Cell at Eastern State

Cell at Eastern State

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Books That Teach - Save Me, Joe Louis

I thought it would be fun to put up short entries about the books that I loved and that taught me something about writing. Let me know what you think, and tell me about the books that were important to your development as a writer.

I thought I'd start with Madison Smartt Bell's quiet gem, Save Me Joe Louis. The book came out in 1994, and follows main characters Macrae and Charlie as they meet in Manhattan (cementing their new friendship within moments by combining for a strongarm robbery) and drift around New York City and then down toward Macrae's southern home, committing a string of increasingly desperate and violent robberies.

"Macrae watched the girl. Gradually her arm settled to her side from the position in the air where it had been left. Her mouth was very small and cherry red and the lips were slightly parted. She was tipped forward onto the balls of her feet, quick frozen there. You look like I feel, Macrae said to himself. Charlie was thumbing the boy's wallet open.
     "Twenty bucks?" he said. He held the wallet up by one corner, like a rotten dead thing, and a plastic cardcarrier unfolded from it and hung.
     "Keep those legs apart," Charlie said. "Put your weight on that rail, son." He twisted to turn the dangle of cards under the streetlight. "New Jersey license," he said. "Don't you bring more money when you come to Manhattan?"
     The boy didn't answer. He kept his face turned away from the light."

This sequence, from the first pages of the book and reflecting Macrae's point of view of events, tells you a lot about the novel, its characters and Bell's power as a writer. With just a few lines, he's telling who Macrae is, who Charlie is, and about the humiliation and terror of the experience both of being robbed by strangers in a Manhattan park and of becoming someone who would be caught up in perpetrating that robbery. Much of what follows in the novel is about Macrae's experience and from his point of view, as he allows himself to go along with violent, restless Charlie as the crimes escalate, until he comes to a final decision point about his fate and essential character.

In the small scene above, Bell shows Macrae's hold on his own humanity even as he participates in the humiliating ritual of stealing from the young couple. He notices the small details of their body language and empathizes with their discomfort. "You look like I feel."

The wallet becomes a "rotten dead thing" in Charlie's hands. He's enjoying the temporary control and power he holds, in mastering the situation and overpowering the couple so that the boy, emasculated, can only look away. Macrae's ambivalence and Charlie's need for control and power in this scene tell you a lot about how the rest of the novel is going to play out.

This was powerful, important stuff to me as a writer. Bell showed me a new kind of writing, in which desperate, violent but fully-realized and fully-human characters interacted in authentic ways and with the kind of stakes at risk that really matter. Not the money they would seem to be fighting over, but the subtle expressions of power, connection, love and regret that are the actual stuff of living. And all of it excecuted with such subtlety that its themes inform and deepen the action rather than distract from its power.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

From the Blog, 'Prison Photography'

The Man Who Founded the Mugshot: Happy 157th Birthday Alphonse Bertillon

Alphonse Berillon was the French criminologist who gave us the mug shot. His work in the late 19th century, documenting and cataloging the physical appearance, distinguishing marks and tattoos of criminal suspects changed police work.

The blog is Prison Photography, run by Pete Brook, an English amateur photographer living in Seattle. Pete says this about his site:

"The analysis of photography in sites of incarceration is my nerdcore niche. How the camera and its operator perform in interpreting the stories and systems seem like a good points of departure for discussion.
If a camera is within prison walls we should always be asking; How did it get there? What are/were the motives? What are the responses? I consider the photograph as social document, therefore, what social and political powers are at play in a photograph’s manufacture? And, how is knowledge, related to those powers, constructed?
Prison Photography also concerns itself with civil liberties, ethics and social justice as they relate to photography and photojournalism."

I just spent an hour checking out the site. Its images are by turns beautiful, hopeful, arresting and very disturbing. Pete does an amazing job of asking hard questions, not just about prison images but about how news photographs of crime and violence are obtained and how the circumstances under which the photos were made affect the reality they portray.

His sequence about the killing of a fifteen-year-old Haitian, Fabienne Cherisma is an exhaustive exploration of the process of capturing her image, the actions of the photographers and the police on the scene and the transformation of the image into icon. Pete seems like a very smart and empathetic man doing important and frequently overlooked work: creating context for the news images we see every day.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Philadelphia Free Library Festival

Sunday, April 18th I'll be with writers Leslie Banks, Ed Pettit and Jonathan Maberry at the Philadelphia Free Library Festival, at 5:00pm, for a panel on the Liars Club. The Festival is always entertaining and informative, and Sunday features Roy Blount Jr, Sapphire (author of Push) and many other authors, musicians and artists. All events are free and open to the whole family.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Cool events coming next week

Cholos y cholas,

There are some great events coming in the next week:

Sunday, April 11th, Duane Swierczynski is signing copies of his latest thriller, Expiration Date, at Port Richmond Books. The event is at 2pm, and Port Richmond is one of my favorite bookstores in the world (It even makes an appearance in Wolves of Fairmount Park). Port Richmond is run by the excellent Greg Gillespie (in the pic at right), and if we're lucky Roger Pertersen will be working that day. Roger's a graphic artist who works part time for Greg, and you can see some of his stuff at his site, Dime Store Novels, as well as on the walls and signs of restaurants and clubs in Port Richmond and Fishtown.

On Monday, the 12th, I'll be at Bucks County Community Colllege for two seminars as part of their week-long event, "Writing For Our Lives."  I'm doing a panel at 11am with fiction writers Alan Hoey and Jim Freeman to talk about the writing process, and then at 1pm I'll be opposite Debra Niehoff, author of The Biology of Violence, to talk about fictional vs. actual violence, which should be really interesting.  Throughout the four days of the event people will be reading from the poetry of former Bucks instructor and Poet Laureate, the late Bev Stoughton, who was an amazing writer and my creative writing teacher at Bucks.

On Tuesday, April 13th at 6:30, I'll be at the Midtown Branch of the New York Public Library for an event called Crime Scenes—From Cities to the Back of Beyond: Why & How Mystery Writers Choose Their Settings. It'll be moderated by Peggy Ehrhart and include panelists Lorenzo Carcaterra, Henry Chang, Julia Pomeroy, Laura Joh Rowland and me. I'm standing in for Wallace Stroby, author of Gone Til November, Heartbreak Lounge and other fierce, affecting mysteries from Minotaur.

Wednesday, April 14th, Duane Swiercynzki and Ed Pettit will be at the Hiway Theater in Jenkintown, showing a great blast from the criminal past, "Hickey and Boggs," a film starring Bill Cosby and the late Robert Culp in a gritty urban action film they did together a few years after their 'I Spy" franchise ended. Ed is known as the Philly Poe Guy, having appeared in local and national press many times defending Philadelphia as the city with the most compelling claim on Poe's literary legacy, but Ed is also a teacher and literary and cultural critic whose work has appeared in newspapers all over the country. This should be a great time, and knowing Ed and Duane, moviegoers will walk away with a ton of cool info about the movie, its stars and place in the cultural firmament of crime films.

Next Saturday, the 17th, the Liars Club will be appearing again at the Trappe Book Center, at 130 W. Main Street in Collegeville, PA from 1-3 p.m. This event, which is free and open to the public, features free goodies, eight authors, and chances to win prizes that include book bags and signed books. There will even be a story time for kids, featuring an original picture book manuscript read by author Keith Strunk.


Visitors to the April 17th celebration will get to play Truth or Lie games for prizes, and will enjoy hanging out with the following Liars: Stoker and Nebula nominated fantasy author Gregory Frost (titles include Shadowbridge, and Lord Tophet, Del Rey/Random House); author of dynamic forensics thrillers Jon McGoran, who writes as D.H. Dublin (titles include Freezer Burn, Berkley); women’s contemporary fiction author Kelly Simmons (Standing Still, Washington Square Press/Simon and Schuster); celebrated crime writer Dennis Tafoya (Dope Thief, St. Martin’s); social media guru and magazine feature writer Don Lafferty; popular author of young adult novels Marie Lamba (What I Meant…, Random House); best selling mystery novelist Merry Jones (titles include The Borrowed and Blue Murders, Minotaur Books); and actor, playwright and historian Keith Strunk (Prallsville Mills and Stockton, Arcadia Publishing Images of America Series).

Locally owned and operated, Trappe Book Center serves as a hub of cultural activity for the area. They offer book clubs for adults and kids, free literary events, and they often work with organizations to help them fundraise for important local causes. The store has conducted a Battle of the Books to celebrate literacy, and has run an Angel Tree over the holidays to provide books for local children in need. “We are always seeking new ways to be involved in our community,” says manager Kit Little, who points out that the store also works with over 200 local schools to help with events, fundraising and special programs. For more information, or to reserve a copy of an author’s book before the event, call the Trappe Book Center at 610-454-0640.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

At the Santore Branch of the Philadelphia Library tonight

The Liars Club kicks off our inaugural Spring Library Tour Wednesday April 7 with an event at the Santore Library in the South Philly. From 6 – 7:30 p.m., join authors L. A. Banks, Solomon Jones, Jonathan McGoran (a.k.a. D. H. Dublin), Kelly Simmons, Dennis Tafoya, and Merry Jones for brief readings from their recent works followed by a free wheeling discussion about writing, publishing, and the important contribution made by public libraries.


Books will be available for purchase and the authors will be available to sign. Library copies will also be on hand to be checked out. The Liars Club will donate a selection of titles to the Charles Santore library collection.

“As writers, we not only rely on libraries for our reading and entertainment needs, but for research and inspiration. We applaud the work being done by the Philadelphia city libraries, and are happy to support them with our donations,” said New York Times bestselling author L.A. Banks.

The Liars Club includes such published authors as: New York Times bestseller and Bram Stoker-winner Jonathan Maberry, (Patient Zero, The Dragon Factory, St. Martin’s; The Wolfman, Tor); New York Times bestselling author Sara Shepard (The Pretty Little Liars young adult series, Harper Teen, and The Visibles, Free Press); New York Times bestselling paranormal thriller and romance author L.A. Banks (Cursed to Death, St. Martins) fantasy author Gregory Frost (Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet duology, Del Rey/Random House); literary novelist Kelly Simmons (Standing Still, Simon & Schuster); mystery author Merry Jones (The Borrowed and Blue Murders, Minotaur Books), forensic crime novelist Jon McGoran, a.k.a. D. H. Dublin (Freezer Burn, Blood Poison, and Body Trace, Penguin), Essence best-selling author Solomon Jones (CREAM, St. Martin’s ) popular young adult author Marie Lamba (What I Meant…, Random House), acclaimed crime novelist Dennis Tafoya (Dope Thief and The Wolves of Fairmount Park, St. Martin’s); and historical author Keith Strunk (Prallsville Mills and Stockton, Arcadia Publishing Images of America Series).

The Liars Club provides talks, workshops, readings, and other events to support libraries, bookstores, and other creative venues, and work to promote literacy and reading, and the craft of writing and story-telling. “Basically, we believe in the great indoors,” quips author Dennis Tafoya.

Look for upcoming Liars Club events at libraries across the area. For more information about the Charles Santore library, visit www.freelibrary.org, and click on “Find a Location.”

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Alex Trejo Photographs

I was killing time in Northern Liberties and stumbled into Alex Trejo's photography gallery on Liberties Walk, just across 2nd Street from the Piazza at Schmidts. I bought one photograph, and I'll definitely be back.

This one is a view of the Smith Memorial in West Fairmount Park, the same stone arches St. Martin's used on the cover of "Wolves."

According to the web, Alex used to work for an architecture firm, which isn't surprising given his interest not just in photographing some of Philly's most interesting landmarks, but the way he plays with creating different moods with lighting, color and perspective.

The result is work that can suggest the heroic or mythic, or sort of ghostly or menacing. On his website, Alex says he's interested in story, and it's easy to see these photographs as suggesting a narrative.



Hope you'll stop by and check out Alex's gallery,
R. Alexander Trejo, Fine Art Photography,
down on Liberties Walk of Second. Visit his website here, and keep an eye out for one of his exhibitions around town.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Noir Town: A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski in Philadelphia's City Paper

City Paper asked their former editor and kick-ass thriller writer Duane Swierczynski for a co-interview with another Philadelphia crime writer, and Duane (a great writer and genuinely nice guy) asked me to participate. The result, in which we ask each other about the city, our chosen genres and our books, can be seen here, a cover story that came out yesterday. It was a lot of fun, and really nice to be able to ask questions as well as answer them.

My only regret is that we couldn't develop a longer conversation, mostly because Duane and I share some obsessions, (like armed robbery) that he's written extensively about, and because Duane has collected a ton of fascinating arcana about Philly. His Secret Dead blog has tons of cool vintage photos and historical sketches of the city and its criminal, literary and cultural history.

Thanks to Duane and the Arts and Entertainment Editors at City Paper, Carolyn and Pat. And get out there and buy Duane's latest, Expiration Date, which hits stores today!