Friday, April 07, 2006

Signing Off

This will be my last post until at least fall. And maybe my last post ever. Simply put, I have to get ready for my stay at Mayo in June and that, along with finishing my novel, will have to be my primary concerns. Thanks for all your support. My health doesn't seem to have changed but my oncologist says I should pay it more attention than I do. Thanks again, Ed

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Pro-File: Charles Ardai

Charles Ardai has distinguished himself as writer, editor and with the extremely hot Hard Case Line, editor. Here's a particularly fine interview. Thanks, Charles. Ed


1. Tell us about your current novel.
After publishing LITTLE GIRL LOST (under my "Richard Aleas" nom-de-pulp), I went on a spate of short story writing, and the results are just showing up in bookstores now. There's "The Good Samaritan" in Lawrence Block's MANHATTAN NOIR, "Fathers and Sons" in Duane Swierczynski's DAMN NEAR DEAD, "The Home Front" in Harlan Coben's DEATH DO US PART, and "The Quant" in Peter Spiegelman's WALL STREET NOIR, plus some others in books I'm not supposed to talk about yet. I started my career writing short stories for ELLERY QUEEN and ALFRED HITCHCOCK and if I go too long without writing a short story, I don't feel good, sort of like if I go too long without exercising.

2. Can you give us a sense of what you're working on now?
The long-delayed sequel to LITTLE GIRL LOST, which will be called SONGS OF INNOCENCE. I've had it plotted out for the better part of a year, but finding the time to sit down and write it has been hard while putting out a book a month for Hard Case Crime. John Blake is back, though he's no longer formally working as detective; he's gone back to school and tried to put the unpleasantness of LITTLE GIRL LOST behind him. And that works for a while, until another woman in his life turns up dead, an apparent suicide, and investigating what happened to her takes him to a very dark place.

3. What is the greatest pleasure of a writing career?
Creating something out of nothing -- you take the stuff of your dreams and fantasies and nightmares and speculations and put it on paper and suddenly something exists in the world that didn't exist before and wouldn't exist without you and that, if it's any good, has the potential to influence or entertain or baffle or mesmerize thousands of other people. It's the opposite of working as a cog in a corporate wheel, where you know that if it weren't you in your job the company you work for could find a hundred other people to do exactly the same work more or less as well. As a writer, you create something intensely personal -- it may be good or bad or in-between, but by god it's yours, and no one else could've done it quite the same. It's like a little stab back at the void, a little way of leaving something behind that says "I was here."

4. Thegreatest DIS-pleasure?
You work really hard, you sweat and agonize, and maybe, if you're very lucky, you produce a sentence you know is good -- you just know it, it sounds just right to your inner ear, and you're filled with elation. And then you have to do it again. And you can't.

5. If you have one piece of advice for the publishing world, what is it?
Stop aspiring to be big business. You're not Wall Street and never will be, and shouldn't want to be. If you want to make a lot of money, there are many easier ways to do so and not too many harder ones. Given that that's the case, no one should become a publisher, and no publisher should exist, primarily for the money. The reason to publish books is because you love books. Period. Because your heart races when you read a well-told story, because you appreciate that telling stories and reading them is one the fullest expressions of what makes us human. Publish books you can't stop reading. Publish books that break your heart. Publish books you think might offend someone but, damn it, you love. Stop looking at Bookscan. Stop buying crap you think will sell and turning down fine work by authors whose last book didn't.

Is this naive, quixotic advice? Yes. Does publishing, regrettably, have to be run as business if it is to survive? Yes. I understand that. But I don't have to like it. And if you imagine a spectrum, on one end of which sits Warren Buffett and on the other end of which sits Don Quixote, I think publishing would be better off in every respect if it shifted even just a little bit in the direction of the of the old man of La Mancha and away from the Oracle of Omaha.

6. Are there two or three forgotten mystery writers you'd like to see in print again?

Because of Hard Case Crime, I'm in a very fortunate position: If there's a forgotten mystery writer I'd like to see in print again, I have the opportunity to bring him or her back. In the last year we've revived Day Keene and Wade Miller and David Dodge; over the coming year we'll be bringing back Richard S. Prather and John Lange and Gil Brewer. But there are still a few authors I'd love to bring back and can't, simply because I've been unable -- despite a ton of old-fashioned detective work -- to locate their heirs or estates. At the top of the list is Steve Fisher, author of I WAKE UP SCREAMING. Next is Ed Lacy, born "Leonard Zinberg." If any of your readers know how to find these authors' estates, I'd be very grateful to hear from them!

7. Tell us about selling your first novel. Most writers never forget that moment.

It's funny: I'd written LITTLE GIRL LOST specifically for Hard Case Crime, but the day I finished it I was on the phone with John Helfers, who works on the mystery imprint for Five Star, and John said something like, "We're looking for some more books, do you know anyone who has a good crime novel we could look at?" And I said, "Actually, I just finished one about an hour ago." As it happened, they only needed hardcover, trade paperback, and large-print rights, while Hard Case Crime only needed mass-market paperback rights, so the two dovetailed perfectly. I sent him a copy and he bought it; they brought out a hardcover edition in January and we brought out the paperback in October. Of course, I think the hardcover edition sold something like 500 copies, as opposed to the paperback, which sold orders of magnitude more; the result being that the hardcover first edition could one day be a rare collector's item, worth oodles on eBay. (I should be so lucky.)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Changing Agents

Is my agent doing well by me or not? Is it time to do the unthinkable and look into changing agents? So many writers seem to change agents to no avail. On the other hand quite a few have done well by changing agents. How do you sort through all this, anyway?

A prominent, even distinguished crime fiction writer recently went through the difficult pursuit of finding not just an agent but the agent he felt was right for him. Friends are always eager to recommend their own agents. Or to suggest the names of agents who happen to be "hot" at the moment. They can be well-meaning but not helpful in their recommendations.

I asked the crime fiction writer I know to discuss his recent experience in finding himself a different agent.

-------

What finally made you change agents?

My agent felt she could not sell my idea for a new legal thriller. She also was developing a substantial practice in the "chick lit'" area of writing.

What was the most difficult part of making the change?

As an attorney myself, it wasn't really difficult, as I understood the future division of money that might come in for the projects she had sold for me in the past. I do miss the staff people at her agency, as they had been unfailingly kind and professional, just as my agent had been.

Had you changed agents earlier in your career?

Once before, when my first agent fell ill from cancer and no longer believed he could represent me effectively.

Is it possible to leave an agent on good terms?

I think it is. We're all supposed to be professionals, and this is just business. Also, about 10 years ago, Richard Curtis, the terrific NYC agent, wrote an article (actually, I believe it was an excerpt from one of his own books) for the Author's Guild Bulletin on "divorcing" your agent. That article remains the best explanation of the process I've ever read.

Did you consider several agents before deciding on the new one?

Not really. I was about to make inquiries of agents I knew when I did a writers conference at which an agent I'd met 8 years before was also teaching. We discussed my situation, and he agreed to represent me.

What made you decide on the new one?

I'd always found him to be a warm and caring man, and he's had great success representing authors in the thriller field.

Do you feel your expectations and her plan for you are realistic?

His plan, actually, and yes. He's made me rethink how I structure the emotion in a novel.

What advice would you give other writers if they feel the need to change agents?

Go to a good library, and find either the Curtis book I referred to earlier or the Authors Guild Bulletin in which the excerpt appeared. Seriously, it's all you should need unless there is bad blood involved

=

Monday, April 03, 2006

Pro-File: Ed Gorman

Ed here: Six people, including Terrill Lankford today, said that I should answer my own questions so here goes:

Tell us about your current novel?

My latest books are all in the Sam McCain series, three of them coming out within a month of each other in England, France and Italy. My last mystery was two years ago, Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool, which I thought would be the last of the McCains. But then I got this idea…


2. Can you give us a sense of what you're working on now?

…for a McCain that brings him into the Sixties. When I first started the series, Kent Carroll my editor and I talked about taking him from his early twenties to early forties. We’re both big fans of John Updike’s Rabbit books. We wouldn’t do every calendar year of course. The McCain I’m starting now jumps three years. And the next will jump two years more after that. Jon Breen once said that I was “the poet of the mid-life crisis.” The thing with McCain is that he’s been in mid-life crisis since he was seven. Much like me.

3. What is the greatest pleasure of a writing career?

The writing and working with the right editor on the right book, as has happened to me a number of times. I’ve been lucky. But I’m not a social person so promotion and especially self-promotion embarrass me and make me uncomfortable. I have an ego of course, and of course I’d like to have more success than I’ve had to date, but I’d rather get it by a contestant on “American Idol” saying “I don’t read the Bible much any more but I sure do like them books by Fred Gorman.” Barry Gifford was once going to give me a plug when he was on the “Today” show but the weather guy ran long and Barry was lucky he got to plug his own book.

4. The greatest DIS-pleasure?

How much publishing has changed in the past quarter century. It’s unrecognizable for most people of my tenure. Everybody’s running scared now and, I have to say, with good reason. So much damned competition for the same dollar, though I still have a hard time equating reading books with nazi video games and dumb-ass blow em up real good movies.

This is hardly my original thought but publishing is much more like the movie industry today. Publishing was always a business of art and commerce. Now it’s just commerce, though given that fact I still say that this is the true Golden Age of the mystery. There are so many good writers today you can’t keep up.


5. If you have one piece of advice for the publishing world, what is it?

Since I live about four miles from cows and horses, I’m not sure I’m in a good position to give a vast international business any advice at all. I have a rather limited view of the world from my window. I feel sorry for editors today, I can say that for sure. The steely expectations for success can make for a pretty unpleasant working environment. Especially when the operative corporative word is disposable. I’m reading a great new book by Louis Uchitelle about how downsizing and layoffs have now become a regular part of the American employment system. His portrait of sleazy “Chainsaw Al Dunlap” is especially sickening. Chainsaw made many, many millions of dollars downsizing businesses. He also destroyed many, many thousands of lives in the process. Uchitelle’s point is that all the laying off is at best a temporary solution and almost never achieves its intended long-term goals. But CEOS don’t give a damn about long term. They just want those bonuses and perks. Thank God there are two or three publishers who refuse to go along with it and who are honorable and loyal people, one of them being Tom Doherty at Tor/Forge who’s long been known as somebody who really cares about his people and the books he publishes.

6. Are there two or three forgotten mystery writers you'd like to see in print again?

Thanks to Hard Case and Stark House, a lot of my old faves are being brought back. Dolores Hitchens and Margaret Millar are certainly two I’d like to see in print again. Stark House will be doing a pair of Millars later this year. Hitchens’ two private eye novels are knock-outs, especially Sleep With Slander.


7. Tell us about selling your first novel. Most writers never forget that moment.

I’d never been able to finish a novel until I met Max Allan Collins. I wouldn’t have been able to finish my first novel Rough Cut without his encouragement and advice. I mean that literally. We sent it to his agent, who is now my agent, but who passed on it because: “The most psychotic character in the novel is the narrator.” I then sent it to another agent who held it for several months. Whenever I’d contact him he’d say, “You write an awful lot like Dick Francis and I really don’t like Dick Francis.” I took it back and sent it to St. Martin’ where an assistant editor, now the enormously successful agent Brian DeFiore, picked it out of slush, liked it and embarked on a three-month battle to get it approved by committee. He called with the good word. Caorl and I stayed high for a week.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Crimes of Jordan Wise

(Pre-Review Pub date July 2006

The Crimes of Jordan Wise
by Bill Pronzini
Walker & Company $24

Actuary Jordan Wise tells a joke on himself a third of the way through the novel: (paraphrase) an actuary is somebody who doesn't have the personality to be an accountant.

If you watch many true crime shows, you see a lot of Jordan Wises. People who fall into crime through circumstance rather than those who go looking for it.

Jordan becomes a criminal only after meeting Annalise, a troubled and very attractive young woman who needs two things badly--sex and money. But in order to get the sex on a regular basis, Jordan must first provide the money. He embezzles a half million dollars and flees with Annalise to the Virgin Islands. In this first part of the novel, there's nice James M. Cainian detail about how Jordan comes alive for the first time in his life. Some of this is due, whether he admits it or not, to the danger of committing a serious crime. But most of it is due to Annalise and his profound sexual awakening.

The central section of the book reminds me of one of Maugham's great South Seas tales--lust, betrayl, shame played out against vast natural beauty and a native society that, thanks to an old sea man named Bone, that Jordan comes to see value in--even if Annalise, her head filled with dreams of Paris and glamor, does not. Old Maugham got one thing right for sure--as Pronzini demonstrates here--a good share of humanity, wherever you find them, are both treacherous and more than slightly insane.

There are amazing sections of writing about sea craft and sailing that remind me not of old Travis McGee but of the profoundly more troubled and desperate men of Charles Williams who find purity and peace only in the great and epic truths of the sea. That they may be as crazed and treacherous as everybdy else does not seem to bother them unduly.

There are also amazing sections (almost diaristic sections) where Jordan tells of us his fears and desires, his failings and his dreams. In places he deals vididly, painfully with his secret terror of not being enough of a man in any sense to hold Annalise.

The publisher calls this a novel and so it is. Pronzini brings great original width and breadth to the telling of this dark adventure that is both physical and spiritual. He has never written a better novel, the prose here literary in the best sense, lucid and compelling, fit for both action and introspection.

You can't read a page of this without seeing it in movie terms. The psychologically violent love story played out against a variety of contemporary settings gives the narrative great scope. And in Jordan Wise and Annalise he has created two timeless people. This story could have been set in ancient Egypt or Harlem in 1903 or an LA roller skating disco in 1981. As Falkner said neither the human heart nor the human dilemma ever changes.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Ed Gorman's intro to Lawrence Block's Cinderella Sims

Reader Peter Logan has asked me to blog "the article you did on Lawrence Block." By that I guess you mean the piece I wrote introducing his novel Cinderella Sims. Peter also mentiond that he's tried to get into my old blog. The blogmaster assured me that it would never be taken down when I made the switch. Of the hundred some pieces I wrote, there wre a few I wanted to save for myself. But the blog vanished. Sorry.

The introduction to Cinderlla Sims
by Ed Gorman

Lawrence Block (1938-) writes the best sentences in the business, that business being crime fiction. No tortured self-conscious arty stuff, either. Just pure, graceful, skilled writing of a very high order.

No matter what he writes - the dark Scudder private-eye novels; the spunky Bernie Rhodenbarrs about the kind of thief even a mom could love; or his latest creation, John Keller the hitman, an existential figure full of quirks and kindnesses rare in his profession-no matter what he's telling us, he always makes it sweet to read. He's just so damned nimble and graceful and acute with his language.

By now, his story is pretty well known. Wrote a lot of erotica in the late fifties and early sixties, all the while writing his early crime paperback originals and stories for magazines of every kind. Started becoming a name in crime fiction in the seventies, really broke out in the nineties and is now posed, one would think, for superstardom.

Block has always reminded me of a very intelligent fighter. He knows what he's good at and sticks to his own fight, un-moved by popular fads and critical fancies. He writes about women as well as any male writer I've every read (though since I'm a guy, I may just be saying that he perceives women the same way I do) and he deals with subjects as Oprah-ready as alcoholism and failed fatherhood realistically, yet without resorting to weepiness.

One senses in him sometimes a frustrated mainstream writer. He's always pushing against the restrictions of form and yet never failing to give the reader what he came for in the first place. No easy trick, believe me.

For some reason, I've always hated the word "wordsmith" (probably because it's popular among pretentious young advertising copywriters who don't want to admit that they're writing hymns to beer and dish soap), but that's what Block is. A singer of songs, a teller of tales, a bedazzler.

I read three of his erotic novels and I'll tell you something. They're better written (and we're talking 1958-1961) than half the contemporary novels I read today. He was pushing against form even back then, creating real people and real problems, and doing so in a simple powerful voice that stays with you a hell of a long time.

I wrote the above as a way of setting up a Larry Block novelette I was reprinting in an anthology of pulp stories. I don't see any reason to change a word. Not because they're such graceful or pithy words but because they convey my feelings about Lawrence Block the writer.

I always say that I'm glad to see writers make it up from the trenches and into the sunshine of national prominence. Few writers spent so long in the trenches. Larry sold his first story in 1958. He first hit big in the middle 1990s. That's a long time to breathe the dusty, sometimes dank air of literary obscurity.
Larry began his career, as most of us know by now, selling short stories to the crime magazines of the time and to the sort of paperbacks that local religious groups were always trying to drive from the newsstands.

We called these, as I recall, the motley crew of outcasts I hung with in my early college years, right-handers. Suggesting that this type of book inspired one to a certain kind of action few other books did. Except maybe for Peyton Place and its imitators. The underlined passages.

I read a lot of Midwood and Beacon and Nightstand novels in those days. I quickly came to realize that some of the writers were much better than others. Max Collier, for example, wrote some of the most perverse books I've ever read. As I remember them, he frequently paired up his bitter hunchbacked heroes with heiresses. Clyde Allison was usually thin on plot but great with patter. Orrie Hitt sometimes got too perverse for my tastes but usually supplied a kind of second-rate James T. Farrell-like blue collar take on the standard "sexy" plots.
And when I say "sexy" I mean "sexy" in the way of the movie comedies of the 1950s and early 1960s. Short on actual details but long on suggestion. And metaphor. Orgasms were frequently portrayed as "searing volcanoes"or some such.
A few of the right-handers were written reasonably well. No great masterpieces slipped through, you understand, but some of the books were actually...kinda sorta actual novels rather than just the usual monthly tease.
Which brings us to some guy named Andrew Shaw.

This was one of Larry Block's pen-name circa 1959-1961. Other writers would share the name later on (someday somebody will do an article on how contracts to one writer secretly get handed off by that writer to another writer, a particular form of "ghosting" that goes on at the lower levels of publishing even today) but the early Shaws, at least those I've read, read like Larry Block.

Not the Larry Block of today. The Shaw prose isn't especially polished; the Shaw stories don't always escape cliche; and the Shaw attitude is not unlike the hardboiled crime fiction magazines of the day- i.e., too tough for its own good.
And yet.

Yet you can can see in glimpses - and sometimes sustained for long stretches - the Larry Block of today. The idiosyncratic take on modern morality; the dour irony that hides fear and loneliness; and the seeds-just planted-of the style that would become the best of his generation.

Cinderella Sims was originally called $20 Lust. The editor obviously spent a long time coming up with that one.

I'm not sure what else Larry was writing at that time. I suspect he was upgrading for an assault oh Gold Medal and better-paying markets. I say this because Cinderella Sims seems to fall between his sexy books and his early Gold Medal books. Not quite worthy of that little gold medallion but damned close.
One thing Larry Block always had was the ability to move a story forward while giving you detailed character sketches. He has a fast eye for the unusual, the quirks in us, and he makes us come alive with these details. That skill is already apparent in the novel you're holding.

So is his skill in giving you journalistic snapshots of urban American. Re-reading Cinderella Sims today is like traveling back in time to that pre-hippie sixties when crew cuts were still the style on college campuses and free love was something only the ridiculous Hugh Hefner experienced.

I'm not going to tell you that this is a great book because it isn't. But it's a damned interesting look at the artist-in-making. I think you'll agree with me that, from the very beginning of his career, Larry Block was a vital and powerful storyteller.