Read and Learn
Today I interviewed renown author Nancy Thayer for the BOOKS AND THE WORLD television program. Although Nancy is the published author of 29 novels, I had never before had the pleasure of reading her work. I am so glad that I did. Nancy writes what some would term, “Women’s fiction” and has a legion of fans. As I plunged into the narrative of her latest work, I quickly learned the secrets of her success: Compelling characters combatting the type of issues that confront so many of us. Nancy revealed that her focus is and has always been family, friends, relationships, and life issues.No apologies for focusing on the mundane and no reluctance to call her books “beach reads.”She lives on the beautiful island of Nantucket (poor thing), and that setting forms the backdrop for her novel. I am a mystery writer who typically wallows in mayhem, duplicity and a healthy dose of snark. How nice to visit another, gentler world for a change. Thanks, Nancy!😊
I’m guilty. I confess that I adore watching re-runs of McMILLAN and Wife every Sunday.Admittedly Sally was portrayed as a cute, hapless dimwit (every man’s dream wife in the -70s), and the lovey-dovey relationship between Mac and her was obviously fabricated since Rock Hudson had other interests. SO WHAT? San Francisco was an ideal setting, Enright the perfect sidekick, and MILDRED, the annoying but dedicated housekeeper who no longer exists (and probably never did.)As a young college student I watched the Sunday Mystery Movies, and often wished I could change places with Sally– No cares or expectations for achievement, just being cute, cuddly and complacent. After all, that’s what fantasy was all about and still is.😀
Yesterday I trudged to the FED_EX store to mail copies of SWANN SONGS to Goodreads winners.For once I was minding my own business, quietly stacking books in a pile for mailing. No good comes from passivity.
FED_EX CLERK: (Looking at the cover of SWANN SONGS).” Did you write this?”
ME: (proudly)-“Yes. It’s the 4th in the series.”
FED-EX CLERK: “Hmm. Looks like a romance. I have friends who read that stuff. Intelligent women too!Can’t understand it.”
ME: “Actually the book is a romantic MYSTERY. Basically a mystery with a pinch of sex.”
OTHER FEDEX CLERK joining in: “Only a pinch? Too bad.”
EVIL FED EX CLERK: “I love mystery books but not something like that. Covers with that bare-chested guy….”
ME (w/ some asperity).”My books do NOT have Fabio on them.”
OTHER FED-EX CLERK: “Too bad.”
Next time I’m going to the US Post office. They IGNORE you.
SEX, MURDER, SHOPPING (NYT, 4/13)
Let me be clear: I would LOVE to have my novels reviewed by Janet Maslin, chief book critic of the NYTimes. Even a lukewarm mention translates into visibility, sales and prestige. Even an acknowledgement by the Grey Lady that an author exists is indeed a priceless piece of advertising.
Witness today’s review of MAESTRA, described as “ …a pornographic, shopathon, travelogue thriller …” replete with licentious billionaires, art scams, scheming strumpets, and murder. The sexual component is apparently crude enough to render “50 Shades” almost chaste.
Ms. Maslin’s critique is hardly complimentary. In fact, she suggests that even the heroine’s jaded gymnastics grow stale and dare we say it, boring.
Still, I seriously considered plunking down the $13.95 needed to pre-order the e-book. After all, who knows what I might learn? The novel’s author is a British historian, which argues for at least some sheen of respectability. When I read that like many series, this is only book one, and that it has already been optioned by Hollywood, I decided to wait. Sometimes the film version skips the clunky dialogue and gets to the good parts straight away!
BANK ON IT!
I spent a pleasant weekend in New York, celebrating a minor dog show triumph (another point for Lord Byron), and seeing the sights. Imagine my chagrin when while attempting a minor purchase at Saks, my Bank Card was “declined.” Forget the humiliation I encountered: the icily polite clerk with narrowed eyes and a tight lipped smile who nodded with faux empathy when I proclaimed that “there must be a mistake.” They’ve heard that song sung by many credit-challenged patrons in the past.
Fast forward to my dealings with BancAmerica. Forget the 22 MINUTE wait on my cell phone because “our representatives are busy assisting other customers. Your call is important to us.” REALLY? When an assistor finally answered, she informed me “Oh. You’re a premium member. I can’t help you. Let me switch you to the premium line.”
(Omit the volcanic eruption from yours truly).
After another 10 MINUTES on the cellphone, a pleasant lady responded and quickly diagnosed my problem.
Assistor: Oh. You’re in New York.”
Assistor: “You didn’t tell us you were going to New York.”
Incredulity and a protracted discussion on coordinating my travel plans with the BANK ensued.
Assistor: What are you doing in New York?”
Me: Unprintable outrage.
Assistor: When will you be back in Massachusetts? The exact date.”
Me: Long, mostly polite diatribe about the unacceptable intrusion into my private life and my refusal to comply with their absurd requirements in order to use MY MONEY.
Assistor: We’re only trying to protect you. Our policy is for your own good.
For years, citizens complained about the depredations of the IRS. Hey. Compared with BANKS, the Treasury Department is a rank amateur.
DORITO DOLDRUMS A sour observation in the New York Times book review (2/21) suggested that commercial fiction, that opiate of the masses, is comparable to a Dorito-a tasty but ephemeral treat with no lasting benefit. Literary fiction, however, is equated with “books of value,” a type of vital nutrition for the soul. I note that the author mentions the supposed financial rewards of commercial fiction (LOL) several times. With marked distain, she remarks that literary fiction exceeds “market value” and commercial appeal. Pity the poor purveyor of novels that seek to engage and entertain a wide audience. The literary establishment inveighs against such goals and often indoctrinates MFA students against them. Pretentious prose masquerading as “deep thinking” can bore the pants off readers. However, works by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and a fellow named Shakespeare were originally geared toward the masses yet cherished by millions of readers in subsequent generations. Commercial or literary fiction—you be the judge. I believe both can coexist peacefully without diminishing either. PS—I researched the author of that piece, a well-respected and erudite woman who has won numerous literary honors. Too bad that her published works sound as dull as dishwater. I guarantee that they will never pander to the great unwashed.
Like many of you, each morning I watch the national news shows eager to assess those being interviewed. More often than not people who should know better perform dismally in the spotlight. Some are quite unforgettable—not in a good way. Until now, hedge fund huckster Martin Shkreli had my vote for insolence beyond the call of duty and against his own best interests. He shrugged off raising the price of a life-saving drug by 800% while displaying a patented sneer that was truly a work of art. Subsequent actions by the SEC and a command appearance before a Senate Sub-committee were probable by-products of that tour de force.
I was eager to hear the new editor-in-chief of COSMOPOLITAN magazine this morning on voting patterns of young women. MISTAKE! Joanna Coles out sneered Shkreli (credit the British accent), used unnecessarily vulgar language, and managed to achieve something that Vladimir Putin failed to do: annoy the usually unflappable Charlie Rose. This thoroughly unpleasant woman did her employer and herself a disservice. Her message—young women are seeking something new—was obscured by her bad behavior and repellent personality.
There are lessons to be learned from those who can relate to an audience and like it or not, authors must master public appearances. Some are naturally gifted in this area but there is still hope for those who are introverts. Consider the following:
- Show your audience and moderator courtesy by listening to the question and answering it succinctly.
- Don’t babble, bloviate, or bore your listeners.
- Even if you are a curmudgeon, learn to FAKE IT. Be your self but be your BEST self.
- Humor, particularly self-deprecating humor is always a crowd pleaser.
- Remember that every appearance is an opportunity—for good or bad. Prospective readers or current fans will be influenced by your public persona.
Finally: with social media and the INTERNET things last forever. Use your time in the spotlight to advance your own interests
BEWARE THE GREEN-EYED VERB
Many people are beset by jealousy but writers, individuals who labor in splendid isolation without adequate recognition or compensation, are especially vulnerable to the slings and arrows of envy. Writing is a cruel mistress, the true La Belle Dame sans Merci, who frequently beguiles one with promises then casts him aside. The New York Times Book Review (1/31/16) notes the temptation to react to another’s good fortune—fawning reviews, sizable advances, burgeoning sales–by exercising the power of the green-eyed verb to savage competitors. We may all occasionally scratch our heads when some mediocre or poorly written novel scales the heights, but obsessing over the success of another is counterproductive. Far better to analyze why and profit from it.
Awards can indeed be popularity contests that are totally unrelated to content. Reviews may be subjective and sales reports can be manipulated. Taken together however they suggest a strategy that the savvy student of the game takes into account. Why bemoan your fate when you may have the power to change it?
Aligning oneself with supportive writing communities also helps. Sisters-in-Crime is one example of an organization that educates and encourages its members while focusing on skill building. It celebrates the success of crime writers and strives to share the wealth with all members. There are many other groups with a similar mission that can stimulate professional growth and combat writers’ angst.
If all else fails, the next time you peruse the NYTIMES best seller list keep one thing in mind: perhaps the writer in question is actually BETTER than you.
TURNING A BLIND EYE
All my life I have been blessed with abundant good health and I now realize how smug that has made me. When a crisis hit (detached retina), I was totally unprepared for the helplessness it sparked and the primal fear of blindness it provoked. In the blink of an eye (LOL), I was transported to Boston for emergency surgery and deprived temporarily of simple pleasures such as reading, and writing that are so much a part of my life.
As in all things, there were life lessons to be learned from this experience that I will share with you. Most people respond with great kindness to a sight impaired person who blunders about an enormous medical facility trying to find her way. A wrong turn at the elevator landed me in the basement but a kindly physician bundled me back into the elevator and guided me to the correct floor. The medical staff was surprisingly courteous.My surgeon even asked me to consider using his speciality for a subsequent mystery story. No problem there. Agatha Christie used atropine plenty of times to off her victims and I now have my own supply.
Just an aside– as Nativist sentiments swirl about the political landscape, I note that my surgeon (considered one of the top retinal specialists in the nation) is of Cuban descent. Take that, Mr. T !!
There was a glaring exception to the “kindness of strangers” rule. One nattily dressed geezer in a packed grocery line raised a patrician brow and chided me for touching him with my cart. I considered asking this entitled prig to step outside to settle things (he was at least 25 years my senior and I thought I could take him even with only one good eye)
however, my own good manners prevailed. If I had actually been aiming for his bony ass, believe me he would have known it.
DOLLARS TO DONUTS
Yesterday I received a disquieting message from American Express-you know, the pulse-quickening, heart-wrenching kind that warns of fraudulent credit card charges. My chat with an account representative revealed that 2 charges ($100. & $50.) respectively with the name SVC CORP had appeared within one hour of each other. She did some research and revealed that a criminal with exceedingly low taste had charged those amounts at DUNKIN DONUTS!! DUNKIN’ DONUTS!! I quickly assured her that I neither drink their noxious brew nor frequent their establishments. Starbucks, no problem, but really I consider myself a coffee connoisseur (Some say snob), and although I have a sweet tooth, it does not extend to buying $150. worth of donuts!!
I have to commend Amex. Their rep was courteous and dilligent. She then scanned my account and said. “There are a awful lot of charges at NEIMAN MARCUS.
No problem, I said, with a secret smile. Some things are just worth the price.
A recent opinion piece in BOOKENDS, posed this question: Is self-loathing an occupational hazard for writers? I love George Orwell’s observation that for writers, “self-loathing and self-love are locked in a tight pro-creative embrace.”
In all candor, many of us in all professions suffer from periodic bouts of despair, wondering if we are good enough, personable enough or just plain tough enough to survive and flourish in our chosen field. For writers (actors,comedians, & even politicians),
our merits are too often weighed publicly and cruelly in the theater of the absurd, aka the Internet. Unfortunately any troll with a computer and a grievance can savage our work. Third parties can inflict the unkindest cut of all by simply ignoring or dismissing us. Oscar Wilde, who knew a thing or two about trauma, famously said. “All men kill the things they love.. ” Writers in particular often labor in splendid isolation, mired in our daunting sales figures, paltry advances and the perceived successes of less talented peers.
Reality check–it is far easier to give up, and “kill the things we love” by abandoning the struggle than to persevere and create a novel to be proud of.
By allowing self-loathing to triumph, writers squander the most precious gifts of all–talent and creativity. After each rebuff, I force myself back into the battlefield, girded for victory.Sometimes I sense the triumph of optimism over reality. Other times, I savor the sweet sweet scent of success.
REMEMBRANCE OF EASTERS PAST
In my youth Easter was a major event, less for its religious significance than for fashion impact. As devout Catholics, my parents insisted that their daughters enroll at parochial schools and participate in all the related rituals. Church attendance, particularly during Holy Week was mandatory—no excuses.
I really didn’t mind because despite a bowed head, genuflection and pious prayers, Easter was my puerile version of New York Fashion Week. In advance of the holiday, my mother, sister and I spent Saturdays scouring department stores for the perfect Easter outfit. To my father’s dismay, every year we required new dresses, coats, lingerie, gloves, shoes, purses and the crowning glory—an eye-popping, mouth dropping Easter bonnet! It was a unique time of female bonding, part of a world where men were denied access. My father’s job was to groan, fork over the cash to pay for our finery, and admire the results.
On Easter morning, we primped and pranced, positive that every eye in the church was glued to us. God forbid that foul weather required umbrellas or rain gear that might spoil our hair or mar our carefully constructed style.
My sister and I strutted up the aisle to the communion rail as proudly as super-models strolling the catwalk. Most of our schoolmates did the same. It was a heady experience, totally divorced from reality and—true be told—devoid of any sentiment except hubris. Despite, or perhaps because of that, Easter still holds a special place in my memories.
Titles can either attract or repel an audience. Case in point. NBC’s new 10 episode drama (Sunday,April 5), got a nice review from the typically censorious NY Times. It sounds like the type of thriller that would interest me. The title, however, is a turnoff. “American Odyssey”–that reminds me of a dull but worthy offering by PBS, NPR or the like. Rather like a travelogue or an examination of small town sports mania. Why not call it “Odyssey”? That alludes to the heroine’s journey (she’s an American soldier stranded behind the lines in Afghanistan), and hints of intrigue and mayhem. The success of HOMELAND; JUSTIFIED; and naturally “24” show how effectively a name can showcase content.
Authors should consider the importance of a title in naming their own works. For my mysteries, I favor short, snappy titles that hint at the snarky humor and fast pace inside.(Mantrap; Gilt Trip; Intrusion are good examples.)
Some classic novels also illustrate this point: LOLITA; WAR &PEACE; GOOD AS GOLD; and that beloved work PRIDE & PREJUDICE; to name a few. Consumers get a fairly accurate idea of what to expect and that builds brand loyalty and customer satisfaction.
Featuring Sgt. Micki Li (SLICE); and those sizzling sleuths, Eja Kane and Deming Swann. (SWANN DIVE; MANTRAP; GILT TRIP & SWANN SONG)
Boston evildoers beware: Bellbridge Books has launched three new crime busters whose steely determination and mad detective skills are kryptonite to all felons.
Micki is a no nonsense cop who follows the rules and always gets her perp. Eja, a mystery author uses her instincts and creativity to go where no sensible civilian dares to go. Fortunately Deming is an attorney who bails her out when things go awry.
Q- Micki, what do you think about civilian involvement in homicide investigations?
A – Involvement is too nice a word. I call it interference and I won’t stand for it. Taxpayers expect professionals to solve crimes not amateurs. That’s what they pay us for.
Q – Wow! That’s a strong reaction. What about it, Eja?
A – Sometimes an amateur can do things that police officers like Micki aren’t allowed to.
A – (Micki interrupts). That’s precisely what I’m talking about.
Q- Any reaction, Mr. Swann?
A – (Deming Swann). I agree with Sgt. Li. Eja should stick to fiction. Plus, she drags my mother into her schemes too. It’s dangerous.
Q – You have a partner, don’t you, Sgt. Li? How does that work?
A – (Micki Li) I trust my partner with my life. All cops do. We work as a team.”
A – (Eja). Exactly. Just like Deming and me. And my mother-in-law too.
(Deming throws up his hands in disgust. Micki snorts.)
Q – Micki, in SLICE, you tangle with some really bad guys, carry a gun, and manage a kids’ baseball team. That must keep you in shape.
A – (Micki) I also run and work out at the police gym. Part of the job.”
Q – Eja, what about you?
A – (Eja. Looking sheepish). I’m allergic to sweat. Mostly I starve myself. Deming is the gym rat.
A – (Deming). Eja thinks about exercise and then writes about it.
Q – This is for all of you. What’s your preferred method for solving crimes?
A – (Micki). I’m constrained by the law and police procedure but I also use my instincts. All good cops do. That’s how criminals are caught and punished.
A – (Eja) All my favorite literary sleuths are amateurs too. Miss Marple, Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, Amelia Peabody. I could go on and on. They rely on brains and cunning and so do I.”
Q – Deming—what’s your reaction?
A – (Deming sighs). You don’t want to know.
Q – Thanks to all of you. Readers can follow the exploits of our crime fighters in these novels from Bellebooks:
SLICE (Micki Li mystery #1) by Mary Jo Kim
SWANN DIVE (A Boston Uncommons mystery);
MANTRAP (Boston Uncommons mystery #2) GILT TRIP & SWANN SONG
by Arlene Kay
I freely confess to watching and loving the Sons Of Anarchy, Justified; Homeland; 24; Luther; Ray Donovan and any martial arts film featuring a certain Chinese-American actor. My literary favorites also include healthy servings from Nelson DeMille, Lee Child and Barry Eisler. What, you might ask, attracts an otherwise peace-loving mystery writer to a diet of unmitigated mayhem? It’s not the violence, although a man who can smite his enemies for a just cause is a major turn on. I hasten to add that neither the films nor the books contain any acts of animal cruelty, a non-starter for me and many other women. A few bodies fall in these adventures—Sons of Anarchy stacks them up like cordwood; Jack Bauer and Raylin Givens were never considered gun-shy—but for the most part, their hearts and biceps are in the right place.
There are two reasons that I adore these fictional tough guys: their willingness to pursue justice even when it imperils their own safety and the indisputable fact that they are major babes, big on biceps, brawn and brains. Intellect is important to me and although I have no proof about their IQs (Stanford-Binet where are you?), when it comes to survival these heroes rise to genius level.
Some of the same attributes appear in the stars of my mystery novels although the body count and violence quotient are considerably less. Movies, television, and novels sell the same thing—a respite from real world woes and a whopping dose of fantasy. Heroes are smart, sexy and audacious. Women are appreciative.
Lest you think I am hopelessly sexist, I also love The Big Bang Theory and never miss Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Sherlock. I just don’t fantasize about them.