Archive for November, 2008


An Interview with Margaret Maron

November 30, 2008
Margaret Maron and Charles Fraziers, winners of the 2008 North Carolina Award in the field of literature

Margaret Maron and Charles Frazier, winners of the 2008 North Carolina Award in literature

Margaret Maron is no stranger to awards. Her 1992 novel, Bootlegger’s Daughter, famously swept the Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, and Macavity awards — the only time in history that a single novel has won all four — and since then she’s won the Agatha for two more novels in her Deborah Knott series: Up Jumps the Devil in 1996 and Storm Track in 2000 (and that doesn’t include her awards for short fiction). In her native North Carolina, Maron also won the 2004 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction for a standalone, non-series book, Last Lessons of Summer

In mid-November, Maron was recognized with a special prize for the body of her work: the North Carolina Award — the state’s highest civilian honor. The award, nicknamed by some the “Nobel Prize of North Carolina,” is presented in several fields: the fine arts, literature, public service, and science. Maron was one of two writers honored in the literature category this year, sharing the stage with Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain. The awards were presented on Monday, November 17, at the Sheraton-Imperial Hotel in Research Triangle Park. The following week, Maron took some time to discuss the honor and her work.

Your novels and stories have already amassed a fine collection of honors. What does this award mean to you?

It’s a very heady to be given my state’s highest award.  It is an amazing honor to be so rewarded for doing what I love to do.  It’s also a validation of the work that was totally unexpected.

n252700The Deborah Knott books offer a portrait of a state undergoing sometimes rapid change, and each new title seems to tackle an important, often controversial issue: immigration in Hard Row and development in Death’s Half Acre, just to look at two recent books. What do you see as your role as a novelist: to capture on the page the reality of that quickly changing world? to offer enriched perspectives on those changes? or even to effect change — the novel as an instigator for action or activism perhaps?

First and foremost, I write to entertain. I just happen to also find the changes and the clash of cultures endlessly entertaining (and at times infuriating) so that they are natural topics to write about.  I do want my readers — especially my North Carolina readers — to think about the changes and to think where we’re going, to be a part of it and not just mindlessly swept along. But I try very hard not to let my soapbox show.

Not trying to pull you up on that soapbox, but what do you think is the most pressing issue facing North Carolina today?

I really don’t feel qualified to say what I think is the most pressing issue. I’d love to see real planning for sensible growth and a better public transportation system instead of building more roads. I wish we felt more charitable to the strangers among us and could afford (and want) to educate everyone, especially the children. It troubles me when the haves act as if they have no compassion for the have-nots. But these are my own worries, not necessarily pressing issues for the state as a whole.

I recently taught Bootlegger’s Daughter to a college literature class, and my students found similarities between the primary race between Obama and Clinton and the run-off between Deborah Knott and Luther Parker in the book. Do you think that the challenges that Deborah faced a decade-and-a-half ago remain similar to the ones that women face today (political or otherwise), or has there been some fundamental shift in attitude?

I do think many of those attitudes were the same until this past year when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton definitely moved the goalposts. They have indeed created a fundamental shift in attitude. As so many of my Democrative friends have said, “It isn’t that I wanted a woman president.  I wanted THAT woman as president.” Same for Obama: “I just wanted a smart, intellectually curious, non-isolationist for my president. The fact that he’s black is just icing on the cake.” I don’t know if we’re finally getting to MLK’s dream of judging people on the basis of character and not by race or gender, but I certainly hope so.

Finally, a quick question touching on an old, almost worn-out topic (one that you and I’ve discussed before, of course): Charles Frazier, also honored with this year’s North Carolina Award, writes what some might term “literary fiction,” whereas those same folks might call you a “mystery writer.” Does this award — this pairing — help to level that distinction? to prove that great literature is great literature, no matter how you label it?

I sure hope so! I really have quit worrying about how people label my books as long as they buy them! Here’s my current attitude, Art: It seems to me that all fictional writing falls into one genre or another. If it has a horse, dusty trails and an Winchester, then it’s a “Western.” If there are bug-eyed aliens, space ships or alternate universes, it’s “Science Fiction.” If it’s witty, funny, and everyone goes shopping, then it’s “Chick Lit.” Ghosts and vampires and spooky woo-woo?  “Supernatural.” Ghosts and spooky woo-woo and heroines running around in wispy nightgowns? “Gothic.”

Other genres are Romance, Fantasy, Historical…. The breakdown into subsets goes on and on. Only if it doesn’t fall squarely in one of those easy categories is it called “Literature,” which is neither more nor less important than any other genre and usually partakes of aspects of the others. There is excellent writing in that category; there is also pretentious navel-gazing.

Same for all the other categories. Every subset has its classics that have stood the test of time as well as the duds that were remaindered two weeks after their pub date.

— Interviewed by Art Taylor

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Happy Thanksgiving!

November 26, 2008

…and best wishes for a great time over the long weekend.

Please check back Monday when I’ll be posting an interview with acclaimed mystery writer Margaret Maron, who was recently honored (along with Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier) with the North Carolina Award in the field of literature, the state’s highest civilian honor.


Pitter-Pat And Rat-A-Tat-Tat

November 25, 2008

To Catch A ThiefThe November 25th Washington Post carried an announcement that screenwriter John Michael Hayes had died on November 19. Hayes, 89, was the screenwriter behind several classic Hitchcock films, including Rear Window (1954, adapted from a Cornell Woolrich story), To Catch a Thief (1955, from a novel by David Dodge), and the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hayes’ work on Rear Window earned him both an Academy Award nomination and an Edgar Award.

While I hadn’t been thinking about Hayes in particular, a couple of those films have been on my mind recently as part of a project I’m working on now: a search for romantic crime films. Hitchcock’s movies often existed at the intersection of crime and romance, of course, from The 39 Steps and Notorious to Rear Window and (in their own way) Vertigo and Marnie. But To Catch A Thief certainly stands as one of the frothiest combinations of those two elements — not just in Hitchcock’s ouevre but in all of film history. The heart races nearly as much from that kiss against the backdrop of fireworks as it does from the gunfire ringing out over the rooftops.

Even my quick list of romantic crime films has already topped 30 titles, but I’m eager to see that list grow, especially with regards to 21st-century movies. Suggestions anyone? Please post as a comment below.

And in the meantime, here’s my suggestion to you: Rent To Catch A Thief, open a nice bottle of champagne, and toast a master screenwriter whose work contributed heavily to some of the finest films of Hitchcock’s career.

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An Interview with Charles Ardai

November 23, 2008

cover_big1Charles Ardai’s new novel, Fifty-to-One, marks a milestone in his career both as an author and as an editor. In the latter case, the book stands as the 50th entry in the Hard Case Crime series, the publishing enterprise that he co-founded with Max Phillips five years ago. And while Ardai has already seen two of his own novels published in the series — Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence — both of those were presented under the pseudonym Richard Aleas (an anagram of Charles Ardai), meaning that Fifty-to-One is his official debut as a novelist under his own name.

To commemorate that fifty-novel mark, Fifty-to-One begins with a playful conceit, indulging the idea that Hard Case Crime started fifty years ago instead of fifty books ago, and setting its sometimes-madcap tale in the midst of the golden age of pulp publishing. Additionally, as a tribute to the forty-nine novels that came before, Ardai heads each chapter — in order — with the titles of the series’ books, giving himself the challenge of tying in various plot twists with a group of words and phrases that were never originally intended to work in tandem with one another. Grifter’s Game, the first book published by Hard Case Crime (by Lawrence Block, incidentally), becomes “Grifter’s Game” the chapter (sampled here), in which Tricia Heverstadt, a naive young woman from South Dakota, finds herself in big, bad New York City and in the hands of a con man needing to score a quick buck. But Tricia is far from helpless, and through a chain of events stemming from that first meeting, she’s soon written a pulp paperback that turns upside-down the lives of everyone around her.

As Fifty-to-One is hitting bookstores, Ardai and I discussed the new novel and the history of Hard Case Crime — the real history — as well as where it stands today.

The new novel’s structural premise — fifty chapters, fifty books — initially struck me as interesting on the one hand but maybe a little gimmicky on the other. After reading the book, however, I recognized that it may have helped push your creativity, challenging you to find unique ways to work within that structure. I love the “Witness to Myself” chapter, for example — the twist you take on that title. To what degree did you let those titles lead you and the plot in wild new directions — following wherever it took you — or was it a matter of having to rigorously plot it out in advance to fit all the pieces together?

The intelligent way to write Fifty-to-One — hell, the sane way — would have been to plot it out rigorously in advance.  But that wouldn’t have been the fun way, and it’s not what I did.  I started with the character of Trixie, coming to New York from South Dakota, wide-eyed and a bit naive but with a tough inner core, and then threw her up against my grifter, Charley Borden, who I knew was going to be my surrogate in the story, the guy who runs Hard Case Crime.  From there, I just winged it, rarely knowing  more than one or two chapters in advance precisely where I would go next — except that I knew all along what the ending would be, and I knew that Chapter 10 (“Plunder of the Sun”) would be the chapter in which I told the story of how a nightclub called the Sun got robbed.  There were some other things I knew from the start — I knew there had to be a character named Robbie, and he had to be married, since we had a book called Robbie’s Wife; there had to be a virgin and she had to be vengeful about something because of The Vengeful Virgin; there had to be a blackmailer; there had to be a sailor, and a peddler, and so on.  So I had a sense of what pieces I’d need to get onto the board eventually.  But I didn’t know just how I was going to do it.  And I figured if I could surprise and delight myself, I might be able to surprise and delight readers as well.  (Incidentally, Witness to Myself is one of my favorites as well.  I’m also fond of how smoothly Straight Cut worked itself in.)

This is the third Hard Case Crime novel you’ve written, but Fifty-to-One certainly has a lighter feel than the Richard Aleas books — perhaps because of that structural playfulness above or some general nostalgia in writing about a bygone era. Is the real Charles Ardai more a light, playful, postmodern writer, or more in tune with that bleak, almost deterministic vision that seemed to drive Songs of Innocence, for instance?

cover_big-11Saying that Fifty-to-One has a lighter feel than Songs of Innocence is a little like saying that Angelina Jolie is prettier than Quasimodo.  The books I wrote as Richard Aleas are really tragedies, almost in the Greek sense: they’re about a well-intentioned but ultimately blind man discovering the terrible things he has done in the name of pursuing justice.  They start out dark and just get darker, and if you aren’t feeling despair for the human race by the time you reach the last page, you’re a stronger man than me. Fifty-to-One is their diametric opposite: It’s a confection, a souffle.  A romp through 1958 New York City on foot, car, subway, motorboat, and racehorse, inspired equally by the comic work of Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake and by classic comic crime films such as Some Like It Hot.  Which is the real me, the light or the dark, Aleas or Ardai?  There’s a bit of both, of course, just as the “real” Donald Westlake must be equal parts Westlake and Richard Stark.  By nature I tend to see the world as a dark and awful place, but then again, I love to laugh; and sometimes the only thing capable of redeeming the ultimate cruelty and meaninglessness of existence is a good laugh.  It’s like that great scene in Hannah and Her Sisters where Woody Allen, after trying to commit suicide but failing, goes to a Marx Brothers movie and you slowly see a big smile creep onto his face, and you know he’s found something worth living for at last. Joy is a precious thing.  It gave me joy to write Fifty-to-One; for months, I walked around with a big smile, thinking of the things I could have happen next.  And I hope it gives similar pleasure to readers.

Talking about the real Charles Ardai: What prompted you to step out from behind the pseudonym with this book?

Well, Charles Ardai may contain multitudes, but Richard Aleas doesn’t. It just felt wrong to have Aleas pen an out-and-out comedy.  He’s much too serious a man for that.

Also, I like the hall-of-mirrors aspect to this book, and I thought using my real name would add another layer to it.  The book is a fake memoir about a fake memoir; it’s about a man named Charles who edits a line of books called Hard Case Crime, so it makes sense for it also to be written by a man named Charles who edits a line of books called Hard Case Crime.

How does your role as editor of Hard Case Crime impact your work as an author for Hard Case Crime? Or more broadly, what has your work as an editor taught you about your chosen craft as a writer?

There is no better training for a writer than reading an enormous amount of work in one’s chosen field — and ideally reading both the best examples and the worst.  This is hard for most people to do because the worst never get published.  But as an editor, believe me, you see them. We get more than 1,000 submissions each year and I’m the only one here to read them, so I’ve had an invaluable opportunity to see what people do wrong as well as what they do right.  There’s no better antidote to the temptation to indulge in a cliché than to see the same cliché used by two dozen other authors; there’s no better way to learn how not to set a scene or convey an emotion or plant a clue than to see other authors try to do it and fail.  And of course it’s also priceless training to see someone try to do these things and succeed.  My role as editor has given me the chance to see the full range, and I do think it’s made me a better writer.

It goes the other way as well.  Being a writer makes me a better editor, I believe.  I have a sense, when I sit down with another writer’s manuscript, of what went into writing it, what the writer was probably trying to achieve at various points, what sorts of issues can make it difficult to get from Point A to Point B in a plot; if you’ve never written a book yourself, you don’t have the same intimate familiarity with how it’s done.  And of course you have a bit more credibility when you’re working with an author to revise his work if he knows you’re at least a decent writer yourself, that you’ve struggled with the same problems.  I know a painter who says he won’t accept criticism of his art by anyone other than a fellow painter, and I’m sure there are novelists who feel the same way.

The title Fifty-to-One refers to a card game in which the odds are heavily stacked against the player. When you and Max Phillips started Hard Case Crime, did you feel the odds were against you? Or did you have an idea that there was an audience out there eager for such books?

We did feel the odds were against us — but we didn’t care.  We didn’t get into this with the serious hope of making a ton of money (though we thought maybe we could make a little, and we have), or even of publishing 50 books (we thought we might do just six or twelve).  The only thing we had in mind, really, was that we loved books like these and wished there were more out there for us to read, and wished we had the opportunity to write one or two ourselves.  We had no idea whether anyone else would want to read these books. We just knew that we would. Five years later, we know better — lots of people share our passion, as it turns out.  But the truth is we’d have been perfectly content if we’d just put out a dozen titles that had come and gone without making a big splash.  It was a labor of love, and like all such, you have to be prepared for it never to become a viable commercial entity.  That it has is icing on the cake.

And what’s behind readers’ interest and eagerness, do you think? Nostalgia there too? 

Sure, nostalgia’s part of it. Some of our readers were around the first time books like these came out and it gives them a warm glow to see them return.  But for a lot of readers it’s purely a matter of great stories and fun, sexy art being well worth the seven or eight bucks we charge.  Most parts of the country, a movie ticket costs more, and that only gives you two hours of entertainment. One of our books’ll entertain you for a whole night if you’re a fast reader and several nights if you’re not.  How many ways are there to get that much pleasure for less than a sawbuck?

Finally, fifty books is literally a milestone — a chance to look back as well as look ahead. How has your vision for Hard Case Crime — and/or your understanding of this specific genre — changed since the beginning?

Well, I’ve read a larger fraction of all the books published in the field — both new and old — since starting the line, and inevitably if you do that you start to see patterns emerge and get a sense for the broader shape of the field and the life’s work of some of the authors in it.  It hasn’t changed my perception of the field a great deal, but what it has done is give me a heightened appreciation for just how hard it is to write a great crime novel, one that really leaves your heart racing, your breath short, and your mind forcibly expanded like a wingtip on a shoe-stretcher.  Even the writers who are able to do it once are rarely able to do it again, and most writers toil their entire careers without
ever achieving that goal.  And the competition is so very fierce, there are so many books….

But the very best still stand out, still have a big impact, and the chance to add to the tally of the very best is part of what drives me to keep going.  We don’t hit that mark every time out — no one could, not twelve times a year — but every so often we do, and it feels great.

I’ve also come to appreciate just how much we’re on the cusp of the passing of an era.  Since we launched the series, we’ve lost five of our authors: Donald Hamilton, Ed McBain, Richard Prather, Mickey Spillane, and most recently John Lange [one of Michael Crichton’s pseudonyms].  David Dodge’s daughter, Kendall, who wrote a touching afterword for The Last Match, just died, and so did Ellie Bloch, Robert Bloch’s widow.  Three of our authors are in their 90s and, god bless them, going strong, but… the paperback era is dying, and its last representatives are few and dwindling.  This is the last chance to work with them while they’re still around, and I feel honored to have gotten the chance to work with so many.  I’m glad I didn’t start the line a few years later; I’m only sorry I didn’t think to start it a few sooner.

— Interviewed by Art Taylor

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Grand Masters of Mystery

November 21, 2008

Mystery Writers of America announced yesterday its Grand Masters for 2009: James Lee Burke and Sue Grafton — the first time in three decades that writers have shared this lifetime achievement honor in a single year. (In 1978, Daphne du Maurier, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Ngaio Marsh were honored together.) Complete information is available here and should be posted at the MWA site soon as well.

And looking back to another grand master of mystery: The December 2008/January 2009 issue of BookForum offers some historic perspectives on two upcoming Sherlock Holmes movies, with Robert Downey Jr. and Sacha Baron Cohen each taking a turn under the deerslayer hat (and with Will Ferrell as Dr. Watson in the latter case). Purists — and others — will appreciate the context provided, and the article also starts out with information on the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

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