospitality?”
“Never twice,” I said.

And later, when one of Crumley’s characters wisely remarks of another:

“He’s an artist and all artists are children.”

I’m embarking on his WHORES next and hope to find it as engaging and incisively humorous.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Why We Choose Books

I remember an article I read some years ago that tried to explain what makes you pluck one book from your shelf at a particular moment and start reading it. It’s quite odd. There are all those spines, staring at you from the bookcase like puppies at a pound—pick me, pick me!—and you walk by them, unmoved, week after week.


This week at the Hurwitz house, the chosen few were Louis Begley’s SHIPWRECK, Lynne Truss’s EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES (dry, viciously smart), Paul Bowles’s COLLECTED SHORT STORIES (so brilliant, so nasty: “The Delicate Prey” made my skin crawl, “Pages from Cold Point” left me with my jaw ajar), Doyle’s ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (a reread of an illustrated volume I had from childhood—I just finished rereading all Poe’s short stories and got hooked on the quick fix of brilliant short fiction), BLOOD WARRIORS by Michael Lee Lanning (a book devoted to America’s Military Elite units), and Steve Hodel’s BLACK DAHLIA AVENGER (which I read half of after participating in an event with him some months ago but it fell behind my bed which I only just moved this week. It is one of the most courageous books I’ve encountered—my hat’s off to him on every page).

So aside from the bizarre range that indicates my varied (perverse?) tastes, here’s what’s odd. I’ve owned all of these books for not just weeks, but months. They’ve sat along with OPERATION SHYLOCK and GLAMORAMA, and MOBY DICK (yes, I confess), patiently awaiting their moment under the reading lamp. So why now?

A variety of reasons, I’d guess. A trusted recommender will add a sense of urgency (see my last entry on Penn Jillette’s SOCK). There is the critical mass concept, but sometimes in my case that works against a book (I believe I’m the last person on the continent not to have read THE DA VINCI CODE. And out of no bias against the book; it just seems like so much less fun when everyone’s doing it). There’s the “I need to read this NOW for work” explanation (why a text on lock picking currently adorns my nightstand). Then there’s the “I just read an article that mentioned this author and recultivated (Now a word! Coming soon, to theatres everywhere!) my interest to crack their damn book.” And of course, especially for Catholics and Jews, there’s the guilt model: “I’m so ignorant, I can’t believe I’ve never read Trollope.” Oh—and mustn’t forget, the “I’m doing an event with this woman and have to read her so I don’t look like a mouth-breathing reprobate at the panel.”

And sometimes, all we’re seeking is motivation. I had the pleasure of being “in conversation” onstage with T Jeff Parker—one of my favorite authors—at the West Hollywood Book Fest a few months ago, so I used the upcoming event as an excuse to read four of his older books I hadn’t yet gotten to (all great—we sometimes hate Jeff too).

But I suppose in other, less karmic cases, it’s just a matter of moving the bed and seeing what’s fallen behind.

What makes you select the next?

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Crazed Sock Monkey on the Loose

I just read a book I would generally not read. And I loved it. This is a great exercise, to pick up something outside the (in my case, frighteningly wide) boundaries of what one would normally encounter. I usually steer clear of novels written by celebrities, biographies of queens, and science fiction fantasy. Now keep in mind, this doesn’t mean I’ll never read a book from these genres—I’ve enjoyed my share of Asimov and Bradbury, for instance—but it means that when contending with the overwhelming number of books on my to-read shelf and to-buy list, that these categories are generally my few guiltless exceptions.

But then you get the strenuous recommendation from someone whose opinion you trust and you know you have to make room in your crowded head. In this case, the culprit was Clair Lamb of Mystery Bookstore and Answer Girl fame, who told me that SOCK was her “favorite book of the past year.” Now that ain’t no “I think you might dig this” rec, that’s a more strenuous exhortation. So I bought it.

It wasn’t until I got home that I realized that SOCK was written by Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame. Had I known that at the store, I might not have bought the book. Now while I recognize that Penn is a brilliant magician, I’m not inclined to believe that a great magician makes for a great novelist, thought mine is a fatuous argument. I mean, every novelist’s gotta have a day job at some point and why would being a famous magician make him any less inclined to pen (ha ha) a brilliant novel than if he were, say, a journalist, doctor, or cop, professions which have churned out their fair share of great novels. I suppose I thought, “Well, he’s a famous guy and someone in publicity thought they could market the hell out of his name so they bought his crappy manuscript.” Simple, simple me. It took no more than a few pages for me to realize what a colossally judgmental ass I was (am?).

This book is the real deal. It’s a “mystery” (not really) about a somewhat incompetent cop who sets out to solve a murder with a gay hairdresser friend and his sock monkey.

Oh, and it’s told from the perspective of the sock monkey.

It’s a brilliant, inspired, wholly unique, bizarre, philosophical piece. It plays with language as if it’s clay—you can TASTE how much Jillette loves words—surprises you with character, and hammers at your (mis)perceptions with a series of well-placed postmodern salvos that undercut the narrative while oddly reinforcing it.

If you’re a language junkie or a book junkie or just a plain old junkie, you should cast aside your doubts (oh wait, that was just me?) and dig in. I can say without hesitation it is one of the most original books I’ve read all year.

I love that sock monkey. What a clever, devious little mofo.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

I'm Not A Huge Check-Out-This-Web-Site Guy, But...

If there are two things I love, it's good TV and dictators. Okay, so maybe not really. But this game is interesting, as it bizarrely sets up a series of questions to guess which famous dictator or TV character you're pretending to be.

So why the hell am I posting about it on a writer's website? Well, I found interesting the types of questions the computer program generates in closing in on character. It's sort of an odd glimpse at the mechanics behind (bad?) character building - nothing I'd recommend to anyone writing their own characters, but compelling in a rubberneck sort of way nonetheless.

Another fun game is to answer the questions as yourself and see who it guesses you to be. I was Stalin. No bad for a Jewish kid from the Bay Area.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Why I'd Rather Get Paper Cuts On My Tongue Than Proof Galleys

Apologies for the few-weeks delay on blog entries. And if you didn’t notice, well, never mind.

But I do have a good excuse.

Loathe as I am ever to complain about this, the best job around, I must say that I just emerged from what I find the most trying time of year. Galleys time.

The galleys arrived to my address on December 24th, with a brief apology from my editor. Timing is everything, they say, and there’s nothing like a holiday with a tedious job hanging over your head. Proofing the galleys, you see, isn’t fun like other editing. Second-pass on a manuscript, or even line edits, can be very stimulating because you’re ratcheting up the manuscript just that much more, making the cogs and slots align, finding that perfect turn of phrase. With galley editing, you’re mostly catching typesetting errors, looking for word repeats, or getting ambushed by errors that you’ve overlooked that will now be a huge pain in the ass to fix. And here’s the catch: no one can actually proofread your galleys except you. No matter how tempting it may sound, you can't leave it to the pub house proofreader. Because only you know if a key word got dropped in the typesetting process, or if that change that your copyeditor recommended but you rejected got sent through anyway. To do a thorough read on the manuscript takes me (depending on my mood and the particulars of the manuscript) about thirty to forty hours.

The catch is that galleys generally arrive, if you’re a book-a-year guy or gal, when you already have up a full head of steam on the next book. I have a tough time setting down a rough draft for a week or two and picking it back up. If I leave my creative mark for a significant period of time, it usually takes me a week or two to find my bearings once I dive back in. I used to drive myself nuts when I toured. Right when I’d get settled into a good rhythm, I’d pop out for a signing to Cleveland or Boston and completely lose my momentum, since I only used to be able to write at my desk. James Patterson offered me great advice on this front when I saw him at an event we did together (he the keynote, me the mere panelist). The exchange was simple:

JP: Do you write on the road?
GH: No, I can’t.
JP (with great gravity): Learn.

And so I have. Now when I’m working on a rough draft, I won’t let anything short of an emergency interrupt it. I write on planes, in hotel rooms, in the car (no, not when I’m driving). So if a script gig or an event comes up, I fit in my screenwriting and/or prep time at night and on weekends so as not to break my 9 to 6 commitment on the new book. And I’m happy to do it, because screenwriting and events are pretty goddamned fun. With galleys it’s the same way—except piling work after work when the additional work, well, kind of sucks, doesn’t make for a happy novelist. So after proofing galleys at night, when I return to my beloved rough draft the next morning, more characters die horrible deaths. I have to get out my aggravation somewhere.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

What Makes a Thriller?

High-stakes…a ticking clock…violence on the page…the audience’s being aware of the villain’s plotting—odds are you’re already familiar with the elements that define a thriller if you’ve found your way to this website. You’ve also likely stumbled over the classic blurb and jacket-copy catch-phrases that these fundamentals, when well executed, give rise to: “breakneck pacing,” “white-knuckle action,” “roller-coaster ride,” “better than Cats.” Okay, so maybe not the last one. The bottom line is, thrillers are often badder, meaner, and bigger than other forms of crime fiction. Think Thomas Harris over Agatha Christie, or, in other mediums, 24 over Murder, She Wrote, or In the Line of Fire over Sleuth. In a thriller, you’re more likely to find Dr. Lecter in the kitchen with liver and fava beans than Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the candlestick. So it goes. Concerned parent groups lobby here.

Having the reader in the pretentiously titled “superior” position—meaning they’re riding shotgun with the good guys AND the bad guys through various scenes—of course doesn’t mean that there aren’t surprises (or, in blurbspeak “more twists and turns than a….”). I tend to structure my books so that the reader follows both sides of an impending collision, but the scenes with the antagonists I write a bit more hazy on specifics, so it’s never entirely clear what they’re up to or when the plot is going to reverse itself. Toward the end of a book, I’ll often have my antagonist fall out of the plot for several chapters, so his or her reappearance is startling—surprising due to machinations set in motion while the author (poor sod) took his eye off the ball.

As a rule, research seems to play a significant role in thrillers. Of course, authors of other genres can be brilliant researchers (here I envision Tom Wolfe bludgeoning me with an ivory-headed cane for my crass generalization) but thriller writers in particular seem to enjoy rolling up their sleeves and getting dirt under their fingernails. Maybe this is because thrillers are rife with bomb-making and forensic trails—try writing about THOSE convincingly without doing some field work. I use my books almost as an excuse for continuing education. I’ve sneaked onto demolition ranges with Navy SEALs to blow up cars, conducted an interview with a hospital tech as he carved up a cadaver to deliver its parts to dissection lab, and most recently for The Program, I went undercover into mind-control cults in Los Angeles so I could create my own cult (for the novel, that is—or I suppose in real life too if I ever get bored). Interacting with cult members, witnessing the effusive testimonials, participating in group exercises, and submitting to “testing” gave me the background I needed to add the telling detail to give the Program its verisimilitude. I suppose that’s what I love the most about thrillers—it’s as much goddamned fun to write them as to read them.