Mystery Dance

An open letter to my fellow murder-fiction aficionados:

This spring I’ll be teaching a class here at Butler University, where I adjunct in the MFA writing program,  about  reading crime and mystery fiction—my (accurate) thesis being that truly great crime novels and mysteries, far from being mere “popcorn books” or “beach reads”, have much to teach us about structure, style, tension, conflict…you know, all the elements of good writing.

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So I’m in the process of drawing up a list of ten classic crime/mystery novels—no, you know what, forget “classic”—ten crime/mystery novels that are A) really good and B) pedagogically valuable, in terms of showing off some aspect or aspects of craft particularly well.

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All I’m 100% certain on, so far, are The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, and Clockers, by Richard Price.

What else would you insist that I include?

 

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Our tour thus far

If you’ve ever wondered what a fella looks like reading to an audience, after driving the 4.5 hours from Indianapolis to St. Louis, contemplating the 4.5-hour drive home later that evening, he looks like this:

readinginSTL

 

 

Thanks to my old friend Dave Guest for the picture — one of the benefits to doing a book tour, besides the main fact that the whole thing is really incredibly fun, is getting to see lots of old friends. I went to college in St. Louis, so it yielded a small bonanza of old friends. Your next chance to see me standing awkwardly at a podium will be in Boston, on July 31, when I will be at the Harvard Coop.

The following night, I will be in Concord, NH, returning to the scene of the crime — Gibson’s Bookstore is a stone’s throw from the McDonald’s where Peter Zell’s body was found, in Chapter One of The Last Policeman. Hope you New Hampshire types can join me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What Would Detective Palace Read?

[written originally for the good folks at Amazon.com]

 

16046748When you write a book like The Last Policeman, about how everyone behaves when the world is going to end in half a year, people start to ask what you would do. Every time I’m asked that, the question fills me with anxiety. Would I remain on the job, like my hero, Detective Henry Palace, staying true to my moral compass? Or would I choose one of the less gallant paths pursued by a myriad of my other characters—those who run away from their spouses, commit suicide, or get drunk and stay that way?

Most likely I’d be like the kid that Detective Palace brushes against midway through Countdown City, the second book in the trilogy. Palace’s search for a missing man has taken him to the campus of the University of New Hampshire, which has been transformed into a radical communitarian encampment called the Free Republic of New Hampshire:

I see a pale boy hunched over the desk in a carrel, sipping from a Styrofoam cup, surrounded by books, reading. His face is gaunt and his hair a greasy mass. On the ground beside him is a clotted leaking pile of discarded teabags, and beside that a bucket that I realize with horror is full of urine.There’s a tall stack of books on one side of him and a taller stack on the other: out pile, in pile. I stand for a second watching this guy, frozen in place but alive with small action: muttering to himself as he reads, almost humming like an electric motor, his hands twitching at the edges of the pages until, with a sudden flash of motion, he turns the page, flings it over, like he can’t consume the words fast enough.

I’d be that guy, the guy trying to cram as many books into my brain hole as possible before sundown. But Detective Palace spends most of his time trying to ignore the fact of the asteroid’s imminence, or work around it, solving what small problems he can, rather than flailing in the face of the massive problem he can’t.

So what, if anything, does he read in the meantime?

The Constitution of the United States of America by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, et al
Palace is a by-the-book kind of cop, and since the book he mostly frequently mentions in the novels (Farley and Leonard’s Criminal Investigation) is entirely my own invention, I’ll give him the oldest text of American law.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
In a first draft of Countdown City, I had Palace carrying around a paperback of Decline and Fall, because I thought its heft and immersive quality would appeal to him in quiet moments between subject interviews. But then I thought the whole “world falling apart” thing was maybe just a wee bit heavy-handed.images

Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan
Detective Palace and I share a fascination with the great Bobby D., in particular the late-1970s period when the Jew from Minnesota found Jesus and got good and weird for a while. (The original title for The Last Policeman, as a matter of fact, was “Slow Train Coming,” after the Dylan song and album of the same name.)

Watchmen by Alan Moore
When someone asks Henry what his favorite book is, he cites the landmark 1980s graphic novel. I suspect he likes the book’s complicated questions about heroism and moral compromise. Personally, I like the portrait of a familiar-yet-unfamiliar world on the brink of disaster. Along with Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Nevil Shute’s On the Beachit was a major influence on me in creating this series.

The Bible
You learn things about characters as you write them, and one thing I’ve learned about Henry is that he has deeply ambiguous feelings about religion. But the world he must navigate to do his job is supercharged with questions about God. Specifically these: is this asteroid coming because there’s no God? Or is it coming because there is a God, and He is pissed?

For more on Detective Palace and Countdown Citywatch our video Q&A with author Ben H. Winters.

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Edgar round up, and moving on

I’m always telling budding writers to avoid cliches, and it’s one of the cliches of internet writing to update one’s blog by saying “…sorry I haven’t updated this in a while…” . For the record, I do wrestle all the time with how much to devote to maintaining my online “presence”; it takes so much effort, after all, to maintain one’s real-life, actual presence, not to mention whatever effort it takes to create the fictional realities we call novels.

So, anyhoo, I’m sorry I haven’t updated this in a while. And when I last wrote I promised a wrap-up on the Edgar Awards, beyond my perfunctory report that I won, a fact that still astonishes and delights me to no end.

I don’t remember much about the moment, other than nearly tripping and mouthing the words “oh my fucking God” over  and over on the way to the stage; the Mystery Writers of America , however, recorded my subsequent speech and here it is on YouTube. (The woman who speaks first, by the way, and who you see seated behind me while I ramble, is Charlaine Harris, incoming president of the Mystery Writers and the creator of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, from whence True Blood.)

In the speech somewhere I note how amazing the other book nominated were, and are, and you should read them: Complicationby Isaac Adamson, is an extremely clever, extremely twisty-turny intellectual thriller set in Prague; Blessed are the Dead by Malla Nunn is one in her series of melancholy detective novels set in South Africa in the 50s; Bloodland by Alan Glynn is aninternational thriller, an intricate multiple perspective page-turner; and Whiplash River by Lou Berney, which is not only a great action-packed clue hunt, but fucking hilarious. Read all those books.

The other thing about being in NYC for the Edgars was it reminded me how in love I am, and probably always will be, with that city; luckily I get to go back, on June 1, to sign books and hang out a little at Book Expo America. (And YES, just regular non-book-industry people can go to that, for that one day, but you have to do a special signup thing). So if you’re going to be there, please let me know, and/or come to the Quirk Books Booth at 10:00 on Saturday, June 1.

And then I’ll be “on the road,” a bit over the summer, reading at bookstores from Countdown City, the Last Policeman sequel. I think it’s 10 cities all together; you can check out the appearances page for the info. If I’m not coming to your city, please yell at me via the contact page or just arrange for me to Skype in to your book club. I’ve been doing a bunch of that, and it’s fun.

More soon. Or maybe not. I don’t know.

 

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the last policeman goes global

Good news today today for those who have been holding off on reading of the exploits of Detective Hank Palace until they appeared in Turkish. The folks at my indefatigable publisher, Quirk Books, have let me know that deals have been struck for foreign-language editions of The Last Policeman in French, Czech, Korean, Japanese, German, and yes, Turkish.

If you are interested in the publisher details, let me know; and if you are interested in seeing The Last Policeman in a language not listed above, let me know that too, and I can pass it along.

Meanwhile I have seen advance proofs of the cover art, both for Countdown City: The Last Policeman Book II, and the new edition of The Last Policeman, and I am truly super excited about both. I will share them here as soon as I am allowed, so stay in touch.

 

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the puddy principle

Asked by student writers for one piece of advice, I always say “turn off the Internet while you’re writing.”  To explain why, I invoke what I call the Puddy Principal.

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Patrick Warburton, aka David Puddy

Those of us who were active television watchers in the Seinfeld era will recall Elaine’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, a saturnine dimwit named David Puddy.

In one of my favorite scenes, Elaine (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, of course) has broken up with Puddy for the zillionth time, and is now sitting in her apartment trying not to call him. The scene is basically a short play that’s Elaine thinking in voice-over. She’s thinking about how glad she is to have broken up with Puddy; and then she thinks “oh, no, I think I left my glove at Puddy’s…I better call him”. And as she reaches for the phone, she goes—with a slight-but-obvious disappointment—“oh, there’s my glove.” Then: “That is so funny, I almost called Puddy about my glove, but then I found it!” Quick beat, then: “You know who loves funny stories?” [reaching for the phone] “David Puddy.”

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A squirrel.

We’re all like that, now, with the Internet: try as we might to stay away, we take any excuse to return to go back. I’ll start in rough-drafting a scene, and I write a squirrel scampering across a lawn and I’ll think I better make sure squirrels are native to the part of New England where this scene takes place, and click on Safari. It’s insane, of course, the idea that I can’t proceed with my piece of fiction until I’m sure that I’ve got the fauna properly geolocated—it’s just that I’d rather be doing something easy (reading about squirrels on Wikipedia) than something difficult and emotionally draining (pressing on with my writing).

The real problem is that once you’ve given in and called Puddy—i.e. gone onto the web—you don’t just look up the squirrels and then log off. Of course not! You click on the full list of Woodland Creatures Native to Vermont, then you email your brother a fun factoid about beavers, and then you click on a banner ad about Funny T-shirts (because who doesn’t like a  funny T-shirt) and then suddenly it’s an hour and a half later, and you’re checking your Facebook status and your novel is where you left it, softly weeping, wishing you would come back and finish the part about the squirrel.

Bottom line: writing is extremely difficult, and because writers are human beings, we would prefer to do something easy to something difficult. The Internet is, for all its benefits, the greatest distraction machine ever built by mankind. And this great and terrible machine is not just in the room with you, it is the thing you write on.

So take Step One, admit you have a problem, because everybody does, and invest the in a netblocking program.

For the record, I use (and feel sort of in love with) a program called Freedom. It costs ten bucks.

 

 

 

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on writing; or, the lively art of self-delusion

I think most often this blog will deal with writing.

So here’s the process I go through, when I think of an idea for a book.

First I get tremendously excited. I feel like I have come up with the best idea of all time. In my mind I skip past all the complicated and difficult work and imagine the finished product. I imagine the astonishment that will greet the book, the critical praise to be heaped upon it. I am certain, in this first flush of possibility, that the book resulting from this new idea will make my name—my career—my fortune.

Then, second—this is usually between half an hour and a couple days later—I chastise myself for such baseless enthusiasm. How stupid, how narcissistic, how frankly ludicrous, to think so highly of oneself, and especially to think so highly of this bare wisp of an idea still requiring hours, weeks, months, years of effort. That is if I don’t discover in the meantime that someone else has already written such a book. And that’s all before this (still purely theoretical) book has to navigate the marketplace, crowded as it is with lots of lots of very very good books that have sprung from ideas much better than mine. Your audacity (I tell myself in this second phase) is obnoxious and counterproductive. Most of your ideas aren’t that clever, and even the clever ones don’t usually make it all the way to being full-fledged finished projects. You vainglorious dipshit. 

But then, in the third and final phase, I chastise myself for having chastised myself so severely in the second phase. Because here’s what I’ve realized over however long I’ve been trying to make art: at a certain level, you have to think it’s amazing. To get started, and then later to keep going, with something as a) difficult and b) uncertain as writing a book-length piece of fiction, your own insane belief in the merit of what you are writing is a necessary component of writing it.

Once we were in rehearsal for a musical for which I had written book & lyrics, and I got annoyed at an actor, because I was trying to give him new lines, and he kept arguing to keep the old ones. My composer and co-lyricist, Stephen Sislen, always wise in such matters, pointed out that that’s the actor’s job when he’s creating a role: to fall in love with the words and commit to them.

So, too, with writing. You’re allowed—encouraged!—to consider your new idea as a  shining pearl that has emerged from the mysterious depths of your self-conscious. Time will tell whether that’s true, but only your love will keep that idea alive long enough to find out. It’s your job. 

P.S. Totally unrelated: I’ve got an AMAZING idea for a new book.

 

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What’s in a name? Has anyone asked that before? I feel like maybe somebody has.

OK, so first of all, if you’re the Last Policeman superfan who created this lovingly detailed Wikipedia entry on the book, my hat is off to you to such an extent that I may never wear a hat again. There is nothing so gratifying to an author as the feeling that people are reading his work carefully, and now I know that at least one person has read this book very carefully indeed; I love that this anonymous encyclopedist correctly transcribed the name of my fictitious asteroid, 2011GV1, subscript and all.

The only thing inaccurate in this lovely entry, so far as I can tell, is the title of the forthcoming sequel, which Wikipedia now lists as Disasterland—which, to be totally fair, is sourced from this very blog, and an entry I made last week. Point is, since that time it has been brought to our (meaning mine and my publisher’s) attention that there was already a book by that title, and though you can’t copyright a title (ask Alison Bechdel, author of last year’s Are you My Mother?, which although a picture book is definitely not about a curious and melancholy baby bird, or the great Thomas Frank, who very purposefully borrowed the title of What’s the Matter With Kansas? from a much older book of the same name), we decided to switch to another title—which we then all decided we liked better anyway.

Point being, the actual title of the forthcoming second novel in The Last Policeman trilogy is (drumroll…) Countdown City. 

Now I’ll sit back and see how long it takes the masked Wikipedia writer to change it.  (Or maybe I’ll get antsy and change it myself.)

 

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P.S. Yes, I know there’s an asteroid coming within 75,000 miles of the Earth tis week, and if I had not been so busy the last few days doing a furious final pass on the aforementioned Countdown City I would have written an elegant and attention-grabbing essay for someone’s editorial page about the metaphorical implications of Near Earth Objects, and in particular what they can teach us about the constant unspoken nearness of death. I’ll get the next one!

 

 

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old books never die, but they do get marked down significantly on Amazon.com

Here’s one thing interesting and weird thing about being a writer: when you’re done with a project, it continues to have a life out there in the universe, while you sort of forget all about it.

So, for example, these days all I can think about is The Last Policeman and its sequel, Disasterland, which I just finished the first draft of.
last policeman.

(That’s all I can think about professionally: in my personal life I continue to spend a lot of time trying to master my new electric toothbrush, and wondering how and why a raccoon died on our lawn.) But meanwhile, out there in the big world, a musical I wrote seven years ago was just produced in New Zealand; I was interviewed this evening by a writer doing a nonfiction book about the science and cultural life of bedbugs, because of my horror novel about the little bastards a couple years ago; and I just got a long questionnaire from a doctoral candidate in Finland writing his dissertation on mash-up novels, because of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters from 2009.

sea monsters

And I don’t know if other writers feel this way, but I personally have this strange and almost uncanny emotional distance from all of these old projects. I am aware on an abstract level that the experience of writing them was intense—like the experience of writing anything you care about and want to do properly. But when I think back on them now, I feel only a vague warmth toward them, like they are friends from elementary school who I remember being pretty cool, but that’s about it. Probably to get oneself properly invested in each new project, it is necessary to let go of the fervency with which you were committed to the last ones.

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My elementary school.

 

Which is why it’s so pleasing to imagine the things still wandering around in the world,  occasionally being encountered, so other people can get excited about them—even if only temporarily, for the two hours it takes to watch or the two weeks it takes to read.

I don’t have to be obsessed with them, once they’re done. I can be obsessed with the next thing, until it’s done.

 

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