Category Archives: Tess Gerritsen

The unplanned career

(I’m traveling abroad at the moment, so will be unable to respond to comments.  But I’ll read them when I return!)

When you’re a writer, you get used to hearing criticism from countless quarters.  People don’t like your characters or your stories.  They don’t like your language or your genre or your politics.  But one of the weirdest objections I’ve ever heard came from a TV blogger, who said that “Rizzoli & Isles” was the dumbest name ever for a TV show, and that I, the novelist, should have had the foresight to choose better names when I created the characters ten years ago.  I should have planned ahead for the day when they would become a TV show.  Because authors have ESP, and of course it’s inevitable our books will be picked up by Hollywood.

D’oh! What kind of idiot was I, not planning ahead for Hollywood?  

It boggles the mind how many misconceptions people have about the writing profession.  The public probably imagines us as a tweedy set, ensconced in our wainscotted offices, thinking deep thoughts.  Or they think we’re hip Manhattanites, scribbling pages at an outdoor cafe while we sip endless cups of espresso. They’d be shocked to learn that some of us us write while hiding in the closet so our kids can’t find us. And that no, most of us don’t plan out every move in our career because baby, in this career, there ain’t a lot of planning you can do.

I certainly never did any planning.  Every move I’ve ever made as a writer has been because I had the compulsion to write that book, at that particular time.  And sometimes it was against the advice of people I trusted, people with experience in the industry.  From romance to medical thrillers, from stand-alones to a crime series, my career path has not been a determined march forward but more of a meander, searching here and there for the idea or the character that would set the next tale in motion.  

Even my books aren’t planned out.  I meander my way through those as well. It makes the first drafts utterly chaotic, but I don’t know any other way to do it.  

And that’s how that crime-fighting team of Rizzoli and Isles came to be.  I didn’t know there was going to be any team at all, until suddenly … there they were.

Jane Rizzoli first appeared in THE SURGEON as a secondary character who was supposed to die.  Oh yes, that much I had figured out, the location and circumstances of her death.  A dark cellar, a slash to the throat.  We all know how well that plan turned out.  Instead of dying, Jane dusted herself off and came back to star in the next book, THE APPRENTICE. 

That’s the book where Maura Isles makes her first appearance.  (And to answer the charge of the TV blogger who said that Maura Isles is a poorly thought-out name, it’s actually, um, a real name.  Of someone who won the auction to name one of my characters.)  Maura was another one of those minor characters who took on a life of her own and grew into a major character.  Again, unplanned.

Every book in the series has resulted from spur-of-the moment plotting decisions.  I didn’t know who Maura’s mother was until she suddenly showed up in BODY DOUBLE.  I didn’t know whether Jane would abort her baby until the actual chapter when she made the choice to keep it.  I didn’t know if the baby was a boy or girl until that scene in VANISH when little Regina popped into the world. 

It’s a good thing I’m accustomed to this uncontrolled approach to plotting, because it makes me better able to deal with my career, over which I have no control at all.  Believing that you have control over your success as a writer will drive you insane.  You could write the best book ever written.  It could land on a top editor’s desk, be adorned with a wonderful cover, get starred reviews… and end up in the remainders bin a year later. Or you could write a book about a girl with a dragon tattoo, be published by an obscure Scandinavian publishing house, and end up as the best selling author in the world.  And, tragically, be dead of a heart attack.

It’s the unpredictability of a writing career that keeps so many plugging away at it, year after year, defeat after defeat.  Okay, so your last two books were a disaster in the marketplace.  Change your name, change your genre, and try again! Dan Brown’s first few books went nowhere, and then, kaboom!  DA VINCI CODE.  Your next book could be the next DA VINCI CODE, couldn’t it?  Or Hollywood could turn it into a TV series. Unlike actors, whose careers dry up as their wrinkles start to show, even a poor grizzled writer working on his thirtieth book could suddenly find fame and fortune.  

That’s the seduction of the business. It could always happen.  Without any planning whatsoever.

 

 

 

 

Why dead women sell books

I know this topic has been discussed before, most recently in the thoughtful blog post by our own Louise Ure.  Last year, debate raged when one book reviewer decried the overwhelming number of female victims in crime novels, accusing authors and publishers of blatant exploitation of women’s suffering.  This provoked Val McDermid’s able response

No one has contested the fact that, yes, crime novels do have an overwhelming number of female victims.  Or that such novels are popular.  Or that book covers with women’s bodies (alive or dead) seem to attract readers.  Charges have been flying that we authors, male and female, are guilty of misogyny and should be ashamed of ourselves.  Women crime authors are singled out as traitors to our gender, and male authors are accused of being sexist pigs.

But no one has really stopped to ask the question: Why do these books sell so well? Why do so many fem-jep books make it onto bestseller lists?  Where are all the bestselling guy-jep books?  Since the majority of fiction readers are women, why do so many women buy books in which women figure as victims?

I confess, I’m one of those readers.  When I choose a thriller novel for vacation reading, if the killer is targeting big strong guys, I’m just not interested in the story.  But if the killer is hunting for women, I am much more likely to plunk down my cash for that book.  Does that make me a sorry excuse for a feminist?  

For years, I’ve pondered the popularity of these books, ever since a reader told me that she only reads serial killer books where the victims are women.  “What if the victims are male?” I asked her.  “Oh, I don’t care about those,” she said.  She’s not the only reader who’s told me this; again and again, I hear women readers tell me that they’re most attracted to stories in which women are threatened, women are victimized.  

That preference for fictional female victims carries over into my own writing. More than once, I have started work on a novel where the victim is male — only to realize the story isn’t working for me.  The first draft of VANISH, for instance, kicked off with a “dead” man who wakes up in a body bag and spends half the book fighting for his life.  I wrote about a third of that book, at which point my interest petered out and I got a massive case of writer’s block.  I just didn’t care what happened next.  I stopped writing for two weeks, went on a long drive, and suddenly had a flash of inspiration: why not make that man a woman?  A woman who’s fighting for her life, a woman who’s a victim?

The book instantly came alive for me because I could understand her fear, her desperation, and how the odds were stacked against her.  I could identify with her.  But only because she was a woman.

And that, I think, is what makes the female victim such a powerful element in a thriller novel. Women make up the bulk of the reading public, and these women don’t identify with the hero or the villain.  They identify with the victim.

It’s a phenomenon you see in children’s scary books as well.  Kids love to read books in which kids are in jeopardy, kids are potential victims.  But an adult in jeopardy? Eh, not so interesting to them.  Does their preference for kid-jep books make kids masochists?  Do the authors of such novels secretly hate kids? Or are both authors and readers tapping into a deep psychological vein that makes these stories so compelling?

I don’t think this psychology is true for adult male readers, whom I suspect are more likely to identify with the hero.  There certainly are a lot of James Bond-type novels out there, so I suspect that men prefer thrillers where men are battling other men.  

But for women and kids, the world can look like a scary place, and we’ve learned to pay attention to the things that can harm us.  Take a look at where the kids congregate at the aquarium: the shark tank.  Or in the zoo: at the snake house or the lions and tigers.  As a species, our survival depended on our knowing and understanding the creatures that can harm us, and that’s what kids at the zoo are doing.  Studying the creatures that can eat them.  Women readers who prefer books about female victims aren’t victim wannabes; we’re behaving like those kids in the zoo, confronting our fears. We are placing themselves in the role of victim, and mentally rehearsing what we would do to survive.  But that fantasy can’t happen if we’re unable to imagine ourselves in the victim’s role. 

 

 

 

Hollywood as bookseller

I am now the subject of my own study.

I’ve long been fascinated by the effect that Hollywood has on book sales.  Fourteen years ago, I was advised to write only stand-alone novels because it allowed each book to be an individual property for sale to the movies.  If you linked the books as a series, when you sold just one of those books, the producer would own the rights to the characters — and to that whole string of novels.  Feature film deals were the gold standard, and John Grisham’s career was the ideal.  We all wanted to see our books on the big screen.  TV deals might be nice, but they just didn’t have the same cachet.  From my conversations with authors whose books did make it to the big screen, I learned that a feature film could net some pretty nice book sales.  One author told me that when his book was adapted into a modestly successful feature film, it translated to an extra 750,000 paperback sales of his book.

And as authors, that’s what we really care about.  Not the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, but the tangible reward of book sales. 

For a few years, I followed the advice of sticking to stand-alone novels.  I sold the feature film rights to HARVEST and GRAVITY, but those projects went nowhere.  Then I ended up writing a series when my character from THE SURGEON, Jane Rizzoli, went on to appear in the next book and the next.  I learned to ignore Hollywood and I simply wrote the books that I wanted to write.

I began to notice that feature film might not always be the best vehicle for selling books.  I saw what the TV series “Bones” and “True Blood” did for the book sales of Kathy Reichs and Charlaine Harris.  Their sales were going through the roof.  One bookseller told me that while feature film can boost the fortunes of a relatively unknown author, it might actually undermine the sales of a novel that’s already a bestseller.  He’d watched the sales of one very popular novel collapse within a few weeks of the movie version’s release because people who watched the film felt they knew the plot and didn’t need to read the book.  “But a TV series is all about characters,” he said.  “When viewers become engaged with characters, there’s no end of plotlines they’ll come back for.  And that helps drive book sales.”

Two years ago, Hollywood came knocking again at my door.  They wanted to option the TV rights to the Jane Rizzoli series.  The project seemed to be sprinkled with fairy dust because the option turned into a pilot, and then into a TV series, and on July 12, the debut of “Rizzoli & Isles”on TNT was watched by nearly eight million viewers — the highest-ever ratings for a premiere on ad-supported cable.

So … what will a TV series do for book sales?  

It’s a bit too early to tell, but but I’ve already noticed a few changes.  During my recent book tour, at least half of the questions from the audience were about the TV show.  How did I feel about the cast? (Swell!)  Will the show change my future books? (No.)  Did I have anything to do with writing the show?  (No.)  

I’ve discovered that I’m now one of those lucky authors whose books are shoplifted.  A phenomenon that may signal good things ahead.

I’ve noticed the sales of my latest hardcover ICE COLD (which went on sale two weeks before the show’s debut) haven’t dropped quite as rapidly as you’d normally see after two weeks.  In fact, my USA Today ranking actually blipped up a bit between weeks two and three.

 I’ve noticed a big change in Amazon index for my backlist Rizzoli series.  Before the show’s debut, THE SURGEON sales index was in the tens of thousands.  Now it’s in the hundreds.  How many copies does that translate to?  I have no idea, but the trend looks good.

I’ve always been interested in numbers and marketing and consumer behavior.  If this were happening to another author, I’d be taking notes too.  And I’m curious about the experiences of authors and publishers.

If you’ve had a book turned into a movie or a TV show, how did it affect your sales?  How was that link marketed?  How did it affect your career?

 

 

 

 

“Why the hell won’t they review my book?!!!”

(note: I’m traveling right now, promoting ICE COLD and “Rizzoli & Isles,” so apologies for the short blog post.  I won’t be able to respond to comments, but trust me, I will be checking them when I get home in two weeks.)

All you writers reading this have no doubt stared in frustration at the book reviews page of major newspapers and wondered why your title isn’t included in the latest roundup of novels.  John Q. Stuckup’s latest literary novel about  the usual (yawn) white-male-midlife-and-bad-marriage-crisis will eat up a zillion column inches.  So will the review of Jane Babyface’s debut memoir about her angst-filled days as a barista/ hooker.  But your novel? The wham-bam thriller that will probably find twice the audience as Mr. Stuckup’s or Ms. Babyface’s?  It’s nowhere to be found in any newspaper review pages.  Yes, it may have been dutifully reviewed in Publishers Weekly and Booklist and that perennial good friend to authors, Romantic Times.  But good luck finding it mentioned in the New York Times or the Washington Post.  Or, for that matter, in any major big-city newspaper.

It’s no doubt a sore point for many genre authors.  After all, we’re the engine that drives publishing, the creators of the product that the public actually wants to read.  But where are the reviews of thrillers, romances and science fiction in newspaper review pages?  Are we being discriminated against? 

Perhaps. 

Or maybe the reason is this:

 

You are looking at the July fiction reviews bookshelf of the Philadelphia Inquirer.  These are the galleys that the Inquirer is considering for reviews during the month of July.  Mnd you, this is only the fiction section; the nonfiction section has a cabinet with just as many galleys waiting for review.  This is only for the month of July, and these are the survivors after a severe winnowing down of all the galleys the newspaper received for this month.  

I had the chance to visit the Inquirer building during my recent trip to Philly, and journalist Michael Klein was kind enough to give me a tour of the newsroom.  (Get a load of the messy desks — they look like mine!)

 

 

Klein pointed out bins and bins of discarded galleys which had already been rejected.  He also told me that, every week, the Inquirer receives about two hundred galleys for review. That’s eight hundred a month.  

If yours is one of them, good luck getting noticed, much less reviewed.  The chances are, it got chucked into one of those recycle bins.  

With that many galleys flooding the newspaper, reviewers have to make tough choices.  Big debut novels, of course, get special notice.  So do books by high-profile or celebrity authors such as Glen Beck or Sarah Palin.  But for those of us who reliably hone our craft year after year?  We have to fight for every column inch of attention.

My visit to the Inquirer was a sobering look at how tough newspapers have it these days, trying to keep up with all they have to cover.  Every author wants attention, but one look at the piles of discarded galleys reminded me of just how hard it is to be noticed when you’re fighting for attention along with two hundred other books.  Every single week.

 


Dispatches from Hollywood

Today, my new book ICE COLD goes on sale in the U.S.  And this release, like every release before it, is filling me with a mixture of joy, excitement, apprehension, and yes — even a bit of dread.  Because I’m so good at imagining all the things that can go wrong.

So I’m going to distract myself from the book-release butterflies in my stomach by talking instead about my visit over the weekend to Hollywood.

 

 

I was there for the “Rizzoli & Isles” press junket — which is a term I really didn’t understand until after this weekend.  TNT flew me out to L.A., put me up at the Beverly Wilshire (woohoo!), and treated me to a most amazing experience.  I was there to talk to radio DJ’s from around the country, who were also flown out to L.A. 

The first day started off with an evening cocktail party at Paramount studios, where I mingled with the DJ’s and kept having to pinch myself that I was actually at the Paramount lot.  Here I am with some of TNT’s marketing and publicity team.

 

It was the little touches that I kept oohing and ahhing over — they probably thought I was bonkers, but I got so excited about funny things like … well, just the paper cups and napkins!

After cocktails, we all moved into the Paramount movie theater to watch a screening of Episode 2 of “Rizzoli & Isles.”  The theater is like a real movie theater, complete with popcorn counter and soda pop.  

Sitting in the dark theater, surrounded by the DJ’s, I was happy to hear them laughing at all the right places.  One of them later told me that he was exhausted by his flight to L.A. and was planning to take a nap when the lights went out … but instead sat up riveted to the episode.

After the screening, one of the writers on the show, David Gould, took us on a tour of the “Rizzoli & Isles” set. Here we are at the morgue, which was furnished with real hospital equipment.  It looked like every morgue I’ve ever been in, with the exception of the red sink!

Then it was on to the set for the bar “The Dirty Robber” where Jane and Maura relax after work. 

We also visited the makeup trailer, where Lorraine Bracco was getting ready to shoot her next scene.  Mind you, this was at 10 PM at night, so those actors work long, long hours. 

 

Finally, we got to peek in the production office, where desks and wall boards were covered with all the details involved with making a TV show happen. 

 

I got back to the hotel around 11 PM, crashed, and the next day got ready for round 2 of the fun: the radio interviews.  Angie Harmon, Sasha Alexander, Jordan Bridges, Bruce McGill, and Lee Thompson Young were on hand for the round-robin chats with the DJ’s.  

 

Me and Angie:

Me with Bruce McGill (Korsak) and Janet Tamaro (executive producer):

The 21 DJ’s were set up in booths in the hotel ballroom, and we went from booth to booth to be interviewed.  I was paired with Janet Tamaro, the writer and executive producer of Rizzoli & Isles, and we answered questions about where the characters came from and what it was like to adapt them to TV.  Janet really is like Jane Rizzoli — smart, quick-thinking, and thriving in a tough industry.  Obviously the perfect person to be writing this show! Each interview lasted only 4 minutes, and then we had to jump up and move on to the next DJ.  At the end of it, Lee Thompson Young told me he couldn’t believe how exhausted he was.

Then it was on to the really fun finale: the cast cocktail party! I got the chance to chat with Sasha and Lee. 

The next day, I was up at 4:30 to catch the flight home.  Still can’t believe it all happened — but if it was just a dream, it was a very good dream.

For girls only

Well okay, the boys can read this one too.  But I wanted to give them fair warning that they might want to click elsewhere right now.  I can picture my pal Dusty Rhoades suddenly shoving his fingers in his ears and chanting “La La La, I don’t wanna listen to this” when he finds out that this post is About Women’s Fashion, and has only a tenuous connection to books.  But there is a connection.  Sort of.  

Those who know me know that I am, um, fashion challenged.   As I type this, I’m in bare feet and wearing blue jeans, a cotton L.L. Bean shirt, and cotton underwear bought at Walmart.  That’s my summertime outfit.  In winter, I add a flannel shirt and socks, but otherwise it’s the Same Old Thing, seven days a week.  I’m a stickler for comfort, plus I’m that dire combination of being both a Yankee and of Chinese descent. When it comes to thrift, no Scot could hold a candle to that.  

But there comes a time in one’s life when one realizes one must evolve.  And that moment came when I learned that TNT is sending me on the road to promote the new TV show “Rizzoli & Isles.”  They are flying me out to Hollywood at the end of June to do what’s called a “junket,” where the cast and I will be available for interviews.  That’s followed by public screenings of the pilot episode in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, and — egad — Times Square, NYC, where I will appear alongside Angie Harmon.

That’s when I decided to trawl through my closet to see what I might wear to these screenings.  I discovered several things.  First, that I still had half my high school wardrobe in there.  I’m happy to report that most of it still fits, but still…  

Not a single outfit I owned was Angie Worthy.  I imagined myself onstage with the svelte and stylish Ms. Harmon as the audience titters: “Who’s that lumberjack in the flannel shirt standing next to her?”  

Clearly I needed to go shopping, but I am probably the only woman in the world who can walk into Saks Fifth Avenue in NYC, spend six exhausting hours combing the racks, and find absolutely nothing that looks good on me.  So, on the advice of friends, editor, and agent, all of whom heard the desperation in my voice, I did something I’d never dreamed of doing.

I made an appointment with a personal shopper.

A week before my planned trip to NYC for Book Expo, I spoke on the phone with a nice young woman named Danielle, a personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman.  She wanted to know my height, weight, measurements, age, coloring, and budget.  Then she asked: “Which designers do you normally like to wear?”

“Does, um, L.L. Bean count?” I asked.

There was a silence. “What sort of occasion are you shopping for?” she asked.

“I need to look good!” I blurted.  “I’m going to be onstage with Angie Harmon!”

“Oh dear,” she said.  Probably thinking: Honey, you are so f***ed.  But she cheerfully suggested a few designers and told me she’d have a nice selection picked out when I arrived.

A week later, I arrived at the Personal Shopping department of Bergdorf Goodman and was escorted to a giant private dressing room where Danielle and her assistant had about two dozen outfits waiting for me to try on. Since I don’t trust my own fashion sense, I wheedled my agent and editor into coming on the expedition with me, not realizing that we would all be in the same dressing room together.  Where everyone would watch me strip down to my Walmart underwear.  

Danielle zipped me into the first dress.  From the moment I stepped into it, I thought: Oh my god, I love this one!  And it fit like a glove.  Ditto with the second dress.  And the fourth.  Without ever having laid eyes on me, Daneille had managed to choose just the right outfits, and to take all the pain out of the experience.

Within two hours, I bought four dresses, a sweater, and three pairs of shoes.  Then a seamstress magically materialized and pinned a few nips and tucks where they were needed.  Then it was all whisked away to be altered and shipped to my home.  

I even came in under budget.  

What did I learn from the experience?

I learned that inside the most diehard L.L. Bean girl lurks a wannabe fashionista.  I learned that even I can wear big-girl high heels.  And I learned that, when the occasion calls for it, yes, I can rise to meet any challenge.

 Even when it means stripping for my editor. 

 

 

 

On booksignings and BEA

I had the pleasure of attending BEA in NYC last week, joining the whirlwind round of publishing parties, panel discussions, and of course the author signings.  Although everyone I spoke to said the convention was quieter than usual this year, things certainly seemed to be bustling as I got out of my taxi at the entrance to the Jacob Javits Center.

The first thing I saw was a humongous two-sided billboard for Karin Slaughter’s upcoming book.  It was stunningly gorgeous and absolutely unmissable by anyone entering the building. 

Once inside the building, it took only a glance to see which books are getting big money thrown at them.  And judging by all the posters, the big title this year seems to be Justin Cronin’s hefty post-apocalyptic novel, THE PASSAGE.  Just in case convention goers missed seeing the posters, the title was plastered across all the plastic badge carriers you had to wear around your neck, turning every participant into a walking mini billboard for THE PASSAGE.  I guarantee, there isn’t a single convention goer who didn’t walk out with that title branded in their brains.

Other big names were, of course, getting big promotional splashes.  John Grisham.  Jon Stewart.  Marlo Thomas.  Barbra Streisand.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any of their presentations because those were hot-ticket events.  The one speech I really wish I could have witnessed was the one by Sarah Ferguson, in what had to be an excruciatingly uncomfortable presentation by a celebrity doused in the fresh reek of disgrace.  One editor told me, “Thank god I didn’t buy her book!  What a nightmare it must be, trying to promote it at this moment in time!”

I had quite a bit of free time to wander the convention floor, and stopped in at the Mystery Writers of America booth, where I got a sweet hug from Margery Flax.  The most eye-popping booth was sponsored by Saudi Arabia, a gorgeous mini-Sultan’s palace with artfully displayed books.  Workman Publishing also got my vote for a fun display that made you want to sit right down on the floor and play with the merchandise.  In what looks like a peek into the future, there were quite a few booths offering services to authors eager to self-publish their e-books.  And plenty of booths were devoted to graphic novels. 

What astonishes me every time I visit these book shows is the vast range of what’s being published, from books about fly-tying for fisherman to books about — well, everything.  If there’s a subject that wasn’t covered by some book, somewhere in that convention, I can’t think of it.  As usual, I found myself drawn to the quieter corners of the trade floor.  Instead of fighting the crowds at the Hachette and Harper Collins booths, I wandered past booths where authors sat with displays of their self-published novels.  It was sobering to see how few convention goers seemed to take any interest in stopping by those booths, or even making eye contact with the authors.  The  self-published books offered a few interesting possibilities.  I lingered over a promising YA advice book about what it takes to become a doctor, and a few woo-woo books about the occult snagged my attention, but there was a wide range in how those self-published books were packaged.  Some looked absolutely professional; others were downright pitiful.  

On my last day, I took my place at the authors’ signing booths, where we gave away 100 copies of ICE COLD.  These signings can be excruciating for a new author who sits and stares at empty space while a line snakes around the corner for the hotshot author sitting next to him.  This time, I was happy to see a line waiting for me.  But that certainly wasn’t the case in times past.  One bookseller who came up to get her book signed reminded me of the first time she’d met me at a book fair years ago.  “You didn’t have anyone waiting in your line back then.  I felt so sorry for you, sitting there all alone.”

And that’s how it usually igoes for every new author.  The days when you just have to grin and bear it as you sit with your stacks of unwanted galleys, waiting for someone — anyone — to take pity on you and ask for your book.  (Did I mention these are free books?  Oh, the humiliation, when no one wants your book even when it’s free!)

If you’re a new author, it helps to remember that John Grisham went through the same humiliating ritual when he was starting out.  So did we all.  There’s nothing like being a writer to experience the sting of rejection.

Want to know just how humiliating a book signing can be? Watch this video.  It’s a riot.

 

 

Oh, Canada!

In the short time I’ve been a member of the Murderati gang, I’ve watched my fellow bloggers’ lives overturned by the vicissitudes of life, and I cannot post today without thinking of Cornelia and the recent tragedy in her family, and of Louise and the terrible loss she so recently suffered. And then there is Rob, who has known the recent joy of watching his book turned into a TV pilot.  Life is unpredictable and sad and painful and triumphant, and there is no way to predict what will happen around the corner.  

Which has made me decide to write about something that’s utterly lacking in sturm und drang.  So I’m going to blog about Canada.

Canada is fresh in my mind, as I’ve just returned from the Canterbury Tales Literary Festival in St. John, New Brunswick.  Living in the state of Maine, right on the border, I’m privileged to meet many Canadians during the summer months, and I’ve made the crossing to visit our northern neighbor a number of times.  Every time I visit, my impression of Canadians as basically nice, well-behaved, polite people is invariably reinforced.  It’s the land where people actually wait for the Walk signal to flash before they’ll cross the street.  Even when there’s no traffic coming in any direction.  And because they seem to follow the rules, it made me follow the rules as well (even though my rush-rush personality had me ready to dash across the street no matter what that darn traffic signal said.)

This recent visit also gave me the chance to check in on the Canadian publishing scene, and discover how different it is from the U.S.  One thing that had always impressed me was how the Canadian bestseller list is sometimes so different from ours.  I’d noticed that theirs is heavily weighted toward literary novels.  I assumed that Canadians were simply more literate readers, not as prone as Americans are to lunge for the latest crass entertainment.  I pictured Canada as a nation of intellectuals who turned up their noses at genre, and instead reached for the difficult read, the books that would stretch their minds and enrich their souls.

Ha.  It’s not so simple as all that.

Based on several conversations I had with people familiar with the Canadian publishing world, I discovered something that stunned me, coming from ultra-capitalist, money-is-everything America.  And that is: many Canadian publishers are subsidized by their government.  They have a myriad number of small presses which could otherwise never survive without those subsidies, and their government has chosen to subsidize literary fiction which would otherwise not have a chance of making it on the market.  Popular fiction is left to sink or swim on its own because it is, after all, popular and therefore more likely to turn a profit without any help.  Subsidized literary fiction also gets more of a subsidized marketing push, and since marketing dollars result in better public awareness of a title, those literary novels have a sales advantage.

Hence the more literary slant of the Canadian bestseller lists.

In some ways, this is a good thing.  It directs the public toward books they would normally not read.  It brings otherwise unknown authors into the public eye.  And since I love discovering new literary fiction, I think it’s about time that not all the titles on bookstore front tables featured vampires,  zombies, and serial killers.  It’s sort of the National Public Television philosophy of “let’s give the public what we know is good for them.”  

On the other hand, it rubs my populist nature the wrong way because I also love genre fiction.  I love romance and horror and SF, and I’d feel more than a little miffed that my taste in fiction is considered unworthy.

Another characteristic that sets Canada apart from the U.S. is the difference in scale.  In Canada (with a population of 33 million), if a hardcover title sells 5,000 copies, it’s considered a bestseller.  If it sells 750 copies, it’s considered a successful publication.  Needless to say, it’s almost impossible for a Canadian writer to make a living at his craft, if he only sells in his home country.  With the exception of a few rare authors such as Margaret Atwood, whose Canadian sales alone might support her, most Canadian authors need to be able to sell to markets outside Canada to earn a living. Linwood Barclay, one of Canada’s most successful genre writers, no doubt earns most of his income outside his home country.

Another thing I learned is how under-appreciated Canadians feel, despite their many contributions to the literary world.  I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t know that Joy Fielding, Vincent Lam, William Gibson, and Alice Munro were Canadians.  In my typical American arrogance, I just assumed they were Americans.  (Which is something that irritates Canadians no end.)

One of the best parts about attending literary festivals is the chance to meet other authors, and in St. John, I was very happy indeed to hear readings by some truly gifted authors, including Kathy-Diane Leveille (LET THE SHADOWS FALL BEHIND YOU) and Robert Rayner, whose searing YA novel SCAB had the audience on the edges of their seats.  These authors deserve a far wider audience.  In Canada, where there seems to be far deeper support for such authors, they at least have the chance of being heard. 

 

The mystery of humor

I am not a naturally funny person.  Try as I might, I’m hopeless at telling jokes or coming up with a brilliant off-the-cuff quip.  J.A. Konrath, I ain’t.

But I do know how to laugh, and I certainly laughed when I came across this recent article: 

Police: Woman bites man after being called fat

Police say a 24-year-old man is missing a chunk of his right ear that was bitten off by a woman who didn’t like being called “fat.” Police spokeswoman Katie Flood said officers were called to a Lincoln hospital around 3:25 a.m. Wednesday to talk to the injured man.

He told them that he’d been bitten at a party.

Flood said officers later learned that the injured man and two others had been arguing with other people at the birthday party. Flood says the man told 21-year-old Anna Godfrey that she was fat.

Officers said Godfrey then tackled the man (after chasing him for half a block) and took a bite.

Flood said the ear chunk was not found.

Godfrey was arrested on suspicion of felony assault and remained in custody Wednesday. Case records don’t yet list her attorney’s name.

 

Did you laugh?  Why?

If you dissect the incident, the elements of what happened are not particularly funny:

— A drunken man insults a woman and calls her fat. What a jerk.  

— A man is attacked and sustains permanent damage to a body part.  That’s tragic.

— A woman is arrested and will probably be convicted of felony assault.

Yet add all those elements together, and suddenly you’ve got prime fodder for Dave Letterman.  What makes a story about assault and mutilation funny?  Is it funny to everyone — or just to a few sick minds (like mine)?

First, let’s consider a definition of humor, and for this I turn to Wikipedia: “Humor: The tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement… Though ultimately decided by personal taste, the extent to which an individual will find something humorous depends upon a host of variables, including geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education, intelligence and context.”

What strikes some people as funny will not be funny to others.  And I’m betting that there are some people who don’t see any humor at all in the above woman-bites-man story.  In fact, some may be outraged that I think it’s funny and they’ll accuse me of a double standard when it comes to violence.  “What if this were a man mutilating a woman?” they’d ask me. 

No, I would not find that funny.  

So am I operating under a double standard where it’s okay for women to abuse men, but it’s not okay for men to abuse women?  

I don’t think the explanation is as simple as that.  Nor do I think that I’m alone in finding humor in woman-bites-man stories.  Think back to Lorena Bobbitt, who lopped off her philandering husband’s you-know-what.  Remember how all the comics (most of them male) went to town on that story? Obviously, they saw the humor in a story about spousal mutilation.  But if it were a man who lopped off his wife’s breast, no one would be cracking any jokes.  Instead, there’d be outraged demands to put the jerk behind bars.  

Let’s go back to that Wikipedia article, which tries to explain what makes something humorous.  One theory has to do with the “Incongruity Theory,” where an expectation comes to nothing.  Another is “the perspective twist,” where there’s an unexpected shift in perspective.  Finally, the article mentions a theory proposed by Arthur Koestler, who argues “that humor results when two different frames of reference are set up and a collision is engineered between them.”

Now, back to the woman who bit the guy.  Analytically speaking, it’s funny because it’s incongruous as hell.  You don’t expect a woman to beat up on a man.  You certainly don’t expect her to chase him half a block and tackle him.  

 But the part that makes it truly hilarious?  She’s so angry about him calling her fat that she … eats his ear.  Which I suppose would be called a perspective twist: the guy’s hurtful insult turns out to be absolutely accurate. She really will eat anything.

Being alert for the incongruities in humor helps us understand why a big dog attacking a kitten isn’t funny, but a kitten attacking a big dog is.  Why an adult spouting profanity isn’t funny, but we’ll laugh when a five year old does it. 

Sometimes, though, we’re better off not thinking too hard about why something’s funny and just enjoy the laughter.  Because, as E.B. White once warned, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.”  

Stop me before I panic again

I sat down today to write a blog about what’s more important to readers, plot vs. character.  But I’m completely unable to focus on my planned topic because news bulletins about that erupting Icelandic volcano (I won’t even try to spell its name) keep distracting me. In fact, all weekend, I’ve been unable to read, write, or do much of anything because I’ve now got a volcano fixation.  Especially after a brief scare earlier today, coming from MSNBC, that a plume had appeared above a second Icelandic volcano, an even bigger one named Hekla. (Update: now MSNBC says that report of a second volcano was incorrect. Thanks a lot, MSNBC, for scaring the crap out of me.)  

I know a number of folks in the books biz who are personally affected by that spreading cloud of ash. Publishers couldn’t fly to the London Book Fair.  My UK editor is stuck in Italy. And I just got a Facebook message from fellow thriller writer Linwood Barclay, who’s stranded in Paris and won’t be able to join me at dinner this week.  That volcano is disrupting peoples’ lives, professions, and pocketbooks.  

But my obsession with the volcano isn’t about mere disruptions; it’s about what else could happen.  I can’t write because I’m paralyzed by visions of disaster.  Airplanes grounded for months, even years.  Nuclear winter, mass starvation, food riots, revolutions. I’m thinking of what happened in Europe during the disastrous Little Ice Age.  I’m looking out my window at the bay and wondering if we could live on seaweed once the food runs out.  Or would we be better off in the woods, hunting for game? What happens when all the deer starve to death? What happens when ravenous city folk from Boston and New York come up to steal what little we’ve got left?

Maybe it’s time to get a gun.

I’ve always been way too good at that game of “What’s the worst that can happen?” Give me a disaster, and I can do you one better.  That’s the downside of being a thriller writer; our imaginations take us straight to the dark and scary places.  But when those scary places are extensions of what’s actually going on around us, well, sometimes we wander into loony land.

I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve been there.

About a week after 9/11,  after you’d think the initial shock would have worn off, I woke up one morning in an inexplicable panic.  The world was ending, and I had to protect my family from starvation. I drove straight to my local supermarket and began buying boxes and boxes of Kraft packaged macaroni and cheese, something I’d never eat under normal circumstances.  But there I was, loading boxes of it into my shopping cart, along with jars of peanut butter and cans of tuna and cling peaches.  When I got home, my teenaged son looked at that bag of weird groceries and said, “Um, mom?  Are we actually eating macaroni and cheese for dinner?”

No, we did not eat it.  We never ate it. Those boxes sat in the closet for about a year, an embarrassing memento of the day mom let her imagination get the better of her.  Finally, I donated them to a food pantry.

Then there was bird flu.  Oh god, there was bird flu.  I had made the mistake of reading The Great Influenza by John Barry, a fascinating and alarming look at what happened during the 1918 pandemic. Just about the time I read it, outbreaks of bird flu were going on in Asia. I began clicking on the CDC website several times a day. I had frightening conversations with pandemic officials about how all social order would disintegrate.  No food delivery, empty supermarkets, failing electrical plants and water supplies, dead bodies stacked up on sidewalks.  I studied the worldwide migratory patterns of birds.  I worried about getting our sons home to Maine where I could look after them. 

And here’s another stunningly embarrassing confession I have to make: I bought supplies of Tamiflu.  Yep, I shelled out hundreds of dollars to make sure that my darling sons would have it available when the pandemic took hold and every drugstore in America was emptied of its Tamiflu supplies.  They probably still have their Tamiflu stuck somewhere in the back of their medicine cabinets, where it will be ready for when the end of the world happens.  Assuming the drug hasn’t already expired.

Then there’s the swine flu scare.  And the tsunami that will wipe out Maine when that volcano in the Canary Islands blows up.  And the Yellowstone volcano that will wipe out north America.  Oh, and don’t forget there’s an asteroid that’s headed straight toward us, though we don’t know about it yet.

A vivid imagination can be a crippling thing.  It can make you lie awake at night, obsessing over all the terrible things that can happen to the future of mankind.  Or even worse, to your kids.  But that same imagination is what fuels the stories we tell.  Without it, “the worst that can happen” would be a lot less alarming.  It would amount to a few thousand canceled flights, instead of worldwide Armageddon.  And how boring a book would that be?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go check on my Tamiflu supply. 

 

 

 

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