Appearances Matter

I made two author appearances over the last few days at indie bookstores. The first was at Cannon Beach Book company on the Oregon coast (very near Dickens Junction) and another at the lovely Annie Bloom’s Books in Multnomah Village in Portland. In both cases I met old friends and new ones as we talked about The Edwin Drood Murders, mysteries in general, and the topic that so many non-writers want to hear about–how writers write.

At Canyon Beach Books I did a “meet and greet,” where the author sits at a table and greets individual customers as they come by. It’s less formal than a reading, but (the bookstore owners tell me) less intimidating for the customers. What I get is a chance to talk with book buyers one at a time. Some buy my book as a consequence; some do not. In either case, I learn something about readers’ tastes.

Author's view--Annie Bloom's Books, Nov 4, 2013

Author’s view–Annie Bloom’s Books, Nov 4, 2013

At Annie Bloom’s I did a “reading,” followed by questions and answers and then book signing (if anyone buys the book). I try to keep the reading itself under five minutes, since people start to fidget. I also edit my reading selection from what I originally wrote. It’s what Dickens did when he did public readings late in life, and it also recognizes that the act of performance is different from reading words on a page. Sometimes I wish that “unabridged” books on tape would actually edit out dialogue tags and other material that, when in the hands of an actor or reader, become superfluous.

I’ll be making additional appearances through the holiday season and into early 2014. Please join me at one of those if you can. If you can’t join me in person, join me in spirit by buying either of my books and reading it aloud.

Drinking Like Dickens (a “conversation” with Adam Selzer)

As part of the events surrounding the release of The Edwin Drood Murders, I have been making contact with several Dickens-related bloggers. One of the cheekiest is Adam Selzer, a Renaissance Man and YA author (Sparks—Flux Books, 2011, and Play Me Backwards, forthcoming from Simon and Schuster in 2014), a Chicago “Ghost Tour” guide, and enthusiastic amateur Dickensian, who likes to replicate drinks found in Dickens’s novels.

I found him through his charming blog, “Drink Like the Dickens,” which had a flurry of activity in early 2013, but has been on hiatus temporarily while Adam attends to his book contracts and other responsibilities. But Adam made time for an online “conversation” with me, and we are posting our discussion on our respective websites.

Christopher:  Adam, so great to “meet” you in cyberspace. I’ve been a fan of “Drink Like the Dickens” since I discovered it while researching Our Mutual Friend for a seminar I conducted earlier this year.  I served Purl, one of the favorite drinks at The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, to help my participants get into Dickens’s high-octane world. You are a man of catholic tastes. How did you first get into Dickens?

Adam:  I was working as a pizza delivery man, and after a while listening to music started to seem like a chore, so I downloaded a bunch of old radio shows. I particularly liked the mystery shows, like Inner Sanctum. One night I listened to a two-parter of The Mystery of Edwin Drood that Suspense did in the early ’50s, and I enjoyed it so much that I thought I’d read the real thing. SO that winter I ended up reading Drood, Great Expectations, and Bleak House. After that I was hooked.

Last year I started up the Drink Like the Dickens blog, in which I try to make smoking bishop, athol brose, Micawber’s punch, and all those other odd drinks that pop up in the works. It’s stalled for the moment, and I’m actually running low on topics for it; most of time when they’re drinking in those books, it’s just brandy and water or something plain, like claret. I did pick up some Paul Masson madeira, which tastes like raisins and gives you a great excuse to impersonate those videos of Orson Welles drunk off his ass and trying to film a Paul Masson commercial.

Christopher: You must try a true Madeira, my dear. A solera that contains a teaspoon of a Madeira from the 18th century. One of my favorite wines….but back to the interview. How do you blend your talent for writing contemporary young adult literature with a love of the putatively (not so putative in my book) greatest novelist of the nineteenth century?

Adam: There are Dickens shout-outs all over my books, though very few people ever notice them. Sparks was very, very loosely based on The Old Curiosity Shop, and you can also see a lot of Quilp in the villain in Extraordinary. For I Put a Spell On You I named a teacher Mrs. Boffin, and another character “Mutual” whose mother is always talking about tricks and manners. Not a lot of grade school kids are going to pick up references to Our Mutual Friend, but I always hold out hope that their teachers will get a kick out of it.

Christopher: I’m reading “around” Dickens these days—books he loved as a child (Smollett, Fielding, etc.) and his contemporaries (particularly Thackeray). You responded to a tweet I made about something that delighted me in Smollett’s Humphry Clinker, a book I read this summer, but one that had been in my library since I was a teenager (I’m sure glad I didn’t read it when I was young). Besides Dickens and Smollett, who are other writers you admire (not all of them have to be “classic” writers)?

Adam:  Yeah, I have a really prissy guidance counselor who shows up in a bunch of my books; I thought it would be funny to name her Mrs. Smollett, because Clinker taught me a couple of words for excrement that I didn’t know yet. Stercoraceous effluvia. There should be a punk band called the Stercoraceans.

Daniel Pinkwater wrote The Snarkout Boys and The Avocado of Death in the 1970s, and I’ve sort of based my life around the teachings therein. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Phillip Roth; his latest, Nemesis, knocked me on my ass.

I, uh,  don’t really read much, though. Reading is for squares, isn’t it?

Christopher: Well, I can’t quite agree with you there, Adam. I’ve been a lifelong reader since I discovered Dickens (Our Mutual Friend, particularly) at age 14. But I’ve probably lived a more sedate life than you…I love that you do ghost tours (although I’m not certain that I’m a believer). I’ve read some paranormal novels (those pesky YA vampire books that sold a gazillion copies), and my protagonist, who only stocks books in his bookstore that he has actually read, even sells them, along with The Scarlet Letter: A Pop-up Book, which is a creation of my twisted imagination. How does the tour guiding fit in with your overall vocational plans?

Adam: Less than people would think! So far there’s been very little overlap between the novels and the tours. I get a lot of gigs doing Chicago history and ghostlore books, though, and I probably have about as many nonfiction books as novels out by now.  I do a lot of research to find primary sources for the ghost stories (I’d never confirm for anyone that a ghost is “real,” but we can at least try to get the history right). I did a couple of vampire satires back when paranormal romance was the thing to do (having Mrs. Smollett be a vampire who was born about 1850 explained a lot), but even then, the ghostlore and Chicago history stuff didn’t really fit into it.

We’ve got one Dickens site of interest here in Chicago; his no-good brother Augustus is buried in a north-side cemetery, along with his wife (who overdosed on morphine one bleak Christmas) and three kids, one of whom was named Lincoln. It was unmarked until recently. Surviving relatives in the area say they grew up thinking that if anyone found out they were related to Charles Dickens, they’d have to go sit on the porch with a bag over their heads. Charles never came here on his 1867-8 tour, and boy was the Tribune mad! It’s something I like to do when I travel, though; every time I’m in a city where he read, I try to figure out where the theatre was. It usually turns out to be an alley or something now, but I love that kind of scavenger hunt.

Christopher: I hadn’t thought of seeking out Dickens haunts from his US visits; I like that.

I’ve already finished the next book in my Dickens Junction series, The Our Mutual Friend Murders, which I hope will be published before year-end 2014. What else are you working on?

Adam: Actually, I’m working on a Dickens project of my own. The working title is I Beat Up Charles Dickens. I can only imagine what Harold Bloom would say about this.  I also have a couple more non-fiction projects in the hopper, including The Ghosts of Chicago, which was just released on September 10, and one about Abraham Lincoln ghostlore that’s been a lot of fun to research.  The next novel to be released is called Play Me Backwards; I’ve been joking that it’s a novel for young adults who worship the devil. It has a sort of Moby Dick theme running throughout it. Now that’s a weird book. I’m never sure if I’m supposed to take Ishmael seriously or not. Not unlike Esther in Bleak House, who I like a lot better than most people seem to, but whose “goody goody” thing is largely an act, I think.

Christopher: I did a six-week discussion group on Bleak House. The group was sharply divided about whether Esther’s persona is natural or feigned. One of the great things about Bleak House is that a book so complex lends itself to lengthy and impassioned discussion, proof (at least to me) that Dickens is still relevant in the 21st century…

Adam, I hope we’ll meet someday. I think we should celebrate over a bowl of one of the most famous alcoholic concoctions in all literature, “furmity” (or frumenty), which serves as the catalyst for the disastrous events in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Adam: I am always down for some disastrous events. I’ve come pretty close to setting my apartment on fire a couple of times making Micawber’s punch. It’s much easier to get it to ignite indoors, so…

Christopher: Well, on that happy note…Check out Adam’s blog, “Drink Like the Dickens” at http://dickensdrinks.blogspot.com. Look for Play Me Backwards by Adam Selzer next year but, in the meantime, check out The Edwin Drood Murders by yours truly, out now from Harrison Thurman Books. Buy it at your local independent bookstore, or online, available both in a trade paperback edition and ebook (Amazon.com only).

Let Me Go

by Chelsea Cainlet me go

I met Chelsea Cain when she was only semi-famous, writing a humor column for the Oregonian, just after she had published Confessions of a Teen Sleuth, her hilarious parody of an aging Nancy Drew yearning for the detective days of her youth. Chelsea had just signed a contract for the first in her Archie Sheridan/Gretchen Lowell series, now in its sixth volume, Let Me Go.  Like the others in the series, it’s a page-turner but not for the faint-of-heart or for the squeamish. Cain’s books feature extreme acts of violence and sexual situations; be warned.

Chelsea’s protagonists are a Vicodin-addicted cop, Archie Sheridan, and the female serial killer, Gretchen Lowell, who is every bit as twisted as Hannibal Lecter, the fictional serial killer to whom Gretchen is often compared. Gretchen and Archie have the same kind of complex relationship that Lecter and Clarice Starling have, but Cain’s intertwined characters are more dependent on one another, creating additional layers of interest that add depth and interest to these thrillers.

Let Me Go is as good as any of the books in the series (my favorite being The Night Season, even though Gretchen’s role there is reduced to a walk-on, because of Cain’s top-notch writing about a devastating Portland flood). My advice is to start with the first book in the series, Heartsick, and read forward. Cain writes pulse-pounding short chapters, with a cliffhanger (just like the Nancy Drew mysteries she loves so much) at the end of nearly every one. Another of Cain’s strengths is her use of Portland locations to give a vivid sense of place to her books, even though Ms. Cain clearly frequents parts of Portland I have never visited.

The Birthday Present/The Child’s Child

by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine

I freely admit that I would read Ruth Rendell’s musings on a cocktail napkin if she published them. When she’s good (some of the later “social problem” Wexfords; The Bridesmaid; all of the early Barbara Vines, particularly The House of Stairs) there’s no one better; when she misses (An Unkindness of Ravens, Live Flesh, and The Blood Doctor come to mind) she’s still interesting and, most intriguing, louche and distasteful.

Never for Dame Rendell the locked room and overturned tea cozy; for her it must be radical lesbians, genital mutilations, jilted lovers, sex-charged kidnapping games, and always—absolutely always—someone with delusions that make your little paranoid feelings feel pitiable and small by comparison.

I’ve just finished two Barbara Vines back to back (The Birthday Present and The Child’s Child). They don’t rank among my favorites, although each gives pause and contains elements worthy of top-notch literary writers. What they aren’t is top-notch Rendell.

The Birthday Present features a BDSM “kidnapping” gone terribly wrong, with downstream consequences that move far and wide from whatever trajectory you as a reader might imagine. That may be one of the book’s most interesting features—it ends up about as far away from where it started as any book could. It has a typical Vine beginning—confusing, a jumble of names and elliptical references that will only really make sense if you reread the opening five pages after you’ve finished half the book—but a really exciting middle. My pulse raced as I flipped pages toward what I hoped would be one of the great shocking endings (like that at the end of A Dark Adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion, or the eye-crossing complexity of Anna’s Book), but the ending, while interesting and ironic, is not up to Rendell’s best.

Neither, that matter, is the end of The Child’s Child, the kind of double-decker story that Vine/Rendell has often told well (The Brimstone Wedding comes to mind) where past and present interlocking stories yield spooky parallels and irony drips from every scene. But illegitimate children and gay hate crimes (the story in the present) and a gay brother/sister feigning marriage to hide his homosexuality and her unwed mother status (the story in the past) don’t blend well, and possibly because this time she has shoehorned the past story in the form of a novel between underdeveloped frames in the present at the beginning and end of the book. Even when the present-day story veers way off course to a somewhat ironic ending, I sensed that Rendell was not in full control of her material, at least not the control I wanted her to have.

I still have several Rendells unread on my shelf that I will read when I get the chance; these two recent reads have not put me off on her as they have some (according to Amazon reviews). I say this to those considering Dame Rendell: she really is the best there is, and a recent interview with her makes me fear that The Child’s Child may well be the last time we’ll see a Barbara Vine mystery, which is a sad thing indeed.

Pick up any of the books I’ve praised above or something like Simisola (where the mystery is revealed in the final shocking sentence), Barbara Vine’s The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy (certainly one of her most ghoulish), or simply start at the beginning of her career and read forward.