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Hey, Sinner Man, Where’d You Go?

Today marks the three-year anniversary of MulhollandBooks.com! To celebrate where we’re going with where we’ve been, we’ll be re-featuring our very first guest posts throughout the day. Some authors we’ve gone on to publish; all of them we’ve continued to admire. What’s next? You never know what’s coming around the curve…

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.

When you look at it like that, it sounds pretty lame, doesn’t it? I’m reminded of the truly awful actor in the truly dreadful showcase production of Hamlet. When some audience members walk out during the famous soliloquy, he breaks character and cries out, “Hey, don’t blame me — I’m not the one who wrote this shit!”

What I did write, however, was a crime novel I called Sinner Man. It was my first crime novel, though it was a long way from being my first published novel. (And it was also a long way from being my first published crime novel, as you’ll see.)

If memory serves (and I might point out that, if memory truly served, there’d be no need for me to write this piece or for you to read it), I wrote Sinner Man sometime in the winter of 1959–60. In the summer of 1957, after two years at Antioch College, I’d dropped out to take a job as an editor at Scott Meredith Literary Agency. I was there for a year and wrote and sold a dozen or so stories of my own during that time. Then I dropped in again, or tried to; I went back to Antioch, but by then I was writing books for Harry Shorten at Midwood and had sold a lesbian novel to Fawcett Crest, and I had more books and stories to write, and what the hell did I care about Paradise Lost or Humphry Clinker, let alone The Development of Physical Ideas? So at the end of the year, I went to New York and took a room at the Hotel Rio, where I wrote another book for Midwood and, as my first for Bill Hamling’s Nightstand Books, one I called Campus Tramp.

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Live Chat with Don Winslow

Today marks the three-year anniversary of MulhollandBooks.com! To celebrate where we’re going with where we’ve been, we’ll be re-featuring our very first guest posts throughout the day. Some authors we’ve gone on to publish; all of them we’ve continued to admire. What’s next? You never know what’s coming around the curve…

What follows is a transcript of the live chat with Don Winslow, author of Savages, a book that I think is the literary equivalent of narcotic stimulants.

We’ll start with a few questions from me:

Sarah Weinman: – So first I wanted to talk a bit about Savages opening chapter (or opening line) and, at the risk of quoting myself – always dangerous – my sense was that “If you cackle out loud, you may proceed to Chapter 2. If not, you’re not Savages ideal reader, and it’s no great loss.” So was “fuck you” always the way the book started? Or did you have to pare things down, hack away at it, before that phrase became the book’s opener?

Don Winslow: First, Sarah, thank you for all the very kind words about the book. As a matter of fact, ‘fuck you’ was the first sentence I wrote, even before I had characters or a plot. I guess I was just in a bad mood. But then I got thinking, ‘What about it?’ Who says it? Who thinks it? The next thing I knew a 20-something Orange County woman named O was describing her friend Chon, and it went from there.

Sarah Weinman: Savages has quite the high-wire act in that it starts out as kind of high comedy – two guys and a girl, partying in the USA, so to speak, a threat nobody really takes seriously – and then things get Very Serious and it turns out that light-hearted beginning is basically a big lie. How did you make sure not to have too much comedy or too much tragedy, so that the tension between the two keeps the reader going until the illusion basically gets ripped away?

Don Winslow: Well, I like the high-wire, maybe because I’m so afraid of heights. I think life itself constantly flips between tragedy and comedy, and often very quickly and without warning, so I just wrote it that way. Frankly, if I thought something was funny, I put it in and took the chance. But as the story moved inexorably toward tragedy, the events argued against going for any laughs. Sometimes I think of story structure as a wave – it builds and builds and can do some funky things, but when it breaks, it breaks – when it crashes it crashes.

Harry Hunskicker: No memory, U wake up in a motel w/ pile of $ & dead hooker, police at the door. What fic. charac. do you call?
Don Winslow: [laughs] I call Philip Marlow, no question. But if you really are in this situation, Harry, you might want to consult a good lawyer.

Sarah Weinman: There’s a one-page narrative monologue near the end of the book that I think really delivers Savages knockout punch to American material culture and to the way boomer selfishness has not only failed subsequent generations but the country as a whole. Which is to say, you don’t mince words, and it seemed like the whole book was written from a place of frustration, if not anger, at how we ply ourselves with consumerism and are wholly ill-equipped for a world where such values don’t count.

Don Winslow: Yeah, I was pretty angry when I was writing this book. Hell, I’m pretty angry now. The widening economic disparity, the yapping, quarreling politicians who won’t address the real problems, the obsession with celebrity and cheap fame, and the endless consumerism that serves as a narcotic – really our worst drug problem. I was especially pissed off at the right-wing media bullies and congressional cretins who feel entitled to say anything, but then go running to mommy if anyone hits back. So I thought I’d take a rhetorical baseball bat to them.

Mexico's war on drugsDuane Swierczynski: Do you research before, during, or after writing a novel — like, say, Savages, which is full of tons of sharp insights into drug cartels, grades of marijuana, etc.? (Then again, it is entirely possible you’ve run a cartel at some point, and research is a moot point.)

Don Winslow: Thanks Duane! You know, I do a fair amount of research before and during. And so, it’s funny because you don’t know what you don’t know until you have to write it and so you think you’ve done enough research and then you’re writing and you realize there’s something you don’t know.

Afterwards, I try not to, I try to forget it and move on to the next book

Kathy Roberts: What’s on your iPod?

Don Winslow: Steve Earle, Robert Earle Keen, lots of Springsteen, James McMurtry (like in Larry McMurty’s son), Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane and a surf reggae band called Common Sense out of Laguna Beach

Cort McMeel: For me, The Power of the Dog was a seminal work of fiction. You wove an extremely complex plot with a lot of uninventable details of the Mexican drug trade while painting an in depth portrait of a whole gallery of characters. My two questions:
1) In your research did you interview any actual DEA agents, drug cartel members, Mexican police and/or prostitutes? 2) If so, who was the most interesting to you personally, and why?

Don Winslow: Thanks for the kind words, Cort. I have to be really careful about this. Suffice to say that I did a lot of research, including talking to people. Beyond that, I think I’d better be discreet. You know, they’re all interesting in their own ways.

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Batman is my Mr. Miyagi

Today marks the three-year anniversary of MulhollandBooks.com! To celebrate where we’re going with where we’ve been, we’ll be re-featuring our very first guest posts throughout the day. Some authors we’ve gone on to publish; all of them we’ve continued to admire. What’s next? You never know what’s coming around the curve…

I write mysteries. I love writing mysteries. And I also write comic books. So when I was recently at Comi-Con, someone at one of the panels asked me how comics have influenced and/or seeped into my mystery and novel writing. Indeed, one of the editors at Mulholland Books asked if the action-packed nature of comics helped develop the action and pacing I use in the novels.

So let me tell you the answer.

Yes.

Duh.

And the best part? I had no idea I was doing it.

You see, when you do your first novel, it goes out, and you hope people read it. Same with your second. But by the time you hit your third, people start looking at all the books together. It was then that the smart readers stepped forward. One e-mailed me through my website and said, “I’ve now read three of your novels. What are your issues with your father?” And later, someone else wrote about how reading my novels was like seeing the underbelly of the pacing in a comic book: short chapters and a cliff-hanger, short chapters and a cliff-hanger.

To be honest, I was surprised. But the moment I heard it, I knew it was true.
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Making Sense of Nothing and Making Nothing of Sense: A Maundering on the Taxonomy of Writing and I Forget What Else

Today marks the three-year anniversary of MulhollandBooks.com! To celebrate where we’re going with where we’ve been, we’ll be re-featuring our very first guest posts throughout the day. Some authors we’ve gone on to publish; all of them we’ve continued to admire. What’s next? You never know what’s coming around the curve…

“Fair is where you go to see the pigs race.”
— James Luther Dickinson

We are uncomfortable with works that can not be placed comfortably into a category. The English-speaking literary establishment has embraced the French word genre since the eighteenth century. We would do well to remind ourselves that the term, via the Latin genus, is a cognate of another French word, générique, whence the English generic. And, for example, noir, given generic catch-all meaning by American critics in the 1940s, is but another blanditude that consigns to the supermarket-aisle school of literary values many books whose unique qualities are thus obscured.

As George Eliot said in her 1856 essay on Heine: “In every genre of writing it preserves a man from sinking into the genre ennuyeux.” The “it” refers to wit, and the French phrase displays her own subtle wit: “the boring genre.” And it is true that most books consigned to one genre or another belong to the far-encompassing genre of boredom, even if there are no Boring sections designated as such in bookstores.

Most best-selling books belong to one genre or another—espionage, crime, horror, suspense, romance, mystery, self-help, ghost-written political memoirs that take the genre of boredom to a ghastlier realm. Best-sellers that perfume themselves with a contrived literary air fall short of what good genre writing offers. What, after all, was The Name of the Rose but a bad mystery whose plot-workings could not be believed at any turn? I actually read that one. We speak of putting the wounded out of their misery. I have now long felt the same about semiologists. As for something like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which was said to far transcend the romance genre, I would never read a book with such a pretentious title so like the whine of a moon-calf. Semiologists and moon-calves aside, even straightforward attempts at genre by real writers of true greatness often fail dismally: William Faulkner’s 1949 volume of mystery stories, Knight’s Gambit, is one of the worst books he did.

I am not saying that any genre writers, be they scriptomanic pulp hacks or masters of their corner of the marketplace, could ever beat out, except maybe financially, the few writers of our time who have doomed themselves, or been doomed, to the lower-paying racket of greatness.

But what of the latter, the great, or of those who walked the edge of greatness, who have been relegated to the ranks of the former? That’s what I want to talk about here.

Specifically I want to talk about Patricia Highsmith and George V. Higgins. Why these two? As I’m not auditioning for a creative-writing teaching job—I’m too old to look up girls’ skirts and fill them with the unbearable lightness of being—I’ll tell you the truth.

Continue reading “Making Sense of Nothing and Making Nothing of Sense: A Maundering on the Taxonomy of Writing and I Forget What Else”

Tune In to Weaponized

Weaponized by Nicholas Mennuti with David Guggenheim

Nicholas Mennuti and David Guggenheim’s globe-trotting suspense novel about a government contractor in exile went on sale this week, and if you were one of the book’s early readers, you know why Universal Pictures snapped up the film rights so quickly: Weaponized is a lush, rollicking tale, just as much immersed in the exotic cities of Cambodia as it is in the troubling consequences of government surveillance gone awry. It’s a story that begs to be seen as much as read. But what would the soundtrack for that movie be? Here to offer a playlist is none other than Nicholas Mennuti himself. You can listen to some of these songs through the Spotify player above.

Depeche Mode – “Barrel of A Gun”
Depeche Mode has always been one of my top five bands and their Violator album has exalted status on my list of desert island discs. “Barrel of A Gun” actually comes from their Ultra album—which, in my humble opinion, is their best after Violator, and may also be their darkest album overall (which means it’s dark). “Barrel of A Gun” will put you in the right frame of mind for Weaponized before you even crack the spine.

UNKLE – “Lonely Soul”
One of the greatest songs about isolation ever recorded. The beat is all jangly electro and the vocals by The Verve’s Richard Aschroft are haunting. One refrain sums up Weaponized better than I ever could: “I’m gonna die in a place that don’t know my name.”

Planningtorock – “I’m Your Man”
Planningtorock is actually just Janine Rostron, an experimental British musician who distorts the vocals in her songs to play around with gender identity and to better suit the mood of each individual track. It sounds heavy—it isn’t; you can dance to it. She’s done some softer beats, but “I’m Your Man” is pure paranoia all the way. It’s not easy listening, but neither is Kyle’s journey in Weaponized, and this track helped me set the mood for his inner monologues.

Jerry Goldsmith – “Basic Instinct – Main Title Theme”
After Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith—to me—is the greatest Hollywood composer of all time, and Basic Instinct has one of his signature scores. If Robinson ever had theme music, this would be it: slinky, seductive, and dangerous as hell. Also, bonus points to this score for having the second greatest simulated orchestral orgasm after Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”.

Chemical Brothers – “Container Park”
Film music has undergone many metamorphoses over the years, but hiring Daft Punk to score Tron:Legacy was a big one. Hollywood has never known what to do with electronic music, even when it embraced the synthesizer in the 80’s, but Daft Punk changed that. Since then, Orbital, Hybrid, M83, and others have made excursions into film scoring—but none with the force of The Chemical Brothers in the score for Joe Wright’s Hanna. Try listening to “Container Park” and not feel the danger.

Muse – “MK Ultra”
I don’t want to call Muse a guilty pleasure, but I kind of have to. It’s the best arena rock of the 2000s. I unabashedly love this song and can’t decide whether it’s because of the song itself or just the title—but either way I listened to it fairly regularly while writing the CIA sections in Weaponized.

David Bowie – “I’m Afraid of Americans”
Earthling was Bowie’s big late-90’s comeback album wherein he fully embraced electro, sort of like Madonna’s William Orbit–stamped “Ray of Light.” No playlist I construct would lack Bowie, but this song’s special even for the master himself and really contributed to the paranoid lost soul quality of Kyle in Weaponized.

John Murphy – “Mercado Nuevo”
In my opinion, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice is the most underrated film of the 2000s, and by extension, so is John Murphy’s propulsive score. Murphy’s done memorable work for Danny Boyle—28 Days Later and Sunshine—but his work for Mann really shines. “Mercado Nuevo” is the perfect music for driving into denied territory, exactly what Kyle and Lara spend a lot of time doing in Weaponized.

Public Image, Ltd – “The Order of Death”
Public Image Ltd was John Lydon’s (Johnny Rotten) first band after the Sex Pistols ended and is considered by many—me included—to be the first and potentially the best “post-rock” band. This particular track may be their crowning achievement and sets the mood for the last few chapters of Weaponized—that’s all I can say.

Tangerine Dream – “Thru Metamorphic Rocks”
I’ve got a serious spot in my heart for 70s and 80s Krautrock, and it doesn’t get much more epic than Tangerine Dream. This track is close to fifteen minutes long—my favorite part comes in at around five minutes in. I listened to it obsessively while writing the first time Kyle and CIA agent Tom Fowler encounter each other in a hotel room. Read the chapter and you’ll see why…

Thievery Corporation – “The Forgotten People”
Choosing a Thievery Corporation track is as much about celebrating how much all their music contributed to Weaponized as it is a public service announcement. No band has gotten me laid more consistently than Thievery Corporation (maybe Massive Attack did, too, I have to think). So listen to this track, which I did, while writing the early Phnom Penh scenes in Weaponized, or just buy the whole album Radio Retaliation and thank me later.

Wang Chung – “City of the Angels”
This is another epic action track, over nine minutes; my favorite part kicks in just over one minute in. This was Lara’s theme music for me, particularly when it came time for her to start shooting people. Also To Live and Die in L.A., directed by William Friedkin, is one of my favorite films ever. Don’t let the 80s prejudice you or the fact it’s by Wang Chung dissuade you—this is film scoring of the highest order.

Rachel Knight’s LA: Killer Ambition Edition

Killer Ambition, the third novel in Marcia Clark’s Rachel Knight series, is just on sale. Celebrate with a tour of District Attorney Rachel Knight’s Los Angeles, as depicted in the thriller that the Hartford Books Examiner raves is “both a criminally entertaining read and an intimately informed exposé of celebrity and crime.”

God's Seat
God’s Seat: The towering rock formation that looks down upon Malibu provides a startling backdrop for the prologue of Killer Ambition. A legendary symbol of Los Angeles, it received its moniker because of its throne-like shape.

Teddy's
Teddy’s: The hotspot club frequented by the Hayley, the missing daughter of a famous Hollywood director, and Mackenzie, her best friend. Teddy’s is located in the Hollywood Roosevelt Club and is filled with “long sparkling earrings and sequined minidresses on spray-tanned body beautifuls.” A famous celebrity haunt, Teddy’s is notoriously selective about its clientele. Once inside, it is a showcase for L.A. style and glamour.

Russell's Party House
Russell’s Party House: Her father’s hidden enclave in the Hollywood Hills was one of Hayley’s favorite hangs. “A low-slung Spanish-style with tilted roof and arched wooden door,” the house was her last known whereabouts.

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Lauren Beukes’s Top 10 Movies About Serial Killers

The Shining Girls by Lauren BeukesLauren Beukes is the author of The Shining Girls, a novel about a time-traveling serial killer…who’s being stalked by his sole survivor. The genre-bending thriller has earned raves from Entertainment Weekly, who calls it “a heart-thumping tale,” and The New York Times, who deems it a “strong contender for the role of this summer’s universal beach read.” Below is Beukes’s Top 10 list of movies about serial killers. How many have you seen?

1. The Silence of the Lambs

2. Se7en

3. Zodiac

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Lauren Beukes’s Film and TV Inspirations

The Shining Girls is a mash-up of a thing: part serial killer thriller, part old-fashioned romantic buddy caper, part time-travel twister. The TV shows and movies that had a major influence on me generally, which I think played into the writing of this book, are:

Memento for its twisty out-of-order storytelling

Memento

True Grit for a young bolshy heroine set on justice

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Rogue Review: Angel Baby by Richard Lange

Today we welcome Ro Cuzon, a contributor for The Rogue Reader, as he reviews Richard Lange’s critically acclaimed new novel, Angel Baby.
Angel Baby by Richard Lange
There may be more talented crime fiction authors working today than at any time in history, and I enjoy reading the great varieties of books they produce. Much too rarely, though, do I stumble upon that novel which seems to have been written especially for me. Stories where Voice, Character, Plot, and Setting, all combine to create a perfect, elating cocktail that instantly catapults me to the white-hot center of the narrative, messing with my mind and body as if I was personally involved in the events on the page, triggering heart palpitations, dry mouth, clammy hands, etc.

These novels all tend to be about criminals or people who have committed a crime (there’s a difference, I think), and the intensity of my reactions to their protagonists’ predicaments is always directly related to one thing: the degree of realism that the authors bring to their stories.

Enter Angel Baby by Richard Lange.

The novel opens with Luz, a beautiful Mexican young woman running away from her husband Ronaldo, a powerful and sadistic Tijuana narco known as El Principe. Her plan: cross the border and reunite with her daughter Isabel whom she left behind three years earlier. She crosses paths with Kevin Malone, an alcoholic drifter from San Diego with a tragic past, and together they set out for the border.

After learning of Luz’s escape, El Principe sics one of his most ruthless enforcers on his runaway wife. Jerónimo Cruz, aka El Apache, was planning to go straight and take care of his family once he got out of prison—that is, until El Principe pulls him out and orders him to bring Luz back, making him an offer he can’t refuse. Meanwhile, Thacker, a crooked Border Patrol agent, gets wind of the cash Luz is carrying and wants to steal it from her.

Angel Baby is a straightforward chase story, masterfully executed and beautifully written. It’s the complexity of each character, however, and Lange’s empathy for each of them (even the most depraved), that makes the novel such a unique read, pushing and pulling you in all directions. You root for Luz to be reunited with Isabel, of course, but also, maddeningly, for Jerónimo to catch her, because the alternative for him is simply too horrible to contemplate.

Many Mystery/Thriller/Noir authors’ insights into crime come from other books and movies of the genre, as well as news events and research on the Internet or at the library. And there’s nothing wrong with that. God knows writing is hard and time-consuming enough without having to risk one’s life going on a nature walk across gang territory to scope out a drug corner just to get it right on the page. But we are talking about crime here, so there is something to be said about the value of firsthand interaction with (or at least observation of) certain people and settings, and what the thrill or fear associated with that lifestyle can do for one’s writing.

I was never a violent criminal but I did spend the first half of my adult life gravitating toward trouble and the type of people who caused it. This shaped both the way I write today and the way I read, especially crime fiction. I didn’t know anything about Richard Lange when I opened Angel Baby but his true-to-life writing was instantly familiar to me, as was his vivid portrait of the seedier side of the world we live in, evoked with the dead-on ease of Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, Richard Price, or George Pelecanos.

While Lange may not have actually served time in Tijuana’s La Mesa—he is a recipient of a Guggenhein Fellowship, after all—he has most definitely roamed the gritty streets of Compton and felt the grimy TJ sun beating down on his back, and interacted with gang members and illegal immigrants alike. His keen observations of Southern California’s have-nots on both sides of the border, combined with a complete understanding of his characters’ motivations, make Angel Baby as brutal and real a novel as you will read this year, a fantastically paced page-turner with prose that both sings and cuts.

Ro CuzonNamed by George Pelecanos as a “rising stars of the new generation of noir novelists,” Ro Cuzon is the author of Under the Dixie Moon, a Library Journal Staff Pick for Best of 2012, and Under the Carib Sun. His third book in the Adel Destin crime series, Crescent City Stomp, will be published later this year by The Rogue Reader. He lives and writes in New Orleans.

Lauren Beukes’s Writing Music

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

It’s publication day for The Shining Girls, and after you tear through Lauren Beukes’s genre- and time-bending thriller, you might ask yourself, How did she do that? We’ll leave the full explanation to Beukes—it involves “murder walls” and a mind-boggling amount of research—but we can share the music that propelled her writing. Below, she tells us what she listened to while writing The Shining Girls. You can listen to some of these songs through the Spotify player above.

Working with words means I can’t listen to music that has words. I like up-tempo electronica with a dark, lush verve and the capacity to surprise you. Nothing too glitchy or doef-doef or monotonously predictable. These are albums rather than individual songs and I know I’ve left off a whole bunch, not least because Pandora isn’t available in South Africa, so I’m stuck with the albums I’ve bought. These were the ones that were on heaviest rotation while I was writing the book.

  • Amon Tobin: Foley Room
  • Markus Wormstorm: Not I, But A Friend (by my friend Markus Wormstorm)
  • The Parlour Trick: A Blessed Unrest (by my friend Meredith Yayanos)
  • Aperture Science: Portal 2 Soundtrack
  • The Chemical Brothers: Hanna Soundtrack
  • Haezer: Yazi
  • Massive Attack: 100th Window
  • The Real Estate Agents: 1
  • Sibot: In With The Old