Saturday, December 31, 2005

'Magical' writing outshines the mundane

A non-fiction title about Chairman Mao was strangely compelling. But did anyone really read all the way through the novel that won the National Book Award? USA TODAY's book reviewers look at what they loved — or loved to hate — this year.

USA TODAY's book of the year

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. The ultimate test of any book is whether it will endure. Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, $23.95) will be read as long as people look for ways to deal with the loss of a loved one. Written after the death of Didion's husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, and the critical illness of their only child, the book is a poignant, candid and heartbreaking account of grief, loss and love. In a year of notable non-fiction and several outstanding novels, it stands out above all other books.

And the rest of the top 10...

2. The March by E.L. Doctorow

3. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

4. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman

5. The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

6. The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq by George Packer

7. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

8. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

9. French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure by Mireille Guiliano

10. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt'sDarkest Journey by Candice Millard

Best book by a celebrity

My Life So Far by Jane Fonda. Well-crafted, thorough, suitably regretful about that trip to Vietnam and her lack of parenting skills as a young mother. Tantalizing without being tawdry.

Worst book by a celebrity

Goldie: A Lotus Grows in the Mud by Goldie Hawn. Tame, tiresome and self-congratulatory, a tell-nothing that makes little mention of her divorce from Bill Hudson, glosses over her relationship with Kurt Russell and repeatedly salutes her own achievements.

Best book for kids not yet ready for Harry Potter

Leonardo, the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems. A picture book with simple drawings about a lonely boy who scares easily and a monster who can't scare anyone.

Best example of fair and balanced reporting

Sorry, Fox News, but the award goes to John Harris' The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House, the best book yet on the president and the person, his successes and failures, impressive talents and equally notable flaws.

Best proof that comic books aren't just for kids anymore

Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Andy Kubert. An exotically beautiful graphic novel, out in paperback, set in the England of Queen Elizabeth I and starring variations of the X-Men, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.

Best unmasking of a historical monster

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. The authors write that the Chairman was responsible for killing more than 70 million of his fellow citizens. And that was in peacetime.

Best second act

A decade after Wicked, which imagined a misunderstood, not-so-wicked Witch of the West, Gregory Maguire revisited Oz in his equally imaginative Son of a Witch.

Most disappointing second act

Two years after her debut best seller, The Devil Wears Prada, Lauren Weisberger's Everyone Worth Knowing was really not worth knowing at all.

Most overstated title

A tie between Bill Press' How the Republicans Stole Christmas and Bernard Goldberg's 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (and Al Franken Is #37)

Biggest disappointment

Bob Woodward's The Secret Man, which revealed few secrets about the man who was Deep Throat, Woodward's key source during the Watergate scandal.

Most dubious best seller

Kevin Trudeau's Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About, best-selling health advice for readers afflicted with conspiracy theories.

Most overrated novel

William Vollmann's Europe Central. Upon receiving the National Book Award for fiction, Vollmann said of his 800-page opus of intertwined stories about World War II: "I'm very happy it's over, and I don't have to think about it anymore." So are we (and we didn't get past page 200).

Book most in need of an editor

Until I Find You, the seemingly endless 820-page novel by John Irving. Even the subplots had subplots.

Best whodunit

Michael Connelly's The Lincoln Lawyer. Best known for his L.A. cop dramas, Connelly has written his first legal thriller, and it's one heck of a ride.

Best reminder that history could have turned out differently

David McCullough's 1776, page-turning history about how close Americans came to losing the American Revolution.

Best barroom reading

J.R. Moehringer's The Tender Bar, a bittersweet memoir about coming of age in a barroom full of surrogate fathers.

Most scurrilous book

Ed Klein's The Truth About Hillary, an unflattering portrait of Sen. Clinton that relied so heavily on anonymous sources that even political conservatives, no fans of Hillary, questioned its value.

Best title not printable in a family newspaper

On Bull ————by Harry G. Frankfurt, a Princeton philosophy professor, who, in his 67-page best seller, argues that bull ———— is more dangerous than lying.

Biggest (literally) best seller

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. It weighs in at 23 pounds and has every cartoon (all 3,160) in the series.

Goodbye and hello

Light from Heaven, ninth and last in Jan Karon's popular Mitford series, came out in November. Not to worry, Mitford maniacs: The Father Tim novels launch in fall 2007. - 'Magical' writing outshines the mundane

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Put your title to the test

Want to know if you’ve got a killer title for your novel? Now, for the first time in literary history, you can put your title to the scientific test – and find out whether it has what it takes for bestseller success.

The Lulu TitleScorer has been developed exclusively for Lulu by statisticians who studied the titles of 50 years’ worth of top bestsellers and identified which title attributes separated the bestsellers from the rest.

They commissioned a research team to analyse the title of every novel to have topped the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List during the half-century from 1955 to 2004 and then compare them with the titles of a control group of less successful novels by the same authors.

The team, lead by British statistician, Dr Atai Winkler, then used the data gathered from a total of some 700 titles to create this “Lulu TitleScorer”: a program able to predict the chances that any given title would produce a New York Times No. 1 bestseller.

Lulu Book Title Analyzer

Saturday, December 17, 2005


I don't watch much TV but it's always on, and usually on the Food Network. I really enjoy Rachael Ray's Thirty Minute Meals, and she has a line of cookbooks to go along with the show. I got to play with two of them: Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Get Real Meals: Eat Healthy Without Going to Extremes and her latest, Rachael Ray 365: No Repeats--A Year of Deliciously Different Dinners (A 30-Minute Meal Cookbook).

Lots of great recipes - but I must admit, while I really believe Rachael can get these done in thirty minutes, I usually can't. I don't chop as fast as she does, and her ingredients are always right in the front of the pantry or refrigerator - I can spent ten minutes looking for the fresh Italian parsley that somehow got buried in the produce crisper drawer. But even if it takes me a little longer, I don't mind because they really are easy, and always delicious.

And I'm not the only one in my house who's a fan - my husband is enamored of Ms. Ray. So when I heard she would be signing books at the Barnes & Noble store in Wellington, Florida, we made arrangements to go. Of course, that didn't turn out as easy as I thought it would be. I understand that Rachael is a big star but I've been to a lot of book signings and have rarely run across this many rules and restrictions. I blame B&N for part of it, they blamed the publicist, and either way there were a lot of angry people left outside. Let me backtrack...

The signing was scheduled for 6:00 pm. Rachael had another signing earlier in the day across town, and the day before, and so forth, so I'm sure she must have been exhausted. I called the store around 1:15 and spoke to a bookseller I knew from my Borders days. She told me to get my butt up there, that there were already about 50 people lined up. The publicist dictated no more than 225 people were to have books signed, not an unreasonable number.

B&N decided to start giving out wristbands to the first 225 people in line at 3:00. Not 6:00 as advertised. Although to be fair, apparently in their ad in the local newspaper there was some fine print about the 3:00 time, but most people did not know about it, including some that had been in the store early in the morning purchasing several copies of Rachael's cookbooks to be signed later in the day. They were not informed about the 3:00 wristband thing and they were angry. They were also not informed that she would only sign 3 books per person, and only the three books that had been released by her new publisher - her older cookbooks from her previous publisher could not be signed.

I tried to pull some strings and have my friend secure me a wristband, but nothing doing - I was told that no staff members could reserve places for friends, and that even staff were not guaranteed they would get their books signed. So I headed up there, figured I'd get my wristband, head back home, pick up my daughter from school, get my husband, and go back to get the books signed. But after waiting in line for an hour and a half for my wristband, I saw all the people that had been waiting ahead of me were now lined up outside the store. The wristbands were not numbered so another line was necessary. Well, actually they were numbered but they weren't using the numbers. And imprinted on the wristband was an ominous warning that having one didn't guarantee anything.

There were some lovely employees working that day

I got in the new line, called a friend to pick up my daughter, called my husband so he could leave work early, and they met up with me a couple of hours later. I met some lovely people in line, two teachers from NY, a canine cop (well, the human half of the partnership) and some old Borders friends who had jumped ship to B&N. After waiting for half an hour outside, B&N employees realized that there were people waiting in the line who didn't have wristbands and they threw them out. Then they let the rest of us into the store to wait.

A few friends tried to get in around 4, but were turned away at the door. They let in anyone who said they just wanted to shop, and my friend JP managed a glimpse of Rachael for his trouble. Bev said she couldn't get near the mysteries because of the line - it snaked up and down most of the rows of books, making shopping an impossibility except for the strongest willed reader.

When Rachael finally appeared, the crowd let out a roar, there were people screaming "I love you Rachael!" and general madness ensued. Protected only by a handful of booksellers, it had to be a little scary for her to run the gauntlet across the store to where they had a table set up for her signing. Most people behaved, but there were a few incidents, including some booksellers who were threatened with physical violence. One confided that perhaps a real security force might have been more appropriate than just some very non-threatening booksellers.

After waiting for five hours, we finally approached the front part of the line, nirvana, where an overtaxed, overwhelmed B&N employee informed me that I was only allowed to bring one person with me. My husband immediately banished our 13 year old daughter , who acted very nonchalant about the whole thing, but I was annoyed. I told the woman that I had spoken to Lauren (the B&N community relations person running this nightmare) and that she had said it was okay. Defeated, she let the three of us through. By the way, I lied - I spoke to Lauren but not about that. The things mothers will do for their children. Yech.

As we got closer to the promised land, we were informed that only staff members were allowed to take photos - they would use our camera and take one picture. No posed shots. No one allowed behind the table with Rachael - they had to lean in across the table while Rachael signed their book. She would only personalize her newest cookbook, and just sign the other approved titles.

Ahead of us in line was a woman with her young daughter. Paige was probably about 9 years old. She clutched an obviously well used but unapproved-for-signing Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Meals for Kids: Cooking Rocks! cookbook and chattered excitedly about Rachael. When it was finally her turn, Rachael invited her behind the table, explained who Isaboo is (her new puppy) and to her credit, not only looked through the cookbook with the little girl, she signed it, personalized it "Paige Rocks!" and made that little girl feel very special, and very happy. It was lovely to see after such a hectic afternoon.

Then it was our turn. My camera was confiscated, my husband and daughter told to lean in, and a bad photo snapped while Rachael signed our books. She never even picked up her head. We were ushered away immediately - my five hours in line garned us thirty seconds in the presence of Rachael Ray.

Was it worth it? For the smile on my husband's face, yes. And the cookbooks are ...definitely worth it - great stuff. I really like the new one, 365 No Repeats, which she says just about killed her, that is a lot of recipes! But it's really laid out well and they are easy to follow. The cookbooks read like she talks - she's not real big on measuring so while there are measurements in there, there are also her comments - a palmful of this, E.V.O.O. (extra virgin olive oil) around the bowl four times, etc. Some favorites are Boo's Smoky Chicken Patties on Buttered Toast (I eliminate the toast though), Turkey Saltimbocca Roll-Ups, and my daughter's favorite, Honey Nut Chicken Sticks. From Get Real Meals we like Pork Loin Chops with Sweet & Hot Peppers, Chicken Cacciatore with Rigatoni, and we love the Portobella Pizzas. Fun, fast, easy and delicious!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Fiction Writer Reaches Readers by E-Mail
Eugene, Oregon
November 23, 2005

Bruce Holland Rogers, a multiple award-winning writer, has been taking his work directly to his readers for nearly four years. Three times a month, he sends new short-short stories by e-mail to over 600 paying subscribers in some 60 countries.

"Writers complain that conglomerate ownership of media makes it harder for anyone but the bestsellers to find an audience," Rogers says. "In fact, there has never been a better time for writers to build their audiences, starting small and gradually expanding."

The key to this literary distribution model is the Internet. Sending stories by e-mail costs very little, and sending a story to South Africa costs no more than sending it across town. Also essential, according to Rogers, is micro-payments. "An electronic payment service lets me process small subscription fees from other countries without bank fees for currency conversions." The service that Rogers uses is PayPal.

The subscription stories are very short, ranging from 200 words to two-thousand. Rogers believes that literary brevity suits the busy lives of his readers. "Anything longer, you wouldn't want to read as an e-mail," he says. Indeed, some readers find that they don't want to be reading for pleasure at the computer at all. "I enjoyed the stories," wrote one non-renewing subscriber, "but my inbox is choked." Another noted, "When I'm reading e-mail, I'm just not ready for fiction; it's a bit jarring."

Receiving entertaining e-mail at work can have other drawbacks. "With this one, you not only show your writing skills, you demonstrate that you are a comic genius," wrote one Seattle subscriber. "Good thing I moved into an office from a [cubicle]. If I laughed any louder, it would have hurt."

At five U.S. dollars a year, the subscriptions aren't going to allow Rogers to retire any time soon. "Short fiction doesn't pay very well in any case, so the money is something of a side issue," he admits. "The great thing about running this service is that I have direct contact with my readers. I still publish in traditional magazines and anthologies, but most of my fan mail comes from e-mail subscribers."

The service has doubled in each year of operation, so the money may not be a side issue forever. Most new subscribers join because of word-of-mouth recommendations from existing subscribers, or because they have been given gift subscriptions.

Over 600 subscribers now pay $5 a year for the stories. Sample stories by Bruce Holland Rogers can be found at For more about Bruce Holland Rogers, see his web page at

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Publishers Assess the Fall Season's Winners and Losers

When Rodale Books signed Martha Stewart to a $2 million contract in the summer, it was betting that the queen of domesticity was back and as popular as ever, unstained by the stock-trading scandal that sent her to prison for five months.

It appears to have been a bad bet.

"The Martha Rules: 10 Essentials for Achieving Success as You Start, Build, or Manage a Business" has sold roughly 37,000 copies since its publication in early October, according to Nielsen BookScan. That's a major disappointment for a celebrity author like Ms. Stewart, and it leaves Rodale, which planned an initial printing of 500,000, with a financial loss on the book, at least so far.

Ms. Stewart's book is not the only one that has fallen short of publishers' expectations in 2005. Indeed, a look back at the fall publishing season, when publishers typically release their biggest books hoping to cash in on the holidays, reveals that the publishing industry is still struggling.

There are, of course, surprise best sellers: Joan Didion's "Year of Magical Thinking," published by Alfred A. Knopf, has sold more than 200,000 copies, according to the publisher, making it her best-selling book ever in hardcover. And "The Silver Spoon," a 1,200-page cookbook from Phaidon Press, a company better known for lavish books about art and architecture, is such a hit that some stores and online sellers are sold out of it until after Christmas.

Still, the Association of American Publishers reported last month that sales of adult hardcover books, sluggish for several years, have fallen by 2 percent so far this year. Similarly, the American Booksellers Association, a trade group representing bookstores, said that overall bookstore sales in the first nine months of 2005 declined 2 percent from a year ago.

Some much-anticipated novels have fallen short this fall. Salman Rushdie's "Shalimar the Clown" sold just 26,000 copies, according to BookScan, and "Wickett's Remedy," Myla Goldberg's follow-up to her heralded 2000 novel, "Bee Season," sold only 9,000.

BookScan records sales at bookstores, online booksellers and some mass merchandisers, which together typically account for 70 to 80 percent of a new hardcover's sales, meaning that actual sales of a new book are usually about one-third higher than the BookScan number. For books like "The Silver Spoon," which has sold thousands of copies through nontraditional outlets like cooking Web sites and specialty stores, sales could be double the BookScan number.

"If there's any theme to the year," said David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster's flagship imprint, "it's that people only want to read the truth." So while nonfiction sales are generally good, he said, fiction sales are best defined, in Mr. Rosenthal's usual plain-spoken manner, by an expletive.

This continues a trend that began at least four years ago, when, after 9/11, a large segment of readers seemed to give up on fiction, flocking instead to nonfiction works, first about 9/11 itself, then about Islam, the Middle East, Iraq and United States politics.

Two books that are selling well ahead of expectations this fall fit that mold: "Our Endangered Values," by Jimmy Carter, an assessment of the country's current political and religious debates, published by Simon & Schuster; and "A Man Without a Country," by Kurt Vonnegut, a series of essays leavened with the author's trademark humanist view, published by Seven Stories Press.

"Both of these men have a moral profile" that is helping their books, said Jim Harris, an owner of Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City. He added that the authors' "authoritative voices" have attracted buyers who do not place themselves at one political extreme or the other.

Mr. Carter's book has sold nearly all of the 310,000 copies in its initial printing, said Mr. Rosenthal of Simon & Schuster, and the company has since pushed the number in circulation to 675,000. Mr. Carter has had best-selling books before, most notably his 2001 memoir, "An Hour Before Daylight," which sold 300,000 hardcover copies.

Mr. Vonnegut, too, is no stranger to the best-seller lists, but he has more often arrived there with works of fiction. His latest book, his first best seller since the 1997 novel "Timequake," has sold nearly 100,000 copies, according to the publisher, and spent six weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. It is also the first entry on the Times list for Seven Stories Press, an independent publisher that in 2000 published a previous book of essays by Mr. Vonnegut, "God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian."

Gerry Donaghy, an inventory supervisor at Powell's Books in Portland, Ore., said Mr. Vonnegut's book had attracted buyers because, at a time when political dialogue is increasingly polarized, "he is not as strident as Michael Moore or Al Franken." Besides, Mr. Donaghy added, while many new hardcover books are priced as high as $35, Mr. Vonnegut's has a relatively low list price of $23.95, and "many people are buying multiple copies to give as gifts."

Publishing, it is said, is one of the few businesses where a company makes bigger headlines for how much money it spends than for how much money it takes in. Little, Brown & Company got a fair amount of press when it paid $2 million for "The Historian," the first novel by Elizabeth Kostova, which retells the Dracula legend. In this case, the wager seems to have paid off. Booksellers lined up to have Ms. Kostova sign their advance copies at Book Expo America, the industry's annual summer convention, and BookScan has recorded sales of more than 485,000 copies.

Another big surprise is a Civil War saga that weaves intimate portraits of historical figures with real-life events. It is not, however, E. L. Doctorow's much-anticipated novel, "The March," published by Random House. It is "The Widow of the South," the first novel by Robert Hicks, published by Warner Books. According to BookScan, each book has sold just over 100,000 copies.

Jamie Raab, the publisher of Warner Books, which like Little, Brown is part of the Time Warner Book Group, credits much of the success of both "Widow of the South" and "The Historian" to a series of dinners that the publishers arranged with booksellers around the country just as early copies of the books were being shipped to stores. Such early meetings between authors and bookstore representatives have become as important to a book's marketing as the traditional author tour and book signing after a book is released, Ms. Raab said.

Many booksellers might have welcomed a similar chance to meet Ms. Stewart, but consumers exhibited relatively little interest in her book on how to build a business.

"We only sold three copies, and we had it prominently displayed," said Greg Smith, a bookseller at Page One Bookstore in Albuquerque. "It's not that the book is not being promoted, but I don't think it's the kind of thing people associate with her."

"The Martha Rules" spent just one week on The Times's five-place advice, how-to and miscellaneous best-seller list before dropping off. But Liz Perl, the publisher of Rodale Books, said the company had an "innovative and comprehensive plan to market and promote the book through the holiday season and into next year."

Readers have not lost all of their appetite for Ms. Stewart, however. Mr. Smith said Ms. Stewart's latest cookbook, "Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook," published by Clarkson Potter, a unit of Random House Inc., was selling briskly.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Food critic Coren wins British bad sex award

Friday December 2, 2005
Guardian Unlimited

It was the shower hose that clinched it. A passage from his debut novel, Winkler, describing a male character's genitalia as "leaping around like a shower dropped in an empty bath" won the 13th annual Literary Review award for Bad Sex in Fiction for food-critic-turned-novelist Giles Coren last night.

Coren beat off heavyweight competition for the prize with an unpunctuated 138-word description of coitus, followed by the two-word sentence, "like Zorro". Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Paul Theroux and John Updike were among the 11 contenders for this year's prize, with Rushdie, Theroux and Updike all boasting previous nominations.

The prize was launched in 1993 by the late editor of the Literary Review, Auberon Waugh, in an attempt to "draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel". Winners of the award receive a statuette and a bottle of champagne - but only if they show up. While most do, last year's champion Tom Wolfe boycotted the ceremony, claiming that judges had failed to recognise the irony in a passage from his novel I Am Charlotte Simmons beginning "slither slither slither slither went the tongue".

Coren, however, seemed delighted with his win, and accepted his prize with aplomb from the Turner Prize-winning artist, Grayson Perry. Of the other shortlisted passages, he said "I wish I'd written them all."

Sunday, December 04, 2005

WASHINGTON POST - Editors' Choices
The Ten Best Books of the Year

Sunday, December 4, 2005


The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss

March, by Geraldine Brooks

The March, by E.L. Doctorow

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

Shalimar the Clown, by Salman Rushdie


The Assassins' Gate, by George Packer

Bury the Chains, by Adam Hochschild

Melville, by Andrew Delbanco

Night Draws Near, by Anthony Shadid

Shake Hands With the Devil, by Romo Dallaire

Saturday, December 03, 2005

New York Times: The 10 Best Books of 2005


By Haruki Murakami.
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95.
This graceful and dreamily cerebral novel, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, tells two stories - that of a boy fleeing an Oedipal prophecy, and that of a witless old man who can talk to cats - and is the work of a powerfully confident writer.

By Zadie Smith.
Penguin Press, $25.95.
In her vibrant new book, a cultural-politics novel set in a place like Harvard, the author of ''White Teeth'' brings everything to the table: a crisp intellect, a lovely wit and enormous sympathy for the men, women and children who populate her story.

By Curtis Sittenfeld.
Random House, $21.95. Paper, $13.95.
This calm and memorably incisive first novel, about a scholarship girl who heads east to attend an elite prep school, casts an unshakable spell and has plenty to say about class, sex and character.

By Ian McEwan.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26.
As bracing and as carefully constructed as anything McEwan has written, this astringent novel traces a day in the life of an English neurosurgeon who comes face to face with senseless violence.

By Mary Gaitskill.
Pantheon Books, $23.
This mesmerizingly dark novel from the author of ''Bad Behavior'' and ''Two Girls, Fat and Thin'' is narrated by a former Paris model who is now sick and poor; her ruminations on beauty and cruelty have clarity and an uncanny bite.


America in Iraq
By George Packer.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.
A comprehensive look at the largest foreign policy gamble in a generation, by a New Yorker reporter who traces the full arc of the war, from the pre-invasion debate through the action on the ground.

An American Master
By Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.
Alfred A. Knopf, $35.
A sweeping biography, impressively researched and absorbingly written, of the charismatic immigrant who stood at the vortex of mid-20th-century American art.

By Jonathan Harr.
Random House, $24.95.
This gripping narrative, populated by a beguiling cast of scholars, historians, art restorers and aging nobles, records the search for Caravaggio's ''Taking of Christ,'' painted in 1602 and rediscovered in 1990.

A History of Europe Since 1945
By Tony Judt.
The Penguin Press, $39.95.
Judt's massive, learned, brilliantly detailed account of Europe's recovery from the wreckage of World War II presents a whole continent in panorama even as it sets off detonations of insight on almost every page.

By Joan Didion.
Alfred A. Knopf, $23.95.
A prose master's harrowing yet exhilarating memoir of a year riven by sudden death (her husband's) and mortal illness (their only child's).

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Chick lit for Christians

For young Christian women, these often steamy books that combine spunk with spirituality have become hot sellers.
Columbia News Service

It's called chick lit -- tales of bed-hopping alcoholics and foul-mouthed fashionistas made popular by such best-selling novels as "Bridget Jones's Diary."

At lunch one day, Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt, two single career women in their mid-20s, joked that there should be chick lit for Christians like them, whose faith might be strong but whose single-girl imperfections loom just as large.

"Everyone thought it was a hilarious idea," Dayton said. "Chick lit is about sex and dating and shopping, and Christians don't do those things." (Well, one of those things.)

Six months later, the two church-going women (a Presbyterian and an Episcopalian), both living and working in New York, started to write "Emily Ever After." It's the story of a small-town single girl struggling to balance her religious values with her big-city life.

It's also the biblical story of Esther, but with designer handbags and cocktails. And it was one of the first Christian chick lit books to ignite a hot market of similar big sellers.

For young practicing Christian women, these tales are a welcome dose of 21st-century attitude. But with their PG-rated flirtations, and heroines who combine spunk with spirituality, the books aren't just selling in Christian bookstores. They're titillating the heathens who shop at Target, too.

"I think a lot of non-Christians assume Christian chick lit is just full of preachy messages," said Rebecca Fong, 43, a stay-at-home mom and secular reader from Loomis, Calif.

"I'm finding that most of it is just straightforward storytelling and writing that doesn't contain any shocking lifestyles or deviant politics."

Not surprisingly, young Christian women are the books' biggest fans. Alicia Manley Lawver, 29, a stay-at-home mom in Tacoma, Wash., and a Lutheran, was a huge fan of mainstream chick lit. Then she discovered her first Christian version, a novel with a provocative cover image of a pair of women's legs shod in hot pink slippers. Now she's hooked.

"I can live vicariously through these characters," Lawver said. "And it's stuff I can actually share with my mother."

What makes it Christian?

More than anything else, it's the heroines' cardinal rule: "Everything in a secular book is in a Christian book, just in a different order," said Judy Baer, author of "The Whitney Chronicles," a popular example of the form.

"In secular books characters meet, have sex, then try and be friends. In Christian books, they meet, become friends, get married, then have sex."

Christian romance novels have been around since the 1970s, most of them historical "prairie" epics of rural or small-town life. Books like "Emily Ever After," on the other hand, are thick with modern-day chick lit dramas -- dating perils, shoe yearnings, big-city independence -- all recounted in a witty voice that makes the reader feel as if she's chatting with her best friend.

More than 3 million Christian fiction books were sold in 2004, a 9 percent jump from 2003, according to the Evangelical Christian Booksellers Association.

Sales of Christian romance novels, including Christian chick lit, have doubled since 1995. In part that's because these books are sidling up next to mainstream secular chick lit in Barnes & Noble and other mass-market stores.

The popularity of the books in Wichita stores varies, according to managers.

"The whole religious fiction section is just sort of exploding right now," said Brad Purkey, manager of the Barnes & Noble on North Rock Road. "We just keep expanding and expanding and expanding."

In that expansion, Purkey said he's noticed more of the Christian chick lit books coming into the store -- so the demand is there. And over the past three or four months, he said, he's noticed a few people coming in asking for the books.

Sarah Bagby, managing partner of Watermark Books & Cafe, 4701 E. Douglas, said the bookstore doesn't carry the books, but workers are ordering them maybe twice a week at customers' requests.

"That's not something we were doing two years ago," she said.

Richard Wilson, manager of Family Christian Stores at 21st and Maize Road, said he hasn't noticed a great demand for the books, though the store carries some of them, including "Emily Ever After."

"We just don't have a big following for that," he said.

Not everything goes

Just because the books have been liberated from religious bookstores, however, does not mean that anything goes.

Bridget Jones counts "units" of alcohol consumption, profanity and sexual conquests like an unholy trinity. Christian heroines generally don't drink or curse. They may, however, be born again or have had premarital sex. Many also admit to feelings of desire.

"Colorful pasts are OK," said Joan Marlow Golan, senior editor for Harlequin's Christian fiction line. But a heroine of faith "struggles with living up to her Christian values."

Some evangelical Christian booksellers and publishers have been slow to embrace the genre. The author of the 2005 novel "Dreaming in Black and White" is Laura Jensen Walker, a nondenominational Christian.

When she first tried to get her book published, she heard criticism of Phoebe, her protagonist. Phoebe obsesses about her weight, dabbles in online dating and pokes fun at Christian singles groups in a slightly wicked tone that is more like "The Devil Wears Prada" than "Song of Solomon." One of Walker's prospective publishers said Phoebe wasn't a proper role model for young religious girls.

And Walker agreed. "Come on. There's not a deep message here," she said. "It's fiction. It's chick lit. It's supposed to be fun."

Walker believes many people have a stereotype of observant Christians that's one-dimensional.

"Christians are not all judgmental. We're real, we struggle, just like anyone else. And we're funny."

"Emily Ever After" authors Dayton and Vanderbilt received some angry reviews, too, for their heroine's "unChristian-like" behavior when, in the book, Emily drank too much and vomited.

In "What a Girl Wants," Kristin Billerbeck's 1999 novel, her heroine shopped for thong underwear with a married friend. That sparked a heated letter-writing campaign from outraged readers.

Changing attitudes

Attitudes have changed to at least some degree since then, said Ami McConnell, acquisitions and development editor for Westbow, Billerbeck's publisher. "Now there are a lot less 'We can'ts' and a lot more 'We cans,' " she said.

Dayton and Vanderbilt are getting ready to promote their second book, "Consider Lily." It's a modern retelling of Samson and Delilah set in San Francisco. With the book, the authors are edging closer to the mainstream, particularly in a bikini scene that may raise a few eyebrows.

"Lily has the proverbial angel on one shoulder and devil on the other," Vanderbilt said. "She has to decide whether to wear the bikini or not. And it's hard, because God gave her a hot body."

Contributing: Joe Rodriguez of The Eagle.

Friday, November 25, 2005


This past Sunday I had the pleasure of attending the Miami Book Fair. This was the first year they charged admission and I must admit I didn't enjoy paying $5 to get in. I watched much of it on TV on Saturday and with the lousy weather - it rained off and on all day - and with most of south Florida still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Wilma, the crowds were very light. Sunday was hot and humid and seemed a bit busier, at least according to Joanne Sinchuk, owner of the fabulous Murder on the Beach bookstore. Joanne has a tent every year at the street fair and schedules author signings every hour during the event. I met Nancy J. Cohen, author of the Florida fun Bad Hair Day mystery series, and Lynn Sholes & Joe Moore, authors of The Grail Conspiracy.

As always, the book fair radiates most of its energy on the nonfiction authors, which may have something to do with the fact that those events are televised live on Book TV (CSpan 2) and the serious fiction authors; for the most part, the mystery authors are relegated to smaller, less conspicuous venues. I'm posting some pictures that I took despite their quality, or lack thereof. Photography is obviously not one of my talents.

Nonetheless, early Sunday morning I made my way to a panel simply titled: A Mystery Reading, featuring Reed Arvin, James O. Born and Jonathon King [seated left to right.] The crowd was small, the room was un-air-conditioned, and the woman who introduced them obviously wasn't a mystery reader and decided Jonathon King and John Connolly were interchangeable (don't ask.) But rest assured, a good time was had by all who attended. Jim Born is as terrific a speaker as he is a writer and it is always a pleasure to see him. His next book, ESCAPE CLAUSE, is the third in his Bill Tasker series and comes out in February, and I'll be giving a few copies away, so check out next February.

Jonathon King talked about how he was finally able to quit his day job - crime writing for the Sun Sentinel - to focus on fictional crime writing. His next book, EYE OF VENGEANCE is a stand alone, a departure from his wonderful Max Freeman series, and it sounded really interesting. Unfortunately, we have quite a wait - it doesn't come out until next May.

I'd never seen Reed Arvin before but I really enjoyed his book, THE LAST GOODBYE, so I was happy to finally get to meet him. He's a very interesting guy. He grew up on a working cattle ranch in Kansas, the son of two lawyers and his mother went on to become the first blind female judge in the country. He talked about having a blind mother and how it really forced him to articulate everything because she couldn't see his face. His newest book, BLOOD OF ANGELS, has received excellent reviews and I'm looking forward to reading it.

The next panel I attended was also called "A Mystery Reading" (do you see a pattern here?) and featured Greg Iles, James W. Hall, and [standing at the mic] the real John Connolly [seated left to right below]. John Connolly started, and apparently while he isn't writing dark thrillers like his latest, THE BLACK ANGEL, he's honing material for a stand-up comedy act. He went on about medieval burial practices, Papal troubles, making candelabras out of human bones and I don't even know what else but he was funny as hell and had the audience laughing nonstop for his entire fifteen minute talk. His next book will be a complete departure for him, it's not part of his series and isn't even a thriller, more mainstream fiction.

Jim Hall, who happens to be a very funny guy himself, refused to follow that act so Greg Iles stepped up to the plate. He started off by basically putting his foot in his mouth; he commented that he doesn't write a series because he doesn't want to do the same old thing over and over again, he needs the challenge of writing something new everytime. Except, of course, that both Connolly and Hall write series, of which Iles was apparently unaware. Note to authors: it always pays to at least look at some of the books the authors you are sharing a podium with have written. Iles seems like a very intense, very bright guy who definitely marches to his own drummer. Then Hall did his thing and he is always entertaining. He talked about how he sold his first book which had his character Thorne and was about 150 pages into his next book, which had nothing to do with Thorne, when his agent called and said they could get a lot more money for the paperback rights for the first book if the second book also had Thorne. He suggested he use the "find and replace" option in MS Word to change the character's name! Instead, Jim shelved that book and wrote another Thorne book. Seems like every time he wants to write a stand alone, he's asked to change the character to Thorne. However, his most recent book, FORESTS IN THE NIGHT, is a stand alone and it's wonderful. He also mentioned that anyone can write a brand new book every time out of the box, but it's much more difficult to keep creating fresh stories for already established characters!

After some wandering through the street fair, which every year seems to be getting more and more Hispanic, and offer fewer and fewer books for sale, it was time for the afternoon panels. First up was another "Mystery Reading", this time with Paul Levine, Dylan Schaffer and Jeff Lindsey.

Paul Levine was introduced by his former law partner from Miami, and some old friends came to see him too - Edna Buchanan, Ridley Pearson and Christine Kling. He hasn't written a novel in several years (see my interview with him on this blog somewhere) but his newest, SOLOMON VS. LORD, is just terrific.

Dylan Schaffer spoke next, and I must admit he was not at all what I expected. His first book, MISDEMEANOR MAN, introduced his main character, a public defender with no ambition - he's totally happy dealing with the flashers and not with the murderers because it frees up more time for his true passion: playing with his Barry Manilow cover band. It was a really fun read providing you don't mind having Manilow songs stuck in your head for the duration! The sequel just came out, I WRITE THE WRONGS, and I'm really looking forward to reading it. My point being that I guess I expected Dylan to be somewhat like his character - bad assumption on my part. In reality, he is a serious lawyer who handles appellate work for cases dealing with the likes of John Gotti (he claims to be the only person in America who listened to all 400+ hours of the tapes that convicted Gotti) and said he will probably be handling the upcoming Scott Peterson case.

Jeff Lindsey, the only non-lawyer on the panel, spoke about his loveable serial killer in his newest adventure, DEARLY DEVOTED DEXTER. Showtime is trying to turn it into a series and is filming the pilot in Miami. It starts Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under) as Dexter - but still, I can't imagine watching it. I don't mind reading serial killer books but I won't watch that sort of thing.

[seated left to right: Leveen, Pearl, Burton, Basbanes] This panel ended fairly quickly so I was able to catch the second half of a panel of authors who write about reading - I missed Nicholas Basbanes whose latest book, EVERY BOOK ITS READER: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World, doesn't come out until next week so wasn't available for purchase. I also missed Betsy Burton, owner of The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her book, THE KING'S ENGLISH: ADVENTURES OF AN INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLER looked really interesting and included lots of quirky booklists. But luckily for me, the writer I most wanted to see on this panel was just starting to speak when I got there. Nancy Pearl is a recently retired librarian and has been immortalized by the Archie McPhee company as a librarian action figure doll with "amazing push-button shushing action". She has a couple of books out, BOOK LUST and MORE BOOK LUST and is currently working on a book of recommended reading for children and young adults called BOOK CRUSH. I really wanted to meet Nancy for several reasons, but mostly because she had invited me to submit a column on Romance for Men for the Readers' Shelf page of Library Journal, which she edits. She was a pleasure to work with via email, and I was delighted to finally meet her. She is charming and funny and possibly even more obsessed with books than I am, if such a thing were possible. Steve Leveen spoke last about his book, THE LITTLE GUIDE TO YOUR WELL READ LIFE, which is a wonderful book designed to get people who say they love to read but don't have the time, to find the time. But he was, as he put it, preaching to the choir - this was an audience of readers!

I headed across the fair to the main auditorium where Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson were speaking. I got there a few minutes after they started and was surprised to actually find seats available, albeit wayyyyy in the back of the room. I took a picture but I was so far away it is just a blurry shot of two guys with guitars so I'm not even bothering to post it. They were really funny, and talked about living in Florida, how they became friends, the beginnings of the Rock Bottom Remainders and the books they are writing together - children's books, PETER AND THE STAR CATCHERS and the sequel, PETER AND THE SHADOW THIEVES, which will be coming out in July. Then they strapped on their guitars and played a new song Dave said he wrote recently, entitled "Hurricane Blues". They were great and it was a wonderful presentation.

The last event of the day, in fact the event that closed this year's book fair, was Scott Turow. Turow has written fiction - probably set the standard for legal thrillers with PRESUMED INNOCENT; nonfiction, his first book, ONE L about his first year at Harvard Law School is still widely read (and became a question on a final exam on copyright law during his third year of law school - cute story) and with his most recent book can add historical fiction to his resume. ORDINARY HEROES is about World War II and was based on his father's letters during that war. It's a remarkable book that I was privileged to review for Library Journal (read my review at, so I really wanted to meet him. He spoke for about an hour and was just fascinating, and afterwards sat in a darkening outdoor hallway and patiently signed books and listened to his readers. It was a wonderful ending to a wonderful day.

Can't wait 'til next year.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The sorceress' apprentice

Steve Kloves has adapted four of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" tomes, taking them from page to screen. The feat, he found, required more than a little wizardry of his own.

By Mary McNamara
Times Staff Writer

November 20, 2005

ONCE upon a time, when children knew nothing about publishing dates and the most famous wizard was Merlin, writer-director Steve Kloves was asked if he had any interest in adapting a children's book that was very popular in the United Kingdom.

He was torn — he had just finished adapting the dark literary comedy "Wonder Boys," which had been fun. But Kloves, who wrote and directed "The Fabulous Baker Boys" and "Flesh and Bone" and who wrote "Racing With the Moon," wanted to get back to directing. And his own material. Still, he liked this children's book, especially the main character, and was assured by friends with preteens that the movie would be greeted with much enthusiasm. So he said yes.

Four months later, Harry Potter landed on the cover of Time and Kloves found himself on a franchise train that has run with all the speed and pell-mell precision of the Hogwarts Express through four movies, three directors and what will undoubtedly turn out to be more than $3 billion in box office returns just a little more than halfway through the projected seven-book, seven-film series.

And to hear Kloves tell it, it's been wonderful, inspiring, satisfying and all the other adjectives so often evoked by those involved in good moviemaking.

But it's also been six years, man, and that's a long time. When he began working on the first book, and while in the flush of early romance, Kloves said he would adapt all of them, if J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. would let him. He felt lucky, privileged, blessed. And in a town full of starving, scrabbling screenwriters, many of whom would have gladly put the Imperius Curse on Kloves for a shot at his gig, he was. But work is work, which is why they pay you for it.

For six years, Kloves has left his own kids for weeks at a time to care for his magically challenged foster children in the U.K., put all his other projects on the backburner to take care of Harry. For six years, he has thrashed around in a world created by another writer, teasing movies from complicated books of increasing girth and violence then turning the scripts over to another fellow to direct.

" 'Harry Potter' plots are so torturous to convey to the screen," he says. "Jo has created such a vivid world that you don't want to leave anything out. But you have to. And it's hard." So after spending almost two years on "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which opened Friday, Steve Kloves did The Unthinkable.

He said "no" to Harry Potter.

"[Goblet of Fire] was very difficult because it was my favorite," Kloves says. "Which always means you have to proceed carefully. And in it the wizard world gets larger — which is great, I loved the way Jo stretched things out. But I still had the same canvas. It couldn't be a four-hour movie." Scheduling issues also interfered — director Mike Newell wasn't available in the beginning stages, which made things a bit difficult. Kloves loved working with Newell, who he found "just as invested in the characters as I am," but still there were many changes even after the final script had been approved.

"Last Christmas, Mike looked at footage and decided he wanted to emphasize certain plotlines," Kloves says. "Not a lot of work, but very meticulous throughout the whole script. I was still writing lines in June and July."

Although Kloves has certainly made plenty of money from the four films, he insists that was never a consideration. "It sounds arrogant," he says, "but I have always sold everything I've written. And in the time it took me to write one 'Harry' script, I could have written two, even three of my own. So … ," he trails off with a you-do-the-math shrug.

In fact, for more than a year he has been trying to write a screenplay for Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time," another project he agreed to do 15 minutes before it became an official Hot Book. And he could never find the time to really get rolling.

"Every time I would get started," he says, "Harry would come knocking." So when it came time to sign on for No. 5, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," which will be directed by David Yates, Kloves passed the quill to Michael Goldenberg ("Peter Pan," "Contact").

But then as so often happens after these break-ups, regret set in. His children, now 10 and 13, were not as thrilled that Daddy would be around more as Kloves thought they would be. "I was surprised at how disappointed they were that I wasn't doing No. 5," he says. "They never said, but I guess they thought it was cool that I wrote the movies."

When Kloves read No. 6, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," he found himself regretting his decision even more. He mentioned this to Jeff Robinov, production president at Warner Bros., who instantly welcomed him back — because everyone is happy with the work Kloves had done and also because this means Warner Bros. can have two writers working almost simultaneously. Goldberg started on "Phoenix" last year — "Right about now he's realizing he'll be working on it another year," Kloves says with a small smile — and Kloves will soon start "The Half-Blood Prince." "They want to film the two as close to back-to-back as they can," Kloves says. "Because the kids are really starting to grow up. And if we lose the kids, if they have to recast for six or seven, I think we will lose the movies. That's what makes them magic."

Manner belies his mission

THERE is nothing in Kloves' appearance or manner that would suggest he has spent the last six years of his life with at least one foot in a world of wizards, Death Eaters and house elves. But you might be able to pick him out of a Guess Which One's the Screenwriter lineup. If you crossed the guy in the Apple computer billboard with the guy in the Gap billboard, you would have Kloves' wavy brown hair, T-shirt and jeans, intense look and sudden, nice smile. The man sitting against the wall at the party, glancing at his watch.

As much as he loves the characters and the wizarding world — Moaning Myrtle and Quidditch and Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans — as much as he loves being part of a movie that requires location work in castles and eerie forests, he is a film industry professional, well-versed in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. What he does is much more craft than magic.

Few writers have found themselves as emotionally embroiled in another writer's project as Kloves has — Entertainment Weekly recently identified him as "franchise scribe Steve Kloves," which is probably not what he dreamed of becoming in high school. And few directors have worked as closely on a project without actually directing it.

"I don't spend a lot of time on the set," he says. "I never have. Because I think as a director myself I would be too tempted to get in there and mess around." Because he is adapting what is essentially a work in progress, Kloves has had to develop an intuition about where a certain character or theme or plotline is going.

"Jo has been very generous and helpful," he says. "She won't give anything away but occasionally she'll give me a wink, or let me know if I'm picking up on something that is going to become important later." This requires an investment of time and emotion from Kloves that is far beyond the norm. Many screenwriters become attached to the books or stories they are adapting but in most cases, that attachment has a specific duration with, for lack of a better term, a sense of closure.

For Kloves, there is always another book on its way, another chapter in a story over which he has no control — he can literally have some of his favorite characters yanked from underneath him. Not that he is always surprised by the turns in Rowling's plots: The death of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore at the end of "The Half-Blood Prince" did not surprise him.

"This is a coming-of-age story for Harry," he says. "And at some point he has to make the journey alone. Which he can't if Dumbledore is around to protect him." But he has no idea whether Professor Severus Snape is guilty of murdering the beloved Hogwarts headmaster. He is happy that Snape plays such a large role in the sixth book, mainly because he loves writing for Alan Rickman, who plays the professor.

"It's hard because if you look at the books, Snape really just sort of hovers, as a threat, more than actually does something," Kloves says. "And Alan is just a wonderful actor. He always says the lines exactly as I write them, including the ellipses. I have never met an actor who could act out ellipses, but Alan can."

Likewise, he was hoping, for example, that the character of Draco Malfoy would come more into the fore in "Goblet." "Tom Felton [who plays Malfoy] is such a wonderful actor," Kloves says. "I was hoping that Draco would become a little more dangerous." That seems to have happened in "Half-Blood Prince," but again, Kloves has no way of knowing exactly where the character is going. He was pleased to be able to give Rupert Grint, who plays Harry's best friend, Ron Weasley, room to stretch in "Goblet of Fire." Grint, he says, is such a natural-born comedian that the filmmakers have to fight the urge to let him become simply the comic relief. "In 'Goblet' we gave him some brass, which made me very happy. Rupert is amazingly funny, but I didn't want him to become Abbott to Harry's Costello."

During the last five years Kloves has learned that when it comes to adapting a beloved text, you are just not going to please everyone. He has endured criticism that he remained too true to the books (after the first two movies directed by Chris Columbus) and that he took too many liberties (after the third directed by Alfonso CuarĂ³n). In the end, he takes satisfaction from the fact that he is working on a project that takes children seriously, something rare in Hollywood. And the success of the films speaks for itself — critics can say what they may, but children love his work. He knows this from the box office numbers and from what he overhears as he shuttles his daughter and son and their friends around.

"In 'Azkaban,' " he says, "I swear, the thing I heard the most from kids was not how great Buckbeak looked or how scary the Dementors were but how funny they thought it was when Hermione sees herself and asks, 'Is that how my hair really looks from the back?'

"Kids are much less enthralled by dragons than they are by something funny Ron says. Which is great," he adds, "because so am I."

Thursday, November 17, 2005

National Book Award Winners Announced

The winners of the 2005 National Book Awards were announced last night, November 16, at a ceremony at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City. The annual awards are given by the National Book Foundation to recognize achievements in four categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People's Literature. The night's ceremonies included the presentation of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Norman Mailer. The Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community was presented to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore.

This year's winners by category are:


Europe Central by William T. Vollmann (Viking)


The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (Knopf)


Migration: New and Selected Poems by W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press)

Young People's Literature

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall (Knopf Books for Young Readers)

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Goat at Saks and Other Marketing Tales

November 14, 2005

Few children's books carry promotional blurbs from the likes of the fashion designers Roberto Cavalli, Giorgio Armani and Jean Paul Gaultier. But then "Cashmere if You Can," is not your typical children's book.

This new lavishly illustrated book from HarperCollins Publishers follows the misadventures of Wawa Hohhot and her family of Mongolian cashmere goats who just happen to live on the roof of Saks's Midtown Manhattan store.

The location is no accident: a Saks Fifth Avenue marketing executive came up with the idea, and the department store chain owns the text copyright. It is as if the Plaza Hotel had underwritten "Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grown-ups."

On sale now only in Saks stores, HarperCollins plans to distribute the $16.99 book nationwide in January as if it were any other children's picture book. And "Cashmere if You Can" has inspired HarperCollins, a unit of the News Corporation, to make a business out of these sorts of corporate collaborations.

Saks has already signed with the publisher to produce another children's book for next year's holiday season, and HarperCollins is in negotiations with sports and entertainment entities and packaged goods companies.

The weaving of brands and products into content - making them supporting characters or even the stars rather than mere scenery -is growing elsewhere in the media, particularly on television, as advertisers try to cut through the clutter.

The book world, however, has not always been hospitable to such commercialization. Working that closely with a sponsor is viewed as compromising the work's artistic or literary aspirations or sullying the integrity of the reading experience, as the novelist Fay Weldon discovered when she accepted a product placement fee for a 2001 book.

While there have always been books, like "Weber's Big Book of Grilling" and "The Cheerios Counting Book," with obvious corporate tie-ins, "Cashmere if You Can" offers a new twist, with a more subtle connection and no clear disclosure of Saks's involvement.

Although there is a Mr. Saks in the story, who hires Wawa to be a model, and the Elizabeth Arden Red Door Salon at the Saks Midtown location makes an appearance, they are in service to an actual plot. "It's not the 'Saks Book of Style,' " said Andrea Rosen, vice president of special markets at HarperCollins. "We flipped the model." (HarperCollins receives a publishing fee from Saks and an undisclosed share of revenue.)

In attempting to make a business - albeit a modest one - out of publishing similar books, HarperCollins is also trying to goose an industry that is being squeezed from different sides. Powerful discounters like Wal-Mart and Costco sell a limited selection of books and return them promptly for full refunds if they do not sell quickly. Book chains like Barnes & Noble are devoting more space to gift items and other trinkets.

Amid all this, publishers have been trying to push into nontraditional markets and to find new outlets for their wares, like Saks Fifth Avenue.

"We can't keep chasing only best sellers," said Jane Friedman, chief executive of HarperCollins. "We all recognize we all have to do different things today."

Ms. Friedman enjoys doing just that. Not one to play down accomplishments - she misses few opportunities to take credit for the invention of the author tour or popularizing the audio book - she recently put corporate initiatives into place aimed at making HarperCollins as much of a brand name as its authors.

To further those ends, she relishes making use of other assets within the News Corporation empire. On "Stacked," the Fox television show revolving around a ditzy character played by Pamela Anderson who works in a bookstore, the books on display are from HarperCollins.

And Ms. Friedman mused in a recent interview about steering her writers on to the show. "Wouldn't it be fun to put Jack Welch with Pamela Anderson?" Ms. Friedman asked.

Given synergy's dodgy record, it is unclear whether these efforts will help sell HarperCollins books. But Ms. Friedman does not lack optimism. "Maybe I'm a dreamer," she said, "but a lot of what I've dreamt has come true."

Terron Schaefer, the senior vice president of marketing at Saks Fifth Avenue who came up with the idea for a children's book and has an as-told-to credit on the cover, also dreams big. He envisions a movie or television show based on the antics of the Hohhot goat family, and has hired a Hollywood talent agency to sell the project.

(He hit upon the surname while researching cashmere, discovering that much of today's fabric comes from Inner Mongolia, and that Hohhot is one of its towns.)

Although "Cashmere if You Can" is part of a chainwide holiday promotion for a certain expensive fabric, Mr. Schaefer said the book was not about persuading 7-year-olds (or their mothers) to develop a taste for fur-trimmed cashmere scarves. "There's no real sell in the book," he said. "It's just about being happy with who you are."

But the ultimate goal is, of course, all about marketing in some form. "If you can get into the lexicon of the public, I think we'll have accomplished something," he said. "Eloise at the Plaza; I rest my case."

But not all booksellers may be keen to help HarperCollins insinuate the Hohhots into the national consciousness come January.

"That's disgusting," said Carla Cohen, co-owner of Politics and Prose in Washington, when told about the book. "Teaching kids about material things most people can't afford, that's gross."

The intersection of books and advertising - disguised or not - has always been a fraught issue. Chris Whittle was greeted by a torrent of criticism more than 15 years ago when he bound ads into books by authors like John Kenneth Galbraith and Richard Rhodes.

Ms. Weldon created a minitempest when she accepted an undisclosed sum from Bulgari, the Italian jewelry company, in exchange for prominent placement in her 2001 book, "The Bulgari Connection." (HarperCollins was the book's British publisher, while Grove/Atlantic published the novel in the United States.)

And last year, the Ford Motor Company paid Carole Matthews, a British author, to feature the Ford Fiesta in her next two novels.

The Saks imprimatur does not necessarily bother other booksellers. "If it's a good book, we'll buy it," Steve Riggio, chief executive of Barnes & Noble, said through a spokeswoman.

That view was echoed by people in the independent bookselling world, including Roxanne J. Coady, owner of R J Julia Booksellers, which owns two stores in Connecticut, and Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, with three locations in southern Florida. "All the books published come from a big corporation," Mr. Kaplan said. "In situations like this, it all depends on how good the book is."

Anne Irish, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, concurred that merit would be the primary consideration.

Ms. Friedman said the publisher would disclose Saks's involvement in the trade version of the book, but she was puzzled by objections.

"The idea of working with a company and creating editorial together, I see nothing untoward about that, nothing," Ms. Friedman said.

And if people do have a problem? "Don't buy our book if you don't want to," Ms. Friedman said.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Karon's Father Tim to leave 'Mitford'
By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY

Best-selling author Jan Karon, 68, is closing the book on her popular Mitford series, with the ninth, Light from Heaven (Viking, $26.95), out this week.

I have no more stories to tell about Mitford," she says of the novels that chronicle the escapades of the affable Episcopal priest Father Tim Kavanagh in the charming village of Mitford, N.C.

There are 25 million copies of her 15 books in print, including two children's books. Her work, which has Christian overtones, has a devout following.

Although it was time to leave Mitford, Karon won't leave Father Tim behind. She'll continue to track the life of the 70-year-old priest in three new books, called the Father Tim Novels, launching in fall 2007.

"I'll go straight from this series into another, which is rather like having a baby on Saturday night and waking up pregnant on Sunday morning," she says, laughing.

In the first novel, Father Tim will return to his hometown of Holly Springs, Miss. "He's going to learn something that will change his life forever."

The next two will take him to Ireland, then to England. But throughout, he'll be in touch with people in Mitford by e-mail and cellphone so that readers "will know of any significant happenings," she says.

Karon thinks Father Tim has helped redeem the tarnished reputation clergy have gotten in novels.

"Ever since Elmer Gantry was published in 1927, we have had very dark clergy in literature," she says. "They've been melancholy, depraved, greedy, godless, grasping. They've been the most miserable creatures. I wanted to show there are also wonderful, God-loving clergy out there."

Karon weaves parts of her own life into her books. She's an Episcopalian who, until a few years ago, lived in the Appalachian Mountain town of Blowing Rock, N.C., which is similar to the fictional town of Mitford. She now lives on a farm outside Charlottesville, Va.

Like Father Tim, Karon is ready to travel and slow down. "I want to enjoy all that God has given me."

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Name Blame: Authors Take Aliases To Cover Up Flops; With Stores Tracking Sales, One Bad Book Is Poison; William Becomes Diana

Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg
Wall Street Journal

Reed Farrel Coleman had six mystery books under his belt but sales were steadily weakening. His then-agent made a startling suggestion, he says: Take a new name.
Mr. Coleman, or as he's now known, Tony Spinosa, says he's just "doing what the market expects me to do: Play the game." The first book in his new series, "Hose Monkey," will be out next October, published by Bleak House Books. "Do I have some bitterness?" he asks. "Yes. But what good will it do me?"

Now that retailers can track books sales speedily and efficiently with point-of-sale technology, the entire publishing world knows when an author's commercial performance takes a dive. For these unfortunate scribblers, such a sales record makes it hard to get good advances and big orders from bookstores. So some are adopting an unusual strategy: adopting an alias -- even one of the opposite sex.
Two decades ago, the book industry largely relied on guesswork as it decided what to publish and sell. Editors could keep promoting promising authors, even if sales were weak. When they finally wrote a "breakout" title, their catalog of older books would become valuable.

These days, publishing veterans talk about "the death spiral" of authors' careers. A first novel generates terrific reviews and good sales, but with each succeeding book, sales get weaker and the chains cut their orders until they don't stock any at all.

"You're only as good as your last book's sales to much of the retail market," says New York literary agent Richard Pine, a principal in Inkwell Management LLC.
Dean James has published seven novels and six nonfiction books under his own name but hasn't earned enough to give up running a Houston bookstore. Rather than risk being cut off by his publisher, Mr. James offered to publish his latest work under the androgynous name Jimmie Ruth Evans. The book, "Flamingo Fatale," is a mystery involving a woman who lives in a trailer park, published in July by Berkley Prime Crime, a unit of Pearson PLC.

"I knew I'd have a better chance under a different name because I know how the book business works," says Mr. James.

A few months ago the author spoke to a book group at a private Houston club. Many of the members knew he was writing under a female- sounding name but one man was clearly stunned, expecting to see a woman. "When I walked into the room his jaw literally dropped," says Mr. James.

Natalee Rosenstein, Berkley Prime Crime's senior executive editor, says nobody asked Mr. James to change his name. Nonetheless, since his new protagonist is a woman, it made sense to give him a female moniker, or at least an ambiguous one. "You want to create a fresh start," she says.

William P. Kennedy went one step further. By the early 1990s, the military thrillers that had made his career were no longer selling well. Determined to reinvent himself, Mr. Kennedy sent his publisher a novel involving kidnapping and high finance called "The Trophy Wife." His editor at St. Martin's Press thought the book would appeal to women if it was written by a woman. He pressed Mr. Kennedy to change his name. An amused friend of the author suggested Diana Diamond.

The book, published in 2000, was a success. So was a subsequent title, "The Babysitter." The third, "The Good Sister," hit the best- seller lists. TV talk-show host Kelly Ripa invited the author to appear on "Live with Regis and Kelly." He wore, as a joke, a wavy, blond wig. Although Mr. Kennedy revealed his true identity during the program, it didn't hurt his sales. As Ms. Diamond, he has published six novels.

Mr. Kennedy has some regrets about becoming Diana Diamond, mostly because the literary career of William P. Kennedy appears to be over.

"I still submit books under my own name but it seems to be the consensus that they won't sell," says Mr. Kennedy. What irritates him most, he says, is that he's now acclaimed as the "Queen" of a genre known as the relational thriller. "If I was a sensitive person I'd be suicidal," he says.

Terrill Lee Lankford's literary agency was urging him to take a pseudonym even before his book, "Blonde Lightning," hit the shelves this summer. He declined the advice. His earlier title, "Earthquake Weather," was a critical, if not commercial success. But since it wasn't a big seller, orders from bookstores for the follow-up were lackluster. Mr. Lankford's editor at Bertelsmann AG's Ballantine imprint was enthusiastic about the sequel but the author's agency said his name was a liability.
Mr. Lankford says switching monikers is unethical. "If somebody didn't like my book under my own name it would be wrong to sell another book to that person under a different name," he says. "Just to defeat the computers at Barnes & Noble and Borders isn't a good reason for doing this."

Barry Martin, co-owner of Book'em Mysteries, a bookstore in South Pasadena, Calif., agrees with Mr. Lankford that the practice is "deceitful." He adds: "Publishers will do anything to sell a book."

Others make the point that poor sales may reflect bad marketing decisions rather than negative reader reaction. "A book could have a bad dust jacket," suggests Jack Rems, owner of Dark Carnival, a science-fiction and mystery bookshop in Berkeley, Calif. "I don't think my customers care that much about an author using a new name. It's about getting around the chain-store track record."

Pseudonyms have a long, established historical pedigree. Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot because writing was considered a man's job in the 19th century. Sometimes authors have an itch to try something new but don't want to disappoint or confuse fans. Romance writer Nora Roberts, for example, writes a futuristic crime series as J.D. Robb. Stephen King created the pseudonym Richard Bachman to publish several books written early in his career. But not until recently was a pseudonym considered a marketing necessity.

In today's market, some successful writers might not have survived. James Ellroy, author of "L.A. Confidential," is one example, says his former publisher Otto Penzler, who owns The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. The first three of Mr. Ellroy's books published by Mr. Penzler sold cumulatively less than 5,000 copies in hardcover. His fourth book, "The Black Dahlia," was a massive best seller.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Want 'War and Peace' Online? How About 20 Pages at a Time?

In a race to become the iTunes of the publishing world, and Google are both developing systems to allow consumers to purchase online access to any page, section or chapter of a book. These programs would combine their already available systems of searching books online with a commercial component that could revolutionize the way that people read books.

The idea is to do for books what Apple has done for music, allowing readers to buy and download parts of individual books for their own use through their computers rather than trek to a store or receive them by mail. Consumers could purchase a single recipe from a cookbook, for example, or a chapter on rebuilding a car engine from a repair manual.

The initiatives are already setting off a tug of war among publishers and the potential vendors over who will do business with whom and how to split the proceeds. Random House, the biggest American publisher, proposed a micropayment model yesterday in which readers would be charged about 5 cents a page, with 4 cents of that going to the publisher to be shared with the author. The fact that Random House has already developed such a model indicates that it supports the concept, and that other publishers are likely to follow.

The proposals could also become bargaining chips in current lawsuits against Google by trade groups representing publishers and authors. These groups have charged that Google is violating copyrights by making digital copies of books from libraries for use in its book-related search engine. But if those copies of older books on library shelves that have long been absent from bookstores started to produce revenue for publishers and authors, the trade groups might drop some of their objections.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, which filed a federal copyright infringement lawsuit against Google in September over its Google Print program, called the Amazon announcement "a positive development."

"This is the way it's supposed to work: to give consumers access to books and have revenues flow back to publishers and authors," Mr. Aiken said. "Conceptually, something similar might be possible for the Google program."

Amazon said yesterday that it was developing two programs that would begin some time next year. The first, Amazon Pages, is intended to work with the company's "search inside the book" feature to allow users to search its universe of books and then buy and read online whatever pages they need of a given book. The second program, Amazon Upgrade, will allow customers to add online access to their purchase of a physical copy of a book.

Jeffrey P. Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, said in an interview that he believed that, for a vast majority of books, consumers would be able to download, copy and print out whatever portions of the book they buy. But, he added, that decision would ultimately be up to the publisher or the author.

Google is working to develop a similar system, said executives at three publishing companies who were briefed by Google on its efforts. Using the Google Print site, readers would be able to search Google's digitized library of books, then buy either an entire book or the relevant parts.

A spokesman for Google, Nate Tyler, declined to comment yesterday on its plans, saying only that the company was "exploring other economic models, but we don't have anything to announce yet."

Mr. Tyler said Google welcomed the Amazon program. "Amazon is a valuable partner," he said, "and we link to Amazon so people can buy books they've found with Google Print. We're glad our users will have additional ways to access the books they've found using Google Print."

Google and Amazon would each seem to have some advantages over the other in the development of their programs. Amazon already has the credit card numbers of a large population of potential users of the service and is familiar to people looking to buy books and other goods.

Google is the first stop for most people searching electronically for anything. And Google has the potential to have a far greater collection of materials, given its program to copy digitally much of the collections of five major research libraries and make that content searchable on its site.

Currently, the Google Print program provides free online access to the full content of books no longer under copyright, but only limited viewing of parts of books that are still protected. Under the plans being developed by Google, publishers say, those older, copyrighted books could be bought in whole or in part.

"We've had conversations with both Google and Amazon over the past few months" about their search and purchase systems, said Richard Sarnoff, president of Random House's corporate development group. By creating a financial model under which the Amazon and Google programs could work, Mr. Sarnoff said Random House was "planting a flag, trying to establish some ground rules that we are comfortable with to create this new kind of commerce around book content."

The Random House model calls for consumers to be able to buy access to a book for, say, 5 cents a page for most books and higher amounts, like 25 cents a page, for cookbooks and other specialty publications. It calls for users to gain online access, though not to be able to copy or print the page. But "if consumers absolutely demand certain kinds of access," like the ability to print, Mr. Sarnoff said, "it would be important to provide that."

David Steinberger, chief executive of the Perseus Books Group, said he welcomed the new initiatives and believed it would be better for consumers if several companies developed these services, giving readers more choices and types of material available.

"This is a much more significant development than we saw during the Internet boom," when scores of companies were rushing to develop e-books - complete books that could be downloaded onto an electronic reader. Those plans were largely shelved as consumers found the electronic readers unwieldy, and the Internet boom collapsed. "This time," Mr. Steinberger said, "it looks like this really might happen."

Saturday, November 05, 2005


NEW YORK - Considered by many to be the father of the modern action novel, award-winning author David Morrell will be the creative mastermind behind a new Captain America project, slated for next year.

With a complex body of work that traverses the Horror, Espionage and Thriller genres, Morrell is a giant in the literary world. He is the author of First Blood, the award-winning novel in which Rambo was created. He has written numerous best-selling thrillers, including The Brotherhood of the Rose (the basis for a highly rated NBC mini-series), The Fifth Profession, Extreme Denial and Assumed Identity. Most recently, he wrote the dark suspense-thriller Creepers (CDS Books, September 2005). Two of his novellas received Stoker awards from the Horror Writers Association.

In his first comic book writing effort, Morrell will bring his action writing talent to Captain America, in the story of a young Marine, Corporal James Newman, who is on his tour of duty in Afghanistan. In the midst of a brutal fire fight with enemy forces, Captain America leads him out of the battle while helping him rescue his wounded comrades who are trapped by enemy fire. When the smoke clears, Newman is unsure if Captain America was really there, or a hallucination in the stress of battle.

"As the creator of Rambo, Morrell is known for heroes who've been trained to handle action and danger. He is a master of weaving action into a thought-provoking plot with more than a few twists, and I am eager to see the thrills he has in store for the newest installments of Captain America," said Joe Quesada, Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics.

"I want the characters to feel real," says David Morrell. "In particular I want the reader to believe in Captain America. Also, I want to explore the major theme of what it means to be a hero in this troubled modern world. I hope the story is deeply moving as well as exciting."

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Man Who's Riding Dan Brown's 'Code' Tales

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 2, 2005; C01

You'd have to be insane to do a spinoff of a book that doesn't even have a publication date yet -- wouldn't you?

Not if it's the sequel to "The Da Vinci Code," Dan Burstein says.

Burstein is a publishing entrepreneur with a day job: He's the founder of a New York-based venture capital firm. Lately he's been on the road promoting "Secrets of the Widow's Son," which promises to prep readers for "Da Vinci" author Dan Brown's next venture into the world of secret societies, conspiracy theories, myths and alternative history.

All that's known about the still-unscheduled Brown book is that when it's finally published -- perhaps in late 2006 or 2007 -- it will involve the Freemasons, will be set at least partly in Washington and will be called "The Solomon Key." That was enough for Burstein.

And why not?

He'd already made a killing with last year's "Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind the Da Vinci Code" -- of which there are well over a million copies in print.

Burstein says he got hooked on "Da Vinci" in June 2003, three months after Brown's religio-historical thriller was published. (Thirty-six million hardback copies are now in print worldwide, according to Brown's publisher, Doubleday.) He shelled out hundreds of dollars for books related to Brown's narrative, in which the Gnostic Gospels and Mary Magdalene figure heavily, and started thinking about a guidebook that could help readers separate fact from fiction.

He and a friend started a small company, Squibnocket Partners, to pull "Secrets of the Code" together. They made contact with Barnes & Noble, which signaled significant interest. They signed up more than 40 contributors (with Burstein serving as editor) and by May 2004 the anthology was a New York Times bestseller. Later came a guide to an earlier Brown book, "Angels and Demons."

Ah, but those books exist! How can you do a guide to a book that isn't written ?

One of Burstein's team, reporter David Shugarts, supplied the answer by checking out a rumor that there was a code embedded in the dust jacket flaps of "The Da Vinci Code." Sure enough, some letters on the flaps were in a slightly bolder face and spelled out "Is there no hope for the widow's son?" Researching that phrase led Shugarts first to the history of the Mormon church and eventually -- the details are too complex to get into here -- to a predicted Washington/Freemason backdrop for Brown's next book.

Brown later confirmed as much in a rare public appearance.

So if you're truly Brown-obsessed -- or if you're just dying to read about the conjunction of Freemasonry, the Founding Fathers and the nation's capital -- "Secrets of the Widow's Son," which Burstein commissioned Shugarts to write, is there for you.

But for the publisher, there's more to it than that. Odds are the next Dan Brown work will be one of the biggest sellers ever -- and who do you think will be ideally positioned to rush a true guide into print? "We intend to do a whole 'Secrets of the Solomon Key,' " says Burstein, laughing, "once we can read 'The Solomon Key.' "

He's far from the only one piggybacking on Dan Brown. By now there are a couple dozen books with such titles as "Da Vinci Decoded" and "The Da Vinci Hoax" that serve as guides to or refutations of Brown's megahit. And there's even another preview title -- "The Guide to Dan Brown's 'The Solomon Key,' " by Greg Taylor -- though it lags behind "Widow's Son" in Amazon sales rank.

Burstein isn't losing sleep about competition. "People are so interested," he says.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Paul Levine is the author of the newly released SOLOMON VS. LORD, a humorous legal thriller. Levine is a former trial and appellate attorney, and the award-winning author of the critically acclaimed series featuring Miami trial lawyer Jake Lassiter and other legal thrillers. He has also written for ABC Television, Stephen J. Cannell Studios, and the CBS television program, "JAG." Levine makes his home in Los Angeles, where he is at work on the second Solomon vs. Lord mystery, which Bantam will publish in Spring 2006.

BookBitch: SOLOMON VS. LORD seems like a bit of a departure for you. How does it compare with the Lassiter books?

Paul Levine: I'd rather not characterize the book...rather you do it [see review]. It's true, though, that personal relationships are as important here as the A-story murder trial. And I guess that's a departure for me, though the Jake Lassiter books were character driven, but more male oriented. Here, instead of writing 1st person from the POV of an ex-jock, it's shifting POV between the equal male & female co-protagonists. I worked hard as hell to get the woman's voice right, and the early reaction from women (my wife, Bantam editors, my grown daughter, my mother [& the BookBitch]) is that it seems to work. Obviously men can write women as main characters and make them real. Stephen King wrote Dolores Claiborne and dozens of great women characters. Tom Wolfe wrote an 18-year-old Carolina hillbilly girl, Charlotte Simmons. Arthur Golden wrote the [fictional] memoirs of a Japanese geisha in the 1930's-40's. Not being that good, I just based Victoria Lord on my wife and put our arguments on the page.

I'm pitching the book to the networks as a TV series in the next few weeks and trying to pigeon-hole it in a few sentences is hard. A battle-of-the-sexes courtroom dramedy seems to be one phrase. Opposites Attract. Moonlighting in the courtroom. Law partners who are sparring partners. Etc. 

BookBitch: Does Jake Lassiter have a future? 

Paul Levine: I think Jake might have been disbarred or at least publicly reprimanded for his courtroom antics. I'll have to check with the Florida Bar. But yes, if Bantam would like to resurrect Jake, I'm willing. But I'm under contract for four "Solomon vs. Lord" novels, so they come first. 

BookBitch: Why did you stop writing novels?

Paul Levine: I didn't plan on stopping. I moved to the Left Coast six years ago to go on the writing staff of JAG. Even though I'd free-lanced two episodes, I was clueless about the life of a TV writer. When they told me I'd write five or six episodes in a season, I really thought it was a part-time job. I mean, how long can it take to write 60 pages of: "Request permission to speak freely, Sir?" So, I thought I'd dash off a script in the morning, have a martini at Musso & Frank at noon, then work on my novels. I quickly learned that TV writers sometimes work around the clock, especially if one of their episodes is filming. It's not unusual to re-write scenes as cameras roll or to get a call from the set at 3 a.m. with the director asking for changes.  

BookBitch: Why did you decide to move to California and write for TV?
Paul Levine: For the health insurance. Don't laugh. I was seeking cheap meds, not fame and fortune. My last novel, "9 Scorpions," a stand-alone thriller, was not a great success, and I was tired and disillusioned after writing eight novels in eight years. In 1999, I traveled to L.A. to pitch the studios on a World War II film based on my father's experiences as a POW in Japan. I didn't sell it as a feature but I sold it to CBS for a four-hour mini-series. So, I had a script to write. On the same trip, Don Bellisario, the executive producer of JAG, offered me a job on staff. So, now I'm thinking I'm hot out here. Of course, I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I didn't know a smash cut from a cold cut. I also didn't know about ageism in Hollywood, and that most writers are considered dead at 40. 

[May I digress for a moment? As Burt Lancaster said (in another context) to Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success: "You're dead, kid. Get yourself buried."]
Anyway, when I started on JAG, the Christian Science Monitor called me "the oldest rookie writer in Hollywood."

BookBitch: Do you like writing for TV?  

Paul Levine: No. Not more than books. Not more than grocery lists. I mean more than books.  

BookBitch: But for established shows especially, aren't you somewhat stifled creatively with what you can do because of existing characters and storylines? 

Paul Levine: Exactly! I'm writing a piece on just this subject for MWA’s Third Degree.
BookBitch: What was the first show you wrote for? Which show did you enjoy writing for the most? Which did you hate? Are you allowed to say? 

Paul Levine: A lot of novelists take a snobbish attitude toward screenwriting. But it's really a demanding craft. I think writing for JAG and co-creating and writing for First Monday actually sharpened my prose skills. My writing is leaner, my plotting tighter, my dialogue zippier. There's also something to be said for regular paychecks plus pension and health benefits. I was such a rube I had to ask if I'd been overpaid when checks started arriving for re-runs. "Gee, I didn't do any extra work, but they're paying me again." Other checks arrive in your mailbox with no explanation. Money for cable syndication, foreign rights, character payments, and program fees. What are "program fees?" I don't have a clue, but the checks cleared all the same.  

Still...I find writing fiction far more rewarding in other ways. In television, it's not your show. It takes upwards of 200 people to put on a one-hour network drama. The writer is dependent on the director, the cinematographer, the producers, dozens of actors, studio and network executives, and the guys serving lunch at the craft services table. With a book, it's all you, baby. 

BookBitch: Do you think money influences writers to write? David Morell told me he thinks writers have to be obsessed with writing to be successful and it has nothing to do with the money or anything else.  

Paul Levine: Writers write because it’s an illness.

BookBitch: Do you like living in California? Do the earthquakes make up for the lack of hurricanes? I know you were in Miami for Hurricane Andrew, did that prompt your move at all? 

Paul Levine: After living 30 years in Miami, I fell in love with the mountains. The first year, my wife and I rented a house in the Hollywood Hills...very near the Hollywood sign. One day, looking out the window into a ravine, I saw my first mountain lion. Then we bought a house in the hills off Coldwater Canyon in Studio City. We have deer and owls and hummingbirds, and our rosebushes grow eight feet tall. [To say nothing of the coyotes, and I don't mean Hollywood agents.] So, yes, I like it here. At night, it's cool, even in the summer. And it hasn't rained since April. Still...I miss Mia-muh. Hurricanes and all. Mosquitoes and all. And someday, we're gonna come home. 

BookBitch: If your Jake Lassiter novels were to be made into films (or TV movies or a series) who would you cast? How about your new series, Solomon vs. Lord?  

Paul Levine: As for Jake, how about George Clooney? He's got that twinkle in the eye. Fifteen or twenty years ago, I would have said Tom Selleck. As for Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord, I'm going to defer. With a little luck...actually with a lot of luck...I'll be sitting in a casting session shortly after the first of the year. CBS has ordered a pilot script based on "Solomon vs. Lord." If they decide to shoot a pilot, we'll be faced with the happy dilemma of casting.
BookBitch: I poked around your new website (very nice, by the way) and saw a picture of you getting an the Penn State Distinguished Alumnus Award. Is that where you went for undergrad or law school, or both?  

Paul Levine: I majored in journalism at Penn State and in the swimming pool at the University of Miami Law School.

BookBitch: My standard questions for authors - these are the things I am most curious about. I'm curious about how you work. Tell me what a typical writing day is like for you.  

Paul Levine: Up at 5:30. Swim laps at 6:30. Coffee and cereal with fresh berries from the farmer's market at 7:30, reading the L.A. Times. Work from 8 until 1 p.m. Eat lunch watching CNN and reading The New York Times. Get back to work until 6 p.m. or so. Maybe some e-mail and editing at night. Read The Miami Herald, The Sun-Sentinel and Variety on-line. Fall asleep reading a novel at 10:30 or 11 p.m. That's why they call me "Mr. Excitement." 

BookBitch: How does your family affect that process?  

Paul Levine: My two kids are grown. Wendy (Sachs) is a television producer and the author of "How She Really Does It," an excellent non-fiction book about working mothers. My son Michael is a sportscaster, the play-by-play voice of the Kalamazoo Kings of the Frontier (baseball) League. My wife, Renee, is a deputy city attorney for City of Los Angeles. She's the one who calls me "Mr. Excitement." 

BookBitch: How long does it take you to complete a novel?  

Paul Levine: Six to nine months, working hard and fulltime. 

BookBitch: Do you use researchers or do your own or just use yourself as your chief resource?  

Paul Levine: I do my own research. Internet, of course. But I use the L.A. public library system, too. It's quite good. 

BookBitch: Do you have groupies? 

Paul Levine: Yes, my rescue dog Nikki and rescue cat Taxi (found by Renee under a taxicab). I have, however, wowed the ladies of Hadassah in various Jewish Community Centers where I am usually asked three questions:  

1. "So, you making any money at this?"  
2. "Are your married?"  
3, And depending on the answer to 2, "Would you like to see a picture of my daughter?" 

BookBitch: What are you currently reading?
Paul Levine: The short story collection, "Dangerous Women." The non-fiction account of life in Cook County Criminal Court: "Courtroom 302" by journalist Steve Bogira. John Schulian's excellent compilation of baseball columns: "Twilight of the Long-ball Gods." 

BookBitch: Can you read other legal fiction type books while you're working on writing one?

Paul Levine: Not a problem. 

BookBitch: What sort of books do you read for pleasure?
Paul Levine: Mostly fiction. Lots of Florida authors, and aren't there a hell of a lot of good ones?  And here's a question for Stacy. Why do Florida authors write with so much humor while L.A. authors are so grim in a faux neo-noir style? Don't ask me because I don't know. 

BookBitch: Well, you lived here, you should know. And you still read the Miami Herald. I heard Carl Hiaasen say he just clips articles from the Miami Herald and then writes books around them. When the publisher calls and says no one is going to believe this, he sends them a copy of the article referencing the unbelievable subject.  He went on to say after the election in 2000, they stopped asking. And for the pseudo noir LA style stuff, let's just blame it on Hammett. Great question - wish I'd thought to ask first! 

Paul Levine: Carl is being too modest. Or everyone would just take those clips and make their stories sing.

BookBitch: Who are some of your favorite authors?

Paul Levine: This changes often, depending what I'm reading at the time. Omitting living writers makes it easier: John D. MacDonald. Raymond Chandler. Ernest Hemingway. It's so difficult listing favorites or compiling Top Ten lists. How do you compare "Huckleberry Finn" with "All the King's Men"? What's a better book: "The Old Man & the Sea" or "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest"? And can a book that's essentially journalistic be considered great? If so, how about John Hersey's "Hiroshima"? And even thought I said I wouldn't mention living writers, let me express my admiration for Stephen King's "Misery" and Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities."

BookBitch: Thank you for being so nice about doing this and for being so forthcoming with your answers. I wish you much success with your new series and I can't wait to read the next one! 

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