Category Archives: Culture

Crime writers: a “fatal lack of talent”?

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Last week, William O’Rourke, emeritus professor of English at Notre Dame, wrote an essay for the Irish Times about the Irish writer Michael Collins, his former student. Things kicked off from there. O’Rourke wrote:

Michael, unfortunately, had, has, too much talent to succeed as a crime writer. He doesn’t possess the fatal lack of talent required. He asks too much of a reader.

And from crime writers came laughter, and spit-takes, and the rolling of eyes. Until the Books Editor of the Irish Times, Martin Doyle, invited us to respond. Thirteen of us did: ‘Untalented’ crime writers respond to their No 1 critic.

My contribution:

I had a drop of talent once. I got rid of it. Sold it out of the boot of my car so I could write a crime novel.

My main point is this:

There’s a damaging belief that talent is binary. You either have it – gifted by genetics, the Almighty, a lotto scratch card – or not. You’ve got it? Off you go to Hogwarts. You don’t? Muggle. Give up. Don’t waste our time.

But as a writer, a teacher, and above all as a parent, I’ve come to regard talent as a false god.

Read on for the rest of my response, and for replies from Sarah Hilary, John Banville, Declan Hughes, and a host of other fine crime writers.

Friday January 27: Creative Mornings Austin

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This Friday I’ll be the speaker for CreativeMornings/Austin.

CreativeMornings is a breakfast lecture series for the creative community. It features free monthly short talks (and breakfast!) in 160 cities around the world. The theme for this month’s talks is Mystery:

We are comforted by certainty and seek it frantically like a child that lost sight of their parents. But as the astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser said in The Island of Knowledge, “We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.”

Indeed, gaze at the stars, at old traditions, or ponder the modern behaviors encouraged by technology, and you might have trouble understanding or explaining it. By engaging with mystery the way we flip through a new book, we allow our lives to expand.

“This month in 160+ cities around the world, we’ll learn how creatives from various backgrounds dance with mystery and infuse it into their lives.”

I tend to scrap and rassle with mystery more than dance with it, but if you want to hear about how I do that, here are details. Though the event is free, if you want to attend, you’ll need to register at the link below.

MYSTERY
CreativeMornings ATX
January 27, 8:00am – 9:30am CST
Hosted at Thirteen23
506 Congress Avenue, Suite 200
Austin, Texas 78701

Right now, there’s a waiting list to attend. But folks on the waiting list mysteriously tend to get a seat, so if you’re interested, please do register.

Hope to see some of y’all there!

Die Hard for the holidays

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During this festive season, whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, the Summer Solstice, Boxing Day, Hogmanay, Saturnalia, all of the above, or merely waking up in the morning, please be sure to enjoy that great holiday tradition: Die Hard. 

Yes, it’s the best action movie ever made. Yes, it’s a Christmas movie. Yes, because of this movie, my son once went to an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party wearing a gray sweatshirt on which he’d scrawled, “NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN HO-HO-HO,” which prompted someone to tell me I was a disgusting mother.

If you’re a thriller writer, watch Die Hard to see how it’s done. If you’re not, watch it to enjoy the story, the dialogue, the gutsy snark of Bruce Willis, and the gleaming, urbane menace of Alan Rickman.

Yippee-kai-yay!

Scenes: Keep looking, and new things appear

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When I write, I generally start by sketching the outlines of a scene. What’s happening? What are the goals of the characters? What goes wrong, or erupts, or turns the scene on its head? When I rewrite, I try to go deeper: to ramp up conflict, explore the characters’ emotions, heighten the tension, add surprises and twists.

Then I take a step back to see what I’ve got. Often, I need to let somebody else read my work to find out what I’ve missed, and what depths are hidden in the story.

That’s how I felt when I saw this painting.

I was walking down a city sidewalk when I passed an art gallery with this work in the window. I was struck by the painting — it captured the southwest I remember from childhood summer road trips. Route 66 gets me every time.

I wondered who the artist was. Then I looked beyond the frame of the painting, at the artist’s photo on the wall of the gallery to the right. And at his name on the back wall, partially visible behind the painting. And I re-calibrated everything I’d been seeing, and thinking, about the exhibit, and the painting, and the artist.

Bob Dylan.

The guy is busy. No wonder he had to skip the Nobel Prize ceremony.

My point? Whether walking down the street, or listening to your kids, or doing research, or writing fiction… or songs…

You’ve got to take a second look, and a third. Reevaluate. Look deeper. Pay attention. See the whole scene, and look at it with fresh eyes. Because you never know the true scope of what’s there until you step back and really see.

In the photo, my image is faintly visible in the glass. Every creative work reflects the artist.

The Fargo Location Tour

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You know I’m a huge fan of Fargo. I love the movie. The TV show was one of my 2014 and 2015 favorites. I’ve never been to Fargo, North Dakota, itself. But I have now been to a bunch of locations where the TV series was filmed.

Here’s how to make this miracle happen.

  1. Visit friends who have recently moved to the vast prairie of Alberta, Canada.
  2. See the wonders of the Canadian Rockies.
  3. Eat Poutine.
  4. Discover that the TV series was largely filmed in friends’ Calgary neighborhood and omigod there’s a map and omigod the place where Gus Grimly first confronts Malvo is right around the corner and so is Lou’s Coffee Shop and Lester Nygaard’s insurance agency and the sites of so many murders and OMIGOD so is the Pearl Hotel.

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Then:

  1. Conduct pilgrimage.
  2. Lament that the Waffle Hut (with its associated massacre and bad guy-through-the-windshield-of-a-Corvair scenes) is on private property and must be taken on faith.
  3. Binge watch Fargo with friends.

This is how a thriller writer gets her kicks. What a weekend.

Thank you, David Bowie

One day in my twenties, I picked my dad up at the airport. As I drove him home, we chatted about his trip.

It was good, he said. He paused. “At LAX, I ran into David Bowie.”

“You… did?” I managed not to say, You know who David Bowie is?

My dad said that he was changing terminals and when he stepped outside, Bowie was standing at the curb, waiting for his ride.

“Did you speak to him?” I said, though I already knew the answer to that. My dad never shied from anything.

“I told him I admired his music. We talked about his influences, from twentieth century classical composers to the avant-garde.”

They chatted for a minute, then my dad hustled to his terminal and Bowie climbed into his limo.

I should not have been surprised by any of this. My dad, who looked every inch the English professor he was, also was a classical pianist and professional organist. What delights me is how my dad just ambled up, chill as all get-out, and started talking to Bowie about his music. Bowie engaged with a complete stranger, warmly and genuinely.

Thank you, David Bowie, for being so cool, and for helping me understand that my dad was cool too.

We can be heroes, just for one day
We can be us, just for one day.

My favorite books, movies & TV of 2015

December is zooming like a rocket sled toward the end of the year. So how about a few Best-Of lists?

My favorite movies of 2015:

Mad Max: Fury Road
Ex Machina
Bridge of Spies
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
The Martian

Note that I still have a few movies to see this year, including Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m going to add Star Wars to the list.

Favorite TV shows:

The Jinx
Fargo
Better Call Saul
Game of Thrones
House of Cards

Again, I still have to catch up on Mad Men, and am just getting into some shows like Mr. Robot and The Americans.

Favorite books outside of crime/suspense/thrillers:

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, Brendan I. Koerner
A Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, Tim Weiner
Underworld, Don DeLillo
Abaddon’s Gate, James S.A. Corey
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

I read a wealth of amazing crime and suspense novels this year. So many, in fact, that I need to sort through them and post those later.

How about everybody else?