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33 posts from August 2009

August 31, 2009

Sure, I'll Do That

To kick off our latest innovation, Manly Mondays, TLC welcomes Gregg Hurwitz. He’s award-winning and best-selling, attended Harvard and Oxford, writes thrillers and comic books and screenplays, has survived Harley’s undercooked chicken and overcooked lamb, has a master’s in Shakespearian tragedy, and is--I'm sorry, but it must be said--cute. For a good time, visit www.gregghurwitz.net



By Gregg Hurwitz


I am known, it seems, for doing stupid shit. Especially early in my career, I was the front-lines guy who wanted to get in there and see everything first hand.

It started with the Navy SEALs. (How would that be as a first line to a novel?) I was on the phone with one of my guys who was explaining to me how a certain detonation device worked and finally he got frustrated with my lack of retention and comprehension. “I’m coming over.” Not the threat I wanted to hear. But he did drive over and he threw me in the back of his truck, smuggled me onto a demolition range, then blew up a car. Pointing at the smoky aftermath, he declaimed, “Like that, dummy.”

I used my books as an excuse for continuing education. For a while, it seemed, I was embarking on a new idiotic adventure every month. Swimming with sharks in Galápagos. Going undercover into mind-control cults. Learning to ride a Harley through biker routes in the canyons of LA. Going up in a stunt plane (lunch, this is windshield, windshield, meet lunch). I conducted an interview once with a hospital tech as he literally carved up a cadaver, parting it out to send various chunks to different departments for research purposes (note to self: wear galoshes next time).

I found that getting in there and seeing the sights and—yes—smelling the smells always gave me a new angle I wouldn’t have thought of had I not been present. In the instance of the lab tech, when he’d finished with the cadaver, he crossed the room and opened a massive door which proved to lead to a gigantic freezer. Inside were a couple dozen corpses, suspended from their heads with figure-eight clamps. It turns out that if cadavers are stored flat, their bodies distort, making them less useful to medical students during anatomy dissections. But by being suspended, the bodies retain their natural shapes (for better or worse). Cool! So of course, that freezer required a scene or two in said book. And yet I never would’ve known about that freezer had I not braved the Sawzall spatter.

So some gross stuff, right? Some look-at-me macho stuff. And some dark stuff. Harley still hasn’t forgiven me for a particular inside-a-refrigerator torture scene in an earlier book (what’s with me and cooling appliances?).

But as I’ve gotten older, that’s begun to shift a bit. And so have the types of books I’m writing. I’m married now, I have kids, and I’ve found that my concerns have moved away from action and forensics and supercops and to my family, and the ways that having a family makes you vulnerable. I’ve segued over to suspense thrillers, more in the model of Hitchcock than Thomas Harris. Violence more often than not now takes place off camera, so to speak, and my focus has moved to how pressure—often incredible pressure—works on individuals and the relationships they try to maintain under great strain.

Of course, I still pride myself on the nuts and bolts; I’m not gonna suddenly refer to a semi-auto revolver or the U.S. Marshalls (two Ls, get it?) Service. But whereas for past books, my research involved practicing hand-to-hand or going to a SWAT range, for TRUST NO ONE, my research was going to dinner with my wife.

Dramatic pause.

My wife and I love food, and we often try to surprise each other with new restaurants (scorpion toast, anyone?). On this particular night, my wife, with a degree of elegant smirking, delivered me to the lobby of a fine hotel, where a manager came out, stripped me of my cell phone, and showed me a menu. In the lobby. Puzzled, I ordered. Next, a woman emerged from a hall and shuffled over to us. As she drew nearer, I realized she was blind. With New-Age ceremony, she placed my hand on her shoulder, and my wife put her hand on my shoulder, and the woman led us back through two dense floor-to-ceiling curtains into a pitch-black restaurant. We ate in darkness, an experience that was supposed to (and did) heighten our sense of taste. We could hear everything too—each time a wedding band knocked a wine glass, every giggle. I enjoyed the meal and the company, but the entire time, I was thinking, What a great goddamned place for something awful to happen! A mysterious meet, a stranger who has information but doesn’t want his face known….As my mind wandered, one of the key chapters of Trust No One took shape. Of course, while my wife enjoyed her Syrah in the dark, I was furiously trying to jot down notes and wound up scribbling on my sleeve.

But I thought a bit afterward about the ways that my research changes as my books change, and how my books change as my life changes. I’m writing more about ordinary people stuck in extraordinary circumstances—again, doing my best to hearken back to those great Hitchcock Everyman tales. Jimmy Stewart stuck in his damn wheelchair. Cary Grant as the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, strolling through that train station, unaware that he’s about to have the worst day of his life. My character, Nick Horrigan, is about to wake up to one helluva awful day as well. But to paint this story, I needed to show not assault teams and skydiving, but our own ordinary lives, offset by about twenty-five degrees. A dark sedan parked outside our house at night. A threatening phone call. And a meal, eaten in perfect darkness.

[To see Gregg live, check out his interview with his (and our) friend Robert Crais.] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLG3k4bTBFE

August 30, 2009

The Good Neighbor

The Good Neighbor

By Elaine Viets

The bank foreclosed on the condo next to ours and the owner moved out.    House_10

That story is repeated across the country. In the news reports, it’s always a tragedy. Here’s our dirty little secret: Don and I were relieved to lose these neighbors. They were rude and noisy.

The son played music with a thumping base that vibrated the walls in my office. The kid refused to turn down the CD player.

The teenage daughter sat out on the balcony and talked loudly on her cell phone at all hours. She often woke us late at night.

But worst of all, the family had a miniature white poodle. They locked the little animal on the balcony during the day while they were gone, and the poor creature yapped. The dog never stopped barking. It never slept. It hated that balcony, with good reason. The tiny animal had no shade, no water, and no hope of rescue. It was trapped on that griddle for six to eight hours.

Appeals to the owner and the condo association did no good. The local animal rescue society said it wasn’t illegal to leave a dog on a seventh-floor balcony all day.Sun_06

When the owner said his family was moving to Boca Raton, we were delighted. I used to work in Boca. I thought it had more jerks per capita than any other city in Florida, and there are major contenders for that title.

Now new people are looking to buy the condo next door. We’re praying for quiet neighbors with no pets. Like the man we lived next to at our other condo.

I’ll call him Daniel, because that’s not his real name. Daniel was a dashing Canadian pilot who came down to Florida every winter. He bought all his toys with him – his Harley, his Porsche and his private plane. I figured pilots were very well paid.

Daniel’s first-class sound system never disturbed us. Neither did his friends. He dated a stunning young woman nearly every night. We could tell he was out with a different woman because Daniel made his dates take off their shoes before they walked across his tile floors.

Don and I would come home and see the latest shoes on his door mat.

"He’s dating the size six sandal again," I would say.

"I sort of liked the size eight ankle strap," Don would say.

I couldn’t figure out why someone as dashing as Daniel, who flew planes and liked flashy cars, was afraid of pretty women tracking in a little dirt on his white floor.

The ex-wife of a helicopter pilot solved that mystery. "Pilots are trained to check and recheck," she said. "A guy who can’t stand a speck on his white floor makes a terrible husband but a good pilot."

Don and I lived happily – and quietly – next to Daniel for years. Then one winter, he didn’t return. We waited patiently for the Porsche and the Harley to show up in his garage spaces, but they never appeared.

Finally, we saw one of the women who was often at his apartment. She was the black cowboy boots. She liked Rollerblading on the beach.

"Daniel’s in jail in Canada," she said. "He got caught transporting drugs across the border. He’s barred from entering the U.S. I’m a relative and he put the condo in my name."


Well, that explained the expensive toys. Pilots didn’t make that much money after all. Not for work that was legal. Daniel’s relative was equally quiet,though she wore her boots inside his condo. We were sorry to lose her as a neighbor when we moved.

Now, as I watch the parade of buyers for the condo next door, I wonder which one will be our new neighbor: the older woman with the pretty gray hair? The young family with two kids? The single working woman?

I wonder if any of them have noisy pets, pounding sound systems, or loud parties.

I wonder if any of them are nice, quiet drug smugglers.

August 29, 2009

Friends With Benefits

New York Times bestselling author Louise Penny found an unexpected benefit to her life as a novelist. We met her when she rode with Book Tart Elaine, as well as guest bloggers  Marcia Talley, G. M. Maillet, and Mary Jane Maffini, on our annual road trip from the Malice Domestic conference in Virginia to the Festival of Books run by Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pa. Margie is still buying the negatives from that adventure. Here’s her blog. And buy her book. It’s good. Would we steer you wrong?

Brutaltellingfinaljacket,July2109  Friends With Benefits

By Louise Penny



It’s such fun to be guest blogging, thanks to the remarkable – and remarkably kooky – Elaine Viets.  I had the rare pleasure of surviving a road trip with her, Marcia Talley, GM Maillet, Rhys Bowen and Mary Jane Maffini a couple months ago.  The penicillin shots did the trick and I think the psycho-analysis is helping too.  We bailed Mary Jane out and have just recently located Marcia in that Turkish prison.    

I wondered what I’d blog about today – would I tell you all about my latest book?  I suspect I will a bit later, but I found that my mind kept coming back to the most unexpected and precious gift of my writing career.

Meeting people like Elaine, and Marcia, like GM and Rhys and Mary Jane and so many others.  At the age of fifty plus I didn’t really expect to make many new friends.  I thought that dance card was full, and I was pleased with the people I already had in my life.  I’m not very out-going, and will always prefer to spend time reading in my room, as I did as a child.  A great day for me is when I don’t need to leave the house. 

You can imagine what a shock to the system my career has been.  It is definitely my dream come true – something else unexpected later in life! – but it can be trying for someone who prefers quietude, and is frankly more than a little intimidated by others. 

Now I find myself on stage speaking to hundreds of people.  And having breakfasts, lunches and dinners with book people.  I go to conventions and on tour and genuinely am grateful for this great good fortune.  But then I can hardly wait to sneak back to my hotel room, alone.  And exhale.

People frighten me, so it is with real wonder and awe that I discovered the kindness of the people I was meeting.  Their gentleness, and humour.  The unexpected embrace of other authors.  Yes, we’re competing – but there’s also the understanding that if we help each other and are kind to each other, then we all win. 

I think aspiring writers dream of the huge contracts, the thrill of seeing and holding your book, the accolades and movie rights.  That was my dream, for sure.  But the reality is, the real richness of a writing career, especially mysteries, lies in things less tangible but more sustaining.  Friendship, belonging, community.  Laughter and support. 

Now, I’d LOVE to tell you about my latest book!  It’s called THE BRUTAL TELLING and is the fifth (can hardly believe it!) in the Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries.  It’s set in Three Pines, a fictional little  Quebec village.  A body is found in the village bistro, and the owner, Olivier, is immediately under suspicion.  As Chief Inspector Gamache of the Surete du Quebec, searches for clues he comes across a remarkable log cabin in the woods, filled with first editions, with art, with ancient antiquities long thought lost.  But every path seems to lead right back to Olivier, who is growing more and more desperate.  The hunt takes Gamache deeper into the woods, and across the continent to the Queen Charlotte Islands – then back to tiny Three Pines and the final, brutal telling. 

My books are about fear, and murder – but more than anything, they’re about friendship, and the remarkable healing power of belonging.




August 28, 2009

A TLC Dictionary

A TLC Dictionary

By Kathy Sweeney

So - next week is the new face of the blog.  It's very cool.  It will look different.  But we'll all still be here - especially you - the members of our great TLC community!

So, today we're going to take a quick look back and you're going to help me compile a TLC Dictionary for anyone new to the blog - or to fill in gaps for those of you who missed a day or so.  I'm looking forward to seeing your contributions in the comments and thanks to my peeps who already sent me suggestions!

IOCHFTS:  I Only Come Here For The Sex.  Has many permutations, but you can figure them out if you remember the core elements.  Rumor has it that at least two people have shirts with this disclaimer.

Bitch Slap Cancer: a TLC rallying cry for our warriors.

Blond Bond: Ramona's soul mate, aka Daniel Craig (guess who submitted this definition?)  A mere mention can send the TLC community into full swoon.  A naked photo requires a full warning for those with heart conditions.

Book Tarts: the authors who blog here - Elaine Viets, Sarah Strohmeyer, Nancy Martin, Harley Jane Kozak and Lisa Daily.  Part of the original tag line, and it stuck.  Also includes those of us who love this blog. In days gone by, many of us had tart names as well - can you name the Gun Tart and the Martial Tart?

Cozy: a mystery of a style descended from Dame Agatha Christie's work, where all violence occurs offstage and all bad language comes only from the mouths of cads and bounders (see also assholes, jerks and jagoffs).(Thanks to CA Tom for this one.)

DSM 3.. RFN: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 3... Really F***ing Nuts (Thanks to Nurse Mo for the correct citation.)  Usage:  "You think your family is crazy?  They had to update the DSM for my Uncle Sam.  That whole crew is RFN."  (I can no longer use this in front of certain families because they figured out what it meant.)

Emma Peel:  Blond Bond's equivalent for the Men of the Blog.  Apparently she spent a lot of time in leather, and/or tied up.

Jagoff:- term used to describe an asshole, jackass or other jerk. Used in Western PA and in Chicago, the term has gained national currency.

Lipstick Smack: the closest thing TLC has to a symbol.  We had flashy blinky lipstick smack pins when RT was in Pittsburgh.

Meatball Marinara:- an aromatic and saucy sandwich; available in Philly, NYC, STL, Steeltown, Lauderdale, LA, etc.

Meatball Mariner:- another aromatic and saucy type, brought home from seafront dives by Cousin Rita. And sometimes by Cousin Rocco (don't ask, don't tell). Rita and Rocco are cousins to Her, Margie.

Men of the Blog: our regular Back Bloggers who happen to be men.  Let's see how many of them comment today, hmmm?  When one of them guest blogs, he is conferred with the title: Man of the Blog.

PROTECT: an organization dedicated to protecting children from monsters.  William's TLC blog helped raise big money for this worthy cause.

Ralph/Black Beauty: Elaine's Jaguars.  Ralph (who lies in repose at the mechanics) gave up some of his parts to help keep Black Beauty alive.

WTF:  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot aka What the Fuck.  Mary says this is the first place she saw it.  I am so proud of us.

WWMD: What would Margie do?  Kerry made bumper stickers of this one.

Okay, my friends, let's hear yours!!

August 27, 2009

Looking "Edgy"

Looking "Edgy"

By Nancy      Go to fullsize image

It's been time for a new publicity photo for...well, so long that my natural color is now almost completely resistant to Nice 'n Easy 103B, if you get my drift, and I've gained and lost enough pounds to impress the hell out of Marie Osmond. I've also tried sufficient no-wrinkle lotions and potions to drown a small city--all in the hope of transforming my 50-something self into something considerably younger, lighter, tighter and more suitable for a dust jacket we hope will sell to the 25-year-olds as easily as the AARP set. Yet none of my efforts managed to turn back the clock.

But when my agent said,  "We need a new photo within two weeks," in her friendliest-with-the-steel-edge tone, I knew I couldn't stall any longer.

And because my new mystery series is a departure from my kinder-and-gentler Blackbird sisters mysteries, her additional advice was: "Try to look edgy."

Edgy? Edgy?  What in the name of Coco Chanel does edgy mean?

                                      Go to fullsize image

I was pretty sure it meant "leave your pastels and pearls at home, Nancy," but that was the extent of my edgy fashion expertise.

"Just throw on a black turtleneck," she advised before signing off to sell a surefire New York Times bestseller to an eager publisher.

A black turtleneck? No.  No, no, no, no. Let me explain this as delicately as possible: With a neck like mine--inherited from my long departed great-great Aunt Agnes who started with what's kindly called a "champagne chin" and eventually ended up with something you see on Galapagos--a black turtleneck would only emphasize my gene pool, fondness for chocolate covered Michigan cherries (you know who you are, evil fiend, who started me on this addiction!) and my complete lack of edge. 

So I embarked on a quest.  What does "edgy" really mean?  And could I achieve such a look? 

I trolled the internet.  I flipped through magazines. I watched the Project Runway marathon.  (I can't watch Rachel Zoe because I can only think, "Somebody make that woman a sandwich!" alternating with, "If she'd spent all that money on an education instead of accessories, she'd have won a Nobel prize by now!")  I tuned into a VH1 TV show called Stallionaire (let the title be sufficient warning, believe me) but the so-called "booty camp" was so nauseating to one who once carried a NOW card in my wallet that I had to quickly turn to HGTV to watch a soothing kitchen renovation instead. (Really, the young women on Stallionaire all looked the same--enormous breasts displayed like canapes on a caterer's tray, and let's not talk about the need for orthodontia, okay? Because they were required to look sullen at all times, even while grinding their "booties" fast enough to whip a cake mix, so teeth--or lack thereof--didn't matter. Refrigerators have more self respect these days, and I'm not kidding.)

But I digress.

I finally struck gold with an online dictionary:  "Edgy:  Characterized by tension. Having a bold, provocative and unconventional quality."

                            Go to fullsize image

Oh, jeez.  Me? Bold and provocative?  Fashionably unconventional? I wear yoga pants and Easy Spirits for the commute from the bedroom to my downstairs office. For an outing, I put on the diamond earrings from my mother and the pearls my husband gave me a few years back, and I figure I'm good to go.  But bold and unconventional, I ain't. 

Silver chains I reserve for dog leashes. Scarves give me hot flashes.  Black leather in August sounds like I'll have a heat rash in five minutes. Purple eyeshadow? I don't think I could keep a straight face.

If any of our younger readers have "edgy" advice, boy, am I listening!

Increasingly desperate, I emailed the photographer.

No doubt sensing he'd have to single-handedly cope with the panic of a middle-aged, hot flashy basketcase, he emailed back: "I strongly suggest hiring a stylist."

So I have hired my own personal stylist. And the photo shoot is today. 

One thing I know I'll certainly get out of this experience:  Next week's blog.

Wish me luck.  Here I go.  And just in case, I've got my pearls in my pocket.

August 26, 2009

And Equal Nakedness for All

And Equal Nakedness for All   Craig

By Elaine Viets

That headline, readers, is my plan for true equality. By now, you’ve probably read about the flap over Glamour magazine’s page 194. That’s where a curvy 20-year-old blonde dared to expose her naked healthy body and reveal (gasp) a slight stomach bulge. If you haven’t seen it, here’s the link.


Showing this smidge of flab was heralded as huge progress in the fight against the fat heads who claim all women should have bodies like famine refugees. As the article points out, we women are our worst self-abusers. Well, okay, it didn’t actually say "abuse," but you know what I mean. We don’t wait for the world to bash our bodies. We call our own rear-ends wide and our own thighs thick.

Personally, I think most women would be happy if they had a belly as small as the Glamour model’s alleged gut. But in the weird world of fashion, shedding your clothes to reveal any imperfection, however small, is a huge step forward.

Unfortunately, the body image battle also took a giant hit in August, when Esquire magazine featured actress Mary-Louise Parker. She’s the star of the comedy hit, "Weeds," and was also in "West Wing." She is incredibly tanned and toned or expertly airbrushed. Mary Louise Parker

In Esquire, Mary-Louise Parker shows us how to make a pie. In her underwear. And also with her ass hanging out of an apron.

Really, gentlemen. That’s not even cutting edge. It’s old-fashioned 1950’s porn. You’re nearly sixty years behind (pun intended).

I realize Esquire is a men’s magazine and men like to look at pictures of naked and semi-naked women. And Mary-Louise Parker’s sexy black underwear isn’t any skimpier than a two-piece swimsuit.

But then Esquire had the absolute crust (pun also intended) to make fun of this fine pie-making actress in a  feature called "Things This Magazine Can Do That a Kindle Can’t." There was Mary-Louise again, with her Parkerhouse hanging out of that apron. And how did Esquire caption it?

"Ass." That’s all. Ass.

She showed hers and Esquire showed the class of a fraternity beer bust.

Did Mary-Louise need to drop her drawers to prove she was a good actress? Heck, no. But she did.

I long for the day when Brad Pitt is photographed in Glamour wearing only an apron while he barbecues, so we can see his buns.

I look forward to blond Bond making a martini while posing in his boxers. That would leave me shaken, or even stirred.

And to show I’m not a male body basher, I’d settle for John Goodman in an apron. A really, really big apron.

What can we women do in the meantime, while we wait for a change that may never come?

Quit bashing ourselves. We are the worst offenders in the body beautiful fight.

Go shopping with any woman, even a stick-thin one, and she will recite a stomach-turning list of her figure flaws, from her double chins and her chicken neck on down to her feet, which she will swear are fat.

Try to make it through an entire day without hearing a woman use the word "fat" against herself. Or saying it about yourself.

Go ahead.

I dare you.

August 25, 2009

Ahhh, Marijuana Season

Ahhh, Marijuana Season....

By Sarah

As you read this, I'll probably be driving down to Pennsylvania to take our daughter to college. Finally. 

This, I believe, is a miracle in itself since I was not too sure she was going to make it through the summer alive, what with various parties and a boyfriend and non-stop driving. But here we are - knock on wood - in tact.

Dead houseplant Wish I could say the same for my houseplants.

Why is it that some people can surround themselves wish lush greenery, sucking in the benefits of newly manufactured oxygen, enjoying the karmic benefits of living among nature while the rest of us - me, particularly - are every house ivy's nightmare? All my life I've tried to cultivated plants only to end up, months later, dropping them by the curb brown and shriveled.

I water them, honest. I even showered with a plant that required ridiculous amounts of humidity. The bonsai tree Charlie got me I meticulously kept moist - no matter what HE claims. Despite my most ardent attention it, too, has browned and died. This is so unfair. I am cursed!

Take, for example, the potted ivy I got for Anna and Sam's bathroom. It was doing just fine and I was quite pleased until I noticed a strange webbing extending from its leaves. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was filled with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tiny spiders. Eeeek! I couldn't throw it out of the house fast enough.

I feel this is some failing on my part, destroying living things. As if I've been so suburbanized I cannot cultivate even the simplest plants. The rogosa roses I planted in the front of the house - guaranteed to thrive! - are long and spindly as they search for sun often blocked out by the top of the hill. Day lilies, weeds, really, are overtaken by bishop's weed or goutweed. That, by the way, is something I can grow. Goutweed. Tons of it.

Once, in a golden age, I had a slope thriving with all sorts of wonderful things - bee balm, bachelor buttons, oregano, two types of sage, thyme, some bulbous purple thing and even English lavender. But myPurple plant  contractor took care of that in one scoop and, frankly, I haven't had the time or interest to start all over again - especially since our front yard post construction looks like something out of a horror movie.

In contrast, my neighbor who has successfully beaten back an aggressive cousin of ovarian cancer has a thriving garden - and she's doing pretty well, too. (Those prayers help, no matter what the atheists say.) I think this is significant. That she's got everything blooming from a billion different types of roses to exotic crazy purple and pink stuff in a soil that's both rocky and, for nine months out of the year, frozen, tells me this woman oozes life. Me? I can't even remember the names of the stuff. It took three years of conscious thought to be able to come up with the word "hydrangea" and not confuse it with "mum." This does not bode well for my physical future.

Of course, if I were dripping rich this wouldn't be a problem. I could just hire someone to grade the yard and plug in the plants, design the whole thing for me. Possibly said gardener could extract the goutweed. But as I'm not rich, the only upside I can see to my disability, if you will, is that the police won't be knocking on my door anytime soon suspecting me of growing pot in my basement, a quaint Vermont tradition.

This form of agriculture is sorely disrespected in my opinion. When I was a reporter here, I was astonished Marijuana fields and impressed by the green thumbs of enterprising teenagers who sowed their marijuana seeds among the farmers' corn only to reap an emerald harvest in late August and early September. State police have to conduct fly overs to spot the plants in the mile after mile of ripe corn which is why kids, like forgetful squirrels, often end up leaving their booty for others to gather. 

Or how about the time a local judge, complaining about some wild animals in her back yard, called Fish and Wildlife who dutifully trotted out and found no rabid fox, but plenty of Columbian Gold growing right there in plain sight. To the judge's credit, she did not throw a hand to her chest and claim ignorance. Indeed! She argued it was for her personal use - all 36 or so plants. 

Better yet... the Vermont State's Attorney in her county dropped the charges. Some might argue that was because Judge Davis knew the prosecutor, but that's not the reason. The real reason is that the prosecutor has long been arguing that busting responsible citizens for growing marijuana in their backyards and possessing enough for their own consumption is just stupid. What do you think?

I happen to know this prosecutor, Bobby Sand. He's married to a friend of mine, Andrea, who used to be a reporter with me at the paper. They're pretty upstanding straight people who live a pretty righteous and sober life. That said, I suspect they have terrific gardens.

If only......


August 24, 2009

Understanding Hollywood

The Book Tarts are fans of James Swain's novels, including his Tony Valentine series set in Las Vegas. When we heard that Tony Valentine had been optioned for a theatrical release, we thought it couldn't happen to a more deserving guy. "Theatrical release" means it could end up on TV, or as a movie, or both. Right now, Swain says it's being pitched to the networks. Fingers, toes and eyes crossed for luck, James. 

Understanding Hollywood

By James Swain

Jim swain

Back in 2002, I received a magic phone call from my agent. Was I interested in selling my Tony Valentine series, set in the world of Las Vegas and gambling, to a Hollywood movie studio? Yes, of course I was. So I signed an option, and began the long arduous journey of trying to get my books put on the silver screen.

That journey has taken me many places during the past seven years – from meeting the creators of "West Wing" in a bungalow of the Warner Studio Lot, to sumptuous dinners in Las Vegas with the man credited with creating reality television, the legendary John Langley, to a dozen other lunches and dinners with movie and TV bigwigs, all with the hope of getting my books made into either a movie or TV series. Each of these meetings was exciting and fun, but the end was always the same. Nothing happened.

So what was missing? Damned if I knew. Everyone I met loved the Tony Valentine books, and was willing to put up money to option them, yet there was some important ingredient missing from the process that was stopping the books from actually getting made. Frustrated, I decided to find out what it was.

During a trip to L.A., I called John Langley, and asked if he’d meet with me. John was a college professor of literature, and loves books. He graciously offered to sit down and talk. Our meeting answered every question I’d had about this maddening process.

The missing ingredient, I learned, was a script. Scripts are the fuel that makes Hollywood run. They are what get people excited, and make the phones ring. Scripts are easy to ride, and are fun. Stephen King is fond of saying that "the book is the boss." In Hollywood, the script is the boss. Period.

This was a real eye opener to me. It didn’t matter that people "loved" my books in Hollywood. That love is only a starting point. The next step was transferring the book into a script that people will want to invest their time and money into making. That was the real challenge.

Langley also told me something else. Most novels that are made into movies or TV series don’t make it because the scripts stink. Langley believes that novelists should write scripts of their work, since they truly "get" the material. Langley then dropped a bomb on me. He said he’d buy my books if I’d agree to write the script.

"But I’m not a script writer," I replied.Vegas1

"I’ll teach you," he shot back.

So we shook hands, and a script writer was born.

The process took six months, and eight drafts. It was tough. I read many scripts and watched endless hours of movies and TV shows. I sent each draft to Langley , then had a conference call where he and his two partners ripped it apart. It wasn’t easy, but with each draft, I got a little closer to a finished product. Then, in mid-July, I had a Eureka moment. Langley and his partners called me, screaming into the conference phone. They loved Draft #8, and were going to start pitching it to the networks. I had taken a monumental leap toward getting my books made.

Do I recommend this process to novelists? Absolutely. It pushed me in ways that I hadn’t been pushed before, and made me think out of the box. It also helped me understand my characters better. In short, it made a better writer out of me, and isn’t that what this process is all about?


James Swain's new novel, "The Night Monster," will be released -- er, escapes -- September 15.TheNightMonster2

August 23, 2009

Re-vamping the Tarts

Re-Vamping The Tarts

by The Book Tarts with Editing by Me, Margie, Who had to type it in so don't ask me to do that if you don't want me to edit.  Just saying.

We love our readers, and we want to keep you. We know there are younger, firmer, more titillating blogs out there. (Margie, the T-word does NOT mean what you think it does.) [MM Note: no duh.  Plus, speak for yourselves on the younger and firmer.]

We are an open-minded group of women. You can stray as often as you want. But we hope you’ll always come back to us. To keep us young-looking, we're planning a facelift, (we got a group rate). It will be unveiled Monday, August 31. [MM Note: None of this applies to Me.  In fact, stray on Me, Margie, even once, and you will never find the body parts.]

But we know it's not enough to look good on the outside. You want brains as well as beauty. Women smart enough to actually say something.  [MM Note: This part does apply to me because I always have something smart to say.]

[MM Note: Pay attention.  You have to answer these questions - they are not the kind that are, like, philosophy where you're just supposed to think about it, and really, I have enough to think about without someone asking me a question when they really don't want an answer.  For real.]

That’s why we’re asking you: What do you want to read on TLC?
More slice of life blogs?
More about love and relationships?
More about the writing and the writers life?
Information about Tart books and movies? (And yes, one Book Tart does have a movie option.)
More politics? Less politics?
More satire and social issues?   
Or do you love us just the way we are and want more of the same?

Let us know. You keep us endlessly entertained with your comments, and we hope to return the favor. [MM Note: I have my own way of returning favors, but the Book Tarts told me I can't do that any more at the office. Like they know.]

Also, we need more eyes. By that, we mean new readers. Fresh blood. We’ll still love you. We’ve known you longer than the newcomers. If you like TLC, would you recommend us to your friends? Mention us on your lists? In a favorite blog? [MM Note - this sounds creepy - asking for body parts and blood?  How HBO.  But it's not really, so don't worry.  Just do it.  I like this job.  But don't tell THEM.]

Tell us what you did for us, and we'll do something for you.  We’ll put your name in a drawing and give you the TLC books of your choice, one per Book Tart. [MM Note: this is for real.  Who do you think collects the books and sends them out?  Mention Me and I'll include something fun.]

Ready? Rev up your pencils. We’re waiting to hear from you.
[MM Note: I love the rev up part, don't you?]

[P.S.  Lisa is taking a break, and we are proud to present a new TLC Feature while she's gone called Manly Mondays.  We start off with a real bang tomorrow with a blog from James Swain on making it in Hollywood. I already read it, so I know it's good.  Just saying.  And look for other great men in the coming weeks - Gregg Hurwitz, Bill Fitzhugh, James O. Born, David Hagberg and other cool dudes.]

August 22, 2009

Inside Jeopardy

Inside Jeopardy

Jeop.s5165_117 Well, TV sure is interesting.  We were part of the studio audience when Jeopardy filmed its Teen Tournament.  The first thing to know is - the show is not live, so the tournament we saw will not be televised until the first two weeks of November. Which is a bummer, because I can't tell you what happened other than to tell you to watch it. (NOTE: I did NOT take this photo.  I got it from the website.  No cameras or cell phones in the studio.)

Jeopardy is filmed in Culver City, near LA, at the Sony Studios lot.  It's on the same lot where they filmed The Wizard of Oz, something the Sony page made sure to repeat about every 30 minutes.  Hey - I have great sympathy for the pages - they have to repeat the same dire warnings over and over, then shepherd a bunch of yinzers like us back and forth from the studio to the bathrooms, making sure we don't disrupt anything or try to sneak into the Star Vans.

The other thing the pages do is to try to scare the shit out of said yinzer audience members.  I mean, they wouldn't even let me whistle during the applause.  Said it might show favoritism.  HAH.  These jokers have obviously never been to a football game.  If I wanted to show favoritism, I wouldn't waste time whistling.  I'd be making disparaging comments about the other players' anatomies and their mothers, many of whom were sitting there.  Tough.  If you want to make it in the big city, you gotta take some shots.  I kid.

The studio, and the new Jeopardy stage (new fancy entrance for Trebek and everything) is much smaller in person than on TV.  I wasn't surprised to learn that neither Alex nor Johnny Gilbert (the announcer) were not the tallest guys in the world.  Most celebs are on the short side.  As a short person, I know. Both men have their own hair too.  Although I'm giving one of them less than a year before the camera stops shooting him from the back.

Alex is funnier in person than on TV. He has funny voices and he does a little dancing too.  In between filming, he interacts with the audience, and he has a good sense of humor.  He ought to.  The guy has a great job - they film five shows a day for two days every week.  That's it.  Monday and Tuesday.  Take it from me - those are long days - but only two.

Blog jeopardyalexcluecrew We got to meet the Clue Crew (yo - Jimmy is from Pittsburgh!)  And the execs. There are hot and cold running lawyers and judge/producers all over the place.  Ever since the quiz show scandal, they keep a tight lid on everything.  It was the the threat of any appearance of foul play that caused the pages to threaten us, and that threat actually kept me quiet for two long days.  Did I mention they were really, really, long?  

Because no way in hell was I going to do anything to interrupt these teens.  One was smarter than the other.  I mean, really - how do they know all this crap?  I've got at least 30 years on these kids and I still didn't know all the answers.  I did know most of them - which is why I love the Teen Tournament.

The real secret to Jeopardy isn't the knowledge, though - it's the damn buzzer.  You could tell most of the kids knew most of the answers, but the buzzer kept tripping them up.  You can't even try to hit the buzzer until Alex is done reading the clue.  If you hit it too soon, you get locked out for half a second, and that's all the competition needs to get in.  

The key to winning Jeopardy - assuming you know every fact in the universe and can master the buzzer, is the wagering.  You have to set your wager before you know the question and after you know the category. Knowing the category isn't as helpful as you might think.  For example - I am quoting Johnny Gilbert here - if the category is "Lakes", then it might be the location, the color, the chemistry, the historical significance or the name.  I got a headache just trying to figure out the different permutations in my head.  The kids were cool as cucumbers.

All in all, it was amazing to be there.  Can't wait to watch it all again on TV, especially now that I know how it really works.  If you ever get a chance to see a show filmed, take it.

And don't forget to watch the Jeopardy Teen Tournament on November 2-6 and November 9-13.  If you hear a whistle during the first show, it's me, before the whistle police came.  They say they took audience shots for some shows.  Look for the goofball fat lady in the Steeler jersey.  That would be me too.  I knew we wouldn't be able to cheer directly for her, so I told Rachel she'd be able to spot her support group with the Jersey.  I mean, it's a big jersey - it might even be big on Troy Polamalu, it's original owner. Our daughter wore her lucky Boba Fett shirt, which only comes out when real power is called for.  She also wore a Castro hat (very hot these days).  Rachel's Mom was in classic black and white. She appeared calm and cool.  In reality, I really thought she might puke.  But don't tell her I said that.

The most important people to watch, of course, are the competitors.  You'll be able to tell which one is our Rachel because - hello - they write their names.  

And just for kicks, I'm posting this link I got from a friend from a Teen Tournament some time before this one.  Watch the boy after his answer is wrong.  No - I don't think it happened this year, but I'll bet at least one teen was thinking it.. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CzEx7Z4QIk&feature=relate