THE AFFAIR: It’s About an Author. Really.

My latest television addiction is the Showtime series The Affair. True, the primary plot of the show, as the title indicates, concerns a relationship between two folks who are married, but not to each other. Each episode is divided into two thirty-minute 
he said/she said segments which usually (but not always) show the same events from the markedly different viewpoints of the two participants in a game of Jump the Fence, carried out in the resort town of Montauk on Long Island. Both of the main characters in The Affair are Americans portrayed by British actors Ruth Wilson and Dominic West. Wilson (the unforgettable Alice in Luther) plays the role of the troubled and complex Alison Lockhart, a Montauk “townie” waitress who has married into a family with deep roots in the community. She attracts the not-unwelcomed attention of Noah Solloway, who with his wife Helen and four children are spending the summer in Montauk with Helen’s parents, Bruce and Margaret Butler. Noah is played by West (he looks like a young(er) Gordon Lightfoot), who was Detective Jimmy McNulty in The Wire.  Noah and Alison continue to happen upon each other (it’s a small island), one thing leads to another, and soon the disaffected Noah and the rumpled, damaged, but still-hot Alison are steaming up a local bed-and-breakfast, a vacant house, and various bodies of water. Yep, The Affair is about infidelity, for sure, but the plot elements also include a murder mystery, an island crime caper, and a few other things. What has really attracted my attention to the show (other than Ruth Wilson, of course) is that The Affair is about novel writing and authors.

How’s that? Noah  is a New York City public schoolteacher who, as The Affair opens, has recently published a mildly acclaimed but poorly selling novel, and he has a problem. As the saying goes, one has their whole life to write their first book and six months to write their second. While Noah doesn’t have writer’s block, he is not exactly inspired to write Number Two. What makes things worse is that Bruce, Noah’s father-in-law, is a wildly successful, well-known author whose literary work has earned him enough money to live next door to God. Bruce manages to effortlessly exude a smarmy confidence that he wears like a custom-tailored suit, particularly whenever his much less successful son-in-law is in the room. Bruce does so with facial expressions and pithy comments, among other things, and thus manages to convey the impression that he is three hundred pounds of horse manure jammed into a two hundred pound sack. He can do this while stating the truism that while everyone has one good book in them, they almost never have two, or on another occasion, telling Noah the secret of his excessive success. Bruce’s every move consists of helping Noah with one hand while belittling him with the other. Even when Bruce arranges an introduction and meeting with his agent for Noah, it’s a trap which, it is implied, will be sprung by the failure of Noah’s best efforts. Noah for his part is lacking in confidence and probably for good reason. There is, to note but one instance, a classic scene in one of the episodes where Noah has followed Alison to the town library on the pretext of “accidentally” running into her. He finds his book standing forlorn on a shelf as he lurks between the aisles. The library still uses the ink-stamp method of date-due notification; a quick glance at the inside front of his book tells Noah that no one has bothered to check it out. No words are necessary; the look on Noah’s face speaks volumes.

The Affair is a multi-layered drama, a cautionary tale about a man who gets what he thinks he wants — in a number of ways — only to find that having is not the same as wanting (as Mr. Spock pointed out in the “Amok Time” episode of Star Trek) and that some desires are better left unsatisfied (as Garth Brooks pontificated in the song “Unanswered Prayers”). In the case of The Affair, the dream, or at least one of them, is a published novel. The lesson of the series seems at this point to be that success is not a panacea for all of one’s ills, and that sometimes success is anything but

Enough of the gloom, however. What book, film, or television series concerning an author would you recommend to the rest of us? And yes, you’re allowed to mention Castle, or Murder, She Wrote.

Balancing Fiction and Non

Writing fiction is fun, but it’s also great to do something else for a change. Yesterday I visited Princeton, my alma mater, to attend a conference on string theory. String theory, of all things! This stuff is so mathematically complex I can’t even pretend to understand it, and luckily I don’t have to. My alumni magazine asked me to write a “casual piece” about it. I’m going to write five lighthearted paragraphs about the scientists who are struggling to understand the universe.
Actually, that’s a perfect assignment for me right now. I’m about 25,000 words into my next novel and I don’t want to get sidetracked by writing a long, serious magazine article. On the other hand, writing 500 words about the quirks of genius physicists is a welcome distraction.
And you can definitely reap some benefits from writing both fiction and journalism. I gave up my full-time job at Scientific American six years ago when I got a contract to write thrillers, but I’ve remained a contributing editor at the magazine. A couple of months ago I contributed an item to the magazine’s website about a scientist at NASA who’s trying to build a real warp-drive engine, like the one that propels the Enterprise in all the Star Trek episodes. This silly little piece got more than 8,000 “like’s” in 24 hours.
I’ve also done a bit of book editing on the side. I’m on the editorial board of Science and Fiction, a series of novels and works of literary criticism published by Springer. I get a chance to read manuscripts and make suggestions for improving them.
I don’t do these things for the money. I get only nominal fees for this work and sometimes nothing at all. No, I do it because I want to keep one foot in the world of journalism. Although I love the fantasy of fiction, I don’t want to lose touch with reality.
And you can learn some fascinating things when you hang out with geniuses. Did you know that Chinese scientists are seriously considering building a gigantic particle collider, a machine so huge it’ll dwarf Europe’s Large Hadron Collider? This is big news in the physics community.

On Monday, though, I’m going right back to the novel. I have some new ideas for the book, ideas I gleaned from the living, breathing world.  

The Drowning Pool

I have no words of wisdom to share with you this week — I mean, why break a couple of years of consistency? — so I thought I’d be nosy and ask some questions. I’ll share my answers as well, dipping my feet in the water first to demonstrate that there aren’t any sharks waiting.

The overall theme here concerns emails. I receive about two hundred a day. Around seventy percent of those are deleted without being read — I receive a number of newsletters and such which are of irregular interest — but if I don’t trim the bush regularly they seem to be fruitful and multiply. This week was an extremely busy one and this morning when things quieted down a bit I felt a bit like Captain Kirk in the Star Trek episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles,” when he opened the cargo space and the hull was overloaded with furry round creatures. Herewith then, are my questions and my answers. I  would appreciate it if you would share your answers as well.

1) How many emails do you receive on a typical day?

175- 200

2) How many emails do you wind up reading before deleting each day?


3)  Do you faithfully delete or file away emails on a regular basis — say, daily or weekly — or do you keep everything in your inbox?

I attempt to weed my inbox daily; failing that, I don’t let it go any longer than a week before doing so.

4) How many emails — read or otherwise — are in your inbox right now?


5) What’s the date of the oldest email in your inbox?

March 11. Of this year.

6) How often do you check your email inbox?

Several times an hour.

7) Have you ever checked your email inbox during sex?

No. Who has time for sex? I’m busy checking my email.

8) How many email correspondents do you have who absolutely have to have the last word in an email exchange, regardless of who initiated the conversation?


9) Have you ever decided that, however juvenile it might be, you were going to have the last word in an email exchange, and deliberately continued it with pointless observations?


10) Did you “win?”


If so, how long did it take? 

Four days

11) If you check your email obsessively, do you get impatient or angry with someone (like your spouse, best friend, or love interest) who does not?


Writers Going Boldly

The late Ray Bradbury was a living, breathing testament to the joy of writing. He loved what he did and he did it every day. He wrote where his imagination led him. He explored his own inner universe, never quite sure where the path would lead but absolutely delighting in the journey.
His practice was to wake up and start writing and see what happened. He’d explode. “Every morning I step on a landmine,” he wrote in Zen in the Art of Writing. “The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.”
That was his practice from his earliest days as a writer. Even after he was married and had mouths to feed he found a way to make income as a writer while writing what he loved.
That’s the ideal, isn’t it? Yet in the past, only a few writers ever truly realized this dream.
I remember how happy I was when I first started writing. It was love. There was something rapturous about it, even though I had a lot to learn about the craft. Maybe it was because I was in touch most directly with my imagination and passion. I was just letting it rip. I was a landmine.
I worked hard at the craft, too. I enjoyed that as well, the way a race car driver enjoys working on his engines. And then came the day I got published. And after that, contracts. And now, looking back, a career. I’ve been one of the lucky ones.
But it struck me the other day as I woke up and started the coffee going that I was more eager than ever to get to my writing chair. Because when I sit in it, I can take myself wherever I want to go. Boldly. Like Capt. James Tiberius Kirk, I am on the bridge of my own Enterprise. If a galaxy looks interesting, I can tell my inner Mr. Sulu to take me there.

So I’m writing boxing stories and zombie legal thrillers and stand alone suspense and stories about vigilante nuns. I’m writing essays on writing and soon will be releasing non-fiction booklets on a variety of topics that interest me. Plus, I know that anything I write will get to readers and make me a profit.
You know, in all the recent debating about self v. traditional publishing (both of which I continue to maintain are of value) one thing perhaps isn’t emphasized enough. Writers who write what they love, care about it, figure out how to do it better, then repeat the process all over again—those writers may be having the most fun of all.
Of course, as my blog brother Gilstrap reminded us on Friday, a certain amount of sweat equity (which he maintains is gained only by going traditional, and I maintain can be had privately) is necessary for someone to develop into a real writer.
But you can sweat and still find joy, and most of that is in the freedom to write what you want to write and letting the market itself decide what to do with it.
“The first thing a writer should be,” Bradbury wrote, “is excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms . . . . [A writer must] look to his zest, see to his gusto.”
When you do that, it will show up on the page. And when it shows up on the page, readers will take notice.
Do you want to write? Really? Enough to work at it lovingly every day? To study the craft because you desire more than anything else to communicate with the reader in the most effective way? Enough to boldly go where no writer has gone before? Or, at least, to put your own footprints on some previously explored planet?
Then do it. And pay no attention to the naysayers. Brenda Ueland, in her classic little book If You Want to Write, says this:
“Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say. Everybody is talented because everybody who is human has something to express. Everybody is original if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. So work with all your intelligence and love. Work freely and rollickingly, as though talking to a friend. Mentally (at least three or four times a day) thumb your nose at all know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters. Work from now on, until you die, with real love and imagination and intelligence. If you are going to write you must become aware of the richness in you and come to believe in it and know it is there.”

Summer Blockbuster Scorecard

by Michelle Gagnon

As many of you know, if I weren’t writing crime fiction my dream job would be movie reviewer. And while I love watching arty indie films in the comfort of my home, if I’m going to shell out nearly $100 (tickets, parking, sitter) I really want to see things explode. Preferably in space.

So summer releases are my guilty pleasure. I greedily devour all the pre-release press, watch the trailers online, and plan my weekends according to what will be showing. And invariably, some of the films I was eagerly anticipating prove horribly disappointing. But then, there are also always some surprises. Here then, in descending order, are the films I managed to see this summer. The top ones were my favorites, bottoms were just that- not even rent-worthy.


Wow, did they save the best for last. I deliberately avoided all reviews before going to see it this since there are always spoilers, so I was on the edge of district 9 my seat for even the earliest plot twists. One of my friends argued that this wasn’t really a blockbuster, and in a way he’s right- this is a thinking person’s Sci-Fi film, with the capacity to provoke questions and debate for days. Discussions of human rights, apartheid (setting it in South Africa was genius) and balancing the needs of the individual over the interests of the population at large aren’t things I usually leave a blockbuster debating, and yet this time I did. On top of that, there were some knock-down drag-out action scenes (although at times, I could have used a little less handheld camera work) and the aliens were some of the best I’ve seen, creepily but believably “other.” See this one on the big screen if you can (but don’t bother bringing snacks. For the first time in recorded history, I was unable to finish my vat of popcorn. There were some extremely gross scenes).


star trek If you had told me at summer’s outset that this would come in near the top of my list, I never would have believed you. I’m not much of a Star Trek fan, and the trailer looked silly. But I loved this film. It delivered everything a top notch blockbuster should: good action sequences, a solid plot, decent acting, and memorably cheesy lines. Bonus points for some of the best casting in Hollywood – even I got some of the inside jokes about the original characters. J.J. Abrams revitalized this tired franchise in the same way that Batman Begins and Casino Royale brought back Batman and Bond. Hopefully they’ll be able to keep it up in the next one.


Not nearly as funny as Borat, yet I still laughed more than at any other comedy this year. Paula Abdul, discussing how she “just doesn’t feel right unless she’s helping people” while sitting on a day laborer? Stage parents cheerfully agreeing to allow their kids to participate in a photo shoot at high speed, without a car seat, holding flaming objects while dressed as mini-Nazis? It’s all here, folks. The single-running joke ran out of steam for me before the film ended, however.


I actually had to look back through the release list to remind myself about this film, which pretty much sums it up. Not terrible, not great- forgettable. The acting was fine, the story seemed to drag, I found it difficult to care about the characters. But watchable. It was desperately trying to be THE UNTOUCHABLES, but didn’t even come close.


Remember how at the outset of the original Terminator film, there’s that ominous opening scene set in the future with cyborgs walking through the tattered remains of human civilization, and you thought, tsalvation “Wow, I’d love to see an entire film set there!”

Well, this is that film. And somehow, they managed to make that future boring, despite hundred-foot tall robots and a CGI budget that could probably solve the world hunger problem.

While this wasn’t a terrible film, those of us who were hoping for another T2 to clear the lingering aftertaste of T3 from our mouths were let down. And casting Christian Bale as John Connor was a mistake- every time he came onscreen I wondered where the batmobile was. Stick to one blockbuster franchise at a time, Bale- and you were clearly already starring in the better one. The real star, surprisingly, was unknown Sam Worthington. He almost managed to save this film.


I know, I know; what was I thinking? The first film was little more than a two hour car commercial, so how one earth did I end up trapped in a theater with the sequel?

transformers-revenge-of-the-fallen-3 Suffice it to say I was on vacation in a one-screen town, with free childcare, and this was all that was showing. And I thought to myself, “How bad could it be?”

The answer: breathtakingly horrible. This was a convoluted nightmare. I don’t expect much from a Michael Bay film, but this one really surprised me. How on earth did he manage to make a story based on a toy robot line so completely muddled and confusing? It was impossible to tell the “bad” transformers from the “good” ones, I had no idea what the leads were trying to do half the time (and the other half was devoted to attempting to figure out where they were). Worst film of the summer, possibly even the year.

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list (again, $100 to go to the cinema here in charming San Francisco). There are many I wanted to see but missed, including Up, The Taking of Pelham 123, Year One, Harry Potter…I’m hoping to catch a few before they vanish into the ether to await DVD release. But I’d love to hear which should be at the top of my list, and which I can wait a bit longer for.