Friday, July 30, 2004

Women Win, Orchids Rule and Elvis Lives

This is how James Patterson looks in the flesh: wistful, sensitive, a little sporty, much the way he looks on the covers of his books. Amazingly, this is how he does not look: exhausted. The man is a publishing powerhouse, with best sellers that arrive regularly at four-month intervals. He has four brand-name ideas up and running: rhymes ("Roses Are Red"), numbers ("1st to Die"), houses ("The Lake House") and correspondence ("Sam's Letters to Jennifer," his latest). He averages three books a year, but next year there will be five.

How does he do it? "Mr. P." (as he is called on the cover of his next foray, "santaKid," a Christmas book for children) is not the only best-selling dynamo who brings this question to mind.

Actually, Mr. Patterson's trade secrets are more understandable than most. His sentences, paragraphs and chapters are famously short, so that the style of the children's book, despite illustrations and words like hiya and cool, is not so unlike that of the adult ones. And his marketing skills are not to be sneezed at. Sure, "santaKid" describes how an evil corporation tries to buy Christmas and take over the North Pole. But its own sleigh will be pulled by a million-dollar marketing campaign, according to Little, Brown & Company's latest catalog. Promotional Santa hats will be part of the holiday cheer.

Busy as he is (with a young adult novel also in the pipeline), Mr. Patterson is a lazybones by some lights. Danielle Steel works at an even more breathless pace. And if she seems to sell endless versions of the same romance to the same readers, perhaps that's because she has refined the art of glam-dropping to a science. "Second Chance," her latest, invites readers to identify with a heroine, one Fiona Monaghan, who is "an icon in the fashion world" and looks "like Katharine Hepburn with a little dash of Rita Hayworth."

Fiona is "constantly surrounded by photographers, assistants, designers, models, artists and a flock of hangers-on." She is "all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful and all-caring."

Caring is an interesting word there: Ms. Steel shies away from the selfish, ruthless, shameless home-wrecker type, preferring something more genteel. She would rather focus on inadvertent fabulousness, as in: "She had never paid much attention to the impact she had on men, she was always too busy thinking and talking about a variety of topics." That syntax makes sense only if you notice the 62 other titles on the current "Also by Danielle Steel" list and realize that the author hasn't much time to sweat the small stuff, like periods and commas.

Sustaining such popularity has unusual prerequisites. It is not entirely necessary to be alive, for instance. The Archy McNally novels of Lawrence Sanders have continued to appear well past Sanders's death, with the franchise handed down to Vincent Lardo, whose name appears in pint-size letters on the cover of "McNally's Bluff." Mr. Lardo also wrote five preceding books in the McNally series, which The Boston Globe has called "effortlessly written to be effortlessly enjoyed." Still, the effortlessness of Sanders (whose name appears in very large letters) falls into a special category.

Peddling the dead can be accomplished in other ways, too: "Such Vicious Minds" is the latest in a series of mysteries (including "Blue Suede Clues" and "Viva Las Vengeance") that star the post-mortal Elvis Presley as a character. As written by Daniel Klein, this latest installment features a real Elvis, a fake Elvis and a blurb for the series ("I enjoyed this sequel as much as the first book") from no less a Presley fan than Bill Clinton. As for Elvis, well, he's still talking about pink Cadillacs and saying "Ma'am."

The 42nd president of the United States is certain to have had more fun with this than he might with "American Evita," a hatchet job by the prolific Christopher Andersen. With "Madonna: Unauthorized," "Sweet Caroline: Last Child of Camelot," "The Day Diana Died" and (his best title, for a book about Jane Fonda) "Citizen Jane" to his credit, Mr. Andersen is another speed demon, with tactics all his own. "Sex, power, money, lies, scandal, tragedy and betrayal were the things that defined the public lives of both women," he writes, by way of explaining how "American Evita" equates Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton with Eva PerĂ³n.

Mr. Andersen, a king of the clip job, recycles old news while adding a scandal-sheet spin. So sources like "one longtime ally," "someone" and "a close family friend" are relied upon. And words like consummate and ultimate set the tone of overkill. "Hillary would later recall" generally indicates a detail lifted from Senator Clinton's own book, although Mr. Andersen never slows down to connect quotes with specific sources. Every now and then (" `What do you mean?' she yelled, as Bill turned vermilion"), Mr. Andersen's creativity is all his own.

At least give him credit for filling 292 pages with printed words. "Woman Power," Dr. Laura Schlessinger's latest dose of nonfree advice, actually relies on the time-saving use of blank space. Throughout this book, there are nearly empty pages that the reader is supposed to fill in herself. Herself? I think it's fair to assume that no man is going to read a book that asks: "What less-than-positive wifely actions and attitudes did you recognize as yours?" In any case, Dr. Laura leaves room for a 10-line answer.

"What motivated you to read `The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands?' " she asks about her own most recent bossy best seller. (That one warrants 11 blank lines.)

Surely there are better ways for an author to be self-referential. Consider "Song of Susannah," the sixth installment in Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series, which is by now so complicated that it has spun off a book-length concordance explaining people, places, events and mutants — yes, mutants — from Volumes I to IV. Even Mr. King acknowledges that when he sat down to write Volume V, "Wolves of the Calla," in 2001, he needed the refresher course of listening to the first four installments on audiotape.

"The Dark Tower" may not be easily picked up in mid-epic, but here is a warning: Sept. 21, Mr. King's birthday, will be a red-letter day for its loyal readers. That's when all will be revealed in the final installment, called "The Dark Tower" and standing at 845 pages in prepublication galley form. Anyone already in possession of it has been asked to "Please respect the `Dark Tower' fans that have been waiting for over 30 years to read the conclusion of Roland's quest" and not give away the end of the story.

Unbelievably, this is the same on-sale date scheduled for the third and final volume of Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle," "The System of the World," which is even longer: 912 pages, in smaller print. Truly, Sept. 21 will be a day for the girding of loins and the getting of glasses, because both these series are worth following to their finales. And both authors, however they did it, have managed to give Middle Earth a run for its money.

On a more modest note, Sue Grafton is merely working her way through the alphabet with Kinsey Millhone, private detective, one book at a time. Suspense still attends the question of what will happen when Kinsey gets to X — or Z! — but "R Is for Ricochet" is another of Ms. Grafton's sensible-sounding installments.  (A, B and C were for Alibi, Burglar and Corpse, respectively.) 

By now, at R, there are signs of fatigue: on the first page we learn about the weather. ("Morning cloudiness had given way to sunshine.") On the second it is revealed that Kinsey likes an olive and pimiento cheese sandwich for lunch. Descriptions are worrisomely flat. ("The lawns were wide and well tended, and the quiet was underlined by the twittering of finches.") Still, Ms. Grafton has much the same reliability as Janet Evanovich, not to mention much the same readership. Each of them dishes up the mystery-novel equivalent of comfort food.

Eric Jerome Dickey, whose latest is "Drive Me Crazy," specializes in steamier fare. He likes to describe a woman "head to toe, wedding ring to thong." He likes the kind of anti-hero who found himself "being a man in need of a new sin." And this novel's main character, an ex-con turned chauffeur called Driver, is the kind of guy who can say "you're silk and lace in a blue jean world" and get away with it. Mr. Dickey's characters have enough sultry self-confidence to suggest, at their best, a Prince song on paper.

"He didn't give you anything I can't take away with a phone call," the wife of Driver's boss threatens.

"And you didn't give me nothing I couldn't buy for a hundred dollars," Driver replies.

Even hotter than the previous exchange, "sticky and heavy with desire," with "a thick tongue-flap of tissue separating the mass from the moist female organs below," is . . . what? The vanilla orchid, that's what. Tim Ecott describes it so lovingly and elaborately that his "Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid" joins the ranks of fashionably myopic scientific histories. The format's success relies on both the author's doggedness and the reader's curiosity. Salt, quinine, the color magenta: each has had its in-depth studies, and now the vanilla bean is ready to be in vogue. At least one other vanilla-ography will be published later this year.

At least vanilla won't hurt you. It does not turn up in the "V" section of Laura Lee's "100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life and What You Can Do About Them," though vacations (you might die snorkeling), vegetables (watch out for the spud-shooting potato gun), vending machines (don't hit them or they'll fall on you) and vitamins (kids eat them like candy) do. In this, the perfect book for anyone who does not already have enough to worry about, Ms. Lee accentuates the hazardous in certain commonplace objects. Uh-oh: beware of books.

There are moldy old books that carry hallucinogenic spores. There are new ones — by Mr. King or Mr. Stephenson, for instance — that could fall and break your toe. And there are books that are absolutely harmless, like "Lunchbox: Inside and Out," by Jack Mingo and Erin Barrett, which simply depicts collectibles from the wide world of vintage lunch containers. How did they do it? Sometimes there's an even better question: Why?

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Being in the Zone Pays Off for First-Time Novelist

Jul 27, 2004

Raelynn Hillhouse will soon break into print with Rift Zone (Forge), an end-of-the-Cold War thriller bearing enthusiastic blurbs from half a dozen masters of her chosen genre [that is sitting in my to-be-read pile, but near the top!--bookbitch]. And this debut author's first novel has been chosen as an August Book Sense Pick.

Such developments might startle any other beginning novelist, but the resourceful Hillhouse seems to be taking all this well in her stride.

"I spent all my life getting into places that other people don't get into!" she said recently, from her home in Hawaii. "So I just put those same skills to work."

Her most dramatic acts occurred as a student in divided Berlin in the 1980s -- a place and period that looms large in Rift Zone.

But Hillhouse's break-in to her own life's interests began much earlier, in the Ozarks of rural-southwest Missouri, where she grew up the child of parents who ran a company that produced etching equipment for newspapers.

Despite her family's word-related work, she was not especially encouraged to read as a child. "I was always a self-starter, so I did it on my own," Hillhouse said. "Ours was a small town of about 5,000 people; the nearest bookstore was 35 miles away.... I was famous for skipping high school and driving 30 miles to the nearest university and sitting in the library there all day reading. If I had missed one more day at school, I think, I wouldn't have graduated; but as it was, I was valedictorian. I've always loved to read."

Hillhouse went to college for two years at Washington University, in St. Louis ("150 miles and a world away from the rural Ozarks"). Then, inspired by the tales of people from other lands who had done business with her parents, she moved to Europe when she was 20 and lived in that part of the globe for the better part of six years. "I'm good at working various systems and things, and managed to finish my degree while abroad."

Divided Germany drew her: "The whole idea that you could take one culture and, as kind of an experiment, impose two very different social systems upon it, was very interesting intellectually." At different times, Hillhouse had a Fullbright research grant and a scholarship through East Germany's League for Friendship of the Peoples, which she called "a pure propaganda organization." The latter saw her living and studying in East Berlin, in the early 1980s.

"These are the days," she recalled, "when Reagan is in office, and the Cold War is heating up.... It was not a good time to be an American in Eastern Europe -- not even in Western Europe, for that matter, because of the missile buildup that we were doing. It was in a time of great suspicion: there was great tension. And that's part of what made it exciting -- because I was there in my 20s, looking around, trying to learn everything I could about those very unusual places."

Adding to the "excitement" were the ways Hillhouse found to supplement her East German scholarship money: by smuggling goods from East to West.

"What I found out worked best, in Berlin, was taking Cuban rum from East Berlin to West Berlin," she said. "Like soldiers everywhere, [the French soldiers stationed in West Berlin] weren't paid a whole lot, and not enough to be able to go out drinking to the amount that they wanted. So," Hillhouse concluded with a laugh, "I was using Fidel to support NATO, in a way."

Hillhouse also smuggled jewels out of the Soviet Union, hiding the gems in the hollow heads of little souvenir busts of Lenin.

"I've carried everything from computer boards to lingerie," she said. "One of the things I found with the highest return was condoms: because you couldn't get them in Eastern Europe, but the demand was still pretty darned high!"

During and after such extracurricular activity, Hillhouse earned her undergraduate degree from Washington University and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. Back in the States, she had a faculty position and was on tenure-track at the University of Hawaii when the Communist system in Eastern Europe all of a sudden disintegrated.

"I used to be laughed at," Hillhouse remembered, "for saying that change was going on in East Germany; no one believed it of that 'ultimate Stalinist society.' I had an article and grant proposals arguing that, just at the time everything started falling apart. I was quite well funded, for the last year of my dissertation! I ended up having to change galleys of my article coming out in Slavic Review, to past tense,because everything (in Eastern Europe) was gone!"

After the reunification of Germany at the turn of the '90s, Hillhouse determined to write a work of fiction about that now-vanished place she'd known and liked so well.

"I've traveled in over 40 different countries and lived in six different foreign cities, but divided Berlin was without exception the single most exhilarating, electrifying experience of anywhere. I wanted to try and capture that somehow, in a way you couldn't do in academic books. I didn't want to create something where readers are just going to read about Checkpoint Charlie. I wanted them to experience it."

Achieving her aim wasn't as simple as defining it, though. "I realized -- well after starting to recapture and create -- you really have to learn how to write, first," Hillhouse explained. She took several summer courses at Iowa and in Squaw Valley and (with Charlie Baxter) in Splitrock. When she at last felt prepared, Hillhouse wrote Rift Zone in about five months, and then spent another five months polishing and editing.

After that, Hillhouse (who holds an executive-level job now in Hawaii) put some of her system-working skills to work.

Author Gayle Lynds, whom Hillhouse had met at a writers' conference, put her in touch with an agent -- who, after four months, decided Rift Zone was not for him. Undeterred, Hillhouse sent e-mail queries to another group of reps.

"Within six hours, I had an offer from Bob Diforio, based on the first 50 pages," Hillhouse said. "Bob's the former president and chair of NAL, and I wanted an agent who was strong on the sales side; so that worked out really well."

Forge contracted to publish Rift Zone, and Hillhouse then went to work getting helpful blurbs from such star thriller-writers as Lynds, Nelson DeMille, Stephen Coonts, and Clive Cussler.

"I cold-contacted them," Hillhouse said. "Clive Cussler took three letters, though. The last one was two sentences long -- something like: 'No matter how insurmountable the odds, (Cussler series hero) Dirk Pitt will never give up; I know early in your career, you wouldn't either. I've learned from you both.' That was it. And he did it!"

But this new author thinks booksellers are the real key to whatever success her work will have: "The people who love books, and handsell them.

"It takes such strong motivation, and such love of books, to put one's whole self into creating a bookstore and to keep it running.... Those are the people that can really sell books with passion -- and that's what it takes, you know."

That's a quality the self-starting Raelynn Hillhouse can well relate to.

"This was a book written with a lot of passion," she said of Rift Zone (whose follow-up volume is well into its planning stage). "I hope that shows through." -- Tom Nolan

Bookselling This Week: Being in the Zone Pays Off for First-Time Novelist

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Kidd covers design, murder in 'Learners'
By Whitney Matheson, USA TODAY

Kidd's new piece of fiction, The Learners, makes its debut today as part of's Open Book series. A new chapter of his exclusive, seven-part novella will be published online each Thursday at

The Learners serves as a sequel of sorts to Kidd's first novel, 2001's The Cheese Monkeys (Perennial, $13.95). Set in the early 1960s, The Learners follows a young graphic designer who decides to answer the first newspaper ad he creates.

What follows is "a murder mystery about a killing that may never have taken place," Kidd says.

Not only does Kidd draw on his graphic-design background for the narrative, but he also incorporates it into the text. Typography plays a crucial role in The Learners; font size and design pull readers into the action.

A few lessons from Kidd's college psychology classes also are thrown in: A central character in The Learners is real-life social psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose experiments during the 1960s still incite controversy.

Kidd plans to expand his novella into a full-length book, tentatively set for release in 2006.

"This really is the story I've been wanting to tell all along," says the author, who took a month-long break from his design job at Knopf to write The Learners at Bogliasco, Italy's Liguria Study Center.

Kidd also is working with book publisher Rizzoli to develop "a definitive coffee table book" of his designs. He also is an editor at large for Pantheon's graphic novels division. And then, of course, there are more book covers: "Designing is so rewarding in a way that writing isn't."

Look for Kidd's work on titles by Augusten Burroughs and John Updike in coming months — and, a couple years from now, on Kidd's next novel. - Kidd covers design, murder in 'Learners'

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