Everything I Ever Learned
I Learned From Potboilers

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers.

My signed first edition of Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” — William Styron

By PJ Parrish
We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and like a plant with shallow roots, I was always sending out feelers toward solid ground. I found it in libraries. I couldn’t always count on having the same address every year, the same classroom or even the same friends for very long. But I always could count on finding old faces and familiar places in the local library.

Paradoxically, it was in libraries where my love of exotic places and travel was born. No matter what was going on in my little life, I could escape to somewhere else by opening a book. My library card was my first passport.

Novels took me around the world, but they also taught me things — about history, religion, politics, philosophy, human psychology, medicine, outer space – filling in the gaps left by my spotty education. Even after I went to college, made my own money and settled down, novels remained my autodidact keys.

I learned about the American Revolution through John Jake’s Kent Family Chronicles. I studied medieval Japan through James Clavell’s Shogun. I was able to wrap my brain around the complex politics of Israel and Ireland after reading Leon Uris. James Michener taught me about Hawaii and Edna Ferber took me to Texas. Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series sorted out the Church of England for me. Ayn Rand made me want to be an architect for a while, or maybe a lady reporter who wore good suits. (I skimmed over the political stuff.)

And Arthur Hailey taught me to never buy a car that was made on a Monday.

I got to thinking about Hailey and all the others this week for two reasons: First, was an article I read in the New York Times about the Common Core teaching controversy (more on that later). The second reason was that while pruning my bookshelves, I found an old copy of The Moneychangers. This was one of Hailey’s last books, written after he had become famous for Hotel, Wheels, and that quintessential airport book Airport. I interviewed Hailey in 1975 when he was touring for The Moneychangers. I remember him as sweet and patient with a cub reporter and he signed my book “To Kristy Montee, Memento of a Pleasant Meeting.”

I had read all his other books, especially devouring Wheels, which was set in the auto industry of my Detroit hometown. Hailey, like Michener, Clavell, Uris et al, wrote long, research-dense novels that moved huge, often multi-generation casts of characters across sprawling stages of exotic locales (Yes, Texas qualifies). Hawaii, which spans hundreds of years, starts with this primordial belch:

Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principle features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others.

How could you not read on after that? But the main reason I loved these books was for their bright promise of cracking open the door on something secret. Here’s some cover copy from Hailey’s The Moneychangers:

Money. People. Banking. This fast-paced, exciting novel is the “inside” story of all three. As timely as today’s headlines, as revealing as a full-scale investigation.

Shoot, that could be copy written for Joseph Finder now.

Many of these books were sniffed off as potboilers in their day. (Though Michener and Ferber both won Pulitzer Prizes). But the writers were, to a one, known for their meticulous research techniques. Hailey spent a full year researching his subject (he read 27 books about the hotel industry), then six months reviewing his notes and, finally, about 18 months writing the book. Michener lived in each of his locales, read and interviewed voraciously, and collected documents, music, photographs, maps, recipes, and notebooks filled with facts. He would paste pages from the small notebooks, along with clippings, photos and other things he had collected into larger notebooks. Sort of an early version of Scrivener.

51dyqvF1YqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

For my money, these books were a potent blend of entertainment and information, and they endure today as solid examples for novelists on how to marry research with storytelling. In his fascinating non-fiction book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, James W. Hall analyzes what commonalities can be found in mega-selling books. One of the criteria is large doses of information that make readers believe they are getting the inside scoop, especially of a “secret” society. The Firm peeks into the boardrooms of Harvard lawyers. The Da Vinci Code draws back the curtain on the Catholic Church. Those and all the books I cited delivered one thing in spades — the feeling we are learning something while being entertained.

Which brings me to Common Core.

This is an educational initiative, sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers that details what K–12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. I read this week that as part of the Common Core mandate, English teachers must balance each novel they teach with “fact” material –news articles, textbooks, documentaries, maps and such.

So ninth graders reading The Odyssey must also read the G.I. Bill of Rights. Eight graders reading Tom Sawyer also get an op-ed article on teen unemployment. The standards stipulate that in elementary and middle school, at least half of what English students read must be supplemental non-fiction, and by 12th grade, that goes up to 70 percent.

Now, I’m not going to dig into the politics of this. (You can read the Times article here.) And I applaud anything that gets kids reading at all. What concerns me is that in an effort to stuff as much information and facts into kids’ heads, we might not be leaving room for the imagination to roam free. As one mom (whose fifth-grade son came home in tears after having to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), put it, “If you look at the standards and what they say, nowhere in there does it say, ‘kill the love of reading.’”

One more thing, I then I’ll shut up:

There was a study done at Emory University last year that looked at what happens to the brain when you read a novel. At night, volunteers read 30-page segments of Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii then the next morning got MRIs. After 19 days of finishing the novel and morning MRIs, the results revealed that reading the novel heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. Reading the novel also heightened connectivity in “embodied semantics,” which means the readers thought about the action they were reading about. For example, thinking about swimming can trigger the some of the same neural connections as physical swimming.

“The neural changes that we found…suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said Gregory Berns, the lead author of the study. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Maybe those poor eighth graders just need to crack open some Jean Auel, SE Hinton or Cassandra Clare.

17+

The Christmas gifts all writers need

By P.J. Parrish

See that picture at left? That is my dog Bailey. The antlers are photoshopped on but I dress her up in Santa outfits every year and she’s a good sport about looking silly. Dogs can teach us writers something this holiday season. We need to lighten up.

This epiphany came after yet another of my sleepless nights. I was worrying about a plot pothole in our novella-in-progress, and about not finishing it, and then what if nobody downloads it from Kindle Select…you get the idea, right?

As usual, I retreated to the sofa and the remote. Nothing on except “The Da Vinci Code.” I know, bad movie, but I hadn’t seen it so I figured it would at least put me to sleep. And then that creepy Albino monk starts screwing barbed-wire anklets to his legs and beating himself bloody with cat ‘o nine tails. And I started thinking about all the pain we writers inflict on ourselves. Self-doubt, exhausting promotion tours, crippling envy, three-books-a-year contracts, flop-sweat fear. Hell, we don’t need Kirkus. We’re killing ourselves.

So I have some Christmas presents for you.  They are the exact things you probably won’t give to yourself. But you need them. My gifts to you are…

1. Permission to write badly. I give this to myself every year because I am one of those perfectionist nuts who gets paralyzed trying to make every word sing. It has taken me a decade to understand that to get to the good stuff, you have to well, poop out a lot of crap.

2. The ability to know when you are brilliant. And you are. Even if it is just for one page, one paragraph, one sentence. You know when you’ve hit that sweet spot. You can feel it. Cherish it. You’re not going to do it every time, but you don’t need to. Brilliance, like diamonds, shines best when you think quality not quantity.

3. A friend to celebrate the good news. Even if it’s as small as you finished chapter two. Even if it’s as big as a six-figure book deal and Ridley Scott on your speed dial. Success is nothing without someone to share it.

4. An honest critic. You need that one true friend who can tell you when you have lost your way. Your mother loves you too much to tell you the truth about your book. Treasure the one who can look you in the eye and say, “this sucks, you can do better.”

5. The courage to question your agent or editor. Blind loyalty is dangerous. In politics, love…and publishing. A great agent or editor can be your biggest ally. But it is YOUR responsibility to steer your career.

6. A week off. Leave the laptop. The cell can go to hell. Find someplace to which you can truly retreat, where the world cannot intrude. I recommend St. Barts if you can afford it. But your backyard deck will do. Drink good wine. Read trash. Eat too much. Make love. Dance in the snow. Breathe in pink…breathe out blue.

7. The courage to talk to a writer “bigger” than you and know you have something to offer. The first time I found myself standing next to Lee Child I turned into the third verse of Janis Ian’s song “At Seventeen.” Years later, I still cringe but now I can talk to Lee without blathering. I just picture him naked.

8. A few extra bucks to attend a conference so you know you’re not alone. You need to get periodic infusions and if you approach cons right, you come away replenished and eager to work.

9. A walk in the woods to clear your head. You’ve got to quiet those shouting voices of doubt in your brain. This happens only in quietude. Or maybe during a drive on I-95 with “Bohemian Rapsody” blaring.

10. The clarity to recognize the seed of inspiration in the smallest things. You’re stuck. You’ve painted yourself into a corner with the plot. Take a step back and look for small things. Open your brain and all your senses. You never know where the answer will come from.

11. Time to appreciate your family for appreciating how hard you work. Your people are important. Tell them. Often.

12. Kindness to reach down to someone who admires you. No matter where you believe you are on the writer food chain, no matter how low you think you are, someone is looking up to you. Be nice to them. Karma, baby, karma…

13. Permission to spend some of that advance money or Kindle royalty check on yourself. Buy a great bottle of Meursault. Rent a red convertible. Get botox. Splurge on Celtic tickets. A friend of mine just got a new agent, signed a six-book contract with a new publisher — this after years of bad luck. She bought herself a diamond ring.

14. Courage to venture out of your comfort zone. This is a tough one because sometimes you can get wacked alongside the head for your trouble. But there is no growth without chances taken. You just have to believe you are right. Even when everyone else — and maybe even the sales — are telling you otherwise.

15. And lastly, I give you the gift of faith. Faith that someone will love your book enough to buy it. That you have another good story still inside you. That no matter how tangled your book might feel, you will find the way home. That you are….brilliant.

Peace, dear friends.

0

The iPad: Is it really all that?

by Michelle Gagnon

ibooks_hero_20100403.jpgI’ll start by saying that I don’t completely understand the Apple mystique, in fact I’m a little perplexed by their cult following. I appreciate my iPod and iPhone as much as the next person (although AT&T easily takes the prize for the worst network). But in my experience, some of the Apple products leave much to be desired. My husband finally convinced me to switch from a PC to a Mac last year–which has absolutely been a mixed bag. Some of the programs, like iPhoto and Scrivener, I love. Yet I can’t fathom why there isn’t a blogging program for Macs that holds a candle to Live Writer. On the plus side: fewer viruses and crashes. But I sorely miss Microsoft Outlook.

So with all the hoopla surrounding the release of the iPad, I was skeptical. It looked big, for one thing. What I like about the Kindle and the Sony Reader is that they manage to mimic the experience of reading a book. You open something, hold it in both hands. In comparison the iPad appears unwieldy, roughly the size of a dinner plate. I couldn’t imagine holding this big flat thing and reading off it.

But then a friend brought one over for me to test drive. Wow. It has all the features of the Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader. It’s light and comfortable to hold. The pages actually appear to turn, which is a neat trick. And that’s just the beginning.

There’s been a lot of chatter about eBooks and what they mean for the industry. Most of the debate has centered around issues like the recent Amazon/Macmillan pricing standoff, and what kind of ebook rights authors should be getting. There are those who claim that within a decade print books will be a rarity, limited editions published exclusively for collectors. Others say that’s an exaggeration, books are here to stay.

What’s been lost in the debate (because until now it was largely irrelevant) was how books and the entire reading experience could change. The Kindle and the Sony Reader were great, but they basically just enabled a reader to experience a book the same way they always had. The main benefit was that the font size could be adjusted, and the reader could hold a full library. Neither offered true interactivity, a bridge between books and other media.

That bridge is exactly what the iPad provides.

Check out this video of the iPad version of Alice in Wonderland (but be forewarned, it’s a little frenetic. I’d advise against clicking on the link if you’re prone to seizures).

Wow. Seeing that, I finally grasped the iPad’s potential. For one thing, it could revolutionize children’s books (although I’m hard pressed to name a parent who would hand a relatively fragile $500 device over to their child). And for graphic novels, this is a complete game changer. aliceforipad041610b.jpg

On my book tour for THE GATEKEEPER, I assembled a PowerPoint display of real-life settings from the book and other materials to provide a frame of reference for readers. Just imagine if that information could actually be incorporated into the text itself.

It reminded me of reading The Da Vinci Code while vacationing in Costa Rica. I found it maddening that when so much of the plot was focused on specific paintings and statues, there were no images included in the text. With the iPad, a book could include those, plus links to video interviews with the author, related sources- really, the sky is the limit.

I’ll save a discussion of other iPad features for another day, including apps (movies look amazing on it, though, in case you’re curious). But I have to say, I’m a convert. I’ll probably wait for the inevitable price drop. When that comes, (and I suspect we’ll be seeing a huge decline in prices for eReaders across the board soon), Apple could corner the publishing market the same way that they basically appropriated the music industry. And along the way, they might end up changing what constitutes a book.


0

What I’m Thankful For (and a pumpkin cheesecake recipe)

Of course, there’s the usual: my health, my family and friends, the fact that I didn’t have to board a plane today and brave the madding crowd. I’ll be enjoying my turkey right here in (relatively) warm and sunny California, thank you very much.

pumpkin But this year, I do have a little something extra to be thankful for: my new two book contract. Because as many of my writing friends have recently discovered, this is a tough, tough environment for book sales. I share writing space with nine other authors. Two of them had contracts fall through in the past few months. Two others have manuscripts that their agents think would have gone into a bidding war earlier in the year: but as of right now, they haven’t had a single offer.

With the news that Houghton Mifflin has stopped acquiring manuscripts for the time being, many writers’ worst fears are confirmed. Forget the automakers: how are writers going to survive the economic downturn? Is it time for us to hand in our private jets, God forbid? If my contract had been negotiated after the crash, I suspect my publisher would never have offered the amount we settled on. In this industry, so much comes down to timing.

Of course, it’s not as though much happens between Thanksgiving and New Year’s in the publishing industry anyway. Much as they are loathe to adjitneymit it, it’s the only American profession that seems to mirror the European vacation calendar. Most agents won’t even bother trying to shop a manuscript this time of year. And August: fuggedaboutit. The Da Vinci Code could land in an editor’s lap and they’d toss it aside while rushing off to catch the jitney to the Hamptons. Mind you, I’m all for that. Especially since most editors spend their days in meetings and their nights and weekend working on manuscripts. It’s definitely not a job you go into for the money, by and large. So time off is well-deserved.

But parissince the lack of acquisitions at this time of year is largely a given, why did Houghton Mifflin even bother making the announcement? Their "temporary freeze" is a bad sign. Will it last through January, or longer? Will it spread to other houses? Does this mean that the publishing industry is throwing in the proverbial towel, and will eventually only publish a handful of titles every year about vampire detectives with difficult (but beloved) dogs who reveal religious conspiracies while recording their downward spiral into drug addiction followed by their inevitable redemption? Or, God forbid, Paris Hilton’s latest musings on hair, boys, and other national security issues? Because let’s all just admit that Paris Hilton can walk into pretty much any publishing house and get a seven figure deal before you can say "Salman Rushdie."

The irony here is that all things considered, books are cheap entertainment. And historically, entertainment has done well during economic bulldogdownturns, when people need to take their minds off their troubles. Little known fact: more books sold during the Great Depression than in the period immediately before and after. Sure, in the new millennium we have many other distractions available to us, from television to video games to bulldogs on skateboards. But what if the publishing industry banded together and advertised reading as the ultimate inexpensive pastime? Something along the lines of the dairy industry’s "Got Milk" ad campaign? Who knows, it might make a difference. And hoping to shore up the industry by releasing fewer and fewer titles doesn’t seem like the best option.

Anyway, that’s my thought for the day. And I’m hoping that by the spring of 2010, when my renewal comes up, the economy will have recovered somewhat. Until then, I’m honing my vampire knowledge base.

As promised, my killer (no pun intended) Pumpkin/Ginger Cheesecake recipe, in case you’re in charge of dessert:

Ingredients

  • 1 gingersnap crumb crust baked and cooled
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup chopped crystallized ginger
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin (from a 15-ounces can)

Preparation

Make the gingersnap crumb crust:

  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus additional for greasing
  • 1 1/2 cups cookie crumbs (10 graham crackers or 24 small gingersnaps; about 6 oz)
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • Special equipment: a 9- to 9 1/2-inch pie plate (4-cup capacity)

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly butter pie plate.

Stir together all ingredients in a bowl and press evenly on bottom and up side of pie plate. Bake until crisp, 12 to 15 minutes, then cool on a rack to room temperature, about 45 minutes.

Cook’s notes: • To make cookie crumbs, break up crackers or cookies into small pieces, then pulse in a food processor until finely ground. • For pumpkin ginger cheesecake pie, use 4 (not 5) tablespoons melted butter plus additional for greasing.

Then, for the cheesecake part:

Keep oven rack in middle position set at 350°F.

Pulse sugar and ginger in a food processor until ginger is finely chopped, then add cream cheese and pulse until smooth. Add eggs, milk, flour, nutmeg, and salt and pulse until just combined.

Reserve 2/3 cup cream cheese mixture in a glass measure. Whisk together remaining 1 1/3 cups cream cheese mixture and pumpkin in a large bowl until combined.

Pour pumpkin mixture into gingersnap crumb crust. Stir reserved cream cheese mixture (in glass measure) and drizzle decoratively over top of pumpkin mixture, then, if desired, swirl with back of a spoon. Put pie on a baking sheet and bake until center is just set, 35 to 45 minutes. Transfer to a rack and cool to room temperature, about 2 hours, then chill, loosely covered with foil, at least 4 hours. If necessary, very gently blot any moisture from surface with paper towels before serving.

They’ll love it, trust me.

0