Catherine McKenzie's fresh and compulsively readable novel, Spin, at first sounds like a horror story out of Cosmo. Her heroine, Kate, is a freelance journalist with the job opportunity of a lifetime—but she botches it when the interview falls right after her 30th birthday, and she shows up drunk. However, she's offered a second chance for her dream job—but first she has to go undercover at rehab to follow a Lindsay Lohan-like celebrity as she tries to sober up.
Kate is a music writer and music figures prominently in this story. Author McKenzie even goes so far as to include a playlist at the back of the book! We asked her to elaborate on five songs from the playlist. Below you'll find why these songs are important to the story. You can find the full playlist on YouTube.
Behind the music of Spin
guest post by Catherine McKenzie
Music plays a central role in Spin. In part because the main character, Kate, is a music journalist—and therefore often uses music as a reference for her feelings—but also because I originally envisioned the book as a musical. I know. Weird, right? What I mean by that is that I wanted to introduce music into the book in a way that would take it from two-dimensions to three. That’s why there’s a playlist at the end. Each chapter has a song that is either mentioned in the chapter, or that embodies what Kate is going through and feeling. Here’s why I picked some of the songs I did:
Chapter 1: "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree." Kate references this KT Tunstall song as one she’s listened to hundreds of times. To me it’s an upbeat, feel-good song. The tempo and the way it’s sung make me think about dancing, letting go, having fun. I thought it was representative of where Kate is in her life at the beginning of the book.
Chapter 2: "Redemption Song." Like the title says, this song is, on some level, about seeking redemption. As any blurb of Spin will tell you, early in the book Kate blows her chance at her dream job by showing up still drunk to an interview after a night of partying. This prompts Kate to try—sort of—to change her life, to redeem herself, if you will. But Kate isn’t ready to change, and so she ends up taking a different path: following a celebrity in rehab to get the inside scoop. If she succeeds, her dream job might be hers.
Chapter 3: “Hey There Delilah.” The lead singer of the Plain White-T’s wrote this song about a girl he was interested in, but it’s also about hope. Hope that they’ll be together. Hope that he’ll get the fame he’s seeking. Since Kate arrives at rehab full of hope about her future—I know . . . weird, right?—I thought this was a good song to accompany her.
Chapter 4: “Displaced.” This haunting song by Azure Ray is, to me, about feeling uncomfortable in your own skin. And that’s certainly how Kate feels in her first days of rehab.
Chapter 5: “Blackbird.” This pretty Paul McCartney/Beatles song is one that Kate dreams about early on in rehab. While the reference to it is passing, Kate’s urge to fly away “into the light of the great black night” is strong. And the first seeds of doubt about whether she’s broken or not start to creep in.
So . . . if you read the book, turn on some music. It’s the way it’s meant to be read.
Learn more about Spin on Catherine's website. Readers: Do you associate books or characters with music? Share your associations in the comments!
guest post by Rick Lenz
Not having been exactly a megastar actor, I knew my memoir North of Hollywood would have to be different—unstereotypical. I share with you some of the guidelines that came to me in a scalding blast of inspiration as I considered this.
Okay. First of all, make sure you have nothing to say. If you have something to say, it means you’ve already begun organizing it, which—if you’ve done that before you begin writing—is death. Un-stereotypical writing has to be completely fresh.
Two: you can’t be unorganized either. Once you’re sure you have nothing to say and have said it inventively, make sure you then put it all in a sensible order. Just because you’re capable of covering a canvas with a coat of red paint doesn’t make you Rothko. Unconventional writing—just like anything else in the creative arts—had better have a lot of structure if it's going to be accessible unconventional writing.
Three: Make sure you’re at peace with yourself. Chaos never creates anything but a mirror image of itself. Don’t commit the day-to-day mess in your mind to paper. If you do, people will have firm evidence that that’s what’s in your head and they will not pay you for it.
Four: Make sure your writing is crystal-clear and avoid clichés like the plague.
The fifth, and perhaps most important, rule of unconventional writing is never to forget that everyone else is trying to be unconventional. We live in a time in which it seems as if we’ve watched too many absurdist comedies in a row. Our frames of reference have gotten bent around to the point that everything seems preposterous and nothing provokes surprise.
Ergo, at this very moment a million authors are thinking, “How can I shock the pants off them?”
Well, most readers’ pants are already down around their ankles.
To illustrate: an increasingly large proportion of writing in the 21st Century is for the Internet and television. If my late mother were to watch network TV today, she’d faint within a minute. The next night, she’d faint again.
But eventually, after some nasty falls and a few bruises, she’d make sure she was sitting in an easy chair when she turned on the television.
Then, gradually, her responses would turn into little more than faintly raised eyebrows.
Finally, she’d just stare at it like everyone else.
Meanwhile—and this more of a caveat than a rule—never forget we live on a continent that was only recently (in the big scheme of things) populated by people who deeply believed that plants, rocks, fire, water, as well as animals and people were imbued with a sacred inner life by the Great Spirit. Compare and contrast that with the man (also on television), warning men to seek medical help if their erections last longer than four hours.
To sum up: In order to write in an unstereotypical way, do not know what you’re talking about, but organize it well. Be peaceful (a lobotomy is permissible). Be lucid and remember that everyone else is trying to break the stereotypes too.
Maybe the best thing to do is simply to write old-fashioned, cleanly- stated prose and not worry about anything beyond that—unless you want to count being interesting and honest.
Rick Lenz has been acting on Broadway, TV and film since 1965. In his memoir, North of Hollywood—on sale today—he talks about a life spent acting alongside the likes of Walter Matthau.
guest post by Larissa Ione
Okay, single ladies, raise your hand if you've ever seen that tiresome criticism that goes something like this: Single women who read romances will develop unrealistic expectations of men.
Ha! And again, ha! Reading romance novels when I was single helped me recognize that no man is perfect (not even those in romance novels) and that I didn't have to put up with idiots. Unrealistic expectations? Really?
Did I mention the ha?
We women know the men in romance novels are fictional wonderful guys. But in the real world there are also nonfictional wonderful guys. So I was well aware of the fact that I wasn't going to find Joe Mackenzie from Linda Howard's Mackenzie's Mission while I was in the Air Force, but that didn't mean I had to put up with jerks, cheaters, abusers or morons.
There were certain things I was going to demand from a man, the same as a good romance heroine does. Things like respect. Like fidelity. Like honesty.
So did reading romance set me up with certain expectations? Maybe. But unrealistic ones? No way. I was in no hurry to get serious or get married, and in the end, I got my own hero who is in no way perfect, but he's right for me.
So, single ladies, this February treat yourself to a romance novel full of hot guys who ultimately treat their heroines with respect, and know that there are real men like that out there.
For some reason, during the month of February, I'm drawn to contemporary romances, and some of my personal favorite Valentine's Day re-reads are Mackenzie's Mountain by Linda Howard, Prince Joe by Suzanne Brockmann, and Nobody's Baby But Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.
What about you? Any personal favorite re-reads that remind you that romance novels can be utterly unrealistic while at the same time delivering a real, feel-good read?
Larissa Ione is the author of Immortal Rider (Grand Central), the second book in her Lords of Deliverance series about the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Her next paranormal romance, Lethal Rider, comes out in May 2012. Learn more on her website, larissaione.com.
So many readers are would-be authors, and many of us are curious about the publication process. How do people with day jobs manage to write an entire book? What is it like for them emotionally while they attempt to find an agent? In a guest post for BookPage, debut author Nelle Davy provides a behind-the-scenes look at her publication experience. Nelle has an interesting perspective, because she works on the other side of publishing, too.
Nelle's novel, The Legacy of Eden, went on sale a week ago. It's the story of the dramatic rise and fall of an Iowa family, inspired by I, Claudius.
An insider’s look at the publication process
guest post by Nelle Davy
As someone who works in the publishing industry, the only thing that surprised me when publishing my own book was how challenging I found it. I have worked in publishing for five years now, first as an international sales assistant at Pan Macmillan and then as an assistant at a talent agency in the books department. I am used to getting submissions of my own and seeing them go from a manuscript to a bound book on the shelf. I have even rejected manuscripts before, so of course I knew the pitfalls and the difficulties of the publishing process—but going through it yourself is something else entirely.
It is hard and horrible and personally cutting, especially as I was surrounded by a litany of authors either watching their own dreams come true or fall away.
Inspired by I, Claudius, my novel, The Legacy of Eden, is an epic, sweeping tale of a dynasty rotten to the core, driven by ambition, lust—and hatred. I wanted to take the kernel of the idea from I, Claudius—aspiration and its devastating effects on a family headed by an amoral matriarch—and move it into a modern setting. When I first began writing The Legacy of Eden, I was working at Pan Macmillan, typing it up during my lunch breaks one minute and then working on sales targets for authors the next. But because of where I worked and what I did, I was determined that I would be published on my own merit and not because of my profession. I never said where I worked in any of my submission letters and it was also partly why I wrote under my married name, so I was separated from my work life. That way, if my manuscript was called in by an agent, it was really because they wanted to read it and not because they were intrigued by who I worked for or what I did.
However, I had to experience what it was like coming up through the slush pile (the term publishers and agents give to unsolicited manuscripts, of which they get tons every single day). It was incredibly harsh. It took me just under a year to get an agent and then four months to get a publisher, so in total the process was 18 months. This is by no means the average, and it was also doubly awkward when publishers I was working with started rejecting my book. But I think things happen for a reason, because what I learned going through all that has made me kinder and more understanding to my own authors; I can really empathize with their worries and concerns. But I have been incredibly lucky with my own publishers, who have been nothing but supportive and enthusiastic about The Legacy of Eden.
Thanks, Nelle! Read more about The Legacy of Eden on the author's website.
Last week, author-illustrator Chris Raschka won the 2012 Caldecott Medal—the children’s book equivalent of an Oscar—for his touching picture book, A Ball for Daisy. Which made us wonder: What was it about this particular book that led the awards committee to choose it as “the most distinguished American Picture Book for Children” published last year?
We posed that question to Robin Smith, who knows a thing or two about the Caldecott, having served on the 2011 Caldecott committee. Robin, a second grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, also reviews children’s books for a number of publications, including BookPage. In a guest post, she offers her opinion on what makes this wordless book about a little dog and her treasured toy a very special book indeed.
When A Ball for Daisy was named the 2012 Caldecott Medal winner, some of us had trouble controlling our smug smiles. As a matter of fact, we grinned. We had followed the mock award committees and rarely saw this treasure make it past the initial lists, but we knew. Those of us who have been lucky enough to serve on a Caldecott committee understand how certain books might catch the fancy of those 15 people sequestered over the long weekend of the American Library Association’s Midwinter meetings and this one seemed like it had potential. I held out hope for a few other titles to be honored, but I was pretty sure Daisy would wear a sticker of one color or the other.
Well, first of all, the wordless format allows the art to be examined without any distracting fonts or wonky word choice. There is a plot, for sure, and it is well paced and brimming with emotion. This is not to say that books with words are at a disadvantage, just that this particular wordless book was successful at getting across both the plot and emotional punch without any words.
Gestural drawings are perfect for this story and Chris Raschka is a master of this technique. Soft, pleasingly sloppy lines catch the emotional essence of Daisy. Daisy’s grey and black outlines are firm and thick when things are going well and shaky when Daisy is disappointed and sad. Her body language is spot on, too: Contrast her confident stride to the park with the forced march home.
The overall design of the book is satisfying too. Horizontal frames tell much of the story, but single, full-page paintings let the child reader know when something important has happened. I love how some of the horizontal frames stretch across both pages of a spread, showing the action clearly. Kids instinctively know how to read these pages and love telling the story in their own words. My favorite spread follows Daisy’s emotional response when her ball suddenly pops. I heard Raschka himself refer to this spread as the stages of grief . . . and it is! The background watercolor moves from yellow to brownish purple, leaving no question as to Daisy’s deep feelings of loss.
There are so many things to appreciate about Daisy that were surely discussed around the table in Dallas. The paper is sumptuous, preventing any bleed-through of color. (Yes, the committee will discuss such mundane things as paper quality.) The dog’s-eye view changes subtly when the story becomes about both dogs and owners. First, it’s all feet and fire hydrants. All of a sudden, near the end of the story, the reader sees the whole girl who is Daisy’s owner when she is needed for cuddly couch comfort. But, really, it’s always about Daisy, isn’t it?
Using a limited color palette carefully adds to the simple genius of the story. Making a story that is simple and satisfying is not easy. Creating a story that a committee can discuss, discovering new and wonderful things upon each re-examination, is what moves a book to the top of the heap.
In a year with so many fantastic picture books, I am sure it was a challenge finding the one book that a majority of the committee members could agree on. I have had some experience with this type of group decision-making, and I completely trust the process. I hope everyone who might have overlooked the timeless appeal of Raschka’s book can give Daisy another look.
Thanks, Robin. Daisy is definitely an unforgettable dog with an important message about love and loss. And for those who want to know more about the award, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) offers this description of the criteria to be evaluated by the 15 members of the Caldecott Committee:
a. Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;
b. Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;
c. Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;
d. Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;
e. Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.
guest post by Megan Smolenyak, author of Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing!
Mention DNA and many instantly think of crime shows and medical dramas, but did you know it can also tell you about your past? As an incurable genealogist and tackler of history mysteries, I’ve been playing with DNA for more than a decade and would like to share some of its unexpected uses:
1.) Family history buffs use Y-DNA, which is passed intact from father to son down through the generations, for surname and geographical studies to determine which participants share a common ancestor. While results don’t reveal the exact nature of the relationship between any two people (that’s where conventional research comes in), it’s a handy tool for testing theories and figuring out which are “your” Smiths and which you can ignore in your future sleuthing.
2.) If you’re curious about the direct maternal branch of your family tree, you can take a mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test. mtDNA is passed from mothers to both their sons and daughters, but their sons don’t pass it on. Among other things, you can learn about your seriously deep ancestry—as in, roughly how and when this part of your family migrated out of Africa. 3.) Whenever you hear about a history mystery—say, the Romanovs or the Titanic baby—chances are that mtDNA was used. While scientists would love to use Y-DNA (and have recently had some preliminary success), mtDNA is much more plentiful, making it more reliable in degraded remains situations. That’s why documentaries often mention that the subject’s maternal relatives were involved.
4.) Familial DNA is used to help identify remains of American soldiers from past conflicts including Vietnam, Korea, WWII and WWI, so if you have a great-uncle who lost his life in Korea in the 1950s, don’t be surprised if you get a call one day asking you to consider swabbing.
5.) Dozens of male adoptees have identified their birth families with the help of Y-DNA, but this possibility was closed to women since only men sport a Y-chromosome. But the advent of autosomal testing—which can spot relatives of various degrees throughout your family tree—has finally opened that door. Just recently, a woman found her brother when her results popped up a previously unknown half-sibling. It will take a while, but DNA testing will revolutionize how most adoptees search for their birth families.
Genealogy specialist Megan Smolenyak has appeared on Good Morning America, CNN, NPR and BBC. She is the author of six books, a Huffington Post contributor, a cold case researcher for the Army, NCIS and the FBI, and former Chief Family Historian and spokesperson for Ancestry.com. She has helped many clients—including Michelle and Barack Obama—discover their family's roots. Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing! (Kensington) goes on sale on Tuesday.
guest post by Jaden Terrell
Readers never tire of reading about their favorite characters. Sherlock Holmes' fans were so insatiable that his author killed him off and was forced to resurrect him through a series of prequels. When I started my first Jared McKean novel, I hoped to inspire the same passion in readers. I knew that most successful series characters have the following traits in common, so before I sent the book into the world, I tried to make sure Jared possessed them.
They are vulnerable. We love an underdog, and a character’s vulnerabilities give readers a reason to root for him. Jared is still in love with his ex-wife, who is married to another man. He has family ties that leave him emotionally vulnerable.
Just like real people, they are flawed. Jared is impulsive and quick to throw a punch. He’s a sucker for a woman with fluttering lashes and a hard luck story. But that’s okay. A character’s flaws can provide plot complications and add emotional depth as he struggles to overcome his weaknesses.
They are strong. Vulnerability must be balanced with competence and strength of character. Jared is an accomplished marksman, horseman, and martial artist. He does what he thinks is right, even at terrible costs.
They are complex, with backgrounds and connections that lead to complications. Working undercover in vice and later as a homicide detective, Jared cultivated skills and contacts that make him an effective PI but have left him with enemies. His connections with family and friends give him support but often lead to entanglements and even physical danger. He’s spent his life trying to live up to his father, a war hero turned patrol officer who was killed while intervening in an armed robbery. Jared is a former homicide detective—a man’s man—but his tough-guy demeanor is tempered by compassion. He nursed his mother through her losing battle with cancer, cares for a friend with a terminal disease, rescues horses, and is the loving father of a child with Down syndrome. These things give him added dimension and—I hope—make readers care about him.
Will readers love Jared as much as I do? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I’m off to spend the afternoon with my good friend Jared McKean.
Jaden Terrell is the author of Racing the Devil (Permanent Press), the first in a series featuring Nashville private detective Jared McKean, and is a contributor to Now Write Mysteries, a collection of writing exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for crime fiction writers. Terrell is the executive director of the Killer Nashville Crime Literature Conference and the recipient of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Learn more at on her website, jadenterrell.com.
Happy New Year! One of the lead stories in our January issue is an interview with novelist Adam Johnson, whose new book set in North Korea became even more topical after the sudden death of the "Dear Leader" whose regime it details. Johnson was one of the few Westerners to visit the country. He spoke about the trip extensively during his chat with our interviewer Alden Mudge; here, Alden shares a few extra details from their conversation.
An American novelist in Pyongyang
guest post by Alden Mudge
During the seven years Adam Johnson spent writing his spellbinding new novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, he became pretty knowledgeable about the country and its Dear Leader. Or as knowledgeable as an outsider can be about the place. As the news coverage of Kim Jong Il’s death shows, very little is known about what really goes on in North Korea. And what does leak out tends toward the crazy preposterous, as in this funny New York Times article about Kim Jong Il’s outlandish sporting achievements.
Ridiculous? Yes, but North Korea is no joke for its citizens. During our conversation about the new novel, Johnson told me that he worried about his safety before his trip to North Korea in 2007. But his sponsor assured him that North Korea was probably the most crime-free nation on Earth. Even the slightest infraction landed you in the Korean gulag, where life was at best nasty, brutish and short.
“Another thing that was terrifying to me,” Johnson said, “was this notion that no one has written a literary novel there in 60 years. You cannot write anything that doesn’t glorify the regime, so the novels are state-sponsored. They’re approved and distributed. And even of those, there are very few. People don’t have much reading time. It’s bizarre. There’s no other subject matter besides the glorification of the Kims. That means that not only has no one written a literary novel, but no one has read a novel whose goal is to enlighten the human condition in three generations.”
To explain the hierarchical mindset promoted in North Korea, Johnson told me about the national airline. “I discovered in my research that the reason North Korea’s Air Koryo is the most dangerous airline in the world is not because of its ancient planes—mine was from 1963 or 1964—or poor maintenance, but because the copilots weren’t allowed to correct the pilots. An FAA study I read concluded that in three big crashes North Korean copilots hadn’t felt able to point out a pilot’s mistake. They had inherited that dictatorial sense of top-down power that an obvious reality could not be contradicted.”
Johnson also noted that North Korea is slowly opening up the country to tourism (under very tightly controlled conditions) to attract hard currency. I’m very curious, but I think it will be a longish while before I apply to go there.
Don't miss the full interview with Adam Johnson.
As a book blogger, I try to use my literary superpowers to spotlight incredible independent publishers and their novels. Unfairly pushed to the side and ignored, many of these books are assumed to be unworthy of a reader’s time, and I hope to crush that perception today. Indie/small press publishers have the unique ability to take on books that will appeal to specific audiences. Experts in their genre, they take chances on higher risk novels, cultivate intense relationships with their authors and readers and publish some of the best books I’ve ever read.
As the year begins to wind down, allow me to introduce you to my favorite indie picks of 2011, presented in no particular order. Each one comes with The Next Best Book Club’s seal of approval. Here’s to keeping these bad boys from flying under the radar!
Lori Hettler's Top 10 Indie Picks of 2011
Us by Michael Kimball (Tyrant Books)
A beautiful, heart-wrenching novel about a man whose beloved wife is in a coma; it packs a lasting punch. Michael uses sparse sentences and first-person narration to work his spell on the reader. Us is a story that celebrates life as it teaches us how to deal with death.
Damascus by Joshua Mohr (Two Dollar Radio)
Brilliantly written by an extremely talented indie writer, Damascus features a rag-tag set of incredibly flawed and fantastic characters who leap off the barstool and into your life. From cancer to the Iraq War, bathroom hand jobs to a filthy Santa suit, this book has it all.
Volt by Alan Heathcock (Graywolf Press)
Volt is a collection of stories that takes place in a small town called Krafton—a bad luck, backwoods-y sort of place that reeks of tragedy and mischief. Heathcock has mastered the art of emotionally torturing his characters.
Prize Winners by Ryan Bradley (Artistically Declined Press)
These well-written short stories expose humanity, vanity, struggle and curiosity at an extremely personal level. Still, there's nothing extremely dark or sadistic here. Bradley captures the painfully embarrassing dysfunction that follows any intimate relationship—whether it is new, old or over.
The Bee-Loud Glade by Steve Himmer (Atticus Books)
Would you give up life as you know it to live as a decorative hermit in some eccentric billionaire’s backyard for $5 million? That is the premise of Steve’s book, where the existence of God, vows of silence and free will are all explored.
Go the F*ck to Sleep by Adam Mansbach (Akashic)
A bedtime story for adults that expresses all of those horribly awful thoughts you think as you attempt to put your restless child to sleep. Have you heard the audio? It’s absolutely perfect!
Alt.Punk by Lavinia Ludlow (Casperian)
This novel is edgy, angsty and right up your alley if you are a middle-class hypochondriac who hates sex. Ludlow reveals the imperfections and ugly truths of life on the road with a punk rock band, as told by an emotionally stilted and sarcastic leading lady.
Zazen by Vanessa Veselka (Red Lemonade)
An incredible first novel that knocks the wind out of you, Zazen is unapologetic and honest. Veselka creates a world where emotions appear more real than the actual situations her characters find themselves in. It's a story that ebbs and flows, that's felt rather than read. It's impossible and totally plausible at the same time.
Piano Rats by Franki Elliot (Curbside Splendor)
From page one, Elliot’s honesty and ability to drop an F-bomb in a poem won my heart. This collection of prose poetry follows a woman who is no stranger to love: She’s suffered its beauty, its jealousy and its brutal end. She makes me want to get behind the pretty words people throw around and find the beauty that hides inside the pain.
My Father’s House by Ben Tanzer (Main St. Rag)
Dealing heavily with one son's worry, anxiety and grief over the slow cancerous death of his father, this novel can be almost too uncomfortably intimate. This departure from Tanzer’s previous work features lighter-hearted looks at socially awkward 30-somethings in a pop-culture saturated world—and should should come with its own Kleenex warning.
Lori Hettler is founder and moderator of TNBBC. She has been buried beneath indie and self-published review copies for more than four years. Her passion for supporting the independent and self publishing communities has driven her to spread the word about publishers, authors, and novels you've never heard of. Find her on Twitter and Facebook. Visit her review page to see the reviews for each of the books she has listed.
Readers: What was YOUR favorite book published in 2011. Let us know—and be entered to win 10 books in a genre of your choice.
Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter-turned-psychotherapist. He's also the author of the Daniel Rinaldi mystery series, about a psychologist who has a knack for solving murder cases. Book one in the series, Mirror Image, came out a year ago, and book two, Fever Dream, is out today! Below, Palumbo tells us what working as a psychotherapist has to do with writing mystery novels. Turns out, they have a lot more in common than you would think.
guest post by Dennis Palumbo
I must admit, I’ve had an interesting career journey. For many years I was a Hollywood screenwriter, after which I became a licensed psychotherapist specializing in treating creative types in the entertainment community. Now, after 24 years listening to hundreds of people’s most intimate stories, I’ve fulfilled a life-long dream and begun a series of crime novels. The first, Mirror Image, featuring psychologist and trauma expert Daniel Rinaldi, appeared last year. The sequel, Fever Dream, comes out in November.
Which begs the question: What, if anything, does a Hollywood psychotherapist and a suspense novelist have in common? Actually, quite a bit.
For both a therapist and a crime novelist, it’s the mystery of character itself that intrigues, puzzles and continually surprises. As a therapist, I’ve borne witness to the awful suffering, painful revelations and admirable courage of my patients—many of whom have survived unbelievable abuse, neglect and loss. Not to mention those whose lives have been marred by substance use, violence and severe mental illness.
How people cope with these issues and events, how well or poorly they meet these challenges, goes directly to the heart of the therapeutic experience. My job as their therapist is to help identify self-destructive patterns of behavior, and to empower them by providing tools to address these patterns and, hopefully, alter them.
So much for my day job. Moonlighting as a suspense novelist, I find myself doing pretty much the same thing with my fictional characters. As a mystery writer, I believe that crime stems from strong emotions, and strong emotions stem from conflict. Kind of like life. Which means the secret to crafting satisfying thrillers lies in exploring who your characters are (as opposed to who they say they are), what it is they want (or think they need) and the lengths to which they’ll go to get it.
Like the therapist, the crime novelist swims in an ocean of envy, greed, regret and desire. As a therapist does, the crime novelist must relate to his or her characters. Must be able to understand and empathize with their wants and needs. Must, in fact, go inside their heads and think as they think, feel as they must feel.
Since most of my patients are in the entertainment industry—writers, actors, directors, etc.—they present a broad canvas of creative passions, lofty ambitions, wild yearnings and devastating defeats. They love and hate deeply, with an artist’s fervor, and this extends beyond career considerations into the most intimate aspects of their personal lives.
So too the crime novelist must create and endow his or her characters with out-sized passions, hopes and dreams. How else can things go so awry in their lives? How else can things lead, as if inevitably, to treachery, blackmail, murder?
All the things, in other words, that make reading a crime novel so satisfying!
Thanks for stopping by The Book Case, Dennis!