Sunday, December 27, 2009


This is about perfection.

            Five days before Christmas my husband and I decided it was time to get serious about this holiday. After years of planning months in advance to get our gift shopping done on time and mapping out long drives to both sets of in-laws, we only had to move from one room to another and shop for ourselves and a few friends. Life had become easy—to such an extent that the annual holiday fever floated by us like a cloud of stale cigarette smoke. We sneezed and ignored it. And then we looked at the calendar.

            We drove up to a local farm store where we purchased more than we could eat in a week (I choose food on the basis of color and smell), bought a tree, and ordered a turkey, to be picked up the next day. So, on Monday, after work, up I went, collected the big bird, and drove home on criminally unlighted roads still icy from an earlier storm. My preparations were about done.

            The tree made it inside on Sunday and we put up the lights. I decorated, plugged everything in, and went off to find something to read. It wasn’t until a day later that I looked at the tree more closely. It was a balsam fir standing about 7 feet tall. I poked at the branches, crawled underneath, stepped back. To my delight and amazement, the tree is perfect. Now, this is perfection as defined by holiday trees. It stands straight, its boughs stretch out in an even conical shape, it is pleasingly proportioned from base to crown. The color is a deep, dense green. It isn’t missing branches, doesn’t have broken branches, doesn’t sag on one side. The tree is perfect in its shape and size and color. I’ve never had such a tree before.

            Usually when I chose a tree, it’s the least ugly one on the lot that will fit in the back of the car or on the roof. I don’t expect beauty. The one we got this year is perplexing, and I have spent more than an hour just looking it over or sitting and admiring it.

            This is not about trees, however. It’s about perfection.

            I don’t believe in perfection. I don’t believe in tempting a capricious fate or falling into arrogance or obsession, which is where the pursuit of perfection seems to lead. So I looked upon this tree as a freak of nature and of the holiday season (and whoever trimmed the branches—perfectly—before it reached the sales lot). It wasn’t anything to take seriously. And then we had the turkey.

            We ordered a fourteen pounder so we would have enough leftovers to make sandwiches, turkey pies, etc. I stuffed and cooked the bird and pulled it out when it hit the requisite temperature. Then came the annual ritual of getting the turkey, or at least most of it, from pot to platter. We have been doing this for years and have yet to manage it without a lot of wails of distress as half the bird, glued to the pan, refuses to budge, drumsticks fall apart, and the rack pulls off the back. With previous holiday birds in mind, I was ready to try to hold together as much of the turkey as possible. My husband armed himself with serving forks and lifted—and the entire turkey in one piece floated over to the platter—where it remained intact. No wing flopped and tore, revealing clean white meat, no skin from the back slipped and hung as the bird flew from old perch to new. Nothing came apart, ripped, fell off. Perfection—again. And there the turkey sat—in its entirety. This was weird.

            I belong to the school that believes perfection is impossible, an unattainable goal pointed to by some designed to make others miserable and unhappy with their lot, especially with their families and friends and credit card balances. Perfection is a trick of salesmen, designed to keep us forever dissatisfied with what we have or who we are. No matter how well I do something, if it’s not perfect, I have failed. That is the message of every huckster selling how-to improve yourself books, makeup kits, exercise machines, cruise vacations, a second or third car, and on down the list of items depicted in consumer catalogues cramming our mailboxes. I ignore all this as best I can.

            For me, done is better than perfect. If I have a deadline, I make sure it’s reasonable and then work as hard as I can to meet it. When I’m done I’m done. I know the temptation to hold back and try to improve it—whatever it is—to make the story or novel or grant application or whatever I’m working on just a little bit better. But I don’t give in to this. This way lies madness—or poverty. Consider the American painter Albert Ryder, whose long career as an artist ended with his death in 1917. Despite almost fifty years of painting, he left only about 150 works. At the end of his most productive period he became fixated on improving each painting, redoing the canvas again and again until the original picture was lost beneath layers of paint and new pictures. A patron who had ordered a painting had to go to Ryder’s studio and physically take the canvas off the easel to get the work he had wanted. Ryder’s striving after perfection satisfied no one.

            I don’t strive for perfection. I strive to finish something with as few flaws as possible, sending off a manuscript that I know is not perfect because it cannot be—unless it’s a fluke that has nothing to do with me. That’s the way I look at the Christmas tree and the turkey. They are flukes and will not be repeated—nor could they last. Shakespeare knew this when he opened Sonnet 15 with the lines “When I consider everything that grows/Holds in perfection but a little moment.” The tree will drop its needles, the lights and decorations will come down, and the tree will be dragged to the mulch pile out back where it will turn brown over the coming months. I will remember it fondly for its uiqueness and in a few years it will enrich the vegetable garden.

            As for the turkey. . .  If left in its perfect state, it would rot. We admired it for a few seconds, marveling at its intactness, and that’s about all you can do with something that’s perfect. So, we admired it, then set about carving it. Somerset Maugham said, “Perfection has one grave defect: it is apt to be dull.” In this instance he was only partly right. It was delicious. You might almost say it was perfection.

Friday, December 11, 2009


During a recent discussion with friends on the possibility of a library panel on self-publishing, I was explaining the requirements for joining various writers’ groups—the rules for the Authors Guild, the Writers Union, and Mystery Writers of America are all different. This came up because MWA had just published their list of acceptable publishers and the criteria by which they are evaluated. We had just been through the debacle of Harlequin’s new foray into self-publishing/vanity publishing, and I was explaining in detail why Harlequin had been dropped and why Level Best Books, of which I am an editor, qualified.

            This is the kind of arcana that writers love, mystery writers especially—the minimum advance, minimum print run, number of titles published, number of years between books, number of reviews and from which publications—we’re not the least bit coy about talking about the financial side of our work, perhaps because for most of us it’s pretty dismal. Samuel Johnson would find no blockheads in our crowd, though he’d find plenty of poor souls.

            When the subject turns to self-publishing, writers with traditional publishers (the ones who pay and produce) cringe or wince or fall silent. We have an uneasy relationship with the self-publishing concept and no reason seems adequate. We trust the editors to vet a manuscript and as writers we want that sign of approval. Someone thinks well enough of what we have written to pay real money for it. Someone else is going to do some of the hard work—edit, design, print, and distribute the thing. Reviewers—not relatives or friends but people we don’t even know—are going to take us seriously (the one dream all writers have in common) and read the book. Self-publishing suggests the writer couldn’t find a publisher, or doesn’t have faith in his or her work to try to find one. The tacit judgment is that real writers find publishers.

            I’ve had all these feelings and I recognize them as the contemporary brainwashing. Some of my fellow writers have self-published beautiful books of fiction and poetry, as well done as any from Houghton Mifflin or Random House.

            But lately I’ve been wondering about how bizarre this standard can seem.

            Several times a year I come across a new local musician who has put out a CD. He or she has chosen the songs and backup musicians, and used a local recording studio. She pays for all of this and hopes to get it back by selling the CD and, with luck, getting attention from radio stations and perhaps a bigger music producer. Now, I know absolutely nothing about the music business, but I pick up these CDs and marvel that any musician can pull together the cash, make a CD and sell it, and no one in the music industry thinks any less of the product because the musician took the initiative to produce it on his or her own. Other musicians pick up the CDs, listen to them, and react to the music, not the manner of production. Why do writers face a host of gatekeepers (publishers, reviewers, bookstores, readers) and musicians face none (except money and access to a recording studio)? Why are writers judged by how their work is produced, and musicians are not?

            I don’t know the answer, but I suppose the real question is whether or not writing will go the way of music. Will writers in a few years publish their own books with no stigma attached to the work for its being self-published, and flog their books just as musicians push their CDs at performances? Will publishers become nothing more than providers of printing services? The world of writing is changing so rapidly that anything seems possible.  But a world without gatekeepers in publishing will be really strange. Writers will have to learn to do the work of editors and designers. And readers will be left to vet books on their own—after they’ve paid for them.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Judging a Book . . . Update

 After writing the last blog, on book covers, I expected to put the topic behind me and move on to something else of interest to, well, me, if I’m being honest (and perhaps one or two others). But, to my utter delight and amazement, I had an email from my editor, Tiffany, at Five Star, asking me what I thought about the sample cover she had attached. This is where I admit that I read that short sentence two or three times, just to let the pleasure of being asked to comment on the cover sink in. (I also reread jokes to savor the full impact—I was raised to be a dour Protestant.)

            Tiffany’s note was short, since she’s nursing a broken collar bone and can type with only one hand. But it was clear and to the point. Does this cover work for my story? I opened the attachment, scanned it on my laptop, then printed it out. I was immediately pleased that the designer seemed to have read the story, or at least understood it. The novel, Under the Eye of Kali, is the first in a new series featuring Anita Ray, an Indian American woman living in South India at a hotel run by her aunt. It is a land of palm trees and high rises shooting up next to low-slung traditional houses with thatched roofs, with long white beaches running unhindered up the coast. And the cover pretty much got it—high rises behind a row of palm trees, water lapping gently against the coastline. But all was not perfect.

            Now, I do not in any way regard myself as visually artistic—I enjoy taking photographs, mostly for fun and my own pleasure, and I have strong views on what works and doesn’t work—but I would never dare tell a designer how to do his or her job. But Tiffany asked for my opinion.

            The one discordant note for me in the proposed cover was the image of a rug beneath the waves and a beringed hand emerging over the rug but still in the waves. It just seemed to be too much. After thinking about it for a day or so I emailed back that I thought the rug and the hand were a bit too much—they made the cover fussy. My thought had been an image of a deity emerging into view beneath the waves. I sent that back with thanks for having been invited to review the cover. I didn’t expect anything else to come of it, and wondered when I’d see the final book.

            Just a day later Tiffany sent me a revised cover—with exactly the image I had imagined. There just below the water’s surface, slowly emerging into view, is the figure of a deity with a necklace of skulls/heads. It’s fabulous! I sent back my enthusiastic approval and thanks once again to Tiffany.

            The cover for Under the Eye of Kali, due in May 2010 from Five Star, works perfectly in my view—with the story and the depiction of contemporary South India. The story takes place in a modern resort surrounded by palm trees, the murder victim is found along the shore, and the villain . . .  You’ll have to read the book.

            And now, if there are any complaints about the cover, those complaints come straight to me. I can’t hide behind the excuse of being only the writer and having nothing to do with the design of the cover. If I get to say what I like and don’t like, I get to take the heat if others don’t like it. But even so, this is one two-edged sword I’m glad to grasp with both hands.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Judging a Book by Its Cover

A member of the Five Star chat list recently posted a thoughtful and passionate piece about the role of luck in launching a new book. He touched on a lot of points, but one in particular caught my eye—the cover design.

            Whenever anyone talks about the effectiveness or irrelevance of a cover, I recall an encounter in the old Spenser’s Mystery Bookstore in Boston. The sales person had just read what she considered a terrific mystery but found the cover so off-putting that readers just weren’t picking it up. She talked about how well written it was, how interesting the story was, how she had been thoroughly caught up in the whole thing. She thought I’d like it too. And as I listened to her describe it, I had to agree. But that cover . . .

            The cover was brown with a figure emerging from the darkness dressed also in brown, and not a particularly attractive brown either. I could not bring myself to pick up that book. I was like everyone else she had tried to sell it to (or most others)—I couldn’t get past the cover.

            When my first mystery novel was published in 1993, my editor, Susanne Kirk, called to tell me about the cover. “There’s an old chair . . .” When I saw it, I thought I understood why she made the call. A Victorian-style chair in purple was placed against a black background, and had two eyes, a nose, and a slash for a mouth scratched into the picture, as though someone were defacing a photograph. I gulped, reminded myself to be grateful for being published by Scribner and set about selling the book as best I could. I accepted the cover as one of those things. Then, a friend showed it to her son, a successful graphic designer, and reported back that he really liked the cover—he thought it was very effective. Really? Well, who knew? After that I just hoped I’d run into a lot of designers who read mystery novels.

            Most of the time I pay little attention to the covers. I look at mine, at those of my friends, and forget the rest. But after reading Gordon’s comments I thought about some of the covers I really liked. In 1992 Ellen Nehr, who has since died, published the Doubleday Crime Club Compendium 1928-1991, a massive undertaking in which she included a selection of book covers. Most are unremarkable in design (the usually threatening male with a gun, skulls, dead bodies), but one in particular has stayed with me. The Needle’s Kiss by Austin J. Small appeared in 1929 with a cover of near perfect 1920s Art Deco design in blues and purples; the scene is of a man standing on a bridge smoking and another man fishing out a body floating in the river. Unfortunately, the cover also comes with the prejudices of its times. The headline “A hideous menace confronts the Thames River Police!” floats over the standing figure, who is wearing a green Mao-style jacket and smoking a cigarette, with the suggestion of Far Eastern features.

            Most of the covers Nehr included make much with little—two or three colors, usually black and white and another, red or green or blue—and do their best to create the fear and suspense the reader hopes to find in the story. I was also surprised to discover that I owned one of these—a battered copy of Marion Bramhall’s Murder Solves a Problem (1944).

            All of this leaves me still with the question of the importance of a cover. A good cover is a gift from the publishing gods, a bad cover is a curse, but the mediocre cover is just that—sort of neutral. I doubt anyone remembers Small’s book (well, okay, maybe Jon Breen or Jim Huang) or the cover, or the cover of my first book, and that’s a relief. This business is hard enough without starting to feel that everything is out of our control—the success or failure of something we’ve worked on for months, even years, at the mercy of a young designer trying to decide which bar to head to after work if he can just get this last cover done. No, I’d rather think that somewhere, someone will love each and every cover and we just have to find that person—and then hope he or she likes the story as well.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Characters: Where do they come from?

A recent post by Carol Kilgore at got me thinking about how I create characters, and some of the resources that have stimulated and broadened my thinking over time. So, thank you, Carol, for starting me thinking about this.

           I’m like many other writers—I like to think my characters emerge as their own souls, fully formed, entirely independent of mortal creation, eternal and grander than my mere imagination can create. A dream, yes.

            More likely is that I’ve been absorbing the traits and behaviors of those I see around me as well as what I read, and there are some very good resources for helping the faltering imagination with character development.

            First, the twelve astrological signs tend to give a well-rounded description of a number of personality types, and their less attractive qualities can easily be laced with evil intent. The home-loving Cancer can become the obsessive wife who will kill to protect her home, and the hard-driving Taurus can be the insensitive executive who tramples everyone and anyone in the drive to get ahead—a gratifying choice for the victim. Any book explaining astrology gives full descriptions for these personality types and a year’s worth of predictions suggests the kinds of traps each one might fall into.

            Second, a few years ago several books were published about the ancient Sufi tradition of the Enneagram, which describes nine personality types and their interrelationships. The descriptions of each one go on for several pages and even include examples of each type.  The nine types are the perfectionist, giver, performer, tragic romantic, observer, devil’s advocate, epicure, boss, and mediator. No one person is entirely one type, and the teachings include variations on the standard one. The givers can be seen in the negative side to be quite selfish and histrionic—a wonderful dynamic for a supposedly good character.

            Third, the characteristic features of specific features of handwriting can lead to a remarkably deep sense of who someone is. Handwriting analysis books are readily available, and examples can be drawn from one’s own writing. I sometimes use reactions to someone’s handwriting in a story to reveal something about both the narrator and the other character. It can be unsettling to see a well-dressed woman scribble a note in the appalling handwriting of a barely literate child, or a graceful signature written by a construction worker.

            Fourth, I recently came across a book about ethnic character types. I found this at first hard to swallow, but after reading through some of the articles and coming across some other ethnic history, I began to see the value in some of it. The Irish, which is my heritage, were slow to assimilate because they wanted to keep their ethnic heritage, which included a love of the passing day—a love of living in the present rather than making money in order to someday have a good time. I pondered that for a long time, as a member of the tribe, and had to admit that it has some merit. But that’s another story.

            If you have tips to develop characters and find their flaws or their virtues, let me know. I’m always looking for ways to expand my library of resources.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Destiny and Its Branches

Destiny and Its Branches

I recently came across an old photograph of one of my brothers, now dead, among his classmates and couldn’t stop wondering about these children who are now nameless. It is typical of photographs of schoolchildren, in which they are invariably lined up, admonished to stop wiggling, and told to smile. Most of them manage, looking more mystified than vain or eager to have their photo taken. But none of that is what fascinates me. What grabs me is the story I see unfolding. If you line up any dozen children from a grade-school class, each and every one looks like he or she has the same potential, the same opportunity, the same future as any other. They are bright-eyed, tidy for the most part (it’s usually before recess for this kind of portrait), and about the same size. And yet, in each one are the seeds of a unique and striking life—with at least one tragedy and, one hopes, at least one great joy.

The thought about children hiding their futures behind bright smiles and curious eyes came to the fore again recently when someone I grew up with was arrested for a violent crime. I was stunned—and still am. It got me thinking about other people I have known since childhood or college and what has happened to them in the intervening years—which number more than I care to think about. A dear college friend committed suicide, leaving behind a loving husband and two brilliant children; a relative died the same way, unable to come to grips with the sorrows of his life; one of the nicest, most popular guys in grade school chose drugs and motorcycles; and a happy-go-lucky prep school student has been struggling with mental illness for thirty years. These are the lives that throw into relief the quiet ones that are lived in the suburbs with summer vacations spent white-water rafting or hiking, or rewriting for the tenth time the novel they started in college or during a brief period of unemployment.

 This recurring wonder is probably what’s behind some of my drive to write. Nevertheless, I didn’t expect my characters to emerge so violently from my own life. It’s one thing to interview a criminal, to learn how he or she thinks, or to go into social services and count in a client list a few ex-felons, men or women guilty of robbery or kidnapping. We keep them at a respectful distance according to the dictates and professional requirements of our job. And no matter how much we might come to respect, like, even admire them for the changes they bring about in their lives, it’s not the same as looking back at your childhood and discovering that an old friend is now charged with a serious crime.

 The only way for me to deal with this turn of events is to put the character into a novel, so this story about a childhood friend will probably show up in a future Mellingham. I want to understand how this life happened, how it evolved and took the turns that led to that startling newspaper report. Only by experiencing such a life through my imagination will I understand it on a deeper level, and set aside the facile explanations or even condemnations.

 That’s how I cope—I write about it, whatever it is. When I visit a new place, I see it as a setting for a novel or short story; if I meet an interesting character, I want that person in a book. I improve people’s speeches in my head while they are talking to me, rewrite their personal histories, and re-imagine their fate. Eudora Welty had it about right when she said in One Writer’s Beginnings, “Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime, and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists.” Writing is for me the best way to make sense of life.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Guest Clea Simon on Anthony Trollope

This week I welcome Clea Simon to my writing world. After I wrote my last piece, on Graham Greene, it occurred to me this might be a good opportunity to find out about my fellow writers’ favorite books. Since I’m always look for more titles to read, I asked Clea Simon about her favorite writer, and she sent me this.


Clea Simon on Anthony Trollope



A few years ago, when PBS adapted The Way We Live Now for television, I had a mixed reaction. On one hand, I was thrilled that my husband got to learn about the sleazy financier Melmotte and his Madoff-like shenanigans. On the other, so did millions of other viewers—and suddenly my secret was out. Anthony Trollope was in the public eye. I no longer had Mr. T to myself.

            Okay, so it’s pretty silly to feel like I ever had any ownership over Trollope. The 19th Century Brit was one of his century’s most successful novelists and while his fame may have faded a bit in this era of fast-paced thrillers, there have always been readers who have loved his cynical, funny social satires and convoluted family sagas, books like Can You Forgive Her? and The Prime Minister.

            Trollope wrote novels the old-fashioned way, letting us get to know his characters—and their numerous flaws—before rushing them off into action, usually in the marital or social markets, occasionally in the personality-driven politics of the day. In two of my favorites, Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux, he follows one particular young man through most of his adult life, from early ambition and thwarted love to a mellower, and somewhat wiser maturity. He takes his time—these are books to curl up with—and he always delivers. Sometimes arch, always funny, and often wise, Trollope is a writer I often re-read. When I think of his wit and sharp eyes, I think I’d have loved to meet him.  He’s a writerly writer, not in a pained, self-conscious way (yes, he’s lighter than Henry James), but in the sense of being an assured wordsmith.

            Perhaps it makes sense that I have a sister copy editor to thank for introducing me to him. Several years ago, when we both worked at the Boston Globe, a Living/Arts desk colleague loaned me the use of her lakeside Maine cabin for a weeklong vacation. She had a canoe, an outdoor shower, a lovely dock. Everything one would need for a restful week. Except the weather didn’t comply. After only one day of swimming and sunning, the rain closed in, and the book I’d brought to read myself to sleep was soon exhausted. Poking about in her shelves, I found a well-worn paperback copy of The Eustace Diamonds, and I was hooked. The middle of The Palliser novels, this 1871 picaresque features a slick anti-heroine, very much in the mode of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair). Just insecure enough to be sympathetic, she leads the bon ton a merry chase as she hangs on to her late husband’s family jewels beyond all reason—and all profit to herself. It’s a great fun soap for the pre-TV age, and one I re-read fairly regularly.

            I admit, these books may not be for everyone. I’ve always been a fan of long, gossipy novels. The Gothic adventures of the 1790s have inspired my new mystery, Shades of Grey, and I’d just as soon tuck myself up with a Henry Fielding or a Thackeray as watch most dramas on TV. But Trollope is easier reading than even these, fast and funny and full of well-drawn characters. These aren’t necessarily qualifications that critics look for these days. There may be a reason that Trollope is best known at present as the source of TV drama; fiction critics tend to favor action-packed thrillers or navel-gazing meditations to a well-written story line.  But these are still my models for what a good novel should be, and what I aspire to write like. They are certainly the kind of book I love to read, over and over again.


Clea Simon is the author of five mysteries and three nonfiction books. She can be reached at

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back on the Shelf

Back on the Shelf


Exhaustingly hot days can be just as good as cold snowy ones to justify lolling quietly on the sofa on a weekday afternoon, thinking about what books to read, what new ones to buy, and, yes, which ones to weed out to make way for the new. I have to force myself to do this every now and then or life would be unlivable in my small house, and my husband and I don’t want to go the way of the Collins brothers.

            The bookshelf that got my attention this afternoon is the one to my immediate left, behind my desk, where I keep books on writing. I’m something of a junkie for these, and keep all of them no matter how slight or trivial. This makes it hard to find something to cull, but it does make for an enjoyable half hour while I poke among old friends and rediscover the pleasures of a particularly good but forgotten writer.

            Stephen King’s book always leaps out at me, and I enjoy leafing through it. But next to it sits an old standby that I like for many reasons. Technique in Fiction by Robie Macauley and George Lanning is a quiet, thoughtful work that guides the writer through all the stages of writing including the most mysterious one, the conception of a story. Lots of writers do this in their how-to books, some well and many less well. But what I like especially about Robie’s book (I use his first name because I had the good fortune to meet him a few times, including when he visited a class I taught in Boston) is the tone. He brings to this book his many years of experience as an editor with Houghton Mifflin but also he brings his own character and personality. He is thoughtful, precise, firm in his opinions but also equally clear why he has them.

            Too many books in this category are written with a sense of breathlessness, a chase headlong to the finish, to produce the perfect book, the absolutely best, rip-roarin’ mystery anyone ever wrote. They are all passion and opinion and way too much of the author and not nearly enough of other writers who have left us exceptional work.

This leads to another reason I still admire this book and return to it often. Robie was extremely well read, and this is evident on every page in every example. He puts John Updike and Alberto Moravia on the same page (literally) in discussing setting, place and milieu. He moves gracefully from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ann Beattie. We pass through Russian literature and the Norse sagas, and consider the views of other critics—E. M. Forster, Chekhov, and Madison Smartt Bell, among others.

The last reason I’ll give will definitely seem quirky to some. This is that each chapter ends with footnotes. I love footnotes. I love the tidiness of them, references all arranged in a row, numbered and neat, the listing of publishers I may not know, the promise that each idea is tied to reality and can be found once again in another form in another book. I love the orderliness of footnotes, particularly coming after a discussion of the disorderliness of characters and their behavior. For me a footnote demonstrates the writer’s implicit regard for the reader, as well as the care the writer has taken in his own work. And I love the promise in each note that there is more and here is where you’ll find it.

All of this derails my afternoon of good intentions. I will read a few more pages, enjoy the voice of quiet authority and erudition, and put the book back on the shelf one more time. Then I’ll go find something else to do while the sun is too hot and the humidity too high to hear the call from the garden.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Graham Greene's Doctor Fischer of Geneva

Graham Greene’s Doctor Fischer of Geneva; or, The Bomb Party (1980)


Graham Greene is one of those writers who tend to be pigeonholed as this or that type of writer because it makes things easier for the reader or critic. In Greene’s case, two of the categories I have come across are Catholic writer or popular writer with political themes. Both of these descriptions are true in a literal sense. Greene converted to Catholicism when he fell in love with the woman who would later become his wife, and his novels certainly have political themes. But these categories don’t interest me. What grabs me is the way Greene tells a story.

            The trend right now is to stories that are more and more extreme—more violence, more murders, more outrageous behaviors. Writers who work to develop interesting characters with some depth are urged to abruptly toss in a serial killer, an assault or rape, or something worse. The story lurches forward. This is not true of all writers working today, but of enough so that I found myself struck by the differences when I picked up one of Greene’s lesser works, Doctor Fischer of Geneva; or, The Bomb Party, which appeared in 1980.

            Doctor Fischer is a retired millionaire living in Geneva with his daughter, who despises him. His wife is dead and she holds him responsible. She falls in love with the narrator, Alfred Jones, a man in his fifties who lost his hand during the Blitz and now works as a translator for a chocolate company in Switzerland. The story revolves around the dinner parties Dr. Fischer gives, to which he invites only his select group of so-called friends.  His daughter calls the friends toads, an apt error for toadies. The rules of the dinner party are that the guests must tolerate his insults and humiliations in order to receive a gift at the end. These guests are not poor, but they will endure anything to add to their wealth. This is one of Greene’s themes—about the level of corruption among those who already have everything and the true nature of violence, the psychological damage it does to the human spirit that is greater than physical harm to the body.  Evil is intentional but also pathetic. There are no murders, although Alfred’s young wife dies in a skiing accident, but the cruelty is so intense that nothing more is needed. The story holds the reader, as we watch the simple, subtle ways Greene removes layer upon layer of self-deception and the power of the bully who is himself miserable.

            As I finished the novel and laid the book on the stack to be returned to the library I could still see each dinner scene vividly. This is what I look for in crime fiction or thrillers or whatever we call them—a character whose intent in this world drives the story, is the story, and remains alive and riveting long after the book is finished.

            Graham Greene is admired for many things in his fiction, but I most admire him for never pulling any punches—he sees his characters as they truly are through to the bitter end, and he never comes up with a happy ending, nor a gratuitously violent or dark one. The ending is true to the character.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

July 21, 2009 The Ones We Let Go

The Ones We Let Go


Late July is when I clear my desk and get started on editing stories for the Level Best Books annual anthology of crime stories by New England writers. I love the idea of plunging in and rereading stories I like and discovering new things to like—a minor character I barely noticed before, an especially apt description, an incredibly clever trick of misdirection. But this time I will read with a sense of loss too.

When the other editors and I began this cooperative, we put out a slim volume of eleven stories that came in at 182 pages, plus front and back matter. Last year we published 26 stories coming in at 273 pages. That’s about our maximum for printer’s costs. So what’s the problem? For the most part every year we find that we agree on the good stories, the ones we wished were better, and the ones that are just not ready. We may have to say no to a few stories we like, but we grip our pens and check them off. Over an afternoon of lunch and tea, we whittle the list down to one that we can all agree on and can afford to print. That didn’t happen this year.

I make a sort of grid of the stories, with author’s name, title, word count, city/town/state, and record my thoughts in the space that follows each one. As anyone who has ever read for a contest or collection, these can range from detailed plot outlines to single words telling all—Huh? Yuck! Perfect! This year was no exception. In the left-hand margin I note my vote—yes, good, maybe, no. (I also tend to quibble sometimes and put in yes+ or ok+ or ok-  You get the idea.)  When I counted up my Yeses, I had thirty-six. Thirty-six! And that was just me! What about Kate and Ruth? (You can see how much this has upset me. I’ve broken one of my cardinal rules—no more than one exclamation point in at least 300 pages.) I knew Kate and Ruth would push the list of Yeses up to at least 50 because my Yeses were just my taste on what works for this anthology—not a judgment on the quality of every story.

The first time I judged a story contest I was given about twenty stories to read over a month’s time. The stories were by high school students and were for the most part pretty good though not yet publishable. One in particular was what I regarded as typical for the age—a teen meditating on life with a single superb poetic sentence right in the middle of the story. The rest of it went nowhere but I still remember that story. The story I chose, however, was one that made me laugh out loud with its droll sense of humor, the writer’s distance on her character, and the unexpected development of the story. This was a writer with a future—she never forgot her audience, and never took herself too seriously. I arrived at the meeting convinced all three of us judges would pick the same story. Man, was I wrong! (Oops! And again . . .) Not only did no one else pick the same story I had chosen, but the other two thought it was too “plot-driven.” And one judge picked the no-story story with the perfect sentence! Truly there is no accounting for taste.

I am reminded of this experience every time I sit down to read for the anthology, but for the most part the three of us at Level Best come in pretty close on our lists of choices. We have the same regrets for stories we can’t include and each of us has one or two that we alone love and champion. This year mine was a short piece by Bill Joyner, whose voice in fiction is unmistakable to me and is one of my favorites. We’ve been in a writers’ group together for a number of years and I’ve enjoyed hearing his novel develop. Two other writers whose stories were especially hard to let go were Mo Walsh and Barbara Ross.

When we started this venture we hoped we’d have enough good stories to make a volume. Now we have more than enough, so many in fact that we occasionally toy with the idea of doing a second volume in the year, but that’s a lot of work and we have other lives.

So, for those of you thinking about next year, here’s a word of advice. Short. We always make room for good SHORT stories—a hundred words, a thousand words, fifteen hundred words. Think of Hemingway’s story in six words: “Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.” Short is good. Another word: Persistence. One rejection does not a career make (or break). We love publishing new writers, good writers, little-known writers. Keep writing. And keep sending.

From Terry Odell’s blog...

This piece first appeared on Terry Odell’s blog on July 7, 2009. She has a great site and I urge others to visit there, and I also thank her for the opportunity to share this with her many readers.

My First Love

One of my favorite pastimes is wandering the aisles of independent bookstores checking out the mystery novels, looking for books by new writers and new books from old friends. Writers take me into little known corners of the world—Dana Stabenow teaches me about Alaska, Alexander McCall Smith about Africa, and Cara Black about Paris. I love learning about a new place, and I understand the satisfaction derived from writing about a city or landscape well loved. For me that place is India.

My character Anita Ray grew out of a deep love of India and a longing to experience that country when I couldn’t get there. If I couldn’t take my vacation traveling out to the beach at Kovalam, I could send Anita, watch her stop at the local temple, enjoy a bowl of fruit sitting on the beach, or ride along with her on a bus into the hills. She took me to all the places I loved but were too far away to get to.

When I was about ten years old, perhaps younger, someone gave me a book of stories set in Asia, and I was hooked. I have never forgotten that book, and I have never forgotten the moment those stories opened up an entirely new world to me. And that was about it for several years—until I was sixteen. I went to a very progressive girls’ school (which is why I still count on my fingers) and had the good fortune to be offered a class in Asian history. Once again the fascinating world of India (and, yes, also China and Japan) worked its magic on me, and my love of Asia deepened into a love of India specifically. After the end of the class, I spent free time looking for information on India—cutting photos out of magazines, studying images of buffalos and monsoon damage and sari-clad women and visiting museum collections of Indian art. I was not very sophisticated about it, obviously. Unfortunately, back in the 1960s, there wasn’t much information available. India was regarded as just that country with millions of people living in poverty. Who would want to know about that?

And then I went to college, where the cosmos presented India in the form of art history, and that was it. I couldn’t get enough of it—and fortunately my professor was kind and tolerant and kept devising more classes for me to take. At the end of the year, when I had to graduate—and thus leave behind all these wonderful opportunities to explore India—he announced an Asian festival for the coming year—art lectures, exhibits, dancers, visiting scholars. I was tormented to be a worker and not a full-time student, but overjoyed to be participating anyway. (And so began my life as a writer with a day job.) And that year did it for me. An idle comment about graduate school and the following year I was on my way to the University of Pennsylvania, where I was the only graduate student studying India who did not arrive via the Peace Corps.

After living in India during two year-long trips, getting a PhD (yes, in Sanskrit), I had to get a job, again, so I reentered the so-called real world. I thought India was lost to me, and did my best to put it behind me. Then, after many years, my husband casually remarked that he had enough “miles” for a round-trip to India—for one.

I went back to Kerala, in South India, and not until I landed in Madras (the name recently changed to Chennai) did I believe I’d actually get there. When I landed in Trivandrum in Kerala I was stunned with amazement—and so were the friends who opened the door to someone they hadn’t seen in fifteen years. That was in 1999, and I’ve been returning almost every year since, trying to remember as much Malayalam as possible, taking in the changes in the landscape (high-rises everywhere), the streetscape (girls in jeans and tight jerseys), and shops (air-conditioning!). I’ve rejoined a community of friends that, kindly, never forgot me, and now I even toy with the idea of living there for six months a year after I retire. All right, so I’m dreaming, but it feels so wonderful to imagine.

I have never questioned the appeal of this country for me—it’s something I’ve taken for granted—it’s just a part of me. A good friend feels the same way about Umbria in Italy, and another has devoted his life to visiting Guatemala and helping a certain village there. Our callings, if I may characterize this love of other lands in this way, is a mystery to me, but thanks to Anita Ray and her extended family I can play with the smaller mysteries of her life while content to live within the greater one in mine.

Perhaps the conclusion to be drawn from this wandering through my education is the importance of exposure to other worlds. That is certainly important and significant, and I believe wholeheartedly in putting books and maps and artifacts in front of children and letting them learn how great and wondrous and large the world really is. But in the end that seems a pedestrian conclusion to my early journey. One friend insists my love of India stems from the obvious—reincarnation. I lived there in an earlier life and the echoes of that identity resound through my present existence. Perhaps there is something in me, a refusal to accept the strict format of Christianity, another kind of echo from my teen years when the headmistress forced a Thai Buddhist student to attend Sunday services, that resonates in the Hindu world.

I’m uncomfortable with easy, one-sentence summaries of a lifelong predilection that could have gone in any number of directions. Why, for instance, was I not influenced by my mother’s love of Greek and Roman culture, the wonderful books she found for me, and the extensive library she kept for herself and let me poke around in?

Sometimes I think we are all displaced and we find a path back to our home territory, and if we’re lucky it’s not too far away to visit, is relatively congenial and accessible in the present world, and brings us joy and insight into the rest of the world.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Book I Want to Write But . . .


Some weeks ago I was reading a small book by Graham Greene in which he included summaries of book ideas he never got around to writing. These were two or three page narratives, not outlines, of a story—succinct, packing the GG punch, and very satisfying to read. They had remarkable depth for something so short.


As I was turning the page on one summary, however, a different version of this story came to me—one that corrected what I brazenly considered a flaw, and took me into an entirely different direction. I couldn’t get the new story out of my head. I made dinner, I did the dishes, I worked on a short story, but that “new story” line kept popping up. I finally decided I had to give in to it, which I thought meant just scribbling down a few notes and putting them aside.


I opened a blank page in Word and started to describe the story of a hostage who is released without anyone else knowing about it (in ways that are intended to complicate the plot, of course), and the story went on from there—I couldn’t type fast enough. Characters I hadn’t imagined ran across the page, complications that I have never used and never thought of came right along. I kept typing and typing and typing, and ended up with about twenty pages—and was nearly exhausted. I couldn’t have stopped the story if I had wanted to. It had its own shape and design and purpose, and I was merely transcribing. At every point where I thought I could stop writing, the story went on, with one more twist, one more surprise. A few days later I said to a friend, “This is a LONG book. I’m going to be tired at the end of it.”


This wonderful, unexpected experience may have been inspired by Graham Greene, one of my all-time favorite writers, or perhaps my unconscious was just ready to throw this idea out to me. For whatever reason, I have a pulsating scenario of a novel I long to write, but haven’t—yet. Right now I’m working on the sixth Joe Silva book, finishing up an Anita Ray short story, and editing a manuscript for my day job. But that novel about the hostage is always there in the back of my mind, waiting to be written. And oddly enough, the basic idea doesn’t seem to grow cold or stale, which is what would have happened if the idea was a weak one, just a flash of personal entertainment.


So, watch for this one in the distant future. It won’t go away. It demands to be written, and so it will. But I can’t say when.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

“Authors are sometimes like tomcats: they distrust all the other toms, but they are kind to kittens.”

Malcolm Cowley, Introduction to Writers at Work, First Series (1958)

Every spring the libraries in my area each hold a book sale, and I’m right there buying books I don’t need, will probably not get to for several months, and can’t live without. The exception is always the book of quotations. I recently picked up A Treasury of Familiar Quotations, published by Avenel (a division of Crown) in 1955, with no editor or compiler given. This is very disappointing because I want to know whose quirky tastes have brought together Hannah More and Colton, Mrs. Osgood and Dryden. And with no index of names or quotations, I have to leaf through every page running my finger down the page looking for feminine names, most of which I don’t recognize. Things have changed a lot since the 1950s.

Better is the International Thesaurus of Quotations compiled by Eugene Ehrlich and Marshall De Bruhl (rev. ed. 1996; 1st ed. by Rhoda Thomas Tripp). This one has three indexes, including one of authors and sources, so I can see almost at once the number of women quoted among the men. On the first page of the index are listed five women (if I don’t count Anonymous) among 36 men, a small improvement over the 1955 book.

But my all time favorite is The Mystery Lovers’ Book of Quotations, compiled by Jane Horning (1988). I keep this book near at hand and page through it occasionally, noting all my favorite writers from earlier years. I imagine Ms Horning reading happily along in Dick Francis’s In the Frame and suddenly faced with the almost paralyzing choice of reading on or stopping to savor and record the perfect line, such as this one: “The most damaging lies are told by those who believe they’re true.” I don’t know what I would do here. Mark up the book so I can come back to the quote? Stop reading and thus break the flow? Chew my pencil to bits?

Sometimes I read through a few quotes to get oriented to the crime story I’m working on. But sometimes Ms Horning records a gem that I clutch to my heart, like this one from a novel by Lucille Kallen: “There are two actions that are almost equally reprehensible to me. One is the act of beginning a sentence and then refusing to finish it. The other is murder.”

When I come across quotes like this written by writers I either haven’t read or don’t know, it reminds me of how vast is the crime fiction genre—and probably why I’ve spent much of my adult life squandering my time, as some of my acquaintances have tactfully put it (my friends know better). The danger is that I’ll spend an entire evening reading quotes from Robert Barnard or Ross MacDonald and not get any of my own writing done.

And the quote at the top of this piece? I couldn’t resist it, but I’m not going to elaborate on it. Maybe I’ll come back to that another day.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Level Best Books--Where's the Profit?

Level Best Books—Where’s the Profit?

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading the last story on my list of those submitted for consideration for the seventh crime fiction anthology by Level Best Books. Quarry, the title my co-editors and I have chosen, looks like it’s going to be our best collection ever. Kate Flora, Ruth McCarty and I are finishing up our notes, and will meet some time in June to discuss our choices. This is the fun part, but there is more.

All of us have met someone who wants to publish a journal or book, but few know exactly what that means. For the many writers who look high and low for a paying venue and wonder why they’re disappearing, here are some figures to ponder. I supplied these, or figures like them (costs change every year, unfortunately) a while back, but here is a fresh look at what it costs us, the three editors who constitute Level Best Books, to produce an anthology each year.

We pay nothing for layout and design (we already have that), and our costs are those we can’t avoid. Printing for 1,200 copies of a book 8.5 by 5.5 with perfect binding, 273 pp. and xii pp., and four-color cover is $4,704 (in 2008 dollars). In addition, we pay each author $25 per story; with 20 stories, that’s $500. We pay $100 for the cover photograph. The website costs about $210 a year, postage for mailing mss is $489 (photocopying 2 copies of approximately 70 stories is donated), and mailing proofs is about $30. We usually place ads in the Edgar program book and Crime Bake book, for $475. These out of pocket costs add up to $6,508.

That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? If we just sell all the books at $15 per book, we’ll bring in $18,000, for a net of $11,492. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

Each author is entitled to one free book, and we send out review copies. Okay, so now we have only 1,150 books to sell. The authors are also entitled to buy copies at half price, $7.50. We usually sell at least 300 copies to the writers, for $2,250. We now have 850 books left to sell.

Libraries get one third off, and sometimes buy up to 400 at this price, for $4,000. That sounds pretty good. We send out our flyers, set up panels, and take orders. We now have 400 books to sell. We turn to the bookstores.

Bookstores like to carry local titles, especially if one of the authors lives in the area. We scour our New England towns for independent bookstores and do our best to persuade them to take a few copies. Some are receptive, some are slow to warm up to the anthology, and some are downright hostile. But we get the books out there, thanks mostly to Kate and Ruth. Bookstores can buy books at 40% off, or $9, or at 50%, or $7.50, and no returns. If they want to be able to return the books, sometimes one of us has to go pick them up. The No returns policy is a good idea. So, let’s say we sell 300 books at $7.50 with no returns, for $2,250.

We now have 150 books left to sell to individuals, at $15 each, on which we will pay sales tax to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

If we set aside the books we plan to sell to individuals at full price, we will take in $8,500. We haven’t even purchased stamps for promotional mailings, paper for the many times the mss is printed and reviewed before being mailed out, and gas for driving around to bookstores to deliver books. We have not paid for design and layout, and we do not have an office or dedicated phone line. And we certainly have not paid any salaries to the editors. We have not calculated damaged books, stolen books, and lost books either mailed or left somewhere for pickup.

In addition, every story is read at least once by each editor; some are read twice during discussions over whether or not it really works well enough. Each story is then edited, and the page proofs are reviewed by all three editors as well as the authors. We deliver books to panels at libraries, to bookstores, to special events like conferences. We pay for our own gas, tolls, and aspirin. None of this is charged to Level Best Books, which is the only reason we have any money left.

Our profit so far would appear to be about $2,000, but there are three of us to share this. Despite all this, when I look up from this off-white keyboard and across at the bookshelves on the other side of the room, I feel a little burst of warmth and pride at the sight of the anthologies all lined up. It’s a wonderful feeling to hold the finished book in your hand, to have another reader ask you to sign a copy, to see the books neatly stacked on a table, ready for sale.

Back in the eighties, when I first began working in the Boston area, an editor said to me, “It takes a lot of people to make a good book.” He was right. We have a good printer, good writers, good artists for the cover, and three editors who bring different tastes and skills. It all seems to work, and the tiny profit we make seems to be all we need to keep going for one more year.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Blog Bits

This short piece begins what I have labeled Blog Bits—short letters to other writers and readers on what I find most interesting or confusing of entertaining about the creative life. I’ve called them bits because I’m pretty sure these random musings won’t turn out to be full-fledged essays. But they will be honest about my work, how I go about it, and how I view this publishing business.

As I launch my new website featuring the Mellingham books with Chief of Police Joe Silva and the short stories featuring Hindu-American sleuth Anita Ray I’m stuck with the unexpected topic of photography, not writing, for my opening letter. A couple of weeks ago I hung an exhibit of photographs in the art gallery at the Sawyer Free Library in Gloucester. The images are of Okanogan County in Washington State, a glorious land of high desert country, pine forests, and cold rippling streams that can turn into raging floods.

The photographs are meant to complement a series of poems by Jana Harris that tell the story of pioneer women in the late 19th century in the area before statehood. The poems sometimes brought me to tears in their descriptions of hardship and sudden death quietly accepted. Tomorrow night four women will read a selection of the poems and sing songs of the period, and enter into the experiences of women undaunted by any burden or challenge or disaster.

I took up photography in the late 1990s, just to enjoy for myself while traveling. But the images that I took seemed to have a strong narrative quality and, as a writer, I felt compelled to add to their understanding with a short text. Apparently one medium at a time isn’t enough for me. The first exhibit was entitled “Women at Work in South Asia,” and most of it appears on a separate page on this website. Take a look. Let me know what you think. And welcome to this new site.

Oh How Can I Keep On Singing by Jana Harris was first published in 1993 by the Ontario Review Press.