Prosecutor turns to (fictitious) crime
By Carol Memmott, USA TODAY
For eight years, Michele Martinez hung out with criminals. As a federal prosecutor in New York City, she battled Mexican cocaine cartels smuggling drug money out of the country, fought Burmese warlords secreting hundreds of kilos of heroin into the USA and got the upper hand on crack dealers operating in American cities.
Now, she's mixed up with mayhem of a different sort: criminals created in her imagination.
Martinez's first crime novel, Most Wanted (William Morrow, $23.95), is getting lots of attention. Aside from being chosen by the Literary Guild, Doubleday and Mystery Guild book clubs, it's also the BookSense Pick for March by the American Booksellers Association.
Martinez's new life as a published author gives her entrance into an exclusive club: women in the legal profession who have turned to a life of crime, at least in their books. (Related story: Lady lawyers gone literary)
For years, crime novels written by male attorneys such as John Grisham, Scott Turow and Richard North Patterson topped best-seller lists. Female lawyers began joining their ranks in the '90s, with Lisa Scottoline's Everywhere That Mary Went (1993) and Linda Fairstein's Final Jeopardy (1996) Since then, the list has been growing.
"It's a natural progression for women with a legal background who want to write," says Martinez, 42. "As a prosecutor, I dealt with crime all the time the way that Linda Fairstein (best-selling author and former head of New York City's Sex Crimes Unit) did. I have an incredible wealth of material to draw on."
And, like Scottoline's, Martinez's career change from law to writing had a lot to do with being a mom and wanting to spend more time with her family: her husband, Jeff, an attorney, and two sons, Jack, 8, and William, 5. She believes that weaving women's conflicted feelings about work and family into the life of Melanie Vargas, Most Wanted's main character, gives her novel a different approach.
"A lot of female protagonists in crime novels have a very convenient solitary life," Martinez says. "My heroine is a little different because she's a mother. How is she going to go out and investigate this crime at 3 in the morning when she is separated from her husband and her baby's asleep in the crib? It poses a problem for my character that I faced in my own life."
Martinez, the daughter of a Puerto Rican father and a Russian Jewish mother, says readers of all ethnic backgrounds will identify with Melanie, her Latina protagonist.
"It's about more than her particular linguistic or ethnic background. It's about the experience of having immigrant parents or starting out at a certain point in terms of your family's financial situation, maybe living in a bad neighborhood, maybe figuring out how you're going to make it in life. That's the personal experiment that I bring to the character."
In Most Wanted, Melanie, a federal prosecutor, tries to solve the murder of a famous lawyer who is tortured and found dead in his burning Manhattan home. She struggles to prove herself on the job, be a good mother and deal with the knowledge that her husband had an affair while she was pregnant.
Martinez says she had no problem coming up with the book's plot — it came to her in a dream. But, she says, "I needed to figure out how to create suspense, and create plotting and pacing. I had knowledge about crime and criminal investigation. But how do you put this together and make it flow and make the pages turn? For that, I really got a lot of help just by reading."USATODAY.com - Prosecutor turns to (fictitious) crime
Sunday, Jan. 23
I hit the first ever Palm Beach Poetry Festival featuring two of my favorite poets. Billy Collins, former U. S. Poet Laureate and the best selling poet since Walt Whitman, is my favorite reader - his poems are funny, especially when he reads them and tells his little anecdotes, and he is quite the charmer. Sharon Olds also read. Her poetry speaks to my heart, she writes my life. Her poems are about family and having children and love and sex and death. Billy makes me laugh, but Sharon makes me cry. Although in all fairness, she read some pretty funny poems too. I especially liked that she read some new stuff that she is working on, that was a real treat. All in all, an incredible, memorable evening. They had a wonderful turnout each of the three days of the festival, drawing close to 300 people each night, so hopefully they will do it again next year. My only suggestion would be to offer at least one free evening to all those who could not afford to go otherwise.
Saturday, Jan. 22
Martin County BOOKMANIA! Featuring talks by some of my favorite authors, and some that were new to me. The most exciting had to be the panel of women writers featuring one of my all time favorites, Adriana Trigiani, (BIG STONE GAP trilogy, LUCIA, LUCIA and QUEEN OF THE BIG TIME - and a new cookbook called COOKING WITH MY SISTERS) who is as funny and warm and wonderful in person as are her characters, along with Cassandra King (THE SUNDAY WIFE and THE SAME SWEET GIRLS), who confided her nickname had the same last part that mine does, but she couldn't quite bring herself to say it, much less write it, other than like this - King B----h. Also on the panel were Patricia Gaffney, Janis Owens and Nancy Thayer.
T. Jefferson Parker had an hour to himself after Sujata Massey had to cancel at the last minute. His latest, CALIFORNIA GIRL, sounds wonderful. He spoke about his background growing up in California and getting his English degree at the University of California, Irvine. He also spoke about how difficult it was for him to write the Merci Rayborn trilogy (BLUE HOUR, RED LIGHT, BLACK WATER) because it was written from the perspective of a woman cop - but he did a masterful job with it. There was a wonderful mystery panel discussion featuring Tim Dorsey (another favorite) touting his latest zany story, TORPEDO JUICE, James O. Born, author of the debut caper WALKING MONEY (a new favorite - what a cutie and he can write!), Bob Morris (BAHAMARAMA, on the top of my to-be-read pile) and the always terrific Jonathon King (SHADOW MEN).
I also learned a lot at the Discover Great New Writers panel, hosted by Jill Lamar of Barnes & Noble and featuring Ed Conlon (BLUE BLOOD), a fascinating look at the history of the NYC police force, Andrew Sean Greer (THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI) which has made several of the best books of the year lists for his intriguing novel of a baby born as an old man who ages backwards - I'm not explaining it well but it really sounded fabulous. And Robert Kurson, author of SHADOW DIVERS: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II, a completely entrancing story and a definite must read. If you enjoy compelling, adventurous nonfiction like PERFECT STORM or INTO THIN AIR, don't miss this one.
For pure entertainment, premier fashion designer Arnold Scaasi - WOMEN I HAVE DRESSED (AND UNDRESSED!) - told one anecdote after another, dropping names like Barbra Streisand, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, Princess Di, and the Bush first ladies. He was a charmer, and all the profits from the sales of his book are going to literacy charities.
The day ended on a more serious note with historical mystery writers David Liss (THE SPECTACLE OF CORRUPTION, THE COFFEE TRADER) and Steve Berry (THE ROMANOV PROPHECY, THE AMBER ROOM). One of the questions they were asked was if they had ever considered hiring someone to do their research and they both were emphatic in saying no. They both felt that they often found great ideas in doing research, little nuggets that a paid researcher may not mention but they are intrigued with and inspired by. All in all, a fabulous day at the beautiful Blake Library in Stuart, Florida.
From Harlan Coben:
As you know, on December 26th, 2004, an earthquake under the Indian Ocean created a series of devastating tsunami waves. Over 150,000 people have been reported dead so far, and many survivors have lost everything. In the aftermath of this terrifying natural catastrophe, people from every continent have been affected in some way.
In an unprecedented collaboration, sixteen writers have joined together to create a collection of the first chapters of their forthcoming novels. NEW BEGINNINGS is available now wherever books are sold in the UK and will be available soon in the US and Canada, with all proceeds going to charities working in the tsunami hit countries.
My contribution to NEW BEGINNINGS is the first chapter of my upcoming book THE INNOCENT (to be published in April). Other authors involved in this project are Stephen King, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Mark Haddon, Nick Hornby, Maeve Binchy, Alexander McCall Smith, Tracy Chevalier, Paulo Coelho, Nicholas Evans, Vikram Seth, Marian Keyes, J.M. Coetzee, Joanna Trollope and Scott Turow.
Ask for NEW BEGINNINGS wherever books are sold or order your copy online.
US readers: http://www.bloomsburyusa.com/catalogue/details2.asp?isbn=1596910542
UK readers: http://www.bloomsbury.com/BookCatalog/ProductItem.asp?S=1&sku=22043226
Also, more information about NEW BEGINNINGS is available at: http://www.bloomsbury.com/tsunami/
Thanks for your help with this important and very worthy cause.
--Harlan Coben (HarlanCoben.com)
Finding his voiceFirst-time novelist scores with The Ha-Ha, the tale of a speechless Vietnam vet.
By Chauncey Mabe
March 6, 2005
Dave King, author of the stand-out first novel The Ha-Ha, is having very little trouble adjusting to fame, if only because a series of coincidences regarding his name and the title of his book have conspired to preserve his anonymity.
"I have a common name and an uncommon title," King jokes by phone from his weekend home in Hudson, N.Y. "Almost everything is cause for staying awake at night and worrying."
Since The Ha-Ha appeared in January, King has discovered just how common his name is. In the world of music alone, it is shared by a Connecticut-based singer-songwriter, a British custom guitar-maker, a jazz drummer in Minneapolis, and a Kentucky-born jazz and rock bass player, all notable in their fields.
That's not counting the undertakers, real estate agents, engineering professors and deputy sheriffs named "Dave King," many with their own sites on the Internet.
"I don't know much about the musicians, but these things come up when you try to have a Web site," says King, who wanted daveking.com. "Mine is www.davekingwriter.com, which was the closest I could get."
Then there's David Kirby, a distinguished poet at Florida State University, who in 2003 published a collection titled -- you guessed it -- The Ha-Ha. Indeed, King was heartbroken when, six years into the composition of his novel, he opened The New York Times to find a review of Kirby's book.
"I decided the world is big enough for both of us to use that title, which I was pretty committed to by that point," says the Brooklyn-based King, who will be featured this week at the Broward County Library Foundation's Night of Literary Feasts/Day of Literary Lectures. "I love David Kirby's poetry very much. I hope readers aren't confused and like us both. I might feel differently if I didn't have so much respect for his work."
Thanks to snowballing sales and plaudits for The Ha-Ha, King probably won't have to lose sleep much longer. Reviews have ranged from favorable to ecstatic, with one comparing the author to Michael Cunningham (The Hours). Warner Bros. optioned the movie rights late last month for Akiva Goldsman, the screenwriter whose credits include A Beautiful Mind.
Goldsman would seem to be the perfect scribe to adapt King's novel, with its story of a brain-damaged Vietnam veteran who, unable to speak or write, is drawn out of isolation when his high-school sweetheart asks him to care for her 9-year-old son while she goes through cocaine rehab.
"The success of The Ha-Ha makes me say that following my bliss has been a great thing," King says. "But I know many writers who've written wonderful books and not gotten this kind of acclaim. I'm feeling lucky and I take the praise seriously, because I tried to write a serious book, but I'm not under any illusion it's the best book out there."
Art and business
King, 49, began his professional life not as a writer but as an artist. Growing up in suburban Cleveland, where he read Interview and Rolling Stone magazines, all he wanted was to move to New York, with its then-thriving punk music scene.
"I couldn't get out of the Midwest fast enough," he says. "Now, of course, I feel very fond and sentimental about Cleveland. My book is set in an unnamed city that has a lot in common with Cleveland. But back then I wanted more excitement than I could get in a suburb."
After a couple of unfocused years of college, King found Cooper Union, where he earned undergraduate degrees in science and art in 1980 and joined the New York art world. "I was very active if not well-known," he says. "I went to the parties."
A few years as a struggling fine artist led King and his partner, Franklin Tartaglioni, to start a decorative arts business specializing in trompe l'oeil and murals.
"We were surprisingly successful at that," King says. "We did work at the White House during the Reagan years, at Blair House, at the State Department and the Metropolitan Museum. We had a lot of residential clients, including celebrities, but I think it would be bad form to name them."
King remembers the time as "the Bonfire of the Vanities years," but painting pretty pictures all day for Masters of the Universe did not leave him much energy to paint seriously nights and weekends. He was astonished to find how much he liked the business side of things, and how good he was at it.
"For awhile I was so excited about how well the business was going, but then I realized that I was not much of a fine art painter anymore," King says. "I sat down and questioned what I wanted from life. I'm good at taking assessments and coming up with five-year plans."
Disability in the family
Deciding he still needed to be creative, King set out to become a writer. He enrolled in some courses with The Writers Voice at the West Side YMCA in Manhattan, where he studied with Amy Hempel and Melvin Jules Bukeit, both of whom became his mentors. His short stories began appearing in small magazines, he got encouraging rejections from The New Yorker, and he found an agent.
"Things seemed to be moving along," King says, "then one day Melvin said to me if I wanted to think of myself as a writer I'd have to make a choice between business and writing. I took that to heart and began extricating myself from the business, which gave me enough money to go to Columbia for a couple of years and get an MFA in 2000."
The Ha-Ha was King's thesis, although he wrote five more drafts before selling it to Little, Brown. His desire to write about disability arose from family history; King's autistic older brother, Hank, never spoke a word between the day of his birth and his death in an institution in 1993. But King did not want to produce a fictionalized biography of his brother -- as a creative writer, he wanted to make stuff up -- so he imagined what Hank's life might have been had he been born healthy and suffered injuries in Vietnam that left him mentally intact but unable to speak, read or write.
Autism, King knows, is a hot topic at the moment, as opposed to the late '40s and early '50s when it "profoundly isolating and very painful" for his family.
"I read the stories in the Times, the essays of Oliver Sachs and Temple Grandin and all that stuff, but I think probably a lot of people have more to say about it than I do," he says. "Families dealing with it now have access to all the latest research. I grew up in a different time. I was the only kid I knew who had a sibling with a disability."
King was aware of what he calls "the potential for real mawkishness and sentimentality" inherent in a story about a brain-damaged man and his redemptive relationship with a child.
"But I was intrigued about going close to that without indulging in cheap sentiment," he says. "I guess that's why it took seven years to write the book."
Another problem King faced was the grimness of the material, which is told from the interior point of view of Howard Kapostash, the speechless hero.
"I tried to give Howard a certain amount of dry wit, and an ability to experience pleasure and love and joy," he says. "Above all, he has a real decency and sincerity I hope moves people."
A particular rage
Although King is a gay man -- he and Tartaglioni have been together 30 years -- he chose to make Howard heterosexual.
"There were particular reasons why I did not make Howard gay," he says. "For me, fiction is about the imagination. I wanted him to be a real American Everyman with a particular individual rage and discontentment attributable to his disability and the war. It would have been distracting to also give him any gay anger or rage."
King did not find it difficult to place himself in the shoes of a heterosexual protagonist.
"Love is love and desire is desire," he says. "Obviously there are differences, but I hope there are more similarities than differences about what longing and love and rejection and pain feel like for a gay and a straight person."
Chauncey Mabe can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4710.
Copyright © 2005, South Florida Sun-Sentinel Finding his voice: South Florida Sun-Sentinel