21 October 2015

Bouchercon: Good golly, I miss Raleigh

by Robert Lopresti

So, I spent a week in beautiful Raleigh, North Carolina.  We tacked on a few days before Bouchercon to attend the launch party for Diane Chamberlain's new book.  As I have mentioned here before my sister is a terrific novelist who happens to live near Raleigh.  This was her first Bcon, and I am happy to say she enjoyed it.

It was at least my sixth (New York, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, Long Beach...I think that's it) but I enjoyed it too.  Among the highlights were meeting two SleuthSayers for the first time: John Floyd and B.K. Stevens, and saying hello again to three more: Art Taylor (see proof on the right) , R.T. Lawton, and Barb Goffman.

Last year I reported that one of the highlights was the Author Speed Dating Breakfast, which I attended as a reader.  This year I was back as an author.  I was paired with Craig Faustus Buck, a fine short story artist whose first novel has just come out. (He's the guy brandishing the book in the foreground.) At every table we each had three minutes to explain to the breakfasters why they would absolutely love our books.  Then a bell would ring and we would jump up and charge off to the next table.


What struck me as most interesting about this was the way Craig and I each changed our patter as we went.  Both of us saw what got a good reaction and what got blank stares and by the end of the two hours we had our pitches down perfectly.  At one of the last tables I suggested that for variety we should each do the other's speech, since we had heard them so often.  Cooler heads prevailed.

Every author attending the Speed Dating Breakfast was required to bring "swag," defined here as something for the attendees to take away.  This ranged from candy to magnets to band-aids printed with the book covers to pouches of lavender to book marks.  Congratulations go to Cate Holahan for the cleverest booty of all: a folder to carry the rest home in!

Kenneth Wishnia, Washisname, and Jason Starr, as photographed by Peter Rozovsky
Another highlight was the panel celebrating the anthology Jewish Noir.  Editor Ken Wishnia led us in a discussion of such subjects as the connection between angry prophets of the Hebrew Bible with  hardboiled private eyes (they all rail against corrupt society, for one thing), and the link between Jewish outsiderness and the noir sensibility.  Ken also discussed the importance of not including every Jewish food you know in every meal in your story.  Not get for your cholesterol or credibility.

I was proud to be one of the contributors to Murder Under The Oaks, the second Bouchercon anthology.  The eighteen or so authors who were present formed an assembly line, signing copies for hundreds of people who apparently failed to get the publishing industry's email explaining no one reads short stories anymore.

I even attended some panels I was not on.  (You may think that's a joke.  The biggest problem at Bouchercon is Buyer's Regret.  Whatever you choose to do, and no matter how much fun it is, you will wonder if you should have been doing something else... so I skipped a panel on short stories to have tea with SJ Rozan, one of my oldest writing buddies, for instance.  Can't clone myself yet.)

There was a panel on pairing your protagonist with the right antagonist.  Most of the participants denied that their books had typical antagonists at all.  Someone asked whether the writers had ever met anyone they considered truly evil.  The two who immediately replied that they had were Mark Pryor (a prosecuting attorney) and Diane Chamberlain (a former psychotherapist).  I guess they would know, huh?

There was a wonderful panel in which masters were asked which classics of the genre influenced them.   They all digressed into the non-classics they loved as well.  Bill Crider said: "I love the old sleazy paperbacks where the titles all ended in exclamation points."  Lawrence Block replied that he had always wanted to sell that company a novel titled One Dull Night!

Other highlights included meeting some of my favorite mystery writers for the first time: Margaret Maron, Chris Muessig (look to the right), Sarah  Shaber, Reed Farrell Coleman, Richard Helms, Bill Crider, and Jack Bludis, to name too few. 

I had another favorite moment but I can't tell you about it, because, heh heh, I will put it into a short story in the near future.  So you will have to wait until I get it written, edited and published.  Three, five years max.

Okay, this is getting too long.  Next time I will give you my inevitable collection of quotations from the festival, and I will offer one complaint about my favorite book convention.

20 October 2015

Post-Partum Bouchercon Blues

by Paul D. Marks

Whenever a convention ends there’s a feeling of emptiness. The excitement, the constant motion, everything just sort of winds down, leaving one with a sort of empty feeling: Post-Partum Bouchercon Blues.

Mystery conventions are chaos—exercises in controlled chaos to be sure. But chaos. You spend your time running from panel to panel, sometimes even ones you’re on. You meet with editors and agents and other authors and fans. This time I even got to record my Anthony and Macavity-nominated story, “Howling at the Moon” for Ellery Queen’s podcast. I believe an Academy Award Nomination for “Best-Worst Reading of a Short Story in the Mystery Category, Black Mask Sub Category of a Story Under 10,000 Words, But More than 3,000 Words” is forthcoming and I hope the award will be handed to me by Jennifer Lawrence.


You spend some time eating and a lot of time in the bar at night schmoozing and maybe, just maybe, having a drink or two. Nah. Whoever heard of hard-drinking mystery writers?

But there’s other aspects of conventions besides the obvious ones. One of my favorite things is to see cities that I might not normally choose to go to or get to see. Raleigh is a perfect example of that. Albany was another a couple of years ago.

Next year, Bouchercon is in New Orleans and Left Coast Crime is in Honolulu in 2017, both places I’ve been multiple times and places I probably would have gone to again on my own. But I don’t think I ever would have thought about going to Albany or Raleigh on my own, though I’m not sorry for having had the opportunity to visit either city.

To be honest, Albany is one of the last places on earth I ever would have thought of going to. My major “experience” with it, prior to Bouchercon 2013, was via Law & Order when someone, usually the DAs, would have to go there for some legal proceeding and it always seemed as if they were being sent to Siberia. So when I was nominated for the 2013 Shamus Award I turned to my wife and said, “Albany! Why Albany? Why couldn’t it be Chicago or Boston?” someplace I really wanted to see or see again in these cases.

But that’s part of the problem—many of us don’t really see the city where the convention is held. You see the inside of the hotel or the convention center or a restaurant or two. And they all pretty much look the same. So when my wife, Amy, and I go to conventions we always go a day early and stay a day or two extra so we can see the city. And guess what, we both really liked Albany. It had a certain small town New England charm that maybe those who live there don’t see. But coming from L.A. and being outsiders we saw the city with different eyes than those who’ve been jaded by familiarity.

And going to Raleigh for Bouchercon 2015 was the same. We got there a day early to meet up with Amy’s parents and one of her sisters—who drove up from Georgia—for dinner the night before the convention. And we stayed a couple extra days after it was over. During the convention we didn’t have a rental car, but for those extra days at the end we did. And we explored a bit of the city. One of the things we enjoy doing is just driving around the neighborhoods seeing how they’re different—or the same—as where we live (Los Angeles area).

We particularly enjoy the older Victorian and Colonial homes, with their wraparound porches and Southern charm. And we enjoy sampling the local food. Blood-red Cheerwine (which is not alcoholic) is the unofficial state drink of North Carolina. Even so, it took some doing but we finally found some. It tastes a little like Dr. Pepper and I can take it or leave it. But I had spareribs marinated and glazed in Cheerwine and they were out of this world. Just a different taste that I really sparked to. We also ate at the famous Pit restaurant. And cruised the city, seeing the North Carolina Museum of History and the Fiction Kitchen and Gringo A Go Go. And how lucky we were to be in Raleigh on the major celebration of Food Truck Day.

We saw Mordecai Park, home of the Mordecai Plantation Manor, once part of a 5,000 acre plantation. The park also now holds the home of Andrew Johnson, one of only two presidents to be impeached. The home was originally a few blocks away but was moved to the park.

We also visited the Oakwood Cemetery, with graves going back a couple hundred years, maybe more. It contains the grave of Berrian Kinnard Upshaw, the first husband of Margaret Mitchell and, some say, the possible inspiration for the character of Rhett Butler. And in that cemetery was a section filled with Confederate Civil War soldiers...and one Union soldier mistakenly put there and originally misidentified as a Confederate. Some of the graves are still tended to with flowers and Confederate flags. And despite the current brouhaha over that flag, it was a very sobering site and solemn place to be.

Standing in that cemetery, seeing all the graves of dead Civil War soldiers truly made me stop and think about how short life is and how much we take for granted.

So, while we enjoyed the convention, we also enjoyed the side trips and learning about Raleigh and its history. To see more about my actual convention experience and about my panel, with Shamus nominee Sam Wiebe and Macavity Winner Craig Faustus Buck, you can check out my 7 Criminal Minds blog post from last Friday. Click here http://7criminalminds.blogspot.com/2015/10/new-faces-new-crimes-new-challenges.html



It was good to go and good to come home. And come March it’ll be good to go to the next Left Coast Crime in Phoenix. Another place I’ve been but a place I’ll enjoy rediscovering.

*****

And Big Time Congratulations to our own fellow Sleuthsayer Art Taylor for his Anthony Win for Best Short Story for “The Odds are Against Us” from Ellery Queen.

*****

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19 October 2015

Good Books and Old Movies, Part II

by Susan Rogers Cooper

I mentioned last post that I was teaching classes on the mystery from novel to film, and listed the books and movies I'd be teaching.  Rob Lopresti had done a little research on my first author, John Buchan, creator of "The Thirty-Nine Steps," and sent me his blog on him, which was quite interesting.

Buchan was a Scot, which might have had something to do with his grand descriptions of the Scottish countryside in "The 39 Steps," and began his adult life with a brief legal career, which he gave up for his real passion -- writing.  On October 19, 1915, John Buchan's first novel, "The Thirty-nine Steps" was published and was an immediate hit, selling 25,000 copies by the end of the year.  It tells the story of Richard Hannay, a South African visiting London who gets caught up in an espionage ring.   Jason Worden argued that Buchan actually invented a new sub-genre: the story in which a civilian gets chased both by the bad guys, and by the police who think he is the bad guy.  That paranoia made it perfect for Alfred Hitchcock, who not only filmed "The Thirty-nine Steps," but used a similar plot in two other movies.  Buchan wrote many more novels, including four about the plucky Richard  Hannay.  During World War I, his penchant for writing came in handy as he wrote propaganda for the British government.  He also served as Governor General of Canada until his death in 1940.  As Rob said, not bad for a thriller writer.

Learning all this about John Buchan made me want to learn more about the other writers I was featuring in my class.  Although John Buchan was the least known (to me anyway) of the four, I decided to delve a little deeper into the others.  I knew before hand -- from general knowledge and reading Lillian Hellman's wonderful book "Pentimento" -- that Dashiel Hammett had worked as a detective for the Pinkerton agency, was an alcoholic, and had issues with rejection -- at least according to Ms. Hellman. Delving a little deeper, I learned that Samuel Dashiel Hammett worked for the Pinkertons from 1915 to 1922, quitting due to the Pinkertons penchant for strike breaking. Almost all of his books and short stories were written in the 1920s and '30s, due in part to his bad health and his interest in political activism. He joined The Civil Rights Congress (the CRC), a leftist organization, and soon became their president. The CRC came under scrutiny in the late 1940s, and Hammett was subpoenaed to appear before a judge to name a list of contributors to a defense fund set up by the CRC for people accused of communist sympathies. He refused, citing the fifth amendment, and was sent to federal prison. Only a few years later, in the early 1950s, he was blacklisted by the HUAC and was unable to work as a writer from that point until his death in 1961. Raymond Chandler wrote in The Simple Art of Murder, “Hammett was the ace performer... He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of, The Glass Key, is the record of a man's devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

And speaking of Raymond Chandler, one of my all time favorite writers, I was interested to learn that he didn't start writing until 1932 at the age of forty-four. A former oil company executive, he lost his job during the Great Depression and decided to take up writing. In a letter to his London publisher, Hamish Hamiton, Chandler explained why he began reading and eventually writing for pulp magazines: “Wandering up and down the Pacific Coast in an automobile I began to read pulp magazines, because they were cheap enough to throw away and because I never had at any time any taste for the kind of thing which is known as women's magazines. This was in the great days of the Black Mask (if I may call them great days) and it struck me that some of the writing was pretty forceful and honest, even though it had its crude aspect. I decided that this might be a good way to try to learn to write fiction and get paid a small amount of money at the same time. I spent five months over an 18,000 word novelette and sold it for $180. After that I never looked back, although I had a good many uneasy periods looking forward.”

In the introduction to Trouble Is My Business (1950), a collection of four of his short stories, Chandler wrote, “The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passage work. The denouement would justify everything. The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story on the other hand was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes. The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing. We who tried to write it had the same point of view as the film makers. When I first went to Hollywood a very intelligent producer told me that you couldn't make a successful motion picture from a mystery story, because the whole point was a disclosure that took a few seconds of screen time while the audience was reaching for its hat. He was wrong, but only because he was thinking of the wrong kind of mystery.”

Chandler also described the struggle that the writers of pulp fiction had in following the formula demanded by the editors of the pulp magazines: “As I look back on my stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published. If the formula had been a little less rigid, more of the writing of that time might have survived. Some of us tried pretty hard to break out of the formula, but we usually got caught and sent back. To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack.” And in a radio discussion with Chandler, Ian Fleming said that Chandler offered "some of the finest dialogue written in any prose today".
After Chandler's wife died, he began drinking heavily and slid into a severe depression. He attempted suicide but called the police before the attempt to tell them he was going to do it. He died in 1959.

My final author of course needs no introduction to anyone – mystery buff or not. Agatha Christie is almost as well known as Santa Claus. She published sixty-six novels and fourteen short story collections. She was initially unsuccessful in getting published, but in 1920 “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” was published, introducing the world to Hercule Poirot. The Guinness Book of World Records lists Dame Agatha as the best selling author of all time.

Much has been made of her ten day disappearance after her husband asked for a divorce. A much maligned movie, “Agatha,” was made – with a large disclaimer at the beginning – with a fanciful explanation as to what occurred. It has never been made public what happened in that ten day period.
In 1930 Dame Agatha married archeologist Sir Max Mallowan, whom she met during an archaeological dig. Their marriage lasted until Christie's death in 1976.

18 October 2015

Witch Trials

Carving kit © Pumpkin Teeth
by Leigh Lundin

The Halloween season means trick or treats, chomping chocolate, honoring saints, and tormenting witches.

Wait… witches? Real ones?

It’s been more than 300 years since the Salem witch trials and the hangings and tortured deaths that followed, but an US Air Force clinic has fired dental technician Deborah Schoenfeld for practicing witchcraft.

Witchcraft: You know, satanic rituals like meditation, yoga exercise, listening to sitar music… witchy things like that after converting to Hinduism. Really.

Deemed a witch, she wasn’t allowed to know who her accusers were, but at least she wasn’t hanged, crushed to death, or burned at the stake. Her accusers satisfied themselves with calling her a devil and career termination.

Despite the hostile work environment, Ms Schoenfeld liked her dental technician job. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has taken up her case and written a letter of demand to the Dentac commander in Fort Meade, Maryland and the Clinical Dentistry Flight Commander in Washington.

No clue yet how the spirits might move them.

17 October 2015

Boucherconnections 2015


by John M. Floyd



A week ago today, at Bouchercon, something happened that I'd been looking forward to for several years: I met fellow SleuthSayer Rob Lopresti for the first time. Rob was one of half a dozen writers at the former Criminal Brief mystery blog (Leigh Lundin was another) who invited me in 2007 to join their ranks, and since then Rob and I have swapped so many emails and read so many (hundreds) of each other's blog posts, it seemed as if I knew him already. But we'd never met face-to-face until last Saturday, when I caught him hurrying down a hallway in the conference hotel, carrying a sheaf of papers and looking appropriately librariany.

That, to me, is the most appealing thing about Bouchercon. It's a rare opportunity to not only make new friends in the literary world, but to put faces to familiar names that I've corresponded with or seen many times in bylines or on bookcovers. That's also the way I met Leigh (at the Baltimore B'con in 2008), and, over the years, most of the other Criminal Briefers and SleuthSayers as well.

At this year's conference in Raleigh, I was able to shake hands for the first time with e-friends Bonnie (B.K.) Stevens, Art Taylor, R.T. Lawton, Brendan DuBois, Paula Benson, Su Kopil, and others. And meeting a person in the flesh does make a difference. I doubt I'll exchange emails or Facebook messages with these folks any more often now than I used to, but when I do, it will somehow feel even more comfortable. I'll finally be able to picture them in my mind.

Other highlights of my trip to Raleigh included a delightful group lunch with members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society; an afternoon meeting with EQMM editor Janet Hutchings and Canadian writer Rob Brunet (who turned out to know my fellow SleuthSayer Melodie Campbell); a long and high-decibel bar conversation with Joe D'Agnese, his wife Denise Kiernan, Reavis Wortham, Tom Pluck, and John Gilstrap; pecan pie and ice cream with Strand editor Andrew Gulli and screenwriter David Rich (who will always be my hero for having written several episodes of MacGyver); and dinner with author and friend Josh Pachter. Josh, if you're reading this, I bought your book the following day and I still need you to autograph it for me.

I was also able to reconnect with several other editors and old buddies I'd met at previous conferences--Linda Landrigan, Terrie Moran, Cathy Pickens, Steve Hamilton, Bill Crider, Austin Camacho, Barb Goffman, and others (in that sense B'con always feels like old home week)--and to meet a number of writers and readers I'd never even spoken with before. And I should mention that the panels were, as usual, interesting and informative. My favorite was the panel of contributors to this year's Bouchercon anthology, Murder Under the Oaks. Several SleuthSayers and other friends were among the 21 authors, and Art Taylor did a great job of moderating.
All in all, my wife and I enjoyed our four days in Raleigh and our stay at the Marriott, and I even managed to sell some books via the conference bookstore and the great folks at Ontario's Scene of the Crime Books (thanks as always, Don and Jennifer Longmuir!). The only disconcerting thing about the whole trip was that the waitress who served the aforementioned pecan pie at the Mecca Restaurant one afternoon informed me and my two companions that we were eating pee-can pie. Pee can? My childhood home had fourteen pecan trees in the back yard, and I've been cracking and eating pecans since I was old enough to walk, and until last week I was convinced that all southerners called them pa-CONs (sort of like B'cons). For me, pee can has a whole different meaning, but our waitress insisted that that's the way Raleighites pronounce it. Live and learn.

One more thing about Bouchercons, in general. Unlike many mystery conferences, B'con is for fans as well as for writers. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that none of what we authors create would ever be published without readers to read it, and I'm always able to meet (and learn from) some of the huge number of mystery fans in attendance. They're quick to tell me what they like and what they don't and why they like it or not, and as writers we'd be crazy not to listen to those opinions.

In closing, let me say that I'm already planning to go to Bouchercon 2016, in New Orleans. Otto Penzler told me he expects the attendance to be the largest in years--the location itself will be a big draw, and many attendees will probably bring their spouses. Besides, it's a no-brainer for me, since New Orleans is less than three hours from where I live. The only problem is that it might be hard to corral audiences for the panels. Let's see . . . on the one hand you have a hotel meeting-room full of writers and readers, and on the other hand you have a French Quarter bar, also full of writers and readers. Where would you rather be?

By the way, Otto also said that next year will be his 41st Bouchercon. I've been to four, he's been to forty. But I'll tell you this: I have enjoyed each one more than the last.

I hope to see you in N.O.



16 October 2015

Bouchercon Honors

By Art Taylor

The last few weeks have been, for me, nearly complete blurs—between events at the Fall for the Book Festival a couple of weeks back and Bouchercon in Raleigh last week and then a return to campus at George Mason University this week for classes, student conferences, and a backlog of grading.

...all of which is to say that the deadline for my column here snuck up on me a little.

It maybe seems inevitable that I'd want to write about Bouchercon today, still in the afterglow of what was a magical weekend in a half-dozen ways—and I do, but maybe not for obvious reasons.

To say that Bouchercon can seem star-studded for us mystery fans may be an understatement (and all of us are fans, writers and readers both). I was amazed how often I passed one literary luminary or another in the elevator, in the hallway, even in the restroom—humbled by the chance to chat with so many of them—and it's a joy to have so many opportunities to reconnect with old friends or to make new ones among the writers and readers in attendance. I'll admit as well that it was nice to be in the spotlight a couple of times myself—presenting this year's Derringers, participating in a couple of panels, winning an Anthony, though nerves and other feelings complicated some of those occasions. But looking back over the weekend's events, there's one moment that strikes me as pure, unadulterated pleasure and pride, and it's that moment that I want to zero in on here.

Kristin Kisska and me (standing on tiptoes)
On Saturday morning, my own schedule included two events: the new author breakfast, where folks with first books could share something of their work, and the panel and signing for Murder Under the Oaks, this year's Bouchercon anthology, which I was honored to guest edit and which features a couple of my fellow SleuthSayers contributors too: B.K. Stevens and Rob Lopresti. In between those morning's events, I ran into another of the anthology's contributors, Kristin Kisska, in the hallway. While I was just wearing jeans and a shirt, she was smartly dressed, and I made a joking remark about suddenly feeling woefully informal.

"Well, this is a special occasion for me," she said proudly (or something like it). "Today is my first day as a published author."

I could've hugged her. In fact, I think I may have. (Did I emphasize that word blurs enough above?) While I knew that the anthology marked a debut for a couple of authors, I'll admit that I hadn't thought about all that the occasion meant, hadn't thought to put it in those terms. Somehow, I'd simply skipped past the thrill of it all.

Kris was one of two authors in those same circumstances; Karen E. Salyer was the other—and interestingly, both of them were drawing on aspects of Virginia history for their stories. Kris's tale "The Sevens" looked back toward a significant moment at the University of Virginia and drew on her professed love of secret societies. And Karen's story, "Childhood's Hour," looked at the early life of Edgar Allan Poe, one of her own prevailing interests as well. Both tales struck me as stand-outs—and the fact that these were first-time publications added an extra layer of distinction. Having them in an anthology with bestselling authors, Edgar Award winners, a multiple lifetime achievement honoree, and more—needless to say, that's some distinguished company in which to be making a debut.

Talking about our own writing...no matter what, there's always a layer of awkwardness about it for authors. These days, marketing may be an unavoidable part of the business, but I anticipate that most of us remain squeamish about the process—vaguely uncomfortable at best.

Championing the work of others, however—that's nothing but pleasure.

Giving back to the community isn't just part of what we do as authors, what we should do; it's key to being a worthwhile member of that community in the first place. And feeling that I'd been some small part of the process that brought Karen and Kris into print, into the public eye—the process that brought all of the anthology's contributors a venue for their work and a fresh audience, whether for the first time or the hundredth—that's what will stick with me well beyond last week. It's truly the purest honor I could ask for.


14 October 2015

Bridge Freezes Before Road

by David Edgerley Gates

Some of us are sedentary by nature, some of us footloose. It might very possibly be a function of age, and certainly of temperament, A body at rest tends to stay at rest - even if calling it inertia is a polite way of saying our momentum has left us up on blocks - but there comes a day when we turn mother's picture to the wall and light out for parts unknown,

Steinbeck said about the pioneers heading West toward the far horizons that eventually they bumped up against the Pacific, and he imagined all these old people, sitting on porches, gazing toward the setting sun, longing to voyage a further distance. (This, as I remember, from "The Red Pony.") And the West is a journey of imagination, Manifest Destiny, looking past the edge of the earth.

I made the trip in reverse this time, West to East, from Santa Fe to Baltimore. The road itself seemed familiar, if not the route - but the mileage, and the pavement, the changing landscape and the culture of travel (although I'm sorry to report that the spaghetti with chile and cheese, at the Skyline in Dayton, Ohio, isn't one of those peculiar local delicacies that's worth going out of your way for, like Frito pies or poutine). It's funny, and kind of comforting, to find yourself back in America. A lot of the old rules still apply, and some of the same courtesies.

Ten states - New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland - 1800 miles, give or take. An odometer of the mind, not so much the physical distance covered. Different time zones, but an interior geography.

"Don't you get stale around here, Bill?" Garrett asks the Kid, who's hanging around Ft. Sumner, shooting chickens, and I have to admit Santa Fe was getting more than a little claustrophobic on me. People, it's been remarked, come to Santa Fe for repair, or reinvention, or recovery. Which suggests of course that they might be damaged in some way, but that's a judgment call. One guy I know was headed West in a VW bus, and Santa Fe's where it broke down, so he got a job scooping ice cream and stayed to raise a family. You can't make one size fit all.

And truth be told, New Mexico's done good by me. Surely there's been no dearth of material. Seriously? Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project, the Anasazi and the cliff dwellings, the land grant struggles and the Tierra Amarilla courthouse siege, Zozobra, the Japanese internment camps, the penitentiary riot, the corrupting influence of the Mexican cartels - drugs, guns, money laundering and human traffic - along with old trailhands Tony Hillerman and Marc Simmons, just for openers, who let me draw from the well.

Thoreau advises us to beware of enterprises requiring new clothes, but deciding to set up shop in a place of underappreciated virtues, aside from Camden Yards, could be considered a wardrobe opportunity, and not for protective coloration, either. Baltimore doesn't seem to mind an edge. You can profile some pretty mean shoes, you got legs to match.

I kept seeing the same sign on the highway, every time I approached an overpass. Bridge Ices Before Road. My first thought was that somebody had to be making a killing, like getting the U.S. Coast Guard contract for wool socks, if every state highway department in the country's buying that same black-and-yellow sign. But your mind wanders, on the road, and I began reading between the lines, looking for hidden meanings, or surface tension, decoding the text, as if it were some kind of Zen mystery message. In the end, I decided it wasn't.

Still, it's a metaphor. Don't leave skid marks.

13 October 2015

JEWISH NOIR: The Interview




Editor Kenneth Wishnia gathered 33 stories together in what Booklist called “a first-rate collection of short stories dealing with traditional noir subject matter and tone but offering Jewish variations on the theme.”

As one of the contributors, I’m offering a look under the hood. First, an interview with the editor, and then a group interview with over a third of the authors. Buckle up!

Michele Lang, Ken Wishnia & Melissa Yi at the Mysterious Bookshop

Q: Say something Jewish.
Ken Wishnia: You call that a question? What kind of question is that?

Q: Say something Noir. 
Ken Wishnia: Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Oh, sorry. That’s horror. You said noir.

Q: What made you decide the world needed a Jewish Noir anthology?
Ken Wishnia: The JEWISH NOIR anthology was originally Reed Farrel Coleman’s idea, and we agreed to co-edit it. Then he signed a contract to do the next three Robert B. Parker Jesse Stone novels, and had to drop out. So I ended up being the sole editor. 

Q: Give me a few words about your story. 
Ken Wishnia: It’s based on my parents’ experiences in the late 1940s when they were the first in their families to go to college, and these were exclusive colleges, which also meant being among the first Jews in those traditionally WASP enclaves. They came from Brooklyn, from working-class immigrant families that had just survived the Depression and WWII, so as you can imagine, much tension ensues. 

Q: Tell me about the trials and tribulations and joys and sorrows in birthing this book. Aw, come on. Tell me.
Ken Wishnia: OK, first we queried everyone in sight. Then we got commitments from some very big names. Then we pitched the anthology to a number of publishers using those names, and when they all turned us down, we went with PM Press, who have been fabulous to work with. Then the big names dropped out. So I went outside the box, inviting a number of unorthodox writers (in both senses) to contribute stories. Then some of those writers tried to drop out, claiming they really weren’t “noir” writers, and I had to do a lot of emailing back-and-forth to convince them that their stories were sufficiently noir for our purposes. The result is a very strong anthology, with very few of the “usual suspects” in it. 

Q: How did you choose the stories?
Ken Wishnia: I went after certain names, but there was also a lot of serendipity involved. I met three of the contributors at NoirCon and invited them to submit because… well… because they were at freaking NoirCon, for God’s sake. Isn’t that enough? Jedidiah Ayres cracked me up just with his bio, then his reading was so outrageous that I just had to ask him to be one of our “you don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish Noir” contributors. Check out his story, “Twisted Shikse,” and I’m sure it’ll make you a fan of his work. Or something. And I met a couple more contributors at Bloody Words in Toronto, as you may recall. So I hope that these authors view their inclusion in JEWISH NOIR as the result of being in “the right place at the right time,” ‘cuz it’s true.

Q: How did you arrange the stories?
Ken Wishnia: My original plan was to arrange the stories in chronologically in order of when they took place, because I figured we’d get a lot of historical pieces (ancient Israel, medieval Europe, 19th century Europe, etc.), but of the 30 original stories in the anthology, the earliest period depicted is the 1940s; five of the stories take place in this decade, and all the others in the decades since then. So I went with themes. Very broad themes….

Q: Is there anything you would have done differently?
Ken Wishnia: I was supposed to be discovered by a rich benefactor and get a six-figure advance, but I just never quite got around to it.

Q. I can't believe how many book launches you're having across the United States. How did you manage that?
Ken Wishnia: In fact, JEWISH NOIR, for whatever reason, is getting more attention than anything I’ve done in years. I’m also spending a f*ckload of money on publicity, but so far the thing itself is driving most of the interest. So clearly we’re filling a niche that we didn’t know existed (well, Reed Coleman knew it) and there’s simply no way to plan for that.

Q: Israel.
Ken Wishnia: Isra-- what? Sorry, never heard of it.

But seriously folks, the one story in JEWISH NOIR that takes place in Israel is “Good Morning Jerusalem 1948,” written by Michael J. Cooper, who, as his bio tells us, is a pediatric cardiologist who frequently travels “to Israel and the West Bank to volunteer his services to children who lack adequate access to care,” which gives him the authority to say anything he wants as far as I’m concerned.


Now let’s talk to the contributors! Harlan Ellison couldn’t make it, but I’m sure he wanted to.



1. Say something Jewish.

Moe Prager/Reed Farrel Coleman and BK Stevens: Oy vey iz mir.

Steven Wishnia: Oy vey. Gey kakken oyfn yam. If I sold coffins, nobody would die.

Wendy Hornsby: Oy. Such a versatile word. Cleaner than the French merde, and applicable to as many situations.

Melissa Yi: Sydney Taylor, Johanna Reiss, and Art Spiegelman.
Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind-Family series first introduced me to Judaism. I remember feeling smug that other people in my third grade class were like, “What’s Chanukah?” and I could’ve told them about dreidels. When my family moved to Germany, one of my favourite books was The Upstairs Room, by Johanna Reiss. And who can forget Spiegelman’s Maus I & II?

Adam D. Fisher: The Jewish people is the eternal people that is always dying.

M. Dante: Baruch Dayan Emet.

Robert Lopresti: “We have to believe in free will.  We have no choice.”—I.B. Singer

Alan Gordon: A long time ago, in a tiny village in the Carpathian Mountains ...

S.A. Solomon: The Jewish Noir launch party at the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan conclusively established that NYC has the best bagels on the planet.

Heywood Gould: Pupik.

SJ Rozan: You can't ride two horses with one behind.

Michael J. Cooper: His luck should be as bright as a new moon. (ie. – no moon)
Zayn mazl zol im layhtn vi di levone in sof khoydesh.
This is, perhaps the dark side of one of my favorite passages from the Psalms (139:12);
Night shines like the day and darkness is as light.

Dave Zeltserman: I first was going to provide a smartass response, such as simply oy vey or matzah balls. Next I considered writing about arguments I used to have with my dad about whether certain ballplayers were Jewish or not or my affinity to the Three Stooges, which was no small part due to my granny (who was the last person you’d expect to know about the Three Stooges) proudly telling me how they came from the same part of Russia as she did. Finally, though, I decided to write about how I and every other Jewish person I’ve known wear our emotions so heavily on our sleeves. When we’re pissed, you know it. When we’re miserable you know it. The rare times we’re happy, you know it. When I was I was in college back in the late 70s and early 80s, I had a Navy ROTC scholarship, and I was miserable. Given the record amount of times I was written up for my uniform not being right and all my other infractions, no doubt the officers and other kids in the program equally knew it. You had until the end of your sophomore year before you had to commit, and I tried for 2 years to talk myself into sticking with it, but I was a computer science major, and all I wanted to do when I graduated college was design and write software, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend four years on a ship. When I dropped out of ROTC at the end of my sophomore year, it was no surprise to anyone. What did surprise me, though, was that this kid who was Mr. ROTC also dropped out the same day. This kid always appeared to be so gung ho, his uniform always perfect, and he was considered the top in the program as far as future officer material. I’d never really talked with him before, but  that day we ended up having a few beers together, and he told how miserable he’d been in the program. He completely fooled me and everyone else, while I fooled no one.

2. Say something Noir.

Alan Gordon: In my recurring dream, I'm in the electric chair. Right before they pull the switch, the guard asks, "Would you mind? It's for the Warden." And he places on my lap a container of Jiffy Pop.

BK Stevens: Oy vey iz meir!
M. Dante: David Goodis

Michael J. CooperIf you don’t want to grow old, hang yourself when you’re young.
As men vil nit alt vern, zol men zikh yungerheyt oyfhengen.

Melissa Yi: ’What is to give light must endure burning.'—Victor Frankl

Steven Wishnia
I'll quote two other people.--"We're all fucked. What did we have kids for? To make more customers for Guinness?" —my friend English Steve Harrington, during a rather alcohol-fueled discussion of global warming. 
--"Hudson County is a great place to work for a newspaper. Our politicians aren't sophisticated yet: They still take money in brown paper bags. They could steal half the county and people wouldn't care, but if their cable TV goes out for five minutes, they'll scream." —the late Stuart Rose, the editor who hired me at the Hudson Dispatch in northern New Jersey in 1990.

SJ Rozan: But you can't help trying [to ride two horses].

Robert Lopresti: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde

S.A. Solomon: A mystery man in a trench coat made off with the bag of bagels ... along with a serrated knife. What bloody deeds will play out on the rainswept streets of Manhattan? You say it was editor Ken Wishnia? Oy. Some people will do anything for leftovers. (Thanks, Ken, for the awesome spread!)

Dave Zeltserman: I fell in love with noir when I first read Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, if you can equate being dragged into a character’s personal hell with literary love. This love affair only grew stronger when I later discovered Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, Dan Marlowe, Cornell Woolrich, and many other noir writers. There’s something so primal and raw about this kind of literary noir that is hard to find in any other fiction.

3. How did you end up in Jewish Noir?


Moe Prager/Reed Farrel ColemanLong story short. Ken and I were supposed to be co-editors, but I got really frustrated at the inexplicable lack of interest in the project from publishers. Then I landed the gig writing Jesse Stone novels for the Estate of Robert B. Parker. I gave Ken my blessing to carry on alone if he wished as long as I could still be a contributor. That this project came to fruition is all to Ken’s credit. He would not be deterred.

Alan GordonGood Karma. I got Ken Wishnia into Queens Noir.

Steven WishniaWell, I'm Ken's older brother. He told me he was doing it, so I sent him the story. We have a good enough relationship so that he would have told me if it was a piece of crap.

SJ Rozan: I wasn't looking where I was going.

Robert Lopresti: My wife, who is Jewish, attended the Jewish Noir panel at Bouchercon last year.  Afterwards she asked Ken Wishnia if there were any openings (a few) and whether the authors need to be Jewish (no).  So I wrote fast.

4. Give me a few words about your story.


Moe Prager/Reed Farrel Coleman, “Feeding the Crocodile”: Easy. It is said that you feed the crocodile in the hope that he will eat you last. Think of that phrase in terms of a death camp.
Steven Wishnia, "The Sacrifice of Isaac": A tale of money, power, real estate, and race set in 1990s Brooklyn, it begins with a klezmer wedding-band bassist buying cocaine from the son of a politically connected Hasidic real-estate developer in the back room of a catering hall in Williamsburg.

SJ Rozan, “The Flowers of Shanghai”: Shanghai Ghetto, rain, cold.  Oppression, resistance, flowers.

Wendy Hornsby, “The Legacy”: Ultimately it’s about love, death, and redemption, but aren’t all noir stories?  A young woman risks her life to retrieve a family legacy, because her bubbe asked her to.

S.A. Solomon, "Silver Alert”: My story was inspired by a bit of family history: my father served as a B-17 bomber pilot in WWII, and was present at the liberation of Dachau. But the story itself is fiction.

B.K. Stevens, “Living Underwater": The central character is an English professor who becomes consumed by hatred for an administrator who is ruining his professional life. Although he knows his obsession with the Associate Dean for Academic Assessment cannot end well, the professor is incapable of breaking free. As a longtime English professor (and as the wife of a dean), I know how poisonous the pressures, frustrations, and silliness of the accreditation process can be.

Heywood Gould, “Everything Is Bashert: It's about horses, hustlers and Hasidim.

Melissa Yi, “Blood Diamonds”: Kris Rusch challenged us to write a historical short mystery, with bonus points if we wrote about a crime that was no longer a crime. I decided to add in my experience as a medical resident doctor at the Jewish Hospital in Montreal, but from the point of view of a patient. And it’s the first time my crime-fighting doctor, Hope Sze, makes an appearance in short fiction. Very exciting!

Alan Gordon, “The Drop”: Thinking about Jewish-based crime in Queens, I set my story in the world of Israeli connections in the club drug scene.

Michael Cooper, “Good Morning, Jerusalem 1948”: The story features Yitzhak Rabin as the 26-year-old commander of an elite strike force during Israel’s War of Independence. Rabin’s concerns range from the crushing heaviness of an impending military loss to the lightness of a new-found love, and the temptation of a mysterious and alluring female prisoner. And as Rabin struggles with all this, there is the forming but still very subtle specter of his future assassination – at the hands of his own people.

Robert Lopresti, “Nachshon”: Inspired by a midrash, which also inspired one of my most popular songs.

Dave Zeltserman, “Something’s Not Right”: I’ve written several of what I like to call ‘bogusly autobiographical life in writer’s hell stories’, which are noir stories where I include just enough superficial autobiographical stuff to get relatives and friends of mine nervous, and end up having my writer-protagonist on a one-way ticket to hell. With my Jewish Noir story, I did this at a far more extreme level where I’ve made my protagonist closer to myself than I’d done in any of these previous stories, and I left him nameless. What I’ve tried to accomplish with this story is leave the reader unsure whether what they’ve read was fiction or something else, at least for a few moments.

Adam D. Fisher, “Her Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi”: Read it. It isn’t long. It is full of both pathos and humor and is a combination of people who came to see me and my own imagination.

M. Dante, "Baruch Dayan Emet": A funeral view offers generational and lifestyle reflection.


5. How was your experience with Jewish Noir?

Melissa Yi: Unbelievable. Honestly, I’m astonished that contributors have or will appear in New York, Raleigh’s Bouchercon, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Houston, and Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona. I mean, who does that for an anthology? Is there really a Jewish mafia, because if so, right on!

SJ Rozan: Except for my story depressing the hell out of myself, it was great.

M. Dante: Is it already over? WoW. I feel like I missed it. It went so fast.

Robert Lopresti: It makes me feel guilty (something those of us raised Catholic have in common with Jews) because 1) I am not a member of the tribe, and 2) my story only has two-thirds of the classic noir formula.  But, as they say, I cashed the check.

Dave Zeltserman: This has been unlike any other anthology I’ve been part of in the way a community has formed around it. I’ve never been part of an anthology where there’s been so much communication among the authors. Of course, this is all because of Ken, and I’ve really enjoyed this aspect of it.

Heywood Gould: Don't ask...Seriously, Ken's been an astute, helpful editor and I'm happy to be in solidarity with my "luntzmann." (Compatriots.) 

BK Stevens: It was great. I don't usually think of myself as a noir writer, so making a conscious effort to write a noir story was an interesting challenge. I also enjoyed working with Ken. He suggested some changes in the ending, I made them, and I think they improved the story. And I'm enjoying getting to know the other authors better, both through the e-mail blasts and through the guest posts a number of them are writing for my blog, The First Two Pages. All in all, it's been a decidedly un-noir experience--fun, satisfying, and friendly.

Wendy Hornsby: I’ve contributed short stories to lots of anthologies, but I’ve never before experienced the gung-ho support the contributors have given this collection. It’s been fun so far, and I’m certain that when we all get together at book events after the October release date that general hilarity will ensue. It’s a great collection of stories by an interesting and diverse assemblage of authors.

Moe Prager/Reed Farrel Coleman: Dark.


Michael J. Cooper: And herein lies the redeeming silver-lining of a Jewish history filled with the darkness of dislocation, diaspora and death; all of us, Jews and non-Jews alike, have the opportunity and responsibility of rectification, tikun, of partnering with the divine and with each other—dispelling darkness by gathering the bright sparks of divine emanation through acts of compassion, justice and loving-kindness.