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A Conversation with Pete Hamill and Carl Hiaasen: Part I

In our ongoing celebration of the publication of Tabloid City , we recorded a conversation between old friends Pete Hamill and Carl Hiaasen. With one of the major plotlines of Tabloid City relating to a terrorist event in New York City, and Pete and Carl speaking on the morning after the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death was announced, the topics of terrorism, journalism, tabloids and reporting could not be avoided.

Carl: It’s hard not to talk about the book without talking about New York City and without talking about terrorism, it is a huge part of Tabloid City. It’s quite timely, given the events. Unpredictable, but timely.

Pete: The unpredictable element for me was: I never imagined crowds outside the White House, crowds in Times Square, chanting “USA, USA” like the soccer team just beat the Russians. That was unpredictable.

Carl: Yes, for me too. One of the many things I enjoyed about the novel was the enduring weight of that tragedy on the city. If you read the book, you come away understanding, for those of us who don’t live in New York. While it changed and shaped all of our lives, but for no one more than the people who live in New York and the journalism in New York as well.

Pete: I agree with that, Carl. It’s not like people get up in the morning and look at the sky to see if there are any planes hovering. It’s not that. But, there’s an unresolved quality of September 11th, starting with Bin Laden. But also that it’s 10 years later coming this fall and we still haven’t  finished re-building the Trade Center.  And these other wars are grinding away, so it’s hard to focus on it, but it’s there.

Carl: The other thing that was a resonant moment was, I was watching the Today show this morning, and they showed the tabloids in New York and one of them had “Rot in Hell” as a headline. Because your book is so much about our dying trade and what will be lost if we lose daily newspapers. You will never have the impact on the internet of any story that you do walking back a newspaper rack in New York City and seeing a giant 60 point headline that says “Rot in Hell.” There is no way to duplicate that moment electronically.

Pete: And I hope it lasts forever, to have that particular take on it, the populist voice in the street. When it’s good. When the headlines are good. Sometimes they’re dumb. But, what the hell.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Pete Hamill and Carl Hiaasen: Part I”

A Conversation with Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter: Part II

This week, we celebrate the publication of Pete Hamill’s Tabloid City (Little, Brown and Company). If you missed Part I of this conversation between Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter, read it first. Early reviews for Tabloid City are pouring in. The New York Times calls it a “bedazzling…vivid, nonstop, time-stamped romp,” The Daily News calls it “an authentic thriller” and The Star Ledger calls it “an elegaic paen to Hamill’s city.”

Dexter: What did your father do for a living, Pete?

Hamill: He lost his leg when he was in his third year in New York. And he’d only gone to the third grade. So he couldn’t share in the Irish bounty of the harbor—the longshore jobs, the shipping and handling jobs—you know , the conventional jobs that male Irish immigrants had.

But he had very good handwriting, because he was naturally left-handed, and some nun had whacked him into being right-handed. One of the old political guys, a district leader, noticed his handwriting one day and said, “Jeez, you’ve got beautiful handwriting, Billy,” and got him a job in the office of the big grocery chain.

This was during the Great Depression in 1932, and the beginning of Roosevelt’s presidency right after that. So he was there for the whole depression, making nineteen dollars a week, which was enough to get married to my mother, and have me, and the beginning of the rest of us [children]—there were seven altogether. And then when World War II started he got a job in a war plant, in a factory making lighting fixtures after the war, and stayed there until finally they went on the lam to get away from the unions and headed south, and he couldn’t get another job—he was in his sixties.

What I mean is that he worked—that’s why they came here. That four-letter word work was the most important one in their vocabularies. And I think it impressed every one of the kids without sermons, Pete. They didn’t tell you a sermon about why you had to work—they showed it. My father and my mother—she always worked part-time. They showed it just by the rhythm of their days, and I went into my late teens just wondering about a job.

So I think that kind of thing, now with such a big immigrant population, it’s probably happening right now, except the names are not Irish—the names are Hernandez, and Torres, and Figeroa, and they will give this country what the Irish gave, and the Italians, and everybody else by the time it’s over.

Dexter: Now did your dad—if you don’t mind me asking this stuff—did your dad live a long time?

Hamill: He lived to be eighty. And my mother lived to be eighty-seven.

Dexter: Did they live long enough to see what you were gonna become?

Hamill: Oh yeah.

Dexter: Did they make the kids read?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter: Part II”

A Conversation with Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter: Part I

This week, we celebrate the publication of Pete Hamill’s Tabloid City (Little, Brown and Company). Tabloid City is a thriller about a crime, the demise of a newspaper and extremist behavior, all set in a night and a day and a night in New York City. We kick off the week with Part I of a conversation between Hamill and fellow former journalist and novelist Pete Dexter.

Mulholland Books: The plot of Tabloid City involves the demise of the newspaper, specifically, the last night of a newspaper’s existence. You’ve both worked for newspapers, and written about reporters in the past. Where the inspiration for those books came from? What you see the difference being between writing about newspapers, and what it was like working for one yourself?

Dexter: I’d say I’ve written about newspapers, but never in as informed a way as Tabloid City. One of the reasons being, no one’s ever going to trust me to run a newspaper; I wasn’t that kind of a columnist. And I can’t think of anyone except Pete [Hamill] who would be trusted with that. I mean, there are obviously editors, and editors who write a weekly column once in awhile, and some of them of them are okay—most of them aren’t very good—but there’s nobody else who’s written at the very top. Pete Hamill is different than Mike Royko and Jimmy Breslin and everybody else, but he’s in that league. Because his voice, among all those voices, is somehow the one you want to hear—it’s the calmest element, and most reasonable.

So he knows it from that end, which is essentially a reporter’s end, and he also knows it from having to be responsible for all these peoples’ lives and jobs.

Hamill: Thanks, Pete.

Dexter: So I think that’s why when he wrote that scene in Tabloid City with the publisher and the editor—this very civilized conversation, at the very end of which, you get a spark of that anger, when he’s saying, “I want my people to read about this on the…whatever you call that shit you put on the computer…”

Hamill: The website. [Chuckles.]

Dexter: …that was very powerful stuff. And I know I couldn’t have written about it, ‘cause I didn’t know about it. And I don’t think there’s anybody else that could’ve either.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter: Part I”

Daniel Woodrell on Writing: Video

To conclude our ongoing celebration of the publication of The Bayou Trilogy, we have three never-before-seen videos of our panel in San Francisco. We’ve pulled out for you Daniel Woodrell’s commentary on the making of Winter’s Bone, on life in the Ozarks and how his family history has influenced his writing.

Woodrell on his role in the movie of Winter’s Bone.

Woodrell on the Ozarks.

Woodrell on how his life has affected his writing.

How has where you come from affected what you like to read, write or watch?

A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell

Daniel Woodrell and I met about four or five years ago at the LA Times Festival of Books and I proceeded to act like a total gushing fanboy. My only consolation was that I got to witness several other writers, some quite prominent, do their own fanboy or fangirl meltdowns. That the man didn’t run screaming back to Missouri is testament to his gentlemanly manner. In the years since LA, Daniel and I have exchanged emails, but it wasn’t until Bouchercon San Francisco that we got to spend any time together.

Getting to know one’s heroes can be an iffy proposition at best. I needn’t have worried. Daniel turned out to be as fascinating and complex as his work. He’s incredibly well read, thoughtful, honest to a fault, and enjoys a drop of good bourbon. The man speaks nearly as lyrically as he writes, but I don’t suppose any of that really surprised me. The things that caught me off guard were his sly sense of humor and the lurking mischief in his eyes.

I considered doing some high-minded discussion of Daniel’s work in advance of the release of The Bayou Trilogy, but foundered when trying to hit upon the proper approach. What could I say about Daniel Woodrell’s writing that hasn’t already been said? Instead, I thought, an actual conversation—via email—between the two of us would provide a little insight into the man behind Winter’s Bone, Tomato Red, and The Death of Sweet Mister. Daniel was gracious enough to agree.


REED: Your work requires the reader to pay careful attention. Is that a conscious decision on your part or is that just how your style developed? Can you ever imagine yourself writing in some other way than you do to, let’s say, to be more “commercial”?

labyrinthianDANIEL: I did a couple of times try to write more like somebody else, thinking that might change my fortunes, but all those efforts were tossed. I have to hear it to write it. I work hard on my sentences and I want them all read, but my bargain with the reader is that I won’t go into any “labyrinthian digressions” that lead to an urge to skim, either. If I knew what commercial was it might cross my mind, but I clearly don’t, so … I often think about the old bards and their approach. I admire the thought of them and the challenges of their chosen task. Bards were great artists, but they also had to hold their audience: can’t have oafs snoozing in the front row or chieftains wandering away in the back, so the storytelling had to be swift, vivid and powerful, and what the bards thought was a good enough approach sits fine by me. I never have felt that there was some great gulf between literary fiction and storytelling.

And a question for you: Given that the east coast is the most written about, filmed, sung about and televised region of our nation, were you encouraged or intimidated by the thought of setting your fiction there? Or was there no real choice, it’s your homeland and that’s that?

REED: I studied poetry in college and had never really attempted any fiction. So when I decided, quite insanely, to quit my job to write crime novels, I figured the one element of fiction I was apt to have any command of at all was setting. I knew where I was from. More than that, I understood where I was from. From your work, I know that’s a distinction you get and play with. My first two novels sort of sound like a guy doing an impression of Raymond Chandler, but with a Brooklyn accent. What’s cool about writing about NYC is that it’s a place everyone thinks they know, but it’s really a thousand different places that almost no one knows. The Brooklyn I write about—the Coney Island/Brighton Beach/Sheepshead Bay area—for instance, is a different place than the Brooklyn Gabriel Cohen or Peter Blauner write about. The Manhattan Larry Block writes about is nothing like the Chinatown that SJ Rozan writes about or the Wall Street that Peter Spiegelman writes about. I really enjoy opening up people’s eyes to the truth of that and playing with the bizarre universal romance people have for Brooklyn.

Now, back to you. Early on in Under The Bright Lights, the character Suze says something that struck me very differently than the first time I read the novel because I’ve since seen Winter’s Bone and video of the Ozarks. Suze says, “You shouldn’t make fun of me. Everybody makes fun of me.” UTBLs isn’t set in the Ozarks, but Bayou folks get painted with the same brush as people from the Ozarks and the Appalachians. Was Suze speaking for them or am I reading way too much into it? Even if I am, do you understand why I’m asking?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell”

Casting Light On Shade: A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell, Part II

This week, we celebrate the release of The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell. Here, we have the continuation of the conversation with award-winning journalist, editor and fiction writer Craig McDonald. Start with Part I if you missed yesterday’s post. Note: this interview was conducted in 2006.

I’ve never seen much put out there regarding your work habits, and perhaps that is purposeful on your part. I’m wondering if you’re a morning or an evening writer?

It’s evolved over the years. When we lived in California I didn’t start writing until two or three in the morning. Here, it’s the opposite. I get up and go early. At one time, it had to always be the afternoon. So it’s kind of flickered all over.

Do you write longhand or…?

I always have, but I have become comfortable now with the keyboard on the computer. I find I’m doing over half of it directly there, then more or less sketching things longhand. I still like being able to go off and sit somewhere with a note pad. But I’m no longer seeing the drawback to the keyboard.

Is there a typical proportion of the written to the kept?

Now, Winter’s Bone, there’s not much that got wasted there. When it’s happening right and feels right, I’m usually pretty close on the first draft, actually. And then I read everything from the beginning again, which is an old Hemingway trick that I learned early. I prune it as I read from the beginning. And, even when I get to a couple of hundred pages or something, I still will read almost every day from the beginning. So I’m really rewriting a little bit.

Kind of a constant state of revision that keeps everything of a piece?


Sell Alderman Some DrugsDo you have a sense any if your neighbors read your work?

Not most of them. I think a lot of people have learned what I do, for a living, but I don’t run into a lot of people who have read them, nor do I want them to feel required to give me their capsule reviews if they have read them.

It would be difficult if Katie wasn’t a writer, too. We can really have intense literary conversations and open that part of ourselves up and deal with it. If it wasn’t for that, it would probably be too difficult here.

Speaking of Hemingway, I always wondered if that was something that kind of messed him up, because the great work came in Paris and when he was moving among all those writers, and then he went to Cuba, and became his own island, so to speak…

Yeah, he may be someone who profited from that. I’ve lived at different times in situations where there were lots of writers around and I’m never sure which is more beneficial. Utter isolation, eventually, will get you. But other writers will get you, too. You feel like you have to be up on the new thing of the minute instead of hearing your own thing. It depends on who you are. I know plenty of writers who couldn’t stand the idea of isolation.

Continue reading “Casting Light On Shade: A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell, Part II”

Casting Light On Shade: A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell

This week, we celebrate the release of The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell.

Daniel Woodrell grew up in the Ozarks, far from any literary scene. The high school dropout lived a kind of gypsy existence for many years, drifting around the country and settling here and there for a year or two before moving on again.

At age 17, Woodrell (pronounced Wood-RELL) enlisted in the Marine Corps during the height of the Vietnam War. The Marines helped Daniel further his educational studies and put him on a path to an eventual college degree.

Fortunately, Woodrell was bounced out of the service before having to serve “in country,” and eventually found his way, like James Crumley before him, to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

He made the literary scene in 1986 with the publication of Under the Bright Lights, the first novel that he, to use his word, “completed.”

Under the Bright Lights introduced detective Rene Shade, an ex-boxer-turned-cop…a man “about sixty stitches past good-looking.” He polices in a town where “girls acquired insurmountable local reputations” and where mistake prone, working-class criminals fret, “I hope to god the FBI ain’t buggin’ this house, Emil. They’ll ridicule us in court.”

Muscle for the Wing (1988) followed loosely in its predecessor’s path — just enough there to assuage publishers pushing for a mystery series, but already showing the traits of Woodrell’s late-1990s-vintage standalones.

And in Wing, Woodrell’s inimitable narrative voice was already firming:

“Beaurain measured five foot seven standing on your neck.”

Or, as an elderly matriarch with ankle-length hair observes, “He’s been mean ever since pantyhose ruined finger fuckin’.”

The novel opens with a bang: “Wishing to avoid any hint of a snub at the Hushed Hill Country Club, the first thing Emil Jadick shoved through the door was double-barreled and loaded.”

In 1992, Woodrell rounded off the Shade cycle with The Ones You Do, a book focused on Rene’s pool-hustling old man, John X. Shade. The trilogy is now being published in one volume by Mulholland Books with the title The Bayou Trilogy.

Daniel Woodrell granted the following interview in mid-June 2006. It appears online here for the first time. In 2006, Woodrell was anticipating the arrival of a Sundance-awarded director who had optioned his latest novel, Winter’s Bone, and was coming to town to get a feel for the region that provides the novel’s setting. The subsequent, critically acclaimed film became a multiple Oscar contender.

Interviewer Craig McDonald, author of the internationally acclaimed Hector Lassiter series, is an award-winning journalist, editor and fiction writer. His writing has earned him nominations for the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity and Gumshoe awards. His current novel is the literary thriller One True Sentence.


Your first three books came bang-bang-bang in ’86, ’87 and ’88. Was your output that fast at the time, or more an effect of stockpiling, so to speak?

The first one had been done for a couple of years before it sold. And I had assumed it wouldn’t sell, and I had assumed I wouldn’t be doing anymore of those, so I started writing Woe to Live On. I was about in the middle of that when I found out the first one had sold. But it was a two-book deal and so forth.

Under the Bright Lights was your first published novel. Was it also the first you wrote?

No — no completed ones before that. That was one of the reasons I was so glad to have tried that book. I did complete it and I thought it was good enough at the time and that was an important psychological thing.

Thirty-three is an evocative age at which to publish your first novel. Can you remember your reaction at the time?

Oh yeah: I was thrilled. I didn’t know writers or anything growing up. I’m not from a writerly milieu. So the idea that somebody from New York’s gonna pay you money and print it, hey, I had no second questions about that. At the time, I was just jumpin’.

Not to say you might be jaded, but is there a vast difference between your anticipation of a book’s release then and now?

There are certain experiences you’ve already had now. I remember once, a long time ago, Elmore Leonard saying he didn’t want just another book, he wanted a book that did what he wanted it to do, or something to that effect. That’s more of what I’m feeling now. I’m excited about publishing books that I think are going to give me the opportunity to publish more…more that maybe range more widely afield than this one. I’ll never be very far from dramatic criminal things, probably. But there are so many ways of getting at it, that’s what’s exciting about this world — call it crime writing or whatever you want to call it. I just call it dramatic writing now, because, who knows? I don’t ever seem to come up with an idea that doesn’t at some point have a crime in it.

Continue reading “Casting Light On Shade: A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell”

A Conversation with Alafair Burke

BangAlafair Burke is a lawyer-turned novelist and the creator of two of the most memorable female crime fighters on the scene today: NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid. Jen Forbus is a tastemaker in the crime fiction community and the force behind Jen’s Book Thoughts. Here, they discuss writing great characters, changing perspectives and the best bulldog on earth: The Duffer.

Jen: Hey Alafair!  I thought I’d start off by asking you how you define a great female character.

Alafair: Thank you for jumping back in, Jen. The greatness of a female character should be the same for any character. I like characters who feel real. Who have backstories. Who have good days and bad. Who have unpredictable and yet fully explained reactions to their environments. Who are flawed but likable. Whose voices ring in your head long after the book is closed.

When we see that kind of greatness in female characters, I think we admire it all the more because we sometimes get used to — and perhaps even expect — female characters to fall into one a handful of stock stereotypes: the supportive wife, the hooker with a heart of gold, the femme fatale. I like to think that the women I’ve created are the kind of women readers can imagine themselves knowing and liking in their own lives.

Jen: So do your characters evolve from women you know and like; do those real life women influence how you create characters? Do you feel other writers have influenced how you create characters? Or are they simply organic to the creation of the story?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Alafair Burke”

A Conversation with Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly’s new legal thriller starring Mikey Haller, The Fifth Witness, hits bookstores today. Here, Connelly discusses the perils of writing about a defense attorney, the source of his courtroom knowledge and the connection between Mikey and Matthew McConaughey.

Question: Michael, in The Fifth Witness, we learn that times have been tough for criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller causing him to expand his law practice into foreclosure defense. One of his foreclosure clients gets accused of killing the banker she blames for trying to take her home. Why did you decide to tackle the tricky subject of foreclosure in this book?

Michael Connelly: Two reasons. First, I am always looking for a story that reflects a little bit of what is happening in society at the moment. And this, of course, is happening. Millions of homes have been foreclosed on in the last couple years and probably millions more to come. The second reason is that I sort of fell into it. One of the attorney’s I research the Haller books with has done the same thing. Because the economic downturn has resulted in fewer clients being able to hire private defense counsel, he moved into foreclosure defense. He told me some stories about this side of the legal trade and I knew there was a story there.

Q: Here is a Mickey quote from the book: “When you come from the criminal defense bar, you are used to being despised.” Do you find it hard to create and maintain a series character who works in a profession that some people just don’t understand and often find sleazy?

MC: Absolutely. But it’s a two-sided coin. On one side there are readers who love watching a guy who is good at gaming the system. On the other, there are readers looking for a hero. So the difficulty is finding stories and situations where Mickey sort of speaks to both of these constituencies. Reading to me is about creating an empathic connection with a character. The challenge in accomplishing this as a writer is more difficult when that character, as you say, is often misunderstood and generalized as sleazy. It is so much easier to build a connection between the reader and a detective like Harry Bosch.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Michael Connelly”

The Invisible Hero: A Conversation between Zo&#235 Ferraris and David Corbett

mosaic gate, marrakech moroccoDavid Corbett is a former private investigator the acclaimed author of four novels, including the most recent Do They Know I’m Running?. Zoë Ferraris is the award-winning author of Finding Nouf and City of Veils. Here, they discuss how fiction can break down cultural stereotypes, making “strangers” recognizable and the role of the hero in crime fiction.

David Corbett: When I first read Finding Nouf , I was bowled over by how insightful it was about what damage a culture premised on male superiority could inflict on not just women but men. The psychological and emotional limitations were brought to light so specifically and poignantly in that book that I was just mesmerized.

One observation in particular I remember vividly—when Nayir reflects on what a joy it would be to have a sister, a woman with whom he could actually have meaningful, personal conversations without fear of impropriety. That was just heartbreaking.

But the other thing that made me take notice was the timing. The book came out in 2008, with America still in the throes of post-9/11 Muslim-bashing. Muslim men in particular were often viewed as terrorists until proven otherwise.

I thought you were incredibly brave, hoping readers would see as human someone so many Americans had already stigmatized, demonized or dismissed.

And yet I didn’t get any sense of a political agenda on your part, though I did sense an artistic one, a desire to lend a voice to one particular type of voiceless—or invisible—character. Am I correct in that?

Zoë Ferraris: Thanks, David. And yes, there wasn’t so much a plan as a general disbelief. I’ve been hanging around Muslims for twenty years. At some point I took stock of all the Arab men I knew and asked myself how many of them are similar to anything I’ve seen of Arab men in the news, on TV, or in modern fiction. I ran through the checklist: terrorist, rock-thrower, fully-bearded fundamentalist, sleazy souq merchant, wife-beater, oil baron, or billionaire sheikh. The only one who fit any of the above categories was an American I knew who had converted to Islam. His idea of being Muslim was culled from old National Geographic photos; he became a fundamentalist and grew the craziest beard I’ve ever seen.

Same goes for Muslim women. Checklist: any belly dancers out there? Nope.

Continue reading “The Invisible Hero: A Conversation between Zo&#235 Ferraris and David Corbett”