MysteryPeople Q&A with Jeff Abbott

  • Interview and Review by Scott Butki

 


In The First Order, Jeff Abbott has written yet another great thriller about his protagonist hero, Sam Capra, and his continuing adventures and mishaps.

This is Abbott’s fifth novel in the Sam Capra series and I keep thinking one of these is going to be a dud – no offense, Jeff – but he keeps pulling it off. Each has enough excitement that it should come with a warning: Don’t read before going to bed… because there’s enough adrenaline to keep you awake.

“Usually when an idea with this many facets comes to me, I know it’s one good enough for a book.”

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MysteryPeople Q&A: Scott Butki Interviews Sascha Arango

  • Interview by Scott Butki

With his new book, The Truth and Other Lies, Sascha Arango has set and surpassed a high bar. His plot and style remind me of the great Patricia Highsmith.

The protagonist, as the book starts, has a problem: His wife has been secretly writing the popular novels that he claims to pen. And his mistress is getting in the way. When he tries to kill one but perhaps kills the other, things go crazy and your blood gets pumping. If you like good plot-driven mysteries, give this book a chanceYou can find copies of The Truth and Other Lies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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MysteryPeople Q&A with international crime fiction publisher Ilan Stavans

– Post by Molly

All month long here at  MysteryPeople, BookPeople’s mystery bookstore-within-a-bookstore, we’ve been celebrating International Crime Fiction Month in a variety of ways, including book club picks, internationally-themed Crime Fiction Friday posts, and a film screening of Coup de Torchon, Bertrand Tavernier’s 1981 adaptation of Jim Thompson’s classic noir novel, Pop 1280. We also brought you an interview with Danusia Stok, who has translated Marek Krajewski’s Inspector Mock series, among many others.

As June wraps up, we’ve got another interview for you. Molly asked Ilan Stavans, publisher at Restless Books, about what it’s like to work in international publishing. Mr. Stavans was kind enough to send some answers along. Ilan Stavans has had a variety of literary occupations, including essayist, translator, publisher, and short-story author. He is a prominent cultural commentator and public intellectual who is known for his analysis of American, Mexican and Jewish culture, as well as Latino and Jewish identity.

Mr. Stavans has worked as the publisher for Restless Books for the past two years. According to its mission statement, Restless Books is “an independent publisher for readers and writers in search of new destinations, experiences, and perspectives…committed to bringing out the best of international literature—fiction, journalism, memoirs, poetry, travel writing, illustrated books, and more—that reflects the restlessness of our multiform lives.”

Restless Books works to publish great international literature, and that includes science fiction, crime fiction, nonfiction, and a soon-to-be-launched classics line, Restless Classics. Don Quixote, Restless Classics’  first release, comes out in October in a special 400th anniversary edition. Restless Classics will add two titles to the line each year. The next four classics are Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks, and Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz’s Poems and Protest.

Restless Books has also recently reissued one of my favorite detective novels, Four Hands, by Mexican crime novelist, historian, and prominent left-wing activist Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Four Hands is available as an ebook only and you can find it on your Kobo reader, the e-reader that supports independent bookstores. Read the interview below to find out more about Ilan Stavans, Restless Books, and the world of international publishing.


ilan stavans

Molly O: What are your thoughts about translating crime fiction, and genre fiction, in particular?

Ilan Stevens: I’m a lover of genre fiction: a voracious reader of detective and crime novels as well as SF. Restless Books has just published two extraordinary Science Fiction novels from Cuba, Agustín de Rojas’s Legend of the Future and Yoss’s A Planet for Rent. As you know, SF often focuses in the dystopian future as a metaphor of the exhausted present and these two novels are an extraordinary opportunity to understand the way the future has been approached in Cuba, a place that for over fifty years has stubbornly proposed an alternative, if equally imperfect and mendacious present.

Genre literature is often criticized as formulaic. But there is great talent in bending the formula, making it elastic, more idiosyncratic. That is the impression one gets when reading genre fiction from across the world. Dashiell Hammett is better appreciated against a background of hard-boiled novels from Pakistan, Bolivia, Israel, and Poland. Thus, translating their hard-boiled books is not only entertainment and a good investment(because genre fiction comes with a built-in-audience), but also culturally enriching.

Restless Books will bring out more SF next year. It has already published Paco Ignacio Taibo II, a master of the hard-boiled in Mexico. And it is preparing more detective novels.

MO: Low numbers of books are translated into English from other languages each year, compared to the number originally published into English. What accounts for the low numbers?

IS: The United States, the world’s superpower and a country made of immigrants, is embarrassingly parochial when it comes to literary translation: according to estimates, only around 3% of new books published annually are translations. This is in contrast with countries like Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Denmark, and Norway, where the percentage can sometimes reach above 50%. The empire is insular, the empire is shallow at its core. We appear to say to others: gives us your poor, your huddled masses, but once they are here, we’ll make sure they don’t look back because we believe we are better than everyone else. What accounts for this pitiful allergy, this meager literary diet? It also has to do with the dominance of English as a global language. And with the way literary markets work, giving others the impression that what gets translated into other languages is proof of success in English. Restless is part of a small but significant group of small publishers of literary translation in America (Archipelago, Other Press, Melville…) eager to bring change.

MO: What do you think are the languages easiest to translate into English? Which are some of the hardest?

IS: Translation is never easy, no matter the language, although it might appear deceivingly simple in some cases. There are books that have been translated into English twenty times (one example is Don Quixote) while thousands of others merit the journey but linger in oblivion. When translating a book that has already been done, it is important to pay tribute, even to draw from one’s predecessors. And when the effort is the first in line, it is crucial to remind the reader that the work at hand comes from elsewhere, that there is an element of foreignness in it that is essential.

MO: When a book has appeal across many different languages and cultures, what, do you think, accounts for this appeal? What themes and genres translate most widely?

IS: Ours in the twenty-first century is a global culture: we want to know what others in remote places of the planet thinking, what they dream. We want to feel that they are our contemporaries, that we live the same present moment in different ways. Global culture, to exist, depends on an emphasis in local elements. Truth is, books that become universal have a way of emphasizing regional aspects. This is a difficult line to walk: how to reach others beyond one’s confine by focusing on what we know best, our own little corner, our home. Audiences are rather open to genres and themes as long as the author, they feel, is at once original and authentic. The translator’s challenge is to preserve that originality and authenticity while also reminding readers that what they have in front of their eyes is foreign.

MO: This one is kind of a broader question – what is it like to work in the world of international publishing?

IS: It is enormously inspiring. As an essayist, translator, and cultural commentator (born in Mexico), for years I complained that American readers have a disturbingly constrained literary diet. A few years back, when I turned fifty, I decided to stop complaining and do something about it. This has taken me from one side of the page (putting words on it) to another (producing that page). I have been able to understand, from within, the laws that govern international literary markets, to appreciate how fashion is shaped, and, hopefully, to look for the courage to make a difference.

MysteryPeople Q&A with James Ziskin


James W. Ziskin has created an engaging character with Sixties-era “girl reporter” Ellie Stone. The series takes a subtle look at its historical period; in particular, Ziskin uses Ellie Stone’s character to expose sexism in the male dominated town she works in. Before James joins us for the Seventh Street panel on Saturday, June 20th, he was kind enough to take a pre-grilling about his latest book, Stone Cold Dead, and what it’s like to deal with a Sixties setting.

MysteryPeople: You have Ellie looking into the disappearance of a teenage girl and she interviews many of her peers. What did you want to explore about that age?

James W. Ziskin: Teenage passions, angst, love, rebellion. The whole gamut of intense adolescent emotions. These feelings are real and extremely potent, but teens are usually not prepared to deal with them. It’s hard enough for adults. But when you’re little more than a child, it’s a melee going on inside your head and a jamboree in your body. Conflicts with parents, pressure from peers, hormones, budding sexuality. A very vulnerable time of life. And, of course, there are those who would exploit that vulnerability. For some kids, it’s a dangerous time as well.

MP: What does a writer have to keep in mind about dealing with that age?

JWZ: I think we should remember what we were like at that age. How headstrong and insecure at the same time. We were certain of our convictions, and there was no room for compromise. And our first love. How powerful and crazy and undisciplined it was. We spend most of our lives trying to control our emotions, learning how to be a proper, well behaved person. Maybe adolescence is the last stand of purity of heart and innocence. I tried to keep all of that in mind when writing Stone Cold Dead.

MP:It seems that next to the Civil War, or World War II, the sixties are the other period our culture always wants to experience. What do you think draws us to that period?

JWZ:That’s a good question, but I’m not sure I know why. I can’t speak for the Civil War buffs, but for the sixties, it may be that as the huge generation of baby boomers age, they look back with nostalgia at the years of their youth. That’s more than 70 million Americans who were born or grew up in the early sixties. It might also be because the sixties were such a period of change. You had everything necessary for a good story: sex, the Cold War, great music, and tail fins on cars. What’s not to love?

And the early sixties bridged the old and the new. The conservative, prosperous fifties of Eisenhower and the raucous, modern world of the late sixties and seventies. Jet travel was new and exciting. Modern superhighways and electric appliances made life easier in quaint, naive ways when considered next to today’s mad, connected world.

MP:What is the biggest misconception of the time?

JWZ:That the world was innocent and safe. A nice place, a better time. That nice girls didn’t have sex. In 1961, the sexual revolution was still a few years away, but we shouldn’t forget either that Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and The Single Girl came out in 1962. It’s a safe bet that there were many “modern girls” like Ellie Stone at that time. I think the mystery writer Cathy Ace said it best about Stone Cold Dead: “Revel in the early ’60s nostalgia, but throw away the rose-tinted specs.

MP:You’re one of the few authors who has, at least on the surface, little in common with your protagonist. How do you approach this challenge?

JWZ: With great caution. My protagonist is a mid-twenties woman of liberal — some might say libertine — sensibilities. I, on the other hand, am a man of a certain age. But Ellie and I share what’s important at the core of a character: values, sense of humor, honesty, and morality. And a fondness for Dewar’s Scotch. She’s smarter than I am by half, better organized, and better looking. I’m taller.

I approach the writing of Ellie from the perspective of an admirer and a co-conspirator. She’s endowed with the best qualities I’ve observed in the women I admire. Intelligence, determination, a wicked wit, and a playfulness that has survived the tragedies of her life. I’ve learned a lot about empathy writing a female narrator, and I hope I’ve achieved some measure of success in painting her complex character.

MP:You set a lot of challenges for Ellie, not only with the plots, but in the place and time she exists. Have you ever had trouble working her way out of a situation?

JWZ: Ellie bumps her head against male condescension, bias, and boorishness every single day of her career. I’m amazed when people tell me that things weren’t that hard for a working woman in 1960. It was a constant struggle. Ellie is underestimated and under-appreciated at every turn. And that’s just in the office. She’s also feisty and occasionally reckless in her pursuit of a story. That sometimes lands her in trouble with the wrong people. Ellie’s not going to punch her way out of a jam; she’s rather small and physically unimposing. She doesn’t carry a gun and wouldn’t know how to use one if she did. So she must get by on her wits and her charm. Ellie may not be able to beat up the men who threaten her, but she’ll fight like a hellcat to protect herself.


You can find copies of Stone Cold Dead on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. James Ziskin joins us this Saturday, June 20th, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s second floor. He will be speaking and signing with two other authors from Seventh Street Books, Mark Pryor and Terry Shames. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Mike Blakely

Mike Blakely is an accomplished traditional western singer/songwriter as well as an award winning novelist. His latest, A Song To Die For, uses the Austin music scene of the Seventies as its backdrop. Vietnam vet guitar picker Creed Mason is in the midst of building a band for the comeback of  country legend Luster Burnett when he gets in between a Texas Ranger and a mob hitman as they prepare for a showdown. It’s a fun, rollicking tale that oozes with the twang, humidity, and barbecue of its place and time.


MysteryPeople: This is your second book dealing with the Texas outlaw music scene of the Seventies. What drew you to that era?

Mike Blakely: I began performing professionally in a garage band in 1976 at the age of 18, so I experienced the real deal firsthand.   I was able to use quite a few of my own experiences in A Song To Die For.

MP: Are Creed and Luster based on any particular performers of that period?

MB: Both are composite characters based on some famous legends and some lesser-known artists I have worked with over the years.

MP:This is also the fourth book you’ve written with a musician as the central character. What do you want to get across to readers about those folks?

MB: The musically-inclined characters I create are all “lifers.”  They know they can never completely give up making music.  I hope my readers understand through these characters that it’s a tough life and a hard way to make a living but also an endeavor full of occasional rewards and moments of deep satisfaction.

MP: What do most writers get wrong about the music life?

MB: I’m not sure there’s a way to get it wrong in a business where anything can happen.  There are so many paths a musician can take. Some get lucky breaks early on and ride the wave of success for decades.  Others who are just as talented may work for years without much notice.  The music scene can be just as wholesome or as seedy as an individual wants to make it.  It can be a wild romp or a methodical climb to success.  It can be all about the money or all about the music or anywhere in between.

MP: How do you prepare to write a story set in the past?

MB: It starts with historical research, of course.  I read about the era. I read things written during that era.  I seek out objects from the time period so I know how they look and feel.  Every time I sit down to write, I time travel in my mind to the era I’ve chosen.  When writing, I try to assume nothing.  I strive to verify that every detail I insert into the story is authentic.

MP: Do you think the musician influences the novelist side of you and vice versa?

MB: The two disciplines are very different, but they do influence each other.  I’ve written songs about some of my characters in my novels. I have also had characters from my songs find their way into my books. There’s no reason to keep the two creative endeavors completely separated though they are very different in many ways.  When I finish a novel, it may take a couple of years to start getting feedback from the public.  But I can write a song in the morning and play it for an audience that night.


Mike will be joining author Robert Knott on January 14th to talk about writing western fiction and their latest novels (Mike will also be performing a couple of his songs), but we got a head discussing the book and the music life.

MysteryPeople Interview; Reed Farrel Coleman

In Blindspot, Reed Farrel Coleman takes over Robert B. Parker’s
alcoholic small town police chief Jesse Stone. He puts Stone in the
middle of a case involving the mob, revenge, and some folks from in
days as a Minor League baseball player. Reed answered some questions
through e-mail we had about the book and his approach to this
established character.

MP: I’m sure there are challenges about taking on an established
character, but what’s fun about it?

RFC: The fun is the challenge of respecting the characters and the history
of the series while carving out a piece of it for yourself. It is both
yours and not yours and that is unique.

MP: Was there an aspect about Stone that gave you an “in” to approach him?

RFC: Indeed. It was his unresolved regret over the injury that ruined his
baseball career. Dealing with unresolved regret is something we all
can relate to and gave me my in to Jesse’s spirit.

MP: I heard that Parker wrote Jesse Stone to push himself into
different territory with third person omniscient. It has also showed
off other aspects of your writing we haven’t seen often. What muscle
did you enjoy exercising the most?

RFC: I am known for my intimate first person, which is in some ways the
polar opposite to how Mr. Parker wrote Jesse. The thing I enjoyed was
trying to bring an intimacy to Jesse, but not by being as intimate as
I am used to being with my own characters. Moe Prager, for example,
wore his heart on his sleeve. Jesse barely wears his sleeve on his
sleeve. So I had to learn to reveal Jesse through his actions. It’s
made me a better writer. At least I hope it has.

MP: One thing you get to do is cover the criminals point of view. Did
you notice anything different in writing for the bad guys?

RFC: Well that is one great advantage of third person omniscient with
multiple points of view. You can, if you so choose, get into the bad
guys’ heads. But the great pleasure for me in the book was getting
into all the bad guys’ heads, not just one. I think readers will be
surprised to see how not all bad guys are the same. How even the most
cold-blooded killer can change, even grow. I believe that subplot is
my favorite piece of BLIND SPOT. Jesse is such a great character:
complex, brave, stubborn. He is a study in strengths and foibles. But
it is writing the bad guys that was the most fun.

MP: You use a reunion of Jesse’s minor league baseball team as a
starting point. What drew you to that part of his past?

RFC: See my answer to your first question. It’s his biggest vulnerability.

MP: It seems that we get to see more of your humorous side than we
normally get to. Do you think there’s something about Stone or the
series that lends itself to that?

RFC: Absolutely. Jesse is actually quite funny in a kind of wry, quietly
sarcastic way. And I like that he can see his own follies as well as
others. I believe you will only laugh along with others who laugh at
themselves.

MP: Can you tell us about your original series your launching in the spring?

RFC: The novel is titled WHERE IT HURTS and it features retired Suffolk
County (New York) cop Gus Murphy. Gus is a guy who thinks he
understands the ways of the world, but when tragedy strikes his family
he realizes he understands nothing. It is the story of Gus healing
himself as he solves the murder of a petty criminal.

 

You can find Blindspot on our shelves now and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Interview: Benjamin Whitmer

Today is the release of our MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month, Cry
Father. It’s Benjamin Whitmer’s follow up to his brilliant debut, Pike,
and will definitely be be seen on my year end top ten list as well as
many others. It deals with Patterson Wells, a tree cutter in disaster
areas whose grief over his dead son leads him into violent
circumstances. It is a brutal and beautiful book. Ben was kind enough
to take some questions from me on it.
MP: Pike and Cry Father seem like two twins raised differently, you see
the shared DNA, yet they both successfully achieve different things.
What do you see the main difference being?

BW: Well, Cry Father was written right on top of Pike, so it made sense
that a lot of the things I was thinking through got carried over. The
first draft was actually finished in 2010, it just took a long time to
get it published. If Adam Wilson at Gallery Books hadn’t seen
something in it (and, for that matter, if Sophie Littlefield hadn’t
suggested I send it to him) it probably wouldn’t even be published in
English. I’d pretty much decided to skip America and go straight to
France when Adam called my agent.

To me, the main difference is that Cry Father seems more open. I was
less scared to hit on the themes I was interested in. I don’t know if
they came through, but I hope so. In Pike I was more just trying to
establish a kind of tone — I’m new at this book-writing thing, and
still trying to figure out what I’m doing — and in Cry Father I felt
like I had a little more room to move.

MP: Patterson’s job as a tree cutter is both unique and a perfect
metaphor for what he’s going through. How did you choose that
profession for him?

BW: That was actually a gift given to me by one of my oldest friends,
Lucas Bogan. He’s the real deal and actually does what Patterson does.
(I should note that the similarities end right there: Patterson’s
faults are all his own.) Like you said, it seemed like the perfect job
for Patterson. And for me, I like characters who are grounded in the
work they do. It seems to me that a lot of novels skirt work. I’ve
always had a day-job and hated them all, but they consume the greatest
part of your waking hours whether or not you like it.

MP: The idea of fatherhood comes up in many forms. What did you want to
explore about it?

BW: Fatherhood’s probably never gonna be far from anything I write. I’m a
single father with two kids, and my relationship with them is the most
important thing in my life. But it’s a constant game of
second-guessing, doubt and guilt, as you understand all the things
you’ve done wrong. Not to mention all the things that you can’t
protect them from or do for them. It’s a fairly brutal crash course in
understanding how inadequate you are. Likewise, as a father with a
male child, I’m always thinking about the constructions of masculinity
that get passed down from father to son. That was a lot of what I was
trying to think through. As you can probably tell, though, I’m better
at negative examples than positive ones.

MP: There is always a lot of talk about the violence in your books, but
you use very little dramatic embellishment on it. How do you try to
treat it when writing?

BW: I think violence can reveal character just as surely as sex, love,
parenthood, or anything else. I try to write violence in a way that
people feel it. I don’t know if I succeed, but I don’t want anyone to
skim a violent scene. I want it to be ugly and heartsick. And in the
same way, to show that it’s attractive, too. It’s a balancing act. I’m
never gonna write it the way everybody wants it written, because it’s
such a touchy subject for people. But the attraction and repulsion has
to be there, I feel.

We’re more conflicted about violence than anything in this country.
Even sex. We’ll expel a kid from school for a fistfight, but there
hasn’t been a single year in my lifetime where we haven’t been bombing
the hell out of somebody and gloating about it. And we won’t even get
into what we’ll put up with from our police, like in Ferguson. I’m not
a pacifist, but the separation between what we tell ourselves we
believe and how we actually behave is so wide that I wonder that
folks’ heads don’t just start exploding from the cognitive dissonance
of it all.

MP: Many of the characters in Cry Father talk about freedom. Do you
think that’s what they are really looking for or is it something else?

BW: I think it’s a question they’re asking themselves. It’s a question I’m
always thinking about, anyways. I believe in freedom, the real
tangible kind. And I’d argue that we have less of it, in the real
tangible sense, than any of us would like to think. Most of freedom in
this country is just talk, and that disturbs me. When you’ve got more
people in prison than any other country in the world and every move
you make is legislated, I don’t know how the hell you can talk about
freedom with a straight face. I know that’s not a real popular
opinion, and we’re supposed to believe freedom is some kind of
metaphysical quality that we receive by virtue of being able to vote
once every four years, but I have trouble buying that.

Still I’ve also been around long enough to see how people get
destroyed by freedom. And I’ve come close myself at points in my life.
So I don’t know. For me freedom is a question, not an answer. I think
my characters are as lost in the question as I am. I think a lot of
people are right now.

MP: Can you tell us what your next book is and please promise it won’t
take four years before we get to read it?

BW: I have two in mind, actually. One is a jailbreak novel which I’m
really enjoying. I can’t promise it won’t take four years to get it
published, but I can say that it’s about half done and I should be
finished within the next year. I’m also working on a proposal for a
non-fiction book about one of my best friends, Paul Schenck, who was
killed by the police after a shootout last year. I’m not sure anybody
will want it – or either one of them, I guess – but I’m hoping so.

 

You can find Cry Father on our shelves now and via bookpeople.com.