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."

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