Saturday, May 22, 2004

Oh Lad, Poor Lad

A new genre of commercial fiction, lad lit, was recently pronounced stillborn by Publishers Weekly, a mere month after its arrival had been announced by The New York Times and The Associated Press. Nothing stings quite so bitterly as cold numbers, so when the magazine printed that Nielsen BookScan had detected sales of only 1,716 copies of Kyle Smith's ''Love Monkey,'' an ostensible leader of the well-publicized ''trend,'' it had to hurt. An events planner at a Chicago bookstore chain was quoted saying that lad lit might attract women readers interested in ''spying on the other side, getting a look into the locker room,'' but she had to admit that the 10 stores in the chain she works for hadn't sold a single copy of either ''Love Monkey'' or another exemplar of the genre, Scott Mebus's ''Booty Nomad.''

Like Jayson Blair's tell-all, sell-little memoir, ''Burning Down My Master's House,'' the fizzling of lad lit demonstrates that press coverage doesn't always translate into cash receipts. It also proves that novels that don't appeal to women are a tough sell. Market research firms consistently report that men make up as little as 20 percent of the readership for adult trade fiction, and with the exception of a few franchise authors like Tom Clancy, writers who appeal mostly to men have a tough time of it. By contrast, a half-dozen ladies, each armed with three names and the capacity to churn out two books a year, manage to sell millions of novels while barely registering on the media's radar. The likes of Mary Higgins Clark and Anne Rivers Siddons are the Godzillas of the fiction trade, towering over the scurrying masses who think of Jonathan Franzen as the big time. Even Bridget Jones shrinks to the dimensions of a minor phenom in comparison.

Nevertheless, chick lit is a legitimate and booming genre, perhaps the only new one to spring up in the past 25 years. Most bookstores now devote a shelf, or two or three, to its candy-colored, cartoon-bedizened offerings. What makes these books so appealing and the lad lit novels so not? The chick lit formula has been tweaked to accommodate heroines who are, among other things, black, Latina, middle-aged and married, often to great success. How come the sex change attempted by lad lit turns out to be a tweak too far?

Helen Fielding's innovation was to fuse a fond, satirical take on the contemporary cult of feminine self-improvement to an old-fashioned romance plot. ''Bridget Jones's Diary'' is famously based on Jane Austen's ''Pride and Prejudice,'' but while Fielding's Mr. Darcy isn't too big a departure from Austen's hero, Bridget Jones is no Elizabeth Bennett. Instead, she's the creation of modern women's magazines. She wouldn't be funny -- and to work, chick lit has to be funny -- if she weren't perpetually falling short of the absurdly inhuman standard of perfection to which she aspires. You wouldn't want her to succeed. She'd be insufferable if she did.

The narrators of lad lit carry no such cross. It's not that pop culture has no paragons of masculinity -- the fictional genres aimed at men are staffed with strong, masterful, good-looking, altruistic heroes. It's just that the average guy rarely feels pressured to equal them. He may resent the need to behave with adult decorum around women, but when he transgresses, the results are more likely to be boorish than endearing. So, for example, the narrator of ''Booty Nomad'' can't remember the names of the women he's slept with and gives them nicknames like ''Bendy Girl'' and ''Totem Pole.'' The narrator of ''Love Monkey'' says things like, ''This girl is harder to get into than Rao's.''

The titles of the books alone tip you off to the precarious line they try to walk. (Has anyone but Nick Hornby ever managed it?) ''Monkey'' says rude, animalistic behavior, guys! But we've softened it with ''Love,'' girls! From the unholy mating of ''Sleepless in Seattle'' and ''Jackass'' only misshapen progeny can spring. As for ''Booty Nomad,'' what woman wants to sympathize with the kind of man who thinks of her bed as a pit stop? ''Love Monkey'' and ''Booty Nomad'' have enough similarities to suggest the germ of a subgenre: each is about a 30-ish man pining for an unavailable woman while trying to get into the pants of several others; each features a scene in which a spectacularly crass buddy (put in to make the hero look decent by comparison) drags the narrator to a strip joint.

Lad lit authors may be truthful about young men's preoccupations, but the recipe for great escapist reading does not include ample servings of stuff people would rather not know. The promoters of lad lit confuse the way women exhaustively analyze a boyfriend's smallest words and gestures with genuine curiosity about men's inner lives. What could be mistaken for a process of detection is actually an act of construction on the part of women who already have a pretty good sense of what's going on in the locker room and prefer to imagine something more appetizing. However realistic the chick lit heroine may be, her love object, the brass ring that makes all her misadventures worth suffering, is usually a figure of fantasy, an initially intimidating alpha male who secretly cherishes her wacky antics and inner goodness. He isn't that different, really, from the kind of hero featured in the thrillers, westerns and spy novels read by men. A little less brooding and violent, perhaps, but an honorable and decisive fellow anyone can admire. That's one thing men's genres share with women's: they're all in love with the same guy.

Lad lit is intent on spoiling the fantasy, and this could result in something even worse than the despair of being caught on a cross-country flight with a tiresome book. If female readers allowed themselves to believe that most straight men spend their time holding conversations with their penises, watching the Cartoon Network, fiddling with their rotisserie baseball teams and contemplating the fine art of passing gas on subway trains, romance -- and perhaps even human reproduction itself -- would grind to a halt. So for the good of the species, they're staying away from lad lit, in droves.

The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > The Last Word: Oh Lad, Poor Lad

Friday, May 21, 2004

Lee County Reading Festival 2003

This was the fourth year for this relative newcomer, but it was hard to tell that they hadn't been doing this forever. I met with Lesa Holstine, committee chair for Authors, and she was kind enough to introduce me to her committee members, along with an author or two and some local media in attendance. I got a brief tour and was impressed with the layout. The authors spoke inside of the Harbourside Convention Center (lovely air conditioning) while across the street in Centennial Park, on the water in downtown Ft. Meyers, were tents with additional Florida authors, mostly local; food; Barnes & Noble; and Authors Alley, where authors went after their presentations to sign books. Other than a slight printing problem with the schedule, the day went off without a hitch - or at least that's how it appeared from my perspective. There was a last minute cancellation by Nancy Pickard due to a family medical emergency, but newcomer Mary Anna Evans stepped up on a day's notice and filled in the hole nicely.

The drive across the state went much more quickly than I anticipated, and I arrived with an hour to spare before the first presentation. My first stop was at the Barnes & Noble tent because I couldn't find my copy of Long Lost by David Morrell (an ongoing problem at my house) so I figured I'd just buy one for him to sign. Unfortunately, B&N didn't have a copy either, and seemed rather confused about the whole thing. They did have several of his paperbacks, and his new nonfiction book, Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at his Craft - which, after spending some time with him, I'm thinking is undoubtedly brilliant. But the bookseller helpfully offered that she thought he might be bringing the books with him, so I left. I wandered into the building where all was bustling with preparation for the days events. As I wandered down the hallway, I passed a very small conference room where a man was sitting reading the paper. I did a double take; he looked just like David Morrell, so I popped my head in and asked, and sure enough, it was him. I explained about the B&N snafu and inquired as to whether or not he'd brought the books, which he had not. But he was very nice and offered me a signed promotional postcard for his next book, The Protector, which I was delighted to accept. I got to spend the rest of my hour with David, and with Kelly and Kristy Montee. Who are they, I hear you asking? They are P. J. Parrish, who is not a man, but rather two very lovely sisters who write together, long distance no less. They were all there for the first panel of the day, "Page Turners."

David is actually Dr. David Morrell, with a PhD in American Literature, which he taught for sixteen years in the undergraduate program at the University of Iowa. The man is nothing if not hugely, diversely, talented. He is equally at home speaking of Henry James and William Faulkner as he is of Steve McQueen (he is a fan) and Sylvester Stallone. Did I mention that he also refers to himself as "Rambo's daddy?" David's debut novel was First Blood, which the Rambo movie was based upon. And in case you were wondering, he was happy with Stallone as Rambo, and pleased with the movie, although it does differ from the book.  

David spoke rather passionately about what it takes to be a writer; the drive, the determination, the obsession. He feels that the "how to" can be learned, but that good story telling is just something one is born with. He spoke about the sameness of so many books today and suggested this exercise: take one hundred books of any genre, remove the covers and cover up the title & author, then read the first page. He predicts 95 out of 100 will be similar enough that differentiating between authors would be impossible. A most provocative thought, as was his feeling that the first line of a novel is enough to tell whether or not to continue reading it - and he gave examples. He also brought with him the startling statistic that there are only 2500 fiction writers in this country that are actually earning a living at it. 
David had a very difficult childhood, his father died in WWII, leaving his mother destitute. Her solution was to abandon him to an orphanage at age 4. He is of the school that believes the best fiction writers are a product of a screwed up childhood, which I have heard from other writers as well. His best advice for would-be writers? Read. All in all, a very emotional and enlightening talk by David Morrell.

P. J. Parrish, AKA Kelly (pictured, left) and Kristy (right) shared the microphone and talked about how they actually do their writing. Kristy lives in South Florida, Kelly in Mississippi, so they do a lot of telephoning and emailing back and forth. They work on the concept of the book together, but the actual writing is divided. Kelly's strength is in writing action scenes, while Kristy's is in description. They assign each other chapters, rewrite each other, and if one gets stuck, they simply pass it on to the other and say fix this! They get together for about a month every year and get quite a bit done in that time. They are currently working on a new novel in their Louis Kinkaid series, a follow up to Thicker Than Water (which is near the top of my to-be-read pile!) called Island of Bones. It's set on the west coast of Florida, where there are many small, unpopulated islands, some of which are Indian mounds that are thousands of years old, and some of which, well, who knows what's out there. They were planning on spending the afternoon on Cabbage Key, doing some more research.

Kristy was a journalist for many years with the Sun-Sentinel, and wrote several books on her own before this series with her sister. She wrote what she calls "fat romances" - romance novels but not the little skinny ones in the series. Kelly says she wrote for years, but in secret - she never showed anyone anything. She married and had a few kids and would scribble away, hiding her writing from everyone. When they decided to write together, their publisher determined that for marketing purposes, it would be better if they wrote under one name, as it is most unusual for a mystery to have two names on it. They had recently been to Europe, so Paris sprung to mind, which somehow evolved to Parrish, which seemed race-less, and the initials were decided on to keep the name genderless.

In a rather amusing moment, while David was talking about Rambo, Kelly quickly pulled out one of the Parrish books (sorry, I forget which one it was!) which are set in the 1980s and read a bit about their character pausing outside a video store that had a huge Rambo poster in the window. Her timing was inspired.
The next panel was called Crime Scene: Florida and included Randy Wayne White, Mary Anna Evans and Jonathon King. Jonathon's The Blue Edge of Midnight made my favorites list for 2002, and he actually lives not too far from me, but I have missed every event he's done in my neighborhood for one reason or another, so it was really a thrill for me to finally catch up to him. He spoke about his years as a crime reporter, first in Philadelphia, then his move nineteen years ago to the "quiet" town of Ft. Lauderdale where he landed right in the middle of the cocaine cowboys drug wars. He spoke reverentially of Randy Wayne White, and how inspirational he was. April 14th brings A Visible Darkness, the next book in the Max Freeman series which explores eighty years of Florida history in addition to the suspense. Jonathon pointed out that "in good fiction there's good friction," and he's already eloquently demonstrated it.

Mary Anna Evans was the last minute fill in, and this was her first author event. She was poised and totally professional in speaking about her upcoming mystery, Artifacts. Set on the west coast of Florida, the main character is an archaeologist who digs where she has no business digging, and finds something she has no business finding. She told us how she dragged her family on vacation so she could do research for her book, chartering a fishing boat with no intention of fishing. The charter captain was accommodating and informative and her research/vacation paid off.  

That story led to Randy Wayne White telling an uproarious story about his days as a charter fishing boat captain. He took out an "elderly" couple - in their late 50's, which twenty-five years earlier seemed elderly to White, but once they had gone out a ways, the couple informed him they had no desire to fish. They were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, and wished to be left on a deserted island for a couple of hours. White complied, but when he returned to get them, they were out in the water, up to their necks. Apparently the tide had come in and washed away their clothes. They became much more intimate clients than White had bargained for.  
Mary Anna was seated between White and King, who both have shaved heads. White was delighted to point out to the newbie, Mary Anna, that there are two dangers with writing. The first, he said, is that if you write something, there is a very good chance that someone is going to read it. And the second danger, he continued, is that you lose your hair. My camera faltered here, because the look on her face, under all that beautiful dark curly hair, was priceless.

Randy Wayne White has a new book coming out in May called Everglades, his newest entry into the Doc Ford series. He's been busy with a couple of other things too; he's writing a cookbook and is seeking recipes, so visit and leave a recipe for Randy. He also wrote a documentary called Gift of the Game, which won "Best of the Fest" at the 2002 Woods Hole Film Festival, not that Randy mentioned that; instead he was all excited about seeing Hemingway's home in Cuba. Ernest Hemingway founded a youth baseball team called the GiGi Stars for his son Gregory, and Wayne went to Cuba to find the men who played for Hemingway as boys, and to start a new league with local kids. He brought with him former Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman" Lee, Detroit Tigers pitcher John Warden, and pals Gary “Twig” Terwilliger and Mat Asen. The documentary should air on PBS (?) sometime in May. 

Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict and printing mishap, I didn't get to The Daily Farce panel of Tim Dorsey and Ad Hudler. I've seen Dorsey a few times, and he is one of my favorite speakers. His newest book, The Stingray Shuffle, is part of the continuing saga of serial killer Serge A. Storms and should come with a warning: don't drink anything while reading this book because it will undoubtedly end up coming out of your nose. I was fortunate to run into him in the hall, he was hanging around in case any fans showed up (like me) because of the scheduling problems.

I really wanted to meet Ad Hudler who wrote the ultimate homage to dads everywhere, Househusband, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to shake his hand or punch him in the nose. Turns out he's a real sweetheart of a guy, and he introduced me to his wife and daughter. The first thing I said to his wife was - is he really perfect? And she gave me a resounding answer - NO. I liked him a whole lot better after that. His next book is called Southern Living, and is about three women of the South and will be released in August as a Ballantine trade paperback - perfect for reading groups. If anyone can write a southern novel about women, it's Ad Hudler, and I'm looking forward to it. We chatted until they dragged him away to sign books, but not before his wife took this picture.

The next panel was called The World of Education and featured Kitty Oliver, Salome Thomas-El, and Rubye Graham-Emerson, but I needed to stretch my legs a bit so I just caught the end of it. I met Kitty Oliver (pictured, left) last year at the Broward County Literary Fest, and she is an inspirational and entertaining speaker. I enjoyed her so much that I took a class with her last semester. She wrote the fascinating memoir, Multicolored Memories of a Black Southern Girl. I did get to hear Salome Thomas-El speak about his life, and his first book, I Choose to Stay: A Black Teacher Refuses to Desert the Inner-City. He is an amazing man, very gifted and very dedicated to his kids. He read a short excerpt from his book about how he turned down a promotion to Vice Principal so he could stay with his kids. A lot of folks thought him a fool, but one of his little girls gave him a hug and said thank you, which made it all worthwhile for him. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a big supporter - he donated a nice chunk of change for an after school program, and comes to school to play chess with the kids. Eventually Thomas-El, or "Mr. El" as his kids call him, did take a promotion and is now Principal of an inner city school.  
The last author of the day (for me - there was more but I had a long drive home) was the incomparable Diana Gabaldon. She was greeted by a standing ovation, and seemed delighted by it. She talks like she writes - long, but fascinating - and she went nonstop for almost an hour. She's led a very interesting 51 years, but doesn't look it, which she attributes to sunscreen and good genes.  

Diana grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona and has her B.S. in Zoology, her Masters in Marine Biology, and her PhD in Ecology. She spent several years as a professor and told a funny story about teaching an Anatomy & Physiology class at 8:00 a.m. to the football team, who were mostly asleep. She got their attention by announcing she would be teaching the history of contraception, and recited this little ditty: In days of old/knights so bold/when condoms weren't invented/they wrapped their cocks/in old socks/and babies were prevented. Who knew she was a poet?
She spent many years teaching and doing freelance writing - Fortran programming, software reviews, technical manuals - before turning her hand to fiction. She loves to read mysteries, but had second thoughts about writing one as they involve "plotting" and she wasn't sure she was up for that. She decided on historical fiction because she says, "it's easier to look things up than make things up" and then had to decide on a time period. She was watching an old episode of Dr. Who, which is a British time travel cult phenomenon, when the good Doctor landed his Tardis (time travel machine) in 18th century Scotland. Doctor Who often meets people on his journeys who end up traveling with him, and this time he left with a young Scotsman wearing a kilt. Diana was quite enamored of the kilt, and decided that was the way to go...and so Outlander was born. Except when she started writing it, the female character kept making these smart-ass, definitely-not-18th-century remarks and she wasn't able to stop her, so she added the time travel element. These books contain elements of several genres, and are very long; consequently she almost lost her publishing contract before the first book was printed. Her publisher had a moment of panic when trying to figure out how they would sell the book. Every book store and library shelves them in different places - sci-fi, fantasy, general fiction, historical fiction, or romance. In fact, I didn't read these books for years because Borders shelved them in Romance, and I don't read romance novels. But after hearing so many customers and booksellers rave about them, I finally succumbed and spent a happy week or two plowing through the several thousand pages that comprise the series.

Diana belonged to the Literary Forum on Compuserve, back in the pre-World Wide Web days and would post chunks of her book now and then. She became friendly with several published authors, who encouraged her to get her book published. She got the name of an agent that a few of them used, and one offered to send a letter of introduction. When she finally met the agent, he had her manuscript in his office, and she figured he was going to say thanks, but no thanks. But instead, he told her that he represents Frederic Forsyth and Ayn Rand, and that "they are really great storytellers." Then he put his hand on her manuscript and said, "you are another." Everyone teared up at that story, including Diana.

Diana's writing style is different from any other writer I've ever met. She gets an idea, a "kernel" she calls it, and writes a few sentences. Then she starts rewriting it, and adding to it, and rewriting, and so forth until she gets a "chunk" of about 50-60 pages. Eventually she ends up with several unrelated chunks of book, which she then pieces together like a puzzle. Sometimes she needs to build bridges between the pieces, sometimes they just fit together perfectly, and sometimes they are so far apart they end up in different books. The next book in the Outlander series is now titled A Breath of Snow and Ashes but it won't be out for at least a year or two - she's still writing it. And she promised there will be at least one more book after that. Someone asked about the ghost in the very first book, and she said that the ghost is Jamie, but she wouldn't say any more other than it will be explained in the last chapter of the last book.

For fans who can't wait for the next book, she had these words of wisdom - "you can look at me, or you can have the next book faster; not both." Touring definitely cuts into her writing time. But there is a book coming out in November or December, a companion to the series, not a continuation of it, called Lord John and the Private Matter, and it's historical crime fiction. Lord John Gray is one of the lesser characters in the Outlander series, and a few years ago Diana was asked to contribute a short story to an English collection of historical crime fiction. She didn't have time to delve into another time period, and she was rather fond of Lord John so she decided to use him. The story was called "Hellfire," but unfortunately is now out of print. Her agents suggested she write a couple more short stories about him and put them together as a collection. She loved the idea and started writing. She met with her agents and they asked how the short story was coming along - she told them she was at 85,000 words and was almost done. They pointed out that 85,000 words is the length of most novels, and the "collection of short stories" was evolved into this new book.

Diana was gracious and bright and funny, and it was truly a pleasure to see her. Hats off to the Lee County Library for a fabulous day, and many thanks to Lesa Holstine for inviting me to share in it.


All About Romance: Cover Contest 2003 Worst Results

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

THE LAST WORD; Divorce That Book

By Laura Miller

A READER recently wrote in to say she was ''amused -- vindicated in fact'' -- to discover in this column some disparaging comments about a certain historical novel she'd read. ''I knew,'' she continued, ''like a bad marriage, that I had made a mistake halfway through the first chapter. I was bored, irritated and actively offended,'' but ''brought up in New England on various strictures of the clean-your-plate school, I did skim it from start to finish with no change of heart.''

Yankee resolve is justly celebrated, but this is over the top. Why subject yourself to an irksome book when so many sublime ones are available? Nevertheless, every reader recognizes the threshold my correspondent has yet to cross: the moment when you decide that you don't have to finish every book you start.

For some, it's like a loss of virginity; you never forget the book that defeated your naïve faith in the contract between an author and his or her reader, the promise that your time and effort, even your irritation, will be fairly repaid. (In my case, it was ''A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man''; I had had about enough of Master Dedalus, thank you very much.) For anyone who reads books professionally, that faith dissipated long, long ago, and even the perversely principled stick-to-itiveness that makes a person gut out a book that reminds her of a badly chosen spouse has become a distant memory. Even critics who start out as hungry readers, devouring fat volumes in single, 10-hour sittings, learn to nibble, sampling a chapter at a time from each of the dozens of new books that arrive in the mail every week. It's a warped, unnatural way to read, dictated by uncommon circumstances. ''I now finish no book I start,'' says David Gates, a novelist and critic, ''unless I'm reviewing it. Or if it's wonderful fiction, but I haven't seen a wonderful novel for a long time.''

But surely authors, who aren't responsible for filtering through piles of new releases and who know what it's like to pour years of work into a book that people will pass over with a glance at the cover and the jacket copy, are more generous? Not really. ''I'm very unforgiving,'' says Michael Chabon, the author of ''The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.'' If the book doesn't grab him in a page or two, he's out of there. ''I guess I'm less responsible to books than I should be, but my time for reading is so limited and the competition is so fierce. It's a Darwinian process.'' Being perfectly willing to bail out when the going gets dull is, for many writers, less a matter of lost idealism than an apprehension of mortality. ''As time goes on, I'm more apt to abandon them,'' Diane Johnson, author of ''Le Divorce,'' writes via e-mail. ''I quite often lose books, leave them on buses or whatever,'' which she interprets as her unconscious relieving her of a duty when her conscious mind is playing the martinet.

Even younger writers feel the press of time. Myla Goldberg (''Bee Season'') tells herself that reading a mediocre book ''would mean that I would eventually be on my deathbed having been deprived of the opportunity to read some other book, perhaps one that would have been really fun, or exciting, or even life-changing.'' Chabon gives a book two pages, Goldberg allows it 15 to 50, and a book editor I know says that ''publishing turns you into a person who decides within five pages whether you'll like something or not and who puts it down (whether it's work or personal reading) without one ounce of guilt if the answer is no.'' She added, ''I know someone who swears by nothing more than the first sentence.'' What puts these readers off? The most complained-of quality is ''lyricism,'' the piling on of metaphors, similes and extravagant imagery. Also hated are long passages of description (particularly of weather and geology) and hokey framing devices like ''I remember well the summer I turned 14. . . .'' For the writer, the pitfalls are many, and one imperative rules: ''Your beginning better be just killer,'' Chabon says.

Some might see this as evidence of a culturewide case of literary attention-deficit disorder, but it's hard to justify time wasted in the reading of unloved books. The burden is on the author to prove that what you're holding is something exceptional, and if not in the first few pages, then where? It's also unwise to idealize the passionately committed reading habits of youth; becoming a writer yourself can make you realize how low you once set the bar. ''I had an insatiable appetite for complete narratives,'' says Jonathan Lethem (''The Fortress of Solitude''), remembering the years when he finished every book he started. ''I needed to know what happened. I'd fillet a novel of its story. Now I read more slowly, less to get to the end than for the pleasure of the sentences and paragraphs. Before, it was pure consumer frenzy.''

Others described their need to read to the end of even the worst book in similarly pathological terms: ''an obsession,'' ''a sick sense of loyalty,'' ''masochistic.'' Ayelet Waldman, a novelist (''Daughter's Keeper'') who is married to Michael Chabon, claims to have ruined a family vacation in Hawaii because she refused, with a tenacity her husband found maddening, to jettison a book she loathed. ''The rage that it engendered kept me going,'' she says. ''I have to feel personally betrayed by a book to quit, but sometimes, exactly like some relationships I've had, the betrayal becomes so catastrophic that I keep going back to it.'' Most will persevere with a trying book only if it comes highly recommended. ''It's like dating,'' says Tom Bissell, the author of ''Chasing the Sea.'' ''You need to know if this is serious or just a fling.''

The editor Robert Gottlieb, a prodigious reader, maintains that he never deserts a book, although closer questioning reveals that it takes him quite a bit of ''reading in'' a volume to decide that he's started it. Gottlieb, who says he'll sometimes read an old, forgotten book just because ''I feel sorry for it,'' also believes that he'll get back to the many partly read books in his life eventually, which makes them half-finished, rather than un. The distinction is fine, but useful; by the time fate obliterates the difference, you won't care.

Published: 05 - 09 - 2004 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 27 Review THE LAST WORD; Divorce That Book

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

BOOK FAIRS 2001-2002

Miami Book Fair 2002
The Miami Book Fair is a bibliophile's mecca, so I had a wonderful time. I couldn't help but notice that the street fair was smaller than last year, which was smaller than the year before, which was smaller than the year before that. Borders hasn't had a booth for two years now. No Books-a-Million either. Waldenbooks had a small booth, and Barnes & Noble was still there, but in considerably smaller quarters than previous years. Lots of indies though, including Books & Books, the originator of the fair, and Murder on Miami Beach - which is becoming Murder on the Beach and moving north to Delray Beach, which is in my neck of the woods, making me a very happy BookBitch.

As usual, there were multiple authors speaking at the same time which forced me to make some tough decisions. Then I ran into a scheduling problem when an event didn't start on time. I waited in line for almost half an hour to see Les Standiford, but by the time they opened the doors and it would have gotten started, it would have been time for me to leave to get to the next panel. That was a heartbreaker, but more on that later.

While wandering around the street fair early Saturday morning, I ran into Robert Mykle, author of Killer 'Cane: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928, which devastated the Florida Everglades. If you liked Perfect Storm or Isaac's Storm, check it out. Then I headed for the first panel of the day. Robert Bausch read from The Gypsy Man, a literary thriller set in Virginia in the late 1950's. John Dufresne was next, and he read from Deep in the Shade of Paradise, which is resting comfortably on my dining room table - at least until Thanksgiving, then all bets are off. This is the pseudo-sequel to Louisiana Power & Light, and I think Publisher's Weekly summed it up best: "Imagining John Irving, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor or Max Shulman (or all of the above at once) on peyote juice only begins to evoke the dimension and energy of the seriocomic fantasies of Dufresne at his freewheeling, frenetic best." Dufresne is an experience not to be missed.

The highlight of the day for me was the last speaker on that panel - Tim O'Brien. He is, in my humble opinion, an American treasure, and one of our greatest living writers. The National Book Award winning Going After Cacciato is my personal favorite, not to slight The Things they Carried and In the Lake by the Woods, all Vietnam War books in one way or another. I am totally in awe of this man's brilliance and talent, and it turns out he is also gracious and funny. It was beautiful to see teenagers asking him questions about his books that they had studied, and to see the patience and care that he expressed in answering them. He was slated to read from his latest novel, July, July, which is about several characters and their personal stories that emerge at a college reunion, except he was told to prepare for a twenty minute reading. Upon arrival at the fair, he was told to keep it to ten minutes, which he felt was inadequate to do justice to his book, so instead he just told us about the book. He also told a very funny story about the inspiration of one of the characters in July, July.

It seems he received a twenty page, handwritten letter from a woman who wrote him the most bizarre story. She said that she had met a man and he told her that he was a writer using the pseudonym Tim O'Brien. He kept up the charade for a very long time, coming up with more excuses and more lies to cover up than he ever bargained for. Eventually they got engaged and were to be married. Every now and then she would question him, because she never saw him write for one thing, but he always had an answer for her. One day she borrowed one of Tim O'Brien's books from the library, and confronted him with the picture. He told her that they were writing partners, and eventually he told her that the partner was gay and they'd had a fight about that, so he signed over all his rights to the name Tim O'Brien to his partner. She kept on believing, until shortly before they were to be married when he broke down and admitted the entire thing had been a lie. She immediately ended the relationship. Eventually she wrote Mr. O'Brien this story, addressing it to "the real Tim O'Brien." Enclosed with her letter was a letter of apology from her former fiancé, which inspired a character in the new novel who likewise gets caught up in a lie.  

An interesting question was raised about the impending war in the Middle East. While stating that he didn't wish to get into politics, Mr. O'Brien also suggested that our fearless leaders put their bodies where there mouths are. All in all, Tim O'Brien was an entertaining and enlightening speaker.

The next panel I went to began with a laugh; Cassandra King read from her new novel, The Sunday Wife. This is a book about a preacher's wife in a small Southern town. She read a hilarious scene about a meeting of church ladies trying to get some "pornographic" novels banned from the high school - books by some famous pornographers like Mark Twain, Joseph Heller and Pat Conroy (who also happens to be the author's husband.)  

Following Ms. King was Mark Dunn, author of Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable, and one of the most creative and original novels I've ever read. He explained the progression of the book, and how difficult it was to write, and how it was even more difficult to find a publisher for it. This is a book written entirely in letters. It's set in a small town whose most famous resident invented the pangram, "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog." There is a statue erected in his honor, along with the pangram. One day the "Z" falls off, and the town leaders decide that it is some sort of sign, and forbid the residents from using the letter "Z" in writing or in speech. Then another letter falls off. And another. And eventually there are only a handful of letters left that are legal to use, forcing the townspeople who remain to become quite creative in speaking and writing. It was very interesting hearing the letters read aloud. The first letter read was from the night before the "Z" was banned, and he ended with the last letter of the book that was written with the scant half dozen letters that were left, making it most difficult to read aloud, but also pointing out the stark simplicity of his story. I ran into him a little later in the day and we chatted. He was delighted to hear how much I enjoyed his book, and was very personable. His newest book is called Welcome to Higby, and was just selected as a New and Notable book by USA Today, and they have posted an excerpt.

The last author to speak on that panel was Robert Olen Butler. I've never read any of his works, but he has won numerous awards and was an eloquent and amusing speaker. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University, and I truly envy his students. He read from his latest novel, Fair Warning. This book started out as a short story commissioned by Francis Ford Coppola. Apparently Mr. Coppola met Sharon Stone when she was working as an auctioneer for a fundraising event, and was quite taken with her. He commissioned Mr. Butler to write a story about a woman auctioneer, which he did and it was published in Mr. Coppola's literary magazine, Zoetrope. The idea lingered, however, and came to fruition as a full length novel with this book. Every year at the Fair I generally find an author whose work I've never read, but intrigues me, and this year was no exception. I enjoyed the reading Mr. Butler gave, and look forward to exploring all his writing.

After a brief stop at the food court, which was also an abbreviation from previous years, I headed over to see Les Standiford. His newest book is not a mystery, but rather a fascinating look at a small piece of Florida history called Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean. It's a quick read, and one that is most enjoyable. Speaking with Mr. Standiford was Tony Horwitz, author of Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, which I am dying to read, and Philip Gourevitch, author of A Cold Case, which is a true crime book that I would have liked to have heard about. Unfortunately, due to David Rockefeller running long and the auditorium not being available on time, I had to leave for the next panel. I was also very sorry to miss the only mystery panels of the day with Ridley Pearson (Art of Deception) and Gregg Andrew Hurwitz, who I haven't read, although Do No Harm is in my to-be-read pile, and another one with Karin Slaughter (Kisscut, which I didn't love although I did love her first book, Blindsighted) and Carolina Garcia-Aguilera. There were several mystery authors scheduled to speak on Sunday, but I had tickets to see The Lion King, so I was limited to Saturday only. I really need to figure out how to be in several places at once, and I'll have it all covered.
The last panel of the day was entitled New Fiction, and ended with Robert Clark, author of Love Among the Ruins. He read a wonderful excerpt of this literary novel about young love set in the late 1960's in Minnesota.

The reason I was so determined to see this panel was Leif Enger, author of Peace Like a River, which my reading group will be discussing next week. Leif (whose name rhymes with "safe" - I asked) was a very witty and charming speaker. He has spent eighteen years as a reporter for National Public Television in Minnesota, and told a great story about an Associated Press reporter there. It seemed that this reporter always got the best stories, including one from a memorable 4th of July that Leif just loved. It was a very busy news day, with a horrendous storm destroying a huge chunk of a national park, and various other tragedies. But the story that Leif liked best was about a boy who held on to a firecracker for a second too long - and had his finger blown off. This sort of thing happens pretty much every 4th of July, but the kicker to this story was that the finger was never found. Leif was totally intrigued with that, comparing it to the phantom hitchhiker type stories that have become the stuff of urban legends, and used that story on all his newscasts that day. Except shortly after that story hit the newswire, the AP reporter responsible for it came forward and admitted that he made it up. And shortly after that, he admitted he'd been making up stories for twelve years. It seemed like this was the impetus for Leif to turn his hand to fiction.

Peace Like a River is a gentle, flowing book about a family with all sorts of problems. The protagonist is a young boy named Reuben, who struggles with asthma. Reuben believes his father can perform miracles, and there are touches of magic realism throughout the novel. Reuben has an older brother named Davey, who gets into some serious trouble, and a younger sister named Swede, who I just fell in love with. Swede is a nine year old girl who loves reading the westerns of Zane Grey, and writes beautifully metered cowboy poetry. Leif told us that it took several years to write, and that he wrote it for his family; he has a son with asthma. I am grateful that he got to share it with the rest of the world. I asked him if he had anything he'd like to say to my reading group, and he said to tell them that "every word of it is true."

Ann Packer, author of the NY Times bestselling novel The Dive from Clausen's Pier, was also on this panel. If you've read the book, all I can say is that Ann was exactly like I pictured Carrie, her main character. This is a very interesting book, and is perfect for reading group discussions, and she read quite a long bit of it. Carrie is engaged to Michael, but soon realizes that she's not quite as much in love with him as she had originally thought. Memorial Day weekend finds them on their annual picnic, and Michael dives into the lake. But the water is exceptionally low this year, and he breaks his neck. Carrie stays by his side while he remains comatose, but she knows that if he survives, he will be a quadriplegic. One night she takes off, abandoning him and her responsibilities. It's so easy to judge, but the beauty of this book is that it dramatizes varying viewpoints.
Before heading home, I stopped by the Florida Mystery Writers of America booth. Christine Kling, author of Surface Tension (the book I'm giving away this month) was scheduled to sign books late Saturday afternoon. But when I got there, Joanne Sinchuk (of the aforementioned Murder on the Beach) told me that the fair wouldn't allow her to do the signing because she was scheduled to speak on a panel on Sunday, so she wasn't allowed to do anything else. (And bravo to Ballantine, who managed to get copies of the book to the Fair even though the official publication date wasn't until 11/26.) I was disappointed because I wanted to meet her and tell her how much I enjoyed her book. Now here's the kicker: "Pages" magazine also had a booth at the street fair, and they were giving away the current issue with Scott Turow on the cover. They had a big sign stating that he would be there at 2:30 to do a signing. But Scott Turow was scheduled to speak on a panel on Sunday, just like Christine Kling. Now I don't know if he actually did the signing or not, because at 2:30 I was waiting in line for Les Standiford, but it seems to me if he was able to do it, then she should have been able to do it too. Why would they allow a best-selling author to do what he wants and not let a first time published author who really could use the extra PR not do it (yeah, yeah, never mind.) That's the sort of thing that drives me nuts. I hope somebody can tell me that they made Turow cancel too, and I will feel much better about that.

Broward County Literary Fest 2002

It was my privilege and pleasure to be able to attend this event. Kudos to BYBLOS, the fundraising arm of the Broward County Library System who arranged this Day of Literary Lectures. It was held at the beautiful new library at Nova Southeastern University. This library is unique in that it is believed to be the first such joint venture in the United States between a private institution and a public library system.

The day was divided into thirds, allowing me to see a variety of authors, but sadly forcing me to miss some as well. The morning panel was called "American Dream". The first speaker was John Byrne, co-author along with Jack Welch of JACK: STRAIGHT FROM THE GUT, the best-selling autobiography of the man who runs General Electric. John is a writer for Business Week, and he took a year's sabbatical to write this book. The Wall Street Journal story about the reporter from Harvard Business Review resigning because of her involvement with Jack had just broke and that was the first question put to the author. He danced around it, saying that they had a "relationship of sorts" but negating to specify anything further. If you're not a subscriber to the WSJ, read the story about it.

Next up was Homer Hickam, author of THE ROCKET BOYS (renamed October Sky after the film) and his newest book, WE ARE NOT AFRAID. It's an inspirational tome he wrote after 9/11, putting his Coalwood, West Virginia spin on the fears generated since that horrific event.

Up next was the very young and very interesting Ana Menendez, author of the short story collection, "IN CUBA I WAS A GERMAN SHEPHERD" which is the punch line to a joke in the title story. Sorry, you'll have to read the book to get the whole joke!
That panel wound up with Lynn Sherr, the famed ABC correspondent from 20/20, with her new book, AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL. This books tells the history of the song that some people, Ms. Sherr included, believe should be the National Anthem. Ms. Sherr, the apparent queen of understatement, made an impassioned speech about the TV news industry in response to a question about the whole Ted Koppel/David Letterman debacle, indicating that there are some people in management at ABC that are "not very nice."

The next panel I attended was called "Crime Stoppers". This was a tough decision, I had to forego seeing writers like Art Buchwald, Susan Griffin, Frank Deford, Delia Ephron and Jennifer Egan. But the main impetus for my even shlepping down there was to meet George Pelecanos. He spoke eloquently about the problems his city, Washington D.C., faces - the inner city problems, not the ones on Capitol Hill. I was a bit troubled by RIGHT AS RAIN, it had an almost a preachy feel to it at times in dealing with racism and he pulls no punches with the life of the people living in the urban blighted-Marion Berry neighborhoods. But after hearing him speak, I think that is his goal, he wants people to feel uncomfortable as it really gets the point across. He was a very thought-provoking speaker. He told us that his newest book, HELL TO PAY, is based on an actual incident that happened there and the book is dedicated to the little boy that lost his life. This book has been generating amazing reviews (not only from the BookBitch) and lots of publicity. Check out the terrific articles about him in USA Today and the NY Times. And on a more personal note, his pictures do not do him justice, he's a hottie!

Elaine Viets actually opened this panel, and she was very funny. If she ever decides to give up writing humorous suspense, she would do well in stand-up comedy. Her books are set in St. Louis, including her last one called DOC IN THE BOX. In this book she gets to kill off every doctor that ever left her waiting while they finished a round of golf, that didn't return her phone calls, that patronized her when she deemed to ask a question, and, well, you get the idea. She lives in South Florida and says that her next book will be set here as there are only a limited number of unusual story ideas found in St. Louis, while South Florida is an never-ending source! I am looking forward to it.

Phillip Margolin, author of legal thrillers like THE ASSOCIATE and GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN, was very entertaining. I saw him just a few weeks ago at the Martin County Library but he did not repeat himself at all here. He is a very interesting man who still seems amazed by his success. He says that he can't help but think that writing is just a hobby, albeit "the hobby that swallowed" his law practice. He retired from the law to write full time.

Laura Lippman, winner of the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony and Agatha awards, was the other "Crime Stopper" on the panel. Her popular mysteries are set in her hometown of Baltimore. She was an intelligent, engrossing speaker and I look forward to reading all of her "Tess Monaghan" books, starting with BALTIMORE BLUES through the last one, IN A STRANGE CITY. The next book in the series, THE LAST PLACE, comes out in September.

The last panel of the day was called "Below the Mason-Dixon Line". I figured this would be a giant step towards overcoming my prejudice (read: ignorance) against Southern literature. This was a most impressive panel with an eclectic combination of different Southern accents! Robert Inman, author of the wonderfully reviewed CAPTAIN SATURDAY, grew up in Elba, Alabama. He spent most of his working life as a TV journalist in Charlotte, NC, until he retired in 1996 to write full time.  
Robert Morgan, winner of the Oprah lottery with GAP GREEK has a new book out, a sequel set twenty years later entitled THIS ROCK. Morgan is a native of the mountains of North Carolina and according to his publisher is "widely regarded as the poet laureate of Appalachia". He currently teaches English at Cornell University.

Next up was the amazing Kitty Oliver, author of Multicolored Memories of a Black Southern Girl, a native of Jacksonville, Florida. This book is her memoir, and in it she talks about being one of five African-American freshman that integrated the University of Florida (student population: 18,000) as well as being the first African-American journalist at the Miami Herald. She is a good jazz singer, which she demonstrated, and claims to make a mean jambalaya! I was awed by this all around inspiring, talented woman who is currently teaching a class in nonfiction/autobiographical creative writing at Florida Atlantic University.
The last speaker of the day was also the most pivotal for me: Rick Bragg, born and raised in the hills of Alabama and the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist for the NY Times, author of ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN' (which is required reading in high schools all over the United States, including my neighborhood) and his newest book, AVA'S MAN. I have literally sold hundreds of copies of ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN' but I've never read it. He spoke about his family, (both books are memoirs), and about growing up in the South. Then he quoted the beginning of ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN' and simply blew me away.  

At the end of his talk, he asked for questions from the audience. The last one to speak was a woman who stood up and said that she was from NY and never really cared for Southern literature. She told him that a good friend of hers was from Alabama, and over the years had sent her various books but none of them ever really changed her attitude. Until his book.  

"Rick Bragg writes like a man on fire. And All Over but the Shoutin' is a work of art. While reading this book, I fell in love with Rick Bragg's mother, Margaret Bragg, a hundred times. I felt like I was reading one of the prophets in the Old Testament when reading parts of this book. I thought of Melville, I thought of Faulkner. Because I love the English language, I knew I was reading one of the best books I've ever read. By explaining his life to the world, Rick Bragg explained part of my life to me. You feel things in every line this man writes. His sentences bleed on you. I wept when the book ended. I never met Rick Bragg in my life, but I called him up and told him he'd written a masterpiece, and I sent flowers to his mother." --Pat Conroy

After the lecture, I met Rick Bragg and told him that I could be that lady from he signed my book for me and I am in the process of reading it, a few beautiful, emotional pages at a time. It bears careful reading. The language is mellifluous and the story is spellbinding. I feel most fortunate to have found this book, and this author, and I humbly beg the readers of this site to do likewise. 

BookMania 2002

BookMania is an annual Martin County, Florida tradition and they do a superb job. I wasn't able to spend the entire weekend but I enjoyed a talk by Eileen Goudge and her fourth husband, Sandy Kenyon. The way they met goes into the "truth is stranger than fiction" file. He interviewed her by phone for his radio show, and afterwards she invited him to call again. He did, they dated by phone for a while before actually meeting, and when they finally did it was love at first sight. They recently celebrated their fifth anniversary.

The crime panel discussion was the reason I attended though. The legal thriller maven Phillip Margolin, the veddy British Peter Robinson and the supposedly-reclusive genius Dennis Lehane spent an hour and a half discussing their work and their genre. The panel was led by Scott Eyman, books editor of the Palm Beach Post. One of the fascinating facts revealed by Peter Robinson was that he does not use an outline to write his books, just starts writing and often doesn't know "who done it" until he is three quarters of the way through! He also revealed that he wrote one book that was set in Los Angeles, but it was only published in Canada and is most difficult to find.

On the other hand, Phillip Margolin revealed that he does very extensive outlines, 29 pages long for THE ASSOCIATE and 68 pages long for WILD JUSTICE, which is my personal favorite (and his!)

Dennis Lehane admitted that he had a commercial light at the end of his tunnel while writing SACRED, and it is his least favorite of all his books, while he is most proud of GONE, BABY, GONE and MYSTIC RIVER. Clint Eastwood bought the film rights to MYSTIC RIVER and production is supposed to start at the end of this year. Finally, if you've ever wondered what writers actually read, Dennis highly recommended a mystery called THE BLUE PLACE by Nicola Griffith and THE LAST GOOD KISS by James Crumley. All in all, it was a lovely afternoon.

Miami Book Fair 2001

I'm still basking in the glow of the 18th annual Miami Book Fair. I was thrilled to be able to spend the day there Sunday, November 18, 2001 and I got to hear some great authors speak.  This fair is international in scope; in fact several booths were devoted to consulates of various countries. It lasts a little over a week, with a series of lectures all week culminating in a three day street fair that also encompasses several lectures. The most difficult part is in choosing who to see, as there are usually three or more lectures going on at the same time.  

I couldn't help but notice that there were far fewer booths at the street fair than there have been in the past. Borders was absent, which saddened me. Most of the big publishers had booths, some smaller presses as well, and B&N, Walden and a handful of independents like Books & Books and Murder on Miami Beach. Deals abound; I was able to pick up Leif Enger's book, PEACE LIKE A RIVER, for less than half price. There is something to be said for hitting the fair on the last day! The rep assured me that it was the best book he'd read all year, and I've heard that from a lot of other people who don't have quite as much vested in that statement.

After spending the first couple of hours checking out the booths, it was time for the first lecture of the day. I had to pass up Nicholas Basbanes (PATIENCE & FORTITUDE), Michael Pollan (BOTANY OF DESIRE) and a poetry reading, among others, to see a panel discussion entitled "Dark and Dangerous" featuring Tim Dorsey, T. Jefferson Parker and James Grippando. Tim was the opening speaker and was hilarious, admitting that at times he felt like he was "morphing into Carrot Top". He gets my vote for the guy I'd most like to go drinking with, but I digress. He read from his upcoming book TRIGGERFISH TWIST (May 2002), a prequel to FLORIDA ROADKILL which I adored. I think Dorsey's books can best be summarized as humor with dead bodies.  

I've never read T. Jefferson Parker, but he was very interesting. His books are set in southern California, which is his home. He spoke about where he got his ideas from and told a great story about his latest, SILENT JOE. He said he saw a man on the boardwalk, holding a baby. The man's face was horribly disfigured, but that infant, his daughter, was looking at him with such unconditional love that it started his wheels spinning. From Booklist: "...Parker offers another compelling take on one of his favorite themes: damaged souls forced to confront their own inner demons."

James Grippando gave an enlightening and moving talk about one of the results of the ongoing civil war in Columbia; the staggering number of kidnappings. A KING'S RANSOM was inspired by his prodigious research into this nightmare. A few years ago I read FOUND MONEY, which was excellent and this new one sounds even better.
The next hour found another tough decision. I skipped Stephen Ambrose (THE WILD BLUE), and David Rackoff (FRAUD) to go to a lecture entitled "Powerful Voices" featuring James Hall, Peter Moore Smith, and a man I hold in the highest esteem possible, Andrew Vachss. 

James Hall opened the lecture with bird calls and monkey sounds. There is more to this man that meets the eye! He then proceeded to read us a most interesting piece he had written for the NY Times, A Fireball Too Far. He also read a bit from his upcoming thriller, BLACKWATER SOUND (January 2002), and it sounded terrific. I am looking forward to reading it. 
Next up was Peter Moore Smith. I'd not heard of him or his book, Raveling, which is his first novel. He didn't speak much but spent way too much time reading from his book, to the point of being rude I'm sorry to say. 

Andrew Vachss. I will try not to gush but consider yourself warned. It's not just his writing, which is so compelling and gritty and worthy enough of praise. He is a lawyer with a unique clientele; he only represents children, who generally don't have much in the way of disposable income. The books pave the way for Andrew Vachss to perform his life's work; to try and help children.  

When I first read him I checked out his website. His bio is completely overwhelming. I had so many questions for him, but I was too intimidated to even write him. When I found out he was going to be at the fair, I knew I would go hear his lecture, but I didn't even bother to bring his books to be signed. I am far from shy, but I didn't think I would have enough nerve to actually talk to him.  
I haven't read his newest thriller, PAIN MANAGEMENT, but I will. I am reading him in order and doing it slowly, with lots of fluff in between. He said he was unable to read his book because the legal disclaimers from the publisher were so numerous, due to the content, that if he read them all he wouldn't have time to read the book anyway. So instead, he spoke a bit about the abused children in this country and how he got involved in trying to help them. In that brief speech he was so passionate and so eloquent that I found myself crying at times, yet he also made me laugh. He was simply mesmerizing.  

Apparently there are people who attend these things simply for the autographs, for when we came out of the lecture there was already a huge line of people waiting. I left to have lunch. But sometimes fate has a way of stepping in. As I stepped off the escalator on my way to attend the next lecture, there he was, just having finished up, and I practically walked right into him. I figured it was meant to be so I babbled something about being totally in awe of his work or some such thing. He was gracious and charming and oh-so-sexy and I am still floating...
I grabbed a quick lunch (the food is surprisingly good and varied) and headed over to the last lecture of the day for me. The 3:00 hour was the worst kind of torture, choosing between Dave Barry (DAVE BARRY HITS BELOW THE BELTWAY) with Jeffrey Toobin (TOO CLOSE TO CALL), Edna Buchanan (YOU ONLY DIE TWICE) with Laura Lippman (IN A STRANGE CITY) or the panel I headed for called "Stellar Fiction", with Chip Kidd, Mark Salzman and Rosario Ferre.

I walked in during Ms. Ferre's reading of her book, FLIGHT OF THE SWAN. I chose this particular lecture because of Chip Kidd. Regarded as the world's foremost book jacket designer, this was his first attempt to create the inside of a book. Some of his more famous covers include Jurassic Park, Geek Love, American Rhapsody, and the super-hero coffee table book Batman Collected, among many, many others. His terrific novel THE CHEESE MONKEYS was very different and the most creatively designed novel I've ever seen. He read one of my favorite parts, and read it well, dramatically, bringing all his quirky characters to life.  

Last up was Mark Salzman. I had heard of him, but hadn't read any of his books. He was my find of the day; brilliant, achingly funny and totally fascinating. He is exceedingly accomplished and experienced.

I ran out immediately and bought his newest book, LYING AWAKE. It's about a Carmelite nun who has a form of temporal-lobe epilepsy that causes her to have visions of God. His meticulous research and his way with words had me hooked. And in a delicious bit of irony, it appears that Chip Kidd designed the cover!
I came home and got my hands on his first book, a Pulitzer prize nominated nonfiction memoir of his years in China called IRON AND SILK, which I'm following up with LOST IN PLACE: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia, another memoir.  
All in all, a truly memorable day.  

Monday, May 17, 2004

Who reads the book of love?
Book group for singles has everything but the guys
By Ron Fletcher, [Boston] Globe Correspondent | May 16, 2004

Single readers with no interest in being left on a shelf gathered on a recent weeknight at Village Books to make a solitary pleasure social.

"A customer had heard about a book club we were sponsoring that was made up entirely of men," said Annie Bauman, the co-owner of the store. "She said she wanted in.

"It turned out that that club was a closed one -- and made up of married men. So, we started talking about a club for singles. The response was overwhelming. Here we are."

Thirty- and forty-somethings browsed among the book-lined walls, enjoying red wine, cheese, and the softly playing music of the English duo Everything But the Girl. The tune was tinged with irony, though, when the 7 p.m. start time ticked by and the shop filled with everyone but the guys.

But Bauman had anticipated what she called "a slanted ratio" and had come up with a proposal: a $5 store gift certificate for any woman who brought along a male friend.

"It's common practice to offer an incentive when seeking some sort of gender balance," said Bauman. "One customer told me if she had a guy to bring then she wouldn't be here."

Of the 30 book lovers who pre-registered for the event, about half made this May 5 opening night: 12 women and 3 guys, each arriving of his own volition.

Bauman assured the slanted ratio that there would be better gender balance at the next meeting.

"This night isn't so much about meeting someone else," said Bauman, a wife and mother-to-be, "but a way of expanding a network of single people, of people at a similar stage in their lives."

The single women took the news in stride. Asked to put a price on the value of male company, Janis Khorsi of Roslindale laughed.

"You might have to offer $25 to get a guy into a bookstore these days," said the Oregon native and WGBH employee.

Sporting nametags bearing the title of the last book they read, singles scanned the shelves, lauding one author and pooh-poohing another. A woman who had recently read "Le Divorce" chatted with a guy claiming to have read "Sophie's Choice."

Elsewhere women turned to women to joke about that rare species: the single male reader.

"I'm not surprised that it's mostly women," a recent reader of "I Don't Know How She Does It" told "Life of Pi." "My ex-husband didn't read. He did not read. I couldn't share anything with him. He was into TV. I could never again be with someone who doesn't want to read."

I wanted to tell her that men do read, but that many prefer to do so the same way George Thorogood took his drink and Henry David Thoreau took his walks: alone.

I wanted to tell her how after the opening game of my hockey season last fall, Chris Hobson, a teammate not above an on-ice donnybrook, pulled me aside at T's Pub and spoke in hushed tones.

"Hey, Ronnie Boy," began Hobby. "What do you think about starting a book club this year? We could invite the Crawdaddy. You know, just the three of us. You name the book."

I agreed sotto voce and told him I'd have a title for him by our next game. We clinked beer glasses.

The book club, alas, remained a "pints dream," despite the fact that each of us voiced good intentions and purchased Ian McEwan's "Atonement," a title I went on to read with another all-male book club: the roomful of high school juniors I teach.

"Fear of commitment" provides a convenient but facile explanation for why three guys couldn't orchestrate the reading and discussion of something that takes time, a novel.

Yet I don't imagine that the club would've happened had we chosen a short story -- or a haiku. Seems that informality and spontaneity trump A Plan when it comes to guys and books. Between hands in poker or while suiting up for a hockey tilt, guys have been known to mention an author's work, yet they seem to need the freedom to digress, to punctuate the serious with the trivial, talk of metaphors with talk of models.

But I digress. Back at the Village Books's cheese and crackers, one intrepid man's stock seemed to be plummeting as he extolled the virtues of a book on serial killers to an incredulous stranger.

Bauman unwittingly came to the rescue of that pair when she asked the group to listen to a talk on building the perfect book club. The advice eerily paralleled a successful relationship, with its lauding of chemistry, commitment, and communication.

"Be passionate, speak honestly," advised Bauman, "but come to the table capable of defending your emotions one way or another. That leads to discussion and that makes this thing work."

After the talk, Khorsi took the books-romance analogy a step further, describing her last date as "definitely non-fiction," someone she said she would title, "I, Narcissus."

"My last date had four pints in two hours," added Ms. Le Divorce, who declined to give her name. "It was like a date with Charles Bukowski -- without the poetry."

Ed Langley, one of the trinity of men -- and not a fan of serial killer prose -- was unaware of the going rate of his Y chromosome.

"Five dollars?" he said, with a laugh. "That's very undervalued."

By the exit, Khorsi bundled up for the cool evening. Despite the night's lack of knights, she remained optimistic about the next meeting. "You never know who will be there," she said. "Could be Mr. Right -- holding a book." / News / Local / Mass. / Who reads the book of love?

Author profile: Jim Born
By Lona O'Connor, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sunday, May 16, 2004

If there was an instant when the proverbial light bulb went on, when the idea for writing a novel was born, then that light would have been a flashlight in an unmarked police car, in the middle of the night.

During endless hours of surveillance as a federal drug officer, Jim Born found plenty of time to read by flashlight: Tom Clancy, Larry McMurtry, James Michener, history books.

Finally, he looked up from his reading and said to himself, "I think I'll write something."

It illuminated the moment when Jim Born, agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, began a 14-year morph into James O. Born, crime fiction writer.

Now, according to those who know, he's headed up the charts -- with a bullet.

Born's first novel, Walking Money, is due next month from Putnam.

A West Palm Beach native with 18 years in law enforcement, Born is keeping his day job in Fort Lauderdale as supervisor of special agents at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. But his future looks brighter than a police spotlight.

"Jim Born is the real thing," wrote Elmore Leonard in a blurb for the cover of Walking Money.

It's a rare compliment from the author of Get Shorty and dozens of other popular crime novels, according to Peter Rubie, Born's agent.

"Elmore does not give (book jacket) quotes," Rubie said. "If you can find more than two, I'd be surprised. But he knew this guy's work and felt satisfied that it was of a certain quality."

It's true that Leonard has a soft spot for Born.

"I'm so happy he stuck with it and made it," Leonard said, calling from Beverly Hills, where he was visiting the set of Be Cool, the latest movie based on one of his novels. Leonard said he helped Born with punctuation and dialogue when Born was starting out. "But he had that perspicacity to stick to it, and go right back to work," Leonard said.

Born, 43, who lives in suburban Lake Worth, drew on his prolific experience in high-profile crime cases, collected over his years working for the DEA and the FDLE.

His career highlights read like a list of instances where truth is stranger than fiction: He was a police diver in the Everglades after the 1996 ValuJet crash. He was part of the hunt for Andrew Cunanan, who shot designer Gianni Versace on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion. He worked on the anthrax investigation in Boca Raton and went undercover to investigate the Ku Klux Klan.

It was all fodder for Walking Money. Set in Miami, the novel is titled for a satchelful of ill-gotten cash that keeps moving from hand to dishonest hand -- with bad things befalling just about everyone who handles it. Somehow Bill Tasker, the detective hero of the tale, ends up framed for murder.

Neil Nyren, Born's editor, thinks he has what it takes to build a following in the world of mystery book readers.

"He's very smart about what he needs to be doing and he's eager to learn," said Nyren, who liked Born's work so well that he first gave him a two-book deal, then made it a four-book deal.

Even taking his real-life experiences into account, Born's arrival in the big time makes success sound infuriatingly easy. He is a self-taught writer who doesn't even suffer from writer's block. He's ahead of schedule on his next novel and fleshing out outlines for three more.

"When I'm running or at the gym or playing tennis with the kids, I'm working out where the story is going," he said.

Born, whose father was the late Palm Beach County Circuit Judge John Born, sees himself as someone who just keeps plugging away. He's a guy with two black belts in karate who likes to work and is determined to succeed.

"That's the cop side of him," said his friend Mike Sheehan, a Florida Highway Patrol lieutenant. "You want success, you don't want failure. We're a prideful bunch."

Leonard met Born through a mutual friend, the late Circuit Judge Marvin Mounts, the model for Leonard's fictional Maximum Bob. A stickler for realism, Leonard and his researcher, Greg Sutter, started calling Born for answers to detailed questions.

For Out of Sight, a novel and later a movie about a Florida prison jailbreak, Born's knowledge of the 1993 prison escape at the Glades Correctional Institution in Belle Glade came in handy. For Get Shorty, Sutter wanted to know how someone could sneak a gun into an airport.

After Born decided to try writing, he began making notes when he had time. He squirreled away details, such as the little old lady on the porch at the retirement home for greyhounds west of the Palm Beach International Airport. She showed up in Born's still-unpublished novel, Snitch.

He started writing Snitch when his wife, Donna, was pregnant with their son, John, 14 years ago. After John was born in 1989, he wrote late at night or during his son's nap time.

He learned as he wrote. Sutter suggested how to structure his first draft into chapters and scenes. He kept getting rejection letters, but the rejections got more encouraging as time passed. He hired a professional editor to polish the book.

"Jim could take criticism, and I'm good at criticizing," Sutter said. "I went at it like a chain saw. I told him, 'Hang in there, it'll happen.' (When he got a publishing deal), we were giddy for him."

When Born finished Walking Money, it got a warmer reception from agents than Snitch. About a year ago, he received a phone call from New York agent Peter Rubie. After years of rejection letters, this was another light-bulb moment.

"It immediately dawned on me that nobody had ever called me to reject me," said Born.

Within weeks, Born signed a deal with Putnam, and shortly thereafter started showing up at mystery writers' conventions, making friends with writers, asking questions. Meanwhile, Sutter recommended him for a job providing technical assistance for the short-lived cop show, Karen Sisco, based on the Jennifer Lopez character in Out of Sight.

Born's characters are often crusty and politically incorrect. Their adventures are likewise salted with the gallows humor of law enforcement.

"In this business, you just constantly look at the lighter side," said Sheehan. "It keeps us mentally on track."

Born is breezy and relaxed, married to his FSU college sweetheart, a family man living on a lake in a placid suburban neighborhood.

"My life is boring because I got everything I wanted," he said.

But as publicists line up book signings and interviews for the launch of Walking Money, Born senses he is on the cusp of something very different.

His second-biggest thrill so far was finding the book mentioned on a Japanese mystery fans' Web site. The best, though, was seeing his book cover advertised on the Wal-Mart Web site.

"Come on, I'm a redneck from Palm Beach County," he joked. "Wal-Mart is the Holy Grail."

Being on the cusp also has its humbling moments. A radio interviewer accidentally called him "James Hall" (another Florida mystery writer) on the air. And his wife jokes, "Hemingway, will you take out the garbage?"

There has been no big celebration, no big changes. He did indulge in a truck -- a used, gray, Dodge Dakota pickup he bought from a friend. It took some cajoling for him give up his 11-year-old truck.

"We had been begging him to get a new truck," said his wife. "The one he had was in such bad shape, the neighbors didn't want to borrow it."

Donna is already planning a summer "pickup book tour," day trips to book signings around Florida, with John and daughter, Emily, 10.

"They need to know that Dad plugged away for 14 years before he met with any success," she said. "He just stuck with it."

Author profile: Jim Born: "Moore Lets Bush Be Star of 'Fahrenheit'"

Sunday, May 16, 2004

BookMania 2003 and
The Spinach Philosophy of Book Selection is my term for the way books are selected at some libraries. For instance, when The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet, translated by Adriana Hunter, was first offered up for purchase, I recommended it not because it was well reviewed, because it was not. I recommended it because of all the buzz - I knew there would be a demand for it. My supervisor placed it on her order, but the branch manager squashed it. Not one of the 14 branches in the Palm Beach County Library system ordered it, and I can understand why she didn't want to be the first. But we have a contract with a vendor that automatically ships us a set number of copies of any book that lands on the NY Times best seller list. Sure enough, the Millet book hit two weeks after publication and eventually hit the library shelves.

Unfortunately, we don't have that automatic ordering process in place for the NY Times Children's best seller list. A book has been on that list for quite some time now which the Palm Beach County Library System refuses to purchase. Why? They don't like the title. This particular book has been very well reviewed and has been cited as a great book to bring "reluctant readers" to the table. The title of this oh-so-offensive children's book? Walter the Farting Dog, by William Kotzwinkle. Which brings me to my rant on the Spinach Philosophy.

The Spinach Philosophy works this way: we don't provide the public with what it wants, we buy what is good for them. We decide what is good for them, and even more importantly, what is bad for them, then we avoid the bad no matter what. No matter that this is a public library, supported entirely by tax dollars that are paid by the public we serve. They might love French fries, but everyone knows they are bad for you, so instead, we offer you spinach. Have a lovely new reissue of the Black Stallion, a fine piece of literature to be sure, but does it hold the same appeal as the aforementioned Farting Dog book? Maybe. But maybe not. Why not offer both spinach and French fries? Anne of Green Gables and the Farting Dog can happily coexist on the same shelves. They do in bookstores, where the bottom line is providing what the public wants or hey, go out of business. There are no stores selling only spinach. It's the fries, baby, that the public craves, and if they are paying, give it to them.

If the Spinach Philosophy was used for only children's books it would be bad enough, and if it was only used as a prurient-meter for books for so-called grown ups, that would also be pretty bad. But it's also poorly reviewed books or books that haven't been reviewed by an authoritative source [Booklist, Library Journal.] I understand that libraries have to have some standards - I'm certainly not complaining about the lack of Hustler magazines or the latest in sado-masochist erotic fantasy, not that there's anything wrong with that. It just seems to me that a public library should carry what the public it serves wants, and if they want to read a poorly reviewed book or one with an offensive title, they should be able to do so. Sure, there has to be a line drawn somewhere, but personally, I don't think that Walter the Farting Dog is the proper place for that line.

BookMania 2003

Hats off to Martin County. If you've never been there, picture a small beach town, surrounded by other small beach towns that spread into sprawling suburbs as you travel west; so small that the Interstate had a gap through Martin County until just a few years ago. Yet somehow they managed to build a beautiful library with a large auditorium that has become this wonderful meeting place for authors and their fans. I was unable to attend opening night, which featured Elmore Leonard, but I did spend all day Saturday there, and the lineup was terrific.  

The first panel I attended was called "Women Who Craft the Crimes" and featured Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Christine Kling and Virginia Swift, and was moderated by Scott Eyman, books editor of the Palm Beach Post. Carolina Garcia-Aguilera is the author of the fabulous Lupe Solano mystery series, the most recent one being Bitter Sugar. Her last book was One Hot Summer, (reviewed here) a complete departure for her into the contemporary romance genre, and it was a very successful foray indeed. There was some Miami politics sprinkled throughout that book, and as anyone who lives in Miami can tell you, it's very difficult to write about the area and not get into the politics. Ms. Garcia-Aguilera told me she was crucified for her politics, but I say you go, girl. If you have the forum and something to say, don't let the critics stop you. She also spoke about how reading was her escape from reality when she was a child. She was born in Cuba, and grew up during the revolution there, and then in exile before moving to Miami.  

Ms. Garcia-Aguilera was a private investigator in Miami for many years, and still does some investigative work now and then, which lends real credence to her Lupe Solano character. If you haven't read them, Lupe is a classic private eye with a feminist twist - she's a loner, but wears high heels. She's sexy, but not romantic, for which she has also been criticized; I'm afraid the old double standard is still alive and well among critics and readers. PI's have been having casual sex forever, but when it's the woman who wants it that way, tongues wag (no pun intended.) I am very excited about her next book, a stand alone thriller about Cubans in Las Vegas, called Luck of the Draw. It is scheduled for release in June.

Virginia Swift is the author of Brown-Eyed Girl and her newest book, Bad Company. My friend Judy just raved about her books, but I haven't gotten to them yet. (Judy, when are you going to start reviewing for me?!?) Ms. Swift, or as she is also known in real life, Dr. Virginia Scharff, is a history professor at the University of New Mexico, and has published several books in her area of expertise, women in the American West. She put herself through school as a honky-tonk singer in Laramie, Wyoming and in the oddest of coincidences, the main character of her series is a history professor who sings in a honky-tonk in, you guessed it, Laramie. Ms. Swift told us that historians are very leery of writing anything that is not true, so it was a bit of a stretch for her to write fiction. But nevertheless she'd been starting novels for years and had a drawer full of "false starts" as she called them, until one day she decided it was time to clean them out. She threw them all away, and that night she had a dream about a character she had written who told her "you can't get rid of us that easily." That character became "Mustang" Sally Adler (for the car, not the horse) and thus was born Brown-Eyed Girl, an homage to one of her favorite authors, Carl Hiaasen. Ms. Swift was very bright, funny and self-deprecating, and I would love to take a class with her. But instead, I'll settle for reading her novels. Soon.

Rounding out this panel was Christine Kling. Her first novel, Surface Tension, made my favorite books of the year list for 2002 (review here) and I gave away several copies in a contest, so it was a real pleasure to finally get to meet her. She mentioned how much fun it was for her to be on the other side of the table after so many years as a mystery fan. Ms. Kling's favorite author is John D. MacDonald and his Travis McGee character, and she based her book and her character on him. She said she loved how Travis always got the girl in the end, and then they would go off to the Keys. So in her book, her main character, Seychelle Sullivan, gets the hunky guy in the end and they go off to the Keys. Sweet! The next book in the series is called Cross Current, and has a political twist with Haitian immigration playing into the story.

Next on the agenda was a talk by S. V. Date, author of Black Sunshine, a politically inspired humorous thriller about the race for Governor. Date has been a journalist in Florida for many years, and is currently working in Tallahassee for the Palm Beach Post. He talked about politics in Florida, and his first hand knowledge of the insanity that goes on at the capital made for a very humorous talk indeed. His writing turned to fiction several years ago when Date and his wife took a year off from work and sailed through the Mediterranean and the Caribbean on a 31' cutter. He started writing his first novel, Final Orbit, about a murder on a space shuttle and the subsequent cover-up by NASA (which stands for "Never A Straight Answer") on that sailing trip. Date's novels are most often compared to Carl Hiaasen's.
Barnes & Noble is the bookseller for BookMania and they donate a percentage of their sales to the library. They also brought in Jill Lamar, the Manager and Editor of their "Discover Great New Writers" program. This is a wonderful program that helps promotes undiscovered authors. Booksellers from throughout the chain volunteer to read several books and make their recommendations. There are annual Discover awards as well, which for 2002 were judged by several prominent authors, most of whom were previously "discovered" by B&N themselves, including Anita Shreve and Susan Orlean. Ms. Lamar set up and moderated a panel with six eclectic and very talented new authors of such diverse work as two novels, a collection of short stories, two memoirs and a nonfiction adventure story.  

Jill Bialosky is an editor at W. W. Norton, a published poet but was promoting her first novel, House Under Snow, which was inspired by her image of the house and her characters, the mother and her daughters that were trapped within it. Ms. Bialosky is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and she credits the workshop with helping her find her own voice. She made a lot of friends there who still critique her work.

Loraine Despres has been writing for TV for years, her claim to fame being the "Who Shot J. R." episode of "Dallas." She started feeling the need for a change, and turned her considerable writing talent to a novel, a wickedly funny Southern charmer called The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc. Sissy lives her life based on the Southern Belle's Handbook (soon to be published as well) which includes much of the savvy sayings Ms. Despres heard growing up Louisiana. Ms. Despres told a story that her grandfather liked to tell about a man who walks into a bar and sees his wife with another man. He turns around, goes across the street to the hardware store, buys a gun, goes back into the bar and shoots his wife and her lover dead. The moral of the story, she was told, was "no guns on credit." Words to live by.   
Cynthia Kaplan is an actress who grew up in Weston, Connecticut. Her memoir is actually a collection of essays entitled Why I'm Like This: True Stories. When she decided to write, she thought about the most interesting character she could think of to write about - herself. She says she is "profoundly, deeply connected to the neurotic workings of my own brain." Her stories are an accurate representation of a middle-class Jewish girl, yet they are universal. She writes about the secrets in life that people think about but don't talk about. Her essays range from dealing with Alzheimer's to the "one girl at camp whom everyone hated" to waiting tables to finding a new therapist. She's funny and bright and sensitive - hearing another author speak brought her to tears, which she blamed on "pregnant hormones," but I teared up too and I haven't had a pregnant hormone for more than ten years. The man who caused the tears was Bob Smith.

Bob Smith is the author of Hamlet's Dresser: A Memoir. At 61, he is a first time published author and the self proclaimed "geriatric new kid" of this group. Mr. Smith started a Shakespeare appreciation class for senior citizens. The first class has 7 students, all over 85 years old. Then next class had 25 students, then 100 and by the end of the first year there were 2000 seniors showing up to discuss Shakespeare's work. The New York Times sent a reporter out to investigate, and it ended up as a front page story. Scribners approached him and asked him to write a book, but Mr. Smith doesn't type, so when he met with them he just read from hand written pages. They got him a typist and he slowly began writing his memoir. It started, as most memoirs do, in childhood. He grew up in Stratford, Connecticut and Shakespeare was not only his escape, but also his guide. Mr. Smith has a sister who is profoundly retarded, and he took care of her. But eventually she was institutionalized and he never saw her again. He told Scribner that the book wouldn't be finished until he saw his sister again, which he eventually did. You have to love a book about how books saved a life.

Tim Zimmermann is the author of The Race: The First Non-Stop, Round the World, No-Holds-Barred Sailing Competition, an adventure story in the style of Junger's The Perfect Storm. He talked about the type of people that get involved in a race like that - eccentric, to say the least - willing to only change their underwear three times in a year. He also addressed the "write what you know" school of thought; he likes to write about what he doesn't know, and learn something in the process. That hasn't helped him find another topic to write about though. He needs to feel passionate enough about something to commit to writing a book about it, so meanwhile he continues to write articles for Outside, Sports Illustrated and Sailing magazines.

The last panelist was the short story writer, and the most commercially successful author of the group, (which if you know anything at all about the publishing business, has to be one of the strangest sentences ever written.) Adam Haslett is the author of You Are Not a Stranger Here, which rocketed up the New York Times bestseller list after Jonathan Franzen picked it for the Today Show book club. The stories are an "emotional autobiography, not a literal" one. His writing has been influenced by William Trevor, one of my favorite short story writers. Mr. Haslett is also a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and is currently in his last year of law school at Yale. He plans on writing a novel after he takes his law boards. While waiting in line to meet him, the woman behind me, an attorney, remarked that "he doesn't look like a lawyer, he looks like a judge." He looks like a writer to me, and I am looking forward to reading more words from this remarkably gifted young man.

Ask the Author was the next panel, featuring James Grippando and Stephen Horn, both of them lawyers now writing legal thrillers. Stephen Horn had a huge success with his first novel, In Her Defense, which was started from a first line and a last line. He just filled in the middle and hit the NY Times bestseller list. When he began thinking about what he'd like to write next, he was inspired by a couple of images. One was of a woman falling from a building in the Bronx (Mr. Horn grew up in the Bronx in the 1950s) and the other was of a man going to work in an overcoat with grass and dirt stains that he got from sitting by the grave of a little girl. Those images formed the basis of his new book, Law of Gravity. Horn, a Washington D. C. attorney, will be bringing back his character, Washington D. C. attorney Frank O'Connell, the Vietnam vet (Horn served with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam) from In Her Defense for his next book.  

James Grippando has written several books including some of my favorites; The Pardon, Found Money and the superb A King's Ransom. Truth be told, every book the man has written has been terrific, he is one gifted storyteller. He is a real planner, working from an outline that he describes as a 30 page "Reader's Digest" version of the book. His books are always rich with character and story, and there is good reason for that. Mr. Grippando feels that a good story needs compelling characters that the reader gets to know, using the analogy of riding a roller coaster versus taking a very fast car ride with someone you'd like to hang around with - he opts for the latter. That analogy works for me - I won't go on a roller coaster but fast driving is, well, never mind. His most recent book, Beyond Suspicion, brought back Miami defense attorney Jack Swyteck, a character from his first book, The Pardon. Grippando is stretching in a new direction by writing a series after writing stand alones. He is contracted to write three more Swyteck books, and the next one, Last to Die, will be published in July. With this new committment, Mr. Grippando was forced to finally give up his law practice. The law's loss is the reader's gain.

The last author I saw spoke to a standing room only crowd. The fabulous Edna Buchanan, wearing her trademark "I Love Miami" necklace, gave a funny, insightful and often moving talk centered around her theme - it's "not easy to write fiction in a place that is stranger." Example: the young police officer who walked into a crime scene where the victim had just been decapitated, and the perpetrator threw the head at him. His involuntary response? He threw it back. She talked about how Florida is "a gun shaped state" and living here often feels like living in an episode of the Twilight Zone - with Rod Serling as Governor. She talked about her early inspiration, her 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Tunis, who encouraged little Edna with her writing inspirations. She started sending stories out to magazines, and brought Mrs. Tunis her first rejection letter. Mrs. Tunis continued to encourage her and asked her student to dedicate her first book to her.

Unfortunately, she died the following year, but Ms. Buchanan never forgot her or her request, and her first book, her memoir, was dedicated to her teacher. 
Ms. Buchanan spent twenty years as a journalist covering the police beat in Miami, winning the Pulitzer Prize in the process. During the drug years in the 1980s, she had one memorable year that gave her over 650 murders to write about. "I take evil seriously," she said, and that's why she loves writing fiction. In her books, "the good guys win and the bad guys get what they deserve, unlike real life." Her alter-ego, Britt Montero, is helping the good guys win again in her newest novel, The Ice Maiden. It was very pleasant hour with the "Queen of Crime" and a wonderful day at BookMania.

Killer business: Murder on the Beach bookstore

By Scott Eyman, Palm Beach Post Books Editor
Sunday, May 16, 2004

There are those who think that running a bookstore must be romantic and relaxing: wearing your smoking jacket, sitting in an armchair with pipe clenched firmly in teeth, indulging in civilized badinage with like-minded customers as you peruse leather-bound copies of Proust.

Once you've actually done it, you find out it's a lot closer to laboring on septic tanks, but by the time you learn the truth, the illusions of youth can never be recaptured.

Joanne Sinchuk's Murder on the Beach has been in Delray Beach's Pineapple Grove section for a year and a half now, after seven years in Aventura, and there are times when she pines for her old job as a certified public accountant.

Well, not really. But being a CPA was certainly less work.

"Before I opened," she says with a sigh, "I did the right thing and wrote out a business plan. And when I look at it now, I laugh at how much I didn't know."

There are 60 mystery bookstores scattered throughout the country, but Sinchuk's is the only one in Florida. Her store carries somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 titles, in hardcover and paperback.

Because Murder on the Beach is a specialized store, it has a specialized clientele. "I have customers from Miami Beach who drive up here," she says. "I have customers from all over the world on the Internet."

Sinchuk is an independent, and can't offer the deep discounts of the chain stores, so she has to be nimble and concentrate on obscurities and figure out who the Next Big Thing will be before anybody else does.

The customers at a mystery bookstore also have different levels of sophistication. For instance, Sinchuk has yet to sell her first copy of John Grisham's latest thriller, although it has been out for several months.

"My clientele is more intellectual, and more serious about the form. I sell very few books to people who don't like to read, which I think describes a lot of the mysteries that make the bestseller list."

Sinchuk owes it all to Agatha Christie, with whom she fell in love while growing up in Bridgeport, Conn. "I made up a list of all of her novels, and I would check them off as I read them."

When she was working as a CPA in New York City, she would regularly shop at Otto Penzler's Mystery Bookstore, and would indulge herself by thinking how much fun it would be to run a similar place.

Finally taking the plunge, she opened her store in Aventura, and did well, but the increase in the Hispanic population made the survival of a English-language bookstore problematic. It was time to head north.

"I didn't see anything I liked in Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton, but a customer told me about Delray Beach, and I loved it immediately."

Fully 30 percent of Sinchuk's business derives from mail order and Internet, largely autographed copies of books set in Florida, which seems to have joined Los Angeles as a primary setting for the genre. (Sinchuk sold more copies of Fort Lauderdale author Jonathon King's The Blue Edge of Midnight online than she did in her store.)

Because of her sales of autographed books by mail and online, author appearances are particularly important. Sinchuk regularly nabs such stars as Michael Connelly, who appears at the store tonight, and John Sandford. Her main target for a future signing is Alexander McCall Smith, the author of the popular series about a detective agency set in Botswana.

The market for mysteries has metastasized in the past 15 years. There are knitting mysteries, animal mysteries, cooking mysteries and hairdresser mysteries to go up against the usual private detectives, cops and bounty hunters. There's even a mystery series set in Cleveland, which would seem to limit your audience.

"I'm not even sure Cleveland was the worst choice," says Sinchuk. "Elaine Viets had a series set in St. Louis, but nobody outside of St. Louis wants to read about St. Louis. So she started setting stuff in Fort Lauderdale, and her career took off."

While independent bookstores all over America have gone belly up in the past 10 years, niche stores like Murder on the Beach have managed to survive even though, to an outsider, it would seem hard to fail in a business where you can return all your unsold inventory for full credit.

But as Sinchuk points out: "If I sell a book for $20, I paid $14 for it. And how many other businesses are there where the retailer has no control over price?"

For the future, Sinchuk sees no particular signs of weakening in the genre. Her business is headed up, even though about 50 percent comes from snowbirds, and she has the usual summer downdraft.

She sees the best new writers as being Jonathon King, the Irish writer John Connolly and the mother-daughter team that goes by the name P.J. Tracy.

Divorced with no children, Sinchuk remains an avid consumer of mysteries, although it's not what she reads for relaxation anymore.

"I read chick-lit," she says, "especially English chick-lit. Meg Cabot is my current favorite. You can polish a book off in one night, and it's fun."

Killer business: Murder on the Beach bookstore

Search This Blog