Category Archives: David Corbett

Rock On, Big Red

 By David Corbett

Memorial Day is a good time to reflect on what heroism means. That hit home with particular force this year as, last Thursday, one of the kindest, smartest, funniest, most generous, caring and beautiful women I’ve ever known passed away after a valiant battle with breast cancer.

Her name was Kathi Kamen Goldmark, and she didn’t just crank out the courage in fighting her illness. She had that particular kind of courage that too often gets overlooked: The courage to be happy. And she had a particular gift for welcoming others into that happiness.

Or as David Phillips, the pedal steel player for Kathi’s band, Los Train Wreck, put it:

“Kathi’s job was to make sure everybody sang.”

Briefly, a bio: Kathi was not just the lead singer, rhythm guitarist (with her trademark leopard-skin Stratocaster), and heart and soul of Los Train Wreck, she was also a novelist—the marvelous And My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You— plus a contributor and co-writer for a number of anthologies and other books, a founder and the lead Remainderette for the all-writer rock band The Rock Bottom Reminders—which included Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Scott Turow, Stephen King and Ridley Pearson among others—as well as the most deeply appreciated literary escort in the San Francisco Bay Area (perhaps the known world). So Kathi knew a host of writers who loved her deeply and miss her bitterly.

There are a number of tributes to Kathi on the web, and you can access many of them through the Facebook page of her husband, Sam Barry, himself a big-hearted mensch and old soul.

My personal favorite tribute came from Luis Albert Urrea, a truly heartfelt farewell titled “Goodnight, Queen of Hearts.”

[Luis and I met through Kathi, a friendship that “matured” into a collaboration on a short story titled “Who Stole My Monkey?” for Lone Star Noir, which was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2011, something Kathi got a particular kick out of.]

But this is a post about what it means to be brave. Or as Kathi sometimes put it: “I like to think I’m ready for anything.”

I saw in Kathi many of the same qualities I saw in my late wife, Terri—a fundamental decency, honesty and openness, a focus on others that was always generous and good-hearted. She was also wickedly funny and, yes, ready for damn near anything.

But when you got together with her one-on-one she was always fully present, even when she was sick. It was simply her nature. When you were with her, you were the only person who mattered.

April Sinclair told me that when she and Kathi spoke the Sunday before her death, “She was so warm and caring as always,” even as death was settling in.

And one of the stories making the rounds at the informal wake at Kathi’s and Sam’s house Thursday evening was that, as she wavered in and out of consciousness near the end, she gestured Sam over at one point, had him bend down toward her so she could whisper, “Rosebuuuuuud.”

I hope I can muster half that sang-froid when death comes for me.

A few weeks ago I wrote here on Murderati a piece titled Braver, Wiser, More Loving, in which I said:

In crafting our heroes, we implicitly recognize the need to be a little more than we’ve allowed ourselves to be, recognize that the fault lies within, as does the remedy.

When my wife, Terri, died, I was assaulted with well-meaning advice on how to deal with the loss, a lot of which was largely beside the point. But I saw in those attempts to be kind and caring a message I did indeed need to hear: I couldn’t live with a ghost strapped to my back.

That, in the end, was the message I took away from my grief: I had to find a way to live when the most important person in my life—my best friend, my lover, my bride—had been devoured by a savage, indifferent disease.

And after the battles with despair and rage I decided that each day I would try to be a little braver, more truthful, more forgiving. I thought if I kept it that simple—three virtues: courage, honesty and love—I might be able to manage it. And I’d live up to Terri’s example, for she was the bravest, most devoutly honest and most selflessly caring human being I’ve ever met.

I can’t read those words today, a mere few weeks after I wrote them, and not think of Kathi as well. She too is my hero. If I can be a bit more like her each day, I’ll be okay.

Christ, I’ll be grand.

Isn’t that what the heroes in our stories do—inspire not just their fellow characters but us? How often does the hero resist or ignore the sound advice of a crucial ally until that ally suffers terribly or dies, at which point the journey is doomed unless the hero recognizes his error, embraces the ally’s example, and ventures on?

How many of us have lost someone irreplaceable, and felt broken by grief until somehow we managed to not just honor our memories of that person but take them fully to heart, let our remembrance change us?

These days the cineplex is full of superheroes with inhuman powers and mythic echoes, as well as all variety of werewolves, vampires, zombies. It’s almost as though we can’t believe in heroism unless it’s supersized, even while our men and women in uniform perform astonishing acts of courage large and small every day. And women like Kathi live life and face death with incredible gentleness and courage and largeness of spirit.

I can’t see much to emulate in the Hulk. But I see much to admire and imitate in Kathi. I hope I do that. I’ve no one to blame but myself if I don’t.

The time for heroes, as always, is here and now.

Everybody sing.

* * * * *

I’d love to hear from you on this. Have you lost someone close to you who’s inspired you to be a little better, a little larger in spirit: braver, wiser, more loving?

Who in your life has represented heroism? How has his or her example changed you?

Have you written about that person, or has she inspired one of your characters?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Here’s a video of Kathi—that’s Harpman Sam, her husband, on the harmonica—with the Rock Bottom Remainders performing her signature tune, “Older Than Him (the Slut Song)”:

 

 

The Eternal Typo

By David Corbett

Looking for Pari? Fret not. We’ve traded places this week, since I’ll be in the air …


… heading to New York on Wednesday. Look for Pari’s post then.

* * * * *

My first two novels and a brand new story collection are coming out in ebook format tomorrow through Mysterious Press and Open Road Media.

Open Road and Mysterious Press have also re-issued the works of fellow Murderateros Gar Anthony Haywood, Martyn Waites, and Ken Bruen. Click on their names to see the books available.

I’m particularly jazzed about the story collection, for it includes a new story not previously published, the eponymous “Killing Yourself to Survive;” plus “Pretty Little Parasite,” which was included in Best American Mystery Stories 2009; “The Axiom of Choice” (a personal favorite), which appeared in Strand Magazine; “It Can Happen,” which was nominated for a Macavity Award and has been optioned for a film; and several other nuggets that have appeared here and there but have never been collected in one place.

I’ll let you know how to track down the books below. For now, in celebration of the re-issue of The Devil’s Redhead, let me tell you about the most embarrassing—and perversely resilient—goof-up in any of my books. (So far. That I know of…)

On page 301 of The Devil’s Redhead hard cover edition (page 313 in the mass paperback), you will find this curious phrase: “sandstone palavers.”

In isolation, it has a certain surreal/dada/Lewis Carroll quality. If only that were what I’d intended.

I wish I could blame some drudge in the bowels of Random House, anyone but myself. Note to aspiring writers: Never edit when you’re blind with grief.

The word I wanted, of course, was “pavers,” a word I’d never heard until my wife, Terri, used it as we were choosing tiles for a rehab job on our back porch.

Part of the word’s charm was her usage, a kind of giddy almost childlike pleasure that she brought to everything. And when it came time, a few years later, to describe a Monterrey-style décor in a Mexican hotel, it seemed the mot juste.

Except my brain couldn’t find it. It rummaged around in “similar sounding” bucket, and came up with “palavers.” I knew this was wrong, and mentally earmarked the spot for revision once the right word came to me. Unfortunately, it never did.

The reason? By the time of this rewrite Terri had died of cancer. The manuscript for Redhead was purchased by Ballantine six weeks before her death, and I reworked the passage in question after her passing.

She was forty-six, the love of my life, and I was devastated. Anyone who knows that kind of grief knows it turns your mind and memory to slop. The simplest things confound you. Both the inner and outer worlds acquire a smudgy dullness, as though wreathed in a leaden haze, and the only light you see comes in lightning bolts of helpless pain and rage.

Such was my state of mind when the copy-edited version of the manuscript reached me.

When I came to the page in question I saw the copy editor had corrected it, but had been so baffled by my misuse, so unclear on my intent, that she changed it to another inappropriate word, with a question mark in the margin. It felt like a violation, given the word’s link to Terri, her happiness, but I still couldn’t conjure the right word myself. I stetted angrily, once again hoping that before I returned the pages the correct word would come to me. Then, of course, I forgot.

I forgot a lot of things back then.

The typo has proved to be as immortal as a Transylvanian count. In edition after edition, even in the U.K., the lousy little monster remains. (God only knows how the Japanese translation must read.)

I promised myself that, should a new edition appear I would finally, once and for all, erase this blight from the book. But when I sold the rights to Mysterious Press, I didn’t have a Word document I could go in and change at will. All I had was a PDF. But that allowed me at least to place a strikethrough mark on the telltale “la” that turns “paver” into “palaver.” I wrote a note pleading that this error be addressed in the final version of the ebook.

We shall see, said the blind man. I’m not, as they say, holding my breath. Typos, unlike the rest of us, are eternal. And who listens to the author anyway?

I’m sure somewhere, Terri is chuckling way. This is what I deserve, she no doubt thinks, for losing my temper. I wish I could tell her: Oh baby, I know. I know.

* * * * *

So, Murderateros: What’s the worst in-print gaffe you’ve committed, and have you been granted a dispensation, given the right to go back in and tweak the little sucker? Or does it sit there still, a troll beneath the bridge of your otherwise perfect prose?

* * * * *

Now, for a bit of TBSP [Tediously Blatant Self-Promotion]:

Here again is a little author profile video that the team at Open Road Media put together to help publicize the launch.

 

And here are links for purchasing the books:

The Devil’s Redhead 


Done for a Dime


Killing Yourself to Survive


If you haven’t yet tried my work, give one of these babies a spin. I’m proud of each of these books in different ways. I’d be honored and pleased if you decided one of them was worth a look.

* * * * *

Jukebox Heroes of the Week: I’m choosing two, one for each of the first two novels. Music always figures prominently in my books, and these two tunes were signature pieces for Redhead and Dime respectively: Rickie Lee Jones with “We Belong Together,” and Charles Mingus with “Moanin’:”

 

“You Are An Evil Boy”

David Corbett

First, if I may, a preliminary bit of shameless self-promotion:

On May 15th, Open Road Media and Mysterious Press will allow me to join fellow Murderateros Gar Anthony Haywood and Ken Bruen as a Brother in Backlist as they re-publish in ebook format my first two novels, THE DEVIL’S REDHEAD and DONE FOR A DIME, plus an all-new collection of stories, KILLING MYSELF TO SURVIVE.

Pre-orders are now available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, and Google.

I’ll have more info when I post on May 14th (I’m trading days that week with Pari), but for now here’s a personal profile the folks at Open Road prepared for the launch. Hope you enjoy it:

* * * * * 

The author, age three or so. Note the evil.

This is a story about unspeakable sin and ultimate redemption. 

Whose sin, whose redemption? You tell me.

At the age of six I entered first grade at Our Lady of Peace Elementary in Columbus, Ohio. Nothing, nothing about the public school where I attended kindergarten the year before could have prepared me for what I was about to encounter.

The first bit of strangeness involved the women in whose care my parents abandoned me.

Penguins, the older kids called them.

I’d never seen nuns up close before. And not just any nuns. Dominicans. Daughters of the Inquisition.

They had antiquated names linked to obscure saints—Sister Malcolm (there’s a St. Malcolm? Who knew?) Sister Sabina. Sister Norita. Sister Euthenasia (Okay, I made that one up.)

The habits they wore, which I would later refer to as Medieval Madonna Drag, had a black-veiled wimple with a flat mortarboard top. It looked like a nice place to park a cup of coffee if there wasn’t room on your desk. I was secretly hoping one of them might pull a stunt like that—you know, for laughs. But you don’t take vows of lifelong obedience, chastity and poverty if what you’re looking for is a chuckle.

But it wasn’t just the habit. The truly weird part about their get-up was that each of them had tied around her waist a long chain of black beads:

 

At the end of that chain was the figure of a dying man, naked except for a loincloth, nailed to a cross, a gaping wound in his side and a bird’s nest of thorns jammed down onto his head.

They referred to this man as their spiritual husband.

All of which explained, I suppose, their generally unpleasant demeanor. What a pack of sourpusses. Scowls outnumbered smiles ten-to-one, and a few were just mean as weasels. They glared at you through their rimless spectacles with an expression that said: There’s a chair in hell waiting for you, my pretty.

But as strange and menacing as these women were, they were nothing compared to Father Foley, the parish pastor. Kids would literally turn white and tremble at the sound of his name—partly because the nuns said it the same way your babysitter talked about the guy with a hook for a hand out on lover’s lane. The constant, inescapable message was: Beware! Beware of the Wrath of Father George Foley!

Central Casting’s Image of Fater Foley

He was a huge bucket-headed Irishman, 6’2, 250 pounds. He ran the only “legal” bingo operation in all of Franklin County and believe me, there were a LOT of greased palms involved. He’d been a boxer before he went into the seminary and his first stint as a priest was at the boy’s industrial school, as they called it. Reform school.

But none of this — NONE of this — could prepare you for your first face-to-face encounter with the man himself.

To borrow a line from The Twilight Zone: Imagine if you will … You’re six years old. Six years old. You’re still in a state of childlike awe over so many of life’s mysteries, things like dragonflies and waffles and questions like: If I have a right shoe and a left shoe, does that mean I have a right sock and a left sock? (You wouldn’t believe how long I puzzled over that sucker.)  Innocent, okay? That’s what I’m talking about. You’re innocent.

But you’re also Catholic. Which kinda nullifies the innocent.

Then one day, as you’re sitting quietly at your desk while Sr. Sabina teaches you the Hail Mary or the Our Father or the ever-so-important, never-to-be-forgotten Act of Contrition (“O my God I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins…”), suddenly downstairs the door to the school SLAMS open.

I mean, LAPD’s SWAT Team would love to kick in a door like this.

And then you hear it. The voice. The voice you will never forget.

BAAAAAHHHH!!!!!! LITTLE MONSTERS.

You hear his steps on the stair — did I mention he had elephantiasis in one leg, so he was crippled and in constant pain. There’s a mood enhancer. But despite all that he dragged himself up the stairs to the second floor where the classrooms were, his steps an eerie and ominous:

BOOM Thud.

BOOM Thud.

BOOM Thud…

Silence as he reached the top of the stairs. Every kid in my class is shaking. Then the classroom door BLOWS back. He’s there in the doorway, immense, fire-eyed—he’s John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, he’s Ahab harpooning Moby Dick. He’s the God of the Old Testament. And he’s come —  here to YOUR classroom — to pass out report cards.

The first thing he says, still in the doorway, is: STAND UP!

Confused, wobbly and weak-kneed like baby goats, we clamber up as best we can from our still somewhat puzzling desks — but that’s not good enough:

When sister or I enter the room, you don’t just stand up. You leap up. LEAP!

For the next five minutes, we had leaping drills. He’d tell us to sit. Then he’d bellow: LEAP. We’d shoot up from our chairs like bottle rockets. Okay, he’d say. Sit down. Pause. Then: LEAP. Up we’d shoot again. Over and over, until he decided we’d finally gotten the message.

Then he passed out report cards.

“Have they been good, sister?”

“Well, for the most part, father. Some better than others.”

To say Father Foley believed in discipline is kinda like saying the Vikings were fond of sailing. And it wasn’t like you could run home for sympathy. My mother — my mother — told me: Don’t come running to me complaining that Father Foley hit you because if you do I’ll just swat you again.

If you got a C in conduct Father Foley would BLISTER you with a harangue that would make a Marine drill sergeant weep. His voice could knock out fillings — and if it didn’t, he’d use his hand, or his cane — no joke. For a C in Conduct. It was like you’d robbed a bank or strangled your kid sister or raped the school mascot. Then you had to come down for the next 6 Saturdays and help Mr. Johnson, the janitor, clean the school.

Father Foley called it: The Rock Pile.

I never had to go on the Rock Pile. My crime would be far more serious than that.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First grade went by reasonably quick and without memorable incident. I habitually got straight A’s and was thought of as a decent kid and a good student.

Things would change.

In second grade I had Sister Alphonsa, who truly, madly, deeply … HATED me. Even before I did the terrible thing.

One day I was working quietly at my desk like all my fellow second-graders when suddenly I heard this swoosh swoosh swoosh and the rattle of beads.

I glanced up: Sister Alphonsa was charging toward me, her habit and rosary swaying from her momentum, a look on her face as though, given half a chance, she would eat me whole and pick her teeth with my bones.

She grabbed my hair, pinched my cheek hard, slapped my face, and said: Look what you did!

She slammed a piece of paper down on my desk. I’d misspelled the word “school” on my spelling test.

Call it the curse of being a good student, I suppose. I got the message — I was supposed to be perfect.

Maybe that’s why I did it. The terrible thing.

What was it?

I signed my own report card.

Now, let me remind you, we’re talking straight A’s, across the board, even for Conduct and Effort. I’d show my grades to my parents and they were so blasé about it like: Oh, Christ, this again? Yawn.

So I thought: What’s the big deal?

Now, in second grade we were just learning how to write script, and we hadn’t gotten around to “a” yet, which made writing my mother’s name somewhat challenging, since it was Mary. I thought, Oh well, I’ll just use an “e.” Like Merry Christmas, except it was Merry Elizabeth Corbett. And Merry only had one “r.”

But the misspelling was hardly the giveaway. My mother had the most beautiful handwriting. Her signature belonged on the Declaration of Independence, or the Magna Carta. When I signed her name beneath her previous signatures, it looked like this woman with the beautiful script had lost her hand to a wolf, and was writing with the stump.

But arch fiend criminal genius that I was, I thought: Eh. Who’s gonna notice? Nobody looks at these things.

Several weeks went by. Then Sister Alphonsa appeared beside me once again. She didn’t come flying down the aisle this time. She came slowly, methodically, as though pacing herself to a dirge only she could hear. When she reached my desk, she stopped, glared down at me with every drop of contempt and disgust she could muster and said:

“You … are an evil boy.”

She told me to go out into the hallway. Sister Macaria wanted to speak with me.

Sister Macaria—named for St. Macarius, of which there are in fact three: Macarius the Elder, Macarius the Younger, and Macarius the Wonder Worker—Sister Macaria was, as it turned out, pretty much the opposite of Sister Alphonsa. The kids liked Sister Macaria, the boys especially. She played softball with the eighth graders, had a mean underhand and when she was at the plate and the wood met the leather that little sucker was outta heah.

She also wore her wimple cocked a little to the side with a kind of — how shall I put this — devil-may-care jauntiness.

Sister Macaria had my report card. She looked at it. Looked at me. Looked at it. Back at me. Said finally:

Huh. You signed your own report card.

Yes, sister

Why?

I dunno. Sister.

She sighed voluminously. Well, go inside and get back to your schoolwork.

I’m thinking: That’s it? One minute I’m evil, the next it’s: Go back to your desk and try not to puke on your shoes. 

I’m thinking: Wow. This is sin? Count me in. 

A few more weeks go by, then early one morning: SLAM.

Boom. Thud. Boom. Thud…

The classroom door blows opens: We all leap up.

Good morning, Father Foley.

Oh yes. We’d learned our lesson only too well. We were God’s little children. Obsequious, oleaginous, obedient little drones.

The weird thing. Father Foley was in an incredibly chipper mood. He didn’t bellow, didn’t threaten, he even cracked a few jokes with the nun.

But I knew what was on my report card, and I’m thinking: You know, this may not end well.

But then I think: Oh come one. He loves my mom—she made an incredible apple pie, and when she baked one for bingo he’d sneak down to the school basement, scoop it up before the crowd arrived and take it back to the rectory all for himself. And my brother Jim, the sanctimonious suck-up, was his favorite altar boy.

I had juice, is what I’m saying. How bad could it get?

Father Foley goes through the A’s: Jimmy Adamski. Marie Anthony. Terry Archibald.

Then the B’s: Mike Bernardo. Kathy Brennan. Debbie Bucci.

Finally the C’s: Jack Cardi. Nancy Callahan. David Corbett.

He looks at my report card — again, such a good mood.

He says: Okay, Corbett, let’s see what we’ve got. A in reading, good. A in arithmetic, good. A in conduct, A in effort.

He turns it over, looks at the back.

YOU. SIGNED. YOUR OWN. REPORT CARD!!!

STAND UP.

I shot out of my chair like a moon launch and stood there shaking. I was so terrified I don’t even remember what he said but he made me stand there for what felt like eternity, going on with the other report cards but returning his attention to me every few minutes to scold me, browbeat me, humiliate me.

The other kids, I knew, hated this. Hated me. I’d turned the sunshine into gloom. For everybody.

I was an evil boy.

Finally Father Foley wrapped up with Brian Zimmerman. No more distractions. But instead of handing down my sentence, he got up and started to leave. He shot me one last withering, malevolent glare, then said: Corbett? What you did is so bad I have to go home and think about what I’m going to do to you.

Thus began my year in hell. I knew, as only a seven-year-old can, that Father Foley was spending every waking minute of every day trying to come up with the most hideous, shameful, pitiless punishment he could dream of — for me.

If he came within sight I’d duck behind somebody else and shrink up like a sponge, trying to become invisible. For whatever reason he didn’t hand out report cards any more that year, Sister Macaria did, but I knew that just meant he hadn’t come up with an appropriate punishment yet. He was still thinking. And what he was thinking was just getting worse and worse and worse the more the days rolled by.

Finally summer break came, I forgot about it for a while, though I knew he hadn’t forgotten. How could he? What I’d done was so bad …

Next year, third grade, we’re preparing for Confirmation, the sacrament that would make us Soldiers of Christ.

We had to memorize the catechism

 

because we’d be questioned by the bishop and if we flubbed an answer, we wouldn’t be confirmed, our families would be shamed — we’d be a public disgrace not just to our confirmation class but the entire parish.

And so we learned:

The three conditions for a mortal sin.

The four kinds of sanctifying grace.

The three Evangelical Counsels.

The four cardinal virtues.

The seven chief works of corporal mercy.

The two types of judgment.

The three kinds of lies.

The eight beatitudes and:

The seven gifts of the Holy Ghost (which are, by the way: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord—some things you never forget.)

Father Foley conducted the confirmation classes. I still expected him any minute to finally say: Okay, Corbett. I figured out what I’m gonna do to you.

Me: still trembling scared. Terrified.

One day, as he’s running us through our paces, trying to explain the difference between mortal sin and venial sin, he says to Molly Medaglia: Medaglia, say you push good old Corbett there down the stairs …

I didn’t even hear the rest of the question. It didn’t even register that, at least hypothetically, he’d just pushed me down the stairs.

I thought: He called me Good Old Corbett.

Good. Old. Corbett.

He forgot.

Inside, it’s like the Bells of St. Mary’s are ringing in my chest. Doves are flying off toward sunlit towers. Raindrops on roses and blah blah blah blah.

From somewhere deep inside, a voice rose up: Free at last! Free At Last. Thank God Almighty I am free at last!

I was an evil boy. But I never spent a minute on the rock pile.

But I’m still Catholic, and I know how this works. No one gets off Scot free.

Somewhere in hell. There’s a chair. With my name on it. In my mother’s handwriting. 

 

 

* * * * *

So, Murderateros: What incidents of childhood fear, dread, sacrilege or shame formed you indelibly as the hopeless wretch— ahem, soulful writer — you are today?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Speaking of an evil boy: Moodvideo’s revisualization of Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” (oh yeah):

 

Braver, Wiser, More Loving

By David Corbett

Yes, I know, the vagaries of Wildcard Tuesday have put me up two days running. Forgive me.

I’m giving the keynote address for the Redwood Writers Conference on April 28th, and the theme of the conference is “Taking the Next Step.”

In the spirit of all the changes rocking the marketplace, I originally titled my talk, “Beyond the Book: Writing Opportunities in a Multi-Platform Era.” I thought I’d discuss the need to be narratively nimble these days, with skills that can encompass not just novels and stories but scripts as well—not just for TV and film but computer games—basically revisiting themes I addressed here on Murderati back in December.

But then I looked at some of the seminars on tap for the conference. One is titled “Indie Publishing,” another “Tomorrow’s Publishing,” one addresses “Blogging as a PR Tool,” another “Googling for Promotion,” one deals solely with Facebook and the conference concludes with a panel on ebooks.

What, I asked myself, could I possibly add to this excellent offering of information without being conspicuously redundant? (Quick answer: not much.)

As I was pondering this conundrum—and what else, realistically, does one do with a conundrum?—I glanced at an article in the New York Times Magazine titled “Why Talk Therapy is On the Wane and Writing Workshops Are on the Rise.” It’s by the prolific, brilliant and mercurial Steve Almond, with whom, ironically, I’ll be sharing faculty duties at but another writing conference, this one on the Mendocino Coast, which will be held July 26-28 this summer.

What I particularly loved about Steve’s piece were these two observations:

I recently began leading a workshop composed of students in their 50s and 60s. All have children and busy careers. And I sometimes wonder, as I look around the room, what at this late stage they’ve chosen to write at all. I fear that perhaps I’m giving them false hope. But it’s hard for me to remain cynical when I think about their motives. What they’re seeking is exactly what I wanted: the refuge of stories, which remain the most reliable paths to meaning ever devised by our species….They are hoping to find, by means of literary art, braver and more forgiving versions of themselves.

And as for why the Web doesn’t supply a means of gratifying our need for self-expression:

But the Internet, while it might excite the desire for creative self-expression and sudden acclaim, does little to slake our deeper yearnings. What we want in our heart of hearts is not distraction but just the opposite, the chance to experience what Saul Bellow called “the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” We want to be heard and acknowledged. It’s the difference between someone “liking” our Facebook update versus agreeing to listen to our story, the whole bloody thing, even and when it runs up against the bruising revelations.

I’ve just completed a manuscript titled The Art of Character that Penguin will be publishing in January 2013. In it I maintain that the only way to a deeper understanding of your characters is through an exacting and unsparing examination of yourself.

And though in my workshops I almost always focus on craft, and find my students in particular crave and benefit most from discussions of structure, there always remains an element of the personal in the stories they want to tell. Their protagonists invariably share many features with the person telling the tale.

I think there’s a common purpose in our heroes and ourselves. I think the heroic journey is one in which a braver, more loving—and I would add, wiser—life is the true underlying desire. And by writing as truthfully and as deeply as we can, we share in that journey.

I think Almond’s insight that “We want to be heard and acknowledged” is based in the simple need to be loved, which is to be seen for who we are, not who we’re expected to be.

Many of us are obliged to reach outside our families for that love, that chance to be seen more honestly, more openly, more acceptingly. There’s no guarantee that will ever happen.

But in the lonely work of writing we make an attempt to fashion ourselves into a truer version of who we are, combining who by necessity and habit we’ve been with who by effort and insight we hope to become. We learn to balance the generous with the judgmental. And hopefully, by sharing our work with others and reading theirs in turn, we earn our right to be seen by looking on others more fairly and thoughtfully.

Writing allows us to rise a little more in spirit, by combining acceptance with ambition. We cannot deny who we are, wounds and warts and wants and all, but we can’t deny the better self we strive to be either. In crafting our heroes, we implicitly recognize the need to be a little more than we’ve allowed ourselves to be, recognize that the fault lies within, as does the remedy.

When my wife, Terri, died, I was assaulted with well-meaning advice on how to deal with the loss, a lot of which was largely beside the point. But I saw in those attempts to be kind and caring a message I did indeed need to hear: I couldn’t live with a ghost strapped to my back.

That, in the end, was the message I took away from my grief: I had to find a way to live when the most important person in my life—my best friend, my lover, my bride—had been devoured by a savage, indifferent disease.

And after the battles with despair and rage I decided that each day I would try to be a little braver, more truthful, more forgiving. I thought if I kept it that simple—three virtues: courage, honesty and love—I might be able to manage it. And I’d live up to Terri’s example, for she was the bravest, most devoutly honest and most selflessly caring human being I’ve ever met.

But in the eleven years since she passed away, I’ve learned how tricky honesty can be. The unconscious makes liars of us all. We want what we have no business wanting, and trick ourselves into thinking our motives aren’t just pure, but noble.

Our egos are weak-kneed imposters, even when the will is strong and our insight keen. There is always a shadow trailing behind, reminding us of all we left unsaid and undone.

And all too often we face situations in which there seems to be no true or honest choice to be made, only two or more alternatives, each freighted with potential for pain as well as happiness. And so we don’t march confidently into the right decision, the true and honest choice. We wander a little further ahead, keep our eyes open, and hope for the best.

Instead of being honest I’ve tried, as pompous as this may sound, to be a little wiser each day, by which I mean accepting as well as truthful. I try to be aware of how I’m kidding myself, and rise to the challenge of being a bit more clear about why I’m doing something, while remaining aware that I can’t escape my blind spots. I try to seek a bit more balance, between solitary and social, determined and relaxed, firm and forgiving. Wisdom is the commitment to honesty combined with the humility of knowing that one day I’ll look back on any given decision and think, on one level or another: Who did I think I was fooling?

Bravery too can sound overly grand, but it has to be measured by the fear it overcomes. Sometimes it’s as simple as being disciplined instead of lazy, or staying at the keyboard even as the nasty cackling voice within tries to convince me that nothing I write matters, and in any event will never be as good as I hope. As I’ve become more aware, I’ve sometimes been amazed how often in any given day I have to push past some fear of judgment, rejection or anger to accomplish even a minor task. And if that’s the little braver I become that day, well done.

I’ve seen this same evolution in my protagonists, watched as they strive on the page to reach some place where their courage, their love, their hope for wisdom means something. And thanks to Steve Almond’s piece, I’ve begun to address this in my classes—not overtly, I don’t want to scare anyone off. But I realize my job as teacher is not just to make sure my students know where the midpoint of their story is. It’s to help them in some small way join the hero in his quest for a better, fuller, saner life.

As with therapy, there’s always the risk that by shutting ourselves away in the cocoon of self-examination we’re in fact tricking ourselves. If writing is mere self-scrutiny it can help me get my bearings, but there’s still a real world out there, full of people to engage and care for, challenges to meet, and our all-too-real mortality to face. I’m neither as unique as I pretend nor as alone as I fear.

That’s why I stress to my students that, despite what one often hears, we don’t write for ourselves. Even though so much of writing takes place in solitude, a writer who writes for himself is scribbling to a ghost. We want to be heard and acknowledged, and that requires that we make our interior lives clearer not just to ourselves but to others.

And the paradox is, the more we trust in story—the more we subsume our need for acknowledgement to the craft needed to write well—the more likely it is we’ll succeed. When we let our characters speak for us that delegation of duty humbles us, reminding us that we’re part of a long tradition and that storytelling is a fundamentally social enterprise.

Stories provide a prism through which the writer and the reader can observe each other without the glare of narcissism. The indirection provided by story allows me to reveal, and my reader to witness, what the hero is trying to show us both.

I believe that’s why stories are, as Steve Almond says, “the most reliable paths to meaning ever devised by our species.” They work at the level of image and emotion, they require discipline and skill, and no matter how fanciful or grand they oblige a sense of humility and responsibility.

Or at least that’s what I intend to say to the attendees at the Redwood Writers Conference. The next step—with each word, each page, each working day—is always to be a little braver, a little wiser, a bit more loving.

So—do you agree that writing workshops have supplanted talk therapy? If so, is this a good thing, or a god-awful thing?

Does a writer ever truly write just for herself? Doesn’t she on some level have to? If she worries too much over how her audience will respond, doesn’t she risk becoming over-cautious and dull?

Has your writing life obliged you to be braver, wiser, more loving?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Levon Helm is in the late stages of cancer. I can’t imagine the music of my life without his voice. This song, “When I Go Away,” seems an almost too fitting farewell:

The Perfect Interrogator: An Interview with Len Wanner

By David Corbett

No less a literary light than John Banville has said of today’s guest:

Len Wanner is the perfect interrogator, subtle, accommodating, and incisive, and these interviews elicit many layers of deep, dark, and vital intelligence.

I got the idea to interview Len when I saw that The Crime Interviews: Volume Two, his latest collection of interviews, is now available in Kindle format from Amazon. (Volume One is also available, of course, in both Kindle format and in an edited bound version titled, Dead Sharp: Scottish Crime Writers on Country and Craft.)

For several years now, Len’s website, The Crime of it All, has provided fans of top-notch crime fiction a venue for some of the most insightful, interesting and informative author interviews and book reviews available anywhere.

His interviews are particularly rich, with subjects that have included, among innumerable illustrious others: former ’Ratis Tess Gerritsen and Ken Bruen, Ian Rankin, William McIlvanney, Robert Wilson, Denise Mina, John Banville/Benjamin Black, Jason Starr, Peter May, Megan Abbott, Ray Banks, Adrian McKinty, Reed Farrel Coleman, Louise Welsh, James Sallis, Barbara Fister, Wallace Stroby, Stuart Macbride, Charlie Stella, Allan Guthrie, Gregg Hurwitz, Declan Burke, Anthony Neil Smith, and yours truly.

To give a little insight into Len’s interviewing style, here’s a particularly intriguing question he’s put to more than one guinea pig—um, I mean, subject (including guess who):

Does the crime writer sit at the table of literature like a transvestite cousin at a family gathering, where he is silently pardoned while his fabulous hat is studiously ignored? 

Well, I had nothing so wonderfully off-kilter in mind when I decided to turn the tables. I just wanted Len to have a chance to speak for himself for a change. Here’s where we got to:

* * * * *

This is your second set of author interviews. How does this one differ from the first—simply in the authors included, or did you have a different perspective or purpose in mind for these?

Both, I hope, but let me start by saying ‘thank you’ for offering me a role reversal and ‘sorry’ to your readers for accepting your offer. Who cares about the interviewer, eh? Well, let me give you my version of: “Enough about me, back to me.”

Speaking of role reversals, long before I started doing interviews, I walked in on Ian Rankin doing a television interview in his favourite pub. He was surrounded by preoccupied men, chained to their purpose by microphones thirsty for answers, and more preoccupied men still, chained to their pints by questions no longer relevant. We had never met, but I fit the bill. The director asked me to stand beside Ian to make him look of average height and sobriety. He turned around and I introduced myself: “You don’t know me, but I’m doing a PhD on you.” Classy. Acknowledging the unintended nerd-flirt with a laugh, he replied: “Is that what it’s come to?” Classier.

A few years later, I decided to extend my dissertation to the work of 30 Scottish crime writers. Interviewing them seemed like a good idea, so I read every interview I could find and questioned about 300 authors, including yourself, about their techniques and topics. When I thought I was ready, Ian gave me an interview for my first collection. Now he’s written the foreword for my second collection. Along the way, I came to appreciate The Paris Review Interviews and my ambition extended beyond academia. I’ve since tried to make The Crime Interviews do for crime fiction what The Paris Review Interviews have done for literature at large.

Why don’t you give our readers an idea of which authors are included in the first book and then this most recent book. How did you decide which authors to pursue and include?

The line-up for volume one is: Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Karen Campbell, Neil Forsyth, Chris Brookmyre, Paul Johnston, Alice Thompson, Allan Guthrie, and Louise Welsh.

The line-up for volume two is: William McIlvanney, Tony Black, Doug Johnstone, Helen FitzGerald, Quintin Jardine, Gordon Ferris, Craig Russell, Douglas Lindsay, Ray Banks, and Denise Mina.

I’m working on a third volume with another dozen writers, to be published later in the year. In each volume I’ve tried to include big names as well as big talents to represent the depth and breadth of contemporary Scottish literature. International bestsellers like Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Quintin Jardine, and Denise Mina are well known without being known well, so I’ve interviewed them in the company of their peers, which I hope to offer an introduction to your new favourite writers as well as an in-depth reunion with those you thought you already knew.

You have become the interviewer of choice for authors hoping for a more in-depth examination of their work. Why do you think that is?

You’re very kind to say so, David, but a guess is the best I can offer you in answer to the first part of your question. Perhaps the authors you refer to can tell that my purpose is not to catch interviewees off guard, but to capture the fullest possible account of their writing lives: Who they are, what they have done, and how they do what they do best. I offer an occasion beyond their own books where a writer with something to say can hope to be heard, be it to create the definitive portrait of the artist or a deft contribution to his or her ultimate portrait. And since I try not to answer my questions myself, my interviewees may have the added satisfaction of creating, to a large extent, self-portraits.

I think unless you love conversation, you may unintentionally turn your interview into a questionnaire and your interviewee into a statistic. If I deserve your praise, I credit my family’s Streitkultur, which, in the absence of an English translation, is sometimes paraphrased as the ‘atmosphere of constructive debate’. I’d like to think I’ve since come to appreciate the implied meaning, which is to embrace the courage of your doubts.

You make writers feel very much at ease talking about subjects and aspects of their work that may feel unclear or uncertain even to them—and these are often the most fascinating parts of the interviews. Writers seem to feel free to conjecture, imagine, correct themselves, and generally explore. Has this just been because of the unique rapport you have with these authors, or do you deliberately try to let them know they can let down their guard and speak openly and freely?

Again, the first part of your question is hard to answer without asking the interviewees you think have shown such faith in me. So David, why did you feel very much at ease talking about subjects and aspects of your work about which you may feel unclear or uncertain?

(Answer: Not to be cheeky, but no one has ever asked me questions like that before, and I felt compelled to give thoughtful responses, which took me to places I just hadn’t thought about all that specifically before. I felt grateful for the opportunity.)

As for the second part of this question, I’d like to think that mutual interest, genuine curiosity, and sustained attention combined let most people speak openly and freely, but a lot depends on rhythm, which is why I try to build interviews, rather than be seen to dominate them. Perhaps the 20 interviewees in my collections were aware of our shared concerns: character development, narrative arcs, and unexpected turns.

You also go into greater depth concerning the artistic ambitions, the sociological implications, and the political nuances of each writer’s work than a great many other interviewers even attempt. Why do you think others shun these sorts of subjects, and why do you so consistently pursue them?

Because those who consistently pursue them don’t get a lot of by-lines. Newspapers, whether off- or online, give pride of place to exposés, Q&As, and reworded press releases, rather than artistic ambitions, sociological implications, and political nuances. Following hot on the heels of market forces, the audience’s expectation has dropped so low Pierce Morgan has his own TV show. The alternative, as ever, is publication in book form, but I suspect few interviewers are tempted by the extra effort and lack of financial rewards.

I certainly wasn’t. I was tempted by the prospect of impressing my lady friend, who is doing a PhD in Anthropology. I still am.

It’s clear that you believe the crime novel has more to offer than a ripping good yarn or the proverbial brisk read. What is it about the crime novel that you think lends itself to a deeper understanding of current events, how did you come to this viewpoint, and which authors do you think are particularly good at it?

Let me answer this question with a quote from a recent review I wrote:

“Why is David Corbett the next big American novelist? Because he knows what he’s doing. At a time when most men of letters think they owe it to themselves to be easily bruised, Corbett knows he owes it to his readers to be unique, understanding, and unafraid. Setting his sights on a world beyond his own is not colonial complacency but simple strength. He lets us see unfamiliar places and perspectives with the same humble sensitivity with which he lets us see our shared violence and suffering. He is at home in life, and even in his darkest moments he shows us the difference between imitation feeling and the real thing, the stuff that will singe your soul or make you wish you had one.”

(Note: The interviewer is blushing.)

How did I come to this viewpoint? I read a lot.

Which authors do I think have advanced the crime novel? My list includes William McIlvanney, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Michael Chabon, David Corbett, James Sallis, Ken Bruen, and Louise Welsh.

Do any of these most recent interviews, or parts of the interviews, stand out in your mind as particularly gratifying or interesting?

They all stand out in my mind, because I found out why…

–       William McIlvanney likes Montaigne, the passion of commitment without offence, and a place where the attempt at intellectuality cohabits with the utterly banal – dislikes using computers, boring himself, and the Scottish moment of being found out.

–       Tony Black likes ladies’ race cars, men’s men, and exams – dislikes symbolism, bagpipes, and interviews.

–       Doug Johnstone likes strong women, strong whisky, and strongly worded reviews – dislikes long books, literary ponderfests, and having his picture taken while playing his guitar on Portobello beach.

–       Helen FitzGerald likes Allan Guthrie’s ovaries, complicated women, and the kind of unhappy family Tolstoy wrote about – dislikes the Catholic Church, learning Italian, and being called ‘Mrs’ Fitzy.

–       Quintin Jardine likes cowboy hats, director’s cuts, and Spider-Man – dislikes writers’ conventions, dead chauffeurs, and splitting infinitives.

–       Gordon Ferris likes e-books, libraries, and emails from readers – dislikes whodunits, CSI, and the ending of Casablanca.

–       Craig Russell likes the year 1956, German music, and touching his research – dislikes over-writing, German eBay, and eavesdropping waiters.

–       Douglas Lindsay likes barbershops, Bob Dylan, and Dyson air blades – dislikes jumping the shark, early Christmas festivities, and society.

–       Ray Banks likes transgressive writing, The Big Issue, and Jacques Barzun – dislikes community theatre, performance art, and (other) circle jerks.

–       Denise Mina likes conflicting her readers, family days out with political protest groups, and the clown army – dislikes Derrida, prize committees, and protagonists who are right.

So Murderateros: Is there a question you’d like to put to Len?

Is there an author you’d like to suggest for an interview, or a particular interview you’ve read that you found particularly gratifying?

Do you think crime fiction is the transvestite cousin …?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: I handed selection over to Len this week, and he chose this mini-film for James Grant’s “My Father’s Coat,” complete with appearances by William McIlvanney and tartan noir superstar Tony Black, both of whom are interviewed in Len’s most recent collection:

 

Lust! Murder! Opera! (The Best Crime Stories Ever Sung)

By David Corbett

People who enjoy opera are prissy, bombastic gas bags

so out of touch with real life they can’t even tell when they’re bored.

Growing up in the Midwest, that pretty much summed up my opinion until well into my twenties. Everything I needed to know about opera I could learn from Bugs Bunny or the Marx Brothers.

Then I married an Italian.

Cesidia Tessicini, my late wife, I cannot thank her enough. She taught me to see opera a new way, not as some grandiose exercise in self-congratulation but as great stories told through music. Operas were the mass entertainment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially for Italians—what movies, TV and pop/rock concerts are today.

Ignore the snoots, she said, and just listen to the singing.

But even then my appreciation didn’t click in for good until I saw on PBS a presentation of Tosca starring and directed by Placido Domingo and performed in the actual Rome locations described in the action: the Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle, the Farnese Palace, the Castle Sant’ Angelo.

Why was it this particular opera that turned the trick? The singing? Sure. The realism, natch. But more importantly for me, Tosca is a crime story. It appealed to me the way great film noir does: visceral, dark, passionate, beautiful. (Night and the City, by the way, would make a great opera. Force of Evil already is one.)

Is a lot of opera hokey? Sure. So are most kung fu movies. Seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of the Flying Daggers? They’re operas with fighting sequences instead of arias. All the same grand themes appear, set against historical backdrops: love, villainy, fate, betrayal, death.

But that brings up the big caveat: opera is about the music. The singing in particular. The real dramatist isn’t the librettist, it’s the composer, which makes opera quite different than stage plays.

Until my ear was used to the sometimes blaring (and too often warbly) stylistic eccentricities of voices projecting into large halls, and I had enough exposure to musical theory to enjoy the phrasing in not just the arias but the recitative (rech-ah-tah TEEF) sections—where spoken language is accompanied by music or sung in music that imitates human speech—I found a lot of opera impenetrable and dull. I also had to learn the stories well, so the action wasn’t just a bunch of costumed mouthpieces gesturing grandly and wandering about.

It helps, for those still learning, to have superscripts at the opera house or subtitles in a video version. I’ve named the best video performances I’ve found so far of three of the five operas I name below (the other two are usually only performed in concert format, unfortunately), so you can check them out of the library or buy them and enjoy them at home. Or check out the opera on CD and read along with the libretto as you listen.

Now, five great operas that deal, at least somewhat, with crime.

 

The Rake as Cop Killer:

Don Giovanni by Wolgang Amadeus Mozart

Serious opera—opera seria—all but smothered the audience with pomposity during the eighteenth century and would have died out if not for Mozart’s Idomeneo. But its Mozart’s comic operas—a form called opera buffa, based on commedia dell’arte—that truly transformed the entire form and made Mozart’s reputation. Especially the three great comic operas he composed with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (an opera in himself—a defrocked priest banished from his home town for his lascivious ways): Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), Cossi fan Tutte, and Don Giovanni.

Think Marx invented class consciousness?  Both commedia dell’arte and opera buffa were popular art forms that thrived on lampooning the nobility and aristocracy by emphasizing the bawdy, street-smart wiliness of their servants in outwitting them.

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau joined the debate in a pamphlet battle called Le Guerre des Buffons, or “The War of the Comic Actors,” in which he derided the stiff, artificial, elitist, maudlin conventions of opera seria, written for and financially supported by the nobility and aristocracy, as out-of-step with the Enlightenment. Instead he championed the more melodic, egalitarian, naturalistic and creative spirit one sees in opera buffa, which was supported by ticket sales to its working and middle class audiences. (The particular opera Rousseau chose as his example of great opera buffa, Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona, is a one-act gem. Check it out.)

By the end of the eighteenth century, the lowbrow opera buffa, once considered the artistic equivalent of the circus, had completely superseded opera seria as the musical art form of choice among composers and listeners both, largely due to the growth of the middle class and the humanistic world view it embraced. Oh, and, well, the music.

Don Giovanni, based on the tales of Don Juan, enjoys much of its popularity due to the characters of the Don’s cranky but duplicitous manservant Leporello and the coquettish Zerlina (who, when her boyfriend is jealous, encourages him sweetly to punish her—in one performance I’ve seen, she even got on all fours and wagged her tush, inviting him to spank her). The music follows these characterizations by giving Leporello and Zerlina brighter, funnier arias, while the aristocrats get the heavy stuff, often as caricature.

But the crime? After sneaking into the bed of Donna Anna (and having her chase him out, begging to know his name, the wily dog), Don Giovanni is confronted by her father, Don Pedro, the Commendatore (police chief) of Seville. First Don Giovanni mocks the old man then, all too easily, runs him through. The rest of the action pursues the Don as he continues to mock and abuse everyone he chooses—most poignantly, Zerlina, whom he ravages on her wedding day—and the shamed and hypocritical Donna Anna as she tries to help avenge her father’s death (and salvage the honor she arguably willingly gave away) until, in the breathtaking final scene, the Commendatore’s statue comes to life and transports the lascivious Don Giovanni away to Hell.

A stellar performance can be found on DVD: Herbert Von Karajan conducting the Weiner Philharmoniker and Wiener Staatsopernchor; filmed live in Salzburg in July 1987. Samuel Ramey (the Marlboro Man of opera) as Don Giovanni, Kathleen Battle as Zerlina, and two fabulous performers in secondary roles: Ferruccio Furlanetto as Leporello, an Julia Varady as Donna Elvira, the Don’s tormented wife.

 

The Rake as Serial Debaucher:

Rigoletto by Giuseppi Verdi

Sensing a trend already? The lecherous nobleman returns—he is an opera staple—this time in the guise of the Duke of Mantua.

An aesthetic tension resides at the heart of this work, one I’m not sure is altogether intended—or, if it is, resolved. Verdi had not altogether thrown off the melodic lightness of his bel canto forbears—Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini—when he wrote Rigoletto, and as a result one watches and listens unable to tell for certain whether the Duke is merely a girl-crazy bon vivant, as the music sometimes suggests, or something much more menacing, as the libretto makes plain.

In the best performances this tension becomes focused, with the Duke’s melodic arias used to characterize his flippant disregard for the damage he wreaks. In less than great performances, he just seems schizzy.

Another note on credibility (or the lack thereof): Both Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda, and even the assassin’s cutthroat sister, Maddalena, fall hopelessly (and somewhat incredibly) in love with the Duke despite his evil alleycat ways. I know, just like high school. Meanwhile, I remind myself: it’s about the singing.

The opera is based on a play by Victor Hugo titled Le Roi S’Amuse. The political sensors would have banned the opera had Verdi retained a king as the villain—the opera was written during Italy’s Risorgimento, and Verdi was fiercely anti-monarchy—so the action was switched to Renaissance Mantua. The protagonist, though, remains the hunchbacked jester Rigoletto. (What was it about Hugo and hunchbacks?)

Action: the over-sexed Duke of Mantua is surrounded by fawning, two-faced courtiers who laugh even as he drags off the unwilling Countess Ceprano while her husband looks on in fury.

Even more unfeeling than the courtiers, however, is the jester Rigoletto, who speaks the dark, viscous, uncaring words the Duke dares not.

Rigoletto jeers Ceprano so viciously even the Duke upbraids him. But the jester refuses to back down, believing himself untouchable.

When Rigoletto mocks the heroic Count Monterosa, whose daughter the Duke has “dishonored,” Monterosa curses him.

(Note: For Verdi, a curse wasn’t small taters. As a boy he called out his town priest during Mass, “May God strike you down with lightning!” Not long afterward, that very thing transpired. Verdi was called to where it happened and saw the priest sitting in a chair, his face charred black, his thumb glued to his nose as though he were taking snuff. But I digress.)

Monterosa’s curse begins to take form when the courtiers believe Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda, is actually his lover, and they abduct her for sport and bring her to the Duke. The Duke recognizes her as the girl he’s seen in church and who has stolen his, um, heart. He proceeds to do the usual, to which Gilda responds with despairing bliss.

Rigoletto seeks revenge by employing the assassin Sparafucile (Spar-a-foo-Cheel—a great name): but who expects anything to end well for a hunchback? Especially a cursed one.

A film rendition exists, shot on location by director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle in 1983, with the Weiner Philharmoniker and Wiener Staatsopernchor (another trend). Luciano Pavarotti performs as the Duke of Mantua, Ingvar Wixell as Rigoletto, and Edita Gruberova as Gilda. I didn’t find this version entirely successful. It’s “filmic” in the worst way and looks at times like Fellini trying his hand at porno.

Note: I considered titling this section The Hunchback Stays in the Picture. But, obviously, I didn’t.

 

Never Trust a Crooked Cop:

Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini

When it first appeared in 1900, Tosca was derided by one prominent critic as “a trashy little thriller.” (I know, what’s not to like?) It pits one of the great opera heroines—Floria Tosca, the flighty, impetuous, jealous diva—against one of the great villains: Scarpia (another great name), the devoutly pious and rapacious, murderous, scheming chief of the secret police in Rome.

Puccini has been faulted for making Scarpia’s music too lyrical, especially in his brief “Credo” at the start of Act II, when he admits that love is far more gratifying when taken by force than sweetly surrendered. This is a minor quibble (and one you could take with a great many composers, including the revered Verdi—see above), because the truth remains that Act II is one of the great events in all opera: a seamless evocation of torture, betrayal, brief victory, despair, rapacious lust and the heroine’s murderous revenge. The action is graced with luscious, passionate music in which the love theme and Scarpia’s theme battle throughout, plus one of the great arias of the repertoire (Vissi d’arte).

Last but way not least, the second act contains a murder scene surpassed by none. (If you watch no other clip, don’t miss this one.) As Tosca stabs Scarpia, she sings, “This is Tosca’s kiss.” As he dies she taunts him, “Are you choking on your blood? Killed! By a woman!” As he expires, she spits, “He is dead. Now I forgive him.” And as she pulls from his cold grasp the letter of transit for her and her lover, Cavaradossi, she stares down at Scarpia’s corpse and reflects: “And to think, all of Rome trembled before him.”

A very good performance on video: Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro dell’Opera, Roma. Filmed live. Luciano Pavarotti performs as Mario Cavaradossi; Raina Kabaivanska as Tosca, Ingmar Wixell as Scarpia.

For a glimpse of what Pavarotti can do in the role of Cavaradossi, check out this rendition of E lucevan le stelle, the signature aria of the third act, where the condemned man sings of his realization, now at the hour of his death, that life has never been sweeter (“Tanto la vita”):

 

 

 

Even Serial Wife Killers Deserve a Little Privacy:

Bluebeard’s Castle, by Béla Bartók

For my money, an often overlooked gem is this one-hour, one-act, two-character tour de force from Béla Bartók, based on a mystery play with a folktale theme.

Bluebeard brings home his new bride Judith who has been warned by all her family and friends not to marry the notorious count.

Judith knows of the rumors surrounding him, and when she sees seven closed doors in his dark castle, she demands to see what lies behind them. Bluebeard begs her to forego her curiosity but this only makes Judith more terrified he’s hiding something. Reluctantly, he agrees to show her what lies behind the first five doors. One by one they open, revealing Bluebeard’s torture chamber, then his weapons, his treasure, his secret garden—everything tinged with blood.

Through all this, Bluebeard comes across more haunted than malevolent, even gracious and despairingly sad. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his creepy moments. When Judith notices that everything has blood on it, he replies:

            Through and through my castle trembles.     

            Stones of sorrow thrill with rapture.

            Judith, Judith, cool and soothing

            is the blood that oozes freshly.

Silly Judith—she thought the walls were just weeping.

Finally, he asks she content herself with the fifth door. It opens with the most stunning music of the opera, a “Zarathustra-meets-Debussy” series of block chords dominated by brass that evoke the vast reaches of Bluebeard’s estate.

But Judith is not content. Bluebeard is rumored to have killed his three previous wives and she’s almost mad now with fear their bodies lie behind one of the two remaining doors. Bluebeard tries to dissuade her, saying now that she is there his castle will ring with music and be filled with light.

But she will not relent.

The sixth door opens with a vast, moaning sigh and beyond it spreads a vast lake of tears.

Bluebeard tells her the seventh door must remain closed forever but she defies him, saying she knows now the rumors were true. He is a murderer and his slain wives lie behind the last door. She demands he open it. When he does, the three previous wives appear—alive. They come and garb Judith in robes, then take her away with them, behind the seventh door, while Bluebeard laments that now his castle will return to darkness forever.

A very good CD version of this opera can be found on Phillips with Iván Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra, László Polgár as Bluebeard, Ildikó Komlósi as Judith.

 

If Mom Doesn’t Get you, The Furniture Will:

L’Enfant et les Sortileges by Maurice Ravel

Ravel wrote this dazzling one-act opera with the intention of seeing it realized as a Disney-esque animation. This has never happened, strangely, nor is it often performed because of the difficulties the fantastical story presents.

It’s another one-act, and runs a little over an hour. The libretto is by Collette and concerns a wicked little boy who gets scolded for not obeying his mother. Once she leaves, he goes berserk, saying he intends to be evil.

At which point: the chair he’s sitting in comes to life. The chair’s been ruined by the boy: He carved his name in the wood with a knife. The chair tells him how badly it hurt when the blade scored his flesh.

Then the clock speaks, recounting his own tale of woe, followed by:

The wallpaper (shepherds and shepherdesses sing a haunting choral duet back and forth, lamenting the fact that since the boy tore the wallpaper, they will never be reunited).

Dishware (singing in pseudo-Chinese—get it? Dishware? China?).

Even the fire (”I warm good boys but I burn the bad”).

A fairytale princess sings a haunting aria of how she now floats in limbo since the boy burned her storybook before he finished reading it.

A mad mathematician comes to taunt him with ridiculous sums.

Then the walls give way, the garden appears, and the animals and trees all surround him with increasing menace. Only an act of kindness spares him.

What makes this piece so stunning is Collette’s inventive text captured beautifully in music by Ravel’s melodic genius and his dazzling, intricate orchestrations (Stravinsky called him “a Swiss watchmaker”).

A brilliant rendition from 1961 can be had as part of Deutsche Grammophon’s Original Re-Issue series, with Loren Maazel conducting the Orchestre National de la Radio Theatre Française. A very successful treatment of the piece, especially visually, is from the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, where Maurice Sendak did the designs—brilliantly. You can catch the whole opera in six segments on Youtube (two of which are below, and others are embedded in the highlighted links above).

Now, go out an enjoy some evil—everybody sing!

So, Muderateros—have I bored you stupid with all this talk of opera? Do you still think it’s just for stuffed shirts and snobs?

Any favorite opera or performance you’d like to share?

When it comes to crime in song, would you rather stick with Johnnie and Waylon?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Here’s my favorite part of L’enfant et les sortileges, with the Maurice Sendak design—the sad duet between the shepherds and the shepherdesses, and the utterly heartbreaking scene with the fairy princess:

Or, if your preference is a mad mathematician, slinky dancing cats, and menacing trees (breathtaking stage design in this segment):

 

Boy, Do I Know How to Pick ‘Em or What?

 

By David

And another one bites the dust.

Just as I was getting utterly full-throated in my admiration for HBO’s thoroughbred racing drama Luck, I learned the series was cancelled after a third horse died on the set.

PETA was exploring a lawsuit and had referred the matter to the Los Angeles District Attorney. HBO issued a statement with executive producers Michael Mann and David Milch that quickly got hosed on the Internet for alleged hypocrisy in the first degree.

I’m reluctant to judge the motives of people I don’t know on the basis of evidence I don’t have. I’m funny that way.

But if animals are dying, the show’s gotta close. Absolutely. That’s not, however, why I’m bringing this up here. Luck also was suffering from bad ratings, which makes it only the most recent in a string of shows that have stolen my heart only to vanish before the romance could get beyond the moony sighs—all of them critical darlings. All of them struggling for viewers. All of them gone baby gone. In an eyeblink.

Last year’s Lights Out, the FX program about heavyweight boxer Patrick Leary making a fateful comeback, was a show I made sure I was home for. (No, I don’t have Tivo or a DVR. Nitwit.) Incredible breakout performance by Holt McCallany, and Stacy Keach doing his best work since Fat City. Great reviews! One season. Over. (On reflection, maybe it wasn’t the wisest idea to name the program Lights Out.)

That wasn’t the only series FX had last year that bit it quick, though.

The quirky crime drama Terriers went down so hard and fast I didn’t even have time to figure out how much I liked it. Kickass title song, too:

 

Again, the title didn’t help. The show had nothing to do with dogs—it was the two heroes’ “scrappy” temperament that inspired the name. Its audience base was passionately loyal, just unacceptably small. Some claim the show’s demise was due to lame marketing, but there were those who thought its low ratings were due to the most unforgivable element a show can possess: subtlety.

Prior to those one-and-done knockouts, I was smitten by:

CBS’s Robbery Homicide Division (another Michael Mann effort).

 

NBC’s Boomtown—once again, rave reviews but poor ratings. So the network heads played Einstein and neutered the program’s unique, ingenious premise: Telling the same story from multiple, contrasting, at times irreconcilable points of view. After the boneheaded tweaking, the numbers tanked even further, and the show died two episodes into its second season.

Before that?

The excellent Canadian crime drama Intelligence, from the same team that created the equally superb DaVinci’s Inquest. Intelligence did indeed live up to its name, and managed to survive a comparatively interminable two seasons.

All of these programs were inspired, smart, well-written, critically acclaimed efforts with great performances by gifted actors—and as soon as you can say “ratings whore” they were chasing tumbleweeds into the abyss.

I feel like a jinx. If I love it, it’s doomed.

Then again, it’s hardly a stunning surprise I fall for programs typically described by TV Guide as “the best show nobody’s watching”—the outliers, the best-kept secrets, the obscurities, the forgotten gems.

The highly respected and widely unknown.

That’s pretty much the lowdown on my books.

You read what you love, you watch what you love, you write what you love, verdad? And take your chances. Roll the dice for the thrill of the game. Or you step away from the table, and let the next guy try his luck.

What say you, Murderateros: Which TV programs have you simply loved only to find out they weren’t going to make it past the honeymoon?

What critically acclaimed but overlooked films or out-of-print books would you like to tout?

Sound off! Augment the audience! Crank up the crowd!

* * * * *

BREAKING NEWS: My short story “What the Creature Hath Built” kicks off the new collection Scoundrels: Tales of Greed, Murder and Financial Crimes edited by the inimitable Gary Phillips and featuring stories from Reed Farrel Coleman, SJ Rozan, Kelli Stanley, Eric Stone, Seth Harwood, Lolo Waiwaiole and more! It’s available now (as of March 19th):

The Kindle version at $5.99. The Trade Paperback (POD) at $16.95. 

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Speaking of highly respected but widely unknown, here’s a tune from a musician I’ll bet a number of you have never heard of—I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t till recently—but he’s been around for quite a while and he’s sneakily, eerily, jaw-droppingly good: Otis Taylor.

Get Well, Daniel Woodrell

By David Corbett

Daniel Woodrell goes in for surgery today to repair a shoulder that never healed right after a nasty accident while gigging for suckers on the Current River with celebrity gourmand Anthony Bourdain.

Reports are varied and contradictory, but from what I can piece together from reports I’ve heard or read, it appears that, while in the boat at night on the river, Bourdain went for a fish and his spear caught in a low-hanging branch that snapped back with thunder-crack velocity, knocking out the boat’s lights and generator and planting Daniel face-first in the bottom of the boat. In the darkness, calling out for Daniel but getting no response, everyone feared he’d been thrown overboard—worse, that he was drowning somewhere under the tumbling current. When the lights came back on the film crew spotted Daniel helpless at their feet, unconscious with a broken shoulder, and sped him to a hospital.

The repair work proved inadequate, shall we say. Daniel now faces a bi-planar osteotomy at the Mayo Clinic, to be followed by two months in an immobilizer and rehab for the rest of the year. How far has Anthony Bourdain set back the progress of American letters? We shall see. Apparently he felt terrible about the accident at the time—Daniel is one of his favorite writers, he says—but those TV personalities move swiftly on, running to the next gig, as it were. (Shortly after the accident, Bourdain was in Naples, where he was having “a very good time.”)

If for some reason you don’t know who Daniel Woodrell is—shudder the thought—let me introduce you to one of the finest writers of our generation. I doubt I can say anything of general interest that isn’t said better in this interview with Craig McDonald for the Mulholland Books website.

For a taste of Daniel’s writing, you can start with this remarkable short story, “Night Stand,” that appeared in Esquire. It’s included in the collection The Outlaw Album that came out last year. I’d say I recommend it, but that doesn’t get halfway near how I feel about the matter. Daniel is one of very few writers I can honestly say that I’ll read anything to which he’s attached his name, and I routinely hand over my dog-eared copy of Tomato Red to friends who’ve yet to enjoy his work, saying, “Trust me, you’ll love this,” and they always do.

Two of his books have been made into films: Woe to Live On, perhaps my favorite of Daniel’s novels, adapted by Ang Lee into Ride with the Devil; and Winter’s Bone, a remarkable film based on a breathtaking novel, each unique in its own way, each unforgettable.

Saul Bellow is rumored to have said that a writer is a reader inspired to emulation. Well, I can attest that reading Daniel’s work has driven me to be a better scribbler. I know I can’t equal his language—Daniel is a stylist of the first order, by which I mean the prose serves story perfectly, exquisitely—but I can strive to match his honesty, his attention to detail, his sense of rhythm and his knowledge of the human animal. I want to reach within and write from the place where his words have landed and lingered. In a way, I think I need to. I’ll feel small somehow if I don’t.

Here’s to a successful surgery and a quick convalescense. May the bones set right and the healing begin. Somebody bring the whiskey.

If you’d like to wish Daniel well, or let him know how much you enjoy his books, please leave a comment. I’ll be passing this link along for him to enjoy once the anaesthesia wears off.

And if you’d like to share a story of a wonderful outing gone wickedly wrong, that might put a smile on his face. Misery loving company and all that.

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Seems appropriate that we should tap into the old-time music that appeared on the Winter’s Bone soundtrack, particularly this haunting number, “Hardscrabble Elegy,” by Dickon Hinchliffe:

Come on, Jacques–It’s Chinatown: David Corbett Interviews Cara Black

Cara Black is the author of the Aimee Leduc mysteries, each set in a different arrondissement of Paris.

Her latest, Murder at the Lanterne Rouge, is set in one of the French capital’s four Chinatowns.

The book, the twelfth in this stellar series, is due in stores on March 6th, or you can order it here.

 

I met Cara when my first novel came out. We were doing an event together, and I remember her telling the crowd that her books were set in Paris, and that she traveled there at least once a year for reseach.

I, on the other hand, had just written a book that took place in a barren stretch of California flatland known for meth and rednecks. I thought: Wow, she’s got this gig figured out WAY better than I do.

Indeed, she does.

Cara seems to gain not just a broader readership with each book but ever more extravagant praise. her latest, Murder at the Lanterne Rouge, earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly:

“Outstanding…. Readers will relish realistic villains and an evocative atmosphere that begs for a trip to the City of Lights.”

The New York Journal of Books added:

“The pace accelerates as fast as Aimee’s Vespa. The details of the series, Aimee’s love of vintage couture, her love life, and the specter of her mother’s disappearance, all make welcome appearances here. Murder at the Lanterne Rouge is wonderfully plotted, and Cara Black ties together the past and present with élan.”

Cara has graciously agreed to join us here as she prepares to launch her new tour, indulging a few questions about her latest:

1)  Aimee’s reached the twelfth offering in the series: Murder at the Lanterne Rouge. Where in Aimee’s life do we find her now? What changes have occurred over the course of the series—is she sadder but wiser, stronger because of all the things that haven’t killed her, resigned to the tedious routine of a ho-hum life in Paris? 

It’s January 1998, a little over four years into the series (we first met Aimée in November 1993). There’s snow on the ground, and she’s broken her rule about dating ‘men in the police force’ and is in a relationship with Melac, a Brigade Criminelle officer with a lot of family baggage. Something inside Aimée thinks he might be ‘the one’ until he’s summoned to undercover surveillance in a new clandestine position and he can’t reveal anythng about his new caseload.

Par for the course, she thinks, wondering why she thought Melac could be different from any other ‘flic’ like her father. She’s resigned, yes, but a little wiser too, especially about danger after her last case. She’s now resolved to focus on building her business, and Leduc Detective Agency continues with its bread-and-butter computer security contracts.

But now her partner René, a dwarf, normally the most level-headed, business-minded and cautious of the two, has a coup de foudre—love at first sight—and thinks he’s found his soul mate: Meizi. René’s only known her for two months and she comes from a traditional Chinese family, or so he believes. Then Meizi gets connected to a brutal murder and disappears.  Aimée’s reluctant to investigate—suggesting she’s a bit wiser, perhaps. But given the deep involvement of René, her best friend—who’s heartsick when he discovers Meizi isn’t who she claimed to be—Aimée can’t refuse, and plunges in. 

2) Where is the Lanterne Rouge, and how did it come by its name? What arrondissements have you yet to cover? What will you do once you’ve killed somebody off in every single one? 

Actually the story takes place in the northern edge of the Marais, in the smallest and oldest of the four Chinatowns in Paris. The Lanterne Rouge refers to an alley where a shrink-wrapped body is found—but if I tell you anymore, David, I’ll have to kill you. 

 As for the second half of your question: Twelve arrondissements down, eight more to go. I’ll figure out what to do when I’ve written about all twenty when I get there.

3) Why pick this Chinatown? What makes this one different from the other three Chinatowns in Paris? 

My friends live nearby and coming from the Metro I always walked through the area. It intrigued me and I discovered that this warren of several medieval streets is home to inhabitants from Wenzhou, a southern province below Canton, who engage in selling wholesale bags, luggage and costume jewelry. They’re  known as ‘entrepeneurs’ and are quite different from the residents of the other Chinatowns, many of whom are political émigres.

As I walked these narrow fourteenth-century streets I heard the slap of Mah Jong tiles and the pounding of machines from behind closed doors and in the old courtyards. There’s a whole substrata below the surface of sweatshops with illegal immigrants who come to France to work but become almost indentured slaves to pay off their passage. A conversation with a man in the Renseignements Generaux, the RG, which is the domestic intelligence service, really sparked this book after he told me: ‘No one dies in Chinatown.’

4) How did you persuade several law enforcement officers—not to mention a Chinese documentary film maker—to talk to you about the clandestine working conditions and life for most of the inhabitants in Chinatown? How many bottles of wine did it take? Or did you go with pastries this time?

Wine, pastries whatever it takes. Seriously, I was acquainted with this man in the RG for several years after an introduction from a friend. He’d give me fifteen minutes sometimes—he’s a busy person and runs a major department—but when I mentioned how this Chinatown interested me his eyes lit up.

Turns out he’s in charge of collecting information about the quartier—he wouldn’t reveal exactly what that meant, but he was excited with my idea. He encouraged me. I even ran the murder scenario, the motive and the suspects by him to check for plausibility and he gave me a heads up. After that validation he introduced me to the Chinese documentary film maker—one of his sources—who was a great help about the living and working conditions that are below the surface and never seen by tourists or local Parisians. He insists that I keep his name quiet and refer to him only as Monsieur X.

5)  Did you really find the remnants of the Knights Templars tower in a courtyard? And did a Polish workman shoo you out when you went to investigate? And what was a Polish workman doing in Paris?

Yes, the tower remnant survives on rue Charlot in the back of a courtyard which was undergoing renovation when I happened upon it. Very cool. The Polish workcrew—lots of Polish plumbers and construction workers find jobs in Paris because of the EU—wanted to go home after a long day working. The guy who saw me snooping around wanted to go with his buddies after work for a beer and he was irked because I was holding him up.

I came back the next day because I’m that kind of person—anything for a story—and apologized to him. That did the trick—he beamed and let me snoop some more. Can you imagine living in a building with a Templar tower in your courtyard? I had to use it in the story.

6)  How did you find out about the Engineering Grands Écoles with its medieval student hazing practices still in use today? Does that really happen? Are the practices really as severe as you portray in your book?

Those Grands Ecoles hazing practices exist and for my book I even toned them down a bit. My source was a Parisian engineer, a friend of my neighbor, who had attended this school and had first hand experience of the customs—writing Latin verse on small matchsticks, for example; or being rousted from bed at 4 AM then forced to do exercises and chanting until sunrise; or, if he didn’t conform to the rules, put into isolation deep in the bowels of the medieval abbey where the campus is located. He suffered what we’d call abuse and brutality for two years. Yet he hung in there and did graduate.

 A lot of the graduates work in the Ministry or are CEO’s, but he’s now ostracized from the ‘old boy’s network.’ He works in Silicon Valley and started several companies—he’s a brilliant man and not only can come up with the concept for a product, but diagram it, issue its plans and build the thing. He credits this to the rigorous standards of the school and its unique education. Today he feels it was worth it. 

7)  We see Aimée and her best friend Martine rushing off to the January sales as true fashionistas must. Do you get a product-placement discount from designers you mention in your books?

I wish. Brilliant idea. I could use a Dior pencil skirt and Louboutin heels for my Vespa scooter. 

8)  Your books are so rich with the daily culture of Paris, the things that make it come alive as a city for the people who actually live there. But what of the cultural touchstones identifiable to those of us who know Paris only from afar – does Aimee have a favorite French painter, composer or singer, for example? Do you?

Aimée likes:

The female Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot 

The singers Pat Benatar and Edith Piaf 

The poets Gerard Nerval and Baudelaire 

The novelist Honoré de Balzac  

The dancer Margot Fonteyn 

The opera Les Paladins by Rameau 

 

Cara likes: 

 The painter Gustave Caillebotte 

 The composer and singer Jacques Prevert and Georges Brassens 

The poet Baudelaire 

The novelists Romain Gary and Honoré de Balzac

The dancer Fred Astaire

The opera Tristan and Isolde

Okay, so Fred Astaire is American* and Tristan and Isolde is by Wagner.

Sue me.

* Turns out Fred Astaire was almost as Teutonic as Wagner: He was born in Omaha with the name Friedrich Emanual Austerlitz, of German and Austrian parents — DC.

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: In thinking of my own favorite French musicians, I remembered the group Les Negresses Vertes, a kind of gypsy cabaret punk outfit — half Pogues, half Charles Aznavour — that my late wife Terri and I saw in San Francisco early in our relationship—one of the best live hows I ever attended. Here’s a tune of theirs remixed by Massive Attack (for the original, go here):

 

 

 

Silent Music

David Corbett

Harold Pinter once remarked that all of his plays were in truth about silence. Whether the characters stood there mute or let loose with a blistering torrent of words, the real issue was their nakedness before each other, their silence.

That idea has been haunting me lately, especially since seeing Wim Wenders’s Pina, his 3D tribute to the choreographer Pina Bausch. I was especially moved by the sequences from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps:

 

I left the theater once again feeling in the core of my soul that there is always something words cannot get to, cannot touch, cannot reach, no matter how elegant or clear or savage or right.

Not the best feeling for a writer.

The next day I met with Rebecca Hunt, my editor at Penguin for my book on character that will come out next year. And as we worked out the various strategies for the first rewrite, I kept trying to ignore this nasty itch in the back of my mind, this sense that despite all the work I’d put in, all the examples from novels and stories and films and TV shows I’d analyzed, all the elements I’d broken down, all the techniques I’d explained—not to mention having written four novels, each praised for its characterization—I was still dealing with something essentially elusive, as though I was trying to grab onto a quivery thread of mercury.

When is the line is crossed, between a fully realized character and one not so fully realized? The answer remains as enigmatic to me now as ever—perhaps more so.

Recently, I told a writer friend that I’ve come to use music more and more in my characterizations, sometimes thinking like an opera composer, taking the first impression of a character from a chord or sequence of chords, building from that a musical theme, a melody or sequence of melodies, and allowing the density of those chords, the beauty or discord of the melody, the timbre of the instruments I hear in my head playing the piece to inspire an insight into the character’s inner life.

The advantage of this, over a mere pictorial image of the character, is that music can change its quality so readily—through chord progressions, melodic inversions, tempo, timbre, dynamics—and it moves through time. An image can easily be a trap, locking in my conception of what the character can or can’t do. A character I see in my mind’s eye as handsome or sanguine too often becomes a slave to that impression, and can’t become slovenly or sickly or rude or vile.

I don’t know what it is about images, but they seem to define a thing, in the most limiting sense of the word. Images suggest a soul, some essential essence that cannot be violated or betrayed without the character becoming “inconsistent.” But a character who can’t contradict himself is a trope, a type, a construct, an idea. No matter how cleverly portrayed, such a character dances on the edge of cliché. Denis Diderot likened the human character to a swarm of bees—and it’s that sort of shapeless but still coherent vibrancy I consider crucial.

Ironically, by using music, I get to what Pinter was suggesting by discussing silence. I get at that ineffable, insubstantial trickiness, the ghost in the machine that defies definition, that remains dynamic and free and contradictory.

In my most recent novel, Do They Know I’m Running?, I used a piano piece by Faure to conjure for me the gentle inner life of an otherwise rough, rustic, uneducated (but not unintelligent) Salvadoran truck driver. It was the contrast I was after, the greasy muscular thoughtful man, and the unpredictability it created. I was gratified when a reader told me it was this character, especially his decency, that gave the book its core of hope despite its harrowing sequences.

The sly, sensitive protagonist, a budding guitar phenom named Roque, needed a blistering Santana solo to create a sense of the hunger within him, of which even he is unaware as the story begins.

His aunt, Tía Lucha, is a thin, sad, scrappy woman who I pictured as a clarinet, an instrument which, even at its most playful or aggressive, retains a certain lamenting wistfulness in its tone.

And Godo, the marine who returns from Iraq damaged both psychologically and physically, found partial inspiration in the jarring, grinding, mocking intro to Control Machete’s Sí Señor.

But I’m a musical bird, and such formulations suit me. The trick is to conjure an impression that stirs to life, and the willingness not to define it, explain it, figure it out, but to let it assume shape and form and sense on its own—even to the point of defying that sense and shape. There’s no small bit of magic involved—like a melody that rises up in the mind seemingly from nowhere. Or, again, like mercury, quivering at the touch: shimmering, slippery, but substantial all the same.

Do you have any tricks to keep your characters from becoming types or otherwise over-defined? Does a mental image of a character feel limiting to you? Or is it helpful, clarifying? When do you know you understand a character well enough to begin writing? Have you ever felt you knew your character perfectly, only to realize what you had was a stereotype, a plot puppet—not a character?

* * * * *

Jukebox Heroes of the Week: I’ve recently been turned on to a number of exceptional British acts by a friend from Manchester, Gordon Harries. One of the absolute standouts is Massive Attack, who create a kind of cinematic texture that would remind me of Pink Floyd if that band had ever been this good. (Caution: This is an eerie video):

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