Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Medal of Honor

Tales from a hotel room in Los Angeles.

"THE GRAVEYARD BOOK," said fourteen loud voices, and I thought, I may be still asleep right now, but they probably don't do this, probably don't call people and sound so amazingly excited, for Honors books....

"...just won..."

"THE NEWBERY MEDAL" they chorused. They sounded really happy. I checked the hotel room because it seemed very likely that I was still fast asleep. It all looked reassuringly solid.

You are on a speakerphone with at least 14 teachers and librarians and suchlike great, wise and good people, I thought. Do not start swearing like you did when you got the Hugo. This was a wise thing to think because otherwise huge, mighty and fourletter swears were gathering.

Congratulations to Mr. Gaiman for his latest achievement. Even though he totally and unfairly killed us in the Best Literature category for this year's Weblog Awards. For more fun, you can go watch my boss interview him, with movement and sound and everything, just like on the teevee.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Blood and Arrows

In this morning's edition of the Rocky Mountain News (fingers crossed, the ink is still flowing down there) you'll find my review of Agincourt, a riveting, blood-soaked adventure novel that recounts the famous battle in the words of Bernard Cornwell, the famous British author of the Sharpe series.

War is hell. The mechanics of combat and the justification for conflicts fluctuate between centuries, but the primal terror and rapture that grip men facing combat are inevitable.

One of our most gifted historical novelists, Bernard Cornwell, brings his storytelling skills to bear in capturing war's terrible drama in Agincourt, depicting a remarkable, costly English victory during the Hundred Years War....

Just for kicks, here's a few more takes on the novel. At the Washington Post, the book is reviewed (with a close look at its historical accuracy and religious undertones) by, of all people, Diana Gabaldon, the Arizona-based novelist and author of the Outlander series.

Back at Harper Collins, you can read an excerpt from the novel and hear an interview with Bernard Cornwell at the publisher's Prosecast podcast site. Over at Powell's, the author has contributed an original essay with some very readable back story of the famous battle.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Giving Malpractice A Whole New Meaning

Just thought I'd share the fun little website that's been set up for Josh Bazell's Beat The Reaper. I talked up the book in a recent column (and in point of fact, wrote one of the earliest reviews praising the good doctor's profane shoot-em-up, a bit of which you can find in the website's press section under Kirkus Reviews).

In addition to the usual excerpts, the site has a nifty game of diagnosing the patient, for which one of the options is always "Shoot patient," as well as an audiobook sample and a video trailer that finds Doctor Peter Brown opening fire from his surgical theater, no less.

Check it out at beatthereaper.com

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Spring At Last

So. Things to look forward to (besides the obvious transition of power going on today). Kirkus Reviews has just published its annual Spring & Summer Preview Special, which I think is worth a look. I contributed my own brief interviews with several authors about their new books, all of which were worth seeking out.

Look inside for more on Greg Grandin's Fordlandia, an epic examination of Henry Ford's doomed attempt to civilize the Amazon; Clancy Martin's caustic tale of brotherly love in the jewelry business, How To Sell; and a rumble in the jungle with the New Yorker's David Grann, whose Lost City of Z is an absolutely inspired page-turner (and a tome soon to be on the big screen with Brad Pitt in a starring role).

Elsewhere in the issue, you'll find previews of The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar and other scribblers, as well as glimpses of new novels by Jodi Picoult, Robert Boswell, and Joe Queenan.

Monday, January 12, 2009


Here's an update to my earlier post about Andrew Vachss' live webcast on Wedneday, January 14. The gig has an official URL (which I knew, but wanted to wait until it was public knowledge). To participate in Wednesday's happening, take your pointy fingers and click here:


The event starts at 8:30 P.M. Eastern Time and will run for three hours. Questions can be submitted in advance or live online, but you have to preregister in order to play. This should be tons of fun but if you miss out, it sounds like parts of the party will be replayed on The Zero.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

High Adventure

While I'm thinking about it, there is actually a new column up at Bookslut this month. "Wrong Way Down" started out as a rumination on the majesty of Africa and ended up as a meandering journey involving Chinese bandits, hard-bitten mercenaries, King Solomon's mines, cross-continental motorcycle excursions, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Alexander McCall Smith and a teaser from Charles Ardai about a nifty project being launched in 2009 (See left).

Do I look like a guy with a plan?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Your Chance to Grill Andrew Vachss

Ever wanted a chance to interrogate a favorite crime writer? You never know where it might lead you. I interviewed novelist Andrew Vachss, the celebrated and controversial author behind hardcore criminal Burke, way back in 2003, and it opened a lot of doors that I never anticipated.

It's your turn. Andrew is going to answer questions from the readership of his 18 Burke novels (not to mention the equally interesting recent one-offs The Getaway Man and Two Trains Running) during a one-of-a-kind webcast on January 14th. The only catch is that you have to pre-register to be heard.

I just spoke with Andrew a couple of days ago, the occasion being the December 30th publication of Another Life, the very last Burke book. He says bring it on.

"I really think we can replicate one of my book events, which means none of that author-reading from his work stuff," he said. "The audience fires away and I fire back. I don't duck questions. There's no reason it can't work as long as people register in advance, so they can click, and there I am."

He's a busy man, and although he's always done his part to promote his own work, Andrew has plenty of other irons in the fire, not least Protect, the national pro-child, anti-crime membership association that he helped to found, and which passed some serious legislation in October of 2008. That doesn't mean he's done writing, though, and you can see a sample of his upcoming work in the January issue of Esquire with the (very) short story "Sure Thing." So this is a pretty rare opportunity to get up close and personal with him during any one of the planned three one-hour segments.

"The whole world doesn't live in big cities," Vachss said. "I can't visit all the places I've been asked to come to, or accept all the invitations I get to speak. This is the most democratic way. I couldn't close the show and ignore people who have wanted to ask questions for years. It doesn't matter where you are. Dial it up."

There you go. Go to http://www.vachss.com/anotherlife/webcast_2009.html to sign up to see the prizefight. I'll update a little closer to the event with the new URL, but registering should get you in the door just fine.

To get prepped about Burke, Vachss, and other topics sure to rattle your cage, visit AV's official site, The Zero. For more information on Protect's mission & efforts, visit Protect.org.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

RIP Donald E. Westlake

Donald E. Westlake (who also famously composed under a half-dozen pseudonyms, among them Richard Stark) died in Mexico, on vacation with his wife, on New Year's Eve.

I don't really have the words (though judging from the outpouring of grief from the crime writing community, I'm probably the only one). For a really comprehensive look at Mr. Westlake's life and legacy, it's better to see Sarah Weinman's thorough collection of posts about his life and her heartfelt tribute to his work in the Los Angeles Times.

There's also a ton of coverage at The Rap Sheet, but what jumped out at me was J. Kingston Pierce's comment that, "After the death of somebody famous, such as author Donald E. Westlake, absolute nobodies pour out of the woodwork to recall their encounters--even if ever so brief--with the deceased."

I'm a little stunned right now to offer much insight to augment the terrific tributes that are out there in the wider world - see Charles Ardai's wonderful post at the Guardian books blog for just one example - but I did interview Mr. Westlake just two years on the occasion of the publication of What's So Funny? for the Kirkus Reviews Mystery Special, and some of his comments subsequently ended up in one of my columns at Bookslut. He was, as advertised, funny, insightful, smart and thoroughly straightforward about his work.

Anyway, in the spirit of that dichotomy between giants and nobodies, I'm going to shut up for a while and clear the floor. Here's a few gems from my conversation with Donald E. Westlake, many of them unpublished. Godspeed, sir.

On the dangers of writing series characters:

“This is the time that I’ve truly violated my own rules. For years and years, the deal was this - this is what I decided myself and everybody always said I was right. I have seen a lot of people who have series characters who go to the well too often and they end up doing shtick. ‘There he is in his funny hat again.’ The characters get thinner and thinner instead of more complex. It just becomes a vaudeville routine after a while. The writers very often don’t see that they’re diluting the mix.

So I was afraid of it. I didn’t want to do it to Dortmunder, myself, or anybody reading the books. So the rule was one Dortmunder novel in three under my name, exclusive of Richard Stark. The other two books could be anything. So in-between books I write things like The Ax and The Hook and an adventure novel set in Africa, and Smoke, an invisible man novel, and Money for Nothing.

What’s funny, is I just did three in a row. You do three in a row, you’re really going too far. I’ll have to write a greeting card or something next.”

On the differences in writing as Westlake and Stark:

“It always begins with the language. You’re using a different vocabulary and it leads you in a different direction, be it comic or serious. The Dortmunder novels are much more baroque than the Parker novels, who is much more blunt.”

On The Hot Rock:

“The Hot Rock was originally supposed to be something for Parker. Parker deals badly with frustration so it would really get up his nose if he had to keep stealing the same thing over and over again. But it was such a comic notion that just discussing it, I would start to laugh. The worst thing you can do to a tough character is to make him inadvertently funny. So I started to think about who this guy really was.”

The secret origin of Dortmunder:

“I was in a bar. One of the signs on the back bar said ‘Dortmunder,’ underneath ‘BEER.’ That’s what I wanted: an action character with something wrong with him. In seeing the name Dortmunder, I saw the guy: sloping shoulders and dead hair. I just saw the guy. This guy is operating under a black cloud but won’t give up. It all came from that name, Dortmunder.”

Westlake goes to the movies:

“Dortmunder has been played by Robert Redford and Martin Lawrence. That’s a bit of a stretch.

It’s not as bad as Parker, actually. The first time they did Lee Marvin in Point Blank, which is a great movie. The football player Jim Brown plays him in The Split, which is not a wonderful movie. Then the third one was Jean-Luc Godard, who took another one that had been published in France in which he turned Parker into a girl reporter played by Anna Karina (Made in USA, 1966). An old friend of mine said, ‘So far, Parker’s been played by a white man, a black man and a woman. I think the character lacks definition.’

Parker was played by George Segal in The Outfit and that was well done, but Dortmunder has never quite been done right in the movies. Nobody has even come close. Every once in a while, producers will actually ask me who I see as Dortmunder. My answer was always Harry Dean Stanton, who starred in Paris, Texas. They would tell me he doesn’t sell tickets. I said, ‘You didn’t ask me that.’”

On writing genre fiction:

“I started writing everything. And anything. My first published story was science fiction and my second was sort of a romantic comedy/playboy imitator. The third was mystery. After a while, the mysteries were getting accepted more than the others. You tend to go where you’re liked. For the first ten years that I was making a living, I joked that I was a writer disguised as a mystery writer but after looking back at ten years of output, I decided that I might just be a mystery writer after all.

But I’ve never been only a mystery writer. I saw a quote from Stravinsky that was in an advertisement in the Times – he said, I don’t write modern music. I write good music.

I still think I’m a writer first and a lot of it happens to be in the mystery field.”

How to write:

“I learned years ago that it’s not good for a writer to know what he’s doing because if you know what you’re doing, you can’t do it. When you’re actually doing the writing, do it. Don’t stare at it.”