Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Interview with Michael Estrin

 Talk to me about Ethan, the main character in Murder and Other Distractions.  How did you come up with him?  Why do you think readers sympathize with or relate to a pot smoking, taco eating slacker? Ummm, how much of you is in him? (Answering this is in no way an admission of pot-smoking or taco eating...)


I’ve smoked pot and eaten tacos—the former sometimes leads to the latter. So I have that in common with Ethan, and millions of other people.
I don’t want to give away the ending of the book, but I’d actually worry if someone told me that they relate to Ethan or sympathize with him. Actually, I might even call the cops, if they said that. Let’s put it this way: for a while I considered calling the book Unlikeable Hero.

That said, there’s an element of truth to Ethan, especially for guys. I’ve been told that his internal monologue is what a lot of guys think, but don’t say. I’m not sure if that’s true for me, but there are times when I wish I had the real life balls for one of Ethan’s sarcastic quips. Then again, I don’t like getting punched in the face, so maybe it’s good that I pass on the sarcasm.

You’ve published several articles in publications ranging from Bitter Lawyer to Penthouse.       What made you decide to try your hand at novel writing?  In what ways do you think your other forays into writing helped you as a novelist?

I always wanted to write a novel, but I needed a day job, and I figured writer/reporter would be a pretty good place to start. 

No matter what you’re writing, you’re always thinking about what the story is. A novel is just a really big story, so you learn a lot by making a news story or feature work because you learn to ask questions.
A few years ago, Penthouse hired me to write a feature about guys panning for gold in the hills outside of Los Angeles. Sounds crazy, right? Well, yes and no.

Turns out, there’s more gold currently in the ground than what was mined during the California Gold Rush. But according to a government geologist I spoke with, that gold is buried so deep that it will take thousands of years—and hundreds of earthquakes—for it to reach the surface. A fact like that could have ended the story with a headline like Morons Dig For Gold Despite Overwhelming Scientific Evidence That They Will Fail. But I wanted to know why these guys were out there, day after day, if they weren’t finding much. Asking that question led me to the real story—the power of gold fever.

Once I saw that gold fever was real, I was able to put other motives like high unemployment and the rising price of gold into perspective. It also helped me focus on the right status details of some of the people I met hiking around in the mountains. Some of those guys were great characters, even if they needed a bath and some serious dental work.

 Humour may not be the first thing one thinks of as a characteristic of crime fiction, but one would quickly notice its absence.  In The Fine Art of Murder, author Jon Breen comments on “gallows humour” in hardboiled fiction; fans of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels or Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole mysteries often comment on the witty repartee, clever quips, and amusing wordplay in the books.  Talk to me about the dynamics between dead bodies and laughter.

Death is inevitable and universal—hardly a great revelation, right? But we all react to death, even if we choose to ignore it. Some of us, and I’d certainly put myself in this group, choose to laugh about death because laughing beats crying. 

The most interesting part of the dynamic between dead bodies and laughter is perspective. Look at the Darwin Awards. I’m sure the family members of people dumb enough to win a Darwin Award would call their loved one’s death tragic. But is it really tragic if you died in such a stupid way that the gene pool is actually better off without your contribution? 

In Murder and Other Distractions I wanted to tell a story about a really lousy murder suspect. The deaths in the book should give Ethan a new perspective on his life. But he’s so wrapped up in his own crap, that I think he misses the big picture, which is that he’s about to go to jail for murdering his ex, and she didn’t care about him nearly as much as he did for her. I think you can see that as sad, but viewed from a certain distance, it’s also funny, especially if you’re a little twisted.

What can you tell me about your current work-in-progress or next release?

The book I’m working on is a murder mystery set in the porn industry. It’s told from the perspective of a cub reporter working for a trade publication in LA’s San Fernando Valley, which is where I grew up. 

There’s a lot more to say, but I don’t like talking too much about a work-in-progress. I outline and I send early pages to a few readers, but I don’t go wide with drafts because I find that if you talk about a manuscript too much, there’s a tendency for things to become set in stone, which is dangerous because rewriting is where you make your money.

The publishing world has undergone a sea change in the last few years.  Put yourself back about six decades.  Do you think you still would have written a novel in a pre-Internet world?  What kinds of feedback or reactions might you have gotten in a 1950s pre-Amazon era?  Would you have even bothered writing a novel back then?

Stepping out of Doc Brown’s DeLorean, I’d have to say that I might be a little discouraged. Even though there were more publishers back then, the industry was really built around the idea of gatekeepers. A manuscript lived and died based on the opinion of a very small group of people. Those people worked in a defined genre and relied almost exclusively on their own tastes. 

While I think that editors and publishers are important, the old model really didn’t give us as much diversity as we have today. Murder and Other Distractions benefits enormously from that diversity. Some people choose to see it as a crime story or murder mystery, but I’ve had other readers tell me that it’s more of a dark comedy with elements of noir. And some people see it as literary fiction, although I prefer not to market it that way.

What I love about today’s publishing environment is that authors aren’t constrained by narrow categories and they aren’t kept out by narrow-minded gatekeepers. Does that mean there’s a lot more noise? Sure. But I don’t know if I could have published Murder and Other Distractions sixty years ago because I probably would’ve gotten a lot of pushback to make it a straight genre piece. 

The reviews on Amazon for Murder and Other Distractions are interesting – many are very, very positive, but a couple are negative.  In either case, reviewers have much to say – they give specifics, and are generous with superlatives -  about your book  (except one Master of Rhetoric who wrote: “I thought that this book was funny, as well as deep. Well worth a read. Blah blah blah blah blah”)  I know you’ve previously blogged about why one star reviews make you smile, but for those who missed that, give me some of your thoughts on writing that provokes a response – any kind of response.

What’s the point of writing if you don’t get a response? 

Good reviews and bad reviews go hand in hand, like dead bodies and call-back jokes. 

Some reviews do get under my skin, though. Like this one:

“No story to it just this guy who like [sic] to talk about what a stud he was. 
Never finished the third page.”

That’s the whole review.   

It seems you’ve had a rather peripatetic journey (which I think is way cool!) and along the way you’ve studied law, reported on porn conventions, and written film and TV specs, among other things.  Writing seems to be the dominant theme, or the common denominator.  What is it about writing that keeps you coming back?

I’ve been a professional writer for 10 years, but even before that I loved to write. When I was in school, I’d always load up on classes that were heavy on writing. Honestly, I’m not sure I want to do anything else. I write six days a week, and when I’m not writing I feel off. So writing is just something I have to do. It’s how I make sense of the world.

But I also get bored rather easily, so maybe that’s why I tend to jump around. It may not look so good on a resume, but it makes for an interesting bio. 

Think of any book (or movie) that you really liked, or really enjoyed... That is, until the end.  You just didn’t like the ending for whatever reason.  What book or movie ending would you like to revise?  What would you change it to?

I’m not sure if I have a specific book or movie in mind. Personally, I like ambiguous endings. Even if things work out, how do we really know they lived happily ever after? Life goes on. People do heroic things and then die in silly ways. Bad guys do awful things and then go on vacation.
That’s not to say that I’m for random endings. The ending needs to make sense with the story. But it doesn’t have to be tied up in a bow, either. 

Look at the endings of The Sopranos or Seinfeld. People argue with me whenever I say they were both pretty right on. But for me they worked. Do we find out what happens to Tony? No. But we do get an honest answer—the life he leads will weigh on him every second of every day until his last day. Same thing, different story with Seinfeld. The characters on that show had been going in hilarious circles for more than a decade, but they really hadn’t changed. If you listen to the conversation Jerry and George have in prison, you realize the whole story has come full circle, which in the Seinfeld world means we’ve gone nowhere and done nothing—perfect. 

Your house is on fire and you can only save three books.  What are they and why?  

I have an iPad and I listen to most of my books on Audible through my iPhone, so the cloud makes me somewhat fire-proof, I suppose. But my wife and I really do cherish the book collection that sits in our living room. A lot of those books are coffee table books, which I love to look through for inspiration. So here’s what I’d grab while running out of a burning house:

Hunter S. Thompson Gonzo

The last question is a bit of a freebie: What is the one question you wish I had asked you but didn’t?  Now go ahead and ask and answer that question.  

Do you really hate Tito’s Tacos?

No. I actually ate there a lot in high school. They make a hard shell taco with bright, orange cheese and ground beef that your mom would make on taco night. But they probably do it better your mom, or anyone else. 

Tito’s comes in for some tough criticism in Murder and Other Distractions, but here’s the thing: the critic is Ethan, and I think one reading of the novel is that he’s wrong about everything. No sane person would ask him for career or love advice, so I’m not sure why we should trust his instincts on where to get a good taco.

Check out Murder and Other Distractions on AMAZON



Follow Michael on Twitter @mestrin



Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Interview with author Ailsa Kay





Your first novel, Under Budapest, will be released this spring.  At the risk of starting off with a soft-ball, low-brow question, how does it feel to have your first book coming out?



Really exciting, and every part of it is new to me.   I received the proofs in the mail a couple of weeks ago and thought, “Oh, so that’s what they mean by ‘proofs.’”  The pages were formatted as they will be in the published book.  I didn’t know that.   And they look great.



You have published short fiction in magazines such as Exile and The New Quarterly.  For you, how does short fiction writing differ from writing a full length novel?



That’s a great question because Under Budapest started as a collection of linked stories, which then kind of novelized itself.   I wrote it in stories at first because I wanted short do-able writing tasks.  I could imagine writing a short story in a few weeks, but a whole novel?   As it turned out, though, the stories were inseparable as each contributes to the same story arc.   The book still has aspects of short fiction because each story/chapter focuses on one “problem”  and they are told in different narrative voices.  But, together, all stories contribute to a single narrative arc, the resolution of two main characters and a mystery. 



Any and every author in 2013 must must must promote and publicize and engage with readers such as never before.  I’m talking, of course, about social media.  I know you’re on Twitter@AilsaKay  and that you have a blog/website http://ailsackay.com/   Tell me, is this kind of interaction fun for you?  Did you have an idea of what you would need to do?  Do you resent it at all?  Has anything about the world of social media surprised the author in you?



You’re right.   I struggled for a while with the idea of a blog—does the world really need to know what I think about… blah?  And then when I decided one day that the blog really had to be about Budapest, and about where the stories began, then it all came together.  Now, I love writing the blog.  It gives me an excuse to post photos of my favourite spots in Budapest, drop teasers about the book, and in a way it lets me live inside the book and with my characters just a bit longer.   I don’t resent it at all.  I’m curious and slightly addicted.   It’s a massive shift, for sure—a modern-day version of the eighteenth-century explosion of print culture.   So where do we go next?  What does it make possible?



For those who haven’t yet heard of your debut novel, give me the one sentence pitch.



A mystery in pieces, Under Budapest excavates what lies beneath post-Communist Hungary as a woman searches for the sister she lost in the ’56 Revolution and her son becomes an involuntary witness to a murder. 



Which is harder for you to write: dialogue or description? 



Dialogue.  It takes me hundreds of revisions.  It’s not just about getting the characters to “sound” right, but also making sure the dialogue does something, provides the right information (and right amount of it) to keep the plot going.   And then, obviously, it’s about character.  Would Tibor really give that much away to his mother?  Would Agi really be so manipulative?



Now tell me about your work in progress or next release.



I’ve got one project I’d like to return to, a novel about an accountant in eighteenth-century Venice who falls in love with a counterfeiter.   Money is made and lost. Chaos ensues.  



What was it like doing the research for Under Budapest?  Was it ever overwhelming?  Trying to sift through facts and data and details and trivia?  And then trying to work all of that into a novel?



I love writing about historical events. It gives me something to start with, and some constraints.  So no, not overwhelming.   I found autobiographies, memoirs of the Hungarian Revolution incredibly moving and helpful.  The amazing thing is that when writing fiction, there’s no such thing as “trivia.”  The more trivial, the better, in some ways.  I hunted out the most trivial detail because detail is how we make fiction feel real.   And interestingly, the memoirs often provided that detail.  It’s as if the brain fastens on trivial things in traumatic times—a snippet of conversation, the weather, the headline, the jacket a woman is wearing, the sound and feel of marching in protest.    



This may seem like another dry, dreary question, but every author is different.  What is your writing approach?  Pen and paper? Laptop?  Silence?  A daily quota?  And how long - from the germ of the idea to submitting to publishers – did it take you to write Under Budapest?



I work on a laptop and I like to work in the morning.  I start early—7ish is best—and work as long as I can.  I’m also a college teacher, so I have the fortune of a flexible schedule.  Some days, I don’t have to teach until late afternoon and that means I can usually get a good long morning of writing done.  Under Budapest started with one story, which took a few weeks to write and then I put it aside.  I returned to it a year or so later, revised it and sharply scaled it down.  The rest of the book came very quickly after that.  I wrote most of it in 4 months of full-time writing—which felt like a fabulous luxury.   I was lucky; a couple of grants allowed me to take time off work to do this.



Name two authors who influenced you the most, or to whom you’d like to be compared.  



I loved Jonathan Safran-Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  I don’t think Under Budapest is anything like his work, but his daring in that novel inspired me.  He writes great plots out of world-shifting events, and with real, laugh-out-loud humour.  I also marvel at Ian McEwan’s control over plot.  He’s a master of pacing and suspense who makes it seem effortless.  



If a hotshot Hollywood director knocked on your door with an offer to make the movie version of Under Budapest, who would you cast in the lead roles? 


Tibor:  Matt Damon     
the older Agnes:  Helen Mirren    
 young Agnes (Agi):  Romola Garai


The last question is kind of a freebie.  What is the one thing you wish I had asked you but didn’t?  Now go ahead and ask and answer that question.  



Did you want to be a writer when you were a kid? 

No.  I wanted to be a detective.  But, that said, my idea of detective work had little to do with the reality of policing.   I just liked solving mysteries and puzzles.  Probably, I had read Sherlock Holmes, and decided it seemed right.  I think that what draws me to writing is similar; I like solving mysteries.   Only, as a writer, I get to set the mystery as well as solve it.  


For more on Ailsa, follow her on Twitter
 @AilsaKay  or check out her website and blog: 

http://ailsackay.com/

Order Under Budapest on AMAZON click here.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Wonderful Double Whammy!

I had a very pleasant surprise this weekend - actually, TWO pleasant surprises. 

Generally speaking, an author doesn't know who will review his/her books, nor does the author know when a review will come about.  Even in scenarios where a reviewer has asked for a copy to review... Well, sometimes a review just never comes.

So, I was quite happy to see that the book review blog Have You Heard, run by Melanie Carrico, reviewed both Blood and Groom AND Dead Light District this weekend.  Being reviewed of course made my day, and the content of the reviews put a big grin on my face. (Both books were rated 5/5.)

Of Blood and Groom, Melanie says:
"Sasha Jackson is a down to earth, quick to the punch character.  The plot is woven so well you won't know whodunit until the very end."

And of Dead Light District, she says:
"Jill Edmondson has created the next great detective series. Keeping the character reachable and "normal" will endear Sasha Jackson to the readers.  Move over 007, you've got some   serious competition in Sasha Jackson."   

Melanie's full review for Blood and Groom HERE
Full review for Dead Light District HERE

While I'm in *bragging mode*, I should also mention a couple of other wonderful reviews that came out in the last while.

On the Irish online magazine called Writing, Lawrence Wray says Blood and Groom was:
"an unputdownable easy read.   Everything ties in very nicely at the end and it was a disappointment that the book was actually finished."

And, finally, Deena on E-BookBuilders recently reviewed Dead Light District, and she had this to say: "I found this book fun and engaging. I liked the characters, enjoyed the interaction between them.  I wanted to have a gin & tonic with Sasha and could easily picture her as one of my ‘real life’ friends.  I found the dialog snappy, the action fast paced and the storyline not something that I had read a thousand times before. So big points for originality go to Ms. Edmondson."

Friday, February 15, 2013

Inspiration for The Hooker Book


Often, when I do interviews or guest blogs and similar, the subject of sex comes up.  People will comment on the fact that sex is a theme in the Sasha Jackson Mysteries.  

(In case you haven't read all three, here's a thumbnail sketch: In Blood and Groom, Sasha works part-time at a 1-900 phone sex line.  In Dead Light District, Sasha's client is the madame of an upscale brothel, and the case involves finding a missing prostitute.  In The Lies Have It, Sasha bartends at a fetish party.)

Dead Light District (which I sometimes refer to as The Hooker Book) took only five months to write, in fact, the book practically wrote itself.  The inspiration for it came from a research paper I did when I was working on my MA.  I took a wonderful course called Equality in Context, and had to do an essay on Human Rights and the Sex Trade.  I had tons of research from library sources (journals, databases, etc.), NGO position papers, human rights websites and so on.  I found TONS of info and couldn't fit it all into the essay. 

Eventually, the leftover research morphed and morphed and morphed again into a mystery novel.  The one point that really struck me was that pimps often "brand" (yes, brand, like with cattle) their girls.  Yup.  The pimps mark or disfigure the girls in some way to indicate whose property they are.  ARGH!  That bit of info just didn't work in the essay, but it was too significant to ignore.  So, the idea of a person - even "just" a prostitute - belonging to another was the starting point of what eventually became Dead Light District


Monday, February 11, 2013

Guest Blogger: Author Phil Rowan



Today, guest blogger Phil Rowan tells you about some of his works, including a description of his coming release HARPS and TEARS.

Fiction writing ... oh yes ... I started with short stories as a student and continued as a journalist. A lot of what our media produce today is made up with fictionalised accounts of what might or might not be happening! We live in a frequently crazy world, and I've always liked the idea of taking potentially serious issues and re-creating them with a dark humour slant.


My first novel, Weimar Vibes, won a gold star on the HarperCollins Authonomy site. It is a  dark humour/satirical story that mirrors elements of 1930s German chaos in the UK and Europe tomorrow. Oscar Führer Kerner is whipping up an anti-immigrant frenzy when the British Security Services recruit my main man, Rudi Flynn. He is an alcoholic US journalist based in London and he is a reluctant undercover agent - but he has money problems, so his options are limited. His Whitehall brief is to first compromise the evil Führer Kerner with a lewd sex scandal in Athens and then try to win over his supporters. Flynn does his best, but he keeps getting distracted by seductively attractive women - including his traitorous UK Security Service Controller and a tempestuous Irish firebrand. He is wondering if his neighbour's lovely wife might elope with him to a Caribbean island when troops and tanks suddenly take over on London's riot-ridden streets. A sombre British Prime Minister then appears on TV to declare that upcoming elections must now be postponed.


In Dark Clouds Islamic activists are hoping to initiate a nuclear incident in London. Once again, a reluctant Flynn is coerced into working with a UK/US Security Service team. His London Controller is Carla Hirsch: an awesome lesbian from US Homeland Security. Flynn was at college in California with a Swiss based Iraqi oil billionaire who is thought to be funding the Islamic activists. He is a dangerous character and his sister Sulima is in love with the terrorist organiser, Pele Kalim. She is however a decent woman, so Flynn attempts to win her over as a friend, first in Geneva and then in London. Carla Hirsch wants to water-board or sexually intimidate Sulima, which infuriates Flynn. But as he sleeps in the factory studio of his artist girl friend, Ingrid, he hears a train rumbling by outside. 'It's nuclear waste,' she says. 'They move it at night,' and it's a eureka moment. For the terrorists are planning to hijack and explode a trainload of nuclear waste in a London Jewish enclave. Sulima walks across thin, parched grass to try and dissuade her train-hijacking Islamist lover, Pele Kalim. He reaches down to help her up to the driver's cab. But then two shots are fired by British military snipers from tower blocks surrounding the lethal nuclear waste train on the Hackney Downs.   


Under Cover has right-wing/anti-immigrant tendencies escalating in Europe with increasing conflict between moderate Muslims and radical Islamists. My UK based US journalist, Flynn, is once again recruited by a US/UK Security Service team to counter Iranian activists who are plotting to nuke soft targets in Europe. He starts by getting friendly with a murdered colleague's sexually pro-active and occasionally quite outrageous right-wing French Front National mistress. He also works with Sophia, a seductive and very attractive Israeli agent who briefly kidnaps him in India. He is then sent to Cuba to check out a French Algerian Muslim by Leah, his Controller at the US Embassy in London. Here he gets a pointer from the Guantanamo detainee, who professes to be a Muslim moderate, but is later shot as an activist. Flynn's double agent act finally falls apart in Paris. The Iranian nuclear bombers want to execute him, and it's about to happen when Sophia and her Israeli associates come to rescue him in the remote French Correze countryside.


Harps and Tears (due out end of Feb 2013) is a dark humour thriller that centres on Bronkovski, a nasty Polish American nuclear scientist, whose wife leaves him for a Jewish environmentalist. He is furious and intent on revenge against the state of Israel. When we meet him, he is making a nuclear bomb in rural Ireland's West Cork for ruthless Islamic activists. My man Flynn has been sent to Dublin by a New York editor who wants all he can deliver on Celtic Tigers and New Irish Women. Flynn, however, is more interested in a lead he has on the embittered nuclear scientist, Bronkovski, and what he may be up to in West Cork. Our frequently wayward journalist is lured in and seduced by Irish charm and blarney - although he is aware of a powerful Dublin businessman, who knows Bronkovski, and who has politicians and cops in his pocket. Flynn's local contact, Muldoon, is up for a bit of devious blackmail, and our guy's hotel receptionist, Siobhan, agrees to seduce and probe the emotionally challenged nuclear scientist. Middle East money is funding an assassin in West Cork, while in Dublin an Israeli academic is targeted. There are ruthless rogues everywhere, but Flynn has a few cool female allies - and as his local contact takes a crucial call, mayhem is averted in rural Ireland.


**********

So who is Phil Rowan, and where is he going next? Well - I grew up in Ireland where the Holy Ghost Fathers were grim, but girls from the Jacobs biscuit factory were great! I wrote short stories at Trinity College Dublin before moving to the Athens Daily Post. Here, in the port of Pireaus, worldly dark-haired women asked if one would like to have a good time, while in Syntagma Square tourists talked admiringly about the Acropolis and the Parthenon. 
 
Back in London on my first booze fuelled tabloid it was 'deliver or you're out, mate.' As an assistant leader-writer I duly attacked the Germans in sixty words and praised the virtues of British farmers in one hundred and twenty. It was much the same on tabloids two and three where my editors were keen on unsavoury sexual set-ups for celebs, politicians and unfortunate people who just happened to be newsworthy. I did some university tutoring, but ended up running a small creativity consultancy and writing fiction. I presently live in London with a lovely partner and I have two great youngsters. I'm also plotting a story about a rebellious Fenian Irishwoman - a passionate patriot who totally confused the Brits!



For salacious journalistic blogs + more on me and my stories, do visit

writerrowan.com  and I'm on Twitter  @WriterRowan