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Ray Bradbury is my ‘Father’

Growing up in a small country town in Australia, my only experience of the wider world came through grainy black and white TV images and the magic of the books that I borrowed from the local library.

I remember being eight-years-old, in July 1969, when teachers assembled the entire school – barely a hundred students – into one classroom. They wheeled in a television and we watched Neil Armstrong emerge from the landing module of Apollo 11. We held our breath. One small step…one giant leap…

Everyone applauded except me. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the enormity of the achievement, but I had already been to the moon and walked on the surface of Mars and smelt the pungent odor of Jupiter. I had traveled the universe with a writer called Ray Bradbury, who is perhaps the reason that I’m a novelist today.

Bradbury was born in 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois, the son of a lineman for the local power company, who moved often for work between Illinois and Arizona. When very young he developed a passion for the books of Edgar Allan Poe and L. Frank Baum, while immersing himself in popular culture such as cinema, comic strips and traveling circuses.

There were tragedies in his early life. His beloved grandfather and his baby sister died of pneumonia – which could explain why a sense of loss haunts so many of Bradbury’s stories and novels.

At the age of fourteen he moved to California and has lived there ever since. After he graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1938, he joined the Los Angeles Science Fiction League, befriending writers Robert Heinlein and Leigh Brackett. In 1940 he sold his first story to a literary magazine – and a career began that would span more than seventy years.

Apart from numerous books and short stories, Bradbury wrote for years for both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. He has penned the screenplay for the classic 1956 version of Moby Dick starring Gregory Peck and directed by John Huston.

I wasn’t born until 1960, but I discovered Bradbury when I graduated from picture books to short stories. From memory, the first I ever picked up was The Illustrated Man a collection of eighteen short stories that opens in Wisconsin where two men sit down to share a meal around a campfire and one unbuttons his shirt to reveal a canvas of ink-decorated skin. In the flickering firelight, the images begin to breathe and move. Each of the tattoos tells a story and gives a vision of humankind’s destiny. There were tales of star-travel, Martian invasions, junkyard rockets and technology awakening our worst instincts.

Continue reading “Ray Bradbury is my ‘Father’”

A Conversation with Michael Robotham and Mark Billingham: Part II

In our ongoing celebration of the publication of THE WRECKAGE, we had Mark Billingham, author of BLOODLINE and Michael Robotham discuss the passage of time for series characters, the origins of THE WRECKAGE, the joys of being an international author and more. Missed Part I? Read it first.

MB: What you say about your characters as friends is interesting. We did a few events together when you were over here recently, and I was struck by the way you talked about your characters – Joe, especially. You mentioned that you regretted giving him Parkinson’s disease for instance. It felt as though you were talking about a friend.

MR: It’s true. We’ve had this chat before – about how ‘real’ characters become. I know you feel that you’re always in charge of Thorne and your characters, but I find that mine lead me around at times…not doing as they’re told. Joe O’Loughlin is probably the closest to me in age and personality. He has two daughters. I have three. I really really love the guy and If I had my time over again, I would never have given him early onset Parkinson’s Disease.

MB: But you can control the rate of his decline, right?

MR: What I have to do is stop aging him in real time. It’s hard to get my head around the fact that he can age slower than I can.

MB: I took that decision with Thorne a few years ago. It’s pretty liberating. As long as you don’t get stupid about it and keep your characters at the same age for way too long…

MR: What do I do about the children? Can Joe stay the same age, but his daughters grow older? I like the idea that they are growing up. I get so much material from my own teenage daughters. In a perfect world, I’d stop them growing…or meeting boys.

MB: Playing God can get tricky, right? Now, as usual there’s clearly a lot of research behind the new book. Your journo years must have stood you in good stead when it comes to this kind of thing.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Michael Robotham and Mark Billingham: Part II”

A Conversation with Michael Robotham and Mark Billingham: Part I

"lost in time" - infrared photograph, AustraliaIn our ongoing celebration of the publication of THE WRECKAGE, we had Mark Billingham, author of BLOODLINE and Michael Robotham get together for a chat. In Part One of the conversation, they discuss ghostwriting, recurring characters and new challenges.

MB: So another great day in Sydney? How the hell do you write dark twisted mysteries sitting there in paradise?

MR: I must admit I do have trouble glancing out my window and imagining the mean streets. Instead I have sun, sand, surf and…kookaburras. That’s why I don’t write books set in Australia.

MB: Right, we don’t have too much trouble with sunshine in this country.

MR: I wrote a novel years ago – my great unpublished Australian masterpiece – set in a small fishing village. It was on the verge of being published in the UK, but missed out at the final publishing meeting. I was told that if I had set the story in Ireland, Scotland, Wales or England, it would have published it in a heartbeat. That was twenty years ago. Thankfully things have changed a lot since then. Readers are picking up books from all over the world.

MB: Were you attracted to writing stuff set here in the UK after all the years you spent working here as a journalist?

MR: I think I was more realistic having been a journalist and then a ghostwriter in the UK. I’d been making a living from writing for so long, I wasn’t prepared to live on oranges in some freezing garret. I knew that a UK setting would give me a bigger market. We writers aren’t supposed to talk about the commercial side of what we do. We’re supposed to do it for love. But let’s face it. We have bills to pay. Mortgages. School fees.

MB: Too right!. So let’s talk for a bit about the ghostwriter business. How hard is it to write in the persona of someone else? Someone real, I mean.

MR: I did 15 autobiographies for the great and the good…and less good. It was all about capturing the voice, which is not much different to fiction only I was dealing with real characters instead of fictitious ones. It meant living with them for weeks, taping their stories, having them cry on my shoulder. I became part therapist, part-confidante, and part best friend…

MB:  And there are still some that you aren’t allowed to name, right?

MR: I can name about half of them. Otherwise I’d have to kill you.

MB: Well I won’t push it then! Were there some subjects that were just impossible to work with?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Michael Robotham and Mark Billingham: Part I”

When Truth is Stranger Than…

This week, we celebrate the release of Michael Robotham’s THE WRECKAGE, a book that Nelson DeMille called “One of the best novels to come out of the chaos of Iraq; a penetrating peek through the fog of war” and David Baldacci  said, “I have seldom read a more chilling and suspenseful tale.” Here, Michael tells the story behind the novel.

The writing of a novel begins with an idea, which is like an itch that you can’t scratch and nobody can do it for you because it’s in one of those moist private places that other people don’t want to touch. (No, it’s not something that requires a trip to the doctor and a course of antibiotics.)

My itch began in October 2007 when I read a brilliant piece of investigative journalism in Vanity Fair, written by James Steele and Donald Barlett two Pulitzer prize-winning reporters. Steele and Barlett exposed details of the largest airlift of US currency in the history of the Federal Reserve – twenty-one shipments over fourteen months – flown into Iraq in the aftermath of the Iraq War. Stacks of $100 bills were packed into bricks, assembled into large pallets and loaded onto cargo planes bound for Baghdad. It amounted to 281 million individual banknotes or 363 tons of money. Twelve billion US dollars in total – of which nine billion has never been accounted for.  Missing. Gone.

Having been an investigative journalist for nearly fifteen years, I was fascinated by the account and by the fate of the money. This was the itch I couldn’t quite reach. Because I was no longer, a journalist, I tried to ignore the idea, but it became a futile exercise in thought suppression.

Continue reading “When Truth is Stranger Than…”

Chapter 3 of The Wreckage

In just a few weeks’ time, The Wreckage will be available in bookstores across the nation. Start reading the book that Booklist called (in a starred review), “Fine and ambitious with characters who are wonderfully human–smart, determined, decent, and flawed. Thoroughly compelling.”

Need to catch up? Read the Prologue and Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

3

LONDON

Sunshine crashes through the lace curtains. Ruiz opens one eye. The ceiling comes into focus, dead moths in the domed light fitting. His right nostril is grouted closed. His mouth tastes like a small animal has crawled inside and died. Continue reading “Chapter 3 of The Wreckage”

Start Reading Duane Swierczynski’s Fun and Games

In just a few short weeks, we’ll be publishing FUN AND GAMES, the kick-a$$ first book in the kick-a$$ Charlie Hardie series. Start reading the novel Josh Bazell called “insanely entertaining,” and which Booklist called “so bloody satisfying.”

THE PIERCING screech of tires on asphalt.

The screams—

His.

Your own.

And then—

1

It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. —Popular saying

SHE DISCOVERED Decker Canyon Road by accident, not long after she moved to L.A. A random turn off the PCH near Malibu shot her up the side of the mountain, followed by twelve miles of stomach-flipping twists and hairpin turns all the way to Westlake Village. And she loved it, hands gripping the wheel of the sports car she’d bought with her first real movie check—because that’s what you were supposed to do, right? Blow some of that money on an overpriced, overmuscled convertible coupe that popped a spoiler when you topped 75. She never cared she was going thirty miles faster than any sane driver would attempt on this road. She loved the ocean air smashing into her face, the feel of the tires beneath as they struggled to cling to the asphalt, the hum of the machine surrounding her body, the knowledge that one twitch to the left or right at the wrong moment meant her brand-new car, along with her brand-new life, would end up at the bottom of a ravine, and maybe years later people would ask: Whatever happened to that cute actress who was in those funny romantic comedies a few years ago? Back then, she loved to drive Decker Canyon Road because it blasted all of the clutter out of her mind. Life was reduced to a simple exhilarating yes or no, zero or one, live or die.

But now she was speeding up Decker Canyon Road because she didn’t want to die.

And the headlights were gaining on her. Continue reading “Start Reading Duane Swierczynski’s Fun and Games”

(Holly)wood Pulp: 15 Books That Helped Me Understand the City of Angels

[Editor’s Note: Visit Duane Swierczynski’s website for a fantastic opportunity. Check it out before you read this article.]

Until Fun & Games, I set most of my novels in Philadelphia. No, I don’t have some kickback deal with the local chamber of commerce. Philly’s where I was born and raised, and for better or worse, it’s where my imagination goes to play. If I had been born in, say, Grand Island, Nebraska, I’m sure I would have set my stories there, albeit with minor differences. (For example, The Wheelman may have been published as The Combine Harvester Man.)

Over the years, however, I’ve spent an increasing amount of time in Los Angeles—book signings, meetings, festivals, vacations. And then a funny thing happened: my imagination started to cheat on Philadelphia.

Fun & Games is the love child of one of those L.A. brain flings, as is “Hell Of An Affair,” my short story for the L.A. Noire anthology. (Sometimes my brain can be a total slut.) And while Fun & Games is mostly told from the perspective of an outsider, I felt like I had to learn all I could about the City of Angels. Otherwise, what kind of baby daddy would I be?

So I spent a lot of time gorging on L.A. music, L.A.-set movies, L.A. novels, and of course, L.A. history. Here’s an informal list* of the 15 books that put me in the mindset of this crazy town.

And please add your favorites in the comments section below. You never know when my brain will want to stray again…

*I’ve left out the obvious L.A. classics, both modern and vintage—James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike thrillers, as well as Nathanael West, Horace McCoy, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain. I mean, you came here for the oddball stuff, right?

* * *

L.A. Bizarro: The All-New Insider’s Guide to the Obscure, The Absurd and the Perverse, by Anthony Lovett and Matt Maranian. This book was my Bible during my last couple of visits to L.A., and I’m not going to stop until I hit every last freaky cafeteria, kitschy dive and grisly murder site. There’s an older edition from 1997, and I recommend tracking that one down, too—there are enough differences to make it worth your time.

Continue reading “(Holly)wood Pulp: 15 Books That Helped Me Understand the City of Angels”

Mick Ballou Looks at the Blank Screen

Blank TVIn the opening pages of A Drop of the Hard Stuff, Scudder mentions that his friend Mick Ballou is married now, to a much younger woman named Kristin Hollander.  Readers may recall Kristin from Hope to Die and All the Flowers Are Dying, but her relationship with Mick may come as news to them.  It was in fact noted in a vignette I wrote a couple of years ago, “Mick Ballou Looks at the Blank Screen,” but that was written for a limited-edition broadside published by Mark Lavendier; it sold out in a hurry.

I expect I’ll tuck it into my next collection of short fiction.  But in the meantime I thought some of y’all might like a look at it:

MICK BALLOU LOOKS AT THE BLANK SCREEN

“At first,” Mick Ballou said, “I thought the same as everyone else in the country.  I thought the fucking cable went out.”

We were at Grogan’s, the Hell’s Kitchen saloon he owns and frequents, and he was talking about the final episode of The Sopranos, which ended abruptly with the screen going blank and staying that way for ten or fifteen seconds.

“And then I thought, well, they couldn’t think of an ending.  But Kristin recalled the time Tony and Bobby were talking of death, and what it would be like, and that you wouldn’t even know it when it happened to you.  So that was the ending, then.  Tony dies, and doesn’t even know it.”

It was late on a weekday night, and the closemouthed bartender had already shooed the last of the customers out of the place and put the chairs up on the tables, where they’d be out of the way when someone else mopped the floor in the morning.  I’d been out late myself, speaking at an AA meeting in Marine Park, then stopping for coffee on the way home.  Elaine met me with a message:  Mick had called, and could I meet him around two?

There was a time when most of our evenings started around that time, with him drinking twelve-year-old Jameson while I kept him company with coffee or Coke or water.  We’d go until dawn, and then he’d drag me down to St. Bernard’s on West 14th Street for the butchers’ mass.  Nowadays our evenings started and ended earlier, and there weren’t enough butchers in the gentrified Meat Market district to fill out a mass, and anyway St. Bernard’s itself had given up the ghost, and was now Our Lady of Guadalupe.

And we were older, Mick and I.  We got tired and went home to bed.

And now he’d summoned me to discuss the ending of a television series.

He said, “What do you think happens?”

“You’re not talking about tv.”

He shook his head.  “Life.  Or the end of it.  Is that what it is?  A blank screen?”

I talked about near death experiences, all of them remarkably similar, with the consciousness hovering in midair and being invited to go to the light, then making the decision to return to the body.  “But there’s not a lot of eyewitness testimony,” I said, “from the ones who go to the light.”

Continue reading “Mick Ballou Looks at the Blank Screen”

Chapter 2 of The Wreckage

Next month we are publishing The Wreckage by Michael Robotham. Start reading the book that Booklist called (in a starred review), “Fine and ambitious with characters who are wonderfully human–smart, determined, decent, and flawed. Thoroughly compelling.”

Need to catch up? Read the Prologue and Chapter 1.

2

LONDON

Being measured for a new suit was not something Vincent Ruiz expected to happen until he was lying cold and stiff on an undertaker’s slab. And if that were the case, he didn’t suppose he’d care about an effeminate stranger nudging a tape measure against his balls. Maybe he’s weighing them. Every other measurement has been taken. Continue reading “Chapter 2 of The Wreckage”

The Writing of A Drop of the Hard Stuff

An abbreviated version of the following essay appeared on Amazon’s Kindle Daily blog. We thought our dedicated readers might want a look at Block’s words in full. Enjoy!

I was afraid I might be done writing about Matthew Scudder.

I’d certainly spent enough years in his company.  From 1975’sThe Sins of the Fathers all the way to All the Flowers are Dying in 2005, I’d written sixteen Matthew Scudder novels, along with a handful of short stories.  And, because the fellow has aged in real time throughout the series, he’s now reached and passed the biblical high water mark of three score years and ten.  Even if you’re optimistic enough to argue that 72 is the new 71, the fellow’s still a little old to be leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

Now I should point out that this was not the first time I thought Scudder and I were done with each other.  In the fifth book, Eight Million Ways to Die (1982), the fellow confronted his alcoholism and, not without difficulty, chose sobriety.  That was all well and good for him, but I figured I’d written myself out of a job.  The man had undergone a catharsis, he’d confronted the central problem of his existence, so what was left to say about him?  His d’etre, you might say, had lost its raison, and I’d be well advised to go write about somebody else. Continue reading “The Writing of A Drop of the Hard Stuff”