Saturday, August 28, 2010

Katrina Plus Five

I suppose eventually a time will come when August 29th rolls around and passes without me giving it a second thought.

I’m not there yet. Every year, New Orleanians watch with an uneasy kind of awareness as the temperature climbs and the anniversary of Katrina approaches. Part of it can be put down to good old fashioned fear: when the Gulf heats up and we enter those six dangerous weeks that stretch from August 15th to September 30th, it’s hard not to start each morning by nervously casting an eye over the “Tropical & Hurricane” section of But there’s also the realization that even if we squeak through another season without getting clobbered again, during this last week in August we’ll still be hearing those howling winds in our dreams, still find ourselves in quiet moments remembering sights and smells and moments of weakness and despair we don’t really want to revisit again.

For the first couple of years after the storm, I used to mark the day by getting together with a group of Katrina survivors for lunch at Voodoo Barbecue on St. Charles Avenue. We’d eat and talk and laugh about the ridiculous horrors of those days, then we’d go on a “Misery Tour” to assess the city’s progress or lack thereof. But in 2008 our anniversary luncheon had to be cancelled because we were all evacuated for Hurricane Gustav, and after that we never started the tradition up again.

This year, Steve and I will be spending the day working on one of the rebuilding projects on our house that is still not quite finished, five years on. But at some point I know we’ll stop to open a bottle of wine and sit around with my two daughters and laugh about the days when roofs hung in trees and the phones didn’t work for eight months and National Guardsmen with machine guns patrolled our streets.

Notice I said, “laugh about” it? In reality, there was probably nothing funny about those days. What’s funny about seeing a coffin and a jet ski washed up on a railroad embankment? About feeding a couple dozen cats in two different neighborhoods for months because their owners abandoned them and then couldn’t pluck up the courage to come back for them? About burying your aunt in a graveyard up the river because the cemetery where her husband is buried is still underwater?

But laugh, we will. For as the years pass and life as we once lived it in Katrinaville becomes a memory rather than a current reality, I’ve realized that the two most important lessons I’ve carried away from those days are both contradictory and yet oddly complementary. Katrina left me with an unflinching, visceral understanding of the fragility of all that we tend to take for granted in our everyday lives. You never forget that kind of up-close and personal demonstration of one of life’s most fundamental but easily ignored realities, which is that the veil of civilization is whisper thin and unbelievably fragile and can be shredded and ripped away in an instant.

And yet I don’t think I ever laughed as much as I did in those months after the storm, when every day confronted us with startling, sublimely ridiculous new examples of a world gone topsy-turvy. It wasn’t just me; we all laughed. We made jokes about stinking refrigerators and blue tarps and a few things we probably really shouldn’t have been joking about. Which brings me to the second lesson I learned, or what perhaps could more accurately be called a new appreciation or even a sense of awe, for the power of the human spirit to keep on laughing, no matter how dark the days.

Cheers, everyone.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dorchester’s Digital Gamble


In the newest installment of that painful saga known as the Continuing Convulsions of the Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, Dorchester gobsmacked the industry this month by announcing that they are getting out of the ink and paper business. As of September, all Dorchester titles will be available in e-book format only.

Dorchester was the oldest independent mass-market publisher in the United States (“mass-market” is the industry term for a standard-sized paperback). We’re not talking about a small press: Dorchester regularly releases about 30 new books a month. Some 65% of their releases are romances, but they are also significant publishers of horror, Westerns, and thrillers. Their Leisure Books imprint is all horror and thrillers.

So why did Dorchester do this? Well, according to CEO John Prebich, their retail sales fell 25% in 2009, and the figures for 2010 have been even worse. As shelf space for mass-market titles in retail outlets like Walmart shrinks, publishers are having a harder time simply getting their books into stores. About the only part of their business that is doing well is e-books which, according to Prebich, have been showing “remarkable growth” and are expected to “double again” in the next year.

But getting rid of all print books does seem a bit extreme, given that digital sales accounted for only 12% of their total. And while that is significantly higher than the industry-wide average (said to currently be 8%), we’re still talking 88% of their customers who choose to read their books on paper rather than on electronic screens.

Prebich has admitted that the company will be looking at lower revenues, but hopes to make up for that with improved margins. No more warehouse fees. No more printing costs. No more sales force (seven Dorchester sales reps are out there right now, looking for new jobs.) Dorchester is making noises to the effect that e-books that do well may be released later in trade paperback size on a print-on-demand basis, but no one is holding their breath.

In researching this posting, I read that Prebich claims their authors have been “receptive” to the move, which sent me into hysterics. Every author I know who has books with Dorchester and every agent who has a client with books at Dorchester is in fits over the situation. You see, this development also hits authors who have moved on to other houses but whose backlist is still with Dorchester. Part of the concern comes from the perception that Dorchester is teetering on the brink of financial insolvency. There are rumors that many royalty and advance checks are not arriving. I’ve been told that under the terms of Dorchester’s contracts, in the event the company goes under, rights to books will not become part of any bankruptcy settlement but will revert to the individual authors. But the fact is, no author likes to see their books go out of print—or never make it into print in the first place.

Apart from the trauma felt by authors who have books with Dorchester, this development is troubling for the entire industry. Dorchester was known in the business as a house that didn’t pay large advances but was willing to take a chance on books that were “different.” If you were a new author who’d written something “weird” like a romance set in India or ancient Rome, it didn’t matter how wonderful that book was, the fact remained that the big houses were unlikely to even look at it. Dorchester would. Dorchester was publishing paranormal romances when no one else was. Dorchester is the only major publisher that still has a line of horror. Many of today’s bestselling authors, like Sabrina Jeffries, got their start at Dorchester.

If Dorchester goes under, the biggest losers will be the reading public.

(And if you're curious about the picture at the top, it's a photo Amazon's UK warehouse.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Martin Cruz Smith is one of my all-time favorite writers. For me, sinking down into one of his books is a giddy, delicious treat. Because he's one of those rare authors who has resisted corporate publishing's demands to produce a new book every year, it isn't a treat I get to enjoy very often. But Three Sations--the latest Arkady Renko novel--has finally been released.

You can read the New York Times review here.

I haven't ordered it yet because I'm trying to find an autographed copy. There aren't many writers whose books I'll go out of my way to get signed, but Martin Cruz Smith is one of them. Unfortunately, his refusal to play in the publishing game means his signed books are hard to get. The only one I have--Red Square--I found by chance. So I'll probably have to admit defeat and simply buy an unsigned copy. I'm not going to be able to hold out for much longer...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

SOLA’s 2010 Nottoway Retreat

Writers’ retreats are intended to provide writers with a moment out of time, a chance to get away from the preoccupations and stresses of daily life and simply focus on writing. SOLA (the South Louisiana chapter of RWA) holds their annual retreat at Nottoway Plantation, which is up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, in sugar cane country. (We won't talk about the year Hurricane Gustav took off the plantation’s roof.)

The Nottoway Retreat is a time for writers to hone their craft in workshops, to relax with other writers, to soak up the ambience of one of the South’s most gracious antebellum homes, to eat fine food, drink wine, listen to a certain inimitable Cajun raconteur, and, um, line dance (no, you don't get to see pictures of that).

This year Steve and I gave a workshop on plotting, but we went up a couple of days early just to relax, explore the plantation, walk along the river levee, and generally have time away from stuff. (That's a sugar cane field beyond Steve, in case you don't recognize it.)

I came home energized to get back to work on my Lady of Shalott book (I still haven’t settled on a title) and yet sublimely relaxed. Which I suppose is the whole point of a writers’ retreat, so I can honestly say it worked!

Monday, August 09, 2010

My Cat Monday: Huckleberry

I’m feeling fed up with writing today, so I thought I’d blog about Huckleberry instead.

As far as Huckleberry is concerned, he’s the King of the World—or at least, he should be. In a well-aligned universe, a cat as big and beautiful as he is--and with such a regal tail!-- would be an only cat. But the Fates were cruel. Instead of being sole ruler of all he surveys, Huckleberry lives with a family that keeps inviting other felines to share what should be Huckleberry’s private fiefdom. The results are often not pretty.

The only cat Huck vaguely tolerates is Thomasina, who served as his adopted mother (we got them the same weekend; he was a six-week-old kitten, she was a two-year-old rescue cat who’d just had her own litter taken away). But even Thomasina only rates the bottom bunk.

Life would be easier if Huck weren’t so smart. He learned long ago how to open doors with lever handles, with the result that I finally gave up and changed all the doorknobs in the house. He’s also refined the psychological torment of his fellow [dumb] cats to an art form.

Yet although tries very hard not to show it, he’s actually secretly a sweetheart. He loves to be carried around like a baby. He even puts up with Danielle dressing him in Santa suits and Mardi Gras hats. (She says it’s good for him to have his ego taken down a few pegs every now and then.)

He would never condescend to sit on your lap or cuddle up next to you. Yet he trails me from room to room all day long, and he pines so terribly when I’m away that I take him up to the lake with me when I go on writing retreats. He’s not exactly fond of the car ride, but he does love being an only cat for a few days.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Seun Update


An update for those of you who remember my post some time back about Seun, my daughter's incredible friend from Yale Law School who was working so hard on a drive to increase bone marrow transplant volunteers while battling leukemia himself. By late last winter Seun's illness had advanced to the point he could no longer wait for a suitable bone marrow transplant to show up. So he underwent the procedure with cord blood instead. Cord blood transplants do not require as exact a match, but the odds of survival (already long) are considerably reduced.

The procedure--which includes killing every immune cell in your body--is nasty, and the road to recovery is long and horrific. But if anyone can make it, it's Seun. He is now out of the hospital and is doing yoga and lifting weights to rebuild his strength. He's still planning to try to compete for Nigeria in the next Winter Olympics, and has recently started flying again. Oh, and he's studying for the NY bar exam, brushing up on his French, working again, taking gourmet cooking classes, and recently finished filming an ESPN documentary.

If you want to be inspired and amazed and uplifted, visit Seun's blog,here.

Monday, August 02, 2010

On Updating Websites, and an Interview

This past weekend I updated my websites to reflect the new books that will be coming out, and in the process I decided to scrap the old home page of my C.S. Harris site.

When I first put up the Harris site, I subscribed to the adage that one should have a home page that loads onto the screen in its entirety. But in practice that proved to be very restricting, and in time it also just began to feel static. The new format enables me to showcase both books--What Remains of Heaven, which is coming out in trade paperback this week, and Where Shadows Dance, which will be released in hardcover next March. The new format also makes great use of the new book videos. I'd been questioning the time I spent to make them, but seeing them on the website reassured me. One of these days soon I'll probably redesign the C.S. Harris site; Shadows will be the fourth book released under this design, and while I still like it, I also have a yen for something new. Sort of like that itch you get to buy a new coat, or redo a tired garden bed.

Also, I have an interview up at a wonderful site called Paperback Dolls. As more and more newspapers cut their book sections, on-line sites like this one are becoming increasingly important sources of news about books and reviews of new releases. I've done a lot of interviews in my life, but I think the "Paperback Proust" section of this one definitely ranks as the most unique! I also must apologize because in rereading it, I realize I can't add or subtract. I started trying to get published eleven years after I first attempted to write a book, not sixteen years. (You'd think a mother would remember when her own children were born...) Anyway, you can read the interview here.