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The Border Bosses: A Conversation with Sebastian Rotella and Luis Alberto Urrea: Part I

US-Mexico Border

Two great thrillers in just one week–this week we also celebrate the paperback publication of Sebastian Rotella’s acclaimed debut novel TRIPLE CROSSING. In bookstores now everywhere!

One of the first things we thought when we finished reading TRIPLE CROSSING was: we have to get Sebastian Rotella and Luis Urrea together. Of course, their conversation is fascinating, about borders, security, fear and the blurry line between “good” and “evil.”

Luis Urrea: Sebastian, you and I write about a lot of things, but I think we’re both seen as “Border writers” and I find in my experience that I kind of dislike a lot “Border experts” and “Border writers” because they come from outside the experience and bring in a lack of sympathy and empathy for the milieu. And I’m really curious about what I feel sets your work apart. How do you try to approach this? And am I full of hot air? Maybe I’m wrong about these guys, but you know it feels to me that much of the writing about this subject feels like a visit to the zoo.

Sebastian Rotella: Yeah, I remember you wrote about that eloquently in the past. You wrote about it in the very nice review you wrote of my previous book, TWILIGHT ON THE LINE. It’s a very good point. There’s this kind of parachute quality that happens with border coverage. I encountered that as a journalist. Obviously I had to be humble when I came to Tijuana, not having been there before. I had to learn that beat. But I had the advantage that I was based at the border. And I surprised that I was one of the few journalists covering the border who was based there working for major newspapers. This was a serious issue. You have pointed this out as well: even on the Mexican side, you’d get people parachuting in to cover the border from Mexico City or from Washington or from wherever they were coming from. And it makes such a difference to be based there full-time. What I went out of my way to do in those years, and the way I’ve tried to do my reporting in general, is to get out there and spend time on the ground with the migrants and with the cops and with the Border Patrol and with the human rights activists. There’s just so much to learn there and you only begin to understand the mysteries even if you are based at the border full time.

LU: Yeah, when I read TWILIGHT ON THE LINE, I thought, “Well this boy’s a homeboy, man.” You had the milieu down. And I actually stole from you. When you were talking about people going to the Big Boy and hanging out and so forth, I thought, “Dammit, I know that neighborhood. I know the restaurants around there. And it was really exciting to realize that there was a new sort of place to observe story happening. I always really responded to that in your work. I so often feel like (and I won’t name any names) that some of the people who have had very critically acclaimed books on the Border, a lot of them are filled with a sort of disdain and superiority held over their subjects. It really bothered me because I thought that there are so many levels of humanity striving and what moves me about that region is that, like you say, it’s kind of rejected by Mexico City as well as by Washington DC. It’s on its own.

SR: Yeah. And the problem is that we are attracted to (rightfully so) the dark side and the profound suffering and cruelty and heroism that is going on in arenas like the drug wars and illegal immigration. Those topics are so alluring and important that you end up writing about them. But when I was based there I also now and then tried in my coverage, and I tried to do it even in this novel (which is about crime and corruption), to demonstrate that there are so many other aspects. There is such energy at the border and such a rich culture: the music and the literature and the language that comes out of that encounter of cultures. People do sort of get a tunnel vision about focusing on the violence and despair. And it’s a struggle. Because as you become more of an expert, as you learn more about those secret worlds, you want to write about them. But at the same time you don’t want the border to be defined only by the dark side.

Continue reading “The Border Bosses: A Conversation with Sebastian Rotella and Luis Alberto Urrea: Part I”

Daughters of Daughters of Eve: An Interview with Megan Abbott

Laura Lippman: One thing that struck me about DARE ME is that it’s told by an insider, someone inside the group, not an outsider who’s infiltrating it (Mean Girls) or an outsider (pretty much every book I read as a teen). And it struck me that was a bit new for you, too, especially when compared to THE END OF EVERYTHING or even BURY ME DEEP. If history is written by the winners, isn’t fiction usually written by the outsiders? 

Meagan Abbott: Absolutely. And since most writers are introverts, at least in part, one of the hardest parts for me was writing from the point of view of someone whose position in the world of social power was so different from mine at that age. I’ve written male protagonists, female gangsters, women whose lives were circumscribed by conditions (the Great Depression, pre-feminism) I’ve never experienced, even women who have to commit gruesome acts to save themselves. But somehow it was harder, at first, to imagine myself as a member of the high school elite (and an athlete, but that’s another story).

Of course most writers are voyeurs too, and I certainly am, so the more I dug my feet into those trenches, I saw the same power machinations occurring within the elite group of girls as I’d experienced from the outside. Someone always seems to have what you want and there’s always a moment when you realize: ah, this is how I could get it? Would I do this to get it?

LL: I wrote to you about my fascination with names, once I glommed onto Tacy and we joked about the very small cohort of people on the planet who would recognize a Wire reference and a Betsy-Tacy reference. (Us.) As it happens — awful moment of self-reference coming up — I wrote To the Power of Three from the point of Tib, the third friend in the Betsy-Tacy books who can never catch up; Betsy and Tacy will always have been friends longer. But while this is a book from the inner circle, it’s also a book from the POV of a Tacy, a #2, right? 

MA: Oh, that’s so right about Tacy, though I can’t say it was conscious. And that makes so much sense about the Tib connection in TO THE POWER OF THREE (a book which spoke with such intensity to me, having occupied each of the triangle corners in different friendships in my life).

Interestingly, I have always had a complicated relationship to Tacy. As a girl, I identified with Betsy as the aspiring writer, though I think Tacy’s shyness and reserve was far more my own. In the later books, when they’re in high school, I remember feeling disappointed with how Tacy becomes even less ambitious, even more of a homebody, lacked Betsy’s Jo March-verve.

So it’s particularly compelling to consider how Tacy’s presence might be felt in DARE ME. Because doesn’t the Number 2 (to reintroduce THE WIRE) always harbor their own ambitions? Continue reading “Daughters of Daughters of Eve: An Interview with Megan Abbott”

Brian Michael Bendis Interviews Greg Rucka

iraqOur post-Comic Con celebration of come of our enormously talented, cross-media authors continues with an interview between Brian Michael Bendis, writer of Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Fantastic Four and The Avengers, and Greg Rucka, whose first new thriller series in a decade kicked off with ALPHA, now in bookstores everywhere.

Brian Michael Bendis: So we’re being honest with our reading audience. Last week you were cool enough to come to my class—I teach a class at Portland State—and you came there and dropped some truth bombs on them, and rattled them to the core. It was a lot of fun. But I had questions left over that we never got to because it was more of a free floating conversation, so there was questions I was going to ask, and I didn’t. And the primary question I had that I think is more pertinent to this conversation than the one we were going to have in front of the students, was if you’ve given thought to your goals as a novelist at this point. Like, there’s the goals that you had when you started, which was to get published—and now you’re starting a new kind of phase in your career, in that age we’re in, we get more introspective. OK, we’ve been published—now what? OK, I get to do this—now what am I going to do with it? So I was curious if you had given thought to that, or if you were bring more take it as it comes.

Greg Rucka: You know, it’s weird, because coming into Mulholland, and Alpha is the first new series that I’ve done in over decade in novels, in prose.  Stumptown was sort of the next step, but Alpha is the first in what is initially conceived of as the first of three novels, and may grow beyond that. I did give it some thought. There were two factors at work. The first is the obvious commercial one—you want to write something that’s going to be successful and you want to justify the publisher’s faith in you. You want to return them the money they’re willing to extend to you to write this thing, and most of the other novels are selling pretty well, but none of them have really broken out, and I’m not sure that’s a top agenda point.

But I would like to be able to write something that rewards the publisher’s faith. That actually does matter to me. I don’t hear a lot of writers talk about it. But self publishing is so viable that if you do go with a publisher you do want to make it worth everybody’s time. Content-wise, you touched on it, you know—I’m older. Like you, I’ve got kids. I have a different perspective than I did when I was 24, when my first novel was published. Continue reading “Brian Michael Bendis Interviews Greg Rucka”

A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski and Ed Brubaker: Part I

Suffering from post-Comic Con withdrawal? Get your fix with the below conversation between award-winning writer Ed Brubaker, author of CRIMINAL, SLEEPER and INCOGNITO, among many others, and Duane Swierczynski, originally appearing to celebrate the publication of FUN & GAMES. Hardie endures!

Ed Brubaker: So, Duane – FUN & GAMES, am I right in saying this is your first non-Philadelphia book? (Not counting any co-writing) Did you leave your hometown behind in life and fiction?

Duane Swierczynski: You’re right — this is my first book set in a place other than Philly. I still live in Philadelphia (for the time being), and my fictional heart still lives here, too. But I do cop to a little bit literary wanderlust. The idea for FUN & GAMES, grew out of repeated visits to the Hollywood Hills over the years, and even though I tried (at one point) to set it closer to home, it refused to work anywhere but L.A.
Ed, how important is “place” in your work? You’ve created this brilliant fictional location in CRIMINAL‘s “Center City,” but was that on purpose? Why not, say, Chicago, or Seattle, or NYC?

EB: I think with CRIMINAL, it was to make it like the city in Walter Hill’s The Driver, or to use Chandler’s Bay City and Macdonald’s Santa Teresa as location names. Also, I was a Navy brat, so I don’t have that hometown thing a lot of writers have. I lived in DC (or right across the bridge in Arlington) in the summer of 1979, so I get Pelecanos’ views of it from the little I experienced at age 12, but I think one of the reasons I’m drawn to a lot of crime writers I love is the way their books inhabit a city, in a way I never could, as the always traveling outsider.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski and Ed Brubaker: Part I”

Don Winslow, Interviewed by Shane Salerno

Today, the film Savages, based on the Don Winslow novel of the same name, opens in theaters. Check out the trailer, if you haven’t already. Directed by Oscar winner Oliver Stone, the film’s screenplay is the product of a collaboration between novelist Don Winslow and screenwriter Shane Salerno. Winslow and Salerno have known each other for a long time – thirteen years to be exact. They have worked together, including creating the NBC TV series UC: Undercover, trust each other implicitly and often exchange early drafts of their work and talk on the phone every day, usually about film adaptations of Winslow’s work which Salerno produces. At our request, Salerno rang up his buddy Winslow who was in the middle of a cross-country book tour and interviewed the acclaimed crime writer about his life and work.

Salerno: What does it mean for you to be a writer?

Winslow: It means everything to me to be a writer. You know I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. I grew up with great story tellers. My old man was a sailor, and I used to sit under the dining room table when he had his old Navy buddies over, and he’d pretend to think that I’d gone to bed and he’d let me sit there and listen to some of the best story tellers in the world so I always worshiped those guys. And we always had books around the house. My old man came out of World War II, you know 17 years old on Guadalcanal and what he wanted to do was ride around on boats, go to every zoo in the world and sit around and read books. So there were always books around our house and we were allowed to read anything we wanted at any age. There was no censorship, no nothing and so I imagined from when I was 5 or 6 years or so that if I could be a writer that would be the best thing in the world to be.

Salerno: Tell me 5 books that knocked you out?

Winslow: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential–where am I? that’s three?–a book called A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, it’ll come to me, a really beautiful Indian novel about Mumbai, and, without question, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.

Salerno: Name some authors’ you consistently admire in the genre?

Winslow: Well, James Ellroy, T. Jefferson Parker, Michael Connelly, Ken Bruen and John Harvey, Dennis Lehane and Lee Child.

Salerno: You’ve been married for twenty-five years, and yet all of your characters are a mess. How do you access that?

Winslow: [laughs] All of my characters are a mess?

Salerno: They’re a mess!–Every single one of them.–A beautiful mess in some cases but…

Winslow: Y’know, I think methods are interesting. You know what I mean? Vulnerability’s interesting. I don’t think like ‘steady’ is real interesting in fiction, you know? I think that a character’s flaws are what give a character depth and interest. So, I’ve been married for 25 years but I had a life before I was married. It’s a little hard to remember sometimes but I did and I think I was the same kind of flawed, kind of vulnerable kind of character so it is pretty easy for me to access that .

At the same time, I think, you know any writer looks around him. You know, you look at people you look at relationships, you look at other people you know, you look at people in restaurants and cafés, you sit there and you make up stories about them you hear snatches of conversation you see little bits of behavior and that finds its way into your work. But if I was to just sit and write about myself I think we’d have some damn dull books. It would be about some guy sitting alone in a room typing. Not very interesting

Salerno: Give us a short history of your childhood, your parents and growing up.

Winslow: Oh, man. There’s no short history. My dad was a Navy man, Marine in World War II, and then into the Navy, Childhood was spent on most of the destroyer ports on the East Coast. My mom was from New Orleans, my dad met her while he was on leave during World War II. They got married six weeks later, and she came from a family of gamblers. My grandmother was a ward healer for Huey Long after the depression, and then she worked for Carlos Marcello the Mafia chief who probably had Kennedy killed — who by the way I met as a child we used to go to parties at his house in Algiers.

Continue reading “Don Winslow, Interviewed by Shane Salerno”

How Much Ozarks Is In Me?

Two hours before beginning this essay we had yet another encounter with residents of the meth house on the corner, our nearest neighbor to the west. The lead male over there is a cutter, dozens of little slashes have made risen scars on his arms. He has a ponytail, is known well by all cops in town, and never wears a shirt. He accused us of “eyeballing” him as we passed his house, something we have no choice but to do many times a day. The derelict shack has in the past been home to sex criminals, rapists, and pedophiles, other meth users, and some criminals who would have to be called general practitioners—whatever crime looks easiest tonight is what they will be arrested for tomorrow. Meth-heads are the worst to deal with. They are unpredictable and frequently violent after they’ve been sleepless for a few days. We are dedicated to minding our own business about most things, legal or not so much, but cooking meth releases toxins and is a peril to the whole neighborhood. A decade ago there were several houses much like this operating nearby, but they’ve been weeded down to this, the last one, and these tweakers should start packing.

My mother was born less than a hundred yards from my house. She was of the first generation raised in town and played in my yard as a child. I can see the roof of her father’s place from the porch when the leaves are down. Both sides of my family have been in the Ozarks a long time. It was hard from the beginning to eke out a living from thin dirt and wild game, and it stayed hard. The Woodrell side (surnames Mills, Terry, Dunahew, and Profitt) has been here a bit longer than the Daily side (Davidson, DeGeer, Riggs, Shannon). Woodrells arrived on this continent around 1690 and settled in these parts during the 1830s, after Kentucky and Tennessee became too gussied up and easily governed for their taste. The early white settlers came here to avoid the myriad restraints that accompany civilization: sheriffs, taxes, social conformity. They sought isolation. There has never been much belief in the essential fairness of a social order that answers most readily to gold, always assumed the installed powers were corrupt and corruptible, hence to be shunned and avoided, except when you couldn’t and must pay them.

A Davidson ancestor did kill a man in the center of town, before many witnesses, and land, livestock, everything that could be sold had to be sold to buy him out of a conviction, which was done. He’d killed his long-time pal, a man who beat him always in the wrestling contests featured at most picnics, then they got drunk on Washington Avenue and decided to wrestle again in the street. Davidson won this time, as the other man could not stand unaided, and is alleged to have pulled his pistol in victory and said as he shot the pal at his feet, “Now I finally whupped you, I might as well kill your ass, too.” Once the money was spent, this became an act of self-defense and he never did a week in jail. That was over a century ago, but we still remember, and the family of the dead man does, too—as late as the 1970s there was friction when my older brother dated a girl with their name.

ClassicI was raised on such stories in exile, and the old stories get rubbed together plenty in the retelling, dates and facts become blended. Did such and such happen in 1885, 1965, or not at all? Is that a DeGeer story or a Dunahew? The violent stories are the first I remember. They are many and fed me as a boy, but now I am more taken with how Grandma Mills lost a slice of nose to disease, how Dad got that patch of skin torn from his leg as a boy when barbed wire snagged him after he’d raided a garden for melons and the gardener spotted him, how Granddad Daily rode a mule to church in the 1920s because he wanted to impress girls. I like trains in the night, dogs baying after coons, the long hours when the wind sings as it channels between hills and hollers and flies along creek beds. I’ve known a thousand plain kindnesses here. It is generally a pleasure to live among so many individuals who refuse to understand even the simplest of social rules if they find them odious. This trait can, of course, raise trouble. I have had a few close relatives do time in the penitentiary, some recently, not for being thieves ever, but always for refusing to take each and every piddling law seriously—trouble is bound to happen once in a while when you love life so wildly.

Continue reading “How Much Ozarks Is In Me?”

Hunt the Wolf Q&A with Don Mann and Ralph Pezzullo

Today, HUNT THE WOLF by Don Mann with Ralph Pezzullo officially hits the stands! AJ Garcia of Shakefire.com says, “There is never a boring moment. You will literally burn your way through this book in a matter of hours. It’s that good. A+” To commemorate HUNT THE WOLF‘s release, here’s a Q&A with authors Don Mann and Ralph Pezzullo:

Don and Ralph, what has been the difference for you between writing nonfiction and fiction?

Don: We had a tight deadline for Inside SEAL Team Six and had to write it quickly. So Ralph and I came up with a rough outline, then I started sending him tapes describing my experiences and other material. And he worked to blend all of it into a coherent and well-written narrative.

Ralph: In the end Don sent me over 200 tapes. Some were snippets, others were over an hour long. I spent a lot of time transcribing and organizing everything, before I started writing. Then I started drafting chapters and sending them to Don. I’d incorporate Don’s comment and notes, then send the chapters to our editor John Parsley. Working that way we finished the manuscript in two and a half months.

Don: Then came the government review process…..

Ralph: Which was long, frustrating and brutal. But we made it through.

Don: Thanks to our very patient editor.

Ralph: Yes!

How was the process of writing HUNT THE WOLF different?

Don: For one thing, we had more time. Actually HUNT THE WOLF was written before Inside SEAL Team Six.

Ralph: Don contacted me about writing a series of thrillers. I said: Sure! He’s been involved in so many missions and adventures over his career that we have tons of material to work with. I came up with an outline and we worked from that.

How closely is the story in HUNT THE WOLF based on real events?

Don: Very close. I would say that everything described in the book has happened. Maybe not in the same order or under the same circumstances, but I’ve been involved in missions and situations very similar. Continue reading “Hunt the Wolf Q&A with Don Mann and Ralph Pezzullo”

A Conversation with Mark Billingham and Lee Child: Part I

This week we salute BLOODLINE by Mark Billingham as it hits bookstores in paperback. The New York Times Book Review raved that BLOODLINE offers a “psychologically twisted and strikingly original plot” with a “relentlessly swift pace and high emotional pitch.” Here, we present Part I of a conversation with Lee Child, the #1 bestselling author of the Jack Reacher series. And don’t miss the newest Tom Thorne novel THE DEMANDS, now available in bookstore everywhere.

Mark Billingham: I was thinking a lot about series and the demands that writing a series makes on you and the benefits of it.  Obviously in the last week or so there has been heaps of internet chat in response to the rumor that Tom Cruise might be about to play Jack Reacher. Whatever your thoughts are about that, it’s an incredible testament to the power of the series and the ownership readers feel they have of the character.  Do you feel that Reacher is yours?  Do you feel like you share him?

Lee Child: That’s a great point and it’s something I’ve been very aware of as the years have passed because it’s completely a progression, obviously.  On Day 1, nobody in the world knows anything about Reacher apart from me because it’s the first book. It’s a work in progress, it’s not finished, and nobody has seen it. Then, the first book gets published and then the second and the third.  And gradually the ownership of the character does migrate outwards into the public realm.  I was very aware actually of the particular point which was after eight or nine books, maybe ten books.  Previously to that people were kind of deferential.  They thought Reacher was an independent entity, but they knew somehow he belonged to me. Then, after about the tenth book, he became totally publicly owned to the point where I now get abused just like any other fan with a different opinion.  I count for nothing anymore.  Reacher is completely independent and completely out there.  And you’re right, the casting choice in Hollywood is being made right now.  My attitude towards that was whoever is cast, whoever it was, 99% of the fans would be outraged because it would be a sheer coincidence if whoever it was matched their own personal image.  I think it’s just proof actually of how tightly owned a series character becomes by the readers, which is great really because that is the advantage of a series.  This is a tough trade.  Launching one book every year is a new mountain to climb every time and if you can get any help at all carried over from previous years you need it.  Of course, one of the great helps is, if it is a series, (to borrow the language of credit card companies) the new book is kind of “pre-approved.”  The readership thinks, “Well, I liked the last six, so I’ll probably like this.”  It’s a much lower hurdle to get over.  I think with people who write standalone books, the author’s name obviously continues and counts for something, but you’ve got a slightly higher mountain to climb.  Are they going to like it?  Is it the same as what you’ve done before? You’ve mixed it, haven’t you?  How have you felt about that?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Mark Billingham and Lee Child: Part I”

A Conversation with George Pelecanos: Part I

The paperback edition of George Pelecanos’s THE CUT hits bookstores today. THE CUT introduces Spero Lucas, an ex-Marine and Iraq vet who specializes in recovering stolen property – no questions asked – in return for forty percent of its value. Spero’s first case involves an imprisoned drug lord, and drops him dead center into the midst of the Washington, D.C., underworld which Pelecanos has chronicled so vividly in all his novels. Spero is Pelecanos’ first series character since Derek Strange, the DC PI who appeared in four novels, most recently 2004’s HARD REVOLUTION.

In a series of e-mail exchanges with Wallace Stroby, Pelecanos talked about THE CUT, his influences, and what’s next:

WALLACE STROBY: After four stand-alone novels that in some ways mirrored your TV work – multilevel stories with a broad array of characters and social concerns – THE CUT feels like a return to your early, leaner and meaner crime novels. What led to that?

GEORGE PELECANOS: On a whim I wrote a short story (“Chosen”) about a married couple who adopt a bunch of kids, and wind up with an interracial family. The story ended with a few sentences about the current status of two of the brothers: Leo Lucas, a teacher at a public high school in Washington, and Spero Lucas, a Marine fighting in Fallujah. That led to me meeting several Marine vets of Iraq and Afghanistan who had come home and were working as private investigators for criminal defense attorneys here. It hit me that some of these guys weren’t interested in desk jobs, and maybe never would be.

Then one day, when I was doing some work at a local correctional facility, I met a man who had lost a leg in Fallujah, and was picking up a relative who was being released from jail. We had a very interesting, enlightening conversation. There are a lot of stories to tell about these veterans, and I felt like I had one cooking in my head. THE CUT came forward.

I guess I was ready to write a straight-ahead crime novel. On the internet some people were making comments that I had gone soft or literary, whatever that means. It puts a chip on my shoulder when people think they have me figured out. I write the book that knocks on the door of my imagination.

WS: Spero’s chosen profession has echoes of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, in that he recovers lost goods in exchange for a cut of what he salvages. Do you see yourself going down the road with him?

GP: THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE was on the syllabus of the University of Maryland crime fiction class that pretty much changed my life.  Eventually I read all the titles in that series.  I even named one of my dogs Travis, and she was a bitch.

Spero Lucas, in some respects, is me tipping my hat to Mr. MacDonald and McGee and to the physical-and-flesh spirit of those books. I’m not much for long-range plans, but I will definitely write another Lucas novel. The character stuck with me. I want to know more about him myself.

 WS: The McGee books also ruminated a lot about what it meant to be a man in today’s world. That’s a major theme in your books as well – manhood and what it entails, fathers and sons, mentoring.  You don’t see a lot of that in crime fiction. Is it something you felt was lacking in the genre?

GP: The subject of manhood and masculinity is underserved in all types of fiction, and when it is touched on it’s not always done with complete honesty. Meaning, it becomes wish fulfillment, giving the readers what they want to believe, rather than what’s true. You can add the subject of race and class to that, too.

Male father figures are a critical element in the shaping of young lives. When I go into a juvenile facility I can almost guarantee that nearly all of the boys I talk to had no significant male guidance when they were raised.  What you see around here now are coaches, teachers and mentors stepping up and taking on that role. My last three books were about fathers and sons. We’ve raised two sons and a daughter, so I felt like I was qualified to go deep into the subject.

Continue reading “A Conversation with George Pelecanos: Part I”

On Mildred Pierce: A Conversation with Laura Lippman

Both Laura Lippman and myself are ardent, perhaps obsessive fans of the James M. Cain novel, Mildred Pierce. For just that reason, we both had been avoiding watching the HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce and directed by Todd Haynes. Finally, with the series now on DVD, I surrendered and watched it, as did Laura. Below, expanded from an attenuated Facebook thread, are our thoughts on the experience, which ultimately led to the question, as Laura poses it on her blog: what happens when someone has a “deep, mad love for a book”? Is any adaptation of it doomed?

—MA

LL:  In the final episode of the five-hour plus adaptation of Mildred Pierce, I began to wonder if it just might be quicker to read the audiobook. Not quite, not at all—it’s 10 hours. But whatever happened to pictures being worth 1,000 words? Stranger still, the last two episodes seemed rushed. It was almost as if someone at HBO said, ‘Oh my god, we authorized how many hours? Pull the plug!’ (Full disclosure, I know and admire/like Cary Antholis, who oversees miniseries there, so I know this couldn’t be the case.)

I know the book so well that I wasn’t sure I could give the miniseries a fair shake. But two things strike me. First, James M. Cain, as a former newspaperman, knows how to write very tight compressed scenes. He violates the principle of ‘show, not tell’ over and over again—and the book is better for it. Take, for example, the scene of Mildred and Monty’s jaunty banter, en route to Lake Arrowhead. It zips by in the novel, written indirectly.

“Going through Pasadena, they decided it was time to tell names, and when he heard hers, he asked if she was related to Pierce Homes. When she said she was ‘married to them for a while,’ he professed to be delighted, saying they were they worst homes ever built, as all the roofs leaked. She said that was nothing compared to how they treasury leaked, and they both laughed gaily. His name, Beragon, he had to spell for her before she got it straight, and as he put the accent on the last syllable she asked: ‘Is it French?’’’

Put in straight-forward dialogue, this exchange loses so much of its charm and breeziness.

The second problem is that it’s a very internal novel. Mildred can’t express her feelings and she often doesn’t understand them. All credit to Kate Winslet for trying to play this literal, humorless character. I think she was miscast. I think almost everyone is miscast, except for Guy Pearce, who made me see Monty’s charm at last; Mare Winningham; Melissa Leo; and maybe young Veda.

I will say I’m convinced that Todd Haynes loves the novel. Continue reading “On Mildred Pierce: A Conversation with Laura Lippman”