The Criminal Mind of Anthony Bourdain

BourdainBelieve or not, Anthony Bourdain has a truly criminal mind.

Oh, sure, you might have gotten hints of his felonious character in the pages of his wildly entertaining memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, or on the small screen as the former chef travels the world eating strange things and getting into trouble on No Reservations and Parts Unknown.

But what even hardcore fans and casual foodies probably don’t know is that Bourdain not only has a serious jones for crime fiction but he’s one of the genre’s most gifted practitioners. They say to write what you know, and Bourdain does it to perfection by writing about the strange intersection of crime and cooking in three deft novels, two outlandish graphic novels, and one hard-to-categorize urban historical.

The One-Two Punch

Long before Kitchen Confidential was even a glimmer in the chef’s eye, Bourdain was already a well-established crime novelist. His debut novel, Bone in the Throat, was published in 1995. The book is about an up-and-coming chef, Tommy Pagano, and his misadventures working around the mob in Little Italy. While it’s clearly the work of a novice writer, it’s here that Bourdain starts to captures the sounds and smell and blistering heat of a working kitchen while also developing his own twisted sense of humor. This gets real obvious when Tommy has to explain how a hit man entered his kitchen but isn’t seen leaving.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t say anything,” Tommy tells his boss. “I mean, what am I gonna say, ‘Sorry chef, I had a couple of friends over last night and they sort of chopped a guy up with your knife and I think it’s maybe damaged a little bit’?”

Gone BambooThe author starts to stretch with his 1997 follow-up Gone Bamboo, which follows a CIA-trained assassin and his wife down to the Caribbean for semi-retirement until a mob boss in the witness protection program screws everything up. It’s a wackier setup more suited to readers who enjoy the late Elmore Leonard but Bourdain’s mouth-watering descriptions of island grills and five-star restaurants are sure to leave them hungry for more.

The Pièce de Résistance: Bobby Gold and Typhoid Mary

Bourdain has admitted plenty of times that fame and his work on television puts a dent in his writing. That may be why two of his best works came directly on the heels of Kitchen Confidential’s publication in 2000. In 2001, the chef published two new short works that demonstrate his writing at its peak.

Typhoid MaryThe first is a strange experiment that attempts to humanize a woman who has long since been demonized by history. In Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical, Bourdain pays homage to Mary Mallon, the Irish cook who became an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever, leading her to infect at least 50 people during her term as a cook. In a gentle remembrance, Bourdain describes traveling to Mallon’s grave in the Bronx to lay his first chef’s knife at her resting place.

Something a fellow cook would appreciate, I hoped – a once fine hunk of quality French steel – a magical fetish, a beloved piece of my personal history. And a sign of respect, I hoped, an indicator that somebody, somewhere, even long after her troubles and her dying, took her seriously, understood, if only a little bit, the difficulty of her life as a cook. It’s the king of gift I would like to receive, one that I would understand.

I looked around the graveyard, making sure that no one else was watching, leaned over and with my hands, pulled back the grass at the base of her stone. I slipped my knife down there, covered it up the way it had looked before and left it for her. It was the least I could do.

A gift. Cook to cook.

Bourdain followed up this delicate wonder with his finest work, a slender, vicious portrait of a New York bonebreaker, Bobby Gold. It’s an incredible book not because its prose is florid but because Bourdain has stripped the novel down just its elemental parts, like a chef breaking down a side of beef. It opens on Bobby in the seventies, already in trouble.

Bobby Gold at twenty-one, in a red-and-white Dead Boys T-shirt, blue jeans, high-top Nikes and handcuffs, bending over the hood of the State Police cruiser, arms behind his back, wished he was anywhere but here.

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Four in the Morning, the End of December

It’s raining in San Francisco.

It’s kind of amazing because I was starting to feel like I had escaped weather entirely by moving to the Peninsula. After a very wet spring in Colorado, the weather here hadn’t deviated more than five degrees for months until the monsoon started a few days ago.

(See, I broke one of the cardinal rules of writing there. Never start with the weather).

Anyway, I just popped in to archive a few stories and refresh the blog before another new year begins. This one has been crazy enough.

IMG_3549Just to finish up the project, in mid-October I flew down to Austin to award the Kirkus Prize in Literature for nonfiction, along with my comrades-in-arms, Marie du Vaure of the Getty Museum and prolific essayist Meghan Daum. It was a closer race than you might imagine but in the closing minutes, the prize went to Ta-Nahisi Coates for his emotional and brilliant book, Between the World and Me. In some ways, it was a strange year to be a judge for the Kirkus Prize because of the wealth of nominees. But despite the diversity in this year’s starred books, there was still a clear winner, as evidenced by Coates winning the National Book Award just a month later. Can I pick ’em or what? You can read about all of the other winners here.

Working my way through the Kirkus Prize and applying the skills to pay the bills has been pretty much all-consuming through the fall, but here are a few stories that have been published in the meantime.

  • ZeroesI interviewed one of my favorite writers, Chuck Wendig, about his new novel, NOT STAR WARS. I’ve always liked Chuck’s writing advice that he inflicts on his audience at his blog, Terrible Minds, so it was a pleasure to talk to him about his new sci-fi novel Zer0es. Check out his violent and horrible series that starts with Blackbirds as well. I was sad to hear that the adaptation of his Miriam Black novels over at Starz is now kaput but he did offer the perfect writer’s reaction to the news: “Hey, I got paid at least.” It didn’t hurt that when I interviewed him it was a month away from his publishing the first in-canon Star Wars novel since the original trilogy ended, Star Wars: Aftermath. Chuck has since fielded some, er, “interesting” reviews for the bare minimum diversity he chose to include in the book, and his reaction is dead on: ” If you can imagine a world where Luke Skywalker would be irritated that there were gay people around him, you completely missed the point of Star Wars. It’s like trying to picture Jesus kicking lepers in the throat instead of curing them. Stop being the Empire. Join the Rebel Alliance. We have love and inclusion and great music and cute droids.”
  • StrangersAnother title that has kind of flown under the radar is Larissa MacFarquhar’s fascinating and terrifying debut, Strangers Drowning. Just after I moved to California, I caught up with the New Yorker journalist to talk about her portraits of extreme altruism. What I loved most about this book is that the author doesn’t bring any kind of moral agenda to her work. “If readers are moved to do more themselves, that’s terrific, but as much as I want to show that these people are admirable, I also want to show that what they have chosen to do is very difficult and they are very tough to be able to deal with it,” she told me. “I didn’t want to cover that up or simplify their difficulties.”
  • SamI think I’ve ended the year with my interview with music journalist Peter Guralnick about his comprehensive biography of Sam Phillips. Long before I decided to do this for a living, I remember listening to Peter’s Elvis biographies as audiobooks when I was working for a library. Sam was also still kicking around Memphis when I was a kid, so it was interesting to take this deep dive into the guy who pretty much made Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Okay, I think that’s it for now. There are more stories to tell at some point, like the bizarre job interviews I’ve had here in the start-up culture, but I think they’ll wait for another day. See you on the other side.

Dog Days

It’s been quite a summer, so forgive the radio silence. In addition to moving to the San Francisco Bay Area (where housing costs as much as a moderate heroin addiction), I have also been talking to a lot of writers, working to pay the aforementioned rent, and reading through the incredible books that are nominees for The Kirkus Prize (for which I am one of the aforementioned judges for nonfiction). Add to all that writing reviews and features and trying to cross the El Camino Real without getting squashed like a bug, and it’s been a little busy. Now, where were we?

Less Than HeroJust before the move started to get serious, I finally got around to interviewing S.G. Browne, another San Francisco denizen who has been cracking me up since his first book, Breathers.

(“Was that the one about the dead kid who falls in love with a live girl? I love that movie.)

(No, Twilight, you’re thinking of the movie Warm Bodies, which was based on Isaac Marion’s book of the same name, and which is not nearly as funny as Breathers.)

Anyway, enjoy this interview at Kirkus Reviews with Scott about his new novel Less Than Hero, in which we talk about drugs, superheroes, Chuck Palahniuk, and the meaning of life.

The CartelJust as I was packing up to leave Colorado, Kirkus published my second interview with the inspiring Don Winslow. I’m a fan of Don’s lighter work, notably the surf novels The Dawn Patrol and The Gentleman’s Hour but you have to admire his ambition in writing The Cartel, a massive magnum opus of a crime novel that follows up from his 2005 novel The Power of the Dog and connects four decades of drug-running, unimaginable violence and unnecessary bloodshed while simultaneously eviscerating the idea of a “war on drugs.” I like to think of this interview as a companion piece to my first interview with Winslow, when we talked about his novel Savages long before it was universally praised by critics and turned into an underrated film adaptation by director Oliver Stone.

There are plenty of other features over at Kirkus as well. Among this summer’s entries you’ll find:

  • I had a fascinating conversation with Dr. Paul Offit, one of the world’s leading researchers on infectious diseases. I think Dr. Offit has a fascinating point of view and I think more people should listen to him, although he’s often demonized in the press and by idiot celebrities. “Watch what parents go through when they watch their child slowly die over a period of a few days because they chose not to give their child an influenza vaccine,” he said. “You become a passionate advocate.” (This is the part where anybody that doesn’t believe in vaccines or physics or gravity or whatever should just move on down the road).
  • I called London and published this interview with the preeminent British artist Bryan Catling about his otherworldly novel The Voorh.
  • A chat with journalist Mark Ribowsky about the shock and awe of Otis Redding in Dreams to Remember. “It’s like Hank Williams,” Ribowsky said. “These people endure because they were just so authentic. Music today is so phony and so superficial. It’s a bunch of people get together in a studio and they don’t know what they want to make. When Otis Redding came into a studio, he knew exactly what he wanted the song to sound like because it was all in his head. He knew how to make music come alive.”
  • I had a great talk with music journalist Fred Goodman about his new biography of Allen Klein, the guy who talked his way into managing both The Beatles and the Stones. His relationship with the Stones was so famously brittle that it led Keith Richards to dryly comment that knowing Allen Klein was “the price of an education.”
  • Science, yeah! It was my pleasure to interview Dr. Carl Safina, one of the world’s leading experts on Marine Ecology. His new book, Beyond Words, is about his journeys into the wild to see animals for their own nature, not as beasts that exist in the context of being around human beings.  There are lots of good ideas in that interview but my takeaway from the interview came down to just four words from the good doctor: “Their flood is us.”
  • Imagine Richard Nixon as the sole defender of our universe against unimaginable Lovecraftian horrors. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Now imagine you get to talk to Tricky Dick all day long and get him to explain just what the hell he was up to all that time. That’s what Austin Grossman did with his wild new novel Crooked and I got to grill him about the experience.

ArmadaFinally, I kind of buried the lede, but I finally got around to interviewing Ernest Cline, which was a real pleasure. I first met Ernie during an event at the Boulder Bookstore to publicize Ready Player One back in 2012. He was really nice then, gave me a business card, and readily agreed to do an interview. (Yes, I know I’m a geek. My copy of Ready Player One is signed by both Ernie Cline and Wil Wheaton, who narrated the audiobook of RPO and his new one, Armada. Get over it.) Of course, this was before Steven Spielberg famously signed on to adapt RPO for Warner Bros. and Ernie subsequently did an interview with anyone with access to electricity, but it was a lot of fun nonetheless.

Most of Ernie’s commentary made it into the interview but it was fun to find out that he has more games and Easter eggs planned for Armada. The book has been out for a while now, so I think it’s fair for kids to find out that there is lots of cool stuff out there on the Interwebs related to the book. I’m not obsessive enough to go search for it all like Wade Watts, but it’s fun to run across things like:

So that’s all tons of fun. Upcoming I’ll also have an interview with Chuck Wendig, who famously tweeted that he wanted to write a Star Wars novel. One year to the day later, his novel Star Wars: Aftermath will be released on September 4th. That book is all hush-hush but I’ll have some good stuff about his new thriller Zeroes and his terrific little horror series that starts with Blackbirds.

delorean_back_to_the_future_wallpaper-other  In the meantime, I will see you all again in the future.

A Little Good, A Little Bad…Bit of Both

Just popping in here to archive three very different new interviews that are up on Kirkus Reviews in recent days.

Funny GirlA little good: I first met Nick Hornby about fifteen years ago—I think he was touring behind How to Be Good, but I can’t be sure. No, come to think of it, it had to be earlier because I had a signed copy of his anthology Speaking With the Angel. That was an interesting copy. At one point, it had been signed by Nick as well as Dave Eggers, Roddy Doyle, and Helen Fielding and I’m sure I could have gotten a line on Irvine Welsh and Zadie Smith eventually. But then I went to England and it just became another one of my Lost Things.

That meeting happened not long before I became a writer myself, so it was cool to interview Nick about his terrific new novel, Funny Girl, for Kirkus Reviews. It’s a novel about a young beauty queen from Blackpool who comes to London to become a star, and does. I can testify that London always seemed that way—if you had good teeth and could knock two sentences together, it felt like you could have your own television show. I was surprised to learn that Sophie, the sparky comedienne who centers the novel, was inspired in part by Nick’s interactions with the lovely Rosamund Pike, who appears in An Education starring Carey Mulligan, with screenplay by Nick Hornby. But we also got around to talking about how An Education and Funny Girl, which are both historical set pieces set in the 1960s, naturally fell into one another, even as Hornby was writing about two very different kinds of girls.

“I suppose, both with An Education and Funny Girl, their lives are circumscribed to a certain extent by the times and expectations and barriers to where they want to be,” Hornby explained. “Young men don’t tend to have those barriers. Much of what stops them from becoming who they want to be is internal. I became interested in the perimeter fence, if you like. It’s kind of intrinsically dramatic. You definitely can’t have one without the other. I was reading a lot about the period when I was writing the movie, so that developed a real interest in the times for me. I had never written anything historical before I wrote An Education, and I really enjoyed it. In a way, it was slightly frustrating to have to stop in 1964, because I knew that the world was about to change. I wanted to find a way to write about that change from an angle. I guess the interesting thing about that kind of entertainment industry was that they weren’t as affected by the Beatles and everything else that came after.”

Coop_9780804140560_jkt_all_r1.inddA little bad: When Elmore Leonard passed away in 2013, I was bummed out for a while. Someone that influential—especially someone you met and spoke with a few times—at first you think, “Man, there aren’t going to be any more of those books now.” But then someone comes along and smacks you between the eyes with a killer tale and eventually you realize that Elmore Leonard was the Big Star of crime writers. (This observation is brought to you by the old joke that almost no one ever bought a Big Star record but every single person who did went out and started a band).

The kick-ass book that landed on my desk a while back that reminded me a lot of Elmore’s books was The Marauders by Tom Cooper. It’s a nasty little story about scumbags out in the bayou fighting over drugs and lost pirate treasure and it was really great. It reads like John D. McDonald and Elmore Leonard went out and had horrible little babies. It even got a blurb from Stephen King, who almost never comes out for this sort of thing anymore, but I think I prefer the words of fellow crime novelist Richard Lange (Sweet Nothing, 2015, etc.) who said, “It’s funny, sad, and wise, sometimes in the same sentence.”

Not that these things always go smooth. I got to track down Cooper at his lair down in NOLA, and you can read that interview in Kirkus as well. But we also got to talking about the absurdities of marketing and I got to the bottom of how a brutish crime story about one-armed treasure seekers, psychotic killers and off-the-rails drug dealers ultimately connected to…Harry Potter.

“It had a couple of crappy titles for a while,” Cooper told me. “It was called The Muck and the Mire for some time. It was only a few months later that I got a different perspective. It sounds like some kind of Fiona Apple album instead of this novel. It was also called Barataria for a while, and my editors very wisely pointed out that the title implied a familiarity with southern Louisiana that people just don’t have. They wouldn’t know what it means. It was actually a few of my ex-students who are now friends that suggested the Marauders, because of the Harry Potter connection. At first, I thought, I don’t want to make that kind of connection. Then I got to thinking about it, and I said, yeah, I would love to get connected to that thing. If I could sell some books, I would put a wizard on the cover if I could.”

The Long and Faraway GoneFinally, here’s a bit of both. Every now and then you hit a novel where once you talk to the writer you quickly find out that he has no idea at all how really gripping his book is—my guess is that once you get that close to a piece of work, you inhabit its world so fully that you can’t see it with fresh eyes anymore. That was the case with The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney. I don’t usually take “work books” with me on vacation but I happened to grab this one by accident when I took it with me to San Francisco, and it really grabbed me. Now, I knew Lou had written two solid and funny crime novels, Whiplash River and Gutshot Straight, about a retired wheelman named “Shake” Bouchon, but this new one hit me in a very different place. When I wasn’t navigating Chinatown and the Embarcadero, Berney had me wrapped up in Oklahoma City in the mid 1980s—part of it is because I’m the right age to remember what it was like growing up in rural America before the Internet and smart phones, but I can tell you that Berney captures the mood perfectly.

The book concerns a private eye named Wyatt who is forced by circumstances to return to Oklahoma City where he grew up. When he was just a kid working in a movie theater as a teenager, Wyatt was the only survivor of an armed robbery that killed six of his co-workers in cold blood. Wyatt’s counterpart in this murky story is Julianna, whose beautiful sister Genevieve disappeared from the state fair in 1986, the same summer as the theater shooting. It’s eerie stuff, drawing influences seamlessly from all sorts of noir traditions and literary styles. This thing even came out in trade paperback first, so I highly recommend picking it up when you get chance. As it happens, I did manage to interview Lou a few weeks later and we talked about some of the things that influenced The Long and Faraway Gone.

“One of my favorite novelists is Tana French, the Irish writer,” Berney told me. “I love In The Woods, which I didn’t read until I started this novel, but it has the same kind of central issue where something happens to the main character long ago and there are no easy answers. What I took from her book is that as long as you answer the main mysteries, you can leave other things unsaid, which feels real. I like the idea that Wyatt is never going to know why he was left alive. You can’t leave him on the hook. It’s too easy. You have to make sure you cover all the other bases or I feel you’re cheating as a writer.”

I also did what I find myself doing with most crime writers lately, which is to delve into the perceived differences between crime writers and so-called “literary fiction” writers. You know where I stand—I think people like Tana French and Ian Rankin and Dennis Lehane are doing some of the finest writing of the 21st century and will happily put any of their work up against something like Cloud Atlas or Haruki Murakami any day of the week. But I can’t seem to stop myself from asking these guys where they see themselves in the big picture, and Berney had thoughtful things to say.

“I am playing around in the pool but I have deep and abiding respect for the work that is being done and has been done,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of great writers like Ross Thomas who didn’t get their due, so it’s nice to see people in the genre getting their due now. I think there’s just so much opportunity to stretch in crime. It’s not limiting. You can be Dennis Lehane or you can be Donald Westlake or you can be Laura Lippman or Sara Paretsky. It’s such a big tent and there’s so much opportunity to write exactly what you want to write. I’ve been able to write these two fast, fun crime novels in the vein of Elmore Leonard but I’m also able to write this new book, and my publisher is thrilled about all of it. It’s not a narrow genre so I never feel like I’m trapped in a cage. That’s incredibly liberating, to be able to do anything you want in a crime book.”

That seems as good a place to stop as any: do anything that you want to. Seems like fair advice for clean living, right?

Liner Notes: When The Dread Pirate Roberts Met The Godfather

Definition: Liner notes (also sleeve notes or album notes) are the writings found on the sleeves of LP record albums and in booklets which come inserted into the Compact Disc jewel case or the equivalent packaging for vinyl records and cassettes. Such notes often contained a mix of factual and anecdotal material, and occasionally a discography for the artist or the issuing record label. Liner notes were also an occasion for thoughtful signed essays on the artist by another party, often a sympathetic music journalist, a custom that has largely died out.

“Do you want to hear a story? It’s a good one.”

Note to future journalists, if there are any left: if you’re interviewing someone who’s super-famous, these are precisely the words you want to hear. This will also be the story that will absolutely not fit into your word count, no matter how many tricks you try. A few weeks ago, this is what I heard myself when I was sitting at a hotel room desk with Cary Elwes, the actor most famous for his role as the farm boy Westley (aka The Dread Pirate Roberts) in the 1987 cult classic The Princess Bride. You can read my short feature interview with him at Kirkus Reviews about his new memoir, As You Wish. But there’s always so much more behind these interviews—I swear I could compose an entire book based on outtakes alone. That being the case, here’s a couple of interesting moments that didn’t make it into my story.

Elwes has a reputation in Hollywood for exacting preparation, for starters. This isn’t surprising, given his background at The Actor’s Studio in New York, as well as the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, which is part of the story I mentioned above. I was, however, surprised at the actor’s reasoning behind it.

Cary Elwe“I’m a historian at heart, if you look at my body of work,” Elwes said. “History was absolutely my favorite subject at school. It’s the only subject where a professor is standing up there just telling you stories. I loved history and I loved learning about our species and all the crazy things we’ve gotten up to in the past, so I became an avid historian by accident. It’s not happenstance that much of my work has led towards that kind of genre. Before the Internet, you would find me in the library. Once the Internet came alone, my life as an actor changed. I used to overdo it. I used to show up with a ton of research, and directors would be like, ‘Cary, relax, it’s just a movie.’ So I finally learned to relax and take the notes I need to take and read the material I need to read and just download it and let the character remember it all. It’s so much easier to let that information come through the pores of a character rather than scrambling to remember ever little detail.”

The only real trouble I had with this particular interview was its timing. As You Wish, you see, was published on October 14th, well in advance of Christmas sales and in plenty of time for Simon & Schuster’s considerable publicity department and Cary’s own team to do their thing. This means that by the time I happened to luck into an in-person interview, Cary Elwes has pretty much been interviewed by anybody who possesses some form of electricity—we’re talking dozens of newspapers, hundreds of morning shows, an epic appearance on Kevin Pollack’s Chat Show, and a good number of podcasts to boot. (Note to self: your own grasp of technology did not prevent the new Apple iOS update from screwing up your recording app, forcing you to record this interview on two antique tape recorders. Your interview prep could definitely use some brushing up.)

Add to this fact that my subject was a bit beat from speaking at Powell’s Books in Portland the night before—an event that drew over 2,000 people during the largest event in the bookstore’s storied history, mind you—and you might see my concern. That was why I brazenly cautioned him that if I started to hear a story that I’ve heard before, I might guide him in a different direction. (Yes, this would be me advising a world-famous actor how to do an interview.) So this is when Cary Elwes decided to tell me a story about being a very non-famous actor, long before The Princess Bride made him a household name.

Princess Bride“I’m in New York and I’m at a restaurant,” he said. “I moved to New York to be around all these titans that I worshiped as an actor. Suddenly, across this restaurant I see Al Pacino sitting down to a meal. Now, you have to watch everything of Pacino’s if you’re serious about acting. You’re not studying the craft if you don’t. My friend I was with pointed him out, so I turned around, trying not to be obvious, and there he was. I thought, ‘I’ll kill myself if I don’t meet him.’ So I timed it as I he started to leave, one of those so-called, coincidental, just bumped-into-him things. He asked my name, and he could tell right away that I was an actor, and he asked, ‘So what are you doing?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, I just got here.’ And he says, ‘No, you’re not. You’re drifting.’ So, Michael Corleone just called me a drifter, and my heart sank.”

“Then he taps me on the head, and says, ‘What’s this?’ And I said, ‘My brain?’ and he goes, ‘No.’ This is getting better by the minute. Then he tapped me on the chest and says, ‘What’s this?’ ‘My heart?’ I said. He says, ‘Wrong. They’re both muscles. You work out, right? What happens when you don’t go to the gym? They atrophy. Why wouldn’t you go work out both of these muscles? Whenever I’m not shooting, I go work them out.'”

“That was the moment that really inspired me,” Elwes said. “He was the one who introduced me to the people at the Actor’s Studio, and after I had spent a year with them, he introduced me to his mentor, Charlie Laughton. I spent the next two years studying under the great Charlie Laughton and Anna Strasberg, getting lessons that Lee Strasberg once taught, passed down to me from my heroes. Al didn’t really know me at all, and he opened a lot of doors for me, which changed my life.”

All in all, he seems like a decent fellow.

Liner Notes: How Did It Get to be November? Edition

Definition: Liner notes (also sleeve notes or album notes) are the writings found on the sleeves of LP record albums and in booklets which come inserted into the Compact Disc jewel case or the equivalent packaging for vinyl records and cassettes. Such notes often contained a mix of factual and anecdotal material, and occasionally a discography for the artist or the issuing record label. Liner notes were also an occasion for thoughtful signed essays on the artist by another party, often a sympathetic music journalist, a custom that has largely died out.

Where the hell have I been, anyway? Apparently my assignments, projects and consulting gigs have kept me busy for a good part of the year. Here are a few highlights from the wilderness months.

A Better WorldI don’t pitch writers very often, but I did for this feature with Marcus Sakey, the author of Brilliant and A Better World. They’re these great little hard science fiction novels that postulate what would happen if one percent of the population were born with gifts ranging from a natural predictive response to vastly different perceptions of the passage of time. They get a lot of X-men comparisons but they’re much more grounded and noir-ish than any comic book.

That said, I had to make a rare correction in the story at the last minute. The books, as it’s been widely reported, have been picked up to be made into film adaptations by Legendary Pictures, who apparently intended for the books to be the next big vehicle for movie star Will Smith. At the very last minute, it was reported that Smith had dropped out and Jared Leto had been cast in the role, although I hear that the Dallas Buyers Club star / Thirty Seconds to Mars singer has since dropped out as well. I didn’t have the room to write it up in the interview but I thought Marcus had some thoughtful things to say about books and movies.

“One of the comments you see in Amazon reviews all the time that just chaps my ass is people saying, ‘he obviously wrote it to be a movie,'” Sakey told me. “That’s ridiculous and furthermore, it’s impossible. You can’t write a book to be a movie and if you did, you would write a terrible book that no one would want to make into a movie. I think my writing is fairly cinematic, probably because I watch a lot of movies, and always have. There is no part of my brain writing a novel thinking, ‘Wow, this will be a phenomenal set piece for the movie.’ I like movies and I’m influenced by that love.”

Anyway, these are really fun to read and I highly recommend Sakey’s work.

The summer was a time for a lot of spy books, both fiction and nonfiction. For the second time, I interviewed Ben McIntyre about his latest book, A Spy Among Friends, which many people in the trade consider to be the definitive account of the bizarre friendship between British agent Nicholas Elliot and spymaster Kim Philby, the story that inspired the classic novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy by John LeCarre.  Soon after, I spoke with Peter Duffy about his very cinematic portrayal of the William G. Sebold story in Double Agent, which recounts the masterful takedown of a WWII Nazi spy ring in New York City. A few months later, I got to experience something completely different when I spoke with British satirist Jonathan Coe about his new novel, Expo 58, which is set in Brussels (always ripe for comedy) during the first major World’s Fair following the end of World War II.

AThe Birth of Korean Coollso this summer, I was glad to connect with fellow journalist Euny Hong, whom I liked from the moment I interviewed her the first time about her debut novel Kept almost a decade ago. Euny had written a semi-confrontational post about her Korean heritage in The Atlantic a while back called “Growing Up Gangnam-Style,” which naturally went viral and led to a book deal. Her resulting book, The Birth of Korean Cool, was really funny and insightful. If you have any curiosity at all about why characters in Korean action flicks like Old Boy and The Raid are so pent up, why South Korea investors would back a $42 million film like Snowpiercer, or why (as Euny blissfully explains) “Korea has been fate’s bitch for 5,000 years,” I highly recommend you grab this one and connect the dots.

The Secret PlaceThe rest of the year has been a bit of a blur. On the crime front, I caught up with the great Tana French to talk about her latest novel The Secret Place, how super-creepy teenage girls can be, and about the act of writing. Tana always reminds me a bit of Ian Rankin, in that she can spin out these incredibly complex analyses of the nature of crime fiction, and yet be completely unaware of her own process. I’ve been collecting writer’s thoughts on the differences between genre fiction and “literary fiction” for a while for my own fun. This is what Tana French had to say.

“For me, the big distinction between literary fiction at one end of the spectrum and genre fiction at the other end is that in genre fiction, the characters’ main objective is exterior,” she explains. “If you’re writing pure crime, the character’s main objective is to catch the killer. If you’re writing pure chick lit, the character’s main objective is to find a husband. In pure literary fiction, the character’s objective is much more internalized; to resolve his issues with his father or to find closure for some psychological confusion. The action tends to be driven by an internal objective rather than an external one. I think that probably distinguishes what I’m writing or what Gillian Flynn is writing from Agatha Christie. She has that purely externalized objective whereas catching the killer isn’t the most important plot arc within my books. The most important part is the character negotiating some kind of journey within himself or herself. That’s what leads to the more thematically complex kind of book in any genre.” She’s really quite something.

Blind SpotSoon after, I interviewed Reed Farrel Coleman, who has been hand-picked by the estate of Robert B. Parker to continue the novels about small-town sheriff Jesse Stone (who happens to be my personal favorite of the late Parker’s creations). If you’ve read any of the Jesse Stone books, or indeed caught one of the television adaptations starring Tom Selleck, you’re aware that Jesse take a drink, or two, or six pretty much every night of the week, but never descends into a full-blown tailspin like Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder. I’m actually surprised it didn’t make it into the interview (you and your short attention span are to blame), but Reed had some great insight into that aspect of Jesse’s character after re-reading all of the Parker books.

“You know a lot of cops and P.I.s drink,” he explained. “I though Tom Selleck as Jesse was a brilliant move because he’s all the things that Jesse is supposed to be.  But drinking represents for the readers all the struggles in their lives. Some people struggle with food, some people struggle with drinking or drugs, but every one of us struggles. There’s not a reader in the world that doesn’t have their weak spot. Unlike Scudder, who one day stops, Jesse keeps drinking. His on and off struggle with drinking doesn’t stop. In Blind Spot, he doesn’t even bother beating himself up about it anymore. I think we all have that in our lives. That was really smart. You don’t even realize what he’s pulling off.”

I need to wrap up for the moment, but you can also read my interview with prize-winning theater critic John Lahr about his new biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh as well as my Q&A with British novelist Michael Faber about his fantastic science fiction exploration The Book of Strange New Things, and another conversation with the very funny Brock Clarke about his latest, The Happiest People in the World.

Stay warm, friends. See you on the other side.

The Things We Carried

As mentioned earlier, I’ve been on vacation in Florida. Someone asked not too long ago if I get to read much for pleasure. The answer is “not enough,” as most writers will probably tell you. But that’s what vacation is for, right? This is more for personal history, but this is what one writer takes on vacation.

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle

I’The Gutsve been following Doyle’s work for almost a quarter-century now and I never get tired of his work. I’m particularly fond of The Last Roundup series, which follows the long arc of Henry Smart, an IRA assassin whose life hopscotches through some of the most fascinating periods of the twentieth century. But like many fans, I’m most pleased by the scathing and yet somehow good-natured humor of the Barrytown trilogy, a signed copy of which sits here in front of me. Many people are familiar with The Commitments via the 1991 Alan Parker film, while The Snapper puts the focus on Jimmy Rabbitte’s sister Sharon and The Van on Jimmy’s ‘Da.’

One of the great joys of the first novel was Jimmy Rabbitte’s undying love of music, accompanied by his unceasing criticism of bands that publicly loathed and sometimes secretly liked. It’s not seen in the film, but the end of the novel actually finds Jimmy forming a new group, The Brassers, a kind of punk/country band with Mikah Wallace, Outspan Foster and Derek Scully. I was surprised a few years ago to find a great little short story, “The Deportees,” which found the ever-hustling Jimmy forming a band that exclusively featured immigrants.

This all brings us to The Guts, which is a full-on sequel that catches fans up on the adventures of Jimmy Rabbitte. I was expecting a purely comic novel – and the book is funny as hell, mind you – but Doyle really brought his A-game to the writing as well. The economy of Doyle’s dialogue is devastating. As the book begins, Jimmy and his Da are in the pub, talking about Facebook while Jimmy tries to deliver some bad news.

—Grand. Are yeh havin’ another?
—No, said Jimmy. —I’m drivin’.
—Fair enough.
—I have cancer.
—Good man.
—I’m bein’ serious, Da.
—I know.

It’s a terrific novel that takes one of the author’s most popular characters and instead of catering to a fan base, treats the character as if he’s lived, just like all of the rest of us, in real time. The Celtic Tiger has treated Jimmy well, letting him run a business resurrecting one-hit wonders for we nostalgic old-timers, but he’s also faced with the diagnosis of bowel cancer, the prospect of aging disgracefully, all while managing his wife, his numerous kids, his schemes, and the trickiness of trying to text the right girl since he’s sleeping with Imelda Quirke, one of the backup singers from The Commitments. Jimmy also reunites with guitarist Liam “Outspan” Foster, whom he meets in the clinic where it turns out Outspan is being treated for lung cancer. There’s an underlying plot having to do with the concoction of a fake folk song from the 1920s, complete with a fake Hungarian band led by Jimmy’s son Marvin. But the joy is in revisiting Jimmy’s marvelous, witty, snarky voice and rooting for him to win even when the world seems impossible.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

The MartianLook, it’s almost unheard of for me to take a debut novel on vacation. If I do bring something, it’s likely to be an adventure novel, or science fiction, or more likely an entry in a series or a novel I’ve set aside to read for pleasure. But I’ve heard a few things about this hard-science adventure novel and thought I would give it a try. It was also half-price as an e-book, which made it both affordable and transportable. It’s the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on a manned mission to Mars who is accidentally abandoned by his crew-mates during a dust storm. I have to admit that part of what grabbed me was Watney’s opening log: “I’m pretty much F***ed. That’s my considered opinion. F***ed.”

What makes this novel great (in the sense that it’s wildly entertaining, rather than important in the grand scheme of things) is that Watney is a riot of a character, an everyman who is as disgusted with his choice in leftover music (no more disco!) as he is terrified about his situation. It’s also the fact that Weir, a software engineer, science buff and obviously a giant geek, has really done his homework to figure out how Mark Watney could conceivably and realistically survive a year and a half on Mars until he can be rescued by the next scheduled mission. The author was also smart to set it during the third Mars mission, when the public back on Earth have forgotten how amazingly cool the whole enterprise is. (Did I mention I read this book the same week that I visited the Kennedy Space Center?) It’s easy to cheer for a fighting botanist who grows his own potatoes, tricks out his moon buggy, catches up on The Dukes of Hazzard and survives against all odds.

Anyway, well done to Andy Weir for a terrific debut. Note to self to revisit this as a book on tape during the next long drive.

Honorable Mention

You by Austin Grossman

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu

The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel

The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort