Bar Stories

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Wednesday I went into New York City to attend the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Week Symposium. The high point of the event was Oline Cogdill’s interview with Walter Mosley, who was made a Grand Master last night at the Edgar banquet. In the course of the interview he told one of his best stories, which I’ve heard him tell before. It never gets old.

The story is about Mosley’s father’s family, which is the African-American side. Many years ago a number of them were at a night club in Los Angeles, where they lived, when some guy made an insulting remark or an unwelcome advance to one of  the young women.

“Ima kill him,” Mosley’s father said, pulling out a knife.

“Let me,” Aunt Betty said. She was the biggest and strongest one in the family.  The reality of life in Los Angeles in those days, Mosley explained, was that the police wouldn’t bother a black woman who killed a black man, but a black man who did that could get in a whole lot of trouble. So she took the knife away from him and went for the offender.

But Aunt Betty was not skilled at knife fighting. She made a pass with the knife, missed the guy, and stabbed Mosley’s father in the leg. When they saw the blood, everyone in the place rushed out.

Walter Mosley’s tale reminds me of the story a friend of mine tells about his father and his  uncle, Irishmen both. The uncle came visiting and complained that he hadn’t had a good Donnybrook in a while, and the father said, “Let’s go down to the bar and we’ll see what we can do. We’ll take Sally.”

Now, Aunt Sally was a ravishing creature with a movie star-quality bottom. Inevitably, one of the men at the bar admired her bottom in such terms as to give offense. So the uncle swung on him. Soon the whole place was embroiled in a good old-fashioned Donnybrook, the likes of which can hardly be found outside of a John Wayne movie. Big fun, the uncle thought. What Aunt Sally thought is not recorded.

Fortunately Dad was a policeman, so that when the cops came to break up the riot he had only to flash his badge and lead his party to safety.

Which brings me to my bar story.

I was ten years old. My sister was seven. We lived in a small town in Illinois. The four of us were driving home from dinner somewhere, dark night, kind of chilly, when the parents had a sudden urge to stop in at Matt’s Tavern for a quick one. They parked out front. Liz and I curled up in the back seat and waited uncomfortably.

After what seemed like an excessively long time it occurred to me that our house was only a mile or so from Matt’s. My sister and I could easily walk home to our warm beds. We didn’t have to shiver in the back seat all night. But we would need the house key.

So I went into the bar. “We’re going to walk home,” I said. A shocked silence fell over the revelers inside.

Mommy and Daddy had completely forgotten that they had left us out there.

But that was fine. They said, “No, we’re going, let’s go,” and they came out and drove us home. Not until the following day did I realize what a scandal I had caused (I guess I caused it, though it would have been worse for my poor parents if the two of us had died of hypothermia while they were drinking in Matt’s). Katherine Curtis’s mother asked me in her kitchen whether my parents had really left us in the car outside the bar in the middle of the night. I forget what I said to her, but I tried to make it sound as if it weren’t as bad as she seemed to think. Then I started to think, well, maybe it was.

There’s a point to all these stories, and it’s this: none of us grew up to do the kind of thing our parents did. Walter Mosley loves and reveres his father, but he doesn’t live the way he did. He lives by his wits. If he wants to kill somebody he can do it in a book,  the same as I can. I can’t imagine him pulling a knife on anybody. Dennis, as far as I know, has never started a bar fight in his life. As for me, I don’t even drink.

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Onward and Upward

cliff3Babbling into the vacuum of cyberspace. I love that phrase, which is not original with me, but appeared in an online article written by Caitlin Dewey and Abby Ohlheiser about some guy who used to blog about his strange views on women. Maybe two people read his posts. Babbling into the vacuum of cyberspace. I just love it. What else am I doing here?

The Knowing Ones advise us writers to keep a blog and post to it regularly, at least weekly. Maybe even block out what you’re going to be talking about for the next year or so. And yet here it is Friday, and I haven’t anything really to say. So I’m sitting here thinking about my writing career. Did you ever notice how much embarking on a writing career is like climbing a cliff? You can’t just hang there on the side of the damned cliff. You have to keep going.

Where am I right now? Still struggling up the cliff. Here’s my blog. (Everybody says you need a blog.) Here’s my web site (www.kategallison.com). The new spy thriller, FIREBOMB, needs a tiny tweak or two and then it’s set to go. I need an agent, because although I can always put up an ebook, I don’t want to. I mean, both of you are reading this for free. Probably only one of you will shell out money for the ebook. So I would make something like $2.50 for a year’s work, because I am absolutely no good at promoting my own work.

I love my friends, but not all of them want to read my stuff. Somewhere out there are readers who are strangers to me but who would be pleased to read a novel about a ring of German espionage agents in New York City in 1915, and how an out-of-work movie stunt girl brought down their network. It’s just a matter of getting it in front of them.

And now I’m starting in on a sequel about the spies who came here after the United States actually got into the war. The newspapers of the day were full of amazing lurid stories, some of which might actually be true. Seductive beauties with connections in high places. New York society ladies secretly supporting the Fatherland. Amazing stuff. All grist to my mill.

Enough babbling for today. Back to work.

The Press Interview

NEWSPAPER_BDAlthough it’s becoming increasingly unlikely in the modern day, what with the folding of so many newspapers and the laying off of so many reporters from those that are left, it may be that in the course of your literary career you will be asked to give a press interview.

It will help you to know who you are dealing with when you deal with The Press.

Ideally, your interviewer will be a kindred spirit who likes your writing and wants to make you look good (while getting paid by the news outlet to write the story). These people are lovely to find, and you might even stay friends with them in later life. Less than ideally, your interviewer will have been assigned a story he or she is not keen about. At times like that it is helpful for you to have written the interview yourself, beforehand. (“You probably want to know how I got started in spear fishing. It was the summer of 1993…”)

Then there are reporters with an axe to grind.

In 1984, when my first book was published (Unbalanced Accounts, Little, Brown, now available on Kindle for $2.99), the publisher sent review copies around to all the newspapers. That’s how things were done then. The book received quite a bit of attention, most avidly at the entertainment desk of the newspaper where my ex-husband used to work. I got a phone call from a woman on that desk whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years, not since the break-up.

The break-up was one of those horribly unpleasant messes that used to happen to people in the early seventies, and that’s all I’m going to say about that, except to mention that when the dust settled my ex was married to Zoe, a big noise at the paper.  (Names have been changed so that I may speak freely.)  So I got a call from this woman who used to work with Zoe. Silly me, I thought the interview was all about me and my book. My very first newspaper interview. I had no clue.

We met at a Chinese restaurant near my place of employment. I had a good career going in software by this time, was married to the great love of my life, and had an adorable baby. I spotted Tillie (let’s call her) waiting at a booth inside. I was all set to brag about my new life and my new book.

“Katie!” she said. “What happened to your hair?”

“I got it cut,” I said. I’d had a few haircuts and re-stylings in the years since the ex and I used to sit around Tillie’s living room drinking  and watching the hipsters smoke dope. She didn’t exactly look the same, either.

“I just want you to know that we all hate Zoe too,” Tillie said.

“Er…”

“We call her Venom Lips.”

“I see. But about my book…”

The rest of the interview sort of went like that. She said she wanted to know all about my life from the time I was born, and then tried to pick out things to put in the paper that would embarrass my ex and his new wife. I did my best to stonewall her. As for talking about the book: “This character in your book who cheats on his taxes. That’s your ex, right? We all know he cheats on his taxes.”

“I certainly hope not,” I said. “I signed those forms for ten years.”

The paper sent a photographer to my house in Lambertville, luckily nobody I knew from the old days. He took an interesting and totally posed picture of me lolling on our porch in front of one of Harold’s Persian rugs. It was pleasingly androgynous. I was thinner then. They put the picture and Tillie’s story on the front page of the paper. It was continued on page three and ran on for many columns. There was something strange about the story. Everyone who read it said so. It wasn’t really about me or my book.

But no ink is bad ink, as they say, and sales of the book went quite well.  Still I drew a moral from the event. Know why you’re being interviewed. Be prepared to steer the conversation.

 

Attracting Eyeballs

What do you look at when you look at the internet?

which_dog_breed_do_you_look_like_featured_largeI asked myself this question the other day after blowing an hour or so on Facebook when I was supposed to be working. Why was I looking at all that? Mindlessly. Why did I take those stupid quizzes? We all know they’re worthless. If I don’t know by now, at my age,  whether I have an adequate grasp of English grammar or what country I should be living in, I’m afraid it’s way too late.

And yet we are drawn to this stuff, this clickbait. If only we knew why, we could use the knowledge to write irresistible blog posts.

WarningSignsofSociopathThe Knowing Ones give me tips from time to time on how to get people to read my blog posts. You know who they are. They write articles for the internet on how to improve yourself and your work, articles which you are irresistibly compelled to view. Mentioning a number in the title is effective, they say. Seventeen Terms Only Jersey Girls Understand. Ten Celebrities Who Have Big Bottoms. Anybody would click on that. I think about trying that ploy—Eight Ways to Cheat Death, Five Unpleasant People I Have Known. I dunno, it seems to me that anybody I would want to write for would be too smart to fall for it.

kittenI don’t really know for sure how to attract eyeballs. My own eyeballs go to ladies’ fashions from the olden days, notes about the state of health of my various Facebook friends, may they all be well, pictures of cityscapes from times gone by, and other folks’ political posts, sometimes. And cats. Cute cats. And babies. Cute cats with babies.

Also videos of Donald J. Trump. I hate myself for watching them but I can’t look away. With a sick fascination I watch him aggrandize himself, bluster, repeat himself while saying nothing, and when challenged on his policy positions, change the subject with practiced incoherence. What a showman. Watching him is like picking a scab.

TrumpBut one has to be so careful. Out there in Internet Land relentless bots collect information about everything we do on our computers. I go to Nordstrom.com and look at an interesting dress or pair of shoes and the next time I’m on Facebook there it is again, the same item, offered to me in an ad. Little does Zuckerberg know or care that I can’t afford the shoes, and the dress isn’t available above a size two. Maybe it’s cookies. It feels like some kind of conspiracy. Five Ways Your Computer Works to Destroy You.

I just had a horrible thought. The Internet knows that I watch Trump videos. What if they think I’m a fan and give my email and home address to the Trump campaign? What if they come after me for money and support?

Here I go to erase all my cookies. Or toss them.

Hooked on Spanish Soap

I must confess to a shameful addiction. If you have Netflix, you can succumb as well, if you’re inclined that way. It’s Gran Hotel.

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They call it the Spanish Downton Abbey, and in many ways it is—the period costumes, (complete with corsets), the rigid class distinctions, the multi-generational story lines. But it’s darker, more melodramatic. Family secrets are turfed out like ants from an anthill. Bodies drop in almost every episode, and not from car wrecks or natural causes as in the tepid Downton Abbey. Nearly everyone is some kind of murderer. And it’s all built around a charming love story between the married heiress to the hotel (Amaia Salamanca) and the hero, a handsome waiter (Yon Gonzalez). Muy Guapo, Yon Gonzalez. Possibly the prettiest  young man I’ve ever seen.

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As you can tell, I’m learning a little Spanish while I binge-watch this rip-snorter, which is subtitled in English. Already I’ve learned five or six words. By the time I get to the last episode—number 66, I think—I’ll be bilingual.

You’re saying, why doesn’t she get busy and write something herself? Hey, I’m studying. What is it that makes Gran Hotel impossible to turn away from? If I can discover their secret, I can write thrillers that nobody can put down, right? Anyway the week after Easter is a time to goof off and vacate. But that isn’t what I’m up to. No. I’m working. I’m studying. Here’s what I’ve discovered, the formula for a riveting and compelling story:

First of all the characters have to be interesting, varied, and deep. The plot twists have to be dizzying. And the writers must have no qualms about hurting people. No punches are to be pulled here.

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So that’s how you do it. I’m going to go forth and do likewise, as soon as I find out about the affair between the Marquesa and the priest, and whether the inspector ever discovers that the maitre d’ is the serial killer. And the explosion. I think there’s an explosion coming. I’m going back and watch some more.  Con su permiso.

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