Belly Up to the Bar with Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block should need no introduction. Author of the Matthew Scudder detective novels, the Bernie Rhodenbarr series of burglar mysteries, and standalone novels and short stories too numerous to mention, his most recent novel is HIT ME, starring everybody’s favorite hit man: Keller. Mr. Block is one of our greatest living storytellers, and I’m glad that he continues to write long into his self-professed retirement. If you haven’t read his work, the Hit Man series with Keller is a great place to begin.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Welcome to Belly Up to the Bar, Larry. What can I get you?
 
 
 
 

Lawrence BlockLB: I’m good, Tom.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: The hit man is well-worn territory, but with Keller you’ve created one of the most likeable and believable killers in fiction. I knew a guy–to use the Jersey parlance–and Keller’s sense of calm, and his capability for calculated violence ring utterly true. There’s a sadness in the stories, as well. The loneliness of the job is the perfect foil for the excitement of the hunt and Dot’s acerbic sense of humor. So where did Keller come from, and what keeps you returning to tell his stories?

Lawrence BlockLB: Well, I had a story idea that turned into “Answers to Soldier.” Guy goes out to Oregon on business, makes the mistake of getting to know the quarry, has fantasies of quitting the business and making a life for himself similar to the guy’s, goes so far as to look at houses, then comes to his senses, kills the guy, and goes home. The hit man turned out to be Keller, and I wound up having a lot more to say about him.

HIT ME Lawrence Block

Tom Pluck BeerTP: When I pick up one of your books, I know I’m getting great dialogue. The latest Matthew Scudder novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, begins with a conversation between Matt and Mick Ballou that I could have read for the entire book. George V. Higgins said “Dialogue is character and character is plot.” Do you think it boils down to that, or is there something more to it?

Lawrence BlockLB: Well, it was true for Higgins. It depends enormously on the writer. Some of us are intensely visual, for example. They know what all the people in their books look like, see the rooms in their lives fully furnished. What I tend to know most about my characters is what they sound like, how they express themselves.

Snake Stamp

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’ve traveled the world, but your fiction is mostly set in New York. Keller seems the most widely traveled of your creations. I read a lot of New York authors, but when Scudder is walking around town or Bernie is scoping a building, I feel not only like I’m there, but that I’ve lived there and know the town. Which I don’t, except as a Jersey invader. What keeps your stories in New York and the States, when you’ve visited so many exotic locales?

Lawrence BlockLB: New York has been home to me in a very fundamental way from the first time I came here. It’s as natural for me to have my characters live here as it is for me to live here myself. In the mid-80s my wife and I moved to South Florida, and I found myself wondering if I’d wind up setting most of my fiction there. I realized that I probably wouldn’t, that I had no real sense of the inner lives of people there. Thus I’d go on setting my stories in New York.

hit me stamps

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Keller’s stamp collecting has become almost as intriguing as his hits. I missed out on the last philatelic edition, but I snagged the one Mysterious Press is doing for HIT ME. (The philatelic edition is a special first edition that comes signed, with a special postage stamp affixed to the cover, and a souvenir sheet of stamps) I never collected stamps, but I did collect coins, then lost my collection to some unscrupulous movers. A pristine 1945-S Mercury dime will be my Rosebud, I imagine. There’s something about stamps, coins and bank notes besides the art and their monetary value–they’re tangible icons. I was a numismatist, and you’re a philatelist. Which both sound like kinky perversions, and to a degree they are. What stamps do you collect? Does Keller have your dream collection?

Lawrence BlockLB: Keller collects worldwide, 1840 to 1940, which his British Empire collection extending through the reign of George VI. Me too. How’s that for coincidence? Keller, of course, has a much better collection, because he had the sense to pick a far more lucrative profession.
 
 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’re a writer’s writer. I say that because you’ve written several books about writing that tell it straight, such as Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. One of my favorite quotes is when you respond to that ubiquitous cocktail party nightmare, the person who says they’d love to be a writer if they only had the time, as if it were a hobby, not a skill and a talent. You said no one says that to a pro ballplayer, and I took that to heart. Writers don’t get respect, and we’re often the last to get paid, if we get paid at all. Would you say that’s gotten better or worse?

Lawrence BlockLB: It’s probably stayed about the same. One difference is that people tend to think we’re rich. They read about the contracts a couple of people get and figure we all make that kind of money. I remember Evan Hunter telling me how some clown from some college explainded that, for a donation of a mere ten million dollars, they could build a new dormitory and name it after him. “What kind of money do they think we make?” he marveled. On a lesser scale, but just barely, some well-meaning fool once advised me to charter a private plane for my book tours. Jesus. You go to some town, spend two hours in a bookstore, sign twenty books, with translates into what, $60 in royalties? It’s absurd enough for a publisher to fly you in coach, which is why book tours are finally coming to an inglorious end, but charter a fucking airplane?

Kukri Stamp

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’ve always been one of the most tech-savvy writers I know. You had your email address in your books 20 years ago. And in your fiction, you manage to get the reality of computers and cell phones into the stories without making them linchpins of the plot, where the tension hinges on how many bars of signal someone has. I liked how TJ was the go-to character for the non-technical Scudder. That worked, you acknowledged the Internet but kept his feet on the ground. People have arguments about cell phones in mystery stories. Do you think technology leaches the tension out of a mystery?

Lawrence BlockLB: I think it might. It certainly performs that function for life itself. Nobody gets to be alone anymore.
 
 
 
 
 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’ve taken self-publishing head-on, releasing short stories, backlist titles written under pen names, and two short story collections: one of Matthew Scudder tales and another of Ehrengraf, the only lawyer I truly enjoy reading about. If you were a beginning writer, would you take advantage of self-publishing, or do you think the traditional route remains the best way to establish yourself?

Lawrence BlockLB: I’m not sure I know the answer, and it’ll change in ten minutes anyway, given the current pace of change in and out of publishing. But from where I stand (well, sit, actually) self-publishing certainly appears to be the way the world is moving. It’s the best choice for an increasing number of writers—and it’s often the only choice.
 
 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Thank you for indulging my questions. Before you go, what would you like for your last meal?
 
 
 
 

Lawrence BlockLB: Treacle.

 
 
 
 

HIT ME is now available in the philatelic edition from LB’s bookstore, and his website is as you’d expect, LawrenceBlock.com

BW Beer Mug

What Readers Want

Agatho at Mysterious Matters, one of the more thoughtful yet acerbic mystery publishing blogs, is concerned of the disconnect between Editor and Reader. So (s)he has asked, much like the Beastie Boys, the eternal question:

So whatcha whatcha want?

Here’s my answer:

“I want well-written, character-driven fiction. I want to be hooked from the first line, and I do not want the flavor of the month, or stories so cemented in the genre that the tropes hold up the plot. If a character is well-defined, the plot will flow from the choices they make.

I prefer stories from the perspective of the victim or the victim’s family, or someone in a moral gray area. A criminal, an outsider, someone interesting. Not another amateur P.I. or even a cop unless there is something interesting and new brought to the table.
Procedurals rarely do it for me, with Tana French being the big exception, because her characters are so compelling.
Crime is everywhere. It is part of life. We overlook it every day- the accountant fudging the numbers for the boss, the violent neighbor with the slow-burning fuse, the girl at the strip club who gets picked up at the end of the night by the mobster who “owns” her.
We walk through a veil of human depravity every day, we blinder ourselves to it. I want stories that remove those blinders and make me angry that we tolerate it.”

What’s yours? I’d recommend you cut & paste your reply and post it at the MM blog as well. Make your voice heard.

And now, git down…

Belly Up to the Bar with Katherine Tomlinson

Katherine Tomlinson is the author of six books of crime, urban fantasy and dark fiction. She has written for feature film and television, and for newspapers and magazines across the country. Her work has appeared in A Twist of Noir, Pulp Ink 2, and Weird Noir. She is also the editor of the upcoming Dark Valentine Press anthology Nightfalls: Notes from the End of the World which includes stories by Nigel Bird, Patricia Abbott, Jimmy Callaway, Richard Godwin, and yours truly.

nightfalls 2
TP:  Welcome to Belly up to the bar, Katherine- what are you drinking?

 
 

katherine tomlinson

KT: Would you mock me if I ordered a virgin Sea Breeze? I’m diabetic so I save my calories for things that are really important, like the occasional fleur de sel salt caramel (thank you Trader Joe’s for making them available year ’round) and spicy Thai drunken noodles with chicken. I am all about the spice.

TP: Not one bit! I do partake of nonalcoholic beverages, they are one of my many vices. You write dark fiction. The first story of yours for me was “Water Sports” in A Twist of Noir (not what it sounds like, pervos) which perfectly captures the voice of a psychopath. Where does that voice come from? Is there a place that you go, or a memory you conjure?

 

katherine tomlinson

KT:  I have no idea. Compared to so many people I know, I won the parent lottery. I was loved, encouraged, praised, and given access to books and art and music (we had a piano) and travel. I tend to be a pretty positive person (I wear pink! I have a cat!) and I often wonder if it’s because I write out all my anger in short stories. And really, my fiction is only darkish compared to something like Plastic Soldiers by W.D. County or your own Black-Eyed Susan (which I admired very much.)

TP:  One of my favorite movies is Last Night, a Canadian film about the last day on Earth, and how people spend it. It is surprisingly mundane, but very thought-provoking. What inspired the theme of the Nightfalls anthology, the end of the world?

 

katherine tomlinson

KT: I don’t know that movie. I’ll have to check it out.

One of my good friends and I had thought about doing an end of the world webseries that would climax on 12.21.12. The idea was to follow a lot of stories, a la Crash or Valentine’s Day–all of them tied together by the office building where the characters worked. That project didn’t come to fruition but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. I ended up playing around with a story I called “Conor and Travis Salute the Fallen Warriors” about a couple of World of Warcraft players who stay connected to the bitter end. It still needs some work, so I didn’t put it in the anthology.

TP: That sounds like a great concept, really. I was briefly addicted to MMPORGs, and find the so close, yet so far dichotomy lends itself to a good story. (For the record, I sold my account and helped pay for my sister’s wedding.) The introduction you wrote for the anthology moved me. People seem to wander around in their own little worlds these days, and believe that only their pain matters, and everyone else’s is somehow their own fault. Do you think people have become more and more selfish, or that we’re just more aware of it?

katherine tomlinson

KT:  In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “When you’re cold, don’t expect sympathy from someone who’s warm.” I think that during the run-up to this year’s presidential election, the lines being drawn between those who are warm and those who are cold was pretty stark. It was all very Gilded Age and “I’ve got mine.” And it was troubling. I was especially troubled by some of the new euphemisms–talking about “hunger” as “food insecurity.” Food insecurity. My aunt is a retired Methodist minister and one of her longtime outreach programs is a food bank that serves a pocket of semi-rural Southwest Virginia. She’s feeding hungry people, not people who think they’re going to gain weight if they eat a whole non-fat muffin.

I think the proportion of selfish and clueless people is about the same as it’s always been–we just hear about it more now. What is that line from A Christmas Carol when Scrooge is asked to donate to the poor–“Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?” That was written in 1843, almost 170 years ago and every time I heard a reference to the “47 percent” last fall, I thought about Dickens.

TP: It’s refreshing to hear you speak of it as bluntly as I see it. Money forgives everything in America- it is very Machiavellian. And compassion is seen as denying some Darwinian imperative, by people who don’t believe in evolution. It’s utterly bizarre. From your bio, you’ve traveled the country from Hawaii to the coasts. I tend to be fascinated about the little pockets of character all over the country. What are some of your favorite places?

katherine tomlinson

KT:  I like cities on the water, oceans, lakes, rivers. I love San Antonio and am seriously considering moving there at some unspecified future date. I miss my hometown (Washington D.C.) terribly and when I was back there this summer, I was reminded anew of how much I love that city. It’s so green. My neighborhood in Los Angeles is a little oasis of trees and flowering Japanese magnolia and jacarandas in the spring, but L.A. was carved out of a desert thanks to water stolen from the Colorado River, and the desert is just waiting to take it back.

I love New Orleans too, that glorious wrecked wedding cake of a city. (I love that if you ask cab drivers where to find the best bread pudding in the city, they know. They talk about food there like people in L.A. talk about celebrities.)

I’ve never been to Portland, Oregon but have fallen in love with the city from watching Grimm. (Yes, like those who buy Playboy for the articles, I watch Grimm for the scenery. It has nothing to do with Sasha Roiz. Really.) I also have a soft spot for Ocracoke Island in North Carolina. You want characters?  There are some serious characters on Ocracoke.

dc in snow

TP: I love New Orleans, myself. Its old history as a free city lives on. And DC, the cherry blossoms and the worldliness. Writers always talk about their favorite writers, but I think there so many other influences on writing. For me, movies and music were a big part of it, the dark fatalistic tone of the nuclear age, and the raw, outlaw ferocity of early rock ‘n roll. You’re welcome to mention the writers you admire, but what else has inspired your writing?

katherine tomlinson

KT:  The Washington Post. (Most people don’t know this but until 1981, DC also had an afternoon paper, the Evening Star, and it was a damn fine publication.) So I grew up reading two local papers a day.  My father subscribed to both the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor. My parents were news junkies who would have loved the world of 24/7 news cycles.  All that news just sort of acted as fertilizer for my imagination. I was a journalist for 15 years before I turned to fiction and I loved that I was paid to ask questions; that I could be nosy for a living.

 

I write a lot of fiction based on random news. (And I owe a lot to the Drudge Report, which is a never-ending source of inspiration.) But even the regular news these days is weird: Disembodied feet washing up in Toronto, bodies piling up in Detroit morgues. Tsunami debris coming in with the tide. Dolphins being murdered. Choking to death on roaches. The stories practically write themselves.

I was also a crazy fan of Twilight Zone and I think it shows in my stories, I do love my twist endings and I blame that on Rod Serling. At Thanksgiving this year we had the annual TZ marathon on in the background and everybody at the table could mouth the dialogue along with the characters … for every episode. Yes, everyone I know is a geek. One of my favorite writers is Stephen King and you can tell he grew up watching those same episodes.

TP: Oh yes, Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt. That sense of fate inspired “Black-Eyed Susan,” which may be why you liked it. Thank you, by the way. For me the weird news source is Weird NJ magazine, I’ve written for them and I love exploring all sorts of forgotten history. You write a lot about fear, and it is the most visceral of emotions. As an adult, I find it tougher to get scared for entertainment. I loved supernatural horror, but aliens and werewolves aren’t scary for me anymore–the fear of losing loved ones to disease and accidents is all that remains–and that is too painful to read, sometimes. What is your favorite fear to explore in your writing?

katherine tomlinson

KT:  As a movie-goer, I am a horror movie maker’s dream audience. All you have to do to scare me is have something jump out at me. I still remember the jolt when I saw Jaws for the first time and nearly swallowed my popcorn because the editing and the music conspired to trick me into relaxing just before the shark popped out of that hole. (And for the record, I have been nervous about swimming in the ocean ever since.)

I think my stories are fed from a wellspring of anxieties that aren’t entirely my own. I’m afraid of heights but not of snakes. Around my house I am spider-bane, the designated killer of all things eight-legged and yet I have a totally irrational fear of going to bed with the Christmas tree lights burning. The most successful woman I know is haunted by a fear of being homeless. I once saw a neighbor totally freak out when a kitten licked her toe. “Get it away from me,” she shrieked, scaring the kitten.

If I had to narrow it down, I’d say I write a lot about loss. The death of my younger sister five years ago remains a tender spot and I have returned to that grief a number of times in stories. I don’t want to exploit that though, because that gets boring and kind of sleazy.

 
 

TP: My condolences, Katherine. Loss is the one real fear, for me. Men are told to be protectors, and we often base our self-worth upon it, in part, so loss of a family member—especially a female one—chills us to the core. And there’s all sorts of guilty emotions caught up in it, because it’s rather sexist, and possessive, isn’t it? Thank you for your honesty, not everyone likes talking about fear. So, other than Nightfalls, what is your latest book, and what do you have coming down the road for us to look out for?

katherine tomlinson

KT:  I am finishing up my first novel, Begotten, which is best described as urban fantasy, although I am beginning to hate that genre tag because so many books in that niche are same-old, same-old. My heroine is a crime reporter who follows paranormal crime. Unlike Carl Kolchak (Kolchak the Nightstalker was another big inspiration for my writing), she exists in a world that knows about supernatural creatures, so paranormal crime is just a regular journalism beat like reporting on City Hall or writing about high school sports.

The book takes place in the paranormal Los Angeles of my L.A. Nocturne stories (shameless plug), and I find it way too easy to slip into that world. Going from short stories to a novel, though, has been hard work. Novelists Christine Pope and G. Wells Taylor have been pushing and prodding me through the process, though, and I owe them a lot for their support.

 

 

TP: I’m looking forward to it. Stephen Blackmoore’s City of the Lost was a surprise favorite for me, and he made the Kirkus top 100 with it. I hope yours is there next year. Thank you for giving us a lot to think about, Katherine. One last question—what would your last meal be?

 

katherine tomlinson

KT: A rare steak. Ripe tomatoes from my great-uncle’s garden. Garlic mashed potatoes. Or macaroni and cheese. Green beans with bacon and crushed red pepper flakes. Bread pudding from Commander’s Palace in New Orleans or Ina Garten’s chocolate cake with a side of caramel ice cream made from my great-grandmother Julia’s recipe. Or maybe all three if I still have room.

commander's palace bread pudding souffle

TP: That sounds delicious. Makes me want to fire up the electric chair, but then I’d never get to read Begotten. Thank you for dropping by, and for a great conversation.

You can read more of Katherine’s work at her blog Katomic Energy and her list of books is on her website.

BW Beer Mug

Must You Finish a Book to Have an Opinion on it?

The excellent Mysterious Matters blog this week talks about the 50/100 page rule. That’s the number of pages that a reader will read, waiting for a book to “grab” them. Of course, some throw the book down on page ten, and others must finish it, either because “hope springs eternal,” as Agatho at MM says, or because of a neurosis. I used to compulsively finish the book. I remember the first one I quit that I actively disliked, a bio of Houdini that concentrated on his Oedipal complex rather than his act, and seemed indignant that escape artists hide keys and use trickery instead of superhuman powers. I loathed that book. But I gave it well over 100 pages, and I damn sure wrote an Amazon review excoriating it.

If that were my book and the reviewer slammed it, I’ll be honest, it would annoy me. I wouldn’t go on a tantrum and rend my garments and call attention to it, but I would likely be upset about it.

And I would be wrong.

You see, the reader owes me nothing. They have bought my book, and I am thankful. They do not owe me a review, good or bad. They do not owe me a ‘like’ or a retweet, or word of mouth. Of course, if they like the book, I would be exponentially appreciative if they told their friends about it, or reviewed it. But they don’t owe it. They don’t owe me anything.

I owe them.

You earn the reader with every line. Now, some readers skim; I try to write like Elmore Leonard said, and skip what most readers skim. (I stand corrected- Harry Crews said this, and Mr. Leonard repeated it. –ed.) We can justify it all we like, when we lose a reader. They had hemorrhoids, they have bad taste, they were tweeting and not paying attention. But in the end, we can’t really blame them. We have to do our best to write the best book we can, and if a reader doesn’t like it, they have the right to say so. Their “didn’t finish it, it was boring, it sucked” is just as valid as the equally vague “OMG I loved this book, I finished it in one sitting.” It doesn’t say why the book’s so great. We don’t even know if they paid much attention. But we don’t complain about these reviews, even if finishing the book in one sitting is unlikely because of the length.

We don’t like those “didn’t finish” reviews, but they’re the equivalent of walking out of the theater. They didn’t like the movie. They paid for their ticket and decided the next hour or two of their lives were better spent elsewhere. The same with a book. They walked out. Their review may not hold the same weight as Pauline Kael’s, but it’s as honest as any. Move on, and let it go.

But to quote the Dude, that’s just like my opinion, man. And the bad review is theirs.

What’s yours? Do you think it is okay to review a book you couldn’t bear to finish? Would you say page 50 or 100 was enough? Ten pages? One?

Salute These Shorts

I love short stories. Otherwise I wouldn’t write them, because they are a pain in the ass. Sure, you can get the whole idea in your head at once, but there’s no room for error. So when I read a great one, I sit in awe. Here are a few of my favorites. What are yours?

The Creature from the Cleveland Depths, by Fritz Leiber

This one felt silly when I first read it, but now that we have cell phones, ol’ Fritz is laughing in his grave.

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, by Amy Hempel

Amy Hempel paints pain so beautifully, without ever using fancy brushes.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula K. LeGuin

An incredible fable that puts civilization in perspective and asks us why we can’t walk away.

The Gentle Way, by Lawrence Block (available in his collection “Enough Rope”)

Mr. Block writes damn fine short stories. This one, about an animal shelter dealing with a vandal, resonates deeply. His excellent story “See the Woman” is available online.

Placebo, by Andrew Vachss (Available in his collection “Born Bad,” and also in Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT.) You can read the also-excellent “Working Roots” free here on his website.

Placebo is a pared down work of great power. Working Roots is a gritty urban fairy tale. I wish Andrew Vachss would write a novel about these kids.

Houston, Houston Do You Read? by James Tiptree, Jr. aka Alice Sheldon.

How do you end violence? The answer is simple, if unpleasant.

Speech Sounds, by Octavia Butler
The last Ms. Butler is interviewed by Charlie Rose here:

The late, great Ms. Butler captures the terror of a true apocalypse and losing the power to communicate in this gut puncher.

The Man from the South, by Roald Dahl

One of my favorite horror tales. You’ll be clutching your fingers!

The Chaser, by John Collier

One of the funniest and best short story writers, Collier is oft forgotten but has many lessons to teach writers today and many joys to bring readers for centuries hence.

The Appointment in Samarra, by Somerset Maugham

A classic bit of flash fiction.

Why I Live at the P.O., by Eudora Welty

A great picture of a family from one of its loony members.

A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor

If you don’t like this story, hit yourself in the face.

Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell

The inspiration for “The Thing,” this one is terrifying on a cellular level.

“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison. He has written a ridiculous amount of great short stories. How to choose one? This has always been the most memorable to me. A supercomputer destroys humanity in retribution for creating him–a genius who cannot truly move, feel or love– but he saves five individuals to torture for eternity. Misanthropy at its most dire. A close second is “The Paladin of the Lost Hour,” a wonderful fantasy story about a man who guards the “clock” that keeps the world from doomsday, and how he shares a moment with a veteran wracked with survivor’s guilt. The first is available in the collection of the same name, the second is in “Angry Candy.” I am also fond of the entire collection :”Deathbird Stories,” especially the title story, which retells Genesis from Satan’s–I mean “Snake’s” point of view.

An Act of Fealty to the Readers

Kneel Before Zod
Kneel Before Zod

That’s what Laura Lippmann, author of “When She Was Good,” “I’d Know You Anywhere,” and many more excellent novels with titles I’m jealous I didn’t think of first calls Bouchercon, mystery and crime fiction convention held this year in Cleveland. It’s been around for some time and travels from city to city. When I went to my first con last year, I thought it was about the writers. I wanted to meet them and thank them for writing stories I felt so close to, that shaped my view of the world from an early age, that taught me to look for the puzzle in everyday interactions and the motive behind human cruelty.

And I had a great time. I met a lot of friends who wrote, read, edited, anthologized, published, booksold, agented and copywrote, but what Ms. Lippmann says is correct. There is nothing without the reader. Now, I respect writers of course, and everyone else who puts in hard work getting stories out, but the reader is the reason for all that hard work. And as a writer, or any other link in the chain, you forget that at your peril.

I met a lot of readers there. As a science fiction fan, I went to Creation Cons in New York as a teen and I remember the passion required to travel to a gathering of your heroes and walk up that line figuring out what the hell you want to say so you don’t sound like a stalker. And that passion drives word of mouth, the energy that any book lives on. Respect it. Honor it. Don’t sneer at it like it’s the dumb boss in the office everyone works around. I made some writers roll their eyes when I said that if my fans come carrying 50 Shades of Whatever It is This Week along with my book, I’m not going to sneer and say why the hell you reading that?

I hated hearing booksellers and nascent writers rage about the idiocy of publishing fan fiction. A sharp friend of mine compared it to religion, and she hit the mark. If one day there is fan fiction, slash fiction, or any other passionate crazy expression of love of my own work, I will grin and thank those ever-loving fans for choosing to put their energy into it. If you think that’s pathetic, go to Skywalker Ranch and guffaw at the man who built an empire on it. Nothing will make 50 Shades of Gray a good book. But good writers can learn from it. I know at least three people I respect, who read good and great books, who have read that trilogy. They finished it. And they told me the writing was awful, but they wanted to know how it ended. That’s the underpinning of good writing, the part we don’t always talk about. The lizard brain of fiction. Mrs. James tapped into that. Maybe she can’t write two sentences without mentioning an inner goddess or making her characters murmur instead of SAYING anything, but she got that part right. And the readers liked it.

So if you like cat and craft cozies, or brutal extreme horror, I’m not here to judge you. You’re a reader. I’ve yet to write a cozy, but I love some of them- Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr series, Barbara Block’s old pet store detective tales. I read a lot of Miss Marple books when I was a kid. It’s not my thing now, but I get the appeal. And I’m not here to mock it. The act of reading is a sacrifice of the time we have on this earth. It is paying attention to what a total stranger has to say. It is not something given away freely or easily.

Writers should respect that.

Is that kissing ass? You know my feelings on that. I’m not a bullshitter and I don’t kiss ass. If someone asked me what I thought about 50 Shades, or a Dan Brown book, I’ll tell them. Not for me. But I’d sure as hell ask what made them finish the book. And not so I could pander and change the heart of my work to increase sales, but to understand it. And if they already read my work, I wouldn’t feel dirty. 50 Shades readers also love Jeffrey Eugenides. They love John Irving. They love Robert MacCammon. I know this because the three readers I mentioned above recommended those writers to me. So don’t tell me they’re stupid or have terrible taste. Something else is at work here, even if it is as simple as sex appeal.

So zip your lip before you slam a reader. One day they may be yours. A friend of mine overheard a thriller author blast hardboiled stories about alcoholics and beat down unlikely heroes, and I know I’ll never read that guy’s work now. Because I am a reader first, and this pompous fellow insulted my taste, and the fans of an entire subgenre. Instead of reaching across the aisle, he hawked a loogie. He did not come to Bouchercon to pay fealty to readers, but to wallow in our appreciation.

It’s an easy mistake to make. We know writers run on caffeine and compliments. But respect the reader. It’s a good habit, and if you respect them in your writing especially, they’ll fuel you for a lifetime.

Bouchercon 2012

A great time was had by all. Some visual highlights. I have a big post tomorrow about paying back the reader, so here is some eye candy before I ask you to eat your veggies and think about the reader-writer relationship.

That slinky siren on my arm is the magnificent and multitalented Christa Faust. Her novel Choke Hold- one of my top reads last year and still the best story I’ve read with an MMA fighter- was up for an Anthony Award. If you haven’t read her work yet, she is a noir original. Her scientific knowledge of the genre on film and paper gives her work depth and originality, and Choke Hold tells a great story while giving us a peek at the modern gladiators of the American Colosseum: fighters and porn stars.

This is the voracious and adorable creature known as Sabrina Ogden. Like a blonde baby wolverine, she will claw her way through your heart to get to a cupcake. She is eating a donut here, but we also saw her obliterate french toast, bacon, a bacon cheeseburger, quesadillas, mini cupcakes and 42 ounce steak. At least I think it was a steak, it might have been the remains of a rude con-goer. This dear friend is the beneficiary of the Feeding Kate anthology that you so graciously funded on IndieGogo last month.
So yes. she ate all that with jaw damage.
I shared the burger with her because I am dainty.
She blogs and reviews at My Friends Call Me Kate.

That is Johnny Ramone’s guitar and Some of Joey’s jacket. The opening ceremonies were at Cleveland’s Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Sorry if this is the gem of Cleveland, but it’s kind of like a giant Hard Rock cafe. They had a Linkin Park guitar there. I’m not even sure that the Elvis, early R&B and Beatles stuff can erase that indignity. But it was nice to visit it, and they have a giant hot dog that belonged to Phish:

Best meals of the trip? Pierogies at a diner and bratwurst at the casino buffet. There were some fantastic restaurants nearby that served roasted pig heads and the hotel bar made a damn good burger, but this is a Polish town and the good eats of our vowel-challenged brothers Wzsgbgnyzcwz are the finest fare. This was a good bar town as well, with plenty of local beer on tap. The hotel had four Great Lakes beers and I enjoyed them all. The Tilted Kilt (Scottish Hooters) had the double IPA Nosferatu, which kicked ass (or bit neck, perhaps). And speaking of bars:

Noir at the Bar was held at Wonder Bar, a fine establishment with patrons of discriminating taste. Meaning they listened while Snubnose Press authors Eric Beetner, Jonathan Woods, Les Edgerton, John Kenyon, Jedediah Ayres and Josh Stallings read their work. Good beer, better stories. Great time.

Josh and Les are buds whose work I’ve talked about before. Out There Bad by Stallings is like James Crumley’s brutal action film put to paper by a street poet. Edgerton’s career speaks for itself, the heir to Ed Bunker, the real ex-con who writes sharp-edged truth. They are both featured in the Protectors Anthology (link to your right) as well.

Bouchercon was a great time- a celebration hosted by readers where the writers go to pay back. Even the mightiest like Lee Child and Mary Higgins Clark (who I met on the plane, and who was as gracious as you could imagine) mingle with the crowds and are as friendly and approachable as can be. If you enjoy crime fiction, this is your Comicon, except you don’t pay for autographs and you can rub elbows and have a drink with the people you came to see.

I met a lot of new people and had great times with them and the “old” friends I met last year. Glenn Gray and Todd Robinson, Johnny Shaw, Stephen Romano, Neliza Drew, Kent Gowran, Joe Myers… it’s a crime family reunion, and a trip I will gladly make every year.