Cell at Eastern State

Cell at Eastern State

Monday, June 29, 2009

Last of the Independents

(Parts of this post were originally posted on the St. Martin's Minotaur blog, Moments in Crime)

I recently got word that a review of Dope Thief was going to appear in the Las Vegas Weekly. Whenever I get hear about a new review, I call the local independent bookstores to see if they're carrying the book. Unfortunately, the day that I got notice that the review was going to appear, I called the last independent bookstore in Las Vegas that carries new, secular books, only to find out they had been given the word they were going to be closed by the casino that owned them within a month.

Luckily, the Barnes and Noble I reached out there was willing to put the book in stock, but it was another depressing sign about how much independents struggle now to stay afloat.

I thought I’d take a minute to render an appreciation of some of the independent bookstores that have not only hosted my events, put my books on their shelves and generally shown great support to me and other local writers, but also who have provided me with nearly all the great books that both entertained and educated me over the years. Everything I know about how to write has come from reading, and more often than not the books I’ve read have come from independent bookstores (and not just because I’m so old that I predate the chains).

Doylestown Bookshop hosted my first event, which meant a lot to me because it’s the local bookstore of the town where I’ve lived for thirty-five years. Doylestown has always had an independent bookstore, though for years it was Kenny’s News Stand, a tiny candy, lottery and magazine place that stocked very little besides mystery and romance novels, though they were happy to order anything you wanted. Doylestown Bookshop is a huge place, occupying what used to be County Linen, a fixture on South Main Street since the fifties. The bookshop is owned by Pat and Phil Gerney and managed by Shiloh Hopwood, and they do an amazing job of supporting local authors. There are events there just about every week, and more often than not there’s a local connection to the featured writers.

Doylestown was the first bookseller to host the Liars Club, a local Philly-based writers group that includes myself, Jonathan Maberry, Leslie Banks, Greg Frost, Jon McGoran, Kelly Simmons, Merry Jones, Ed Pettit and a bunch of other great Philly-based writers, producers and creative types. We decided it would be a great thing to throw a series of celebrations for local independent bookstores, and we’ll be doing events at the Clinton Bookshop in Clinton, NJ (this Saturday at 1:00pm), Aarons in Lititz, PA, Womrath’s in Tenafly, NJ, and other area bookstores as we can.

Farley’s in New Hope, owned by Jim and Nancy Farley, has been in the same location in the middle of New Hope, PA, since the 1960’s. I used to spend hours in there when I was young, getting lost in the great helter-skelter confusion of shelves and stacks, and I’m always glad when I walk in and find that the place is still jammed to the rafters with an eclectic assortment of books.
Julian and Lauren set me up at a table in front of the store one Saturday in May and I had a blast haranguing passersby and giving away Oreos and Nutter Butters, selling a few books for them and having a great time.

Chester County Books and Music is a legendary Philly-area store. It’s by far the biggest bookstore I’ve ever seen, taking up 38,000 square feet in a shopping center in West Chester, PA. I remember when it was a little store in another location out
by 202 that sold surplus textbooks, and now it's an excellent book and music company with an on-premises restaurant. Thea organized an event for the thriller-writers contingent of the Liars Club – Kelly Simmons, Jonathan Maberry and Jon McGoran, and also included Minotaur’s Keith Gilman, author of the Shamus Award-winning Father’s Day.

The Liars Club will be doing more events, and our concept for celebrations of indies has caught the interest of the ABA, NAIBA and other organizations. It’s a great way to get the word out about the importance of local booksellers to the lives of their communities, and allows us to market ourselves and our books in a way that’s a little more fun than the standard signing.

Friday, June 26, 2009

This weekend: Deadly Ink

For those of you in the area, I'll be at Deadly Ink, the crime writing conference, on Saturday and Sunday, the 27th and 28th. The guest of honor is bestseller Lincoln Child, and I'll be on two panels: Writing the Bad Guys, on Saturday at 11:15am on Saturday, and Research - Doing Your Own Investigation, at 9:15am on Sunday.

It should be a great experience. Dozens of thriller and crime writers will be there, and it includes author signings, a conference murder mystery, and lots of great food. Jeff Cohen is the toastmaster for the event, and writers like Ken Isaacson, Rosemary Harris, Jane Cleland, Kate Gallison and Jeff Grabenstein will be signing books and sitting on panels.

Deadly Ink is being held at the Sheraton in Parsippany, NJ, this weekend from 8:00am to Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Trip to the Movies

(Repost from Moments in Crime, St. Martin's Minotaur)

All the crime writers I know love movies. We talk about our favorites, trade recommendations and argue nearly as fiercely and passionately as we do about books. There are as many ways to approach crime movies as there are ways to approach crime writing, and when a movie has been adapted from a book, part of the fun of watching is critiquing the thousand choices the director and actors made about interpretation.

I think nearly all of us who write crime aspire to write screenplays, and not just for the promise of better financial rewards. When we read, we “see” characters and setting and action, sometimes very vividly, and we get proprietary about how we want to see books interpreted. Movies, as much as books, shape our expectations of what crime stories should deliver, and they show us criminal behavior and the repercussions of violence with an immediacy to which fiction can only aspire. They form the cultural landscape, and they influence not just other filmmakers, but also writers, and sometimes, criminals themselves.

I thought it would be fun to put up a short list of some crime movies I love and stimulate a little discussion about the differences in the experiences of watching a crime movie and reading crime fiction. I’ve picked some more obscure films here – I figure you already know the usual suspects, like Chinatown, The Godfathers I and II, and The French Connection.

Rififi. – 1955. Jules Dassin was in France because he’d been blacklisted when he was invited to interpret Auguste le Breton’s short, vicious crime novel for the screen. He wrote the screenplay in English and had it translated into French. It’s the archetype for just about every heist film you’ve ever seen. Jean Servais plays Tony le Stéphanois, a tough-but-tender hood who is one of the classic noir anti-heroes. The centerpiece of the movie is the wordless, nearly silent, seventeen-minute burglary of a jewelry store. Amazing. Dassin himself shows up as the charming safecracker Cesare, whose indiscretions bring on the inevitable final mêlée as rival gangs scramble for the loot.

The Killing – 1956. Director Stanley Kubrick wrote the screenplay with Jim Thompson, based on the novel Clean Break, by Lionel White. It centers on the robbery of a racetrack led by Sterling Hayden, and features some of the most memorable character roles of the period, including Elisha Cook Jr. doing yeoman work as the henpecked loser chained to grasping harpy Marie Windsor, the crazily-intense Timothy Carey, and cheerful Kola Kwariani as a chess-playing strongman who rips his shirt off to get it on with the cops. Everyone in the cast seems barely in control, and the paroxysm of violence at the end seems not just earned, but inevitable.

High Sierra – 1941. Written by W.R. Burnett and John Huston, Burnett’s novel. Bogie leads a great cast on a caper that’s bound to go wrong. As Bogart’s sadder-but-not-wiser ex-con Roy Earle puts it, “Of all the 14 karat saps... starting out on a caper with a woman and a dog.” Of course, things go bad, and then worse, and Roy’s gal Marie, played with a great alternating toughness and vulnerability by Ida Lupino (who went on to become a significant director in her own right) watches from a police blockade as the cops close in on her man. “Tell me mister, what does it mean when a man crashes out?”

City of Industry – 1996. Harvey Keitel is a force of nature in this terse, muscular heist movie directed by John Irvin. When wheelman Stephen Dorff kills Keitel’s brother, the wonderfully aimless Timothy Hutton, and absconds with the loot from a Palm Springs jewelry store robbery, Keitel moves like a runaway train through the underworld of Los Angeles to get his version of justice. The then-unknown Famke Janssen, new widow of one of Hutton’s accomplices, feeds Keitel lines that he brings off with a perfect, distracted understatement. “What are you going to do when you find him?” “You already know.”

Classe Tous Risques – 1960. I’ll let this one stand in for a dozen French movies I love, directed by guys like Jean Pierre Melville and Claude Sautet, who made this gritty, tense downhill slide starring the always-excellent Lino Ventura (probably most recognizable from the classic “Army of Shadows”). Lino’s fugitive gangster Abel Davos is on the run with a death sentence hanging over his head, and like most of the great French crime films of the period, it’s really about loyalty and treachery. It’s hard not to imagine the wartime experience of occupation subtly influencing postwar directors as they depicted tough, violent fugitives dogged by suspicion and doomed by betrayal.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Liars Club Event in Clinton, NJ Tomorrow!

I'm joining my friends from the Liars Club for an event, tomorrow, Saturday, June 20th at 1:00pm at the Clinton Bookshop in Clinton, NJ. We're playing games, giving away some cool prizes including signed books, and generally celebrating a great independent bookstore.

My Liars Club pals who will be there include: Bram Stoker award-winner Jonathan Maberry (Patient Zero, St. Martin’s); Young adult author Marie Lamba (What I Meant…, Random House); Mystery author Jon McGoran who writes as D.H. Dublin (Freezer Burn, Berkley); Historical author Keith Strunk (Prallsville Mills and Stockton, Arcadia Publishing Images of America Series); and Social media writer and speaker, Don Lafferty.

Hope to see you there.

Crime Writing Workshop

Had a blast last night at Ukazoo Books in Baltimore, putting on my 30-Minute Crime Writing Workshop. I read from Dope Thief, as well as from classic and favorite novels by Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, Raymond Chandler, George V. Higgins, Max Collins and Christa Faust. Attending writers then worked on guided exercises from different crime scenarios, and I gave away a copy of Dope Thief.

It was a lot of fun, and the group did amazing stuff with the assignments. It made me wonder how much murder folks carry around in their heads all day, just looking for an outlet.

Thanks to Olivia Tejeda and the whole gang at Ukazoo for setting up an excellent event.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Blogging this week on Moments in Crime

I'm blogging this week on Moments in Crime at St. Martins' Minotaur. I'll be posting from June 15th to the 21st, so stop by and leave a comment or just get the word out to friends and family. I'll be talking about writing, the elements of noir fiction, music and crime movies.

Send me suggestions or comments, and feel free to weigh in by leaving a comment directly on the blog.

Hope you enjoy it!


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Crime Brunch Today

Hey, kids! I'll be down at Briget Foy's at 1:00pm for a Crime Fiction Brunch, sponsored by Robin's Bookstore and Moonstone Arts Center. I'll be sharing the event with Keith Gilman, another Minotaur writer, author of the excellent Father's Day. Come on down for some great food and to talk with us about crime writing.

Hope to see you there!


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Interview with Jonathan Maberry about his new novel, Patient Zero

It doesn't surprise anyone who knows Jonathan Maberry that his new bio-terror thriller, PATIENT ZERO, has already garnered high praise from writers like Peter Straub, David Morrell and Joe R. Lansdale. Jonathan Maberry has already found success as a horror writer, winning multiple Stoker awards for both fiction and non-fiction and securing a reputation as a writer whose work Stuart Kaminsky describes as "vivid, threatening and beautiful."

In PATIENT ZERO, Maberry introduces Joe Ledger, who combines the martial skills of an action hero with the troubled past and vulnerabilities of the classic noir protagonist. Joe is a Baltimore cop recruited by a secret government agency to help stop a group of terrorists from releasing a plague that can turn people into murderous zombies, a harrowing device Joseph Finder calls "Night of the Living Dead meets Michael Crichton."

Since 1979, Jonathan Maberry has written thousands of articles, seventeen nonfiction books and seven novels, as well as plays, poetry, comics and forays into new media and webcasts. He's currently writing DRAGON FACTORY, the next installment of the Joe Ledger series, and editing Thrill Ride, a serial graphic novel for ITW showcasing the work of some of the biggest names in thriller writing. He's also the only writer I know who's a member of the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame, which means he knows how to make those scenes of hand-to-hand combat harrowing and frighteningly accurate.

I caught up with Jonathan at the local Starbucks that is his writing home; so much so that he credits the place in the acknowledgements of his latest book.

PATIENT ZERO is being described as a bio-terror thriller, but it actually pays homage to a number of different genres. How do you categorize the novel?

I call PATIENT ZERO a bioterrorism thriller for convenience sake, but you're right in that it crosses a lot of genre lines. In fact, Ken Bruen labeled it a 'neo-noir thriller', the first of its kind. That's probably right on the money. The backbone of the story is the classic thriller: a race against the clock to stop bad guys from doing something really, really bad, and in this case they want to release an unstoppable pathogen. But the hero is a cop and he breaks the case down using a police procedural approach. That isn't often done in thrillers. Plus, the plague turns people into zombies, so you have a bit of the horror genre and the medical thriller genre as well.

PATIENT ZERO does have other elements in it as well. When the hero, Joe Ledger, leads Echo Team on the missions in the novel the books moves a bit into the arena of the military thriller. If PATIENT ZERO needs a simpler label, I'm going to just call it a 'thriller'. That'll do.

You're an incredibly busy writer, but you still conduct classes for new and young writers. Why is that important to you?

For a couple of reasons. First, I love teaching. I've been a teacher for my entire adult life, and I've taught a lot of different things. I teach traditional Japanese jujutsu and kenjutsu (the sword art of the Samurai), and have taught self-defense for women, children and the physically challenged for decades. I taught martial arts history at Temple University for fourteen years. But teaching writing allows me to try and influence other writers to improve their craft and sharpen their business sense.

That part -the business--is crucial, because I've seen what happens to writers who don't understand that publishing is a business. I was there once and got smashed, but I learned from it, and learned the business, and if I can keep another writer from getting smashed, then I feel like I just did something for the common good.

The other reason I love to teach is that in order to teach you have to understand the subject. To teach writing you have to deconstruct it, to peer inside to see all the cogs and pinwheels that make a story tick. I've learned as much from teaching the craft as I have from the process of writing. And that's improved my own skill set.

There's another reason, too. I get totally jazzed when one of my students makes that step and sells something. Not because I want to take credit (which is silly, 'cause I didn't write it) but because that means someone else gets to have the kind of fun I'm having. There's another kid on the playground, which means we're going to have that much more fun.

You're famous for prodigious amounts of research for both your fiction and non-fiction. What was the coolest thing you discovered in researching PATIENT ZERO?

That zombies aren't as far-fetched as we thought. That's cool, though in a very scary way. I need to backtrack a bit to the book I did before PATIENT ZERO. Last August Citadel Press released a nonfiction book called ZOMBIE CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead in which I interviewed hundreds of experts in law enforcement, forensics, and various specialties within medicine. During that research I talked to epidemiologists, molecular biologists and other experts to find out if any of what zombies did in the movies was medically possible. Turns out each individual quality or symptom is possible. Luckily for us it's improbable for those qualities to co-exist in the human body. Improbable, but not actually impossible.

The seed for the Seif al Din pathogen in PATIENT ZERO is a prion disease. Prions are misfolded proteins that act like viruses and can be passed down through family lines even though they don't have DNA. Mad Cow is a prion disease, but the one that really scared the heck out of me is one called 'fatal familial insomnia', a disease that causes its victims to stay awake until the become completely exhausted, deranged and mindless -and then it kills them. My villains take that disease and amp it up with genetic manipulation and combine it with some aggressive parasites of the kind found in nature. Each separate component of the Seif al Din pathogen exists and is possible. I'm just happy that no one has actually done this. I hope.

Your books are both critically acclaimed and popular with readers. Which matters more to you - the regard of your peers or your fans?

No offense to my fellow authors, but I write for the readers. I want to make the books fun for them, I want to challenge them, and I want to give them the give of story they can become involved with. That's one of the reasons I love doing signings, readings and author appearances. I love talking about books with the readers. Not just my own books, but any books. I've had so many great conversations with readers about books...they're often very deeply informed and so well-read that I always get good leads for books I then go and buy.

The support from my fellow authors hits me in a different way. I'm fortunate enough now in my career to know most of the authors whose books I read. I'm one of those readers who likes to know the person behind the book -just as I like knowing the songwriter behind the song. It deepens the experience for me. Having received support for PATIENT ZERO from authors I greatly respect is greatly empowering and validating.

Your Joe Ledger books are entertaining reads, but they're also about the war on terror. Do you use the platform of the novels to weigh in on America's efforts to eradicate terrorism?

In a way. I'm an idealist and a realist at the same time. A point is made in the book that terrorism is an ideology, not a nationality. That's my personal view. I'm against terrorism, whether state sanctioned or as the practice of small groups.

However there are a lot of viewpoints presented in the book, and I don't personally share all of them. PATIENT ZERO is not a 'my country right or wrong' book. Far from it. I believe in responsibility, accountability and an adherence to human rights laws. Not all of my characters share that view.

Funny thing is, a couple of blog reviewers suggested that I was pro-right wing and even a supporter of the Bush viewpoint on the 'war on terror'. I read those reviews and wondered if they'd actually read the book. The viewpoints closest to my own belong to Joe Ledger -the protagonist--and Rudy Sanchez, his best friend (and the moral compass of the book). Other reviewers more clearly got that I was a liberal who would still pull a trigger if the moment demanded it.

I do agree with the philosophy that negotiating with terrorists is a losing proposition. At the same time I agree that the only way to defeat terrorists is to use the kind of guerilla warfare they use. Hence Joe Ledger's take-it-to-them way of doing things.

If you had to choose, would you rather your readers come away from your books wowed by your plots, or in love with your characters?

In love with the characters. Plots are nice, but if the book isn't filled with real people, then it's just bubble gum. As both reader and writer I'm drawn to the characters.

When creating the characters for PATIENT ZERO, I wanted all of them to be three-dimensional, and that includes the villains. My primary villain, Sebastian Gault, is very real to me. He has good and bad qualities; he has a past and a viewpoint that makes sense to him. The same goes with El Mujahid and Amirah -the fundamentalists who head the terror cell and Gault's science division--they aren't cookie cutter terrorists. They have complex personalities and relationships.

The people who have read the book already reached out to me about characters. People seem to care about them. I love that readers are bonding with the 'people' in my book.

How much does the realism or plausibility of your plot devices matter to you?

In this kind of story there's always a point at which the science of the plot crosses over into a bit of science fiction. As the dinosaur cloning did in JURASSIC PARK. The key is to make every other aspect of the story as realistic as possible so it's not much of a stretch for the reader to suspend their disbelief.

I also dig research. I include a lot of gizmos that seem very James Bond, but just about everything in the book is either in use by covert ops, or is in R&D at companies that provide materials for covert ops.

When it comes to the action scenes, I have a special interest in making them as real as possible. I've been a martial arts practitioner for 45 years and worked for years as a bodyguard in the entertainment industry. I've been in a lot of serious conflicts, including dealing with armed attackers and multiple attackers. I was also Chief Instructor for COP-Safe, a company that provided arrest and control workshops for law enforcement officers ranging from rookie street cops to SWAT. I don't believe in flashy fighting, and when Joe Ledger takes it to them PATIENT ZERO you can trust that everything he does is completely plausible. This is something I give talks and lectures on at writers' conferences, including last year at ThrillerFest and at BackSpace.

If the components of the book are real, then the thrills will be real, and that's what it's all about.

This interview originally appeared at The Big Thrill, the web newsletter of the International Thriller Writers.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Short Story

Just finishing up a short story, a form I haven't worked in for a good long while. Now I have to figure out what to do with the story - whether to submit it to a magazine, podcast it or think of something else useful.

I've always loved short stories, which are now an endangered species, at least in print. There are probably more stories than ever out on the web (where I still have a few, cruising around cyberspace like killer asteroids), but the collected book is rarer than ever. That's one of the reasons I'm looking forward to Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower. Friends of mine who specialize in short stories will typically have to get novels published first before their collections might be considered for publication.

Some of my favorite writers specialize in short stories, like Amy Hempel and Annie Proulx. Drop me a line and tell me about some of your favorite short stories.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Moments in Crime

From June 15th to June 21st, I'll be guest blogger on Moments in Crime, the blog for St. Martin's Minotaur, the publisher of my novel, Dope Thief.

Send me ideas for blog topics! My first entry is going to be an appreciation of libraries and librarians, who have turned into great supporters of Dope Thief. I'll probably also do at least one on music, and another on my writing process.

All suggestions welcome.

Welcome to the Neighborhood

Hey, folks!

I'm Dennis Tafoya, author of the recently-released thriller Dope Thief, from St. Martin's Minotaur.

I just put this page together to have a place you can find schedules and links to my events, appearances, reviews and interviews.

I'll also be posting occasional rants about writing, publishing, marketing and my favorite books, movies and music, and letting my friends do the same.

Hope you find it useful,

Dennis Tafoya