27 June 2011


Eva and I were just in Truckee, CA for a couple of days. It's high up - 7,000 feet - in the Sierras, just above Lake Tahoe. We were considering the possibility of spending as much as a month there sometime this coming winter. (If we do, she will spend as much time as she can on cross country skis and I will spend a lot of time writing - and probably drinking.)

Luckily, with a population nearing 15,000 it has come a long way since the Donner Party missed the trail there in 1846, leading to the deaths of 42 of its members and the consumption of several of their corpses by the others. Here's where they took their wrong turn:If the hotel - wood building in background - and the 76 station had been there 165 years ago probably none of us would have ever heard of the Donner Party.

Here's the monument to them:If any of you out there reading this can figure out what the hell the inscription means, let me know in the comments. I sure can't figure it out.

It is a beautiful area:

Chinese workers built the western half of the transcontinental railroad right across what is now Donner Pass and down into Truckee:
They built long tunnels to house the tracks so that they wouldn't be impassable with snow in the winter. And they propped up the tracks with boulders where the mountain curves didn't cooperate.
This is tunnel 6, dug 1,600 feet through solid granite. They were able to dig about four inches a day. It would have taken them 17 and a half years except that someone had the bright idea to bore a wide hole through the top of the mountain, halfway into where they wanted the tunnel to go. Workers were lowered down into it so that the tunnel could be dug out from four places at once: both ends and each way from the middle.

We have a whole lot to thank Chinese laborers for, at least historically.

I'm on a quest to find the oldest, continuously operating Chinese restaurant in America. If anyone has any thoughts on the matter, please let me know.

I hereby, probably rashly, promise that should we spend a month in Truckee this coming winter, I will write a blog every day. The Donner Party kept diaries, there's a tradition for me to uphold.

23 June 2011


Taken from the window of the office in the house where I'm writing this.

There was a time when I really hated San Francisco. It wasn't simply the old rivalry thing between L.A. and San Francisco. Well, maybe it was a little of that. But there was something about the place that just plain annoyed me, gave me the creeps, felt wrong and shallow and, in the Texan phrase - all hat and no cattle.

I don't feel that way any longer. I now really like, even love, some things about the place, but as a whole I find it merely okay. These days I think of it as having an over-sized hat for the amount of cattle it does have. But it does indeed have some pretty nice bovines.

City Lights Bookstore is certainly one of them. Every time I'm in San Francisco, even if only for a few hours, I have to go there. It is a shrine, a monument, a place to go and pay homage - and money also, of course. I feel it is my obligation to future generations to help support the place. And it is so filled with books that are difficult, if not impossible, to find elsewhere that the trick is to narrow down my selections to a semi-affordable lot. My trip there yesterday cost me a bit north of a hundred bucks but I'll be savoring it for weeks to come. (I'm a slow reader.)

The Berkeley Bowl - okay, so it's in Berkeley, not in San Francisco - is one of the very greatest, if not the very greatest supermarkets on the planet. L.A. kicks the Bay Area's ass when it comes to variety and quality of ethnic markets, but we have nothing that can even come close to the Berkeley Bowl for a comprehensive, high-quality, reasonably-priced general supermarket. The best similar market in L.A. is practically a convenience store by comparison. I nearly cried when I was in there the other day. Central Market in Austin, Texas is the closest I've seen to it, but even it is not quite up to Berkeley Bowl's snuff - and it's a lot more expensive.

I have had some excellent meals since I've been here. The two standouts having been in Oakland: Lunch at The Brick Pig's House where the 90 year old family bbq recipe from Arkansas is going very strong. And dinner last night at Commis which was innovative and interesting and fun and very tasty indeed.

Other than seeing some friends, I haven't done much else here. (I've been house-sitting for four days.) Sadly, my favorite bar in the city - Jezebel's Joint - has long since closed down. It was a place that was representative of one of the other things I do like a lot about this place - it's easy, fluid, laissez-faire sexuality. In that sense the Bay Area does seem like a more highly evolved sort of place than most.

Then again, in the spirit of competitiveness between SF and LA (and NYC, too, for that matter) I would like to point out that L.A. (in Silverlake, my neighborhood) had a large gay rights demonstration - following a raid on a gay bar called The Black Cat - a full two years before the more famous Stonewall events in NYC. And in 1911, when California voted in favor of women's suffrage, it narrowly passed only because more people in Los Angeles voted in favor of it than did in San Francisco where it lost.

So, in the days I've been up here I left my heart in Los Angeles, but there are some things I wish I could take back home from here with me when I head back down Interstate 5.

17 June 2011


Last weekend at the California Crime Writers Conference, Kris Calvin who had attended my workshop came up to me afterwards with a newly purchased copy of THE LIVING ROOM OF THE DEAD for me to sign. I gave her my standard warning: "That's the book of mine that's filled with the most sex and violence. You might want to take it with a glass of wine."

This morning, in a comment on Ashedit's blog, in reply to a comment on that blog by me, she wrote: "...as a woman of a certain age, I’m sure I looked like I was there for the cozies and just got in the wrong line. Under the circumstances, your comment was quite thoughtful."

She's already read the book and liked it. Thanks Kris.

Actually, I give the same warning to everybody, regardless of age, sex, creed, color or place of national origin. Call it a disclaimer, if you will. THE LIVING ROOM OF THE DEAD is a very tough book. It is filled with sex and violence and even sexual violence. I felt that it had to be to get the story told with the kind of impact I wanted it to have. I don't feel that those elements are in the book gratuitously, and most of the readers and reviewers who have commented on it seem to share my feeling.

Still, I did once talk someone out of buying it. And I felt really terrible about that. It was at a book event where only one very nice person showed up in spite of the store's and my efforts to promote the event. I chatted and drank tea for quite some time with the one attendee and it became apparent - obvious - that she was going to hate The Living Room of the Dead, probably wouldn't be able to get through it, and might very well hold it against me and the bookstore for the rest of her reading days if we sold it to her. (She was particularly fond of Lilian Jackson Braun's cat mysteries.)

I ended up spending nearly a hundred bucks in that store to assuage my feelings of guilt over having driven away the only customer I'd attracted to the store in the first place. (Apparently she appreciated it, though, and became a regular customer after that.)

What's an author to do?

I don't want to write books that everybody will enjoy. I'd then have to worry that they were wishy-washy books.

I like to challenge and provoke my readers, and myself, with ideas and surprises and strong scenes that evoke strong reactions.

But hey, I'm like anyone else - I like to be liked. I like it when my readers enjoy my books and say nice things about them.

And I don't like to make assumptions about people. Much of the time those assumptions are proven wrong anyhow. (Which is, much of the time, pleasing to me.)

But sometimes you do encounter people who you just know, with certainty, are not going to like your book/s. Is the meager royalty from that one sale worth alienating them?

So other than that one time, I have resisted giving anyone an anti-sales pitch. But in the spirit of caveat emptor, I try to help them make a somewhat informed decision.

What about any of you other authors out there who might chance to be reading this? Have you ever signed a book for someone you were pretty sure was going to hate it? Ever recommended to someone that they not read your book?

14 June 2011


I don't think it's all that strange that I loathe meetings but I like conferences.

When they are necessary at all, meetings ought to be like most sentences ought to be - short and to the point. They seldom are.

Conferences, on the other hand, are a more leisurely, sociable affair. The eating and drinking, schmoozing, hanging out in the hallways, and more importantly the bar, the flirting, the arguing, the discussing can all be a lot of fun and even useful.

Last weekend was the California Crime Writers Conference (CCWC) in Pasadena and it was everything I like in a conference. (Disclosure: I may be a bit biased, I was one of the organizers, the "Programming Co-Chair.")

Unlike the big reader/fan oriented conferences - which I also like, I hope to see you, yeah, you who's reading this, at Bouchercon in St. Louis in September - this was very much a writers conference. The emphasis of the program was on workshops, classes and demonstrations that might be of use to crime writers in their work. Near as I could tell from the comments, we succeeded in that.

We also succeeded in having all the sorts of fun that people are supposed to be having at conferences. Although, since I live reasonably near the venue I didn't stay in the hotel so I can make no observations or educated remarks concerning what went on there after hours.

I did get plenty of exercise. While the sessions were in session, I wandered up and down the hallways poking my head in and out of rooms to make sure everything was running smoothly. I shot pictures. I ran errands. I toted and lifted and hauled things. If I ever do this sort of thing again - which I probably will - I am going to get myself a pedometer. It is possible that I walked well over five miles each day through the corridors and staircases of the Pasadena Hilton. I rarely sat down.

And I wasn't even the busiest, most exhausted person there. I think that distinction may have fallen on - like a ton of bricks - Sybil Johnson, President of the Sisters in Crime Los Angeles Chapter and one of the two conference chairs and chief organizers. (The other being Naomi Hirahara, Prez-Emeritus of Southern California Mystery Writers of America.) Here's a picture of Sybil that she's going to hate. I took it just after she'd had her first few sips of bourbon at the Agents & Editors Cocktail Reception on Saturday night, possibly the first time she'd sat down all day. My guess is that she was punchy tired and relieved that it was all going so well. (I wonder if her giving me the finger was intentional? Maybe she knew she wasn't going to like this picture. Sorry Sybil.) (UPDATE: Sybil sort of even likes the picture and wonders where I got the idea she was giving me the finger. I was joking about her giving me the finger, but her hand uncurling from around her drink sort of looks like it.)

And here's some more pictures from what was a great, fun, interesting and instructive weekend:T. Jefferson Parker (Saturday) and S.J. Rozan (Sunday) were the keynote speakers.Agents and editors were fed drinks and appetizers at a cocktail reception to soften them up for attending writers to schmooze.Attending writers did their own fair share of drinking, too. Really? Hmmmm. Writers? Go figure.
There were panels, presentations and workshops which, as these things tend to be, were not exactly visual spectaculars. But according to all the comments were useful and interesting, entertaining even.
Then again, it wouldn't be any kind of crime writers conference without some weaponry and/ or violence. Thanks to the Pasadena Police Department for a class on the when, why and how use of force by police officers.
And as most crime writing conferences seem to attract a majority female audience (oh you bloodthirsty women, you) there was the ever popular "how to stage a realistic fight" class in which a woman gets to beat on a guy. (Thanks to Bill Hayes and Jennifer Thomas of Old School Kenpo in Torrance, CA.)

The next California Crime Writers Conference will be in two years. Most likely around this same time in June 2013. I recommend it.