Friday, July 28, 2006

Brain Food

Charles here:

Rose and I went to an Indian restaurant tonight and, as always, it made me think about my trips to my favorite country in the world. I’m not some Pollyanna, I know it’s got more problems than it’s got people, but I still love the place and, if all goes according to plans, one day we will live there.

I started with a Kingfisher Beer. I’m not really a beer guy (so you know I’m not the Canadian in this blog) but they didn’t have any of that no-name whiskey I found almost palatable so I made do. It’s a skunky beer that tastes like a Miller and it’s brewed in Saratoga Spring, NY, but it earned its $4 price tag by the memories it pulled up.

My Uncle Chuck was my traveling companion on my most recent trip to India. It was his first trip there and I have to give him credit for being so bold (others would say foolish) to trust me on setting it all up. Chuck’s first Indian meal – ever – was in New Delhi at the best restaurant I could afford. If you’ve been to Delhi, you know that there are restaurants that would make Bill Gates look for the specials, so we were not top of the line, but not eating at the yummy road-side stalls either. Chuck is a man of strong resolve and after one taste of absolutely delicious aloo matar, he resolved not to eat again until he returned to the States, fourteen days later. He came close. If it wasn’t for the case of peanut butter crackers he had in his suitcase (really), he might have made it. And he did wolf down a large pizza all by himself at the second floor Pizza Corner in Bangalore, the same one that I feature in a key scene in Out of Order (page 174 for those of you playing at home). When we arrived back in Rochester, Chuck’s daughter Marcy was at the airport to greet him. I’ll never forget the sad way she said, “Oh my God you look awful,” a condition, Chuck was quick to point out, that was totally the fault of Indian cuisine.

What would have made tonight’s meal well worth the inflated price would have been a cup (clay, hand-formed) of railway tea. Part of it has to be that whole ‘romance of travel’ thing, but there is no tea in the world quite as good as Indian railway tea and to go to India and not have a cup at every station is as ridiculous as seeing the whole country but passing up a chance to see the Taj Mahal.

Like I did on my first trip.

But that’s another story.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The World Needs More… Bookstores

Vicki here:
I love bookstores. If I were to guess, I’d say that everyone reading this blog loves bookstores. So isn’t it a tragedy that there are so few.

Few, I hear you say, there are lots of bookstores. Big bookstores in big-box malls, smaller bookstores in smaller malls, bookstores everywhere.

There are plenty of bookstores, to be sure. But not much variety, because here in Canada they're almost all part of one big chain.

I was thinking about the demise of the independent bookstore when I was at the wonderful Prime Crime in Ottawa signing Burden of Memory last week. A customer wandered in off the street and asked Linda Wilkin, the owner of the store, for a book by someone named Maggie something. Linda got up, walked to the shelf and pulled down a Maggie Wheeler book. “Is this who you are looking for?” she asked. “Oh, yes.” The happy customer bought the book. A short while later another customer came in the store. “Last year,” she said to Linda, “you recommended a book for my niece and she really enjoyed it, so I want to buy another one for her birthday next year.” The customer didn’t remember the name of the book, or the author, but by asking a few careful questions, Linda was able to locate that author’s newest book. Another happy customer.

I have always found the staff in the chain stores to be friendly, and eager to be helpful. They’re happy to lead you to the computer and type in the full name of the author you’re looking for, and then tell you if the book is in stock. But try asking them to type in “Maggie Someone” or “the book I bought last year.”

When there was a temporary lull in customers streaming into Prime Crime to demand that I sign a book for them, I talked to Linda and her assistant Carole all about mysteries. We quickly discovered that Carole and I have similar tastes, and she walked through the store picking books down from the shelf and handing them to me. All readers love to discover new authors, and sometimes rediscover old ones we’ve loved and forgotten. But as helpful as those kids (which most of the staff are) in those big chains, they really can’t talk to you about reading. I suspect that they’d get in trouble for standing and talking to you for ten minutes anyway. It would appear that the store is trying to help you out by making suggestions based on their selection of Top Reads or the CEO’s Picks. But publishers pay big bucks for prime shelf placement and ‘recommendations’. I’d rather ask Carole at Prime Crime if she liked Lou Allin’s Murder, Eh? (which I did enjoy by the way) than have my choice of what the big-name publishers paid to have placed on the “recommended” shelf.

You’d think that the advantage of the big stores would be the variety. But you don’t even get that. Not amongst the calendars and candles and piles of American blockbusters. Three of my Sisters-in-Crime friends came to my launch at Scene of the Crime in Oakville. They staggered out under the weight of the books they bought. Not so well known books they had come from Toronto to Oakville to buy because they weren’t available at the big chain.

As for Scene of the Crime, owned by the extremely knowledgeable Don Longmuir, it’s closing next month. I’ll miss biking down to the store on a Saturday afternoon and talking mysteries with Don. With the closing of Scene of the Crime, as far as I know, there will be ONE independent bookstore left in Oakville, a town of 120,000 people. That’s Bookers on Lakeshore Road. It’s not a mystery specialty store, but it’s quite charming, and located in a great shopping area.

Stores mentioned in this piece can be found at:

Prime Crime, Ottawa: http://www.primecrimebooks.com/
Scene of the Crime: http://www.murdermysteriesandmore.com/ (Don will still be running an order book business)
Bookers, Oakville: http://bookers.sites.toronto.com/

Before I go, I’d like to mention that the special Canadian edition of Spinetingler Magazine (http://www.spinetinglermag.com/) is now available.

Happy reading,

Vicki

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Death and Life

Mickey Spillane is dead. Bummer. He had a good run. Some 53 books. I particularly liked all of them (well, I didn’t actually read all of them, but a bunch). In the obit from the L.A. Times, kindly reprinted by the Montreal Gazette (the crappy rag STILL hasn’t reviewed Overexposed!) there’s an anecdote, probably the most famous, about Spillane’s response to “some New York literary guy” who remarked to Spillane at a party that it was “disgraceful that of the ten best selling books of all time, seven of them were written by you.” Spillane replied, “You’re lucky I’ve only written seven books.” Mickey was 88. Sleep well.

I’m going on vacation. Two weeks at our cottage in Vermont. And we’re taking a vacation from our vacation and spending a few days hiking and kayaking in Acadia National Park in Maine. Back in the days when I had a real job, after my first wife divorced me and before I met Pam, I spent a couple of summer vacations writing (more sensibly, I spent my winter vacations skiing). I’d hole up for a couple of weeks in my ratty apartment at Sherbrooke and Decarie and write. I had no AC, lived just down the street from a KFC (PFK in La Belle Province), and directly across from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. This latter point is relevant because that year my summer vacation happened to coincide with a Quebec nurses strike. Striking nurses paraded up and down the sidewalk across from my third floor window, chanting and carrying signs that read “Honk if you Support our Cause.” Lots of motorists supported their cause. So did I, until about midway through my first day. Between the heat, the honking, and the stink of deep fried chicken parts, it was pretty miserable. I couldn’t do anything about the heat, or the stink, but I thought maybe I could do something about the striking nurses. More precisely, the noisy gestures of solidarity from passing motorists.

So I went downstairs and across the street and sought out the woman who appeared to be leading the picket line. I explained my situation, telling her I really did support their cause, and that it was obvious a lot of other people did too, but I was trying to work -- no doubt so were a lot of other people, it being a commercial street -- and all the honking was driving me to distraction.

Now, I’d like to be able to tell you that I used my editorial skills to help them revise their signs to read, “Wave if you Support our Cause,” but I can’t. Oh, I could, but it wouldn’t be true. The woman looked at me as if I was completely out of my mind. Maybe I was, what with the heat, the stink, and the honking. My cause lost, I ended up going back to my nice little pod in my nice air-conditioned office at CN and pinning a sign to my partition, “I’m on Vacation. Go Away.”

So, I’m on vacation for the next few weeks. I might even manage to get some writing done, on rainy days (there won’t be many), sitting at the dinning room table, looking out over Lake Champlain. Don’t go away, though. Vicki and Rick and Alex and Charles will be here to entertain and enlighten.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Montreal, QC (soon to be Alburg, VT)

Friday, July 14, 2006

First Round’s On Me

Kids love to read. Adults don’t.

Okay, not you. You (and probably most of your friends) put reading, rightfully, at the top of life’s pleasures. But you have had to notice that ‘reading fiction for pleasure’ is not as universally loved as we would hope.

Sad, really, almost criminal.

So who’s to blame?

I blame schools, specifically any schooling after the fifth grade (or, as my blog-mates would say, grade five). As a former teacher with fifteen years in the classroom – half of which was spent teaching English with a heavy emphasis on literature – I know of which I speak.

Consider this. Before they hit that tragic I-Hate-Reading mark, kids can’t get enough of the stuff. They devour books. Their library cards are well worn and they know whole passages by heart, reading and rereading the same books for the sheer ecstasy that reading can bring. When you see this passion you might assume that theirs will be lives filled with books. Yet by the time they are finished with high school, many students proudly announce that they will never read again, a piece of teenage bravado that becomes, for most, a self-fulfilling prophecy. What the hell did we do?

I think we need to change the way we teach literature.

We need to teach it so that literature remains something they can’t get enough of, something they look forward to enjoying, even after an exhausting day at the salt mines, something they talk about when they gather with friends, something that inspires a willingness to experiment, try new things, something they share at special occasions, the thing that defines the good life, the rich reward.

We need to teach literature like we teach them to drink.

Try this: take an average fourteen year old and hand him a glass of thirty-year-old, single malt scotch, saying, “Taste this. You’ll love it. It doesn’t get any better than this.” He’ll sniff the glass, his head jerking back as the fumes rip open his sinuses, and after a moment he’ll take that first tentative sip. “This,” he will say to you, “is awful.” He will continue to make spitting noises, twisting his face at the memory of the gasoline-like poison, and you will be hurt. You just wanted to share with him something you know is wonderful.

There is nothing wrong with the Scotch and there is nothing wrong with the boy. He’s just too young, too inexperienced to enjoy it. And now that you’ve told him that ‘this is as good as it gets’, he may never try it again.

This is how we currently teach literature to teens. We hand them The Classics – Dickens, Shakespeare, Bronte, Steinbeck – and say, ‘this, children, is as good as it gets.’ Just like the scotch, there’s nothing wrong with the books or the kids, but the results will be the same.

We learned to drink not on single-malt scotch but on wine coolers and light beers. As our tastes developed, we moved on – white wine spritzers, full bodied beers, caesars, g&ts, zinfandels, cabernets – our tastes appreciating the subtleties of vintage wines and single malts, but just as happy with a bargain brew on a hot day as long as it’s cold.

We need to do the same with books.

When they’re in their teens, give them the literary equivalent of wine coolers, spritzers and watery (American) beers. They’ll get bored of it and move on, picking the books that suit their tastes, developing and expanding their tastes as they go, becoming adults who can appreciate both the frothy fun of a pulp and the sublime depth of a classic.

But no. We force The Classics on them, the old “ounce of our best cream” argument when all they want is to get drunk on a good read.

At least we do one thing right.

(Oh, and before you post that comment about teaching kids to drink and promoting alcoholism and how your school is different and how your kid loved Dante, this was just, as Swift would say, a Modest Proposal.)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Now it's Blechta's turn!

I guess I’m the last one in the pool, but I would like to take this opportunity (as everyone else has) to welcome you to Type M for Murder.

Alex brought up interesting points in her inaugural entry. Yes, our Members of Parliament have awful reading habits as far as Canadian crime writing goes (Charles, there may still be hope for you since you're published south of the border, although you might want to consider changing your last name to Brown), but these worthy souls are no worse than most of the Canadian population.

I'm often heard to say that there are literally millions of Canadians who have yet to enjoy my novels, and for all of us in this crew, this is sadly true. That's not to say that all of us (or any of us) deserve to be household names and sell millions of copies.

I think that we'd all like the chance, though!

So MPs don't read us, most “normal” Canadians don't read us (hopefully, you will!). Why is that?

It's because of lack of promotion. You've heard of Dan Brown. That's because hundreds of gallons of ink have been spilled talking about him. A lot of it (initially) was paid for by his publisher, then public opinion took over. His book became a phenomenon. To my mind that's great. I'm thrilled that so many people are reading and talking about a book. It's a good thing.

Where I do have issues is the fact that I'm willing to bet that very little of that promotional money was spent in Canada. It didn't need to be because our border is so porous to American advertising that it's almost non-existent. Sadly, because our book industry is one tenth the size of the one below the 49th parallel, it just cannot muster the weight of our competitors, and with the media blitz pouring through from the south, what money they do spend generally amounts to no more than a cry in the wilderness.

Many of you have heard of Peter Robinson, a terrific writer and a Canadian to boot. How the heck did Peter get to where he is in the pecking order? Well, first of all, he writes damn good books, but also, while he's published in Canada by ‘Canada’s Publisher’, McClelland & Stewart, he's also published in the States. THOSE are the people who promote the hell out of him, and it certainly spills over into Canada – and makes M&S’s job that much easier financially. The more you hear about Peter, the more books he sells.

Okay, I've whined enough about what's wrong. How do we make it right?

Type M for Murder is a good start. All of us get out and do signings, speak to book clubs and library groups, attend fan-based conventions. Heck, we'll even talk on the radio or TV – if they ask – but that doesn't go far enough. I wish I had the money to hire the best publicists and do a huge blitz across the country, but moths flutter out of my wallet every time I open it.

But you can help. Visit our websites. Ask questions on this blog. If we give you answers that you like, tempt you with our writing samples on our websites, then go out and buy a book. We'll even tell you where!

If you enjoy it, tell us (it's always nice when someone likes your work), but if you don't like it, tell us. I for one welcome criticism. It makes me a better writer. It will also make this blog more interesting.

I think all five of us have good things to say, worthwhile things, ENTERTAINING things. I'd like to invite you to sample our wares.

And if you enjoy them, do us a favour and tell your MP!*

*Or if you're not from the True North, then tell your friends, local librarian, family, the guy next to you on the bus, people you meet in...

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Type M for Murder

Type M for Murder

Is there Murder on Parliament Hill?

As a mystery author based in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, I thought I’d take my first blog-op to look at the reading habits of our federal politicians – MPs or members of Parliament as we refer to them here in maple-leaf land. So, what exactly do our MPs chose for their cottage reading? And what does it say about the future of crime writing north of the 49th?

On Saturday June 24th Ottawa Citizen journalist Deirdre McMurdy revealed the secrets of our MPs dockside reading in her column titled Summer Reading Outside the House, and according to McMurdy, crime is alive and well on Parliament Hill (as if we didn’t know that already). But a further analysis leaves me concerned.

Let’s start with Conservative MP Bev Oda, the Minister of All-that-is-dear-to-our-hearts (that would be Culture and Heritage) and ‘she-that-holds-the-purse-strings-to-our-future’. Oda tells McMurdy that her cottage fiction reading includes Madame Perfecta by Antoine Maillet as well as A Complicated Kindness, the award-winning novel by Miriam Toews, both wonderful examples of Canadian literary fiction. Our Minister of Culture, though, doesn’t seem to be into crime, and that’s a shame. As Canadian crime writers, we could certainly give her a few pointers on how to even-up the odds in that pesky House of Commons. Taking too much flak from the Opposition? We have ways. [Note to Ms. Toews: Since Ms. Oda will undoubtedly be a fan after reading your wonderful book, please consider including more dead bodies in your next novel. Exhuming a corpse from beneath the chicken factory would work for me.]

Sticking with Conservatives, what about Jay Hill, the Conservative Party Whip? With a job title like that it already sounds promising, but when asked to name names, the only title he would admit to, for his summer reading, was Unquiet Diplomacy by Paul Celucci, a non-fiction account of Celucci’s time as US ambassador to Canada. He did confess, though, (in hushed tones?) to a penchant for thriller and spy novels. We can only hope that he chooses a few with a little Canadian content. Given our history with various super-powers, it’s not like we’re lacking in subject matter for spy and conspiracy novels.

And what about the Liberals, for example Belinda Stronach? She’s the critic for competitiveness and the new economy, issues that weigh heavily on Canada’s writing and publishing sector. According to McMurdy, Stronach’s Muskoka reading consists of several weighty non-fiction titles by US authors (I hope she doesn’t fall off that dock. Jettison the books if you do, Ms. Stronach.) No Canadian authors are listed and no fiction whatsoever. Canadian writers, however, will be happy to know that Ms. Stronach plans to read Jeffery Sachs, The End of Poverty. Let’s hope it has an impact. “Somehow the lighter stuff falls to the bottom of the pile,” Stronach is quoted as saying. [Memo to self: Add more intellectual weight to next novel. Astrophysics and Cold War history just don’t cut it.]

As Speaker of the House, Peter Milliken could probably use a few good police procedurals, what with having to keep all those delinquent MPs in line. While he doesn’t score well on Canadian content, at least he’s not afraid to admit he actually reads mysteries and thrillers. On his summer TBR (To-Be-Read) list? The Da Vinci Code and The Constant Gardener. Way to go, Mr. Milliken. Next year check out your local mystery bookstore. There’s a great one right there in downtown Kingston, and you’ve got several excellent mystery writers right in your own constituency. Please, support your local authors. I hear that both Le Carré and Brown are already doing quite well.

So how does the NDP (New Democratic Party) come off on Canadian crime? MP Peggy Nash gives McMurdy several non-fiction titles on her vacation TBR list, all Canadian. Way to go, girl. I particularly like the title Our Culture: What’s Left of It. If you like it, Ms. Nash, please recommend it to all those folks on Parliament Hill. But, sadly, while Nash is good on theory, her practice needs work. According to McMurdy, Ms. Nash plans to “indulge in some murder mysteries as well.” Indulge? So that makes us, what? The Cheesios of CanLit? But maybe we in Canada we don’t need to worry. According to the article, Nash only indulges in foreign junk foods: P.D. James and Sara Paretsky. Boy, do I ever feel relieved.

Another NDP MP, northerner Charlie Angus, tells McMurdy that his reading tastes have gone “more down market” over the past years, with Elmore Leonard at the top of the list. Ouch! And just like his NDP colleague he plans to “indulge”, but like Ms. Nash, no Timbits or Beaver Tails for this boy. With a name like Angus, he goes for the crisps and pickled eggs, with Ian Rankin at the top of his list. [Memo to self: Change name to McBrett for the next book.]

Finally, McMurdy interviews Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro. Now, I figure if anyone on the Hill should have an interest in Canadian crime it would be this guy. I mean, really, that’s what he deals with day-in, day-out. The difference is, in crime fiction we usually see a resolution. Justice is served. You’d think that would be relief for someone who deals with the real world of politics and crime.

So how is he on Canadian crime? Like so many of his colleagues, dismal. Although he reads detective novels while traveling, McMurty says he tends to Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. [Memo to self: Take out British citizenship for next book.]

So what’s the final word? McMurdy says that she’s unsettled by the preponderance of murder mysteries amongst MPs summer reading. Personally, I don’t think she needs to worry. With not a single Canadian crime novel on our MPs summer reading list, our federal politicians obviously prefer out-of-country crime. As long as we stay in Canada, we should be okay. Unless, of course, you’re a Canadian fiction writer writing about Canadian crime.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

My First Blog

When Vicki asked me if I wanted to join Type M for Murder, my first impulse was to say, “Thanks anyway.” Coincidentally, my publisher had recently suggested that maybe I could put a little something together for AmazonConnect, which is a blog-type space for authors of books listed by Amazon.com. My first impulse was to say, “Thanks anyway.” I was even less enthusiastic when AmazonConnect rather brusquely informed me that my Internet browser (the latest version of Safari for the Macintosh) wasn’t compatible. Screw this, I thought. Like readers really want to know my favourite single malt. (It’s Lagavulin, BTW, just in case you want to buy me a drink at the next Bloody Words).

Remember the Famous Writers School of Westport, Connecticut? Yes, the same outfit that ran the Famous Artists School, the Famous Photographers School, and the Famous Private Detectives School. The idea was that a bunch of “famous writers” taught you via correspondence the secrets of, well, becoming a famous writer. In 1968, around the time I got kicked out of the Royal Canadian Air Force, I decided I wanted to be a writer. My mother, despairing that I would ever amount to anything, enrolled me in the Famous Writers School. I learned how to format a manuscript properly (knowledge that many aspiring writers evidently lack, according to my editor), plus a few other useful things.

But I also learned the two Big Lies of writing. I was young and stupid and didn’t know they were lies, of course, but they were. The first one was that it’s not really you who does the writing. Some muse perched over your shoulder actually dictates the stories to you, you just type. The implication, of course, is that writing isn’t really work. Hah! Anyone who’s written anything longer than a letter to grandma knows writing is hard work. Maybe not real work, as defined by my mother, but hard work nonetheless. And when was the last time a muse wrote a technical manual about how to jack up rail cars?

The second Big Lie perpetrated by the Famous Writers School was that once your book is published, you just sit back and the royalties roll in. Hah! For the royalties to even trickle in, someone has to buy your book. For that, they have to know about it. And counting on your publisher to put a lot of effort - i.e., money - into getting the word out is, to put it politely, unrealistic.

What the Famous Writers School didn’t tell its vic - uh - students was that writing and publishing were just the beginning of the process of becoming even a moderately well-known writer (hell, even a virtually unknown writer). You also have to be your own publicist. You’ve got the promote the hell out of you books, get out and get in people’s faces and shout, “Buy this book!” Hence, my participation in this blog. It’s a way to get in your face and shout, “Buy my books,” without spitting on you.

That’s it for today. For more info about my books, check out my little website. I think there's a link from the main page.

Montreal, Tuesday, July 4, 2006
Happy Independence Day to our American cousins.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

On Watching The Maltese Falcon - OR - Why do I bother?

So I just got back from seeing The Maltese Falcon at the George Eastman House here in lovely Rochester, NY. A Sunday night screening of a 50-year-old film, six bucks a pop, and the place was packed. I know the script by heart and watch it every time it comes on TCM and at least once a year I pull out the DVD, but there's no way you pass up the chance to see it on the Big Screen. And I know I'm not supposed to do this, that I should just let go and enjoy the film, but the entire time I watching it I couldn't help but thinking that there was no way I'm ever going to write anything that great. Which is a stupid thing to admit on a blog that I hope leads people to buy my books (several copies each, please) but come on, let's be honest here. Now if you know the movie, you know that the script is almost word for word from the book. So sitting there, listening to lines that resonate like lines from The Odyssey must have resonated with Greek mystery writes a couple of millennia ago, I wonder why the hell I bother.

And then Sam Spade spoke to me.

It’s the great end line of the film – not written by Dashiell Hammett but suggested on the set by Bogart himself.

“It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”

Okay, it’s corny. But sometimes corny’s true.

Cheers,
Charles

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Type M for Murder

Type M for Murder

Happy Canada Day to everyone! In honour of our nation's birthday, I suggest that everyone read a Canadian mystery novel today. I, however, will be falling down on the job, as I'm currently reading a book sent to my by my cousin Sheila in South Africa. It's called the Native Commissioner by Shaun Johnson and is the story of a man who worked for the S.A. government in the apartheid years - his job was a "native commissioner" and how the conflict between what he wanted to do in relation to the black people he oversaw, vs what he was told to do by his bosses brought about disaster to him and his family. It's very good, and reminding me of those days in South Africa. I lived there from 1973 - 1984. As I read, I'm smiling at seeing all those words that I haven't thought of in years. Bottle store = a liquor store, the bioscope - believe it or not a movie theatre. The character's wife has just bought him a safari suit. But you can be sure that once I've finished the Native Commissioner I'll be back to mysteries - and Canadian mysteries at that.

Happy Canada Day, whether you celebrate it or not,

Vicki