Category Archives: David Corbett

The Books I’m Not Reading

David Corbett

Due to a scheduling snafu, I had to swap days, and Alexandra graciously obliged. I’m taking her spot today, and she’ll be taking mine next Wednesday. So, if you’re disappointed Alex isn’t here—and how could you not be?—take heart, she’ll be here at the controls this coming Wednesday, February 8th.

John Updike once remarked that he realized early on he couldn’t be both a reader and a writer and he had to choose one or the other. As my career has progressed I’ve increasingly realized the truth of that insight, unpleasantly so.

Writers are readers first and foremost. But recently the onslaught of work has been so overwhelming my reading has come to a virtual standstill. The time it takes to write, pitch, research, keep up with the business of writing (with more research required), prepare for my classes, teach, network, do my volunteer work in the community—I feel like I’m skating across my days like a madman on black ice. More and more often I wake up with a jolt of apprehension clenched in my gut. I know I’m behind, I know I can’t keep up, I know the stakes.

Read? For pleasure? It is to laugh.

One sneaky outlet I always had was the High Crimes book group I lead at my local indie bookstore. I knew that I’d get to read at least one book I wanted to each month. But even that has fallen apart on me. During December I was supposed to be reading Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling. I loved the book, and was really enjoying it, but I got only halfway through by the time the group met to discuss it.

I promised to do better this month with Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, a book I again was loving, but I barely got past page 20. I’m not exaggerating.

This isn’t just irritating, it’s irresponsible. I’m letting my group down. Worse, I feel like I’m letting myself down.

I’m not one of those writers who can’t read fiction when he’s writing. I actually get inspired reading fiction I admire and relish when I’m working on my own book. I take care of the voice-infection problem, the possibility that what I’m reading will seep into my own voice, by going back over what I’ve written the day before as I begin working and tidying it up before moving on to new pages. But now that inspirational fertilization of my imagination, that spur to my creativity, is absent. And I feel it.

I know we all have TBR piles that seem overwhelming. My TBR pile became a box, then several boxes, then a closet, and now pretty much consumes a whole second office. In no particular order (who has time to prioritize what you’ll never get to do?):

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

Lucifer at the Starlight by Kim Addonizio

The City The City by China Miéville

The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Spooner by Pete Dexter

The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell

Nothing to be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

Dreamland by Newton Thornburg

Murder City by Charles Bowden

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

The Hidden Assassins by Robert Wilson

The Dead Yard by Adrian McKinty

Body of Lies by David Ignatius

Ash & Bone by John Harvey

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst

He Kills Coppers by Jake Arnott

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo

I’m just listing the ones in easy reach. There are so many more—including books written by my friends and my fellow Murderateros. And I have to reread James Crumley’s The Wrong Case for an article I’ve been asked to do, and I should probably reread The Last Good Kiss while I’m at it, and I’m reading a number of writing guides as I conduct my courses and write my own book on character, and and and…

It’s not just that I feel like a slaggard. I feel like I’m letting the most important thing, one of my life’s greatest pleasures, slip away. And in no small way, it’s killing me.

Warren Zevon wrote an anthem to life at full throttle: “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” I’m beginning to think that’s when I’ll get some reading in.

So, Murderateros—what book or books have you been aching to get to but just can’t? What is it that’s swallowing up your days? Is the pace of modern life really accelerating or are we just becoming increasingly scattered and unfocused? And if we don’t read, who will?

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Jukebox Hero of the Week: Take a wild guess.

Bloody Noses, Broken Hearts

 By David Corbett

Zoë Sharp recently posted an excellent piece on the question of why we—meaning you, me, and the shy, skulking, blinky stranger in the threadbare overcoat crouching over there in the corner with the thumb-worn paperback—why we, dear friends, read crime fiction.

Given a natural, almost irrepressible inclination to let my mind wander and generally, hopelessly digress, I soon found myself mentally drifting into the conjectural weeds, wondering about a related question:

Why do we write crime fiction?

I’m hoping all my fellow Murderateros chime in on this, because I have a nagging little notion that the answers will prove not just revealing but jaw-dropping.

I mean, why does a conscientious, civil, well-educated, upstanding, socially responsible, personally hygienic, cheerful, brave, clean and reverent soul and lifelong swell gal like Pari Noskin Taichert or Phillipa Martin—to take but two blushing examples—come to share the blue-skied expanse of their otherwise benign imaginations with schemy lowlifes, bumbling thugs, skin-curdling perverts, gun-toting birdbrains, shuffling miscreants, jolly sadists, penny-ante lawmen, bogus medicine men and anarchist shoplifters?

I hope the dozens-to-hundreds of the rest you toiling away in the crime fiction boiler room—whether famous or obscure, published or soon-to-be-published or dreaming-of-being-published or willing-to-kill-to-get-published—will also pipe up and be heard. Why oh why do you do it?

I can only speak for myself, of course, and what purpose would generalizations serve? So here is my sad and sordid tale, my ars poetica.

Let me take you back to the tranquil midwestern burg known as Columbus, Ohio—a great place to raise a family, it was often said. Or brew up a first-rate neurosis. Everything of any import, I was convinced, happened elsewhere. In particular, it happened in books.

I was a brainy, tubby, near-sighted kid who read voraciously, tirelessly, endlessly, so much so my less print-bedazed brother considered me an excellent target for mockery, torment and contempt. To little avail. I devoured the Hardy Boys and Danny Dunn and the We Were There novels—We Were There at the Battle of the Bulge, We Were There on the Chisolm Trail, We Were There at the Oklahoma Land Rush—and the Random House American history set that taught me about everything from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to the U.S. Marine assault at Belleau Wood. I had the kind of knowledge that would serve me well later as a PI—a thousand miles wide and two inches deep. All of it from books.

Meanwhile, there was a gas station in my neighborhood run by the Moro brothers who always bought the change from my paper route, and once that transaction was complete I normally bought a soda from the machine and a candy bar and hung out for a while. Though not exactly Tom and Ray Magliozzi—NPR’s infamous Click and Clack from Car Talk—Jimmy and Johnny Moro weren’t far off, and they mesmerized me. They were earthy, funny, fouled with grease and full of fun. They laughed loud and seemed to possess that rarest of gifts I so wanted to share: They lived.

I wondered if it wasn’t an Italian thing, for I saw much the same kind of gioia di vivere at my buddy Vince Milletello’s house, even though he was even pudgier than me. His mom and aunts were gorgeous, their husbands charismatic, the food incredible—I didn’t know why everybody didn’t hang out at that house. (Mrs. Milletello was constantly trying to get me to go home, to the point, on occasion, of shaking her shoe.)

These people just lived larger than my family did. In my home, anything remotely emotional remained studiously in check—until unleashed by alcohol, or uncorked by rage.

This resulted in the all too familiar fate of the bookworm: self-loathing. I was convinced an essential piece to the puzzle of life was by its very nature nowhere to be found—by me. And it was the piece that had to do with the dirty business known as Life As It Is, not Life As It Appears In Books.

My egg-headedness began paying dividends, though, at least in attention from teachers—I still got the usual ragging crap from classmates—and I embraced my IQ as the quintessential essence of my life. Or at least the most direct way out of puberty. I was the guy who got straight A’s, but with a bit of a mouth, the class clown attitude, a rough edge here and there. I was never top of my class but always close. And in the pit of my black little soul, I sensed that any hope I had of getting a girl, it would probably be because I was so doggone smart.

What an idiot.

But I was also musical, played guitar in the campus coffeehouses, and then took a year off from THE Ohio State University to join a bar band, touring Midwestern backwaters like Beckley, West Virginia; Lima, Ohio; Kokomo, Indiana; Midland, Michigan.

It was a formative time. I met many cocktail waitresses.

(If you want an idea of what one of our signature tunes was, go here.)

But the siren call of campus life drew me back. There’s only so many times you can play “Color My World” to a roomful of horny, polyester-clad divorcees drenched in Old Spice—or sweet Midwestern fogheads nodding on quaaludes—before you begin having unhealthy imaginings, replete with knives and curdled in bile.

I returned to college and somehow bumbled my way into a math major. I was the department freak—a hippy entranced with diophantine equations and Fermat’s Last Theorem. I continued playing in coffeehouses, dabbled in writing, won a poetry prize (figure that one out), hung out with dancers—I mean, who wouldn’t?—and was basically on a collision course with full-blown academe.

But I had no clue what to do as a graduate student. I threw a dart, hit linguistics—a perfect marriage of my fascination with language and my scientific soul—and won a full scholarship to U.C. Berkeley.

Within a matter of weeks, I was drowning in doubt and my own lack of talent, not to mention a serious deficiency of oomph. I saw the life my professors were living—marrying young, the girl across the table in the library, then divorcing at 40, lustily chasing their students—and I ran screaming. On some deep level I knew I had to climb down out of the ivory tower and wander the world. Get my heart broken, my nose bloodied.

But I still had that artistic itch, so after leaving school I studied acting and began writing short stories. Ironically, it was two of my friends from acting school who turned me on to the PI firm where I would spend the next thirteen years of my life. One friend worked as a receptionist, the other as a stringer (serving subpoenas, spending hours in his car conducting surveillance), and they both made it clear—if I wanted to write, I couldn’t beat this job for material.

I bugged the owners of the firm, Jack Palladino and Sandra Sutherland, for nine months, and was finally hired because I wore them down (they graciously referred to me as the most persistent applicant they’d ever had—persistence, incidentally, being of far more use to a PI than anything else). As for my writing, I told myself: These will be my years at sea. What I saw and did would provide not just the subject matter but the texture and worldview that would inform everything I wrote for the rest of my life.

The job rooted me to the real world like nothing had before. I was now working for men and women whose freedom, life-savings, even their very lives were at risk. Half measures wouldn’t do. The stakes were high and the lights were on. I loved it, like no other job I’d ever had. I felt like I could finally go back home, walk into the Moro brothers’ gas station and not feel like a phony. I was no longer waiting for my life. I’d found it.

Up to this point, no joke, I hadn’t picked up a crime novel since the Hardy Boys. I associated crime fiction with B movies, fun but campy, and preferred Kafka and Borges and Robbe-Grillet, Pinter and Stoppard. Now that I was actually working in the world of crime, I figured: Oh, what the hell. I picked up Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Shortly thereafter I devoured Cain’s Double Indemnity, and then the clincher, James Crumley’s The Wrong Case.

No, I wasn’t hooked. But I got it. And the point hit home in a way it hadn’t before. I saw the world I knew, the world of the justice system—witnesses, criminals, victims and cops, snitches and lawyers—transplanted to a literary landscape, a smart one (of course, I couldn’t give up that), and my artistic sensibility and my real-world existence had finally meshed in a way they never had before.

Here was the literary representation of the authenticity I’d been craving since my boyhood, the world where people didn’t think about life, they lived it. Yeah, sure, they existed in books, so sue me. Or shoot me. The characters in those books suffered the terror of their smallness before the crushing wheel of power, they fought and even killed for just a little more, they needed, they craved, they believed, they despaired. Justice might be small but it was everything. And even the most cynical had an inner fire.

Due to the heritage of American realism, there was a convincing lack of prettiness, a sharpness, a directness and hard-edged simplicity that rang true for me. I didn’t completely forego lyricism but the mode was now decidedly minor. And though I didn’t give up on literary fiction I needed the edge I found in crime, that same lack of sentiment, that commitment to a life faced squarely and lived fully, damn the bloody noses and broken hearts.

Please chime in: Why do you write crime? And if you don’t write, what do you expect from the crime writers you read that you don’t expect from others?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: My own music career was behind me when Steve Earle came out with “Copperhead Road,” but on one of my very first author panels—which I got to share with both Laurie King and Michael Connelly—I admitted that this song probably had as much influence on me as writer as anything I’d ever read. Still does:

 

 

Voice Lessons

By David Corbett

First, a couple workshop notices:

Starting January 23rd, I’m teaching an eight-week course on crime-writing both in-person at San Francisco’s The Grotto and online for Chuck Pahalniuk’s LitReactor. If you or someone you know is interested, act fast, because classroom slots are disappearing pretty quickly.

Also, I’m teaching one of my favorite classes at Book Passage the weekend of February 4th-5th. This one’s titled Integrating Arcs & Acts, and I do scene-by-scene breakdowns of five iconic films—Vertigo, The Godfather, Chinatown, Silence of the Lambs and Michael Clayton—and analyze them in terms of character arc, proof of premise, theme, subplot development and suspense, then use what we learn to discuss student work. Seriously, it’s the most fun you’ll have in a classroom ever, promise.

* * * * *

Most of you know by now I often play the contrarian—call me Captain Cranky—hoping to ignite a fire or at least stir things up a bit, keep the discussion lively.

It’s something I tell my students about their stories: When in doubt, pick a fight. Terrible advice for a marriage, I realize, but that’s a discussion for another day.

An example of my all-too-typical cranky contrarian method was my most recent post, where I staked out a somewhat extreme perimeter on the future of narrative, hoping to flag the flames of debate concerning where storytelling is headed.

I suggested that the eBook revolution may well introduce not just the possibility but a necessity to embed audio and video perks, making narrative a more fully multimedia mindmeld—perhaps, in the case of sophisticated role-playing games, even an interactive dance or duel—all of which most likely means a more communal, demanding and costly enterprise for writers.

A lot of the response this verbal shot across the bow engendered was to the effect that storytelling will never die—the delivery system may evolve, but the fundamental human craving for story will remain.

I don’t dispute this. (I may be cranky, but I’m not an idiot.) But I don’t think that’s why the book cum book will survive.

What is it about the book specifically that makes it both unique and indispensable? Here’s my potentially contentious, contrarian, cranky stand of the day, except it isn’t an extreme position; it’s what I truly believe.

We don’t read books for story. We read books for voice.

Or, put less contentiously: What books and especially novels provide that no other form can is voice, not story.

The book is a deeply personal meeting of minds, writer and reader, and its access to inner life offers a particular type of intimacy unlike any other. It provides access to a whispering or wisecracking confidant in a world of bellowing shills, feverish opinionators, thundering dullards. And the way the singular intimacy between writer and reader takes form is in the unique way the writer’s fictive universe takes form in words.

Voice is more than style, i.e., diction and rhythm, structural boldness, innovative conceit. It incorporates worldview and attitude, the embers of passion, the cool surfaces of reason. It’s the embodiment of the writer’s creative spirit in language. It’s the writer’s presence in words as we engage with her story in our own imaginations—and the written word does require engagement.

There is always an element of passivity to hearing a story, but the degree of that passivity is less in reading than in more visual media. Writers who understand this tend to rein in the special effects, but that doesn’t mean squelching every speck of individuality whatsoever—assuming such a thing is even possible.

The basic power of less-is-more resides in its respect for the reader, its understanding of not just the willingness but the need of the reader to share in the shaping of the story, not just sit there and get pampered with prose. This often leads to a belief that the best writing is always that in which the author disappears, and lets his characters and story command the stage.

And yet I wonder—is this really true? Does that describe the books we really admire and crave and return to? Or is there something subtler going on—enough individual distinctness to remind us we’re not alone with the words, not so much we wish the writer would just buzz off.

Even the sparest prose—Hemingway, Hammett, Simenon—conveys far more than just what the eye and ear take in. A uniquely rendered world takes form, but not just that. We feel what matters in that world, feel the ghosts in the shadows and hear the murmuring beyond the door. Strangely, so much is revealed in what’s missing, because somehow we sense what was chosen and why, and wonder at the omissions. That too is voice, for we know someone did the choosing, the leaving out, and can feel it in both the cut of the words and the gaping silences.

But whether the prose is spare or Proustian, we want not just Once upon a time, we want the smell of our grandfather’s cigarettes and after-shave and the freshly cut grass, we want the whispery hum of the dragonflies hovering near the rose blossoms just beyond the screen and the creak of the old man’s rocker on the porch as, after much shameless begging on our part, he tells us what happened to him all those years ago, when he was a wild young man back in Stillwater … or Acapulco … or Inchon.

From a writer, we want that presence in words on the page:

 

            You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive. The man didn’t know himself and the bird was tentative when he reached the ground and made a croaking sideward approach, askance and looking off down the chaparral in the arroyo as if expecting company from the coyotes. Carrion was shared not by the sharer’s design but by a pattern set before anyone knew there were patterns.

—Jim Harrison, “Revenge”

            From the beginning, we were sisters more than mother and daughter. Joanna Shaw rescued me in her way, and I tried to return the favor. I do not say this boastfully, but ironies are the way of the world, and now that I am an old woman I tell you with certainty that those who presume to lift another are most often in need of being raised themselves.

—Aimee Liu, Flash House

 

             The girls look like ghosts.

            Coming out of the early-morning mist, their silver forms emerge from a thin line of trees and the girls pad through the wet grass that edges the field. The dampness muffles their footsteps, so they approach silently, and the mist that wraps around their legs makes them look as if they’re floating.

            Like spirits who died as children.

—Don Winslow, The Dawn Patrol

               

            Three Indians were standing out in front of the post office that hot summer morning when the motorcycle blazed down Walnut Street and caused Mel Weatherwax to back his pickup truck over the cowboy who was loading sacks of lime. The man and woman on the motorcycle probably didn’t even see the accident they had caused, they went by so fast. Both of them were wearing heavy-rimmed goggles, and all Mel saw was the red motorcycle, the goggles, and two heads of hair, black for him and blond for her. But everybody forgot about them; the cowboy was badly hurt, lying there in the reddish dirt cursing, his face gone white from pain. The Indians stayed up on the board sidewalk and watched while Mel Weatherwax and one of his hands carried the cowboy into the shade of the alley beside the store.

—Don Carpenter, Hard Rain Falling

 

            She ached. As if her spine were a zipper and someone had come up behind her and unzipped it and pushed his hands into her organs and squeezed, as if they were butter or dough, or grapes to be smashed for wine. At other times it was something sharp like diamonds or shards of glass engraving her bones. Teresa explained these sensations to the doctor—the zipper, the grapes, the diamonds, and the glass—while he sat on his little stool and wrote in a notebook. He continued to write after she’d stopped speaking, his head cocked and still like a dog listening to a sound that was distinct, but far off. It was late afternoon, the end of a long day of tests, and he was the final doctor, the real doctor, the one who would tell her at last what was wrong.

—Cheryl Strayed, Torch

 

            Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the creek. The carcasses hung pale of flesh with a fatty gleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone.

—Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone

 

In each of these excerpts, we get not just the beginning of the story but the entrance of the storyteller. This can be done badly, of course, and fan dancing won’t do. But neither will the timidity of those who use story like a crutch. It’s not flash we’re after but the sense of someone real speaking to us directly and honestly, and for that a certain confidence is not just called for but expected and deeply wanted. In some cases, even a fire-eyed bravado. Or just the intimate whisper of someone with a secret we feel almost certain we dare not believe, but will.

The writer who too obsessively vanishes leaves us at the altar alone. This is the ceremony of fiction on the page, the thing film and TV and games can’t do (or at least not so well), the thrill of it, the thing that makes the written word crackle and sing, that makes it sumptuous and sensual and gives us gooseflesh, the kind we get when someone important, someone we want to know better, perhaps even someone we want to love, is suddenly standing very near, and with a brief glance first one direction then the other leans close, very close, to tell us something.

So Murderateros—which writers do you read for voice? Which writers do you read for story alone, despite a lack of any distinctive individual voice? Are there any writers you admire whose voice is so subtle—Patricia Highsmith, is my example—it almost seems at first like no voice at all, until the tale gathers momentum and you hear it unmistakably in your mind?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Long ago in a universe far away, aka the 1970s in the Midwest, I did the solo coffeehouse bit, and I know how naked it can feel up there with just a guitar and a song. No one did it better than Townes Van Zandt, truly one of my heroes, and someone who can teach us all a bit about presence and voice and a slice of life rendered full in words.

(This particular song has a very special meaning for me, which I won’t get into, but should the one who knows what I’m talking about read these words and listen to this clip, know I’m grateful. For everything. Even when I’m cranky.):

 

 

An Interview with John Shannon — LA’s Wise Man of Crime

David Corbett


I met John Shannon early on in my career, and he’s remained one of the most important, gratifying, inspiring connections I’ve made as a writer.

Author of the Jack Liffey PI series (and a novel based on a history of the American left, among other non-genre titles), he’s one of the smartest, most honest, most impassioned, most decent men I know, and his writing reflects all of that and more.

His prose shimmers, his stories grab you by the coat and shake you, his breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding remind you what a joy it is to have someone who knows a little about the world show you the ropes. His hero, Jack Liffey, reminds you of Marlowe, sure, but with touches of Hamlet and Jimmy Stewart and that tough, funny uncle who lived near the beach you loved so much but saw so little.

Most importantly, his Los Angeles is a city that’s more real than any other fictional representation I’ve encountered. He finds places and people—both isolated in their urban solitude and knotted to tight-knit communities—that others tend to overlook, and he embraces them with both his heart and his eyes wide open. Whether he’s taking you to the Vietnamese enclaves of Orange County, the surfer hangouts in Palos Verdes, the homeless camps in “The Nickel” (L.A.’s Skid Row), a Native American homestead in Owens Valley or the sprawling Persian community in greater L.A., segretaed by faith—with the Jews (yes, Persian Jews) taking over Beverly Hills, the Armenian Christians in Glendale, the seculars in the South Bay (with Shah Pahlevi diehards hovering near Westwood), and the Zoroastrians (yes, they still exist) in Culver City—he takes you there with crackling detail and an insider’s access to secrets.

I thought John might enjoy a spin in the Murderati Maserati, and so I invited him for a digital cruise down the interview highway. Here’s what we ended up talking about:

Mike Davis, a social historian (City of Quartz, Planet of Slums) has stated that you’re attempting an alternative history of Los Angeles from the viewpoint of the people routinely excluded from the official discourse. First, would you agree with this, and second, why choose the crime genre, and specifically the PI novel, as your vehicle?

Mike is a good friend and I was flattered and a little surprised by that description. I don’t know if I’m consciously trying to include the excluded. I’m certainly trying to include L.A.’s amazingly disparate communities. More people of Mexican heritage than any city but Mexico City, more Koreans, etc, etc.  And not just ethnic communities—whole subcultures of cubicle-farm video game designers, territorial surfers, whacked-out wannabe musicians.

Really, the Jack Liffey series began with two unrelated impulses. One was my wish to create a detective who was an Everyman with no particular detecting skills or bravado—a decent, strong-willed, honest man, but really only a laid-off aerospace technician who is struggling to make ends meet and keep up with his child-support payments by tracking down missing children. (It’s better than delivering pizza, he says.) A man who believes in nothing but staying honest and pushing his rock up the hill day after day beside Sisyphus. The other impulse was to open a window into a social history of layer upon layer of racism, greed and exploitation in America. Perhaps racism most of all—I believe it’s the core conflict at the heart of Western Civilization, and has never been adequately addressed.

You’ve remarked that you don’t read much in the genre, but instead get your inspiration from a specific strand of realism that includes Hemingway, Robert Stone, Joan Didion and others. But Hammett is part of that tradition, as are some other crime writers. How do you think the crime genre fits into that lineage, and did that have anything to do with your own choice to start the Jack Liffey series?

Someone once said that some mystery readers are eager to find out whodunit and others just love to ride alongside their hero. I’m here for the ride. But let’s redefine the genre a bit. I’d like to think of the genre I love as “the hard edge,” though I really only have a few toes in it myself. I think I first started thinking about it as a separate little outpost of literature when I read Kent Anderson’s brilliant Viet Nam novel Sympathy for the Devil. The book felt like the harsh breath of the modern world itself. And then I recalled that my first writing hero was Graham Greene, and later Robert Stone. These books are morally serious, hard-edged and unsentimental, dealing with silences and disappointment and inner strength. And unsparing self-punishment for failure. This harsh outpost is full of magnificent spare dialogue, description that’s often witty and vivid, shocking with abrupt concrete metaphors. Hard Edge tales don’t always take place out among the Picts and wild men who paint themselves blue, but most of the writers have paid their dues out there and know that the world is not benign, not easy, not pacific and above all probably not redeemable in any grand fashion. But we have to try. It’s a noble existential calling. Out on the frontier, these surrogate adventurers have to face the ugly and cruel every day, and every day they have to reinvent human decency, out of nothing. How else could my Jack Liffey try to plug the God-sized hole in the world?

You had a strong education in the importance of structure from one of your teachers at UCLA, Marvin Borowsky, a former story editor in Hollywood. What was it that Borowsky said that impressed you?

If I could find a way to distill everything I learned from Marvin Borowsky, I could bottle it and sell it. It was amazing the way he could look at a script or a story and say, “It’s going bad at point B or C or D because of what happened back here at A.”  There are differences between dramatic structure and novel structure, though.  Dramatic structure is much more unforgiving and demanding. After all, it has to arc, it has to be dramatic. One way Borowsky helped me break down the idea of conflict into writerly terms was by re-expressing it. What does the main character want? Why can’t he or she get it? And what’s the result that comes out the collision of these forces? The result is not just the main character getting it or not getting it; something new develops. It sounds simple but it’s a very powerful tool for working on dramatic structure, and we were constantly dismantling down to the core films like L’Avventura and La Notte that can seem so mysteriously opaque to examination. Or even Lear and Eugene O’Neal.  

Borowsky had a lot of other insights. That a main character could be likeable or unlikeable, fine, but he or she had to be active. (Think of Macbeth.) We love to watch characters who are active. Of course, as I say, this is all basically only true of drama, and further it only addresses structure, it says nothing about the quality of writing, characterization, etc. But the first novels I wrote (all before the Liffey books) were written initially as screenplays. So at least they weren’t inert navel-gazers. I won’t go off on a tirade, but a lot of current American writing is pretty uninteresting to me. Like most mystery or noir fans, I want things to happen in a book.

So much so that I’ve created a bit of a “formula” of my own to make things happen. Every Liffey ends with a major disaster of some kind—earthquake, firestorm, poison gas spill, landslide, torrential rain, etc.  Of course, to some degree this is my playing with the dystopic side of L.A. and of the modern world, but it’s also just the fact that I love writing these catastrophes. Hey, I got to kick IKEA to the ground.   

You’ve said some incredibly interesting things about the inherent political assumptions embedded in the various crime sub-genres—specifically, the difference between the police procedural and the PI novel. What did Jack Liffey’s being a PI avail you that being a cop denied Harry Bosch, for example, especially with respect to exploring Los Angeles?

I have to be a little guarded about how I say this because I have a tendency to go schematic and oversimplify. It’s a very human failing to grab an idea that seems to clarify something for you and then try to universalize it, or at least stretch it beyond it’s proper application.  I thought from the first that there was a strong tendency in police procedurals to be about defending or reasserting the status quo, to have at least an undertow of social conservatism. In fact, Harry Bosch escapes this somewhat by being a bit of a renegade cop, as do many other series cops. Still, the underlying archetype for the police procedural—certainly for TV cop shows—is the Star Trek meme. A group of people working together to keep the world clean and remove any disturbances in the warp.

The private eye on the other hand, amateur or pro, tends to be about turning up big flat rocks and finding the corruption wriggling underneath. About helping the weak, and if not siding with the underclass, at least moving easily among them, and not trying to crush them for Mr. Big. Or Mr. Banker, if you like.

An L.A. policeman I know told me, “God, how tired I am of walking into parties and having everyone throw up their hands and shout ‘I didn’t do it!'” That certainly expresses one difference between the subgenres. The cop IS authority, can’t help but be. But Jack Liffey can go anywhere and eventually win the trust of just about anyone if he’s seen to be genuinely sympathetic to who they are.  He’s an outsider, which is a highly honorable role in Western Civilization. Wire Palladin, San Francisco. 

I sense a bit of Camus and Sisyphus in your conception of the hero—am I right? What is it about Camus’ conception of that myth that hits you (and me, to be honest) as optimistic, when so many others, especially Americans, find it shockingly grim?

Here’s a Camus quote I used as the epigraph on my second novel Courage, about revolution in Africa: “If after all, men cannot always make history have a meaning, they can always act so their own lives have one.” Oh yeah, Sisyphus sure resonates. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. I read Myth of Sisyphus and Caligula in high school and was blown away. For some reason I always think of members of the French Resistance being terribly abused by the Gestapo but not giving up any comrades (they rarely did). To go on doing what you know is right but very painful when God isn’t watching, when nobody who matters is watching—wow. Who knows the depth of courage it takes?  One privilege the French of that era have in history is knowing now who they are. For good or ill. When your country is occupied, you have to make up your mind who you are, and you remain what you choose for the rest of your life. Few of us today know who we are in that way. Some who went to Mississippi Summer. Some who refused the draft. All the other forms of “courage” that our society honors are basically conformity.

The number of times I’ve heard people say, “I don’t go to tragedies, they’re so sad. I want comedies.” That’s a totally sentimentalized view of art and heroism. With that view, even great art is reduced to kitsch. I find most comedies incredibly depressing, with their artificial situations and forced yuks, like drowning in hot pablum. Nothing is more heartening than a great tragedy. I won’t belabor it, but the human spirit is what it’s about.

Still, if you need any evidence that I honor Sisyphus, I keep on writing the books. There’s one about Chinese immigration and the Tea Party all finished and coming soonish (The Chinese Beverly Hills) and another underway about the Russian immigrants and the gay community in West Hollywood passing each other in the night like ships made of matter and anti-matter.  A writer’s gotta write, etc.

* * * * *

Jukebox Heroes of the Week: With a protagonist named Jack Liffey, methinks we need a spot of Fenian fury. Here’s the Pogues, with the tune that shook me out of my cynicals blahs and reawakened my love of music in the eighties:

TO HELL OR CONNAUGHT! 

 

Tits on the Radio—Or the Art of Reinvention

By David Corbett

I saw the film The Artist last week. If you’ve been shackled to a rock inside a cave on the moon, feel consumed with holiday madness, have better things to do, or for some other reason have yet to hear about this picture, here’s the trailer:

I love it for all the obvious reasons—it’s beautiful, smart, innovative, romantic, with stunning performances, beautiful music, fabulous costumes, the cutest terrier since Asta, the whole schmeer—but what has stuck with me is the theme: The need to reinvent oneself at a time of cataclysmic change.

Or, as we writers are apt to say at one point or another: Change or Die.

Publishing is going through a metamorphosis every bit as profound as what occurred in the film industry when talkies left the silents behind, or what happened in the music business a decade or more ago, when major labels jettisoned “mid-list” bands, and those bands had to find new ways to reach their audiences.

And it’s not just the turn to eBooks that heralds change. The very nature of the book itself in digital format opens up new possibilities—and requirements—that are mind-boggling. The ability to embed photos, sound, even video into a digital book means that all too soon mere text will not be enough—not just in non-fiction.

Or, put otherwise, in the immortal words of he band Scissors Sisters: You can’t see tits on the radio.

If a heightened experience is out there, demand will shift that direction like iron filings to a magnet. The mere book, with its beautiful prose its only singularity, will become an artifact, a luxury, a boutique item.

I know, I know, you’ve heard this all before. “There’s something unique to the written word,” I hear you say, “that can’t be duplicated in any other medium. One way or another, the book will survive.” Well, I’m no longer drinking that particular batch of KoolAid. Stories will survive, sure. But call it intuition, call it midnight dread, but I’ve met the ghost of writing future, and he’s not a patient man.

The book will evolve into something more like a digital version of graphic novels, TV episodes, films, or even games, and writers will need to team up with artists from other media just to remain competitive.

Games are of course the great narrative frontier, and once computerized characterization evolves to where game avatars can assume real personalities that players can meaningfully affect or even change, the whole notion of what storytelling means will utterly transform. Stories will no longer be something a storyteller dreams up, then shares with an audience. They will be interactive narratives storytellers and audiences mutually create.

I find this exhilarating and terrifying. A generally solitary soul, writing suits me not just professionally but personally. I’m not quite at the Hell-Is-Other-People end of the bar, but I spend a lot of days largely by my lonesome. There’s no way around it, that ain’t gonna cut it no mo. I’m going to have to adapt to the notion of working with a crew, in one form or another. And pronto. If I can find one.

Alexandra has written about how hard everyone she knows is working just to remain artistically viable. Stephen and Gar have also posted about the intense, scattershot demands they face professionally. Pari just this Monday talked about the need to reframe these new demands so they’re seen as adventurous opportunities, not terrifying or numbing obligations. Zoë has written about her whole shift to eBooks, and Phillipa and Alexandra have chimed in on that front as well.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the tectonic shifts in the world economy—don’t worry I’ll restrain myself.

The new annum dawns and the message is not just clear but loud, louder than ever: Change, Buckwheat, or die.

The Artist reminds us we’ve been here before, and some made it through the transition, others didn’t.

So Murderateros: I wonder—what have you changed this year, in order to remain in the game?

How confident do you feel you’ll survive, make the transition, land on your feet?

What new or secondary talents have you brought to the fore? Which others do you need to develop?

Do you feel like you’re keeping up, or are you slipping behind?

What scares you more: changing or dying?

* * * * *

Jukebox Heroes of the Week: I’m going to do a repeat, here, the live version of “Tits on the Radio.” I have a serious crush on Ana Matronic of Scissor Sisters, and I hope I can muster half the energy in my work as she does in this number:

Happy New Year everyone! Boogie on, to Babylon and Beyond.

Best wishes for a grand, transformative 2012!

 

 

 

Scalps, Bloody Shirts, and Babies Carved in Half

by David Corbett

Got your attention yet?

I’ll get to the gore in a minute. First, some announcements:

From January 23rd through March 12th I’ll be giving an eight-week Monday night course titled Story Not Formula: Crime Fiction Essentials at The Grotto in San Francisco. Follow this link or this one for details on what I’ll be teaching and how to sign up.

I’ll be doing basically the same course online for Chuck Palahniuk’s LitReactor sometime next year, so those of you hoping for an online course, I’ll keep you posted, and check my website for updates.

Also, on the weekend of February 4th-5th, I’ll be teaching a course at Book Passage in Corte Madera titled Integrating Arcs and Acts in Fiction and Film. Here’s the description (follow this link to sign up):

Aristotle believed that plot was the most important and difficult challenge the writer faced. But by plot he meant the architecture of change in the hero’s fortunes. Character and structure are inextricably linked. David Corbett, drawing on five iconic films—Vertigo, The Godfather, Chinatown, Silence of the Lambs and Michael Clayton—will demonstrate how the architecture of story deepens our understanding of character, with scene-by-scene breakdowns of how the drama is built. He will also, in the class discussion that follows, apply the lessons learned to individual student film and fiction projects.

Last, Otto Penzler has selected my first two books, The Devil’s Redhead and Done for a Dime, along with five short stories, for digital reissue as part of his Mysterious Press imprint at Open Roads Media. Hopefully the books and stories will be available for download early next year. I’ll keep you posted.

 

 * * * * *

Now back to scalps and such.

I had a completely different post in mind for today, but then I picked up the morning paper. As I wrote here on Murderati two weeks ago, my hometown suffered a bitter loss recently when a wonderful man and brave cop, Officer Jim Capoot, was murdered in the line of duty. I predicted that a tough political fight would soon be brewing over the issue of police staffing, city finances and public safety contracts.

Boy, that was quick.

A newly elected city council majority has decided to propose a public safety review committee that the police officers union and police supporters find not just pointless but insulting, calling it a travesty to their professionalism and the memory of their fallen comrade. They intend a mass demonstration at tonight’s council meeting, with T-shirts honoring Jim Capoot.

In short, the heat is already cranked up to boil, before most of us even know what’s going on. And this reminded me of one of my favorite historical insights, from Evan Connell’s Son of Morning Star, about General George Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn. Somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century, a settler actually bothered to ask a Native American why the warriors of his tribe took the scalps of their victims. The response says everything about human nature: “Because our enemies do.”

Henry Adams likened politics to the systematic organization of hatreds. He’d feel right at home in my hometown. If he still had his hair.

In such a charged atmosphere, with emotions so high after Officer Capoot’s slaying, the city council majority’s decision to press forward now with this hot potato demonstrates a level of arrogance and political tone deafness that is almost inspirational. I know the time line is tighter than it seems, with police and firefighter contracts ready to expire in June, but this could easily have waited a month.

Beyond that, though, is the issue of merit. I’ve met a number of the cops in Vallejo and done the prep course for the Citizens on Patrol Volunteer program. I spent fifteen years exposing lazy, incompetent, lying, drug-addicted, corrupt and bigoted cops. I’ve testified against them. I think I have a pretty good nose for the breed. That’s not the problem in Vallejo. In fact, V-town has one of the most professional forces I’ve ever encountered. The problem we have is simple: the cupboard is bare. We can’t afford more police officers, no matter how much citizens and the police themselves may want them.

But the police union’s kneejerk outrage, its decision to crank up the heat and switch off the light, is equally disappointing — though understandable, given the recent murder of Jim Capoot. The only thing more puzzling is that decision about the T-shirts. Apparently nobody’s explained to them the history behind “waving the bloody shirt.” It’s not complimentary. (Carpetbaggers on one side, KKK on the other—talk about systematic hatreds. Is this the political climate we want to emulate?)

Now I know enough officers to realize beyond any doubt that they mean no disrespect to Officer Capoot or his family. Quite the opposite. But they create an impression of a willingness to exploit even the death of a fallen fellow officer in pursuit of a political agenda and protection of their own bottom line.

And the city council creates the impression that they distrust the police on a fundamental level, and lack any faith that the public safety unions will play fair or provide honest information about what’s needed to keep this city safe. Instead city hall needs to create an independent body full of non-cops to gather the facts necessary to determine where we stand. This is moonspeak for “disaster.”

Those impressions, regardless of their degree of truth or falsehood, feed a dragon that exhales poisonous smoke. And that smoke is suffocating this city.

The police are right, the review committee will harm not help public safety, and it will cost money, money this city doesn’t have, any more than it has the money for the increased staffing they want.

Postscipt: I addressed the council chambers tonight and made this point. I can’t support the resolution. But I also requested the debate proceed with a little less heat, a little more light.

One solution to the over-arching problem is to have volunteers, as much as possible, help the police do non-patrol and investigation tasks. I’ve applied to be a volunteer for the police department and intend to put out the call for more. Because the unstoppable force has hit the unmovable object—we need more police, we don’t have the money—and the collision will incinerate this city (and a great many others in this country) if the citizens don’t stand up, get engaged, and empower themselves.

I’m not enough of a Pollyanna to think volunteerism’s the secret magic voodoo answer, but I’m also not so drunk on my own gall that I want to be the one standing there when one side or the other in this fight holds up half a bloody baby and declares victory. Solomon had it easy. Solving this fucker’s gonna take real wisdom.

A recent Vanity Fair piece that covered the approaching financial apocalypse in California, and mentioned Vallejo in some detail, made the excellent and inescapable point that we’re on the cusp of a new social contract, one that demands not just more accountability from government and the powerful but much more engagement from its citizens. The Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements are manifestations of the growing awareness of this transformation. Let’s hope to God they don’t just devolve into systematically organized hatreds.

* * * * *

Jukebox Heroes of the Week: I know I should be putting up a Christmas carol, or at least Robert Earl Keen’s hilariously heart-warming “Merry Christmas from the Family,” and wishing everyone a merry merry happy happy. But I couldn’t help myself—here’s the Boss singing Woody Guthrie:

 

Yes, have a wonderful holiday. This merry is your merry.

Politics and a Police Officer’s Death

David Corbett

For part of today, I will be away from my desk, attending the memorial service for Officer Jim Capoot (pronounced Ka Poo), who was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, November 17th, in my hometown, Vallejo, California. As council member Stephanie Gomes said in her comments at an earlier memorial conducted on November 20th, Officer Capoot wasn’t a hero just because of how he died, but even more because of how he lived.

 

He was shot and killed while pursuing a bank robbery suspect who fled on foot after Officer Capoot rammed his SUV in a PIT maneuver. Fellow officers who’d joined in the pursuit were only seconds away when Officer Capoot was shot dead. The other officers subdued the suspect, Henry Albert Smith, with tasers and took him into custody. An ex-felon who reportedly was having financial problems, the suspect was arraigned yesterday, and pled not guilty.

The Vallejo Police Department has shrunk to record low numbers recently due to budget constraints. Though small, it is a proud force and tightly knit. Officer Capoot’s loss was deeply felt, not just by his fellow officers, but by the entire community.

The Man

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Jim Capoot was an ex-marine who served in Vallejo as a motorcycle officer, motorcycle instructor, driving instructor and SWAT officer.

In 19 years with Vallejo PD, he received two Department Medals of Courage, two Life-Saving Medals, and other department commendations, including the department’s first Jeff Azuar Officer of the Year Award in 2000, named after the last Vallejo officer to die in the line of duty.

The father of three teenage girls, he volunteered to coach the girls’ basketball team at Vallejo High, and took them to the sectional championship. His players remembered him as much more than a coach, but someone who transformed their lives. One of the sayings that his star player applied to every aspect of her life: “Pain is temporary, but pride is forever.”


When two friends were killed in a motorcycle accident, he and his wife took in their two children, and Capoot built an addition to the family home to accommodate them.

He also coached soccer and softball, and when asked how he could take on so many responsibilities, he responded, “You don’t understand the need that’s out there.”

He was also a fiercely competitive dirt track racer, with a puckish sense of humor: He recruited a local donut shop to be the sponsor for his vehicle, Car 54.

Since the killing, citizens, neighbors, fellow coaches and members of the teams he coached have all stepped forward with heartfelt testimonials of what a selflessly devoted, inspirational and generous man he was. One of the last 911 calls he responded to was from a twelve-year-old boy who complained about his father’s disciplining him for not doing his homework. Capoot told the boy that he shouldn’t abuse 911 for non-emergencies, but then spent a few moments with him, telling him that he should obey his dad and work hard in school. The boy’s father said it made a huge impression on his son. “His teacher says, ever since it happened, it’s like he’s a new kid.”

The City

Officer Capoot’s death didn’t take place in a vacuum, obviously. Vallejo is a city of incredible contrasts that faces considerable challenges.

It once housed the largest US Navy shipyard overhauling nuclear submarines on the west coast. With closure of the shipyard in 1994, the city’s struggled to find a new direction.

Then disaster hit:

The foreclosure crisis struck like a nuclear bomb—with Vallejo ranked fourth nationally among the hardest hit cities. Abandoned houses now serve as meth labs, shooting galleries and squatter dens.

With the resulting crash in home prices, property tax revenue dwindled.

With the economic meltdown, businesses shuttered, sales taxes shrank.

Public employee wage and benefit packages—including those for police—became unsustainable, and mistrust between city government and the public service unions made compromise impossible.

In 2008, the city filed for bankruptcy—the largest California city ever to do so.

Draconian cuts in city services resulted, including a cut in the local police force from 153 to 90 officers. Because of these cuts, only six officers were on patrol—for a city of over 116,000 people—at the time of the midday bank robbery that led to Jim Capoot’s death.

The rancor over those cuts in fire and police services continues to divide the city today:

Supporters of the police and firefighters remain convinced the city sold them out.

Others refer to the public service unions (PSUs) as political machines feeding at the taxpayer trough.

The situation is worsened by a local newspaper that seems to prefer scare-mongering to factual reporting, going so far as to include burglary in violent crime numbers to make the latter appear worse than they are. (Crime is unquestionably a problem here, with a higher-than-average crime rate for the state, and a lower clear rate with the reduced staffing. But by at least one analysis, crime rates have actually been dropping the past several years, and are currently at their lowest rate in sixteen years. Fear of crime, however, and denigration of the city as a ghetto, continues to fester, due in no small part to the sorry state of local reportage.)

In the wake of Officer Capoot’s death, some are saying that members of the city council who weren’t solidly behind the police have blood on their hands for creating the low-staffing and minimal patrol numbers they believe contributed to his killing.

Their opponents point out that the police chief, after consulting with the VPOA, told the city council that the police union membership itself voted to keep pay and benefit rates near their current levels, and decided it would find a way to handle the cuts in staffing.

Police officers I’ve spoken to fear that a two-tier wage system would undermine the cohesion, high skill level and professionalism on the current force, which enjoys an excellent reputation with other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Meanwhile:

Violent crime calls now consume patrol officers’ time, to the point even burglaries are largely neglected, unless in progress. (Some officers called the city a war zone, and three were quoted advising prospective residents not to relocate to Vallejo.)

Prostitution and drug dealing are conducted openly, and are only now once again receiving police attention due to the redeployment of the Street Crimes Unit.

Gangs exhibit more civic pride than the Chamber of Commerce:

At the same time, neighborhood watch groups have exploded, increasing in number from 10 to 350. Prostitution patrols and clean-up crews have helped turn back the rise in open prostitution and neighborhood blight. Citizen engagement is growing.

The political divide became apparent again in the most recent election, when a 1% sales tax increase was on the ballot. The PSUs and their supporters were in favor, hoping the additional revenue would help enhance police and firefighter staffing levels.

Opponents of the measure noted that the new funds were not earmarked in any way, and they feared that once again union pressure would draw all the new revenue toward public employee wages and benefits, and away from other city services that have been savaged in the recent austerity moves.

Sadly, it appears some intend to use Officer Capoot’s death as a weapon in this debate.

I don’t believe our police are overpaid, and this recent fatality should put that talk to rest for a good long while.

But that does not mean the city can return to its former profligate ways. The bankruptcy has created a stigma that has driven away business and investment, and this won’t turn around soon, certainly not in today’s economic environment.

I hope instead Jim Capoot’s example of selfless commitment to the community and volunteerism inspires others to follow suit—join their neighborhood watch group or a clean-up or anti-graffiti team, volunteer for the CORE Team or Citizens on Patrol or Vallejo Lamplighter. I can think of few better ways to honor this incredible man’s sacrifice.

* * * * *

I’m not sure how to ask readers to chime in this week. Just feel free to say whatever comes to mind. And thanks.

* * * * *

JukeBox Hero of the Week: Several video tributes to Officer Capoot appear on YouTube. This one is my particular favorite: 

 

My Favorite Woman Writer: Martha Gellhorn

David Corbett

Last Thursday, Phillipa released the results of her poll on preferences for male and female authors and protagonists. In my comment, I sheepishly admitted that I’d not really recognized my favoritism toward male authors until obliged to fess up.

And yet I knew there were women writers I not only enjoyed but admired and read greedily. So in a fit of atonement (I’m so Catholic), I felt obliged to discuss one of them here. A woman who has me awestruck, frankly: Martha Gellhorn.

I came upon her by accident—that is, while doing research.

John Updike once remarked that he realized early in his career that he could either be a reader or a writer but not both. Hearing that, I felt welcomed, as it were, to one of the severest regrets of many a professional writer—the lack of time one has to pursue reading for pleasure. Deadlines, the demands of research—not to mention the fear of a sort of stylistic or tonal contamination many novelists experience when they read fiction while at work on a manuscript—bars many of us from reading as widely as we would like.

And so much research requires plodding through impenetrable tracts of dense lifeless data, culling for that one crackling detail that might bring a passage to life. The joy is compound, then, when a source not only provides the information sought, but does so with a fresh, commanding style.

That’s how it was when I encountered the work of Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent for nearly fifty years (as well as a novelist and short story writer), too often known merely for her brief marriage to Ernest Hemingway.

 

Her collection, The Face of War, drawn from her work covering combat zones from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s to Central America in the 1980s, provided one of those rare frissons every reader craves—the discovery of a fresh voice that is so unique, so penetrating, so sure-handed and clear, that every page seems to shimmer or haunt.

Opening the book at random, I came across her descriptions of the Nuremburg defendants, and was spellbound:

Goering’s “terrible mouth . . . a smile that was not a smile, but only a habit his lips had taken.”

Sauckel with his “puzzled stupid butcher-boy face.”

Hess, with “dark dents for eyes,” who “jerked his foreshortened head on his long neck, weird, inquisitive and birdlike.”

Frank with his “small cheap face, pink-cheeked, with a little sharp nose and black sleek hair. He looked patient and composed, like a waiter when the restaurant is not busy.”

Streicher compulsively chewing gum, his face blank: “the face of an idiot, this one.”

The “dreadful, weak” face of Schirach, who from the side sometimes resembled a hypochondriacal woman, who all her life “blackened her family’s existence with complaints.”

But the principal reason I was drawn to her was because, late in her professional life, she ventured to El Salvador, where much of my most recent two novels, Blood of Paradise and Do They Know I’m Running?, take place. She notes that she went there “in stupefying ignorance,” but it was her motive for going that I found inspiring:

As citizens, I think we all have an exhaustive duty to know what our governments are up to, and it is cowardice or laziness to ask: what can I do about it anyway? Every squeak counts, if only in self-respect. Gloomily, because otherwise I would be ashamed of myself, I made the small effort of a detour to El Salvador.

Gellhorn helped me with my own ignorance, just as she corrected her own. She spoke of a young American journalist who checked into the San Salvador Sheraton, left the hotel and then was never seen again until his body was returned to his family a year and a half later. The reason for his murder? No one could tell. Suggesting it might have been a case of mistaken identity, Gellhorn reflects acidly, “When killing is so easy, general and never punished, there must often be casual errors.”

Despite having been in war-ravaged cities such as Madrid, London, Helsinki and Saigon, she found San Salvador to be the most frightening of all. The violence didn’t come loudly from outside, but stealthily from within. The police hunted day and night, and she feared for the people who spoke to her. “Those who should have hated me as an American were friendly and trusting. But I knew what they risked and was awed by their courage.”

She came to admire the country’s poor: “Learning to read is the peasants’ rebellion. Their primer is the Bible. They were called the People of the Word, and that made them subversives. Subversives are prey.”

She was also outraged by the state of the refugee camps, the worst she’d seen since Vietnam. “Without the Church, courageous in El Salvador, the refugees would starve.” And her conversations with the wealthy women of the capital revealed a mind-numbing oblivion to the true state of affairs in their country: Only a few agitators were causing the trouble; talk of murdered civilians was propaganda; if there were any refugees, they were fleeing the Communists.

Such bromides were echoed by President Reagan, for whom Gellhorn harbored a particularly fierce revulsion, describing him as “boyish,” with an “ultra sincere chocolate voice.” When he equated the Nicaraguan Contras with the Founding Fathers, she could barely contain her rage: “This is truly astonishing, since the Founding Fathers were not known to gouge out the eyes and mutilate the bodies of their enemies, or to commit other such unseemly acts.”

Gellhorn found many parallels between El Salvador and Vietnam, which she also covered as a journalist, and she remarked that it was not easy being a citizen of a superpower, nor was it getting easier. She would feel isolated in her shame, she said, if she didn’t belong to a perennial minority of Americans, the “obstinate bleeding hearts who will never agree that might makes right, and know that if the end justifies the means, the end is worthless.” She recalls with both fury and shame how Johnson and Nixon lied about their plans to escalate the conflict in Southeast Asia, cheating America of the leaders its citizens thought they had elected, only to blunder into atrocity:

Power corrupts, an old truism, but why does it also make the powerful so stupid? Their power schemes become unstuck in time, at cruel cost to others; then the powerful put their stupid important heads together and invent the next similar schemes.

Like I said, sometimes research isn’t a chore, it’s a joy, an inspiration. A call to arms. Reading Gellhorn reminded me that the battle against naked power never ends, and life is a daily choosing of sides—if only for self-respect.

* * * * *

Murderateros—who sits on the throne in your temple of revered writers, male or female?

Do you have a favorite war correspondent, or journalist, whose work anchors you once again in the world and reminds you of the stakes of being human, of being alive together at this time, in this place, on this planet?

What inspirational nudge, insight, or life lesson has your favorite writer bestowed?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Boy, this one’s hard, because the post is so damn serious. But I’m going with Arlene Auger, one of my favorite sopranos, who died far too young (age 53) of a brain tumor in 1993. She was a late bloomer, so her career was sadly far too short, but her voice was the essence of simplicity and clarity.

This clip shows her singing “Morgen” (Morning) by Richard Strauss. I chose this piece because Strauss, though exonerated of being a Nazi sympathizer, was nonetheless one of the composers sanctioned by Hitler as fitting for the Third Reich, and Thomas Mann condemned him after the war for being “a Nazi composer.” Despite the messy background, the song is stunning, and reminds me that man is complicated, stitched together from light and dark, and even the wise and gifted routinely fall far short of their ideals (ask Joe Paterno):

 

 

The Invisible Hero: A Dialog with Zoë Ferraris

David Corbett and Zoë Ferraris

Today on Wildcard Tuesday, David Corbett converses with author Zoë Ferraris about writing heroes outside the normal mold.

Zoë is the author of two novels, Finding Nouf  and City of Veils, with her third, Kingdom of Shadows, due out from Little Brown in June, 2012.

Zoë’s novels take place Saudi Arabia, and while providing a tense, smart, suspenseful read, they also explore the uniquely disturbing relationship between the sexes under the shadow of strict Islam. Laura Wilson, in her review of City of Veils  for The Guardian, wrote:

Ferraris’s second novel more than lives up to the promise of her magnificent debut …. The plot is thrilling, with plenty of twists and turns, and all the characters well drawn, but what makes this novel really extraordinary is Ferraris’s knowledgeable and sensitive depiction of a place where religion, used as a blunt instrument, has given rise to a stultifying, paranoid and sex-obsessed society, where women are forcibly infantilised and men are emotionally bonsaied. Highly recommended. 

David: When I first read Finding Nouf, I was bowled over by how insightful it was about what damage a culture premised on male superiority could inflict not just on women but on men.

But the other thing that made me take notice was the timing. The book came out in 2008, with America still in the throes of post-9/11 Muslim-bashing. Muslim men in particular were often viewed as terrorists until proven otherwise.

I thought you were incredibly brave, hoping readers would see as human someone so many Americans had already stigmatized, demonized or dismissed.

And yet I didn’t get any sense of a political agenda on your part, though I did sense a desire to lend a voice to one particular type of voiceless—or invisible—character. Am I correct in that?

Zoë: Thanks, David. And yes, I’ve been hanging around Muslims for twenty years. At some point I took stock of all the Arab men I knew and asked myself how many of them are similar to anything I’ve seen in the media—bearded fundamentalist, sleazy souq merchant, wife-beater, oil baron, or billionaire sheikh. The only one who fit any of the above categories was an American I knew who had converted to Islam. His idea of being Muslim was culled from old National Geographic photos; he became a fundamentalist and grew the craziest beard I’ve ever seen.

Same goes for Muslim women. Checklist: any belly dancers out there? Nope.

If you wear the same perfume three days in a row, you’ll stop smelling it. It’s this energy-saving device inside your brain that eliminates new perceptions of familiar things. I think most Americans don’t stigmatize Arabs so much as we’re presented with ideas that become odorless, invisible after a few encounters.

It’s easy to break a stereotype for a minute or two, much harder to set up a situation where you care enough about a character to follow him through a rich series of events. The key is getting a reader to care. And with all the attention on the Muslim world these days, I figured that shouldn’t be too hard.

Much harder, I imagine, to tackle the subject of immigrants in this country, especially Latinos, as you’re doing in Do They Know I’m Running? In many ways that hits closer to home, because it’s a matter of looking at one’s own community and how it deals with strangers.

David: Yes, most people have made up their minds on who and what an “illegal immigrant” is. But I’m not sure my task was harder than yours.

As you say, the problem is creating a character (or characters) people care about enough to follow through a series of crises, intimacies, betrayals, victories. But if the reader’s mind is already made up, your character remains as invisible as Ellison’s hero.

I think this remark of yours is illuminating: And with all the attention on the Muslim world these days, I figured that (getting a reader to care) shouldn’t be too hard.

I succumbed to the same impulse. But what I found was a kind of topical overload. When you’re bombarded with information 24/7 you get pounded into believing there’s nothing more to be contemplated on an issue.

The difficulty of portraying a community’s view of the strangers in its midst is really one of intimacy. And yes, the intimacy ironically works against you. The closer to home the invisible hero is, the more likely he will slip under the radar of preconception and arouse feelings not just of sympathy but guilt.

Zoë: I can see how you ran into topical overload. A novel’s relationship to current events is one of those things that relies on the slot machine of destiny. And I’m sorry, but you and me are competing with vampires, which sometimes makes me think that people are suffering topical overload on everything and the best thing that fiction can do right now is nourish fantasy.

You said that if a reader’s mind is already made up then your characters remain invisible, but I think even the most absolutely rigid minds can be flexed by good fiction. One of the most awesome things a writer can do is take someone completely vile and make you fall in love with him—even if you’re not prepared to admit it. May I call the jury’s attention to Exhibits Hannibal Lecter and Tony Soprano? Dear cannibalistic serial killer, how did you get so charismatic? Ditto you, plump little sleazebag from Jersey? Why do I like you? That’s just shamelessly good writing.

I like your point about intimacy making it more difficult for a reader to accept an invisible hero, especially if anger and guilt are involved. But I just keep believing that when you write about topical things, you’re working with an advantage. And if Thomas Harris can make me like a sociopathic serial killer, then shoot, anything can happen.

David: I’d like to spin the intimacy angle a little, or take it in a new direction. John Hawkes wrote in a short story called “A Little Bit of the Old Slap and Tickle” that to be loved is to be seen. We all want to be seen honestly—and ultimately accepted—if only by one person. And that’s particularly true in a culture where sex roles are so regimented.

And yet, if women are veiled, how are they actually, truly seen? Removing the veil could go deliciously well or disastrously wrong, is my guess.

Zoë: This reminds me of something people usually ask at my readings: What do Saudi women wear under their burqas? It’s a strange, yet totally natural question. And yes, a friend of mine in Saudi often says that women just want to be seen, and she blames this on the burqa.

The first time I encountered a super-devout Muslim face to face, he came to my front door. He was looking for my husband, and when I answered the door (without a veil or head scarf, naturally—this was in Daly City), he turned aside so fast that he nearly got whiplash. He spoke very tenderly and politely to me, but he refused to look at me, and at age nineteen, I was tortured by that. Not only was it awkward watching him have a conversation with the side of my house, I felt like my own presence on my doorstep was dirty, or I was breaking some mysterious Muslim protocol. My husband later said that, in the mind of the visitor, he was showing great respect for me. He was, by not looking at me, loving me in his way—by giving me the freedom to be exposed and not stared at. But I persist in feeling that when someone pointedly avoids looking at my face while they’re talking to me, it’s insulting and disturbing.

David: Wow, that really beats my greeting-the-Jehovah’s-Witnesses-in-nothing-but-my-Batman-cape story.

Circling back to a point we addressed at the start, in a certain sense, we both, in our choice of heroes, honored the age-old challenge of giving a voice to the voiceless—or, a face to the invisible. But is this wise with one’s protagonist—especially in the crime genre?

James Lee Burke famously dedicates himself to standing up for the marginalized, but his heroes David Robicheux and Billy Bob Holland fit perfectly the mold of the chisel-chinned (if heavy-hearted) plains gunman. Lee Child’s Reacher and Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch epitomize the type, which accounts for much of their series’ vast appeal. I’m sure there are those who might argue that, by having heroes who for most readers seem to be outsiders, we’ve violated a cardinal rule of crime writing.

Did we fail to get the memo—or worse, ignore it?

Zoë: Nah, we read the memo, we just didn’t like it.

I think we’re showing respect for the genre by hitting it with a gene gun. Ye Olde Chisel-Chinned Plains Gunman was born a long time ago, and he’s still the main comfort food when it comes to digesting the ugly parts of our country’s history. But you and me, we’re not just doing all this to be nice, giving those poor voiceless their say. We’re evolving something. We’re part of a whole new menu of crime fiction that encompasses the world. (Check out the Independent’s “Around the World in 80 Sleuths”.)

We’ve defined an invisible hero as someone who’s been “stigmatized, demonized or dismissed.” That fits with the tradition that almost every successful crime hero is tortured in some way. (I believe that was the….other memo.)

Genre loves its antiheroes! And so do we. We may drag new people into that mix—the devout Muslim, the illegal immigrant—but what are they beyond that? How are they tortured?

I think we’re re-seeding the genre, so let’s make a date and see what’s grown up in thirty years.

* * * * *

So Murderateros—do you know of any other invisible heroes? Do you think that the marginalized are best employed as secondary characters? Or is the outsider in fact the archetypal protagonist?

And is topicality a blessing, a cure, or an irrelevance?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: It seemed fitting to find an artist with both Latin and Arab roots, which points directly at Shakira, whose lineage is both Colombian and Lebanese. This song, “Ojos Así,” more than any other captures that dual heritage. It’s based in the Phrygian dominant scale, contains interludes of Arabic, and Shakira herself sings in Arabic in the album version, single version, and various remixes of the song. (In this video, she also, yes, belly dances—sorry, Zoë.)

The Outer Limits of Inner Life

David Corbett

Writing problems are personal problems.

I can no longer remember where I first heard that, but I’ve come to realize it’s one of the truest insights into writing and the writing life I’ve encountered.

An example: I have a tendency to see the trees not the forest, to get lost in the rough, to marvel at the minutiae and miss the big picture. This isn’t just true of my writing. It defines my life.

I’m so obsessed with getting things right, with not making a mistake, that I dwell on details far longer than I need to. I over-complicate, listening to my nag of a brain instead of my gut. Over and over, I have to remind myself: What’s the goddamn story? Keep it simple, stupid.

It’s one reason I write so slowly. It’s also the chief reason why it took me so long to silence my inner critic and let go of the cancerous perfectionism that kept me from accomplishing anything. I’m not a late bloomer. It just took me too long to escape the prison of my own self-doubt.

Two weekends ago I taught a class I blithely call The Outer Limits of Inner Life, and it’s intended to get students in touch with the real life people and experiences that, knowingly or not, form the raw material for their fiction.

As Jim Harrison remarks in his novella, “The Man Who Gave Up His Name” (I’m paraphrasing here, having just spent half an hour trying and failing to track down the actual quote in my copy of the book): The sad truth remains we don’t get to be anyone else. The inability to accept this fact accounts for the questionable psychological states of many Hollywood actors. Look at them. See the folly whirling in their eyes.

I normally conduct this class by leading the students in a series of exercises: first, to acquaint them with a number of people in their own lives who have had some kind of emotional impact, from chain-smoking grandma to the kid who threw up on the teacher in second grade; two, to explore moments in their own pasts that were particularly charged—moments of profound fear, or shame, or love, or pride. In this way, I hope to root them in their own emotional truths, keep the folly from whirling in their eyes.

But due to the economy (I like to think), my enrollment was down: I had just two students. I threw out the lesson plan and said, Let’s focus on what you’re working on, and I had them tell me in detail about the novels they were writing.

Turns out, this was the best way to get at what I’d originally planned to teach. Go figure.

One student (his name is Richard) was a criminal lawyer with a long history of major trials, and he was writing, not surprisingly, a legal thriller. He’d had three agents almost bite, but had been told his protagonist wasn’t engaging enough. (I actually address this in another class I teach called The Protagonist Problem.)

As Richard got into the various scenes, he admitted he had his own doubts about a decision he’d made—the protagonist, being new to criminal law, makes a fundamental error early in the book by being too trusting of his client, and believing too wholeheartedly in his innocence. This mistake sets up much of the later action.

For whatever reason, I had this gut-instinct impulse. I asked Richard why he himself had gotten into criminal law—he was clearly a well-educated, middle class guy, not a former cop or street tough who’d gone legit with a bar card. Richard admitted that, as he was clerking after law school, he’d done a few criminal cases pro bono and had found he was good at them. He even got a second-degree murder verdict for a man who’d killed three kids in a drug deal gone wrong—when everyone was sure the defendant would get the death penalty. But Richard also remembered shaking the client’s hand after the verdict was announced, and feeling repelled.

I said, “You have to use that. It’s too vivid not to.” And we worked on making that contradiction—realizing you’re good at something that nonetheless creates a profound moral qualm—a core element of his protagonist, down to the skin-crawling handshake.

Instead of being naïve, the hero now puts too much faith in his talent. He’s a gambler, not a Pollyanna. This instantly makes him more interesting. But he also has this revulsion of genuine lowlifes, which ironically causes him to trust the wrong people. His arc pivots around the revelation that sometimes the person who seems morally repulsive is exactly the man you must rely upon—and the people you thought you could trust are the actual snakes—which sure enough was right there in the story all along.

Bingo, as Aristotle used to say.

The other student—we’ll call him Jim—was working on a police procedural with a lone wolf detective who’s nearing retirement but can’t quite let go. I asked the obvious question: Why is this guy a cop? Jim said it was because the job permitted him the means to live the life he wanted: a solitary existence, with a marriage long settled into routine, neither warm nor loveless, and a surfing sideline.

I told him that didn’t ring true for me, and it diffused his hero’s sense of moral purpose. Cops become cops because they have a sense of justice (at least the ones in books do, and a lot of the ones I know personally as well). They’re almost afflicted with a sense of responsibility, even if their own lives are a shambles due to irresponsible choices.

I let Jim talk some more about his hero, and it became clear that the cop was haunted. His loneliness was a choice, and something was bugging the bejeebers out of him. I said there just seemed to be something in his past, something he did or failed to do, or something he witnessed, that has eaten away at his soul ever since. It was clear from everything I was hearing, but Jim hadn’t yet honed in on it.

We talked it through a little more, proposing this, conjecturing that, and suddenly, the light went on in Jim’s eyes. “I know what it is.” It turned out to be something the hero didn’t do that has gnawed at his conscience. He was walking on the beach in Marin, he saw two kids struggling in the surf about thirty to fifty yards from the beach. He wanted to go in to save them, and knew he could with a rope lashed around his waist, but the two people on the beach with him talked him out of it, and the two kids drowned.

“Who were the two other people,” I asked.

“A cop,” Jim said, “and the woman who would become his wife.”

And yes, this wasn’t imagination. This had happened to Jim. And I said, as I had with Richard: You have to use this. By finding this personal link with his hero, Jim felt a newfound interest in him, a depth of insight he hadn’t had before.

A writer has only four tools: research, experience, empathy and imagination. The urge to rely too much on imagination—whether from sheer cleverness or a belief our own lives are too mundane to be of any use—steers us away from the core emotional truths and raw experiences that make us who we are. But those same emotions and experiences are what we want from our characters. We feel obliged to be inventive, when the truth is right there, in our past.

But as always, it wasn’t just my students who learned something. As the class was nearing its end, I talked about the novel I’m currently working on, and problems I was having getting into the main character.

The working title is The Wrong Girl, and the story’s based loosely on a case here in my hometown. Two girls were abducted six months apart by a child predator. The girls bore a very strong physical resemblance to each other: eight years old, slim, long dark hair, dark eyes. The first girl was still missing when the second was taken, but the second girl managed to escape after three days. (The first girl, they’d later learn, was long dead.)

Everyone admired the pluck of the girl who got free—until it leaked out that the reason she was so resourceful was because she came from a family of gang members. And sadly, ten years later, that girl was working the streets, in constant trouble with the law, despised by the cops who once considered her a hero.

I took this idea and built on it. That girl would have to live with the realization that everyone wished it was the other girl, the good girl, who survived. What was the message in that? You don’t matter. The trauma of her abduction, her abuse and imprisonment, would only be compounded by knowing that all too many people, even her family, would be perfectly happy if it had been the other girl who escaped. What would it take to save that kid’s life, to lure her back from whatever disaster she was calling her life at age eighteen?

Despite having worked for fifteen years as a private investigator, I’ve never written a PI novel—largely because I don’t see myself or the job I did within such books. PI novels are westerns, with the plains gunman transported to an urban setting. But Charlie Huston has urged me to forget all that and write what I know about the job, and this book will be the maiden effort. It features a PI named Phelan who’s been hired to find the girl, who’s name is Jacquelina Garza—Jacqi, she calls herself—get her to show up for court, and in the bargain he’s hoping to distance her from her poisonous family, find her some kind of stable life so she can turn things around.

But whenever I told this story to people, they always asked: Why does the PI care? And that’s exactly what Richard and Jim asked. And my answer was found wanting. I said he realizes that he’s the last chance she’s got—after him, the abyss. He feels responsible.

Richard said, “I get it here (pointing to his head), but not here (pointing to his heart).”

And so the teacher was obliged to suffer his own lesson. I needed to plumb my own experience. I gave Phelan my own nagging perfectionism, driven by a feeling he’ll never be good enough.

But I dug deeper than that. I realized I felt somethng for this girl because I too had a sense that I didn’t matter. I was a blue baby, Rh+ when my mother was Rh-, back in the day when this could prove fatal. I almost died at childbirth, and was quarantined from my mother for six weeks, a critical time, we now know, for bonding. And my mother would often, particularly when she had a bit too much to drink, gaze at me and with saccharine sentimentality tell me that she wasn’t supposed to have me, but she was glad I’d come along. And the guilt and misgiving in the message always came through loud and clear. What I heard was: You’re not supposed to be here. And it gave me my kinship with Jacqi, haunted as she is by: You don’t matter.

But I didn’t stop there, for I knew there was more within me that responded to this story, but I wasn’t getting there, wasn’t facing it head on. So I gave Phelan a bit more of my own biography — I married him to a stellar woman who died too young, a woman who herself fled home at fifteen, and who often said, if not for a friend’s family who took her in, she might have died on the streets.

This gives Phelan a gut instinct for how close a kid can get to being lost forever, because he was married to a woman who was just such a girl. And sadly, yes, he’s lost her forever. He knows the stakes. But he also feels that amorphous irrational guilt all survivors carry, feels it acutely, because his wife’s love was the only antidote he’s ever known to the poison of his own self-doubt.

And he knows what his wife would have him do. He has to do what someone did for her. He has to show this girl that sometimes you really do find a person you can trust, someone who truly believes you matter. He has to become that person—no sanctimonious bullshit, no noble altruistic look-at-me, no trying to reincarnate his wife through her or, on the other hand, saying glibly: It’s just my job. A kid like Jacqi Garza will see right through all that nonsense and he’ll lose her for good. It’s the hardest thing he’s ever done, like walking a tightrope between selfless compassion and Zen-like non-attachment. He has to be utterly committed and at the same time willing to walk away. He has to be brutally honest, tough as nails, and as open-hearted as a ghetto nun.

But if he gets it right, if he can lure this wild child off the street and into a safe place, maybe for once he can tell himself: At this, at least, I’m good enough. But if that becomes his motive, he’ll fail.

There. Now I’ve anchored my story in my heart and soul. It means something to me, something essential and yet something mercurial, difficult, as yet unclear, worth exploring. I’m ready to write.

* * * * *

So Murderateros, which of your writing problems can be tracked back to personal problems? When have you reached into your own life and found exactly what you needed to make a character or scene come alive?

Has your own life ever betrayed you in your fiction? Have you needed to step outside it and rely on empathy or imagination instead, because your own experience seemed to be holding you back?

And last: Does my story resonate with anyone of you raising teenagers — that need to care but not show it, to be there but also step back just a little, let go? 

* * * * *

Jukebox Heroes of the Week: Given the tone of this post, plus the fact we’re saying goodbye this week to so many of our comrades in arms, some for good, some for just a while, suggested the following song, written by Steve Earle and sung by Emmylou Harris:

 

 

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