Category Archives: Gar Anthony Haywood

LIES MY FATHER TOLD ME (THAT TURNED OUT TO BE TRUE)

by Gar Anthony Haywood

I know I’m off by a few days, but I thought I’d pretend it’s still Father’s Day and devote this blog post to my late, great old man, Jack Woodward Haywood:

He passed away fifteen years ago, but his impact on my life remains profound.  Anyone who’s ever heard me relate my “writer’s story” — the blow-by-blow of how I came to be a professional author — knows that it all started with “Big Jack” (as his cousins liked to call him).

An architect by trade, Dad was a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy, and you couldn’t take two steps in my parents’ bedroom without stumbling upon a mound of paperback novels by such authors as Isaac Asimov, Robert E. Howard, Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury.  The covers of these novels always featured fantastic illustrations of spaceships and aliens, Martian landscapes and muscle-bound, loin-clothed giants locked in mortal combat with oversized serpents and spiders . . .

. . . and they were as great a siren call to a seven year old boy as hot dogs on the dinner table.  Reading behind my father became my great obsession, and in that obsession I soon found my calling in life: writing.

It was an ambition my father encouraged with a very light hand.  Secretly, I think, he wanted me to become an architect like him, but as he would never actually say so, he was content to let me pursue a career in letters instead.  This is not to say, however, that he did much in the way of cheerleading.  That wasn’t my Dad.  His style of parenting demanded he leaven every word of positive reinforcement with three of constructive criticism, and sometimes the former was hard to make out in the forest of the latter, especially for a kid who really only wanted to hear how great his latest story was, not how much better it could have been had he only . . .

My father, in other words, was a difficult man to please.  I like to say that had I one day rushed home from school to report I’d just won a Pulitzer prize, Dad’s response would have run somewhere along the lines of, “That’s fine, son, but if you’d really been trying, you would have won two.”

Eventually, I figured out that nothing I wrote or did was ever going to earn his unconditional approval, and so started tuning him out as a Nattering Nabob of Negativism (as Nixon Vice-President Spiro Agnew might have once called him).  The old man would say something and I’d nod my head, as if in complete agreement, when in fact I’d be dismissing this latest lesson in life as simply more of his pessimistic nonsense.

Except that it wasn’t always nonsense, of course, and sometimes it took me years to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Doing the math now, I’d have to say my father was right more often than he was wrong, and the things he was right about were generally those that really, truly matter.  It was with this belated realization that I opened my first novel, FEAR OF THE DARK, with the following dedication:

For My Father
Jack W. Haywood
Whose wisdom I often mistook for raving lunacy.

(Hence the name for my personal blog, Wisdom Mistaken For Lunacy.)

I won’t even attempt a full list, because neither you nor I have the time for it, but here is a partial accounting, at least, of the many lies my father told me over the years that turned out to be not only true, but incredibly valuable for a writer to know:

You can scramble eggs in the frying pan.

Watching him do this for the first time (and probably last, now that I think about it — Dad wasn’t a big presence in the family kitchen), I was absolutely convinced he was nuts, skipping the whip-the-eggs-in-a-bowl step in making scrambled eggs entirely.  But hell if the damn things didn’t look — and taste — exactly the same when they were done.  Who knew?

The vast majority of published fiction is crap.

The year was 1977 (or thereabouts).  He’d taken me to dinner and we were browsing a newsstand afterwards.  I asked if he’d be willing to pick up the tab for a paperback and he said yes (miracle of miracles).  I chose a Starsky and Hutch novelization:

Just like you are right now, no doubt, he laughed in my face and told me if I wanted him to plunk down his hard-earned cash for a book, I’d have to do better than that piece of crap.

I was appalled.  “Piece of crap”?  How did he know the novelization was a piece of crap?  He’d barely glanced at it, let alone read it.  He knew nothing about the author.  How could he so casually dismiss a published novel — a book legitimized as genuine literature by its very existence on that newsstand — as crap?

“Because ninety percent of the fiction published in the world is crap,” he said matter-of-factly.

Naturally, this triggered a lengthy and rancorous debate that ended only when I’d capitulated and chosen another book for him to buy for me, which turned out to be THE AFRICAN by Harold Courlander.  (Interesting aside: Courlander would later successfully sue author Alex Haley for plagiarism, claiming Haley had based much of his blockbuster novel ROOTS on scenes taken from THE AFRICAN.)

While I’ve since come around to my father’s way of thinking regarding the abysmal quality of most published fiction, give or take a few percentage points, all I could do that night was agree to disagree with him, chalking up his stance on the subject once again to the tunnel vision of negative nabobism.

Weeks later, having read THE AFRICAN, I would refrain from admitting to the old man that he’d been right: Courlander’s book was terrific, and was almost certainly a better read than that Starsky and Hutch novelization — crap or no — could have ever been.

Touch typing is not for sissies.

Boy, did we go around and around over this one.  I wanted to take something useful like archery for my tenth-grade elective class, and Dad wanted me to take typing.  Typing!  What in the hell did the man think I wanted to be when I grew up, a writer or something?

He was relentless.  I took the typing class.

I thank God every day of my life I did.

Pizza is to die for.

Another boys’ night out with the old man, and he decides we’re going to have pizza for dinner.

No way, says I, that stuff is nasty.  The only pizza I’ve ever tried to this point is that cardboard cheesy crap my mother likes to order between movies at the drive-in . . .

. . . and one bite into such an affront to all that is edible should be enough to put any man off this so-called “Italian delicacy” for the rest of his life.

“Boy,” Dad says — “boy” being his favorite synonym for “you big knucklehead” — “that’s not pizza!”  And the next thing I know, I’m at Miceli’s pizza parlor in Hollywood, where my father has to all but force a slice of meat lover’s pie down my throat.

My illumination is immediate.

WTF???  This is pizza?

I guess Jack W’s not such a dummy, after all.

Hyundai is a car company to watch.

It’s a good thing I didn’t have the power to have my father committed when he first suggested this, because he would have found himself strapped into a straight jacket within five minutes if I had.  This was back in the Korean automobile manufacturer’s earliest days importing cars to America, and everything they built at the time made a Yugo look like a Rolls Royce by comparison.  Hyundais were so bad and ugly, in fact, that I gave my fictional private investigator, Aaron Gunner, one to borrow from a cousin whenever he wants to be all but invisible during stakeouts and surveillance runs.

But look at Hyundai now.  Kicking mucho Toyota ass and taking names.  How Dad could lay eyes on this . . .

. . . and see this in Hyundai’s future . . .

. . . I’ll never know.  Maybe he was just lucky?

It’s for sure I was.  He wasn’t the perfect father, by any means, but he got enough right as a parent and mentor to earn my enduring love and respect.

Thanks for the education, Big Jack.  We miss you.

Questions for the Class: What “lies” steeped in truth did your parents teach you?

IMMERSION

by Gar Anthony Haywood

When I saw this photo of an Amstrad PCW in Zoë’s recent post about her return to her writing roots . . .

. . . a huge smile spread across my face, because it immediately made me nostalgic for the days in which I was writing on my own dinosaur of a word processing machine.  That dinosaur was a Zenith Z-161 portable computer, and it looked like this:

I use the word “portable” because that’s how it was described in all the brochures, but this thing was about as portable as an anvil in a suitcase.  Lugging it up a flight of stairs was more exerting than any pulmonary stress test your doctor could possibly give you.

But I loved it.

Not for its looks (though I did find it rather handsome), but for its functionality, which was damn near as limited as that of a toaster.  With its 9-inch, monochrome screen and pathetic 256K of memory, there was one thing, and one thing only, I could do on my Z-161: write.  Type on the keyboard, fill the screen with words, and save those words on a big, black floppy disk.  Wanna play games?  Forget about it.  Surf the web?  There was no web back then.  Play music?  Get serious.

It was the perfect machine for an aspiring author, because it made what aspiring authors do best — avoid the actual work of becoming a published writer — as boring an undertaking as possible.  If you turned the Z-161 on and didn’t write, all it would do in return was stare back at you, little yellow cursor soundlessly blinking against a solid black CRT screen.

I wrote most of my first two novels on my Z-161 at home, in the evenings and on the weekends.  I was living with the (now ex-) wife, our two daughters and my step-son in a small two bedroom apartment in Encino at the time, and one corner of the kids’ bedroom was the best I could do for a private workspace.

After a while, as you might imagine, family distractions grew to the extent that I begged my manager — I was working full-time as a computer technician in those days — to let me write in our El Segundo office a few nights every week.  He agreed, and so I began to write, at least part of the time, alone in an empty office building with just the book in my head and an IBM desktop PC that was every bit as singular of purpose as my Z-161.

I can’t say the writing always came easy on those two machines — but I can say it always got done.

I won’t go into all the sources of distraction that now come with personal computers — games, email, online social networks, movies and music, instant messaging, etc. — because anyone reading this blog already knows what they are and how difficult they make it for writers today to get anything done.  But they bear mentioning here only to make the point that I don’t think it’s a coincidence my rate of output has never been better than it was when I was writing on machines that offered me no entertaining excuses whatsoever not to write.

My wife Tessa speaks Spanish fluently, and when I say “fluently,” I mean she regularly draws double-takes from native Spanish speakers when she uses the language at length.  They can’t believe their eyes or ears.  But Tessa didn’t learn Spanish from a book, in a classroom, or by listening to a series of lessons on CD.  She initially learned it by using it, almost exclusively, for three weeks in El Salvador and one in Guatemala, in the early ’90s.  In other words, she learned to speak and understand Spanish the way some people teach themselves to swim: by jumping into the deep end of the pool, where you either fight to stay afloat or drown.

This is called the immersion method of learning.

I believe there’s an immersion method of writing, as well, and that’s the method I was inadvertantly using (because I had no other choice, frankly) when I was doing all my writing on a Zenith Z-161 and an IBM desktop.  But it wasn’t just the archaic computers I was using that made my immersion possible; the environments I was writing in were key, as well: a tiny little bedroom with a single window and no TV or radio, and a closed computer company office as silent and vacant as a tomb.  In both cases, the only thing I ever had to keep me company was the book I was writing, and my only alternative to working on that book was twiddling my thumbs and whistling in the dark.

I chose to work on the books.

I can’t write on that old Zenith “portable” anymore.  Though it’s still in my possession, it’s too slow and cumbersome for my purposes.  And I no longer have access to that office down in El Segundo, nor that tiny, one-windowed bedroom out in Encino.  What I can do, however, is simulate the state of immersion those machines and locations forced me to write in, once upon a time, by turning my desk away from the window in the home office I write in today, and pretend the laptop I write on at present has no internet connection and no installed software other than Microsoft Word.  The idea is to get back to that time and place in which only two things existed for me in the whole world: my latest WIP and a device to write it on.  If I can get there, I may not have much fun — but I bet you I’ll have a completed manuscript in a lot less time than it’s been taking me lately to crank one out.

Quickly, Sherman!  To the Wayback Machine!

Questions for the Class: Writers, does the immersion method work for you?  Or do you need sources of distraction swirling all around you to do your best work?

READING IT FORWARD

by Gar Anthony Haywood

The movie was a big disappointment, but the idea at the heart of PAY IT FORWARD was a sound one.  In the 2007 film, a young boy (played by Haley Joel Osment) is inspired by a social studies teacher (Kevin Spacey) to try changing the world for the better by passing every good deed done to him on to three other people.  He calls this “paying it forward,” and because this is Hollywood, his demonstration of it changes the lives not only of the boy himself, but the lives of his mother, his physically and emotionally scarred teacher, and an ever-widening circle of people completely unknown to him.

I believe some bestsellers are born just this way.

You read a book and love it so much, you pass word on to several friends.  Some of those friends, in turn, alert others to the book, those people do the same, and before you know it, awareness of the book has spread like wildfire.

This is what’s supposed to happen to truly great books.  It’s the fate their authors, by virtue of their skillful writing, most deserve.

But this word-of-mouth chain-reaction doesn’t always happen.  Sometimes, we love a book enough to shout its praises from the rooftops, all right, but we don’t bother.  We either keep our enthusiasm to ourselves, or share it with a mere one or two people, usually by way of a casual reply to the question, “Read any good books lately?” that can all too easily go ignored or be forgotten.

In other words, as readers, we drop the ball.  We fail to do our part to make sure that something terrific we’ve read does not go unrecognized or underappreciated.  We leave it to others to talk the book up and create an audience for it, as if it’s their job and not ours.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but not any more.  From now on, I’m going to practice “Reading It Forward”: When I encounter an extraordinarily good book, I’m going to mention it here and elsewhere, and hope the positive word-of-mouth tsunami takes off from there.

Sadly, I can’t do this good deed for friends.  Because — just to cite one example — if I were to tell you Zoë Sharp’s KILLER INSTINCT is one of the best thrillers I’ve ever read, the skeptic in you would think I was only saying that because she’s a fellow Murderati.  And the Read It Forward experiment only works if the person offering the endorsement can be trusted to tell the truth, unvarnished by personal interest or bias.

So as much as I love and admire the works of Zoë and Stephen, David and Alex and Phillipa, etc., the book I’m going to “forward” today was not written by anyone I know particularly well:

It’s CLIFF WALK by Bruce DeSilva.

CLIFF WALK is a sequel to DeSilva’s Edgar Award-winning first mystery, ROGUE ISLAND, and it’s one hell of a read.  I happened to read it as part of the research I had to do for the panel I moderated at this year’s Left Coast Crime Conference, and I enjoyed every minute of it.  DeSilva worked as a journalist for over 40 years before he turned to crime writing, and his experience in the field makes his two books about Liam Mulligan, a reporter at a dying Providence newspaper, both rich in detail and highly credible.  CLIFF WALK is as dead-on realistic as contemporary crime fiction ever gets, and DeSilva’s dialogue, in particular, is as good as any I’ve ever read.  That’s no joke.

Bruce DeSilva may not get rich and famous writing this stuff — but he should.

Questions for the Class: How about you?  What book would you like to “Read Forward” for the benefit of the author who wrote it and those of us who — in your opinion, anyway — would be well advised not to miss it?

DUMB ANSWERS TO STUPID QUESTIONS: TOM SCHRECK EDITION

by Gar Anthony Haywood

Brace yourselves, people.  You’re about to meet Schreck.

No, not “Shrek.”  Schreck.  Tom Schreck.  This guy:

Tom Schreck is a multi-talented author who’s written on topics as diverse as boxing, business, pets, fitness, psychology, relationships, golf, diners, drive-ins and prison, all for publications that include The Business Review, Fightnews.com, Westchester Magazine, American Health and Fitness, Professional Counselor and Catfancy, among others.

So far he’s written five novels, including his latest Duffy Dombrowski mystery, THE VEGAS KNOCKOUT, which was just released today.  Tom’s a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and has both a master’s degree in psychology and a black belt.  (Don’t those two things always go hand-in-hand?) 

Having formerly worked as the director of an inner-city drug clinic, Tom today juggles several jobs: communications director for a program for people with disabilities, adjunct psychology professor, freelance writer, and world championship boxing official.

Now, about his Duffy Dombrowski mysteries: These books chronicle the life of a not-so-social social worker who’s always on the brink of getting fired.  Duffy’s a bad professional boxer by night, part philosopher, part Robin Hood by day, and he’s always all heart as he throws himself into helping those who can’t help themselves.

 

But the real star of the series is Al — Duffy’s obstinate basset hound, who prefers cheeseburgers for their laxative effect, hates sparrows, and prefers good looking Corgi’s as sex partners. Oh, and Al seems to show up exactly when it matters.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Schreck . . .

Gar: Okay, let’s get the obvious question out of the way first: How many times a day do you get a “green ogre” joke?

Tom: More often I get the knowing smirk and a shake of the head. I love the twenty-something hotel clerks who have no idea that anything else ever existed before the last decade.

I use the stock line, “Hey, I had the name first.”

Gar: Duffy drinks a lot of Schlitz.  For those in the audience who think Schlitz tastes like a warm Budweiser poured out of a septic tank, please make your best case for drinking the stuff.

Tom: Man, defend Schlitz? C’mon Gar, how about a little willing suspension of disbelief?

Actually in the early 90’s Men’s Health said it was one of the best values in beer so I tried it and it wasn’t half bad. Since then the company has been sold a few times and I’m not so sure. They now make a sort of “craft brew” that has returned to the original “60’s recipe”. They can’t keep it on the shelves in Milwaukee.

I want to be careful here, I’m still looking for an advertising endorsement deal.

Gar: What fighter, alive or dead, do you most wish could be a fan of your writing, and why?

Tom: John Duddy.

The Derry Destroyer just retired and I had the privilige of judging a few of his fights. He was a blood and guts fighter who the NYC fans love. He’d sell out Madison Square Garden with Irish nationals. His uncle Jackie, his namesake, was the first man killed on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland.

John got out of the game a couple of years ago and I admire him for that.

If my books were published in Spanish I’d like Hector Camacho to read them too.

Gar: The previous owners of Duffy’s basset hound Al (Allah-King) were members of the Nation of Islam, yet there’s no indication in the books that he’s partial to bean pies.  Why not?

Tom: One word: flatulence.

Gar: How would you compare writing to the sweet science?

Tom: It hurts less.

Both take concentration and the ability to empty your mind while you perform. Boxing asks you to do that while being punched in the face.

Both require strategy and forward thinking.

Writing taxes the cardio vascular system less—have you seen many of our peers at cons?

Gar: What’s the hardest you’ve ever been hit in the ring, and who nailed you?

Tom: I was sparring with a pro that I heard was mad at me. The last time we had got in the ring he hit me in the head and broke a small bone in his forearm. A couple of years later we were in the ring going nice and light which is how a pro will work with a guy like me.

Then he threw one shot that knocked me down so fast that I was disoriented because of going vertical to horizontal so quickly. Oddly enough, because I went down so fast it didn’t hurt my neck that much but my head swam for a little while and I was actually kind of giddy.

Nothing was ever said. It might have been a coincidence. Whenever I see him now we do a big bro-hug.

He was a good pro and at one point was like 15-0.

Gar: If book reviews were judged like fights, what would your record be?

Tom: I’d be undefeated, of course. Four and O. Though one or two might have been split decisions based on who the judges/critics would be.

Gar: They say the kind of dog a person owns says a lot about them.  What does your love of basset hounds say about you, besides how difficult you are to house break?

Tom: Gar, my incontinence was a secret between me and you and mostly with the medication I can control it.

As for what it says . . . I think it means I’m a masochist who has the distinct need of being humiliated by long-eared short-legged creatures that believe I was born to serve them.

Gar: Duffy’s boss Claudia Michelin is a real pain in the neck.  Considering her last name, in what ways is Claudia similar to a steel-belted, all-weather radial tire?

Tom: They are both inflexible, unattractive and round.

Gar: In your opinion, which game is more fair and honest?  Professional boxing or the publishing industry?

Tom: Fair, huh? Like you could fight your heart out and still get screwed by judges? And fair like you could write a book that’s heralded and loved by everyone who reads it but the publisher doesn’t back it and it never makes it to shelves?

At least in boxing you can knock someone out in the ring and they can’t take that from you.

Gar: Complete this sentence: “If I could get ten rounds in the ring with anyone in the world, it would be _____.”

Tom: There’s this guy who does reviews on Amazon . . .

Gar: You and Duffy are both huge fans of Elvis Presley.  Who is your favorite among all the King’s leading ladies in film?

Tom: Man, you’re asking me to pick from Ursula Andress, Ann-Margaret and Juliet Prowse? You know what — I’m going off the board — Shelly Fabares.

Gar: Duffy lives in a converted Airstream trailer.  Why an Airstream and not, say, a Winnebago?

Tom: C’mon Gar, it’s class thing. Airstreams are THE RV for those of us with style and class.

Gar: Who would you rather have watching your back in a dark alley — Floyd Mayweather or Reed Farrel Coleman?

Tom: Easy, Coleman’s from Brooklyn and wouldn’t fight fair. Plus he might have Ken Bruen with him.

Sure Mayweather is a brilliant counterpuncher but if you crowd him and put pressure on him he can’t turn a metaphor like Reed.

Gar: The plot of THE VEGAS KNOCKOUT involves the Russian Mafia, prostitution, and illegal immigration, among other things.  If you could have crammed one more hot topic into the book, what would it have been?

Tom: That’s even easier, I would’ve added more basset hounds.

 

‘HELP!’ HE CRIED. (OR NOT.)

by Gar Anthony Haywood

When former NFL great Junior Seau committed suicide last week at the early age of 43, by all reports, it came as a complete surprise to everyone who knew him.  In stark contrast to his reputation as one of the fiercest defensive players the game has ever seen, Seau was a beloved, jocular human being on and off the field, a man whose energy and joie de vie rubbed off on friends, teammates and family members alike.

And yet he took his own life before the age of 50, leaving no clues behind to help explain why.

Because the self-inflicted gunshot wound that killed him was to the chest, rather than the head, people familiar with the recent history of the NFL (National Football League) suspect Seau’s motives for suicide may have been identical to those of Dave Duerson, another former pro who killed himself in a similar fashion only 15 months ago.

Duerson had struggled for years with various symptoms of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy — as brilliantly described by guest blogger Kathryn Fox yesterday), brought on by the multiple concussions he’d suffered throughout his playing career, and taking his own life, it seemed, was his way of escaping a future that promised only more of the same.  He’d shot himself in the chest, a text message he sent his ex-wife before pulling the trigger explained, to keep his brain intact for researchers studying the long-term effects of CTE on former players like himself.

As Junior Seau had suffered multiple concussions of his own prior to his retirement in 2010, it’s at least improbable that the similarities between his suicide and Duerson’s are just coincidence.  In the absence of any concrete evidence to that effect, however, all anyone can do to understand his final act is speculate, and wonder why, if his troubles were so grave, he never sought help from any of the many people who loved him.

Or did he?

What does a cry for help sound like under such circumstances?  Does anyone really know?  Ideally, of course, it would be short, sweet, and impossible to misconstrue: “Help me.  I’m in pain.  So much pain I’m thinking about taking my own life.”  But who ever speaks that openly, that frankly, about themselves?  Who has the kind of humility required to admit to such vulnerability?

Junior Seau was a former professional football player, a future Hall of Famer in one of the world’s most violent sports, so it’s easy to understand how difficult it may have been for him to reveal his troubles — whatever they were — to anyone.  But Seau was also just a man, and men as a general rule don’t come to admitting weakness — let alone asking for help to overcome it — naturally.

Old fashioned though it may be, the idea that a man is supposed to be invincible — capable of fending for himself under any and all circumstances — is still very much in effect for most of us.  It’s how we were raised to think, it’s the example we saw set by our fathers and their fathers, and their fathers before them.  It’s the through-line of every ham-fisted adventure story we ever read or heard told around a campfire: A man survives.  A man provides.  A man bends but he never breaks.

But of course, some of us do break.  At the whim of love and pride, among other things, we fall short of our great expectations and go to pieces.  And some of us even do the unthinkable first: We ask for help.  We just don’t do it in a way that’s easily recognized for what it is.  We take the edge off, put bells and whistles on the plea so that the desperation behind it — the terrible, soul-crushing desperation — doesn’t show through.

I speak from experience.

No, no, put down the phone!  I’ve never contemplated suicide.  Ever.  The God I believe in has never allowed things to spiral that far out of control for me, and I know with absolute certainty he never will.  But my life has never been, and is not now without, shall we say, the occasional threat of rain.  In fact, I’ve come close enough to losing everything I hold dear in this world to feel the draw of the abyss, to at least wonder how much worse death could possibly be than another day living in pain.

When I find myself asking that question, I ask for help.

But I speak in code.

I make my need sound like a nuisance, my level of discomfort akin to a sore tooth.  I don’t talk about life and death, or the shedding of a single tear.  I choose my language carefully, so as to avoid any suggestion that what I’m asking for is nothing less than my last hope.

Sometimes, a friend will see past all the camouflage and bullshit to the harsh truth underneath, but mostly, no one ever does.  They just see what I’ve allowed them to see: one more disheartening message from yet another poor devil of their acquaintance looking for work.  And what, in these hard times, is unusual or alarming about that?  There’s no need for panic.  Everyone remain calm.  Bankruptcy is not a fatal disease.  Divorce is not the end of the world.  Hell, it’s not like Haywood said he was going to throw himself off a fucking bridge if he didn’t find a job soon, right?

Or blow a hole in his chest with a gun?

See, that’s the trouble with cries for help, especially those that come from a prideful man: They don’t always sound like a “cry” at all.

THE CONVERSATION

by Gar Anthony Haywood

As Stephen mentioned yesterday, those of us lucky enough to attend had a great time at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this past weekend.  A two-day (or three-day, counting the Times’ Book Awards dinner Friday night) celebration of books and the people who write them — what’s not to love about that?

But this year, my appreciation of the Festival was even greater than it has been of late for one simple reason: I got a new coffee cup out of the deal.  Here it is:

See, unlike my experiences over the last several years, I attended LATFOB this year as an invited guest, and the cup was included in my swag bag.

Not only did I have a seat on the “California Noir” panel Sunday afternoon along with a great group of authors, Kelli Stanley among them, I also served as a presenter at the aforementioned Los Angeles Times Book Awards dinner two nights before. 

(Stephen King won the award in my category of Mystery/Thriller for his epic novel 11/22/63, but alas, he wasn’t there to accept it from me in person.)

This last was a great thrill, and quite an honor, and it afforded me the opportunity to meet some people — authors, editors, journalists — I might never have met otherwise.  But just being asked to sit on a panel during the Festival itself is a gift from the gods, and I got quite a kick out of it.

Because I know I might be right back on the outside looking in next year, and the view from those seats suck.

Groucho Marx once said, in so many words, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member,” but I couldn’t disagree more with such a cynical statement.  When The Los Angeles Times chooses to ask you, Joe Author, to its party, that may not be a sign you’ve arrived, but it’s a sure-fire indication that you haven’t completely disappeared.  And disappearing — vanishing from the collective consciousness of readers and editors, agents and bloggers — is every writer’s greatest fear.

Long before you become rich and famous, before you can pay your damn rent as an author, you have to be a known quantity to potential readers, and that can only happen if you’re part of what I call “the Conversation.”

You don’t think my stuff is the product of genius?  No problem, as long as you know my name and my work, and find me deserving of a line or two in any discussion you have on the subject of crime fiction.  The Conversation is where the magic of word-of-mouth begins.  You have to be in the game to win it, and you can’t get in the game if nobody knows who the hell you are.

So visibility is an author’s best friend, and the higher your visibility, the better.

Being visible to those who attend the Festival isn’t the only benefit of being part of the LATFOB program, however.  There’s also the boost it gives to the ever fragile author’s ego.  Validation comes in many forms — I’ll blog on that subject at length at some future date — and having the Times acknowledge your significance on the literary scene by offering you a role to play at its book festival is one of the more gratifying ones.  It’s proof you haven’t been writing in a vacuum.  People really have been reading you and finding your work worthy of mention.  You may not be able to buy a cup of coffee with such validation, but it feels damn good, all the same.

And when the invite from the Times doesn’t come?  You feel like a loser.  Like that chubby kid who failed to get picked on a team down at the corner playground, even though he could knock the cover off the ball if given a chance.  Intellectually, you understand that no author can be asked to participate every year; there are just too few slots for too many worthy writers for someone to get one in perpetuity.  And yet you take the snub personally, as a sad commentary on how far you’ve come in your career and how far you have yet to go.

Silly.

Anyway, back to that new LATFOB coffee cup of mine.  It sure beats the hell out of my old one, which I received the last time I made the festival cut back in 2006:

And if you think that one looks bad, take a look at the one I got three years before that, when I was first invited to participate in all the LATFOB fun:

I know — the design’s hard to see.  These things fade over time.

Visibility’s a bitch to maintain, ain’t it?

DRIVING MISTER PRESIDENT

by Gar Anthony Haywood

I have a dear friend who can’t stand Oprah Winfrey.  A mid-list novelist like me, he thinks she’s a literary snob whose book club was an elitist farce, a cultural enclave for readers and writers every bit as exclusionary to authors of color as Augusta National has traditionally been to black golfers not named “Tiger.”  And if, God help you, you happen to write genre fiction, as my friend and I both do?  Well, the record certainly shows that the Big O’ has never had any time for you, let alone love.

Personally, I think her shortsightedness is Ms. Winfrey’s privilege.   She is entitled to like what she likes and make literary giants of whomever she pleases, be they dead or alive.

I wish she had broader reading tastes, sure — the consistent “We Shall Overcome (Racism/Poverty/Abandonment/Death of a Child, Parent, Spouse, etc.)” flavor of her book club selections has always been somewhat annoying — but, unlike my friend, I’ve never really had the energy to care, one way or the other, what she chooses to condemn or endorse.

Until now.

Now comes news out of Hollywood that Ms. O’ is mulling a return to acting — after a hiatus of more than 14 years — to accept a part in THE BUTLER, director Lee Daniel’s upcoming bio-pic about Eugene Allen.  Allen was a black man who worked as — you guessed it, a butler — in the White House from 1952 to 1986, where he served a total of eight presidents, from Harry S. Truman to Ronald Reagan.

Does Allen’s sound like a compelling story?  Perhaps.  You live in the White House for over five decades, at the beck and call of eight of the most powerful men who ever lived, and you’re bound to walk away having had more than a few experiences worth telling your grandchildren about.

But the title of Daniel’s planned film of Allen’s life makes it perfectly clear why African Americans should embrace it with all the enthusiasm of a nine year old given a fruit cake for Christmas: Allen was a butler!  Regardless of whose shoes he shined or meals he served, he was a servant, nothing more and nothing less.

In other words, a perfectly appropriate alternative title for Daniels’ movie would be DRIVING MR. PRESIDENT.  And where have we all seen that film before?

At this point, I could surprise you not a whit by turning this commentary into yet another indictment of Hollywood’s pathetic tendency to represent black people in only the narrowest and most stereotypical terms, those terms being: “domestic help” (nannies, butlers, maids, chauffeurs); “buffoons” (cross-dressing cops, matriarchs of large, dysfunctional families played by cross-dressing writer/actor/directors); po’ folks (ghetto thugs, single mothers, pimps and drug dealers); and of course, ‘ballers (base-,  foot-, and the ever-popular basket-).

But railing against this vicious cycle of cinematic racial profiling has proven to be as effective in creating change as a squirt gun against a forest fire, so I’ll leave that noble endeavor for others to tackle, again and again, and again, until (it would seem) the end of time.  No, what I’m taking up arms against today is not the pinhole view Hollywood continues to have of the role black people can and should play in movies, but the apparent willingness of someone as iconic as Oprah Winfrey to enable it.

When an actor like, say, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer of THE HELP receives an offer to play yet another character out of the Four Basic Negro Groups as outlined above (Help, Buffoon, Po’ Folk, ‘Baller), her choices are to take the role and keep eating, or wait for something more dignified to come along and starve.  Asking her to risk life, limb and career by taking a stand against the box Hollywood is so intent upon keeping our people in is like asking the one member of the SWAT team not wearing a Kevlar vest to take point.  It’s suicide.

But Oprah?  Oprah has options.  Oprah has position and power and wealth.  Enough of all three with plenty left over to tell pretty much anyone in this town “no” and get away with it.

Which is exactly what she should have said when the script for THE BUTLER first came across her desk: no.  Flatly, unconditionally, “No.”

“After waiting fourteen years to be offered a movie part worthy of my name and stature, I am not coming out of retirement for this recycled b.s.”

(And before you suggest I would need to read the script for THE BUTLER myself to have any right to say all this, let me point out that reading it would do nothing to change the inalterable fact that, once again, it is the story not of an astronaut or a Nobel prize winner or even a simple dentist, but of a butler.  An exceptional butler, a wise butler, a butler with a heart of gold, no doubt — but a butler, all the same.  (Please go back to the beginning of this post and start reading again if you still don’t understand why this is a problem.)

Of course, I’m asking quite a bit of Ms. O’ here because the premise of THE BUTLER sits right smack dab in the sweet spot of her literary preferences.  For Oprah, based upon her book club choices, anyway, tugged heartstrings and emotional tragedy trump originality and/or authenticity every time.

Still, it would have been great to see her get past her own affection for Hollywood’s favorite cast of black characters to let this opportunity to play one go to someone else, and make a big stink about it in the process.

By publicly declining a role in Mr. Daniels’ film, would Oprah accomplish anything beyond making it more difficult for its producers to get it made?  Probably not.  But her doing so would send a message to Hollywood regarding its myopic, unconscionable vision of African Americans that almost no one short of Ms. Winfrey could send and live to tell about it:

“To hell with this, I’m not having it.”

True, were they in Oprah’s shoes instead, it would only be fair to expect male superpowers like Denzel Washington and Will Smith to do the same.

But since I’ve just read they’re attached to do a remake of the old Bill Cosby/Sidney Poitier slapstick comedy “Uptown Saturday Night,” I wouldn’t put my money on that happening, either.

Meanwhile, on another subject entirely. . .

Maybe you’ve seen this graphic that’s been passed around a great deal on Facebook lately:

My writer friends say the right-hand image represents what the average career track looks like for professional authors who have achieved “success.”  I suggest it actually looks more like this, at least for many:

I point this out now because I am myself about to climb even further up and out from the Pit of Irrelevance — otherwise known as OOP (Out Of Print) Hell — starting next Tuesday, April 17, when Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press officially re-issues all six of my Aaron Gunner novels as e-books.  To say that I’m excited would be to understate matters considerably.

How this development will affect my own career trajectory — onward and upward, or more non-linear zig-zagging? — remains to be seen.  But I’m hoping the books will find a whole new audience with Kindle and Nook owners and create a demand for a seventh Gunner novel.

Especially since that seventh novel is being written as we speak.

Wish me luck!

THERE AIN’T NO SUCH THING AS ‘NOIR LITE’

by Gar Anthony Haywood

(Yeah, I know what you guys are thinking: “Two posts by Haywood back-to-back?  Really?”  Well, don’t worry, it’s not a sign I’m taking over this joint.  It’s just a Murderati scheduling quirk.  Won’t happen again soon.  I hope.)

This weekend, like many of you, I’ll be attending the Left Coast Crime Convention in Sacramento, and one of the two panels I’ll be sitting in on is all about noir.

I find this somewhat amusing, as I don’t really write noir.  I skirt the edges sometimes — ASSUME NOTHING, my latest novel, comes the closest to making the noir grade, as I perceive it — but I don’t “do” noir.  And this isn’t by accident.

Here’s why:

Not so long ago, I did something I really didn’t want to do: I watched the movie Precious.  Lord knows I’d tried to avoid it; critical acclaim or no, any film about a poor, obese, teenage black girl growing up as the live-in slave of an equally obese, abusive, welfare-queen mother has to be the cinematic equivalent of root canal surgery, right?  Why would I ever want to subject myself to that kind of misery?

Well, surprise, surprise — the film was brilliant.  Well written, smartly directed, and performed by a cast of actors deserving of every accolade and award nomination it received.  In short, I’m glad I saw the movie.

But yeah, sitting through it was a living nightmare.

In part because its subject matter was cringe-inducing, yes, but mostly because it was real.  The people who made this film — and I would assume this is also true of Sapphire, the author of the book upon which the film was based — didn’t pull any punches.  Hell, no.  They took a story dealing with some incredibly sordid characters and situations and presented them in all their horrific, obscene, and gut-wrenching glory.  It could be argued that the language in Precious alone should have earned it an NC-17 rating.  I mean, nothing Linda Blair ever regurgitated in The Exorcist comes close to the bile that comes out of the mouth of Precious’s mother, in particular, throughout the course of this film.

And all for only one reason that I can imagine: authenticity.  A commitment to depict these people exactly as they would appear in the real world, grotesque warts and all.  Choosing to hew this close to the ugly truth could not have been an easy decision; the filmmakers had to know that doing so would cost them a sizable part of the crossover audience movie studios so covet.  Yet they held to their convictions and did it anyway, trusting that the quality of the film would win out over the criticisms it was bound to receive for its almost unrelenting darkness and vulgarity.

So what does any of this have to do with my aversion to noir, you ask?

Well, only days before popping Precious into the ol’ DVD player, I’d finished reading my first Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake) novel, THE HUNTER.  Following my reading of James Crumley’s THE LAST GOOD KISS, this was Step Two in my ongoing effort to finally read masters of the mystery/crime/espionage genres I should have read a long time ago (Ian Fleming, George V. Higgins, Rex Stout, etc.).  I had a particular interest in THE HUNTER — one of a series of books Stark wrote about a ruthless professional thief simply named “Parker” — because it served as the basis for one of my all-time favorite movies, 1967’s Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin.

In the film, Parker (renamed “Walker” for some odd reason) is a single-minded, sociopathic killer relentlessly blasting his way through the Mob in order to get somebody, anybody to pay him the $93,000 they owe him.  Walker is also driven by revenge — his former partner double-crossed him, stole his wife, and left him for dead in the aftermath of a heist, then used Walker’s share of the take to buy his way back into the Mob’s good graces — but his primary interest is recovering his money.  Because it’s his money, he earned it, and he wants it back, goddamnit: $93,000, not a penny more and not a penny less.

You’ve gotta love that kind of manic tunnel vision.

(Of course, were the film remade today [as it was earlier in the form of the 1994 Mel Gibson stinker, Payback], Walker would find his motivation in the fact that his backstabbing partner, who raped and killed Walker’s parents and kid sister fifteen years before, is now holding his wife and two children hostage in an impenetrable Mob fortress guarded by an army of ex-Special Ops psychopaths blah-blah-blah-blah-blah…)

I’d been warned by fans of Stark/Westlake that Point Blank’s Walker, as cold and violent as he was as portrayed by Marvin, paled by comparison to THE HUNTER’s Parker, so I was prepared to meet a somewhat less likable protagonist.  But damn!  Parker makes Walker look like a Salvation Army Santa Claus.  It isn’t so much that the body count in THE HUNTER is higher than it is in Point Blank, it’s the ease with which Parker adds to it that makes for such a jarring contrast.  Parker may only kill those who “need” killing in THE HUNTER, but it doesn’t take much in his estimation for someone to meet that qualification.  Simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or knowing something he doesn’t want getting around, is enough to make you better dead than alive in his book.  And remorse?  Forget about it.  That’s for relative softies like Darth Vader to fret over.

What I’m describing, of course, is the archetypical noir protagonist: a deeply flawed, self-serving lead character, who’s usually surrounded by a supporting cast cut from the same nasty cloth.  Altar boys and Girl Scouts need not apply.  To write fiction deserving of the “noir” designation, an author has to accept the fact that his work will probably turn off a lot more potential readers than it turns on.  He has to write about unpleasant people doing terrible things to innocents and scumbags alike, without remorse or regret, and to do it realistically, he has to show little or no regard for the reactions of his reader.  I call this “going there,” “there” being a place not everyone will care to visit, and I think embarking upon this journey is one of the most courageous moves any writer can ever make.

Because “going there” is entirely counter-intuitive to what we authors are hardwired to want from Day One: a wide, all-encompassing readership.  Deliberately choosing to write the kind of book you know going in will have only a limited appeal, and then writing that book as faithfully to the form as possible (which is to say, without artificially toning things down to soften the blow), is gutsy as hell, and not every writer has the cajones to do it.

Most only have enough to do the job halfway.  These people write, either consciously or subconsciously, what I like to call “Noir Lite”: novels that feature noirish characters and situations, but none of the hair-raising dialogue or on-screen violence that should naturally follow.  The latter elements have been either sanitized or, worse, excised altogether, to better reduce the author’s chances of offending those readers for whom “noir” is a dirty word.  This, to me, is a joke.  A kinder, gentler noir?  There ain’t no such thing.

Which is why I’ve actively avoided trying to write a legitimate noir novel to date.  I don’t want to go there.  I’ve got no problem writing dialogue that could peel paint off a wall, or describing certain acts of violence in gruesome detail, but I don’t want to write stories in which the good guys are, to all extents and purposes, completely indistinguishable from the bad, and can only end on a definite downer, as all true noir stories must.  It’s just not my thing.

And neither is faking it.

To write noir, you have to do what the people behind Precious did: You have to go there.  Not part way, not halfway, but all the way to that dark, funky, foul-smelling place in which noir resides.  Some readers won’t be able to stand the heat of your kitchen, but those are the breaks.

As I’m sure Parker would say were he around to ask for an opinion: “Deal with it.”

Questions for the Class: What examples of “Noir Lite” — or, worse, downright fake noir — can you name?

THE RIGHT MAN FOR THESE JOBS

by Gar Anthony Haywood

Like far too many Americans these days, I’m out of work.  Which is to say, I don’t have a day job that pays my bills.  I haven’t had one, in fact, for over three years now, or since I was laid off as a production artist for these people.  (The most rewarding and enjoyable work I’ve ever done, by the way.)

I’ve been in this position before, just as, I suspect, many of you have.  The writer’s lot, after all, is not generally filled with long, unbroken stretches of gainful employment.  So this vicious cycle of apply, wait, get rejected is nothing new to me.

Part of the problem in landing something is that I’m very rarely applying for the perfect job.  I apply for things I can do, and do well, but postings for work I know, absolutely know I could hit out of the goddamn ballpark are few and far between.

Go ahead and say it.  All together now: “Awwww, poor Gar!”

And that’s the proper response, of course, because there might be one person in every thousand in this world who holds his or her “perfect job.”  A job that is absolutely, ideally suited to one’s unique skill set and personal interests.  Everyone else, if they’re lucky enough to be employed at all, is doing work just for the sake of the paycheck.  Respectable work, maybe even enjoyable work, but work that falls short of making them deliriously happy, nonetheless.

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that.

But, hell.  This is Wildcard Tuesday, isn’t it?  If a man can’t dream on Wildcard Tuesday, when can he dream?  Today, I think I’ll stand this whole job search process on its head and, instead of yearning from afar for the positions of my fantasies, I’ll just openly state my interest in them here and hope the right personnel directors take note.  What have I got to lose?

Here, then, are my seven Perfect Dream Jobs:

Screenwriter of Dirty Harry 6

I’ve shown my mad man-love for Clint Eastwood’s seminal Harry Callahan character here before, so it should come as a surprise to no one that I’d love to write the last—and it would, sadly, have to be the last—cinematic chapter in that series.  Eastwood’s reluctance to play Callahan again, at this late stage in his life, is understandable, but I think I’ve come up with a story that addresses all the credibility issues such a sequel could present.  All I need is a phone call from Malpaso to run out to the Warners lot and pitch it to the man himself.

It would make my day.

Joke Writer for Bill Maher

Maher can be a sexist ass at times, but when he’s on, he’s funny as hell.  While, generally speaking, we see eye to eye politically, I think it’s the thing we least have in common that would make our partnership a winning one: Maher’s a raging atheist and I’m an imperfect Catholic.  Sometimes, when worlds collide, funny happens.

I’m down to write a few New Rules if Bill’s willing to give me a shot.

Staff Writer on Justified

Television and I don’t often get along, I must admit.  The only two series I’ve ever written for taught me I’m about as well-suited for turning out standard boob-tube fare on a timely basis as Rick Santorum is to be a tattoo artist.  But given the right, smart, kick-ass show to work on—say, one not only based on a character created by Elmore Leonard, but actually committed to representing that character faithfully—I’m sure I could churn out a teleplay or two worthy of WGA accreditation.

Publisher’s Weekly once called one of my standalone thrillers “the best Elmore Leonard rip-off since Elmore Leonard,” and I’ve never been prouder of a potential blurb in my life.  If I can do it in prose, why not in television?

Graphics Designer for the Los Angeles Lakers

I don’t often mention it here, but I am a crazed fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, and more than once I’ve used the team’s victory in a championship series to strut my stuff as a poster art designer.  For instance:

My skills as a renderer are severely limited—I can only draw something with any degree of accuracy if it’s sitting directly in front of me—but I wield a mean copy of Photoshop.  Should Kobe and company find a way to win it all again this year (and right now that seems rather unlikely), I’m sure I’ll create another masterpiece suitable for framing just to celebrate their achievement.

But I’d much rather do it not as a sycophantic fan, but as an employee on the Lakers payroll.

Audio Book Reader for the Works of Daniel Pinkwater

As stated here, Pinkwater is a favorite author of my entire family, and I used to get a real kick out of reading his wacky books aloud to my two youngest children at bedtime.  I’m quite a ham, as anyone who’s ever seen me perform at conventions can attest, so I never did fewer than six different voices when reading a Pinkwater book.  It was loads of fun, and the idea of getting paid to do it all over again, for middle-grade readers around the globe, damn near moves me to tears of joy.  Hamlet?  Forget about it.  But a Daniel Pinkwater recital?

I’m your man.

Book Cover Artist for the 6.4 Million Self-Published Authors Who Desperately Need One

Los Angeles Lakers championship posters aren’t all I like to design.  Every now and then, I try my hand at doing book covers, as well.  Severn House had their own ideas several years ago regarding the cover art for my novel CEMETERY ROAD, and fine ideas they were, too, as things turned out.  But before the ink was dry on my book contract, I’d created two mock-ups based on ideas of my own.  Like this one:

And this one:

Most recently, I did the cover art for SHAKEN, the short story anthology Tim Hallinan put together to raise funds for the earthquake and Tsunami victims in Japan last year:

Again, as I admitted in my paragraph about Lakers poster art design above, I can’t do everything a real artist can do.  But give me a premise and a subscription to a few good stock photography sites, and look out.  I can be dangerous.

An Actor on The Good Wife

Okay, I’m no Sir Laurence Olivier, but I’ve got a pretty face and I once had a speaking part in an Audubon Junior High School production of The Pajama Game.  Plus, I have real on-screen presence, as this clip from the book trailer for Michael Connelly’s ECHO PARK clearly demonstrates:

No, I couldn’t carry a show of my own, but I think I could handle playing Archie Panjabi’s latest love interest quite easily.  Or a witness being grilled in the courtroom by Julianna Margulies.  A FedEx guy delivering a package to Christine Baranski?

How about a lawyer being fouled by Josh Charles in a basketball game at the gym?  You haven’t heard someone cry “And one!” convincingly until you’ve heard me cry “And one!”

What about you, my fellow ‘Rati?  What are some of your Perfect Dream Jobs?

DUMB ANSWERS TO STUPID QUESTIONS: BRAD PARKS EDITION

by Gar Anthony Haywood

A warning to all you Brad Parks haters out there: Get used to seeing this guy’s pretty face because he’s going to be around for a while.

Brad is a Dartmouth College grad and former investigative reporter who spent a dozen years writing for The Washington Post and The Newark Star-Ledger, and now that he’s turned his attention to writing crime fiction, he’s damn near taking over the world.

His debut novel, FACES OF THE GONE, won the Nero Award for Best American Mystery and the Shamus Award for Best First Mystery, a feat no single book had ever accomplished in the combined 60-year history of those awards. FACES OF THE GONE, which Library Journal called “the most hilariously funny and deadly serious mystery debut since Janet Evanovich’s ONE FOR THE MONEY,” launched the career of Brad’s fictional investigative reporter Carter Ross, who was just recently named by the readers of Jen Forbus’ terrific blog, Jen’s Book Thoughts, “the World’s Favorite Amateur Sleuth.”

Brad’s second Carter Ross novel, EYES OF THE INNOCENT, was even better than the first, or so said Library Journal and almost everyone else who read it.

Now his third Carter Ross novel, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, has just been released, so naturally Brad’s spanning the electronic globe pimping it like a daddy whose baby needs new shoes.

Because that’s exactly the kind of shameless behavior I engage in when I have a new book out, and because Brad is actually as good at what he does as his press clippings would lead one to believe, I am happy today to introduce him to the Murderati faithful via the following Q & A.

But before you leap to any conclusions about this being just another boring, predictable Q & A, let me disabuse you right now of any such notion.  Brad’s a very witty guy, as his Carter Ross novels clearly demonstrate, and everyone here knows how hilarious I am, so we both thought we’d try to have as much fun with this interview as Brad’s readers will have reading THE GIRL NEXT DOOR . . .

Gar: You and I first met in the hotel bar at Thrillerfest a few years ago, when you weaseled your way into an incredibly personal conversation I was having with legendary book blogger Sarah Weinman.  Shortly thereafter, Sarah shut down her popular blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, for good.  Coincidence?

Brad: C’mon. Any good mystery writer – and, Gar, you’re one of the best – knows there’s no such thing as a coincidence. You just happen to be the first to put it together. The fact is, Sarah’s tastes are pretty high-brow, and I’m not a 50-years-dead Icelandic author whose achingly beautiful and hauntingly spare novels are crying out for rediscovery. One brush with me convinced her the whole genre was heading straight into the crapper. She folded up shop, right then and there.

By the way, sorry to horn in on you that time, but I did want to say it was really courageous of you to tell Sarah about your gonorrhea.

Gar: After you won the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus award for your first novel, FACES OF THE GONE, you celebrated by posting photos of yourself posing with the award in locations all over San Francisco.  Any idea what you’ll do to celebrate when you inevitably win the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award?

Brad: Yes. I’ll do the exact same thing in New York. But I’ll be naked.

Gar: You and your series character, investigative reporter Carter Ross, would seem to have a great deal in common.  In fact, I applaud you for resisting the temptation to name him “Parker Bradley.”  But in what ways are the two of you quite different?

Brad: Well, I’m left handed. And color blind. And otherwise… can I get back to you on this one?

No? Okay. Truth time: there’s a lot Carter and I obviously share, but I don’t really have Carter and I confused. He’s a separate person in my head. When I envision a scene, I don’t see myself as Carter. (He actually looks like a guy I used to work with). I think, more than anything, having Carter share certain traits with me is a convenience that allows me to write certain things with a little bit of extra authority. I know what it’s like to be a starchy, 6-foot-1, 185-pound white guy walking into a housing project in Newark. I know how people reacted to me and how it made me feel. And I can put some of those feelings into Carter.

Gar: You’ve been writing full-time, away from the daily grind of the newspaper racket, for a while now.  Besides the occasional threat of a libel suit, what do you miss most about your former occupation?

Brad: Without question, going into the newsroom. Up until the industry totally imploded, your typical American newsroom was the greatest working environment in the world. It was full of bright, witty, irreverent, malcontented people, many of whom ended up working for newspapers because they were incapable of coexisting with polite society. Collectively, they were experts on just about everything – and yet nothing at all – and there was always someone around who could give you an education on any topic that interested you. There was a lot of yelling, some seriously off-color jokes, and we could have all sued each other for sexual harassment ten times over. Yet, every day, we managed to overcome all that dysfunction just long enough to put out a newspaper. It was a great place to grow up.

Gar: In your three novels to date, Carter Ross is surrounded by a cast of colorful, amusing secondary characters.  Tommy Hernandez, a gay, Cuban intern at the paper for which Carter works, is a prime example.  If you could sit down for lunch with all of Carter’s people, would you pick up the check or insist on dutch?

No, no, just joking.  Here’s the real question: Who among these fictional characters would you most like to have a long, heart-to-heart with, and why?

Brad: I reserve the right to change this answer depending on my mood. But at this very moment, I’d say Buster Hays – the cranky, cantankerous old newsroom salt with the four Rolodexes full of sources. Buster is one of those guys who have a million stories, but he won’t just volunteer them. You have to ask him. Oh, and making sure he’s well-watered with Scotch doesn’t hurt.

Gar: Another great supporting character in your books is Carter’s boss Tina Thompson, a smoking hot city-editor who’s constantly trying to get Carter between the sheets.  Aside from your wife, if you could have any one woman in the world desire your flesh as desperately as Tina does Carter’s, who would it be?

Brad: Gar, you must have one of those open marriages – y’know, the kind Newt Gingrich supposedly wanted from his second and/or third wife (I can’t keep Newt’s wives straight). Being as I do not have one of those marriages, there’s no way I’m answering this question. Because my wife never reads any of the stuff I put online. But you just know if I answered this question, this would be the one thing that would somehow end up in front of her eyes.

(Okay, okay, fine. My wife knows anyway: Taylor Swift. Throw me in jail if you want to. But she is over 18 now. And she’s also the most talented and beautiful woman in the world – other than my wife, of course).

Gar: Over the course of a long career as an investigative journalist, you must have had a close scrape or two with some angry people.  Any near-death experiences you’d like to share here?

Brad: Most of the people who threatened to kill me were really just blowing off steam (obviously, because I’m still here). But there was this one time… I was doing an investigative piece about doping in horseracing and I had been trailing this one trainer from his barn down in Freehold, New Jersey to the Meadowlands Racetrack up in the northern part of the state. I had been told the cheaters often pulled off the New Jersey Turnpike just before they got to the track and treated their horses on the side of the road (because once they reached the track, they had to put their horses in the detention barn, where the horses were put under watch). Sure enough, I saw this guy veer over to the side of the Turnpike. I watched him go into his trailer for a few minutes then get back on the road. When he got to the track, I followed him into the paddock area, then hopped out of my car and asked him, point blank, what he had been doing. Things got pretty heated pretty fast. He kept saying, “I’ll kill you . . .  I’ll kill you. . .” and then added that lovely caveat, “I’m going to find out where you live.” (He later called me up, apologized, and said he had pulled over because of engine trouble).

Gar: When Jen Forbus asked readers of Jen’s Book Thoughts last year to name their favorite amateur sleuth of all time, your man Carter Ross beat out 63 other contenders to win the title.  Putting aside the fact that the final showdown matched a 30 year old man in the peak of health against a woman who could be his grandmother—Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple—why do you think Carter won?

Brad: Easy. Agatha Christie isn’t on Twitter. Some folks were a little incredulous about that result – one guy from New Zealand suggested I must have stuffed the ballot box – but it was completely legit (I mean, c’mon, you think Jen would allow cheating?). Fact is, Carter put a hurting on that ol’ bat Marple because I was able to muster a get-out-the-vote effort on social media. That’s politics, baby: It’s not the will of the people that counts, it’s the will of the people who actually take the trouble to vote.

Gar: I have a real fascination with plagiarism and the people who engage in it.  If you could steal from any one author, alive or dead, without fear of ever getting caught, who would it be?

Brad: I rank plagiarists only slightly ahead of people who trip old ladies as they cross the street. Maybe behind. (After all, old ladies eventually heal). And as a journalist, plagiarism has always baffled me. All you have to do is add “it’s like so-and-so once said…” and then you can lift anything you want. Why not just give credit where it’s due?

But to play along with the question, I would probably reach into some of John D. MacDonald’s classics and start transcribing. Maybe an exchange between Travis McGee and Meyer. Maybe one of McGee’s great rants. Some of them are a little dated – and his sensibilities about women could probably use some modernizing – but a lot of it is still just great stuff.

Gar: I’m a devoted subscriber to The Los Angeles Times and you’re an ex-newspaper man.  In 100 words or less, make your best case for why people in this electronic age should still read newspapers in hardcopy form.

Brad: Because The Times would be dead in three weeks if they didn’t (that’s 12 words, if you’re counting). Newspapers continue to have a terrible time monetizing their digital content. The bulk of their revenue still comes from the print product. I’m making up these numbers, but as a print subscriber, you’re worth, say, a dollar to The Times in advertising revenues. As a web-only reader, you’re worth about five cents. But don’t get me started on this subject, because I’ll get wound up for a lot more than 100 words.

Gar: My affection for memorable, original titles—and contempt for monosyllabic, ubiquitous ones—is legendary here at Murderati.  Fortunately for us both, I think the titles of all your novels—FACES OF THE GONE, EYES OF THE INNOCENT, and your latest, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR—are quite good.  Are unique, evocative titles important to you, as well, or were these three just a fluke?  (Please don’t tell us, for instance, that the working title for Carter Ross #4 is DEADLINE.)

Brad: I didn’t have that pet peeve until now. But I think I like it. Can I adopt it? (Don’t worry, I know how you feel about plagiarism – I’ll quote you when I do it). I’m glad to hear my titles meet your high standards, because I actually feel like I struggle mightily with them. I give my editor, Kelley Ragland at Minotaur, a long list of possibilities. She bounces it off this cabal of editors and marketing people – a group I think of as the “they” in “that’s what they say” – and then she comes back to me with what “they” have decided. I’m usually just relieved to have it over with. (Carter Ross No. 4 is currently THE GOOD COP, by the way… you like?)

Gar: In your new book THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, the obituary of a young woman who died delivering copies of the New Jersey newspaper Carter works for, The Newark Eagle-Examiner, inspires him to do a personal interest piece that, quite naturally, turns into a murder investigation.

If you could write Carter’s obituary yourself when the time comes to put him down (unless you’d like some hack hired by your estate to continue his adventures after you’ve passed on), what would it sound like?

Brad: I’m rather fond of Carter. And I’d like to give him a good send-off. So let’s go with:

Carter Ross of Bloomfield died yesterday when, while having rigorous sex with an intern, one of his eight Pulitzer Prizes fell off a shelf and knocked him unconscious. He was 107.

Gar: Finally, your books have received starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal.  Harlan Coben called your first novel, FACES OF THE GONE, a “terrific debut,” and Michael Connelly wrote that EYES OF THE INNOCENT “is the complete package.”

All of which begs the obvious question: What the hell does Lee Child have against you?

Brad: I think he’s threatened by my sales figures. But I keep telling him: Don’t worry, Lee. Good things’ll happen for you. Just keep plugging.

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