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A Conversation with Scott Phillips

Jan 06, 2011 in Books, Guest Posts, Writing

Scott Phillips is the author of three of the most highly acclaimed crime novels of recent years. His debut novel, The Ice Harvest, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the California Book Award, a Silver Medal for Best First Fiction, and was a finalist for the Edgar Awards, the Hammett Prize and the Anthony Award. It is now a major motion picture from Focus Features. Its followup The Walkaway continued his success, with The New York Times calling it “wicked fun.” His third novel, Cottonwood, is now out in paperback.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, where much of his first two books are set, Scott lived for many years in Paris, and then in Southern California, where he worked on screenplays. Those who frequent Showtime in the middle of the night may see his name on Crosscut (1996). He now lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter.

Sophie Littlefield grew up in rural Missouri. Her first novel, A Bad Day for Sorry, won an Anthony Award for Best First Novel and an RT Book Award for Best First Mystery. It was also shortlisted for Edgar, Barry, Crimespree, and Macavity Awards, and it was named to lists of the year’s best mystery debuts by the Chicago Sun-Times and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Sophie lives with her husband and two teenage children near San Francisco, California.

SL: A while back we were talking about whether every writer secretly wants to be a musician. You, and a few other writers I admire, keep wandering over into other media like untethered goats. Why do you think we’re so distractible? I mean, symptom or cause?

SP: It’s that urge to use a different part of the brain, I think. And there’s also the urge to make money, and sometimes other media just beckon. I’m doing a novel in France called Nocturne le Vendredi, which is going to be a TV movie sometime in the next couple of years, so there’s an example of a project existing in two media at once. And then I’ve been playing music as long as I’ve been writing, but in my case it’s mostly been closer to performance art than real music, because I’m not very talented. I’m very envious of my friends who are real musicians, though.

I also go back and forth between genres, which is something you do as well. Do you think you’d go nuts writing the same kind of book over and over again, the way some people do quite successfully?

SL: Uh, yeah . . . and I’m amazed that not everyone feels this way. I was talking to some writing friends, and the question came up: if a publisher offered you a million dollars a book, with the stipulation that you could write only in that genre, would you take it? Truly, I don’t think I could do it.

I have attention challenges. But I have to say, some of the most fascinating people I know are unfocused. Or scattershot-focused. Or going in ten directions at once. Really, I think part of the problem is that all the language we have to describe such a state is pejorative . . . I have a friend who takes a lot of work to keep up with; he’s probably unintelligible to the casual listener. But he’s made the point that by trying to medicate kids (and adults) into a state of uniform mental processing, we bridle and quash the skills that are necessary for certain endeavors — among them writing. Which is not to say that beautiful writing only unfurls from an unquiet mind . . . but that such a state of affairs should not, for some, be discouraged or mended.

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The Questions Authors Fear Most

Jan 05, 2011 in Guest Posts, Writing

Light Man walking“Where do your ideas come from?”

The only other question that depresses me more is: “Have any of your books been turned into films?”

(The inference is always clear. Surely I’ll never regard myself as being a successful novelist until Ben Affleck has starred in a very bad movie based on one of my books. But back to the ideas…)

Peter Robinson, the wonderful Canadian crime writer, tells people that he buys his in bulk from Costco, while Neil Gaiman visits a lovely little ideas shop in Bognor Regis. Val McDermid tells a wonderful story of doing an event with Ian Rankin in Scotland when this question came up. Ian was at the end of a punishing six-week tour and something inside him just seemed to snap.

“Well,” he said, smiling graciously, “when you get signed by a publisher, they give you this website address and it’s got hundreds of brilliant ideas. You scroll down the list, find one you like, tick the box, and it’s yours.”

The audience laughed, recognizing the joke, but the man who asked the question came to Ian after the event and said, “If I give you fifty quid will you tell me that website address?”

What people don’t want to hear is: “I make my ideas up…out of my head.”

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Music Speaks

Jan 04, 2011 in Guest Posts, Writing

the magnificent eiffel towerThe irony was not altogether lost on me. Though irony—possibly—was not the right word. Perhaps it was just another example of the way in which life can sometimes double back, can turn suddenly and reflect itself every once in a while. A variation of déjà vu. An echo.

I sit in a darkened film-editing suite. The room is thick with smoke. I am watching a rough cut of a film by Olivier Dahan, Oscar-winning director of La Vie en Rose. On the sound system is a previously unheard soundtrack written by Bob Dylan. It is my first trip to Paris, and there I am—somewhere in an office within the shadow of the Eiffel Tower—discussing the possibility of writing a screenplay of my book A Quiet Belief in Angels (Seul le Silence). What happened as a result of that meeting, the three days I spent in Paris, the screenplay, the potential film…all of this is irrelevant to the story. What was really interesting to me about that first meeting was Robert Johnson. Forrest Whittaker as Robert Johnson, right there on the screen ahead of me. The whole backstory of Johnson—how he met Lucifer at the crossroads and sold his soul for the blues. That story.

It was a story within the film that Dahan had just made, and it was a story I’d heard before.

Backwards more than thirty years. A seven-year-old child stands in the hallway of a strange house. His mother has just died, and he has been sent to stay with a relative. The relative, a great aunt, has a son. The son is a teenager, a wild guy, a rocker, and he has a room painted black with posters all over the walls—Hendrix, Joplin, Canned Heat, Jim Morrison and the Doors. He spends his time playing records, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer.

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Noir and White

Jan 03, 2011 in Books, Film, Guest Posts

Dialogue Between Mountain and Tree...Noir in Fest, the Italian-based international film and literary mystery festival, has now been going for 20 years. Initially based in Cattolica on the Adriatic and then making a brief sojourn in Viareggio on the Mediterranean (before most of the town hall dignitaries were impeached for fraud, thus cutting off one of the festival’s principal sponsorship strands…this is Italy after all…), the festival moved from summer to winter and to the picturesque ski resort of Courmayeur, in Val d’Aosta in the shadow of Mont Blanc, and has thrived here ever since. Run by Giorgio Gosetti and Marina Fabbri, the festival is both an exciting event and a most convivial place where filmmakers and writers over the past two decades have met, become friends, and enjoyed not just films and conversation but an ever-flowing series of gourmet meals and latter night bar marathons. Without being elitist about it, it’s the equivalent to a certain extent of Bouchercon but without the fans, an occasion for professionals to meet and light a much creative spark.

I have attended all the years of the festival since being invited at the outset as the then British publisher of Jim Thompson, on whom the event focused that initial year, and was thereafter made the British delegate of the festival and supplied films, authors, and recommendations ever since, in addition to using the event as a platform for the launch of my own books when translated into Italian. I was even parachuted onto the film jury in 2002, whereby my fellow jurors elected me to the presidency of said jury in my absence one morning when I was late for breakfast. So consider me rather prejudiced when it comes to singing the praises of Noir in Fest.

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Year End Review: A Conspiracy to Believe

Jan 02, 2011 in Guest Posts, Year End Review

This week, we’ll be re-featuring our favorite posts by forthcoming Mulholland authors. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming starting in January 2011.
Anti-helicoidalAs an novelist, the question I’m most often asked actually isn’t where I get my ideas (a shame, as I’ve got a peppy answer to that), but when I’m going to write another book like Only Forward. It happened twice the other night. As this was my first novel, written over a decade and a half ago, I have to fight not to come back with a tetchy “When I work out a way of being twenty-six again, okay?” The question I get asked almost as much, however, is why my work so often features a conspiracy. This is since I’ve been a thriller writer. Before that, when I wrote noir science fiction, I was asked why my novels always revolved around a hidden realm.

They’re the same thing, I eventually realized. And so is the supernatural. And so is crime.

It took me a while to understand this. I tend to write with wide-eyed naivete, blurting what’s in my head rather than trying to promulgate any long-term agenda or plan (short-term plans are ambitious enough: I’m seldom sure what I’m having for lunch). I’ve gotten used to being apologetic for having written in a variety of genres, and for publishing under two names. Only in the last few years have I started to become bullish in declaring that I’ve been writing the same thing all along. I’ve been trying to pull aside the veil, basically, to show there’s another veil right behind—and to keep going through veil after veil, in fact, until I find what I’ve been looking for: the sense of wonder that comes from finally confronting a question that has no answer, and never will.

I’m not claiming this to be a ground-breaking insight. I recall having conversations somewhat along these lines years ago with Ralph, my extraordinary agent, who died a month ago, suddenly and far too young. Ralph Vicinanza was a rare agent (and man) in very many ways, including the profound spiritual faith he had in the power of storytelling. He understood that trying to grasp and celebrate the ineffable was fiction’s fundamental purpose, whatever guise that story took, which is perhaps why he was prepared to be tolerant of me skipping back and forth between genres like some crazed mountain goat with a sugar rush.

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Year End Review: Jess Walter and Thomas Mullen on Character, Crime, Class, and the Whole Genre Thing

Jan 01, 2011 in Guest Posts, Year End Review

This week, we’ll be re-featuring our favorite posts by forthcoming Mulholland authors. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming starting in January 2011.

Jess Walter writes about cops and feds, hapless realtors and laid-off journalists, poets and hit men. The protagonists of his three most recent novels are a mob informer living under Witness Protection and obsessed with his new voter registration card (Citizen Vince, winner of the Edgar Award), an NYPD survivor of 9/11 with a memory problem who gets mixed up in a shadowy intelligence organization (The Zero, nominated for the National Book Award), and a struggling journalist-poet who starts dealing pot to save his mortgage (The Financial Lives of the Poets, which was showered with acclaim last fall and was just issued in paperback).

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Year End Review: Why Crime?

Dec 31, 2010 in Guest Posts, Year End Review

This week, we’ll be re-featuring our favorite posts by forthcoming Mulholland authors. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming starting in January 2011.

The Burning of BooksWhy crime? This is the question most crime writers get asked more than any other. For a long while I couldn’t answer it. Honestly, I had no idea. To start with I didn’t read crime, which is a weird confession to make and one that could see me strung up by my thumbs above a bonfire of copies of The Wreckage, a very combustible read.

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Year End Review: Hey, Sinner Man, Where’d You Go?

Dec 30, 2010 in Guest Posts, Year End Review

This week, we’ll be re-featuring our favorite posts by forthcoming Mulholland authors. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming starting in January 2011.

You’ve probably heard the song. It’s a spiritual, and it starts out something like this:

Hey sinner man, where you gonna run to?
Hey sinner man, where you gonna run to?
Hey sinner man, where you gonna run to?
All on that day . . .

In the verses that follow, we learn that ol’ Sinner Man has run to the north, the east, the south, and the west, to the rock and to the hill and to any number of other sites, and nowhere can he find a place to hide from divine judgment. Then he runs to the Lord, and that turns out to be the answer.

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Year End Review: Sinking the Titanic

Dec 29, 2010 in Guest Posts, Year End Review

This week, we’ll be re-featuring our favorite posts by forthcoming Mulholland authors. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming starting in January 2011.
Man with Tommy GunBest interview question I’ve ever been asked: What’s the worst thing your parents think you’ve done? Not actually done, but that they think you’ve done.

My answer: Heroin.

I love doing research. It’s like cheating, but with permission.

Here are some of the things I have done in the name of Research: learned to ride a motorcycle; became a certified EMT for both New York State and Monterey County, California; had my sneakers stick to the floor in a peep-show booth back when Times Square was not a place where you took the kids; drunk tea with nuns; crawled through the Portland Shanghai Tunnels; watched a domme flog her sub in an S&M club while he hung on a St. Andrew’s Cross; visited the Oregon State Police Crime Lab; learned to play

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Year End Review: Thank You For Smoking

Dec 28, 2010 in Guest Posts, Year End Review

It has often been said by crime writers (this one included) that the community of mystery writers is uniquely clubbable, and, while there are one or two crime writers of whom I would use that word in the same way it is applied to baby seals, I think that, generally speaking, this description is true. It may be, of course, given that one or two crime writers are rather fond of a drink, that this reputation owes more than a little to alcohol. When a legend of the crime-writing community throws his arms around a relative newcomer and says, “I love you. I love your books. You’re my best friend!” it’s easy enough for the newcomer to believe all she has heard about what a warm and welcoming bunch mystery writers are and overlook the twelve beers and the bottle of tequila that the legend has poured down his throat.

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