Category Archives: Louise Ure

A Circle of Friends

 

By Louise Ure

 

There’s a tiny town that juts out into Wallis Lake, near Forster in New South Wales, Australia. My friends Dottie and Derrick moved there about five years ago after too many years in Sydney.

Derrick is an ex-British Navy man, with a squint to his eyes from all those years looking over the water. He catches his own crabs and insists upon cooking them in lake water because that is the salinity they knew. Dottie is a loud, lovely and generous woman, quick to make friends and to give you the clothes she’s wearing if you dare compliment her on them. They live in the very last house on the main road through town before you get to the beach, and are as at home there as if it were their birthplace.

This truly is a tiny town; only 300 residents and some of those are guests from the Big Smoke who come up to rent a holiday house for the summer. There’s a pizza restaurant and a small convenience store, but not much more. Not even a pub, and that’s practically a crime in Australia.

The first man showed up about 4:30 in the afternoon, a small ice chest under one arm and a folding chair cradled under the other. He nodded at me on the balcony and proceeded to the beach.

Two more arrived a few minutes later, also with folding chairs.

Then began a slow, quiet parade of townsfolk – twenty, thirty or more – in their stubbies (shorts), singlets (wife-beaters) and thongs (flip flops). Young men with calloused hands, middle aged women with henna-dyed hair, old men rolling toothpicks between their lips.

“Pub’s open,” Dottie said. We took our own wine and glasses and folding chairs and headed across to the beach.

I expected to see little enclaves of drinkers – four men at a picnic table playing cards, or two housewives catching up with a drink before making dinner – but no. Instead of the little chats I had expected, they had set up one big circle with their chairs. And as we approached, the circle got bigger. Jokes were shouted across to the other side, introductions were pantomimed to a person sitting six chairs away, quiet, grayer conversations were held between two people sitting together.

As each new arrival showed up, the circle loosened a bit more and stretched to include them.

The drinks were not shared, but stories were. Stories of how the day had gone, who had been taken ill, whose mother would be visiting next week, who had caught a mud crab in their trap.

It didn’t matter who I was, they welcomed me.

And it felt like becoming part of the mystery writing community all over again.

Crime fiction writers from all over the globe shifted their chairs and opened the circle to let me in six years ago. It didn’t matter who I was, I was part of the tribe now – part of The Pub at Wallis Lake – and I was made welcome. We could have a drink together and talk about how the day had gone, who was having trouble with a plot, whose editor would be visiting next week, who had sold their book series to a cable channel.

Jokes could be shouted across barrooms, we could read each other’s body language during a panel discussion, and quiet, grayer conversation could be held between two friends who were going through the same trials.

I was gently cradled by the fine folks at Wallis Lake last month. But I have been nurtured by this crime fiction community for a much longer time than that.

And I just wanted to say thank you.

 

P.S. In a nod to JT, here are a couple of my favorite Australian wines: Bird in the Hand and Two in the Bush. God, I’m such a sucker for puns and cleverness.

 

 

 

 

 

I Get Around

 

By Louise Ure

 

I was still here in Australia when I heard that Kevin was gone. He died the same day, in the same city, that the Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot.

His death didn’t make the headlines in Tucson. In fact, his body wasn’t even discovered until the next day.

As remarkable as that Giffords-shooting day will remain in Arizona history, it is the boy from forty years ago that I will remember.

Kevin Michael Palmer. My first love.

“Dear Louise,” the email from his friend Doug Beckett began.

”I’m terribly sad to have to tell you that Kevin passed away. I’m sure this is a terrible way to find out, but I thought you should know sooner rather than later and wanted to be the one to tell you. I know how much you both meant to each other.

The cause isn’t known exactly. He passed away last Friday and was found the next day in his shop by his employer’s spouse. The scenario was exactly as he would have wanted it, he was doing a wood project out of mesquite, which was his passion, and the doctors believe he passed quickly.”

Kevin was the first boy I ever swam naked with and the first person I ever French kissed — my back up against the rough bark of the eucalyptus tree in the yard and Kevin’s tongue between my lips like a small burrowing animal looking for refuge.

He had crystalline green eyes and wide, strong clavicles and shoulder blades which I often thought were the remnant ends where wings used to be. His hands were always calloused, denying the life of the poet that he was. 

We were together for those all important high school and early college years. He was my passion. My future. My dreams. I practiced signing my name, appending the word Palmer to the end of it like a new limb.

Kevin was a poet, a musician, a bad boy. A rebel with a cause yet undiscovered. I still have a 45 rpm record he made of the Beach Boys tune, ‘I Get Around.” I never realized how sad the lyrics were until I heard Kevin sing them in one-quarter time. “I get around” became the empty braggadocio of the perpetual loser. A lie.

He had a dog named Shiloh, a blazingly white Afghan hound — as graceful in movement as a delicate katydid — who was terrified by the world. When we’d go up to Seven Falls and spread a blanket on the hillside in the moonlight, Kevin would place a rope in a circle on the ground to pen the dog in. She would not step over it, preferring the safety of a known space, however small, to the horrors outside that insignificant barrier.

‘I could never love a woman without ambition,” Kevin said. When I won the scholarship that would allow me to get my first master’s degree in France, he had changed it to, “I could never love a woman who would pick up and leave me.” He was looking for excuses to leave, but I didn’t know it at the time. He’d fallen in love with a friend’s little sister and the time for his first love was done.

Now it’s truly the end of it. The end of Kevin Michael Palmer and all my memories of first love.

Here’s to the magic boy – all those years ago – who set me free.

Tell me tales of first love, ‘Ratis. Leave out the names to protect the innocent, if you must. But tell me what it was like, all those years ago. Or today.

Levels of Compassion

By Louise Ure

 

I’ve learned a great deal about myself this last couple of weeks and an equal amount about levels of compassion.

I’ve spent the last week in the middle of the Queensland floods. Untouched by them if the truth be told, but smack dab in the middle of it all.

Five of us had travelled to the resort town of Noosa to stay in the $8 million vacation home of a friend. Balconies on all four sides. Teak decks and plantation shutters. A riverfront setting with a private boat dock and just a five minute walk from the beach and all the shops.

It bucketed down rain for five days straight. Real Singapore-style monsoon rain … a wall of water with crashes of thunder and shudder-inducing lightning. But that was fine. We could read good books stretched out on the lounges or brave the rain for a fine meal down the road. We were isolated. We were oblivious.

I entered an orgy of eating duck. Duck rillette. Duck prosciutto. Duck terrine. Duck pate. Duck and rosemary pies. Crispy skin duck. Duck confit. Duck Marylands. I became so besotted with duck that I could have paddled back to San Francisco with my own little webbed feet. It was an idyll. A perfect vacation hidden behind a wall of falling water.

Until the owner of the house called to ask if his house was floating away. “Turn on the TV. It’s a true inland tsunami and more than sixty percent of Queensland is underwater.”  Think about that. Sixty percent of Queensland is larger than France and Germany combined.

 We did. And we finally saw what the rest of the world had been watching for the last two days. Cars hauled backwards over a bridge of rushing brown water. Houses unmoored and crashing against concrete abutments. Parents who managed to push both children up onto a roof before being swept away themselves. A thirteen-year old boy who had pleaded with rescuers to take his little brother first and got his wish. I imagine open-mouthed screams from the people in those houses as lives changed and ended in the blink of an eye.

We were mesmerized … and terrified. These were scenes from only 60 or 90 kilometers away. Our little river behind the house fed into their rivers. The rain falling on us fell also on their shoulders. And yet … and yet … we were a world apart. A literal island that felt no such pain. Yes, the river rose, but not enough to swamp the house. Our streets ran gutter to gutter with water but soon emptied back to the sea. Our shops and restaurants were all still open (and serving duck) even though the roads to both the north and south were cut.

It was then I started to think about levels of compassion. For me, hearing about a great disaster is the most remote sort of compassion, a calm narrator’s voice on the radio provides great distance between me and the pain.

Reading about disasters brings it closer to home. For some reason, my imagination is spurred by specific, written descriptions that bring the sadness to life. Obviously, that kind of empathy is what we strive for in our own writing.

Watching images of the disaster makes it even more real for me. I’ll never forget the images of that little blue sedan rushing backwards in the roiling water. Or the two horses still tethered to a post who so desperately tried to keep their noses above the rising water.

The next level of impact for me is to hear about the impact on a friend or family member who is going through it. Whether it’s a diagnoses of cancer or the matter-of-fact recitation about the flood waters swirling, if it happens to someone you know, it becomes more real.

And the only thing closer than that is when it happens to you.

This time it didn’t happen to me. Or to anyone I know. But the images and words alone had the power to make me grieve. We all wanted to help, but the roads to the north were impassable. And in truth, I’m not sure that any volunteer effort I could have offered would have indeed helped and not hindered their already wonderfully coordinated efforts.

Friday, when we were more sure that the roads to the airport would be open, we drove south to Brisbane. Taking off just north east of the city, there was much brown water where city streets and parks should have been.

Virgin Blue took flood relief donations on board. Four in our party contributed almost 30% of the plane’s total. At that paltry sum, maybe I should have started my levels of compassion barometer a little lower. Or maybe these other folks on the plane were the real volunteers who had just taken off their gum boots and rain slickers and were resting their heads against soft cushions for the first time in a week.

If you’d like to help with the relief effort, the web site for donations is: http://www.qld.gov.au/floods/donate  And remember that 13-year old boy who valued his brother’s life above his own.

Dog Daze in Oz

By Louise Ure 

 

Happy New Year, ‘Rati.

 

Here in the Hunter Valley, overlooking vineyards and the spine of the Brokenback Mountains, I’ve come to realize that I have been living in the wrong time zone for the last nine months since Bruce’s death.

In San Francisco, I was in self-induced solitary confinement. I spoke rarely and went outdoors even less often. I didn’t sleep well, or eat well and I measured my good days by whether the nausea and hand tremors would allow me to raise a glass to my lips.

Here in Australia, I’ve found peace. No jet lag, no nausea, no tremors, no sleepless nights. I can sit on the back porch in a sleeveless shirt in the evenings – something that can be done in San Francisco only one day every two years. I’m sheltered here under the wings of a dear friend, Maggie, who has walked this path of widowhood before me, and a half dozen other old friends who remain strong, caring and exciting women whether in states of singleness or marital bliss.

I can feel my bones knitting.

We had a glorious Christmas dinner with turkey, ham and pork served after a five course seafood tasting platter. I haven’t cooked that much in a year. New Year’s brought the Harbour Bridge fireworks and then a bit of stargazing with a bottle of champagne. I’ll be off to the Gold Coast and Queensland in a few days for coastal breezes and more friends.

Rather than tell you about all these wonderful people and days that have brought smiles even if no laughter yet, I thought I’d tell you about their dogs. Everyone I’ve met here, every old friend I’ve connected with, has their dog with them. And the dogs tell you more about this trip than any travelogue I could do.

 

 

Saffi 

 

Let me introduce Saffi. That’s Saffi as in Bombay Saphire Gin, of course. She’s Maggie’s dog, an elegant ten-year old Rhodesian Ridgeback with eyes like a cheetah and the regal demeanor of a dowager queen. She does not lie on the floor; no, that would be too doglike. Instead, she perches on the edge of a seat with her long front legs still on the ground. She keeps her ankles together like a proper lady and disdains to notice if there are any other dogs around.

 

  

Kelman 

 

Then there’s Kelman next door. A sturdy boy, full of bluff and swagger until you call on him to prove it. Then he fesses up to just how much he’d really like to be friends. He’s half Cavalier and half Shar pei, a combination that’s given him the heart of a lion and the face of a loveable old man. Kelman’s owners are new friends to me but they have been the heart and soul of welcome and warmth. I think we’ll be friends for a long, long time.

 

  

Digger Dog

Miss Lily

 

Next come Ian’s mates, Digger Dog and Miss Lily. Digger is an Australian Cattledog, a stolid plodder who does as he’s told and never says no. He’s always up for a game of ball or a ride in a car and understands perfectly well why he has to spend the night outside on a tether. Miss Lily (full name: Miss Lily Marlene) is his partner and his boss. A Kelpie Coolie, she’s the brains of the operation, herding Digger with nips and barks as he brings the ball back, streaking in from a tangent to take the ball away from him and take credit for the retrieval. She’s smarter than most people I know and she has her owner, Ian, trained beautifully.

 

 

   

Teddy (and Santa)

 

New Year’s weekend brought Di and her Teddy, a Bichon Frise who taught me more about my old friend than I ever knew before. Twenty years ago when Di and I worked together, I knew her as a daring, flinty young woman who rose to all challenges and took no guff from anyone along the way. Then came the first Teddy (she’s had several, and each has been named Teddy. A good system for both dogs and husbands it seems to me) and Di’s heart melted like good chocolate. She bought him fancy dog outfits. He has more jewelry and dines better than she does. Now I see the softer side of my old friend.

 

I have more friends to catch up to, more new dogs to meet. But I’m loving these Dog Daze in Oz.

 

Have any good dog tales/tails for me today?

 

P.S. A special thank you to whichever of you wonderful ‘Rati commenters suggested I read Peter Temple. He’s my new author-god; each sentence so sleek and necessary that it is a knife cut with language.

Australian Mysteries

 

 

By Louise Ure

 

By the time you read this, I will have been in Australia for over a week already. Hopefully, I will have finally settled into Australia’s summer season and time zone and all the nausea inducing jet lag will be behind me. Picture me sipping a good Shiraz in the Hunter Valley.

As I readied myself for the trip, I was trying to decide between getting a Kindle or getting an iPad to take along. You know what an Apple slut I am, so I was leaning toward the iPad in the hopes that it would not only be a reader for me, but give me the chance to write if the inspiration hit and it would make internet and email activities easier than the iPhone’s tiny keyboard.

I ultimately chose “none of the above” because I’m not ready for a dedicated reader and couldn’t justify the extra money for an iPad. (Write while I’m on the road? Who am I kidding? I’ve never written when I traveled before and have no reason to think I will now. But if inspiration strikes I can always pick up a pad of paper.)

So the book thing remains a question.

Twenty years ago when I lived in Sydney, I fell in love with Australian mysteries. The early works of Arthur Upfield with police officer Inspector “Bony” Bonaparte. Jon Cleary’s Inspector Scobie Malone series. Garry Disher’s Inspector Hal Challis outside of Melbourne.  Any of Peter Corris’ multiple ongoing series. I even read quite a few of Robert G. Barrett’s Les Norton series about a nightclub bouncer, mysogynist and all around ne’er-do-well until Barrett’s repeated description of Les as “the big red-headed Queenslander” drove me to distraction.

I had lots of favorite female authors, as well. Shamus Award-winner Marele Day, who writes about private investigator, Claudia Valentine. Claire McNab, who has several continuing characters but my favorite is lesbian Detective Inspector Carol Ashton. And Jennifer Row who created Verity “Birdie” Birdwood, a TV researcher who winds up embroiled in mystery and murder.

I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read any Kerry Greenwood yet and I intend to correct that on this trip.

But who else should I be reading? Come on all you Aussies out there … you booksellers … all you lovers of international mysteries. Give me some names. I am woefully behind on what’s good in Australian mysteries right now and I intend to buy all of them.

When I traveled back home after my years in Australia, I had to go buy a coffin-sized metal footlocker for all the books and send it back by ship. I’ll probably have to do the same this time. Hmmm … that might have made the iPad a bargain by comparison.

Stay well you all and have a lovely Christmas.

 



Cutting Out The Good Parts

 

By Louise Ure

 

We all know that famous Number Eight on Elmore Leonard’s list of tips for writers: try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. I agree with Leonard but then I read about Jonathan Safron Foer, who goes him one better.  Foer not only wants to take out the parts folks might skip, but then proposes to write an entirely new book from the leavings after deletion. He started with Bruno Schulz’s book, “Street of Crocodiles,” and then deleted words to not only write new sentences but create an entirely new story.

 

 

 

My first thought was, “Dang, some publisher sprang for big bucks to produce this.” The second thought was, “Why?” Aside from topping the list for “Amusing Things You Can Do With an Exacto Blade” I don’t see the purpose. And the resulting “new book” is nowhere near as good as “Street of Crocodiles.”

 

 

 

In an effort to be more open-minded than usual, I tried to do the same with one of my favorite books, Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible.”

 

Here’s her original opening:

“First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.”


 

Now my strikethrough version (Exacto blades not being available yet as an Apple app):

“First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

 

Resulting in:

“ First, I want to be like muscular animals, clutched in copulation, strangling their own kin, sucking life out of death.”

 

Meh. I don’t think Kingsolver has anything to worry about.

 

And I started thinking about other things that were not as good when they were cut, and that brings me to Singapore. Singapore is one of those hybrid countries that like to think of themselves as democracies but behind the democratic mask is a conservative, authoritarian government that makes all the rules for how its citizens should live their lives, based on the Prime Minister’s own proclivities and preferences. Lee Kuan Yew was Prime Minister of Singapore when I lived there. His son, Lee Hsien Loong, is today.

Lee Kuan Yew didn’t like long hair on men, so any man arriving at the international airport got a haircut if his locks were longer than his collar. Bruce used to have to tuck his ponytail into a baseball cap to get into the country.

Lee Kwan Yew once stepped on some bubble gum getting out of a subway car. Soon enough, the sale of chewing gum was banned and arriving visitors were limited to “two sticks for their own personal use.”

And Lee Kuan Yew didn’t like public displays of romance or violence. My Time magazine would arrive in the mail with half the stories and ads blacked out with a Magic Marker or sliced out with scissors. No kissing. No revealing clothing. No blood, no gore, no guts. (This, in a country that has long held my personal award for Best Newspaper Headline Ever when The Straits Times ran with the 18-point type screaming: “500 Tiger Penises Seized!”)

Imagine my surprise when I got to see the real version of “Silence of the Lambs.” Granted, I couldn’t make out much of a storyline in the Singapore version of the movie (all 40 minutes of it), but I kept thinking, “Why are all the U.S. and Australian papers warning about how scary this is?”

Much like Foer’s cut up book, the Singapore-edited versions didn’t match the originals.

What about you, ‘Rati? Would you ever read a book like Foer’s? Or want to create one? And does anybody have an example of something that was better in the abridged version?

 

P.S. I’m heading to Australia for a couple of months to spend time with a covey of old friends who are eager to help ease me back into the land of the living. Since I’ll only be posting from my iPhone, I can’t promise that my Tuesday posts will be timely, long or articulate, but I’ll give it my best shot.

 

P.P.S. And don’t any of you burglars even think about a visit while I’m gone. I’ve got two friends with a very big dog staying here in my absence.

 

 



 

Not Coming Soon To A Bookstore Near You

 

By Louise Ure

 

I had an email chat with an old friend a couple of weeks ago who said that her scheduled signing at a local bookstore on election night did not turn out as well as expected. “There was one person there, and I think he was homeless.” This from a woman who has published dozens of books in our genre.

I can understand her disappointment. The economy has taken a toll on the purchase of new hardcover books for many folks, the bookstore had not done a good job of publicizing her appearance in advance, and frankly, there were probably lots of people who just wanted to stay home that night and watch the election results. And who needs a signing to sell an electronic copy of a book, anyway?

Her signing failure is not uncommon. I remember attending one event for Laura Lippman several years ago that had only five attendees; all but one of us budding mystery writers ourselves.

The terror of my first book signing event is still with me. Yeah, me, the girl who had for three decades given hundreds of budget and strategy presentations to senior level clients all over the world. But that was easy by comparison, because all those years I was talking about/selling somebody else’s ideas or product. This time the product was all mine and I was selling myself.

Kirk Russell, sensing my angst, came over and said quietly into my ear, “Remember there is no one here that doesn’t want to be here. They’re happy to be here.” Kind of like that job at Dairy Queen I wrote about a couple of weeks ago: everybody who came in was happy to see me.

It got easier after that, whether I was doing solo signings, partnering with another author, attending conventions and panels or signing at libraries, clubs or festivals. I know I’ve done well over a hundred … maybe two hundred … appearances like that now.

But that doesn’t mean I like them.

I’m perfectly happy to converse with readers and get to know them as well as having them get to know me and my work. But I’ve become such a hermit these days that even telephone conversations – let alone a real social interaction – have become difficult.

And then you add in the money.

With my first book, published by Time Warner’s Mysterious Press (now Grand Central), I was treated like royalty. My book tour was set up and paid for by their PR team, and they even included media escorts to drive me around each city. My current publisher (St. Martin’s) does not offer those same kind of perks to many of their authors. My guess is that the big name authors still get a fair amount of PR support from their publishers, but ninety percent of authors pay their own freight on publicity tours. In my case, that’s meant thousands of dollars of contribution for gas, flights, hotels and meals, for little reward.

Is the two-person turnout in Portland or the one-audience-member-who-bought-six-books in a Seattle suburb justification for all those dollars spent? Not for me it isn’t. Not anymore.

And I’m not even sure who I was reaching with those book tours. With the first book, there were a preponderance of friends, acquaintances and family members who showed up. For the more recent books, many of the attendees already knew my work and came prepared to buy the next book. I don’t think it’s the way to reach a lot of new readers.

If I publish again, I doubt that I would do a book tour. Maybe I’d concentrate on conventions or libraries or a massive internet effort.

So what say you, ‘Rati ‘Riters? Do you continue to think book tours are integral to your marketing? Do you go to the same places with each book or different geographies? And does your publisher help with any of it?

And for our ‘Rati ‘Readers: are personal signing events important to you? Are you attending more or fewer of them these days?

 

PS: Have a great Thanksgiving everyone. I’ve got 31 people coming here. It will be the last of three decades of Ure/Goronsky household Thanksgivings. It’s somebody else’s turn now.

 



Take this Job And Shove It

 

 

By Louise Ure

 

In today’s climate of high unemployment rates and few job openings, it’s probably not very nice to talk about jobs you hated. But there it is. We’ve all had a few. That office intern job where the boss wanted to guess your bra size. The summer you and your brother decided to make a little extra cash picking cantaloupes, until you realized how truly backbreaking that work was in 110 degree heat.

There are a lot of reasons to hate a job. Sometimes it’s financial, sometimes it’s the arduous nature of the work and sometimes it’s just a lack of dignity.

I got my very first job at a Dairy Queen when I was thirteen and I was paid twenty-five cents an hour plus all the ice cream I could eat. (That’s the joy of being an intra-state company versus an interstate company. They can start ‘em younger.) Not a bad job, right? Over the years, I’ve often cited that job as the only one where everybody who came in was happy and wanted to see me. (That’s no longer true. I feel the same way about book signings now.)

But then you get to the dignity part. My boss was a one-eyed man named Jack. Yes, he took full advantage of every “one-eyed Jack” reference he could, adding “I’m keeping an eye out for you” or “I’ve got my eye on you.” Then he’d threaten to lift up that black eyepatch like he was a flasher in a raincoat.

And he had the nasty habit of planting a quarter somewhere under the big ice cream machines to see if we’d find it when we were closing up at the end of the day. If you didn’t find it, it meant you hadn’t cleaned well and you were fired. If you did find it but didn’t turn it in, it meant you were a thief and you were fired. I already recognized I wasn’t the best cleaner around so I wound up just handing him a quarter every night.

The next job at Arby’s wasn’t bad until my friend Ellie cut her finger off in the meat slicer. I had to root around trying to figure out what was Ellie and what was rare roast beef so I could give it to the surgeon to try to reattach.

I found the next job just two blocks down the road at Phoebe’s Pie Shoppe. First there was the indignity of the uniforms. A floor length flowered skirt. A poofy-sleeved blouse in Tweetybird yellow. And a little linen cap like Martha Washington wore. That outfit would have been perfectly at home on Sister Wives.

One day a man came in and asked for a piece of banana cream pie. Ten minutes later he called me back over with only half the slice eaten and said there was something hard and crunchy in the pie. I took it back to the kitchen to investigate and found a half a dead cockroach. Half a cockroach, right? You know where the other half was.

“Here’s another piece,” I told him upon my return. “You’re absolutely right. There shouldn’t have been any pecans in that pie.”

And then there was Warner’s Bembridge Holiday Hotel on the Isle of Wight: a downmarket British version of a Catskills resort. The staff was housed in dorm rooms with eight beds to a room and we were expected to serve three meals a day then do all the dishes. And did I fail to mention that we were also the “talent show” in the evening? Ay yi yi. Think Dirty Dancing without the dancing.

I put up with that for all of three weeks until one old codger went down face first in the tomato soup I’d just served him and the guy at the next table only complained that his kippers were cold.

My jobs haven’t all been awful.  And most of them were not as bad as they could have been. I remember once race weekend that Bruce and I got to the track early while they were still setting up the paddock. A sunburned young man in his twenties wheeled around the paddock in a big truck with a vacuum hose on it. He’d pull up to each Porta Potty, vacuum out all the shit inside, they wipe down the walls and the seats and the floor with disinfectant. And he whistled the whole time.

“I’m never going to complain about my job again,” I told Bruce.

Compared with the Porta Potty guy, I’ve had some great jobs. One job in Singapore came with a car and full-time chauffeur. Hell, I even got paid for sitting on the banks of the Loch Ness and watching for monsters. But of all of these jobs – forty or more by my count — writing is still the best job I ever had.

What about you, my ‘Rati brethren? What’s the worst job you ever had? 

 

In Praise of Agents and Old Friends

By Louise Ure

Two weeks ago, I screwed up my courage, dyed my hair and took a taxi downtown to see old friends at Bouchercon. It was the first time I’d participated in any literary/mystery/author function since my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer ten months ago.

It felt like traveling to a country I no longer had a valid visa for.

Old friends made that easier. A warm embrace from Andi Schecter, Tim Maleeny and Tony Broadbent calmed me. Time spent with Karen Olson, Gillian Roberts, Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller grounded me. A shared moment with Lee Child made me feel at home (although, if the stories about the body double he brought in from Australia are true, it may not have been Lee at all). The grace and calmness of Rae Helmsworth (and god, she’s looking good) put me at ease.

I am sorry not to have connected with other ‘Rati family and friends over the weekend.

But the most wonderful part of the visit, for me, was the glorious two hours I got to spend with my agents, Philip Spitzer and Lukas Ortiz.

As authors, we do not often enough sing the praises of our agents.

Philip Spitzer was the quarterback of my fantasy football team of agents when I first started submitting Forcing Amaryllis. I knew there was no chance of him accepting me; he was, after all Ken Bruen’s agent, and Michael Connelly’s and had earned the respect of every writer out there when they learned that he had continued to send out James Lee Burke’s manuscript “The Lost Get Back Boogie” for NINE years. After one hundred and eleven rejections. He was an agent who believed in his authors.

What could happen? I tossed that query letter in the mail like it was a coin in a wishing well.

When Philip called and said he wanted to represent me (“This book MUST be published!”) I thought it was a stunt by friends pretending to be him and I hung up.

He’s forgiven me for that and for multiple other sins over the years. This visit was no different. It was a grand time of catching up, listening, encouraging … and caring. This is a man you want by your side as a friend and an agent.

Lukas Ortiz is his partner at the Philip Spitzer Literary Agency. I hadn’t realized early on in the relationship what a key role he probably played in selecting Forcing Amaryllis. Lukas had close ties to friends in Tucson and the book’s setting spoke to him.

He’s soft spoken, quick to smile and has an incredible ability to remember absolutely everything about every one of their authors. Still a young man, he’s putting his little brother through university back home in Colombia and you can see his pride when he talks about him.

I asked them what book they had most recently fallen in love with and they described in lush and glowing terms a literary novel they had just sent out to an editor. They could not have been prouder of the book if they had written it themselves. And isn’t that the kind of representation you want in the halls of publishing?

Business has been a bit depressed, they said. Fewer sales and lower advances, but more opportunities in epublishing and movie rights. And they’re getting more submissions than ever before. (Makes sense, in this lousy economy with more people out of work, folks finally have the time to write that novel they always said they wanted to.)

By the end of our time together, I was almost feeling like an author again. And a very lucky one to be represented by these two fine men.

So tell me, ‘Rati friends, what wonderful panels/news/gossip/friends did you find at B’con? Or feel free to sing the praises of agents today.

 



 

Paying Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

 

By Louise Ure

 This feels a little creepy to write, just after Alafair’s post yesterday about cyber-bullying an author. But it’s a look from the other side … from the reader who thought she knew a writer’s heart and didn’t.

I found myself in an unfamiliar situation a couple of weeks ago: choosing to not read a man’s fiction because I found his personal character and politics unsavory.

I’ll leave him nameless in this blog, but you would surely know his name. He has written more than a dozen books and his work has been lauded for decades. He is revered as one of America’s preeminent crime fiction writers.

So you can imagine my anticipation when I was invited to a small private luncheon with this icon –this man whose work I have admired for longer than I’ve been writing.

And that’s where my “I know him because I know his work” rationalization crashed headlong into the reality that an author’s real voice is not always consistent with his voice on the page.

This man’s words on the page are powerful, and so deeply emotional that you would think he placed his own feet inside his characters’ shoes. In person, not so much.

While still glib in real life, he came across as untrustworthy and inauthentic; someone who doesn’t reach out for new experiences. He said, for example, that he will only travel through affluent neighborhoods because he doesn’t like to see billboards in Spanish or HIV prevention ads on bus stops. They would sully his world.

In his work, his characters care deeply about things. They are driven to find the killer, to stop the pain, to make things right in a world gone mad. In person, the less information the better.

He has no television, no radio and no computer. He reads no newspapers or any other author’s work, either in fiction or non-fiction. He prefers to sit quietly, by himself, in a dark room.

The cops in his books are not cartoonish; he creates real people with their own obsessions and weaknesses and self-doubt. His writing sings with clarity and precision.

But in real life this author thinks the cops can do no wrong and believes that torture, whether done by the police or soldiers, is justified to get a confession. “Better to torture an innocent man than to chance that one bad guy gets away,” he said at the lunch.

He called me un-American when I expressed a different point of view.

So there I was, with Famous Author’s Latest Oeuvre in hand, and I walked out without getting an autograph. I didn’t want his signature on any book in my house. And I’m considering removing his earlier works from my shelves as well, as I no longer think I can appreciate them without identifying the writing with the real life man.

This seems like such an odd fit of pique for me. While I’m perfectly comfortable not going to see a Mel Gibson movie, or finding a new favorite country singer after spotting Leann Rimes at the Republican National Convention, this is the first time that I have purposely spurned a writer of fiction because I didn’t like him personally.

(Wait a minute, come to think of it, there is one other guy, who years ago at one Bouchercon or another, invited himself to the lunch I was hosting, ordered lots of food “for the table,” then got up and left when the bill arrived. I still haven’t bought any of his books.)

But it brings me to my central question today: Do we expect the real life man to live up to the author’s voice on the page? And if you can’t stand the man behind the curtain, can you still admire the magic he conjures up?

I don’t mean that an author has to resemble their characters, or even have their same world view. There are too many good examples of the shy author who writes thrillers with daring, adventurous protagonists. Or the senior citizen whose protagonist is a hip and humorous 20-something.

I also don’t mean that every writer has to echo my own values and life experience. I guess I mean something closer to … heart. If an author’s work has depth and emotional resonance that rocks you, should you expect that to be reflected when you meet him in person? Would it be okay if he were shallow or rude or purposefully mean?

Should it even matter that I don’t like the man behind the words?

In some ways, I wish authors weren’t so “available” to us readers. In an ideal world, I’d remove both the author photo and the short bio from every book jacket. There would be no Meet the Author signings or conventions. Blogs and websites and Twitter and Facebook would be outlawed, unless they dealt strictly with a discussion of the work.

That’s why we buy books anyway, right? To get lost in a fantasy world created by someone we’ve never met. Why do we have to taint that magic by bringing the real life author — warts and all– into the equation?

Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to that lunch. Maybe I would still revere his books.

How about you ‘Rati? Do you pay any attention to the man behind the curtain?

 

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