Category Archives: Alafair Burke

In Defense of Fiction

by Alafair Burke

Professor Burke goes back into the classroom this week, marking the start of my tenth school year during which I have balanced two professional lives – one as a legal academic, one as a crime fiction author.  I probably spend more time and handwringing than I should pondering how these two lives fit together.  One attempt to explain the coupling follows, in a short piece I wrote recently as a guest blogger for the wonderful Powell’s Books.  Professor Burke thought y’all might enjoy it:

I went to a Book Blogger Conference at this year’s Book Expo of America convention.  One vocal blogger (is there any other kind?) let me know that she only reads memoirs and “other non-fiction” because she is interested in “issues” and “needed books to matter.”

I let her assumption about the accuracy of memoirs slide.  As a law professor who writes not merely fiction, but genre novels to boot, I was far more concerned about making the case that fiction – even low-brow, beach-book crime fiction – can  “matter.”

For my day job, I write law review articles – hundreds of pages with still more hundreds of footnotes.  Law review articles are supposed to be meticulously researched and relentlessly thorough probes of important and novel legal issues.  They are intended to “matter.”  

It is hard to know whether an individual piece of legal scholarship has impact, but one measure is its frequency of citation by courts or other legal scholars.  To give you an idea of the numbers, Cass Sunstein, the most cited legal scholar in the country and now Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, was cited in eight judicial opinions and 927 law review articles in the past year.  Yours truly has been cited in three judicial opinions and 208 law review articles – in her entire career.

In contrast, a modest print run for a novel with a major publisher is 35,000 copies.  In short, more people read Michael Connelly than Cass Sunstein.

Of course, it’s not just the size of the audience that “matters.”  I happen to be interested in the criminal justice system, which is undeniably shaped by public perception.  And those perceptions are shaped in America not by law review articles or other works of non-fiction, but by popular culture. 

In a world where a major cable news network allows Nancy Grace to preach fear six nights a week to an audience of more than 1.3 million, entertainment may be a sane commentator’s best hope of shaping public views about our criminal justice system.

I have written law review articles about the unseen, unreviewable effects of prosecutorial discretion, but I have certainly had more impact on the popular conception of a prosecutor’s role by showing Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid employ – both for good and bad ends – nearly limitless charging and plea bargaining authority.

I have written about the problem of wrongful convictions, but my writing has surely shaped public opinion more through fictional (but realistic) depictions of high-pressure interrogations, flawed eyewitness identification procedures, overreliance on questionable informant testimony, and police investigations shaped by tunnel vision.

As a writer, I believe in showing, not telling.  My job is to spin a good yarn, not lecture.  But I nevertheless believe that, as a lawyer who cares about equity and accuracy in the criminal justice system, I can defend the genre in which I write.  Books can entertain and yet nevertheless educate.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments.  Have you have learned something surprising from a so-called “beach book”?  When has an entertaining book also “mattered”?



Story and Song

by Alafair Burke

While I was listening to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” for the gamillionth time yesterday, I realized I had a video clip playing in my head, and it wasn’t footage of Adele performing her hit song.  It was of Chuck and Blair from the season finale of Gossip Girl, clasping hands from their hoisted chairs at a crashed wedding, one final romantic night in their tragic union before Blair is to be married off to a prince.

Yes, I watch Gossip Girl.   Go ahead.  Laugh.  I’ll wait.  But the fact that I have the same taste in TV as your fourteen year old daughter is not the point of this post.  My point is about a good soundtrack.  Sometimes the connection between a song and the story it helps narrate becomes so indelibly etched into the brain that the two can never be separated.

If you don’t believe me, check out the love between these two doomed, slo-mo youngsters.  “We could have had it all.”  I’ll love this song forever, and it will forever remind me of Chuck and Blair.

Adele and Gossip Girl aren’t the only song/story combination linked together in my mind.  My playlist seems to be filled with songs from soundtracks.  Here are some of my favorite uses of song to accompany story.

Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” in Grosse Point Blank

You can feel John Cusack seeing the life he hasn’t lived in that adorable baby’s eyes.  “Cause love’s such an old fashioned word, And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night, And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.  This is our last dance.  Under Pressure.”

Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” from Say Anything

And speaking of John Cusack, I see the life I could have lived with him everytime I hear “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel.  “I see the doorway to a thousand churches in your eyes, the resolution of all the fruitless searches.”

Dear Husband, at some point before I die, I need to be serenaded with a boom box beneath my window. Oh, I want to be that complete.

Journey’s “Wheel in the Sky” in the Sopranos

David Chase used music brilliantly through this series.  When it comes to Journey, most people will remember “Don’t Stop Believing” in that final, controversial scene, but I always remember “Wheel in the Sky” playing at the end of the episode Bust Out in season 2.  Tony has just ended a particularly bad-behaving day, having ruined a friend’s sporting goods business and beaten a murder rap.  He takes the helm of his new boat, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.  “The wheel in the sky keeps on turning, Don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.”  It’s Tony Soprano’s anthem.

Thompson Twins’ “If You Were Here” from Sixteen Candles

If you were a straight girl in the 80s, Admit it: A part of you is still in love with Jake Ryan.  Dear Husband, I also need you to wait for me outside my sister’s wedding in a red Porsche, then sit crosslegged on a table with me and a birthday cake.  “If you were here, I could deceive you.  And if you were here, you would believe.”

Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby” in Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Every time I see Jennifer Jason Leigh, I hear this song, and vice versa.  Poor girl, losing her virginity to that scum bag in the high school dugout.  “She’s gonna be somebody’s baby tonight.”

Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” in Almost Famous

Another Cameron Crowe movie, no surprise.  Most people will remember that epic bus tour scene with the Elton John’s Tiny Dancer singalong, but I also love this scene with Penny Lane dancing to Cat Stevens.  These kinds of moments in this film are the reason I still haven’t given up on Kate Hudson.  “Where I’ll end up, well I think only God really knows.”

Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy” from Harold and Maude

And speaking of Cat Stevens, his song “Don’t Be Shy” always makes me think of the moment we met Harold as he was about to hang himself.  “Don’t wear fear or nobody will know you’re there.”

Elliot Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” in Royal Tenenbaums

And speaking of songs to kill yourself by, I love the use of this song in this scene.  “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.”

Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” in, Um, Everything

I just learned from Wikipedia that this Kate Bush song, one of my favorites, has been used in a slew of stuff I don’t watch, like CSI, Ghost Whisperer, Alias, Without a Trace, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  But since the 80s (also known as the best era ever), the song always makes me cry thanks to this scene in She’s Having a Baby.  “Give me these moments back, give them back to me.”

More recently, I also really enjoyed Ricky Gervais’ use of the song in the series finale of the Extras to show his friend Maggie’s plight.

I know that some writers find inspiration in music.  Our own Jonathan Hayes even created a playlist to accompany A Hard Death (love his warning that it’s “not for kids, unless they’re bad kids”).  I’m not one of those people, but did last year decide while listening to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance that it was the perfect song to narrate 212.  Here’s the resulting book trailer, complete with ads that pop up when you use copyrighted music on You Tube.

 

So, how about it?  What are the songs and stories that are forever married in your minds?

How to Survive an International Press Tour

by Alafair Burke

Okay, that headline’s a little misleading.  It sounds nifty, though, doesn’t it?  It should.  I stole it from none other than Tom Hanks, who recently wrote a guest column for Entertainment Weekly (aka My Bible) to explain how he got through a “world-wide promotional tour” for his new film, Larry Crowne, without losing his mind.

I happened to read Hanks’s column as I was returning from my own tour to promote my new book, LONG GONE.  This is fantastic, I thought.  I can sort of bond with Forrest Gump over a shared experience.

But even the headline was a reminder that we existed in very different worlds.  International Press Tour?  Here’s Charlie Wilson sipping wine with his Corona typewriter in France.

Here is a picture of me (or at least part of me) being super excited about the extra leg room I scored in an exit row seat!

His column is also filled with references to the Concorde, his Delegation, and VIP green rooms.  I have somehow managed to miss all of those on my seven book tours.

But despite the gentle reminders that Robert Langdon lives large, I did find some of his advice helpful.

Like this one: “Prepare the Obvious Answers and Vary All Anecdotes.”

That’s good advice.  On my first radio interview after my first novel was published, the venerable Leonard Lopate asked me why I liked crime fiction.  I honestly don’t remember the words that came spilling from my mouth, but I do remember leaving the radio studio wishing I could have a do-over on the last thirty minutes of my life. If only I had Larry Crowne’s advice.

On a book tour, you will be expected to talk about the plot of the new book without giving too much away.  You will be asked where you get ideas.  You will be asked about your writing schedule.  Get that stuff down cold.

Here’s another piece of his good advice: “Be a Tourist, But For No More Than 30 Minutes a Day.”  Now, Chuck Noland’s* version of 30-minute-tourism means a “saunter through the Rodin Museum.”  My version usually means finding the best food stand in town.  But still…

Another word of advice from Woody: “Put All Vices on Hold.”  Um, I don’t know anything about that.  See above note about food stands. 

“Survive the Hotel Room.”  Good advice here: Don’t spend an hour flipping channels on the hotel TV.  They won’t be adding any more stations, and you will wind up watching cable news or Law & Order SVU.  Bring your own entertainment: a good book or shows downloaded to your iPad.

I would like to add a few lessons of my own that Paul Edgecomb omitted.

Pack light.  Duh, you say.  Packing light is rule number one of Book Tour 101.  But I don’t mean pack sparingly.  I mean pack lightweight.  I’ve heard some authors say they wear the same two outfits throughout tour, washing their undergarments in sinks as necessary.  That is not how I roll. 

No, I will never stop using this picture in my blog posts!

In my one little carry-on, I managed to tote no fewer than seven complete outfits, and that’s because I pack “light.”  This dress, for example, is basically made out of tissue paper.  When rolled into a tight ball, it takes up less room than a cell phone.

 

 

Get Yourself Right. 

Now, maybe you’re one of those people who can feel fine even if you don’t look fine.  Or maybe you’re naturally beautiful and don’t need any help.  Or maybe you’re a guy.

But for the rest of us: Get Yourself Right.  By this, I mean take care of all your grooming needs before you hit the road.  You won’t have time for hair cuts, pedicures, and pore-cleansing masks on tour.

It’s no fun catching a glimpse of the back of your head in those weird three-way hotel mirrors and seeing a bunch of gray roots you missed in the last do-it-yourself job.

That’s just an example, of course.  I don’t actually have any gray hair.  Cough.

And my best piece of advice: Bring Out Your Friends.

Jimmy Dugan may have a Delegation to keep him company, but authors are basically on their own.  That’s where the friends come in.  And this one is a three-parter.

A) Plan joint events with fellow authors.  Thanks to a joint event with Phillip Margolin, we celebrated afterward with a fantastic dinner.  (See ignored advice above about vices.)

And thanks to Barbara Peters at Poisoned Pen, I spent one glorious tour afternoon at the Biltmore Resort with old friends like Michael Koryta, Laurie King, and Jan Burke, plus new ones like Marcia Clark, Sophie Littlefield, and Juliet Blackwell.  

 Yes, Laurie King and Jan Burke really are this fun together

Who knew book tour could be so darn fun? B) See your in-town friends

After every book event, I had dinner with people I knew from the local area.  It’s a time to be with friends you’ve known for years.  To hear about their jobs and their children and their remodeling projects.  It’s a chance NOT to be asked about your writing schedule and where you get your ideas.  It’s a time to remind yourself that this world is not all about you and your new book.

C) Drum up attendance from reader friends

You’ve probably all heard the nightmare book tour stories about walking into the store to find two people in the audience, one of whom is looking for the bathroom. You never know what the turn-out will be.  Even major bestsellers have slow nights.

But turn-out isn’t only about the numbers.  Some of my best events have been tiny, but with loyal readers who know the work and enjoy talking about it.  Don’t be afraid to know your readers and to let them know you.  They will show up.  They will support you.  They will make your book tour better. 

Added bonus: They’ll remember to take pictures of your events.

Courtesy of Pamela Cardone (note shirt that can also be rolled into size of cell phone)

Courtesy of Carl Christensen

One reader-friend, Carol Johnsen, even made me this framed “Faux Duffer” to keep me company on the road.

 

My final piece of advice for book tour is to celebrate the good news and brush off the disappointments. 

Thanks to many of you, I’ve had a lot to celebrate this time around.  Thank you for showing up at stores and making me feel welcomed and appreciated.  Thank you for helping LONG GONE get to a third printing after three weeks.  Thank you for giving it enough attention that it got shout-outs from People Magazine and the Today Show.  And thank you for all the wonderful reviews you have posted online and shared with your friends.

With all this thankfulness, I am also thankful to be home.  The tour is over.  I’m with the husband and the Duffer.  And I have a sudden, inexplicable urge to watch Bosom Buddies.

For the comments: What is your favorite travel advice – whether tour related or otherwise?  Bonus Question: Your favorite Tom Hanks role?

* You have probably figured out by now that all of these names are characters portrayed by Tom Hanks.  If you did not realize that, you probably do not call Entertainment Weekly your Bible, and I apologize for the confusion.

Welcome Chevy Stevens!

I’m not sure how we evolved this way, but somehow our crime writing community is comprised of a pretty likable lot.  Getting to know the writers behind the words is such a nice perk of the business.  I recently had the pleasure of getting to know Chevy Stevens.  I had heard such wonderful things about her debut novel, STILL MISSING, that I bumped it up on my TBR list.  After I recommended it to my Facebook friends, she was nice enough to get in touch. 

I’m delighted to report that Chevy’s second book, NEVER KNOWING, is garnering just as much praise.  And I’m even more delighted to host her for a guest Q&A here at Murderati, one short day before NEVER KNOWING hits stores.  (Yes, on July 4, I have chosen to turn the page over to a Canadian.  Please forgive me.  I swear I’m a patriot!)

AB:  I met a wedding planner once at a writer’s conference who said she didn’t think she could write mystery novels because she didn’t know anything about police and prosecutors.  I said, “Now why would you want to write about cops and lawyers when you know all about the fascinating world of wedding planning?!”  Your past work experience was in sales.  Can you talk about how that brought you into your first novel, Still Missing?

CS:  Sure! But first I want to say thanks for having me on Murderati. I’ve been following this blog for a long time, so this is a big thrill for me.

The idea for Still Missing came to me when I was a Realtor, working at an open house on Vancouver Island. To pass the time I would either read books or daydream. And if you have an imagination like mine and are alone in an empty house, those daydreams usually took the form of worst-case scenario nightmares. One day I started wondering what would happen if I didn’t make it home that night. How long would it take for anyone to notice? What would happen to my dog? My house? That awful thought lead to others, like what if I was gone for a long time?  Could I ever recover after an ordeal like that?  Then I became consumed with the idea and within six months I’d sold my house to finish the book.

AB:  Tell us about your second novel, NEVER KNOWING?

CS:  Never Knowing was inspired by a conversation I had with my editor about what it might feel like, if you were adopted, to find out that your birth father was a famous serial killer who had never been caught. The story took root and grew from there. I used a few other ideas that had been circulating in my mind for a while, for example there was a horrific murder in Wells Gray Park many years ago and when I read about it, it really upset me. Never Knowing isn’t based on that crime, but the image of a lonely campsite and the terrible things that could happen there, haunted me, so I explored those feelings in the book.

AB:  Can you talk a little about the experience of writing the second book compared to the first?  Did the writing experience change once you knew you were writing for a real audience and under a deadline?

CS:  I felt a lot of pressure when I was writing Still Missing because I was living on savings and I really wanted to be published, especially as many people knew I’d quit my job to write a book. But yes, writing Never Knowing was different because my time was being pulled in all sorts of directions. And with all the marketing demands leading up to the release of Still Missing, I needed to be much more focused and disciplined. I couldn’t work just when the muse was upon me. When I wrote Still Missing, I took afternoon naps or went on long hikes with my dog—and then had another nap. Those days are gone!  It’s marvelous that Still Missing took off, but it did add a new level of pressure to my second book because it was important to me that I write a worthy follow up. Some days that pressure was almost crippling and it was hard to write because of all the voices (not real ones!) in my head. But then I changed my mindset and just told the story that was coming to me, knowing that no matter what I was doing my best. 

AB: I love the use of Annie’s therapy sessions in STILL MISSING as a way to show us the aftermath of Annie’s abduction and her attempt to heal.  I did not, however, think of that therapist as a character.  Did you know all along that the therapist would be the common thread into your second novel?

CS: Not initially. When I had an approved outline for Never Knowing, I began writing but something didn’t feel right about the structure. Then I started wondering if I could also do it in sessions. I thought it would be interesting to see the therapist through a different character’s eyes. It would also be challenging, but I was really excited by the concept, so I ran it by my editor and she loved it!

AB: Still Missing was a NY Times bestseller, has sold in about two dozen countries, and has been optioned for film.  Congratulations on all the early success.  What so far has been the most remarkable experience of your publishing career?

CS: You know, it’s all been wonderful. The first reviews, the first time I went to New York, getting e-mails from fans, making the New York Times list. But flying to Amsterdam last fall to meet my publishers was probably one of the most wonderful moments in my life. I’d been working hard all summer and it was the first time I’d had a couple of days off in months. I wandered around the city, gorged on goat cheese salads and stroopwafel (I also came home five pounds heavier but that’s another story), and fell head over heels in love with Holland.

AB: We actually haven’t met in person (yet!) but I feel like I know you because of the time we’ve spent talking on Facebook.  We talk a lot here about how to balance our time spent writing and our time spent online.  Your thoughts?  Tips?

CS: It does feel like we know each other. Heck, I’ve even offered to puppy-sit for you (offer is still open), but I know Duffer has a waiting list. Balancing marketing and writing, with social time, has been one of my biggest struggles over the last couple of years. Recently I was getting very distracted by the Internet and having a hard time focusing on my writing. I’d start looking at homes online, and the next thing you know my morning had disappeared.  So my critique partner, the fabulous Carla Buckley, and I created something to motivate ourselves. In the morning we email each other our “daily pledge” then we check in with each other to see how we made out. A big one for me was to stop surfing the net, so I have been disconnecting my Internet for long periods of time, then allowing myself brief breaks to check email and Facebook. It’s been helping a lot!

AB: Are you a plotter or a seat of the pants-er?

CS:  Still Missing just unfolded organically, mainly because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and couldn’t plot myself out of a paper bag, which led to years of rewriting. Now that I’m on a contract, I work off an approved outline. But when I started working on Never Knowing, some interesting plot twists popped up as I went along, which also led to lots of rewriting. With my third book, I spent more time researching and working on my outline, hoping to cut down on some of the revising, while still leaving room for surprises.  Things change once you start writing and getting to know your characters.

AB:  I suspect we’ve hit it off not only out of mutual respect for the writing, but our shared love of dogs.  Who’s your favorite literary dog? 

CS:  Love this question! Yes, as you know Annie is the dog of my life, so much so that I named the main character in my first book after her. Growing up I adored Clifford the Big Red Dog and Copper from Fox and the Hound, then Einstein in Dean Koontz’s Watchers and recently Enzo in the Art of Racing in the Rain.

AB:  What’s next for you?

CS:  I’m currently working on Always Watching, which is about the therapist, Nadine, who is in the first two books. But she’s never spoken until now.  I’ve set her story in Victoria and Shawnigan Lake, which is where I grew up, so I’m enjoying writing about all my favorite places.  I’m also finding the research for this book, particularly in psychiatry and cults, fascinating. Hopefully, my readers will agree!

AB: Chevy’s new book, NEVER KNOWING, hits stores tomorrow.  I love recommending books when I’m a true believer in both the work and the author.  I think y’all will like both Chevy and her books, so please show her the love. 

Thanks, Chevy, for being here!  Chevy is traveling today in preparation for the launch, so may not be able to check in routinely, but do leave comments.  And while you’re at it, let us know your favorite literary pet!

 PS.  Many of you have been kind enough to follow my own exploits with the launch of my first stand-alone, LONG GONE.  I’m pleased to report that it was a PEOPLE MAG summer book pick and the featured mystery on the TODAY SHOW this weekend (the “one book that you can’t put down this summer”: watch it here. The mystery part starts at 2:15)  In return, I’d like to invite you to the webchat I’ll be having tomorrow, July 5, 9 PM EST, for members of the LONG GONE private book club.  Here is the link.  The password is ireadlonggone)

So About That Pre-Order Gift…

by Alafair Burke

You may recall that a few months ago, I solicited your advice about a pre-order campaign for my first standalone thriller, LONG GONE, which comes out … OMG, tomorrow!  After giving pre-orderers (that’s a word, right?) a keychain last year for my novel 212, I wanted to know what readers might appreciate this time around.  Another trinket I could send to every person?  Or a smaller chance at being one lucky winner of something big, like an iPad?

Well, in more than fifty comments, y’all made three preferences very clear: 1) It’s more about the gesture than the monetary value; 2) Better to give something to every reader than to just one lucky winner; and 3) The more personal to the reader-writer relationship, the better.

Thanks to your input, I made a decision I never could have reached on my own.  In fact, I got so excited that I disclosed the decision in parts.  Because we all love mysteries, I decided to make the LONG GONE pre-order gift a surprise.

Like all good mysteries, this one came with clues.

1.  It consists of thirteen parts that can be assembled in less than three seconds.

2.  You put its parts together with your fingers, but you will not want to hold it.

3.  What force and strength cannot get through, this, with little effort, can do.

4.  It is not a car or an iPad. It is something little old me can actually give everyone who buys a book.

Got it?

Did you figure it out?

Try one more time?

It’s a thirteen-letter password!  And in that case, it’s a password to a private book club.  It’s private in every sense of the word. It requires a password, available only to early supporters of Long Gone.

It is also private because it provides a behind the scenes look at the writing of Long Gone: thoughts about various scenes and characters, information about the real locations depicted in the book, and other content that I hope will enhance the reading experience. 

Y’all told me readers wanted something personal and connected to the books.  I couldn’t think of anything more personal and Long-Gone related than exclusive content from the gal who wrote the novel.  Although the password to this club was intended to be a pre-order “gift” to readers and a small token of my gratitude, it has turned out to be a gift to me as well. 

LongGone_HiRes FINAL SNAPSHOT 3-21-11

In the past, I constantly had to admonish readers on Facebook and the web not to post comments with SPOILERS!  The private book club is a place where we can all start on page 1 together (tomorrow!) and read together for 10 days.  Every post begins with a page number, so anyone who falls behind can skip that post and come back later.  Faster readers can wait for the rest of us to catch up, then jump into the conversation.  I am really looking forward to talking to readers about LONG GONE in real time as they read.  Then on July 5, at 9 PM EST, we’ll wrap up our club with a live webchat.

Since all of you here helped me come up with this experiment, I thought you might want the details.  And because some of you may even want to join the club, I’m extending membership applications through the week. 

How do you get the password to the club?  Just purchase a copy of LONG GONE by June 25 (earlier is better, though, because we start reading tomorrow!).  It can be an e-copy or a paper book.  Either forward your proof of purchase to offer@alafairburke.com, OR fill out this handy, dandy pre-order offer form, whichever is easier.  Then I’ll send you the club location and password.  How simple is that?

The book club might be a completely transformative way to read a book with a community, or it could be a total trainwreck.  Either way, I’m looking forward to the experiment, and appreciate the willingness of others to follow me on the journey.

Learn more about LONG GONE, read an excerpt, and watch the video trailer here.  You can find many of your favorite booksellers here and here.  For signed copies, contact stores listed here.

And since I’m totally pimping myself out today, I’ll go all in with the advance praise:

“I loved this book.” —Michael Connelly

“Long Gone is a tremendous novel, and Alafair Burke is one of the finest young crime writers working today.” —Dennis Lehane

“Alafair Burke’s first standalone is an absolutely riveting must read—and the ending is a shocker you’ll never see coming.” —Lisa Scottoline

“A red-hot firecracker of a thriller. If you already love Alafair Burke’s novels, buckle up for her best book ever.” —Lisa Unger

“Highly addictive. The ending will leave you breathless.” —Karin Slaughter

“Very smart. The dialogue crackles, the plot is intriguing, and the pacing is perfect.” —Nelson DeMille

Seriously, everyone: Thanks a lot for your input about this in March.  I’m very happy with the little “gift” we came up with, and hope some of you here will enjoy it as well.

Comment time: What was the last book (other than LONG GONE, natch) that you purchased? And was it hardback, paper, or e?

 P.S. I’ll be the featured guest blogger this week for Powells Books, posting everyday this week.  Stop by and say hi!

The Duffer Awards: Legendary Characters, Ridiculous Awards

by Alafair Burke

Remember high school Year Book Awards?  Most Likely to Succeed?  Best Dresser?  Most likely to raise the biggest pig?  (Hey, I went to high school in Kansas!)

Well, I think crime fiction characters need these kinds of very, very serious awards.  So for the entire month of June, my website will host the first annual Duffer Awards. Each day will feature two beloved crime fiction characters, matched head-to-head for very, very serious award categories like Most Likely to Win a Hot Dog Eating Contest and Odd Couples Most Likely to Win on Amazing Race.

And very serious awards need very serious award statues.  Duffer, as you probably know, is my very serious dog. 

dufflonggone 2

Here is a Duffer Award. (Notice that his body is NOT an Oscar Award because that would undoubtedly be some kind of trademark infringement, and Duffer is much too serious to get caught in that kind of scandal.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We started the Duffer Awards on June 1.  (See how I used “we”?  Like “we” are a major operation with accountants tallying votes and whatnot?  We are very serious.)

Here are the awards we’ve decided so far (winners in bold):

1. Most Likely to Marry His Ex-Wife
Mickey Haller (Michael Connelly) v. Jesse Stone (Robert B. Parker)
 
2.  Most Likely to Sacrifice an Arm a la 127 Hours
Serge Storms (Tim Dorsey) v. Gretchen Lowell (Chelsea Cain)
 
3.  Most Likely to Make a 15-mile Detour for Good Junk Food
Tess Monaghan (Laura Lippman) v. Kinsey Milhone (Sue Grafton)

4.  Best Manners
Maisie Dobbs (Jacqueline Winspear) v. Inspector Lynley (Elizabeth George)

5.  Most Badass Sidekick
Bubba Rogowski (Dennis Lehane) v. Clinton “Skink” Tyree (Carl Hiaasen)

Today at the website, you can vote on Best Hat: Raylan Givens (Elmore Leonard) v. Walt Longmire (Craig Allen Johnson).  Post a comment beneath your vote, and you’ll automatically be entered to win weekly prizes including signed copies of my books and $50 gift certificates to your favorite bookseller.  The more you comment, the more you’re entered to win. 

Coming later in the month are 24 additional very serious awards for very serious things like Best Shoes, Ability to Travel the Globe in Two Pages or Less, Most Likely to Crash a Server on Match.com, and Most Likely to Get Away With It.  Click here and start voting today. And I hope the Murderati will visit the Duffers every day in June to vote on a new award.  (And perhaps help spread the word.  This should be fun for anyone who reads crime fiction!)

The Best Two Bucks You Can Spend

400000000000000381699_s4In other June-only news, ANGEL’S TIP is available in the US as a $1.99 e-book.  This special edition also includes an essay from me about the real-life stories that inspired ANGEL’S TIP, as well as the first three chapters of my new book, LONG GONE. 

If the idea behind this low price is to hook new readers, I feel a bit like a drug dealer handing out free samples on the playground.  But if you have been at all entertained by my posts here, this is a way to check out the novels for less than a cup of coffee. 

Here are the links to buy for Kindle, Nook, and the Sony Reader.  Okay, I feel a little dirty now.  And not in a good way.

Now for Comments: Help me get an early start on next summer’s Duffer Awards.  What are some very, very serious awards for crime fiction characters, and which two characters would make a good head-to-head match for the award?

Welcome Michael Koryta

by Alafair Burke

I first met Michael Koryta after the Edgar Awards in 2004.  I was having a post-ceremony party.  A long-time friend asked if she could bring agent David Hale Smith and one of his clients.  The client’s name was Michael Koryta.  His novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye, had been published by St. Martin’s Press after winning the PWA/SMP Prize for Best First PI Novel.  Now it had been nominated for an Edgar for Best First Novel.

When the three of them showed up at my apartment door, I played hostess by immediately offering cocktails to my new guests.  I paused as I poured Michael’s Makers Mark.  

“Should I be carding you?” I asked.

“No.”  He assured me I would not be breaking New York law by serving him.  “A few months ago, yes, this would’ve been a problem.  But I’m officially legal now.”

Wow. Twenty-one years old and already nominated for an Edgar.  I told him I hated him, and we’ve been buddies ever since.

Because we’re friends, I hope Michael will forgive me for even mentioning age more than seven years later.  In that time, he has become a full-time writer.  He has published an additional seven novels.  He teaches creative writing at the side of none other than Dennis Lehane.  He has found fans in writers as diverse as Ridley Pearson, James Patterson, Michael Connelly, and Dean Koontz.

As the Wall Street Journal pronounced in a profile last year, “Michael Koryta does not fool around.”

He’s also one of my favorite writer friends.  He writes, in my view, for the right reason (because he has to) and with the right objective (to create a better book every single time).  It’s my pleasure to host him here at Murderati before the launch of his latest book, THE RIDGE.

AB: Congratulations on the launch of your new book, THE RIDGE.  Tell us a little bit about the book.
 
MK: Thanks! It’s a kind of hybrid detective novel and ghost story, which is the blend I’ve been playing around with in these last three (SO COLD THE RIVER, THE CYPRESS HOUSE, and THE RIDGE). The book opens with a rural Kentucky sheriff’s deputy being called out to investigate the apparent suicide of a local eccentric who built — and lived in — a lighthouse in the woods. I wanted to write something that called upon a lot of the flavor of Appalachian folklore and legend.

AB: Let’s talk about the genre shift.  As you mentioned, after five well-received crime novels, you switched gears in 2010 with SO COLD THE RIVER, which had enough of a horror/supernatural feel that reviewers were comparing you to Steven King. Since then, with both THE CYPRESS HOUSE and THE RIDGE, your work has continued in the direction of the supernatural.  So what happened to move your work away from nuts-and-bolts investigating into the realm of the unexplained?  Did you start seeing ghosts or something?


 

MK: I keep hoping to spot one, but so far no luck. I really hadn’t anticipated making this change. SO COLD just seemed to cry out for a ghost story — I was writing about a place that had a really bizarre history, bridged a full century, and was built on the legendary reputation of healing mineral springs. To go purely procedural with that seemed wrong. Once I’d introduced myself to writing mysteries that had a component of the unexplained, I fell in love with it. The change in form was really refreshing, and challenging. I found the supernatural stories a great deal harder to plot. That was part of the fun, though, figuring out how to sell this new wrinkle, first to myself and then — hopefully — to the reader.

AB: PD recently blogged here about genre shifting — and our readers’ reactions to it.  How have your early readers reacted to the most recent books?  And was their response a consideration when you envisioned your most recent books?
 
MK: Well, most of the feedback I heard was positive. Surprised, maybe, but positive. A lot of “I don’t usually read this sort of thing, but I decided I’d give it a chance because of your previous books, and I really enjoyed it.” That’s very rewarding, when readers are willing to follow you in some different directions. Now, I’m sure some people did not like the new direction, and that’s fine. You can’t worry about that. I really think you’re putting yourself in a very dangerous place when you consider reader response before writing a book. At that point you’re beginning to let the market dictate the material, and you can lose your creative soul awfully fast doing that. Was I worried people wouldn’t like the books? Sure. But I’m always worried that people won’t like a book, so that was hardly a new experience.

AB: Four of your first five novels featured investigator Lincoln Perry,  who also earned you an Edgar nomination for your debut book, TONIGHT I SAID GOODBYE.  Will readers be seeing anymore of Lincoln Perry any time soon?  What’s next for you?

MK: I’d be very surprised if I never returned to Lincoln, which is interesting, because when I wrote the last lines of THE SILENT HOUR I had a pretty firm sense that, whether I liked it or not, I’d just written the coda for him. I just didn’t see that character calling me back, felt as if I’d run the well dry. Now, three books removed, I’m beginning to think about him again. I miss writing about Cleveland. Lincoln was my window into Cleveland. So we will see. The next book is a traditional crime novel, nary a ghost in sight, and it’s about two brothers who lost a sister to violent crime when they were in their teens. It’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for several years, and it just kept circling back.

AB: You have now published three novels in twelve months.  Can you tell us a little bit about your experience with both the writing pace and the publishing pace?
 
MK: There’s an element of smoke and mirrors to it. It would appear that I stepped up my writing speed dramatically. That’s not really the case, though. In fact, THE RIDGE took me 16 or 17 months, which is the longest I’ve spent on a book. What has been stepped up is the production pace. When I came to Little, Brown, Michael Pietsch, my editor, suggested that we break the traditional approach of having the hardcover out, then 11 months later the paperback, then the next hardcover. He wanted to increase visibility by shortening the time between books. We had long lead time with SO COLD, so it didn’t seem too intimidating to me. My writing pace didn’t have to change, but all elements of production were crunched like crazy, and kudos to the Little, Brown team for somehow pulling it off. We are going from copy edits to finished books on THE RIDGE in 10 weeks, I believe. That’s pretty quick! It is also operating with the idea that you don’t need to have a galley floating around for a whole year before release, and I think that makes a lot of sense.

AB: I know you’ll be traveling a bit for The Ridge.  In fact, I’ll see you in Phoenix on June 25, thanks to Barbara Peters and The Poisoned Pen.  Thanks to JT, we were talking here recently about the value of touring.  Your thoughts?
 
MK: Can’t wait to see you. Pack your golf clubs. And Duffer. This will be the shortest tour I’ve done. That’s another side to the three books in 12 months routine: lots of travel. I’ve got to shut that down for a while if I intend to publish again anytime soon. Book tours are kind of mysterious to me. Financially, I think publishers have to be looking at it as a long-term payoff, because the only writers who are going to sell enough copies by touring to offset the travel costs are the writers who don’t need to tour, anyhow.

Events are pretty critical to indie stores, and indie stores are absolutely imperative to authors, particularly new or lesser known writers. I don’t believe there’s enough value to justify an author investing large amounts of his or her own money into touring. There are dozens upon dozens of extremely successful writers who almost never make appearances. Dean Koontz has sold more than 400 million copies and has never toured. When was the last time anybody spotted Grisham on the road?

Now let’s look beyond the #1 bestsellers, to those of us who are trying to hang in there and improve sales enough to get another deal and live to fight another day. I think you’re far more likely to gain ground doing that in the hours spent at the keyboard than in the airport. So I suppose my long-winded answer here is: moderate value at best. We’ve all seen writers who come out and beat the trail for 500 events and it doesn’t catapult them beyond a writer who did 10 events. Good publicity and good word of mouth are far more critical, and those come from writing good books, unless you have some odd hook like, you know, being Snooki.

Touring can be addictive for the writer because A) you feel productive, running out of airports and into cabs, and B) most booksellers are flat-out awesome people and you want to be around them. But I remain convinced that you’re going to benefit yourself most in the hours spent at the desk.

AB: We also talk a lot here about the increased pressures on authors to be their own publicity machines, especially on the internet.  You have maintained a fairly close zone of privacy.  What boundaries, if any, do you have about your presence as an author online?  We’re happy to have you here on Murderati as a guest, but what are your thoughts about blogging regularly, friending readers on Facebook, and Tweeting?


MK: Kind of funny — I’m the infamously young writer of our current pack, and I’m the least social network savvy. After about five years I finally advanced to having a news blog! The publisher runs a books page on Facebook that is really good, but I’m not too active with my own page beyond putting up fun profile photos from Seinfeld. I have yet to tweet, though I’ve promised Little, Brown that I will give it a try.

You’re right that there really is no way to reach me directly on the internet. Part of my reluctance is a privacy issue, I suppose, yes, but more of it is based in time loss. You can lose HOURS on Facebook so easily! It’s amazing. But there are other things I’d prefer to be doing with those hours. I can see enormous value in being able to interact with your readers, but ultimately the interaction I’m most concerned with is the one they have with the story. Lots of readers felt and continue to feel personally touched by Dickens, but as far as I know he has yet to send a tweet or poke anyone on Facebook.  


AB: You worked for a private investigator before you were writing full-time.  What’s your best story from your PI days?

MK: You’re an attorney, and a law professor, and yet you immediately ask me to violate the confidentiality agreement I signed? Nice. I’ve got lots of favorites. Kind of high up there was a woman who had made a full disability claim. I spent a week outside her house watching while absolutely nothing happened, then went into a bar to hear my friend’s band play, sat down, and saw this lady making a giddy drunken fool out of herself on the dance floor. Reason I always kept a video camera in the car!

I also kept a hardhat and a roll of old blueprints that I got from dad, who is an engineer, because nobody questions a guy who’s pulled off the side of the road if he’s wearing a hardhat and has construction diagrams spread out on the hood.

There were some funny stories — a theft case that involved more than 200 pairs of panties stolen from one girl (who has 200 pairs of panties?!) and some tragic ones — a wrongful death case in which a child had been killed; putting together the narrative of that poor kid’s life was the most haunting and disturbing thing I’ve been involved with — but the job was always grist for the mill.

AB: I know we’ve both been blessed to have some of the most generous mentors in the crime fiction world.  Who have some of your mentors been, and what lessons have you learned from them?
 
MK: Wow, yes, blessed is the word. I find over and over again that this is a wildly generous community. There’s no better example than Michael Connelly. He’s just the guy you want to be like, from the way he approaches the craft to how he carries himself and treats other people. Dennis Lehane, of course. He was still teaching when I started publishing, which I think is a remarkable thing, and I certainly benefited enormously from that and from just from being around Dennis. The great Laura Lippman! George Pelecanos, Stewart O’Nan. Steve Hamilton, who probably pays more attention to rookie writers than anybody else out there. I get nervous working on the list because I can go very long with it and still leave people out. I think the generation of writers who came right before ours really set a standard that’s been recognized and hopefully will be emulated in our little crime fiction world. There are an awful lot of us who will not forget the way a Michael or a Laura or a Steve treated us when we showed up at our first Bouchercon with a debut book and a dazed expression.

AB: Who is cuter: Duffer or XXX?  (Why the hell can’t I remember your dog’s name?)

Because the name doesn’t matter, Duffer is going to win this competition, and everybody knows it. Especially Duffer.

AB: Aw, the sign of a true Mensch.  Koryta doesn’t want Duffer subjected to competition.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little more about Michael Koryta today.  Today’s a travel day as he heads into New York for BEA, but we’ll both be checking in periodically to chat.  One lucky commenter will win a copy of Michael’s new book, THE RIDGE.  In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says, “Koryta delivers another supernatural thriller with punch….Part ghost story, part murder mystery, all thriller, this fast-paced and engaging read will have readers leaving the night-light on long after they have finished the book.”  James Patterson says, “A man in love with the woman who shot him. Who could possibly resist that story? Not me. Read on, and discover one of the scariest and most touching horror tales in years.”

THE RIDGE hits stores on June 8.  You can order THE RIDGE here.

P.S. Speaking of time wasted online, for the entire month of June, my website will host the first annual Duffer Awards. Each day we will post a new poll featuring two beloved characters nominated for very, very serious award categories like Most Likely to Win a Hot Dog Eating Contest and Best Shoes.  Post a comment to enter to win weekly prizes including signed copies of my books and $50 gift certificates to your favorite bookseller!  I hope the Murderati crowd will check out the Duffer Awards starting June 1 and every day in June. 

Ending the Phrases “I Don’t Read” and “I Don’t Read Women,” One T-Shirt At A Time

by Alafair Burke

Admit it. At some point in your life, you’ve said it, or at least heard someone say it. “I don’t read books by women,” or more harshly, “I don’t like women authors.”

Typically when I hear the sentiment, there’s a slight (and I suppose flattering?) modification: “I don’t usually like women authors, but I love your books.”

Huh??

Appreciative yet perplexed, I started asking readers why they thought they didn’t like women authors. Usually they said it was because the books weren’t hard-boiled enough. Or they said there was too much romance and not enough action.T hey believed that women writers were writing for women and not men.

On the conference circuit, I’ve talked a little bit about the stereotyping of authors, and we’ve had great discussions about male/female differences (or the lack thereof) here on Murderati.  I do believe that publishers and editors are more likely to steer female crime writers toward romantic suspense.  They might also encourage them to write more about female experiences and characters. 

But to say “I don’t read women” is very different than preferring certain types of books over other types of books.  Some of the most inventive, brilliant, and, yes, bad-ass crime fiction being written today comes from women.  Using gender as a proxy for subgenre is a darn lazy way to choose books when your local independent bookseller will happily hand-select books tailored to your individual preferences, and when Amazon tells you if you like Michael Connelly, you might also like Tess Gerritsen, and if you like Harlan Coben, you might also like Lisa Gardner, and when thousands of high-quality reader-reviews are a computer away via GoodReads

I was talking about the “I don’t read women” phenomenon over on my Facebook wall a few months ago, and I quipped, “I want a t-shirt that says Real Men Read Women.”  Before I knew it, a bunch of my friends said they wanted to buy that t-shirt.  Well, when it comes to my readers, I say, “Ask and you shall receive.” 

But if I was going to get into the tee-shirt vending business, the money needed to go to a good cause.  And as the daughter of a writer and a librarian, I see no worthier cause than youth literacy.  As much as I hate to hear someone say, “I don’t read women,” it’s far worse to hear, “I don’t read.”  And it’s even sadder to hear those words from a child.

Did you know that the majority of low-income families do not have a single book for their children at home?  Teachers have students bringing in phone books when asked to bring a book from home, because it was the only book they had. 

I’m proud to report that bestselling (and super cool) authors Lisa Gardner, Tess Gerritsen, Laura Lippman, Karin Slaughter, and Lisa Unger have lent their names to an odd little effort to end the phrases “I don’t read” and “I don’t read women,” one t-shirt at a time.  Thanks to them, “Real Men Read Women” gear is now available online

We’ve also got “I Like Boys Who Read Books by Girls” gear.

And though we thought that the use of our names would help bring the crime fiction community to the effort, we also have gear that does not list any individual authors, so you can collect the gear even if you prefer Harper Lee and Dorothy Parker.

All profits will go to First Book, a non-profit organization that provides new books to low-income children.  Order your stuff here.  And if you’re not into t-shirts, mousepads, and water bottles (who ISN’T into that stuff?), please consider donating directly to First Book here.

Thanks in advance for your support and for help spreading the word!

I’ll be raffling off a t-shirt to one lucky commenter.  Just post a comment that relates either to your favorite female authors or your experiences reading as a child.

P.S./B.S.P.  Early reviews for my new book, LONG GONE, are rolling in.  Library Journal, in a starred review, says “Burke’s first stand-alone novel is a fast-paced, plot-driven nail-biter.”  And from Booklist: “Burke delivers a tightly plotted, suspenseful account  . . . It’s very much in the Lisa Gardner vein—strong female protagonist, shadowy villains, intricate and suspenseful story.” (And they didn’t even know Lisa and I are on t-shirts together!)  Still waiting for PW and Kirkus.

You can watch the LONG GONE book trailer here:

Research and the Internet

by Alafair Burke

When I was a kid, I remember my father (a writer) calling the number for the public library’s reference desk from memory.  I’d hear him say, “Phyllis, it’s Jim calling again.”  He knew their voices.  Their names.  They knew his.  For years, he always thanked the reference librarians who’d helped nail down factual tidbits he needed for his fiction.

Fast forward thirty years, and now I’m also a writer.  Like him, I also stop a few times a day to wonder whether my memory serves me correctly as I’m writing.  What year did that song come out?  How long would it take someone to drive from lower Manhattan to Buffalo? 

But unlike my dad, I don’t call the reference desk at the library for answers.  I take to the internet.  Thanks to tools like Google and Wikipedia, we have a seemingly limitless ability to pull up the most arcane information in seconds.  Google Maps allows us to take a virtual walk around a midwestern town we’ve never been to.  Online menus let us see what a character might order at a southern diner whose grease-soaked air we’ve never smelled.  I even use my Facebook friends as a modern-day version of Phyllis the reference librarian, asking my “online kitchen cabinet” for suggestions about fictional town names and the imagined decor for a successful man’s home office in the early 1980s. 

Yep, thanks to the Internet, an author’s job as researcher has never been easier. We don’t want emails from people telling us that a song playing at a character’s prom wasn’t written until her sophomore year in college, do we?  That’s why I love the archives of the Billboard Music charts. Did you know that the number one song the week of my birth was “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies?  I did.  I looked it up.

We also don’t want a bunch of thirty year old characters with names like Barbara (too old — sorry Barbaras of the world) or Brianna (too young — sorry, really really sorry).  Did you know that the third most popular name for girls in 1981 was Amanda?  I did.  I looked it up.

A Name You Will Not Find in a Baby Name Directory

One downside to online research, however, is the potential for distraction.  Finding out what song was playing at Ellie Hatcher’s prom is worth a few-minute detour from the manuscript.  But, oddly enough, I never seem to stop there.  Instead, I decide I have time to look up the top song during the week of my birth.  Then I have to watch the song video on You Tube.  Then I have to stop by my own YouTube account to rewatch, for the fiftieth time, the video of my dog Duffer walking to daycare.

Then it’s a brief sojourn at Facebook, where friends Laura Lippman and Chevy Stevens have each independently sent me a link to this awesomely happy video of a hip hop french bulldog and his mad dance movez. 

Then I have to send that link to my 13-year-old nephew, who doesn’t realize it’s a video gone viral, and really believes that the hip hop dog is my Duffer and that the boy in his undies on the couch is my husband.  And then I have to laugh about that — alot — with my sister. 

Then I have to check out the links that friends have shared on my page in response to Laura and Chevy’s posts.  One of the links is to a website featuring funny pictures of upside down dogs

Nothing funnier than that, right?  Well, except maybe this site, courtesy of Karin Slaughter, featuring super creepy Easter Bunny pictures.

Before you know it, that answer to the song at homecoming has cost me an hour or so.  Even at her most loquacious, Phyllis the reference librarian never sucked up an hour.

This year, I’ve been trying very hard to separate writing at the computer from researching (and, more often, playing) on the internet.  Thanks to a tip from Lisa Unger (wow, lots of name-dropping today.  My friend Bobby DeNiro told me never to name-drop)  — anyway, thanks to a tip, I downloaded an internet-blocking program called Freedom, which allows me to lock myself offline for however long I decide.  If a research question comes up, I can jot it down for later.  I haven’t been as diligent as I had planned, but do find that Freedom helps me get words on the page when I actually crack down and use it.

And when I don’t use it, man, do I love the internet!

So tell me ‘Rati, what are your favorite online sites these days, for either legit research or total brain candy?

P.S.  If you’re like me and goof off online, feel free to share some madness on Facebook or Twitter.

Welcome Jonathan Hayes!

by Alafair Burke

I met author Jonathan Hayes in 2008 at a Thrillerfest cocktail party for Harper authors at Mysterious Bookshop in New York.  His first novel, Precious Blood, had just come out to rave reviews.  It turned out we had a lot in common.  He also still had a crime-related day job, serving as the city’s Senior Medical Examiner.  He liked good food and bad movies.  And, importantly, given the realities of new friendships in New York City, he lived  three blocks away from me.

A friendship was born. 

I am delighted to report that Jonathan’s much-anticipated second novel, A HARD DEATH, is in stores this week.  I hope you enjoy getting to know him in today’s Q&A as much as I have.  He’s a hell of a writer, so check out his work if he’s new to you.

Many writers have a “hook” in their backgrounds that pulled them into writing.  Michael Connelly was a crime beat reporter.  Our own Tess was a medical doctor.  I was a prosecutor.  Your most apparent lead-in to crime fiction is as a medical examiner, but that’s not actually how you began writing, is it?

It was pretty much an accident. I’d always loved to write, but it wasn’t something I’d imagined myself doing professionally. When I moved to New York, I became active in an online NYC community, where I was being (typically) free with my opinions about restaurants and movies and life in the city. An editor from Paper magazine (“the coolest magazine on Earth”, according to the LA Times) saw my writing and asked if I’d be interested in writing for them.

I dashed off a round up of my favorite NYC Vietnamese restaurants and sent it to her. Then they said, “We’d like you to write about anything you’d like.” I told them I wanted to write about the electronic music and culture of the current rave and nightclub culture. For two years, I was a professional raver (a really schizoid life – I found myself doing autopsies in the morning, testifying in a murder trial in the afternoon, reviewing a restaurant in the evening, then home for a disco nap, up at midnight and out all night at a warehouse rave).

 Hayes’ Motto Back Then (Literally?)

I wrote more and more about food; eventually I was spotted by someone at Food & Wine. They sent me to Vegas for the magazine, and things built from there. Martha Stewart next, then the New York Times, and eventually, GQ, Gourmet, etc. I ended up a contributing food editor at Martha Stewart Living.

I loved – no, loved – writing for Martha – each story was so pretty and perfect, and these jewel-like little pieces balanced out the carnage and destruction of my daily life, particularly during the hard times after 9/11. But eventually, there’s only so many times you can write about edible flowers before feeling somewhat dishonest: I am a naturally profane person, and the delicacy and politesse of writing for (most) magazines began to be a strain. I sketched the outline for a novel that would let me talk about my forensic life, and began to poke at it.

Then, another odd opportunity presented itself: my friend Bill Yosses, a prominent pastry chef, approached me about writing his dessert cookbook. When I met with his agent, she was fascinated by my day job, and asked if I’d ever written any fiction. She insisted that I send her the outline and pages of the novel I’d been working on; she signed me immediately on reading it. Harper Collins bought Precious Blood the next week in a preemptive bid. And suddenly, I was a novelist.

I think that my background in forensic pathology has been a double-edged sword. I probably know more about murder and violence than just about anyone else out there writing crime fiction today, but I worry that I might be seen as a novelty signing, like Ice T. Or, worse, Mrs. Ice T. The fact is, I’d been writing professionally at a high level for a decade before I started writing fiction.

By the way, don’t worry about Bill, he of the dessert cookbook: he’s now the White House pastry chef.

 Booklist accurately describes your new novel, A HARD DEATH, as “a CinemaScope novel, in Technicolor and surround sound.”  I once introduced you at a Mystery Writers of America event for the New York chapter by saying that you write about violence as well as any other writer working today.  Why are you so bloody good at writing about bloody stuff?

I’m not a particularly cerebral person: I am a sensualist. This is one of my strengths as a food journalist – I have a good palate, and a good nose, and can write convincingly and passionately about food at the sensual level, while bringing to the table a strong understanding of the history and culture of food.

It’s the same way with forensic stuff – I understand violence at a fairly profound level, but my approach isn’t a simple description of punching or shooting so much as a focused awareness of the look, feel and smell of violence and its aftermath. I want the reader to understand what it feels like to do my work – what it feels like to kneel down over the body of a murdered man in a blood-spattered room, or to pull the body of a stabbing victim out of a swamp.

 A HARD DEATH is the second novel featuring Dr. Edward Jenner.  Tell us a little about Jenner and the set-up for A HARD DEATH.

Jenner (who, by the way, is mortified by his overdetermined first name, and always goes simply by “Jenner”) was introduced in Precious Blood. A forensic pathologist who’s just passed 40, Jenner has retired, burned out after his 9/11 experiences. He’s hauled back into the world of violent death when the niece of a good friend becomes the target of a serial killer. Jenner survives, but is forced to take several ethically iffy steps during his hunt for the killer; politically out-maneuvered, he ends up with his New York medical license suspended. Broke and desperate to regain his reputation, Jenner jumps when an old mentor offers him several months of work in the ME office of a quiet, rural Florida county on the edge of the Everglades. It’s the perfect opportunity – Jenner can rest and recharge, away from the glare of the New York media spotlight. But then…

 

Your first Jenner novel, PRECIOUS BLOOD, was set in New York, where you are a senior forensic pathologist and live in the East Village.  I could feel the presence of New York City on every page of that book.  For A HARD DEATH, you take Jenner down to the Florida Everglades.  Why did you decide to move your character in only the second book in the series?  And why Florida?

I wrote about New York in a very real way – I love this city passionately, worship it. Seriously, there isn’t a day when I don’t step out onto the street and think, “Thank God I live here!” But I found I couldn’t write Precious Blood honestly unless I talked about what happened here after 9/11. This was a very hard thing for me to do – like many New Yorkers; I took a pretty bad hit back then. The topic is emotionally and politically charged for many of us, and carries very particular weight for those of us who were involved in the recovery and identification process; some of the names in the book are those of cops I worked with back then.

It was difficult to write freely about the NYPD in that book; I realized I needed to get Jenner somewhere where the cops could be really flawed without risking resentment from people I work with on a daily basis.

While I was training in forensics in Miami, I moonlighted on Florida’s West Coast, in Naples, a charming, quiet town, affluent and clean. It was a fascinating experience, particularly after the maelstrom of spectacular death that was Miami. Mostly, my days were incredibly quiet, spent documenting the natural passing of elderly Snowbirds, the occasional drowning. But then the calm would be punctured by really extraordinary things – for example, I had to go by airboat through the Everglades to a remote mangrove swamp to investigate a small plane crash. I was particularly struck by the scene of a stabbing in a migrant worker town 50 miles to the North, by the squalor in which the workers lived in comparison to the luxury of Old Naples.

 

That sort of contrast is great for a writer. Having learned my lessons from Precious Blood, I created the fictional county of Douglas to stand in for Collier County, and Port Fontaine to stand in for Naples (yes, I have friends in the Collier County ME Office, and in the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, and wish to step on no toes!).

Obviously, it’s not a documentary recreation of Naples and the surrounding area. I used details I’d picked up around the country – something a death investigator had told me about Iowa pig farms a few years back when I was lecturing on rave drugs in Des Moines; a lurid article about the particularly scandalous behavior of an affluent Floridian; some other stuff. And I was a bit prescient about the violent nature of Mexican drug cartels, which have, in recent months, managed to catch up with me.

 

We both love to eat, as do many of the other ‘Rati.  What has been a particularly memorable meal?

Last month I was in Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. I speak passable French, and have an apartment in Paris, so the community of French forensic pathologists has embraced me. At every meeting in the US, it’s my responsibility to find bons tables ­ good places to eat. Usually, that means digging up something typiquement americain; when the meeting was in San Antonio, for example, I rolled up to the rural town of Luling with a Cadillac convertible filled with French coroners in cowboy hats, eager to eat authentic barbecued brisket served on sheets of butcher’s paper and tubs of smoky baked beans, washed down by pitchers of Big Red.

But my friend Laurent Martrille is a true gourmand, and in Chicago we ate at Alinea, perhaps the best restaurant in the country. I’d raved about it in the NY Times a few years back, then wrote a piece with its visionary chef, Grant Achatz, about solid sauces for the Times Sunday magazine; we were greeted like old friends. The meal was 29 courses, some as tiny as half a teaspoon, consumed over four and a half delirious hours. And it was exhilarating.

You can see almost every course – and Laurent – in my Facebook album of the experience.   Make sure you don’t miss the duck press! They brought out a beautifully roasted duck, carved the meat off tableside, then, in front of us, stuck the defleshed carcass, heart, liver, etc, into a giant cylindrical steel press, slowly crushing the innards until a thick red slurry of organ, blood and marrow spattered out from a little spout at the bottom. This was whisked off to the kitchen and added to the jus for the duck. And it was absolutely freakin’ amazing.

Also, for the final dessert, a sheet of woven silicon was draped across the table, and two chefs poured out a variety of chocolate sauces and other elements onto this surface. They quickly bruléed a liquid cream, then brought out a chocolate mousse that had been inflated, then frozen in liquid nitrogen, and shattered it on the table, causing a fog of nitrogen mist to flow across the surface. We ate everything right off the tabletop – seriously, have a look. It was quite extraordinary, and extremely fun.

[Aside from Alafair: I could never be a food writer because my description of said meal would be, “Incredibly tasty.”] 

Sharing a meal at shared neighborhood favorite, Gotham Bar & Grill

You are a fierce Facebooker.  Unlike many writers, you rarely even mention your books or your life as an author.  Instead, you really show your actual life through photos, music, and video.  What rings your bell about Facebook?

Yes, I am the bane of my publicist’s existence – I’m frequently invited to comment on high profile killings on national TV, but always decline. I think it’s inappropriate to hold forth on something so serious about which you only have third- or fourth-hand knowledge. All of us hate to be second-guessed; it’s horrible to watch the jackals come out of the woodwork when a celebrity dies.

I’ve had a strong online presence for more than 20 years – I’ve had the same email address for all that time, and probably as many people call me “Jaze” as call me “Jonathan”.

I find just about everything fascinating – seriously, I could get engrossed in an article about the history of cereal box typography design. As a result, I have the attention span of a magpie, regularly developing odd obsessions that are gushingly watered by the fountain of esoterica that is the Internet. And when I’m passionate about something, I want to share it, hear what other people think.  So I post it on Facebook, or on my Tumblr blog.

Right now, for example, I’m obsessed by a mostly West Coast niche subculture: girls and young women who’ve developed a style fusing psychobilly rock style (fringes, retro clothes, Sailor Jerry-style retro tattoos) with facial and body piercings, breasts plumped up by clothing or surgery, Hello Kitty-style kitschy accessories and My Little Pony hair colors borrowed from Harajuku in Tokyo. It’s an odd look, a deliberate, almost angrily in-your-face miscegenation of Kiddie Cute and Hypersexualized Adult. I think it’s less rock’n’roll than a new incarnation of rave style; that scene was characterized by a conscious infantilization that had kids drowning in brightly colored, deliberately oversized clothes, carrying animal-shaped backpacks and handing out candy while they chewed pacifiers. (Admittedly, those last two were to help deal with the jaw-grinding and clenching that are a side effect of the drug Ecstasy, but, still.)

Uh, here’s my Facebook album for that – careful; depending on where you work, it might not be 100% safe for you.

I don’t talk about my work work on Facebook because it’s not appropriate; people died to make their way to me, and that should be private. This is one of the reasons I write fiction: to talk about the things I see, and the reactions they evoke, without betraying any confidence.

Anyway, I do talk about books and writing on Facebook, but not as much as I probably should if I want to be a better marketer.

My impression is that you have very eclectic friends.  Can you give us an idea of the wide array of company you keep?

Ha! I do, thank God. My first New York City friend was the naughty photographer Eric Kroll, who specializes in what’s charmingly called “glamour photography” – models in 50’s lingerie. I met Eric because he was selling a photograph of the pin-up star Betty Page shot by Weegee, the famous New York crime scene photographer. We quickly became friends, and I hung out a lot with him in his studio, and helped carry his lighting when he was shooting in various odd locales around town. Through Eric, I met a lot of people in New York’s demimonde – strippers, dominatrixes, etcetera. I, of course, found this whole new world fascinating. And in return, I was the only medical examiner they had ever met (I do think that the novelty of having a forensic pathologist as a friend has really worked in my favor – and, I must admit, I’d thought that it would when I decided to move to New York).

After the sex people, an early NYC girlfriend introduced me to friends in the visual art world – a world as cliquey, paranoid and pretentious as the fashion world. Just like the fashion world, when you get to know people individually, they can be great, but as a group, there’s an unusually high quotient of ghastliness (although my reaction might reflect my insecurity about my art world status). Then I started writing, and my next batches of friends came first from the music world, and then from the food world. And finally, the ink-stained wretches – the motley crew of authors I’ve met in the last few years.

I love my friends, though they can be a handful. Occasionally my social circles collide with terrible results, most recently last week when I had a networking disaster: my friend, fetish-y porn girl Adrianna Nicole, has a new film coming out this week, and during the run-up to its release, I’ve been following her presence on the internet. My Google alert flagged a naughty photo of her accompanied by a delirious rant about how amazing she was; this was one of the filthiest web sites I’ve seen – I mean epically obscene. Amused, I tweeted it to her.

Only instead of sending it just to Adrianna, I managed to send the URL to my entire Twitter list. When I realized it, the damage had already been done. I sent out a follow-up tweet, explaining the situation, and sincerely apologizing to anyone who’d clicked through and seen things that they’ll never be able to unsee.

And then I sent a second tweet telling anyone who’d clicked through and been delighted that they were welcome. I mean, what’re you going to do?

Really, though, much of my weird social life comes from living in NYC, and doing a cool job (forensics and/or writing). And being English and non-judgmental probably helps.

 

What’s next for Jonathan Hayes?

What indeed! I’m getting ready for my book tour; I’ll be banging out a bunch of dates in New York/the North East, but I’m focusing on the West Coast this time around (dates are up here). The final stop of the official tour will be, of course, in Naples, Florida, where my Collier County cop and M.E. friends will finally discover the horrific liberties I’ve taken with their beloved town.

I’m working on Jenner3 (set in the mountains in Colorado). After that, I want to do a spin-off featuring the female crime scene detective who readers will meet in this book. Down the road, I think I’d like to try a horror book, but I’m not sure.

And for me personally? I’d like to spend some more time in Paris – I’m an absurd three years into the renovation of my tiny (as in 250 square feet tiny, but perfect) studio in the Marais, and I’d really like to enjoy it for a couple of weeks. And I want to spend a month in Thailand, taking it easy, and reading the rest of Tim Hallinan’s fantastic Poke Rafferty series.

Jonathan (aka Jaze) has kindly agreed to mail a signed copy of A HARD DEATH to one randomly selected commenter.  Feel free to post any questions or comments for him, but we’d both like to know: What is your favorite New York City-centric mystery or thriller?

You can also follow Jonathan on Facebook and Twitter. Order his spectacular new novel, A HARD DEATH, here.  And check out his website here.

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