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A Conversation with Michael Koryta

Feb 10, 2011 in Books, Guest Posts, Writing

Michael Koryta is the author of many award-winning crime novels and of late, several highly praised novels of supernatural suspense published by Little, Brown. In the wake of the recent publication of The Cypress House, Michael Koryta took time out from his tour schedule to talk about the ins and outs of genre classification, the origin of ideas, and the kind of dark prose necessary to write a character who sees death before the fact.

He reads today at Mysteries to Die for and Book Carnival in Los Angeles. This Friday, February 11thMichael will continue this discussion with a reading at Book Passage in San Fransisco, at M is for Mystery on Saturday February 12th, also in San Fransisco, and at Books Inc in Berkeley on Sunday February 13th. Visit Michael’s website and Facebook page for further tour dates.

How did the idea for
The Cypress House come to you?

I first had the thought of writing about a man who experienced premonitions of death while on the battlefield. It intrigued me – everyone in combat understands that men around them may die, but if you saw who would die, before it happened, that seemed to me to be an intensified and unique horror in a land of horrors. It also occurred to me that for someone who had the gift of premonition, there would be no worse place than the battlefield, no place so painful. With all that said, I didn’t want to write a war story, and I was determined to return to the detective novel form after So Cold The River. Best-laid plans, and all that.

There was a moment – Sunday morning, I was at home in Indiana; I recall this one quite vividly for some reason – that the first scene of the novel sprang into my mind. I had been grinding away on a different book for a few months, and suddenly I had this vision of my clairvoyant soldier, now years removed from his service days, on a train rattling through Florida. He’d been sleeping and woke to see that the eyes of the men travelling with him had turned to smoke. I knew where they were headed – the Florida Keys ahead of the devastating hurricane of 1935 – and I could imagine the scene quite clearly, and even though I was in the midst of another book, I couldn’t let that idea go. I wanted to write it immediately. So I did, and by the time I had the first chapter done, I knew that was the book I needed to be writing.

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Black Lens: Part IV

Feb 09, 2011 in Black Lens, Guest Posts

Story by Ken Bruen and Russell Ackerman

Ken Bruen is one of the most celebrated crime novelists of our time.

Black Lens is his most secret project.

Read on as the unveiling continues.

Every Wednesday on Mulholland Books.

With art by Jonathan Santlofer.

Fade in…

Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.



The director was back in his study, his kids safely in bed.

He gave a rueful chuckle, “SAFE!”

In this fucked-up psycho world where Ransom got more hits on Facebook than Brad Pitt.

He permitted himself a small shot of amber Glenfiddich, the ultimate whiskey first introduced to him by Johnny Depp.  Allowing himself the rare privilege of an Americanism.

Depp was his kind of actor, no interest in fame, only the work. And the suggested bio-pic of his own self, with Johnny in the lead.

Mais non.

He wasn’t ready for the final chapter yet.

Cochons . . . the nightmares, still they came.


Shit and fuck.

And then some.

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Outlaw Fiction: To Romanticize or Not to Romanticize?

Feb 08, 2011 in Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors, Writing

Today marks the paperback publication of Thomas Mullen’s critically acclaimed The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, an impeccably-researched journey across the storied era of public enemy gangsters…with a twist, that the LA Times called arip-roaring yarn that manages to be both phantasmagorical and historically accurate.” As the new edition of his novel hits the shelves, Mullen reflects on the balancing act between right and wrong and using  a generous helping of both principles to entertain, shock and amaze.

Writing a book in which the main character is a criminal poses some tricky dilemmas for a writer. How likeable should your outlaw be? If he or she is too likable, are you being unrealistic?  Worse, are you romanticizing crime, trying to make palatable for a mass audience a thing which, in real life,is actually pretty rotten and harmful?

I found myself wrestling with this when I was writing my second novel, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, which tells the tale of two fictional bank robbers in the 1930s, the era of famous real-life hoods like John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and Pretty Boy Floyd. Even back when those desperadoes were still alive and still robbing banks (and still, let’s not forget, killing a lot of people), the public debated how they should be represented in newspapers and pulp magazines, in dime novels based on their lives, in newsreels, and in the films that Hollywood quickly cranked out to capitalize on J. Edgar Hoover’s wildly popular “War on Crime.” Were they Robin Hoods or maniacs?  Heroes or villains?  Good people pushed too far by a crooked system, or just plain rotten to the bone? John Dillinger was said to be a charmer, putting his arm around a prosecuting attorney for a photo op after he was arrested.  Bonnie Parker wrote poetry and took dashing photos of herself and her lover Clyde with cigarettes in their mouths and guns in their hands. Floyd was called a decent family man caught into an impossible position due to the Depression and some missteps as an adolescent. But is any of that true, or was that just the way journalists and filmmakers portrayed them to better package their stories for a public that was hungry for white-knuckle stories and was yearning, in the dark days of the Depression, for hope?

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Writers and Food

Feb 04, 2011 in Guest Posts, Writing

Day 095/365: Burn Baby, Burn!A recent conversation with Jeffery Deaver revealed details of a survey he had undertaken. Whereas I had found a strong link between writing and music (and hence a great number of writers also turn out to be musically inclined), he had discovered that a great number of writers like to cook. I have to count myself among that happy crew, being both writer, musician and cook.

Count Orsino, beginning Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with the words “If music be the food of love, play on…” perhaps best summarizes the relationship I now perceive between food, writing, music, even art in general.

When considering the subject of food, I thought immediately of home, of the large stone-floored kitchen, the marble island that centers it, the wide black cooking range. It is here that I prepare food for friends, for transient visitors. Most of all, it is here that I now prepare food for my family, and rare is the day when I am not to be found there in the early evening. There are times, of course, when touring and literary engagements take me away for a few days, sometimes a week or two, and always I am eager to return, not only to the company of my family, but to my familiar ground: the kitchen.

Orphaned at an early age, I did not know a family kitchen in the house. My brother and I—separated when he was eight and I was seven—stayed apart and away from home until we were teenagers, and even then—returning from school as teenagers—we suffered the loss of our maternal grandmother, the woman who had raised us. My mother and father already gone, my maternal grandfather dead many years before in a drowning accident, we were left to fend for ourselves.

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12 Days of China Miéville

Feb 03, 2011 in Guest Posts

China Miéville famously said that he hopes to write a novel in every genre. With  portal fantasy, detective noir, conspiracy thriller and various forms of “weird fiction” already under his belt, over the past weeks, China has broadened his palette with the online serial of an intricately drawn web comic: London Intrusion. Having previously run in single installments, Mulholland Books is pleased to present London Intrusion in its complete form, from top to bottom, as nature intended.

London Intrusion

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Black Lens: Part III

Feb 02, 2011 in Black Lens, Guest Posts

Story by Ken Bruen and Russell Ackerman

Ken Bruen is one of the most celebrated crime novelists of our time.

Black Lens is his most secret project.

Read on as the unveiling continues.

With art by Jonathan Santlofer.

Fade in…

Missed Part 1? Or Part 2? Read them first.


Blade in the Stream.

The movie ended and the great director moved to the screen, peered at the credits, sighed; so many of that illustrious cast had passed.

He thought as often in French as he did in the other languages he had been fluent in. Muttered softly

Quel dommage . . .” (What a pity.)

Sounds from the quiet Parisian street reached him, a woman singing off-key, a street vendor hawking his wares in that defiant tone that only the French could muster. He looked at his watch, a Patek Philippe, a gift from Harrison Ford, when they worked on that piece of cinematic fluff, like the horror of that pirate movie. A small smile touched his thin lips as he thought, peut-être, he was before his time, then along came Pirates of the Caribbean.  Johnny had been in touch a few weeks back to moot the possibility of the bio-pic of his life.

His children would be impressed with Depp playing their boring dad.

The plans for the next movie were on his desk and he wondered if he had the energy needed to regain the ruthless vision of the early wild days. Galliard were pressing him for an answer on his projected memoir.

A slight tremor of dread crept along his spine, reaching his neck and forcing a thin line of perspiration on his small brow. That call. A deeply respected and reliable source warning that his coming trip to Switzerland was a trap. The damn incessant Americans continuing their ceaseless crusade to bring him to their justice.

He snarled

“Guantánamo  Bay.’’



A brief montage of stills crossed his mind, black lens, Jack Nicholson’s house, the girl, the dope, the awful screaming, his own included.

Sacré bleu.”’

He exhaled, the camera of his mind lighting the scenes, the scenes that had forced him into exile. Hadn’t he lost enough? And still they came, with their Big Macs and bigger grudges. If, shudder, that extradition was ever to become reality, they’d bring him in chains. He knew, oh he knew, the deal was done, the vigilantes of the Bible Belt, the moneyed majority, who would never rest till he was dying in a cell.

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Literary Throwdown in San Quentin

Feb 01, 2011 in Film, Guest Posts, Writing

San QuentinMichael Tolkin wrote The Player, both the novel and the canonical film directed by Robert Altman.  David Corbett has written some of the most critically acclaimed crime fiction of the past decade. Collectively, they have been nominated for more writing awards than is possible to mention. Recently, Michael and David found themselves on the other side of the fence. Literally. As the judges of a literary competition at San Quentin Prison.  Below, they share their thoughts on the experience.

Michael Tolkin: Every Friday night for eight years, Keith and Kent Zimmerman, whose friendship David and I share, have taught a writing class at San Quentin for inmates with sentences under five years. This spring, they organized a competition between the inmates and a team of Bay Area writers, including David. The brothers asked me to be one of the judges. The Zimmermans were going to select the five or six best pieces from each team, then read them aloud at the next class meeting without identifying which side the piece had come from, and then the judges were given time to rate each piece.

I know that Keith and Kent wouldn’t have put the inmates through the humiliation of a big loss, so I expected to read things that were true to what matters to the brothers, truth expressed directly, and that the flow of truth would be the substance of style. In this way, the professional writers might be at a disadvantage. With only enough time to get down a first draft that would better be called harsh than merely rough, the generally tamer life experiences of the professionals wouldn’t match the inmates’ catalogues of disaster.

I had a sense of what to expect in this way because I once taught a writing class at a Jewish halfway house in Los Angeles. I would come to each class with a phrase they had to use to start writing, and they’d have fifteen minutes to finish. When I gave them “He put,” an Israeli gangster wrote, “He put the rock in my dog’s mouth, and then stepped on his head.” I knew from that class to expect genius at San Quentin, but not art, and that the weakness of the prison writing would be the sentimentality.

As Oscar Wilde, the onetime inmate of Reading Gaol wrote, “All bad poetry is sincere.”

David Corbett: My level of expectation was mixed going in. I didn’t know Keith or Kent, but we connected by phone and shared tales of Sonny Barger and Hells Angels (they’d cowritten a book with Sonny, and as a PI I’d worked for Barger and the club when they were indicted in 1987). I also knew most of my cowriters, though only one of them well. But this familiarity, meager as it was, gave me a certain comfort level going in.

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You and Hank

Jan 31, 2011 in Guest Posts, Popcorn Fiction, Short Stories

Hot Rails to HellA Popcorn Fiction selection. Two salesmen see the dark side of Bangkok in this short story from screenwriter Darby Kealey. Oh yeah, and one of the salesmen is: you.

The first thing you notice as you step out of the airport is the heat. It’s hot in Bangkok. Not like LA heat, either. It’s thicker, almost soupy. You feel like you’re walking through the head of steam that affronts you when you open your dishwasher just after the Super-Clean cycle — but this place doesn’t smell like detergent. They probably don’t even have dishwashers here.

Your associate — he’d probably call you a ‘buddy’ — gets right to it: “Whores, buddy.” He’s a simple guy, Hank, which you envy at times; you can see him eternally happy with a bottomless case of lite beer and a ball of twine. That’s why he’s in sales. But right now, all Hank wants to do is buy. He’s heard Thailand is the place to come for prostitutes, the Mecca (your cultural reference, of course). He told you about it the whole damn flight. You would’ve preferred a crying baby.

“So this is Bonehenge, huh?”

“Huh?” Hank says. You catch the glimmer off a string of drool issuing from his mouth; Pavlov would’ve had a field day with Hank. “Whores,” he says again, trailing off at the end of what for him amounts to a sentence. He’s staring through the welter of buses, taxis, cars, and rickshaws clogging the airport entrance, to a back-alley in the distance, which he must think leads to the section of town where all the hookers are hooking. Or maybe there is no Red Light District here. Maybe it’s the whole city — the whole country, even. A Red Light Country. The thought makes you sad for a moment, but you don’t really have time to ponder it, as Hank is ambling off into almost certain death down the random back-alley. It’ll be a miracle if he survives this trip.

“Easy, Hank,” you say, grabbing him by the collar of his Lacoste shirt, which is already drenched in boozy sweat. “Hotel first, man. We gotta drop off our stuff.” Though clearly irked, Hank accedes. Despite the fact that you’re in the Far East now, the fundamentals of civilization still apply: you’re his boss. Well, not his boss, exactly, but his superior. And while you don’t like to assert your authority over anyone, particularly not a guy two years your senior, you believe that a strict adherence to hierarchy, to discipline, is the only thing that keeps foreigners alive in these inscrutable lands. You hail a taxi from the taxi stand, as the almighty Travel Guide told you to do.

Walking AlongDriving in Bangkok isn’t like driving in The States. It’s not even like driving in LA. It’s not even like driving, really. It’s more of an all out Battle of Wills. Right now, you’re sitting at a stoplight, but the semiotics of traffic signals has been diluted to the point of utter meaninglessness. Your driver blares his horn, screams something, then attempts — really tries, you can tell — to bash another taxi next to him. You think of cheap Chinese cars with no airbags and human crumple-zones; of substandard hospitals and poorly trained shamans; of some rich Frenchman with a penchant for champagne and a need for your liver. You know it’s cliché, but at this moment you hate the French.

The light remains red, but you’re off again, swooping through traffic like a bat into hell. A rickshaw sidles up next to you, making you flashback to the chariot-racing scene in Ben Hur; you slide toward the center of the backseat, half expecting a spike to pierce through your door at any moment. You finally understand what Hobbes meant by the State of Nature. And you’re plodding straight through the heart of it now: The Jungle. The thought makes you cringe.

“You seem a little jumpy, dude. You cool?”

“Fine, Hank. Just a little crazy, driving here.”

“Yeah,” Hank says, chuckling with an insouciance that, given the circumstances, indicates one of two things: A profound, Zen-monk acceptance of the comic-tragedy that is life — or mild retardation. And you’re pretty sure Hank doesn’t meditate. “Way I see it, I’m the type of guy who doesn’t worry too much about this kinda stuff, ya know? Fuck it, man.” You hate people who use phrases like ‘I’m the type of guy who…’ It seems so affected, so ersatz heroic, like Hank pictures himself standing atop some jagged cliff, sunset glowing behind him, every time he’s describing himself and his preferences, even if it’s just whether he likes chunky or smooth peanut butter better. Hank probably eats a lot of peanut butter.

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Alone in a Room

Jan 28, 2011 in Guest Posts, Writing

Not long ago I found myself alone in San Francisco with some of the most famous paintings in the western world. One entire room was devoted to Van Gogh: Starry Night Over The Rhone, The Bedroom at Arles, Portrait Of The Artist, some of Van Gogh’s most famous works. Paul Gauguin’s self portrait (right), was also on display. And I have to admit, it reminded me of myself, his defensive expression — OK, I’ve been known to wear it, and probably for the same reasons!

I’d seen some of these paintings before, in Europe, but as they are always mobbed by the public they are hard to really experience, in the way the artists intended. But that night, because of a fluke, I got to see them up close and alone. I had a strange sense of intimacy, as if Van Gogh were standing next to me wondering what I thought. It was an unbelievable experience, and quite a moving one.

That night reaffirmed something I already knew. Art, whether in the form of paintings, music, or novels, doesn’t rely on money-worth to be valuable to humanity. In fact, Van Gogh’s work would not have reached my generation if not for his brother Theo’s intervention and love of art. It bears repeating: Van Gogh’s paintings had no market to speak of. They were worth zero francs at the time of his death, as gallery owners in Paris were unwilling to hang work they considered ugly, and certainly not fashionable.

The “Marketplace” held in such high esteem today, the Marketplace that has been elevated to the right side of God in importance, failed humanity in the most serious way in the case of Van Gogh. It has failed us before (the slave trade), and most certainly is failing humanity again as millions of people are unable to find jobs because bankers were profligate and now need our help to insure their future… blah, blah, blah. How many great works of art have been lost because they had no “cash value,” tossed into the trash by indifferent landlords looking for the real loot? Van Gogh gave the world something beautiful and important, which he could never “monetize.” Now, ironically, his work is priceless. The Marketplace is, of course, a false God, which I was reminded of that evening.

Every morning I wake up, pour my coffee, turn on my computer and get set to work. More often than not, I find an email solicitation from a well-known company in Los Angeles that sells stuff to writers. Below is an example. (I’m not sure they are your friend, by the way, as they claim in their ad.)

A new year brings a fresh start, so now’s the time to get your creative plan in motion. Fortunately, fill in the blank Store has the experience and the services you need to help you achieve your artistic aspirations. From the top screenwriting tools like (fill in the blank) to novelist’s programs like (fill in the blank), there’s something to ignite every imagination. Another great way to get those creative juices flowing in the New Year is through a writing course. Our current line-up of classes covers a vast amount of interests, and many are available to take in-store, or online for our friends who live outside of Los Angeles.

This store is part of a huge industry that preys on young writers — and older writers, for that matter — and it bothers me. Most of the stuff they sell is not going to help you with problems you’ll face when starting out as a writer of novels or screenplays. Writing novels or screenplays is not about the size of your hard drive!

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Rachel Knight’s Los Angeles

Jan 27, 2011 in Books, Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

Los Angeles at nightWe’re gearing up for the release of Marcia Clark’s Guilt by Association in April 2011 which is getting amazing advance reviews, including the following:

“Marcia Clark’s debut novel showcases her experience and knowledge of the legal system. The pace, plot and dialogue are as sharp as they come in the genre. Her character of Rachel Knight bleeds real blood, sweat and tears on the page. Guilt is a four-bagger for Clark and her many new fans will eagerly await her next step up to the plate.” -David Baldacci

“You must read this book: it is wildly and complexly plotted, ebulliently witty and filled with riotous humor; it details the inner workings of the L.A. legal system with unprecedented accuracy and verve – and to top it off, it is a damn, damn, good thriller.” -James Ellroy

Named one of the Best Mystery/Thrillers of Spring 2011 by Publishers Weekly.

Marcia’s main character LA District Attorney Rachel Knight describes many favorite places in Los Angeles in Guilt by Association. Check out Rachel Knight’s LA:

Historic Biltmore Hotel, Gallery Bar, Downtown Los AngelesThe Biltmore Hotel: Rachel Knight’s glamorous home. “The sheer beauty of the hotel lobby struck me afresh: the stained glass set into the soaring dome ceiling, the ornately cut Lalique chandelier, the plushness of the huge oriental rugs spread over dark henna-colored marble floors. Walking into the lobby always felt like I’d been enfolded in the embrace of a Rubenesque duchess. “

Engine Company Number 28: Location for Rachel’s illicit lunch with the coroner’s investigator. “An LA staple for over twenty years, the restaurant in a restored firehouse is still a popular spot. The original firehouse that had stood on the same spot in 1912 was now restored with mahogany booths, brick floors and pressed tin ceilings – and the original fireman’s pole. “

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