Aug
19

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The writer’s space reflects the writer’s mind

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One of my secret fears is that a writer’s space reflects the state of the writer’s mind. If, over time, you get the face you deserve, maybe the same thing is true of your desk.

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Minimal space = minimal output?

Looking through old photos I found a snapshot of my writing environment circa 2008 (at right). Painfully minimalist and squared away, it suggests a tidy-minded craftsman. Only one item on the desk is still with me in 2013, and that is the matte-finish 20″ display. I won’t part with that until it dies unless Apple gets a clue and drops its infatuation with mirror-finish reflective screens. The white chair moved to my attic workshop, the cantilevered lamp broke, the mouse was replaced and the keyboard is in a drawer somewhere. The old white MacBook is now obsolete –– its replacement was recently replaced –– and the Ikea desk ended up somewhere (I’m not sure where).

The most surprising thing, looking back, is how little paper there is. No pens on the desk, no notebooks, none of the frenzied evidence of composition that surrounds me now. At the time this photo was taken, I had published one book. Since then, four more are in print.

My office (pictured above) testifies to the activity. While the space is larger, the books everywhere make it feel much smaller, more like a cave. Chaos reigns. Digging through the piled detritus gives an archaeological impression. I find pockets of paper from a year ago, notes on long forgotten projects, random objects swallowed by time. Part of me loves this disorderly grotto and part of me is frankly terrified. I’d love to prune it back, even take it down to the minimalist roots. The only problem is, a writer’s space sometimes functions like the seasoned bowl of a briar pipe. Ream too aggressively and you lose the flavor.

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Aug
16

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Good mental health an unrealistic goal

MARCH ON GOOD MENTAL HEALTH
from Pattern of Wounds

One of the keys to a long career in law enforcement is learning how to tell police psychologists what they need to hear without sounding deceptive. The only alternative is good mental health, which to me has always seemed too unrealistic a goal.

Aug
16

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Unsafe, But Good: First Things on Roland March

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Just as Dante through the character of Virgil guides his readers through the underworld, J. Mark Bertrand through the character of Roland March guides his readers through the underbelly of this world.

That’s from “Murder Escapes the Vicarage,” Betsy Childs’ review of my Roland March novels at First Things. Following on the heels of Jon Breen’s piece in the Weekly Standard, she looks at all three books as a whole and draws some perceptive conclusions (if I do say so myself). Follow the link and enjoy.

Aug
16

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How Sir Walter Scott started the American Civil War

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Mark Twain made up my mind about the influence of bad ideas in literature, and he accomplished this by jabbing at my soft underbelly––my Southern identity. Born in Louisiana (any farther South, I used to joke, and I’d have drowned in the Gulf) I managed to lose the accent along the way and consequently I can “pass” for what I am not. I don’t talk like a Southerner and I never thought of myself as a Southerner, either––geographically, perhaps, but not culturally––until in 2006 I moved to the Dakotas. All at once, I felt my Southernness rather strongly in a fish-out-of-water sort of way. I now think of myself as an expatriate. Like James Joyce. (Delusions of grandeur?)

Some Southerners bask in pride, but I was never that sort. Instead, much like a kid my age growing up in West Germany, I felt a kind of war guilt, the burden of knowing ones’ ancestors fought on the wrong side. Why had they done it? And why couldn’t their descendants let it go? I wasn’t sure. Mark Twain seemed to blame Walter Scott:

A curious exemplification of the power of a single book for good or harm is shown in the effects wrought by Don Quixote and those wrought by Ivanhoe. The first swept the world’s admiration for the medieval chivalry-silliness out of existence; and the other restored it. As far as our South is concerned, the good work done by Cervantes is pretty nearly a dead letter, so effectually has Scott’s pernicious work undermined it.

Sir Walter Scott was “pernicious”? Twain insists on it. He lays out the case in Life on the Mississippi, a book that instilled in me such dreams of sailing down that river, until a kind soul pointed out that the Mississippi is not the Rhine (i.e., it isn’t beautiful). Not only did Scott’s bloated, grandiloquent style come to dominate nineteenth century letters, but his preoccupation with honor and chivalry sewed the seeds of war.

[In the South], the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner–or Southron, according to Sir Walter’s starchier way of phrasing it–would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.

Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition.

According to Twain, the popularity of Scott swept away not just Quixotic skepticism, but also the democratic substitution of meritocracy for aristocracy:

Against the crimes of the French Revolution and of Bonaparte may be set two compensating benefactions: the Revolution broke the chains of the Ancien Regime and of the Church, and made of a nation of abject slaves a nation of freemen; and Bonaparte instituted the setting of merit above birth, and also so completely stripped the divinity from royalty, that whereas crowned heads in Europe were gods before, they are only men since, and can never be gods again, but only figureheads, and answerable for their acts like common clay. Such benefactions as these compensate the temporary harm which Bonaparte and the Revolution did, and leave the world in debt to them for these great and permanent services to liberty, humanity, and progress.

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still.

And the falseness of Scott’s aesthetic even introduced bad faith into the architecture of the South:

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the [Louisiana] Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances. The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque ‘chivalry’ doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it. It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things–materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not–should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.

This goes a long way in explaining why, when Twain decided to take up the mantle of Cervantes and skewer medieval chivalry, it was a Connecticut Yankee and not a Southern Gentleman he had to send back in time. The Southerner, presumably, would have been right at home and all too pleased to leave things as he found them.

Twain, of course, was no stranger to criticism, both literary and cultural. He didn’t reserve all his scorn for Sir Walter Scott–there was plenty of contempt left over for James Fennimore Cooper. But it’s interesting to look back from the vantage point of the twenty-first century and see how a body of work now regarded as innocuous could have been credited with promoting our greatest national catastrophe — Ivanhoe as a bookend to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Whether Twain’s hyperbole hits on an underlying truth or not I can’t say, not being a scholar of the period, but I have to admit he’s got me half convinced despite contemporary skepticism about the power of fiction.

And for the record, say what you want: I like Ivanhoe.

Aug
15

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Proving what you cannot know, knowing what you cannot prove

MARCH ON PROVING WHAT YOU CANNOT KNOW
from Back on Murder

I’ve sent men to prison with no idea whether they did the crime or not. The case was there, so I made it. The ultimate decision belongs to the judge or jury, something I took comfort in once, though not so much anymore. If we had to know—really know—what happened, no one would ever go to jail. Fortunately you can prove things in court that you can never truly know.

By the same token, you can know things that can’t ever be proven. And that knowledge often has a certainty to it that the evidential sort never does. There are these unproven things about which I have a quasi-religious certainty, things I would act on more readily than anything I could support with mere evidence. I can’t explain this exactly, but anyone who has trodden long enough on the line between fact and truth will tell you the same.

Aug
15

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Moralizing, artiness, religiosity and sentimentality

Moralizing is to morality what artiness is to art, religiosity is to religion and sentimentality to sentiment.

So says Michael Burleigh in the introduction to his book Moral Combat, a moral history of World War II.

Aug
14

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The monsters we face, and the monsters we are

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I’m not a fan of fictional serial killers (despite having created one). The tropes that have developed since Silence of the Lambs rub me the wrong way. In particular the ultra-clever murderers who seem compelled to kill for the sake of increasingly obscure cultural references, as if they long more than anything to be caught, but only by an erudite crime-fighter. In my novel Pattern of Wounds, I worked out some of my frustrations with the serial killer sub-genre, but a couple of recent British detective shows re-awakened my dark passenger.

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Ciarán Hinds leads the team.

Watching the first series of Above Suspicion (via Amazon Prime), all I could think was, “Things have really changed.” In Prime Suspect, Jane Tennison had real glass ceilings to break––or at least to glare at through a haze of cigarette smoke––whereas Detective Constable Anna Travis, a contemporary creation of author Lynda La Plante, mainly has to deal with the cattiness of older women and the awkwardness of  being asked out by suspects. Nobody can hold a candle to Tennison, of course, my favorite British TV detective, and while Above Suspicion may not be groundbreaking, the first series is certainly watchable. The ensemble cast strikes me as especially well chosen; they do a great job of establishing character despite limited screen time. The second series stumbles, however, because it’s about a copycat of the Black Dahlia murder––a case Travis and her colleagues have to Google, incredibly enough––one of those elaborately byzantine cat-and-mouse affairs where the upper crust killer works with a scalpel in one hand and a true crime book in the other.

These kind of stories fail for me for the same reason many of the golden age cozies do: despite the veneer of grittiness, the killer pursues his trade as if he’s attacking the weekly crossword. It’s never rung true for me, this idea of evil being pursued as a rigorous intellectual pastime. You would have to work really hard for me to buy it, but nobody does. They don’t have to, really, because this has become an accepted motive in the serial killer oeuvre. (Suggesting that, for all the dismemberment and graphic violence, these stories aren’t so different from their drawing room counterparts after all.)

The new Morse series, Endeavor, let me down in a similar way, though even at its worst the show it very good. The episode “Fugue” features an opera-loving serial killer tying each of his crimes to a different piece of music. His means of dispatching victims become ever more elaborate because they have to conform to operatic death scenes, a modus operandi he seems to have embraced for the sole purpose of challenging young constable Morse, the only cop at Oxford CID with a hope of following along. To their credit, the actors make this bunk nearly plausible, and they have the Oxford skyline to help distract you from the plot.

I know what you’re thinking: It’s fiction, get over it. So what if TV shows don’t make sense? Absolutely right. It’s just that, at its best, I think the crime genre hits on aspects of the human condition we otherwise ignore. In this case, though, our imaginary monsters mislead us about the nature of the monsters we really face (not to mention the monsters we really are).

Aug
13

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Nostalgic for Villains

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Charles Baxter’s book of essays Burning Down the House opens with “Dysfunctional Narratives, Or ‘Mistakes Were Made,’” a piece that first appeared in Ploughshares back in 1994 when Rosellen Brown edited a nonfiction issue. At the time, I was in Rosellen’s personal essay class. When the issue came out, she cracked open a box during the workshop and gave us each a copy fresh off the press, shiny and smelling of ink. As a writer interested in villains, Baxter’s thoughts have  stuck with me.

His premise is simple enough. Our “culture of complaint” (to borrow Robert Hughes’ term) has taken a toll on the way we tell stories. In fiction, characters are defined by their actions, but in a culture where no one is ultimately responsible for his mistakes, authors start writing stories robbed of their villains. If the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, can pass himself off as a victim, then how can any fictional antagonist be held to account? In this climate, it is harder to do what an author must:

It is hard to describe this model but I think it might be called the fiction of finger-pointing, the fiction of the quest for blame ….The trouble with narratives like this without antagonists or a counterpoint to the central character––stories in which no one ever seems to be deciding anything or acting upon any motive except the search for a source of discontent––is that they tend formally to mirror the protagonists’ unhappiness and confusion. Stories about being put-upon almost literally do not know what to look at; the visual details are muddled or indifferently described or excessively specific in nonpertinent situations. In any particular scene, everything is significant, and nothing is. The story is trying to find a source of meaning, but in the story, everyone is disclaiming responsibility. Things have just happened.

Interestingly, for Baxter this problem suggests a moral fault in fiction (and presumably in society): a lack of “moral vision” that results in mere moralizing. Baxter quotes Marilynne Robinson’s model for so-called “therapeutic” narratives:

One is born and in passage through childhood suffers some grave harm. Subsequent good fortune is meaningless because of this injury, while subsequent misfortune is highly significant as the consequence of this injury. The work of one’s life is to discover and name the harm one has suffered.

This is the story being told on daytime television and in highbrow fiction at the same time, a prevailing orthodoxy, the moral framework within which many of us are operating. These reflections lead Baxter to a nostalgia for real villains; in other words, people who do bad things and own up to them.

I suppose I am nostalgic––as a writer, of course––for stories with mindful villainy, villainy with clear motives that any adult would understand, bad behavior with a sense of scale, that would give back to us our imaginative grip on the despicable and the admirable and our capacity to have some opinions about the two.

I share this nostalgia. As much as I appreciate psychological nuance, reducing the complexity of what it means to be human down to a grid of pathologies, interpreting all of human behavior from a therapeutic standpoint, is just another way of substituting flat, cardboard placeholders for rounded characters. A good story requires many things, one of which is an understanding of man as an agent within a complex and sometimes incomprehensible moral universe not of his own making. As François Mauriac once wrote: “The human being as I conceive him in the novel is a being caught up in the drama of human salvation, even if he doesn’t know it.”

Aug
9

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Braquo must be French for “makes no sense but I don’t care”

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The writers of Braquo, the French crime show (currently on Hulu) that’s being billed as the Gallic answer to The Shield or The Wire, must think that “plausibility” is a bourgeois construct to be condescendingly ignored. In a feat of style over substance, they wave their gritty wand over the craziest plot twists — Morlighem’s kidnapping in Season 1, Caplan’ s prison break at the beginning of Season 2 — and somehow it works. Kind of. The tenth time the camera pulls back to reveal the surveillance car parked across the street from our hero, a big telephoto lens sticking out of the window, you want to yell, “Sacré bleu!

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When he gets out of this jam, Eddy will be coming for me.

Everything else about Braquo feels right to me. The cast is excellent. They look the part. (And after watching Jean-Hugues Anglade bleed out spectacularly in Queen Margot, I’ll watch him in just about anything.) The episodes are often beautifully shot. Character development, though it takes a back seat to the action more often than not, is fairly strong. Maybe that strength is what makes the too frequent departures from reality stand out so much. The show has so much going for it. Why did they have to drop the ball when it comes to making the plot believable?

While I want to like Braquo — as a crime writer and a Francophile, I have plenty of incentive — when I compare it to the American rivals mentioned above, it simply doesn’t measure up. Maybe because (purely in terms of fanciful plotting) it’s too much like an American cop show, whereas The Shield and The Wire were anything but. Watching an earlier French export, Spiral, I had no trouble believing that Laure Bertaud’s cops were up to the job. Where the writers strain credulity, as writers must, they usually earned the right. In contrast, Braquo has a sense of entitlement; it doesn’t feel the need to earn anything.

If it sounds like I hate Braquo, the fact is, I don’t. It makes no sense but I don’t care. I just struggle sometimes to suspend disbelief.

 

What typewriters can still teach us

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To be honest, the most interesting part of watching The Typewriter in the 21st Century last night via Hulu was seeing David McCullough demonstrate his writing process: he types successive drafts on his circa-1940 Royal working from ink-marked revisions, storying the pages in manila folders. At first glance, you may be tempted to think, “That’s what I do, only I use a MacBook instead of a typewriter.” That MacBook, however, doesn’t require that you re-type every page just to make a single correction. Having to re-type the page is an essential part of the process in McCullough’s mind, and in that of Robert Caro (also interviewed for the documentary) who notes that he’s never re-typed a page to improve one line without finding another in need of similar treatment.

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The Hermes B has seen better days.

The Typewriter in the 21st Century chronicles a contemporary revival in the popularity of the low-tech writing machines, a trend the more cynical among us could write this off as another example of hipster excess. (Somewhere in Portland right now, someone’s banging away on a manual typewriter fasted to the handlebars of a fixed gear bike.) The show left a different impression on me. In addition to inspiring me to drag my wife’s mint green Hermes B out for a look, The Typewriter reminded me of similar low-tech revivals. Sure, I shouted at the screen when a couple of soldiers showed off the manual typewriters they’d lugged around the Middle East, but the words I yelled weren’t “Get a MacBook Air, losers!” No, I was chanting about pen-and-paper, pen-and-paper — much easier to carry in your backpack, and even more of a throwback technology.

A fear of impermanence often drives these movements, whether the argument is for typewriters or fountain pens or old-fashioned physical books. Our ephemeral digital culture, advancing alongside anxieties about the end of oil and electricity, could disappear at any moment. Instead of a sword hanging over our heads, we have an off switch. Liz Smith makes the point in her HuffPost piece about David McCullough’s use of the typewriter, which he described for 60 Minutes while the Northeast was powerless in the wake of Hurricane Sandy: “I work on [the Royal],” she quotes McCullough as saying, “because I can’t press a button and have it all disappear.” And no one else can push that button, either.

Reviews Aren’t the Same As Report Cards

I take a look at Amazon reviews from time to time, and this one for Back on Murder cracked me up:

I was not expecting the main character being deranged; so I did not continue past the fifth page of the book.

Some people have strong reactions to Roland March. That’s the first time I’ve heard him called “deranged.” I’m not angry: you can’t please everyone, and sometimes an over-the-top reaction can be entertaining. These reactions also confirm that March is a strong enough character to rub some people the wrong way.

There are heroes everybody likes. They remind me of people in real life who everybody likes. They’re bland and inoffensive. They have conventional, mainstream views, just the kind you’d expect. To me they’re a bit boring in the way that soap opera beauties are boring. Nothing to object to, in my experience, goes hand-in-hand with nothing to be passionate about. Imagine a band that nobody disliked. Now try to imagine what sort of music they would make.

The people who create these heroes don’t get bad reviews, I suppose, but what’s so bad about a bad review? Reviews aren’t the same as report cards. The grades aren’t objective. They only reflect whether a particular reviewer liked something or not. (Let’s face it: there are some people you want to dislike your work, because they have poor taste and their disapproval tends to signal that something’s good.)

So if you love Roland March, your an exclusive sort of reader, someone with excellent taste. Then again, maybe you’re just deranged.

The Perfect Writing Teacher

My teachers, who were writers themselves, always insisted that they could not teach me to write. Either writing could not be taught, or they could not teach it. The admission frustrated me because writing was what I wanted to learn. I could not accept that my desire could have no fulfilment — and I was right. My teachers, I have since discovered, were quite wrong. Writing can be taught, and I can teach it. I can teach you to write without ever reading your work. I can teach you without ever meeting you. I can do it without giving tedious advice on craft, on structure, on the clever choice of words.

I can teach you to write in a single lesson, with a single instruction: revise.

Revision is the only writing instructor worth the investment required. (It works cheap, but requires a lot of your time.) Revision will teach you the old fashioned way, with silence. Like a piano instructor, revision will wince at the sounds you make and force you to begin again. And again and again. Revision won’t give advice, but it will tell you what to listen to, and what to ignore. As long as you have revision for a teacher, you can learn your craft in a single story. Revision customizes each lesson plan. No two students learn the same thing; each learns what he or she needed to know.

It took me a long time to figure this out. I read plenty of how-to books. I attended classes and workshops. I listened as other writers explained the minutiae of craft. This would have been wonderful help to me, if only I’d been a student of revision at the time. But I wasn’t. I wrote first drafts, and if they weren’t good enough, I re-wrote them entirely, producing another first draft with different (but parallel) weaknesses. Now, though, I revise everything — sometimes lightly, sometimes extensively, depending on what I have left to learn. I don’t mind the extra effort. In fact, I’m grateful for it. At long last, I have found the perfect teacher.

If There Were No Books

Augustine

“We should all be uneducated brutes if there were no books.” So said Cardinal Bessarion in his 1468 donation of his personal library to the city of Venice, a gift which gave birth to St. Mark’s Library. Bessarion, a Byzantine exile, fearing the destruction of so many Greek volumes following the fall of Constantinople, stepped up his efforts to save Western culture by saving its books.

The book bug bit Bessarion early:

From almost the earliest years of my boyhood I strove with all my might, main, effort and concentration to assemble as many books as I could on every sort of subject. Not only did I copy many in my own hand when I was a boy or youth, but I spent what I could set aside from my small savings on buying books. For I could think of no more noble or splendid possession, no treasure more useful or valuable, that I could possibly gather for myself.

The letter accompanying his deed of donation, from which these quotations are taken, testifies to the passion of a fifteenth century bookman. Despite the passage of centuries, Bessarion’s words in praise of books still resonate:

Books ring with the voices of the wise. They are full of the lessons of history, full of life, law and piety. They live, speak and debate with us; they teach, advise and comfort us; they reveal matters which are furthest from our memories, and set them, as it were, before our eyes. Such is their power, worth and splendor, such their inspiration, that we should all be uneducated brutes if there were no books. We should have hardly any record of the past, no example to guide us, no knowledge whatever of the affairs of this world or the next. The tomb would cover the names of men, just as it covers their bodies.

The portrait of St. Augustine above takes inspiration from the life of Bessarion. (For more on this, see “Bessarion’s Little White Dog” at Surprised by Time, one of my favorite blogs.)

The Form of Digital Books

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It’s rather ironic that the best thinking I’ve come across on the form of digital books is contained in a physical book – and not just any physical book, but a beautifully produced limited edition. Robert Bringhurst’s What Is Reading For? – containing an essay originally given as a talk on the future of the book – consists of just forty pages, and while I wouldn’t subscribe to everything Bringhurst says, his thoughts on digital books correspond almost exactly to my own. In a nutshell, I’m in favor of them, but think they’ll need to get much better before they replace physical books.

What the new technology has going for it is convenience and portability. You can download books quickly and store a lot of them in an infinitesimal amount of space. In most every other respect, physical books remain better (assuming they are well designed and produced). It won’t be that way forever, perhaps not even for long. I hope someone at Amazon has Bringhurst’s bullet points below pinned to a cork board:

In the short term, it’s quite easy to say what we need for the digital book to succeed.

    1. Freedom from the grid. The device should be able to function on stored solar power or wind-up, for example. Better yet, it should work with just the occasional flick of a finger, like that antiquated device, the printed book.
    2. A non-radiant display, something like paper, that basks in available light and reflects it back enriched with speed instead of emitting, as all electronic displays now do, a kind of blasphemous oxymoron: light that is mostly devoid of both warmth and information.
    3. High resolution. Not 72 dpi like the television screen, or 96 dpi like most computer monitors, or 133 dpi, which is the best screen I have so far been able to buy on a laptop, but 600 or 1200 dpi, which is the lower threshold of adequate digital printing.
    4. Good letterforms, including the standard features of book typography such as true small caps, old-style figures, and real apostrophes and quotation marks, rather than dumb-quotes, well placed on the page. This means the design should come with the text, not the machine. In other words, whether publishers like it or not, they will continue to need typographers just as much or more than they ever did. Some of the typefaces will, of course, be new, because type designers are, like other artists, creative and purposeful people. But the more the display comes to resemble that wonderful typographic substrate called paper, the more the faces that work well on paper will work well on screen.
    5. As few bells and whistles as possible. Though I for one would be willing to try some audio. A book about Beethoven’s string quartets, for example, printed with musical illustrations and examples, might have the capacity to sound them out. Or a bilingual book, with facing-page translations – that marvelous volume called Kutenai Tales, for example – might include an audio version of the entire original text.

In other words, it would be a fine idea if the digital book functioned a lot like earlier books. But how it works matters less than how we treat it. If, to us, it is nothing but a commodity, that will mean we have forgotten how to read, and no book then will help us.

That last point on treating books as commodities is what I was getting at toward the end of my post “No Victim Here.” When you’re more concerned about the business of books than you are about what’s inside them, I said, you’re only cheating yourself. This commodification didn’t begin with e-books, though. Writers and publishers have been falling into this dreadful habit for ages.

Aug
2

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Manuscripts of Tomorrow

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Looking at these pictures from famous authors’ notebooks and manuscripts makes me wonder what writers in the future will have to exhibit. I usually wake up and wipe the drool off my face before my dreams of grandiosity reach the point of people touring the Bertrand wing of the Smithsonian, but if they did, what would they see? A laptop computer under glass? A kiosk where visitors can tab through my files in Evernote?

I started writing with a word processor in 1990, back when there was still a case to be made for the superiority of paper and typewriters, and while I’ve never looked back, I do find myself relying more and more on pen and paper to capture and develop my ideas. (I’ll at least have some notebooks to leave behind.) Somehow I’ve come to feel that the creative process ought to leave artifacts behind — and no, a fragmented hard drive doesn’t count.

No Victims Here

MikeDuran

Mike Duran picked up on the Weekly Standard’s “Divine Deduction” piece and used it as a springboard to talk about wider challenges in the realm of Christian fiction. A fine speculative novelist in his own right, Mike writes a combustion engine of a blog called deCOMPOSE which attracts a lot of readers in the industry, so I was happy when he decided to share the review. His posted is titled “Christian Fiction is NOT a Victimless Crime.” (My own brand of fiction is littered with victims, though I think some of Mike’s readers have mistakenly cast me in the victim role.)

My gratitude to Mike is immense. We go way back, and I appreciate him helping shine light on my novels. His post has generated all kinds of traffic, and over a hundred comments and counting. Some respected authors and editors have weighed in, and so has the publicist at Bethany House (which published the March novels) and my agent Chip MacGregor.

My dictum, drilled into me in the twilight years of the old, outmoded world of publishing, was that a writer’s books ought to speak for him. There’s no point in explaining yourself. Either people get it or they don’t. Even so, I let myself be drawn into the conversation far enough to make comment #101, which reads in part:

… since I’m a novelist, I can’t help but tell the story my way. Breen’s review says, essentially, that there’s a major talent at work in Christian fiction and it deserves a wider audience. (Because the talent is mine, it feels slightly awkward to type these words.) If you want to argue against Breen’s main point, I guess we can duke it out. But please don’t lose sight of the main point as the secondary observations about Christian fiction in general are being discussed.

I regret it already, though I do think it would inform some of the commentary to be familiar with the books that sparked Breen’s observations in the first place. Not to mention, as my wife keeps saying, before your books can speak for themselves, maybe you have to speak up for them.

I’ll do my best.

See, the challenge is, for relative unknowns like yours truly, how quickly the focus of the conversation changes. People skip over the idea that there are these novels which happen to be particularly worthy of mention in their haste to rehash the old arguments about why some books are bestsellers and others aren’t (and who’s to blame). Your name gets lumped in with a half dozen others as different from you as night from day by people who don’t seem to have read you. Then they go on asking where the good books are, having missed that the whole point was to say, “Hey, here they are.” The old script is so deeply set people have a hard time not acting it out again.

Christian fiction’s biggest problem isn’t the editors or the writers or even the marketing departments, and it’s not the readers, either. If you ask me, the problem is that when you champion everything equally, you champion nothing at all. When you’re more invested in the business of books than you are in loving them, well, the person you cheat is yourself.

I’ve learned this the hard way, which is probably the only way it’s learned.

Jul
31

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“A Major Crime-Fiction Talent”: The Weekly Standard Reviews the March Novels

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The Summer Reading issue of The Weekly Standard features a review of all three of my Roland March novels titled “Divine Deduction: Christian crime fiction comes of age.” Jon L. Breen compares the books favorably to such staples of the crime genre as Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin, declaring yours truly to be “a major crime-fiction talent.” Needless to say, I’m flattered. The authors Breen invokes are among my favorites, and just to be mentioned in the same breath is an honor.

Many writers are able to carry readers along by employing nice phrases and descriptive passages, bits of humor, character involvement, and curiosity about how it will all turn out. But few have Bertrand’s relentless narrative power.

The review includes summaries of the three novels, a selection of Breen’s favorite passages, and some reflections on the challenges for a religious publisher promoting my kind of fiction. Since I’m looking for a new publishing home, I especially appreciated the close:

Perhaps the ideal new publisher would be a major mainstream house, one that won’t ask Bertrand to compromise his beliefs but can get behind this extraordinary writer and gain him the wide audience he deserves.

I can’t argue with that. Follow the link to check out the whole piece!

Help Me Give Away My Book: Download Back on Murder for free

BoMFreeEBookIf you love my Roland March series and wish you could introduce more people to the dogged and depressed Houston homicide cop, here’s a perfect opportunity. Since Friday, the first book in the series, Back on Murder, has been available as a free e-book on a variety of platforms — Kindle, Nook, and more. The goal in sharing the book this way is to hook more readers on the series. Over the weekend, Back on Murder became the #1 free title in Amazon’s Kindle Store. Those numbers fluctate all the time, but it’s good to know more readers are discovering Roland March for the first time. 

Publishers Weekly called the world of Roland March “gritty and chilling,” and Books & Culture editor John Wilson declared this “a series worth getting attached to.” The three novels in the Roland March series are, in order of publication:

Back on Murder (2010)

Pattern of Wounds (2011)

Nothing to Hide (2012)

The stories focus on March’s life and career as he investigates a gang-related murder somehow connected to a missing teenage girl, a knife-wielding serial killer stalking Houston’s affluent West University neighborhood, and a deadly conspiracy involving the FBI and the Mexican cartels. The novels have been praised for their realism, for their writing, and for engaging thoughtfully with serious themes. 

If you haven’t read Back on Murder yet, download the free e-book and give it a try. If you like it, both of the follow-up volumes are available as specially priced e-books, too. If you’re already a fan, share the news with your friends. You’ll make this crime novelist very happy indeed.

How to Write: Sir Steven Runciman’s Method

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One of the pleasures of the novel I’m working on, which is set partly in the fifteenth century, is that it gives me an excuse to re-read Sir Steven Runciman. Since, in addition to being an historian, Runciman was also a lovely prose stylist, I found his answer to the question “How do you write, when you’re writing a book?” quite interesting:

“Well, I do most of my writing when I’m walking about, until I get fairly clear what I want to say and how to say it. I then sit in front of an old typewriter –– I type very slowly because I’ve never been taught how to type properly––and I mutter as I go along to make it sound right. And then I –– I don’t need to make very many corrections, because I usually send that first draft to the publishers.”

Now one of the things authors (myself included) will tell aspiring writers is, don’t send your first draft to the publisher. You should revise and rewrite, making sure everything’s perfect. As with most writing advice, however, this doesn’t take into account other ways of working. The assumption is that first drafts are always bad. But Runciman’s method sounds literally peripathetic. He walked around, thinking of what he wanted to say (and how to say it), and only then sat down to write. And as he wrote, he muttered the words aloud to get them to sound right. In other words, what many authors do after the fact — or not at all — Runciman did before and during the writing process. 

What matters isn’t how you do it but what you get done. If you’ve ever read Sir Steven Runciman, you know his method produced marvelous results. Here’s the entire interview:

Sep
21

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“The key to realism is a vivid imagination.”

I wrote a guest post yesterday for The Thrill Begins, ITW's blog aimed at new thriller writers. The post is titled "Don't Write What You Know. Write Like You Know." Check it out!

Top 5 Crime Shows on TV (British Style)

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When I made my Top 5 list of American crime shows on television, I promised to do the same thing for the Brits. This list reaches farther back into history, mainly because I loved British crime shows long before American ones were worth watching. As before, the idea isn’t to put out an objective canon. These just happen to be the shows that switched a light on for me.


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5. Waking the Dead

To be honest, this shouldn’t be on the list. I’m not a fan of CSI-style forensics shows, cold case files, or episodic stories. But Waking the Dead has one redeeming quality that counteracts everything: Trevor Eve as Boyd. He’s having fun chewing up the scenery, and I’m having fun with him. 


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4. Conviction

As in the American list, I had to throw in a mini-series. The coppers in Conviction are real people. Their mistakes lead to real moral dilemmas. This series also illustrates one of the reasons I like crime fiction in general: the scale of the action and what’s at stake don’t have to be monumental for the drama to be seriously absorbing. 


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3. Foyle’s War

Given my thing for anti-heroes, this may be a surprising choice. But hey — great theme music, great sidekicks, and above all, Michael Kitchen as Foyle, a plausible moral stalwart (which is not easy to pull off these days). This eccentric fly-fishing Detective Chief Superintendent is always delivering sermons to his bureaucratic and social superiors, and I love ‘em all. Even when justice can’t be done — as when the killer turns out to be essential to the war effort — Foyle says, “Fine, I’ll nick you when the war is over.” The way Kitchen delivers his lines — that alone is worth the price of admission.


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2. Cracker

I identify with Fitz way too much. I even like his sense of style. While Robbie Coltrane is clearly the show-stopper, there are some impressive supporting characters: the despicable Jimmy Beck, DCI Billborough with his “dying man’s statement,” a host of soon-to-be-famous guest stars. Memory plays tricks: re-watching Cracker, I’m astonished how few episodes there are relative to the number of scenes this show etched on my mid-90s brain. 


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1. Prime Suspect

This should come as no surprise. Season 5, with Steven Mackintosh as The Street, is my favorite, but they’re all pretty great. Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison is simply iconic. She manages to be selfish, ambitious, all too human, yet utterly sympathetic. Prime Suspect was the first crime show I can remember watching that clearly cared about its craft. I adored it and still do.

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Now that I’ve started, I’m thinking of so many shows I’m leaving out. But that’s the nature of the beast. What do you think? Have I omitted something brilliant?

The End (Or Is It?)

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What if Philip Marlowe had lived in Berlin in the 1930s instead of LA? Novelist Philip Kerr explored the question in a trio of novels written in the late 80s, with his Marlowe stand-in Bernie Gunther. The Berlin Noir trilogy achieved cult status over the years. My copy of the Penguin omnibus has been read and re-read. As far as anyone knew, Gunther’s adventures had ended. Then, fifteen years later, Kerr started adding to the series. With the most recent release, Prague Fatale, he has added five more books to the series, bringing the total to eight. I’m a big fan of these books. The series is well worth following.

When readers ask me about the future of the Roland March series, Berlin Noir is what comes to mind. The three novels in print — Back on Murder, Pattern of Wounds, and Nothing to Hide — complete the original contract signed with the publisher. They can be read as a trilogy, but they weren’t written to end that way. I have plans for future installments, assuming another publisher is willing to take the series on. If people want to see more of March, they will. It’s up to the readers. 

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to more from Kerr. If you haven’t checked out these books yet, you really should:

Louis Malle and the Interrogative Method

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I came across some great advice on writing, in of all places the September issue of Vogue. Tucked between the full-color ads is playwright David Hare’s account of how he came to write the screenplay for Louis Malle’s film Damage. After intruding on Hare’s St. Tropez vacation after inducing him to read the novel by Josephine Hart, Malle asked him to recount the story of the book over breakfast — an effort that ended up stretching into late afternoon. Malle would interrupt every few moments with questions — clarify this, explain that – slowing the progress so much that, on Day 1, Hare barely made it through the first six pages of the book.

Over the course of ten days, the process repeated itself. Hare told the story while Malle pushed and prodded. Each day, he insisted that Hare begin at the beginning. For the playwright, the whole thing was excruciating. But as he complied, something began to change:

“…after three or four days, even I had to admit that I was becoming like an Olympic athlete whose punishing hours of training were bringing unnoticed rewards. Much to my surprise, my muscles were starting to ripple. I could even get through whole sentences without interruption. It was as if Louis and I were laying down planks over marshy ground and together finding a path. Slowly we constructed a watertight narrative, which was secured by the oddest of means: endless repetition. The more often I told the story out loud, the more natural its logic and development seemed to become.

“At the end of the ten days, I was able, without notes, to recount the entire story of the book in approximately 20 minutes. My listener did nothing more than light and relight his pipe throughout. When, for the final time, I got to the dramatic end, our hero disgraced and in lifelong exile, Louis beamed with pleasure and said, ‘Well, you might as well write it now. After all, you’ve done all the work. The script itself will be a formality.’”

This way of proceeding, Hare says, is what he came to know as the interrogative method. It reminds me of a formative experience I had in Dan Stern’s novel writing workshop in the early 90s, just a few years after the event Hare recounts. Short story workshops abound, while novel workshops are rare. As a result, I enrolled with enthusiasm, imagining myself completing a novel during the course of the semester. 

Class after class, I would bring in my ambitious chapters, only to have Stern shoot them down. He would ask me questions about the main character, the setting, the background, focusing on minor, even pointless details. Sometimes I answered with a shrug. Sometimes I gamely invented details whose inconsistency testified to their improvisation. “You don’t know the story,” Stern would conclude. “You should know these things.”

If I’d had ten days one-on-one with Stern, I might have developed the Olympic muscles Hare alludes to. But I didn’t. I experienced the frustration, but only learned the lesson much later. In a sense, I was writing too soon, before I knew what I was writing about. I was making things up as I went, and it showed. 

When it comes to the novel, you write it twice: first at the story level, and then at the sentence level. How this is accomplished varies from writer to writer. The interrogative method sounds like an interesting thing to try.

Sep
17

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Noir as Moral Instruction

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“I suspect we’re near the end of the glamor days of juvenile delinquency. I think a very unusual crop of kids is coming along. Good kids, but strange. They’ve become bored with the dissipations of their elders and the animal philosophies of their contemporaries. They are tired of using the bogeyman of military service as a built-in excuse for riot and disorder. This is a very moral crop of kids. They are sophisticates, but they practice moderation by choice. They seem to have a sense of moral purpose and decent goals, which, God knows, is something difficult to find in the here and now. They are all right. But they appall me a little. They make me feel like a doddering degenerate.”

John D. MacDonald
The Executioners, p. 85

 

John D. MacDonald’s 1957 novel The Executioners served as the basis for Cape Fear, the 1962 thriller starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. At the novel’s mid-point, inspired by a conversation with his daughter Nancy’s new boyfriend, protagonist Sam Bowden gives the speech quoted above about the new generation, which might serve as a epithet for the soon-to-come Camelot era.


0260-executioners-the-1486Reading it for the first time this week, however, I was reminded of the op-ed piece David Brooks penned for the New York Times back in April, “Sam Spade at Starbucks,” which expressed some doubt that today’s young do-gooders have an accurate read on human nature, something they could correct by reading some noir fiction. Brooks doesn’t mention The Executioners by name. He should have, because MacDonald’s Sam Bowden is very much an idealist confronted by a force of (fallen) nature, a harsh reality not dreamt of in his philosophy of law and order.

Bowden is a morally upright attorney who, despite his sophistication, believes in the law. When a menace from his past, convicted rapist Max Cady, gets out of jail and seeks out Bowden for revenge, the lawyer learns just how thick a blindfold Lady Justice wears. To protect his family, he is forced to go outside the law, which does not come easily. The clean cut boyfriend might make gin-and-tonic-sipping Bowden feel like a degenerate, but by most standards he’s a saint. (He’s played in the movie by Atticus Finch. What more evidence do you need?)

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Above: Peck (left) freezes Mitchum with his moral glare.


I’m forty-two years old. I spend a fair amount of time in the company of the younger generation, and there’s something the resonates with me both in Brooks’ op-ed and Bowden’s speech. It has to do with the youthful assurance of moral certainty. The appeal of noir, from a theological and moral standpoint, is that it offers a version of reality pretty much cleansed of such certitude. Noir fiction doesn’t assume a Manichean division between good and evil. It acknowledges the individual and systemic extent of human corruption, which touches even the good guys.


Over the past week, apropos the recent riots throughout the Middle East, I’ve seen a quotation of Steven Weinberg’s paraphrased numerous times, to the effect that good people do good things, evil people do evil things, but for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. It’s one of those pithy rhetorical statements that sounds pretty good until you stop and think. In melodrama, the human race is divided up between the good and the evil, the white hats and the black. The good tribe battles the bad tribe––if only they could be snuffed out, everything would be fine. Reality is a bit more complicated. To snuff out evil, you’d have to get rid of us all.

Nancy Bowden’s English teacher, Miss Boyce, knows better. According to her, there’s a link between good fiction and moral perception.


“Good fiction is good,” Nancy relates, “because is has character development in it that shows that nobody is completely good and nobody is completely evil. And in bad fiction the heroes are a hundred percent heroic and the villains are a hundred percent bad.”

To Nancy, her father’s nemesis Max Cady seems to be the exception. “But I think that man is all bad.” MacDonald, pulp novelist, is having some fun here, of course. But Sam Bowden is quick to correct his daughter. There are reasons behind Cady’s actions, justifications. And as his own compromises illustrate, Bowden is a dab hand at rationalization, too. A man will do what he has to do to keep his family safe, law or no law.


Societal solutions that rely on an alliance of the good people against the bad are naive (at best) because they tend to be especially blind to the evil they themselves do. These are the evils which the noir mindset can’t help bringing to light. David Brooks is right to recommend Chandler, Hammett and others as a corrective to un-nuanced optimism. And Sam Bowden is right to be a little appalled by this “very moral crop of kids.” If there’s one thing noir can teach you, it’s never to get too comfortable in the presence of those who think they’re always in the right.

Top 5 Crime Shows on TV (American-Style)

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Ranking my favorite crime shows on TV really kills me. For one thing, I don’t like countdown lists. By nature I am a thumbs-up/thumbs-down kind of guy who doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about the finer shades of appreciation. I tend to love whatever I like, and whatever I dislike I loathe. 

For another thing, television is a mind-eroding force for evil. It’s one thing to enjoy TV and quite another to praise it. (I am being facetious here.) Nevertheless, we seem to be living in a golden age of television, mainly because — if you’ll excuse a novelist saying so — the best shows have become so much more novelistic. Episodic structure is on the wane now that the series arc has been discovered, which means character and plot development loom larger than mere premise. 

Since I’m a crime novelist, I’ll focus on my top picks for crime shows. This list will also focus on recent American endeavors. Later, I will come clean with my top British picks as well. 

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5. Thief

This is cheating, because Thief is technically mini-series, but to my mind it exemplifies everything that’s good with the best crime shows these days. It’s a drum-tight little work of art. Andre Braugher is in the lead, and he delivers. The storyline is intricate and takes its time to unpack. The visual style makes Thief interesting to watch, too — in contrast to so much television, which so often forgets it’s a visual medium. 

 

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4. The Shield

Vic Mackey is a corrupt copper with a heart of gold. He gets the Stike Team into deeper trouble every season, which leads to more and more No Way Out-style episodes. What’s fresh about The Shield is its sympathetic portrayal of cops who, in a more traditional procedural, would be the bad guys. 

 

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3. Dexter

I hate the serial killer fascination, so the idea of a serial killer who, because of his “code,” only preys on other serial killers strikes me as a great send-up of the genre. Dexter pays attention to its craft on every level, from the storytelling to the performances to the photography. It also manages to explore interesting moral questions, something I appreciate in art.

 

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2. The Wire

Audacity is the only word to describe The Wire. This show dramatizes the parts of policework the others skip over — and makes them fascinating. It gets inside a world most cop shows don’t seem to realize exists. And just when you think it can’t take any more risks, you get a whole season in which the main characters become minor characters, taking a back seat to a group of high school kids. America, we don’t deserve television this good. We haven’t earned it.

 

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1. Breaking Bad

A high school science teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer starts cooking meth to provide for his family after he’s gone, only it’s the most chemically pure meth anyone has seen, leading to high demand and a whole lot of trouble. Done. I’m all in. And this show really cares about its craft:

Again, the moral questions explored are gripping. Jesse Pinkman’s Season 4 speech at the NA meeting about responsibility for your actions is one of those places most shows never earn the right to go. 

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Well, that’s it. Did I leave something essential out or get them in the wrong order? Let me know.