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I’m not alone

How can a novelist spend so many hours alone? Stephen Pressfield answers the question in The War of Art:

Not only do I not feel alone with my characters, they are more vivid and interesting to me than the people in my real life. If you think about it, the case can’t be otherwise. In order for a book (or any project or enterprise) to hold our attention for the length of time it takes to unfold itself, it has to plug into some internal perplexity or passion that is of paramount importance to us. That problem becomes the theme of our work, even if we can’t at the start understand or articulate it. As the characters arise, each embodies infallibly an aspect of that dilemma, that perplexity. These characters might not be interesting to anyone else but they’re absolutely fascinating to us. They are us. Meaner, smarter, sexier versions of ourselves. It’s fun to be with them because they’re wrestling with the same issue that has its hooks into us. They’re our soul mates, our lovers, our best friends. Even the villains. Especially the villains.

In my case, because the real people in my life are so interesting, there’s probably some narcissism keeping me at my desk as well.




When a writer goes off the grid

For awhile there I was blowing and going, updating the blog with something close to regularity. And then last October that changed and suddenly … crickets. That’s what happens with a novelist’s blog. Don’t take the silence the wrong way; it’s actually a positive sign. I dropped off the radar for the best of reasons: I was deep in a new writing project.

As of this week, the manuscript is finished, all 80,000 words (about 260 pages) of it. No, this isn’t the fourth Roland March novel. It’s something new. The few people who’ve read it say this is the best book I’ve ever written. That makes me happy.

I’ll share more about the new project soon. For now, it’s good to be back.

You Can Take (Pens) With You


That feeling when you need to write something down and you don’t have a pen? I hate that. Problem is, I forget to take a pen with me all the time. The best solution is to have a pen so small and unobtrusive that carrying it around becomes second nature. After experimenting with several options, I decided on this Kaweco AL Sport. Lightweight and rugged, the AL Sport comes in a raw aluminum finish that scratches and scars easily — voila, instant patina. My only gripe was the nib, which I replaced with a flex nib from India.


When closed, the Kaweco AL Sport is small enough for the pocket.


The raw aluminum finish spells patina. Sadly, the AL Sport runs on cartridges unless you can find a converter small enough. As you can see in the photo, the Indian flex nib doesn’t quite fit the Kaweco feed. Still, it writes reasonably well.

When I have my briefcase with me, I always carry a few pens in a traditional leather pen case. My favorite is a green leather case from the Italian firm Pierotucci. While I’m always switching out which pens I carry, the Pilot Custom 823 is almost always in the mix. It’s my favorite everyday pen, because it holds plenty of ink, writes a clean, fine line, and has a somewhat springy nib.

Another favorite is the Edison Huron in green ebonite. The nib can be easily traded out for any #6 size Jowo nib. Right now I’m using a nice wet 1.1 mm stub, and the pen is filled with a new ink, Diamine Salamander.

EdisonPilotPierrotucciThe Edison, Kaweco and Pilot taken together represent the three main nib options available to fountain pen users: stub (a calligraphy-style italic line, narrower side-to-side than it is up-and-down), flex (variable line width depending on pressure), and round (in this case, a Japanese Fine which is the equivalent of a Western EF). When I’m writing cursive I prefer stubs … unless the Pilot is handy. Flexible nibs interest me, but because I don’t really know how to use them properly — the variable pressure thing is tricky — I don’t use them as much as I think I will.


Stub (left), Flex (center), and Round (right)

Realistically, I don’t always have my briefcase handy and sometimes even the Kaweco feels too large, especially if my pockets are already filled with keys, wallet, pocket knife, etc., which is why this last ditch pen comes in handy:



Every Swiss Army Knife that comes with Plus scales includes a pressurized pen, and while they’re not exactly comfortable to write with, they’ll do in a pinch. I have several SAKs, but the pictured Compact is the easiest of the full-size ones to carry.

If there’s one thing worse than the feeling of needing a pen and not having one, it’s needing one, having plenty of small pens to carry, and still not having one — something that still happens to me all too often. “Can you sign this book?” someone asks, and I have to say, “Sure — can I borrow a pen?” But at least you know that I have good intentions.









A Manuscript Book


Smythson sells something they call a manuscript book, an 8″ x 10″ leather-bound book presumably intended for writing manuscripts. When I write manuscripts by hand, I tend to use loose-leaf paper. Even so, I love the idea of using one of these bound manuscript books. Smythson prices are an obstacle, but so is the 8″ x 10″ size. I’d want something a little larger, which is why I was thrilled to discover this Leuchtturm Master Notebook in red.

RedLeuchtturm3The A4 size matches my loose-leaf Tomoe River paper, which means I can interleave those pages into this book without overlap. Like all Leuctturm notebooks, the Master has pre-numbered pages, and index, and other nifty archival features. The 100 gsm paper is of their fountain pen friendly variety (which I’ve mentioned before) — an earlier black Master notebook I tried wasn’t, and feathered a bit. They offer a slim version of the Master which would be ideal for my purposes, but I haven’t come across any in the wild. Finding the red cover was a fluke. After hunting online and coming up empty, I walked into my local emporium — Zandbroz Variety — and lo and behold, they had them. (They also stock vintage and modern fountain pens, inks, and a great curated selection of books. The place is well worth visiting if you’re ever in the vicinity.)

A big, bound A4 notebook tips the scales in terms of portability. It fits in the side pocket of my Filson briefcase … but just barely. Naturally, when open, it takes up plenty of space on the table, too. This is not a discreet means of writing by hand. I’m saving it for a new project, so I can’t tell yet whether the daydream will translate into reality.






From Draft to Done: Development of a Manuscript


Since I’ve described writing by hand and offered a primer on paper recently, I thought some context might be in order. How do pen and paper fit into the larger process of drafting a manuscript start to finish? Although I’m best known as a crime writer, every October I turn my hand to writing horror, inspired by the example of M. R. James’ spooky Christmas (!) tales. The latest one is “Slit Trench,” the story of a couple who buy a disused vineyard in hopes of bringing it back. The finished product is a typed, 20-page manuscript, but the story was begun by hand.


On the left, my original handwritten manuscript. On the right, the completed story, considerably revised. Some of the original made it into the final copy, though you won’t see much overlap here.

Years ago, some friends relocated to a rural setting, purchasing a house that had some peculiar quirks thanks to an eccentric (and frankly scary) former owner. After staying there, I always thought it would make a great setting for a horror story. Suppose the crazy former owner came back? That was the original germ for “Slit Trench.” The subject appealed to me because its the story of people going after a dream only to find there’s an underlying insecurity. Perhaps they would have been better off not dreaming at all.

Sometimes you know what to do with a story right away, sometimes it takes time. This one emerged a few weeks ago after a long dormancy. I walked past my upright desk, saw my blank pad, and started writing the words you see in the photograph. I had just refilled my pen earlier that day and was curious what the color would look like on paper. One thing led to another. By the time I finished the first page, I realized what was happening: the premise I’d been kicking around forever was becoming a story — and not a crime story, as I’d suspected, but a somewhat surreal work of horror.

I wrote six pages in total. Several days passed, then I decided to type the pages up, revising as I went. This is the benefit of working on paper: you can’t turn a handwritten manuscript in, so you’re forced to revise and redraft. That’s where the magic often happens. I managed to type about three and a half pages before the bug took over. When I was done, I had about fifteen typed pages, and an outline for the ending.

Then I realized over the weekend that I’d gotten it all wrong. The setting had to change, and so did the point-of-view. I’d been writing through one character’s eyes, and needed two. So I re-wrote again. This time I ended up with twenty-two pages and I was very pleased with the result.

Done? Not yet. I’m a big believer in the sound of writing, so I like to read my pages aloud and revise for the ear. I did this several times, changing and tightening the language. “Slit Trench” wasn’t finished until I’d read it through without wanting to change anything.

When I compare the finished manuscript to the first handwritten pages, the differences are significant. But I was surprised to see how much of the wording, how many turns of phrase ended up making the cut. The value of revision isn’t just that you catch your mistakes. Going through the manuscript over and over teaches you the essential story, shows you what can be cut and what must stay, and reveals the hidden depths. If you can’t bear re-reading the story over and over, it’s not good enough. If you fall in love with the words, then you know you’re done.




Choosing the Right Paper


If you decide to write by hand, one of the pleasures of the process is using a fountain pen. Fountain pens write a more interesting line than your standard ballpoint or gel pen (practical as those are), and give you a much wider range of ink choices. You don’t have to press hard on the paper to leave an impression. Once you get the hang of the light touch, this can help reduce fatigue. The problem is, most paper for journaling and note taking isn’t fountain pen friendly. My beloved Moleskines and my fountain pens never get along. The wet ink feathers on the page, and bleeds through to the other side.

I’ve shown off one fountain pen friendly paper option already — Tomoe River – and now I’d like to share some more. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it covers most of the paper I use on a regular basis.


Far left: the Allan Journal in red goatskin. Middle: Smythson Panama-size journal in red lambskin. Right: Smythson Panama journal in tan pigskin. The fountain pen is an Edison Herald.


Starting at the high end, my favorite bound journals come from Smythson and R. L. Allan. The pricey Smythson journals include the legendary pale blue featherweight paper, while Allan paper is white and features very tight ruling (i.e., not a lot of space between lines). Both papers handle fountain pen ink well. Because the leather bindings are so nice, you might feel reluctant to write in the books. Overcome this feeling. Your thoughts are worth recording, and are certainly more valuable than a blank page however nice it may be. (NB: I’ve written more about the Allan Journal and the technology that is paper on Bible Design Blog.)

I use bound books for capturing and developing story ideas, and loose-leaf pages for drafting manuscripts. The nice thing about bound books is that your notes stay together in one place and are available to flip through later. As a writer, I’ve found keeping bound creative journals invaluable.


Left: Clairefontaine Triomphe pad. Right: Rhodia letter-size pad. The two-pen holder in green leather is from Pierotucci.


Two of the major brands of paper for fountain pen users are Clairefontaine and Rhodia. The Clairefontaine Triomphe pad works similarly to the Tomoe River pad I’ve written about already. A ruled page nests underneath the blank page so that you’re handwritten lines look neat and tidy. This paper is intended for correspondence, but I like using it for manuscripts, too. Wire-bound Rhodia pads come in various sizes and have become a staple for me as well. The paper is smooth and shiny, a pleasure to write on, and the pads are inexpensive enough that I never feel bad using and abusing them.


Rhodia webnotebook in a leather sleeve by Byron Design. The fountain pen is a Pilot Custom 823.

Rhodia also makes Moleskine-style hardbound notebooks that work well with fountain pens. The one in the photograph was purchased at Penchetta in Scotsdale, Arizona, and it came with a leather sleeve by Byron Design. I’m not a fan of the bright orange cover, so I like being able to hide it away in the sleeve. Fortunately, Rhodia now makes different colored covers, and I intend to avail myself of the option once this book is done.

While notebooks like this probably don’t need leather sleeves for protection, I’ve been a sucker for such things ever since I bought a Gfeller leather cover for my Moleskine journals. The leather adds a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. In some cases, it does serve a practical purpose: if you like to slip a thin staple-bound notebook into your pocket, a leather cover protects the binding without adding too much bulk.


Field Notes Traveling Salesman edition with a Davis Leatherworks cover in Horween olive chromexcel. The fountain pen is a Bexley Intrepid.

This Field Notes journal, from the limited Traveling Salesman edition, now resides in a leather cover  from Davis Leatherworks. It’s a simple cover made of Horween’s olive chromexcel leather. I have some boots made of this stuff, and like them so much I couldn’t pass up the chance to have a matching notebook cover. Unfortunately the standard Field Notes notebooks in craft paper aren’t very compatible with fountain pens. Even the nice paper used in their limited editions doesn’t always play well with wet ink. This particular one does, though, and I really like the light green paper with its ledger ruling.


Left: Apica notebook. Right: Clairefontaine. The fountain pen is an Edison Huron.

My favorite inexpensive bound books are from the Japanese brand Apica. The styling harkens back to the old-fashioned schoolroom, and you can find them in a variety of sizes. Also nice: the Clairefontaine 1951 notebook, recently released to celebrate the company’s anniversary. I snapped up a few of these when they came out because, while I like Clairefontaine paper, I’m not usually a fan of the cover styling. These I liked, so I stocked up.

If you’re a Moleskine devotee looking to find a fountain pen-friendly alternative, my suggestion would be Leuchtturm. This German company makes a colorful variety of hardcover and softcover journals in the Moleskine genre, only the paper is good for fountain pens (look for the icon on the package confirming the paper is FP-friendly, since some of the older ones aren’t).


Needless to say, there are plenty of paper options to explore and obsess over. At the end of the day, pen and paper are simply a means to an end, but when you spend as much time as I do with the tools, you can’t help wanting them to function well. Finding the right combination saves you from having to pay attention to the tools as you work. They disappear, getting out of the way so  you can focus on what you’re writing.


Writing by Hand


Writing manuscripts by hand has several practical advantages — no need to carry a laptop around, no risk of batteries going dead — but the one I’m most fond of is this: writing by hand forces a built-in revision stage, since I never manage to type up my pages without improving and tightening the prose. While I have no plans to ditch my computer, I find myself resorting to longhand more and more during early drafts. I have always taken notes by hand (the tech-assisted alternatives still seem too clunky to me) but I haven’t written out drafts like this in years.

Pictures5To make the process practical for me required finding the right pen and the right paper. Sure, you can use anything that’s near to hand. For long sessions, though, it helps to find the tools that work best for you. The pen is a Pilot Custom 823 with a Fine nib. Japanese fine nibs are finer than European ones, and for my taste the finer the better. The advantage of writing with a fountain pen is that you don’t have to press down on the paper, which speeds up fatigue. You also get to choose from a myriad of ink colors. I’ve settled on Sailor Epinard, a nice dark green. The 823 holds a vast quantity of ink, which is nice when you’re writing a lot.

The paper I’m using is Japanese, too. It’s called Tomoe River, and among fountain pen users it is all the rage because of the way it handles ink. I like it because the paper is quite thin, almost like tracing paper, allowing me to place a ruled guide underneath. When you’re working, you have lines to keep your handwriting straight, but once the page is finished, the lines disappear.


For writing on the go, I use this A4 pad of Tomoe River paper inside a translucent pad holder.


I created the guide myself using Adobe InDesign, which allowed me to leave a lot of space between each line — manuscripts are traditionally double-spaced — and to create a wide margin on the left. This makes my pages easy to annotate. Notes go in the margin and edits fit between the lines.


Above: This is what the writing surface looks like with the custom guideline sheet underneath the paper.


Peel back the paper and you see the custom guideline sheet.


I carry the A4 Tomoe River pad inside a translucent pad holder which secures with an elastic strap, Moleskine-style. Manuscript pages can be tucked into the flap pocket facing the pad or carried in a separate translucent folder. This keeps everything together, nice and tidy, ready to hit the road at a moment’s notice. The Tomoe River pad, pad holder, and much more besides are available at Nanami Paper. If you prefer to write in bound books, journal-style, some nice Tomoe River journals are available at Paper for Fountain Pens.


The pad holder keeps work-in-progress nicely organized.

If you’re going to write by hand, it helps to choose the right paper. In addition to Tomoe River, I have a number of suggestions, which you’ll find here: “Choosing the Right Paper.”




I poured my soul into the city’s streets

I poured my soul into the city’s streets, and there it still resides.

– Orhan Pamuk, “The Ship on the Golden Horn”




Solution First, Then The Problem

The reader is pleased with the ingenuity of the solution, for he doesn’t realize that the author fixed upon the solution first, and then invented a problem to suit it.

– Dr. Greenslade in John Buchan’s The Three Hostages




The things they carried the things they carried in

I made a promise to myself to try something new: getting out of the office more when I’m writing. If the past month is anything to go by, I’m not very good at keeping my promises. Choosing a third place wasn’t difficult, but remembering to go there was — and when I did go, I didn’t work on my novel. (I should say, my novels, because while working on one, another suddenly sprang into existence.)

To work away from my desk, I have to take things with me — pens (you can never have too many), paper, a laptop, manuscript pages, a couple of books. I have plenty of briefcases or bags to choose from, because I’ve been accumulating the things for years. The one I’ve settled on for “writing out there” is the red Filson 257 briefcase pictured above, which has lots of pockets, is wide enough to stand on its own, and isn’t likely to be left behind on account of its flaming color.

Here’s hoping it will see more use in the month to come than it has so far. As long as the books get written, though, I suppose it doesn’t matter where.




The Bruegel of the Ozarks paints an American danse macabre


In my review at Books & Culture, I join the chorus of praise for Daniel Woodrell’s latest novel The Maid’s Version:

 The story flows like a jigsaw of recollection, zooming forward and back in time, recalling both victims and survivors, chronicling the accidents of chance that determined who would live and who would die. In the hands of another writer, this multi-generational saga might run to a thousand pages, but Woodrell fits it into nearly a tenth of that space, compressing the action into sinuous, winding sentences, packing chapters of observation into the course of a few lines.

I’ve always been impressed with how much Woodrell accomplishes with each of his sentences. This drum-tight little novel is impressively full. If you haven’t started reading Woodrell, it’s not a bad place to start — and you should be reading him. You really should.

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Past Lives in Present Tense

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The paintings of Paolo Uccello, who is best known for his depiction of the battle of San Romano (shown here), depict life in the mid-fifteenth century with a panache that is anything but medieval. These vivid, rounded, luxurious images are part of the reason the fifteenth century has always fascinated me. They are mysterious and stylized, crowded with the violent ballet of battle yet strangely beautiful, and a reminder that in Italy the Renaissance was a long-established trend before anyone in frigid northern Europe jumped aboard.


 The novel I am working on now is a departure in some ways from my previous books. For one thing, part of the story takes place in the 1450s, whereas my Roland March novels are set in contemporary Houston, Texas. Like the fantasy novelist, the author of historical fiction needs to invest a certain effort in building the fictional world. A modern setting can be easily embellished by the reader’s imagination. You can leave blanks knowing they will be handily filled. When you write about the past––especially the medieval past we know primarily through cliches and loose film representations––there’s no guarantee that the reader will be able to paint the world on her own. It’s hard enough as an author to stay immersed in your own version of the past.

While I love the old adventure novels of Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, and Stanley Weyman, the sketchy approach to the details of the past these authors sometimes took makes it hard not to picture the action transpiring not in a realized world but in a Victorian stage version of the swashbuckling past. Dumas especially can get quite breezy, relying on dialogue to an extent that is quite current … but not especially convincing. Another way of putting it is this: the characters always seem like actors in costume.


On the other hand, there’s a danger in providing too much information, forcibly educating the reader at the expense of the story. The days of wanting historical fiction sprinkled with guidebook descriptions of, say, Venetian palazzo architecture are over. For me the answer is to write about people of the past primarily as people. In that sense, I don’t think of what I’m doing as historical fiction at all. It’s just fiction.

Uccello might seem regally quaint to modern eyes, but his work was contemporary art when he made it. He was no more trying to be medieval than the monks who invented Gregorian chant were trying to sound “more dark ages.” For a writer like me, the value of being immersed in a culture of  bygone ages is the access it gives to past lives lived in present tense, lived with immediacy and not a trace of stilted speech or silly costume.




To Theology Nerds: Read More Fiction


Yesterday the Gospel Coalition was gracious enough to publish an interview with me, and I was ungracious enough to suggest to an audience of theology wonks that they ought to read more fiction. Philip Wade and Lars Walker pitched the questions, and I answered as best I could, addressing themes in my Roland March novels and some of my thoughts on what it means to be a novelist influenced by theological commitments.

Cover of "On Moral Fiction (A Harper Torc...

Cover via Amazon

Back to theologians. The problem is that, like scientists, they sometimes assume that because fiction is made up, it must also be untrue. “Why would I read something that isn’t even true?” To dispel this myth, I always invoke John Gardner’s explanation of fiction’s method from On Moral Fiction:

Fiction cares as much about the truth as science does, only their methods differ. As John Gardner wrote, fiction goes after understanding by creating characters who subtly embody values, then testing the truth of those values through drama. Once you understand that point, it opens up a world of hermeneutic possibilities.

To be honest, though, my responses aren’t my favorite part of the interview. I like  the introduction. As humbling as it is to see your life’s work ably summarized in three paragraphs, it’s pretty helpful, too! My thanks to Philip and Lars and to the Gospel Coalition for helping to share my work with a new audience.

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Reading with Friends


Reading a book is the universal symbol that you want to be left alone. A book in hand wards off unwanted attempts at conversation on plane or train, essentially transforming public space into private. Even listening to music via headphones is more communal, since your tunes can be faintly overheard. Reading is deadly silent apart from the turning of pages or the tapping and scrolling of screens. Because we perceive reading as a form of solitude, whenever we encounter readers in the wild, we tend to leave them be.

Reading a book in public is also an invitation. If you were reading a private letter, I wouldn’t intrude. The same goes for your smartphone screen. But read a book and I will do my best to get a look at the page, to figure out what you’re reading so I can know more about you. I don’t feel bad about this snooping, because reading a book in public is also a secret handshake, and I’m an initiate. As a fellow traveler I know that your gesture isn’t meant to exclude me.

The invitation and the secret handshake are more important to me than the isolation, which is why I keep committing to read with friends. To begin with, I only did this in the context of book clubs, but now the practice had branched out. Last year my friend Jeff discovered Patricia Highsmith and decided to read her Ripliad, five novels that feature  high brow sociopath Tom Ripley. Was I interested in reading along with him? The books were enjoyable, but being able to talk about them was better still. All too often we have to keep the private world of fiction to ourselves.

Earlier this summer, my friend Anthony started a Facebook group called “Swann’s Way Summer,” devoted to reading the first installment in Marcel Proust’s epic In Search of Lost Time. I signed on, having always wanted to get past page ten of Swann’s Way. (I succeeded, but it’s no longer summer and I’m still far from finished.) Writing a novel makes reading them harder. Supplement your daily output with a dose of Proust and you’ll throw out most of what you write out of envy and shame. You would think that under the circumstances, I would decline any additional group reading projects.

You would be wrong.

Today Jeff got in touch with an idea to re-live our Ripliad glory. This time the five novels would be John Buchan’s Richard Hannay books, which we have now dubbed the Hannaiad. Fortunately I’ve already read The 39 Steps (and seen every film adaptation, of which there are many). I’m even two pages into Greenmantle. Jeff’s suggestion corresponded to a desire I already had, which is why the Penguin edition of the complete Hannay novels has been on my shelf for the past few months. My only regret is that I didn’t buy the Folio Society set of the five novels I came across in San Diego back in June. That would have been perfect.

There’s a lot to be said for solitude. We don’t get enough of it these days. Strange as it sounds, reading with friends doesn’t deprive you of solitude. It lets you share the solitude with someone else.





Going Negative

For many of the best, most adventurous novelists, in fact, negative criticism is an essential part of defining their own artistic identity.

That’s Adam Kirsch writing in The New York Times about novelists reviewing other writers’ books. Life is too short to waste time on bad books, and no one who has managed to write a novel (even a bad one) wants to wound a fellow traveler by administering harsh public criticism. You make an enemy of the writer and gain a reputation for cruelty in a literary culture in which people are mainly just trying to get along.

Part of a writer’s artistic formation, however, involves self-definition, which is achieved often enough by reacting against some norm. In this act of very personal comparing and contrasting, you can’t define yourself without standing up against what you are not, what you will not accept, what is beneath you, and so on. For writers who take the process public, criticism becomes not just a way of discovering one’s artistic self but also “a means of educating the public, preparing readers for the revolution in taste they [want] to sponsor.”

I haven’t done a great deal of reviewing, and when I have, I have tended to gravitate toward books and authors I admire (which is part of the process of creative formation, too). Nevertheless, there was a period in my own development as a writer in which it was important to be defined over against the “other.” It hasn’t ended, really. The only shift, I suppose, is that these days I would rather hear these assertions of difference from readers and other reviewers rather than declaring them myself.

Streaming movies isn’t as great as I thought it would be


We made a momentous decision last night, my wife and I. After several years doing without, we added DVDs back to our Netflix plan. Some of the good stuff isn’t available for streaming, and the pathetic interface makes what is available difficult to access. Here are some of the shortcomings:

  1. The interface offers a finite number of slots, each represented by cover art.
  2. Each category seems to be limited to between ten to twenty titles.
  3. Many titles are repeated in multiple categories, eating up valuable real estate.
  4. Films you’ve watched don’t disappear from the interface to be replaced by new ones, again wasting valuable space. (This is a major disappointment.)
  5. The categorization features are limited and superficial. Fewer than a dozen top level genre options, each with five or six sub-lists, and then you’re done. After that you have to rely on the search feature.
  6. The search feature is the worst available compared to iTunes, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime.

The limitations of Netflix led me to add Hulu Plus to the mix (mainly for the Criterion Collection, which sadly is only available in part). Since we already paid for Amazon Prime, we have that option for streaming video, too. Then there’s YouTube, which comes through in a pinch.

Cover of "1001 Movies You Must See Before...

I’ve seen them, but I’m still not ready to die.

Despite the convenience of instant streaming on whichever device happens to be handy, all these  services combined still don’t seem to offer what Netflix did originally, when the service was limited to renting DVDs: namely, breadth. In the early days of Netflix, I bought a copy of 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die, added the ones I hadn’t seen already to my queue, and enjoyed a year’s worth of remedial film education. I don’t think I could manage the same thing today even with so many streaming options. There are lots of services, but their offerings are stacked toward recent pop culture. The farther back in time you go, the spottier the coverage.

Surely there’s a good streaming service out there for budding cinephiles. Until I discover it, I am going back to my DVD queue.

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Clearing the deck

Before heading into battle, the wooden warships of old passed the command to clear the decks. Hammocks would be cleared from the gun decks, cabin walls temporarily struck, putting the whole vessel on a footing for war. I do the same thing when I start a new novel. I must clear the decks and put my life on a footing for writing.


A clean sweep, more or less.

As I’ve said before, the writer’s space reflects the writer’s mind. One way to gauge mental transformations is to look at physical ones. In other words, you can tell I’m getting ready, because I’ve straightened up my desk.

This isn’t cleaning, it’s clearing. The space isn’t spick and span, or even tidy. But it is arranged. This ritual ordering has more to do with settling into the space, reconciling myself to a prolonged creative residency, than dusting surfaces and putting scraps of paper in the bin.

In this case, I’m not beginning a novel but resuming work on one I had to put aside earlier in the year. I might as well be starting over, though, which is the only way I know how to start again. My notes are typed up. My desk is comparatively bare. My mind is reconciled. It is time to go to work.




“Just because it’s got a gun doesn’t make it a crime novel.”

Cowboys & Gumshoes

Allen Barra interviewed one of my favorite novelists, Daniel Woodrell, for the Wall Street Journal this week, and the article, “Ozark Values,” raises the question of whether Woodrell’s early novels were genre fiction or not.

Mr. Woodrell’s first four books could be loosely termed genre fiction …. Still, Mr. Woodrell insists, he never thought of himself as writing genre fiction. “Just because it’s got a gun doesn’t make it a crime novel, and just because there’s a horse doesn’t make it a western.” Whatever one calls it, Mr. Woodrell’s fiction shed the trappings of crime fiction and replaced them with stories of greater psychological depth and more evocative mise-en-scène.

If you don’t already know, some people divide literature into two floors. On the ground level there’s genre fiction — mysteries, romances, westerns, science fiction — the stories that fit readily into marketing categories, and if you take the escalator to the upper floor you find literary fiction, of psychologically deep, mise-en-scène fame.

Readers realize these distinctions aren’t worth much, though their persistence suggests there’s at least something behind them. They were drilled into me during grad school, where I had the audacity to turn in a piece of genre fiction to a professor who looked at me as if I’d profaned the temple. He returned it unread. Genre fiction, by its nature, could not be taken seriously, and anyone who wrote it by definition wasn’t taking his task seriously. That’s an extreme view hardly anyone subscribes to anymore.

These days I am ambivalent about the labels. If only writing a good novel were as easy as choosing the right category label. What I’m doing as a novelist involves an attempt to “transcend genre,” which concedes ground to those who think genre’s something that needs transcending. At the same time, as a reader who enjoyed Woodrell’s early books as much as his later ones, I can’t help thinking these broad categories don’t help us much when it comes to appreciating the particulars. The labels might help after the fact, but at the keyboard I’m just trying to write the best novel I have in me.

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photo by:

JD Hancock




Everything is about to come out

from Back on Murder

Then I hear it, the sound I love. The gasp of capitulation, a long exhale that leaves him smaller than before, hunched over and broken. When they give that sigh, it means everything is about to come out all at once.




The dangers of a book-lined room


Collecting books remains a socially acceptable form of hoarding for now, despite the best efforts of my wife to lobby against the practice. She has a point. She married a man who thinks nothing of blocking off her windows with yet another bookcase, a man who would be entombed happily among his books like a sarcophagussed pharoah. (“Don’t romanticize it,” she says, reading over my shoulder.)

I always wanted a book-lined room. At first I lacked the books, and then I lacked a dedicated room. Now, like a runner who’s poured on too much speed at the finish line, I have several book-lined rooms (and books to spare). My favorite is pictured, a small room with tall bookcases on three of its four walls, a window and a library desk on the fourth.

Think of a book-lined room as a private garden.

In this age of vaporware volumes, such a room may seem decadent, an indulgence on the order of Des Esseintes’ jeweled tortoise. I don’t think of it that way. For me it’s more of a panic room, a place to take refuge against the distractions of the world. These books keep out the spirit of the age the way lead sheets block radiation. I can pretend, at any rate, that they do.

This is no fortress of solitude. It may insulate me from out there, but the room is anything but free of distraction. In a book-lined room haunted by past minds, ideas and arguments, plots and characters take on a physical presence. Herein lies the danger. When I shut the door I’m closed in with the most cacophonous and threatening horde imaginable — my literary influences. Some days they don’t let me get anything done, demanding my whole attention.




Nobody wants to raise a martyr

from Back on Murder

Parents want to raise future doctors and lawyers—above all, future candidates for happiness. They do not want to nurture martyrs, whatever the cause.




The trick to signing books

Years ago, my friend Charles stood in line for me at an Umberto Eco reading, bringing back a copy of The Island of the Day Before inscribed to me. Don’t ask me why, but it still feels strange to think of Eco writing out my full name.


For Mark Bertrand
Umberto Eco

I don’t know how the tradition originated, but the talismanic pleasure of having one’s book signed by the author is undeniable. The pleasure hasn’t always been unmarred in my case. One of my professors inscribed my copy of his book of poetry to someone else (he misremembered my name). Another prof made out her new book to me, when in fact I’d purchased it as a birthday gift for my wife. I was too bashful to correct the mistake, which would cost me: for years afterward, whenever I would sneak the book onto one of my wife’s shelves, she would move it back among my books: “It has your name on it, not mine.”

Michael Chabon would never have done that to me. When he signed my copy of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, he wrote his name first, and only then asked whether I’d like the book made out to anyone. Genius. By this time I’d given up on having them inscribed for anyone but myself, so he made it out to me:


To Mark –
Michael Chabon


Chabon knew what he was doing, and I’ve emulated him ever since. Occasionally, as I take the open book from a reader and begin to sign my name, I’ll detect a note of panic. You’re already writing, and I haven’t told you who to make it out to! Then I ask, and everything is fine. (Besides, I write crime novels, so a little panic isn’t out of place.)

The greatest book signing secret I’ve learned wasn’t this one, however. No, it happened at a convention where the publisher was giving the books away for free. Needless to say, this resulted in long lines. Seeing the winding snake of readers before me, I hunkered down like a book-signing machine. When I looked up, we’d blazed through most of the books and most of the people, too — but I still had twenty minutes left on the clock. The marketing guy from the publishing house stared at me wide-eyed, surrounded by a pile of empty book boxes. “That was … fast.”

It turns out, the trick is to go slow. Take your time with each person and let the line grow longer and longer. Never rush because part of the joy of the experience is spending a few moments chatting with the author.

This is not just a lesson in book signing, but a lesson in life.

The best signing story I’ve heard comes from a good friend who found a secondhand copy of his book for sale. He pulled it off the shelf, opened to the flyleaf, and found a long personal inscription he’d written to a colleague. “I gave him this copy, and he turned around and sold it!” I haven’t had that experience yet, but there’s always time.



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The shriveled hearts of noir

Here’s Loren Eaton writing about Back on Murder, my first Roland March novel, at his blog “I Saw Lightning Fall”:

… when violence inevitably comes crashing down like a ball-peen hammer on an outstretched hand, it’s as gritty as anything you’d expect from established hardboiled scribes. Bertrand even lends a certain poetic grace to the tough bits. After a brutal beating, an informant’s “eye opens, the blue cornea bright in a red sea of burst vessels.” The final shuddering seizures of a gut-shot gangster become a “saintly spasm,” his gaze “rolling heavenward in agony, brows arched in acute pain.” And when we finally learn the nature of the tragedy that haunts March, it comes in a scene so wrenching, so raw, so downright mean that it’ll likely thrill even the shriveled hearts of the noir set.

The whole post is worth checking out.




Public is where you go to be alone

from Back on Murder

Public is where you go to be alone.




Being good when the world is bad

from Back on Murder

We might be cut from the same cloth as the people we lock up, we might have a tendency to jack-knife our relationships or channel the violent impulses that go hand-in-hand with what we witness into unprofitable avenues, but for the most part, we’re clean. Not squeaky clean, because no one is, but relatively unspotted. Because we didn’t get into this for the cheap thrill of packing a gun, or to work out our inferiority complexes, or because we couldn’t find a better line of work. Carter Robb has it right, in a way. We could have kept things safe, chosen decent occupations that make for polite dinner conversation, better pay and better hours and a far reduced probability of being shot or beat down. But we didn’t choose to be the safe guys. We chose to be the good guys, hard as that is when the world is bad.