Wednesday, April 30, 2014

My Mother

My mother Irene Appel, died a few weeks ago after a long struggle with various terrible ailments. She died in a nursing home where she had been for some years. My steadfast sister Sandy and my neice Emma were there to help her through the end, though she did not go easily. It was a great relief to all, including her, I am sure, when she finally let go.

Plenty of people credit their parents for making them the men and women that they are, and I’m going to do so as well. I’m a lifelong reader and now a writer, and I believe she was directly responsible, physically, mentally, genetically, and spiritually for this predilection, addiction, avocation and vocation.

Irene – mom -- was a great reader from the time she was a child. This was not normal for little girls in the early 1900s in West Virginia. She led a hardscrabble life and was passed around the family at various times. Her beloved sister Luretta was her great friend and the two little girls had many adventures together back in the hills. Mom read anything she could get her hands on, borrowing and begging books from friends and family. Books did what they do best; they took her away from her difficult life. When she was around ten they lived near Salem, West Virginia, where there was a college and she heard there was a library full of books. She walked many miles from home one day to turn up at the college library to ask if she could, please, take some books home to read. They turned her away, and she returned home that day bitterly disappointed, exhausted and with bleeding feet. She had walked the entire way barefoot. There are many stories she would tell about this hard life, though she never complained.

When she became an adult she worked and could buy her own books. When she married, she raised us kids with one hand while in her other she held the book she would put down only long enough to pick up the next when the first had ended. Our enduring memory of her is her sitting in the living room, or at picnics, or riding in the car or being anywhere else while reading a book. When we kids learned to read, she would often finish a book, no matter what our age, hand it to one of us and say, “Here, this is a good one.” We read everything early and learned to especially love the big, fat novels of the day, waiting every year or so for the new James Michener to come out, whereupon she would buy it (in paperback). She would read it and then pass it to me and so it would go, around the family and eventually around the neighborhood. We read all the classics, devouring War and Peace, Dickens, legions of 19th century novelists along with Mickey Spillane and Peyton Place. (That one she didn’t hand me; I found it one day stashed among our many volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia, a hiding place she knew was near perfect because we kids hated looking at the encyclopedia and would never go there unless school lessons demanded it.)

So we all read. She had a rule, that if there were two for dinner you could bring your book to the table. Because my father worked away from home this was a pretty frequent occurrence and sometimes when there were three we went ahead and broke the rule anyway.

When I was young and came down with the mumps she disappeared one evening and showed up at my bedside with a Tarzan book. It turns out that she had the entire works of Edgar Rice Burroughs stashed in the attic, a fleet of red bound hardbacks that looked like they had been stolen out of a library. And maybe they had been. During this illness, which I stretched out as long as possible, mom and aunt Luretta had a long discussion about whether I was old enough to read H. Rider Haggard’s novel, “She” which they felt was slightly scandalous. I devoured it. I could bemoan this time as a lost golden age, books like all the Tarzan novels now unread, but the young have Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket and vampires and any number of wonderful popular novels to consume. What I am trying to say, is, it’s not about the book, it’s about the reading.

So I grew up surrounded by books, every kind of books. There were no differences made between the literary and the popular: We Read Everything. When the kids got older, it was we who would read a book and then hand it to mom. She became a huge science fiction fan, though historical fiction, mysteries and immense family sagas remained her favorites. When I became a book reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly, in her eighties, I would take her boxes of review copies which she would read and then put out on the shelves on the apartment building where she lived.

She was very proud when I became a writer. The dedication in my first book was: “To my father, who always finds the things I need, and my mother, who let me read at the dinner table all those years.”

Her goal in life was to remain on her own in her apartment until the age of ninety, have a big party to which all the family came, and then to die that night in her sleep. It was not to be. She made the birthday, we had the party, but she didn’t die. A year or so later she woke up in the middle of the night and found she couldn’t get out of bed. The next morning she struggled to the phone and called the paramedics, they came and collected her and took her to the hospital. She was always upbeat, and I have no doubt that she made jokes throughout her examination. By then she had been able to walk, sort of, although she had a great weakness in her right side. The emergency room idiot doctor sent her home saying this weakness had been caused by her blood pressure pills. That night she had another stroke, this time it maimed her for good. After months in and out of hospitals she was put into a nursing home. She was crippled and in a wheelchair. By this time she was also going deaf and had macular degeneration. And the worst part? She couldn’t see to read, and she couldn’t hold a book in her crippled hand. She would never read another book. Now she truly descended into hell. Yes, there were moments where she sparkled, joked, spoke of the old days with fondness and seemed -- not like her old self, she would never be able to be her old self -- but cheerful. Somehow it seemed to me she was doing this more for us than herself.

Her nursing home was truly a fine place, staffed by caring, trained individuals who had her best interests at heart. My sister guarded her like an attack dog, ready to battle any slight or injustice. Mom lived like this another five years. Her mind, used to soaring into fiction’s highest skies, was earthbound, trussed and shackled by cruel reality. When she couldn’t read stories, she made up stories she thought were real: someone was using her bathroom to shower in at night; she found herself walking down lonely country roads; she searched for her mother; and there was always Luretta, where was Luretta? Her best day, her best day, was a nightmare of sorts. After a lifetime of freedom, she was imprisoned in her failed, broken body.

We tried everything to release her: read to her, tried to make her happy, but nothing worked. There were no answers. I will tell you, Dear Reader, that there are no answers. If you are in this situation, or are going to be in this situation, beware, I can give you no good advice. Because there is no good advice.

Don’t talk to me about any God; I don’t want to hear it. I’ve heard all the “reasons” she was made to suffer this way, and I reject them. I reject them.

 But let me indulge in a fantasy. After all, I’m a writer, this is what I do.

Mom is in heaven. It’s just like in the cartoons, all fluffy clouds and halos. She’s sitting on her cloud and next to her is James Michener. He’s telling her a story. A wonderful story. She nods, as if she’s listening. In her hand, her good hand, she’s holding a book and she’s reading while Michener rambles on. Oh look! It’s the new Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. (In this world she loved Tartt’s first book, A Secret History.) Michener doesn’t notice that she’s not really listening. Look at her. She turns a page.

She can see.

She can read.

She is happy.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Stephen King: Wise Words

Thriller Guy's pal Larry has been working for several years to clean out much of the junk that has accumulated during his long and distinguished career as an author. Non-writers would be amazed at how this stuff can mount up, particularly files of printed material that seemed important at one time, or actually is still important but no longer needed. In that latter category, Larry came across an article Stephen King wrote 38 years ago for the New York Times. He sent it along to TG because King makes many of the same points concerning writing and publishing that TG has been ranting about for years. So TG is appropriating the piece and putting it up here in all its entirety. With apologies to the NYTs, if they are necessary; ditto Stephen King. Pay particular attention to his explanation of the term Plain Style. TG himself couldn’t have said it better.

October 24, 1976
Not Guilty: The Guest Word

It was one of those bizarre coincidences that make living in this best of all possible worlds
the decidedly queer game that it is. At noon, the mailman brought my Sept. 19 issue of The Times Book Review, with a Book Ends column under the best seller list titled “Money Talk”—in it I learned that David Madden, the author of “Bijou,” one of the books I admire most in the world, made about $15,000 in cash as a result of his labors on that book, or about $2,500 for each of the six years he worked on it. At three, Jane Heller of the New American Library, my paperback publisher, called to tell me that my novel, “’Salem’s Lot,” was going to reach number one on The Times paperback best seller list the following week—Sept. 26.
Madden worked on “Bijou” for six years and made $15,000. I worked on “Salem’s Lot” for about eight months (three months first; three months second draft; two months third draft) and stand to make nearly half a million dollars, if all falls together. This is before taxes, in case any potential kidnappers happen to read The Times.
How does the contrast make me feel? In a word, guilty. But in another two words, not guilty. The two feelings are perfectly joined at hip and shoulder like Siamese twins, and I’m going to try to cut them apart before your very eyes.
As a sustained piece of craft, as an evocation of place and time, as a synthesis of plot, mood and style, Madden’s “Bijou” beats “Salem’s Lot” to the finish line by several lengths—which is a metaphoric and less painful way of saying that “Bijou” is a better book. That’s why I feel guilty.
Not guilty is less clear-cut, and I beg the indulgence of the court (what court? The one that will still be sitting while David Madden and I are looking up at the lids of our coffins with our mouldering hands crossed on our chests) while I try to explain that. It has something to do with accessibility, although that’s not everything. “’Salem’s Lot”—along with other books I could name, “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” and “Trinity” are two wildly contrasting examples—is an extremely accessible book. If “Lot” was the water off a bit of Maine beach, it would be extremely warm water, easy to slip into, pleasant to stroke around in for the next 400-odd pages. “Bijou” is a cooler ocean, and the footing underneath shelves off much more suddenly. To get through “Bijou,” you have to make a commitment; to get through “’Salem’s Lot” all you need is a sunpad and a pair of eyes and you’re in business.
But there’s an art to accessibility, too, although it may be of a more humble sort than that which belongs to the artist who will not hew his peg to fit accessibility’s hole. Warm water books have been given a bad name by the Robbinses and the Susanns—but “Ordinary People” is an accessible book, as is “Watership Down,” “Dog Soldiers” and Tolkien’s Rings trilogy. Robertson Davies, who is perhaps Canada’s accessible white to Joyce Carol Oates’s more difficult black, calls this accessibility the Plain Style. The Plain Style is not flashy, it is rarely practiced in the little magazines, and is rarely represented in the small presses. But to use the Plain Style is always to drive directly at the point, and if the point is minor, the author always ends up with well-advertised pie on his face.
Accessibility is half of it, but I would like to add one other thing to my not-guilty plea, because accessibility cannot stand alone—the directions for cooking a roast may be accessible, but that does not make those directions literature. The addendum has nothing to do with talent either, because the recognition of talent is almost always an affair of luck. Talent can be fully used, as in the case of Faulkner’s best work; half-used, as in the case of the more recent Ross Macdonald novels, or barely used at all—a kind of twitch. Talent has nothing at all to do with money, writing or the wrath of God. It’s the cheapest commodity on earth, with the possible exceptions of mongrel dogs and table salt.
The item which must be added to accessibility to acquit the author is the honest intent to do as well as possible. I’ll give you an example that the more literary-minded among you will probably scoff at “Harvest Home,” by Thomas Tryon. It isn’t a great book, not a great horror novel, not even a great suspense novel. My own editor at Doubleday once told me that his fingers itched to get at it and cut out the deadwood; my guess is that Tryon’s editor at Knopf experienced a similar itch in his own extremities and was rebuffed by Tryon. Rightly so, maybe. Never mind the best seller list. Mind this, instead: Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, it is a true book; it is an honest book in the sense that it says exactly what Tryon wanted to say. And if what he wanted to say wasn’t exactly Miltonian, it does have this going for it: in forty years, when most of us are underground, there will still be a routine rebinding once a year for the library copies of “Harvest Home,” and, I hope, for “’Salem’s Lot.”
For all its huge sales, “’Salem’s Lot” is a humble book. It isn’t going to find a niche in the college bookstores. But for all that, I feel a certain pride in the book. Because I think it can stand on its own after I leave it behind—as I most certainly hope I will.
The honest intent to do as well as possible—that has to stand at the base of any writing career. The object in view is to not let the money sway you from that, or the critics, or the wrath of God. Honest intent has nothing to do with art, one way or the other; art is its own master and talent is merely its whore. Honest intent only applies to the more humble side of writing: the craft. You sit down in front of the typewriter and do the best you can. You play fair. You keep your hands clean. And then, if the money comes:
Not guilty.
Stephen King is the author, also, of “Carrie.”

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Getting Up to Speed: Benjamin Black (John Banville) Writing as Raymond Chandler

But first, a rant.

Peter Mathiessen died recently. He had lived a long, fruitful and interesting life. His work as a nonfiction writer and stint as the founder and editor of The Paris Review places him firmly in the pantheon of literary greatness. Thriller Guy enjoyed all the obits, especially a few weeks ago the one in the New York Times Magazine. In each one they carefully record his many awards, specially his 2008 National Book Award for his trilogy, known collectively as Shadow Country. While Thriller Guy takes no pleasure from speaking ill of the dead, no one else seems willing to do it: has anyone ever actually hacked their way through that fucking book? It’s unreadable. While thousands may take exception to this remark, TG is not a stupid person. He has read many “difficult” books and enjoyed them. He’s been known to go on at length, after a couple of drinks, about what a great read Moby Dick is. (It’s about hunting for a whale, people, forget all that symbolism bullshit.)

And TG is a Mathiessen fan, having loved Snow Leopard and some of the other non-fiction.
TG remembers liking an early novel, Far Tortuga. So lo these many years ago,  in 1990,
when it was announced he had birthed a new novel, Killing Mister Watson, TG was excited and lined up to read it. He tried, TG did, but it was as dense as the mosquito ridden, overgrown biological hell of South Florida that Mathiessen was writing about. TG got about a third of the way in, and gave up. This is extremely rare: TG almost never puts a book down unfinished. (One reason is these days all the books he reads he’s paid to read, so he has no choice to plow through the really bad ones. But that’s another story.) It wasn’t that it was badly written, how could the author of all those excellent non-fiction books be a bad writer? just that it was really, really boring. Really, really, really boring.TG would like to throw down a gauntlet here, has anyone out there read the three books of this trilogy and really liked them? Be honest. Or are these books part of that vast category of books that people pretend to have read and loved because it makes them look smart. TG awaits your comments. And while we’re at it, let’s hear some other titles in this category, there’s a ton of them.

Anatole France... “The books that everybody admires are the books that no one reads.” Not that France had read any by Mathiessen.

Thriller Guy can see already that this blog is going to have to be split up into several entries. Why can’t TG write short? Stray ideas turn into short stories that turn into novellas that end up as novels. Same thing with these blogs. So be warned, if you’re dipping into this one be prepared to stay awhile.

TG has spoken several times about the need for writers to get themselves into the correct voice before beginning the day’s writing. The best way to do this is to read (and edit) several pages of writing that you have done (ideally) the day before. Up to where you left off. By then you’ve got your own voice in your head and banished any extraneous styles that may have insinuated themselves in your brain, from, i.e. the morning newspaper, the Game of Thrones episode you watched on television the night before, any book you’ve been reading before you start your own work, or any other print media that has crept in and made itself at home.

In another post TG talked about actually putting a mood, an emotional tone, into your writer’s mind before beginning the day or more specifically, before tackling a particular scene. In his early days as a thriller novelist, TG used to keep a copy of a Dick Marcinko book near his desk so before writing an action scene he could grab it, open to almost any page, read a quick scene of mayhem and then jump right into his own rampage. (The danger with Marcinko, who TG admires to this day, is that he has a jokey style that is insidious, so if you’re trying this at home, be careful to put his book away once the last body has fallen.) From TG’s mailbag, he has found that many writers do the same thing by putting on specific music to invoke a mood. TG doesn’t like to write to music, but that’s another blog entry.

This is not to say you are stealing, appropriating, another writer’s style, you are just setting the frequency in your mind to the appropriate channel.

Aside:  When TG was in his first year in college, living in a dormitory, the arts of seduction were earnestly debated in late night bull sessions. It was thought that of paramount importance for a successful seduction was the sound track for the romantic encounter. One of the fellows in the dorm had a nice collection of Johnny Mathis albums, and these were thought to be at the very top of the romantic heap for putting the object of one’s attention “in the mood.” So if someone had a date, he would borrow the Mathis albums, lower the lighting and listen in the semi darkness. On looking back now, one has to wonder what the hell that was all about. First of all, this was back in the days when dorms were segregated by gender and there was no hope that you were ever going to get a woman in your room. And what good was it going to do to put yourself in a romantic mood? Everyone, all the males, were in a constant state of arousal on one level or another; we didn’t need anything to amp that up.

Ahem. Anyway, TG has a point, it has, as always, just taken him awhile to get around to it. TG has been thinking along these lines -- putting himself in the correct voice before sitting down to write -- because he is rewriting a short, gritty novel he recently wrote, called, until someone comes up with a better title, The Ford Murders: Delia. This is a novel that TG wasn’t intending to write, it just seized him by the throat and demanded to be written.

The book is set in Detroit in 1910 and it’s written in a first person, semi-noir style. This is not TG’s “normal” voice, but it was interesting to fall into it. So interesting – the noir style -- that many others have picked it up for their own uses. The first and most insidious dangerous of writing noir is that you can easily slide into parody. This can happen without the writer even noticing, but, trust TG, when it happens readers can spot it from five hundred yards offshore and it will ruin the story the writer is so proudly constructing. The noir effect is achieved by multiple methods: structure, character building, scene, place, etc. It’s not just a matter of sitting around and thinking up clever imitations of Raymond Chandler lines.

Another Goddamn aside: TG recently read a thriller written by a person from another country who used this line when describing a character: She was about five feet four, with a figure that might have compelled a priest to kick holes in church windows. Most of TG’s readers will immediately catch this as a steal from the great Raymond Chandler book, Farewell My Lovely. Chandler’s line is, It was a blond. A blond to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. Note how much better Chandler’s line is, just with the emphasis on a few words. The other guy’s line sounds like it was translated into English by Apu down at the Quicky Mart. TG was outraged when he read this in the guy’s book. The line wasn’t attributed, it wasn’t used in irony, it wasn’t an homage, it was a steal. And botched in the process. This was only one of hundreds of commonplace phrases that this writer thought were cutting edge, and in his country maybe they were. Which leads a furious TG back to the questions he has asked in this blog so many times: Why would a company buy and publish a piece of crap like this? (Answer, for money, the book was a bestseller in its home country.) Where was an editor when the manuscript came across his desk? (Answer: He wasn’t there because he’d been laid off so the publisher could make more money. And if he was there, he’d given his balls away years ago to his bosses to keep his position.) And legacy publishing keeps whining and asking why they are being left back in the 19th century when the rest of the world has moved on. Pathetic.

OK, TG, calm down.

What was TG talking about? Oh yes, getting into the proper mood when sitting down to write. But that will have to wait, this has gone on far too long. Stay tuned for the rest of the story. In the meantime, TG will leave you with some other gems from Raymond Chandler. Rather than rerun all the great ones from the well known novels, here are some seldom seen examples from various short stories.

Here’s the extended version of the stained glass quote from Farewell:

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. She was wearing street clothes that looked black and white, and a hat to match and she was a little haughty, but not too much. Whatever you needed, wherever you happened to be—she had it.”

"To say she had a face that would have stopped a clock would have been to insult her. It would have stopped a runaway horse."-- The Little Sister

"I felt like an amputated leg." -- Trouble Is My Business

"The corridor which led to it had a smell of old carpet and furniture oil and the drab anonymity of a thousand shabby lives"--The Little Sister

"His smile was as stiff as a frozen fish." -- The Man Who Liked Dogs

"The walls here are as thin as a hoofer's wallet." -- Playback

"The kid's face had as much expression as a cut of round steak and was about the same color."-- Red Wind

"Tasteless as a roadhouse blonde."-- Spanish Blood

"From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class.  From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away."--The High Window

"I called him from a phone booth. The voice that answered was fat. It wheezed softly, like the voice of a man who had just won a pie-eating contest."-- Trouble Is My Business

Oh, what the hell. TG can’t resist one more from Farewell. This is the entire noir genre in two brilliant sentences.

"I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun." Farewell, My Lovely

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Why Your Book Sucks.

Thriller Guy was riding in his car the other day listening to his XM radio and they played a promo they’ve played a million times, which annoys TG greatly, but this time it led to some further thought. Some NPR producer or someone said,  “Drama is anticipation mixed with uncertainty.” TG has heard this many times on this promo and his first thought is usually, “WTF does that mean?” And being really lazy, he usually doesn’t dwell on it any further. But because TG has recently been working with several authors on their novels, and because subjects like this are always of interest to readers of this blog, (or so one would hope) a few tumblers clicked into place and some further thoughts percolated to the top of TGs brain pan.

Let’s take this definition of drama and break it down. Anticipation means, in its simplest form, expecting something to happen. When we are reading a book, the story leads us to anticipate certain events. We may hope for them to happen, or we may fear that they are going to happen. If they do happen we may feel fulfilled, happy or sad. If they don’t happen, we may feel cheated or that the author has missed an opportunity, but if it’s written properly what we usually feel is surprise. These are the twists in plotlines that are so great, the one’s that make you sit back and say, whoa, I didn’t see that coming.

Uncertainty, is simply defined as not definitely known.

So when you put the two of them together, you get drama. If you’re reading a book, you anticipate what is going to happen to the characters, but because of the way the author manipulates his story you may not be able to figure out what is going to happen and this pushes you to a more heightened feeling of excitement as you read. This is where authors want readers to be: excited, turning the pages as fast as they can eager to find out what is going to happen. In other words, drama has been created.

Drama as defined by the OED is an exciting, emotional, or unexpected series of events or set of circumstances. This is kind of a bloodless definition, but further searches in dictionaries don’t provide any better ones.

OK, hang with me, TG is going to get to the point eventually. When reading his clients’ manuscripts, TG is often struck by the lack of the kind of reading excitement we are discussing above. The stories may be exciting in the way that reading about a car chase is exciting, or watching one in a movie, or a gun battle or an airplane dogfight or military battle, or any number of scenes one hopes to find in the thriller genre. But aside from the single level of physical excitement that is engendered by the words, there’s often no depth, no drama in these scenes. Why is that? Drum roll, please…

Because there’s no uncertainty in the characters or the plot.

This is often because the characters -- heroes and villains – are pretty much like many other heroes and villains in many other books. Ditto the love interests, backgrounds and life circumstances. Think scruffy private investigators who drink too much, military men who seem to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and take a few gut shots from high powered weapons and be up and fighting later the same day, evildoers who were abused as children, terrorists whose parents were killed by American servicemen, CIA turncoats who commit treason for the money, secret agents who lose their jobs unfairly because they were trying to do good, any character who does something either good or bad because a loved one needs an operation, gutless government types, whores with a heart of gold, evil government types who have a secret agenda, etc. TG could go on and on because he as seen it all, both in published novels he reads and reviews and in the manuscripts others hire him to “fix.”

Well, TG, you may ask, how do I go about creating original characters, or original plots? The same way TG has told you over and over again in this blog: by reading, reading, reading classic and contemporary novels in whatever genre you are writing in. Here’s a rule: if you are writing your first thriller, you should spend one fourth of your work time for the first six months reading other thrillers. After your first book is published, you can cut back the time, but you should be constantly reading thrillers as part of your research. Oh, TG, you whine, there are so many bad books out there, I don’t want to waste my valuable writing time with bad books. The thing is, if you can learn why a book is bad, you learn how to make your own book good: by not doing what the guy did in the bad book. And this means reading the damn thing all the way through, then tossing it into the trash. There may be surprises along the way while you’re reading.

There’s a certain hubris that comes over many writers when they switch to a genre that they consider popular or even beneath their talents. TG has complained about this on these pages as well; literary writers who want to tap into the money to be made in popular novels, journalists who think they have a great story to tell, government insiders who also think they have fabulous stories. The thinking is always, how hard could it be? They feel that if they are able to do one thing well, then they are able to do another thing, with connections to what they do well, well. How about that for a convoluted sentence? So, to reiterate, if you want to write an original thriller with original characters you need to read other thrillers, and you need to read a lot of them, both good and bad. And you need to get over yourself.

OK, onward.

If your plot is unoriginal, then your reader will always know where you are going with it, meaning there is no uncertainty, meaning no drama.

If your characters are unoriginal, the reader will always know how they are going to react to every new situation, hence no uncertainty, hence no drama.

If you don’t know what everyone else has done, you won’t know what you should do.

Print it out, cut it out, paste it to your monitor: Originality engenders drama.

Sit down; shut up; read, read, read.