Archive for July, 2010

Reading is Dead. Or is It?

Monday, July 19th, 2010

I write novels for a living. Suspense thrillers like The Cutting and The Chill of Night. Conventional wisdom and constant commentary tells me I ought to be worried.

They say that books and bookstores are dead or dying, young people don’t read any more and the written word is going the way of the dodo bird. All done in, it is said, by competition for attention (or as we used to say in the ad biz, competition for share of eyeballs) from endless and mindless TV stations, endless and even more mindless video games and, of course, the Internet.

I recently came across (on the Internet, of course) a poem, a kind of take off on Dr. Seuss, written by fellow thriller writer Jeffrey Deaver called The Death of Reading (http://www.jefferydeaver.com/Other_Projects/Death/death.html) in which he states the proposition nicely:

Reading is dead, deceased, pushing up daisies.
People are growing increasingly lazy,
lured by the siren of electronic toys
That fill up their lives with meaningless noise.

PlayStations, Facebook, big-screen TVs
And mobile phones smarter than I’ll ever be.
We pray at the altar of our brand-new God,
Who’s powerful and wise and whose name is iPod.


But, by the end of the poem, Deaver puts the lie to the whole thing.

A few years ago when I was downtown,
Doing some shopping, just strolling around
I nearly died in a massive stampede
Of children, no less, in desperate need

To purchase their latest heart’s desire,
No batteries required, no software, no wires,
A book’s what they sought and they’d waiting all day.
Who’s this Harry Potter guy, anyway?

We love reading so much that the books we now see
Are changing from what they used to be.
Originally written in clay and on leaves,
Books are now “printed” on digital screens.

I don’t think reading is dead, either. Yes, like Deaver, I’m a writer. And yes, like Deaver, I have a vested interest in people buying and reading my books. But even if I didn’t, I still think I would believe, as Mark Twain once said of his own death, that the reports of the death of the written word are greatly exaggerated.

In fact, I would argue just the opposite, that reading, writing and the written word are healthier and stronger than ever. It’s just that the delivery system has changed, going  from paper and ink to a digital screen.

When I was a kid, there were only two ways to read.  You either picked up a book or you read a newspaper or magazine. That was it.

Today more people than ever are reading and writing. They’re mostly just doing it on a screen. Kindles. Nooks. iPads. And, of course, regular old computers.  Life Magazine is gone.  But Slate and The Daily Beast seem to be thriving. Written emails have replaced letters and even, to some extent, the telephone. I don’t know how many blogs or bloggers there are but it’s got to be way up in the millions or even tens or hundreds of millions. And people aren’t just writing blogs, people are reading them. A few like Julie Powell are even becoming famous and turning their blogs into traditional books and then turning them into movies starring Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci.

But I think even traditional paper and ink books will manage to survive and prosper.

While commercial publishers have seen their sales decline, self-publishing is booming. It’s allowing many new authors who never would have found a publisher before to enter the field and find success. Just recently a friend and neighbor of mine named Fran Houston self-published a lovely and evocative oral and photographic history of the people who live on a small island off the coast of Maine. The book is called For Love of Peaks. And people are buying it.  Both in local bookstores and on the Internet.  Twenty years ago that never would have been possible.

There are fewer independent bookstores. According to an article in the Boston Globe (http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2009/04/02/unchained_success/)  their numbers declined from around 6,000 in the early 1990’s to roughly 2,200 today.  But according to that same article, in spite of the worldwide recession, those that survived seem to be stronger than ever. Online book sales have exploded. Amazon is a retail phenomenon. The chain bookstores, Borders, Barnes & Noble and others seem constantly crowded.

I still like the feel of a real book in my hand.  But, if the truth be told, I really don’t care whether the people who buy my Mike McCabe thrillers, The Cutting and The Chill of Night, read them in hardcover, paperback or electronically.  I just hope they enjoy the story.

Can an Aging, Gray-Haired Mystery Writer Become a 25 year-old Female Schizophrenic?

Monday, July 12th, 2010


Did you hear the one about the bearded, gray-haired male geezer who somehow managed to turn himself into a twenty-five female schizophrenic?  No?  Believe me it happened. It happened to me. And it wasn’t the first time I became somebody else.

Living inside the heads of different kinds of characters is something writers have to do all the time. Writers of mysteries and thrillers as well as writers of so-called literary fiction.

But creating the character of Abby Quinn, the young schizophrenic woman who is a central character in my newest Mike McCabe thriller, The Chill of Night, was one of the most challenging and most fascinating experiences of my writing life.

Abby, for those of you who haven’t read the book yet, is a young woman with a history of mental illness. She hears Voices that aren’t there. She sees visions that aren’t there. When she’s good about taking her anti-psychotic medication, these things are pretty much under control.  But when she goes off her meds or runs into something majorly traumatic, all bets are off.

And one freezing night on an island in Maine that’s exactly what happens.  Abby sees a murder.  She’s sure she’s seen it.  Or is she?  She runs to the local police station and tells the cop on duty what she has seen.  Or thinks she has seen.

The cop knows Abby’s history and assumes she’s hallucinating.  He doesn’t even bother reporting what she has told him.  But then a body turns up and McCabe realizes the details of the crime match Abby’s story so precisely that she must really have seen what she said she saw. But by then she’s gone. And a murderer is trying to find her.

I wrote a good portion of The Chill of Night in Abby’s voice, from Abby’s point of view. To get the voice right, I had to really get into Abby’s head. To become in a very real sense, Abby Quinn.

To help get it right, I read personal memoirs written by a number schizophrenic women.  Two in particular helped me.  The Quiet Room:A Journey Out of the Torment of Madness by Lori Schiller and Amanda Bennett and The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn Saks.

These allowed me to get understand Abby Quinn. To experience, as I wrote, exactly what a young woman in her condition might experience under similar circumstances. It was sometimes frightening.  But it was also very revealing and very rewarding.  In the process, Abby became my favorite character of any I’ve ever created.  In a very real sense, she and I have become one.

Want To Be a Writer? There’s Hope For Us Late Bloomers.

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

“I had a headful of gray hair and a hell of a lot of miles under my belt before I even thought about writing fiction. I published my first suspense/thriller, The Cutting, with St. Martin’s Press just three and a half years later.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began composing minuets at the age of five and penned his first symphony when he was nine.  Pablo Picasso earned his first public exhibition in his native Spain at thirteen and, by sixteen, was winning public honors and a national reputation as an artist of the highest caliber. Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane at twenty-five and F. Scott Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise at twenty-four. Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, came four years later.  He died at forty-three.

A lot of people think creative genius, for those who have it, inevitably blossoms early. Apparently, that simply isn’t true. For all of us who spend our early years toiling to pay mortgages and college tuitions yet nonetheless yearn to express ourselves as writers or artists or musicians, there is hope.

I just finished reading a fascinating essay titled Late Bloomers by Malcolm Gladwell, the bestselling author of The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers. I would recommend this piece (which appears in Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw) to anyone who wants to enter the creative life late in life.

Gladwell’s main point is that for every Picasso who explodes on the scene early there is also a Paul Cezanne, who wasn’t recognized as a decent painter, let alone a genius, until he was well into his fifties.

While I, in no way, pretend to genius, early or late, I did have a headful of gray hair and a lot of miles under my belt before I even thought about writing fiction. I published my first suspense/thriller, The Cutting, with St. Martin’s Press just three and a half years later.

To be fair, I had experience as a writer. But a different kind of writer.   I’d spent roughly twenty-five years as a copywriter and creative director for some of Madison Avenue’s biggest advertising agencies, happily churning out TV and print campaigns for mega-clients like Procter & Gamble, Ford, and the U.S. Army. After leaving the agency business, I continued writing. Brochures, newsletters articles, a few ads, an annual report or two and a few rip-roaring speeches for non-writing CEO’s who were unable to turn out prose, on their own, that would accomplish little more than allow their audiences to catch up on their sleep.

None of this was fiction.  But all of it helped me hone skills that served me well when I decided to try my hand at writing the kind of books I enjoyed reading.  Murder mysteries.  Suspense thrillers.  Whodunits.

I started writing The Cutting on January 2, 2006.  On June 23, 2009 the finished product was published by St. Martin’s/Minotaur.

The lesson in all this is simple.  To be successful as a novelist, you have to have an ear for and a facility with the written word.  You have to practice your craft and make your writing as good as it can be. And you have to be disciplined enough to get up every morning and work hard.

The one thing you don’t have to be is young.