Lawrence Block: How many novelists does it take to change a lightbulb?

This week we are delighted that Lawrence Block, the incredibly prolific, endlessly successful and thoroughly engaging writer of  books of all hues, has spared a few minutes to chat with our own Cadell Blackstock. And if you want to know how many novelists it takes to change a lightbulb, read on….

Larry, thanks very much for sparing time to stop by allonymbooks for a chat. You’ve been really busy lately issuing your earlier novels in e-book form. What has direct publishing offered you, as an already experienced and highly successful print novelist?

Direct publishing to Amazon, Nook and Smashwords has given a new life to quite a few of my out-of-print titles. I’ve been writing for over fifty years, and my backlist is enormous, and I’m delighted that my early work can reach a new audience.

And I’ve also self-published some new work. A collection of columns for stamp collectors, “Generally Speaking,” struck me as having too small and specialized an audience to interest a print publisher, but worth making available as an eBook. So I published it, and every month a few people pick it up. Similarly, I’m planning to ePublish a pair of collections of my assorted non-fiction.

You are renowned for your excellent advice on writing, so what have you learned from the direct publishing process and your forays into social media that you wish someone had told you early on?

Hmmm. I don’t know that anyone could have told me this, or that I could have taken it in, but I’m struck constantly these days by the pace at which the whole world of publishing is changing. (I’m sure that’s no less true of the world outside publishing, but it’s particularly noticeable here.)

What’s it been like getting reacquainted with some of the characters from your early years as a writer? Had you remembered them better or worse than they are?

I don’t spend a lot of time revisiting early work. And, in fact, I’ve learned not to judge what I wrote years ago. For many years I tried to disassociate myself from early pseudonymous work, and was in fact sustained by the thought that the books had not been printed on acid-free paper. (God speed the acid, I was apt to say.) But who am I to say which of my books a reader ought to like?

As you know, my central character Crash Cole is a bit of a rake, a bit of a cad, a man no father would want his daughter (or granddaughter) to date. Who among your characters would you prefer stayed well away from the ladies of the Block family?

I think my daughters and granddaughters can take care of themselves.

In Don Giovanni, the opera that Crash Cole is loosely based on, Don Giovanni is invited to dinner in hell by the man he has killed. Who would be at your ‘dinner party from hell’?

As age turns me increasingly antisocial, I’ve come to regard all dinner parties as infernal in origin.

Crash is also a collector of sexual conquests, much as Keller is a collector of stamps, and you are a collector of countries visited. Is there anything else you would start collecting now (other than more royalties!), were money no object?

I don’t think so. Age, I’m sure, is a factor here. It undercuts the urge to possess. My wife and I discovered some years ago that our admiration of an object no longer embodied the urge to acquire it.

Lastly, a quick word on the upcoming film of A Walk Among the Tombstones. I blogged a few months ago about the adaptation, and on the experience of watching novels one loves turn flesh on film. Are there any of your other novels you would like to see made into film or TV?

I have high hopes for the film, and enjoyed my several visits to the set. Liam Neeson is brilliant in the role of Matt Scudder, and of course I hope the film’s enough of a hit to lead to further installments. Of the Scudder books, I’ve always that A Ticket to the Boneyard is particularly filmable.

As for what else might work, well, the most important factor is the enthusiasm of the filmmaker. Writer/director Scott Frank got interested in A Walk Among the Tombstones a good fifteen years ago, and stuck with it until it finally happened. I’d like to see Keller on the screen—ideally, I would think, as an edgy cable series, but possibly as a feature. I’d like to see someone do right by Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Ultimately, though, I’m most interested in my books as books. And, through the miracle of eBooks, virtually everything I’ve written over the years is now eVailable. Neat, innit?

Neat indeed! And I think everyone who has enjoyed Bernie Rhodenbarr would like to see someone do right by him. Anyway, Larry, thank you so much for sharing a few minutes of your time with us.

By the way, how many novelists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Novelists never want to change anything.

Lawrence Block’s latest Keller novel, Hit Me, is available in hardback and e-book. The film version of his Matt Scudder novel A Walk Among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson, is released in 2014.  And details of all his many other excellent novels and books on writing and stamps are available at his terrific website. You can also visit LB’s Bookstore on eBayLB’s Facebook Fan Page and follow him on Twitter @Lawrence Block

Cadell Blackstock’s satire on sex and celebrity, Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’, is available on Kindle at all Amazon sites including Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Magical Realism, Visionary, Paranormal…? EM Havens and Evie Woolmore in conversation

This week EM Havens, author of Dark Night of the Soul, and allonymbooks’ own Evie Woolmore discuss the challenges of labelling their books as magical realist or visionary or fantasy or….

Evie Woolmore: When I read your blogpost the other day about the success of Dark Night of the Soul (DNOTS) after its release, I was amused to read the statistics you gave us from the Kindle rankings – #1 in Metaphysical/Visionary; #1 in Fantasy Super Hero; #1 in Dark Fantasy; #1 in Visionary Fantasy; #23 in Fantasy. Brilliant to have done so well so quickly, but what a range of genres to sit across! How do you see the advantages and pitfalls in labelling your work by genre?

EM Havens: Thanks, Evie! Yes, I am brilliant…and humble. (That’s a joke. My husband said people don’t always get my sense of humor so I thought I should say.) But, let’s just get all the cards on the table. Those numbers are from my free promo days with Amazon KDP Select. They correspond to how many free books I gave away not actual sales. I did put a lot of time and energy into promoting the giveaway, but it’s really not that big of a deal. It’s just a fun little contest I have with myself to see how high I can get in the overall free books when I run a promo. I actually made it to the front page (#19 overall) with one of my other books. THAT was exciting.

 I also don’t have complete control over my genres. Amazon chose a couple of those for me. I think the benefit is that more people might accidentally stumble on to the book. I worry, though, that not only will readers be disappointed the story doesn’t fit their expectations of the genre, but  also that the broad spectrum will confuse people enough to forgo purchasing. It’s really a conundrum. I generally have a hard time pegging the genre down myself, so it’s kind of fitting. 
EW: It is a conundrum, I agree! I understand exactly what your concerns are about reader expectations, but I also wonder whether readers of quite broadly defined genres like magical realism, fantasy and so on, will be generally more open to variations in those genres? Are they generally imaginative readers less bothered (and more inspired!) by innovation than someone reading a very specific (and perhaps formulaic) type of paranormal romance? What’s your sense from the contact you have with your readers?
EMH: I think fantasy/scifi readers are more open. Not because they are fantasy/scifi readers, but because the genre appeals to their reading habits. I have to laugh every time the hard core Historical/Contemporary Romance readers in my writing group try their hands at critiquing a scifi novel. “I don’t get it.”, “I don’t understand.”, “You need to tell me more about where this takes place.”, and the list goes on of complaints in reading the first paragraph. Where as, I’m perfectly fine with being in the dark for several chapters, and I actually LIKE that! Not to say I don’t occasionally enjoy a straight forward Romance, but to each their own.
 The comment I’ve been getting most about DNOTS is: “This is not what I expected. I’m so glad I gave it a chance!”  Most readers have taken that chance on it because they enjoyed another of my works. They say it’s unlike anything they’ve ever read and find it hard to categorize, but the overall response is positive. 
EW: That’s a really interesting point about ‘being in the dark for several chapters’. I know what you mean and I enjoy it too. That’s where readers who do prefer historical novels struggle with MR I think, because they like to get their bearings early on. Authenticity is important in that sort of novel, but magical or alternative realism really challenges that idea. How can the reader know what authenticity they are seeking, when we are creating a new/alternative/magical world for them? It just doesn’t exist in the same way.
So the question all that leaves me asking myself is, what sort of problems am I creating for the reader by writing historical magical realist fiction?!!  Am I giving with one hand and taking away with the other?! I suspect that’s one of the reasons that publishing house marketing teams struggled to know how to pitch my books, because they demand contradictory things of the reader: a desire for authenticity and a suspension of belief.
So when you’re thinking about new books to write, are you able to harness that idea that readers think ‘This is not what I expected’? Does it help you be creative?
EMH: OH! Most definitely! Sometimes, if I get stuck on a plot line, I’ll brainstorm and try to think of the thing that will be least expected. I think you know what part of Dark Night of the Soul I did that on. LOL! But hey, it packs a punch I think. Readers have loved that part. I’ve also written a steampunk romance called Fate War: Alliance. The comment of, “This is not what I expected” showed up there too (in a good way!). I like romance, but I get tired of the same plot told a million different ways. I could almost tell you the page number in which the first kiss would be, or the first misunderstanding. When I wrote Fate War, I wanted it to be different, more real in how the characters interacted. People don’t just change overnight. I think that threw a lot of romance readers because they were expecting the same old, same old. But in the end, they really liked it. That may be crux of everything I write. I don’t want readers to guess what comes next, because that’s the kind of book I want to read too! I’m definitely putting the same touches in upcoming novels.
EW: A recent review of my novel Rising Up posed the question “is it right to use magical realism in this way when the subject matter [the Holocaust] is so dramatic?” In a blog a couple of weeks ago I explored the idea that by calling it magical realism we are acknowledging the relationship and the juxtaposition between the ‘magical’ and the ‘real’. Dark Night of the Soul considers the spiritual consequences of suicide and features a character whose death is a direct result of an ongoing war, so what are your views on that balance between the ‘magical’ and the ‘real’?
EMH: I think magical realism does what any good science fiction or fantasy does. Juxtaposing magic, fantasy, the future or other worlds with what we know, is like shining light through a prism.  It allows us to to look at things from another angle, through a different lens and bypass our preconceptions and imagine a rainbow of different possibilities from what our finite experiences permit. That being said, I actually believe in the supernatural and that it plays a part in shaping the “real”. I don’t think the two can be separated. But I’m sure that’s another question for another day!
EW: I really like that idea of shining a light through a prism, showing things at another angle. In my blog for the Magical Realism Blog Hop in July I described it as “part of the fabric of this all-too-real world, visible all along if only you would just tilt your head a little further to one side and set yourself free of some of your pre-conceptions.” I think these sorts of metaphors help readers understand what to expect, and how magical realism (or alternative realism as I considered in the Blog Hop) might differ from fantasy or other paranormal fiction.
We could go on all day, couldn’t we? It’s such a fascinating topic, and I am really delighted to have had the chance to chat about it with you, EM. I can’t recommend DNOTS highly enough to anyone who hasn’t read it, so do visit EM Havens’ website and find out more about her and her books. Thanks EM, stop by again soon!

Indie Book Reviews (8) – British Indie Authors (2)

This week, allonymbooks novelist Evie Woolmore reviews novels by two other British authors.

Salvation by Harriet Steel (Amazon UK and US)

How historical does a historical novel have to be? From the dramatisation of facts and characters to stories simply set in the past, the challenge for any writer is to balance authenticity with narrative drive. It might be historically accurate but is it a good story? Harriet Steel’s novel Salvation, set in the England of the first Queen Elizabeth, does a pretty good job of balancing these two aspects, and gives us a romance, a spy thriller, and a history lesson in one.

Tom Goodluck, a clerk with ambitions to be a playwright, is having an affair with Meg, a lady of reasonable wealth whose husband is thoroughly unpleasant. But when Tom’s employer is found dead, Tom is charged with the murder and must leave the love of his life to save himself. Meg too is soon forced to run away and the novel is, in one sense, a weaving of their respective stories as they try to survive in the harsh social and religious realities of Elizabethan England. But Tom has also met Alexandre Lamotte, who not only puts on Tom’s play in pre-Shakespearean London, but has a double life as a spy for the Queen’s main agent Walsingham. Ms Steel uses the stories of these three main characters to show many complexities in England at that time: the persecution of the Catholics, the tensions between England and Spain, and the brutalities of being poor.

The novel is peopled with a large number of minor characters and it covers enormous ground geographically and in the passing of time. We are reminded of how long news took to travel in the sixteenth century, and how violent that era was. There are a couple of quite brutal scenes which may make those of a tender disposition feel a little pale, but many would argue that it is the responsibility of a historical novelist not to shirk that responsibility. On that same point, for this reviewer there was perhaps a bit too much historical information at times: while Ms Steel’s dialogue and description are extremely well crafted, there are quite a lot of descriptive passages, particularly in one historically significant section near the end (which I won’t spoil by naming) and this is perhaps where the ‘historical’ overtakes the ‘novel’ at times. For in doing justice to Ms Steel’s excellent research, the pace is sometimes slowed. Nonetheless, this is a really good read, and I couldn’t help thinking at the end that it could have made an excellent first novel in a series featuring Tom and Lamotte.


These Fragile Things by Jane Davis (Amazon UK and US)

These Fragile Things is an essay on survival: what does it mean to survive? How do we define successful survival? And when one’s life has changed dramatically, how are those around us dragged in to our experience of surviving? When teenager Judy is almost killed in 1982 by a falling tree, her parents respond in very different ways. Her mother, Elaine, is bogged down by the practicalities while her father, Graham, makes a pact with God. In this intense, emotionally complex novel, we witness (in the Biblical sense as well as the literal narrative sense) how Judy’s survival impacts not only on her parents, but those around her. And we wonder – along with all the characters in the book – whether and how that pact with God has manifested itself in the deeply spiritual visions Judy then has.

This book could be seen as an exploration of the impact of the embrace of religion on routine domestic life, but that would be to oversimplify what I think the author is trying to do. This book is more about our desire to explain what happens to us, to justify the tipping of the scales of existence to one side or the other, and our desire to maintain an equilibrium when everything changes. For me, the novel became particularly interesting once Judy began to experience her visions, and the author has done a clever balancing act herself by showing the impact of these extraordinary claims by Judy on two religious figures, Sister Euphemia from Judy’s new convent school, and Father Patrick, Graham’s priest. Their negotiations of their religion with the tensions of the real world are an interesting counterbalance to Graham’s absorption in Catholicism as the means of his salvation and Judy’s.

Without giving away the plot of the novel, what becomes apparent in the last part is that Graham’s initial evaluation of what it means for Judy’s to survive is challenged. Just as the novel explores in great detail the dynamics of a marriage under pressure, and the pervasive influence of memory and the past in shaping our present choices and how we remember what is happening to us right now, it also explores the dynamics of guilt about that survival. When Judy is labelled the Miracle Girl, she becomes the focus for everyone else’s grief and trouble, not to mention the focus for some equally faithless and lurid speculation about her family. Judy is positioned as responsible for the fates of others because hers seems to have been decided by God.

I would like to have read more about what Judy herself thought about that. We learn quite a lot about Judy’s experiences of her visions, but less about the impact of their consequences on her, such as what she feels about all the people who flock to her door. And while the author has evoked the social and cultural atmosphere of 1982 very effectively, for me there is a bit of a muddling in the narrative voice between the subjective stream of consciousness of Elaine and Graham in particular, and the omniscience of the writer, which occasionally makes Elaine and Graham sound a bit too objective about what is happening to them.

This novel will be about different things depending on who is reading it: about the internal pressures on a family in a crisis; a meditation on how teenagers and their parents negotiate changes brought on by growing up; about the difference between religion and faith and the sheer power of belief. The claustrophobic emotional intensity of the characters makes this novel unputdownable at times, but whatever you believe about Judy, this book will make you think.

Magical Realism and History: an arranged marriage?

This week allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore discusses questions raised by two different reviews of her historical magical realist novel Rising Up.

In conversation with the author EM Havens recently (which will appear on this blog in a couple of weeks), I found myself pondering whether in writing historical magical realism I was making my life – and the lives of my readers – really difficult. In one of my other writerly incarnations I’ve print-published a couple of historical romances and I recently provided some questions for a book club discussion of one of them. The book is a divisive one – readers seem to either love it or hate it (no, I am not Hilary Mantel in disguise) – and I was asked afterwards by the club convenor to provide some additional information about the sources I used for researching the novel. I was reminded then how important it is to historical fiction fans that a novel be authentic. These are readers with a scrupulous eye for detail. They enjoy the immediacy with which the historical world is created for them by the author and many actively dislike ambiguity and uncertainty. They are in many respects the very opposite of those who enjoy magical realist and other ‘fantasy’ genres, who are quite happy – as EM Havens so delightfully puts it – to be in the dark for a few chapters.

I was thinking about these issues again when I read two recent reviews of my novel Rising Up. Set in Warsaw, a young woman trapped in the Jewish ghetto of 1942 finds she can talk to a young man in the contemporary rebuilt city. He is seeking his family’s past, while she is terrified for the future of her family. He holds the key, of course, for he knows what happens to the ghetto, but what does he tell her, and how and why can they co-exist?

As I’ve blogged before, Rising Up emerged from a number of visits I made to Warsaw, and an overwhelming desire to try to capture the lingering effects of the Holocaust and the ghetto in Warsaw. I didn’t set out to write a historically authentic Holocaust novel, though cleary the need to be historically accurate and authentic, not to mention respectful, was particularly important and I researched very carefully and thoroughly. But my aim as a writer was to find a way to make that lingering real somehow, to explore how memory and knowledge combine to influence how we relate to the past, and what might happen if the past became suddenly more present. I wanted to find a way to construct the story that expressed my own direct experience of walking round Warsaw feeling the constant echoes and whispers and reminders of the past. And because I think there are so many ghosts (constructed or otherwise), it made sense to me as a storyteller to make those ghosts real. What turned out to be magical realism gave me a way to use fiction to explore that.

In her review of the book, Zoe Brooks asks the very interesting question of whether it is “right to use magic realism in this way, when the subject matter is so dramatic?” There is always the danger that when fiction embraces very recent, tragic or symbolic history that the events will become trivialised somehow. It can be a very fine line, as I discussed above. So what struck me about Katharina Gerlach‘s review was that in some senses she was saying the opposite, that the “tiny and consistent fantasy element” enabled her to read about a situation she found personally very distressing but in a way she felt was authentic and genuine.

I wondered if I should have been even more aware of that tension when I was writing the book than I already was, but then I realised that, for me, that particular juxtaposition of the magical and the real allows us as writers and readers to negotiate ways of revisiting the real when the real is very troublesome. It does not mitigate or trivialise that reality (in this case the past) by choosing to do more than just recreate it authentically, but it does offer a different way to examine our response to the facts. Rising Up was not an attempt to rewrite those facts in any way, in fact rather the opposite, but it was an attempt to enable a contemporary witness (Tom) to understand them better through the reality of Ela’s existence. Living museums and archive footage attempt something similar. But much of our understanding of dramatic and tragic historical events from before the age of mass media has been created and preserved through story-telling, and I wanted to examine how those stories might be changed or affected when individuals in different generations find themselves connected in a way that linear time ought not allow. When the past becomes the present and futures are shared.

I am Rising Up‘s central character Tom Macindeor – or rather I was when I was walking around Warsaw seeing and listening to the manifestations of the past. I could not help but be affected by what was in front of me, and I allowed Tom to do what I could not do, to listen to the voices of the past so I could understand my present better.