E-books and me



My first downloads on my new Sony Reader (back in the dawn of e-civilization) were the freebies: Hamlet, the US Constitution, Pride and Prejudice, Huckleberry Finn, Leaves of Grass. The Sony library at the time wasn’t exactly bursting with choices…

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NEVER SHOW YOUR INDEX CARDS



Today, the official publication date of As Husbands Go, I’m going to Joan Smith’s flower shop on Main Street in Port Washington for a Newsday photo shoot.  Well, “photo shoot” sounds kind of four-pages-in-Vogue, and for all I know this could be a teeny black and white accompanying the paper’s review of my novel.  But the point is that Joan matters.  On the Acknowledgments page, I thanked her for teaching me what I needed to know about floral design.  Not for life, mind you: for my protagonist, Susan B. Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten, who co-owns an upscale flower business.

I had a fabulous time learning from Joan Smith, a woman so vibrant she seems to be living two lives simultaneously.  But this was Flowers for Authors 101 – just enough knowledge to create part of the background for the character who will be the foreground.  I didn’t (and couldn’t, of course) learn everything Joan knew.  I didn’t need to.  All I have to do was to feel comfortable enough with a container, floral foam, and the green stuff to convince myself I knew what I was talking about.  Only after I did the research could I convince the reader.

Okay, let’s talk about research.  One pal of mine – a really good writer – came up with some intriguing information in one of his books.  “Hey, I never knew about XYZ,” I said.  “You really must have done a lot of research.”

He looked amused in his noir-ish way (which is to say the demi-smile of a man not utterly undone by an absurd universe) appeared for an instant.  “I don’t do research.  I write fiction.  I make it up.”

Well, that’s one way of doing it.  Make up your facts.  As the god creating a new universe, it is your divine right to plunk down the Champs Élysées in Kansas City or poison a tyrant with diathalene chloride, a lethal compound I formulated three seconds ago.

The obvious problem with this kind of invention is that whether nine-tenths of your readers are scratching their heads over why a French boulevard has moved to Missouri or whether merely a lone chemist/reader is muttering “Wha’?” an error of fact has caused the universe you’ve created to lose its gravitational pull on the imagination.  The reader is yanked back into the real world as he or she wonders whether the author was merely sloppy or had some obscure literary purpose in including such a misstatement.  So?  Is one fiction-reading chemist really such a major deal?  Is it worth an hour or a week’s time finding the perfect poison?

I’ll tell you why I think so: The more you know about a substance or a character’s means of getting and dispensing that substance, and whether that substance kills without a trace or causes an agonized, “He’s been poisoned!” death, the smarter your writing will be.  By “smart” I mean authentic.  It will feel real because you’ve made yourself an omniscient god with the power to bring every aspect of your universe to life.  I needed to go through the experience of “greening out “ a container before adding the flowers.

So today, when the temperature is supposed to hit one hundred, I’ll be mascara-ed and flat-ironed to a fare-thee-well, at my photo shoot, thanking Joan for teaching me enough to make me believe – if only for the time I was writing – that I was a master of the botanical universe.

Happy pub date!

Can we not think pink?



Sunday, I watched the Mets lose to the Giants. Not quite the Mother’s Day gift this baseball fan was hoping for, but at least my team put on a good show, especially with many of them swinging pink bats. They lost by an honorable 6-5.

The pink bats were Major League Baseball’s tribute to Mom. They’ll be auctioned off (along with commemorative plates with pink breast cancer awareness ribbon logos) to benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

Before I take a swing at this act of charity, let me offer a preemptive defense: My argument is not about breast cancer, a horrible, heartbreaking disease. I’ve seen on my own friends and their dear ones the toll it takes. I believe even more money should be spent researching new treatments and a cure. Also, the Komen Foundation seems to be an exemplary organization. Lastly, I gladly buy all sorts of products, from pink silk scarves to pink containers of Dry Idea deodorant every October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, to support the search for cure. The other 334 days of the year, I offer what support I can.

So now let me ask why it is that the people at MLB think about doing something for Mother’s Day, they immediately come up with the equation Women = Breast Cancer. If the idea is to honor Mom by doing something to ease female misery, how about reaching out to those suffering from ovarian or endometrial cancer? Or AIDS? Or, to get away from the women-as-diseased paradigm, assisting women who are victims of domestic violence, or those caught up in the nightmare forced labor or sex slavery?

Hello, people who bring us the All-Star game! How about recognizing that a great hats-off to mothers would be to celebrate us as the champs we are – or at least as potential winners. MLB could fund athletic scholarships for women, or buy sports equipment for girls’ high school teams, or put its muscle behind a push to get women’s baseball as an event in the 2016 Olympics.

Why not auction those bats to provide those strong mothers with special-needs kids some respite care? Or offer free seats, hot dogs and beer, along with no-cost transportation to stadiums to low-income women as part of an MLB GNO?

There’s so much good that needs doing in this world. Next Mother’s Day, I’d like two gifts (besides those from my family): To see my Mets win. To applaud Major League Baseball as it celebrates us by taking off its bubble-gum-tinted glasses and recognizing we have issues beyond breasts – and that its female fans are as multifaceted, strong, and high-minded as the guys swinging those pink bats.

Ran in Huffington Post on May 12, 2010

WRITER/SAINTS



There are literary writer/saints, of course: my saint-in-chief being Jane Austen with Charlotte Brontë floating on a cloud only slightly lower.  And over there is Charles Dickens.

Then there are my personal writer/saints, other writers who have shown great heart and generosity when doing absolutely nothing would have been fine.

Today Jennifer Wiener is right up there, having given my new presence on Facebook page an absolutely unsolicited endorsement on her wall: Susan Isaacs (aka my favorite writer in the world) is on Facebook! If you like me, you’ll love her. And wow, can she get readers’ attention.  It’s so great when an author whose work you admire turns out (like Jennifer) to be a saint as well.

My other saints?

Rona Jaffe and Jackie Collins who gave me my first blurbs.  Unsolicited.  Well, unsolicited by me, because at the time I wrote Compromising Positions, the only novelist I knew was me.  I suppose my then-editor, Marcia Magill, sought out their good opinion with a “Hey, here’s a lively but lonely first novel that needs a friend” letter.

Then Danielle Steel, bless her.  My third novel, Almost Paradise, received a lot of praise.  It also got one scathing, über-bitch of a review from Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times…such a stinkeroo that to this day I cannot bring myself to reread it.  Anyhow, out of the clear blue, I get a charming letter from a writer I’d never met (still haven’t), Ms. Steel, saying how much she enjoys my work.  She urged me not to let a rotten review get me down.  Just keep writing.  Her note was the perfect antidote to that “Life is unfair, so why bother writing and critics are loathsome vampires sucking the life out of the authors because they themselves are dead” self-pity.

And Linda Fairstein.  Here she was, head of the Manhattan DA’s sex crimes unit at the time, writing fiction, living a life so full it would exhaust five normal people.  I was working on Lily White then and needed some insider information; the eponymous main character had been an assistant DA for a time and I needed some texture to give her work a feeling of authenticity.  I asked Linda if I could have five minutes…just a few questions.  “Five minutes?” Linda asked incredulously.  “You’ll need more than that!”  We wound up having a long, informative, and incredibly delightful lunch at Odeon where I marveled at her knowledge and energy.  And at the end, she insisted on picking up the check.  Is that a writer/saint, or what?

Lawrence Block and I were having dinner with our spouses one night when I was in a funk (aka profoundly depressed) over not being able to get the right voice for a novel that was due in…it’s vague, but probably in a few months.  I opened up to him.  Then, instead of the normal “Oh, I’m sure everything will turn out fine” routine, he asked me a series of writerly, analytical questions.  I answered each one, and, by the end of the conversation, realized I was seeing the work I had to do more clearly than I ever had.  Then Larry said something like, “Sounds like you know what to do.”  I said I thought so.  “It’s what you always do,” he added.  Trust my instincts.  Don’t over-cerebrate.  Just write the fucker.  And so I did.

Bless them all.

He “Will Be Missed.” Yeah? By Whom?



He “Will Be Missed.” Yeah? By Whom?

Forget mindfulness, that living in the moment business. How can we take pleasure in the scents and sight of the Capresso dribbling latte when we know we’re due for so much obligatory sorrowing? So much missing to do! Google “will be missed” if you’re dubious and see the nation’s to-do list.

Not that it’s all heartrending work. Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show “will be missed,” along with the Air America, Ugly Betty, Paula Abdul’s hair styles on TV, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s dogs romping on Capitol Hill. That’s easy missing and we Americans are tough critters. No big deal to grab a wad of Kleenex and prepare to sniffle.

However, whether they rise to actual keening or stay at mere rue, most of our future missing obligations deal with people. Reps. Patrick Kennedy and Neil Abercrombie, retiring from the House, “will be missed,” to say nothing of Evan Bayh (though not by me, given his resignation under pusillanimous circumstances) departing the Senate. Anyway… Dunta Robinson, a right cornerback leaving the Houston Texans, also “will be missed.” Ditto Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui as they bid adieu to the Yankees. Even Simon Cowell WBM as he exits American Idol.

If not yet ubiquitous, the “will be missed” virus is spreading unchecked. The phrase is a cliché, sure, but I suppose not an intolerable one in the above instances. The member of Congress or Portuguese water dogs or hairstyles have not yet departed — or did so very recently — so the writer or speaker is merely observing that at some future moment, one or millions will be ferklempt.

What’s unsettling is that mostly, “will be missed” is tagged on to individuals who have already gone for good. Mosi Tatupu, a running back for the New England Patriots who died last week, “will be missed” according to many accounts. But he has significant competition as so many others who have departed in the last year “will be missed” as well: Edward M. Kennedy, Patrick Swayze, Betty Carter, Robert Parker, John Murtha, Charlie Wilson, J.D. Salinger, E. Lynn Harris, Sheila Lukins, Brittany Murphy, and of course Michael Jackson (whose estate might have enriched itself even more by marketing a “will be missed” macro).

The first few times I heard or read “will be missed,” my mouth merely contracted into its annoying-usage moue, the way it does at “very unique” or “less calories.” I wanted to demand, Will be missed? Will? Nothing down, pay later? Now I’ve come to loathe the expression, not just for its omnipresence, but for its hollowness.

Our culture is so celebrity-obsessed that for individuals to show they matter, they need to display their intimacy to fame. Family and friends barely have time to begin weeping before the public bewailing begins: colleagues of the celebrity issue press releases: journalists send forth I-understood-the-late-lamented’s-very-essence tributes (that often seem based on three-minute interviews at a movie publicity junket); anguished fans pour their hearts out into the sodden blogosphere, starting with some variation of OMG! and ending with a “He/She will be missed.”

Others besides me might be sensing WBM’s overuse — not that it stops them. They just embellish the phrase. The head of the British Fashion Council said Alexander McQueen “will be sorely missed.” Tori Spelling announced that Farrah Fawcett’s smile “will be greatly missed.” While Don Cheadle merely observed Bernie Mac “will be missed,” George Clooney went even further by saying Bernie Mac “will be dearly missed.” But tossing in an adverb to mitigate the offense is a mistake. Like sewing bugle beads on a vulgar dress, it makes a lousy choice more glaring.

“Will be missed” appears to be the verbal equivalent of boyfriend jeans and the breakfast pizza: Bad Fad. As for the grammatical pedigree of the phrase itself, I admit ignorance…even after looking it up; I’m not sure if “will be missed” is in the passive voice or merely a form of the verb to be with a modal auxiliary. What I am sure about is that it comes off as so damned cold.

Wouldn’t the usually well-mannered George Clooney have seemed more of a mensch if he’d said: I dearly miss that Bernie Mac? And though I myself won’t shed a tear, wasn’t there a single member of the Senate who could remark, Darn, I’ll miss that Evan Bayh!

“Will be missed” has little meaning. In fact, it could be seen as a slur, with its potential for being followed by though not by me.

And that future tense? Will be missed? When? On Memorial Day 2010? Okay, there were some eloquent speakers at Ted Kennedy’s memorial, but couldn’t more of his colleagues and constituents have whipped it up for an “is missed” or “I miss him” instead of a WBM after the Senator’s years of service to his country?

Yes, I understand “will be missed” is cant. But the way we speak about each other not only reflects our culture, it influences it. WBM is not just too easy. It’s downright icy to come out with a prefab statement of alleged sadness over a death. Better to just suffer (or not) in silence. A cliché like this shows not only lack of thought, but lack of feeling, as if we’re too busy for even a heartfelt, “Jeez… I’m, like, I’m sad.” It freezes the emotions of those who hear it and moves us ever closer to being a people who have no time for each other.

Also, for a democratic nation that considers itself the land of the free and home of the caring, “will be missed” is also an oddly stiff, detached way of expressing loss. Kennedy, after all, was a US Senator, not a member of the House of Lords.

“Will be missed” all but proclaims I have other things to do now, but I do have a reminder on my BlackBerry and, if I’m so inclined, I’ll clutch my hands to my chest and lower my head in sorrow at 4 PM on May 31. “Will be missed” is a barrier between a speaker and his gut, a writer and her ability to describe the pain (or merely the sting) of someone’s death.

I’m not railing about pop expressions. Some are dandy because they’re lively and real, like the use of dog as a synonym for friend, as in “Hey, dog, you’re looking fine.” It’s a language fad that makes sense, connoting attachment, what we feel about our pals and our pets. It’s all about affection.

But “will be missed”? Pure affectation. When it dies, it will not be missed.

[Published on Huffington Post, March 1, 2010]

The Not-So-Mystifing Mystery of Northwest 188



For a mystery writer like me, much of the why the plane overshot Minneapolis by 150 miles conjecture has been deeply unsatisfying. Like “The pilot and copilot got preoccupied with smarmy online videos/labor-management” theory or the “They fell asleep” hypothesis. Several people I spoke with posited the Lost Boys had been engaged in some traitorous conspiracy or sex act so enthralling they failed to notice the 16th largest metropolitan area in the United States.

I admit that last one intrigued me. Still, even as a great fan of sex, I cannot imagine any liaison that would cause me to miss not just Minneapolis, but St. Paul too.

But if you take off your headphones and don’t hear the alarm? I asked myself. I received no answer, so after a recent flight, I had a quick chat with one of those sweetie-pie pilots who stand near the galley to say bye-bye to disembarking passengers: Hey, could those two guys piloting that Northwest Airbus have slept through the clamor of an alarm, like I might sleep through the ringing of my bedside clock? No way, he told me. Those alarms are so loud that the only people they could not wake are the dead.

Hmmm. I checked the official FAA transcript of the conversation between Northwest 188 and the Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center. That first explanation from the cockpit did not inspire in me a profound belief in the Boys’ forthrightness: “ah roger we got ah distracted and we’ve over flown ah minneapolis we are over head eau claire and would like to make a one eighty and do arrival from eau claire”

Sadly, there was no way to check out the getting distracted business, as many news accounts pointed out. The Detroit News explained: “New recorders retain as much as two hours of cockpit conversation and other noise, but the older model aboard Northwest’s Flight 188 includes just the last 30 minutes — only the very end of Wednesday night’s flight after the pilots realized their error over Wisconsin and were heading back to Minneapolis.”

Aha! That was it! Were I one of those aggressively tweedy whodunit authors from the 30s or 40s, I would have my detective-protagonist gather the pilots, an FAA honcho or two, a US Attorney, and a cross-section of pissed off passengers from 188 in the vicar’s drawing room to announce a solution.

So, for what it’s worth… The pilots must have known, as apparently everyone in the airlines business does, that those older cockpit voice recorders, like the one that Airbus A320 , record in a loop. That is, after some set length of time, in this case 30 minutes, the continuing recording process erases the previously recorded material and replaces it with new content.

The Lost Boys might have been distracted earlier in the flight, but once they were nearing Minneapolis, they must have became painfully aware. They suddenly understood that whatever they had been saying or doing should not be on that searchable tape. Whether the material was indeed criminal or merely vile or inappropriate enough to result in their decertification — maybe even prosecution — is not knowable. But clearly they decided it was worth the risk to get rid of the proof. Since they couldn’t destroy the near-indestructible black box the recording was in, they did the next best thing. They destroyed the account of whatever went on… by flying an extra 150 miles. With time as their accomplice, the inexorable, looping recording continued and any hard evidence against the two of them was no more.

[Published on Huffington Post, December 11, 2009]