Friday, May 25, 2007

Fightin' Words

Well, the book has been on shelves for a few weeks but here's my two cents. My review of Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey runs in today's Spotlight section of The Rocky Mountain News. And I even got a little blurb in the bestsellers list:


Chuck Palahniuk's novels always come with the same warning: "Not for the squeamish." His latest, Rant, is no exception. The novel, No. 5 on the Times list, is a violent, postmodern myth in which the author satirizes "the sacred and the profane with equal evil venom," according to Rocky critic Clayton Moore. Want to know more? Check out Moore's full review of the title on page 32.

I dig Palaniuk's panache but reviews have been mixed (as usual, no one know quite how to approach the bastard thing of a book). Plenty of other opinions around, most of which are listed on the book's official page. Seattle and Chicago seem to offer fairly open-minded opinions, New York and L.A. characteristically turn their noses up. Anybody who likes the author or is open to the dark premise has read it already so we're all just treading water at this point anyway.

The Rocky will also be running its summer reading special in tomorrow's paper so check it out when you have the time. I'm sure some of my contributions are in there but I haven't seen the whole list yet.

I'm loving the people who are showing up on the book tour in full wedding regalia. Photos and lots of funny stories are online as usual at The Cult.

Kirkus Reviews is having some technical issues so their Debut Fiction and BEA specials remain offline. When they get restored, I'll forward some links to my spotlights and short interviews with lots of fascinating people including the Emerson Quartet's Eugene Drucker, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman, and former presidential candidate General Wes Clark. In the meantime, two of the more hard-bitten authors have posted up their own spotlights on their respective websites so I think it's safe to share them here.

First up, there's Richard Lange. His book of short stories, Dead Boys, is the best thing I've read this year, bar none. It's out in August, and hopefully his first novel will appear soon afterwards. Here's what Richard had to say to me, from the pages of Kirkus.

The underbelly of Los Angeles is the uniting character of Dead Boys, Richard Lange’s startlingly confident debut collection of crime-tinged stories. Told in a dark, spare prose recalling that of Lange’s inspiration, Raymond Carver, the stories illuminate the dark corners and low lives of men living on the fringes of this enigmatic city. Thieves, drifters, rabble-rousers and other rogues guard their secrets like prison cigarettes, trying to hold it all together for one more lousy day. "I love the city like I would love a person. It amazes and enchants me every day," Lange says of his atmospheric settings. "I’m able to combine all the great material I collect every day—the look on a bored grocery clerk’s face, an overheard argument, the way the light slices into the shadow at a particular hour—into stories. My stories are like scrapbooks." Though the stories are tautly composed, Lange infuses each with enormous compassion for the protagonist. He blurs the line between good guys and bad—especially evident in the housepainter-turned-bank robber of the gripping "Bank of America" —with masterful empathy. "These are men doing their best to get by, both mentally and in terms of day-to-day survival," he says. "They all have plans, structures they’ve imposed on their lives to give themselves the illusion of control, and some of those plans are working out better than others. I’m one of those people who believes that life is tough, so my characters exist in a rough old world."

And finally, to cap off your bank holiday Friday, let's have a good old fistfight. Anyone who digs Palahniuk's testosterone psychosis should definitely go check out the darker and slightly more realistic world of Craig Davidson. His novel, The Fighter, about underground bare-knuckle matches and two desperate men drawn to them, comes out in the United States in July. Here's Craig's two cents on fightin', writin' and getting his ass kicked by a poet.

How many people would take a shot to the skull for their art? Craig Davidson found out while writing The Fighter, a barbarous portrait of bare-knuckle boxers that walks a fine line between the visceral and the lyrical. The book portrays the collision course between two fighters working their way through a global network of bloody underground matches. Fortunate son Paul Harris has something to prove: “I was fighting for someone. Myself,” he says. Paul meets his match in blue-collar pugilist Rob Tully, who’s trying to live up to his family’s high expectations. To accurately portray their ferocious trade, the author trained as a boxer for months and put himself through a traumatic physical metamorphosis. “I got to understand the personas of the real fighters and the pretenders,” he says. “I picked up a lot of the physical sensations: the taste of a gumshield, the way your hands stink for hours, the way it feels to take an undefended punch to the melon.” While the novel’s brutal fights will entice readers of other virile allegories like Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, Davidson’s story takes a more nuanced, realistic approach. But that doesn’t mean the author isn’t above taking part in a publicity-arranged fight with another writer—or admitting that he lost. “They found the biggest, meanest poet I’d ever laid eyes on,” he says. “I knew I was going to take a beating before the bell even rang. A damned good time and a great turnout. Give people a little blood and they’ll come out in droves.”

Eight, nine, ten, I'm out. I'm taking my day off and making a run for the border. See you back at customs.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Justice?

After stumbling into a whole lot of Russian conspiracies last month for a column in Bookslut, I've been following the developing investigation into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. CNN is reporting that British officials have decided to charge Andrei Lugovoi with the murder of Litvinenko by deliberate poisoning.

Among his myriad other pursuits, Litvinenko was engaged in investigating the murder of Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovaka. She took four bullets in the elevator of her Moscow apartment in October of 2006. The gunman left the Makarov pistol behind.

Not surprisingly, the Russians are reticent to turn Lugovoi over.

Here's a nice wrap-up of who's who in the case as well.

A documentary about Litvinenko's life will screen at Cannes this week.

These were Litvinenko's last public words.

"...as I lie here I can distinctly hear the beating of wings of the angel of death. I may be able to give him the slip but I have to say my legs do not run as fast as I would like. I think, therefore, that this may be the time to say one or two things to the person responsible for my present condition.

You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed.

You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty or any civilised value.

You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilised men and women.

You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people."

Far stranger and more disturbing than any spy novel. There's a lot of things going on here but justice is not one of them.

UPDATE: Whoops. A witness puts Andrei Lugovoy in Picadilly Circus on October 12 of last year. Curiouser and curiouser

Rankin odds n' ends

Ian Rankin's bloody busy, isn't he?. In addition to scribbling his serial novel for The New York Times, it appears the boy in the old bloke will surface to write a new adventure for John Constantine. From The Scotsman:


The Edinburgh author is to fulfill a childhood ambition by writing a graphic novel based on the adventures of John Constantine, a supernatural sleuth who investigates the paranormal. Constantine appears in the Hellblazer comic book series and Rankin has agreed to contribute an instalment in a deal struck during an American book tour. Rankin was reported to have said: "It is fantastic I can now do the things I wanted to do when I was ten years old.

He's also given The Guardian a peek at his office, which I'm disturbed to find is not all that dissimilar to my own. I envisioned some sort of dreary gothic cathedral with candles and smoke and a billystick and a flagon of ale. Instead, it's bright and sunny and cheerful and messy. Go figure.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

The High King

...has passed, much to my dismay. Lloyd Alexander, who saved my life during long car trips in my childhood, has gone on to his reward. I hated The Lord of The Rings but always had great affection for Alexander's similarly-themed sword-and-sorcery epic for children, The Chronicles of Prydain. They're the kinds of stories we return to again and again when the real world seems, as it too often does, to be too much. For a bloke who started his career as a secret agent in Paris during WWII, the man did all right for himself in peacetime.

Here's to a damned fine storyteller.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Honey, Do

Here's that interview with Elmore Leonard by Duane Swierczynski. I love this mention of his old-school writing style.

"I don't use a legal pad. It's an eight-and-a-half-by-11 yellow pad, unlined. It's the same kind of yellow pad they used at the ad agency when I worked, so when I left, I would just go to a print shop and order two thousand pages more. I write everything by hand first. And then it goes on the typewriter. I did get an electric typewriter about 15 years ago. I was afraid of it at first."

Jane Smiley (who I also talked to this year, and is very cool) reviews the book at the LA Times. You can get all the other goodness from Elmore's website including book reviews, a podcast and tour dates.

I had the privilege to speak briefly with the author of Up In Honey's Room over Christmas for a spotlight in Kirkus Reviews. You can see some other outtakes from the interview in this Bookslut column.

You know what? The hell with it. A new novel from Dutch deserves a celebration. Here's the whole interview. (Segments of this interview have appeared in edited form in the above publications. If anybody's bothered by their inclusion here, let me know).

An Interview With Elmore Leonard
by Clayton Moore

Clayton Moore: Thanks for taking my call this morning to talk about Up In Honey’s Room. You’ve been revisiting Carl Webster.

Elmore Leonard: I have. I originally called it Hitler’s Birthday. But when my editor announced to the board at the publisher, there was dead silence. Finally someone said, we can’t call it that. They don’t feel Hitler sells, I think. So my editor said, ‘C’mon, you have good titles. Come up with something better.’ By the time I got into the book, I saw that Hitler’s birthday didn’t apply easily. The German agent who was going to do something on Hitler’s birthday wasn’t going to be as big a deal. I had this girl who was married to him…he was a real Nazi lover. He had come from Germany and was American now but he loved what the Nazis were doing. She married him – Helen thought she could turn him around. But she fails, so she left him.

Then I changed her name to Honey and she really jumped off the page then. I figured that I then had a character I could run with all the way.

CM: It seems like you have the best of all worlds in this series. It started with western elements and brought in gangsters and now you’ve finally gotten Carl Webster to Detroit.

EL: Yeah, you’re right. In fact, I was going to rewrite the serial that was in The Times, but I decided that would just be work. I have a good time writing books and I don’t want it to be work, ever. But they were so restrictive at the Times about how people talk. There are little rules about punctuation and the abbreviation of state names. Even someone using Texas or Oklahoma in a sentence, they abbreviate it because they’re not used to printing fiction in their magazine. So I thought I should do this over again and make it sound more like me and my writing. But I thought, nah, just get going on the next one.

CM: For being a guy who’s written about criminals for a long time, Carl Webster is a real white hat hero.

EL: Yeah. I like to write about the criminals because most of them are either dumb or it’s a guy who’s made a mistake. While he might be trying to go straight, you never know what he’s going to do next because he has that ability to break the law. I kind of like those guys.

This one, I could keep going. But this book, the one in May, is set in 1945. That’s like writing a historical novel, even though I was around then. I was in the Navy, in the Pacific that year, but I was home by the next year.

CM: You and Carl Webster seem to share some background.

EL: Yes, we do. In fact, that’s the island I was on. I was in the Seabees. It was about time I gave that away to one of my characters. I was on that island of Los Negros about six months after it was taken by the First Cavalry so I didn’t see anything. Then we moved to the Philippines around the time the war ended, so I just had to wait out coming home.

CM: You’ve noted that John D. MacDonald said it takes a million words to find your own voice. What do you think you sound like, several million words later?

EL: I think he’s absolutely right. It takes a million words or ten years to get to the point where you’re absolutely sure of how you write and how your voice sounds. I’ve always felt that my voice is signified by the absence of “my voice.” I have my characters and I’m always writing from a character’s point of view. I’m in there but I don’t ever want a reader to be aware of me. I want them to be completely taken by the characters.

CM: How did you start to realize that character was the key to writing the way you wanted to write?

EL: It came when I realized that it would be futile for me to write in a literary way where the author is definitely the voice, where the author has all the words and all the language. I’ve never felt that confident about language. But if that language comes out of my characters then I can handle it.

Of course, there are certain kinds of characters that I have more fun with: black characters or Latinos or characters from the South where their language is a bit more comfortable.

CM: But you’re so affectionate towards your characters that they never stray into parody or caricature.
EL: Right. I do have affection for them, even the bad guys. The poor guys are just dumb. I do like to write about criminals because most of them are either dumb, or it’s a guy who made a mistake. While he might be trying to go straight, you never know what he’s going to do because he always has that ability to break the law. I could never do, for example, a serial killer because I could never find any affection for somebody who just wants to kill people.

CM: Outside of market forces, what draws you to crime novels?

EL: Oh, it was always the market. With westerns, all the pulp magazines were done by the end of the 1950’s. Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post were paying the most for westerns but they were even done. I had one in the Saturday Evening Post in 1956 or 7. That was my goal, just to hit the slick magazines with my westerns. But my agents at the time said my stories were a little too relentless. You don’t have any comic relief in them. I did learn from him to leave the words out and not give too much description.

I was reading Hemingway for inspiration during most of the 1950’s but he didn’t have much of a sense of humor, so I wasn’t inspired that way. But I discovered Richard Bissell, who wrote Seven-and-a-half Cents that became The Pajama Game. He set stories on the Mississippi River, where he was a pilot at one time on towboats. I learned a lot from him.

CM: Funny you should mention rules. I have your rules for writing tacked up next to my desk.

EL: Those rules have gone a long way.

CM: What is the universal appeal of crime fiction?

EL: These stories always appeal because there are obvious good guys and bad guys. There’s also always an ending to the story, unlike literary fiction, where you’re not always sure what the point is. They’ve always been popular in my mind. Ed McBain and I were on Good Morning America and were asked to what we attributed the renewed interest in crime fiction and mysteries. We looked at each other and said, “We thought they were always popular.” We weren’t doing anything differently.

CM: But you always stress that you don’t write mysteries.

EL: You’ve got it. I’ve never considered my books to be mysteries. There’s no mystery to it because the reader always knows what is going on. But there is always a crime, there is always a gun and it always goes off.

CM: You’ve spoken favorably of Stick and Freaky Deaky. Any favorites recently?

EL: I really do like my new book, Up in Honey’s Room. It’s really funny. There was a lot of opportunity for characters to say funny things. I talked to Barry Sonnenfeld during the making of Get Shorty – I said I hope when someone says a funny line that you don’t cut to someone grinning or winking because these people are serious. The fun has to be recognized by the reader. You have to play it straight. He understood that.

CM: One last question and I’ll let you get back to work. What was it like to pitch at Tiger Stadium?

I threw out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game. It wasn’t a special occasion but I did get to throw out the first pitch. I practiced for it that morning. I went out in the backyard and measured out sixty feet and I kept throwing at a wire fence to make sure I could accurately throw it in a straight line. Then when you get to the ballpark, they don’t want you messing up the mound, so you’re only 50 feet from home plate.

It was a lot of fun. The first time I ever got on the field, I was with Mike Lupica. He took me down on the field and introduced me to Ernie Harwell and some guys. I told them, for fifty years, I’ve wanted to come down here. Ernie Harwell says, “Why didn’t you just call me?”

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Red Letter Days

I swear my synapses aren't firing on all cylinders. This is the trouble with being a full-time freelancer. You get distracted, scattered and fractured by the innumerable subjects you’re sworn to render faithfully. In the past two days, I’ve written about hand-made vodka (yes, as an assignment), eulogized Mercury Seven astronaut Wally Schirra, and talked cubism with a hyper-hip graphic novelist. My brain throbs. Somebody give me a gig writing about a consistent topic, heavens to Murgatroid!

Until that happens – or hell freezes over - you can peruse one of my few quasi-chronic mutterings. It’s the fifth anniversary issue of Bookslut and includes my own meditation on all things Russian, “Crime and Punishment,” the latest installment of my mystery column.

Also in the issue: Nathan Englander talks up the Dirty War, Mark Solms talks brains, and the lovely Marguerite Abouet speaks of West Africa. In columns, Colleen Mondor delves into fantastical murder mysteries, Eryn Loeb eulogizes Sassy, and Jeff Vandermeer interviews his fellow Eisner judges, including the profoundly hip Whitney Matheson.

In other news…

The LA Times talks to Frank Miller about Hollywood n’ stuff.

Elmore Leonard’s new novel has snuck onto shelves. The LA Times (again) examines Up In Honey’s Room. Tomorrow, there should be a new interview by Duane Swierczynski at his paper.

Ali Karim talks to Robert Ferrigno. Who was not in the 1970's television series starring Bill Bixby, although that always leaps to mind.

More fitful murmurings about the decline of book reviews. Oh, the humanity!

The Associated Press talks to Amy Hempel. Remember that old chestnut about a thousand monkeys and Shakespeare? That’s how I feel about her. You could stick a regiment of me into a room for an eon and not get a single story of hers. She’s the Raymond Carver of…well, maybe she’s not a moody, temperamental, creative alcoholic perfectionist but you get the point.

Alright, the fit is over. Someone has stuck a belt in the writer’s teeth and the twitching is dying down. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Joseph Arthur's Poetic Meltdown

In the interest of full disclosure, I occasionally scribble book reviews for Paste Magazine. It's actually a nicely composed, intelligent music rag, which is a singular anomaly these days given the general flimsiness of Rolling Stone and the adolescent sub-prose of Blender. But I can’t help sharing this bizarre exchange between Joseph Arthur, the apparently delicate composer of the devinely lyrical song “In The Sun,” recently covered by Michael Stipe for charity, and the magazine. Stereogum has the details, including Arthur’s response:

Paste should be more like its name
Meaning it should smack you about more
Have reviews by poets like me about itself

(hey wait a minute)
Paste should take more chances

Offend more
Be more misunderstood
It tries too hard to appeal to some fantastical
demographic of pretend people who like
pretend music
Singing pretend songs

To plastic ears bleeding internally into a brain
folding over itself just because
Paste is a caricature of itself
If it were a color it would be beige

Freaky deaky. Apparently Arthur wanted a column and got all pouty about it. I'm not sure poetry would work on my own editors...