Saturday, September 26, 2015

Remembering Leighton Gage


Leighton Gage wrote the Chief Inspector Mario Silva series, crime novels set in Brazil. His work has been praised by the New York Times, Booklist, Library Journal, Kirkus and a variety of other publications as well as by numerous online reviewers. He was interviewed following the release of his novel, Every Bitter Thing, released in December of 2010 by Soho Crime.

When asked what had taken him to various parts of the world during periods of upheaval?  And was he a working journalist, he said:

No, it wasn't journalism. It was curiosity - and wanderlust. My maternal grandfather was a Yankee sea captain, like his father and grandfather before him, and when I was a little kid, he used to sit on my bed and regale me with stories about the places he’d been and the things he’d seen, He introduced me to a poem from Kipling, a stanza of which became my mantra:                                                                                                                                    


It's like a book, I think, this bloomin' world,
 Which you can read and care for just so long,                         
 But presently you feel that you will die
 Unless you get the page you're readi'n' done,
 An' turn another likely not so good;
 But what you're after is to turn 'em all                                            

That was some sixty years ago. I have spent the years since trying to turn all of the pages.

Why did you decide to settle in Brazil and set your novels there?

I’m a Brazil nut. I went there first in the mid-seventies. I was supposed to stay in São Paulo for two years. But, in a sense, I never left. I fell in love with the country. And then, somewhat later, I fell (even more deeply) in love with a girl. She became my wife. She and I have been together, now, for thirty-three years. She is the great love of my life, my constant companion, my soulmate. Oh, we go away every once in a while. Two years in Australia in the eighties. Nine months last year in Paris. But we always go back. It’s our base, our anchor. The language we speak at home is Portuguese. I know Brazil better than any other place and, believe me, I know a lot of places. So, when I sat down to write a crime novel, it just came naturally.

Briefly tell us about your Chief Inspector Mario Silvia crime series.

Mario is a federal cop. In Brazil, there’s no DEA, no ATF, no Secret Service, no Customs and Immigration Service, no Department of Homeland Security. And most police departments don’t have internal affairs departments. All of those functions, and more, are within the purview of the Brazilian Federal Police. And their mandate is national. So Silva and his colleagues get to travel all over the country and deal with every conceivable kind of crime. That gives me an opportunity to make each one of the books very different. Example: Blood of the Wicked, the first in the series, deals with issues like liberation theology, and the land wars, the battles between the haves and have-nots. Dying Gasp, the third, deals with the sexual exploitation of minors in Brazil’s northeast, while book four, A Vine in the Blood, involves a serial killer and is a more conventional mystery.

What prompted you to begin writing? And for whom do you write?

Don’t we all want to write books? I always did. It just took me a half-century or so to sit down and get to it.

In the beginning, I thought I was writing for a male audience. Then I toured the first book. And discovered what I should have known all along. Most mystery fans are women. Discovering that had an effect on what I write. I’ve toned down the graphic violence, and I’m introducing an element of romance.

As to why I write, remember what Samuel Johnson said? “Anyone who writes for anything except money is a fool.”

Yeah, that’s what I thought too. I wish it were true. But with the pittances we writers earn, I gotta admit, I do it for glory.

Tell us about your novel, Every Bitter Thing.

Every Bitter Thing begins with the murder, in Brasilia, of the son of the Foreign Minister of Venezuela.

It’s a high-profile crime, with diplomatic overtones. Chief Inspector Mario Silva of the Brazilian Federal Police is under considerable political pressure to bring the case to a speedy conclusion. And, initially, because there is an obvious suspect with a strong motive, that seems likely to happen.

But then it’s discovered that similar murders committed with exactly the same (somewhat unusual) M.O. have been committed in other cities in the country. And it turns out that the solution of the mystery isn’t simple.

I might add that all four of the big trades (PW, Kirkus, LJ and Booklist) have chosen to review it and all four responded most favorably. (Yeah. Even Kirkus.)

And Glenn Harper thinks it’s my best one yet. Here’s what he had to say:

What’s your writing schedule like?

I get up in the morning, check my emails, do an hour on an exercise bike and get down to it. I write until about two, have lunch with my wife and take a nap. After the nap, I write some more and knock off at about seven PM. We dine very late, often as late as ten, and seldom go to bed before one or two in the morning. I don’t write on weekends, except for the blog I do with five other writers who set their stories outside the United States.

Do family members serve as first readers or sounding boards during a work in progress?

Never. I believe that good books aren’t written. They’re re-written, and re-written and re-written. So I don’t like to plague anyone with my scribbling until an editor gets through with me.

How difficult was it to find an agent?

Probably the toughest thing I’ve done in this business. In comparison, writing the first book was easy. I shudder to think how much tougher it must be now that the bottom has dropped out of the market. But, ya know, I truly think there’s an agent out there for everyone. You just have to find her (him). And that may mean you’re going to have to query a couple of hundred people. Seriously. A couple of hundred. If you’re a new writer, and you hit the jackpot within the first dozen or so, consider yourself blessed.

Advice to fledgling crime novelists?

I’ve read the advice of the other authors to whom you’ve asked this question. All of them are right – in part. You do have to read at lot, write a lot, persist, persevere and be committed. But, if I was sitting down with an aspiring writer, just the two of us, I wouldn’t presume to answer the question without knowing:

(a) Whom I’m talking to and

(b) What kind of a writer they want to be.

And those are questions, Dear Fledgling Crime Novelist, that only you can answer. Early on, in this interview, I inserted a quote from Kipling.

Rudyard, as most of us know, was the poet of empire, a man of the world, a social lion, who traveled everywhere, met everyone. He was widely-read in his lifetime. He was the youngest recipient (ever) of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Contrast him with Emily Dickinson. Emily the introvert, the recluse, the woman who led a solitary life, never made close friends, hardly ever traveled at all, never married, lived out most of her life in one small town.

If I was sitting down with Emily, and she told me she wanted to write an international thriller, my advice to her would be to steer away from it. Kipling might have been able to do it, probably could have. But Emily? I doubt it. I’d suggest she stick to cozies.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Coffee Shop Writing: You Want Fries With Your Fiction?

by Tim Hallinan

I always feel a pang of envy when I see the photo of some successful writer's workspace, with the mahogany desk, the rows of books, the immaculate, plumb-straight stack of manuscript pages, the professorial rack of pipes (for men, anyway). This is a space that exudes calm reflection and decisive creativity, a place where good ideas just hover in the corners, waiting to be noticed, a place that says serious work is done here.

And God knows I've tried to make one. I bought the desk, the swivel chair, and reams of extra-heavy paper to make the manuscript look thicker in those pitiful early stages. I put my books up. I put other people's books up. I put up books I've never read, never wanted to read, and will probably never read. And then I sat down to Create.

And, ten minutes later, found myself waxing the dining room table, or vacuuming the living room, or pouring Drano down some perfectly good drain and waiting thirty minutes for nothing to happen. Self-discovery dawned: I can't work at home. The first time a word is slow to show up, I've got a sponge in my hand.

So now I work in coffee shops. And since I write my Asia series in Asia, that means that the coffee shops in which Poke Rafferty and his family come into being are mainly in Bangkok and in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I'm writing these words in K-Coffee, an immaculate little coffee house on Street 214 in Phnom Penh. It's off the beaten track, which means it's not full of bored expatriates who think it's perfectly appropriate to come over to my table, look over my shoulder, read for a minute or two, and then say, “So, whatcha doing?”

(By the way what is it with people who think that writing is infinitely interruptible? Almost the only drawback to working in public is the stream of doofuses who figure that the poor lonely guy pounding away at that keyboard would much rather hear a stupid question or two? Or who settle in with the most dreaded phrase of all, “I could write a book if I just had the time,” and then tell you at great length about the book they haven't got the time to write, although they seem to have all day to talk about it.)

Sorry about that. Writing in Asian coffee shops has the following things to recommend it:

1. They're in Asia, which is where I generally want to be,
2. Many, many of the people in the shop speak no English, which makes it much more likely that I'll finish a paragraph – this one, for example – without interruption.
3. The help in Asian coffee shops is actually helpful. They don't, for one thing, think of themselves as baristas. They think of themselves as people who work in a coffee shop. And they don't feel compelled to estimate a customer's Hipness Index before deciding whether to trust him or her with that cup of organic, free-trade, shade-grown French roast.
4. They serve coffee, as opposed to organic, free-trade, shade-grown French roast or caramel-whip frappes with essence of raspberry that's been strained through the Unicorn Tapestries or something.
5. They serve Vietnamese coffee, which is stronger than lye and will dissolve the most stubborn writer's block. It's a sort of creative Drano.
6. I can always find a face. I hate describing faces. If I want an Asian face in an Asian coffee shop, all I have to do is look around the room: A hard-looking fifty, unrealistically black hair pasted back above ears like parentheses, a head set directly onto the shoulders without enough neck to make room for a Windsor knot, and the kind of eyes that make you wonder whether you could stand to look at what they've seen. That's the guy at the next table. I didn't even have to think him up.

What's not good about writing in Asian coffee shops is Asian pop music, which tends to be sparkly and fey, so unremittingly upbeat that it makes me suicidal. That's where the iPod comes in. Mine contains almost 6,000 songs, arranged in about 20 playlists. So my writer's workspace is a small table in an Asian coffee shop full of people who don't speak English, and an iPod with the world's best ear buds.

Eat your heart out, James Patterson.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Not-So-Lonely Long Distance Writer

by Scottish Author Gillian Philip

When I used to fantasise about being a professional writer, I thought it would be easy in one respect. Look at that JD Salinger, I thought. It’s fabulous, you don’t have to go anywhere or even show your face. You get to sit in your ivory garret all day, staring into space and communing with your muse. Occasionally a polite letter might appear from one’s editor, asking how one’s manuscript is coming along – but hesitantly, tentatively, lest the muse be put to flight.

Erm, not quite. There are times when the Highlands feel an awfully long way from even the Scottish Central Belt, let alone London. And these days – indeed for a long time now – life as a recluse hasn’t been an option for any writer who wants to sell books to more than their mother and their best pal. A gregarious nature is a positive advantage, and so is a Railcard.

Publishers these days expect you to promote your books. More books are being published than ever before, and it isn’t just getting published that’s fiercely competitive – it’s staying published. In other words: selling your books and making your publisher a profit. And when you’re competing for marketing funds with every other author on a list, there’s no point being complacent. You have to be willing, and you can’t be shy. No publisher is going to look kindly on an author who won’t contribute to selling the book they were so keen to see published.

Anyway, it’s fun. I didn’t know what a sociable creature I was till I started promoting my books. For a children’s author this can be particularly rewarding, because once a school audience gets over its usual shyness, students of all ages are terrific at not only asking hard questions, but also telling you their own reading loves and writing ambitions. I’ve watched a workshop class scribble out page after page of story, and thought: How do you make all those words appear? Any tips you can give me, guys...?

Living far from the centre, though, getting gigs can be difficult. Local schools are fantastic, and there’s a healthy population of independent bookshops in the north, as well as some fine literary festivals. But obviously, a school in the south of England isn’t going to want to pay a writer’s Easyjet fare when there are plenty of authors in Surrey.

This is where the Internet has been such a boon to writers. Not only is a personal author website a must, there are wonderful sites like the Scottish Book Trust or ContactAnAuthor that carry writer databases: shop windows and time-savers all rolled into one.

The net is also home to the book blogs. They’re run by enthusiasts with a fine and critical eye, and they give space and reviews to writers who might never see their work mentioned in the ever-shrinking review pages of the traditional press.

And there’s one other huge advantage the Internet has given to writers: pals. It’s home to any number of writers’ groups: invaluable for those ‘water cooler moments’ when you can’t bear the sight of your manuscript any more, you’ve just had another rejection/deadline reminder from your editor, and you’re propping up your eyelids with broken biros. Maybe writing was a lonely business in the past, but that no longer has to be true.

In fact it can be so sociable, you have to be careful to get some actual writing done. Because before you can publicise that literary masterpiece, you do still have to write it...

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Conversation with Writing Coach Mark David Gerson

A professional writing coach who has traveled from Canada to Hawaii and points in between, New Mexican-based writer Mark David Gerson helps other writers unleash their "creative fire."

When and why did you decide to become a writing coach?

Like many things in my life, I didn't set out to be a writing coach. It just sort of happened. My first clients were individuals who were unable to attend the writing classes, seminars and workshops I'd been offering since 1993. Those early sessions were private, one-time, one-on-one workshops -- often over the phone. Then, students and workshop participants began to ask to work with me on an ongoing basis -- to give them the individualized help over time that them that is rarely possible in a group setting.

As inspiring people to access, experience and express their passion (I also do life-coach work) is my passion, it’s been gratifying to have helped so many writers over the years to unleash their creative fire, overcome writer's block, navigate through particular projects and live out their potential.

What does it mean to move through creative blocks and deepen creativity?

It’s about recognizing that we are all natural storytellers and that we all have the power, passion and potential to express those stories on the page in ways that will touch and transform others. And as we go deeper to the place within us where those stories reside, we are able to live more fulfilled, more creative lives.

You’ve done a lot of traveling to teach. Is that from choice or necessity?

For the most part, I’ve taught where I’ve lived -- and I’ve lived in a lot of places! So I’ve taught in Toronto and in various places in Canada’s Atlantic provinces, as well as in Arizona and New Mexico, and on two Hawaiian islands. However, I’ve also traveled extensively in the U.S., which has allowed me to work with groups and individuals in many other wonderful places as well, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Connecticut and South Dakota.

Your book, The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write has been acclaimed for its unique blend of inspiration and instruction designed to help overcome writer's block and unleash creative potential. What does that entail?

The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write is a distillation of all I have learned about writing through my 16 years of teaching and coaching. It combines inspirational vignettes with practical tools and powerful exercises to get you writing and keep you writing, whatever your genre or level of experience. And I’m proud to say that it has just won its first award, an IPPY through the Independent Publishers Book Awards.

As a companion to the The Voice of the Muse book, I’ve also recorded The Voice of the Muse Companion, a two-CD compilation of guided meditations for writers, also designed to inspire and instruct and to help create the mood and inner space that frees up creativity.

You’ve contributed to five other nonfiction books, including Terra Cotta: Artful Deceivers. What is that about?

I’ve contributed to five books over the years. In some cases, like Authors Access: 28 Success Secrets for Authors and Publishers!, Today’s Brilliance: Inspirational Luminaries Share Words of Wisdom and Terra Cotta: Artful Deceivers, I was commissioned to write an essay for an anthology. Chronicles of Canada included an existing essay of mine in their collection.

What's the most important mistake that fledgling writers make when writing a first book?

I’d say the biggest mistake writers can make -- fledgling or seasoned -- is in assuming that they’re smarter than their story and that they’re in control of the creative process. Creativity is alchemy. It’s taking an unlikely mix of ingredients and letting those ingredients run wild on the page, at least in the initial drafts. It’s a journey of discovery -- of characters, of story, of self. When we try to squeeze our words and stories into a straitjacket, we risk squeezing the life, art and magic out of them.

Would you advise anyone to get into the publishing business in today’s unstable conditions?

First, conditions have never been stable in the publishing industry. Second, if your primary purpose in writing is to make a buck, I’m probably the wrong person to talk to. Not that I haven’t made money from my writing. It’s just that my primary focus -- in my own work and in my writing/teaching -- is about following my passion, and the story, wherever it leads. Sometimes, it leads to fame and fortune. Sometimes it doesn’t. It always leads to something life-affirming and personally transformational and, as such, it’s always worth doing.

Are writers born or can you actually teach someone to write?

In the sense that we’re all innately creative, anyone can write. We may need to pick up skills, craft and technique along the way, but those can be learned. What I teach you is not how to write but how to access, trust and get onto the page the stories that we all carry within us as the natural storytellers we are.

Is writing really a catharsis and do you encourage those with little creativity to continue to write although they have little chance of publication?

Based on some of my other answers, you’ve probably already figured out that I’m going to disagree with the basis of your question. Everyone is creative. That doesn’t mean that everyone will win a Pulitzer Prize or even get published. But writing, as I’ve said, is powerfully transformational. It’s personal alchemy. I would never discourage anyone from setting words to the page in as heartful a manner as possible. Because the personal benefits are always wondrous.