Blog

San Francisco Hustle: Tom Pitts On His City’s Sordid Past

February 24, 2014 by

When fellow Rogue Ro Cuzon reached out to San Francisco-based writer Tom Pitts to write a piece for the Rogue Reader, Ro gave him very specific instructions: write about whatever the hell you want. Given the fact that Tom moved to San Francisco when he was 17, and set his forthcoming novel Hustle there as well (rave reviews here and here), it shouldn’t have surprised me that Tom chose to reflect on the city he has called home for, well, a long time. What was surprising was that he said a few nice things about my novel Tenderloin along the way. Nobody knows the Tenderloin better than Tom, so to receive his stamp of authenticity meant I at least got a few things right.

So here’s Tom on the San Francisco he moved to in 1984, how he processed it as a teenager, and how he views that time now, as an adult. We all know the city was much different then than it is today. But even someone like Tom, who has lived through some dark times in San Francisco, is struck by how chaotic and dangerous the city once was:

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The late seventies were a heady time for San Francisco. I moved to the city in 1984 and, looking back, I had no real perspective on my own place in the city’s history. The shift in culture and style from the seventies to the eighties made the two decades seem oceans apart, but, in reality, I landed in SF a mere six years after ’78—the year that changed San Francisco forever. I guess it’s true, a forty-seven year-old’s brain processes time differently than a seventeen year-old’s.

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Blog, Reviews & Press

A New Rave Review of Tenderloin from Raven Crime Reads

February 24, 2014 by

Over the weekend, Raven Crime Reads posted a stellar review of Tenderloin that, as Ice Cube would say, “put a glide in my stride and a dip in my hip,” calling it, “A book that sits perfectly alongside Pelecanos and Lehane in my opinion, with its no-holds-barred  depiction of  urban American life and crime.” She also liked Tenderloin‘s surly protagonist, “In terms of characterisation, Sleeper Hayes, Haslett’s central protagonist, is a real find . . . Hayes exists in a world populated by criminals, bums, boxers, hookers and bent politicians- think a 70‘s set version of The Wire- but ingratiates himself into all these worlds through the vitality and doggedness of his character, which some take to more than others!” I always knew the Brits were smarter than us. Read the whole thing here: http://ravencrimereads.wordpress.com/2014/02/22/court-haslett-tenderloin/


Blog, Craft

Rogue Craft: The Uncanny “GIRLS” Lena Dunham’s Horror Masterpiece

February 17, 2014 by

Many fans of The Rogue Reader were undoubtedly tuned in last night to the riveting spectacle of HBO’s True Detectives brilliantly scripted by Nic Pizzolatto and hypnotically directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga.  But those who stuck around (perhaps at their significant other’s insistence or just to unwind from TD) for the following episode of Girls received an unexpected Master’s class in storytelling in the horror tradition.

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While some skeptics complain about the triviality of the characters or the lack of laughs in Girls, I’m a fan of the show even more for its craft than for its content.  Clearly, Zosia is not the only Mamet with an effect on the show: Lena Dunham and her creative team have studied David Mamet’s On Directing and execute his idea of “cutting” as well as anyone else in television.  And I am willing to bet that Lena, and Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow, her co-writers of last night’s nearly stand-alone dream-like episode “Beach Girls,” leaned on Freud and his The Uncanny to deliver a nightmarish homage to the horror master Stanley Kubrick.

 kubrick horror

Horror is definitely a hot genre, not only in the movies where low budget horror films like The Ring and Paranormal Activity out earn huge-budgeted star-driven tent poles, but also in commercial fiction as Gillian Flynn’s horror novel GONE GIRL topped the best-seller lists for over a year.  (Gillian Flynn on her horror influences.)  But the DNA of horror can also be found in lighter storytelling if we know where to look.

In The Uncanny, Freud explains that true horror begins with an idyll or in German heimlich (roughly translated to “home love” or “home sweet home”) then, like in a nightmare, the idyll becomes undermined and heimlich becomes un-heimlich (un-“home sweet home”).  We are faced with the darkness behind the idyll or under the surface – think about Jaws starting with the idyll of the innocence of summer and the beach undermined by the beast below the surface.  Then the deeper the story/nightmare goes the more unheimlich it gets until the final crisis and catharsis when beast/shark is killed and the heimlich is restored the audience’s great relief (and enjoyment).

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In this Girls episode, Marnie is attempting to put together the perfect weekend idyll (heimlich) for her circle of friends with flower arrangements and a perfectly arranged dinner party at a beautiful shore house.  But the idyll is soon subtly undermined by her philistine friends/guests, the revelation that the house is not in the Hamptons, and is in fact borrowed.  It only goes downhill from there as Marnie’s plans really go off the rails and Hannah invites additional unwanted guests.  Ultimately, the final crisis involves the revelation of dark truths that lie beneath the friendships until their relationships are ripped asunder.  That is until the morning brings a new day and the restoration of the idyll of friendship in a coda that says, “They might be fucked up people, but they will always be friends.”

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Blog, Fan's Note

A Fan’s Notes: Eric C. Leuthardt on Sci-fi Noir

February 15, 2014 by

This week, we invite our friend and mad scientist (literally, he is a mad genius neurosurgeon and novelist inventing the future) Eric C. Leuthardt to share his thoughts on the intersection of science fiction and noir as his own debut novel RedDevil4 has just been published by Tor to amazing reviews.

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One of the things that I love about science fiction is that it imagines the world as it could be.  Distinct from other fantasy genre, these are worlds that are built on real possibilities.  So in a sense, they crystallize the future endeavors of scientists and engineers of the future.  Clearly, Star Trek influenced the design of some of the early cell phones and Isaac Asimov bred a whole generation of computer scientists who have worked to create artificial intelligence and robots. Science fiction in essence speaks to our optimism about the future that humans can create.

1966-1969-captain-kirks-gold-cell-phone-in-star-trek

Noir fiction/film is a different beast. Things aren’t so great.  They are often dark and flawed and ambiguous.  There are numerous crime novels where it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between the criminals and the crime-fighters.  Distinct from Sci-fi, the reason we love it is because it explores our imperfections.  The hard, jagged edges of our darker side that gives us a sensual uniqueness.  Ultimately,  we can relate.  As the characters grapple with their own obsessions and insecurities, we can see in an amplified version the struggle that we all experience in the story of our own lives.

When you combine the two genres, I think you get a speculative fiction that becomes relevant far beyond the time that it was created.  The characters live in a world more advanced then are our own, but that world, like their inner psyche,  is filled with uncertainties, conflicts, and unexpected events.   Some of my favorite examples in movies and books include:

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1.  Alien.  A film that shows us the great promise of inter-stellar space travel, but reveals that the real danger in this new frontier is not a gnashing acid dripping monster, it is human greed.

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The Tenderloin: A Cop’s Perspective

February 5, 2014 by

Captain Michael Kemmitt (Ret.) was a San Francisco police officer for thirty-three years, patrolling the Tenderloin in the 1970s and heading its vice squad’s night shift in the 1980s. Needless to say, he is a man of many stories. Mike sat down with the Rogue Reader to talk about the neighborhood and how it has changed, and not changed, since the time depicted in Tenderloin.

COURT: What was your first impression of the Tenderloin?

MIKE Actually, my first impression of the Tenderloin, or “TL” as we call it, was forged when I was a kid growing up in San Francisco. My grandparents used to bring me to church on Sundays to St. Boniface, which is still located on Golden Gate Ave. and is famous for feeding hundreds of people every day at the St. Anthony’s dining room. It was during those Sunday trips into the TL that I first got exposed to people on the streets who suffered from mental illness. The TL was a place where society’s castoffs could wander about and receive a small amount of support from social service agencies.  Also, the area afforded cheap hotels (SRO’s) where in those days people could survive.

After being away for a few years in the military, I joined the San Francisco Police Department in 1969. In the mid 70s I was assigned to what they called the Crime Prevention Company. We were a crime suppression unit that targeted certain areas in the city like the TL. We were an outside unit, not part of Central Station, which was primarily responsible for the TL.

Turk & Taylor_1982©SF History Center

COURT Apart from people suffering from mental illness, what other types of people lived in the TL then?

MIKE Damon Runyon would have mined good material from the TL back then. The neighborhood was a mecca for ex-cons,  merchant marines, and service men on leave or in transit. Saloons in the neighborhood catered to all varieties of vice; bookmaking, prostitution, as well as some transvestite bars along Turk St. The really infamous places were marked by the “Off Limits” signs in front which were posted by the Military Police.

COURT I’ve never seen those Off Limits signs. Off Limits to servicemen?

MIKE Yeah. San Francisco was more of a service town in those days and played host to thirsty soldiers and sailors. Treasure Island and the Presidio were active military bases. The signs were posted by the military police and any service man caught therein was subject to military justice.

COURT Good call by the military! I included a place called The Tipsy Triangle in Tenderloin that was based loosely on The Square Chair, The Round Table, and Club Maria. Tell me a bit more about these quasi-brothels, because I think a reader of Tenderloin might think I was making it all up.

MIKE No, they were very real. On the two hundred block of Leavenworth, between Turk and Eddy, there were three bars: The Round Table and Square Chair were on east side of the street, Club Maria was on the west. Most of the clientele consisted of ex-cons and assorted grifters. Unlike some of the bars in the TL, prostitutes were allowed to hang out inside the premises.

The Round Table was the largest of the three establishments, even accommodating a pool table. The pint sized Square Chair, a few doors down the street was a Round Table spin-off. Across the street was the venerable Club Maria. Maria was an older Italian lady who presided over a really bad Italian restaurant where I can’t remember anyone actually dining. She seemed to do more business making sandwiches for the customers in her adjoining barroom. Action in the Club Maria centered around the girls who frequented the place and the guys who naturally followed. Pimps would frequently lounge on the corner stools guarding their flock while trying to remain unobtrusive. All three bars are now long-gone, their locations are now occupied by Vietnamese grocery stores.

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Film Noir Fantasy Draft, Part II

January 30, 2014 by

Welcome back to Part II of our Film Noir Fantasy Draft, where I square off with Mark T. Conard, author of The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, in picking our favorite noir films. If you missed Part I, you can find it here. Now, on with picks 5 to 1.

Pick #5: Mark
Double Indemnity (1946)
Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
Screenplay: Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, novel by James M. Cain

Double_indemnity

Unhappy housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) seduces insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray), and convinces him to help her kill her husband. He dupes the husband into buying a life insurance policy that pays double (and hence the title) if the policy-holder dies in a particular kind of way, like falling off a train. The naughty pair succeed in killing the husband, but when Neff’s boss Barton Keyes (the great Edward G. Robinson) smells something fishy, Neff and Dietrichson are hot to turn on each other. Because of government censorship of the movies at this time, criminals weren’t allowed to get away with their crimes, and indeed things end badly for this pair of murderous lovers.

This is one of the greatest of the classic noirs. It has all the hallmarks of noir: flashbacks, voiceover narration by the doomed antihero, the play of light and darkness, seduction, betrayal, murder. Great performances by Stanwyck and MacMurray (who is a long way from My Three Sons here), and especially by Edward G. Robinson, one of the central classic noir actors.

Somewhere in this roundup I wanted to mention this: Carl Reiner made a hilarious spoof of a detective story that’s a fond homage to classic noir, called Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). It stars Steve Martin and the utterly delicious Rachel Ward. It splices together sequences of Martin and Ward with clips from classic noirs, many of them found on this list, and Double Indemnity has a big presence in the movie. Check it out; it’s hilarious.

Court’s comment: Come for Stanwyck and MacMurray, stay for Edward G. Robinson. “I picked you for the job, not because I think you’re so darn smart, but because I thought you were a shade less dumb than the rest of the outfit. Guess I was wrong. You’re not smarter, Walter… you’re just a little taller.”

 

Pick #4: Court
The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth
Screenplay: Orson Welles based on Sherwood King’s If I Die Before I Wake

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If this script was submitted to a movie executive now, I feel pretty certain that they would reject it for “too much telling and not enough showing.” There is lots and lots of Orson Welles waxing poetic in a weird, Irish brogue-inflected voice-over, and I can’t get enough of it. Welles plays tough guy poet Michael “Black Irish” O’Hara, the type of world traveler who can kill a Franco spy one decade and lug his typewriter to the “the hiring hall” to bang out a few pages of his novel while waiting for a ship to hire him the next.

The ship he finds work on is, not coincidentally, the yacht owned by Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), the husband of Elsa (Rita Hayworth), a damsel in distress that O’Hara had “rescued” the previous night. O’Hara quickly learns that he’s the one that needs rescuing since, from the minute he met Elsa, he “was not in my right mind for some time.” Nor, he admits, had he used his head “except to think about her.”

That lapse in judgment is the hallmark of every noir sucker who falls for a femme fatale. But, oh, what a femme fatale Rita Hayworth makes. The Lady from Shanghai was filmed as Hayworth’s and Welles’s marriage to one another was disintegrating. Barely recognizable in her bobbed, blonde hair, Elsa is an ice queen who knows only this about the world: “Everything’s bad, Michael, everything. You can’t escape it or fight it. You’ve got to get along with it. Deal with it, make terms.” The way Elsa has dealt with it is to make expendable everyone who gets in the way of her plans for money and independence.

The film’s final version was changed drastically from the one Welles initially submitted to the Columbia. The studio cut an hour from the original, demanding more close-ups of everyone, especially their star Hayworth. The re-cut version gives the whole movie a surrealistic feel, like that of the Fun House setting of its famous climactic scene. Welles also inserted a bizarre, idiosyncratic sense of humor, most notable in the performance of Glenn Ander’s Grisby (anyone up for a little “tarrrrr-get practice?”) and the constantly interrupted courtroom scene (“You ain’t kiddin!”).

There are too many great, pulpy lines to quote them all here. But since I neglected Everett Sloane’s scene stealing role as Bannister, Elsa’s crippled, nasty husband, I’ll give him the last word. After Welles’s O’Hara eviscerates Bannister, Grisby, and Elsa, comparing them to sharks eating one another, Bannister blithely shrugs it off by twisting the knife further into Grisby, “That’s the first time anyone ever thought enough of you to call you a shark. If you were a good lawyer, you’d be flattered.” As a writer, the inclusion of the word “if” is what puts the icing on that cruel cupcake.

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Film Noir Fantasy Draft

January 28, 2014 by

I should have known instinctively that challenging Mark T. Conard, author of The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, to a Film Noir Fantasy Draft was a mistake. For some reason, I thought my experience in drafting fantasy sports teams would overcome his vastly superior knowledge of movies. Not surprisingly, I was wrong. When we finished alternating ten picks of our favorite noir moives, his team consisted of five classic films of the genre, whereas mine was a hodge podge of personal favorites, some of which might not even be considered noir by some film enthusiasts. That’s what I get, as Sean Connery would say, for bringing a knife to a gunfight.

In any event, here is Part I of our Film Noir Fantasy Draft. Come back on Thursday to see Part II.

Pick #10: Court
Night and the City (1950)
Director: Jules Dassin
Starring: Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney
Screenplay: Joe Eisinger from the novel by Gerald Kersh

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I had originally slotted Rififi, another Jules Dassin film, into the ten spot, but decided I couldn’t leave off the movie with one of my all-time favorite characters, Harry Fabian, and one of my all-time favorite scenes, the wrestling match between Gregorius and The Strangler.

Richard Widmark’s performance of the scheming, twitchy, perspiring club tout Harry Fabian sticks with you long after the details of the story fade away. Harry is a dreamer whose mislaid plans are always going be pulled off  “with just brains and guts” and will always result in a “life of ease and plenty.” He is summed up by an acquaintance as an “artist without an art,” a sympathetic and apt description. Harry’s face lights up like a child whenever he is elucidating one of his get rich ideas. But as this acquaintance also ominously portends, “that can be a very dangerous way of living.”

Harry’s latest plan is to become London’s premier wrestling promoter. Nothing makes me happier than this decision by Harry; if he had chosen another profession we would have been denied the single goofiest, most suspenseful, brutal, and inspiring wrestling match in movie history. For four glorious minutes, Gregorious, the 60-year-old Greco-Roman traditionalist, wrestles The Strangler, one of the new breed of professional wrestling “clowns,” as Gregorious calls them, in a no-holds barred private match. I could write 5,000 words on this scene alone. There is arm twisting, eye-gouging, rabbit punches, and of course, the Gregorious Bear Hug. Without giving too much away, (do I really need to include a spoiler alert for a 63-year old movie?), I ran the gamut of emotions during this fight, from incredulity to frustration (seriously Nikolas, you’re a pussy) to immense pride in a style of wrestling that I never gave a crap about before or since. Rest in peace, Gregorious.

At the end of the movie, Gene Tierney’s Mary tells Harry that he had the brains and work ethic to have been anything he ever wanted, only he always chose the wrong thing. Thanks, Gene! I’ll remember that when I’m being tossed into the Thames River! I would take her advice one step further: the moral of the story is, as Homer Simpson says, to never try. Never try, or the world will place you in one big, Gregorious Bear Hug that you can never escape.

Mark’s comment: Widmark did more than noir films, but for my money he’s one of the noir greats, and is perhaps under-appreciated. His Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death is unforgettable, and he also starred in The Street With No Name, Panic in the Streets, and Pickup on South Street, for example, all noir classics. I agree with you, Court, about the wrestling sequences here. Bizarre, sweaty fun.

 

Pick #9: Mark
Touch of Evil
Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich
Written by: Orson Welles; based on the novel Badge of Evil, by Whit Masterson.

 

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In an odd bit of casting, Charlton Heston plays a Mexican narcotics detective (they didn’t have Latino actors in the 50s?), Mike Vargas, whose honeymoon is interrupted when someone plants a bomb in a car and tries to assassinate him. He’s been investigating the Grandi crime family, and it’s obvious they’re out to get him. On this side of the boarder, Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles) has a suspect for the bombing, but Vargas catches Quinlan planting evidence to frame the suspect. Vargas begins investigating Quinlan’s back cases, and the Grandi thugs close in on Vargas and his new bride (Leigh).

This is a great film, and it’s often pegged as the last classic noir film. It boasts a spectacular opening sequence, a continuous tracking shot that begins with a bomb planted in the back of a car, then follows Vargas and his bride as they amble across the U.S./Mexico border. The car comes near, then falls back, until it finally explodes. It’s a bold piece of cinematic craftsmanship, and it was one of the inspirations for Scorsese’s Copa shot in Goodfellas. For me, this is one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen, and it’s not (just) because of what’s going on in terms of the action. It’s due to Welles’ brilliant work with the camera, placing it at super low angles, and giving characters extreme close-ups.

Court’s comment: I might never forgive you or myself for not picking this one. There is so much crazy in this movie it makes dizzy. And then there is Marlene Dietrich’s phenomenal closing line. “What does it matter what you say about people anyway?” So true. Unless you are a writer. Then it matters a lot.

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The Rogue Interview: Chuck Greaves

January 22, 2014 by

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If Chuck Greaves wasn’t such a goddamn good guy, it would be easy to be jealous of him. Leaving a successful career in the legal field, Chuck decided to chase his dream of becoming a writer. A few short years later, he had deals with Minotaur and Bloomsbury in two different genres. Chuck writes the Jack MacTaggart series of legal mysteries for St. Martin’s Minotaur and, as C. Joseph Greaves, literary fiction for Bloomsbury. Hush Money, his first novel, was a finalist for the Shamus Award (Private-Eye Writers of America), the Rocky Award (Left-Coast Crime) and the Audie Award for Best Mystery Audiobook of 2012. Green-Eyed Lady (2013), the second installment in the series, was praised by Douglas Preston as “the wickedest read of the year.” His literary debut, Hard Twisted, was called “a gritty, gripping read, and one that begs to be put on film” (L.A. Times), a “taut and intriguing thriller” (London Sunday Times), and was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award in Fiction.

Both Chuck Greaves and C. Joseph Greaves exchanged emails with the Rogue Reader.

COURT:  Chuck and C. Joseph, welcome to The Rogue Reader.

CHUCK: Thanks, Court, and congratulations on the publication of Tenderloin. I think I speak for everyone old enough to remember 1978 when I say that the People’s Temple massacre is a fascinating literary subject.  In fact, if you’ll forgive a short digression, I spent the summer of 1978 — between college and law school — in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where I was invited onto the USVI National Volleyball Team as it trained for the NORCECA Games, scheduled for September in Georgetown, Guyana.  When forced to choose between missing the tournament and missing my first week of law school, I chose to attend law school.  But the team, which included my brother, went to Guyana, and that, of course, was just two months ahead of the massacre in nearby Jonestown.

COURT: Sounds like you made the right decision. Yeah, the 1970′s were a crazy time for San Francisco. Now I find that most people, at least under a certain age, have no idea that the Peoples Temple was even based here in the city. It’s kind of been white-washed from our history books.

I’m curious about your decision to dedicate yourself to writing full-time. It must have been a difficult one. What finally made you jump in with both feet?

CHUCK:  It was a leap of faith. I’d tried writing on a part-time basis while practicing law, but found I just couldn’t do it. It was also a classic mid-life crisis in which I turned fifty and asked myself “what do you really want to do with the rest of your life?”  The answer was that I’d always wanted to write.

COURT: You have an amazing story of how you got your publishing deal. Mind sharing it with us?

CHUCK: Of course. What happened was, I retired from my law practice in 2006 and began to write full-time. My first completed manuscript was Hush Money, a legal thriller, and my second was Hard Twisted. When neither had sold by 2009, I entered both in the SouthWest Writers’ International Writing Contest — I was living in Santa Fe at the time — and lo and behold Hard Twisted came in second and Hush Money came in first, winning their grand-prize Storyteller Award. Within two weeks I had a New York agent, and within two months I’d sold Hush Money to Minotaur — which specializes in the mystery genre — and Hard Twisted to Bloomsbury USA, which primarily publishes literary fiction.

Hush-Money-cover

COURT: Wow. That’s fantastic. It’s always great to hear stories where someone takes a chance and it pays off. Congrats. Kind of reminds me of the Richard Bach quotation, “The professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

You and I have a strange connection to the little Texas town of Greenville. Your historical novel, Hard Twisted, tells the story of the “skeleton murder” trial that took place in Greenville in 1935. My maternal grandparents were from Greenville, and I visited there every summer growing up (Texas in August, who’s jealous?). I had no idea this little Texas town had such a secret history. How did you ever hear about this trial?

CHUCK:  It’s an interesting story. In 1994, my wife and I were hiking in the red-rock country of southern Utah when we stumbled upon two human skulls. We spent the next dozen years researching whom they belonged to and how they’d gotten there. Turns out there was a guy named Clint Palmer, a 36-year-old Texan, who’d murdered a man in 1934 and kidnapped his 13-year-old daughter and taken her on a one-year crime and killing spree across the Southwest. They were eventually captured in 1935, back in Texas, and Palmer stood trial in the courthouse in Greenville. That’s the true story – along with this young girl’s coming of age under brutal circumstances — behind Hard Twisted.

COURT: You almost have to write a book when something like that happens to you, don’t you? Why was it called “the skeleton murder” trial?

CHUCK: Because the Texas authorities, when they found the girl’s father’s remains, put them on display in the courthouse in Sulphur Springs in an effort to identify the victim.

COURT: Now I guess we’d just post the remains on Facebook. I’m curious, did you ever consider a nonfiction book for telling this story or was this always a work of fiction in your mind?

CHUCK:  My first instinct was nonfiction. It soon became clear, however, that there were too many gaps in the narrative. Plus, after writing Hush Money, which was a humorous, contemporary page-turner, I wanted to try my hand at literary fiction. I’m a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy, and the story of Lottie Garrett and Clint Palmer cried out for that kind of spare, atmospheric treatment.

hard_twisted-pb

COURT: I can confirm that you pulled it off. And if the reader doesn’t take my word, they can see it compared to McCarthy here. I hope posting those reviews doesn’t embarrass you too much.

CHUCK: Not at all! I’ll allow my self one other plug, too. My favorite review was from The Guardian, who called it “the prose equivalent of a Dorothea Lange photograph.” I liked that, because it describes exactly what I was trying for.

COURT: That stark, lyrical voice you use in Hard Twisted is very different from the breezy, effortless one you employ in the MacTaggart series. For me, finding the right voice for my protagonist was one of the hardest parts of the writing process. Do you find it easy to switch gears? Is it something you anticipate doing more of?

CHUCK: I have no problem switching back and forth between the two. The first-person voice I employ for MacTaggart comes naturally. For the current literary book I’m working on– a 1930s New York gangster saga—I’m writing from four different points of view, mixing both first- and third-person with past and present tense. That’s been challenging, but fun. If you want to grow as an author, you’ve got to keep stretching.

COURT: I’m a sucker for reading about a writer’s process, so let me ask you a couple of questions about that. Are you someone who plots out your novels ahead of time, or do you like to let the muse take you where it wants to go?

CHUCK: I remember the first writers’ conference I ever attended, which was the Tony Hillerman conference in Albuquerque in 2008. Craig Johnson, who writes the popular Walt Longmire mystery series, spoke about the importance of meticulous outlining, likening the outline to a road map without which you were almost certain to get lost.  Then Michael McGarrity spoke and said that you should never, ever outline, because outlining smothers creativity.

Thanks, guys, for the great advice!

The fact is, they were both right. If outlining is your bag, then by all means, make an outline. If you prefer the so-called organic approach, in which you make up the story on the fly, then that’s fine as well. The key is to find the methodology that works best for you.

Personally, I fall on the seat-of-the-pants end of the spectrum, largely because I lack the patience for outlining. That said, I never start a novel without knowing (a) how it’s going to end, and (b) two or three key plot points I need to hit along the way. Beyond that, I let the characters speak to me as we go. If you listen to them, they have a lot they can tell you.

COURT: I’ve tried it both ways, and found they both lead to major rewrites. Oh, well. Now that you are writing full-time, what’s your typical writing day like?

CHUCK: Practicing law, you develop strong work habits. I’m at my computer every morning at nine, and I work until lunch, then return for another hour or two in the afternoon. I’d say that I average around five hours a day, six or seven days a week, depending on my other commitments. I believe, as someone once said, that you need to touch the ball every day.

COURT: I like that. Reading Hush Money, it was obvious that one of your passions is horses. I also love horses, but my interest in them is more like Uncle Louis’ in Hush Money. I like to bet on them. How did you first get introduced to horses? Are they a part of your daily life now?

CHUCK:  My wife grew up riding, and I quickly learned that if I wanted to spend any time with her, I’d better learn in a hurry. In L.A., we belonged to the Flintridge Riding Club, and now that we’re in Colorado, we keep our horses on the property. We ride English, having trained both in dressage and in the hunter/jumper disciplines, and Lynda competed quite a bit in horse trials, which involve a combination of dressage, cross-country jumping and stadium jumping. There was a period there where we traveled quite a bit on horse-related vacations.  We’ve ridden, for example, in England, Ireland, Scotland, Belgium, France, Spain, and even on a horseback safari in Botswana. I once told Lynda that if I knew what we were getting into, I’d have suggested we take up a less expensive pastime. Like smoking crack, for instance.

Hush Money, as you know, involves grand-prix showjumping.  Lynda and I have been to several world championships, and to two World Equestrian Games, so I know of what I write. Similarly, Green-Eyed Lady involves elective politics, and while in L.A. I served for many years as a friend’s campaign treasurer. The Last Heir, coming in June of 2014, involves an intra-family struggle for control of a Napa Valley winery, and here again, I’m a wine guy who owns a small vineyard. You don’t necessarily have to write what you know, but it sure saves research time if you do.

But to answer your question, I follow thoroughbred horse racing only casually these days. I did, however, grow up on Long Island, close to Belmont Park, and so I spent some time there in my youth. Both my parents played the ponies now and again. A lot of Uncle Louis’ racetrack wisdom — always bet a gray mare in cold weather, kid — came from my father.

Last-Heir

COURT: I loved that line. So, now that you’ve made the transition to full-time writing, are there ways that the full-time writing life are different than you imagined, for either better or worse?

CHUCK:  Well, let’s see. You make your own hours, and the dress code is casual. Those are good. You do miss the camaraderie of working in an office setting, and the steady paycheck. Writing is definitely an eat-what-you-kill business, and in that sense is not for the faint of heart.  Plus, once you’re published, you find yourself having to engage in promotional activities like book signings and writers’ conferences and social media — none of which I really anticipated when I took the plunge. But on balance, it was the right decision for me

COURT: Sure seems like it. Finally, what’s next?

CHUCK:  The third MacTaggart book, The Last Heir, will be out in June of 2014, and I continue to work on the aformentioned literary novel for Bloomsbury.

COURT: Thanks again, and good luck with them both!

Connect with Chuck at www.chuckgreaves.com

Read a sample of Court’s historical crime thriller, Tenderloin, here.


Blog

The Rogue Interview: Megan Abbott

January 15, 2014 by

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When I reached out to Edgar award winner, Bouchercon Guest of Honour, and reigning Queen of Noir, Megan Abbott about interviewing her on a favorite work of art, I thought, this will be great. I’ll get to talk some Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity, or possibly Mad Men, a favorite show of hers. All topics I could prattle on about in my sleep. Then Megan suggested the forthcoming Lifetime movie, Flowers in the Attic, airing Saturday, January 18th at 8 p.m.

Umm. Hmm. You mean a movie based on the 1979 V.C Andrews book written for teenage girls? That Flowers in the Attack? Gotcha. As Megan said, “This probably isn’t in your bailiwick, but . . . ”

Well, I should have known better than to doubt her. Flowers in the Attic is one of the most lurid, pathos-soaked, uncategorizable novels I’ve read in a long time. Think Gothic fairy tale meets The Great Escape with a dash of incest. Got it? I didn’t think so.

In retrospect, Megan’s choice shouldn’t have completely surprised me. She and Sara Gran had already written a lengthy, erudite piece for The Believer about the novel, and the star of the Flowers movie, Kiernan Shipka from Mad Men, is also Megan’s Twitter avatar. This movie is worlds colliding for Megan. As I think you’ll see, it’s hard not to get caught up in her enthusiasm.

COURT: How excited are you for this movie?

MEGAN: I was extremely dubious when I first heard about it–the 1980s feature adaptation, while fascinating in its own deep-80s way, bears little relation to the weird Gothic mayhem of the book and strips it of precisely the elements that make the book so, er, special: its willful taboo-shattering, its violence, its twisty and alarming sexuality. But when I saw the trailer, I started to get really, really energized. It seems far truer to the spirit of the original, both in mood and tone. And the trailer seems to be actively foregrounding the book’s taboo-smashing, at least one of them…

COURT: Obviously, as the father of a ten-year-old girl, my experience reading this book was far different from that of a teenage girl (for whom, as you and Sara point out in your Believer piece, reading Flowers has become a kind of rite of passage). As the abuses kept piling up, it became almost too painful for me to read. What do you think it is about Flowers that resonates with girls of Cathy’s age?

MEGAN: And, really, girls younger than Cathy. As kids, we tend to want to read books with protagonists a few years older than we are. They become guideposts for us in some ways. So Cathy serves as both this mainstream fantasy of a teen girl–beautiful, blonde and a ballerina–but also, on the subterranean levels, Cathy and her world permits young girls (at least, ME, and many of the readers I’ve talked to) a way to explore their dark sides, the urges (rage, desire, hunger) that we are socialized to repress, or not have at all. The book becomes our dark id.

COURT: I could see how that would be a strong appeal for younger girls. The book also works on many other levels, too: it’s part dysfunctional family drama, part horror fairy tale, and part thriller—and if any one of those elements had become out of proportion, I think the book would have collapsed on itself. This is a real credit to V.C. Andrews’ writing. Do you think the fact that she was self-taught allowed her to concoct such a strange combination?

MEGAN: That’s a great point. I think there’s something utterly organic and personal about the book. I’m not going to compare it to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in terms of execution or beauty of prose, but I do think there’s a comparison to be found in terms of an author who lived very much in her own imagination and thus created something that is utterly unique and idiosyncratic—something that comes from the shoals of the unconscious. And that’s not to suggest writing it was easy for Andrews, or that there aren’t a million choices made along the way. It’s just that she seems to feel no commitment to genre, to tradition. It’s her world utterly. And we are permitted to peek in.

V._C._Andrews

COURT: Andrews deftly handles the way the mother slowly distances herself from her kids, which provides much of the suspense, and ultimately, the horror of the book. Despite her lack of “screen time,” I thought she was a fascinating character. What do you think of the mother and her transformation?

Megan: Oh, yes. She’s the dark marvel of the book—and you mentioned fairy tales and she is so much a Grimm’s creation. In every way, she defies our notions of proper motherhood—as does her own mother, the brutal grandmother who starts the cycle of mother-daughter violence in the novel. In many ways, it’s a book about mother-as-monstrosity. In the piece Sara Gran and I wrote for The Believer, we talk about how the pulse that beats through the novel is: I hate my mother and most of all I fear I will become my mother. The book suggests that mothers and daughters will always be rivals, enemies. And not just to forge your own identity but to in fact survive, you have to overthrow your mother. It’s the female Oedipal drama, except the goal here extends beyond supplanting. It also runs on revenge. Blood-hungry revenge.

COURT: There is a lot of darkness in this book, but it’s ultimately a survivor’s tale. Without giving away too much, I’m curious how you view the ending. Do you view it as a hopeful one?

Megan: I find it deliciously ambiguous. If one views the novel—and I think one can—as a dark parable of female coming-of-age, the ending reflects what it means to become a woman. The deepest of disillusionments, innocence lost. All one’s fantasies about one’s own origins, the nature of familial love—they’re all made monstrous. So what does surviving mean in that context? Does Cathy figure something out that means she’ll break the family’s lurid cycle? Or will she only repeat it? You only have to turn to the next book to get your answer. It’s a novel of compulsion. No one can stop themselves from anything. I think that’s part of its immense appeal to young women. When you’re eleven, twelve, thirteen, you know what that feels like. You know what it means to live with your pulse constantly pounding, your heart lurching in your chest because you want things so badly.

COURT: For people reading this interview who haven’t read the book, I fear we might be painting too bleak of a picture; in addition to being “a novel of compulsion,” it is also a “compulsive read.” I could use those descriptions for your novels, as well. Was Flowers a conscious influence on your decision to feature teen girls in Dare Me and in your upcoming novel, The Fever?

MEGAN: I think the impact has probably been more on me as a reader. I remain drawn to the themes in the book—the Freudian netherworld Andrews brings to such vivid life. I’ve always loved the Gothic and one day I’d love to try my hand at a novel in that tradition.

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COURT: For any movie of Flowers to be successful, the casting and acting has to be perfect for all the main characters, but none more so, than Cathy. Given your Twitter avatar is of Sally Draper smoking, I’m guessing you think Kiernan Shipka was a good choice?

MEGAN: Perhaps nothing about the adaptation excites me half as much as that. We’ve seen Shipka move from doll-faced child to teen on Mad Men and we’ve seen her lose her innocence many times. And explore some of her own dark side. I’ll never forget the episode, Mystery Date, when Sally reads the forbidden article about Richard Speck, the nurse murderer, with avidity and terror. I so identified (and I know I’m not the only one). Sally would definitely have read Flowers, had it been published back then.

COURT: Well, now you’ve done gone and opened the door to a Mad Men question. Other than on your Twitter feed, I don’t think I’ve read anything by you about your Mad Men fandom. In addition to Sally Draper, you also seem to really enjoy Pete Campbell. What is it about Pete that you find so compelling?

MEGAN: Gosh, I have loved him from the start. He gets such a bad rap as being a snake, a creep, but he’s a marvelously textured character. He’s smarter than he gets credit for, more progressive than his background would seem to permit, and filled with a kind of sorrow and poignancy that really moves me. In those long, lingering moments when the show permits him to “look within,” or to be touched by something—well, Vincent Kartheiser really makes the most of them. And there was a wonderful scene this past year with he and Peggy, getting drunk together and confiding. You can tell they’re having so much fun, and they have such a complicated history together, going back to the show’s very first episode. The scene is both light and fun and also very resonant. The show rewards long-time viewers with scenes like that.

COURT: Any hopes or predictions for the final season of Mad Men?

MEGAN: I want things to go okay for Peggy. And Betty, who also gets a bad rap. Sally—I know she’ll be okay.

COURT: Maybe we should bid on a Sally Draper spin-off now. What do you think?  

MEGAN: I would be afraid it would go terribly wrong. I’ll probably want to leave her off where the show does. And know, in my heart, that one day she does something pretty spectacular.

COURT: Thanks, Megan. This was fun.

MEGAN: Thank you for indulging me—and fingers crossed for the movie, and the ongoing Flowers legacy!

Follow Megan on Twitter @meganeabbott. Buy Dare Me here and pre-order The Fever here.

Follow Court on Twitter @courthaslett. Sample his 1978 San Francisco crime novel, Tenderloin, here.


Blog

Treme: An Insider’s Perspective

January 9, 2014 by

With the conclusion of Treme, HBO’s superb series about post-Katrina New Orleans, we couldn’t pass on the opportunity to interview our resident expert on New Orleans, and an actual resident of the Treme neighborhood, Ro Cuzon.

Ro has lived in New Orleans, the setting for his novel Under the Dixie Moon, since 2005. I talked with Ro about his thoughts on the series, interacting with the cast and crew (including the series co-creator, David Simon), and how the neighborhood is doing now.

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COURT: When did you move to the Treme neighborhood?

RO: I moved to Treme from Uptown in 2007, two years after Katrina, originally because I wanted to be closer to where I worked, a bar called King Bolden’s that my friend Mario owned on North Rampart. The house my wife and I ended up buying was just four blocks from it. Ideal location, except that by the time we moved in, the city had shut down the bar because of a feud over noise with a couple of well-connected neighbors.

That story actually made it into the last season of the show (the ‘Dippermouth Blues’ episode). It was where Davis discusses the closing of a bar where he was supposed to have a gig on New Year’s Eve. They call it Caledonia but it’s really our bar they’re talking about, “where the 7th Circle used to be.” They also used the name King Bolden’s in a couple other older episodes as an example of the city closing down music venues. We’re very happy that they did.

COURT: How accurate was Treme in depicting the neighborhood?

RO: I think the show was incredibly accurate in its depiction not only of the Treme neighborhood, but also of the city and its culture as a whole. A perfect example of that were the many Second Lines scenes shown throughout the series. Second Lines (which I’d never heard of until I moved here) are by and large spontaneous events, a unique New Orleans experience. And I think they did a great job capturing it on film, all that noise and music and joyous chaotic atmosphere. I often wondered what viewers thought of those scenes — the people not familiar with them, I mean.

COURT: I think most viewers were jealous that their cities don’t have Second Lines. Was there anything you thought was missing from their depiction?

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Blog, Craft, Shorts & Excerpts

Yin Yang Tattoo by Ron McMillan

April 2, 2014 by

In 2010 my first published novel, Yin Yang Tattoo, was launched in paperback by Sandstone Press in the UK. I sat around for a few …
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Blog, Reviews & Press

A New Rave Review of Tenderloin from Raven Crime Reads

February 24, 2014 by

Over the weekend, Raven Crime Reads posted a stellar review of Tenderloin that, as Ice Cube would say, “put a glide in my stride and …
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