Sunday, May 31, 2015

Know When to Hold ’Em, Know When to fold ’Em

Matt Coyle Revisits Crime Writer’s Chronicle…

His first novel,
Yesterday’s Echo, won the Anthony Award - Best First Novel, the San Diego Book Award for Best Published Mystery and the prestigious Benjamin Franklin Silver Award. Rick Cahill now stars in Matt’s second novel, Night Tremors. We welcome Matt again, and his yellow Lab, Angus. They both live in San Diego - Matt, does Angus also write???

T. J. Straw

It took me eleven years, from first words on a floppy disk to actual pub date, to become a published author. During the wilderness years, a very nice agent who had given me a close rejection on my first book told me that she'd heard Jonathan Kellerman wrote nine novels before he was published. I think she meant to encourage me. It might have worked if I'd been in my thirties or even early forties, but I was fifty. I did the math. At the pace I was going, I'd be dead before I was published. I didn't want to be the next John Kennedy Toole.

However, I intended to write a series and thought the first book was essential in laying the foundation for the main character and his future development. After more revisions and another year of rejections, I began to wonder if I'd written, and rewritten, a story that nobody wanted to read. Was I going to be that writer who just kept writing his first book over and over while his life passed by? Over a four year span, I'd received almost one hundred agent rejections or ignores. I was running out of agents to reject me. I sent the manuscript out to the last few agents on my list and then closed the book on that first book.

Finally, I started writing the next book in the series. A few chapters in, I received yet another rejection for the first. The closest rejection I'd gotten to date. The agent told me what she thought the book lacked and agreed to look at it again if I addressed her concerns in revision. When I'd started writing the second book, I had finally given up on the first. I convinced myself that the first was the book I needed to write to learn my protagonist but it would never be published. People were living longer these days and maybe I'd be luckier than Jonathan Kellerman. Maybe it would only take me two novels to get published.

My writers group told me they liked what I'd written so far in book two better than book one. Still, I'd put so much time into the first one, I wasn't sure I could let it die. I finally decided to send it, along with the agent's notes, to Carolyn Wheat. She'd read earlier versions of the book in writing novel classes she'd taught and I'd attended. I asked her if was worth her time (and my money, of course) to look the book over and worth my time to revise it, yet again. Yes on both counts.

Weeks later, Carolyn sent me back twelve single-spaced pages of notes. She found even more weaknesses than had the agent. Her suggestions for improvement were good, but I didn’t know if I could rip and rewrite the book for the fourth or fifth time. Besides, book two now had my interest, my energy. Book one was an anchor, a reminder of failure. But I still thought it was a story worth telling. I decided to give it one last try.

It took another two years of revisions to get the book exactly were I wanted it. The agent who’d given me the last rejection had faded away from publishing. I sent the book out again and still got rejections. I sent it to agents who’d rejected or ignored it before. The title had changed and so had the book. But maybe not enough.

Finally, Kimberley Cameron said yes. Six months later so did Oceanview Publishing. Yesterday’s Echo was born.Two years later, it won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel. Eleven years to publication. Close to one hundred rejections. And I'm thankful for every one of them. If an agent had said yes earlier, the book would have been inferior and probably never been published. And I wouldn't have met Kimberley Cameron, the perfect agent for me.

I’m not sure I’d advise other writers to follow my path. You have to be very stubborn or very stupid. Or maybe just convinced that your first story is worth telling.

That second book? I had to revise it, too. Just not for eleven years. Night Tremors hits the shelves on June 2nd.

© 2015 Matt Coyle

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Writing Class Confidential Part III

In classes where the teacher is an aggressively self-styled expert (and even some where she is not), the class members will savage each other in an attempt to gain her favor. It’s an unpleasant scene, to say the least. In others, the teacher becomes a kind of self-help guru, convincing people who can’t write that they can so they will come back and pay for more praise when the next class rolls around. The teacher becomes the object of hero worship. It’s grimy and greasy and uncomfortable to watch these dynamics. And yet, a good teacher can make you aware of what you are doing that works, so that you can keep trying to produce more of it, while she does the same for you with that which doesn’t. This advice can be invaluable, especially when you find you and she are on the same page about what good writing should be.

And still….the thing is, no matter what you write, someone is going to not like it. It’s that subjective. But it is not completely subjective either, and some writing really does suck. You have to learn when yours does, and when it doesn’t. Other people can help you learn to do that. Or not.

Finally, you need to be aware of as much of the art and craft of writing as you can. But you also need to do something original. When Hemingway did all of that minimalist stuff, it was new. At least somewhat new. He took what there was, and incorporated it into his work, but he transformed it enough so that it was unmistakably his. That is the trick, and it is a great one. If this intertextuality stuff is true, if everything a writer writes is part of a grand conversation he or she is having with other writers, you need to actually take part in the conversation (produce something that recognizes external standards enough so that it is comprehensible), but also say something a little unlike anything anyone else has said before.

That is what all this stuff about voice is. To be undeniably yourself, to create a persona that coheres, that grabs the reader’s attention and holds it until the end of the piece. That is not about being trendy, or politically correct, or even about being likeable. You can start learning it in writing class, but it is not something you are going to memorize, incorporate as a list of rules, unless the rule was something like this: Be interesting. You learn voice at the place where the rules leave off and the art begins. You learn it by reading and thinking about writing, by taking writing classes, but most of all by writing.

Language is less a garden than it is a jungle. It grows wild and fast, and no matter how hard you try to regulate its growth, its change, it nevertheless grows and changes. The meanings of words change, so that in the Middle Ages silly was a synonym for blessed, and now it means insipid and foolish—basically any movie with Jim Carrey in it. And grammar and syntax changes too—Shakespeare used double negatives all the time without being misunderstood, or excoriated by William Safire or Edwin Newman. Postpositive modifiers were once considered OK in English, and word order was less important because there were more inflections (endings on verbs and nouns and modifiers and pronouns that indicated their role in the sentence). And yet if you read Strunk and White’s ELEMENTS OF STYLE, or Fowler’s MODERN ENGLISH USAGE, you get the impression that there is in existence somewhere some perfect, Platonic form of language, some language so transparent it rivals the nature it describes in beauty and complexity, and that we traduce this marvelous instrument every time we open our barbaric mouths.

I think this is the impulse behind the part of style books that do things like try to freeze usage—to rail against irregardless, to hope that we can defeat the incorrect usage of hopefully, and not be nauseated by the improper deployment of nausea, etc. We want language to always mean what we want it to mean. But it never does. Language is just a convention—something we decide means what it means, and people change their minds, things evolve. This is good, in a way, as language needs to be flexible in order keep up with a rapidly changing world, but it is bad because no matter how hard we try to be understood, language is slippery. Trying to calcify it, to make it some monolith, is like trying to nail jelly to a wall.

And yet I am not completely averse to trying to slow it down, especially on the page. The written word loses the immediacy of a living context, or an interlocutor, of the actual lived situations it tries to replicate, and so you have to come to some agreement on what things mean. It is not that usages of the words themselves are good or bad, but we make it so. As long as there is agreement, I am copacetic. And writing is often a vehicle we use to try and transport and convey difficult information, so Fowler has his place. And he can be fun. I love to go and look up things like the difference between continuous and continual, funereal, funerary, and funeral.

What irks me is capriciousness, rules for the sake of rules, and the insistence that you are not trying to decide on a convention for use, but are transmitting some natural law that came to you from up on high, directly to you from the Gods of Language. The difference between who and whom, to be hoped and hopefully, even continuously and continually (if you know the context)—all of these are strictly academic, and only have use as ammunition for pedants.

This is not to say that rules are not helpful in some ways, and the knowledge of them can guide us when our instinct fails us. A very tangled sentence can be explicated sometimes with the good old Elementary School technique of diagramming. And when a sentence of yours gets long and winding, wending its way towards God knows where, it can help to go back to things like rules of agreement to make sure you have made it clear who is doing what to whom, and what modifies what.

A lot of this is instinctive—a five year old has mastered rules for creating past tense, the difference between mass and count nouns, and they often can remember which verbs are strong ones (use an internal vowel change to signal past tense). This is pretty good. But with more complex writing, use the old Fowler’s, and the Strunk and White. You can make yourself clear to your reader, and your reader, especially if they are using the same references, can figure you out more easily than if you just kind of let it all hang out.

Which gets at a more basic question. What is writing for? What is language for? Many would say it is for the accurate transmission of ideas. But then what are academic and scientific and political and legal speech and writing for? They are often more about obscuring the truth, or the lack of knowledge of the speaker, than they are about anything else. But I am assuming that writers are concerned with making themselves understood. And I think Strunk and White give us some great advice along those lines. Prefer the abstract over the concrete, use parallel constructions, omit needless words, etc—all of these are great advice, although not an excuse for being simplistic—you can’t make something less complex than it really is, but at the same time you don’t have to describe it in any more complex a way than its nature allows. Of course, to do so you must understand that nature. What Strunk and White are doing mostly is asking us to take care with our listeners, especially since when they read our stuff, we won’t be there to answer their questions.

This is what style manuals can do—encourage us to be clear, to think more carefully. These are issues on a micro scale, and it certainly is important to address things on that level. But what about things like voice, and the use of metaphor, plotting, narrative tension, etc? Aristotle, in his POETICS, said great use of metaphor was the province of the genius. I agree. Aristotle went on to talk about dramatic unity, but he did so with the understanding that he was only trying to give structure , to provide some helpful tips, and that in great work genius would have to carry the rest of the load. And yet, even the genius can be helped by a little conscious analysis of the process in which he is engaged. And for us non-geniuses, it is maybe even more important to be aware of “rules” which will keep us from making stylistic mistakes a genius would avoid by instinct.

And still, I think the best idea, beyond all those silly writing exercises you will find in some writing how-to manuals, is to just read and write. And read what you have written. Pay careful attention to what works, and try to reproduce it. It is both a conscious and unconscious process, but I think each kind of process can influence the other. Try to let your muse inspire you, but also apply some rigorous editing after the muse has done what she can. It’s a question of both art and craft.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Illustration by Donna MacDonald

Friday, May 29, 2015

Does Anybody Really Fall for This?

Weird emails tend to come in waves. Have you ever noticed that? You'll go on for months without anyone offering to enlarge your member and then here will come twelve solicitations in a single day. The latest wave of fishy emails that I've been getting promises to cut my electric bill down to nothing. Zero. Zilch. How to accomplish this? Well, it has to do with the holy name of Tesla, and some other mumbo-jumbo, and then it involves plugging a magic gizmo into the wall.

Sometimes there is no picture of the gizmo, but simply a quote from some celebrity or other assuring you that it works. Sometimes there is the assertion that the electric company will be furious if you use this (as if corporations had emotions). The ones I like best, though, are the ones that include a photograph of the item. It's always something different. Here are a few, for your enjoyment.

The gadget above is actually a wireless thermostat from Honeywell. You can get one for two-hundred-plus dollars from Amazon. It won't do a darned thing for your electric bill.

This thing is a capacitor with two LEDs. f you plug it in it will save you an infinitesimal amount of electricity. It is also available with nothing inside but the two LEDs. See this video for a demo and teardown of the one that infinitesimally works, if you're not easily bored:

This appears to be an IPhone with a thermostat-like image on the screen. Or maybe another thermostat.

This gadget isn't what the spam email says it is, and you probably can't get it from the email sender, either, but if you got your hands on the article it might actually save you some watts. It is a timer that you can connect to things like the television set or the computer and its peripherals. It will cut the power to power-hogging appliances while you are sleeping, or away at work. Get it from Belkin, if you want one, or from Amazon or whoever. Be aware that it will not reduce your electric bill to zero.

Then there's this. What in the Sam Hill is this? If you have an idea, I'd like to hear it.

I think what these emails are meant to do is entice the recipient to click on a link. What happens after that is anybody's guess. They might sell you a bogus gizmo. They might pretend to sell you a gizmo and then steal your financial information. They might unleash a virus from Hell into your computer.  Anyway, don't click. That's my advice.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Sunday, May 24, 2015

My First Trip to New York City

So I have had many memorable trips to New York since my first in 1972, but the first was like none of the subsequent trips except that it involved theater.

The Shakespeare class at my college, of which I was not a member, was going to New York to see Much Ado About Nothing and Two Gentlemen of Verona. There were extra tickets available so I was invited along. The trip conflicted with a final exam in one of my other courses, but the professor said I could make it up.

“I do have an additional request,” he said. “I want to make sure you see all sides of New York City. Bring back a pack of pornographic playing cards.”

Well, many of the finest coming of ages stories have a quest myth and this was to be mine.

Our group stayed at The Times Square Motor Hotel which was cosily seedy or seedily cozy depending on how you see these things. When we first walked in a guest and the person in charge of the registration desk were insulting each other. Alas, I can’t bring myself to type what they were saying, but you can fill in with any number of colorful ethnic slurs. There was also a gentleman at a bank of pay phones going from one phone to another, picking up the receiver and shouting “Hello. Hello.”

We had some time to kill before the performance so we checked out the club attached to the motel. This was in the midst of Superfly craze and people were dressed as if they were movie extras. People ground their hips together and I sipped sherry. We couldn’t figure out why people were peering into the club. It was only later that we realized there were signs promising topless dancers.

The production of Much Ado About Nothing was wonderful. It was probably not the first live theater I had ever seen but it was the first that stayed in my memory. It starred Kathleen Widdowes as Beatrice and a wonderfully goofy Sam Waterston as Benedick. I can’t find that guy in the actor I’ve seen on Law and Order. The play was set in America at the end of the Spanish-American War and featured a marching band that came down the aisles and on to the stage. I was entranced all night but I had to get my sleep because there was hunting to be done the next morning.

So a small group of us set off in search of pornographic playing cards. We came to a promising location and went in. I didn’t know where not to look first. The guys on the trip, who I thought might make the request for me, headed toward the back of the shop. I went up the counter and and said, “I want to buy pornographic playing cards.”

The gentleman behind the counter took umbrage.

“I do not sell pornography. I do not sell pornography.” He took a breath. “I sell position cards.”

He slapped a plastic container on the counter. Yep, playing cards with people in positions. I thought I was set.

“That’ll be five dollars.”

Alas, my entire budget for the trip was eighteen dollars. No sale.

Our next stop was the musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona. While I later saw a wonderful version of this play with Larry Kert in Washington, D.C., this production in New York seemed tired and the actors were playing to each other and not to the audience.

After that it was time to go. Much Ado About Nothing had been fabulous, Two Gentleman of Verona had been pleasant enough but I didn’t have the pornographic playing cards.

As we were about to leave, one of the women on the trip noticed that the motel had a gift shop. She went in and came running out.

“Stephanie! Stephanie! Look what I found.”

There for the low price of two dollars was a key ring with a small plastic container attached. Sure enough there were playing cards that featured a series of bare breasted women nestled in what looked to be kitty litter. (I’m sure it was supposed to be sand).

Pornography? Not really. But if my professor wanted proof that I had been in a part of New York that was sleazy, this was proof enough.

You know what they say. It’s a helluva town.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Writing Class Confidential Part II

One old chestnut holds that a writer has to be an observer. Like a lot of old chestnuts, it’s true, at least some of the time. Many writers became observers on the playground, relegated to that status by geekiness and the fear of yet another humiliation or beating. They learned to imagine themselves into the childhood games of their peers, and kept on imagining the lives of others from those miserable days onward.

One thing you can do if you are a geek or loser is, or course, hang out with other geeks and losers. This is the basis for the game Dungeons and Dragons, group therapy, and writing classes (yes, my tongue is at least partly in my cheek at this point, so don’t savage me if you are a devotee if any of these). With the wisdom and compassion one would have to have learned from all that childhood angst and rejection (cue the music for Janis Ian’s “Seventeen,” please) you would think the people in these writing classes (called salons by the pretentious, the percentage of which is high among writers) would not turn out to be bullies themselves. You would be wrong (being a writer, I am of course observant enough to have noticed this, having the time and inclination to watch while sitting on the sideline of life with nothing better to do).

I’ve heard that the Iowa Writer’s Workshop is a protracted, internecine, fratricidal (patricidal, matricidal, you get the idea, even suicidal, eventually, for some) free-for-all wherein the last one left standing gets the phone number of the teacher’s agent. I believe it. The psychological warfare can be intense, and the ability to wage it is not the same thing as being able to write. Therefore, the writers who survive are the most narcissistic, vicious, and self-deluded. Not that this isn’t like life in general, but it seems a shame. Success in writing comes from many things, but the three most important are confidence, long and sustained effort, and luck. Connections also help, and self promotion (the flipside of bullying?), and writing in whatever style is trendy. Talent is still important, but not more important than these.

Not every writing class I have been in has been a kind of community theater production of Twelve Angry Men (and Women), but many of them were. You would have been better off taking time off from your writing to study Machiavelli and Sun Tzu than trying to perfect your craft. The realpolitik of these type classes can crush the confidence of someone insecure about their abilities (and if you are worth your salt as a writer, you need to doubt yourself enough to keep trying to improve, to learn).

The first class I took, many years ago, was a fiction workshop. It was a nightmare. One guy (he actually smoked a pipe and wore a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows) told me that I was trying to be Hemingway and doing a poor job of it. He never said why, and I can see that this was because he wasn’t the kind of guy who was going to think deeply enough into what I was writing to find out. He was the alpha dog and he didn’t want me pissing in the same grass he was. Another woman came right out of Central Casting as a crusty, musty and dusty old dowager who lectured continually (as opposed to continuously, she would have pointed out) on not ending sentences with prepositions, or splitting infinitives, of not starting a sentence with and or but, and of the dire necessity of putting a comma before the last element in a series. She spoke of these things as if they had been transmitted to the writing community on tablets that she herself had acquired from God (or Fowler).

I have always had a real animus towards these captious types who elevate guidelines that are supposed to promote clarity into a kind of dogma, and then use their knowledge to cudgel people who aren’t quite so persnickety. They imagine that writing well is a result of following all the rules, but those rules are just the beginning of writing, not its end.

Gratuitous negative criticism is something my present memoir writing teacher, Marion Roach Smith, doesn’t allow. She herself doesn’t engage in it. She encourages observation and critique that is based on the text and is designed to help you get better. And her analyses are invariably spot on. Not everyone in her classes has had the same ability as Marion. I am amazed at how often people can look at a text and come up with a reaction to it that has nothing to do with what is right in front of their noses. As if a text was a Rorschach test, they see whatever they need to see in it. But a text is not a Rorschach, and not every interpretation can be said to be valid. Moby Dick is not about Ishmael’s homosexual passion for QueeQueg, for Christ’s sake.

In memoir writing classes there is an additional emotional danger: people feel that your criticism is about both their writing and their life itself. The classes often devolve into a contest to see who can tell the story of the most abject misery, and the prize for being the most pitiful is the most praise, whether the person eliciting the pity can write their way out of a paper bag or not. And if people don’t show the proper pity and praise for these tales of woe, people feel slighted.

One of the most interesting archetypes I have found is the unreliable narrator. I remember one woman writer of this type vividly from a memoir class. An unreliable narrator in fiction can be great fun, as we have the author standing behind that narrator and gesturing ironically at him, through other characters or through the ironical things that happen to said narrator. In memoir, though, such a narrator is unsettling, to say the least. And I don’t mean unreliable in the sense of making stuff up, like James Frey. This woman’s perspective on her own life was so warped that it defied imagination. She unconsciously satirized herself. Again and again she would describe how her husband and two sons did things she judged to be loving, even though it was obvious to us that all three of them were just mean, nasty and cruel (whoops, I didn’t use that comma). They (and she) excused their behavior on religious and patriotic grounds, and in the name of love, but none of us were buying it. Unreliable. And her assessment of everyone else’s work was way off, too. I took eventually to her as a kind of inverse acid test—if she didn’t like something I had written, I knew it had to stay in.

Another archetype is the genius (cue Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years”: You’ve been telling me you’re a genius since you were seventeen/ in all the time I’ve known you, I still don’t know what you mean). This is the kind of writer who will tell you he or she has never been tutored in writing, but has been writing on his or her own for years. They don’t need a class, but figure they have a kind of literary noble obligation to come and help you out. When the class doesn’t genuflect on cue, these types pack up and leave.

And then there is the expert. This person is invariably a middling writer, one who has gotten a lot on the craft side of things cinched, but has no voice or originality. They offer you a kind of contract—allow them to be your Maxwell Perkins and you can be their F Scott Fitzgerald. They get pretty upset if you don’t sign off on that contract. In one of Marion’s classes, five of us spun off our own group. One of the women (the Expert) decided that another of the women was using too many adjectives (apparently the Expert had read Strunk and White and managed to misunderstand them both), and she said so. This wasn’t so bad, as we were dedicated to learning from each other, and truly didn’t want to hear only praise for our stuff (although we didn’t mind the praise when it came). When the acolyte didn’t agree with the ex cathedra proclamation of the Expert, however, and no one rallied to the Expert’s side (even if I had agreed with her, I wouldn’t have done any rallying, since like many writers I am a notorious coward) the Expert accused us all of coddling the woman who would not prostrate herself. It became clear that the group was not going to survive with both of these women in it, and so we jettisoned the more annoying of the two (yes, the Expert). If it was a class where we were not running the show ourselves, it would have been a real tension convention.

The expert will also tell you if your stuff is postmodern enough, self-conscious and self-referential enough, if it is going to offend anyone, if you have a right to write it, if it is au courant. They know what aporia is, and lacunae, and instantiation, and deferral, and absence, and they will deconstruct you until it feels like there are no words left on the pages you submitted. The expert will drop a lot of names, as if he or she was in daily contact with Joyce and Proust, Derrida and Foucault, et al. They are supremely aware of all the nuances of writing, but not of how silly they come off as critics of it.

Next time, the writing teacher, and the efficacy of style-, guide-, hand- and how-to-books.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, May 22, 2015

Sparkle Week

It’s Sparkle Week in Lambertville. The city has promised to take away whatever we put out. All over town attics are being emptied, cellars are disgorging their contents onto the sidewalk, scavengers are collecting treasures, dreams are ending, and marriages are breaking up. Fortunately I have just been reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo, and so my marriage is safe. As Harold trundles curbward with armful after armful of formerly beloved craft supplies, decorating objects, building materials, and broken furniture, I am able to smile serenely. I thank the objects for whatever they brought to my life, and I let them go. My soul is Japanese. Sort of. Anyway I successfully resist the urge to grab them and haul them back.

Serenity is not the attitude everywhere in town. Some residents are suspicious and resentful of the scavengers, who come from far and wide in broken-down trucks to carry away our unwanted stuff. One resident complained that they root through the piles of discards like bears, throwing what they don’t want into the street. Well, that won’t do. Our streets are narrow enough as it is. Others mutter darkly that things you do want might be carried away along with your unwanted things. Better clear off the porch, just in case. Nevertheless all my porch furniture was still here this morning, along with my cookie jar. Somebody ate the last cookie, but I think that was Harold.

It’s good that people are taking this stuff away and keeping it out of the landfill. And there's no telling what scavengers might want. One box that Harold put out was clearly marked, “Broken Junk.” There were hard drives in there which he had beaten on with a hammer. Heaven knows what else. I didn’t dare look. What if I wanted to keep one of the junk things? Let it go. Wouldn't you know, that box was one of the first items to be taken. Harold had a good laugh over that.

I wouldn’t let him get rid of the puppet stage. Most likely I’ll never put on another show, nor will the children or grandchildren be interested in marionettes, since marionettes aren’t digital, but I loved it when he made it for me. It’s such an elegant thing. This is one of the problems with throwing things out. Yes, it’s useless; yes, it’s taking up valuable space; but it represents a dream of future achievement. I could put on a great show sometime. (Or not. Some of the pieces are missing.)

As for the crumbling marriages occasioned by this annual ritual, the signs are everywhere. Things carried out to the curb only to be carried back in again. Things carried in from other neighbors’ piles only to be carried back out and put back. I shudder to think of the arguments that must be taking place behind closed doors. In the back yard, I overheard this:

“Does Mommy know you're throwing that chair away?” “It's broken.” You know there will be trouble over that.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Rereading the Classics

Stephanie and I had an exchange last week about Trollope, and I admitted to her that, in addition to having a To-Be-Read (TBR) list, I have a To-Be-ReRead (TBRR) list.  In fact, I do have lists of books I think I might want to read, but most of my TBR list is a pile of books on a chair next to my bed and those lined up like soldiers on a nearby window sill.   The TBRR books sometimes get moved from their place on the books shelves to handier stacks.

Keeping up with all these books is a hopeless endeavor and has been since I was about twenty-two.  Falling behind makes me feel anxious.   I feel like a failure.  I feel as if I am missing something important, or delightful.  These emotions are just as strong as, if not stronger than the ones I remember from not doing my homework.  This guilt complex is crazy.  I know that.  But I can’t make it go away.

I have, however, found a way to make easy progress on the TBRRs.  It is called Librivox-- --and offers free recordings of books in the public domain. 

I much prefer to read a book by myself, sitting in a chair and reveling in the story.  Therefore, almost all the books I listen to on Librovox are ones I have read before.  Librivox gives me a chance to reread classics while I cook dinner, fold the laundry, or walk to the grocery store.  What a pleasure.

Volunteers do the reading.  Some are better than others, but all are at least adequate, and some are great.  If like me, you need more time to read than you have, I highly recommend hearing the classics.  It beats listening to the news on the radio.  Five minutes of headlines are all a sane person stand of that.  But the words of the greatest writers of the past await you as an antidote to mayhem and destruction.

Annamaria Alfieri.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

In Good Time

A Crime Writing Lawyer from Fitchburg, Mass

Hallie Ephron in my favorite Jungle Red Writers gave some excellent comments re the debut novel of Maine lawyer Brenda Buchanan on May 5. Now it struck me that… not only was May 5 my 99th birthday(!) but this writer was from the little mill town in Massachusetts where I made my own entrance on the planet! As I've never known any person from Fitchburg, I thought it would be fun to invite this Fitchburg gal to be a guest here.

She also studied with the noted Robert B.Parker, so I'm anxious to see if any of his genius trickles through her pages of Quick Pivot!

Buchanan, a former newspaper reporter at the Boston Globe, is now a lawyer in Portland, Maine. And my friends know how much I love Prout's Neck, a stone's throw from that Maine town—so I'm delighted to welcome Brenda to our wonderful group at
Crime Writers' Chronicle today!

Thelma Jacqueline Straw (not quite 99 yet!)

I write this early on a spring morning in Maine, which is a lovely time of year in this beautiful state. The songbirds are chorusing, the showy red tulips in our front yard are in bloom and soon my spouse and I will go to the fabulous Portland Farmer’s Market, which moved outdoors to Deering Oaks Park two weeks ago, about a week after the last of the snow melted.

Spring always is a happy time when you live in a winter-weary place, but this spring is especially happy because my debut mystery, Quick Pivot, was released in late April. I thank Thelma for inviting me to stop by Crime Writers' Chronicle today to talk about Quick Pivot and, at her urging, my long and winding path to publication.

First, of course, the book. Here’s the skinny on Quick Pivot:

In 1968, a cunning thief skimmed a half a million dollars from the textile mill that was the beating heart of Riverside, Maine.

Sharp-eyed accountant George Desmond discovered the discrepancy, but was killed before he could report it. After stashing the body, the thief-turned-killer manipulated evidence to make it appear Desmond skipped town with the stolen money. When the mill went bankrupt several years later, Desmond’s name was mud.

In 2014, veteran journalist Joe Gale is writing a feature story about the long-defunct mill being turned into condominiums when Desmond’s bones are found bricked into a basement crawl space. When Joe digs through the morgue at the fading-fast Portland Daily Chronicle, he finds his deceased mentor, an old-school reporter named Paulie Finnegan, covered Desmond’s disappearance in 1968.

Joe tracks down Paulie’s sources—now in late middle age—and begins to piece together the truth about Desmond’s death. But those who muddied the evidentiary waters in 1968 are determined to keep Joe from exposing the secrets they’ve harbored for more than four decades, even if it means killing again.

Though most of the action in Quick Pivot occurs in a fictional town, many scenes happen in real Maine places, including Portland, Kennebunkport, Cape Elizabeth and Peaks Island, where I lived for many years. If you love coastal Maine but don’t get here as much as you’d like, Quick Pivot provides a sweet virtual visit.

As for Riverside, it was inspired in part by my hometown of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, which—like so many proud industrial cities in New England—fell on hard times after the family-owned mills were bought out by large corporations in the 1960s and 70s. Having spent my youth in a community scorched by that painful economic transition, it was natural for me to set Quick Pivot in a still-proud mill town fighting its way back to respectability.

My road to the writing life began at Fitchburg High school, where I was bitten hard by the journalism bug. Like every aspiring reporter in the mid-1970s, the notion of investigative journalism lit me up. Shortly after adoption of Title IX, two other firebrands and I wrote an exposé about the enormous disparity in spending between boys and girls athletic programs. The story made powerful people decidedly uncomfortable, and resulted in significant improvement to athletic opportunities for female students. It was a heady introduction to the transformational potential of good journalism, and no doubt is why Quick Pivot has a reporter as its protagonist.

A few years later Northeastern University’s vaunted co-op program gave me the opportunity to work in the newsroom at the Boston Globe. My jobs included a reporter trainee stint on what was known as the lobster shift, riding around Boston (and sometimes farther afield) from midnight until eight in the morning, covering fires, murders and other breaking news. It was an amazing experience for a 21-year-old woman.

During alternating academic semesters I studied creative writing with Professor Parker, as in Robert B. Parker, who was adjunct faculty at NU in those days. As you might imagine, Parker’s courses were an inspiration. While he never minced words when presented with a badly written story, he was supportive. Keep at it, he advised. It’s a long process.

After graduation I moved to Maine, where I worked at a weekly newspaper based in Kennebunk, covering a variety of beats including the courts.

By the time I was ready to take the next step in my life journalism jobs already were scant in Maine, but I was too smitten with its charms to leave, so I hung up my reporter’s spurs and headed to Maine Law School. I’ve practiced law for 25 years now. I’m fortunate to have great colleagues and wonderful clients. But I’ve always remained a writer at heart.

Several years ago, I heeded the voices of Joe Gale and the other Quick Pivot characters and began writing their story. Now here I sit, on a beautiful spring morning, with my first novel out there in the world. Like Professor Parker said, it was a long process.

© 2015 Brenda Buchanan
Author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Writing Class

Every English major thinks they have the Great American Novel buried somewhere deep within them. If only they had the time to dig it out! If only they followed their muses, were willing to live in an artist’s garret, to write away with the monastic dedication of the truly possessed, they could do it! These many artiste wannabees, artist-manqués, dab hands, ersatz and erstwhile geniuses, these would-be chroniclers of America in this brave new century believe that if only they were possessed with writing and only writing, were more interested in portraying society than living happily within it, if they were truly obsessed (and also alcoholic, depressed, violent, misanthropic, childish, churlish and needy in the way many writers apparently are?) with violating the sanctity of the blank page with their humble (OK, not so humble) words, they could catch the big brass ring and write the next MOBY DICK.

It’s comforting to think you could have done something, that you have an untapped reservoir of talent that you will someday dip into when you are done doing all those other things that are getting in your way, after you have met all your deadlines and fulfilled all your commitments, which of course you will never do (meet the commitments or write the novel). To imagine you could have been a writer, a contender, a star is more pleasant than doing the hard work it takes to be one only to find out you don’t have what it takes. I read somewhere that 90% of people think they are better than average drivers. I think 100% of the attendees of writing classes, either in MFA programs or in places like Skidmore’s Summer Writers’ Institute, think they could be great, if only they didn’t have to pick up the dry-cleaning, and the leaves in the damn yard would rake themselves.

Writing classes presently thrive, for both memoir and fiction. Some commentators see them as a kind of portal to self discovery, and even a means to mental health. I believe that about as much as I believe in Pyramid Power, but let’s leave that for later. Others see them as a sign we are becoming increasingly narcissistic, telling ordinary stories about mundane lives in prosaic ways, believing that the lives we chronicle or create are more interesting than they truly are. I will leave that question for cultural critics more learned than I. One thing these classes can do is make you feel like you are more dedicated to writing than perhaps you actually are. For another, they help perpetuate the above-mentioned delusions of grandeur. Still, I am pretty sure some people benefit from them. They are, after all, merely tools, and tools used properly can perform a function. And anyway, writing classes can be great fun, a place to meet like-minded souls, especially in those times of year when they don’t have new episodes of THE BLACKLIST or BETTER CALL SAUL on the boob tube.

At a time when it is harder and harder to make a living as a writer, to actually sell your writing to anyone, more and more people are ponying up the bucks to learn how to write. And although many of them will tell you they are doing so merely as a recreational activity, to joyously reactivate their long dormant literary muscles, most of them secretly harbor dreams of greatness. Including me, to tell the truth, even though I know most writers, even good ones, even if I am a good one (which of course is open to debate), will never be published, although some of them may become writing teachers. That is the weirdly incestuous thing about the present state of writing—it is easier to make a living off the dreams that other people have of being real writers than to be one yourself.

Are the people who pay for these courses (the ones who truly work hard and try to learn what is being “taught”) getting their money’s worth? Can writing be taught? Can instruction make a mediocre writer good, or a good one great? The prevailing wisdom about artistic endeavor is that effort is more important than talent, and that the truly virtuosic must spend 10,000 hours or more becoming virtuosos. While it is true that most people don’t have the drive to put in those hours, are those with the will to do so guaranteed elite status? If this is true, does it hold true regardless of the potential for verbal acuity nature blessed you with at birth? Putting aside for a moment the subjective nature of writing as an art, and the fact that even a great writer can remain unpublished, I just can’t imagine virtuosos can be made without first possessing virtuosic gifts. Some of writing is indeed perspiration, the application of your butt to the seat of your writing chair for long periods of time, and yet inspiration is part of the process too. Some people are never going to create a truly interesting metaphor or simile in all the many tedious pages they write. Their words are flightless birds. I wanted to be a great basketball player when I was a kid, and at some point had to face the facts—I did not have the size and athletic ability required, and I never would. The untutored six-foot-six guy that could dunk the ball behind his head had an advantage over me that no amount of training was ever going to erase.

But then there is more room for delusion in writing than in basketball, isn’t there? If the man I am guarding drops 40 on me, and blocks every shot I attempt, it is clear that I have been outgunned and outmanned. But writing greatness is not so clearly defined. The incoherent can claim to be too far ahead of the intellectual curve to be understood, and the mundane can put there boringness down to the short declarative style of a Hemingway, even as they fail to grasp that Hemingway managed to say more than was written on the page, while they are managing to say less.

Like me with basketball, it would appear there are some hopeless cases. Those with a kind of writing aphasia, who were born with the writing part of their brain missing, and who don’t know it. Because that is another way that writing is unique, and uniquely beguiling—we all use language and we all manage to say something interesting every now and then, like the broken clock that is right twice a day, so it is easy to fool ourselves into thinking we can produce deathless prose. But what of the person who has some facility with the language—not a prodigy, but a journeyman, not particularly well-read, but somewhat read, who doesn’t have a huge capacity for reflection and hard work, but rather has a somewhat better than average one? Can this person become better with instruction? Or will, as some people claim, writing class be the death of all possibility for true originality for this every man, every writer?

To put it simply—some things about writing are more easily taught then others. True originality and verbal invention are not teachable, writing class can make you more aware of things like problems with reasoning or structure, tense, missing links in a chain of argument, and it can make your work more accessible and coherent, but also more bland and ordinary, by taking all that is polarizing or controversial in it and smoothing it over or taking it out in order to please everyone in the class who has some kind of complaint with it. You can get better with help—not great, but better. But you can also get worse. Knowing who to listen to and who to ignore is essential in writing classes, which brings us back to a version of the original question—can knowing who to listen to be taught?

It breaks down along the lines of art and craft. Craft can be taught. Technique can be transmitted from one human being to another. Invention, originality, voice—these cannot. And one without the other makes for only half a writer. And the more important part is the talent—a writer with talent will eventually teach herself craft. There was an excellent movie called FINDING FORRESTER, starring Sean Connery as a JD Salinger type of misanthropic and reclusive writer. He takes a young black kid with great talent under his wing. The kid is bedeviled by a teacher at the preppy high school he gets into, and he asks Forrester, who knows the guy, what the man’s story is. Connery replies—he knows everything there is to know about writing and he still can’t do it.

Next week—my adventures in writing workshops, classes, symposia, and salons along with my thoughts on the efficacy of instruction manuals.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, May 15, 2015

Dreams and Lies

I read a couple of years ago that sleep cleans out the brain in a very literal way, that fluid circulates measurably while we sleep and drains off, almost like the rinse cycle in a dishwasher. The NIH study used sleeping mice. Your tax dollars at work.

The researchers reported that the process clears away brain toxins, but I’m thinking it scrubs the brain of memories and thoughts and serves them up to us as dreams. How else to account for the dreams I’ve been having lately about being back in school? Or the dreams about my father and sister? Mysterious fluid has brought them alive again from the remoter parts of memory. Odd that I never dream of food, which is what consumes most of my waking attention. I wonder what the mice dreamt of.

I was moved to think about these things by Annamaria’s piece about novelists and pathological liars. Stories, after all, are made of dreams and lies.

I remember clearly the first lie I ever told. My kindergarten teacher, Sister Heinrich Himmler (or whatever her name was), sent me upstairs to see the nun who was the school principal, to confess some misdeed or other. When I got out of the classroom into the hall I noticed that there were pillars in the hall wider than I was. I could stand behind one of them for as long as it might take to go upstairs, be punished, and come back down again. Brilliant! I stood behind the pillar, counting to five hundred. Then I went back into the classroom.

“Well, Katie? Did you go and see Sister Misericordia?”

“Yes, Sister.” As children we believed that if you tell a lie, you can’t help laughing. And yet I found myself able to lie to this nun with a perfectly straight face. Not even the twitch of a lip. The ploy succeeded. I returned to my seat in triumph, a successful liar.

I don’t remember any negative consequences from that episode, even though the two nuns must have got together and compared notes at some point. “What did you say to Katie this morning, Sister?” “Katie who?” It was true that Sister Heinrich cordially detested me, a feeling I returned in double measure. But why wouldn’t she? I was a Protestant, the only one in the class. “If you're good, children, you'll all go to Heaven, except for Katie here, who is not of our faith.”

I was a stranger among aliens, and now I was a liar. An ideal position for a novelist. All I needed were experience and dreams. In my my school dreams nowadays I never dream of St. Patrick's, though, or of the nuns. My school dreams involve finding my way back to high school with my sister. Waiting for my father to drive us to school until we’re terribly late. Not knowing where my classroom is. Having no homework done.

The only dream I have of being a child in Woodbury is the one where I’m running through the back yards of Woodland Avenue pursued by faceless bad guys. Back then there were no bad guys pursuing little children, not like now. The worst thing that could happen to a kindergartener running through back yards was to step in dog dirt. I feel that there is some connection to make between writing novels and dog dirt, but I can’t quite formulate the thought. Night fluids must have scrubbed it out of my brain.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Of Novelists and Pathological Liars

Last month I posted about the possible connection between the brains of liars and the brains of novelists.  I am sure Freud would have a lot to say about my focus on the links between novel writing and lying, but frankly I don’t want to know what he would think.

Since I am in no position to perform actual scientific research on the subject, the best I can do is look for parallels and imagine what the connections might be.

If one looks up pathological lying, standard information on the subject gives one a lot to ponder.  First of all, though the condition commonly called pathological lying has been in the medical literature since 1891, it is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  But that is not to say that it is does not exist.  Lots can be and is said on the subject.  The more I read about it, the more parallels I see with fiction writing.

Here are some of the things that novelists and pathological liars (P-Liars) have in common:

Ordinary liars, make up stories for self-protection or self-aggrandizement.  P-Liars will make up stories and tell them, even if there is no discernible benefit to them.  This is absolutely true of novelists.  Certainly most of us are not doing it for the money.  Or the celebrity.  Psychologists call this type of lying “internally motivated.”  No novelist I’ve ever met thinks of his or her stories in any other way.

P-Liars begin to show symptoms at around 16 years of age.  For a number of years now, I have been asking novelist on two continents at what age they began to write stories.  Only once has any of them given me an age over fifteen.  Many say they began as early as five.  I myself was nine.  Perhaps then, the compulsion to write novels is a form of early-onset pathological lying.

P-Liars have average or above average intelligence.  I would say most novelists are above average, but this conclusion may be the result of personal prejudice on my part.

The kinds of stories the two groups (?) make up have quite a few similarities.  P-Liars’ tales are almost always elaborate and long and are described in one report as “dazzling or fantastical, but never breach the limits of plausibility.”  Such stories are the professed goal of novelists.  And like novelists, P-Liars know and can admit that their stories are made up.  They fail lie detector tests.

People with other, more serious personality disorders may lie, but often they don’t know they’re making things up.  They also have traits not usually found in P-Liars or novelists—like a pathological fear of rejection.   No person with such a dread could possibly function as a novelist.  In fact, we practically revel in rejection.  Just ask; we will gladly describe our file of rejection letters.  We proudly keep them.  They are the proof that we are who we think we are.

Annamaria Alfieri   

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Pick Up a Trollope*

I’m not on Facebook, I’m not Linked In and I’ve never been all aTwitter, but when it comes to 19th century novels, I’m on the cutting edge. It’s Anthony Trollope’s 200th anniversary and people are falling all over themselves to describe how wonderful his novels are. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote an article on “Why Trollope is Trending” and talked about how many “amateur readers” (I guess that’s me) share their enthusiasm for their favorite novels.

The Guardian had a feature in which famous Brits discussed why they loved Trollope and named their favorite novel. Antonia Fraser picks the first of the Palliser novels, Can You Forgive Her? She was introduced to his novels during WW II when all of her relatives read his work because Trollope cheered them up.

I never faced WWII or the London Blitz but I have read Trollope to similar effect.

Many years ago there was a book club called The Reader’s Subscription. One of its offers to new subscribers was a free set of the six novels that make The Barsetshire Chronicles. This lovely set of books sat on my shelves for some years and gathered a film of dust.

Then one day a friend got me an interview for a new job. The interview didn’t go especially well. The people interviewing me spent more time talking to each other than they did to me. They announced that they wanted to see other people. Having heard this from any number of men I dated, I assumed that I and the interview team were quits.

I thought no more about this until my friend called to say I had gotten the job.

“I’m surprised,” I said. “They seemed unimpressed.”

She hesitated.

“What aren’t you telling me? I asked.

“Well, you weren’t anybody’s first choice, but nobody objected to you.”

So I had not been voted Most Likely to Succeed. I was either The Least Offensive or The Most Innocuous. At the job I held at the time, I was adored. My boss dressed in black on my last day.

I spent my first days on the new job traveling with someone I knew not at all. I returned to the office and found people to be generally indifferent.

When I got home from work one night, for some reason never very clear to me, I picked up The Warden, the first of the Barsetshire novels, and fell in love with that cathedral town and many of its inhabitants. The atmosphere at work was tense but the cathedral close was cozy.

The Barsetshire novels are not about religious practice and theology. They’re about family and getting ahead. Each clerical position comes with its own degree of status, housing and income and the clerical men in black spar and scheme to get the very best positions they can. That said, Septimus Harding, the gentle man who oversees the religious life of the twelve elderly men at Hirarm’s Hospital, is the best Christian I’ve come across. His right to so much money (800 pounds) for so little work is questioned by a young reformer and subsequently by The Jupiter (a fictional stand-in for The Times of London). Harding is convinced by what he reads in the paper that he is doing the twelve elderly men a disservice, so even though the legal case is dropped, he decides to leave his position and take two less remunerative church posts.

Mr. Harding is surrounded by much more ambitious clergymen and we see more of them in Barchester Towers. His son-in-law is the archdeacon and son of the current bishop. The son wants his father’s job but the bishop doesn’t die soon enough and a man inimical to the archdeacon’s interests becomes Prime Minister and makes Dr Proudie the bishop. Dr. Proudie comes with a strong minded wife (known as the she-bishop) and his own chaplain, the greasy, fawning, odious Obadiah Slope. (Can you tell I don’t like him?) The struggle among these people to attain power and wealth is hugely entertaining and one of the big questions is who will take over the position abandoned by Mr. Harding. Will Mr. Harding be offered the job of warden again or will it go to Mrs Proudie’s favorite, Mr. Quiverful, who must provide for a wife and 14 children?

While Dickens and his characters are better known (and don’t misunderstand me, I love Dickens as well) I would argue that Trollope’s characters are more subtly drawn. Dickens characters are either unspeakably evil (Fagin, Ralph Nickleby) or incredibly good (Little Nell, Little Dorrit).

Trollope gives his good people weaknesses (Septimus Harding spends a large amount of money self-publishing Harding’s Church Music) and can be sympathetic to his less likable characters. When Mrs. Proudie finally gets her comeuppance in The Last Chronicle of Barset, the reader feels sorry for her.

With regular doses of Trollope I was able to get through the rough patch that was the start of this new job. I went on to read many other Trollope novels, but when after 11 years I left this job to find another, I once again spent time with the people of Barsetshire. I have found them fascinating many times since.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

* I’m sure this joke grew stale quickly in the 19th century. Later in the twentieth century it was said that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan “liked to go to bed with a Trollope.”

Saturday, May 9, 2015


Watching PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009) made me think about how different present day America is from the America of the 1930s, and how much it is the same. Depression-era America was a time of great suffering, of the rise of unions, of radical politics, of the centralization of government (including the creation of “federal” crimes and the establishment and growth of the FBI), of radio, of the movies, of FDR. Some of the powers that be tried to demonize immigrants as the cause of our economic malaise (sound familiar?), while others placed the blame on corporate greed. Some of those powers wrapped themselves in the flag even while they violated the values it symbolizes, and regularly claimed to have corresponded with God, who informed them that the ruin of America was found in all those Southern and Eastern European Catholic immigrants who were attacking both the American standard of living and American standards of morality. On the other side were the muckrakers and the reformers, and all those who made an effort to put people back to work.

Present day Recession-era America (now that we are in the age of advertising, of mass media, of euphemism and spin, the word Depression will never be used again, even if fully half the population were to become unemployed) is also subject to divisive and divided politics, and we even have the equivalent of Father Coughlin in Rush Limbaugh. Unions are now in eclipse, and people are told that good old American individualism is the path to financial success (even as the encroachments of both the government and big business make such success increasingly unlikely for the common man).

Seeing these parallels made me wonder why we don’t have the equivalents of a Jesse James or John Dillinger, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd, in modern day America. Where is our modern, our postmodern, Robin Hood? Why are there no such heroes today, no pirates, no bank robbers, no nothing? Maybe part of it is because it is now so much harder to rob banks. Surely if they were easier to rob the media would go nuts over the men who robbed them. They would become the kind of perversely inverted heroes the media loves to flog us with, such as O.J. Simpson and the BTK killer. And if a nationally known criminal managed to escape from jail, like Dillinger did twice in his short life (33 when he died), I imagine you might hear a little bit about it on the news. I guess we do have D.B. Cooper, who in 1971 parachuted out of a 727 he hijacked with $200,000 he had extorted and was never seen or heard from again, but that is about it. We also have computer hackers, but cyber-crime is too bloodless to be really compelling.

I am putting aside for the purposes of this essay the question of whether Dillinger did or did not really have sympathy for the common man, had some compassion for some of his fellow men or was just a common psychopath. In the movie he steals from banks, but claims to have never done so from the people themselves. He is beset on both sides by a corporatizing mob, which has become “The Syndicate,” and the incipient FBI, which performs phone taps and pursues him across state lines. I don’t know if the real Dillinger was so much a man against the machine, of if he had such scruples about when and where to be larcenous and to practice brutality: It’s the idea of the outlaw hero, the man outside the law who is more just than those who are function inside it, and the conditions that spawned a public need for such a hero, that are interesting.

Dillinger refuses to perform kidnappings in the movie (and was never charged with kidnapping in real life), and sees his lot in life as part of an “us” that consisted of the have-nots in a fight against the haves, whose representatives were cops, prison guards, bankers and politicians. The Dillinger in “Public Enemies” (played by Johnny Depp) tells the press that he had gotten ten years for stealing $50 and that it was fine with him, because he met a lot of great guys in prison. He is loyal to his “men’” even when it means risking his own life and, unlike Baby Face Nelson (played wonderfully by Stephen Graham, who soon after became Al Capone in BOARDWALK EMPIRE) , he never kills just for the hell of it (again in real life, Dillinger was only ever charged with one homicide, in spite of robbing twenty four banks and four police stations, which are apparently a good place to stock up on weapons).

Maybe our heroes can be found in stories like those told in THE GODFATHER or THE SOPRANOS, but those crooks are mobbed up, literally part of a mob, and are organized in a way that Dillinger never was. Even though he had accomplices, Dillinger was an independent operator. That is part of Depp’s charm in this movie. In an era where the common man was losing his farm to heartless bankers, the same bankers who had blundered with the depositors’ monies so badly that people had lost all their life’s savings, an era in which the government seemed to be in the hands of the same people in charge of the banks and where men who wanted to make an honest living couldn’t, Dillinger was the real American rugged individualist—stronger alone even than the men who gathered together to oppose him.

In the movie, we see Dillinger, charming, ultra-masculine, daring beyond belief, courtly, oddly shy, squared off against Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who runs the manhunt for Dillinger at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover.

Purvis seems almost autistic in his lack of emotion, as tough as Dillinger, perhaps, but without the passion. You could say that it wasn’t Purvis but Dillinger’s passion for Billie Frechette that brought Dillinger down. Purvis knew Frechette was in Chicago and also knew Dillinger could not resist going to her. Still, the Purvis here detailed is frightening. He doesn’t seem to have anything in his life that can make him swerve from the path he is on. Purvis has no loyalty to his men, and no motivation that we can see for what he does beyond the thrill of the hunt. He shoots Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) in an apple orchard, making a stupendous shot from hundreds of yards away, and it seems to be the only time in the movie when he genuinely enjoys doing anything. The movie gives no back-story for Purvis, and this seems right. A man so obsessed with the hunt seems to need to only have been born that way. And we aren’t going to get either guy to go on too much about their childhoods, both being men of action and not words, although Dillinger does take the time and effort to charm his girl.

I couldn’t help but love Dillinger’s character. He is so tough, so unafraid of any man, or anything, including death. He falls in love with Frechette (Marie Cotillard) at first sight, going up to her with his hat in his hand, literally and figuratively, and then telling her that they are meant to be together with such conviction that she looks at him as if she realizes she has no choice but to be with him (not that she minds). And then, making him seem even more lovable, she asks him to dance and he says he doesn’t know how. She takes his hand and teaches him. The scenes with Frechette are great. He tells her she has no reason to feel like she is less than the snooty broads around them when they go to a fancy joint for breakfast, and you can see the pride he takes in himself, refusing to feel like he is somewhat less than anyone for having come up poor. When she tells him she is afraid he will die, he tells her he is tougher and smarter than all the guys after him put together. And you believe him.

The gun fights in the movie are great, and the whole 30s, noir, dustbowl farmer, hobo, fedora, overcoat, running board, floor model radio sensibility is just wonderful, spot on, at least to a person who wasn’t born until 1962.

The way the movie presents it, it is really The Syndicate that dooms Dillinger. And it is a business decision. Public enemies like Dillinger are giving Hoover the leverage he needs for federal laws against all kinds of crimes, and the Syndicate can’t buy people off on a national level (usually, anyway). The Syndicate doesn’t want a federal law enforcement agency that can pursue them across state lines (The FBI, which had its genesis in the 30s). They stop giving Dillinger safe haven, and stop helping him escape. One of the FBI guys is a mole the Syndicate has planted, and it is he who predicts where Dillinger will be (the Biograph Theater in East Chicago) on the night he ends up dead.

It’s a great scene, Dillinger watching a gangster movie with Clark Gable playing the gangster as Dillinger awaits his own fate as a gangster. The movies were a sign that the world was changing, mass culture on the rise, and it is the mass efforts of the Syndicate, FBI, and the local cops that bring Dillinger down.

I couldn’t help but think of Dillinger as a throwback to an earlier time, one who learned armed robbery as a kind of trade, finding in prison a kind of guild hall where you honed your skills. By the time he got out of prison (he served just under ten years, and started his rampage in 1931), Dillinger was in a new world. In those ten years, crime had organized, and was all about prostitution and gambling and loan sharking. He was an old timer at 30, robbing banks, which even then was going out of style. Whatever Dillinger really was, he appeals as a representative of the American ideal of the strong man who can make it on his own, whether he is pitted against the wilderness or the institutions less powerful men create to protect themselves from the strong. I couldn’t help but cheer for him.

© 2015 Mike Welch