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Fact, Meet Fiction: On the Writing of Shake Off

One of the pleasures of writing and reading fiction – and thrillers lend themselves to this rather well – is the weaving of fact and fiction. And a fact I happily weaved into the fictional world of Shake Off was that one of the few American fiction writers you could buy in English in the 1980s Soviet Union was Dashiell Hammett. This is not integral to the plot of the book, nor is it a particularly startling revelation, but it illustrates a mindset: the Soviets allowed Hammett to be sold in a Moscow bookshop because he was a communist (the Hollywood chapter of the Communist Party was founded in his house), although his flaky allegiance to the party might not have impressed them.

Another, perhaps less well-known fact, was that at the same time, although you could not buy John Le Carré novels in a Moscow bookshop, they were required reading by KGB trainees to get an insight into British Intelligence and its workings. I have a pleasing image of a Russian translator working away on his secret Le Carré translations. It must have been a coveted job: enjoying banned fiction under the legitimate cover of doing it for the good of the party.

The WalkBack to Hammett, though, and why I’m pleased to get a reference to a writer of hard-boiled detective fiction into a spy novel. When I left Beirut to return to London in early 1983 I had trouble adjusting to ‘normal’ life, with its distinct lack of air-raids, roadblocks and – Northern Ireland aside – sectarian killing. The world I had returned to was, to be honest, boring compared to the one I had left. It did, on the other hand, put the latter into unflattering perspective. To escape this cognitive dissonance I took refuge in books. I devoured everything I came across, high-brow, low-brow, I didn’t really care, as long as it was well and unpretentiously written. If it spoke to me in some way then I read it. After ploughing through some Russians (Dostoyevsky yes, Tolstoy no) I turned to the Americans, happening upon a rich vein of crime fiction. I tapped it relentlessly. Starting with Raymond Chandler, I moved to Hammett, Jim Thompson and Ross Macdonald – and more recently to George Pelecanos, Lawrence Block, James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard. Perhaps what attracted me to these stories, apart from the pure escapism, was the inherent struggle to right wrongs. A struggle of flawed (read human) characters amongst which the (often but not always) lone detective (i.e. the reader) attempts to mete out some sort of rough justice – a justice frequently absent in real life. I don’t want to overdo the analysis, but the attraction for me then was clear, and it is no exaggeration to say that these books helped me through a difficult time of adjustment. It is also fair to say that a lot of this early reading rubbed off in terms of developing a no-nonsense writing style. Continue reading “Fact, Meet Fiction: On the Writing of Shake Off”

On The Punisher

To be brutally honest, the Punisher was never a character that appealed to me until editor Stephen Wacker approached me to write the book. Prior to that, I’d always felt him to be remarkably two-dimensional, and that’s saying something about a character from a medium where two-dimensional characters are the rule, not the exception. Add to that the lingering Reagan-era right-wing Tough On Crime wrapping, and Frank Castle had always been something of a turn off for me.

But Wacker is a good editor in all the ways that matter, and he knew the right questions to ask me, and the right stories to show me, and all of the sudden, I found myself thinking that the Punisher was far more than I’d given credit. The revenge story is a staple of literature, stretching back to word one, really, and in all that time, there are certain tropes that we’ve seen replayed over and over again. But the nature of comics forces some of those clichés into question, even if – in my opinion – nobody has really stopped to try and answer the questions that have been raised. After all, almost every revenge story ends the same way. Almost every revenge story ends like Moby Dick or Hamlet.

But Frank… Frank keeps going. He took his revenge long, long ago, and he continues, and while the market reasons for that continuance as obvious, the market reasons don’t factor for the character, they don’t matter in the world. In other words, Frank Castle doesn’t know he’s owned entirely by Marvel Entertainment, and that they make a pretty penny off of his continued vendetta.

That was the entry-point for me, and that, in very large part, is what my run on Punisher seeks to explore; how is it that Frank can continue, can survive, so long after his initial revenge has been exacted? How is it that he hasn’t gone mad, committed suicide, come off the rails and started murdering at random? How is it that he has maintained this position as an extraordinary anti-hero and general bad-ass in a universe with Captain America and Spider-Man?

Greg Rucka is the New York Times bestselling author of a dozen novels, including the Atticus Kodiak and Tara Chace series, and has won multiple Eisner awards for his graphic novels. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and children. Mulholland Books will publish his next novel ALPHA, the first in a new series featuring retired Delta Force operator, Master Sergeant Jad Bell, in May 2012.

Stay tuned tomorrow for an excerpt from the The Punisher, Vol. 1, the first six issues of the Rucka-penned series, in stores this Wednesday.

Want to be a literary rock star? Live like a boy scout. A conversation with George Pelecanos.

The below guest post originally appeared on Allison Leotta’s site and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

George Pelecanos is an author at the top of his game. When he’s not writing bestselling crime novels, he’s creating some of America’s finest TV dramas: shows like “The Wire” and “Treme.”Stephen King called him “perhaps America’s greatest living crime writer”; Esquire anointed him “the poet laureate of D.C. crime fiction”; Dennis Lehane said, “The guy’s a national treasure.” In short, George Pelecanos is a literary rock star. So how can a new writer capture a little bit of that magic?

George’s answer surprised me.

I recently sat down with him for lunch, and that question was at the top of my mind. My debut legal thriller, “Law of Attraction,” got positive reviews and some nice buzz – but no one’s calling me “a national treasure.” I’ve read George’s earliest books, written before he was nationally treasured himself. They showcase considerable raw talent, but they’re unrefined and inconsistent. Like the evolution of cell phone technology, George’s writing has developed from an interesting conversation piece to a body of work so smart and sophisticated, it makes you shake your head with wonder. I wanted to know: how do I make that happen to my own writing? Will I need a more apps and better ringtones, or just some writing seminars?

None of the above, George answered. To be a good writer, be a good person.

That’s not exactly what he said – more on the specifics below – but that’s what it boiled down to.

It wasn’t the advice I expected from this author. If you’ve read his novels, you know George Pelecanos creates worlds that are dark, testosterone charged, and dangerous. “King Suckerman” opens with a disgruntled employee using a shotgun to blow a hole through his boss. In “The Sweet Forever,” one man proves his love for another by brutally murdering a rival. “Drama City” features a female probation officer who’s straight-laced by day and driven to risky one-night stands by night. George’s novels are full of violence and retribution, the grimmest side of humanity, and plenty of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.

But his advice on how to create these worlds is akin to what a thoughtful father might advise his daughter on the larger question of how to live her life. The melding of these dark worlds with more wholesome introspection may be what makes his novels so finely textured and morally complex.

Here’s George Pelecanos’ advice for becoming a great writer: Continue reading “Want to be a literary rock star? Live like a boy scout. A conversation with George Pelecanos.”

In the Beginning

Lettres de LouThe below guest post initially appeared at Murder is Everywhere and is reprinted below with the kind permission of the author.

One of the nicest things about having a website is that people write me letters.  My personal website, although it’s got the usual self-serving promotional nonsense on it, is largely taken up by a section called FINISH YOUR NOVEL, in which I try to tell people some of the things I’ve learned through years of failing and trying again.

So a lot of my mail comes from aspiring writers.  A few days back I got a long letter from a 16-year-old high school girl, who pretty much made my jaw drop. Among other things, she said:

” . . . I recently started developing my latest idea for a novel. With my previous ideas, I had never fully explored the idea and ended up letting it sit until I found myself saying “When am I going to start that novel again?” Of course, when that would occur I ended up spitting out a few more random bursts of ideas and that was that. The cycle repeated itself.

“So now I’m to the point where I feel idle in my life – I’m going nowhere and have no general direction I want to go in. It’s quite annoying, actually. A high school junior striving for success to take her into unknown territory – her future. But despite the stresses of getting into a good college and everything that may entail, I find myself coming back to the yearning to write a book. Often I ask myself,  “So when are you going to actually sit down and write?”

She says that in her other artistic endeavors, “What takes me the longest is starting the piece. Staring at a blank canvas is a lot like staring at a blank sheet of paper, in my opinion. I’m at peace while working, but starting is insanely difficult, especially when I don’t have direction.”

So, okay, she’s extraordinary, and I should probably be asking her for advice rather than giving it to her.  But she asked.  And here’s part of what I wrote back: Continue reading “In the Beginning”

On Writing A Drop of the Hard Stuff

Today Mulholland Books celebrates the paperback publication of A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF! Missed out on the “totally gripping….Great American Crime Novel” (Time) the first time around? Now’s your chance!

Larry’s essay on writing A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF follows.

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 “On Writing A Drop of the Hard Stuff”

Pulling Weeds

Grassy Field, Noir et Blanc

People frequently ask how it was that I became a writer. The answer surprises them. “Pulling weeds,” I say, and then watch their face go blank. But it’s true. My love of books developed from an abhorrence of gardening, specifically my mother’s favorite punishment. She’d make my nine brothers and sisters and I pull weeds. So here’s my story.

Chapter One

Pulling Weeds or,

Never Tell a mother of 10 you’re bored.

I’m one of 10 kids. My Irish Catholic mother had a number of sayings. One of her favorites was when we would complain about being cold. She’d say, “Put a sweater on. I’m not heating the neighborhood.”

But the one that hit home for me was if I said, “I’m bored.” With that much on her plate, my mother was not about to stop to entertain me. So she’d say, “You’re bored? Here’s a bag, go pull weeds.” When I objected, she’d respond, “Read a book.” Then she’d hand me one.

At first I thought this as bad as pulling weeds. But one of the first books my mother handed me was The Count of Monte Cristo. I devoured it. By the time I was thirteen I must have been bored a lot because my mother, an English major in college, had handed me some of the classics. The Old Man and The Sea, The Red Badge of Courage, The Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird.

And many more. And that’s when I knew. I wanted to write books.

Chapter Two

Compulsive Over achievers or

Why it sucks to be the middle child in a family of 10.

With my older siblings in medical school or on their way to helping their fellow brethren as doctors, announcing that I intended to move back home with mom and dad to write a novel seemed like an invitation for my brothers to ridicule me mercilessly, as only brothers can. So even though I knew since the seventh grade that I wanted to be a writer and I had majored at Stanford University in journalism and creative writing, there was always this underlying current that when you graduated from college you went to professional school. I did what most who don’t want to be doctors do…I considered law school.

Chapter Three

The UCLA 1L or,

Scott Turow Lied

Right around 1984 a book came out called The Harvard 1L. It was written by a law student, Scot Turow, and not just while attending any law school, but Harvard Law School. I took this as a tacit representation that it was possible to attend law school and write a novel. So off I went to UCLA to study law and write my first novel.

In first year torts I learned that a misrepresentation is the presentation of a fact that the speaker makes knowing said fact to be false, intending that said fact be relied upon by others, that is relied upon by others and that inflicts damage. I memorized this because the first thing I intended to do when I graduated law school and received my law license was to sue Scott Turow. I quickly found that I barely had enough time to study, let alone to write anything even remotely resembling a novel. I briefly considered dropping out, but compulsive overachievers don’t quit and, at worst, I believed that the law would be a great fall back profession if my writing career did not pan out. Continue reading “Pulling Weeds”

Cold Blood: On Jim Thompson and Stanley Kubrick

This article was originally published in One More Robot #8

In the mind of crime fiction aficionados, the brooding image of pulp writers from the 40s and 50s usually resembles a haunting Edward Hooper painting of doomed loners sloughed at a rickety desk inside a dimly lit hotel room. Knocking out stories for a penny a word to keep the bookies at bay, bourbon in their system and the landlord off their backs, rarely were these bleak fellows thought of as family men.

While that pathetic portrayal fits authors David Goodis and Cornell Woolrich, paperback writer Jim Thompson was a different kind of literary animal. Although Thompson suffered from legendary bouts with the bottle (when he was a boy, his grandfather gave him whiskey with breakfast), he was also a married man with three children and a house in the suburbs. He wore suits and ties and rarely rolled around in the gutter with his contemporaries.

“He’d take any job, you know, to earn a living and feed his family,” Thompson’s long-suffering wife Alberta, whom he married in 1931, once told an interviewer. Until Thompson’s death in 1977 at 70 years old, his wife stood by her man through drunkenness, money woes and sickness. As his friend and former editor Arnold Hano pointed out in 1991, “unhappy endings were his style.”

Although Jim Thompson’s twenty-nine novels were out of print when he died, in 1984 writer and David Lynch collaborator Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway) teamed-up with the Berkeley based publishers Creative Arts Book Company to create Black Lizard Press. Featuring gaudy covers by Kirwan, the Black Lizard books were all about pulp fiction when Tarantino was still clerking in a video store.

Reprinting the novels of forgotten authors David Goodis, Charles Willeford, Peter Rabe, Harry Whittington and others, Black Lizard was thrilling and seductive, enticing a brand new generation of crime fiction fans. As a young crime movie geek and New York City writer hanging-out at St. Mark Books, it was during this period that I first discovered the cold-blooded “noir” writers that changed my life.

Today, more than thirty years after Jim Thompson’s death, his brutal novels has influenced a generation of neo-noir writers including Ken Bruen, Jason Starr and the late Jerry Rodriguez. Drawn to the dangerous appeal of his “sociopaths and suckers,” as crime writer and film critic Stephen Hunter once described his characters, Thompson’s disturbing universe never got boring. Continue reading “Cold Blood: On Jim Thompson and Stanley Kubrick”

Memories | Ghosts

When my agent phoned with the news, I was half out the door, on my way to a group exhibition featuring several friends at a gallery in the trendy Kloof Street strip.

“Congratulations! You’re a Mulholland author,” my agent said.

“…” I replied. It’s a terrible thing being a writer and having the words go AWOL.

I got into my car and drove down to the gallery and fought for parking and wandered up, slightly dazed with the happy. It took me about fifteen minutes to actually get in to the gallery, past the crush of people spilling out onto the kerb, getting tangled in flurries of conversation.

It was waiting for me.

I didn’t see it at first. I checked out Andrew Sutherland’s dreamy landscapes and Paul Senyol’s graffiti-inspired playful mash-ups of text and imagery and was drawn across the room to the FEAR.LESS works, striking wood-cuts of garden variety weapons as a meditation on crime in South Africa by Daniel Ting Chong and Jordan Metcalf. A broken bottle. A knife. A gun. A spark-plug for the classic smash-and-grab at traffic intersections.

And then I turned around. Continue reading “Memories | Ghosts”

Unraveling the Mystery of Effectively Using Social Media to Promote Your Books

Computer Laundry DayIt’s no mystery that no matter how much marketing/promotion your publisher may do for your mystery/thriller books, it is up to authors to help in this effort.

After all, if you spent all that time writing, revising, finding an agent, and getting a publisher for your books, you do not want to abandon your creations right at the moment of their birth.

Here is the most important secret to marketing/promoting your own books:

It is a mistake to wait until the moment of birth. In fact, the sooner you begin establishing a following for yourself (your brand as a writer) the better.

Let’s look at this in a timeline:

You are writing a mystery novel – or thinking about writing a thriller novel – and no one except perhaps your best friend knows this.

If you start your book marketing now, you will have a sufficiently long lead time so that you will not be starting from zero at the moment your book bursts onto bookstore shelves and/or online book stores.

It is important to realize not all book marketing is created equal. You do not want to utilize a scattershot approach. Instead you want to target your ideal mystery/thriller readers.

Continue reading “Unraveling the Mystery of Effectively Using Social Media to Promote Your Books”

Worlds Colliding

Ex Factory: the windowMy name is David Morrell.

I write thrillers.

On occasion, people are puzzled when they learn that I also have a PhD in American literature from Penn State and that I was a full professor at the University of Iowa, where I taught Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James, and Edith Wharton.

For me, the two worlds blend perfectly. In my youth, I earned the money for my undergraduate tuition by working 12-hour night shifts in factories. In one memorable task, I made fenders for automobiles, shredding several pairs of thick leather gloves during each shift as I handled razor-sharp sheets of metal. When I was transferred to another area of the factory, the man who replaced me lost both his hands in the fender-molding machine.

I noticed that, even though the workers had the glazed look of zombies, they read books during their lunch hours. When I looked closer, I discovered that every book was a thriller. The excitement of the plots took the laborers away from the terrible tedium of their lives.

One morning, after my factory shift ended, I drove to the nearby university, where I was scheduled to meet with my advisor about the requirements for finishing my BA studies. During that drive, I had an epiphany. I had already made the decision to become a writer, and I had no doubt that I wanted to write thrillers. After all, they had given me a psychological escape when I was a child and family arguments so frightened me that I frequently slept under my bed. I knew that the kind of stories that had been my salvation would be the kind of stories I would write.

But how would I do it?

My epiphany came in this form. Struck by the contrast between the factory I had left and the university I approached, I wondered if it was possible to write thrillers that satisfied two different types of readers at the same time: those eager for distraction, and those who wanted the kinds of themes and techniques that I was accustomed to in university literature courses. A thriller—by definition—must be thrilling. Could it accomplish that primary goal and simultaneously have other purposes? I was reminded of illustrations that seem to depict one thing when observed from a particular angle and then depict something else when seen from a different perspective.

Back in 1915, Van Wyck Brooks, a famous analyst of American culture, deplored the use of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” as labels that critics used to categorize fiction. Brooks condemned both extremes and suggested that there weren’t inferior forms of fiction, only inferior practitioners. In his view, it was possible for popular fiction to have serious intentions without ever sacrificing entertainment appeal and narrative drive.

That became my goal. The letters that most gratify me are of two different types. In one, readers thank me for distracting them from the harsh reality of fires, car accidents, lost jobs, divorces, serious medical problems, and similar calamities. In the second kind of letter, readers tell me that, when they reread my books, themes and techniques that weren’t obvious upon first reading suddenly emerge from the background, with the result that the books become different with a later reading.

This shifting nature of reality, depending on the angle from which we perceive it, is one of my favorite themes. My upcoming novel, Murder as a Fine Art, takes place in 1854 London. Its main character, Thomas De Quincey, uses the theories of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (“Does reality exist objectively or only in our minds?”) to solve a series of mass killings that imitate the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders that occurred forty-three years earlier.

Call me schizophrenic—or the sum of my contradictions. All these years after I left the factory where I worked and drove toward the university where I studied, I continue to be two separate people when I write, with two different kinds of readers in my imagination.

[Editor’s Note: We are proud to announce today that Mulholland Books will publish David Morrell’s novel Murder as a Fine Art  in 2013. The novel is a historical thriller featuring Thomas De Quincey investigating a series of crimes which appear to be based on essays that he had written.]

“The mild-mannered professor with the bloody-minded visions,” as one reviewer called him, David Morrell is the author of thirty-two books, including First Blood, the novel in which Rambo was created. Morrell is a co-founder of the International Thriller Writers organization. He is a three-time recipient of the distinguished Bram Stoker Award, Comic-Con International honored him with its Inkpot Award for his lifetime contributions to popular culture. With eighteen million copies of his work in print, his work has been translated into twenty-six languages.