‘Your brain on literature’ a high for award-winning author George Saunders

by G. Robert Frazier

Many people can still recall the old anti-drug commercials depicting an egg sizzling in a frying pan with the message, “This is your brain on drugs.” The antidote to that is a “brain on literature,” says award-winning short story author George Saunders.

lincoln-in-the-bardoSaunders shared the analogy at Parnassus Books in Nashville this past week as part of his national book tour for his debut novel Lincoln in the Bardo.

“Having written this book for four years, I had this beautiful experience, as anybody who writes–or reads–knows, which is, on literature your mind lights up 380 percent,” he said. “You know, a comma can put you in tears, the right semicolon or a string of adjectives can kill you. So my thing is, our thing is, the brain on literature is maybe the best form of the human mind, except maybe the brain on love, but they’re not that different.”

When you’re reading or writing, Saunders says you’re in a state where “you’re more generous, you’re more curious, you’re more comfortable with ambiguity, you’re more inclined to look twice at a person to see if you’ve made a snap judgment, all those beautiful things.”

By comparison, he said he found his mind shrinking when having to cover a Trump rally this past summer.

“So I’m on social media, I’m watching CNN until I’m about to throw up, and all the things it involved me doing, and what happened? My mind shrunk. I got a little meaner, I got more combative, I wanted quick relief when someone would email me with his stupid right-wing beliefs, you know, I shrunk,” he told the standing-room only crowd of book lovers and fans. “I think that’s appropriate, but it was weird to notice.”

Because, when “you take the highest way that the mind can work and you marginalize it and vaguely mock it, and you don’t compensate it, what happens? Oh surprise, the culture’s language gets stupid,” he said. “So I think we double down on art.”

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Author George Saunders, left, shares stories about his new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, with a standing-room only crowd at Parnassus Books in Nashville.

Saunders on his writing process:

My process is, it just happens. For me to write stuff that has any energy, I have to try not to plan it out at all. … I’m just trying to make the language livelier…I often imagine there’s a meter in my head. Over here there’s a P for positive and an N for negative. As you are writing, it’s just kind of looking to see what the prose is doing to the needle. When it’s in the positive, you’re good. When it drops…instead of saying, I failed, you have to say to the story, “I noticed the needle dropped..what can I do for you?” If you bear down on it, it’ll kind of say, “I’m bored.” If the story is pushing back at you, it’s just saying I want to be a bigger story, if you don’t mind.

Saunders on fiction:

Author George SaundersA work of fiction is kind of this black box you walk into and something’s supposed to happen. You don’t really know what, but it’s supposed to be intense. Maybe you don’t even know what it is as the writer, it shouldn’t be trivial. It should actually be a moment. If you come out of a good book, you’re kind of just dazed, and that’s the moment. … I found out a long time ago the model for fiction is it’s like a wind up toy. You wind it up, put it on the floor, and it’ll go under the couch as fast as possible.

‘The Devil’s Bible’ brings Carpenter’s historical hero into the present

By G. Robert Frazier

When readers last saw Mouse, the hero of Nashville author Dana Chamblee Carpenter‘s debut novel Bohemian Gospel, she was locked up in a cell writing what would become known in some circles as the eighth wonder of the world, the Codex Gigas. Better known as THE DEVIL’S BIBLE, the real-life book also happens to be the name of Carpenter’s sequel (due out March 7 from Pegasus Books).

No one really knows who wrote the real codex or where it was written,  though legend says it was written in a single night with the assistance of the devil. The book even contains an infamous rendering of the devil, which serves as the cover of Carpenter’s new novel.

Carpenter says she enjoyed a blissful month after turning in all her revisions and edits, until she got her box of copies of the new book. “That’s when the anxiety kicks in and you start wondering, are people going to like it? So I’m kind of mixed right now on trying to stay focused on the project I’m working on and being anxious to seeing how readers are going to take to this second book. The early reviews have been good, so I’m happy with that.”

Actually, they’ve been better than good. Some have even compared her to Dan Brown, the author of the bestselling The Da Vinci Code. Fine company indeed.

I recently talked with Carpenter about the new book, her heroine, reader expectations, and much more.

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How would you describe this book to someone new to Mouse and to you as an author?

In some ways it’s a little more conventionally a thriller than Bohemian Gospel was. There was a lot of historical fiction in Bohemian Gospel because it was starting with Mouse’s story and set in the 13th century. We’ve now moved forward so that we’re in contemporary times in Nashville, and that’s where the book starts. We have flashbacks to the historical period when Mouse is writing The Devil’s Bible and interacting with her father, so there are still historical elements, but I think readers will find this one more conventionally a thriller. There’s kind of a quest, a journey where Mouse goes looking for something and has to fight off some big bads, and that kind of stuff.

Did you intentionally set out to bring Mouse into the present or is that something the publisher pushed on you to try and make this book a little more accessible?

It’s actually where the story took me. Knowing the industry, it’s certainly not beyond thinking that a publisher would want you to write something that was a little more marketable and nichey.  They know what to do with those books, but they don’t know what to do with books that cross genres like Bohemian Gospel did. But I’ve not had any pressure. In fact, I’ve only had the greatest support from my editor at Pegasus. This is where I knew the story was going all along. I knew I wanted to sort of jump time… A lot of that, too, is not wanting to get pegged as just a historical fiction writer or just as a thriller writer. As a reader, I like to dabble in all the different genres and I want to write in them as well. I try not to think about the market and what people are wanting, besides being generally informed, which any successful writer kind of needs to know. You don’t want to go off and write some sort of daisies and aliens thing that nobody’s going to want to read. For me, at least, I have to let the story go where it needs to go.

devils-bible-cover-bookmarkDo you think bringing Mouse into the present could alienate some of your existing fan base who might be expecting more of the historical fiction?

There’s a little worry in that. But I think the publishing industry underestimates their readership a lot of times in assuming they only want what they’ve had before, that historical fiction readers only want straight-up historical fiction and they don’t want an element of the thriller, or in my case the paranormal or fantastic. What I’ve found in my readership is they love those elements.

The comics industry is very particular about their geekdom—if you get Batman’s origin wrong, the universe explodes. Historical fiction readers are like that too. I call them my New England Knitters who didn’t like the darker aspects of Bohemian Gospel, and I kind of expected that. And that’s fine, it’s not for everybody. But what I was really pleased with is the people who picked up Bohemian Gospel because they thought it was historical fiction and were pleasantly surprised as to how much they enjoyed the fantastic elements and thriller elements.

I’ve had a growing readership of fantasy readers who think they don’t like historical but love the historical aspects as much as the fantasy elements. Because of the readership already getting blended with Bohemian Gospel, I hope they’ll be happy with the blend I have in The Devil’s Bible.

Talk about the title for an instant—The Devil’s Bible. Do you have any concerns that the title might deter people from picking up the book?

The Devil’s Bible is a slang term for a real book called the Codex Gigas. It was considered the eighth wonder of the world at the time it was written because it was so huge. It contained all the world’s knowledge as they knew it at the time. It had a Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, several medical texts, several historical chronicles, as well as a chronicle of Bohemia, and, of course, it was written under mysterious circumstances. It was both written and drawn by the same individual, which was just unheard of. I know there are some people who are squeamish about devil stuff, but I’m not worried that there are too many of those people out there. Readers are pretty adventurous folks, so I don’t think the title is going to be a deterrent for them.

Is the codex what sparked the whole Bohemian Gospel story?

Mouse came to me first. I had her in my head and it took a good long time to get to know her. I knew she had secrets and she was holding them pretty close to her chest and wasn’t letting me know what they were. I spent six months to a year playing with this character, knowing that she was historical, knowing that she was unusual and knowing that she had secrets. Then I saw about 10 minutes of a documentary on TLC all about the Codex Gigas and the mystery surrounding it, and it was an “aha” moment that led me to the 13th century and Bohemia.

How long did it take to write the first book?

To actually write it, it came out in a flurry. About six weeks. As a writer, you know that’s just one part of the story. It took me probably another year’s worth of research and revision to get it to where my agent and I were ready to put it out on submission.

So you didn’t make any deals with the devil?

(Laughs) No.

Was it easier to write the sequel or more difficult and challenging?

In some ways it was a little more challenging because I was weaving a contemporary story with alternating historical elements. Figuring out how to do that in terms of just the structure of the narrative was difficult. For the first book it was researching everything about Bohemia and the 13th century—what soldiers wore, what dresses the women wore, layouts of Prague Castle… With this one, I had to really dig deep into the process by which scribes would have put together a medieval manuscript like the codex. I studied all the details of the Codex Gigas… I had access to a lot of the research—it’s held in the national library in Sweden. So there was a lot of time going through and learning how to make a book like that, the contents of the book, then you have to figure out, how do I use that in a way that pushes the narrative forward opposed to it coming across like a history lecture. It had its own challenges, but I think it was probably a little easier to write than the first one.

Are you worried that if you get something wrong somebody’s going to call you on it?

Eudora Welty wrote a short story that talked about an offhand reference of the moon on a particular evening and where it was in the night sky. She had done her research on it, thought she had it down accurately, and then she got this very angry letter from this old gentleman that corrected her and suggested that the moon would never be in that particular part of the sky and she was humiliated because she had gotten that wrong. None of it was vital to the story itself and she learned how to let that go. You’re always going to get something wrong or somebody’s going to think you got something wrong. It’s never going to be perfect. Most readers, I’ve found, are gracious enough to recognize that you’re writing a novel, it’s not a historical text or an encyclopedia. They care more about the story than those things. But that said, I work my hiney off to try to make sure that all of the details and anything grounded in reality are as accurate as I can humanly make them. But the human part there is key; we all make mistakes.

Do you feel comfortable taking creative liberties within the time period?

It’s easy when you’re talking about it in the 13th century because none of those folks or families are around to call you up and say, “Hey, my dad wasn’t like that.”  I think it would be a lot harder for somebody writing historical fiction set in the sixties. Even with that, I did feel ethically compelled to make sure I was as accurate in presenting real historical figures as truthfully as I could. The historical aspects in The Devil’s Bible are less about the people and more about the book, so there’s a little less pressure. The characters I have are totally mine and I don’t have to feel as responsible for that as much, but I did have to make sure that everything I was saying about the codex was accurate.

The crappiest things happen to this woman and she finds some way to pull something positive and good out of it. Her capacity for sacrificing in order for what she knows is right and good is also amazing to me. I kind of like her, in case you couldn’t tell.

Do you see some of yourself in Mouse? How much and what surprises you about her?

There are probably little bits and pieces of us writers in all of our characters. There are certainly other people I think of as inspirations for her. It’s not one single individual but kind of an amalgamation of people. My daughter, for example, has a very fiercely independent will that I am in awe of, because I certainly didn’t have it when I was her age, and Mouse has that too. Even though she’s struggling to fit in, she has this incredible confidence in herself and go-get-it attitude. She does surprise me. In The Devil’s Bible, we start off with her in kind of a wounded and damaged place. She’s not quite herself. That was the hardest part of the book to write because it didn’t fit with the Mouse I got to know in writing Bohemian Gospel who sees a struggle or challenge and is ready to climb it and fight it. The Mouse that we meet here is a Mouse who is on the run. So it was difficult to write that, but her strength always surprises me. The crappiest things happen to this woman and she finds some way to pull something positive and good out of it. Her capacity for sacrificing in order for what she knows is right and good is also amazing to me. I kind of like her, in case you couldn’t tell.

Is there going to be more with Mouse?

There’s a lot of Mouse’s story that’s left. I’ve had so many readers asking me for stories about Father Lucas’s journeys to collect the different types of mysterious books that he brings back as he learns more about Mouse’s nature, so there could be a lot more of Lucas’s chronicles as well. There’s a lot of Mouse’s story too to tell. Between Bohemian Gospel and The Devil’s Bible, we have 700 years of not really knowing exactly where she’s been or what she’s been up to that I could play with. I don’t think I’m done with Mouse yet.

I read that you were something of a pantser with the first book. Did that hold true with this one or did you have to provide an outline for the publisher?

I still got to do it seat of the pants. I honestly don’t know if I’m capable of writing from an outline. I can do an outline, but five minutes into the writing I’m going to be breaking away from it. I was fortunate enough that I didn’t wait, so I already had the majority of the manuscript ready to send to publisher not long after Bohemian Gospel came out.

As a teacher, do you find yourself editing as you go? Because I know as a former newspaper editor, I tend to edit as I write instead of just letting the words out, which all the writing experts say is a no-no.

I’m glad you confessed first. I do tell my students to turn your editor off and just let the words flow. I have trained myself to not be editing while I write. I’m writing every morning four to five hours… I usually leave in the middle of a chapter so when I pick it up the next day I kind of know where I’m going, so I’ll go back in the next morning and reread and edit as I go to get me back into the scene or voice, then I try to spend the rest of the time just writing. But I confess sometimes if I feel the flow not coming I’ll stop and go back and edit. For me it kind of unblocks things, for the most part. But you’re right, it’s supposed to be a no-no.

Are you a fan of Anne Rice?

I’ve read some of Anne Rice and liked Interview With the Vampire. But I think Stephen King and Neil Gaiman are probably bigger influences on me in how I want to tell stories in an organic sort of way. One of the things I like about Stephen King is his ability to be very normal and then throw the jarring, creepy supernatural into the normal. Charles de Lint does urban fantasy that way. I like it when a writer really grounds me in reality as I understand it, then weaves in either horror elements or the supernatural.

 

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You entered Bohemian Gospel into Killer Nashville’s writers contest, which seeks thriller novels, and won. Were you worried that the Claymore Award contest was not the proper venue for that?

I was totally flabbergasted when I won. I was at a point where I was very discouraged. My agent had sent it out and we weren’t getting any traction. There were people who were loving aspects of it, but I was a no-name author and it’s so hard to get anybody to take a chance on a new author these days. I had the exact same argument with my husband. I said it’s not a conventional mystery thriller, but he said they take all genres, send it in. I was totally shocked when it was short-listed and absolutely floored when it won.

So it pays off to take risks and put your stuff out there…

It really does. (Killer Nashville founder) Clay (Stafford) is very clear about that. He’s not interested in trying to follow some set parameters or somebody else’s expectations. The Claymore is open to anything that fits inside the broader genre of a thriller. Bohemian Gospel is certainly a thriller. It’s very historical, but it has mystery at its heart, trying to uncover who tried to kill Ottaker and trying to uncover the mystery of who Mouse is, is what drives the story. For any new writers out there, don’t limit yourself on what you think somebody else’s expectations are. Go for it.

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Dana Chamblee Carpenter will hold a book launch party and signing for THE DEVIL’S BIBLE at Parnassus Books in Nashville on March 9. She hopes to hit some of the same places she visited with Bohemian Gospel, such as Square Books in Oxford, MS, and Star Line Books in Chattanooga. You can also catch her at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest in April and Killer Nashville in August. She also hopes to return to the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in October.

You can visit her online at danachambleecarpenter.com and follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/danachambleecarpenter/

 

Danielewski lets voices around him guide his words

Mark Danielewski’s novels are not for the timid, or the fearful. From the groundbreaking bestseller House of Leaves to National Book Award finalist Only Revolutions, each book combines typographical experimentation—pages that read upside down, sideways, or at odd angles—with multiple viewpoint characters, creating an immersive experience like no other. His latest, The Familiar Volume 4: Hades, is just part of a 27-part magnum opus about a girl and her cat.

Danielewski discussed the book, his writing process, and more with a packed audience at Parnassus Books in Nashville on Sunday.

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How do you keep your discipline, especially with projects on such a grand scale, and keep from getting bored by it?

I think part of it is, that’s my talent. I can be disciplined. I think discipline and habit is something you can cultivate… When you’re working on a long project, what you’re doing is kind of like taking little subatomic particles all around you and slowly bringing them together. It’s very easy to lose focus. It’s very easy to become like a little kitten, kind of pawing at little scraps of dust in the air. But the more you bring together drafts, understanding who your characters are, the more mass it takes on and eventually what happens is you find yourself in its orbit. It’s hard to escape. I’m caught in the orbit of these huge projects and it’s an absolute pleasure. If you really dedicate yourself to something, I think you find yourself more taken with what happens.

You used the word bored…It’s something to highlight for a moment, because when we feel bored it’s important to recognize that what we’re really feeling is fear. Boredom is just a secondary effect of fear. Now, it’s a low-grade fear and it’s built into our system… If  we’re staying in a place where there’s no food or water and yet we’re not like perilously close to dying of thirst or starvation, there’s a mechanism in us that says, you know we better start moving around. So, often when we get bored—and it happens to all professional writers—that’s the moment when things get really exciting. Because you’re right to be afraid. Once you start to open that  project up to all its possibilities, then it gets really scary, because then you’re getting out of the little shack of your idea, the little confines of something you can easily handle, to something far bigger.

The Familiar is a challenge unlike any I’ve ever faced. It’s so much larger. The characters in it go way beyond who I am and that’s the point. I have to be constantly open to what’s out there, wherever it may be. As soon as I feel myself getting bored, I’m like, “OK, what am I afraid of?” What door am I afraid to open and how do I move into that? So next time you feel bored, that means you’re on the right track.

What inspired you to write in a way that incorporates a lot of typographical design and challenges the way readers normally approach the task?

I think I was a bit of a brat to start with. You’re supposed to write between the lines and not draw pictures in the margins, but I like to cross the lines and drawing pictures. And part of it was luck because I was actually coming into a place where the technology was allowing me to play with typesetting, to begin to move text around. There’s a long tradition of it, going back to pop art, to concrete poetry, to the tablature of Rome and Greece…Also, my father was a filmmaker, so I was steeped in the language of how image works. We were constantly going to museums, so I studied art. I had an incredible intuitive flair for image and arrangement. All of these things seemed vital…both my parents manifested them. I saw them in the culture that I lived in, and I began to see a book as being possible in that way.

img_20170219_140457742It’s also the way I see the world. In some ways, there’s something very artificial about the way we’re supposed to read a book. We’re expected to read so many words per page, follow this line…and by learning that discipline we can get through a lot of information, but that’s not really how our eye tracks. Our eyes track all over the place. We read signs, we see where we are, we hear things. I think what was so vibrant is this incredible kind of synaptic, alchemical creation that happens when words are put together. It’s something that film can’t quite do. It can’t quite address complicated ideas. It has to represent them in terms of image, it can  provide voice but, it’s hard to follow a very difficult idea someone’s speaking to you… So it felt to me a book could really create an experience you couldn’t get anywhere else. I think that’s probably the gambit with everything I do. It’s can I offer you  an experience that you won’t get anywhere else, in any other media form or any other book? Because otherwise, it’s not worth your time. This book is kind of more of the way I see the world and I think it reflects the kind of the music that’s out there…

the-familiarIn The Familiar, there are nine different characters and they have all sorts of different voices, languages, background…Whether you’re talking about Homer, Hemingway or Toni Morrison, there’s just this singular voice and it’s framed in a certain way. But my experience of the world is actually the other voices, the voices outside the norm. It’s the juxtaposition of that, that begins to create the symphony we live in. With the Familiar, it goes further than just human voices. But how do we find a voice for that which will never have a voice, which does not have a voice, like animality, the environment, etc.? So central to The Familiar is this question of the cat…How does nature revive us, how does it depend on us, how do we depend on it? That’s the growing voice we have to begin to hear through all the other voices. We have to hear the voice that has no voice.

How much research into other cultures did you do to capture their voice?

As a privileged straight white male to start writing about all these characters,  there are all sorts of dangers…I would drive with Armenian cab drivers in Los Angeles, I would go to Singapore … I would talk with Latino gang members transitioning from gang life to a better life by removing their gang tattoos. It was time to get nervous around strange people. From an authorial point of view, it was a decision to get outside of myself and forget myself and embrace that which was strange. We do have to practice imagining other perspectives. It’s only through that, that we are going to have any empathy for the other. If we’re constantly realigning ourselves with the self, how are we going to begin to understand someone in a different position?

What is your writing process like and where do you get your inspiration?

I write six days a week, 8-10 hours a day. I don’t believe in inspiration anymore. Leave that for someone else. My approach is what I call the Jane Goodall approach to writing. You go to the jungle and you just sit there and you sit there every day at the same time and sit there for the same amount of time every time. And, eventually, you start to hear the jungle a little differently. Eventually you’ll hear the chimpanzees. And, eventually, the chimpanzees are going to start coming around and get closer and, eventually, they’re going to tell you their story, which, of course, are your stories, which are someone else’s stories. And you have treat that experience with great reverence and great discipline.  You have to be there every day, because if you don’t show up or if you come late, the chimpanzees are going to throw shit at you.

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Soring controversy keys mystery in Jaden Terrell’s A Taste of Blood and Ashes

by G. Robert Frazier

If you’re a writer or a fan of mystery novels in the Southeast, chances are you already know Jaden Terrell. Terrell has been an integral force behind the Killer Nashville Writers Conference along with founder Clay Stafford since 2006, has served as president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and is the regional president of Mystery Writers of America. But beyond that, Terrell is a Shamus Award finalist and author of the Jared McKean private eye series. The fourth book in the series – A Taste of Blood and Ashes – was published late last year, and follows McKean’s investigation into a suspicious barn fire. Chemicals used in the soring of Tennessee walking horses – a painful method used to produce the exaggerated gait in the animals – are found at the scene. I recently sat down with Terrell to talk about the inspiration for the book, her involvement with the writing community, and more.

What was the inspiration for this novel?

Jaden Terrell: I had in my mind for many years to write about the Tennessee walking horse soring controversy. Way before Jared was ever conceived I wanted to write about this issue, but I didn’t have the story to hang it on. When I came up with Jared and this whole PI series, I realized he was a perfect fit for this story to happen to because he’s so involved with horses.

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In the previous books of the series, Jared also has to contend with some deeply personal stakes. Are there any personal stakes for Jared this time around?

JT: I didn’t figure I could have that in every book. In Book 1 (Racing the Devil), he’s framed for murder. Book 2 (A Cup Full of Murder), his nephew is first a suspect, then a target. And in Book 3 (River of Glass) is where he meets his half-sister he never knew existed and her daughter’s been taken by traffickers. So it was kind of straining the credibility for this family to keep having these issues, so I thought I needed at least one where he just takes a case. This case is one that’s particularly important to him because it involves horses. It begins where he’s investigating a barn fire. The insurance company is sort of hoping the couple that owned the fire set the fire so they don’t have to pay. The flashpoint, or point of origin for the fire, is chemicals in the tack room that are used for soring. But the couple is notably anti-soring, so the question is, have they been lying all this time or have they been set up? And then they find human remains amid the fire, so the plot thickens. So the personal connection is the horses for him, and then the couple because they are definitely underdogs and need his help.

Jared is a recurring character, but this is a standalone book, right?

JT: They all stand alone. Sometimes there are references to the previous book, but you can pick up the book and understand the story anywhere in the series.

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Beth Terrell, who writes as Jaden Terrell, leads a workshop at the Killer Nashville Writers Conference in 2016.

Are you creating an overall character arc for Jared?

JT: He goes through a lot. He does learn things from book to book. But you can’t have a dramatic reversal in a series of  books or they’d be unrecognizable. His relationship with his family continues to grow and they come to a mutual respect, learning about each other. The next book takes place in Alaska — I have 10 books in the series in mind.  Alaska has always been my idea for Book 5 and comes back to the family drama.

Did you have to do a lot of research for this one?

JT: I did. I don’t show horses and I’ve never shown. I’m not actually really much of a rider, I just really like horses. The two horses I have can’t be ridden, so I feed them, give them treats and massages. I went to a class in Virginia and got certification in horse massage. Soring is difficult to research because people don’t want to talk about it. They’re afraid. Several years ago I talked to a trainer who had left the walking horse industry because of the soring and I asked if he would talk about it, and he said, “No, they’ll kill me and they’ll kill you too.” But, I said, it’s fiction, and she said that doesn’t matter to them. I said I don’t even have to put your name in the book and she said they’d find out. For years I thought she was really overreacting. But when I got the review copies, I went to the tack store and gave it to one of the guys there and he said, “Oh darling, I hope you’ll be all right.”

There is certainly an undercurrent of fear about it. I could never really find any real proof of that. The Humane Society’s stance is the horse will never learn the big lick if they’re not sored because it’s a response to pain, but then there’s another school of thought that anything a horse can do it can be taught to do. They do feel like they love the horses, but it doesn’t cross their minds that this is a horrible thing to do to a creature, that this is just how you do it.

You know soring is there, but you don’t know how pervasive it is because it’s cloaked in secrecy. One of the challenges was to write a book about it without being preachy, without assuming everybody does it or without assuming everybody doesn’t.

Tell me  about your evolution as a writer.

JT: When I was really little, before I could write, I would draw stories. My great aunt and I would cut out pictures of people from catalogs and put them in families and act out stories with them. All my life I wanted to write stories and be a teacher. I very foolishly thought I could do both at the same time and I could not. I was really plagued by the editing syndrome. I couldn’t go on to paragraph two or page two until it was exactly the way I wanted it. I taught for 12 years in a comprehensive development (special education) classroom. I took some time off and wrote a big epic fantasy.

I then entered the Minotaur First Detective contest and got a really nice letter back from the judge and that really encouraged me to keep going. I found an agent (thanks to a recommendation from Nashville author and fellow Middle Tennessee Sisters in Crime member Chester Campbell). The agent was so excited and just loved the book, and then he just vanished. It turned out he died, but nobody told us. We had to figure it out on our own. I found another agent through a conference and he sent the book everywhere. People kept saying we love this, but we don’t want it. Something was wrong with it and I didn’t know what it was. Eventually, someone said it didn’t have enough twists and turns. I said I can fix that. They said they didn’t want me to, they wanted me to write another book. So I wrote book two. It went to the very top level with the publisher and they ultimately refused it because they had just signed one that had the same thing.

So I went back to the first book and realized why they didn’t take it. There was no plot. They loved the characters, but there was something about the story that wasn’t working. I completely reworked it, did an index card for each chapter, color coded it by character and plot. I had this lovely stack of multi-colored cards. I had to distill it down.  I wanted to keep the character parts they liked, but prop up the plot. And it was nominated for a Shamus Award.

a-taste-of-bloodAfter all that trial and error, the current book went smooth as anything right?

JT: (laughter) They all have their own challenges. The second book was hard in its own way because it was a lot more complex than the first one. The third one went better and quicker, but it was still mushy and I had to go back and prop it up a lot.

Most writers tend to write lead characters who are the same gender. Why did you choose to write about a male protagonist?

JT: Guys get kind of a rough rap sometimes, but the world is full of nice guys and they’re smart. I was watching Saving Private Ryan and the guys keep getting out of the boat and the water’s filled with blood. That’s what we ask our guys to do, these hard, horrible things and then come home and be good husbands and good fathers and good friends. That was the guy I wanted to write about — the guy who would move your furniture for you three years after you break up because you’re still friends.

I tried to write a feisty little female detective but it just wasn’t working. She was a bad V.I. Warshawski knockoff and she was a real bitch. I didn’t like her. I kept seeing this guy leaning against this fence in a leather bomber jacket saying, “I’m your guy.” I said, “No, you’re not,” and he’d just say, “OK, whenever you’re ready.”

So is Jared your ultimate fantasy guy, then?

JT: No. I’m already married to the perfect man. Jared’s probably an iconic kind of guy, but he’s flawed, he’s not perfect by any means. I think that’s what makes him so likable. He has noble ideas and wants to protect people and wants to help. He knows when he does something pretty bad and he has the good grace to feel bad about it. There’s a point in Book 4 where he says something unkind, and even though it’s probably justified, he realizes it diminishes him, just as it always does when you do something cruel.

You’re involved in so much. Sisters in Crime, Killer Nashville, Mystery Writers of America…

JT: I’m a big believer in promotion through service, whether I sell books or not. I did a very tiny bit with Killer Nashville in 2006, then in 2007 became very involved. (Killer Nashville founder) Clay (Stafford) had this incredible vision to bring everyone together, where aspiring writers could learn from established writers, established writers could get new readers and everybody could get agents and publishers. It was such a great idea and it’s been a real honor to help him bring that to fruition. I found my current agent through Killer Nashville. I was formerly president of Sisters in Crime – Middle Tennessee and am now president of the Southeast Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.

What’s your writing day like?

JT: I used to go to work, come home and do Killer Nashville, then write. Now I go to my mother’s every day and exercise, go to the barn (to feed all the horses), and then come home and get to work. Once I start writing, a lot of times I don’t want to quit. A lot of times I write late into the night. I’m more of a night person than a morning person. (Terrell also offers frequent writing workshops in the Nashville area as well as services on her website.)

What else would you like to say to your readers and to other writers starting out?

JT: To my readers…thank you! I hope I can continue to give you books that you like. It’s really gratifying to hear from readers who really like Jared.

To writers…Don’t give up. Keep trying to be better. It’s so easy to publish things before they’re ready. Don’t let your baby out before it’s formed or be in such a hurry to get your words out that they’re not the right words. But never give up, because if I had given up I wouldn’t have any books at all.

# # #

If you’re in the Nashville area, Terrell will talk about her book and sign copies of the book at 2 p.m. Jan. 28 at Parnassus Books.

Review: R.G. Belsky scores a direct hit with Shooting for the Stars

by G. Robert Frazier

One of the most common pieces of advice for authors is to write what you know.

R.G. Belsky knows journalism.

shooting-for-the-starsA former managing editor for NBCNews.com and the New York Daily News, Belsky has used that career of skill sets to create a thoroughly authentic investigative reporter in Gil Malloy. In his second adventure, Shooting for the Stars (Atria, 2015), the tenacious and oft-times cynical Malloy is convinced the murder of a local television personality is intrinsically linked to the thirty-year-old unsolved murder of Hollywood movie diva Laura Marlowe.

Malloy is perhaps more akin to Mike Hammer, James Rockford, or Jake Gittes with a nose for news and a knack for getting in trouble. You just don’t see many reporters of his ilk anymore.

His tenacity soon rankles his editor, an assortment of suspects, and even a local mob boss. With each new interview, Malloy uncovers a new name or a long buried secret leading to a whole new line of questioning and ample plot twists. More than enough to keep readers rapidly flipping pages.
While the thickly layered mystery is riveting in itself, Belsky heaps on a healthy dose of sharp-tongued dialogue and shrewd wit. But at the same time, he reveals a more vulnerable side to Malloy, who suffers from occasional anxiety attacks and a troubled love life.

Shooting for the Stars is the followup to The Kennedy Connection, but readers don’t have to read the first book to enjoy this outing. Malloy’s next mystery, Blonde Ice, is already drawing rave reviews across the internet.

A winner of the 2016 Claymore Award presented by the Killer Nashville writer’s conference, Belsky is an author to watch.

View all my reviews

Chabon: Embarrass yourself by asking parents, grandparents their stories

mediumWhen you’re sitting around the Christmas tree with family this year, especially if you are lucky enough to still be in the presence of your grandparents or parents, you might want to take the opportunity to get to know more about them. And no, not just their political take on Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or global warming or the Dakota Access pipeline. Rather, really get to know them: who they were growing up, what their hopes and dreams were, how they spent their time, how they dressed, who their friends were.

“If your grandparents are still alive, embarrass them and yourself. Try to think about the things you really want to know about and ask them,” said Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose newest book, Moonglow, is a novel about his grandfather’s life told as a memoir.

Chabon talked about the book and his career as a novelist with fellow novelist Ann Patchett before a packed theater of fans at the Nashville Public Library in Downtown Nashville on Sunday.

Read my full blog now at BookPage.

National Book Award winner John Lewis inspires new generation with ‘March’

by G. Robert Frazier

I was fortunate to be among hundreds of Nashville-area residents this past week to hear  American icon, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, recount his lifetime of civil rights struggles.

A graduate of American Baptist College and Fisk University, both in Nashville, Rep. Lewis was a leader in the Nashville student-led, nonviolent sit-in movement and the Freedom Rides in the early 1960s. He was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington and helped lead the Selma to Montgomery March as part of the voting rights movement in 1965.

His account of the events make up the pages of a historical comic book trilogy, March, co-written by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. March: Book One is the citywide Nashville Reads pick for 2017. The third volume in the series just won the National Book Award for young people’s literature and garnered him honors as the Nashville Public Library Foundation’s Literary Award winner for 2016.

Regardless of age, it is a story everyone should read.

You can read my full blog about John Lewis at BookPage.

Around the Web: Shakespeare, Tolkien in the headlines

by G. Robert Frazier

The New Oxford Shakespeare edition of the playwright’s works — which will be published by Oxford University Press online ahead of a worldwide print release — lists Christopher Marlowe as Shakespeare’s co-author on the three “Henry VI” plays, parts 1, 2 and 3. It’s the first time that a major edition of Shakespeare’s works has listed his colleague and rival as a co-author.

Thomas Mullen, who I interviewed for BookPage at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, charts whether you are a Southern writer or a Brooklyn writer.

Any Tolkien fans in the house? Then you’ve probably already heard the news that a new book from the Hobbit writer is about to hit bookshelves in 2017. Beren and Lúthien, the story of the love between a mortal man and an immortal elf, will be released by HarperCollins in May, 100 years after it was first written.

Paul Beatty has been named this year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize for his novel, The Sellout. It was the first time an American has won the award. Beatty’s book takes a satirical look at the issue of racial identity and justice.

Interest in psychological suspense in the tradition of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, is holding steady, according to Publishers Weekly.

Women buy 80 percent of the 21 billion crime books sold every year. Despite this, Killer Women co-founder Louise Millar, speaking at the group’s London crime festival, feels women’s voices aren’t always acknowledged or celebrated.

Signature-Reads recently listed 27 of the best books on writing. I have several of these books that I refer to from time to time. No matter where you are in your writing, you’re bound to find some valuable tips and incentives to help elevate your craft and your career. So check them out.

In the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and PlottoThe Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives.

New Yorker columnist David Sax explains what Barnes & Noble doesn’t get about bookstores.

Bad review on your book? Don’t panic. That’s the advice from LitHub.

Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen expressed their congratulations to Bob Dylan on being named the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan’s silence on the award is a bit disappointing and makes me wish that The Boss had actually received the award instead.

There’s quite a debate across the pond about the value of public libraries in the face of budget shortfalls and whether they should get a free pass. As a member of the La Vergne Public Library Board, I am a staunch supporter of libraries and their worth in the communities they serve. Library Director Donna Bebout and I have talked about how our city library is much more than a place to borrow books. It is a community hub, offering education for readers young and old alike, a place for fellowship, learning, and empowerment. But it is also constantly evolving, changing to meet the needs of a diverse and growing populace, as well as adapting to new technologies affecting the publishing world. The library is a place of community pride and is fortunate to have the support of our elected government leaders. I would think that in the face of drastic budget cuts, a library might become even more vital to the community it serves, not the first thing to be put on the chopping block.

Publishers Weekly has just listed its 150 Best Books of 2016 across all categories, from comics to poetry and everything in between. Cool to see The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Redemption Road by John Hart on the list, as I had the opportunity to see both authors at events in Nashville this year. By the way, you can likely find many of these at your public library.

In Memoriam:

Mystery Scene magazine founder and author Ed Gorman has passed away.

LitHub remembers author Thom Jones.

Got interesting book news or articles on writing?  Share a link in the comments!

John Hart: Why he writes character first

By G. Robert Frazier

It’s a hard business, writing. Author John Hart, who spoke to a crowded room at the Nashville Public Library as part of the 28th annual Southern Festival of Books, knows that all too well.

Hart admitted that even after having written four bestselling books, two of them Edgar Award winners, he struggled to write book five, Redemption Road.

“Writers tend to fall into two categories: those who outline really clearly, like John Grisham or Jeffery Deaver who does 200-page outlines, and those like Stephen King, who are of the grope and hope school,” Hart said.

The latter set of writers “do strange things,” he added, like writing the ending first and then trying to figure out the story that gets them to the ending. “I think John Irving said once he writes the whole thing backwards, which just blows my mind.”

Hart confesses that he is of the grope and hope school. “I’ve discovered that works if I start with character.”

It is a simple lesson, but one that can easily elude the best of authors. Hart learned this lesson after making that rookie mistake of sending his first book, The King of Lies, to agents the day after he typed “The End.”

“After spending a year or so living with a manuscript, you get so close to it all you can see are the images in your head and the story you’re trying to convey,” he said. “But, it’s impossible to understand what story has actually been conveyed. What I see may or may not be what you perceive from the words I’ve written.”

For the next nine months, Hart said he was routinely rejected, becoming one of the most widely known unpublished writers in the great state of North Carolina.

It’s sad, but I don’t think there’s a more insecure creature in the world than the unpublished writer.

“It’s sad, but I don’t think there’s a more insecure creature in the world than the unpublished writer. People who have never done it can’t understand how many sleepless nights and sweat and blood and angst you put into trying to do this thing. It’s not something you do in a week or two. You’re talking about a year, two years, three years … and what you want as that young writer is the validation of someone at a publishing company saying, ‘We want what you’ve got.’

“I was very depressed about it,” he said.

After repeated rejections, Hart realized what he’d done was not very smart. He pulled the manuscript out again and immediately began to see all the problems with it. “I saw the plot holes, I saw the bad dialogue, I saw the trite writing, I saw the overwriting. I saw all the things that first-time writers do. So I fixed it.”

What’s more, Hart realized the importance of character first.

“If the person you know at the end of the book is the same as the character on page one, that book is going to fall flat. That character has to evolve” from beginning to end, he said.

In The King of Lies, His protagonist returns home to contend with the mysterious death of his father and the secrets he left behind.

Hart wrote his second book, Down River, from a different perspective, through the eyes of a man wrongly accused of a crime and “where he gets the strength to deal with this terrible thing I’ve done to him.” The emotional journey resulted in the first of his two Edgar Awards.

Another, for his novel The Last Child, followed.

“By this time, I’m figuring I know what I’m doing. I’ve got this figured out,” Hart said. “Hubris, ladies and gentlemen. Don’t let it get you down, it almost unmade me, I promise you. It’s my tale of woe.”

In writing book five, Redemption Road, “I just thought I could sit down and let it happen. I didn’t understand what I knew implicitly with those first four books. They work because of character, not the story. When I sat down for the fifth book, I had an idea for a story, a modern retelling of the Count of Monte Cristo, about a good man wrongfully imprisoned, bitter and hard through the experience, and what happens when he’s out.”

Hart plowed through the first fifty pages before he paused. It didn’t feel right. But he kept forging ahead, figuring it would work itself out. A year later, 300 pages later, he knew it was still not working in some fundamental way.

“I called my agent and said I’m not going to turn in the story. That’s a bad day, I don’t care who you are. Writers get paid to write, not to throw pages away.”

Looking back on it, Hart said he understands exactly what went wrong.

“I started with story and ended up with a main character that felt like a hundred main characters we’ve all seen before. He’s tough, he’s got scars, but there was nothing remotely interesting about him if you’ve read a dozen thrillers in your life.”

In reviewing the manuscript, Hart noticed something. A minor female character on the sidelines. She was dark, wounded, complex, and willing to walk through fire for the right people. “I figured out it was her story, not his.”

After two more years of rewrites and another year of edits, Redemption Road was finally published this past May to critical acclaim.

If there is one thing to remember from Hart’s “tale of woe,” he said, it is that “truly compelling fiction has to start with truly compelling characters. If the characters aren’t so real and vibrant that the reader cares enough about what happens to them, then it doesn’t matter how good your plot is.”

There’s no fantasy in The Dead of Winter

by Jean Rabe

If you search for my titles on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, you’ll discover I’ve written roughly three dozen fantasy, urban fantasy, and science fiction novels.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00072]I’ve been in the game a while, and it felt like now was a good time to acquire a new writing wardrobe.

So I traded in my wizard’s robe for a sheriff’s badge and moved my fiction from a magical realm to ultra-rural Spencer County, Indiana. Seriously. Ultra. Rural. It’s a great place to set uncozy-cozies.

Switching to writing mysteries was the perfect choice for me—I read mysteries. I have always read mysteries. My bookshelves are overcrowded with mysteries and thrillers. And I delight in mystery movies. About time I started writing mysteries, dontcha think?

I’d attended a few Bouchercon festivals back when I was writing about wizards and dragons (I love writing about wizards and dragons, by the way, and likely won’t entirely abandon it). I always made it a point to go to writing conventions outside of my genre—hence my trips to the World Horror Con and World Mystery Con. I figured there was an element of mystery and horror to fantasy and science fiction, and I sat in the front row during seminars at those conventions to soak in those elements.

And I attended Killer Nashville. I entered that convention’s Claymore competition in 2015 with my first mystery novel: Christmas Card Killer, and I took second place.

“I can write mysteries,” I announced at the Killer Nashville awards banquet.

“You sure can,” Deni Dietz answered. She judged the finalists, and so read my entry in its entirety. She pressed her business card into my hand before I left the convention and asked me to contact her, as she was interested in buying Christmas Card Killer for Five Star. The publisher, however, phased out its mystery line, and instead Deni blurbed my book for Imajin, which accepted the manuscript. The book releases November 1, and its title has changed to The Dead of Winter, the publisher wisely pointing out I would have a longer time to market the book if I took Christmas off the cover of the book.

THE DEAD OF WINTER was a blast—lots of fun to read! Jean Rabe’s characters come to life through the written word, and it takes a real writing talent to accomplish this feat.

Denise Dietz, USA Today bestselling author

Switching writing genres wasn’t as easy as I expected. Not that I couldn’t write mysteries…I once had an editor at Tor Books tell me I could write in “whatever damn genre” I wanted to. But I had trouble connecting to professionals in the mystery field; all my contacts were in fantasy and science fiction. When I met with agents at Killer Nashville 2015 regarding my manuscript, some of them asked me why I just didn’t stick with fantasy, since that’s where my audience and history was. I pointed out that I might get the inkling in the future to write another fantasy, but that right now I wanted to craft mysteries, specifically murder mysteries. Two agents told me they wouldn’t represent an author who dabbled in more than one genre. Killer Nashville Author Guest Donald Bain, who writes marvelous Murder She Wrote tie-in novels as well as his own material, told me to stay away from those lazy agents. He also told me I could write mysteries if I wanted to.

Some folks said I would need to change my author name to write mysteries since Jean Rabe

jean-rabe-and-wrink

Jean Rabe and Wrink

was a fantasy and science fiction author. So I was prepared to do that, settling on J.E. Mooney. But the Imajin publisher didn’t want The Dead of Winter by J.E. Mooney. She wanted The Dead of Winter by Jean Rabe, and said that Jean Rabe could write mysteries if she wanted to. She suggested that some of the readers of my fantasy and science fiction novels might also try my mystery books. My fingers are crossed that she’s right.

 

I find the mystery genre more difficult to write in, which is some of the appeal to me. I can’t use magic spells to get my characters out of a fix, and I can’t craft the landscape and creatures any which way I please. Setting something in the real world, present-day, means I have to follow maps, be up on area politics and demographics, and know the community’s history. It takes more studying and research than crafting from whole cloth…at least it does for me. And because I am a technological dinosaur, shunning the latest iPhone and tablet whoseywhatzits in favor of spiral binders, I have to immerse myself in electronics stores, browse Best Buy advertisements, and query my tech-savvy friends. Fortunately, several of my friends are addicted to iPhones and all the whoseywhatzits they can acquire; they are a great resource.

Maybe I’ll eventually find an agent who will represent me no matter what I write. I met with two agents at the 2016 Killer Nashville who were at least open to the notion. I’ll send them my current work-in-progress when it’s finished and see what they think. It’s a mystery.

So maybe the agent thing will happen.

Maybe it won’t.

Maybe I don’t need an agent. I’ve managed to sell more than two dozen novels on my own, a few hitting the USA Today Bestsellers list.

And I sold my first mystery…The Dead of Winter. My wonderful publisher has asked for a sequel, and I’m plotting that now, tentatively titled The Dead of Night. Hmmm…dead is the running theme here.

I really can write mysteries…as Jean Rabe.

_____

Find The Dead of Winter on Amazon by clicking here. There’s a pre-order special price of 99-cents for the ebook of The Dead of Winter. The price goes up sometime after the November 1 release.

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