Hugging the Porcelain

By P.J. Parrish

A friend of mine got some pretty good news this week. He won the Edgar for Best Novel.

William Kent Kreuger is his name. The book is Ordinary Grace and there’s nothing ordinary about it. Now I didn’t read all the best novel nominees this year, but I can vouch for this book and for Kent himself. He’s one of the good guys. He’s paid his dues, is generous to other writers, and has kept his Cork series going at a high level for fourteen books now. (Not an easy feat!)

So last Thursday night, I was delighted to see him hugging that ugly little porcelain statue.

I’ve had a front row seat to the Edgars for seven years now. My sister Kelly and I are the banquet chairs. That’s us in the pic above just before the night got started. We produce the “show” that is sometimes called the Oscars of the crime world. It’s a great gig because Kelly gets to make movies for the night, I get to make the Powerpoint and work with great writers to produce the annual. It’s even fun to help MWA’s Margery Flax set things up. Can I share some backstage snapshots?

Here’s how Eddie arrives at the Grand Hyatt, rather unceremoniously:

Here’s me doing grunt-work, unboxing the annuals.

And Kelly helping Margery set up the registration table.

I can hear you sighing. Ugh…awards. Who cares?

True, there are some great and successful writers in our genre who never won an Edgar. Or an ITW Thriller Award, or Shamus or Anthony or Dilys. Many really good books are overlooked every year. Some publishers neglect to even enter their authors’ books. And except for the Mary Higgins Clark Award and the Agatha Award, there is a bias against traditionals and cozies. But after working the Edgars for seven years now, come banquet time it is fun to see folks who slave over their Macs in sweatpants put on tux and gown, put aside their cynicism, and get their moment in the sun.

But can an award change your life?

My sister Kelly and I got an Edgar nomination for our second book Dead of Winter. We were pretty naive — hell, stupid — about the book biz in those days. We didn’t even understand what the Edgar was, to be honest.  I do remember exactly what I was doing when I got the news. The Bucs were beating up on the Raiders so everyone at our Super Bowl party was three sheets to the wind, including me. The phone rang and I took it outside so I could hear. When the person delivered the news, I screamed. My husband came running outside.

“What the hell is wrong?” he yelled.
“We’re an Edgar nominee!” I yelled back.
“I thought the cat drowned in the pool. What’s an Edgar?”

Things got better fast. First, the book jumped a couple notches on Amazon. It was probably from 1,4456,957 to 56,789, but hey, you take what you can get. We got some late reviews from folks who had ignored it the first time. (Paperback originals don’t register on most reviewer radar screens).

Then came the Edgar banquet. We bought new dresses and went to New York. At the hotel bar, we sat in a quiet circle: Kelly, her son Robert, my husband Daniel and our agent. We allowed ourselves one drink because if we did win, we didn’t want to make asses of ourselves up there.

Inside the cavernous dining room, we sat at our publisher’s table, ogling and pointing. There goes Harlan. Was that T. Jefferson Parker? Laura Lippman is taller than she looks in her pictures. Look at the red dress Mary Higgins Clark is wearing. Omigod, that’s Edie Falco over there!

Everything was a blur. Then they started announcing the winners. It is excruciating sitting through all the categories knowing your moment is coming. The sound starts rushing in your ears and your vision grows dim. You’re stone cold sober but you feel like you’re going to pass out.

I felt my husband grab my hand.

Then…

We lost.

I applauded the winner then grabbed the wine bottle and poured myself a tall one. The next day, we went home and I went back to chapter 12 of what was to become our fourth book, Thicker Than Water. 

I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t tell you the truth: Losing bites. My good friend Reed Farrel Coleman has been nominated three times in three different categories. He was up this year for Best Short Story. He lost.  He says he is now chasing Jeffrey Deaver’s record who has lost seven times.

It is now ten books later for us. There have been dark days when I couldn’t put two decent sentences together and darker nights when I have fretted that the world was finally going to discover that I have no talent and am a complete fraud. Writing is a lonely affair. It’s a cliche but a true cliche. And the egos of most writers I know are swiss-cheesed with doubt. So yes, I think getting an award can change your life. Hell, a nomination can change your life.

Not because it’s some outer confirmation like a bump in sales, or a translation into a better contract or a bigger publisher. It is because it is an inner validation — that something you did, something you created out of the ether of your imagination and the sweat of your faith — is real. And your peers know and honor that.

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What Is Your Spark?

“He lets down as it were a bucket into his subconscious and draws up something which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experience, and out of the mixture he makes a work of art… And when the process is over, when the…novel is complete, the artist, looking back on it, will wonder how on earth he did it. And indeed he did not do it on earth.”  — E.M. Forster
By P.J. Parrish

Where does it come from?

I’m talking about that original impulse, that first bud of creativity that eventually grows into a book. Can you remember? What was it that tickled your brain and set the synapses glowing? What the very first moment when you knew you were onto something?

I’m not talking about inspiration or muses or the “need” to write. I’m trying to focus way way down to that little thing that got you going on whatever it is you are now working so hard to bring to life. What was the spark?

Normally I don’t think much about stuff from the ether like this. Especially since we here at The Kill Zone tend to focus on practical stuff like building credible characters and sturdy plot structures. But sometimes it’s fun — and maybe even a little instructive — to turn the microscope to its finest setting and examine the beginnings of life.

Every writer starts a novel from a different impulse. Some start with a situation, many by asking “what if?” Many writers are character-led.  Often you can trace it back to something as small as an overheard conversation. Or an old man standing a corner glimpsed as you pass by in your car. It can be a line from a half-forgotten poem or the smell of dime store lipstick.

Sometimes that first impulse is too weak to sustain a novel. Sometimes that clot of embryonic cells never quite grows into a character. But sometimes, when you dip a bucket into the subconscious you draw up something special.

I got to thinking about this today because I was trolling the internet boning up on the history of the detective novel. I am going to be on a panel at the Edgar Symposium tomorrow that focuses on the future of the detective novel. And because I didn’t want my fellow panelists to wipe the floor with me I was, I admit, doing a little brushing up on my genre history.

That’s why I happened upon a lecture P.D. James gave in 1997 called Murder and Mystery: The Craft of the Detective Story. (Click here to read it). I’m a huge James fan; she and Georges Simenon were my guiding lights when I was trying to learn how to write detective novels. Jules Maigret and Adam Dalgliesh…those are the guys I’d want on the case when there’s a body on the slab.

So you can imagine how cool it was to read this paper of hers. It’s a great survey of the detective genre. But what I found really fascinating was the part where she talked about how she got her ideas. For James, it always starts with the setting.

I was gobsmacked when I read that. Because that’s what always gets me going. I can’t see a story until I can see the setting. Our books move between Michigan and Florida. Our settings have been, variously, an isolated island in the gulf, an abandoned insane asylum, an old family farm, a cattle pen overgrown with weeds, and an Everglades swamp way down south where the bottom of the state spreads out into the straits like a tattered flag.

Sometimes I almost feel like one of those weird psychics who claim they can see the place of death. When we are starting a new book, I can’t always tell you exactly where we are. But I can sort of feel it. And eventually the place materializes on the page, sort of like an old Polaroid.

Like right now, we working on a new Louis book that takes him back to Michigan. That’s all we knew when we started, that he had to go home. But where? Kelly insisted it had to be the Upper Peninsula (she went to college up there) and we eventually decided to take Louis as far north as we could — way up to the Keweenaw Peninsula, that strange spit of land that extends out into Lake Superior like a crooked finger pointing the way toward the Canadian wilderness. End of earth sort of idea.

But still, things weren’t gelling. There was a spark but it wasn’t catching. Then I saw a photograph someone had taken of a small abandoned cemetery. Its crumbling headstones are obscured by dense carpets of clover. It’s in the middle of nowhere. But it once the middle of somewhere — a lively town where the copper miners lived and worked in the 1800s.

P.D. James said that once she found her setting all she then had to do was begin talking to its inhabitants. Thus came her characters. So it has happened with us. We’re only ten chapters into this new book so we’re still meeting the natives, still learning their histories, still trying to develop an ear for their odd Yooper accents. (it’s somewhere between the nasal tones of Detroit and the lilt of Canada with some Finnish thrown in).

In a bit of synchronicity, I am the editor of the Edgar annual this year and months ago we decided on our theme — the sense of place in the crime novel. The essays are great — Lawrence Block on New York City, Peter Lovesey on Bath England, William Kent Kreuger on northern Minnesota, Cara Black on Paris — each writer talking about how place colors their stories.

Even as I read them it didn’t really occur to me how important setting was to me as a writer. But it is the thing from which everything else comes. If I don’t know where I am I can’t begin to tell you where my story is going. I need to know my place. It is my first spark.

What is yours?

p.s. Forgive me if I don’t respond right away but I am en route to NYC today. Will catch up when I get into Newark Airport. There’s wifi on the bus! 

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