Posts Tagged ‘Reading Local Seattle’

I’m a little worried that an e-mail from Ann Rule is going to pop up in my inbox any minute.

Why would I be getting an e-mail from Ann Rule, you ask? And why would that worry me? Well, it’s like this: The other day, I turned in a review of “But I Trusted You,” the fourteenth and latest volume in the Seattle true-crime author’s “Crime Files” series. It’s being published on the Reading Local Seattle web site. It wasn’t, shall we say, lavish with effusive praise for the book. In fact, I devoted nearly 2,700 words to exploring why the book wasn’t very good. In my opinion, of course.

And I said these things even though I made clear in the review, more than once, that I have the utmost respect for Rule and for the majority of books she’s published in her long career. I wasn’t pulling punches, wasn’t trying to have it both ways, either. It’s really what I think.

And I said what I said because I also think it’s important to be honest, and I don’t think there’s enough honest book criticism out there these days.

Publishing, as my colleagues at 1st Turning Point (where I also publish essays) often remind me, is a business of relationships. And, in their view at least, we should be careful to avoid saying anything negative in public because it’s bad business, because word gets around and the opportunities to develop the kind of relationships I need to make deals could disappear as a result.

I think that mentality, correct as it may be, often kills quality book criticism. (I’m not saying mine’s all that, though I will defend this review to the death as well-thought-out and informed by comprehensive knowledge of the author’s oeuvre … oh, and most importantly, backed up by my real name).

Most reviewers these days, in my observation, seem to subscribe to the “If you can’t say something nice about a book, don’t say it at all” mindset, and either post relentlessly sunny reviews or criticisms so diluted that they’re difficult to pick out of the text. To do otherwise, they seem to be saying without saying anything of the kind, is to somehow hurt their own standing in the literary community (many, it seems, depend on relationships with authors or booksellers).

Honesty should be inside books, not about books. I guess that’s the message.

To me, that sort of thinking is as useless as the thinking of those who would lob Molotov cocktails of corrosive criticism on Amazon or Goodreads from behind the cowardly safety of anonymity. (Anything worth saying, good or bad, is worth saying with the coin and credibility of your name.) That’s why I was dismayed to see all the good-riddances from the literary community when Kirkus Reviews — well-known for its abundance of negative reviews — ceased operations in December. The good-riddances were misplaced, in my view, because they focused on the mere fact of negative criticism, and not at all on whether the criticism might be accurate or well-informed. Instead, all the chatter was about how rude those reviewers were, as if that’s the worst thing a person in the literary community could be. (Funny how not that long ago, when literary lions like Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote roamed the earth, it was the best thing a person in the literary community could be.)

But the reality is that there’s a lot of crap out there these days — more so, it seems, in this time of pared-down editorial staffs at most publishing houses — and someone needs to say so. Someone who knows what they’re talking about.

I don’t know everything about everything; I wouldn’t be the right person to review, say, the latest novels by Jodi Picoult or Philip Roth or V.S. Naipaul.

But I do know about Ann Rule.

I’ve read Ann Rule books for nearly 30 years now, back before I knew I was reading Ann Rule books. (Her first published tomes were written under her true-detective-magazine pseudonym, Andy Stack.) She lives in the Puget Sound area, just as I have most of my life, and writes largely about crimes of the Pacific Northwest (which happens to be my area of professional interest). I have a tremendous amount of admiration for how she built herself up into the publishing powerhouse she is today — from being a disabled former Seattle cop to a single mom of four who freelanced for true-detective magazines on the side, building up her name and her game until she could land her first book contract. Since then, she’s knocked out upwards of 30 books, most of which are well above average for the genre, and continues producing at a fearsome pace well into her 70s. I don’t know her well, but I’ve corresponded with her a few times, attended several of her public appearances and spoken to her after those events on a handful of occasions. Like everybody else, I like her. And I wouldn’t object to getting to know her a lot better.

So why am I saying that her book isn’t very good?

Because … well … hmmm. Because it just isn’t very good.

I’m sorry. I wish it wasn’t so. And I felt an obligation to say so, given that there’s virtually no outlet that I can find for coherent, informed criticism of true-crime books. Mass-market paperback originals, especially, fly almost totally under the critical radar.

That said, I don’t kid myself that I will dissuade one person from buying “But I Trusted You.” That’s not the point. Nor is that particularly what I want to do. The point is that I’d like to be a catalyst for a conversation about what we want and expect from books in the true-crime genre, what standards we expect them to uphold, and I don’t see that serious conversation taking place anywhere now besides a on few threads on Amazon.com. (Most conversations about true crime that I can find are more TV-centric, more focused on the cases of the moment in the national and global media. That doesn’t interest me.)

So why then, if I am so convinced that I’m doing something good and worthwhile, am I so worried?

One, because I well know to criticize somebody’s work is to criticize their blood and sweat and tears, to criticize their children. My attack may be professional but I don’t pretend for a second that it won’t be taken personally, perhaps by Ann Rule but almost certainly by some of the more ardent folks among her legions of fans (who she affectionately refers to as ARFs, for Ann Rule Fans). I’m a human being. It was never my intent to hurt anyone’s feelings, even as I knew going in that I might do exactly that. All I can say is that my criticism, taken in context, is constructive and not destructive.

That’s what I hope people keep in mind if there are any consequences, as a result of my review, on my ability to forge and maintain the kind of relationships that will allow me to become a published author myself. I know there could well be, especially in the world of the Internet, where people often react without pausing to think and post slashing, searing rebuttals in the heat of anger.

That I can handle. The idea that people won’t deal with me in the future — people I’d like to have deal with me — because I violated publishing-world protocols of politeness and professionalism would be much tougher to take.

So the question is: Is any literary criticism deemed to be rude by definition? Or, could it be that I’m just fretting over nothing, and that what I say just might be taken by everyone who reads it in the spirit in which it’s intended?

Actually, the idea that I’m fretting about this is kind of funny, given that one of my next blog posts will feature an absolute shredding of another true-crime book released last year — a book so indifferently reported and incompetently written that I think it threatens to undermine reader confidence in the entire genre. A book that Ann Rule couldn’t or wouldn’t write in her worst nightmares. Bet your ass I have something to say about that.

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Some odds and ends:

— We do have a winner from last week’s drawing for a free, inscribed copy of my friend Craig Lancaster‘s debut novel, 600 Hours Of Edward. From 11 scraps of paper in a baseball cap, I drew the name of Kristin Hanes, my favorite Seattle radio news reporter. Congratulations, Kristin … and thank you to everyone else who participated in last week’s Q&A with Craig. And even though you didn’t win, I hope you’ll buy a copy of the book. Not only is it a great, fun, breezy, poignant read, but it’s a great way to support small-press authors who get no advances and have to cover most of their own marketing and promotion expenses.

— I’ve packed it in on NaNoWriMo after seeing early on that while I think I’ve got a great idea for a genre mystery novel and enjoy working on it, I just don’t have the time to write on it enough to maintain the necessary pace of nearly 2,000 words a day to get to the finish line at the end of November. Right now, on Nov. 13, I’m at 8,633 words, when I should be at a minimum of about 24,000. But, like I said, I do think I’m onto something good, and I’ll git ‘er done eventually.

— I submit monthly reviews and interviews with Pacific Northwest authors of mystery and true-crime books to Reading Local Seattle, and last week saw the posting of my review of Bainbridge Island author Anthony Flacco‘s The Road Out Of Hell. (The short version: It’s a good book, and Flacco masterfully carries off the difficult and ethically tricky task of recreating vast swaths of dialogue between long-deceased people while staying true to both the spirit and the letter of what actually happened.)

— My latest monthly piece for 1st Turning Point, a Seattle-based Web site of shared marketing and promotion strategies for authors, is titled “Pissing Matches As Platform Builders?” It’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the only semi-ludicrous idea that staging a literary feud with an acid-tongued reviewer could be a good way to boost an author’s visibility — and sales. I hearken back to the late Jack Olsen‘s long-running, high-profile feud with The Seattle Times to make my half-serious point.

— In the If You Write It, They Will Come Dept., the fine Self Publishing Review has asked me for permission to reprint my Q&A with Craig Lancaster, whose book was originally self-published. I said yes; it should go up sometime this weekend, I’m told. And apropos of nothing, the Twitter site of Field’s End, a celebrated authors’ collective on my hometown of Bainbridge Island, posted a link to my blog about my visit to the state prison at McNeil Island. Nice little boosts for everybody. I love how that works.

— Speaking of prison visits, look next week for my report on my planned Monday visit to the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor. I’ll be meeting for the first time with Jeannette Murphy, a woman who has been behind bars for more than 26 years for shooting both of her parents in the head and setting their Lacey home on fire to cover it up in early 1983, when she was 19. She’s done well in prison, becoming one of the facility’s most prominent inmate leaders. And while she narrowly fell short of her bid for clemency from the governor at an April hearing, I think she’s got a good shot at making it in her next bid in two to three years. All that’s missing for her is a clear and unhesitant vocal ownership of her crime. She has to be able to say what she did and why she did it to the governor’s Clemency and Pardons Board in such a way that they’ll feel confident in telling the governor that she’ll never do it again. It’s my hope that I can nudge her in that direction — it’s not only in her best interests, but in the interests of a future crime book I’d like to write.

— And I remain hard at work on a planned news article about Robert Holmes, a convicted rapist and murderer who sought a governor’s pardon, won a recommendation from the Clemency and Pardons Board — but was turned down this summer by the governor’s office. I’ve done several interviews, including ones with Holmes and the parents of the teenage victim — and have a partial first draft written. It’s my hope to have this all wrapped up within two weeks, and ready to pitch to local news outlets.

Check in with y’all next week.

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It’s been 13 days since my last blog post.

I haven’t abandoned this site by any means. If anything, my problem is that on some level, I want every blog post I write to be substantive and timeless. I realize on the level on which I usually operate that such an idea is ridiculous — that this is a blog, and not “Remembrance Of Things Past.”

All the same, it’s important to have standards, right? For instance, I’ve been promising for some time to write up my interview with Janet L. Smith, the Seattle mystery author who dropped out of the publishing scene after her third and final book came out in 1995. I met with her on Sept. 22, and have done a draft of my blog post, but want to do some fact-checking with Janet before I post it.

I usually record my interviews, but that wasn’t possible where Janet and I met — a crowded Starbucks off Aurora Avenue in North Seattle with chatter all around us. I took copious notes instead. In my newspaper reporter days, I would have trusted those notes and hoped for the best. But, as a blogger and budding book author, my deadline is no longer “7 p.m. tonight” but “whenever it’s ready.” As such, I choose to allow myself the non-luxury luxury of being as thorough and accurate as possible. So I’m asking Janet to help me be sure I have some facts correct before I share my understanding of them with the world. It’s all part of a standard I’ll be holding myself to in my true-crime writing — telling as good a story as possible means telling it as accurately as possible.

So, hopefully, that’ll be ready to go soon.

Same with a lengthy Q&A I conducted with Diane Fanning, one of the best-selling authors in the true-crime genre today (she’s got two books this year — “A Poisoned Passion,” about a West Texas woman who murdered her war-hero husband, and “Mommy’s Little Girl,” her look at the media-saturated Caylee Anthony child-murder case). I just got my last set of answers via e-mail yesterday, and will format them in the next day or so. I think you’ll find the Q&A interesting, in that I’m less focused on the stories — and more on how Diane tells them.

I’ve also been working on my book-review chops, too. I turned in a lengthy review of Bainbridge Island author Anthony Flacco‘s “The Road Out Of Hell,” a historical true-crime book, for Reading Local Seattle. I’ve agreed to do monthly book reviews and author profiles for that site.

Next up: A review of Clallam County author Elizabeth Sims‘ latest mystery, “The Extra.” She and I will be meeting this coming Friday for breakfast in Sequim. And, I’m working on a blog review of “The Best American Crime Reporting of 2009” anthology — a series I would almost literally kill to be in next year.

Oh, and I just published my first two pieces — here and here — for the 1st Turning Point Web site, about how to get book publicity in newspapers and news Web sites. As with Reading Local, I’ve gotten an invite to be a regular writer there, and will be filing once-a-month pieces on book-publicity ideas and observations.

Oh, and there’s work on my own book. That’s been going gangbusters, actually. Here’s what’s been going on:

Last Sunday, I had lunch in Tacoma with Les LeMieux, the man who survived a 1997 murder attempt stemming from a drug deal, and, 12 years later, supported his attacker’s release from prison. Les found me via this very blog and, after some calls and e-mails, we finally arranged a get-together. I like him a lot, and he feels at ease with me. We seem to have agreed that he’s got a hell of a good story to tell, and that I’m the person to tell it. I expect to get a copy of the state Clemency and Pardons Board file — the factual backbone of the story — in about two weeks. Once I’ve read through that, Les and I will start doing formal interviews.

Meanwhile, I’ve exchanged letters with Aaron Borrero, the man convicted of trying to kill Les. He hasn’t committed to working with me, yet, but he is willing to hear me out. To that end, he’s put me on his visitor list at McNeil Island Corrections Center, and I’ve sent in the required background-check form to the state Department of Corrections. Hopefully I’ll get that clearance soon so I can take the ferry ride to the island and see if Aaron and I can connect.

My weekends — Mondays and Tuesdays — have been spent in total-immersion research. Last week, I spent both days in the state capital city of Olympia working on a future book stemming from a 1983 case in which an 18-year-old woman shot her parents and set the house on fire to cover it up. I pulled records at the Thurston County Courthouse and found news accounts of the murder and trial at the Olympia Public Library. Olympia is an hour and a half drive from where I live, in Bremerton, but it’s a lovely place in fall and has the best sub-sandwich shop around, Meconi’s Subs. Can’t get enough of that fresh-baked bread ….

This Monday, I stop in Tacoma — for a records search at the state Court of Appeals — before returning to Olympia. On the agenda is more digging at the library, and lunch with the defense lawyer from the 1983 case. He’ll share some valuable on-the-record impressions of his teen-murderess client, who is now 45 years old — and has spent the last 26 1/2 years in prison. And on Tuesday, I’ll go to nearby Shelton, where I’m trying to learn more about the prosecutor from a 1967 case — namely, why he committed suicide in 1978. The folks at the Mason County Historical Society have been tremendously helpful in chasing down leads for me, and I hope they’ll continue to be.

These days, I’m tired, broke and overwhelmed. My car smells like ancient fast food. My feet, my eyes and my ass all hurt equally by the end of the night.

And I’m having the time of my freaking life.

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I suppose it’s both good and bad that I notice with surprise that it’s been nearly a week since my last blog post.

Good, because I have been busy.

Bad because it’s not been all about book-writing. (I won’t bore you with the Homerian epic saga of my Saturn and its failing catalytic converter.)

Good, because there has been a lot of book stuff in there, anyway.

Bad, in that for the passage of a week, there’s still so much I’m waiting on. And I don’t have the patience to be patient.

But let me catch you up on the good stuff.

As you might recall, 11 days I earlier I live-blogged from the hearings of the state Clemency and Pardons Board in Olympia as I trolled for new cases of crime, punishment and redemption to write about.

One of those cases jumped out at me far more than the others — a case in which one man (with two accomplices) held up another in a Seattle-area drug deal, tied him up, stuffed him in a duffel bag and dumped him in a freezing river to die. Only, somehow, the guy lived. And, 12 years later, at the hearings, he spoke in support of his attacker’s plea to be released from prison. (Or, technically, as the victim made clear, he was “not opposing” his assailant’s release.)

You might remember I wrote: “This guy is fascinating … I gotta talk to him.”

As it turns out, that man, Les LeMieux, found me … by doing a Google search on the hearing and finding my blog. That led to an exchange of e-mails and a phone call last week in which we made plans to meet. He’s expressed interest in sharing his story with me.

At this point, we’re talking about meeting for lunch in Tacoma on Thursday. (Assuming my damn car cooperates, of course.)

The same day, I exchanged e-mails with the paralegal with whom I deal on Clemency and Pardons Board matters at the state Attorney General’s Office.
If I want copies of the court files, police documents and correspondence of each case heard before the board, I have to formally request them through her.

At first, she told me that fulfilling my requests — for partial and complete files on six of the nine cases heard that day — would take 90 days. That means that to get my hands on the file concerning Aaron Borrero, the imprisoned attacker, I’d have to wait until a week or two before Christmas.

Not good. Not if I want to produce a book on this case in six months. So I wrote back and said, well, what if I request just the Borrero file for now? Could I have that one in, say, 30 days? And she allowed that that was possible. So I may have my hands on the factual backbone of this story in three weeks or so. Definite good news.

But, of course, there’s one big missing piece in this puzzle — the cooperation of Borrero himself. To that end, I sent a letter last week to him at the state prison on McNeil Island, where he resides in minimum custody. If I’m lucky, I’ll hear back from him — or somebody close to him — by the end of the week. If I’m luckier still, I’ll hear that he too is willing to work with me. I have every reason to think I’ll be that lucky, though — he’s got nothing but incentive to share his story as he waits on the governor to decide his fate, and that’s a process that could take several months. Having received a thumbs-up from the Clemency and Pardons Board, it behooves him to make his case for early release more compelling in the governor’s eyes. Especially since she has been known to overturn the positive recommendations of her handpicked panel.

But, for now, I wait.

In the meantime, though, there’s plenty of stuff to work on. Novels and short stories. Other stories based on Clemency and Pardons Board cases (on any given day, I read documents or write correspondence on three to five cases from among the dozen or so I have in play).

And there’s platform-building exercises. For one, I was recently invited to write for Reading Local: Seattle, and have been working on my first project for those folks: A review of a new historical true-crime book called “The Road Out Of Hell” and a profile of its author, Anthony Flacco. In fact, I’ll be interviewing Flacco tonight at his home in my hometown of Bainbridge Island.

For two, I’m writing a two-part series on how to get book publicity in the news media for another Seattle-based literary collective called 1st Turning Point. One part has been delivered; the second part will be delivered by week’s end. I’ll share the links with you when they’re online.

For three, I’m developing a series of Q&A with authors for this blog. First up will be an interview with Janet L. Smith, a Seattle writer who published three well-regarded mystery novels between 1990 and 1995 — and then stopped. Why did she stop? I’ll find out tomorrow afternoon, when she and I meet for coffee and an interview. Hopefully that blog will be ready to go in a few days. I’m excited for it; we’re all so obsessed in the literary world with what’s new and what’s hot that we rarely take the time to look back at what was new and hot, say, 20 years ago — and wonder what happened. The reality is that not every author has a long and happy career. Many, like Janet, vanish from the scene. Don’t ever you wonder why? I do.

So, that’s me for now. Hopefully, a week from now, I’ll have much more to report — and have reported some of it well before that week elapses.

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