There’s an interesting piece by Stuart Evers over at the Guardian (which, for the sake of honesty I must admit having picked up from Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. If you are looking at this on my blog page, and not my home page, you can see the link just to the left on the blogroll. Right there, yes.) about how at the Harrowgate crime writing festival, John Banville — the Booker Prize winner — who writes crime novels not at all secretly under the name of Benjamin Black, said he spends a lot more time crafting his literary fiction than his crime fiction.
Writing under his own name, Banville manages around 100 sweated-over, teased, honed and polished words a day; but as Benjamin Black, he can manage a couple of thousand. The intimation was quite clear, “Black’s” sentences simply weren’t as important. Perhaps realising what he’d unwittingly said, he tried to backtrack, but the damage was done and there was more fuel for his critics. “He’s slumming it,” author Ruth Dudley Edwards said the following day. “He says he isn’t, but he is.”
This has nothing to do with anything.
So people were annoyed because he spends more time – I can only presume – crafting his literary fiction on the level of sentence than he does with his crime fiction, which I guess is more focused on plot and character. There are so many reasons why this whole dust up is stupid, but I think the most important one is that spending a lot of time crafting a sentence doesn’t mean it is going to be a good or effective sentence. And let’s face it, for the most part the best sentences are the ones you don’t notice. I, for one, don’t like to stop my reading and say, Bloody hell, that was a damn good sentence, by Jove. I’m not sure why I would say such a thing, or why I would have an English accent while saying it, but you get my point. I’ve only read one John Banville novel and one Benjamin Black novel, and I liked the Black a whole lot better. It was not because there was lots of salacious crime, which I can take or leave, thanks, but because it didn’t read like some wanker (crap, it’s the English accent again) spent all day crafting his sentence just so I would say, Bloody hell, what a well- crafted sentence, mate. Maybe some people like that sort of thing, and if you do, more power to you. I like a novel to work as an integrated, functioning whole, not as a collection of neatly rendered parts. That’s just me.
At the end of the piece, Evers concludes:
This is perhaps the rub: crime writers know that the people who matter are the readers, not the critics. But it’s high time that the critics – and the award panels – began to truly sit up and take notice of the importance of good crime writing. Like [the television program] The Wire, crime writing has the ability to shine light into the darker aspects of the world in which we live. And whether Banville does consider himself to be slumming it or not, what is important is that crime’s artistic legitimacy is at least now up for serious debate.
Evers is raging against the critical machine, but I’m not sure the machine needs to be raged against, at least not in this country. Crime fiction that rises above does get its due. Genre fiction with no grand aspirations is often not treated seriously because it doesn’t deserve to be. It is often built of functional prose, but no more. The real issue it seems to me is marketing. Crime fiction as literature has to be marketed as such to get the kind attention of critics. The idea is that it has many of the features of a mystery or thriller, but you don’t be laughed at by your high brow friends because this book is literary. These tools are often useful in helping readers find material they will enjoy, and the truth is that crime fiction marketed in this way does often read differently than crime fiction marketed as pure genre reading. The only problem I see is that high quality, transcendent crime fiction loses out if it is not vetted early. Once it is put in a garish package with the label stating A Sheldon Finklestein Mystery! emblazoned on the cover, all the transcending in the world isn’t going to help it get taken seriously. But hell, life’s unfair. What are you going to do?
I always thought it would be cool to like anime, but most of what I’ve seen over the years left me unimpressed. Either I was too post-pubescent for the material (Naruto, Full Metal Alchemist), I was too wedded to the notion of stories making sense (Akira), or maybe I was just one of those people who prefer not to be bored for long periods of time (Ghost in the Shell). Then there were some (Cowboy Bebop comes to mind) that weren’t notably immature or dull or incomprehensible, but didn’t grab me in any meaningful way.
Death Note. It's about a death notebook. Odd.
Then there’s Death Note, which rocks. I won’t get into the details of the story, which will sound silly if I try to summarize it, and because watching it unfold is one of the show’s real pleasures. Suffice to say that over almost 40 half-hour episodes you have a truly great cat-and-mouse story as Light Yagami – given the power to kill any almost any human being he chooses decides to wipe out all crime by destroying criminals. This has the side effect of making him into a mass murderer, which the police don’t like, and he is forced to match wits with “L,” the world’s greatest detective. There are brief periods during the series’ run when it becomes a little confusing or opaque, but at the end you’ll discover those parts that seemed to make no sense or where you thought you weren’t paying attention do make sense and you were paying attention. That’s always nice. I give it a very strong recommendation. If you are going to check out only one anime series, this is really the way to go.
It’s been a lot of back and forth in my reading on the romantics. Mostly Byron and Blake these days. At the moment, I’m steeped in research on Blake. That guy was freaky. I wanted to post some pictures of animals together with Kindles, but the internet — usually so reliable – has let me down this time. Feel free to send me pictures of your pets with your Kindles. Or better yet, if you have a picture of your Kindle with a wild animal, like a lion or a capybara, for instance, I’d like to see it. You bet. You may think the obvious move here is to talk about the Kindle Animal Farm, but I’m trying get Amazon to send me a free one, so I will pass on the low-hanging fruit, thanks.
There are few subjects for a work of historical fiction that can produce in me the same sphincter-tightening aversion as the Salem witch trials. It’s not that I don’t think this is an important or interesting event, it’s just that it is one of the most worked-over subjects in American history, so over analyzed as to have all but left the realm of the real and entered the realm of the purely metaphorical. Additionally, the Puritan world is one that is often represented as being humorless, joyless, and stiff and generally airless. I’m not sure how true these representations are. Certainly, it is how the Puritans represented themselves, but I’m not entirely convinced that human nature is as malleable as they would have us believe.
In any case, I was delightfully surprised by Katherine Howe’s novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, which has spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and enjoyed much success – and all this despite the title. For the record, I wanted to call my first novel The Villainy of Stockjobbers Detected, and everyone laughed at me. Howe deserves praise for going with a period title, and for resisting the urge to call it something like The Cunning Woman’s Daughter, which I feel sure either her editor or agent must have suggested at one point.
Far more than that, she has written a delightful, lively, playful and clever novel about the Salem witch trials. The novel divides its time between Massachusetts in the 17th and 18th centuries, and Massachusetts of today, spending far more time with the latter, and rightly so in my view. The historical section are nicely wrought, but the real heart of the book lies with Howe’s protagonist, Connie Goodwin, an engaging, self-effacing graduate student in history who accidentally comes across evidence of an undiscovered manuscript written by 17th century witches. In other words, Howe engages with the possibility that there were real witches involved in the panic of the 1690s – not devil worshippers such as the Puritans feared, but cunning women, traditional practitioners of folk magic, who were, in fact, a significant part of rural life in early modern England and, Howe suggests, England’s colonies.
I don’t believe in reveling too much plot detail in a review, since that spoils the fun of reading, though Howe pretty much telegraphs her characters’ intents and destinies both in the narrative and though her choice of Dickensian names. At times I found it hard to believe that Connie could be quite so naïve as Howe portrays her, and she seems a bit slow on the data-analyzing uptake for a student of history, but I suppose that is for the readers’ benefit. In the end, it doesn’t much matter, since a novel like this lives and dies by its writing and style rather than its plotting. Howe has written a thoroughly entertaining novel that makes the bold move of taking cunning women as seriously as they and their contemporaries took themselves. I dug it.
Also available on the Kindle, in case you were wondering.
Another day, another film deal. This time it’s The Whiskey Rebels, which goes to Adrian Fulle of Poya Pictures. He seems like an all-round good guy, well plugged in and he digs the book. You can read his account here, which includes some kind descriptions of me and my work, and a really cool picture at the very bottom.
Okay, so has this ever happened to you? You are engrossed in a historical novel and you think, If only this author also wrote about zombies! You are not alone, and so I am happy to present to you the cover of the forthcoming anthology, The New Dead, in which, with my story “What Maisie Knew” (neat title, no?) I burst upon the bright stage of zombie fiction. Why? Author Chris Golden, with whom I have one of those friendly email acquaintances, offered me a slot on the line-up, and I figured I’d take a crack at it. I’d never really thought about writing a zombie story before, but I like a challenge, and I’m pleased with the way things turned out. Look for it in February of 2010. For more info, including the whole table of contents, check out Chris’s blog here.
Is this a trick question?
Also, if you are looking for ways to kill time – and really, why else would you be reading this? – check out this link to some very creepy and disturbing old ads. It’s fun, and also educational.
And to round out this Friday, I have some good Bordeaux values to report on, discovered at my local Costco. I don’t know how much longer this kind of excellent wine from the ’05 vintage – at under $20 — are going to be coming along, so snag them if you can find them. First, the Château Lilian Ladouys Saint Estèphe. Gorgeous floral nose, full bodied, very tannic, impressive length. An undercoat of grass, mineral and copper gives way to blueberry, blackberry and fig. I plan to buy a few bottles to cellar, as this one is very young. If you don’t have storage facilities, or you cannot wait, decant the crap out of it. I’d say it took about three hours to open up. 91 points. Even better, in my view, was the Château Bernateau St. Émilion, offering a bright nose of red fruit, loam and French oak. The acidity here really shines, hoisting up notes of cherry, cranberry, raspberry, cedar and a hint of coffee. Ready to go now with decanting, but I plan to sit on a few bottles for 2 – 4 years just to see what happens. 93 points. As always, my slow descent into alcoholism goes something like this.
Have you ever wished you could be at a David Liss signing when you were physically unable to attend? I know I have. In fact, here is a recording of one. My appearance at Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, AZ was almost cancelled when my plane was repurposed to fly prominent ichthyologists to this year’s Guppycon. Or something. My flight was ixnzyed, is the point, and I only found out when I showed up at the airport. After much begging and weeping, I managed to get on a flight that landed me at the exact time of my scheduled appearance. I then heroically hailed a taxi and scooted over to the store pronto, and without time to do my usual Jack Donaghy-esque warm-up, I launched right into it. Thus I am drinking large quantities of water and caffeine while chatting with the legendary Barbara Peters. After viewing, please purchase a book.
Not Barbara’s dog, but he looked sort of like this.
Okay, I am back from my travels. I grumbled a fair amount about turn-out on my last tour, but none of that this time around. Last week I had easily 40 people at Book People in Austin, and while attendance was not stellar at Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, it was still a good-sized crowd and we were dealing with temperatures of 118 degrees. When it gets that hot the government advises the elderly, the sick and the rational to stay indoors or move to a state where human beings actually have a chance of surviving without air conditioning. I now am inclined to think that crappy attendance last time around had more to do with being on tour during the run-up to the election than anything else. Three of my speaking dates coincided with pres or the vice pres debates. In any case, my Scottsdale experience was augmented by selling a ton of books, by Poisoned Pen owner Barbara Peter’s legendary hospitality, and her husband Robert Rosenwald’s amazing cooking. Plus they have a nice dog. As soon as they post it, I will put up a recording of my event at Poisoned Pen so you can all experience the magic for yourselves.
I liked it!
My horrendous travel experience, brought to me by US Air, was made bearable by legendary novelist Edna O’Brien’s new biography, Byron in Love. This is just the sort of book I’d have enjoyed reading on a Kindle if I had one. Which I don’t. Still! Amazon, are you listening? But I digress. At just over 200 pages, this is a compact little biography, and an interesting corrective, in my view, to the trend of massive, complete, often unreadable biographies of literary figures. There are other, more exhaustive works on Byron, and Leslie A. Marchand’s three volume bio may still be the best place for the serious reader to go, but O’Brien refreshing approach is to center her attention on Byron the man rather than Byron the poet. While other figures of the Romantic period can hardly be discussed outside the context of their writing (Blake comes to mind), Byron – as a biographical subject – is certainly far more than the sum total of his literary output. Even so, this brief book feels rushed at times and sometimes gets bogged down in sentences that require several readings to unknot. Even so, I think this is a terrific take on Byron, especially for those who are interested more in the superstar than the poet.
Finally, this made me laugh so hard I had trouble breathing. Maybe it was just my mood. Or my lungs.
While desperately lost in Houston, I paused to take this picture. No book stores around here, obviously.
The most recent manifestations on my “virtual book tour” – and I will be commenting on this whole process once it is over – are at A Bookworm’s World and Book Marketing Buzz. Nothing like marketing your book on a site about marketing books. Wheels within wheels. Know what I’m saying? I also make my guest editorial opinions known at the Barnes & Noble Review. This is totally unrelated, in case you are wondering, to my being friends with the managing editor of the Barnes and Noble Review.
Meanwhile, the real, you know, physical tour, short as it is, goes well. A nice turn out, of mostly people I did not personally know, in San Antonio last night, and it was standing room only at Murder by the Book, which was Monday night in Houston. I managed to get lost both on my way to and my way from the store, however, which is what happens when they send a guy like me out without a media escort.
Waiting for me on my return home was lots of movie business to tend to. We are now, in case you’ve missed it, firmly in the era of the free option and free option extension. The latter was for The Coffee Trader, which has been in pre-production for years, and the producer has always diligently renewed his options. Now he swears he will start filming next summer or fall, but money is tight, and wants to keep the option going without spending more. This is a variation of the “enough already” argument my late ex-step-father tried to use in court to get out of paying any more alimony to his first wife. It did not work there, but it did work with me. They sent me a fancy brochure with pictures of likely actors, so what could I do but say yes?
The other free deal is for The Ethical Assassin – put together by a woman with little Hollywood experience, but she managed to get an established producer at an established production company involved. In some ways, I like these free deals. In the old days, money was thrown around as a matter of power and prestige, but it didn’t mean your book was likely to get adapted. Now, anyone who gets involved actually means it, which I like. If I could get that and a ton of money, that would be best, but this is an imperfect world.
It is very hard for him to turn the pages. If only he could press a button instead.
I am reading a terrific biography of Byron right now, by the way: Byron in Love by Edna O’Brien. I will likely post a review soon. Sadly, I am not reading this on a Kindle, which I would enjoy doing, because I don’t have one. Yet. You understand me, I think, yes? I don’t have one yet.
Hot on the heels of the excellent review from The Washington Post, which was so excellent I had to find a way to mention it again, comes more great write-ups for The Devil’s Company (now in print!). There is an equally great rave from The Austin American-Statesman. The Devil’s Company (which, as you may know, is now in print) also merited a mention in The Seattle Times’ mystery roundup. The Minneapolis Star Tribune was kind enough to mention the paperback of The Whiskey Rebels. Yes, “Not to be missed,” is an excellent thing to say. You’d be surprised how many good reviews defy an extractable quote. Even so, I must say to you: Wake up, Minneapolis, The Devil’s Company is now in print. Let’s see some hardcover review love, if you please. Finally, at The Writer’s Life, you can read 10 Things People Don’t Know about David Liss, though some of you may know three of them.
As predicted, by the way, Thrillerfest this past weekend was a blast. Here I am with fellow panelists James Phelan, John Lescroart (rhymes with “less Phwah”), and Robert Dugoni.
Also, and this is extra cool, I met Dan Slater, who works for Amazon Kindle. I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but it was either, “I swear by all that is holy, you will get a free Kindle,” or possibly, “Um, I’ll see what I can do. Now will you please leave me alone?” It’s all fuzzy.
If he gets me a Kindle, I will be his best friend.
Finally, to the person who keeps trying to post comments to my blog in Russian, please knock it off. I’m never going to post it if I don’t know what it says.
The Kindle guts: I expected more magical & sparkly things.
I’m off this weekend to Thrillerfest in New York City, where I will be on such dignified panels as WILL YOU SIGN MY BRA?: Funny book tour stories and IS THAT TRUE?: When to lie and when to research. Plus I will be hanging out with my friends, doing the amazing and secret things writers do. For example, we just might open up a Kindle to see what kind of insanity goes on inside.
In the meantime, check out this nice review in The Washington Post, and keep buying copies of The Devil’s Company (now on sale!). Spread the word to your hard-living, hard-reading friends. If I had one subliminal message to impart to you it would be: buy this book. Seriously. Buy it.
I may try to do some crazy, crazy live blogging this weekend. If not, I’ll be back with exciting updates next week. In the meantime, if any emergencies come up, please contact one of the real superheroes at the World Superhero Registry.
The entire staff here at davidliss.com is very excited about the launch of The Devil’s Company (on sale now!). Check out an interview with me at As the Pages Turn, which features the answers to such trenchant questions as If someone were to write a book on your life, what would the title be? and Finish this sentence: “The one thing that I wish people would understand about me is…” You’ll have to click to find the answers, and last I checked, you may have to scroll down. There also a guest post at Blogging Authors on why I write about financial history when I could just as easily write about, I don’t know, bunnies or Kindles or even el Chupacabra. I guess that’s what the blog is for.
Dealing with the bank
Hey, am I the only one who thought the movie The International sucked? I figured I was going to like it because it has Clive Owen – who makes my short list of actors I’d like to see Benjamin Weaver. Hugh Jackman would be good too, though maybe we should save him for A Conspiracy of Paper: The Musical. We’ll see who is laughing on Broadway, my friend.
Anyhow, it’s got Owen and it’s a thriller about the evils of mega-capitalism. You’ve got people running around, shooting their guns, and there’s a bank at the center of it. I write stuff like that, so maybe my interest in this movie was totally narcissistic. Fine. The point is, it was long, bloated, and never quite figured out how to make the ugly side of banking interesting. Plus, I don’t think I’d ever noticed before the degree to which Naomi Watts has trouble acting. At first I thought it was cool that Owen and Watts don’t end up having a relationship. Way to go against the grain. Except then I couldn’t quite figure out what Watts’s character was doing in the movie at all. Certainly this film fails the Mo Movie Measure. Do you know about this? My wife just told me. This is a test devised by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who requires that any movie she sees have at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. It is shocking how few films qualify.
Finally, my dear winos, I blog to you now of the 2005 Domaine St. Benoit Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Here’s my take: nose of cherry, vanilla, mint and sea foam. This is a rich wine that benefited form an hour of decanting. Dark dry fruit predominate – prune and raisin, with notes of tar, mineral, and milk chocolate. Very chewy tannins, good length and mouthfeel. A bit too acidic for my taste, and I like acidic wines. It has a somewhat humorless quality, fairly common among Châteauneuf-du-Papes, but it’s still a wine with a big, bold profile, which I dig. I bestow upon it an 89. $ 27.99
As always, my drinking habbits can be followed on my CellarTracker page.