Friday, December 17, 2010

Nuggets of Wisdom

Since it’s the holiday season, I’m talking about gifts today—the metaphysical rather than the paper-wrapped kind.

The late Fred Myrow, a brilliant composer and dear friend, once told me that before starting a new film score or instrumental piece he would spend days doing mundane chores—shop ‘til he dropped at the supermarket, hang out at the mall, clean house, read junk mail, anything but write music. Only when his boredom meter was in the red and about to explode would Fred get to work, and inevitably inspiration would come.

Over the years I have learned to “put the top down and throw the car into neutral” before starting a new book or writing a series of poems. I’ve always been grateful to Fred – who I worked with in the recording studio, where he regularly performed miracles – for sharing this wisdom, along with many other things he taught me about writing and performing music. As I write this, I am listening to Brad Mehldau playing "Goodbye Storyteller (for Fred Myrow)" - - so expressive and beautiful.

What nuggets of wisdom have you been gifted with from friends and fellow writers or artists?

Don’t be shy. Please share!

Friday, December 10, 2010

How We Imagine the Real

Although the American Heritage Dictionary defines imagination as “the formation of a mental image of something that is neither perceived as real nor present to the senses,” my favorite poet, Wallace Stevens, has a completely different view. In his book of essays, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, Stevens maintains that “The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real.” These words have followed me throughout my writing career and encouraged me to search out telling details and sensory stimuli that lend vitality to the products of my imagination and hopefully provide a rich and accessible experience for my readers.

In his poem Anecdote of the Jar Stevens shows us how powerful one “real” object can be in conveying an idea:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,

And sprawled around, no longer wild
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.

The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
In my mystery novel, THE LAST MATRYOSHKA, I use the nesting doll to symbolize how pieces of the past can gain power over time and come alive to motivate actions in the present—in this case the relentless pursuit and persecution of a man accused of committing a crime fifty years ago.

What powerful symbols have you recently employed in your writing to lend vitality to your imagination? I can’t wait to hear!

Friday, December 03, 2010

Mystery Novels Set in New York City

Mystery writers all have their favorite settings and today I’d like to kick-start a discussion about writers who set their mysteries in New York City and how they create characters who embody that upscale yet gritty setting—from Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy, an early 20th-century immigrant who wants to be a private investigator to Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr, a burglar and bookseller, in New York City.

In the late 1980’s, when I first read Greenwich Killing Time and When the Cat’s Away, I had no idea that someday, like Kinky Freeman, I would have a hyphenated identity as a singer/author. Friedman’s books delighted me with their quintessential New York flavor, irreverent humor, and day-glo colorful characters.

Walter Mosely’s Leonid McGill, a black ex-boxer and old-school private investigator, is an outsider in today’s glitzy New York. In these books, Mosely uses the city as a foil for his struggling hero. Here, McGill describes himself at the beginning of The Long Fall:

I was wearing a suit and tie. Maybe my shoe leather was dull, but there weren’t any scuffs. There were no spots on my navy lapels, but, like that woman in the corner, I was obviously out of my depth: a vacuum-cleaner salesman among high-paid lawyers, a hausfrau thrown in with a bevy of Playboy bunnies.

I no longer live in New York City, but I visit as frequently as I can, especially when working on a new book.. I thought I knew the city until I began to write about it (both Ask the Dead and The Last Matryoshka are set at least partially in New York) but it would take more than one lifetime to plumb these depths. Still, I try not to be intimidated by what Agatha Christie had to say on this topic: It is ridiculous to set a detective story in New York City. New York City is itself a detective story.

Visitors – please share your own experiences writing or reading mysteries set in New York!



 Stay tuned for a virtual trip through La Alpujarra and Ceuta, the places in Spain that inspired me to write Zahara and the Lost Books of Li...