Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Japanese Mass in a Minor Key

Masaaki Suzuki
I said I would report on Left Coast Crime this week, and I will soon, but extraordinary art intervened on my plans and compels me to describe what I saw and heard last Tuesday evening, just after submitting last week's post.

The Bach Collegium Japan performed Bach's Mass in B Minor at Carnegie Hall. Hearing that magnificent music performed live is always a special occasion, but the devastation wrought on Japan by the earthquake and tsunami put this performance on a different plane, I imagine for the musicians and certainly for the audience.

The Bach Collegium Japan performs on period instruments and includes a chamber choir. Their founder and artistic director Masaaki Suzuki is one of the world's leading authorities on Bach.

Concerts like the one we saw are arranged years in advance. This one was part of a larger festival called Japan NYC, with all sorts of arts events scheduled to take place all over the City during the months of March and April. Just as the festival was getting started, tragedy struck the country we New Yorkers and Japanese visiting artists were beginning to celebrate.

For this concert, the hall was mobbed. The evening began with a short speech by the Executive Director of Carnegie Hall, who dedicated the concert to the souls that had perished in the disaster. He called for a minute of silence. The musicians on stage stood, all dressed in concert black that seemed like mourning weeds.

There is a beauty in sadness. In that hushed moment, nearly three thousand of us contemplated the destruction and the Japanese people's brave response to it. Then, the speaker left the stage, his podium was quietly removed, and Maestro Suzuki raised his elegant hands. What poured forth from the stage over the next two hours was heart healing and sublime.

In the hands of those musicians, the period instruments took on an Asian elegance. The words of the Catholic Mass seemed to convey only the emotions of a wounded Shinto and Buddhist people half way across the globe. Bach's glorious music, an artifact of Western culture, expressed what was basic and universal in the the longing of all humanity for peace and release from suffering.

The arc of the music from the Kyrie to the Agnus Dei gave time to contemplate more mundane things as well. The slender, handsome Suzuki would certainly win an international conductor's hair competition, if there were one. Not all the musicians were ethnically Japanese. The ranks of the Collegium, which always include artists from other parts of the world, swelled on that occasion to include a German baritone and a fabulous young South African Countertenor. The brass section all had French names, giving new meaning to the term French horn. The voice of the tall Dutch basso who stood at the center of the choir enriched the music, sounding like the best dark chocolate would if it could talk.

"Dona nobis pacem," they sang with one voice at the end. Give us peace. It was the prayer of everyone in the house for the Japanese people. The audience, totally enthralled by the brilliance of what we had heard and how it made us feel, leapt to its feet. The applause was thunderous, outstripping even the legendary usual enthusiasm of Carnegie Hall concertgoers. The evening had begun with sad thoughts but the art of Bach and his interpreters from a now-devastated country had united that sadness with joy.

I wish I could give you a taste of that very performance. The best I can do is share this snippet of another concert by the same group. Listen to this:

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, March 28, 2011


Bob Knightly has no idea what a Pandora’s Box he opened with his “Cat Story.” As the old comedian, Jimmy Durante, used to say, “I’ve got a million of ‘em!”

When we were first married, my husband (also Bob) and I rented a tenant farmer’s house in rural Pennsylvania ($80 a month). We attracted animals the way animals attract fleas. Ducks, dogs, but mostly cats. People would drop their unwanted pets by the roadside and eventually they would make their way across the fields and through the woods to our house. And they were always welcome. The first arrival was the most dramatic.

We had been married barely a week when Bob had to attend a medical conference in another state, and I was home alone. It was December and there was a blizzard raging outside. Our little bungalow shook with the wind and to make matters worse whenever there was a lull in the storm I would hear a strange sound, like a child crying. Unable to stand it any longer, I opened the door a crack and looked out. The wind swept in, bringing a wave of snow and ice, and something else. A glob of snow that landed in the far corner of our small living room. As the snow melted, the glob revealed itself to be a black cat with amber eyes—fixed on me in terror.

We stared at each other, dumbly, for several minutes. Then slowly, giving the cat a wide berth, I made my way into the kitchen. I came back bearing two bowls, one with milk, the other with tuna fish. I set the bowls as near the cat and as far away from me as possible and sat down to wait. It wasn’t long before the cat padded warily over to the bowls and wolfed down their contents. A few minutes later everything came up again. As I cleaned the mess, I cursed my stupidity. A little warm milk would have been more sensible to give a starving animal.

The next day Bob returned and was introduced to the new tenant. Still wary, she stayed in her corner of the room and we stayed in ours. But even from that distance Bob noticed her distended belly. Being a physician (but not an obstetrician) he immediately diagnosed a tumor. Oh, dear. I was very upset. But gradually, as he observed her more closely, he changed his diagnosis to--pregnant. We decided to give her a name. Since she was as black as night and had one white mark on her forehead shaped like a crescent moon, we called her “Luna.”

Weeks went by and Luna kept to herself, accepting our food and shelter, but not our friendship. She would not let either of us touch her. No matter how gentle our approach, she would cower, sometimes snarl, and even—spit. We kept our distance. But as she grew bigger and I realized her due date was drawing near, I prepared a bed for her kittens. A lovely wooden box with a blanket, near the stove, the warmest spot in the house. I saw her examine the box, sniffing around it, and I thought it had passed inspection.

One day I was ironing in the kitchen. Something I rarely did. I was concentrating on erasing a wrinkle when Luna came up beside me and mewed. I paid no attention, absorbed in my work. But when she repeated this behavior, I looked down. She immediately ran to the cellar door, which was partially open. Finally catching on, I followed her down the cellar steps. Even in that dim light, I noticed Luna was much slimmer. She led me to the coal bin. There, tucked in one corner, was her brood of five kittens. She immediately lay down and began licking them, one by one. I watched in silence for a while, then went upstairs to call Bob.

That night, for the first time, Luna let us pet her.

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, March 27, 2011

My History With Chickens Or An Attachment To Roosters

The Albany Common Council (the City’s local legislature, more or less) has been debating whether to allow the keeping of chickens in the backyards, I assume, of residences within the City of Albany: up to six chickens for which their owner must pay a yearly fee of $37 (for the gang or per head, is not clear to me). Over lunch last week, a friend who is a member of that august body solicited my opinion on this loosening of restrictions on chickens at home. Why he bothered to ask me for an opinion is also unclear to me. So I answered him with this parable:

Once there was a 12-year-old Catholic boy who thought that he had a vocation to religious life (mistakenly, as it turned out) and so went away to a high school on the North Shore of Long Island, namely St. Anthony’s Juniorate, which was run by the Franciscan Order of Teaching Brothers (Yes, I had them in grammar school, coincidentally, at St. Anthony of Padua). Franciscans ran the ‘juniorate,’ named that since it was an incubator for Franciscan hatchlings, like the Cubs waystation on the road to Boy Scoutdum. I remember ‘Smithtown’ (that’s what we called the place), fondly as my rural adventure, having till then never been away from New York City for more than a few days. It was located on a couple acres between the towns of Kings Park and Smithtown in Suffolk County, surrounded by potatoe fields. This was in 1954; one of the high points of that year for us was a trip in the yellow School Bus to the movies in Kings Park; we saw The Bridges at Toko-Ri and I wrote a review for the school paper. We really liked taking the bus into Kings Park because the route took us past the Kings Park Psychiatric Hospital where the patients never failed to yell at us from their barred windows.

I met my first chicken, ’up-close and personal’ as police interrogators say, one Sunday morning early in my stay at Smithtown. We had work details daily. Mine that morning was to help kill our Sunday dinner: to chase down, capture and behead a chicken. I remember vividly the scene fifty-seven years ago as I laid her head on the block--still reminds me of the old ‘Three Musketeers’ movie when Lana Turner puts her lovely, treacherous neck on the block as Van Heflin watches from the wings-- and chopped. Unfortunately, I was a clumsy executioner: the victim jumped up and ran away. I don’t remember anything after that except the warmth of the water in the pot as I plucked her feathers and the warmth of her entrails as I cleaned her.

Birds of all stripe fascinate me, but not chickens so much. Roosters, however, are another story. For some, probably dark, reason they command my attention wherever I go. Driving on a country road in Mexico last year in the State of Nayarit, I heard them off-road in the distance. I drove toward their calls, and eventually found them. I left my car to approach closer to the yard. Although it was the middle of the afternoon, they strutted about--eyeing me, I swear-- crowing again and again as if on cue.

I know when I got hooked on roosters. As a patrol cop in the Bushwick, Brooklyn Precinct in the mid-to-late 1970s, I’d be working a late tour in the radio car when ‘round about 5:00 a.m. when all the bars are closed and all the trouble has left the streets, your eyes would begin to droop and you’d pull the car over out of sight to let nature take its course. But then, as the dawn broke, the roosters would crow, their boastful cries piercing the air like the whoops of a band of Indians hiding in the dark yards all around.

So I said to my friend, the Councilman: Where there’s a chicken, a rooster can’t be far behind. You can take that to the bank.

Robert Knightly

Friday, March 25, 2011

Locavore in the Garden State

Amy Patricia Meade is trolling for WWII recipes, the ones our mothers and grandmothers cooked with to put food on the table every night in the face of rationing, shortages, and complete absence of supermarkets, for her latest "Rosie the Riveter" book. I gave her my mother's recipe for wind pudding, which is easy to remember even after all these years. Not having been around back in the day she finds it hard to imagine the horror of trying to cook under WWII conditions.

Actually, we don't need three-quarters of what we consume these days. Looking back over the decades--the gustatory chemical storm of the fifties (Space Food Sticks! Pop Rocks! Fizzies!), the French butterfat deluge of the sixties (Julia Child's richest recipes. We all made them), the counterculture revolution of the seventies (brown rice and a dirty hot dog), the monied excesses of the eighties (everybody ate out), and so on up to the modern day, when neglecting to put the very finest cooking on the table every night is seen as a moral failure--I suspect we were better off in the forties. Nobody could get fat on gristly mutton. There were only so many ways you could prepare Spam and still manage to gag it down. If you had a yard you grew some vegetables, maybe kept chickens. And since you couldn't go to the store anyway, since there was no gas for the car and no rubber for tires, the groceries, sparse as they were, came to you. Mr. Thompson's delivery boy brought them to the kitchen door in a cardboard box.

Now the thing to do is eat locally. Again, a moral thing. In the thirties and forties if you found food you ate it, and the devil take the hindmost. But now you have to think about every bite. Were the captains of agribusiness mean to this animal before they killed it, cut it up, and offered to sell me its steaks and chops? Is this fish the last of its species, fished into extinction, or was it raised on a poisonous southeast Asian fish farm? Were the migrant workers who picked this vegetable oppressed? Are their children being offered healthcare, citizenship, a decent education? How far was this item shipped, at what cost in fossil fuel and global warming? And so I have joined the local community-supported organic farm.

It seems a little pricey, but what the hell. It's the cost of sleeping soundly at night, free of culinary guilt. When the first crops come in, we will have, oh, I don't know, lettuce enough to feed all the homeless of Lambertville. Not that I'm giving the homeless our lettuce. The homeless don't want perishables. Lettuce enough to crowd out all the beer in the refrigerator, then. And strawberries. The strawberries are really good. In fact, it's all good, or will be if we have suitable weather this year.

And maybe I'll start looking around for good Spam recipes.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Chile Pepper Crime

Today I arrive in Santa Fe for the Left Coast Crime conference. It will be a first visit to New Mexico and a chance to meet writers and readers I would not run into on the East Coast. The panelists presenting with me are a case in point: a varied group who write, as I do, about exotic places. Our panel is about that very subject — “When Location Makes All the Difference.” Let me introduce them to you (even though I haven’t met them yet). In addition to me, they are:

Jeanne Matthews, our moderator, was born and raised in Georgia, but currently lives in Renton, Washington. She has worked as a copywriter, a high school English and Drama teacher, and a paralegal. Her book Bones of Contention, published by Poisoned Pen Press, takes place in Northern Australia.

Pete Goodman was a journalist in the U.S. Air Force who wrote articles for national and international media. He’s been a university professor in Theatre Arts and an Executive Show Director for Sanrio Puroland, Tama Japan, a theme park. Now he has written a mystery called Smoking Frog Lives! that takes place among the Mayan ruins in Mexico.

RJ Harlick describes herself as an escapee from the high tech jungle, having worked for IBM and DMR Group. Originally from Toronto, she now splits her time between Ottawa and log cabin in West Quebec. A lover of the outdoors, she writes a series that takes place in the untamed wilds of Canada.

Sara Sue Hoklotubbe is a Cherokee tribal citizen who grew up on the banks of Lake Eucha in northeastern Oklahoma and uses that location as the setting for her mystery novels. Her first book, Deception on All Accounts, was published by The University of Arizona Press. Her second, The American Café, is due out in April.

We were assigned a great time slot for our panel—mid-morning on Saturday, so we should get a good crowd. Our discussion will center on how we chose to write about such far-flung places. I look forward to it and will tell about it next week, with pictures. Wish us luck!

--Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, March 21, 2011

Hurray, She's Back!

The green sawdust has settled, the last drop of green beer has been drunk, but the spirit of St.Paddy’s Day has just begun. I’m writing this on Thursday, March 18th. It is a balmy 70 degrees and the streets are overflowing with people shedding their winter clothes—jackets, hats, gloves, scarves, buying bouquets of daffodils, and stopping at their favorite tavern for an early bird special.

Spring has sprung! Spring is here!

Although, by the time this blog is posted, bad weather may be with us again. The point is, we’ve had a taste, a whiff--of what’s to come, and we’ll hold on to it, like a hot water bottle, to keep us warm if the weather turns ugly again.

I have witnessed blizzards in March, and daffodils coated with snow in April. But I’ve never seen a year without spring. Sooner or later, she comes. You can count on it. But on this particular day, the first whiff of spring, I’m going to make the most of it. Walk until I drop, inhale the scents from the flower marts., waste an hour at an outdoor cafe watching people enjoying themselves. And make a toast. “To spring! Hurray, she’s back!”

--Robin Hathaway

Sunday, March 20, 2011

“Nowhere To Run”: Wyoming Noir

One of the best literary novels of last year was “Nowhere To Run” by C. J. Box. It was submitted for consideration for the Hammett Prize for “literary excellence” in a crime novel. It was one of the five novels I read for the contest that, in my opinion, deserved the prize; the others: “Iron River” by T. Jefferson Parker; “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” by Tom Franklin; “Bury Your Dead” by Louise Penny, and ‘The Good Son” by Michael Gruber (all previously reviewed here). Who’s Number 1? I couldn’t say. All five are set in their own unique worlds with full-blooded protagonists that grab you by the sleeve in Chapter One and never let go.

“Nowhere To Run” is the tenth Joe Pickett novel. Joe’s a Wyoming Game Warden who patrols wild mountain ranges checking fishing and hunting licenses, and invariably runs into more lethal violators. In this one, he’s finishing up as the temporary replacement game warden in the isolated town of Baggs, Wyo. Someone--or something (the talk is of a Wendigo)—is butchering elk before the hunter can get to his kill, campsites ransacked, and a female Olympic runner disappeared in the mountains without a trace. Joe saddles up for an anticipated five-day horseback patrol into the Little Snake River Valley and up onto the Sierra Madre Range in Southern Wyoming. (I love the names.) Pickett has done his time in the “warden’s graveyard” for having in the past ticketed the Wyoming Governor for fishing without a license. Joe Pickett’s the kind of guy who tries to do the job even when it hurts or just might get him killed.

Chapter One masterfully evokes the wild beauty of the mountains: “…Pickett paused on the lip of a wide hollow basin and dug in his saddlebag for his notebook. The bow hunters had described where they’d tracked the wounded elk, and he matched the topography against their description…He glassed the basin with binoculars and noted the fingers of pine trees reaching down through the grassy swale and the craterlike depressions in the hollow. This, he determined, was the place.”

This is on the first page of Chapter One, and throughout the book there is observation or description that persuades you the author knows this out-of-the-ordinary world and will be a faithful guide. Pickett talks to his horses (a nice touch)-- Buddy, his mount, and Blue Roanie, his packhorse. “Stop spooking yourself, he said aloud to himself with authority. But it wasn’t just him. His horses were unusually twitchy and emotional. He could feel Buddy’s tension through the saddle. Buddy’s muscles were tight and balled, he breathed rapid shallow breaths, and his ears were up and alert. The old game trail he took was untracted and covered with a thin sheet of pine needles but it switchbacked up the mountain, and as they rose, the sky broke through the canopy and sent shafts of light like jail bars to the forest floor. Joe had to keep nudging and kissing at his mount to keep him going up the face of the mountain into the thick forest…” C.J. Box puts you in these wild places and injects palpable dread throughout.

One measure of a novel is the magnetism/ menace (a la “Silence of the Lambs”) of its villain. In ‘Nowhere To Run,’ twin brothers, a rangy 6-feet-five-inches tall, living in the wild, are more than a match for our hero. The author smoothly layers in a sub-plot involving the missing female runner, and executes surprising plot twists in wrapping it all up satisfyingly.

I’d never read C. J. Box before. His first Joe Pickett novel was ‘Open Season’ in 2001. “Nowhere To Run” is the tenth Joe Pickett, and number eleven, “Cold Wind”, will be out March 22nd. What do the other ‘literary’ novels mentioned—‘Iron River, ‘Crooked Letter’, ‘Bury Your Dead’ and ‘The Good Son’—have in common with ‘Nowhere To Run’? Essentially, an enthralling world, limned in affecting language, where the protagonist’s fighting for some good inspires empathy in us readers. Respectively, an ATF cop in the border towns between the U.S. and Mexico; a deputy sheriff in a rural Mississippi town; a French Canadian homicide detective in Old Quebec City; a U.S. Special Forces soldier undercover on the Afghanistan Tribal Frontier; a Fish and Game Warden in the Wyoming Mountain Ranges. Good stories, of likeable guys, in foreign places we’d like to see.

--Robert Knightly

Friday, March 18, 2011

Seeing Murderers Socially

I'm at work on a suspense novel, as I may have hinted to you all from time to time, set in the present day and in my present town, partly because I have worn myself out doing research for historicals. No more research, I said to myself. It all comes out of my head this time. Piece of cake, right?

And yet, when I sat down to make up my latest story it turned out to be loosely based on something I heard about a long time ago, and I had to go look it up.

For the past thirty years I have read the newspaper every single morning, following politics and other criminal endeavors closely. Particularly murder cases. But in the early seventies, living in another town under different circumstances, I did not do this. Chasing my children around and trying to keep the house in order took everything I had. Even Watergate got past me. So that when I heard from the neighbors that a certain lawyer down the street was defending a famous murder case, I had never heard of the murder case.

I had, however, heard of (let us call him) Joe Flynn.

Joe Flynn, his beautiful wife, their mutual baby and something like six or seven blended-family children moved into the neighborhood that very year, bringing with them whiffs of the elegant almost-counterculture life to which I aspired. She made her own yogurt. Her hand-dyed clothes drifted in the breeze. I felt that she knew what I did not, which was how to live beautifully without money. He was a handsome devil, rather resembling William H. Macy. They had everyone over for cocktails.

A few weeks later the aforementioned lawyer, his wife and another neighbor were discussing in his kitchen the case of the wife-murderer he was defending. If you're old enough you may remember the case. A guy in New York rolled his wife's body up in a rug and threw her in the Hudson. Allegedly, I should say, to keep the lawyers happy. Joe Flynn dropped over, heard the conversation, and said, "Poor guy. I know just how he feels."

Interesting, no? I can tell you we were all interested. But none of us had seen the story of the murder of his ex-wife, how she was found bludgeoned to death in her bed, no sign of breaking and entering, etc. In fact I looked that one up just now. That's where I got the "bludgeoned" part. I thought she had been stabbed and that they were still married.

Of course the rug-roller was guilty as sin. Probably that's how Flynn knew how he felt, because only a few months later the word went around among the neighborhood children that Mr. Flynn had been beating up Mrs. Flynn, the new Mrs. Flynn, that was, and that the cops had come. Sure enough before another day went by Mrs. Flynn, all her children, the mutual baby, the diaphanous dresses, and the yogurt-maker were gone, leaving only handsome Joe Flynn and his child, who was packed off to boarding school.

He remained in the neighborhood. His cleaning lady told tales about him, how the women came and went, how she had to change the sheets on his bed two or three times a day. Those were strange times. My own husband left in the course of things. I was waiting at the bus stop to go to work one morning when here came Joe Flynn, a man I understood to be a murderer of women. He greeted me cordially and said he had heard about our breakup. I shrugged.

"Come over and have a drink sometime," he said. Right. That could happen. When squadrons of pigs fly in formation over the Delaware. You know, if I knew then that he wasn't even married anymore to the first Mrs. Flynn when she was killed, not even living in her house, I would have gotten a dog. So now that I've heard he's dead I'm going to write a story about him. Only actually not. It'll be a different story. But it will have some of the same feel.

--Kate Gallison

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Was Saint Patrick Italian?

Tomorrow is my birthday. I say this not to elicit well-wishes (though I always enjoy receiving them), but to muse on the experience of having been born on a day famous for another reason.

Being of Italian descent, I was on track, as baby girls of my persuasion usually were, to be named after one of my grandmothers (about which you have heard if you follow this blog). So I would likely have been called Sabina Maria or maybe Concetta after my maternal and paternal grandmoms. But when I debuted on March 17th, my parents chose Patricia for me.

Having Saint Paddy’s Day as a birthday has a lot of advantages. For one, people don’t forget. When shamrocks show up on supermarket windows and on mirrors behind bars in drinking holes, my friends and family all know my birthday is coming. Also, my day has a color. Green has been my favorite all my life. Luckily it suits me. And these days, unless people are talking about the machinations of Moammar Qadaffi, calling any product or process green is a huge compliment. Best of all, everyone celebrates. What other birthday but the 4th of July comes with a parade? When I was four years old, my uncle told me the march on Fifth Avenue was in my honor. Tomorrow midtown will fill up with revelers, giving my natal day a special jubilatory flair.

The only drawback for me has been that some Irish people have considered it a travesty that a Sicilian-Neapolitan-American should have chosen “their” day to be born. They think only people like my friend and fellow St. Patrick’s Day birthday holder Terrence O’Brien deserve to be born on March 17th. In the Catholic school cultural rivalries of my youth, I had to withstand a great deal of resentment—some of it not so benign. My brother Andy and my friend Danny Gubitosa leapt to my defense in a play-yard altercation one March 17th by claiming that St. Patrick was Italian—an assertion that only further enraged my detractors.

According to Wikipedia though, Danny and Andy were sort of right. Paddy was a Romano-Britain, and though the historical details of his life are sketchy, substantiated evidence reveals that as a 16 year old, he was abducted from Britain by Irish raiders and dragged off to Ireland to be a slave—not a very auspicious beginning for a relationship between Saint and faithful fated to endure for millennia. Patrick made it back home, and once ordained, he returned to Ireland as a missionary and prelate. The Irish still invoke him against snakes and witches.

Coat of Arms, Murcia
Why the following is true I leave you to ponder, but evidently St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated not only in Ireland and the Roman Catholic Archdioceses of New York and of Boston, but also in Nigeria, Montserrat, Loiza, a small town on the north coast of Puerto Rico, and Murcia, the capital of an Autonomous Community founded by Moors in the southeast of Spain.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, March 14, 2011


That is the new sound that has replaced the old sirens on ambulances and other emergency vehicles in NYC. I found this out yesterday on my way to the Post Office. I was crossing the street in my usual early morning stupor, thinking my usual stale, unimaginative thoughts, such as, “Will I make it across before the little orange hand stops blinking?“

URP! URP! URP! came out of nowhere, causing me to stop dead in the middle of 34th Street, look up and down, trying to decide which way to run. By the time I had decided, the ambulance had swerved, still URPING, around me, and disappeared. Shakily, I made me way to the curb, and my favorite refuge, the old P.O.

“When did they introduce the new ambulance sirens?” I asked my favorite clerk.

”About a week ago. Did you run into one? You look a little pale.”

“Yeah, it almost ran over me.”

“Do you want to sit down?”

“No, that’s okay. I’ll have a roll of stamps, please.” I fumbled in my pocketbook for the money. “Tell, me, Mike, do you think I’m getting too old to live in New York City?”

He looked me over carefully. “Naah. There ‘re a lot a people older than you here.”

Reassured, I made my way through the crowd and out into the street. Crossing 34th Street at top scuttle, looking both ways at once (an art only New Yorkers have achieved), I made it home to my quiet, safe apartment --- alive.

---Robin Hathaway

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Cat Story

I’m a cat man. I realize and freely admit it now. Wasn’t always so. I didn’t pick up my first cat (two, in fact) till 1990, the Fall of, I think. A girlfriend led me to the basement of the old Gouverneur Hospital on Water Street on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan to show me a clutch of kittens, new to the world and likely not long for it. I was at that time a Manhattan bachelor, newly installed in a one-bedroom apartment in Stuyvesant Town, that complex of 35 red brick buildings of lower-middle-class normalcy on 80 acres of the Eastside from 14th to 23rd Streets, First Avenue to the East River. Her idea was that I take one home. I was not sold on the idea.

As I walked into the basement, I saw four of them huddled together in a  cardboard box on the concrete floor. The mother sat sphinx like alongside the box like a chaperone. I just managed to avoid stepping on a tiny tiger-striped creature squeaking up at me as it scuttled back and forth seemingly intent on barring my forward progress. Its body looked bent at a 30% angle. Its mother remained an unconcerned, motionless observer.

So I picked it up—she—and as I held her in the palm of my hand, I swear she gave me that steady gaze of hopeful expectancy cats have mastered (I’ve noticed in the years since). I was sold. Went over to the box then and scooped up a dozing orange-and-white male, the biggest of the litter, to keep her company.

My first stop was the Vet. His verdict on my female’s bent spine?  “It’s either permanent or  she’ll straighten out in time.” So encouraging. But that’s what happened. After three or four days of  feeding my two cats by eyedropper as they rode around their new home on my shoulders, they settled in and ate from their respective bowls. I named her ‘Quasimoda’ (appropriately, I thought) and her brother, ‘Bullet’ (for Detective Frank Bullet in the Steve McQueen movie). He was a sweet-natured, slow-moving, bathwater-bewitched companion to his sister ‘Quasi’, who was  mercurial, inquisitive and fearless.  They were house cats who never ventured further than the hallway outside our apartment door, first in Manhattan then in Jackson Heights, Queens. (Cats, unlike dogs, do not like to travel.) We had Quasi  for 16 years and Bullet for one more year after.

What I remember?  Quasi sitting on the couch in our living room, opposite myself and Rose in our recliners, her head swiveling between us depending on who was talking. As I watched her listening, I  expected her to join in at any moment.

Cats are special people.

--Robert Knightly

Friday, March 11, 2011

Getting Lost in the Story

I was moved to meditate today, as I sat playing my fifth consecutive losing game of spider solitaire, that fiction writers as they go along experience their work at many different depths.

As usual, I'm working on something. I have an outline, more or less, I have some interesting characters who are energetically interacting, but I can still bounce out of the work and dither around losing at solitaire when I'm supposed to be writing. Now, you may say, "Get with it, you're a professional writer, do your job," but if I wanted that sort of grinding work I'd still be writing software manuals. Or, no, I wouldn't, everyone at the company where I used to work was under thirty years old, I couldn't have stood it much longer in any case, but it would be pretty to think so. The money was good.

The book--I won't mention the title, it's sort of a hip modern title, and I don't want to see it on another writer's book--is coming along nicely. I have ten thousand words up, nice words, most of them, and I'm expecting to finish the first draft in maybe six weeks. But I haven't fallen into it yet.

It's possible to get very deeply lost in your own story, to forget appointments, to forget what day of the week it is. It's possible to be walking down the street thinking about your story and to step into traffic. I always thought Daphne du Maurier's The House on the Strand was a metaphor for that sort of thing. For those of you who haven't read it, it's about a man who takes a drug that transports him into the past, where he can wander around and view events, though his body is wandering mindlessly, possibly in traffic, in the present. You should read it. It's excellent.

And you should read my book too. But first I have to write it. And before I do I have to play several more games of solitaire, after which I will consult my outline and devise some thrilling scenes. Soon, within days, maybe, I'll be in the zone. Then I'll finish it. Then my agent will sell it, and then...

--Kate Gallison

Monday, March 7, 2011

Tell Me a Story

Anyone who has had children or grandchildren or been a child, is familiar with this refrain. After hunger, thirst and sex, it has been the next desire that people need to satisfy — since the beginning of time, from the cradle to the grave. It is why children demand to be read to, and why adults read.

Recently I attended a panel at an MWA meeting entitled, “Why We Stop Reading.” Author/teacher, Hallie Ephron, was the host, joined by an editor and an agent. Each panelist was asked to list the stop lights that caused them to quit reading a manuscript submission. Confusing plot, stereotyped characters, clichés, misleading dialogue, bad spelling and grammar, were among those mentioned. But the single, biggest stop light — by far, was: Lack of a good story.

The fact that, as readers, the panelists didn’t care what happened next. This is the most common reason why manuscripts are rejected.

As writers, it is easy to get lost in our own quirky whims and desires — to be cute, different, and obscure (also known as pretentious), and forget the one, basic, elemental reason for writing: to tell a good story.

We should repeat this maxim every night before we go to bed, and every morning before we get up, and whenever we sit down to write.

It can never be repeated too often.

Now, repeat after me. TELL A GOOD STORY!

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Why Can’t I Read Any Book a Second Time?

It doesn’t matter what book it is or how much I enjoyed it or that it’s likely to endure as a classic. I’ve read all of Flannery O’Connor, all of Bernard Malamud, certain novels of Robert Stone, all of Chandler and Hammett, and a slew more. Yet, I have never been tempted to reread a one. Sure, I used to tell myself: I should read that fine book again. But I don’t. I’ve stopped kidding myself that I should/ would. Ain’t happening. Probably a Moral Failing.

What prompted this soul-searching was the question Robin Hathaway asked in her blog on Monday: how do you decide which books to reread? No problem, Robin. But I do make one concession. I’ll reread the first chapter sometimes: usually to remind myself how a skilled author has set up his story (and often the theme) and why I kept reading past Chapter One (indeed, past the first few pages); also, to re-experience the voice. Novels in which I’ve recently "re-read" that much: The Pawnbroker, the wonderfully grim 1961 work by Edward Lewis Wallant. He died in 1962 at the age of 36, having published The Pawnbroker and his first, The Human Season. Two novels were published after his death, The Tenants of Moonbloom and The Children at the Gate. I have all his novels in ancient paperbacks (unread except for The Pawnbroker) but I’m not letting go of any. I’ve also read in full two recent novels of James Patterson out of curiosity to see how he does it, then reread the first chapter of The Postcard Killers. That didn’t tell me much except that all Patterson’s chapters are three pages long.

Like so many collectors of treasured books, I have a space problem: too many friends, too few shelves. So, like Robin, I’ve in the past asked the ultimate question: Will I read this book before I die? This is a good question to ask yourself before you close your eyes and start tossing books in a big box-to-go. What especially prompts asking myself the question (or any question) now? Well, I have prided myself on having all books displayed on my shelves, spines and titles out, in single rows: no second row of unknowable titles hidden behind. I am losing ground in that regard, although no book lives in my house in a box.

The truth is I needn’t ask myself any phony questions at all. I comfort myself in the belief that, when push comes to shove, I can go "scorched earth" on the bookshelves. I will not pretend to be rereading any of them (particularly those I haven’t read in the first place), so out they go. I confess I am a slow reader. Yet, as Bibliomaniacs, we know in our heart of hearts that there are far more compelling reasons to own a book than just to read it. But I am steadfast in this: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” And, yet... Not my First Edition of Robert Stone’s A Flag For Sunrise nor Lucius Shepard’s The Jaguar Hunter... surely not John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGees in Gold Medal paperback, Stanley Ellin’s The Eighth Circle from Dell, Nelson Algren’s A Walk On the Wild Side from Fawcett. Pocketbooks take up no space at all, right?

--Robert Knightly

Friday, March 4, 2011

The House of Stairs. Could I Write Like That?

The psychological suspense thrillers of Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine are an inspiration to all of us. If only I could write like that, I say to myself, closing the book (The House of Stairs) with a shiver of satisfaction. If only. A friend lent me this book, telling me it was good, and by George she was right; it got me through four plane rides on a trip to Florida and back.

Now to study it. How does she do that? First of all, and the thing that would be the hardest for me, she never cracks a single joke. No jokes. Jokes take the pressure off gut-wrenching suspense, so probably I can't write suspense novels, compulsive joker that I am. Still, I want to try it. So leave out the jokes. Then what?

She layers the book in flashbacks intercut with present-tense narrative, telling us just enough. We must find out what happened next, even as she drops hints that it wasn't anything good, that in fact horrible things took place. This technique is not for amateurs. In Ruth Rendell's hands it is effective foreshadowing. In the hands of one less skilled, it becomes the dreaded "had-I-but-known." Do I dare to try it?

The object of the narrator's fascination is described as a stunning beauty, for which the narrator admires and loves her, even as we see for ourselves that this woman's behavior and utterances are vulgar and repellent. Do we believe our eyes about this woman, or do we believe the narrator? The contrast sets up an interesting tension. All of the characters are very clearly drawn, And many have this same ambiguity. The narrator feels one way about them, but we might feel another way. Tension.

Then there's her description of the setting, the House of Stairs itself. A place of hippie orgies, a place of dread. Every time she mentions the top floor window--which she describes in loving detail, the way it opens near the floor, a four-foot opening, how they neglect to put bars on it even though everyone says it's dangerous, the forty-foot drop to the flagstone terrace below--we know someone is going to go out of it before the end of the book. Eventually the mere passing mention of the window causes shudders.

So that's how it's done. Anyway that's part of how it's done. I will meditate on this and see if I want to take a stab at it.

--Kate Gallison

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Authors Guild: The Published Writers’ Union

Unions are so much in the news these days that even on Sunday’s Academy Award program at least three of the Oscar recipients mentioned in their acceptance speeches that union workers had helped them achieve their success. I am proud to say that I am a union worker, too, and have been for twenty-seven years.

When my first book came out in 1984 (a nonfiction treatise on management techniques published by McGraw-Hill), I received an invitation to join The Authors’ Guild. I felt honored to be asked into a club to which only published authors could belong. That letter brought back the thrill of the phone call accepting the book proposal, the signing of the contract, the sight and feel of my first book. I filled out the paperwork and sent in my check. I have been paying my union dues ever since.

The truth is that being a union member is part of my heritage. I could sing “Union Maid” by the time I was six years old. My grandfather Andrea was a coal miner in western Pennsylvania. In 1920, he was sent, with a group of Italian immigrants and Blacks, to break the famous Matewan strike in West Virginia. My father, at age six, was one of those children portrayed in John Sayles’s film Matewan, watching as their fathers — black and white marching together — refused to be scabs.

Uncle Paul is there somewhere.
At age sixteen, my Uncle Paul, my father’s oldest brother, took over supporting the family after their father died of black lung. He eventually became a union organizer in my birthplace: Paterson, New Jersey — famous for its union movement history. (Uncle Paul was also a Member of the US 1936 Olympic Wrestling Team — which made him a teammate of the great Jesse Owens, who showed up the “Master Race” in front of Der Fuhrer on his home turf in Berlin. But I digress.)

Jesse Owens
Besides the pride I still feel carrying my Authors Guild membership card in my wallet, the union has helped me in very practical ways. It got me back the rights to Never Work for a Jerk, once it went out of print. Most recently, the union’s response to my needs was nothing short of amazing.

After the death of my beloved agent Nancy Love last summer, I was looking for new representation. I had found a person who seemed a great match for me, but the contract her agency asked me to sign was far more complex and restrictive than anything I’d been presented with before. Buddies in the business advised signing the thing, since agents were so hard to come by. Friends outside the field said to send it to my lawyer, which was sound advice no doubt. However, great guy that he is, my lawyer doesn’t know intellectual property law, AND heaven only knew how long it would take and how much it would cost to get advice from that quarter. Then the light finally dawned on marble head: Contact Your Union. What ensued was unbelievably fast, helpful, and FREE for me as a member.

Twenty minutes after I sent in an inquiry over The Author’s Guild website, Anita Fore, the Guild’s Director of Legal Services, sent me an email asking to see the contract. I emailed it to her immediately. Two hours later I got a five-page email that analyzed the contract’s points and advised me what to negotiate and how to present my point of view. This from not just any intellectual property lawyer, but one of the best possible — thoroughly versed the legal ins and outs the US publishing market. She is the same person who worked on the Google Books issue. And now she was helping me, personally. How impressive is that. Thanks to her, I wound up with a contract and an agent I like very much.

In the past few weeks, the Guild has emailed its members cogent and concise analyses of how the prevailing industry standard—a 25% royalty for authors on ebooks—will benefit publishers and penalize authors as book sales migrate from print to electronic. (More about that in a future post.)

Listen you writers out there. Advocacy, contract analysis when you need it, a finger on the pulse of the market, and information to help you understand issues vital to your rights—these are what the Authors Guild offers. If you are a writer and you don’t belong to your union, JOIN NOW at

--Annamaria Alfieri