Monday, February 27, 2006

Twelve Easy Pieces

I was invited on to a radio show last week and, to add some novelty to the interview format, I had twelve questions thrown at me. As I have the memory of a sieve, I may not be able to recall all of them, but as a break from the usual book related stuff I thought I might reprint here the ones I can remember, along with my answers. So . . .

Favorite Scent
Easy one, this. Cinnamon, and the smell of turf fires. My grandparents’ farm in Kerry had a small turf bog, and I always associate the smell of burning turf with my childhood. Now that so many people have central heating and gas fires, you don’t get that wonderful smell so much anymore. As for cinnamon, well, it’s just my spice of choice. I have a mild addiction to cinnamon buns. Sad, really.

Worst Dating Experience
Oh dear. I once dated someone who told me that she liked me so much she’d come off her medication. Although flattering for a second or two, this does beg the question of a) what medication are you on?; and b) is it really a good idea to come off it? She was very sweet though, so perhaps that wasn’t so much the worst experience as the most memorable line from my dating adventures.

Most Overrated Activity
Strangely, I nominated getting a haircut, if only because I once dated someone who had an orgasm while having her hair washed in a salon. Now, I’ve had some good haircuts in my time but nothing to could compare to that. You could rub my head until Doomsday and it wouldn’t even cause a tremble downstairs, although if it did you’d never get me out of the hairdresser’s chair. I guess it just goes to show how differently men and women are wired.

Favorite Thing About Ireland
Kerry again, or north Kerry in particular. Less touristy that south Kerry, and a bit less scenic, but lovely people and Ballylongford, the village in which my mother grew up, is still one of the most welcoming places I know.

Favorite City
Probably Portland, Maine. It’s certainly one of the few places other than Dublin in which I could imagine living. For flying visits, though, it has to be New York.

Who would you invite to your last supper?
Well, I could figure out who I wouldn’t invite. I can never understand people who nominate Jesus as a guest at their last supper. After all, He probably wouldn’t be keen on coming after the first one, and also it would be hard to trump Jesus at dinner table conversation.
“So, I went to the Bahamas for my holidays.”
“Well, I came back from the dead.”
See? It’s a no-win situation.

Most respected politician?
I think politicians are increasingly pragmatists rather than idealists, so I found it hard to choose a living one. Instead I nominated a deceased Irish Labour politician named Frank Cluskey, who used to come to our house when I was a child. He was the first politician that I ever met, and committed to those old style ideas of socialism and equality that are anathema to the modern British Labour party, at least.

Literary villain(s) and literary hero
Well, in common with at least one fellow author, I have a problem with adults who are obsessed with Harry Potter books. You know, it’s like Kerplunk and hula hoops. It’s for kids. Read it if you want, and by all means enjoy it, but don’t dress up as Dumbledore and queue for hours outside a bookshop, or tell me that the books represent some level of profundity for adults. If you’re an adult learning stuff from Harry Potter books then you’ve missed something along the path of life. Equally, if you think that they’re the best books ever written then you just haven’t read enough. I’m sorry, but there it is. I wish J.K. Rowling only the best, and I absolutely the support the right of adults to read whatever they choose, but even Rowling must sometimes shake her head at the excesses of her older fans.
The hero would probably be Ross Macdonald, for reasons explained in an earlier edition of this column.

Beatles or the Stones?
Beatles, every time.

Biggest Fashion Disaster
Spoiled for choice here, really. The one my friends refuse to let me forget is a jacket with writing on the back that I wore only once. I think it advertised some fictitious flying company.
“Are you really employed by the Caribbean Flying Corps?”
“Er, no.”
End of story.

Trait that I Most Dislike in Other People
Meanness. I really despise it. I think people who are tight with money tend to be miserly in other ways too. It’s a symptom of a deeper malaise. One of my favorite insults relates to meanness. As the great Brendan Behan once said of a particularly stingy acquaintance: “If he was a ghost, he wouldn’t give you a fright.”

Song that Most Irritates Me
Gosh, there are so many, but if I had to pick one it would be an Irish ballad called The Fields of Athenry, which is just a dirge and now appears to be everywhere in the way that cockroaches and flies are. I’m a huge Liverpool fan and they even sing a version of it on the terraces at Anfield. I’d ask them to stop, but I’d probably get beaten to a pulp.

This week John read:

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

and listened to:

Witching Hour by Ladytron

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Creative Writing

About two years ago, a close friend of mine lost his publishing contract. He had been writing a series of crime novels that appeared to be doing well, but I think he felt that he had exhausted that particular seam and wanted to try something set elsewhere with a different central character. Unfortunately, the new series didn’t sell as well as he had hoped and the publisher didn’t renew his deal. I felt pretty terrible for him, perhaps in part because what had befallen him is something that most published writers worry about fairly constantly, even, I suspect, those who appear to be virtually untouchable in terms of sales and critical kudos. It only takes a couple of missteps before one finds oneself in a potentially difficult situation, and publishers are notoriously unsentimental about their authors once sales begin to plummet.

I suppose I’m more than usually aware of this at the moment as I’m reading through the copy edited manuscript of the next book, The Book of Lost Things. (The copy edit, incidentally, is the version of my manuscript that has been checked for errors and inconsistencies and has also been annotated with instructions for the typesetter. The next stage is the proof, which looks like an unbound edition of the final book and offers a final chance to catch errors before publication.) Last year, when I was touring The Black Angel in the United States, I was asked in a bookstore what my next book would be about. I explained The Book of Lost Things as best I could, and a reader came up to me afterwards and told me that he had no intention of reading it, that he had no interest in any book of mine that wasn’t a mystery, and when I got back to what he thought I should be doing he’d consider parting with his money for what I wrote.

Now apart from possibly requiring a lesson or two in diplomacy, the reader in question was quite within his rights to say what he did. Just because I write something doesn’t automatically mean that anyone is going to want to read it, and if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool mystery buff then you may not want to read something that isn’t a mystery, even if it’s written by a writer whose previous work you’ve enjoyed. Nevertheless, a response like that from a reader is going to send a shiver down the spine of even the most well-adjusted of writers.

Suppose, when the book appears, that everyone feels that way, or at least enough people that sales plummet and a noise that sounds suspiciously like thin ice cracking comes from beneath one’s feet? What then? Perhaps it would be better to stick with the stuff that works and sells right from the start. After all, I get paid less for writing non-Parker books than I do for Parker books, so it actually hurts me financially to take a creative risk. In fact, I didn’t take an advance at all in the UK for Nocturnes because I was worried about sales and I didn’t want to make it an unattractive proposition for my publisher (and also, to be truthful, I wanted to take a little pressure off myself, for if the book didn’t do well then I hadn’t taken the publisher’s money and it would be less likely to go down as a blot in the copybook of my career. Such are the things about which a writer worries . . .)

The problem is, of course, that it’s impossible to progress and take the easy option. We develop by trying new things, not by doing the same ones over and over again. In addition, while I love writing the Parker books and have tried, in my way, to make each one different from the last, there are some themes and stories, some avenues of exploration, that are just not suited to that structure: hence most of the stories in Nocturnes, and the writing of The Book of Lost Things. These departures also allow me to stretch writing muscles that have not been used during the writing of the Parker books: I can experiment with voices, with points of view, with other genres. I can learn different skills that may be applied, in turn, to the Parker books, enabling me to return to him with fresh eyes and some new weapons in my armoury. In that way, taking time out to try to experiment with other forms contributes to keeping the quality of the Parker books as high as my skills allow.

(I’m also fortunate in that there is a loyal core to my readership, or so it seems. Nocturnes sold far better than anyone expected, myself included, and it’s been heartening to see some of the responses to my remarks about The Book of Lost Things on my website. All writers should be so lucky, I sometimes think . . . )

But there is still that fear, that nagging voice that sometimes sounds like one’s own but at other times emerges from a little man in an American bookstore. Why take the chance? Why not stick with what’s working, even if the quality takes a bit of a tumble along the way? Not an enormous tumble, not enough to make readers feel cheated, but a tumble nonetheless. I’ll have more money in my pocket. I’ll probably have bigger sales. A couple of people may complain that the book wasn’t quite as good as the last but, hey, there’ll be another one along next year and perhaps that one will be better. Whole careers have been sustained by that kind of reader optimism. There will be no real risk involved. It’s a sweet deal, so why mess it up?

The answer: because I have to. Last week, I read Kurt Vonnegut’s slim, wise little book, A Man Without a Country. Towards the end, he recounts a conversation that he had with the graphic artist Saul Steinberg.

“Saul,” Vonnegut asks, “are you gifted?”

Steinberg doesn’t answer for a moment, then says: “No, but what you respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations.”

I don’t know that I’m an artist. I think most creative work aspires to the condition of art, but that’s not the same thing at all. (Secretly, most creative people would like to believe that they’re creating art but probably suspect that they’re not.) But I do recognise that struggle, that refusal to take the easy road, that need to risk failure because without the risk the thing isn’t worth doing at all. In the end, like James Lee Burke says, you have to learn to ignore both the catcalls and the applause.

You have to go with your heart.

This week John read:

A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
The Planets by Dava Sobel
The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin (uncorrected proof)
Desperation by Stephen King
Doctor Who: A Critical Guide by Kim Newman
The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

and listened to:

Espers by Espers

Monday, February 13, 2006

On Ross Macdonald

I was asked last week by a Dutch website to pick one crime novel that I would recommend above any other. This, as you can imagine, was not the easiest task in the world. If I had been asked to pick twenty, or even ten, then that might have been more fun, but selecting just one was hard.

In the end, I opted for The Chill by Ross Macdonald, the finest novelist among the four great early Californian crime writers (the others being James M.Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, although feel free to differ.) I say "in the end", but it strikes me now that it wasn't really a difficult choice at all. Macdonald was one of the writers who set me on the path to becoming a crime novelist, along with James Lee Burke, and The Chill remains my favourite Macdonald book. It's a superb novel, perhaps one of the few mysteries whose plot justifies the phrase "perfectly crafted", with a sinister atmosphere, a frisson of twisted sexuality, and an ending that still remains one of the most jaw-dropping in the genre. Curiously, brilliant though it is, it's still slightly flawed, like a gemstone that is given some of its character and distinction by the tiniest of imperfections. The flaw in The Chill, I think, is that the most interesting and sympathetic character dies early on. It's a risky move by Macdonald—he was too good a writer to do something like that without realizing the impact that it would have on the book, and he foreshadows the killing beautifully with the death of an animal—but perhaps he did underestimate the impact of the character in question. Even after the murder, that character still seems to shine brighter than the young couple at the heart of the book.

Anyway, the other reason I chose Macdonald, or Kenneth Millar to give him his real name, was because I think he was an admirable man. I think James Lee Burke is an admirable man too. I've had the pleasure and honor of meeting him, but I'm never going to have the opportunity to meet Macdonald, not in this life. I've written about Burke elsewhere but I haven't said quite as much about Macdonald, and this seems like as good a time as any to rectify that situation. So here goes . . .

One incident in particular stands out for me in Macdonald's life, perhaps because it represents a point of intersection between Kenneth Millar the writer and Lew Archer, the private detective that Millar created and who seems to have a particular empathy in the novels for the problems of the young. In 1979, Millar was contacted by Paul Nelson, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. Nelson was concerned about his friend, the singer Warren Zevon, who had recently checked himself out of Pinecrest, a Santa Barbara facility that he'd entered to combat drug and alcohol problems. Millar had once briefly met Zevon in the course of a lunch in Santa Barbara at which Zevon, who idolized Millar and his work, felt that he had embarrassed himself by being over-enthusiastic in front of the writer. Nelson told Millar that Zevon was in bad shape. Nobody could convince him to return to Pinecrest, but Nelson believed that Zevon might listen to Millar if Millar was prepared to take the time to talk to him.

That afternoon, the doorbell rang at Zevon's house. When Zevon opened the door, Kenneth Millar was standing there, like Lew Archer in the flesh come to deal with a troubled young soul. Millar stayed with Zevon for the afternoon, talking about music, telling him the names of the plants in Zevon's garden, listening, offering what advice and understanding he could. Then he left, and Zevon never saw him again. Later, Zevon wrote to Millar to thank him for his intervention, describing him as "not only the finest novelist but the personification of the noblest qualities of your work." Zevon dedicated his 1980 album, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, to "Ken Millar, il migliore fabbro."

Millar died in 1983. Zevon, a mystery fan to the last, died twenty years later.

They met twice in their lives, but those meetings were pivotal, life-changing ones for the younger man. There is a wonderful line in The Doomsters, Millar's 1958 Archer novel, that sums up both Archer's philosophy and, it seems, Millar's own: "It was one of those times when you have to decide between your own inconvenience and the unknown quantity of another man's troubles."

Enough said. Enjoy your week.

This week, John read:
The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse
The Good German by Joseph Kanon

and listened to:
The Life Pursuit by Belle and Sebastian

Monday, February 06, 2006

To Err is Human...

Every once in a while, a concerned reader takes it upon himself (or herself, because women are not immune to this either) to point out some mistake that I've made in a book. Naturally, this is very irksome because I go to great lengths to try to get my facts right and it is frustrating to realize that no matter how hard I, my editors and my two copy editors try, mistakes still creep through. Wherever possible I try to correct these errors, although by the time the paperback appears it's usually a little too late to do much about them so they tend to be left in place in all of their shamefaced glory.

So I don't object to having these mistakes pointed out to me. In fact, it's nice to be told so that I can, circumstances permitting, correct them. No, what I object to is the manner in which they're sometimes pointed out, and for this the Internet is largely to blame. It allows us to instantaneously, and publicly, take issue with another in a way that we would not in our daily, person-to-person encounters. It tends to erode the ordinary niceties, the little touches that are necessary to ensure that we deal with one another in a respectful way. (It's not merely in the forum of criticism that this occurs either. How many of us have sent e-mail messages that we've ultimately regretted, communicating feelings or responses that we might otherwise have kept to ourselves had we been forced to take the time to write them by hand and mail them in a letter, or to pick up a phone and make a call, or even to deal with the person in question face to face? The attraction of the instant seems to incapacitate our filters and sidestep our inhibitions, as well as blinding us to the potential consequences for the recipient. Used in this way it's less a form of communication than a means of attack.)

It is, I think, exceptionally rude to post a message on a public site pointing out another's errors, whether this be the writer's own site or It smacks of both a lack of humility and an absence of sensitivity: a lack of humility in that even a moment's reflection would allow us to identify a great many errors that most of us make in the average day, and therefore alert us to the possibility that we should perhaps be a little more circumspect in drawing attention to the flaws of others; and an absence of sensitivity in that having attention drawn to one's faults in front of hundreds, or indeed thousands, of people is not an experience that is generally conducive to feeling good about oneself.

Like a great many people, I have certain areas in which my knowledge is probably wider and deeper than the average. For example, I tend to be pretty good on popular culture and occasionally I will read a book, sometimes a novel but sometimes also a non-fiction book, and come across an error in a reference to film or music. "Hmmm," I'll think, "that's not right." Yet it would never, ever strike me to sit down at my computer and publicly point out that error to anyone who might happen to be browsing a particular site, just as I would never embarrass a person at a party by informing all and sundry that the individual in question has toilet paper stuck to his shoe or has inadvertently left his flies undone. Neither would I go to your place of business if, say, you sold me a car with a scratch on it or a flashlight that didn't work, then sit outside with a loudhailer informing everyone within earshot of my scratched car or my busted flashlight. A quiet word in the ear would usually be enough, and thus the problem would be solved and blushes would be spared.

From talking with other crime writers, it seems that those most likely to point out errors are readers who are interested in, or fond of, guns. I have to say here that I am not fond of guns. My characters use them, and there is gun-related violence in my books, but I have no great liking for guns themselves, particularly handguns. I've fired them, and I can see some of the appeal in wielding an instrument capable of such force and accuracy, but it's a disturbing appeal and not one that I want to indulge. Like any weapon, it's hard to distance oneself from their ultimate function, which is to cause harm. You can dress it up any way you like, arguing that it's for security, or you just like popping off a few rounds in the woods with your buddies on weekends, or it's the craftsmanship that you admire, but it does not render its ultimate purpose any less destructive, whether that purpose is realized or not. Nevertheless, I still try to get the details of their use right, although it may be that my distaste for them has meant that I have been guilty of minor errors regarding them on two or three occasions. At least one of these errors—in Every Dead Thing, my first book—prompted an email so poisonous that its sender probably has scales for skin.

Now, let's put this into perspective. Over the course of seven books I have published close to one million words. My novels have dealt with, among other topics, the religious history of the state of Maine; metaphysical poetry; early medical research; the rice trade is South Carolina; the roots of the Cistercian order in Bohemia in the eleventh century; religious conflict in Europe prior to the Reformation; medieval burial practices; coastal defences on the eastern U.S. seaboard during World War II; murder and the narcotics trade in Mexico; the flora, fauna and physical geography of at least four U.S. states; the restoration of paintings; the venom of assorted spiders and insects; church architecture; uniforms of the U.S. military in post-D-Day France; the ingredients for a good gumbo; and the correct placement of slates on a new roof.

And that's just off the top of my head. Were I to go back through my books I would be able to add considerably to that list. On none of those topics was I an expert before I began, and I am still not an expert now. In most cases I had to start my research from scratch, gradually assembling a small body of knowledge based on books, trips to the areas in question, interviews, and kind assistance from people whose knowledge of these matters greatly exceeded mine. At the end of every book I make humble acknowledgement of the fact that mistakes will have crept through, and those mistakes are mine and mine alone. The surprise is not that I've made occasional mistakes, but that I haven't made more mistakes. What I have learned from writing these books is the ultimate impossibility of achieving perfection in any human endeavor. No matter how hard we try, no matter what efforts we make to minimize our errors, mistakes will still creep through. That's the nature of the beast.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I make every effort to get my facts right, but I am sufficiently aware of my failings as a writer and a human being to recognize that those efforts will never be enough. The same is probably true of 99.9 per cent of the writers out there, whether working in fiction or non-fiction. So when you find a mistake in a writer's book, take a deep breath before you sit down to fire off your concerned missive. Where possible, be discreet. Send it to the writer's personal message box, if there is one, or if not send it to the person who deals with the site to be forwarded to the writer. Generally speaking, writers prefer to know about a mistake than not to know about it, however painful it may be to have an error revealed, but there are decent ways to do it and there are less decent ways to do it. Try to imagine how you'd like your mistakes to be dealt with, and then pick the decent way, huh?