Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Louisiana Book Festival, 2006

This was the weekend of the fourth annual Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, a wonderful weekend full of books and authors, and people who are passionate about books and interested in meeting and listening to authors. The sun was shining out of a clear blue sky, the temperature did a perfect not-too-cool, not-too-warm balancing act, and the food—as at any Louisiana function—was delicious.

Last year’s festival was canceled because of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and memories of Katrina were very much in evidence at this year’s festival. A standard question for panelists was “How did Katrina effect your writing?” Chris Rose was there talking about his book, ONE DEAD IN ATTIC, and all anyone wanted to hear about was his near breakdown and depression medication. It’s become something of a joke around here, that half the city is on medication and the other half ought to be. After listening to that session, I realized it’s not a joke; it really is life in post-K New Orleans.

The session I did on historical mysteries, with Laura Joh Rowland, was well attended, and we had a nice turnout at the booksigning afterwards. I was pleased (and, I admit, vaguely surprised) to sign copies of my book for several young men who looked to be about 19 or 20. One of them asked me, “How would you describe your style?” And I went, “Uhhhhh….” I came up with an answer in the car about half way home to New Orleans. I think it was Rousseau who called that “esprit d’escalier:” thinking of the right retort, the clever repartee when you’re on the stairs leaving the party where you’ve just made a tongue-tied idiot out of yourself. Ah, well, NEXT time, I’ll have a brilliant answer already prepared.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Freedom Index 2006

The World Press Freedom Index for 2006 has just come out. Published by Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontiers), the Index shows that the United States has dropped another 12 points, so that we now sit at 53rd place, behind countries like Ghana and Mali, and far behind Bolivia, which moved into the top 20 this year. Is that alarming, or what?

Our allies are also not doing very well: France fell to 35th, while Japan fell to 51st—which is still better than the US, although barely. North Korea came in at the bottom of the listing of 168 countries. So who’s at the top? Finland, followed by Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and my friends in the Czech Republic. I like the Czechs because they published even my romances in hard cover, with great covers. I’m a huge best seller in the Czech Republic. Which of course has nothing to do with freedom of the press, but still…

Monday, October 23, 2006

New Website!

My daughter, Sam, is home for Fall Break from Yale, so we ditched the house renovations this last weekend and had some fun. Saturday we strolled up and down Magazine Street, and then Sunday we went to the Madisonville Wooden Boat Festival, always a good time. It’s the first time I’ve been to the North Shore since Katrina. The place is booming. I’d imagine all the people who moved over there pre-Katrina because they liked trees are unhappy. At the rate they’re going, there soon won’t be any trees left.

I’ve also been working on my website. It’s not completely finished, and there’s still a few glitches, but check it out.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Whenever I Start to Get Frustrated...

(Above: my office a year ago)

I’m still working at getting my office back in some semblance of order. I’ve replaced all the bookcases I lost in Katrina, but I’m still missing some key pieces of furniture, such as my filing cabinet and a large built-in cabinet on one wall. Some of the smaller pieces—an end table, a rug, and a lamp that needs to be rewired—would make the room more comfortable but aren’t crucial. I also have no curtains, because the frame for the arched front window is still missing. Oh, and I have a bunch of leftover boxes of tiles stacked up on the hearth. I look at this room and think, How did I ever write a book in here?

Back in April, when I really started trying to get MERMAIDS written, my office was the only room on the bottom floor of the house with finished walls. I try to focus on that, on how far we’ve come, rather than on far we still have to go.

Monday, October 16, 2006

What Liddell Hart Knew Fifty Years Ago

(Above: Photo of Liddell Hart from Wiki Commons.)

I’ve finished the penultimate draft of WHY MERMAIDS SING. Since I’m comfortably ahead of my 1 November deadline, I can set it aside for a week, then come back to it and do a final read-through before I run off the final copy and send it off to my editor. Now I must turn my attention to getting my office into some semblance of order before I embark on the mad rush to finish THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT for Harper Collins.

What I’m reading… STRATEGY, by B. H. Liddell Hart. I didn’t buy this at the booksale, but I did find it on my shelves while trying to make room for all my new purchases. Fascinating book. If you’re not familiar with Liddell Hart, he was the British military historian probably best known for an insightful book written before World War II on the future uses of tanks and air power in warfare. His fellow Brits scoffed at his conclusions and recommendations. The German General Staff did not…

Anyway, in this book, Liddell Hart analyzes military strategy through the ages, starting with the Greeks and plowing his way forward. But I was particularly caught by his final chapter on Guerrilla War, added to the 1967 edition I have. In this chapter, he cautions against the desirability of guerrilla warfare as fomented by the Allies as a resistance to the Nazis in WWII, by Lawrence against the Turks in WWI, by the Spaniards against Napoleon. I will simply quote:

“Violence takes much deeper root in irregular warfare than it does in regular warfare. In the latter it is counteracted by obedience to constituted authority, whereas the former makes a virtue of defying authority and violating rules. It becomes very difficult to rebuild a country, and a stable state, on a foundation undermined by such experience.

“A realization of the dangerous aftermath of guerrilla warfare came to me in reflection on Lawrence’s campaigns in Arabia. My book on those campaigns, an exposition of the theory of guerrilla warfare, was taken as a guide by numerous leaders of commando units and resistance movements in the last war. Wingate, then only a captain serving in Palestine, came to see me shortly before it started, and was obviously filled with the idea of giving the theory a fresh and wider application. But I was beginning to have doubts—not of its immediate efficacy, but of its long-term effects. It seemed that they could be traced, like a thread, running through the persisting troubles that we, the Turks’ successors, were suffering in the same area where Lawrence had spread the Arab Revolt….

“These lessons of history were too lightly disregarded by those who planned to promote violent insurrections as part of our war policy. The repercussions have had a shattering effect in the postwar years on the peace policy of the Western Alliance—and not only in providing both equipment and stimulus to anti-Western movements in Asia and Africa. The disease has continued to spread.

“It is not too late to learn from the experience of history. However tempting the idea may seem of replying to our opponents’ “camouflaged” war activities by counter-offensive moves of the same kind, it would be wiser to devise and pursue a more subtle and far-seeing counter-strategy. In any case, those who frame policy and apply it need a better understanding of the subject than has been shown in the past.”

Ah, if only the CIA had read and reflected upon that chapter before rushing to organize, aid and arm the Islamic fundamentalists’ resistance to the Russians in Afghanistan. And think, for a moment, on the implications of this insight for the future of Iraq…

Sunday, October 15, 2006

On Book Sales

This was the weekend of the semi-annual booksale held by the Friends of Jefferson Parish Library. After buying something like five boxes of books at the sale last fall, we told ourselves we were going to be good this year. Unfortunately, the sale is held in the Pontchartrain Center, which is just a few blocks from our house, so it’s so easy to go back, again, and again. Also unfortunately, they had a LOT of books this year—people cleaning out their houses to move or disposing of the libraries of deceased relatives, bookstores donating their remainders to the local libraries because of Katrina, etc. I actually think I was more restrained this time, but Steve more than made up for it.

Since we went the first day (Thursday), and each day thereafter, including today (when everything was half price) it was interesting to watch which books sold and which didn’t. There were two tables (with many more boxes underneath) of what they called “Choice Fiction,” which basically translated into hardcovers by mega-selling NYT authors such as Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, Sandra Brown, Mary Higgins Clark, Dan Brown, etc. By today, those tables were almost bare and all the boxes underneath were gone. Hardcover fiction by other writers, even those who hit the Times but don’t stay there long, such as Stephanie Laurens or Alice Hofman, were relegated to another section. Their books were cheaper ($1-3 as opposed to $5 for the “Choice” fiction). Yet as of 3:00 this afternoon, there were still three tables full what I suppose we could call “non-choice” fiction, with dozens and dozens of full boxes underneath (yes, I did crawl under the tables and rummage through the boxes). Obviously, those authors who sell well in bookstores also sell well at the booksale. Not a big surprise, but still vaguely troubling, since with a few exceptions, you couldn’t GIVE me a book by most of the authors on the Choice Fiction tables (ahem, notice I didn't say which ones).

They also had several tables of Biographies, which were not the biographies of people such as Charles II (those were on the “History” table), but the likes of Vanna White, or Nancy Reagan, or George Burnes’s wife Gracie. Those tables, also originally with overflowing boxes underneath, were likewise almost clear by this afternoon. I bought the biography of Charles II from the history table, but why anyone would want to read a biography of Vanna White eludes me. I suppose whoever bought Vanna would be equally mystified that someone would want to read about a king who died over 300 years ago.

This year I went to the sale with a clearly defined strategy. I am looking to buy hardcover books to replace my paperbacks of authors I love, mainly Pat Conroy, James Lee Burke, and a few others. I was excited to find a hardcover of M. M. Kaye’s THE FAR PAVILLIONS, and a lovely embossed edition of Petronius’s SATYRICON. I also look for history books that catch my interest (deadly, since my interests range from ancient Greece to WWII). And I look for books I can use for research in my own writing. Thus, I found a great book on the history of sailing ships, complete with illustrations and diagrams, another on English vernacular architecture, another on India (I have this idea…)

Books I would or could walk into a bookstore and buy, I don’t buy at the booksale. You see, I found myself looking at those tables of remaindered hardcovers and thinking, How many people buying those nice, like-new hardcovers would otherwise go into a bookstore and buy that book in paperback? Writers like Nora Roberts will never notice the loss of the sale, but I’m sure that couldn’t be said for many of the authors with books on those tables.

And yes, I did see copies of my paperback romances for sale on the Romance table, but I didn’t see a copy of WHAT ANGELS FEAR. Is this good, or bad? It could be good, if it means everyone who bought it loved it too much to get rid of it when they were finished reading it. But it’s also bad because it means that, unlike the authors on the “Choice” tables, my sales aren’t in the stratosphere.


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Gods' Hat-trick and Candy's Crise de Confiance

This is one of the parts of writing a book that I hate. The story is written, the major revisions done. Now I get to read through the manuscript, over and over again, looking for the niggling little things that I know aren’t quite right and trying to figure out how to make them better. Of course, if I KNEW how to phrase that sentence more gracefully, or how to end that scene on a more pungent note, I’d have fixed it before. The fact that it’s been allowed to slide past until now means I don’t have a clue how to make it better. So this stage always entails much gnashing of teeth and spiraling fits of frustration. I have a continuous headache. The thought of reading those chapters again makes me vaguely nauseas. And then there’s that creeping fear that I won’t be able to fix it, that I’m really, truly an awful writer who must have been crazy to think I could make a go of this business as a career.

You don’t want to be around me at this stage in the production of a manuscript.

On a bright note: WHEN GODS DIE received a starred review from LIBRARY JOURNAL! Added to the starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, it’s like winning the Triple Crown. I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps the reviewers are simply feeling sorry for me because of Katrina. (See above, I’m really truly an awful writer who must have been crazy…)

Friday, October 06, 2006


Today I finished the last chapter of WHY MERMAIDS SING. I feel like going out to celebrate, even though the book isn’t “finished” finished, as in I still need to do the final revisions and smoothing out and dotting of “i”s and crossing of “t”s. But when I’m writing a book, I always have this fear that the whole thing is going to suddenly fall apart on me and not work. I don’t know why, because I’ve never had that actually happen to me, but the fear is there, nonetheless. So it’s a wonderful relief to finally plow through to the end and be able to sit back and breathe and say, Yes! I pulled it off!

But apart from that, we've had an offer on my thriller! There are still a few details to be settled, but I now know it’s going to happen.

So yes, I think I will celebrate tonight.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Baby Steps!

I’m down to the homestretch on my book, WHY MERMAIDS SING. I’ve started on the climax scenes, and I’ve done the hardcore revisions on the rest of the manuscript. I’ve even looked up all the pesky facts where I had inserted [check] into the manuscript, and filled in the many blanks I leave sprinkled through the chapters as I write. Which is good, because the thing is due November 1st. I think I’m going to make it.

You’ve probably noticed that my postings are becoming less frequent as my deadline nears. I seem to have less time for everything these days. I can’t remember the last time I worked on the house, although Steve did finish building the pantry and got it fit into place this weekend. He still needs to trim it out, but I can now put our foodstuffs away and clear out the bookshelves that have been doing temporary pantry duty in the breakfast room for the last couple of months. One small step in getting the house back to normal. The pantry is great, by the way, with pullout shelves Steve built using the full-extension glides I salvaged from the unflooded drawers of my former kitchen when we ripped it out last fall. I find myself smiling about that, as I pull out the shelves to put away my groceries.