Monday, May 05, 2008

Jonathan Franzen: Michiko Kakutani Is 'The Stupidest Person in New York City'

In a piece in the New York Observer, Franzen has some not too kind things to say about the Kakutani, who, by sheer coincidence, had some not too kind things to say about Franzen's new memoir.

New York Observer

Sunday, May 04, 2008


I was delighted to be able to ask a few questions of one of my favorite writers, Elaine Viets. Elaine is the author of the Dead End Job Series, as well as the Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper series. Both are terrific, and always make me laugh.

BookBitch: Tell me about your educational background and any other jobs/careers you had besides the writing.

Elaine Viets: I worked my way through college proofreading medical books and journals. The medical journals were scary, especially the Journal of Surgery and also Obstetrics and Gynecology. The worst was the Journal of Allergy. I itched every time I proofread that sucker. Do you know how many editorials I read reminding docs to count their sponges before they sewed the patient up? Brrr.

BB: Why did you start writing?

EV: I wasn't suited for anything else. I started as a feature writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1971, got fired in the mid-90s for insubordination. Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me.

How did you get your first agent?

David Hendin was a hot new agent recommended by an editor I worked with in Washington DC. David is also Miss Manners' (Judith Martin's) agent. I was lucky to get a young and hungry agent who was willing to invest his time in my career.

Your first book contract?

David sent my first mystery around to six New York publishing houses. The last one bought it.

What advice would you give struggling authors?

Learn the business. Go to conferences for your genre. If you are a mystery writer, they include Malice Domestic, Bouchercon and in south Florida, Sleuthfest.
Introduce yourself to the booksellers in your area and support the stores by buying their books and cards. Join the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and the Authors Guild, so you'll have some idea of the issues you're facing. These organizations have programs that can help jumpstart your career.

It's hard getting your books traditionally published, but I recommend it. Even if you write well, you'll write better if you face the challenges of editors, agents, and possible rejection.

I'm always curious about how writers work. Tell me what a typical writing day is like for you.

The cats wake Don and me up at 6:30 a.m. demanding breakfast. (In my next life, I'm coming back as my cat. I want someone to wait on me.) I have breakfast about 7:30, then check my email. I love hearing from readers. I settle in to write until about noon. My cat, Harry, falls asleep on my desk while I work.

I stop for lunch, usually something glamorous like canned tuna, then go back to work until 3 or 4 p.m. That's not an exciting day, but I like my work.

How long do you work? When do you write? How does your family affect that process? How long does it take you to complete a novel? Do they vary?

It takes me four to five months to write a novel. Then I tour and promote for a month and go back to work on the next mystery. My husband writes for the Tribune Company and works irregular hours, so writing suits both of us. We're not a nine-to-five pot roast on the table family.

My family loves Mythbusters on the Discovery channel. I saw you on an episode about an exploding can of biscuits. How did that come about?

The Discovery Channel called me because I used to write a syndicated column for United Media in New York. The show wanted to see if that old tale of the biscuits was possible. A woman supposedly went to the supermarket, bought canned biscuits and stuck them in a hot car. Driving home, she heard a popping sound, felt something sticky oozing from her head and assumed she'd been shot in the brain. Mythbusters concluded it was technically possible: biscuits can explode in a hot car. I even cleaned my oven for that show. Too bad the pristine oven never made it on camera.

I love your Dead End Job series and I know you actually work these jobs as research for your books. In your latest, Clubbed to Death, your main character, Helen Hawthorne, implied that telemarketing was the worst of the Dead End jobs that she’d had. Which job has been the worst and why? Did you ever have a pre-research job that would qualify?

If I go to hell, I'll be a telemarketer. Everyone hates telemarketers and they aren't afraid to say so. Working in customer service at the country club for Clubbed to Death was pretty bad, too.

But I've had plenty of other bad jobs. I used to pull weeds at 50 cents a bucket for neighbors in St. Ann, Missouri. My mother would supervise, and when I filled the bucket, she'd tamp it down with her foot so I had to re-fill it to the top -- no air space.

I rather liked chickweed, which came up in big long strings and could fill most of the bucket. Crab grass was the worst. It had to be dug up by the roots, piece by piece.

I also proofread phone books on the nightshift when I was in college. I was dead tired from school all day. I lived on Cheez Whiz and coffee, and read long lists of names and addresses into the wee hours. I was horrified when I found out newspapers used phone books as backup confirmation for names and address. I knew they'd been read by tired help like me.

Do you get readers sending you suggestions of terrible jobs they have worked for future books?

Oh, yes. Everything from working at cemeteries to mushroom farms to gutting fish. The number of dead-end jobs seems endless.

You write another series, the Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper series, in addition to the Dead End Job series. Is it hard to keep the characters straight? How do you organize yourself so that you don’t accidentally mix up one series with the other?

The time off after I finish novel, traveling and promoting a book, helps me keep the two series straight. Also, Josie, a single mom with a nine-year-old daughter, lives in St. Louis, which is a much more staid environment than the single Helen Hawthorne who lives in shady South Florida.

What are you currently reading?

I finished "Rumpole Misbehaves." John Mortimer never disappoints. Now I'm reading Updike's "The Witches of Eastwick," which is surprisingly funny.

Can you read other mysteries while you're working on writing one?

I love to read other mysteries. I'm impressed by the quality of books these days. I enjoyed Nancy Pickard's "The Virgin of Small Plains," and mysteries by my blog sisters Michele Martinez, Nancy Martin and Harley Jane Kozak. I like Chris Grabenstein's Ceepak books, and Bob Morris's humorous mysteries, and J.T. Englert's "A Dog about Town." Even if you hate talking animals, it's a funny book.

What sort of books do you read for pleasure? Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books and why?

Michael Connelly's books are always worth reading. I like Jodi Picoult. Women's fiction is taking up serious issues that the modern novels have abandoned, such as school violence in "Nineteen Minutes." Sarah Strohmeyer's "Cinderella Pact" is another venture into women's fiction. I really admire how Charlaine Harris made it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list with her southern vampire series. She had a good safe career going, but had the courage to break out and try something different, and it worked.

Most of your fans know that you suffered a serious stroke, and as one of them, I’m delighted at your recovery and that you’re writing again. How are you feeling now?

Getting well is hard work. It requires lots of physical therapy. Worse, I had to do those wretched word problems: "If a train leaves the station in New York going 60 miles an hour, and a truck leaves San Francisco . . ."
"Who cares?" I said to the therapist.
I'd always wanted to say that.

What words of advice do you have for stroke survivors and their families?

Know the signs of a stroke.
You can have a stroke at any age, but post-menopausal women over 55 are at risk. We all fear that annual mammogram, but more women die of strokes than they do of breast cancer.

The faster stroke victims get to a good hospital, the better chance they have of a full recovery.

Strokes try the patience of the most loving families. It took me months to understand what had happened after I came out of a coma. I wanted to go on my book tour and go to Malice Domestic.
"How are you going to get on a plane?" the doctor asked. "It took two nurses to get you to the john."
"I'll tip," I said.
My husband took my purse away before I bribed my way out of the hospital.

One last thing: I was really touched by the number of booksellers, readers and writers who helped me when I was sick. Thank you all for your cards, letters, flowers and good wishes.

Finally, please share anything else you'd like that I haven't asked about.

The Dead-End Job series is meant to be entertaining, but it also has a serious edge. Publishers Weekly calls it "wry social commentary." I try to make readers see the invisible people who do the work of the world: telemarketers in "Dying to Call You," hotel maids in "Murder with Reservations," shop clerks in "Murder Unleashed."

I'll be touring Houston, Dallas, Westerville, Ohio, and my hometown of St. Louis in mid-June. Please check my Website at for dates and details. And if you'd like a free bookplate for any of my books, drop me a line at

Tell me about your worst job ever and you can win a signed copy of Elaine Viet's CLUBBED TO DEATH - all the details are at

Search This Blog