Category Archives: Tess Gerritsen

How editors make a difference

by Tess Gerritsen

It’s called a death spiral, and I was in one.  The year was 2000, and I had just turned in my fifth thriller, The Surgeon.  In the U.S., my first four books had hit bestseller lists.  In the UK my career was, if not dead, barely twitching. In publishing, “death spiral” describes the steady decline in an author’s sales over time, a decline that’s almost impossible to reverse.  With each new release, the orders are smaller.  With smaller orders there’s less visibility and poorer distribution, leading inevitably to even poorer sales.  

Eventually, no bookstores will order your books.  And no publisher wants you as their author.

That’s the position I was in back in 2000.  My sales had all but crashed and burned in the UK.  I’d already failed with two different publishers, and now no one there wanted to touch me.  The Surgeon, it appeared, would not be released in the UK at all.

Then a plucky new editor at Transworld Publishers picked up The Surgeon and decided she had to acquire the book.  The author’s track record was dreadful, getting the book into stores would be a battle, but she was damn well going to do it.  She forced (that’s the description I heard!) all her colleagues to read the manuscript, and now they were getting excited too.  She was the cheerleader, the taskmaster, the evangelist for The Surgeon.  I was only vaguely aware of her efforts at the time; after all, I’d failed miserably in the UK before, and my hopes were no higher this time.  She sent me the cover design that she was so excited about: a sink drain with splashes of blood.  

 

I just didn’t get it.  She assured me it would work in the UK market.  Anyway, what did I know about the UK market?  I was already deemed a failure there, and I was sure to be a failure again.  When the book was released in hardcover in the UK, I paid little attention because it was just too depressing to think about.

But this editor wouldn’t leave me alone.  She kept sending me cheery emails and sales figures.  While The Surgeon wasn’t hitting any bestseller lists, it wasn’t a complete flop.  The corpse of my UK career actually took a breath — if only a shallow one.

The following year, with the publication of The Apprentice in hardcover and The Surgeon in paperback, Transworld invited me for a UK book tour.  It was the first time I’d been asked overseas, and I still have one vividly depressing memory of a group booksigning I did in London.  I was sitting next to a bestselling crime author who had a line of fans to buy her book.  One man came with a whole box of books for that author to sign.  Then he looked at me, shrugged, and said: “I have no idea who you are.”  He bought one of my paperbacks, but I could see it was only out of sheer pity.

The Surgeon, in paperback, miraculously made it to the top-ten bestseller list.

In the years that followed, as my UK sales continued to climb, this editor and the entire Transworld team never stopped flogging my books.  They continually re-packaged the series.  They brought me over again and again for tours.  They invested in publicity and promotions.  

In 2006, I finally hit #1 on the London Times paperback bestseller list with Vanish.  And last year, I hit #1 on the hardcover list with The Killing Place.

Transworld not only breathed life back into this old corpse, they got it up and walking and then sprinting ahead of the pack.  It demonstrates that even a career that looks dead can be reanimated — given the right team with the right book.  It’s a lesson that authors and publishers need to take to heart.  If an author writes great books, even if his sales are moribund, he deserves a second look, a second chance.  Because he just might be your next #1 bestseller.

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about how authors don’t really need publishers anymore because we can self-publish with e-books.  Hey, we can do it all ourselves, make more money in the long run, and have complete control over our destinies.  To some extent it’s true; we can publish our own books. The question is, can we publish our own books well?

(Even in the world of self-publishing, publishers will still play a vital role as gatekeepers.  Spam now clogs online booksellers with 99 cent e-books that are either junk or blatantly plagiarized. A publisher’s seal of approval can help separate the worthwhile books from the fake ones.)  

Over my twenty-five career, I’ve worked with some truly gifted editors.  Every single one has been a pleasure to work with, and my books are all the better because of their input. True, a self-published author could hire a private editor to help polish a manuscript, but the fact is, editors do a lot more than edit. They advocate. They strategize.  They even harangue, all on your behalf.

And sometimes, they become your dear friends.  This is something we don’t talk enough about: how important friendships are in the publishing business.  It’s not all about sales figures and bean counting.  Long after our business associations end, long after we stop needing each other for deals, the friendships remain. 

Last month, it was announced that my wonderful UK editor, Selina Walker, is leaving Transworld to take an impressive new job as publisher for Century and Arrow Books.  I guess that’s what happens when you do a smashing job — you get promoted.  I’m thrilled for her, of course, but I’m also sad that she’s leaving.  She was the one who pulled me out of my UK death spiral. And that, I will never forget.

 

 

(I am attending the Romance Writers of America convention, so may not be able to answer comments.)

Bloody Words Conference

by Tess Gerritsen

 

Sometimes, you just want to share travel photos.  And that’s what I’m going to do here, but I also want to say a few words about what brought me to Victoria, BC in the first place, and that’s the Bloody Words Conference. I was invited there as the “International Guest of Honor”, which was an honor indeed as it involved one of the most delightful few days I’ve ever spent at a writers event.  First, because it was a very low stress conference where I only had to sit on panels.  In my last blog post, I talked about how anxiety-producing it can be to solo- teach a workshop.  But panels are more like a conversation, a chance to share your honest, off-the-cuff thoughts, without the labor of composing prepared remarks. (If you want to keep writers relaxed and happy, make it a panel program!)

The other reason I had such a fine time was the fact we were in Canada and there’s something about Canadians that’s so darn, well… nice.  They’re not just helpful, they seem happy to be helpful. It started at the Victoria airport, where we discovered that my husband’s suitcase didn’t make the three-transfer flight from Maine.  He was standing there at the carousel, looking bereft because he hadn’t packed a toothbrush or even a change of underwear in his carry-on.  Suddenly an airport employee came swooping in from nowhere to ask if we’d lost a bag, and said: “Let’s just see what we can do!” After the necessary paperwork was filed, he handed my husband a sack with a shaving kit, toothbrush, shampoo, and detergent.  In all the years I’ve flown in the U.S. and lost bags (and it’s happened half a dozen times) I’ve never met anyone so anxious to help a beleaguered traveler.  

Why are Canadians so nice?  I posed this question while I was there, and one fellow offered brightly: “It’s because we’re so happy not to be Americans!”  He was quickly shushed up by his countrymen because “that’s not a nice thing to say.”  From taxi drivers to bellmen, rental car clerks to waitresses, there was something so different about the way they treated us there.  Instead of the bored and disinterested “I’ll have to check with management about this” that you hear so often in the US, what we heard in Victoria was “of course we can do this for you!”

At one point, my husband turned to me and said, “Tell me again why we live in the US?”

The conference itself was, as you’d expect, a friendly and collegial affair.  I was curious about the state of genre publishing in Canada, and was not surprised to hear about the same woes I heard in South Africa.  With a population that’s only a tenth of the US, Canadian writers simply don’t have a large enough readership for them to make a living, unless they sell internationally.  The US is considered the “elephant to the south,” the market that’s too huge to be ignored, and the market that everyone wants to penetrate.  In crime fiction, Americans are certainly familiar with Louise Penny, Rick Mofina, Linwood Barclay and Peter Robinson, but too many other Canadian crime writers simply aren’t distributed in the US.  

But now that there are e-books, it should be an international market, right?  Why don’t Canadian authors simply sell to Americans via Kindle? I discovered it isn’t as easy as just emailing a file to Amazon.  To self publish an e-book for sale to American Kindles, you must have an American bank account and mailing address.  That, at least, was what one Canadian told me.  Which makes it a bureaucratic hassle to sell your own books south of the border. 

Another complaint I heard was the lack of publisher support in Canada for genre fiction.  Publishing is partially subsidized by the government, and literary novels get all the financial support and review attention while genre fiction is left to fend for itself in the marketplace.  It’s not surprising that genre writers, who actually make a profit for their publishers, are a bit resentful. 

One of the best things about international conferences is the chance to meet authors I wouldn’t otherwise meet at US conferences.

 Michael Slade, the Canadian Guest of Honor, comes to crime writing with a lifetime’s worth of expertise under his belt.  He’s a criminal defense attorney, and some of his real-life stories will make your jaw drop.  (Like the time a satisfied client offered to kill any person of Michael’s choosing as a token of his appreciation.)  Michael originated “Shock Theater”, a staged reading of radio plays at various mystery conferences, and I was allowed in on the fun when we read “Chicken Heart.”  It’s a truly stupid play, but loads of fun to scream over.  Michael’s legion of fans are called “Sladists”, and they’re so devoted to Michael that one of them peeled down her pants to show off the “Sladist” permanent tattoo just over her rear end.  Now that is true fan devotion.

Grant McKenzie is a Scottish-born Canadian journalist whose crime novels have been translated into German, Chinese, and Russian.  He interviewed me for an afternoon session, and it was a truly delightful conversation.  He’s a terrific novelist who’s published internationally —  just not yet in the U.S.  I hope American publishers are taking note!

William Deverell, the local Guest of Honor, is another Canadian crime writer who brings a rich lifetime of experience to his novels.  He’s the Dashiel Hammett-award winning author of fifteen novels, including the Arthur Beauchamp series.  He’s also an attorney who’s been involved in more than a thousand criminal cases, serving both in prosecution and defense.  Bill and I had a lovely private lunch together where we talked about writing, the future of publishing, and some of the fascinating criminal cases that he’s litigated.  

Booksellers were at the conference as well, and here’s Frances Thorsen of Victoria’s “Chronicles of Crime” mystery bookshop, along with the author-autographed coyote placard that will hang in her shop.  Frances sat on a panel called “What’s hot, what’s not”, about trends in crime fiction.  If you want to know that answer, just ask a bookseller!

Here’s a photo of me with another writer.  It’s a statue of local Victoria heroine Emily Carr, with her pet monkey perched on her shoulder.  Hats off to any town that chooses to honor its authors.

 

After the conference, it was off to see world-famous Butchart Gardens, where I ogled gorgeous vines of golden laburnum.  It’s a poisonous plant, by the way, which was used as a murder weapon (fictionally) in the TV mystery series “Mother Love.”

Finally, no set of travel photos is complete without at least one shot of food:

Crab legs, anyone?

I have no idea how I do it

by Tess Gerritsen

Later this year, I’ll be a guest author at a literary festival.  The organizers asked me to teach a six-hour writing class for a group of aspiring authors, but the thought of standing alone in front of a class for six straight hours gave me a panic attack.  After a few sleepless nights fretting over this frightening assignment, I finally got up the courage to say no.  I just can’t teach this course.  

Because what I know about writing novels wouldn’t fill six hours. I can talk for maybe an hour about where my ideas come from.  I can talk for another hour about how I conduct my research.  But my memories of getting from Point A in any novel (the first sentence) to Point Z (“The End”)  are always pretty hazy.  I can’t tell you much about it beyond the fact it meant long hours in one position and involved a great deal of moaning. A bit like the labor and delivery of my two sons.  

Now, it’s true that Michael Palmer and I teach an annual weekend workshop on fiction writing for doctors, but during that weekend, we’re a tag team.  When I run out of things to say, he jumps in and starts talking.  And vice versa.  That workshop covers far more than just writing; we talk about the business, numbers, getting an agent, book promotion, etc.  We make our students stand up and read excerpts of their own stories.  So it’s not as if I’ve ever lectured for hours on the writing process.

In fact, if you ask me to explain how I write a book, I’d have a hard time giving you much concrete advice, because the process of storytelling is not concrete.  It’s rather squishy, if that makes any sense.  I call it squishy because just when I think I’ve captured the plot, it oozes like an amoeba in another direction and I have to chase after it.  A story is not a rock-solid building constructed with math and physics; too often it grows into a deformed, pulsating monster that consumes my life and sends its hapless creator into despair.  

Writing a book is hard work. It’s frustrating, it’s unpredictable, and it will suck you dry. 

I may not be able to talk about book-writing for six hours, but I can muster up a few personal storytelling tips that have served me through 23 books.  And these have nothing to do with which pen you should use or which word-processing system or whether you should write in the morning or at night or upside down.  Those things really don’t matter.  But I think these things do:

1. Find a premise that makes you angry or sad or shocked or astonished.  A premise that makes your heart squeeze or your stomach drop.  A premise that is not just intellectual, but emotional.

2. Which means your story must never, ever be about “a slice of life.”  Please.  If I want slices, I’ll reach for salami.

3. Wait until you hear a character talking in your head, in a voice that’s so vivid, you’d recognize it on the street. The voice I hear is often very different from my own.  Maybe it’s a character who’s far younger or funnier or more biting or just plain creepy.  I’m not writing my story; I’m writing their story.  But I can’t start writing until they talk to me.

4. Feel something.  Every paragraph, every page, every scene, you must be feeling some emotion.  Just as your characters are feeling something.

5. Write the scene from the point of view of the character who’s most uncomfortable or off-balance, who’s feeling the most internal conflict.  The character who least wants to be there.

6. Tension — or conflict — is the engine that makes a scene move.  Without tension, your story’s dead in the water.

7. Action is not the same thing as tension.  Sometimes, action is just plain boring.

8. Show us Stuff Happening.  Don’t tell us about it happening.  Don’t tell us about a mother’s grief.  Let us hear the squeal of the brakes.  Let us see the mother kneeling, shrieking over her child in the road. 

9. Don’t abandon a manuscript prematurely.  Finish the first draft.  Even a story that looks like a monster at the halfway point can morph into George Clooney. 

 

 

 

 

Non-white heroes: the kiss of death in the marketplace?

by Tess Gerritsen

Memory #1: I am ten years old, sitting in the back seat of a parked car with my best school chum as we wait for her mother to come out of the grocery store.  My friend is white.  We are chattering, giggling, making noisy girl noises. A woman walks back to her car, which is parked beside ours.  Maybe it’s the fact we’re laughing so loudly.  Maybe she thinks we’re laughing at her.  She glares at us.  

What she sees: a white girl and an Asian girl sitting in the parked car.

What she says is: “Damn noisy chink.” 

Memory #2: I am twelve years old, and my parents have taken us out to a nice new restaurant. We arrive at around seven thirty and are seated.  No one gives us a menu.  As wait staff whisk past our table, as other diners are seated, eat, and depart, we sit ignored.  Several times my father beckons to the waitresses and asks if we might be served.  They shrug and move on.  Two hours later all the diners have left except for us, and the wait staff is now cleaning up.  The manager comes out, tells us he’s sorry but the restaurant is now closed for the night and we’ll have to leave.

My father doesn’t say a word.  We all get up and quietly walk out.

These kinds of experiences leave a mark on a child.  Like so many other Asian Americans, I reacted by ducking my head and focusing on my schoolwork. Exhorted by our Tiger Mothers to prove ourselves worthy and make our families proud, too many of us become silent and conflict-averse, terrified of drawing attention to ourselves or pursuing any career that doesn’t lead to guaranteed security.  

That, apparently, is the definition of a model minority.

Although I became a writer, it wasn’t until after I’d first fulfilled my cultural imperative and earned a medical degree.  Now I’m doing exactly what I’d always dreamed of doing:  telling stories and getting paid for it.  You would think that I’d want to explore some of those painful themes from my childhood.  Other writers do it.  There are bestselling novels with protagonists who are  Jewish or Irish or Italian or autistic or southern women bonding with their household help.  And there are lots and lots of novels about middle-aged white men having affairs and mid-life crises.  But rarely do you see a novel, much less a bestselling novel, that explores the Asian American experience.

So why have I never written one?  My three-word answer: fear of failure.    

That’s not just my own lack of confidence speaking; it’s something that a very canny (and honest) publishing executive told me two decades ago.  It was back while I was writing romance novels for Harlequin Intrigue, and I had a chat with one of Harlequin’s top brass.  She loved my writing and she wanted to discuss my upcoming book projects.  I asked her if she’d be interested in a romance featuring an Asian American heroine.

She wasn’t afraid to tell me the truth, and I will always be grateful for her honesty.  Harlequin had done extensive market research, she said.  They knew which titles were hits and which were flops.  And whenever they published a book with an Asian hero or heroine, no one bought those books.  They might be the best stories in the line, but they invariably failed in the marketplace.  

“I want your books to be bestsellers,” she said.  “And this will hurt your sales.”

I took that advice, so generously given, and all my novels have featured white heroes and heroines.  I’ve slipped in Asian Americans as secondary characters: Maura’s morgue assistant Yoshima, for example, or Vivian Chao, the fearless surgeon in HARVEST.  But in none of my books have I featured an Asian or touched on those painful memories from my childhood — until now.

In THE SILENT GIRL, I’ve finally written the story I’ve been burning to tell, a story with bits and pieces of my own Chinese-American childhood. Not the painful memories, but the quirky bits, imbued with my mother’s lore about ghosts and monsters.  One of her stories in particular has always stayed with me, the much-beloved Chinese legend of the Monkey King, a wild and unpredictable creature who was born from a stone and becomes a warrior.  When Jane Rizzoli finds monkey hairs on the body of a butchered woman in Boston’s Chinatown, the legend of the Monkey King becomes key to understanding the crime.  Monkeys both fascinate and frighten me, and I get chills thinking of such a creature roaming Chinatown’s dark alleys.

For the first time, I introduce not just one, but two major Asian American characters.  The first is Detective Johnny Tam, who joins Jane and Maura in the investigation.  The second is a female martial arts master.  Her character was inspired by a real woman: Bow-Sim Mark, an internationally revered wushu master who teaches in Boston.   

Twenty three years have passed since my chat with that Harlequin executive.  I’m now got a best-selling crime series on which a hit television show is based.  I want to believe that readers in this country have matured and broadened their tastes.  They’re avidly reading about boy wizards and teen vampires and Swedish sleuths; surely they’re now open to more.  

Or are they?

 

( I am, once again, traveling and unable to respond to comments.  But I do hope this will start a conversation about minorities in fiction.  How far have we come?  Is there a strong enough market for it?  Or should authors continue to “write white” to ensure sales?) 

 

 

Writers who lie

by Tess Gerritsen

Sadly, it’s happened again.  Another memoir, another embarrassed publisher.  Greg Mortenson, author of the mega-bestselling Three Cups of Tea, about his humanitarian efforts to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has been accused of fabricating key elements in his book.  He’s also accused of misusing the donations to his charity, the Central Asia Institute, but it’s the book that I want to focus on. Because the writer who dreams up a dodgy memoir is such an old tale, I’m surprised that anyone’s surprised that another one has popped up.

Mortenson in particular has been on my radar for a while because all my close friends have raved about him.  “He’s a saint, you must read his book!” they insisted, shoving the book at me.  By the time the tenth person said that, I was irritated about the whole thing and never did read the book.  Then, while I was in Dubai, I saw that Mortenson was one of the featured authors on the program.  I tried to get into the session — held in a huge auditorium — but the place was packed so tight you could scarcely breathe.  My brief impression of him, before I fled the overheated room, was that he was an immensely polished speaker who knew exactly how to work an audience.  He had legions of adoring fans.  I remember saying to my husband: “He reminds me of a fake TV evangelist.”

Maybe it was just the cynic in me.  Maybe I was a wee bit jealous of the piles and piles of books he was selling at the festival.  But now, a few months later, it turns out I may not have been so far off the mark.    

It’s not the first time I got a whiff of uneasiness about a memoir writer.  Some years ago, while waiting to go on the air at BBC in London, I was introduced to a writer named Norma Khouri who was scheduled to go on the air right after me.  “Norma grew up in Jordan,” her publicist told me.  Norma was getting a huge amount of press for her memoir Forbidden Love, about the horrendous honor killing of her best friend in Jordan.  Norma was gorgeous, poised, and well-spoken.  She also struck me as completely American. “Wow,” I told her.  “Your English sounds like you grew up in the US!”

“In my school in Jordan, the teacher who taught us English was from the US,” Norma explained without an instant’s hesitation.  “That’s why I sound American.”

It sounded plausible.  Sort of.  But I couldn’t get over the fact she just seemed so American.  I think I even said that to my publicist.  “She’s just like a gal from Brooklyn,” I said.

Fast-forward a few months, to the breaking news about memoir writer, Norma Khouri.  Who, it turns out, had not grown up in Jordan, but in Chicago.  (If you get a chance, watch the superb documentary Forbidden Lie$, about Norma and her astonishing fabrications.)  As I’d guessed earlier, she was American, and I had detected that fact within a few sentences of talking to her.  Yet for several years she’d managed to fool publishers, critics,  journalists, and a gullible reading public. Part of the reason the fraud went on so long is that Norma was passionate about defending herself and skillful at covering up her inconsistencies.   For every question, she had a ready answer.  I think back to how quickly she responded to my observation that she sounded American, and how willing I was to believe her.  

It didn’t occur to me that anyone would lie about such a thing.  Or that anyone would be brazen enough to fake a story that any journalist, with just a few phone calls, could easily blast to smithereens.  Yet it happens again and again. James Frey.  Margaret Selzer.  Forrest Carter.  Every few years, there’s another fake memoir. And every time the truth is finally revealed, readers are outraged, publishers duck their heads in embarrassment, and everyone asks, “How could this happen?”

It happens because we want to believe uplifting stories of people who rise above their traumatic pasts.  It happens because publishers don’t have the resources to check the facts. It happens because the writers are talented enough to create a reality that seems like truth.  These writers are such darn good liars that we can’t help but believe them. 

And it happens because there’s loads of money involved, money handed over by gullible readers who think they’re buying a thrilling true story of a man’s saintly deeds or a young girl’s survival on the streets.  Many of these readers would turn up their literary noses at a mere novel.  No made-up stuff for them; they want to be inspired by the truth. They want to enrich their minds with history. They’re above reading something as trivial as fiction. 

How ironic that they were reading fiction after all.

 

 

 

 

What’s your speed?

by Tess Gerritsen

My husband says I walk too fast.  He complains about this whenever we stroll together, even when we’re not late for any appointment but just seeing the sights.  “What’s your hurry?” he asks.  “Are you trying to make me feel like a slacker?” Really, I’m not; I just naturally walk fast. How fast?  I think people in Manhattan should stop being so pokey.   

Years ago, when I was working as a doctor in a Honolulu emergency room, I walked into a treatment room to sew up a cop who had a nasty laceration. Before I could say a word, the cop says, “You’re not from the islands, are you?”

“How the heck did you know that?” I ask, completely baffled.  As an Asian American, I look like half the population of Honolulu.  

“It’s the way you walk,” he said.  “You look like you have to get somewhere in a hurry.  Islanders don’t walk that way.”  

Now that’s an observant cop.

Another memory: my husband and I are in London, on a double date for dinner with my UK editor and her husband.  My editor and I walk together, and we both walk fast. We’re talking business while we walk, and we’re so engrossed in conversation that we’re not really paying attention to where our husbands are.  Suddenly we realize we’ve lost them.  They’re nowhere to be seen.  We halt on the sidewalk, wondering if they took a wrong turn or ducked into a pub somewhere.  A moment later the men appear, annoyed and grumbling about “these damn career women, always leaving their husbands behind.”

The thing is, I don’t think I walk fast.  This is just my natural walking pace and if I slow down, I feel as if I’m wading through molasses.  It’s something that’s inborn and not a conscious thing.  We each have our own natural rhythms that determine how much sleep we need and how fast our hearts beat.

In the same way, I think I have my own writing speed, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t change it.  I would love to write multiple novels a year.  I would love to have a new book on the shelves every four months.  The fastest I ever wrote was back when I was writing romantic thrillers for Harlequin, and one year I managed to write two books, but those were only 300-page manuscripts.  Now that I’m writing longer thrillers, I have to work hard to meet my book-a-year deadlines.

Now, this may have something to do with my chaotic process.  I don’t outline, I don’t plan ahead.  I plunge into a first draft and it goes all over the place and it ends up a mess.  Which means I have to spend the next five months cleaning it up.  Oh, if I could just have a logical system with notecards that summarize every chapter ahead of time.  If only I could approach it like an engineer with a blueprint.  But even if I could do it that way, I think I’d still be writing only a book a year.  Because of that natural rhythm thing again.  I write four pages a day and I’m bushed.  Whether those four pages are good or bad, they exhaust me.

And I have to wander off and make a martini to recover.

I’ve given up beating myself over the head about my pokey writing schedule.  Just as I’ve stopped apologizing for how fast I walk.  Too bad I couldn’t be a fast writer and a slow walker.

Then everything would be perfect.

 

 

The South African market

by Tess Gerritsen

I’m in a jet-lagged fog, having just returned from South Africa where I spent an amazing week in the bush watching lions

leopards

 and the most adorable baby elephant who kept gamboling over to play peek-a-boo with our Land Rover.  

But before I headed off to the safari lodge, I spent a few days in Cape Town and Johannesburg doing some promotional events at bookstores, meeting readers as well as local authors. I also met with my wonderful team at Random House Struik:

 I prepared for my trip by reading some terrific novels by prominent South African thriller writers including Deon Meyer, Sarah Lotz, Mike Nicol

(here with Mike Nicol and his wife)

 Andrew Brown, and Jassy Mackenzie.

 (here with Jassy)

 

Many US readers are no doubt familiar with Deon’s work, and some may already know the name Jassy Mackenzie, who’s been published in the US, but if the others are not yet well-known, it’s because they aren’t yet distributed well in the US.  In this age of an international e-book market, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before you’ll get the chance to sample their work.

But in the meantime, some of these terrific authors are faced with the tough dilemma of marketing their books in the very small South African market.  How small?  Despite the fact South Africa has a population of around fifty million — putting it just under that of the UK —  the number of those who regularly buy and read books, is probably about a million.  That, at least, is what I learned from those familiar with local publishing.  The population of readers is further splintered by those who read exclusively in English, and others who prefer Afrikaans.  You can see, just by the numbers, that it’s very difficult indeed for anyone to make a living just from writing for the South African market.  The only way to make a sufficient income is to also sell to the international market.

It’s a pity that their stories aren’t more widely read, because these books have a perspective that’s seldom heard in the U.S.  I characterize Mike Nicol’s books as “Quentin Tarantino” on the page, set in the throbbing criminal world of South Africa.  Sarah Lotz tells uproariously funny crime stories that had me laughing out loud during the plane ride over.  Jassy Mackenzie and Deon Meyer’s books feature riveting, adrenalin-packed tales that are the equal of America’s best thriller authors.  And Andrew Brown’s profoundly moving, gorgeously written REFUGE, which I can’t stop thinking about, just about broke my heart with an ending that’s both tragic and inevitable.  

These are all accomplished writers, and ever since reading them, I’ve been pondering the question of why, except for Deon, they haven’t yet surged onto the US scene.  I suppose some of it may be due to the fact that Americans are by and large unfamiliar with South Africa and its unique history, politics, high crime rate and police corruption.  While I was there, in fact, there was a highly publicized contract killing of a major crime figure.  It’s an exotic environment for many Americans.  But once you get past the occasional Afrikaans word, once you get comfortable with the setting, you’ll be hungry for more.

 

 

Publishing in the Arabic world

by Tess Gerritsen

Me standing in front of the gorgeous Burj Khalifa — the tallest building in the world.  It looks like something out of Lord of the Rings, doesn’t it?

I’ve just returned from the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where I had the chance to meet writers from around the world, including many from the Middle East.  During the flight to Dubai, I happened to read an article in the in-flight magazine, “The State of Arab Literature”.  That’s where I learned this surprising, and rather depressing fact:  Most Arabic publishing houses don’t pay their authors any advance.  Instead, they ask the author to pay the publishing costs up-front. 

While writers struggle everywhere to make a living, writers in the west have nothing to complain about when we compare our lot with the struggles of Arabic writers.  Depending on which country they live in, these writers must contend with censorship, poverty, even threats to their lives.  Although Arabic is spoken by 5 percent of the world’s population, that reading audience doesn’t buy enough books to support their local bestselling authors, who must toil away at other jobs while they write.  

Part of the reason may be found in a 2008 UN survey, which found that the average Arab in the Middle East reads only four pages of literature a year.  Americans read an average of 11 books a year and Britons an average of eight.  As one Arabic writer told me resignedly, “it takes one hundred Egyptians to read one book.”  According to an article in the Dubai newspaper, The National, teachers there struggle to instill a love of reading in their pupils.  Students are addicted to technology, which sucks up their time.  44 percent of pupils in Dubai have fewer than 25 books in their home.  And one teacher at a public school observed, “In my class of 60, only one girl reads for pleasure.”

Add to that the issue of low female literacy in countries such as Yemen, and it’s easy to see that the market for Arabic books simply isn’t large enough to support their local authors.  Even authors with huge name recognition such as Egyptian writer Ghada Abdel Aal, whose humorous Arabic language blog “I Want to Get Married,” about her struggles to find Mr. Right, must rely on foreign language sales to earn a living.  Her blog had a million followers, and the book that followed it was an Arabic language bestseller, yet those book sales were a small fraction of the blog’s audience.  

It’s obvious that for Arabic writers to earn a decent living, their work must be translated for readers beyond the Arabic world.  Surely there are readers like me who can’t wait to read about an Egyptian Sherlock Holmes or a Saudi Miss Marple.  So where are these sleuths?  Why are there no Arabic mystery novelists?  Or SF or fantasy novelists, for that matter?  Where is Arabic genre fiction?

This very question was addressed at the Emirates festival, in a session led by Egyptian scholar Kamal Abdel-Malek and crime writer Matt Rees.  They asked the question: “Could an Agatha Christie emerge from the Arab world?” And then they proceeded to give all the possible reasons why it hasn’t happened yet.  Matt wondered if it had to do with corrupt police systems and so many dictatorships in the region.  When you have no hope for real justice, when you don’t really believe the bad guys will get their comeuppance, then crime stories have an aura of futility, with no promise of retribution for evil acts.  

Kamal pointed to other issues.  Arabic literature has always emphasized poetry and beautiful language, and genre fiction is disdained as something not quite respectable.  Also, while Americans will happily read a mystery or thriller on an airplane, he said, an Arab — if he encounters another Arab sitting beside him — will feel compelled to converse with his seat mate.  It’s important to deal with “he who is present,” he said.  To read a book in the presence of another person is rude.  Even if he’s just a fellow passenger. A budding Arabic Agatha Christie must deal not only with the prejudice against the genre, but also limited readership in the Arabic world.

 But the English world?  There, it seems, would be a ripe market.  I mentioned to both men that I would absolutely love to see a crime novel told from the point of view of an Arabic woman sleuth.  A woman who must navigate an obstacle course of challenges, who must use her wits and her powers of observation to solve a mystery. I want to know what that woman thinks, what she sees, what her world is like.  

Where is this writer?  Why hasn’t he or she emerged?

In a conversation a day later with an Arabic language translator, I gleaned an additional insight. He regularly translates books and articles from Arabic into English, and he observed that Arabic novels, while full of poetic language, don’t have the plot strengths that western novels have.  The emphasis is different and far more literary.  These Arabic writers use beautiful language, he said, but their plots are secondary to the writing.  He itches to edit the books, because he knows they could be improved for the western market, but his role is only to translate.  And it frustrates him.  For these books to make it in English, they have to be less about poetry and more about accessibility.

Sounds like the same old literary vs. genre debate, doesn’t it?  It’s happening everywhere.  In the Arab world as well.  

 (I’m traveling at the moment, and can’t respond to comments.  But please do discuss!) 

 

 

 

 

What’s your nightmare?

by Tess Gerritsen

(Once again, I’ll be on the road when this entry gets posted.  But I’ll read the comments when I get home, and I hope you’ll all chime in and tell us which monsters inhabit your dreams at night.)

As crime writers, we spend a lot of time thinking and writing about what scares us, and many of us probably share the same fears, most of them rational — fear of heights, of pain, of something happening to our kids.  But once we drift off to sleep, our fears take on different, sometimes irrational forms.  It’s those literal nightmares that so fascinate me, because we have no control over them.  They emerge from our subconscious, many of them purely symbolic and posing no real threat.  Yet they cause us to awaken in a cold sweat, hearts pounding.

I’ll bet that most of you reading this have had the familiar nightmare of being out of the house and suddenly realizing you’ve forgotten to get dressed.  Fear of humiliation is obviously what’s at play here.  Which makes me wonder: Do nudists ever have this nightmare?  Does it show up in cultures where people normally run around half-naked?  What’s their equivalent of the humiliation nightmare?

Another common one is the “Oh my God, I never went to class!” nightmare where I’ve got a final exam in French and I know nothing about the subject.  I suspect this nightmare particularly afflicts OCD types like me who are anxious about failing.  The more stressed out I am about work, the more this dream plagues me.  Oddly enough, even though I’ve been a writer for 25 years, I never have nightmares about being late for a deadline. Instead, this nightmare setting doesn’t seem to advance beyond my college years,  

I also have one where my teeth are falling out.  I used to have this one a lot, and I’ve heard from other women who also have it.  I haven’t met any men who’ve had it, which makes me think it’s very much connected to being female.  One theory is that it represents fear of aging.  Others — and I think this is probably closer to the mark — say it represents anxiety over loss of power.  Your jaw is one of the strongest muscles in your body and your teeth are a primitive means of self defense, so losing your teeth equates to feeling powerless.  Which may be why so many women have this dream.  We also seem to dream a lot about being chased.  

While men may also have nightmares of being pursued, several have told me they’ve got a gun with which to fight back.  Which is totally unfair.  Even in our dreams, we women are outgunned.

Then there’s this weirdly eccentric nightmare which seems to be mine alone.  This dream has plagued me since I was very young, and I can’t seem to shake it.  Over the decades, the basic plot has expanded to include members of my family, but it always starts with a view of a clear night sky.  Tiny lights like stars are moving.  Then the stars begin to move in different directions and I realize, to my utter horror, that these are alien spacecraft and the invasion of Earth has begun.  Humankind is about to be massacred.

In a panic, I try to gather up my family, fill the car with food, and head for the wilderness to hide.  I’m very methodical about this in the dream.  I consider which car will go the furthest on a tank of gas.  I consider which food items to pack, how many bottles of water we can carry, which medicines to bring.  I think about sleeping bags and blankets and tents.  But gosh darn it, as usual, I never seem to have a gun.

I know it sounds like the plot of a dozen Hollywood B-movies.  Maybe it was inspired by some horror film I watched as a kid.  Yet all these decades later, it still has the power to make me wake up at night, drenched in sweat.  I don’t know what brings it on.  I haven’t met anyone who’s similarly terrified by alien invader dreams.  But it’s such a powerful fear that even when I’m awake and I look up at a clear night sky, it’s always with a tiny apprehension that this will be the night I see those stars start to move.

And it’ll be time to round up the kids and pack up the car.

So what’s your recurring nightmare?  Is it something peculiar to you, something that no one else seems to have?  What do you think it means?

Empty Desk Syndrome

by Tess Gerritsen

Last week, I turned in my final edits for for THE SILENT GIRL, my next Rizzoli & Isles novel.  Now I’m just waiting for the copy editor to bounce it back to me in the next few days.  In the meantime, I’ve written the acknowledgments page, gathered together my research notes and manuscript drafts in a box for storage, and cleared off my desk.  That empty desk surface is something I haven’t seen in over a year.  It’s been covered for so long in papers, notes, reference books, and general clutter that I’d forgotten that there actually is a desk underneath it all, a nice desk made of cherrywood.  For the last few days I’ve been enjoying how tidy it looks, but I’m also feeling a bit lost.  After a year of fiercely obsessing about the book, suddenly it’s finished and been sent into the world like a kid finally off to college.

I’m suffering from empty desk syndrome.

For the past year I’ve lived in a near-constant state of anxiety about the story.  I’d startle awake in the middle of the night thinking I’d never get this thing written.  I’ve had moments of stomach-churning self-doubt, wondering how I’d explain to my agent and editor that my writing mojo had vanished.  On the few vacations we took last year, I could never really relax because I knew I’d have to return home and wrestle with the beast.  I couldn’t leave the job behind; it was always with me, nagging me that I had only six months left till deadline… five months … one month…

Then, somewhere around draft #3, the troublesome manuscript seemed to snap into shape.  The plot, the characters, the motivations all crystallized.  I polished the final manuscript (draft #5) and emailed it off.  A few days later came the happy phone calls from editor and agent.  The book was done, everyone was delighted, and it was time to celebrate. I did, with dinner out and a few glasses of wine.

But now comes the postpartum readjustment.  When you’ve lived for months with stress hormones circulating in your bloodstream, when you’ve forgotten what it’s like to take a weekend off, it’s hard to reenter normal life.  Now when I wake up, I still feel the usual jolt of anxiety, and then I remember: The book’s done! You can relax!  My husband says it’s weird having me in the here and now for a change.  For the past few days I’ve lingered over the morning newspapers, surfed the web, and finally tackled the towering stack of galleys waiting to be read.  I had my hair cut.  I’m listening to Italian language tapes.  I signed up for archery lessons.  And I’m wandering the house feeling untethered because I’m not sure what to do with myself.

And …  I’m coming down with a cold.  It happens every single time I turn in a book.  When stress suddenly evaporates, the body says: “Your job’s done.  You’re allowed to get sick now.”  So, right on time, I woke up this morning with a headache and sore throat.  But what luxury to be able to recuperate at leisure.