Scott Butki: Book Addict, New MysteryPeople Blogger

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I’m going to start blogging book reviews and author interviews for MysteryPeople. I thought I’d introduce myself to you in this piece. The above graphic I found on Facebook sums me up.

I was an early reader, plowing through the Encyclopedia Brown and Three Investigator books as a happily literate lad. I wrote about loving reading and sharing favorite books in this memoir piece promoting literacy for a newspaper special section.

I was a newspaper reporter for more than ten years after concluding it was a safer, better career path than my ideal, dream job – book reviewer for the New York Times. Ironically, a few years ago, I interviewed an author, Patrick Anderson, who is the Washington Post‘s thriller book reviewer and told him I coveted his job.

While a journalist I began writing book reviews and interviewing authors for newspaper publication.  When I left journalism to work in special education – so I could have a more direct, positive impact on society –  I continued writing memoir pieces and book reviews and, more so than both, conducting author interviews. Some of the books I review I request, some I’m sent unsolicited but they turn out to be great, and occasionally I’ll be sent a clunker. I publish them at Blogcritics and Newsvine.

For several years after that career change, I organized an online reading challenge to get others to read more, shooting for 50 books a year, sort of like the 40 book challenge some schools, including mine, have for students. In 2001 I collected most of my reviews and interviews here.

I moved to Austin about 4 1/2 years ago and quickly become a patron of BookPeople. In addition to attending book signings, I participated in both of their mystery book discussion groups, 7% Solution Book Club and Hard Word Book Club. MysteryPeople Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery and I often overlapped, interviewing some of the same authors around the same time (Scott for the MysteryPeople blog, me for the two online sites I write for).

We’ve decided to join forces so I will sometimes be interviewing, for the MysteryPeople blog, authors who are coming to do book signings at BookPeople and other authors we’re interested in. Most of my interviews are with mystery authors, while others are usually with the authors of books related to the news media and memoirs. I read at least 50 books a year and do at least 25 interviews.

I’ve had a sweet gig interviewing most of my favorite authors and being able to ask them whatever I want. I feel lucky just to be able to share thoughts with them. I try to pick questions that are not identical to those everyone else asks, e.g. “What is your writing routine”. Indeed, one of my favorite compliments from an author was this: “You ask unusual questions. I like that.”

My new association with MysteryPeople makes a sweet gig even sweeter.

I want to end by telling you about my five favorite mystery writers, all of whom I have been lucky enough to interview. They are: Craig Johnson, with his fascinating Longmire series (which some of you may know better as a tv series). His characters just get increasingly interesting over time, as opposed to some series where the author, after a while, spins his wheels.

Michael Connelly, especially his Harry Bosch series. I first crossed paths with Michael at a journalism convention in Southern California, where I grew up. This was after the publication of his first novel. The workshop he put on was packed because everyone wanted to know the answer to the same question: How did he, a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, write a popular, award-winning crime novel. He had no magic bullet to share; rather, he said, he did it by writing, in addition to his newspaper job, during hours he would normally be sleeping. I still remember his smile as he shared that he made up some cop lingo for the books (in addition to the lingo he picked up) and, later, heard cops using his phrases.

Lisa Lutz, author of the Spellman family series. She does an impressive job writing what I call comic capers, sort of in the style of the late great Donald Westlake. The characters are funny, the plots are full of  twists and her footnotes alone will crack you up. I have interviewed and promoted her with each of her books and was lucky enough to meet her in person when she spoke at BookPeople earlier this summer.

Ace Atkins, author of the Quinn Colson series about an Army Ranger who is now a county sheriff in Mississippi. Atkins was picked by the Robert Parker estate to continue the popular and entertaining Spenser series after Parker’s death. I’m impressed that Atkins has proved himself quite capable of writing two very different book series with neither suffering for his work on the other.

Lastly, Kate Atkinson, author of a series of fascinating books about private investigator Jackson Brodie. Atkinson, the only Brit in my top five, is less of a pure crime writer than some others I’ve mentioned as her books veer at times into other genres. In her books she will write multiple plotlines which, on the surface, appear to have no connections but somehow they all end up connecting by way of some surprising plot twists. Stephen King, in 2004, called her book, Case Histories,  “not just the best novel I’ve read this year, but the best mystery of the decade.” Her Jackson Brodie novels were made into a PBS series called Case Histories. She honored me by including my interview with her in the paperback version of Started Early, Took The Dog. I have always wanted to be a novelist – for now, being included in the back of a book will have to do.

Runner-ups:; Robert Crais, Ian Rankin, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Lisa Lutz

Lisa Lutz is an author I’ve been hoping to have at our store for some time, so I’m excited to have her here tonight at 7pm with her latest Spellman novel, The Last Word. Lisa was kind enough to answer my questions in advance.

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MYSTERYPEOPLE: You have an interesting set up where Izzy and The Spellman Agency are being framed for embezzlement. It always seems financial crimes can be complicated to plot. Did you find this one a challenge?

LISA LUTZ: Honestly, everything about this book was a challenge. But, yes, I had to be more diligent than usual in figuring out how to deal with the financial crime. I ended up keeping it simple in some ways and trying to focus more on the motivation for the crime than on an elaborate construct. That’s what interests me most, anyway.

MP: One of the things that makes The Last Word relatable is that while Izzy has the case to deal with, she also has to manage the rest of her life, which includes her insane family, the business, and dating. How do you deal with the challenge of having so many balls in the air for a story?

LL: This is the sixth Spellman book and all them have several plots going at once. I think this is one of those things I just figure out organically. Hey, we haven’t heard about plot #3 in a while, I should probably write something. In retrospect it seems so simple. I’m not sure how I’d answer this question if I were still in the thick of it.

MP: One thing that is striking about The Last Word in comparison to so many other comic mysteries is that while it delivers all the laughs, it also takes a straightforward look at having roles switch as parents and children become older. What did you want to get across about Izzy’s relationship with her folks?

LL: With all of the books I want to accurately reflect the passage of time and the responsibilities that often go along with that. As much as I want the books to be entertaining and funny, it’s equally important that they’re about something real.

MP: Her employer, Edward Slater, is a wonderful creation. Even though you don’t ever go into much explanation, he has several shades and believable contradictions. Besides a plot device, what else does he provide for Izzy?

LL: Isabel (and this is a trait I think I might share with her) invites mentorship. Many people manage to wear a cloak of respectability, even if it’s a disguise. Isabel has no cloak. She’s overtly flailing and Edward genuinely wants to help fix her.

MP: Which Spellman do you enjoy writing the most?

LL: It varies book to book. I very much enjoyed writing for Princess Banana in The Last Word. It was challenging making someone with a vocabulary of under 300 words menacing.

MP: When praising The Last Word, Megan Abbott wrote, “The sly trick of Lisa Lutz’s Spellman novels is that they’re so funny and so smart that you’re taken by surprise by all the insights they offer – about loneliness, about the tumult of love and of most of all about the tender chaos of families.” Did you know you were writing something so heavy?

LL: I think there’s a common misconception that comedic novels aren’t novels with substance. I’m a firm believer in using comedy as a front, a subtle and palatable way of exploring more serious issues, like how to deprogram a toddler with a princess obsession.

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Lisa Lutz will be at BookPeople tonight at 7pm to speak about & sign The Last Word. If you can’t make it, you can order a signed copy over on our website.

A Heavy Dose of Humor, Spellman-Style

Lisa Lutz’s Spellman Files series (or documents) are mainly known for their humor, but they also deal with many of life’s tougher struggles head on. No matter how strange PI Isabel “Izzy” Spellman’s cases or the entanglements of her dysfunctional family (who are also her co-workers) get, Lutz is able to make us relate. In her latest, The Last Word, she delves even deeper into the problems of family and work.

It was bad enough when Izzy was working for her parents, Albert and Olivia, but now she’s learning how powerless she is as the boss. The folks haven’t taken well to her hostile take over of the agency and have staged a passive-aggressive rebellion by coming to work in their pajamas and curlers and barely doing their work load. It’s no wonder she does the bidding of her full time client, Edward Slayter, a businessman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and somewhat of a second, more stable father to her. When her younger sister, Rae, adept at surveillance and blackmail, comes back to “help”, Izzy has her suspicions. The plot truly thickens when evidence of embezzlement from Slayter’s company implicates The Spellman Agencey.

In a genre known for putting things in order, Lutz writes about chaos better than anybody else. Besides the takeover of the company, the embezzlement, and whatever Rae is up to, Izzy has a few cases to juggle, a possible new boyfriend, and a family crisis to deal with. Lutz captures the in-over-your-head feeling as she struggles to be detective, boss, and daughter. A subplot with her dating one of Slayter’s lawyers has less to do with romance than a respite from everything tugging at her.

The book does a solid job tackling the politics and emotions of having to switch roles with your parents as you both get older. It studies the resentment such upheaval brings and the division between siblings. Slayter’s Alzheimer’s and his demands add a different flavor to this problem for Izzy. Lutz portrays the stress, bitterness, love and every emotion in between in the situation, along with a heavy dose of humor.

The Last Word tickles your funny bone while it pulls no punches. It frames the isolation of life’s stress and the emotional crimes family love seems to pardon in entertaining fashion. With Lutz, you have to laugh, otherwise all you can do is cry.

Lisa Lutz will be at BookPeople this Wednesday, July 17th at 7pm to speak about & sign The Last Word. If you can’t make it, you can order a signed copy over on our website