Category Archives: Cornelia Read

Cornelia’s Holiday Suggestion List


Ah yes, it’s that time of year again… when I want to shoot out all public-address-system speakers playing Christmas carols, nuke DJs who play “Little Drummer Boy” ad nauseum, and pepper-spray anyone who has a problem with people who say “Happy Holidays” instead of religion-specific greetings. Ahem.

With that in mind, here’s a list of holiday gift ideas for those with a dark-adapted heart…


1. Alexander McQueen Skull Pumps

Hey, five-inch heels, golden studs, and bejeweled skulls… what’s not to love? Am thinking of wearing the black version to my daughter’s deb party. Especially because somehow the blue version costs about five hundred bucks more.

$717 at net-a-porter, originally $1195. What a bargain!

2. Souvenir NYC T-Shirt

For that annoying aunt who objects to profanity and can’t ever seem to remember where you live…

Sure, you can get them for five bucks on Canal Street, and this website charges $9.95, but still. Ossum.

3. Baby Beard Hat

I prefer to think of this little number as unisex. And then you have the perfect reason to encourage your breeder friends to wander around pushing strollers while singing “I’m a Lumberjack And I’m Okay.”

Reasons to live.

Handmade. $25

4. Martha Stewart Landmines

Because, hey, when you blow shit up? You want to make sure you’re color-coordinated.


5. Anubis Plush Doll

Okay, I’m going to hold out for the “Tickle-Me” version, but still… way better than Elmo.


6. A Bouquet of Dead Flowers


“We will send a spectacular bouquet of crap for you!” claims the website. Complete with really ratty, awful-looking card.

Roses or mixed floral bouquets, $19.95-$100

7. Crime Scene/Quarantine Sandwich Bags

Does your loved one’s lunch get stolen out of a communal fridge? Put an end to that in a big fat hurry!!


8. Cthulu Christmas Sweater

Ah, if only I were still married, I finally have the perfect gift for my ex-belle mere.


9. Porcelain Octopus Mug

When caffeine just doesn’t cut it, in the morning, throw a good scare into them! (Also comes in “Shark Attack.”)



10. Hannukah Candy Canes

Because man cannot live on latkes alone.


11. Lemons.




12. Foie Gras Bubble Gum


Dude. You know you want it.



13. Big Brother Bag


For those Republican relatives who are averse to recycling.



14. Oil Portrait of Poe

I don’t know about you, but I’D sure like an Edgar. Hand painted.


14. Rhinestone Flame Platforms

Santa would much rather find you wearing these than a plate of stale Chips Ahoy. And that goes double for you, Corbett.

Five-inch heels, concealed platform.


15. The Spanish Inquisition

Give the gift of the unexpected.



X. My Little Carbine

From the website:

The Glambo Signature Series “My Little Pony” M4A1 carbine with forward handgrip and AN-PVS4 night vision sight. This fully functional weapon fires standard 5.56mm ammunition — great for those AR-15 fans with extra ammo lying around the house or even extra parts! (Note: the full-auto selection has been disabled in this model in favor of three-round-burst. This product cannot be shipped to California.) The perfect way to introduce your little princess to the wonders of nocturnal wet-work! 

Eat your heart out, California.


Fess up, ‘Ratis… what do you want for the holidays?

Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas!



We’re going to be on a minimal posting schedule through the New Year. Not a complete hiatus, but semi-regular postings, since many of us are traveling and trying to get a real break from the Interwebs. We’ll be back at full force January 2.

We truly appreciate that you take the time to stop by, to participate, to be a part of this fabulous community all year long. We value your input so much that we thought we’d throw the field open to you.

If you comment over the next week, you’ll be entered into our Festivus Contest!

And what, pray tell, may the glorious prize be for commenting? Why, a package of signed Murderati books, of course!

14 books from 14 authors.

Now that’s a deal.

Here’s what we want to know:

(answer as many as you wish, but only one answer is necessary to be included in the contest.)

 What are you doing for the holidays?

What are you reading?

What topics would you like us to cover in the New Year?

What questions do you have for any or all of us?

 We wish you and your families the very best of holiday joy!

So, You Want to Write Noir…

By Cornelia Read

Does anyone remember now whether it was Fran Liebowitz or Nora Ephron who wrote the great series of quizzes with titles such as, “So, You Want to Be the Queen of England…”

and “So, You Want to Be the Pope…” (My friends call me: a)Sparky b)Bubba c)Supreme Pontiff)

I don’t currently have a clue, and I can’t seem to find my copy of Field Studies to check, but I thought it would be good to offer a similar aptitude test for those considering a career in the Noir Services Industries(tm).

So, You Want to Write Noir…

1. Who killed Roger Aykroyd?

a. Ken Bruen
b. Leonardo Da Vinci
c. I can’t tell you, it would be a spoiler
d. The knitting cat

2. “They threw me off the hay truck about noon” is the first sentence of which classic novel?

a. The Secret of the Old Clock
b. The Woman in White
c. Princess Daisy
d. The Postman Always Rings Twice

3. You come home to find your significant other doing the nasty on the kitchen table with the private investigator you hired. Do you…

a. Pour yourself a slug of bourbon while full of angst.
b. Close your venetian blinds while full of angst
c. Straighten the seams on your stockings, stand dramatically backlit in the kitchen doorway, take one deep drag off your cigarette, and then exhale while full of angst
d. Slap yourself across the face repeatedly, yelling “My mother! My sister! My mother! My sister!”
e. All of the above.

4. Your landlady, a slatternly old drunk, is banging on the door demanding the three weeks back rent you owe her. Do you…

a. Invite her in to join the party
b. Shoot a man in Reno, just to watch him die
c. Tell her you don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies
d. Unbutton your shirt, open the door, chuck her under the chin, and ask her where she’s been all your life


5. Of the following, who’s the most noir?

a. Rita Hayworth

b. Jessica Rabbit

c. Gloria Grahame

c. Claire Trevor

e. Frances Farmer

6. In order to avoid bruising that might harm business, pimps often beat their “girls” employing

a. a towel filled with oranges
b. a roll of nickels in each fist
c. coat-hangers wrapped in cotton batting
d. dressage whips

7. If you’re “on the gooseberry lay,” you have been…

a. stealing clothes from clotheslines
b. picking fruit as a migrant worker
c. trying to score some heroin
d. breaking into chicken coops after dark
e. Shooting men in Reno, just to watch them die

8. Of the following, who’s the most noir?

a. Charles Bukowski

b. Tom Waits

c. Prince Philip

d. Sylvia Plath

9. The line “reader, I married him” appears in which novel?

a. Jane Eyre
b. The Grifters
c. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
d. The Magdalen Martyrs

10. Eddie Muller is

a. the fourth Pep Boy that Manny, Mo, and Larry don’t talk about.
b. the Czar of Noir
c. The Sultan of Swing
d. The bastard love-child of Barbara Stanwyck and Charles Willeford

11. Why does “she walk(s) these hills in a long black veil”?

a. because she shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die
b. because her lover’s alibi for the night of her husband’s murder was “I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife”
c. Because she was a man in Reno, before the surgery
d. Because she looks good in hats

12. How much does an eightball weigh?

a. one half pound
b. an eighth of an ounce, give or take the weight of the baggie
c. the same as a cueball
d. two keys of Lebanese blonde hash, man

(Lucky Number) 13. What color is a typical nickel bag?

a. silver
b. the same color as a Nation Sack
c. green
d. manila

14. What is the perhaps apocryphal real-life reason that Orson Welles included the word “rosebud” in Citizen Kane?

a. He was a fan of Miss Marple, and gardening generally
b. He still missed his boyhood sled
c. It was William Randolph Hearst’s pet name for a rear nether-portion of Marion Davies’ anatomy
d. He was deeply moved by the poignancy of allegorical chivalric love poetry

Bonus question:

15. Complete the following sentence: “Third boxcar, midnight train…”

a. “…drinkin’ wine, spo-dee-o-dee”
b. “… destination: Bangor, Maine”
c. “…falls mainly in the plain”
d. “…beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen”

Give yourself five points for each correct answer:

1. a 2. d 3. d 4. b 5. e 6. c 7. a 8. d 9. a. (And you lose five points for knowing that.) 10. b 11. b 12. b 13. d
14. c 15. b

How you rate:

0-10: Stick to “cats that knit” as protagonists
15-25: Cheese it, you’re about as noir as Nanny and the Professor
30-40: Go home and memorize some Bukowsky
45-55: Pack your bags, you’ve won a free trip to Angst-erdam
60 and up: Step away from the bourbon… and don’t ever go back to Reno


How’d you do, ‘Ratis?

Write Like They’re Dead


By Cornelia Read

So, my mother is really pissed at me this week. I kind of don’t care, which has made my sister and my uncle and all my mom’s friends also pissed at me. On the other hand, my friends, my dad, and my sister’s carpenter think everyone pissed at me should get the hell over themselves already. Which is nice. (My niece just says, “With family like this, who needs television?”)

The basic issue is the way I portrayed Mom in my forthcoming novel, Invisible Boy. I told her a year ago that she wasn’t going to like it, since I was dealing with her most execrable choice in our long line of stepfathers, the one who molested my little sister (that part described with my sister’s permission, for which I’m very grateful.) Not to mention Mom’s refusal to stop hanging out with the guy socially even after my sister finally got up the courage to tell her what had happened, some ten years later (or, you know, apologize for having made us live with a shithead sexual-predator fucktard for five years.)

My general attitude at this point is half “The Truth Shall Set You Free” and half “Payback’s a bitch, bitch”—with a smidge of Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense in there somewhere, too.

Anyway, God help anyone whose children write hugely autobiographical novels. I’d be grateful if mine become investment bankers, you know?

The manuscript’s on its way to the copy editors, I’ve said my piece, and Mom’s welcome to write her own book. I just wish her seventieth birthday party and my little brother’s graduation from the California Maritime Academy weren’t this weekend. O joy, o rapture.

I have no doubt that the crap parts of my childhood are what made me a writer—gave me the urge to forge the uncreated conscience of my race in the smithy of my soul and all that. Something about having been denied a voice in the midst of a bunch of evil bullshit grownups as a kid made me want to goddamn own the narrative when I grew up. I know I’m very fucking lucky it turned out this way, in the end, though it’s a little weird to have my mojo prevail in such a profundity of spades, too.

That being said, it would be nice if the critics actually like the thing, not to mention the people who will be generous enough to buy a copy next March. It would suck to be disowned over a shitty book, you know?

On the bright side, I’m on a plane to New York right now, leaving the whole mess 3000 miles away for a good forty-eight hours. Also, I’m watching the Oxford eight row against Cambridge on my Jetblue TV, and all the boys are so pretty.

How about you, ‘Ratis? Ever piss anyone off with your writing? Ever want to?

Marshall Karp Flips Out


It was a gorgeous day—hot—and a bunch of pals and I had just snagged the very last table-with-an-umbrella outside last summer’s Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference in fashionable Corte Madera, California.

All cotton-mouthed and fading, I threw my book-bag into a chair and did the whole, “hey, anybody want anything from the snack bar?” routine, suddenly hell-bent on getting myself an iced coffee.


The line inside was long and slow, so I’m standing there spacing out, trying not to think about how thirsty I am and how many people are between me and my sublime potential beverage, when this tall blue-eyed silvery guy walks up, points a finger at my name-badge and goes, “You!”

A bit startled, I respond, “um. Yeah.”

“Cornelia Read!” he says, still pointing.

Other Blue Meanies

I say “um” again, and he breaks into this huge grin and says, “Marshall Karp,” holding up his own badge, “Our books got published the same month and I’m thinking we need to hang out. Bond. This whole ‘publishing virgins’ thing, right?”

He grins again. I never make it back out to that umbrella table.

My buddies wander inside one by one over the course of the next half hour or so and they don’t leave either. Pretty soon, we’ve taken over the entire damn snack bar—a dozen-plus people trading life stories and cracking up and having the best time anyone’s had since Arlo Guthrie sat down on the Group W bench back in ‘Sixty-whatever. Seriously.


By the third hour Marshall is introducing himself to strangers as “the Jewish father Cornelia’s been looking for her whole entire life,” while I just keep toasting him with my ninety-bazillionth iced coffee, and there’s like thirty of us jammed into the place now, dragging more chairs in from outside and totally laughing our asses off to the point of outright choking.

And I swear the same thing happens every time I run into him. The man is the social equivalent of catnip-for-humans-scented electro-magnets or something… like if they shoved a tank-truck-load of nitrous oxide and the entire history of Vaudeville into one half of that teleportation machine in The Fly and got Groucho Marx and Bob Newhart and Gene Wilder to simultaneously push the Big Red Button, I guarantee you’d get a flash of blue lightning and a sudden whiff of ozone and—hey presto—Marshall would saunter out the other end of the thing, cackling magnificently.



Plus he writes like he’s on fire. In a good way.

The Rabbit Factory, his first novel, rocked my world, and his second, Bloodthirsty, was a TKO of a sequel. Now he’s released the third novel in his fabulous Lomax and Biggs series, Flipping Out, and it’s so good I may go back to school to become a certified public accountant.



In honor of that, I want to repost an interview the two of us did for Spinetingler on the first anniversary of our original debut-novel pub dates.

Cornelia: So your professional history was pretty amazing even before you turned to novel writing… You spent years in advertising creating campaigns like “Thank you, Paine Weber,” then you did a successful play and landed in LA writing for TV, not to mention the screenplay with Jason Alexander. How does the whole publishing gig compare to that?

Marshall: I’ve been marketing a product or putting on a show for years, and now suddenly, I AM the product, I AM the show… and I have to tell you, it’s totally weird to be pimping myself.

Pimp Gobleet

When I go to a bookstore, I bring my salad chopper to attract people to the signing table. I’m resigned to the big picture of the business… you show up and try to present yourself. If you like my style or just me and you’ve got $25, maybe you’ll try the book.

Cornelia: What’s the best part?

Marshall: It’s fun to go out there and be with the readers, getting to listen to what they have to say about your work… the stuff I’ve learned from that interaction has been a true education….

When I was in Miami for an MWA conference, I got asked about “the language” in my first book. Now I think we all know that cops in real life tend to say fuck fuck fuck fuck on the job, and you want to be true to that…

Cornelia: Sure, instead of having them yell “Shucky Darn” when somebody pulls a gun or whatever…

Marshall: Exactly… But one woman said to me, “You know, it’s fine in the book, but it’s hard when it’s on the audio in my convertible and I’m driving down Biscayne Blvd. and have to stop at a light.”



I would never have thought of that, if I hadn’t had the opportunity to be out there face-to-face with readers. So in the second book, I ended up taking out 85 F-bombs. Not just for the lady at the stoplight but because when you write and you’re in a hurry, it’s too easy to say “fuck…” sometimes there are better ways to express that emotion.

And cutting out 85 fucks is hard when you’re writing about cops… In Bloodthirsty I went from 115 fucks to 30. It’s hard to get the ring of truth without that language. I made a minor character into a Brit so he could say “bloody” instead. Maybe that’s cheating.


Cornelia: Do you think winding up as a novelist was inevitable, for you?

Marshall: I could always write… I wound up in advertising by accident, literally because when my father made me look for a job after college, I looked at the classifieds I went alphabetically, and I couldn’t do accounting.

I got a job as a direct-mail copywriter at Prentice Hall. A year-and-a-half later I went into Madison Avenue, started doing print ads and television. I got awards and got attention…. But of course the punishment for being a good writer in that business is you get promoted and get put in charge of the writers, so I’m the creative director and supervising instead of writing… same thing as when the head surgeon ends up running the hospital and not operating.

It was good, but I started to miss writing. That’s what drove me to write outside of work in the ad business. The first thing I did was a play, Squabbles. Twenty-five years later, it’s still put on all over the world.

TV people saw that, so I started writing pilots and then movies, which is where I met some of the people I’m killing in Bloodthirsty… met them and worked for them.


I couldn’t spend too much time in Hollywood because my wife and kids were in New York, and I came back and wound up using both skills—my marketing background and my show-biz background—by opening my own Internet ad agency.

This was right when everyone wanted to get into the internet, so I ended up being the gray-haired guy who could go into Chase or Royal Caribbean or drug companies—whoever the big clients were—and all of a sudden it took off, because everybody wanted websites.

I had the long-form skills from the TV business, and I ended up hiring the kids with the blue hair and the nose-rings who the clients were afraid of. The kid with the blue hair can say to the President of Chase, “I can make your logo spin,” and I walk in and ask, “who’s your target audience?”


That’s what helped me get where I am now… within four years I turned that company into something I could sell, and once I sold it I said, “now I can do what I always wanted to do, which is go to my country house and write a book…”

After my movie got produced, a woman in my town came up to me and said, “I like your movie, when are you going to make another?”

I told her it feels like everyone in Hollywood is twelve years old, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life pitching American Pie Five, so what I really wanted to do was write a mystery novel. She looks at me and she says, “I’m an editor…” So…


One other piece of the puzzle was that I’d worked with James Patterson in advertising. I bounced the idea of The Rabbit Factory off him during a lunch,. He was incredibly encouraging, so I decided try it.

Cornelia: So what drew you to mysteries?

Marshall: That’s what I’ve always wanted to read, so that’s what I wanted to write. It inherently had to be character-based, it couldn’t be about the plot… my play, my movie, they’re always about character.

The character of Mike Lomax came to me years ago: this cop who’d lost his wife and still has to do his job while he’s grieving. He was a three-dimensional character to me long before he was cop… first I made him a MAN.

And then I said, okay, a guy going through this much pain can’t be carrying a book on his own… He needs a counterpoint, and Terry Biggs became the wiseass New York cop’s best friend, who, as they say in the TV biz can “cut the treacle.”


Mike has the heart, but I don’t want people to go oooooooooo for the entire book on his behalf. Terry helps Mike be funny, once they get going. Terry’s the friend I would want if, God forbid, I ever had to go through that kind of pain… a real good guy who knows just the right boundaries.

I think I also wrote enough beer commercials to know what buddies are… I wrote Stroh’s commercials, and sometimes you see a guy screwing his best friend out of a beer…. I don’t believe in buddy-fucking, I believe your buddy’s your buddy. I needed to create someone where there’s that loyalty.


I think I’m quoting William Goldman on this, that “the essence of loyalty is reciprocity.”

Cornelia: I really see that in your writing. In both your books it comes across as the core of what’s happening on the page.

Marshall: My fan mail is always about the relationships, the characters. They want the characters back, they want it to go on….

Cornelia: Character matters. That’s certainly what I want to read about.


Marshall: It’s always about character. I knew I had a good plot, but my focus is always on character… even the minor characters who appear for one scene, I try to give them as much as I can. I try to make them real, or if they’re surreal, as some murderers are, at least to have the ring of truth.

Cornelia: Do you think your other gigs in life have helped inform your writing?

Marshall: Janet Maslin accused me of being a marketing expert when she reviewed The Rabbit Factory for The New York Times, but I’m not trying to sell to you, I’m trying to write it this way because… look, you don’t want to know some guy’s height and weight in a story, you want to get inside his head….



Whenever I wrote a commercial, I didn’t think, “what does the client want to say about his product?” I wanted to be the conscience of the consumer. My job was to understand what the consumer needs and wants.

I don’t market to people when I write a book, I feel what it’s like to be a reader. But I’ve never ever written for the critics. For me, it was always like, “do you want to be avante-garde or do you want to be real?”

Cornelia: Ach, avant-garde. Don’t get me started.

Marshall: I come from real. I spent too many years in New Jersey to have anything avant-garde about me… I’m country.


I like to think that I have a basic sincerity, and I think my characters have it too, even the ones with a little guile like Mike Lomax’s father, Big Jim. He’s Big Jim Lomaxstein. He’s me when I’m trying to manipulate my kids.

Cornelia: Now we’ve both got a year of this under our belts. What would you tell someone starting out with writing?

Marshall: Well, as I said in the acknowledgements, it really helps to write a mystery if you know James Patterson. But in every business I’ve been in, I encouraged the younger people to write. It’s all about giving back.


Cornelia: What do you think is the hardest part of breaking into writing?

Marshall: A British reporter sent me an email asking that very question — what I consider to be the biggest obstacles for new writers. I sent him the glowing points from my rejection letters… you know, “Oh, Marshall is so good, but we want to get into forensics and be CSI clones too…”

Just keep writing. You will find a publisher. You will find an audience—even though there are a lot more MBAs acquiring books these days, and it’s a tough business.


Type-writer Girl

When you write your first book, you can’t imagine that this is ever going to be your day job. Everybody’s got to keep going with it to make it.

I watched the DVD of Da Vinci Code a while ago, and there was an interview with Dan Brown on it.

He said that he’d first realized he had something when he went to a bookstore in Washington for a signing, and there were all these people hanging around outside the store. He asked if they’d had a fire or a bomb scare, and was told no, they’re here for you…

Have no expectations, just those from yourself. I was happy having been a writer in various careers all my life, happy to have finished a book. When I got to the end of that first draft, that was, to me, monumental. When I found a publisher, that was just an unbelievable added benefit that turned the personal goal into something I could do—what a lot of writers want to do—which is to share what I’ve written.

Writers don’t get into it for the money. Writers write because that’s what they want to do…

Cornelia: …I heard Robert Crais speak the other day. He said if you want to get into writing for the money, you should go sell BMWs instead.

Marshall: Selling BMWs. Exactly… I was going to say sell cocaine. “Buy enough cocaine, we’ll throw in a BMW!”


Cornelia: I’d end up buying all of anything you had to sell. Stick with the books… I can almost afford books. Any other business, you’d bankrupt me without even trying.

Marshall: I’m still learning this business, and I find it fascinating, but it’s a process. I find it really interesting that the readers know so much more about the business I’m in now than I do.

When I was in TV, I knew a lot more about how it all worked than the average viewer… The audience doesn’t know what goes on behind the scenes.


But the fans in this business? The real fans who are at the conventions and signings? They know more than I do. I find that fascinating, and to some degree intimidating… They may not do what I do, but they know more than I do. I’ve been to book events where somebody raises a hand and says, “didn’t Carl Hiaasen do something like that in his fourth book?“

And I say, “I’ve only read two of his books, I don’t know enough! I don’t know as much as you do!”

The readership raises the bar for you. The only thing that’s ever came close to this for me is when I started doing my play.

The first eight weeks we were doing it, I’d come in and sit with the audience, listening to what they said about it. I made changes because of audience feedback that they didn’t know I was hearing.


Cornelia: What’s the best part of it, for you? How does this compare to the other kinds of writing you’ve done over the years?

Marshall: Of my many writing incarnations, this is the final frontier, because I really enjoy the ability to create without a committee. In advertising—TV and movies even more so—it’s about the committee.

These days, the only committee I have is when I get up and think I’m going to write something and the characters want to do it differently… it’s almost like an actress saying, “my character wouldn’t say that!” She’s pissed off. When you’re “the actor” as a writer and that happens, it’s fascinating.


But the best cool thing is you get to meet a lot of really fascinating, three-dimensional, fun people and you’re way at the top of their list. This is a really fascinating genre, and how great that there’s something this interesting that brings us all together.

I found it really refreshing that the first fan I talked to at LCC was a pediatric cardiologist, and I wanted to say, “You’re saving lives every day, let’s talk about you!”

Cornelia: Speaking of saving lives, I want to know more about the charity you’re involved with, Vitamin Angels…


Marshall: There’s great information at Working with them started out as my reaction to 9/11.

My daughter was at Ground Zero, and that left me with a visceral understanding that I had to make a difference in the world. There are a great many worthy charities out there, but I had to know I was doing something real. Something that mattered. I didn’t want to just buy tickets to a charity dinner, or bid on something at an auction for a good cause…

When I found out about the Vitamin Angel Alliance, I realized I could use my marketing abilities and my writing skills to raise awareness and money for an organization where you can literally have the accountability that what you’ve done matters–to specific people, specific kids around the world. It’s quantifiable.

Cornelia: Tell me about what they do.

Marshall: They get vitamins and supplements to kids and families around the world. Vitamins can prevent a tremendous amount of suffering. We KNOW this. We KNOW how it works, but there are so many people who don’t have access to basic, essential nutrition.

Five cents’ worth of Vitamin A can keep a child from going blind. Pre-natal vitamin deficiencies kill upwards of 585,000 women and four million newborns every year. When people ask me, “what’s the best thing you’ve written?” I tell them it’s what I’ve written for Vitamin Angels.


Now that Marshall’s got three books out, I think we’re going to need a bigger coffee shop for the next time we get together… possibly a circus tent.


I guarantee you won’t find a better way to spend an afternoon than in this guy’s company, whether on the page or in real life.

So, ‘Ratis, what makes you flip out? Best answer gets a free copy of Marshall’s latest book (which is AWESOME!)

So, a Writer Walks Into a Bar…

By Cornelia Read

If you ever get to the point with writing where you feel that, as James Joyce once said, “writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives,” here are some jokes to cheer you up:


A visitor to a certain college paused to admire the new Hemingway Hall that had been built on campus.

    “It’s a pleasure to see a building named for Ernest Hemingway,” he said.

    “Actually,” said his guide, “it’s named for Joshua Hemingway. No relation.”

    The visitor was astonished. “Was Joshua Hemingway a writer, also?”

    “Yes, indeed,” said his guide. “He wrote the check.”



Q. Do you know the difference between God and an editor?

A. God doesn’t think he’s an editor.




I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, “Where’s the self-help section?”

She answered, “If I told you, it would defeat the purpose.”




A writer died and was given the choice of going to heaven or hell.

She decided to check out both options before actually signing up for one or the other.

First, the writer descended into the fiery pits of hell, where row upon row of writers were chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they typed, they were whipped with thorny lashes.

“This sucks,” said the writer. “Let me see heaven now.”

She ascended into heaven only to discover rows of writers chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they worked, they, too, were whipped with thorny lashes.

“Wait a minute,” said the writer. “This is just as bad as hell!”

“Not quite,” replied an unseen voice. “Up here you get published.”




Q. What’s the difference between publishers and terrorists?

A. You can negotiate with terrorists.



Once upon a time, a young boy professed his desire to become a great writer.

When asked to define “great,” he said, “I want to write stuff that the whole world will read, stuff that people will react to on a truly emotional level, stuff that will make them scream, cry, howl in pain and anger!”

Now he works for Microsoft.


Q. How many science fiction writers does it take to change a light bulb?

A. Two, but it’s actually the same person. He went back in time and met himself in the doorway and then climbed onto his alter-ego’s shoulders so that they could reach the ceiling fixture. Then a major time paradox occurred and the entire room, light bulb, and both guys were blown out of existence. They continue to co-exist in a parallel universe, however.




Q. How many publishers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A. Three. One to screw it in. Two to hold down the author.


Q. How many mystery writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A. One. But she has to stop when she’s screwed it almost all the way in, then give it a surprising twist at the end.

Broken lightbulb

Q. How many blurb writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?



Q. How many screenwriters does it take to change a light bulb?

A. Ten:

1st draft. Hero changes light bulb.
2nd draft. Villain changes light bulb.
3rd draft. Hero stops villain from changing light bulb. Villain falls to death.
4th draft. Lose the light bulb.
5th draft. Light bulb back in. Fluorescent instead of tungsten.
6th draft. Villain breaks bulb, uses it to kill hero’s mentor.
7th draft. Fluorescent not working. Back to tungsten.
8th draft. Hero forces villain to eat light bulb.
9th draft. Hero laments loss of light bulb. Doesn’t change it.
10th draft. Hero changes light bulb.


Q: How many copy editors does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: I can’t tell whether you mean ‘change a light bulb’ or ‘have sex in a light bulb.’ Can we reword it to remove the ambiguity?



Q: How many editors does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Only one. But first they have to rewire the entire building.



Q: How many art directors does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Does it HAVE to be a light bulb?



Q: How many copy editors does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: The last time this question was asked, it involved art directors. Is the difference intentional? Should one or the other instance be changed? It seems inconsistent.


Q: How many marketing directors does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: It isn’t too late to make this neon instead, is it?




Q: How many proofreaders does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Proofreaders aren’t supposed to change light bulbs. They should just query them.



Q: How many booksellers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Only one, and they’ll be glad to do it too, except no one shipped them any.



Three guys are sitting at a bar.

Guy #1: “…Yeah, I make $75,000 a year after taxes.”

Guy #2: “What do you do for a living?”

#1: “I’m a stockbroker. How much do you make?

#2: “I should clear $60,000 this year.”

#1: “What do you do?”

#2: “I’m an architect.”

The third guy is just sitting there quietly, staring into his beer, when the others turn to him.

Guy #2: “Hey, how much do you make per year?

Guy #3: “Gee… hmmm… I guess about $13,000.”

Guy #1: “Oh yeah? What kind of novels do you write?”




A male romance novelist was hiking in the mountains, and he came upon a shepherd who was tending a large herd of sheep that were grazing in the alpine meadow. The writer took a fancy to the sheep, and asked the shepherd: “If I can guess how many sheep you have, can I have one?”

The shepherd thought this was an odd request, but thought that there was little chance that the man would guess the exact number of sheep, so he said “Sure.”

The male romance novelist guessed “You have 287 sheep” to the shepherd’s astonishment, since this was exactly how many sheep he had.

The male romance novelist got excited and asked “Can I pick out my sheep now?” and the shepherd grudgingly gave his permission.

The male romance novelist selected his sheep, bent over, and swung the sheep over his shoulders to carry home with him.

The shepherd then asked “If I guess what your occupation is, can I have my sheep back?”

The male romance novelist was a bit surprised by this, but figured that it was unlikely that the shepherd would be able to guess his occupation, and went along with the deal.

The shepherd then guessed “Dude, you’re a romance novelist, aren’t you?”

The male romance novelist was very surprised and asked, “How did you know?”

The shepherd responded, “Put the dog down and we’ll talk about it.”



Q: How can you tell if a blonde writes mysteries?

A: She has a checkbook.


And speaking of Microsoft…

Got any more jokes? I could use a few….

My Deadline Survival Kit

By Cornelia Read



My third novel, Invisible Boy, is due in to my intrepid editor and his astonishingly wonderful henchwoman on Monday. That would be this coming Monday. As in, somewhat less than two days from this very moment, as you read these words. (And, hey, isn't this cover awesomely bitchen? Let's hope I don't deface its magnificence with a crappy novel on the inside. {Oy, the pressure…!})


Deadlines may well be the elixir of the scholarly life, and necessary, and goodness knows they light a fire under my sorry butt, but they are still big and scary and have large ugly teeth.



And then, right when you're chugging full-steam toward the finish line, you can get that weird thing where it suddenly seems as if you're typing in Lithuanian, and everything just looks wrong, if you stare at it long enough. Take, for instance the word "moreover." Does that look right to you? Is it a word you should EVER use? Is it even a WORD, or just a random sprinkling of letters?


And what does "threnody" mean? Could I use it to describe someone's sob of grief? Not to mention, come to think of it, that the very phrase "come to think of it" is pretty weird. And maybe a little dirty?

Seriously: Lithuanian. I'm sure it's a lovely country, but I'm supposed to be crafting a narrative set in Queens and Manhattan, circa 1990.


Not one in which this might be the preferred local headgear:


This is not just the third deadline I've faced for a novel, it's the third deadline for THIS novel, which adds an extra element of scary, to me. I think it might actually make sense this time, but who knows?

What I do know is I have picked up a few things that make the last couple of crazed days go down a bit easier, both for myself and for those forced to be in close contact with me in my hours of final deep contemplation and typing.

Moreover, I would like to share these important safety tips with you, to try at home:

1. Treat Yourself to Ridiculously Expensive Junk Food

Are you broke? Fat? Heart condition? Vegan? Forget all that. This is an emergency, and you can go back on that lemon-juice-cayenne-maple-syrup fast the minute you attach your manuscript to a groveling email and hit the "send" button, in about 48 hours.


This is no time for half measures (or, for that matter, herbal laxatives). This is time for junk food of the highest order. But you don't need Snickers bars, you need dark-chocolate-coated caramels dusted with high-end French sea salt crystals that were scraped by hand from the luminous tail feathers of free-trade organic albino baby amphibious peacocks.


And screw Maxwell House, go for the eight-dollar latte. Or better yet, invest in a built-in German espresso maker that you can program to greet you in eight languages, including Portuguese and Dutch:


Don't just give up on cooking and eat Top Ramen straight out of the package (crunchy!)–find the most outrageously over-the-top pizza in your neck of the woods and ask them to lard it with foie gras, then deliver. (If you live in the Hamptons, that is actually possible–though I prefer the lesser escargot-laden pie in that particular vicinity).


In Berkeley, my Deadline Food of Choice is Gioia Pizza, the current menu of which offers the "Broccoli Obama" (broccoli, nicoise olives, capers, red onions, calabrian chilis, garlic and mozzarella cheese) and the "Radicchio" (roasted radicchio, pancetta, gorgonzola, garlic oil, and fresh thyme) during winter months. If your best local pizza place offers anything with goat cheese and a side of pomegranate coulis, embrace the hell out of that sucker.


Make sure that your ridiculously haute cuisine 'za has a New York style crust–thin, chewy, and with a nice "pull" to it. This is not a time for Round Table or Domino's, and it's important that you eschew crappy Bisquick-esque bases, or those crunchy ersatz crusts my ex once refered to as "ketchup on a matzoh," while on a business trip at a paper mill in darkest Newfoundland (also, if memory serves, the home of PFK–Poulez Frites a la Kentucky).

The proprietors of Gioia totally have the crust thing down. This is because they are members of what I call "the Brooklyn pizzafarian diaspora," people one wants to keep serious tabs on, when living west of the Garden State Parkway.


I'm not saying you should eat a ton of food, or anything bigger than your head–you have to stay sharp, not nap away precious writing hours in a pizza-induced coma.


It's not about quantity, but truly, my dear ones, you must remember that you are eating to support your brain in full-on Blue Angels throttle mode. Do not skimp on the quality.

2. Suck Down Those Stimulant Drinks, Baby

Don't skimp on the kick-your-ass beverages, either. It is important to have that college-allnighter mini formula-one cars racing through your bloodstream thing. Espresso… Red Bull… Diet Pepsi with Lime… Jolt Cola… Caffeinated Water… Espresso brewed with caffeinated water. (I mean, hey, Lee Child claims to drink 30 cups of coffee a day, and occasionally brews it with caffeinated water. So that MUST be a good idea, right?).


And if caffeine isn't quite enough, or makes you a ravening freakshow, there's also mateine, which is some groovy stuff, let me tell you–like green tea with afterburners (great mental clarity, a lot less jitters).

You can buy Yerba Mate (the South American beverage-substance which one imbibes for a mateine boost) in most decent grocery stores, these days. For a dual power shot, you can get coffee beans with Yerba Mate blended in.


Wheatgrass juice is just fucking lame, though.


Also, it might make you barf. Barfing is not what we're after, here. It takes too much time away from writing (or ruins your keyboard). And besides which, who wants to barf green, even on St. Patrick's Day?

3. Read Only Really Bad Books, if You Have Any Downtime

This is SO not the time to take up reading Nabokov, or Shirley Jackson, or Denise Mina, or William Gibson, or Ken Bruen, or any other consummate stylist. And don't read anybody who's really amazing at plotting, either. When you're finished writing for the day and want to unwind with someone else's book, make sure it's an indelibly awful one.


Don't read anything that will throw a spotlight on your own talent angst. Do not allow the brilliance of others to make you question your own creative validity at this time, or you will crash and burn during the crucial last forty-eight hours.


You need downtime reading that sucks so utterly hugely and voraciously on every level that you will feel like a goddamn genius by comparison.


I'm talking Bulwer-Lytton, or The Book of Mormon, here, folks. Tin-eared early Asimov is good, back issues of the Weekly World News even better.


It's also a good idea to read outside your genre, at this time, (while still sticking to the "sucks utterly" designation.)


I am currently re-reading an astonishingly ill-conceived and worse-rendered '90s historical romance faux-sequel (to an actually good book by a dead author). I've put it down on my bedside table each night this week and gone to sleep convinced I am the most talented writer who ever lived, at least in comparison to this woman's stinking pile of unreadable crap–an essential delusion when I'm closing in on typing that elusive "THE END."


Which sure as hell beats throwing up, or sobbing/shrieking with fear.

And when you're done, reward yourself with a GOOD book:


4. Housekeeping, Schmousekeeping

Are you the person in your household expected to keep the entire domicile lemon-fresh and squeaky clean? Two words: fuck that.


Strike a blow for anarchy in these desperate hours. Throw dirty dishes down the garbage disposal. Throw laundry down the garbage disposal. Then rename your vacuum cleaner "Anna Karenina" and find a handy oncoming express train.

When you've done all that, tell your family they will henceforth be learning the old-school table etiquette of Tamil Nadu:


eating with their hands off banana leaves.


Embrace entropy. Tell your children to hitchhike home from soccer practice, and/or ballet. You are busy crafting the uncreated conscience of your race in the smithy of your soul, after all.


Should they complain, advise them to Google "the second law of thermodynamics," then remind them that childhood is not just a job, it's an adventure


This will not only build character, it will give them something to bitch about at cocktail parties when they grow up. (And they will probably become novelists, too. Or at least pen interesting memoirs.)

5. Dress for Success


Forget Queer Eye, ignore that snippy no-taste What Not To Wear chick, you need serious combat gear: huge ugly ripped sweatshirts, coffee-stained pajama pants, threadbare mismatched socks, paint-spattered frat-humor-slogan t-shirts with big holes under the arms.


The last hours of the final draft are an inward journey. Dress yourself as though you never expect to be seen outside your own house again, even by the visually impaired. This will also help keep you inside your house, working your ass off (bonus!).


Forget Tom Wolfe. The look we're going for here is pure Slapshot Hansons: "bloodied but unbowed."


And with that I wish all deadlining writers the world over a hearty "Sėkmės! Geros kloties!" (which is apparently "good luck" in Lithuanian)

How about you 'Ratis? Any tips for living through deadline world? Any favorite expensive junk food? Please share…

[And now for a bit of blatant self-and-others promotion: My writing partner Sharon Johnson and I are putting on the Berkeley Mystery Writing Intensive, a full-day conference for aspiring crime fiction writers, on Saturday, April 18th.

If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, or planning to visit, we'd love to see you there. Faculty will include David Corbett, Tim Maleeny, Sophie Littlefield, Tony Broadbent, and Juliet Blackwell/Hailey Lind, with literary agent Amy Rennert–as well as a veritable plethora of hardboiled law enforcement professionals.

Registration is $140, which includes catered breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snacks, parking validation, and a no-host cocktail reception/book signing at the end of the day. The event will be held at the historic Berkeley City Club:


designed by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan


Please see my website for more details, and a downloadable PDF registration form)

Why I Say Yes to Drugs

Paxil Zoloft Effexor Prozac nation children may become suicidial antidepressant side effects drugs pharmaceutical kids

By Cornelia Read

When I was a little kid, I used to wonder if I was missing some essential vitamin or mineral, compared to everyone else I knew. I come from a long line of bubbly, enthusiastic women, on my mother's side–a matriarchy of outgoing charmers with mad skills for generating effortlessly effervescent small talk at cocktail parties.


By comparison, I was an achingly serious child, with an affect flatter than the chest of a pre-teen Judy Blume protagonist. Besides which, gothic things that got stuck in my head for days never seemed to faze anyone else in my vicinity. 


When my most odious stepfather announced over dinner one night that the world was going to be fried to a crisp by solar radiation within ten years because fluorocarbons in aerosol-spray propellants were destroying the ozone layer, nobody else at the table seemed to mind all that much. 


I, meanwhile, spent the next three days silently dispensing an interior monologue of Goodnight-Moon-style farewells to every person and object I saw ("Alas, loyal toaster oven, you've served us well… Take care, o most ill-behaved rental horse we ride in Pony Club, for soon your poignant bones will lie bleached on the sun-charred loam that was once the polo field…  Adieu, watermelon Jolly Ranchers, my favorite candy, and may all who make you possible fly on to the afterlife with my heartfelt gratitude…  Ciao, sixth-grade cheerleading bitches–bet you won't be such nasty hags to everyone on the field-trip schoolbus just because you have five pairs of Dittos each when you're DEAD…)


In short, I was a child suffering from depression, and I have little doubt that this has something to do with my early bent for writing–not least since the first time I ever used up-and-down binder paper instead of the pulpy beige landscape stuff with room for a picture on top was to pen an impassioned essay decrying the government's hideously unfair treatment of Angela Davis and the Christmas carpet-bombing of Hanoi. In second grade. (noir much?)

Oddly enough, though I was urged to see a number of therapists over the years (the on-campus counselors in boarding school, and college, and finally at the institution where I taught high school history and English), none of these clinicians ever mentioned depression.


I spent a couple of decades wondering whether I just lacked the willpower to manufacture an appropriate level of good cheer, or maybe had iron-poor blood. I spent a lot of time thinking I should be as chipper as people in Geritol commercials, or smiling as hard as contestants in the Miss America pageant (not yet knowing they smeared their teeth with Vaseline so their lips didn't get stuck, etc.)

I remember a week during which I popped two chewable Flintstone multis a day, wondering if it would help. In eighth grade, I discovered caffeine pills, which seemed to produce a little more of the enthusiasm I was after for a week or so–until the vice principal busted me for the bottle of Vivarin in my locker, since Heather Douglas narked on me because she'd seen the V's on the tablets and assumed I was popping Valium. (I suppose I should be grateful that Viagra had yet to be invented.)


It wasn't until December of my twenty-sixth year that anyone brought up the D word. I was in my weekly faculty group-therapy session at the crazy school, and our regular shrink had been out sick for a while so the head guy stepped in to cover for her. The school was a horrible place (see my second novel), so I took my seat on the office sofa between the two fellow teachers I shared the hour with in a morose frame of mind, and shortly burst into tears once it was my turn to talk about how everything was going.

The Big Shrink looked at me for a minute and said, "do you usually feel like this?"

I told him I did.

He asked, "for how long?"

I said since I was about seven years old.

He said, "you're clinically depressed. They have a great new medication for that."

I said, "No shit… What's it called?"

He said, "Prozac."

I handed in my resignation a week later and found a shrink willing to prescribe me some.



About a month in, I named my little buttercream-and-celadon capsules "Vitamin P," at long last having found the elusive ingredient I'd hankered after for all those years beforehand.

That was in the Fall of 1989. I've pretty much taken prescription Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) ever since–the class of drugs which includes Prozac, Celexa, and Paxil, among others.


I'm pretty up front about it. Mostly because it would've been damn helpful to me if someone had mentioned depression and the potential medications for it to me years earlier, so I'd like to do my bit to share how it's been for me.

I also tell people about it because I think there are a number of really idiotic medication fallacies floating around, which can keep people suffering from depression from giving these things a try. I don't mean to say that they're perfect for everyone, or that we should spike the nation's drinking water with Eli Lilly products or anything, but since depression can fucking kill you, the bullshit pop-"science" myths about medications that can help alleviate it in a great number of affected people really piss me off.

Myth # 1: Prozac will tranquilize you into becoming a cheerful fascist zombie, so just say no to Big Pharma and fight the power, man!

Here's the deal… Prozac does NOT make you feel like this:


Or make you love everything cute and cuddly and vapid:


And you will not take one pill and wake up oblivious in Stepford, wearing a frilly plaid apron:


Though it may help you stop feeling like this:


It's not a happy pill, and it's not a tranquilizer–or methadone or valium or thorazine. It's a drug that is helpful to people who have low levels of a specific neurotransmiter in their brain chemistry. If you're prone to depression, it won't make you perfect, but it might well provide a bit of a floor to the depths of abyss you find yourself sinking into.


Myth # 2: Depression is for wimps, so you should just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and stop whining, because life is pain, princess, and medication is the coward's way out.

People with broken arms often benefit from wearing a cast for a few weeks. People with Type I Diabetes have pancreases that don't produce enough insulin. Most people with depression have brains that aren't making enough serotonin. Why is seeking treatment for the third option the only one of these seen as a moral failing? That's just fucking stupid.

Meanwhile, here's a bullshit depiction of what Prozac does:


(hint: it is an anti-DEPRESSANT, not an anti-PSYCHOTIC. It has no magic powers that will make invisible car passengers disappear. Sorry.)

It also doesn't act like this, in regards to one's neurochemical balance:


It's not like you'll try the stuff and suddenly never feel sadness or any other emotion again, it's more like you can experience sadness without feeling like you want to lie on your sofa for a year with the shades drawn, doing shots of codeine cough syrup with potato-chip crumbs ground into the front of your ex-boyfriend's college sweatshirt, hacking up the detritus of three packs of Camel non-filters a day. (Your mileage may vary. That's just what it feels like to me, curled up in a fetal position down here under the bed with the dust rhinos.)

Here's the best visual depiction I've ever seen of what the stuff does:


It's still you, you just have the option of stepping back ONTO the cliff, and possibly not dying while you try to make up your mind whether or not that would be a good idea.

Myth # 3: Dude, drugs like Prozac aren't "natural"–your body is a temple and nothing should go into it but herbs and tofu.

News flash: St. John's Wort doesn't work for shit. And even if it (or Vitamin B-12 shots or CoQ-whatever or beet-juice-and-fairy-dust) were effective against depression, chances are good it would be because it had a similar chemical effect on the brain.

Just because something costs forty bucks a bottle and has a picture of alpen meadows on the label down at the granola store doesn't mean it's morally superior to the stuff you need a 'scrip for, mkay? And hey, if yoga and valerian-root work for you, awesome. They don't do bupkes for me.

Plus which, opium is "natural" too–ask the Taliban. Doesn't mean the shit is good for you.

(And why is it the last three people who told me I shouldn't "take drugs" had just finished doing bonghits?)


Myth #4: Depression doesn't cause writing, writing causes depression.

If you Google "writing and depression," you'll find an awful lot of pronouncements like the following:

Yes, writers do suffer from depression at a higher rate than the
rest of the population…. In
fact, if you wanted to make a cheery person with no predisposition to
depression depressed, you could stick him in front of a typewriter or
computer for hours a day–feed him a typical writer's diet–forbid him
to exercise, isolate him from friends, and convince him that his
personal worth depended on his "numbers." Make him live the writer's
life, in other words, and watch him sag.

(This was Nancy Etchemendy's* synopsis of
an apparently widely held opinion, though not her thesis in the
remainder of the essay.)

And, yes, the writing life can do an awful
lot to prolong or deepen depression. Hell, it's scary, right? You have
no idea whether you're God or wormshit, most days. Plus all that other

Still, I don't think this is a chicken-or-the-egg thing.


It sure wasn't in my case. The depression showed up way before I was even vaguely literate. (Again, your mileage may vary.)


When you get right down to it, does it matter which came first? It still sucks.

Myth # 5: Taking happy pills will destroy your creativity–all great art is born of suffering. The real problem is bourgeois society demanding that those touched by the muse be chipper automatons, instead of according their divine angst the worship it so richly deserves.

This is the biggie, but it's a little more nuanced. Look, there is definitely a connection between depression and creativity… here are some of the stats I referenced in my ADD post, a couple of weeks ago:

  • Kay Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and
    the author of "Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the
    Artistic Temperament," said writers were 10 to 20 times as likely as
    other people to suffer manic-depressive or depressive illnesses, which
    lead to suicide more often than any other mental disorders do…. —NY Times

  • Almost everyone becomes clinically depressed at least once. Over half
    the general population will experience two or more episodes of serious
    depression during a lifetime. Statistics gathered in a recent article
    in Scientific American indicate that the incidence of clinical
    depression among writers and artists may be as much as ten times
    greater than that among the general population. The incidence of
    suicide is as much as eighteen times greater. —
    Blogger Nancy Etchemendy*
  • There is at least one piece of research which demonstrates that some
    (British) writers have a higher than average chance of being mentally
    ill. The research was carried out by Kay Jamison, Professor of
    Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her study
    showed that 38% of a group of eminent British writers and artists had
    been treated for a mood disorder of one kind or another; of these, 75%
    had had antidepressants or lithium prescribed, or had been
    hospitalised. Of playwrights, 63% had been treated for depression.
    These proportions are, as you will have guessed, are many times higher
    than in the population at large.–
    Blogger Grumpy Old Bookman

  • Female writers were
    more likely than members of the comparison group to suffer not only
    from mood disorders but from drug abuse, panic attacks, general
    anxiety, and eating disorders as well. The rates of multiple mental
    disorders were also higher among writers…. The cumulative psychopathology scores of subjects… represented significant predictors of their overall
    creativity. CONCLUSIONS: The high rates of certain emotional disorders
    in female writers suggested a direct relationship between creativity
    and psychopathology. But the relationship was not necessarily a simple
    Study by the University of Kentucky Medical Center, Lexington, psychiatry department

[If you're like me, you tend not to have episodes of depression, but a constant low-grade version {with occasional flareups that send you under the sofa with a bottle of dark rum and the dust rhinos} This is called dysthmia. Here's the wiki-synopsis:

The symptoms of dysthymia are similar to those of major depression, though they tend to be less intense. In both conditions, a person can have a low or irritable mood, lack of interest in things most people find enjoyable, and a loss of energy (not all patients feel this effect). Appetite and weight can be increased or decreased. The person may suffer from insomnia or excessive sleeping. He or she may have difficulty concentrating. The person may be indecisive and pessimistic and have a negative self-image. The symptoms can grow into a full blown episode of major depression. This situation is sometimes called "double depression"[2] because the intense episode exists with the usual feelings of low mood. People with dysthymia have a greater-than-average chance of developing major depression. While major depression often occurs in episodes, dysthymia is more constant, lasting for long periods, sometimes beginning in childhood. As a result a person with dysthymia tends to believe that depression is a part of his or her character. The person with dysthymia may not even think to talk about this depression with doctors, family members or friends. Dysthymia, like major depression, tends to run in families. It is two to three times more common in women than in men. Some sufferers describe being under chronic stress. When treating diagnosed individuals, it is often difficult to tell whether they are under unusually high environmental stress or if the dysthymia causes them to be more psychologically stressed in a standard environment]

So, if you treat the depression, will you automatically be less creative?


I can only tell you how it's worked for me, and my answer is yes and no. I started taking Prozac in early 1990, and continued doing so until I decided to have kids, in early 1993. I started up again when we moved from Manhattan to Boulder, Colorado, in January of 1995, and took it until my husband and I both lost our jobs and health insurance in mid-2001. Prior to to 1990, I wrote a lot of unpublished fiction, and a memoir that ran to several hundred pages (that I never finished.)

I gave up on the memoir in 1990. With one exception (an evening creative writing class I took at UC Boulder for a semester), I didn't write any fiction again until the summer of 2001.

This is not to say I didn't write. I worked as the restaurant and art critic for The Boulder Weekly for a year, before my husband's work took us to Cambridge, Massachusetts. For the next four years, I wrote for a developmental disabilities newsletter as a volunteer, and posted 100-odd product reviews at It's just that fiction kind of faded out as a compulsion for me. I didn't think up phrases for stories that drove me to turn on the computer in the middle of the night anymore (though the advent of twins probably also had something to do with that).


When we moved to Berkeley in 2000, I scored a gig as a writer and editor at a child-development dotcom. When we were all laid off and I lost my health insurance, I stopped taking Prozac. Three months later, I ran across an ad for a mystery writing group on craigslist, joined it, and started my first published novel. I worked on it for two years, unmedicated, before my husband got a job with health benefits again. I finished it on Celexa, another SSRI.

I'm here to tell you that there's a definite connection between the abyss and the urge to create. The trouble is, the abyss can just as easily suck your artistic will bone-dry as enhance it–it's merely a matter of degree.

Author Elizabeth Moon put it beautifully:

from experience (several bouts of clinical depression), I can guarantee
that depression beyond the very mildest level (which makes you just
miserable enough to stay home and finish the book rather than go out
and have fun) destroys creativity–and that treating depression
enhances it. Why? Well, depression doesn't just make you miserable.
When you're depressed, you have no energy–and writing books takes hard
work, which takes energy. When you're depressed, you find it hard to
start new things (like books, chapters, the day's work), and hard to
make decisions (like which book, or which character, or even which way
Albert will turn when he leaves the throne room…) When you're
depressed, everything seems futile–you are sure the book will be lousy
even if you do write it. When you're depressed, you have less courage,
less resilience, less ability to handle ordinary stressors. So…you
can't summon the energy or the courage to write…every little comment
throws you back into your misery…and the next thing you know you're
in the midst of a full-fledged writer's block.

To put it another way, would Van Gogh have been a great painter if he weren't shithouse-rat crazy?


Well, guess what–we can't know. Maybe he would've been a really mediocre stockbroker, instead. Or maybe he would've produced an extensive oeuvre of dogs playing poker. Had he been treated, however, it's a good bet he would've LIVED quite a bit longer.

Would Prozac have helped Hemingway, Plath, or Virginia Woolf produce more great art? Well, it's hard to produce ANYTHING if you're dead, so I'd give that a qualified yes. 

All I know for sure is that I probably STARTED A Field of Darkness because I was off my meds and my life and marriage and financial prospects sucked hugely, but I FINISHED it and had the mojo to attend conferences and go after getting an agent and a publisher because I was back *on* the stuff.

And hey, if I hadn't lost my job, I'd probably still be a very smugly complacent $40-an-hour editor at, too, instead of prospecting for loose change in my sofa so I could attend Bouchercon and LCC every year. Granted, I miss being able to afford the '84 Porsche I scored in my dotcom blaze of financial glory–not to mention the sushi and non-second-hand clothing–but I wouldn't trade having two novels out in the world for that, you know?

And then there's the whole thing with self-medication, which I think is the basis for the incredibly high rates of alcoholism among writers.


(William Styron was hospitalized for depression shortly after he had to give up his evening cocktails, due to an unrelated medical condition. He'd never suffered from the "black dog" before. Coincidence? I think not.)

I tried the alcohol route myself, in college, along with a variety of other distractions. There are probably a great number of my Sarah Lawrence classmates who imagine that I died under a park bench somewhere, of either acute beer poisoning or syphillis or both. Enough said.

The Down-Side(s) of SSRIs

Like any drug, these things have side effects (these can of course strike in different guises, and affect people in different ways Some of the major ones to look out for are sexual dysfunction (often lack of interest in women, occasionally priapism in men–the same stuff they warn you to go to the ER for after four hours of non-stop Viagra effect).

There's an increased risk of suicide for teenagers and people in their early twenties, on SSRI's. EVERYONE should pay attention to whether or not they feel more depressed or anxious on these drugs, especially during the first month or so.

If you're bi-polar, rather than depressed, SSRI's hugely increase your chance of having a manic episode. A friend of mine who didn't realize she was manic-depressive ended up in McLean's hospital outside Boston for a month, after taking Prozac. Another had to do a 72-hour involuntary stint at a mental hospital here in California. If anyone in your family has bi-polar disorder, please have a thorough workup done by someone who knows what they're doing before trying this class of drugs.

(Even if you don't have relatives suffering from that disorder, it's a good idea to consult with a reputable psychiatrist or psychopharmacologist about getting a prescription for any anti-depressants, rather than your family doctor. Yes, a lot of people take them, and yes, they're generally very safe, but that doesn't mean they can't really mess with you under certain circumstances a GP might not be familiar with.)


Also, different people respond differently to each of the drugs within this class.In some cases, you may have to try more than one to find one that works the best for you. (If someone who's a close relative is taking a specific SSRI and has had a good response to it, that might be the first one to try.)

             *           *            *

At the end of the day, if you've tried scrubbing, soaking (those dirty rings!) and still feel like crap and are having trouble getting off the sofa, medication might be something you want to try. If you have hardcore depression–especially ANY thoughts of suicide, it's something you definitely should try. (Here are some more good resources for depression of that severity–whether it's yours or someone you know's.)

On a far more serious note, I am one degree of separation from three people who took their own lives last week, and these are perilous times for people with a tendency toward depression. Depression can kill you, or those that matter to you. Let's all take it seriously, okay? Not with judgments, not with discouragement or dismissive attitudes or half-assed advice.

Let's just look out for each other, the best we can, all right?

Since I'd like to end this on a positive note, here's a link to what is officially my new favorite meal: Sherry Miller's recipe for…


Dude… awesome.

So, Murderati peeps… what bums you out? What cheers you up? How do you fight off what Winston Churchill called "the black dog"? Share, please.

Valentine’s Day, 14 Things.

By Cornelia Read

So I was going to write part two of my writing and craziness post, on depression, and then realized, “oh, shit, it’s Valentine’s Day.”


And figured, hey, for those of you all psyched for today, who needs a downer post, and for the rest of us, why rub it in?

Herewith, instead, I offer you fourteen things for Valentine’s Day, whether your love is requited, or not.

Piaf nouveau:

Once more, with ukelele:

Bling, baby:

Lithuanians and Letts do it:

A youngun with some real pipes on her:

The Billie, the Best:

See if I care:

La Divina:


Nothin’ says lovin’ like Lily Von Shtupp:

Girl-on-girl action:

A brand-new recipe:

That baby talk:

How lovely it was:

So long, and


Mon Semblable, Mon Freud


"Inkblot #5" By Jason Krieger, print available here.

By Cornelia Read

So I'm sitting here today filling out financial aid forms for one of my kids, which are due on Groundhog Day, and I keep catching myself wondering if that means I get another six weeks to file it all with the school if I spot the IRS's shadow or whatever


(of course not, I then suddenly remember. Again…), in addition to realizing for the bazillionth time how crappy I am at all this grownup follow-through/detail stuff. Oy, carumba.

And all THAT made me think back to a comment made by a new shrink whom I saw for the first time a couple of weeks ago. (Full confession: I have an extreme propensity for depression, inherited from both sides of my family, and not a little trouble with ADD cluster-fuckedness–just to complicate things. {Although, hey, I'm glad I didn't inherit whatever it was that made my Winthrop ancestress have to chain her husband to a tree whenever his "fits" came on.})

I liked this woman–which is not something I say about a lot of shrinks, or, indeed, about the foundational notions of talk therapy as practiced during the majority of the Twentieth Century (at least the way I've seen it dispensed, up close and personal.)


(see my second novel, The Crazy School, if you want to know from whence my disdain cometh–the "therapeutic" bits are really, really, really non-fiction).

The reason I liked this new chick is that she totally got that I was there for the meds, not to forge the uncreated conscience of my race in the smithy of my soul tri-weekly over the course of the next seven years @ $150.00 an hour, and she was totally copacetic with my preferred psych paradigm. Plus, she just generally struck me as a fine salty dame with a good head on her shoulders.

The only psychological observation she uttered, during this first meeting, was "Novelist? Jesus, that seems like a helluva profession to pick for someone of your organizational impairment. How's that working out?"

To which I replied, "not bad, as long as I go to my pal Sharon's house where my wireless connection doesn't work, in order to forcibly wean myself from my online Mah Jong Solitaire jones on a daily basis."


Which is not as much of a joke as it sounds. Well, actually, it's not a joke at all.

My ADD was diagnosed when I was thirty-five years old (depression I will address in a further post).

If this condition has never impacted your life directly, it's all too easy to buy into the pat, dismissive judgments with which I've heard it mischaracterised–usually boiling down to "A flavor-of-the-month pseudo diagnosis for ill-behaved children whose parents want to tranquilize them into drooling submission so they can enjoy their soap operas in peace" and/or "A new-fangled excuse for plumb laziness."

Here's what it feels like from the inside: Time is operated by a malicious deity with access to a wah-wah pedal, while objects (pens, socks, jewelry, essential tax documents, hiking boots, luggage, painstakingly typed thirty-five page term papers, sunglasses, ATM cards, family heirlooms, passports, Swiss Army knives, my children's mittens, pet hamsters, small appliances) fly away from me in flocks as if I'm magnetized to a polarity opposite that of every other molecule in the galaxy.

Also, teetering stacks of papers breed and spawn on all available horizontal surfaces while I sleep, my laundry pile consumes floor space like a flesh-eating bacteria, and a roving band of Kafkas hides my laptop every time I go back to the kitchen for more coffee–just to fuck with me.


My dorm room in boarding school, circa 1980 (photo: Bonney Armstrong)

Then there's this weird thing I've never found a name for, other than "tool blindness," which is when you put your pliers down on the workbench and then can't see them five seconds later amidst the suddenly random, depthless mosaic they've melted into. This turns everything into one of those old hidden-picture puzzles in doctor's-office copies of Highlights magazine, wherein all trees are filled with gumboots and wishing wells, and each suburban lawn hides a billy-goat, a 1973 Ford Pinto, and my checkbook.


Basically, it would come as no surprise if I were to learn that I have amnesia AND an evil twin. In fact, I think such a revelation would occasion, on my part, a rather profound sense of relief.

What you don't often hear about ADD, however, is that it also primes you for random instances of hyper-focus. This is a state of concentration so intense it renders you impermeable to external stimuli–think Superman in a Kryptonite sensory-deprivation tank–often for several hours at a stretch (e.g., the time last year when I was so engrossed in the stylistic restructuring of a particularly recalcitrant chapter-opening paragraph that I did not notice my monitor was on fire. No shit… like, bigass flames shooting out the airholes on top and stuff.)

Granted, this can be useful when writing a novel. Unfortunately, it can just as easily occur when you're doing something completely pointless (Mah Jong, op. cit.)

The ways this disorder has manifested in my life, from early childhood on, have
earned me a monsoon of derision. Teachers and clinicians have labeled me–in turn–arrogant, passive-aggressive, contemptuous
of authority, stupid, lazy, in denial, afraid of success,
self-sabotaging, oblivious, irresponsible, and "pathologically averse to fulfilling
[my] potential."

My ex mostly called me "the lightning rod for entropy in
the universe."


I have tried to overcome my deficits with day-planners, oversized wall calendars, serially deployed alarm clocks, Post-It
notes, talk therapy, a Palm Pilot, and even a Timex that beeped at me when I was
about to forget an appointment. These objects (aside from the therapy) are no doubt still circling
the lower 48 states on the seats of various buses, subways, and taxicabs–ill-fated Charlies doomed to ride forever on my cognitive MTA.

The only thing that really works is scrawling important stuff in big
letters on my left hand. It's hard, after all, to forget your hand.

I have learned to buy only cheap earrings, second-hand winter coats, and waterproof watches–things easily replaced, things to which I won't form any sentimental attachments. My vacuum cleaner and wallet are, meanwhile, a noxious bright yellow.


(While it is difficult to misplace a bright yellow vacuum within the confines of one's own house [or, ahem,… living room], it is, alas, not impossible.)

In 1998, shrink-the-umpteenth asked me if I'd ever been tested for ADD.

And may rose-scented blessings rain softly upon her for all eternity.


One week later, I had a prescription for Ritalin (which is, by the way, SO not a tranquilizer.

The shrink said, "it's an amphetamine, basically." 

I said, "Excellent. I love speed."

To which she replied, "Yeah, I bet you do." In a nice way. Supportive even.)

When people ask me if it works, I explain that the first morning I took it, I picked up the large box of Christmas-presents-intended-for-my-sister off my desk and mailed it to her, out in Berkeley.

It was April 17th. The box had been sitting there on my desk since the previous October (she was born on October 18th. And, um, okay… they started out as birthday presents.)

Pony express letter

This does not mean Ritalin makes me by any means perfect–not even to the extent that your average sane person would ever ask me to serve as secretary/treasurer of ANYTHING.

It does, however, provide a floor. I can build on it.

Today I did not lose my iPhone, car, car keys, or shoes. I remembered my haircut appointment, got my nephew to school on time, and even recalled that this Saturday it was my turn to blog.

I have also had the same pair of sunglasses since March 8th of last year, my 45th birthday (a really nice pair of Ray-Bans. I bought them for myself as a sort of test–like how people fresh out of rehab are supposed to keep a houseplant alive for a couple of months, before they try dating).

I did, however, leave my favorite (second-hand) coat at my friend Sophie Littlefield's house about an hour ago.

And to go back to what the new shrink said, about being a novelist with an attention deficit? Hey, the act of writing is the ONLY arena in which I am organized.

It is a world where I have absolute control: the white screen, the 8 1/2 x 11 inch sheet of paper. Chaos cannot touch me in writing land, for lo, I have parentheses and m-dashes, semi-colons and ellipses, and ye, though I walk through the valley of my own space-cadetness, these shall not fail me.

When I write, I am in absolute and total control: the Stalin of my own pristine snowy Kremlin, against whose ramparts entropy can hurl itself a million times over, before nonetheless expiring in defeat.


I think there is a strong correlation between neurochemical imbalance and creativity. ADD isn't something that shows up across the board, but depression is rampant among artists–especially writers.

Especially women writers.

I am not saying that you need to suffer to make art, but there are not a lot of happy-go-lucky novelists and poets. Vonnegut said that most of us wander around "like gut-shot bears," when out in public.

I am sure there are chipper, well-adjusted authors, but I'm for damn sure in no hurry to sit next to one of them at a dinner party (except for Pari).

Google "writer suicide" and you'll get 10,400,000 hits. There's even a Writers Who Committed Suicide Wikipedia article, which lists 277 authors. (A veritable global Who's Who of Depression: including Tadeusz Borowski, Richard Brautigan, Iris Chang, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Spalding Gray, William Inge, Yukio Mishima, Seneca the Younger, Anne Sexton, Urmuz, David Foster Wallace…)

I am very, very lucky. While I've struggled with depression since I was nine years old, I have never once become suicidal. Friends of mine have: of the three people in my college class who got published, only two of us are still alive.


Lucy is lost to us.

Major depression and suicide are so prevalent among female writers (especially poets) that one researcher has described the incredibly disproportionate incidence of both in that group, compared to the general population, as "The Sylvia Plath Effect."

There's a lot more I'd like to discuss about that–especially as to whether depression spawns writers or writing spawns depression–but I've babbled on enough here, so this is to be continued in two weeks.

To that end, as parting thoughts, I leave you with words from horror writer Nancy Etchemendy:

Over half the general population will experience two or more episodes
of serious depression during a lifetime. Statistics gathered in a
recent article in
Scientific American indicate that the incidence of
clinical depression among writers and artists may be as much as ten
times greater than that among the general population. The incidence of
suicide is as much as eighteen times greater. Why should this be the
case? What exactly is depression? And what can we, as individuals who
are apparently more vulnerable than most, do to protect ourselves from
the specter of this often fatal illness?


From the abstract of a University of Kentucky Medical Center study of depression and creativity in women:

Female writers were more likely than members of the comparison group to
suffer not only from mood disorders but from drug abuse, panic attacks,
general anxiety, and eating disorders as well. The rates of multiple
mental disorders were also higher among writers…. Creativity also appeared to run in
families. The cumulative psychopathology scores of subjects… represented significant predictors of their overall

Plath 2


And from blogger grumpyoldbookman:

There is at least one piece of research which demonstrates that some
(British) writers have a higher than average chance of being mentally
ill. The research was carried out by Kay Jamison, Professor of
Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her study
showed that 38% of a group of eminent British writers and artists had
been treated for a mood disorder of one kind or another; of these, 75%
had had antidepressants or lithium prescribed, or had been
hospitalised. Of playwrights, 63% had been treated for depression.
These proportions, as you will have guessed, are many times higher
than in the population at large.


So, how high is your mental illness number, these days?