One Bite at a Time




Monday, January 22, 2018

Bad Samaritan Drops Today!

That’s right. No more of that pre-order bullshit. You, too, can get a brand spanking new* copy of the fifth Nick Forte novel, Bad Samaritan, from any of these fine sources.

(Purchases of trade paperbacks from the Down & Out site include a free download of the e-book. (You heard me: Free! Gratis! Or, as Al Swearengen would say, “Free gratis.”))

Bad Samaritan is also available from these fine retailers:

Amazon — Trade Paperback | eBook 
Barnes & Noble — Trade PaperbackeBook 
iTunes — eBook 
Kobo — eBook 
Play — eBook

Bad Samaritan brings back elements of two earlier Forte stories. Lily O’Donoghue, the high-class call girl from The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of and Mickey Touhy from A Small Sacrifice. Their stories intersect, catching Forte in the middle of a no-win situation. Throw in the men’s rights advocate who’s making Becky Tuttle’s life miserable, and Forte’s dark side, which has been exercised more as the series has gone on, gets more room to come out than is healthy for anyone, including him. He still manages to find time to help the sister of Caroline’s best friend, though not in a way he’d want Caroline to hear of. Goose is back in a prominent role along with the usual cast of Sharon Summers, Delbert McCall, Jan Rusiewicz, and Sonny Ng.

Circumstances beyond anyone’s control have forced a condensed promotional schedule for Bad Sam, so if you know what’s good for you you’ll get your copy right quick, lest I feel the need to inundate you with months of blatant self-promotion and –aggrandizement in only a couple of weeks.


(* -- “Brand spanking new” is a figure of speech. Readers should not infer the book is to be used as a sexual aid with a porn actress, though I’m not judging anyone.)

Friday, January 19, 2018

Bad Samaritan Launches January 22

Nick Forte is worn down. Too much has happened too soon, too many things have gone badly, and the events in his fifth novel (Bad Samaritan) aren’t helping. Forte is in a darker place than in any of the other books, as the lengths he’ll go to help his daughter’s best friend’s sister, who is about to be expelled from private school because she got pregnant, show here.

CHAPTER 16

The Yates School looked as impressive as its tuition bills must be. The presence of kids everywhere kept it from feeling too stodgy, but it was a Stepford kind of vitality. Requests for spontaneity required written authorization twenty-four hours in advance.
Headmaster Oliver Willoughby kept me waiting forty-five minutes. His secretary reminded me several times I had no appointment and he was a very busy man. Lucky for me he was always willing to talk with a prospective student’s parent, in from out of town with only today to see him. My conscience twinged no more than the atoms in a molecule of concrete when I told her that story.
Isaac Meier had been no help. He appreciated my call and was grateful for the support, but the law had no remedy. He also didn’t see the need for investigative services even it did become a legal matter. Caroline’s a pleasure, he and Ruth were delighted Tyler had such a friend. Stop by the house any time.
People who have conniptions over the NSA’s transgressions would dig holes, climb in, and pull the dirt over themselves if they knew what a private investigator can access with a paid login to any of several online databases, a case number—real or manufactured—and some patience. I knew Oliver Willoughby’s date of birth, Social Security Number, employment history, military service—or, in his case, lack thereof—wife’s name and employer, the names of his children (Michael, Elizabeth, and Geoffrey), what he drove, his credit score, and how much he owed on his house before I turned in after leaving Goose. A little touch-up in the morning and I was ready for him when I entered his office at one o’clock that afternoon.
Willoughby was a perfect example of an elitist bending over backward to prove himself a regular guy. His disapproval of my attire was so slight a less experienced observer would have missed it. He apologized for the wait and expressed sympathy at my plight, which he believed to be my wife’s transfer to Chicago. I was looking for a job of my own, checking out Yates while I was in town so we’d know if it should factor into our housing search.
We spent half an hour touring the campus. Lisa Meier knew me by sight well enough to say Hi, Mr. Forte when we’d bumped into each other at a movie last summer. I hoped she’d not recognize me in an unexpected context, or at least have the presence of mind not to acknowledge me if she did.
The tour complete, Willoughby and I sat in his office with cups of English Teatime. “Is there anything else I can tell you to set your mind at ease, Mr. Forte? Something the tour failed to address?”
I sipped tea, replaced the cup on its saucer. Not as sweet as I liked it, but it wasn’t that kind of day. “There is one thing. I’m sure no one is more aware than you of the challenge it is to raise children today, especially a girl. Between peer pressure and the entertainment industry, we need all the help we can get. What is Yates’s philosophy along these lines?”
“Excellent question.” I’d been tougher than expected during the tour. He appeared grateful for the softball. “Yates has a firmly and carefully worded code of conduct. Bullying, exclusionary behavior, hazing, and fighting are all precisely defined and forbidden. Drug use and ethical study standards are also spelled out and, I’m happy to say, are strictly enforced.”
“That’s good.” I leaned forward, sat back, then forward again, trying to create an impression of a man struggling with an awkward question. “There are…certain…uh…let me put it this way: I looked for pregnant girls. Aside from setting a bad example, I wouldn’t want to find out the school’s reputation was tarnished by loose moral standards.”
“I understand completely. Rest assured we treat those concerns with the utmost seriousness. All students—and their parents—are required to sign an ethics and morals agreement prior to matriculation. It outlines acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and describes the consequences, including expulsion. Much of what you pay for here is a spotless reputation, embodied by our graduates, which will accompany your daughter throughout her life.”
“Outstanding. The last thing anyone wants is to have to watch a pregnant girt walk through graduation.” His aura dipped for a second. “Bad enough to have to explain the basketball under her gown to the younger kids. It reflects badly on everyone in the class.”
“Indeed.”
I relaxed into my chair. “This is a great relief. I expect these standards extend to the faculty and staff, as well?”
If that affected him, I missed it. “Of course.”
“The reason I ask, from the custodians up through the administration, the staff as a whole spends as much time with the children as the parents do. More, in some cases.”
“True.” Willoughby’s face showed signs of slippage.
“Considering the reputation that’s going to follow my daughter around for the rest of her life—” not that she had a chance of acceptance now, even if we were applying, “—as bad as it would be to see a pregnant girl on the stage, a faculty blemish would be even worse. I mean, they’re here as role models.”
“True again.”
“So no one would be happy to find out a faculty member has a tarnished reputation, even a—what do they call them?—youthful indiscretion. You know. Something like a drug arrest in undergraduate school.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Forte, I’ve been impolite. I neglected to ask your line of work.”
“I’m a professional investigator.”
“Professional? Are you a police officer? Or a federal agent?”
I shook my head. “Private.”
Color drained from Willoughby’s face like sand through an egg timer. “Did the Meiers send you?”
“The Meiers have no idea I’m here, and they never will. That’s going to be part of our deal.”
“What deal?”
“Lisa Meier stays in school.”
“You said the Meiers didn’t send you.”
“They didn’t.”
“Who, then?”
I smiled without teeth.
“A marijuana arrest thirty years ago—with probation, I might add—is hardly going to cost me my job. I’m sure many Yates parents avoided such a charge themselves only through luck, given our society’s conflicting attitudes.” Already waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“No argument from me. Not even I’d hold that against you. That pandering thing, though. Pimping out the girls in school and taking a cut, that’s different.”
“I was not a pimp! What happened there was—”
“A felony.” I left the word to stink on his desk. “Sentence suspended, no doubt thanks to your well-connected family. To be fair, no one was hurt. The girls all entered into it willingly. For all I know they came to you after the word got out you had something going. Still, you were a convicted whoremonger, and I’ll bet it’s not on your resume. Or your application. Is lying on your application a firing offense here?”
His voice was a whisper. “That happened thirty years ago. I realized my mistakes. Changed my life. If that doesn’t count for anything, then everything we do here—teaching boys and girls to be men and women—is meaningless.”
“I agree. I expect the parents and trustees may well be liberal enough to agree with us. Your gambling problem…”
“I do not have a gambling problem.”
“I can see how you might look at it that way. What you have, in fact, is a losing problem. Second mortgage on the house, stacks of credit card receipts for Vegas, the boats in Joliet. Even Tunica. Mississippi? Really? You’re the one with the Ph.D. in English. Maybe you know a classier phrase than ‘degenerate gambler,’ but that’s the one that sticks in my mind.”
Willoughby was pale as winter. “What do you want?”
“Lisa Meier stays in school. At Thursday’s meeting you’ll announce a change of heart. Tell them how among the things Yates needs to embody is compassion. Dress it up however you want. But she gets a pass.”
“The Meiers didn’t send you.” No doubt in his voice.
“I told you that already. Twice.”
“You’d ruin me—ruin my life, my family—for people you don’t even know?”
“You have my name. You know what I do for a living.” I nodded toward his computer. “Google me. I’ll wait.”
Willoughby tapped keys and clicked. His pallor grew. Snuck peeks at me as he read.
“Don’t miss the good stuff. Google my name, plus ‘Licati.’ Then try ‘Volkov’ and ‘Obersdorfer.’ I have time.”
I don’t think he got any farther than Volkov. “You’re threatening my life?”
“Don’t flatter yourself. Everyone there, it was him or me. I just want you to know that ruining your life won’t cost me two seconds’ sleep, not with all the other stuff my conscience has rattling around in it. Lest you get the idea of calling what you think is a bluff.”
Willoughby stared at the monitor. “We straight?” I said. He nodded, still transfixed. “I want to hear it.”
“Yes.”
“Yes, what?”
“Yes, we’re straight.”
“Yes, we’re straight on what?”
He tried for indignant, too scared to pull it off. “Yes, we’re straight that Lisa Meier will be allowed to stay in school to graduate with her class.”
I walked to the door without shaking hands. Paused at the threshold. “And I’m not going to have to come back here because I heard she’s been singled out for any reason.”
I had to listen hard to hear him. “No. Please leave.”



Bad Samaritan drops January 22 from Down & Out Books. You can pre-order before then or buy it for real starting Monday.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Favorite Reads of 2017

I’m ba-a-a-ack.

You didn’t think you were rid of me forever, did you? You’re not that lucky. This blog takes a licking and keeps on ticking. I’ll also pop up on some other worthy blogs over the next several weeks in a delayed effort to get the word out about the fifth Nick Forte novel, Bad Samaritan, launching January 22 from Down & Out Books. (More on Bad Sam next time.)
                                                         
There’s no better way to look forward to 2018 than to tie a bow on 2017. I read 59 books all the way through last year. Stealing Seizing an idea from another blog (I’d say which but I genuinely don’t remember), I decided it was pretentious to name the best books I read because who am I to say what’s best? I can name my favorites, and I had quite a few. I didn’t read as many books last year as I usually do, but the level of quality was high. I’d rather mention all those I thought worthy than write reviews, so I broke them out by categories.

Titles are listed in the order read. All are more than deserving of your time.

Favorite Reads by Authors New to Me
Scent of Murder, James O. Born
Random Victim, Michael Black
Only the Hunted Run, Neely Tucker

Favorite Reads by Authors Already Known to Me
Razor Girl, Carl Hiaasen
80 Million Eyes, Ed McBain
The Promise, Robert Crais
Nasty Cutter, Tim O’Mara
Tomato Red, Daniel Woodrell
The Mexican Tree Duck, James Crumley
Crime Song, David Swinson
Six Guns at Sundown, Eric Beetner
Down & Out, The Magazine: Volume 1, edited by Rick Ollerman
Money for Nothing, Donald Westlake
Hollywood Moon, Joseph Wambaugh

Favorite Re-Reads
Jimmy the Wags: Street Stories of a Private Eye, James Wagner
The Kid From Tomkinsville, John R. Tunis
All the Dead Voices, Declan Hughes
The Walkaway, Scott Phillips
True Grit, Charles Portis
Deadwood, Pete Dexter
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
Hombre, Elmore Leonard
Appaloosa, Robert B. Parker
Homicide, David Simon

Favorite Non-Fiction
The Big Short, Michael Lewis
Moneyball, Michael Lewis
Deadwood: Stories of the Black Hills, David Milch
Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and the Wickedest Town in the American West, Tom Clavin
Bestseller Metrics, Elaine Ash
Famous Gunfighters of the Western Frontier, Bat Masterson
Age of the Gunfighter: Men and Weapons of the Frontier 1840 – 1900, Joseph Rosa
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Rise of the Warrior Cop, Radley Balko

Monday, December 18, 2017

(Eavesdropping on) A Conversation Between Angel Luis Colon and Scott Adlerberg

Among the joys of writing crime fiction is being a member of the crime fiction family. With life events keeping me away from my usual blog duties, friends (and kick-ass writers) Angel Colon and Scott Adlerberg cover me today.

Angel Luis Colón is the Anthony and Derringer Award-nominated author of No Happy Endings and the Blacky Jaguar series of novellas. His newest is a collection of short stories, Meat City on Fire and Other Assorted Debacles), which dropped December 4 from Down & Out Books, the leading independent crime fiction press despite having me in their stable of authors. Angel’s fiction has appeared in multiple web and print publications including Thuglit, Literary Orphans, and Great Jones Street.

Scott Adlerberg has a new book on the horizon (Jack Waters) but we’ll have more on Scott as that date approaches.

Keep up with him on Twitter via @GoshDarnMyLife.
Angel C: Let’s get things rolling with something a little off the beaten path. Let’s talk about lessons we learn from media but I’m not too concerned about what’s inspired/informed you that was of sound quality.
So, garbage media; specifically bad media that taught you what NOT to do. Can you cite anything specific you’ve read/watched/heard that made you say, ‘Oh, yeah, avoid that. That won’t work at all’ (and feel free to avoid names to protect the innocent)?

Scott A: Well, to start with, there are Hallmark movies.  No one needs to be told how terrible these are, but they are instructive in reminding you how ineffective and uninvolving as narrative are stories that are so relentlessly positive and "inspirational".  

But a bit more seriously, there is the flip side of that, miserabilism in storytelling.  There are those writers and filmmakers, etc who seem to believe that a relentless focus on the gloomy and somber, the bitter dregs of life if you will, means that the work has more seriousness and profundity - more "reality". Which is utter nonsense.  A good example to me is True Detective, the HBO show. Forgetting about the obviousness of its influences and all that.  That stuff didn't bother me so much. It had some derivative things, but a lot of good stuff is derivative of stuff even better.  That alone doesn't make something unenjoyable.  But the show, especially during the second season, had a ponderousness and a somberness that was insufferable.  A classic case of a story where the creators confused somberness with seriousness. There's no direct correlation.  You can be as serious as hell, but you don't have to be somber every single moment. In fact, without modulation between the two, the somberness comes off as just pretentious.  There's a line from Muriel Spark in her book Loitering with Intent that I love: she has her narrator, a writer, say that she is treating a certain story with a light and heartless hand, which is her way when she has to give a perfectly serious account of things. Not somber in the telling, but dead serious in intent.  Now Muriel Spark happens to be very witty and funny in her writing, and that doesn't come to everyone, granted, but over time, I've come to admire most works that mix darkness with some form of lightness, even when the overall narratives themselves focus on the darkest things. It's like when I started reading the Russians, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (though not War and Peace).  I was expecting the heaviest, grimmest writing from what I'd been told by people (and maybe because of the faces on these writers), and you read these guys and they are dark as hell but also often funny. Page after page, they capture the ridiculousness and self-deceptions of human beings, the ironies of everyday life, the misunderstandings.  I use them as examples because when you think heavy, you think someone like a literary Russian.  Kafka? All bleakness? Well, when he read his stories aloud to his friends, they'd laugh a lot. In astonishment probably but also because in the very fiber of the bleakness he describes, there is so much absurdity you can't help but laugh.  Or if you think crime, in direct contrast to True Detective, think of one of its main inspirations, Chinatown, and you have a story where the tone has the nuances of life, back and forth, dark, menacing, yet shot through with moments of humor and, again, the absurd -- all coming to about as dark a conclusion as you can get.  Or David Lynch.  Who is more varied in mood than him?  The new Twin Peaks season was a perfect example - terror, sadness, loss, confusion, total existential horror, it's all there. But also all the moments of levity, connection, forgiveness, optimism, silliness, even love and joy. That's a complete work, a work with the kind of fullness I'm talking about.

But back to crime for a minute.  Most true crime TV shows remind me what not to do. There are so many of these shows now.  Episode after episode you get detailed depictions of abjection, intense cruelty, incredible stupidity.  And yes, a lot of real crime does consist of little more than this.  But as narrative this is not all that interesting, I find.  Nonstop brutality, banality and human idiocy.  Good crime fiction avoids this because, as a matter of fact, it's highly stylized.  Whether it's hardboiled crime or noir-tinged fiction and certainly traditional mystery stories. All of them are quite stylized portraits of crime and/or detection compared to these true crime type shows.   You can get pitch-black in fiction, of course, but by definition, a good work of art can't be "depressing". What happens in the story might be depressing, the story might be depressing, but the experience of the work, if well-done, is not depressing.  I guess it's all connected to that old college lit term, "the fallacy of imitative form".  You see it in a lot of the bad media you asked about.  You don't show boredom in a story by being boring, you don't make something more "real" or "serious" by being unremittingly somber or earnestly glum.   When I watch or read stuff that goes in that direction, I use that stuff as examples of what not to do.


A: We had a chat about voice recently—specifically about how some writers’ works are enhanced when you’ve heard them speak thanks to how distinct their voices are. You’re pretty well known for your voice but do you ever give that any real thought while writing? Do you ever play around with how you’re ‘telling’ the story?

S: A little bit.  I do know - and I've heard you talk about this - that I'm always reading what I wrote aloud.  And when I read it aloud, I suppose I'm reading it in something like the voice I use when reading at a Noir at the Bar.  If there's something funny, I'll read it aloud with what I think is the appropriate comic timing.  You want to hear that and get a sense of how it'll sound to others.  And overall, doing that, reading your story aloud as you're writing it, is an important thing.  That's when you realize the rhythm may not sound quite as it sounds in your head.  In your head, your paragraph sounds perfect. Then when you read it aloud, it sounds far from perfect.  And with dialogue for sure.  I'm sure a lot of writers do this, but it helps to act out the voices and play around with that.  Definitely helps you get a sense of whether a conversation, however long or short, sounds real, sounds alive.

A: What about artistic envy (the healthy kind)? I read Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn this year and I honestly was at a loss with how angry I was that I am not at that level just yet. Have you read anything this year that made you sort of hate the writer for making you feel that need to step up your game?

S: Tough question.  I'd say the book I read this year that I most wish I could write is a novel from 2001 by Mary Robison called Why Did I Ever.  It's about a woman who has a script writing job in Hollywood and two grown children, boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, non-romantic friends, and she reflects on all of them and her life in 527 short segments. That's how the novel is told.  All these little fragments that over the course of the book come together to form a clear picture of her sometimes harrowing, sometimes disappointing, sometimes laugh out loud amusing existence.  Memories, confrontations, jokes, anxieties, what's happening in her life in the present. Clear, striking language but always using the simplest means.  Nothing fancy or forced about the language, no convoluted sentences.  I love how she doesn't tell a traditional, continuous story and experiments with form but keeps you wanting to read. And how she's able to get so much depth and emotion and humor across with that simple lucid language.  The book's been out of print a long time, but there's apparently going to be a reissue in early 2018.


A: What’s next? Are you writing or researching? Anything else dropping in 2018?

S: In January, I have my 4th book coming out - Jack Waters.  You might call it a historical revenge thriller. It's set in 1904 and about a guy, Jack Waters, who lives in New Orleans. He earns his money by playing poker. Through his gambling skill, he has a comfortable life, but one day he kills a man he catches cheating against him. On the run, he flees Louisiana, and he moves to an island in the Caribbean. It seems he'll be able to resume his poker playing life, but he runs into problems with the island's rich and powerful. Frustrated, he joins a rebellion against the government, but his reason for joining the revolutionaries has nothing to do with politics. He has his own reason for joining the rebellion, based on revenge against someone high up in the country.

I'm excited that's coming out soon, and right now I'm working my way into a new book, just getting into it, about 30 pages in.  It's about a woman whose son has disappeared.  She herself may have killed the 11 year old, her husband may have killed him, or something else may have happened. That's what will come out as the story unfolds, and she's the person telling the story.  At the pace I work, I figure writing the book will take up 2018.

A: There's always the question of what book or movie you've seen or plan on seeing. How about we go with music? What have you been listening to while you write lately? 

S: I never listen to music while actually writing, but there are things I put on beforehand to get in the mood.  I like the group Au Revoir Simone, which I didn't know of till I saw them in the new Twin Peaks (going back to Lynch), and there's this song Track of Time by Anna von Hausswolff that played during the closing credits of the movie, Personal Shopper.  Sounds like I only listen to music I discover in TV series or movies, but that's not true. There's always Philip Glass.  Tangerine Dream and Underworld.  I do listen to a lot of music, going back a ways, with what you might call an electronica sound of some sort, I realize. That gets me in a dreamy mood for writing.  


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Conversation With Les Edgerton, Part Two

Welcome back for Part Two of my conversation with Les Edgerton.

OBAAT: I’m not a fan of a lot of neo-noir, where I think some writers like to revel in their characters’ depravity. To me, Jake is the classic noir protagonist. Someone who makes a bad decision for what might seem like a good—or at least excusable—reason to him at the time, after which everything turns to shit. It’s not that he makes bad choices as the book progresses. He makes the best choices available to him at the time. Damn right I rooted for him. What makes you pull for a character when you’re reading?
LE: I didn’t know what neo-noir was before your explanation, but I’m with you in not being a fan of that, Dana. A few years ago, I was sent a novel by a newer writer for me to blurb and there was no frickin’ way. It read like this guy just picked up on all the salacious and stereotypical elements of bad guys and gave them all to his character and his story. It was clear he hadn’t read much and mostly it looked like he’d read a lot of so-called noir that had lately sprung up and thought that was his secret to success—just have his guy do every nasty thing in the world and that’s what noir was. I turned him down and told him why. I also told him that I thought he had some talent and that if he ever wanted to I’d be happy to read a new work if it wasn’t like that first one. To his credit, he did just that and the next novel he sent me was much better and very unlike that first piece of crap he sent. Nowadays, he’s a regular member of the “noir community” and shows up at the bar at B-Cons and has even served as a co-publisher with another writer for a small indie press. He’s not the best writer in the world, but he does pen a craftsman-like novel these days and I like most of his work.

Now, to your question—what makes me pull for a character I’m reading. First, that he has a story problem I feel is both interesting as well as compelling. If his story problem is some bullshit thing, I’m out of there quickly. If it looks like something that could happen to any of us then I’m in. I want to see him make intelligent choices. Those choices may turn out badly (and probably will), but the first time he makes a dumb decision, I’m outta there. Like I preach to my students, “Your protagonist should always make the decision or choice a person of at least average intelligence would make.” Amen. Someone who makes a choice that no logical person would make will have to carry on without me. That’s just a lazy, unimaginative writer behind that character.

There’s a movie I use to illustrate this. This was an actual movie that opened in theaters and later made the late-night TV circuit. I saw it in the theater and walked out halfway through it and asked for my money back. I didn’t get it, but did see the rest of it on TV a few years later and saw concrete proof that I was right.

The setup of this godawful movie was that there was this new-fangled office building in town that had a unique security system. The entire building was shut down on Friday evening and didn’t open back up until Monday morning. That established, the movie begins with this couple trapped inside this building with a bad guy after them. Why he’s after them I forget but it doesn’t matter. He is and that’s all that counts. The first half of the movie is mostly what my wife calls a “chasey-fighty” movie. This couple is all over this building—up and down staircases, elevator shafts, whatever. They keep barely escaping his evil clutches each time until—halfway through the movie—they run into this large office space that’s being remodeled. There are stacks of lumber all over, building supplies and tools everywhere they look. The guy finds a nail hammer and they hide behind a pile of lumber to wait and bushwack the bad guy. Which he does. It works out perfectly. The bad guy walks around the lumber pile and the good guy whacks him on the head with the nail hammer and he’s knocked out. The couple kiss and embrace, clearly with tongues and at this point one assumes the movie’s over. But, it’s only been going on for less than an hour! What the heck?

Here’s where the movie completely falls apart and where I walked out and asked for my money back. (Note to younger, less-experienced readers: Theaters never give refunds, no matter how pathetic the product they just sold you is.)

I use this movie in my classes to illustrate just how stupid Hollywood can be at times. I simply ask them if this was you and your significant other, what would you do at this point? You know this guy is out to kill you both and you know you’ve got the drop on him and he’s clearly knocked out. It’s only Saturday so you know you’ve got another day and a half before the building can release you. So, what do you do?

I get the same answers every time.

1. I’d kill him.
2. I’d find something to tie him up with (clearly possible as they’re in a room with all kinds of building supplies and tools and plenty of things to tie him up with.
3. I’d take turns with my partner in watching him, and every time he begins to stir whoever is watching him would bop him on the head again and knock him out.

That’s about the extent of the suggestions. All of these answers represent what a person of at least average intelligence would do. The litmus test of what to base your protagonist’s actions on. Never does anyone suggest what these movie geniuses actually do. Which is to throw the nail gun down and run away to hide again.

This is when I made my way to the lobby. That I was the only one to do so was discouraging. It kind of told me where our educational system was and where our country was headed…

The rest of the movie is the resumed chase which they “miraculously” win at the very end. Too late for me. My fear is that these mesomorphs will mate and it’s for sure their progeny is going to emerge from the shallow end of the gene pool and probably end up running our educational systems. Anyone who sat through the end of this if they have any active gray matter left, simply has to begin rooting for the bad guy. He’s the only one with any living brain cells left.

This was a for-real movie and what’s sad, this kind of thing isn’t that rare in movies or in novels. Too often a writer isn’t really much of a writer and opts for manipulating a plot like this guy did instead of doing the hard work of actually writing. Life’s too short to waste on these clowns.


OBAAT: More than most writers, you’re someone whose next book might be about anything. Crime, comic crime, memoir, writing instruction. (Note to aspiring writers: If you haven’t read Hooked, stop reading right now and get thee a copy. It’s not Les’s only instructional book, but it starts at the beginning, where all books should start.) How do decide which of the ideas that are pushing for attention gets written next?
LE: That’s easy, Dana. It’s the book that I’m most interested in at the time. Just about all of my agents have thrown up their hands at the way I work. More than one have begged me to create a series and I could never do that. I know it hurts my so-called career as that’s the way you build an audience, but I just can’t work like that. Writing to me isn’t just my “job”—it’s my life, and I have the rare opportunity to do what I enjoy doing in life. Writing the same character over and over just seems… what’s the word?... oh, yeah… boring. That’s just me and I don’t have anything against those writers who write series. It’s just something that’s alien to my world.
For one thing, if you write a series based on a character, it’s very difficult to create a character arc for the protagonist and that’s important to me. A novel series is more like a TV series than anything else. The protagonist in a television series remains largely unchanged. They’re more akin to short stories than novels. A contemporary short story only reveals a small truth, unlike the structure of former eras. The same for series television. Sam, the bartender in Cheers, learns a small lesson each week and seems to be somewhat transformed, but when the next week’s episode rolls around, he’s the same old Sam. To me, that’s boring writing and while I enjoy that kind of thing somewhat, it’s all surface entertainment and not anything profound. I’d rather try for profound and fail than have as my goal a lot of readers and money. I never want to be that shallow. And, I feel that to create monetary success in writing means writing to the lowest common denominator, i.e. surface entertainment, and that’s not something that interests me in the least.

Money has never been my goal. I’ve walked out on several opportunities to make a lot of money only because it was boring and I viewed it as an artificial way of living a life. I sold life insurance at one point and walked away from a job that would have made me a millionaire. I stuck it out for a year and was at the top of the game and saw how ridiculously easy making money was if I just kept doing the same thing, but just couldn’t face another day of doing something just to make my life comfortable. After all, how many cars can one drive at once, how many houses can one live in at the same time, how many possessions are enough? None of those things have ever mattered to me. I’m sorry, but my personal opinion of those who settle for this kind of life is that they’re basically cowards. (This isn’t going to win me many friends, is it? Like I give a shit…) Nowadays, I have to confess to a bit of regret as I have no income other than Social Security and the bit I make from book royalties and from the online class I teach and if I can no longer teach I’ll probably end up homeless, but that’s not the worst fate in the world. I’ve been homeless at various times of my life and it wasn‘t all that bad and I survived. I firmly believe I’d still not trade a bit of security at the end of my days for selling my soul to work at something I didn’t enjoy or believe in. And, I just don’t believe in being Salesman of the Month. I do believe in creating a book that affects people’s lives. And, not just “people’s” lives, but intelligent people’s lives. I confess to not have much interest in the average person. The average person is largely boring and I think that most are average by choice. Often, they simply don’t want to take any chances in their lives so their averageness isn’t being average at all, but being a coward. Who needs people like that? Other than politicians and ministers…  I’ve been blessed to have impacted the thinking of extraordinary people with a few of my books and that means far more to me than any pension plan or late-model car. And I realize that’s a rare philosophy and one that most would be unable to follow, but that’s all right. I never want to be like most people. Most people I think aren’t all that happy and have a bunch of regrets. I don’t have many regrets at all.
My next book is always going to be the one that interests me the most.


I’ve consistently enjoyed the new format of these interviews, but none has made me want to sit down with an adult beverage and discuss writing and the world more than this one. I hope you’ve enjoyed this time with les Edgerton as much as I have. Thanks, Les. You’re The Man. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Conversation With Les Edgerton

I first encountered Les Edgerton at the Albany Bouchercon, where he read a brief poem at a Down & Out Books event. It was my first encounter with Down & Out, too, so that may have been the most fortuitous half hour of my life. (Certainly of my writing life.) Since then we’ve gotten to know each other and spend some time together, notably in Long Beach, where he joined me (along with Tim Hallinan and John McFetridge) in a reading.

Les is a fine man, a wonderful writer, and someone I’m proud to call a friend. When I heard he had a book coming out and realized how it’s been since we chatted, I hit him up right away. As always, he graciously agreed.

One Bite at a Time: Les, I can’t decide which is the bigger treat: having you on the blog or hearing you have a new book out. Let’s start with the book. Tell us a little about Just Like That.
Les Edgerton: Good question, Dana. The reason I wrote Just Like That was that I just got tired of watching movies and reading novels that without fail got the criminal mindset wrong. I know it’s not their fault; they just aren’t criminals themselves and like a lot of people, many novelists and filmmakers are perhaps a bit lazy. By that, I mean many don’t bother to do the work of research and therefore depend on their idea of the criminal from the books and movies they themselves have experienced. In other words, they simply keep perpetuating the same inaccuracies and myths and stereotypes over and over. And, today’s authors as a group are lazier than in any other era in literary history, in my opinion. It’s not just about criminals. Here’s an example of what I see as a universal reluctance to do much research. Just yesterday I was reading a novel from a bestselling author who had his character smelling cordite. This is the eighth novel I’ve read this year that has character smelling cordite. Jesus! Each time, I think the same thing: Moron. And, each one was from a well-known author and most were from legacy publishers with supposedly quality editing. It’s just a case of writers who seem to believe everything they read to be true or accurate and never questioning anything. Research today is infinitely easier than at any time in history with the Intergnat, and yet none of these writers could spend ten seconds Googling “cordite?” If they had, they would have learned that the manufacture of cordite ceased shortly after WWII and that it was a component of British ammo, not U.S. And, what editor worth his or her title doesn’t do the research these writers couldn’t be bothered with? The answer is the same kind of editor who is just as lazy as the writer they’re editing… We simply live in an age of lowered expectations and quality.

I’m just using cordite as a good example of how many contemporary writers are either lazy or just plain sloppy in their writing. When I began writing, it was considered a terrible thing when a writer made a factual mistake in their novels. The consensus was that once a fact was wrongly presented, the reader couldn’t believe anything else in the novel. Nowadays, that mindset of quality seems to have largely disappeared.

I’ve only been approached by a handful of writers who wanted to know the truth of the criminal mindset or the veracity of their jail or prison scenes. The first was Ray Banks and the other one who springs to mind is Anthony Neil Smith. I seem to remember another writer who bothered to ask me about the veracity of a criminal action or setting but can’t recall who it was. Probably Paul Brazill—that’s the kind of thing Paul would do.

And, that’s it. That’s kind of sad, I think, that so many writers writing crime novels never do any actual research about the characters or the milieu they’re creating. It seems to be common for most writers to research how cops work and all that, but it seems to be okay with most to base their characterizations of criminals and outlaws along the same flawed characterizations in previous flawed books and movies.

So, that’s my long-winded answer to the question you posed, as to what was “the point of the book and how I approached it.” Simply put, the average outlaw or criminal often doesn’t expend a lot of time or energy in pondering a crime, but more often than not just does it on the spur of the moment. Just like that…

Cathy Johns, then the assistant warden of The Farm (the state prison at Angola, La.) read the book and told me that it was “the truest depiction of the criminal mind she’d ever heard.” That meant more to me than any other comment about the book. It told me that I’d succeeded in what I set out to do with it.

OBAAT: You saved me from myself when you read the ARC of my next book and pointed out a mistake I made regarding handwriting analysis, for which I’m grateful. You do quite a bit of teaching. What’s the toughest thing to get through to a fledgling writer?
LE: Another easy question, Dana. Without fail, it’s the lack of knowledge of story structure. Most beginning writers seem to be at least basically proficient in things like description, characterization, dialog, and those bits and pieces of the craft, but are often clueless as to what a story consists of. They know the pieces of writing, but not the structure and how to apply those pieces properly. Think about it—you don’t get to Carnegie Hall with your name on the marquee by knowing how to play the oboe only—you get to Carnegie by creating a symphony. In writing, that symphony is a novel.

In our class, we require everyone to create a short outline for their novel, consisting of five statements and 15-20 words. None of those Roman numeral monstrosities that go on for page after page. The reason I insist on this is that past experience tells me that if they don’t have a basic plan for their book and don’t begin in the right place, we’re all going to end up wasting our time. Their “novel” is most likely going to peter out after 60-80 pages and from that point on they’re going to be desperately trying to resuscitate a corpse. The first week of class they can only send in their outline and the first five pages of their novel. Two things I’ll look for. That their outline clearly begins with the inciting incident and that their first five pages are on one thing only—the inciting incident they’ve described in their outline. If clear evidence of that isn’t there, they’ve just begun what students have termed our “Inciting incident hell.” I’ve only had one student in over ten years of these classes ever escape inc inc hell. And that was a person in our present class.

Occasionally, I’ll get a new student who seems proud that they’re a “pantser.” That seems to mean to them that they’re the captain of their destiny and that creating an outline somehow makes them less creative or something. Often, they’ll quote someone like Hemingway who also claimed to never outline. Only… he did. He didn’t call them outlines. He called them “Draft 1” and “Draft 2” and “Draft 9” but in truth, they were all outlines. Just kind of longish ones, at around a hundred thousand words…

Our outlines consist of five statements. The first describes the inciting incident. The next three describe the three major turns almost all novels go through. The fifth describes the resolution. Personally, I wouldn’t start driving to Adak, Alaska without a map, having never driven there before. With my sense of direction I’d probably end up in L.A, and…no thank you… I like flavor in food too much to want to join the ruminants in California…The outline we use is the barebones but it accomplishes several things. It gives us a roadmap for a lengthy novel. If the novel decides to take a major turn as they sometimes do, no problem. We just take ten minutes and adjust the outline and we still have a good map. It used to take me a year to two years to write a novel—with this kind of outline I can write a better one in three months. I’m not wasting time driving down back roads…

And, it works for all forms. I used the same outline to write a short story, a novel, and a screenplay all on the same story—The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping. Didn’t have to change a word of the outline and all three are very different in many ways. However, they all share the same skeleton. (Editor’s Note: This book is laugh-out-loud funny. I shit you not.)

I had a student come to us years ago with an already-completed 400-page novel. (Not uncommon). She ended up spending ten weeks in inc inc hell before I’d allow her to be passed into writing beyond that. This was when our class was twelve weeks and I was teaching it as an accredited class for Phoenix College. She had two weeks left to go in the class and was still trying to get her first five pages written. She finally nailed it in the eleventh week. She went on in subsequent classes to finish that novel and when done, I helped her land an agent and that agent helped her get a three-book contract. That 400-page book she’d come to class with was long-ago buried in her back yard where it belonged. It was one of those episodic messes that beginning writers often create. She’s currently penning her fifth and sixth novels for Midnight Ink and you may have read her. Her name is Maegan Beaumont. We have many similar stories in our class—more than two dozen of our students have ended up publishing their books and publishing legitimately—not via some vanity or self-publishing venue, but with real publishers.

So, understanding what the inciting incident is and how important it is to a novel’s success is the single toughest thing to get across to a beginning writer. And, often to a writer further along in the process.

OBAAT: I tend to roll my eyes when people talk about “important books,” or “books that had an influence on your life.” Your novel The Bitch is one of two exceptions that come to mind. (David Simon’s The Corner is the other.) In your context The Bitch refers to habitual offender statutes, better known as “three strikes and you’re out” laws. I could go into this at length but I’d rather you give everyone the point of the book and how you approached it.
LE: Another great question. I wrote The Bitch for the same reasons I wrote Just Like That. And, I’d like to include The Rapist in that group. I couldn’t find a book that accurately portrayed the criminal or outlaw realistically. The closest I found was Charles Bukowski’s short story, “The Fiend.” Just about all other writers I’ve read who write about criminals I can’t see as really knowing or understanding the criminal mind. When I was getting my MFA, one of my advisors, Diane Lefer, asked me what I thought about the writer Denis Johnson. My reply was that I thought he was a fine writer but didn’t have a clue how criminals thought or their motivations. His writing made me think this was a college guy who spent a couple of nights in the drunk tank and now thought he understood outlaws. And, sorry, but that’s how I see a lot of writers who write about crime. It’s not a crime not to understand the criminal mind, but I think it is a crime not to try to find out how we think and why we act in the ways we do. Most writers, if they’re not cops themselves, take the time to research police procedures and cops’ mores, but seldom do they bother to do the same with the criminals in their books or films.

Most seem to approach crime the way most social workers do. They try to fit statistical observations into a picture of the criminal mind. That’s why you get these cockamamie theories like “poverty creates criminals.” And, create programs to do away with poverty and then wonder why the criminal rates don’t go down that much. Or, they see abusive parents and how some of their offspring end up being outlaws and assume that’s the cause and feel if they take the kids away that’ll solve the problem. The problem with that is that it only accounts for a portion of the reason some turn to criminal activities. They don’t seem to wonder much why others from the same backgrounds of experiences turn out not to be criminals.

This seems to be the mindset of many crime fiction writers. That the criminal’s background is what led them to their lives of crime. Conveniently, they “forget” the other members of that criminals same family who turned out to be law-abiding citizens.

If social workers and novelists investigated further than most do, they might discover the real reason some turn to crime and others with the same backgrounds don’t.

Almost all criminal acts are the result of a sense of loss of control in some aspect of their lives. The armed robber is in control of his fate when he holds a gun on a store clerk. For that moment, he has reached a place where he’s in control. The rapist feels in control when he’s raping a girl. And, so on. The same experience affects similar people in diverse ways. The child who was sexually abused by his father as was his brother, might grow up to feel out of control in his life and discover the only way to regain control is by imitating what his father did to him. His brother, while experiencing the same abuse, may have found another way to regain control in his life.

The child who grew up in poverty might discover that by taking wealth from others, he at least momentarily regains control over his world. His sibling, undergoing the same experiences in childhood, might have discovered another means of gaining control over his life and not feel the same need to rob others as his brother does.

The thing is, it’s almost always a matter of a sense of control or the lack of control in a particular segment of their lives. This is why most social programs have limited success and why novelists writing criminals also experience limited success in creating characters. They’ve simply ignored or been unaware of the other factors creating individuals.

That’s what I was interested in showing in The Bitch. When it begins, Jake does what he does because he thinks he believes in the concept of loyalty. As events transpire, he eventually learns that what drives him and his actions isn’t his sense of loyalty, but of his sense of survival. Once he learns that about himself, he is then able to change. Which he does in the final scene. He willingly enters a situation—actually, he creates a situation in which he’ll be killed. He’s come to discover through his journey that there is something more important than survival and that he’s built his entire life on a false value. And, that’s what a novel should be about, in my opinion—a significant change in the protagonist’s life as a result of his struggle to resolve a problem. Jake’s not going to end up like Sam in Cheers, but as a completely changed person. Albeit… room temperature...

What was rewarding to me was the tremendous amount of emails and letters I received that all said the same thing. That they couldn’t help rooting for Jake throughout the story, even though at every single turn he was doing horrible things to others. While they didn’t condone the things he did, they understood that he was almost forced to do them and they understood why and all throughout the read they kept hoping he’d find a way to not only survive but end up as a good person. That the only thing that made him do bad things wasn’t that he was a bad person but that he was only given bad choices. That told me that I’d succeeded in creating a real character who was a true criminal but not a one-dimensional cardboard character. Jake wasn’t a Snidely Whiplash, but a real human being.


Come back next Wednesday for Part Two of my conversation with Les Edgerton.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Conversation With John McNally

John McNally is the closest thing to a writing teacher I’ve had. (No, I don’t blame him and neither should you.) We met when I was accepted into the Jenny Moore McKean workshop at George Washington University while I was working on the book that would become A Small Sacrifice, which was eventually nominated for a Shamus Award, so thank you for that, John.

John has written and edited short story collections (of which my favorite is Troublemakers), written novels (of which my favorites are The Book of Ralph and After the Workshop), and a couple of writing instruction books I think fill unique niches. The Creative Writer's Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist fills a vital need: advice less on how to write but on how to be a writer, with all the challenges that career choice places on one’s life. His more traditional how-to, Vivid and Continuous, is a book I return to every couple of years as a touchstone. Both stress practical advice; neither messes with metaphysicality. Both should be on every writer’s shelf.

John is currently Professor of English and Writer in Residence at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. His newest book, The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex: The Memoir of a Fat Kid dropped December 1 from Elephant Rock Productions.

One Bite at a Time: Let’s get right to it. You’ve written fiction, books on various aspects of writing (more on those later), and edited anthologies. What was it that got you to thinking about writing a memoir?
John McNally: In a concentrated period of time, three things happened in my life: I got divorced, my father died, and I took a new job that was 900 miles away. For the first time in almost twenty years, I decided to take a break from writing. I was burnt out writing fiction. I was burnt out doing pretty much anything, truth be told. But during that break, a friend asked me to write a short personal essay, no longer than 750 words, for a column he was editing, and I thought, okay, sure. I can do 750 words. What I realize now -- but didn't then -- was that once I start writing about myself, a small detail will unlock another memory that I had shoved aside, and the more I wrote, the more that those things I had forgotten about came back to me. And so I kept writing. My father looms over this book in ways that I hadn't anticipated, but it's because my father had always been -- and still is -- an enigma to me. I didn't cry when he died, and it bothered me that I didn't. And I still haven't. But this book is, in part, my attempt to understand our relationship better, even if I didn't realize that when I was writing it.

OBAAT: I have small autobiographical elements in my writing, but they’re things like time spent with my daughter or my parents. I can’t imagine opening a vein like you did. Was it intimidating once you realized you’d made a commitment to yourself to release it to the public?
JM: Very intimidating. But then I think, okay, so...how much longer do I have to live if this doesn't go over well? It's the same mindset as when I started getting tattoos at fifty. I'm actually a pretty private person. People will sometimes compliment me for how open I am about things on Facebook, so I guess I give the illusion of not being private, but what I reveal about myself on social media is probably one percent of my life. There are all kinds of things I don't talk about. I don't talk about my ex-wives or current relationships; I don't talk about teaching; I will talk about depression but not when I'm in the throes of it; I don't talk much about books or writing; and for as much as I bash Trump I never mentioned who I supported even if it's obvious. So, it does make me nervous to be so open in the new book. My forthcoming book on failure also has a lot of personal stuff in it, but in that book I talk about the importance of risking something of yourself when you write, and I certainly tried to do that in The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex. I had a teacher who once posed this question to the class: "What's at stake for you in this?" That's probably become the single most important piece of writing advice I've received. Not what's at stake for the character but what's at stake for you?

OBAAT: I’ve noticed that about you on Facebook, how open and entertaining you are about some things—tacos, cats, and vinyl, for example—but say little or nothing about the rest of your life. Has writing the memoir led you to feel more or less open in general? We all re-evaluate some things about our lives as we age. Are there things you now look at differently than you might have if you hadn’t written The Boy Who?
JM: I'm definitely not more open now. Maybe less open. As for looking at things differently...yes, definitely. It's difficult not to spend a few years writing about your childhood without coming to some realizations about why you are the way you are now. I've become more aware over the years that I have a compulsive personality, but writing the book illuminated for me the ways in which my compulsive behavior began at a very young age, and how the compulsiveness was often self-destructive or self-defeating. And then I saw how my father also had a compulsive streak that was also self-defeating. The patterns in my life became more obvious while writing the book. But I also become more aware -- and I'm not saying this to pat myself on the back -- of how much I had to overcome to get to where I am today. I'm sure compulsiveness explains how I overcame overwhelming odds to get to this point. So it's not all bad.

OBAAT: I think one of the things that attracts me to your writing is the similarities of background we share. You’re from outside Chicago and I’m from a semi-rural area near Pittsburgh, but we both have working class backgrounds and understand a person does what needs to be done to get by. I see that in everything you’ve written. Even the books about writing have a well-grounded, “it’s a job before it’s anything else” feel to them. Is this something you’re conscious about, or does it just come when you write?
JM: When I write fiction, my blue-collar upbringing influences nearly every story I write because employment and money (or lack thereof) are usually at the core of the story in a meaningful way. When I first began writing, however, I had moved those working class issues to the forefront of my stories, but the stories never worked. They came across as maudlin or didactic, but once I simply put an interesting character into motion in a particular situation that happens, they can't help but to be influenced by their background. As for my own process, I believe in work. My father was a roofer; my mother, who had grown up in a sharecropping family, worked in a factory. I've spent most of my life teaching, but I've been working since the first grade, hustling to make a buck doing any number of things. And so as a writer I don't sit around waiting for the muse. The muse is a myth, in my opinion. Times when I'm inspired are times when I'm working hard and I'm holding several disparate parts of a story or novel in my head at once, and then something clicks that pulls it all together; that's the result of working consistently so that my brain can begin functioning like the flawed computer that it is, not because I was visited by a muse. If you want a hole in the ground, you have to dig the hole. The hole doesn't simply appear one morning.

OBAAT: The writer who tends to come to mind when I read a lot of your stuff is Richard Russo. Same working-class sensibilities and similar dry senses of humor. You have some experience with him, don’t you? Did he influence the writer you’ve become?
JM: He was my undergraduate teacher my last semester of college. And then he was responsible for hiring me back, after I'd gotten my MFA, to replace him while he was on leave to write Nobody's Fool. I can't say he influenced my subject matter. But he influenced me as the kind of person I wanted to be. He's a good guy, a hard worker, and genuinely supportive of younger writers. He's not a prima donna. In many ways, the writers who've influenced me the most were because of their character. And I think that transfers into one's writing. When you read Rick's novels, you know you're in the hands of a generous writer. There's nothing precious or cloying in his books.

OBAAT: As I mentioned before, this isn’t your first departure from fiction. Vivid and Continuous is as good a book on craft as I’ve read, and I go back to it every couple of years for reminders. The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide occupies a unique niche, as far as I know: It’s a book on what writers need to do when they’re not actually writing. Tell us a little about why you wrote them.
JM: That's a high compliment, Dana. Thank you for that. The Creative Writer's Survival Guide came about because my editor at the University of Iowa Press asked me if I'd be interested in writing a book that answered common questions about writing. I said, sure, but I wanted it to be opinionated. I wanted a personality behind the writing. I didn't want to write something dry. And I wanted it to be autobiographical. I wanted it to be coming from a guy you might meet in a bar and not an expert. Iowa has been great to me. They let me write the books I want to write, and I can live or die by it. The second book, Vivid and Continuous, was written in a similar voice except that it's a craft book. I wanted to write about those issues of craft that I hammer home to my students but that seem to get ignored in textbooks. I'd already written some of those chapters for magazines or public lectures, so the idea of putting it together as a book was the next logical step. I have a third book coming out in the spring, tentatively titled The Promise of Failure, and it's the one I'm most excited by, and it's definitely the most person. It's a look at the role of failure in our work -- the positive role as well as the debilitating role. I teach part of the year in a low-residency MFA program, and several years ago I began giving lectures on failure, and they seemed to resonate, probably because it's a taboo subject. On Facebook, people like to post about their successes. Rarely do you see someone grappling with their failures. I have to say, in many ways these three books have been the hardest books to write. I had to keep going back to ask myself, “Would this make sense to someone with a basic knowledge on the subject? Would this be interesting to someone with a sophisticated knowledge of the subject?” There's a reason each book is shorter than the previous book!

OBAAT: A lot of writers have a concern that a writing teacher will try to impose his style and philosophy of writing on them. I have first-hand experience with you as a teacher, and you’re quite the opposite. I always felt you were making a conscious effort to develop me into the best writer my talents would allow. One thing that sticks in my mind was you noticing I had a little trouble getting into and out of scenes, so you recommended I look at how Ross Macdonald began and ended his chapters. Not that I do anything how—or as well—as Macdonald, but I was able to see some of his technique there and adapt the bits that suited my style. Long way around of asking what is it you look for in a student and how do you decide which things to focus on, and what to suggest?
JM: I try to follow the doctor's oath of "first, do no harm." I certainly have my own aesthetic likes and dislikes. I champion accuracy over cleverness, for instance. I see too much cleverness -- cheap cleverness -- so I've grown suspicious of it. I'm always cautioning writers to get out of the way of their own writing. That said, I try to take each piece of writing on its own terms. I certainly don't want to turn my students into me. These days I find myself asking larger questions, like, "Why this story? Tell me why you're drawn to this material?" Mostly I ask those questions so I can see better how to respond to the work. I work mostly with MFA and PhD students these days, so it's easier for me to respond once I've seen a book's worth of material. I look for patterns. I try to push them to risk more of themselves. How can you be in the work without being in the way of it?

OBAAT: That’s a great point: “Why this story?” You’ve already talked about the memoir as growing from a personal essay. In your fiction, what do you look for in a story before deciding to spend so much time on it?

JM: I tell my students that our stories are smarter than we are. By this, I mean that when you begin writing a story, you draw much of it from your unconscious mind, so it makes sense that we often don't understand, on a conscious level, why certain things creep into our work. I've learned to be patient with the stories I write. I'm patient because I'm hoping that my intellect -- that weak, lumbering tool -- will catch up to the savvier, sneakier subconscious. In other words, I put faith in the fact that every story I write is coming from some personal place, but in order for me to do it justice, I have to unlock the images and metaphors and cryptic things within it, which sometimes takes years. I have a batch of stories that I started six years ago. I'm only now figuring them out. I have to find myself in there, however obliquely I may appear. Once I find that, then the story's reason for being becomes more urgent to me. I don't write for personal therapy, but I think whenever you attempt art of any kind, the side-effect is that it's illuminating something about yourself or the world you live in. That said, I still honor story. The reader should feel that urgency of "Why this story?" but not necessarily see it. So, what do I look for? I look for something in a story that nags at me even while it's trying to elude me. I look for a mystery within the story that only I can see. And then I want to solve it.