Miscellaneous: California? Sweet!

 Edith Head, Movies, noir, Noir City, research, travel  Comments Off on Miscellaneous: California? Sweet!
Jan 232015

Rosemarie and I are already hard at work on the second book in the classic Hollywood mystery series featuring Edith Head we’re writing under the name Renee Patrick. (Design for Dying, book number one, comes out from Macmillan’s Tor/Forge Books in April 2016. People are camping out already! Not for our book. They’re just, you know, camping out.) The time had come, we’d decided, for some field research. Say a trip to Los Angeles, followed by a jaunt up the coast for the opening weekend of the thirteenth Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco.

It’s a time-honored Hollywood tradition: if your journey begins with the sighting of a star, then fortune will smile upon you. We sit down for our first breakfast and who should be at the next table but Commander Adama himself, Academy Award nominee Edward James Olmos. (Who am I kidding? He’ll always be Lieutenant Castillo to me.) Already we were in clover.

Our initial post-Olmos stop was a key reason for making the trip now: we wanted to see the mammoth Hollywood Costume exhibit before it closes. Presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, it’s a stunning show, with dramatic staging of over 150 movie costumes; Marlene Dietrich in Morocco lights a cigarette for Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct) as L.A. Confidential’s Lynn Bracken looks on. Our heroine Edith Head is well represented, with her iconic green suit worn by Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo on display. The immersive section on costume design as collaboration features a dazzling “conversation” among Edie, Hitch and Tippi Hedren about the clothes in The Birds. The craft of the costume designer is explored in detail in this decades-spanning exhibit. (Later we were fortunate to spend time with its curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis, the acclaimed costume designer of Raiders of the Lost Ark – and even more impressively, the person responsible for the wardrobe in longtime Chez K favorite ¡Three Amigos! Given those credentials I’m amazed I was able to ask any questions, but somehow I managed.)

Hollywood Costume runs through March 2, which roughly coincides with the closing date of Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950 at the Skirball Cultural Center. This exhibition focuses on the role of filmmakers who fled Nazi Germany in the production of the glittering comedies and dark dramas of the Golden Age of Hollywood. More costumes are included in this show, which also merits a visit.

The primary purpose for our expedition was to set foot on Edith’s old domain: Paramount Pictures, the studio where she spent the majority of her career. To our delight, Paramount’s archivists welcomed us with open arms – “Edith would have loved being in a mystery novel,” we were told – and gave us a full tour. The high point was undoubtedly the costume archive, 80% of which consisted of Edith Head originals. To be in the same room as, say, Barbara Stanwyck’s beaded bolero jacket from The Lady Eve and inspect it in detail was enough to induce lightheadedness.

Paramount’s Bronson Gate

Edith willed her estate to the Academy, so our final destination was the Margaret Herrick Library to look at her papers. It’s impossible to convey the thrill of holding a letter on Alfred Hitchcock’s personal stationery – signed ‘Hitch,’ naturally – in your hands. I’d heard that furniture from Edith’s house had been placed in the Herrick’s Special Collections reading room, so before leaving I asked which pieces were hers. “That table you’ve been sitting at all day, for one,” the librarian said. Truly the power of Olmos was strong.

Some time at Noir City San Francisco was mandatory, given the Seattle iteration of the festival is on hiatus pending a move to the Cinerama. This year’s theme is marriage, with your humble correspondent penning the companion article in the latest issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine. Rosemarie and I christened the opening weekend at Trick Dog, recently named one of the fifty best bars in the world – love that Chinese menu; try the #2 – then strolled to the Castro for the premiere of a new 35mm restoration of an old favorite. In 1950’s Woman on the Run, Ann Sheridan’s estranged husband witnesses a mob killing and goes on the lam. When slick newspaperman Dennis O’Keefe encourages her to track her wayward spouse down, Ann discovers new facets to her old man and falls for him all over again. Shot in San Francisco, the movie played like gangbusters to a capacity crowd, with master of ceremonies Eddie Muller cagily adding a then-and-now featurette spotlighting the locations.

This is the the jacket we saw. Up close.

Up next, the first in a mini-tribute to actress Joan Fontaine. Born to be Bad (1950) casts several actors against type. Usual cad Zachary Scott is a decent if obscenely wealthy man, Robert Ryan shines as a cocky writer (“Seen the view? It’s better with me in it”), and Mel Ferrer does his best George Sanders as a cynical social climbing painter. They all flutter around Christabel Caine, and alas our Joan was a bit long in the tooth to play a scheming ingénue, leaving a void at the film’s center. Still, director Nicholas Ray keeps the melodrama at a steady boil and it was fun to see the original ending deemed too scandalous for release.

The experience left me wanting Fontaine at her best, and one of my rules is never pass up Hitchcock on the big screen, so that meant a Saturday matinee of her Oscar-winning turn in Suspicion (1941). We skipped Joan in the sturdy 1953 issue film The Bigamist – a boy’s gotta eat – and returned to the Castro for a signing of the Noir City 2014 Annual, featuring work by yours truly, FNF honcho Muller, our Los Angeles sightseeing companion Christa Faust, Duane Swierczynski, Wallace Stroby, Jake Hinkson and plenty more. Look for it at Amazon soon. Joanie was back and at her bitchy best in the find of the festival: 1947’s Ivy, an Edwardian chiller with Fontaine as a fortune hunter with a husband, a lover, and her eyes on an even bigger prize. She’s in her element here, Ivy’s discreet villainy perfectly tailored to her sensibilities. More Edwardian noir followed with Robert Siodmak’s The Suspect (1944), an elegant and heartbreaking gloss on the infamous Dr. Crippen case boasting a magnificent Charles Laughton performance.

Christa Faust, ace designer Michael Kronenberg, yours truly, and Edwardian gent Eddie Muller at the Castro book signing

Sunday’s double-bill spotlighted suspense from that maker of sudsers supreme, Douglas Sirk. The script for Shockproof (1949) was watered down considerably from writer Samuel Fuller’s original version; no doubt two-fisted Sam’s take on the story of parole officer Cornel Wilde falling for one of his charges (Patricia Knight) and into a heap of trouble would have been considerably meaner. A minor film, but on this viewing I was able to appreciate how Sirk’s supple direction preserved the remaining Fuller touches. Sleep, My Love (1948) is gossamer in the Gaslight mode, with Claudette Colbert being manipulated by husband Don Ameche into thinking she’s down to her last few marbles so he can run off with Hazel Brooks, as gorgeous as she is surly. Claudette’s only hope is the relentless charm offensive mounted by Robert Cummings. Oh for the days when a movie’s main characters could be an imperiled socialite and a globe-trotting adventurer. Sleep is Sirk at his best, a film that’s all surface pleasures and no less an achievement because of them. It was the perfect ending to our California swing.

Noir City runs through this Sunday at the Castro. May the blessings of Edward James Olmos be with you all.

 Posted by at 6:39 pm
Dec 292012

With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite MulhollandBooks.com posts from the past year!

SHAKE OFF‘s Michel Khoury is a veritable encyclopedia of the espionage tradecraft that is essential to his life as a spy, which Mischa Hiller gleaned from access to someone with direct knowledge of the tricks of the trade. Want to learn how to become a skilled agent? Here are a few of the tips from Mischa’s novel:

Concealing documents and cash? Use a newspaper.

“They are easy to ditch, and you can carry one under your arm even as your bags are being searched.”

Know your cover.

“If you can believe just a bit of your cover story then you can convince your listener (and even yourself) that it is all true.”

Incriminating evidence to ditch? Use the restroom.

“It is easier to flush soaked paper than dry.”

Disguise yourself.

“Hospitals have no security to speak of.  You can wander almost anywhere unchallenged, particularly if you don a white coat – best acquired from the doctors’ lounge in the A&E department.  Or go dressed in a suit carrying a briefcase and pretend you are a drugs salesman.”

Watch your back.

“You should always sit at the back of the bus when you get on, because surveillance like to sit at the back to get a good view of you embarking without having to turn around.”

Beware the honeytrap.

“It is easier to believe that a woman finds you irresistible than that she is trying to ensnare you.”

Tired of looking over your shoulder?

“Take a few days off, go to the cinema, sit in the park, stay at home and read a book….Make them bored. A bored surveillance team is a careless one.”

Blend in.

“Be gray, not colorful, my trainers in Moscow had said.  I always matched my shoes to my clothes.  I’d heard that immigration officers checked for illegal immigrants by looking at their shoes.”

Finish the job.

“To kill someone you need to shoot them at least four or five times in the head, just to make sure.  And it needs to be up close with a hand-held weapon.  You have to put it right up against the head or very close to it, otherwise you could miss; some weapons give a massive kick, and any shot following the first could go wild.  If you can’t get close enough to kill the target with your first shot, then you will need to incapacitate them with a body shot first and finish the deed close up, a coup de grâce.

Mischa Hiller is a winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the Best First Book category for South Asia and Europe. Raised in London, Beirut, and Dar El Salaam, he lives in Cambridge, England. Visit him at www.mischahiller.com.

SHAKE OFF, selected by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker as one of the best books of 2012 (“Hiller’s novel has the benefit of mining every trope of the thriller genre while being absolutely original at the same time. I will read anything by Hiller from now on”), is now available in bookstores everywhere.

Nov 092012

by Alexandra Sokoloff

As anyone who interacts with me on Facebook knows, I got a little tense this election week.  Not that that’s unusual.  And I doubt I was the only one here who wasn’t getting much work done in the last few days.  At the same time, I can’t really afford to take time off, given the deadlines I’ve got going on, even if most of them are self-imposed.

But the Universe lined itself up for me,as it so often does. Actually, some people would say it ALWAYS does, even if that’s not the way it looks on the surface. But that’s another blog!

I just finished a second draft of my new book, BLOOD MOON, and I don’t know about you all, but I find it REALLY REALLY hard to take the advice I am always giving other writers: to take time off in between drafts of a manuscript. Even when I know it’s the best possible thing I can do for the next draft. But the next logical step in my process required research, in fact, a research trip to San Francisco.  I know, I know, rough life. So on Tuesday I just got in the car and drove up, meaning  I got to watch election returns in downtown Oakland (massively fun and obviously a huge party…)

And now I’m running around the city to locations I’m using in the book.

Now, I lived in the Bay Area for years, it’s not lke I don’t  know what I’m writing about. But there is nothing like revisiting a city, neighborhood, park, street, whatever, while you are in the headspace of your characters, looking specifically for those details that will color in your book.  And that’s really how I think of it – coloring in. I have the outlines of the story, but now I have to add those layers of light and shadow, color and sound and smell. And the feeling of being in a place.

I did a great panel at Bouchercon this year and the fabulous moderator, Daniel Palmer, who knows my acting background, asked if I used acting techniques to develop character. And of course I do. I don’t think about doing it, its just something I’ve done for so long that I couldn’t imagine not doing it. A lot of conveying emotion on stage is about creating that emotion inside of you, first, and then layering on the physical manifestations of that emotion so that the audience feels it, too.

So all this walking around in the actual physical world of my story is what really helps me to get the sensual reality of that world and whatever the characters are experiencing onto the page. I need to FEEL it.  I can do research online and read books, and craft an approximation of an experience from that research and my own  memoreies of experience, but it’s a lot harder for me than being there in person. In fact I have been doing so much walking that I can barely move at night, but it’s the only way I really know how to do this. Driving it won’t cut it.

But I’m a really physical person. Kinetic learner, psychologists call it. And the kind of writing I like to do and read is a lot about creating a sensory experience.  I realize that not everyone is like this, because there are books out there that do very little to create a sensory experience., and people buy them anyway, so someone  must be getting something out of them. But that kind of book rarely does anything for me. I want all six senses n ny books – especially that sixth sense of SENSING – the unseen stuff, the things that make your skin tingle.  Synchronicities. A smell that takes you back to your childhood.  Walking into the exact scene that you have been thinking about, and realizing the epiphany that your character will have there.

So for today I’m wondering – are you guys aware of what experiences you most want to read or create in a book, the way I find sensory experience (including the visual) my prime pleasure in reading?  What is that draw for you, and  what do you do in terms of reearch and craft to create that? Does acting technique play a part?

Or in reading, which authors/books are great examples of the experience you most want in a book?

(Sorry for the typos and short post today – I’m working on my iPad, which is not an optimum blogging experience!)

– Alex

Aug 172012

Post-Katrina New Orleans: The Empty ChurchWe hear a lot of debate about the impact of pop culture on society. Do violent video games provoke killers? Does visceral fiction desensitize an audience in dangerous ways? Wait for the first correlation between the wildly popular FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and sexual assault – it’s coming, I promise you. I’ve engaged in the debate at times, and never considered it from a reversed perspective: how does criminal stigma impact pop culture?

Then came Jerry Sandusky.

I spent 2011 with high school football coaches, following the Bloomington High School North Cougars through a season as research for my novel THE PROPHET. It’s a story about brothers, torn apart by crime, estranged by vehemently different opinions on how to cope with the loss, and then forced back together by another, fresh horror. One of the brothers, Kent Austin, is a high school coach who is active in prison ministry. I live in Bloomington, Indiana and St. Petersburg, Florida, regions where Tony Dungy is a revered figure. For as much success as Dungy had on the field, leading the Colts to a Super Bowl championship and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a conference title game, he was equally well-known for his work off the field, specifically in prison ministry. The concept interested me, the dual roles but particularly the notion of a football coach conducting prison outreach. How would a sociopath react to him, I wondered, and with that in mind I set off to write a crime novel featuring a high school coach and his bail bondsman brother.

I’m a fan of the game but I didn’t play, and I certainly didn’t think I would be able to write about a coach without spending some time in the trenches. It was rewarding on levels I never expected. I learned from the coaches, became friends with them, saw the great work they were doing that carried over into the lives of their student athletes. This was the reality I had seen with my own eyes. Then came word of a different reality, in a place called Happy Valley.

The first time I ever heard the name Jerry Sandusky I was at the house of the coach I followed for that year while researching for THE PROPHET, Scott Bless. I was on his deck, drinking a beer and eating pizza and watching a football game with some of his staff members, when I first heard the news of the indictment. I spent the evening there, listening to Bless and his staff talk about their own team – talk not simply about wins and losses but about the boys they needed to find ways to reach. “Football has been better to our kids than our kids have been to football,” is something I’d heard often from the North staff, and I understood how much pride they took in that. They’re not coaching a dynasty, piling up state championships. Would they like to be? Sure. But they understand that 99% of their athletes will not play at the professional level and 95% won’t play at the college level, and they understand, then, that the primary impact football can make for their players has nothing to do with the scoreboard. They take pride in seeing that the results of their program are better off the field.

Even after months around this attitude and these men, I read the stomach-turning, 26-page indictment of Sandusky and promptly told my fiancée that I was glad I was done with THE PROPHET, finished with the story of a football coaching trying to guide his team through tragedy, because it would have been difficult for me to write about the profession in a positive light in the wake of the Sandusky revelations.

Then I paused to think about just how disturbing that was.

The coaches I knew, coaches I’d watched log countless hours not simply to improve their team’s chances for a win on Friday night but to improve the lives of their student athletes, coaches who were truly and passionately invested in trying to help the young men around them, deserved better than that. They were not, are not, and should not be represented by Jerry Sandusky.

And still they will be.

I brought this up to a psychologist, Adam Grant, whom I interviewed while working on an essay about the topic for the Wall Street Journal, and he wasn’t surprised to hear I’d had that brief initial struggle, that I had made an emotional link between a monster and his profession and found the very idea of writing about that world unappealing in that moment.

“Jerry Sandusky is hugely damaging to coaches,” Grant told me. He’s an organizational psychologist with degrees from Harvard and Michigan, now a professor at The Wharton School. “There are two major reasons. First, bad is stronger than good. Research shows that we view negative publicity three times more powerfully than positive. When it comes to judging integrity and ethics we look first of all for deviations. If you wanted to prove whether you are someone we can trust and rely on, we tend to look for negative examples. The second reason is called the availability bias: when we mistakenly use an event as a cue for likelihood. We have a vivid, awful example right now – but one that is easy to call to mind. So it is easy to think your kid is at risk. I don’t envy coaches in response to this scandal.”

As I admitted my own gut reaction to the story, Grant admitted his. “As a parent,” he told me, “it was so much more visceral. I didn’t want the man to be allowed to exist. The creeping in the back of people’s minds is the murderer-next-door kind of mentality: how well do you really know anybody? Even a coach that you trust? Trust is much harder to build than to destroy. For the profession and for individuals, it is going to be way more difficult to rebuild.”

There’s a difference between heightened awareness and paranoia. That is easy to say, easy to wrap your head around, but harder to carry out. Grant says some of this could be primal, evolutionary – we’re predisposed to search for threats, and particularly for threats to our offspring. If that availability bias sinks its teeth in, then the chain reaction can be swift.

And costly.

Because while there is no denying the horrors of Jerry Sandusky and Penn State, there’s also no denying the tremendous impact of coaches. Even Grant, having worked with so many scholars and researchers over the years, said, “Outside of my parents, a coach was the single most influential person in my life.”

I asked Grant if, as a parent, he would consider keeping his children away from those overnight camps and travel teams altogether, and whether in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal he suspected many parents would feel that desire. His hope was that they’d feel motivated toward increased awareness, vigilance, and communication – but that they would also remember what the cost of a total shutdown of trust in coaches might mean.

“For millions of people, coaches are some of the most important role models in their lives,” he said. “So they are reducing the likelihood of the worst, but doing so at the price of the likelihood of the best.”

As a novelist, a journalist, and a former private investigator, I’ve always tried to carry a sense of responsibility to view things from as many angles as possible. It’s the advice Atticus Finch offers to Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” For a year, I’d been thoroughly enjoying my immersion in the game of football and the world of coaches. Then came my boomerang response to hearing about Sandusky: relieved I was done with the book, because there was no way I could write it when the most famous coach in America was also one of the most evil child predators in our history.

But it’s our job – writers, media members, those who for whatever reason have a platform – to offer context. To think a little deeper. The game of football, many would say, is of no concern in the horrors that unfolded at Penn State. But it absolutely needs to be. No one would (at least, no one should) dispute that the priority is in revealing the truth of the Sandusky case and bringing whatever aid may still be offered to his victims and their damaged lives. But as I tried to think a little deeper, I thought that there’s another set of victims waiting in this story, and that’s the children who may lose the chance to be positively impacted by good coaches, good men.

I was done with THE PROPHET by the time the Sandusky story broke, and for that I was relieved. Looking back now, though, I hope I still would have been able to see the forest for the trees, hope that I would have been able to avoid that availability bias of which Grant spoke. It’s the only time I’ve run into anything like that as a fiction writer – the topic you simply want to avoid – but I’m glad I didn’t avoid it. The book’s better for the role football plays in it, I think, but the book is an insignificant thing. A lot of kids are better for their involvement with the program and the coaches I followed, and I had the chance to see that first-hand, and for that I’m grateful, because it provided a counter-balance at a time when I needed one.

Michael Koryta’s THE PROPHET is now available in bookstores everywhere.

Re-Post: Writing and Research

 million for a morgue, research, Russel D McLean, shortbread  Comments Off on Re-Post: Writing and Research
Jun 082012

This post originally appeared over on shortbreadstories.co.uk in support of the Million for a Morgue Short Story Competition. Russel is reposting here as he is still in the midst of redrafts. Normal service will resume shortly.

The best crime fiction – the best fiction – creates the illusion of reality. That is, the writer throws in just enough real life to distract from the bits he made up.
I suppose that’s what you call artistic licence.

Realism is rarely real.
But a good writer is always aware of what he is doing, and knows just how much reality he can allow to intrude on his fiction. After all, if all crime fiction were “real”, there’d be a lot more internal investigations and far too many scenes of filling out forms for us to care. Also, if crime fiction were an accurate reflection of reality, then no one would go out of doors for fear of the pervert serial killers who live at least three to a street in the fictional world of many crime fiction writers.
So to offset all the unreality of what we do, crime writers have to ground their work in some kind of reality. Val McDermid, of course famously uses the expertise of Dundee’s own Dr Sue Black to assist in upping the realism of her investigative procedures. By melding her own gothic sensibilities with the rigors of Black’s knowledge, McDermid creates a world that is at once artificial (the killer is generally always caught, Tony Hill never quite succumbs to a full and crippling breakdown that would mark the end of the series, the killer always has razor-sharp motivation for their crime) and utterly real (her knowledge of the terrible things that can be done to the human body, as well as her razor-sharp psychological insights, allow the reader to buy into the fiction).
Sue Black is, of course, one of the driving forces behind Million For a Morgue. If you don’t already know, Dr Black and the team are looking to raise 1 million pounds to fund a “centre for excellence” in forensic research. With the full force of the aforementioned Val McDermid and 12 other bestselling crime writers to back them up, this is one serious fundraising effort. The Morgue will be named for one of the 12 crime writers. And its research will have a global impact, assisting law enforcement around the world.

Not only that, but no doubt a knock-on effect of the project will be to inspire crime writers, and perhaps even present them with new challenges. As research improves on current forensic techniques, many crime writers will have to consider how their novels are to straddle that line between reality and fiction.

While it is possible to write a crime novel with little research, you will be caught out by eagle-eyed readers if the research basics aren’t even considered. It’s a lesson I learned early when I sent out first drafts of my novel, The Good Son, to trusted professionals in the industry. I found that I’d managed to confuse Scots and English criminal law and procedure. In fact, the first print run of the book includes a reference to a job that exists only in English law. That mistake was subsequently altered for future editions.

I did not have to worry much about forensics for my first couple of novels. Or police procedure. I was writing a private eye novel, and thought at first that I could get away with making it all up. But I soon discovered that this was impossible. Making my character an ex-policeman meant he had to know certain things about the law. And while PI’s are unusual heroes in UK crime fiction, they still exist in this country. Check out the Assiocation of British Investigators, and you’ll discover the profession is alive and well. During research for The Good Son, I found myself calling on the assistance of one of the UK’s senior eyes to help me get a sense of the world he saw every day. I remember the first time I phoned him, I got very excited when he had to hang-up mid-sentence due to being on a stakeout and needed to follow a suspect. I think, for him, it was routine. For me, it was a momentary adrenaline rush. I never did find out who he was following or why. But of course, that’s standard: even private eyes have to maintain a client confidentiality.

A great deal of research can now be done online, which is perhaps why it has become so important. If Joe Q Reader can look up some basic blood spatter information, then you should be able to as well. And you’d better, or the reader will call you on it and start to disbelieve further aspects of your work. But of course, you only want to include as much of your research as necessary in the book. If you put too much on the page, you slow the plot, and lose the reader just as much as if you’d made the whole thing up.

Research, then, is key for any crime writer. You don’t have to put it all down on the page, but you have to know enough to make your world ring true. You have to put in enough fact to disguise the outright fantasy (or, as its more generally known, “dramatic license”). As well as helping forensic research and law enforcement agencies across the globe, a project like Dundee’s Centre for Forensic Excellence will likely affect the way that crime writers approach their work. Its discoveries may change the way we look at criminal investigation and in order to keep their work plausible, crime writers like myself and the 12 bestsellers who have backed the project will have to work hard to keep our stories “real”.

 Posted by at 8:30 am

Do you always have to be right?

 accuracy, research, SMASH, Storytelling  Comments Off on Do you always have to be right?
Jun 032012

by: Joelle Charbonneau

This week, I was watching an old episode of the NBC show SMASH.  If you don’t follow the show, it is about the personal and profession journeys of those involved in bringing a new musical to Broadway.  I know you’re shocked that I watch a show involving the quest to launch a Broadway musical! (Insert laugh track here.)  And while the show has a great number of subplots that I don’t care about (honest to God musical theater performers are not all sex fiends who believe in sleeping with the lyricist or the director), I have found myself watching for the things the show gets right.  The moments of anxiety about being a performer.  The despair when you get rejected.  The strength it takes after a bad show to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and find a way to make things better the next time. 
This show gets a lot of things about the musical theater business right.  However, I have noticed that there are times where they have chosen to skip accuracy for the sake of more impactful storytelling.  Perhaps you are now rolling your eyes at me and thinking that they got it wrong because they didn’t do the research.  That they were lazy.  And maybe in some cases that is true, but there are times I am certain they know what is accurate and have chosen to ditch what happens in real life for what will make the story more interesting to the viewer.
Case in point—more often than not in theater, the female performers wear wigs when performing on stage.  This is done for a number of reasons that range from needing different hair colors to allowing the performer to change from one style to another without much difficulty.  When a wig needs to be worn by a girl with long hair, she had to bobby pin her hair into pin curls so her hair lays flat against her head in order to make the wig fit look natural.  During several backstage scene in SMASH you see girls with the pin curls.  The writers of the show and the costumers clearly understand that they exist.  Yet, when one of the leading characters takes off her wig during a dramatic moment, her real hair is not confined into tightly wound segments pinned around her head.  Nope.  When the wig comes off, her real hair comes cascading down as she storms off screen.
When I first saw the scene, the theater performer in me shook my head because the show got that detail wrong, but the writer in me nodded with approval at the choice to ditch accuracy.  Why?  Because a girl in pin curls looks…well…silly.  Trust me.  I’ve looking in many a mirror at myself in pin curls and while they are useful they aren’t flattering.   Not only that, the character who stormed off then has a scene where she needs the audience to connect with her…feel her vulnerability.  The whole pin curl thing would have felt foreign to most of the viewing public.  It would have put an invisible barrier between them and the performer.  To avoid this, accuracy was sacrificed for storytelling.
As a writer, I try to research everything to the best of my ability, but there are times where I find myself looking for ways to bend the research to where I want the story to go.  Accuracy is important, especially if you don’t want people to point and snicker and say you didn’t do your homework.  Still, I think there are moments like the one with the wig on SMASH that shows that sometimes total accuracy has to take a backseat?
Or am I wrong?  Does a minor inaccuracy make you put down the book or leave the movie theater?  Do you always insist on impeccably correct details or have you found yourself able to forgive a minor discrepancy from the way things work in real life if the choice aids the telling of a story?
May 242012

By Kelli Stanley

First, let me say this: it’s good to be back at Criminal Minds. Thank you to Gary Corby and everyone else who pinch-hit for me during my absence! And thank you to our readers, those who’ve been with us since the beginning, and those who just, perhaps, stumbled across us, thinking we’re related to the TV show. Welcome–and stick around, you may like us just as much. :)

Now, as to the shelf question.  I live in a very small house with my partner, two cats and a dog. What this means is that I have fewer bookshelves, but a lot of ledges, towers, bins and boxes full of books. Books in the basement, books in the kitchen, books in the foundation of the house … you get the idea.

Along with books by fellow old and new Criminal Minds like Rebecca and Josh and Hillary and Michael and Gary and Meredith and Graham and Sue Ann and Vicki and Reece and Gabi and Shane and Sophie and (well, you get the picture) and my noir library (which contains my most precious writing collectible, the edition of Henry James given to Raymond Chandler and inscribed by John Houseman when Chandler finished The Blue Dahlia–yes, this book was once owned by Chandler and now reposes on one of my  bookshelves), and classics and Classics and books about film and film noir and books from childhood and books with memories and books as gifts … have I mentioned how small our house is? But I digress …

Anyway, along with all this plethora, this plenitude, this prodigality of the written word, are books and magazines and newspapers and articles that I depend upon every day. This is my sacred research shelf … and most of these sometimes out-of-print, dusty and forgotten objects aren’t available electronically, so an e-reader won’t help me.

Y’ see, I can’t read fiction when I’m on a tight deadline and in the throes of a novel. And I’m on a tight deadline and in the throes of a the next Miranda Corbie book, City of Ghosts. So what I read is research … research before and during the writing process.

So let’s take a look at just a few items on the City of Ghosts bookshelf (which should give you some idea of some of the plot elements) …

1. A handsome, over-sized paperback called Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. An out-of-print catalogue from an exhibit held at the Los Angeles County Art Museum … absolutely priceless.

2. Tragic Train: “The City of San Francisco”. Long out-of-print book from the ’70s about the historic streamliner The City of San Francisco and its mysterious (was it really sabotage?) train wreck in 1939.

3. A Century of Spies: Intelligence in the Twentieth Century. Reasonable overview, though seems a little overeager to accept revisionist theories about the Verona cables and Alger Hiss.

4. Secret Armies: Exposing Hitler’s Undeclared War on the Americas. A fascinating expose from 1939 by muckraking journalist John L. Spivak.

5. The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany. Terrific analysis and information.

There are many other books, of course–books about San Francisco, about the Spanish Civil War, books about forensics and California, pamphlets and maps and menus and matchbooks from the period. And perhaps my most valuable research tool, a 1940 Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Telephone Directory. Miranda would be lost without her copy, and I would be, too.

Thanks for reading! And tell us  … what kinds of bookshelves are in your house? :)

May 142012

Crucifijos de los RosariosMulholland Books is pleased to announce the acquisition of Richard Lange’s new novel Angel Baby. Celebrate with us with the below guest post from the Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and author of the acclaimed novel This Wicked World and short story collection Dead Boys. Welcome to the team, Richard!

Tijuana lies sprawled along the line where the U.S. and Mexico crash into each other like two tectonic plates. This convergence leads to a certain seismic instability, and the city is constantly being rattled by tremors of one sort or another, whether it be drug murders or a political scandal. Business continues as usual, though, because that’s what business does, barely taking notice of all of the little calamities that somehow miraculously never add up to a major catastrophe.

It’s a city of two million hardworking people, 7,000 stray dogs, and lots of noisy black ravens. Technically, it sits in Mexico, 20 minutes south of downtown San Diego, three hours from L.A., but it’s a border city, perhaps the quintessential border city, and as such is neither Mexican nor American. “Tijuana isn’t Mexico,” people say, and they’re right, but it’s not a suburb of San Diego either. It’s not even some strange amalgamation of the two. Instead, like all great cities – Los Angeles, New York, Paris – it’s completely unique, possessing a personality that sets it apart from every other place in the world. It has its own culture, its own language, its own dreams and nightmares.

The city was a sleepy backwater until Prohibition, when Hollywood and the mob began to come down to drink and gamble. Later, it became the playground of servicemen stationed in San Diego, offering all the depravity an 18-year-old sailor could want. Regular tourists started venturing across the border in droves in the 1950s. They came in search of spicy food, cheap margaritas, and souvenirs for the folks back home — an oversized sombrero, maybe, or a silver ring that would turn your finger green after a week, or a life-size plaster skull wearing a Nazi helmet.

Today Tijuana isn’t the tourist Mecca it once was, but it’s still one of the fastest-growing cities in Mexico due to the many foreign-owned factories that have located there in order to take advantage of cheap labor. These maquiladoras attract workers from all over the country. There is also a sizeable transient population made up of people who are waiting to slip cross the border into the U.S. or have been deported from there.

The scrappy metropolis has long fascinated me. I’ve written about it in a couple of short stories, and a portion of my new novel, Angel Baby (Mulholland, Spring 2013), takes place there. Some of my visits are chronicled in the half dozen blurry black-and-white photos I have that show me sitting in carts behind different sad-eyed donkeys painted to look like zebras, all shot by various Tijuana street photographers over the years.

I’m 8 years old in the earliest one. It was taken during a trip with my family. We were only there long enough to have lunch and do a little shopping, but the child-beggars, garishly painted nightclubs, and extravagantly costumed mariachis made a permanent impression. I remember it as a slightly scary whirl of loud music, glaring sun, odd smells, and hectoring voices.

When I got older, it was the city’s strippers and free-flowing booze that drew me and my college buddies like moths to flickering neon. The joke was that if you were old enough to see over the bar, you could get a drink, and we’d drive down from L.A. to spend long, messy nights pounding beer and tequila and stumbling in and out of various dens of iniquity.

One favorite was the Unicornio, where the dancers were transsexuals. We’d bring in a first-timer and sit back and watch the fun as he gradually realized what was going on – or, even better, didn’t. The city felt like the Wild West back then. Anything could happen there, and we hoped it would. Dudes got ripped off by deaf bar girls, thrown in jail for pissing in alleys, and busted for trying to bring fireworks and switchblades and Quaaludes back into the U.S. , and we tell the stories to this day.

My most recent visit to the city took place in January. About to put the finishing touches on the manuscript for Angel Baby, I went down to see if anything had changed since the last time I’d been there a couple of years ago, changes that might need to be reflected in the book. I also planned to hit the dog races and a food stall in the red-light district that I’d been hearing about, one that specialized in chicken-neck tacos. Research, you know.
I parked in San Ysidro and walked over the border on a brand-new pedestrian bridge, part of a massive construction project that will add more traffic lanes at the crossing, more inspection bays, and more office space for the Department of Homeland Security. I’d described the old port of entry in the novel, picturing it in my head as I wrote the scenes that took place there. The area would look very different by time the book came out, so I’d have to do a bit of editing.

Winding Road AheadOther changes quickly became apparent when I reached the heart of the city’s tourist sector, Avenida Revolucion. While I knew that tourism had dropped off sharply due to negative publicity about drug violence and police corruption, I was surprised to find that I was the only gringo on the street, and one of the few pedestrians of any stripe — there weren’t even many Mexicans around. And while I’d seen some of my favorite haunts disappear or morph into new businesses over the years, this time I barely recognized the neighborhood.

Most of the restaurants were closed, their once-crowded second-floor terraces boarded over with graffiti-covered plywood. Many of the souvenir stores were gone, too, and the colorfulness of merchandise in those that remained had a desperate, pleading quality. The strip clubs had been gutted and converted into pharmacies, and the same skeevy barkers who once tried to lure you inside to see the girls now stood on the sidewalk in dingy white coats, touting cut-rate Viagra and vicodin. A new casino had opened, but nobody seemed to be having much fun there.

It was disorienting. This was no longer the Tijuana I’d written and fantasized about over the years. I wondered if the changes had happened so gradually that I hadn’t pieced them together until that moment in the same the way you might see an aunt of yours every once in a while and not notice anything new about her until one afternoon the sunlight hits her just right and you exclaim to yourself, “Man, she’s gotten old!” Then again, perhaps I was just too busy being and not looking the last few times I’d visited. Or maybe I’d willfully ignored the transformation with a nostalgist’s selective blindness.

Whatever the explanation, by the time I reached the old Jai Alai Fronton Palace – shuttered in 1998 – I needed a drink. I ducked into a cantina called Dandy Del Sur, a dark, divey survivor of the old TJ, and ordered a tequila, something cheap.

I write for a variety of reasons. The main one, of course, is because I can. Writing is the only natural skill I possess, so I experience a feeling of completeness when working at it, a sense that I’m doing the thing that I’m wired to do. Another reason is that people sometimes pay me for what I write, and I need that money to live. And then there’s the fact that I like the me that comes across on paper more than the me I am every day. The writer me is smarter, wiser, kinder, funnier, and much more interesting.

Another motivation is that through writing I’m able to fix in time favorite cities, streets and buildings and thereby arrest the evolution of my personal universe by creating a kind of scrapbook of places that I’ve loved. That day in TJ, though, as I slouched in front of my drink, I brooded over the fact that, in reality, the world changed faster than I could ever write it into permanence and that almost before I’d finished setting down the details of a locale, that locale would become someplace else. A depressing thought.

The owner of the cantina sat at the end of the bar, an old woman wearing a big blonde wig. Faded photographs of her posing with various people lined the walls. She was younger in the pictures, and if I was supposed to know who any of the people were, I didn’t. I ordered another tequila and raised my glass to her. She was lucky to have this memory box, this eddy in the river of time, where she could await her fate with style and grace surrounded by familiar faces and ghostly smiles.

Me, I was destined to go out ugly, running a race there was no way to win, attempting to wrestle into words people and places and feelings that fought like hell to get away. Some days it seemed like a noble pursuit, other days, like that one there in Dandy Del Sur, it felt like nothing but foolishness.

It’s always what you do next that counts though. I finished my drink, nodded a goodbye to the old woman, and flung myself back into the current. I found that taco stand in the Zona Rosa and ate deep-fried chicken necks while watching the streetwalkers troll for customers. I hit a couple of winners at the dog track and saw a blind man play the accordian. I walked over the bridge leading back to the U.S. at sunset, just as the homeless who lived in the riverbed gathered around their campfires.

And the next morning I picked up my notebook and pencil and began to write. The feeling that it was pure folly lingered, but somebody had to capture that cloudy January afternoon in the new Tijuana, or at least somebody had to try. A few more babies had already been born there, an old woman had decided to paint her house hot pink, and one of those stray dogs had been hit by a car. The city was changing as I scribbled, and I was going to have to work fast to get it all down.

Richard Lange was born in Oakland, CA and grew up in California’s San Joaquin Valley. He’s the author of the short story collection Dead Boys and the novel This Wicked World. His short stories have appeared in The Sun, The Iowa Review and Best American Mystery Stories, and as part of the Atlantic Monthly‘s Fiction for Kindle series. He was the 2008 recipient of the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009.

Mulholland Books will publish Richard Lange’s newest, Angel Baby, in Spring 2013.
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Deciphering handwriting

 P.D. Martin, research  Comments Off on Deciphering handwriting
Apr 262012

By PD Martin 

A while ago on Murderati I started a research ‘series’ and I was going to blog once a month about some of the weird and wonderful stuff I’ve uncovered in the name of research. I started off with blogs on real-life vampires (Research with bite), cults (Part 1 and Part 2), kung fu (Everybody was Kung Fu fighting) and being a hitman (The life of a hitman).

And then it seems I totally forgot about my research ‘series’. Guess I dropped the ball, huh? Having said that, there are probably only a few more seriously interesting research facts I’d blog about. Today, I’m going to look at handwriting.

Handwriting was something I researched for my first crime novel, Body Count and like most of the things I research, I found it fascinating.

Many criminals communicate with the police or press during the time they’re criminally active. For example, serial killers such as the Zodiac killer in San Francisco made phone calls and frequently wrote to the local newspapers, the BTK killer in Wichita wrote letters to the media and left written communications at some of his victim’s homes. His last known letter was left in an intended victim’s house. It simply told the woman that he got tired of waiting for her in the closet. Lucky for her he wasn’t feeling patient that day.

Written communication is also a key in other serials cases (e.g. Unabomber) and of course in kidnapping cases — the ransom note. Some of the most famous ransom notes include those from the Lindbergh case and JonBenet Ramsey case. Often, much attention is given to whether the ransom notes are forgeries used to mask a murder. This was determined as the situation in the more recent case of Zahra Baker.

There are loads of things that forensic examiners look at when it comes to documents, such as restoring erased or obliterated writing; analysing inks and papers; linguistic analysis; and analysing handwriting for the author’s state of mind. It should be noted, that forensic document examination is different to the handwriting analysis known as graphology. Graphology looks at handwriting in terms of psychology (what a person’s handwriting can tell us about their personality), but its scientific merit is almost zilch in the forensic and psychology communities. 

In addition to examining the paper (brand and type, any imprints, watermarks, thickness, opacity, etc.) they also look at the ink used and can often narrow it down to a specific brand and colour of pen. This may or may not be useful!

Forensic linguistics studies language and its use. Linguists will consider regionalisms and can often tell that a person was raised or currently lives in a particular area of a country and it also looks at individual patterns of language, such as favourite words and phrases. This can be useful once a suspect is identified, or if the communications are made public and someone recognises the style of language.

One of my favourite research discoveries was “lifts”. When you’re writing something by hand, you naturally pause and lift the pen off the page — even if only for a millisecond.  These are visible under close examination and called lifts. But what’s interesting is that generally an unusually high number of lifts indicates that the person is lying, under stress or that their thoughts are scattered. Conversely, if a note has virtually no lifts it indicates the note has probably been rehearsed. In the case of a ransom note, often these are written out several times (rehearsed) by the kidnappers and so by the time they get to the final note that they actually send, it’s simply writing out the previous draft.

Stress can also be seen in what document examiners call “line quality”, how smooth the pen passes across the paper. Angle of contact, tremor and jaggedness all increase if the writer is stressed, excited, nervous or frightened. So this is another thing that document examiners consider when looking at notes or any type of handwriting. And although it is used to judge someone’s state of mind, it’s still very different to graphology.

So, I know most of us use computers these days, but check out some of your most recent handwriting. Notice anything interesting?

Mar 132012

The Weather ManIn the last three years, I’ve read six novels by Olen Steinhauer, more than any other writer. This doubtless means that I have neglected the classics of late, but it also speaks to the addictive nature of the worlds he creates and the rush that readers receive when being propelled through his spiraling plots.

Steinhauer has rightly been called the heir to John le Carre and a modern master of the spy novel. This month marks the publication of An American Spy, the conclusion of his critically acclaimed trilogy that follows the misadventures of Milo Weaver, an operative in the CIA’s secretive Department of Tourism.

Through a convoluted series of dead drops at international airports, crinkled notes in Brooklyn doggie parks, and flash drives left behind at Starbucks locations in the Bay Area, I asked Olen the following questions. His answers arrived in my inbox a few weeks later, as a coded attachment to an email from a Nigerian man asking me if I’d help wire some money to his family.

Thomas Mullen: While I was writing my own attempt at a spy novel, I read in a review somewhere that “all the best spy novelists were themselves once spies,” noting people like John le Carre and Joseph Conrad. I thought, “Oh, shit.” But then I remember writers like you, and I feel better. After all, you’ve written outstanding spy novels, yet you were not a spy (as far as I know). Do readers and critics too often underestimate the value of imagination and research?

Olen Steinhauer: How about Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, and Alan Furst?

I think the media, and readers, really do underestimate the value of research and imagination in this regard. Le Carre was once briefly a spy, but what he created is realistic only in small part because of this. He began writing when fantasy spies (read: 007) were all the rage, and he knew from experience that espionage looked a lot different. Yet when it came to creating his fictional spy universe, he depended primarily on his knowledge of human nature, which is why his novels read like reality.

A knowledge of human nature is any novelist’s real tool (without it a novelist has no business writing novels), and if used properly it gives verisimilitude to strange planets, a distant past or culture, and the peculiar subculture of espionage. An obvious point to bring up is that Ian Fleming worked in espionage during World War II, but I don’t think anyone would call his books realistic, least of all him.

For any le Carre or Greene or Conrad or McCarry, there are plenty of retired spies writing novels that aren’t much good. They may have some element of reality the ex-spy wants to dramatize, but that doesn’t make them good spy novels—a good spy novel is good for the same reasons any work of fiction is good: It tells bigger truths through engaging characters working their way through an engaging story, and it tells that story well.

Realism isn’t absolutely necessary, but in the case of espionage fiction it’s a huge bonus, and I think most serious spy novelists try hard for it, whether they’ve experienced it personally or not.

TM: I just went to le Carre’s web site, and in his bio he says: “Nothing that I write is authentic. It is the stuff of dreams, not reality. Yet I am treated by the media as though I wrote espionage handbooks.”

OS: I came across a similar quote from him a few years ago when I was writing The Tourist and feeling very apprehensive about it. It was like a breath of fresh air.

TM: In your first five novels, you wrote about a fictional Soviet bloc nation. Your protagonists were cops and spies trying to do good within a corrupt system, wrestling with their souls as they condemned fellow citizens to labor camps or torture chambers. Then you switched to America in the post-9/11 years, a time of water-boarding and Guantanamo and CIA “black sites.” The parallel is hard to miss. How do you write about contemporary events like this without seeming too political or potentially alienating half your readership? Or is that not a concern a writer should think about?

OS: Politically, I’m pretty left-leaning, but a large part of my fan base is on the other side of the political spectrum. At first, this surprised me, but I think the explanation goes back to the first question. If a writer’s central subject is human nature, then politics is beside the point.

A novelist knows that people on either side of the political spectrum are essentially the same—they have similar desires, yet they have different ideas about how to achieve those desires. By desires, I don’t mean “universal health care” or “pro-life legislation”—I mean personal things: personal security, love, a reason for living.

I abhor many things the Bush administration set into motion, but I’d be a dishonest novelist if I didn’t give voice to the people who believe the opposite of me, because they have their reasons just as I do. No matter how much I might want to become polemical, I think I’d be cheating the craft of fiction if I went that route.

TM: Living in Eastern Europe for so many years has to have helped in your Cold War series and even the Tourist novels. You’ve now moved back to the States. How does it feel? Do you notice it changing your writing at all?

OS: Well, the first thing I’ve noticed is that I’ve got a lot less time for writing than I used to have, but this happens whenever you make such a big move. Overall, though, I’m finding it good for the work.

No matter where I live or what I’m writing about, I’m American and my primary audience will always be American. For the last decade, though, my contact with Americans has been limited, living as I have in a little bubble in Hungary. I never spoke the language particularly well, so when I walked the streets I was linguistically alone.

Occupy Wall StreetHere, I’m suddenly chatting with strangers, learning what people around me think and believe. Television is also warping my perception of the country—it’s a bit of a horror watching endless car insurance and medical advertisements and observing the minutia of American politics again. What it’s doing, though, is turning my attention back to the States.

Right now I’m writing a novel that takes place in Budapest, Cairo and Libya, but I’ve got a looming idea for the next book that will be set in and deal entirely with the United States, in particular with the unrest that’s spawned things like Occupy and the Tea Party—it’s an idea I’m extremely excited about.

TM: Speaking of the Budapest/Cairo/Libya book, I too find myself inspired by global events, but sometimes I worry that a) as a white American who only speaks English, I’m unqualified to write about other places, or b) American readers don’t care about other countries, and I’ll spend two years on something that few will read. What’s your take on that?

OS: Well, I’ve been having a lot of trouble with this book, so maybe I should’ve stopped myself earlier! No, I’m joking—my troubles haven’t had to do with the location but with the fact that I spread the plot too wide and the only solution has been to cut a lot of subplots and characters.

That said, I do think a writer has to approach other cultures with a measure of humility. (This is why my Eastern European novels are set in a fictional country—I didn’t want the responsibility of telling a real country’s history.) In this new book, I’m making things easier for myself by writing almost solely about Americans—spies and embassy people who are separated from the local culture—but the local culture has to be shown and interacted with, even if it’s shown through the eyes of foreigners. That’s just research. But using expatriates isn’t necessary—look no further than Gorky Park for a perfect example of how well an American (who, if I remember right, doesn’t speak Russian) can pull it off.

As for what American readers are interested in, I simply don’t know. I believe that a good story, well told, will gain a sizeable readership no matter the setting—I’m probably delusional believing that, but it’s the only way for a novelist to think and not go mad. Second-guessing the market, I think, is damaging. First, if it were that easy to predict what readers want, publishing would be a much more lucrative business. More importantly, though, once you start to place an imaginary readership’s desires above your own, you get away from your own interests, and that has to have an ill effect one’s writing.

I know someone smarter than me has said something like this already, but: A novelist’s ideal readership is his or her own self. A writer should write the book he would want to read.

TM: You earned an MFA in Creative Writing, then spent some years crafting literary novels that you didn’t publish. Only then did you sit down and write The Bridge of Sighs, your excellent debut, which combines elements of bildungsroman and police procedural. Was it a pleasure start to finish, or were there times when you thought you were betraying those professors about what literature should be?

OS: I began Bridge with a feeling of frustration. I’d written three unsuccessful novels, one of which I’d spent a few years on and got a Fulbright grant to research in Romania, and while they had their virtues they were primarily influenced by experimental fiction and spent a lot of time wallowing in characters’ thoughts, the story only moving forward incrementally.

So when I began Bridge, it was with the intention of writing a “straight” story—beginning, middle, and end—that was viscerally exciting to read, not merely intellectually amusing. I viewed it at the time as an experiment, to see if I even knew how to write a straight story, and by arriving at work a couple hours early every day and simply going at it, I finished (with revisions) in a mere 6 months. (For perspective, it usually takes me a year to a year and a half to write a book.) It was exciting, actually. I wasn’t worried about my professors’ reactions, because at the time I couldn’t imagine past finishing the thing.

Only later, when my agent started sending it out, did the insecurity start to hit.

Then Minotaur Books generously accepted it for publication, and they asked if I could ask some old professors for blurbs. That really made me antsy. I liked the book, and was proud of it, but it was purely genre fiction, a reworking of Raymond Chandler, who I’d discovered after grad school. I sent some query letters, and three old professors told me they’d be thrilled to read it. I sent it to them with a bashful cover letter making excuses for it. The end of the story is this: None of them replied.

It took me a while to get over that, and it’s another reason I think that a writer’s ideal audience is himself.

TM: That’s enraging but not altogether shocking. I think there are a lot of people — in particular, profs at MFA programs — who don’t realize (in both senses of the word) the artistic possibilities within genre fiction.

Your work demonstrates a creative approach to narrative: Both The Tourist and The Nearest Exit make abrupt POV switches about halfway through, An American Spy surprisingly opens with a long section from the POV of the Tourists’ nemesis. Your short story You Know What’s Going On is a complex broken-mirror of character angles. I’ve noticed too that people like le Carre and Martin Cruz Smith don’t seem to get enough credit for the experimental structure many of their novels take.

OS: I absolutely agree that espionage has huge creative possibilities. I suppose crime fiction does too, but I found I was better able to stretch my wings with espionage, and so I’ve remained here. Spy fiction is flexible in part because, while readers have some knowledge of police procedure, they don’t have a shared understanding of how espionage works, so the writer has a lot of room to maneuver in any way he or she would like.

Narrative structure is my passion, and some of my favorite authors play a lot with it. I’m not sure why I’m so hot on it—it just gives me aesthetic pleasure to write and read fragmented narratives, and I’ve stumbled across a genre that plays well with them.

A great example is Charles McCarry’s The Miernik Dossier, which utilizes multiple viewpoints through first-person agent reports collected in a “dossier” on a single man. One wonderfully subversive thing about this book is that it begins with a question: Is Tadeusz Miernik a spy or not? And though you have multiple characters all pursuing the answer, by the end the reader still doesn’t know for sure. McCarry’s brilliant, and has the chops to pull off this sort of unfulfilled quest without ever disappointing the reader.

Sears (Willis) Tower, Chicago, USA: Tourist Attraction #1TM: You admitted to me that you often don’t know where your novels are going. You eventually get stuck, and you despair, but then you figure things out. Even though this happens to me sometimes too, I was still surprised to hear it from you, because your novels are so exceptionally well plotted. Without spoilers, can you give me an example of something you were stuck on in one of the Tourist novels, and how you bailed yourself out?

OS: This is true, and I think this despairing method is the how I come across solutions that, hopefully, result in unexpected storylines. Also, I think I’d get bored with writing if I knew beforehand what was going to happen.

I’m trying to remember a good example of writing myself into a corner, but all examples are escaping me now. One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that with the Tourist books I’ve tended to write about twice as many pages as I’ve ended up with. They average around 400 pages, so in each case I’ve written about 800. I don’t bang out 800 pages and go back and cut—I write for a while, realize I have a problem, then go back and cut 50 or so pages and start fresh. This adds up quickly.

A number of times I’ve written, say, two-thirds of a book without actually knowing what the “conspiracy” is at the end. That is, my protagonist will go through trials and reach the point where all will be revealed, and I’ll find out that I don’t know what’s going to be revealed! So I have to sit down and figure it out. Sometimes this takes a month or more, me sitting down and writing out one idea before realizing it won’t work with what I’ve already written. At this point in a story, you don’t want to bring in things out of the blue—the solution should be cobbled together using things that are already in the book. So I’ll try to find clues within the text, and see what they could possibly be pointing at. It’s an odd method, but it’s largely worked for me.

TM: I’m curious about what differences you’ve noticed in critical/popular reception to the books in America vs. other countries.

OS: That’s an interesting question, but I’m not sure if there’s an easy answer. The Eastern European books (which contained no American main characters) received excellent critical attention in the US, UK and France, but in all the countries my sales were low. It’s only with Milo Weaver that things have really taken off.

Inevitably, there are some who bemoan the end of the European books, but by and large sales have increased everywhere. In Hungary, for example, I wasn’t even published until The Tourist. Is this because the later books are better? I don’t think so—the apples-and-oranges analogy almost works here—and I think the books themselves only partly explain the shift in fortunes.

I had the phenomenal good luck of having The Tourist optioned by George Clooney and Warner Bros before it was published, and that created a great stir internationally, opening up markets I’d previously not had access to. And when the reviews first came out, Clooney was always name-dropped. So I can thank him for a lot of the success I’ve got now.

Continental-European critics are interesting because they often bring up my Americanness, usually as a deficit. If I get something wrong, it’s because I’m American. If I get it right, it’s despite me being American! On the other hand, American critics are sometimes too kind to me, assuming that since something sounds right, then I must’ve researched it into the ground, or experienced it, and sometimes it’s just me winging it.

TM: You’ve become something of a literary critic of late, writing cover reviews in the New York Times Book Review of such writers as Martin Cruz Smith and Elmore Leonard. How does it feel to critique such heavyweights, who I can only assume have been big inspirations to you?

OS: Leonard is an interesting example, because before reviewing Raylan I’d never read him. In his case, I found some of the language difficult going and tried to communicate this while allowing that he was sticking to his own rules, and they take some getting used to. With any writer—well known or not—I try to be respectful, to get inside the book, to deal with it on its own terms, the terms with which the writer penned it. I’ve read reviews that say more about the reviewer and what they want when they open a book, and I’m trying to avoid that trap.

Smith was my first review for the Book Review, and I was terrified of screwing it up, so I went back and reread Gorky Park—a major influence for my Eastern European novels—and read a couple more Arkady Renko novels so I could put it all in perspective. Though I enjoyed that, the real pleasure of reviewing has been discovering fresh voices. I was really impressed by two Germans: Ferdinand von Schirach and Zoran Drvenkar—the latter’s book, Sorry, just blew my mind, and it was a joy to share my enthusiasm with the world.

At the same time, reviewing for the Book Review is a big responsibility, and my fear is that I’ll be handed a book that I simply don’t like at all. I don’t believe limited review space, particularly in the paper of record, should be wasted giving attention to a bad book. I imagine I’ll just contact my editor and tell her I’m bowing out, and we’ll see if they bother sending me more books.

Olen Steinhauer is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels, including An American Spy, now in bookstores everywhere. He is also a two-time Edgar Award finalist and has been shortlisted for the Anthony, the Macavity, the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and the Barry awards. Raised in Virginia, he lives in California.

Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, and his new novel, The Revisionists. His books have been named to Year’s Best lists by such publications as The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The San Diego Union-Times, The Onion, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, and by Amazon.com. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and sons.