Catching Up & Going Ape

summer blog006Dear friends,

It’s been a long time since I have written anything on my website and I apologize. It was a necessary break for personal reasons. But I have been working and will tell you just a few of things I’ve been up to.

For the moment I have put aside the book I’d been working on for well over a year, a story about a cop who lost his family, a novel based in part on “Crime & Punishment.” The book was finished but not resolved and it needed time to percolate, so hopefully it’s doing just that while I work on other things.

I’ve been thinking… That people often say a writer’s characters are variations of his or herself and I used to agree. Now, I’m not so sure. One’s art—writing, painting, music—is of course always a reflection of the person who made it. But the characters one creates on the page can be as far away from the writer as possible, which is one of the great joys of writing. I am not the beautiful six-feet tall heroine Kate McKinnon of The Death Artist. Nor am I the tall handsome Puerto Rican/Jewish sketch artist Nate Rodriguez of Anatomy of Fear, though I’d like to be. (Note: both of those created characters are tall; I am not.)

A lot of this time has been spent doing something I’ve wanted to do for a long time—a novel in words and pictures for children though I believe it’s a book adults will enjoy as well. Right now it’s about 30,000 words and well over a hundred illustrations and still growing.

I wasn’t sure what my illustrations would look like when I started the book and went to Yaddo—the incredible arts community that has served artists of all kinds for more than a hundred years—to figure it out. I filled my car with every imaginable art supply—paint, pastel, watercolor, charcoal, ink—but after three days of experimenting fell back on the most basic drawing tool, the pencil. Once I realized what I wanted to use it was a matter of degree—simple sketches or finished drawings. The latter won. The sketch seemed too temporary and I want the book to be beautiful. Here’s just one example.

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I won’t go into what the book is about (that’s for a later date). All I will say is that it’s a great adventure story about a sister and brother, both fantasy and reality.

Along with this illustrated novel I have been working on others things, including a “widowers handbook,” an earlier memoir (more a collection of stories that I’m thinking I may read and put here on my website as free podcasts before collecting them into a book), a grand-scale thriller that I’ve been making notes on for a while, as well as a few short stories.

I have also been painting, mainly commission paintings, all of them “fakes,” that is copies of well known paintings for discerning collectors, something else I am thinking I may write about one day: the idea of what is original and how we view art and images today. Below, a recent fake, Franz Kline’s 1956 “Orange Outline.”

Kline’s “Orange Outline”

On a recent rainy afternoon I went to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I’ve loved all the ape movies and this one was no exception. Dazzling to look at it, a technical knockout, a small and predicable story, often corny but I didn’t mind. The human stars are fine but who cares? It’s all about the apes. Hail Caesar! Being in a movie theater is still one of our great communal experiences and I worry the new golden age of television is a threat. I mean, what’s better than hoisting your laptop onto your chest and binge watching the entire 2nd season of the amazing House of Cards (it took me 3 nights) or Orange Is the New Black (4 nights), or The Fall (only 5 episodes so an easy 1 or 2 night binge). Right now I’m looking forward to Netflix brand new season of The Killing (they were brilliant to pick up this darkest of shows; it’s literally always raining) with a great breakout star, the Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, though you’d never guess he’s not American.

Clearly the territories have been cordoned off. The new episodic TV shows are stealing from Dickens (Don’t even get me started on the plight of the novel), whereas the movies have bombast and spectacle, something the small screen can’t really deliver. This is not to say the movies can’t have a hit with something “small” like The Fault In Our Stars, but I have a feeling Hollywood is just going to shoot bigger and bigger movies while television sticks closer to character and plot. But we shall see.

Despite my worries for the written word I have been reading a lot. I reread Joyce Carol Oates’s wonderful “A Widow’s Story,” which strikes a universal cord about grieving while telling a personal story. Joyce also sent me a bibliophile mystery story she’d written for Otto Penzler, which is such flat out fun I couldn’t put it down. The sketch below is based on a bad camera pic taken at the Key West Literary Seminar this past February, which focused on “The Dark Side,” their first foray into crime fiction (and about time). There were 2 sessions and I was part of the first with many friends and terrific writers.

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Me & Joyce

Here is another picture from the event that I will not transform into a sketch.

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Gillian Flynn, Judy Blume, moi, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott

I continued my JCO marathon with Carthage, a complex novel with a brilliant multi-POV framework that makes the reader look unflinchingly at the ravages of war and taught me a few new things about writing as her books always do.

I also read Megan Abbott’s “The Fever,” in an advance copy and knew it would be big. There is something about Megan’s work that is close to the moment and few can capture the yearning and pathos of teenage girls, not to mention the cruelty, the way Megan does. (This bears out my earlier discussion of writers not being their characters, as Megan is neither a teenager nor cruel).

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Megan Abbott & Judy Blume

The sketch is of Megan with the one and only Judy Blume, who was in Key West. When I told my daughter I’d met Judy, whose books she grew up on, she flipped! She and Megan seemed a match made in heaven.

Megan is one of those people with facts and anecdotes about movies and books at her fingertips. During a bookstore reading she brought up the movie Splendor In the Grass as one of the reasons she named her main character (in The Fever) Deenie. I later told her how it had been my wife, Joy’s, all time favorite movie and how, years ago, we ended up having dinner with Warren Beatty (don’t ask) and she told him how much the movie had meant to her. I added, “Joy made me watch the movie when we started dating as a kind of test.” Warren brushed all of this off, which of course he would, it was ancient history to him, and spent most of the night holding our then two-month-old daughter, Doria, promising to take care of her forever (Hey, Warren, she’s still waiting!).

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Splendor In the Grass

While at Yaddo I was reading the “Richard Burton Diaries,” something I had never even considered though it was given to me, and I’m glad. Burton was an actor who could really write, a man of huge appetites and little willpower, whose love of Elizabeth Taylor did not preclude looking up her ass (to check out her hemorrhoids, a fact I could have lived without). Burton’s tragedy is in between every line of his diary while he regales the reader with parties in Monaco and 3-star lunches and dinners that he and Liz enjoyed almost daily. Their debauchery took its toll (Burton died at 57) and the beautiful Elizabeth looked like hell by 45, but they certainly had a life, which Burton lets you experience through his writing without the side effects of getting fat or drunk.

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Dick & Liz

Film Forum is having a “Femmes Noir” festival, all the great films. The other night Joyce Carol Oates her husband Charlie Gross, Megan Abbott and  NY Times humorist, Joyce Wadler and I, all went to see Niagara. I had never seen it on the big screen, always thought it was a sloppy B movie only worth seeing for the luscious 25-year-old Marilyn, but it’s better than that. Joseph Cotton plays the tortured husband well and Jean Peters is really pretty and the color is fantastically lurid. It’s true one misses Marilyn when she’s not on the screen but she’s kind of acting in her own film anyway. The first scene of Marilyn/Rose in bed and obviously nude, is a showstopper, and that face, dewy and open despite the heavy makeup, was made for the screen.

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MM in Niagara

A lot more has happened during this blog hiatus, everyday life, a great trip to the Southwest with my amazing daughter, the publication of the bestselling serial novel, Inherit the Dead.


I have to say that putting that book together was a fun experience that could have been a nightmare, but there was not one diva in the group, and the result I think is really good, almost seamless, all these topnotch writers ceding their egos over to the project, with royalties going to the charity, Safe Horizon.

One last thing: For anyone who’s been writing and wants some help. I’ll be conducting a crime fiction workshop at Manhattan’s Center for Fiction starting September 15. It’s for any writer, crime or otherwise, who feels stuck or needs a hand to get over a hurdle and on with their work. I’ve done it before and it was always terrific with amazing results.

That’s it for now. I hope everyone is happy and healthy and doing the work and play they want to do.

As always,