Charles Daly

Writer

Category: Reading Lists (page 2 of 3)

Sarah M. Chen’s Redondo Beach Noir

When a booze cruise goes wrong, Finn Roose, L.A’s most debauched restaurant manager, finds himself at the center of a missing persons case, unable to lie or charm his way out of it. To clear his name, he must navigate the seedy underbelly of Redondo Beach while holding down a job as part of its sunny, touristy facade.

Cleaning Up Finn is Sarah M Chen‘s debut novella. Smart, sleazy, and succinct, at a lean 168 pages, Finn harkens back to the golden age of crime paperbacks in page count as much as content. Along with her fellow authors at All Due Respect Books, Chen  is writing the next chapter in American pulp.

 cleaning up finn sarah m chen novella on the beach

What is it about the South Bay? For an otherwise under-celebrated part of L.A, it seems like the beaches have been all over noir and crime fiction:

You’ve got Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Tarantino’s  Jackie Brown (adapted from Elmore Leonard and West Palm Beach.) Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction says he lives in Redondo (to which The Wolf replies “move out of the sticks!”)

Even the Patti Smith song “Redondo Beach”  has a dead girl in it. I’m sure there’s others…

Despite the sun and sand, there’s definitely a dark undercurrent to the South Bay that I think people like Quentin Tarantino gravitated toward as I did. Quentin Tarantino grew up in the South Bay, in Torrance specifically, and worked at a local video rental store (remember those?).

 

The South Bay has its vices but they’re disguised in sunshine, surf, and sand. I find that contrast fascinating and filled with possibilities. It’s a lot like Hollywood where you have the glitz and glam of the movie industry harboring the desperation underneath. But whereas Hollywood is seedy, you may not necessarily think of beach life as seedy but it’s definitely there. People either don’t think to look or don’t want to.

Finn is the ideal hero for the stories I like to write. He’s human and real and tends to make awful decisions. We all know people like Finn, someone you wouldn’t want babysitting your kids or even watching your dog. Those are the people I like to write about.

 

Hermosa Beach also had a big punk scene back in the day that made it cool, rebellious. But once the pier became a pedestrian plaza in ‘97, bars and clubs popped up like a spreading rash threatening to obliterate the mom and pop places, the dive bars, the artsy coffee shops, and the indie bookstores. Now it’s a more commercial party scene with DJs spinning top 40 instead of jazz and punk. This culture clash plus the illusion of an easy beach life makes it a perfect setting for a crime novel.

 

In early drafts, Finn was a short story set in Maryland. I kept moving the location around based on the guidelines of the market I was submitting to. When I had an opportunity to write a novella, I immediately thought of Finn. I felt there was more to Finn than a short story. When I sat down to expand it, I knew it couldn’t be set anywhere else but the South Bay.

 

And it’s home, right?

I’ve lived in the South Bay for over 20 years so consider this my adopted home. I grew up in Southern California, but in Orange County, which is more conservative with cookie-cutter track housing.

 

I fell in love with Hermosa Beach’s funky bohemian vibe when I first visited in the late 80s/ early 90s and knew I’d live here eventually.

 

I like that Finn’s still a dog at the end, even though he makes the right choice. We all know a guy like Finn whose fooling around gets him in trouble. I loved the way you just kept pulling that thread instead of forcing some moral awakening.

 

I really wanted to be true to Finn’s character and not make him into something he’s not or isn’t capable of being no matter how much he tries. I initially had a different ending where Finn changed but it felt forced. Of course he’d go right back to his innate douchebag self because that’s his nature. You can try to change behavior, but inherently, we are all who we are inside.

 

It’s funny because I have a friend who thought Finn had a happy ending but then her boyfriend read the book and he said, “Are you kidding? That’s not a happy ending at all. He goes right back to the way he was before and learns nothing!” It’s all about perspective. From where my friend and I are sitting, it’s a happy ending because, although he may not get away with it much longer, Finn remains true to himself.

 

Finn is the ideal hero for the stories I like to write. He’s human and real and tends to make awful decisions. We all know people like Finn, someone you wouldn’t want babysitting your kids or even watching your dog. Those are the people I like to write about.

 

 

Back in the day, hardboiled fiction benefitted from serialization and radio programs. Now you have blogging and podcasts and all sorts of new publishing platforms. Do you think we’re headed for a noir revival–“new neo-noir”–Is that revival already here? 

 

That’s a tough one. I think because that’s my niche and what I like to read, I feel like noir is a popular genre but really, once I leave my little bubble, it’s not.

I’m also a bookseller and I know noir titles don’t sell as well as lighter or more commercial stuff. I think short story platforms like Great Jones Street  helps to introduce the noir genre to a broader readership. I also think part of it’s geographical. I know noir is very popular with the French and sells well over there.

 

Why the novella form? What was it like working with that page count?

 

I had a contract with a fledgling publisher that was only publishing novellas. It was my first time writing one and as I said, I decided to expand my short story. I’m not sure if that made things easier or more challenging than writing a novella from scratch. I had to figure out which parts I wanted to expand, which characters to explore, and tack on a middle and third act.

 

I’m used to writing tightly because all I had written before were short stories and flash fiction so the shorter the better for me.

 

Sarah m Chen novella author

 

You’re involved with some conferences and a pretty rad sounding crime fiction community. Care to give some shout outs? Where should people go to find great contemporary noir and hardboiled titles?

 

Yes, it’s a fantastic community and I’ve met so many wonderful writers who I call friends. I admire their work and it’s exciting and inspiring to be involved with such talent.

One of my favorites of 2017 is She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper. It’s told from multiple POVs but essentially it’s eleven-year-old Polly’s story. Her ex-con father is on a mission to protect her from a white supremacist gang and it’s brutal yet strangely hopeful.

 

Steph Post’s Lightwood is another one I really dug from early 2017. It’s another story of a criminal family but in this one, Judah Cannon is the protagonist who gets out of prison. He wants to stay out of trouble but his father has other ideas. It’s set in Florida and is straight down and dirty Southern noir.

Quentin Tarantino grew up in the South Bay, in Torrance specifically, and worked at a local video rental store (remember those?).

Marietta Miles is another writer I admire. Her novella, Route 12, is disturbing and poetic. I’m looking forward to MAY, her book coming out with Down & Out early next year. I’ll read any short stories by Jen Conley and everyone should check out her collection, Cannibals. Same with Patti Abbott. Her short stories are some of my favorites and I was so excited when she started writing novels, beginning with Concrete Angel. Greg Barth’s Selena trilogy is some of the most depraved crime fiction I’ve read, yet he has a way of creating characters that you despise and root for at the same time.

 

For great noir, and not to be biased, but I think my publisher All Due Respect Books is putting out some of the best noir in the marketplace. I was thrilled ADR became an imprint of Down & Out Books as D&O also has some of my favorites like Danny Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay.

 

And if you want to get up to speed on what indie publishers are putting out these days, check out David Nemeth’s Small Press Crime Fiction: Incident Report blog. It’s always chock full of the latest hardboiled and noir titles that you may have missed.

What’s next for you? What’s now?

I have some short stories coming out in early 2018. One that came out recently is my story “Masterpiece” in Killing Malmon with Down & Out Books, edited by Kate and Dan Malmon, reviewers for Crimespree Magazine. This is a collection of 30 stories where the only guideline was that Dan Malmon must be killed. All proceeds benefit the MS Society and I was thrilled to be invited to participate.

Killing Malmon Sarah M Chen

I’m in another anthology called The Night of the Flood which I edited along with E.A. Aymar. This was a really fun project to be involved in as fourteen of us wrote interconnecting stories that took place over one chaotic night in a fictional Pennsylvania town. Bestselling and award-winning writer Hank Phillippi Ryan wrote the intro and it will be out March 2018.

 

Other than that, I’m revising my current WIP, a novel featuring a college dropout slacker whose life is in danger thanks to the unwanted return of her estranged father. It’s set in—where else?—the South Bay.

 

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What I’ve Been Reading–one Month into my Book Diet

Last month, I started a “reading diet.” The idea comes from Ray Bradbury who recommended that the aspiring read one short story, one poem, and one essay every day, and one novel per week.

I’m reckoning with something I wish I had known a long time ago, that reading is part of your workday as a writer. It’s not laziness or procrastination, it’s not passive, and it’s not optional. You can read more about my first two weeks of this experiment here.

This is  what I read in the second half of March.

What I’m reading

Stories from:

 

 

 

Essays & Non-Fiction:

 

  • “Heroin/e” –Cheryl Strayed

 

 

 

 

 

Poems From:

Novels:

  • I started Proust’s Swann’s Way but swapped it out for John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces after about 20 pages. The former is much harder to read without the snotty English major zeal I had the first time around.

Hemingway Collection at the JFK Library

Ernest Hemingway didn’t travel light. His baggage included a modern art collection, books, drinking accessories, an impressive gun collection, and the heads and pelts of his hunting kills. Always on the move, he schlepped it all through three wars, four marriages, two plane crashes, and many homes. His writing style itself left a tremendous paper-trail as everything he wrote went through dozens of drafts. The last page of A Farewell to Arms was rewritten 49 times. Fortunately for future generations, Hemingway never threw anything away.

“Courage is grace under pressure.” President Kennedy used Hemingway’s definition of courage as the epigraph to his own book Profiles in Courage.

The final home for much of Hemingway’s stuff and 90% of his papers is the JFK Presidential Library in Boston Massachusetts. Some of the collection is on display (at least until December 31st, 2016) in an exhibit, Hemingway Between Two Wars, while the rest is in the Hemingway Collection, a wing of the Library archives.

Last month, I was lucky enough to visit both.

 Check out my visit to the JFK Library’s Hemingway Collection on Medium. 

Elmore Leonard’s Most Important Rule for Writing

Elmore Leonard had one rule that summed up his famous 10 rules of writing:

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

 

 

You can find the other 10 in Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing which includes illustrations and examples of writers who break his rules brilliantly.

Hemingway, Refugees, and Writing with Emotion

In 1922, Hemingway was in Greece reporting for the Toronto Star on the evacuation of Thrace and the refugee crisis that followed. He used some of his memories and notes from the trip as material for In Our Time, his first collection of short stories.

 

Hemingway’s war reporting appears in italics between his stories. These vignettes put his journalistic roots  on display, they show his early attempts to paint with words (he was a big Cezanne guy),  and they remind the reader that his fiction is drawn from life.  

 

For a writer, these scenes give a great example of how to craft emotionally charged prose without heavy, emotional language. Take a look:

 

Minarets stuck up in the rain out of Adrianople across the mud flats. The carts were jammed for thirty miles along the Karagatch road. Water buffalo and cattle were hauling carts through the mud. There was no end and no beginning. Just carts loaded with everything they owned. The old men and women, soaked through, walked along keeping the cattle mov­ing. The Maritza was running yellow almost up to the bridge. Carts were jammed solid on the bridge with camels bobbing along through them. Greek cavalry herded along the procession. The women and children were in the carts, crouched with mattresses, mirrors, sewing machines, bun­dles. There was a woman having a baby with a young girl holding a blanket over her and cry­ing. Scared sick looking at it. It rained all through the evacuation.

 

There’s not an adverb to in sight, and it would be hard to find a word that doesn’t pull its weight here.  He lets the images speak for themselves rather than muting them with emotional redundancy. He doesn’t have to tell us that these  people are hopeless or miserable, he shows us “carts loaded with everything they owned” and “old men and women soaked through. He reminds us of the scale of the tragedy which has “no beginning and no end.”   Instead of saying the  scene was scary or sickening, he gives us the jotted fragment “scared sick looking at it.”

 

That last line–“It rained all through the evacuation”– comes last for a reason. Suppose he had lead with the weather “It was raining as…” or mentioned it in passing “Just carts loaded with everything they owned out in the rain,” it just wouldn’t have the same power. Besides, we kind of already know it’s raining or has been raining: the river is almost up to the bridge, it’s muddy, and the old people are soaked through. By saving this detail for last, he gives it the power to devastate. On top of all the hardship and suffering he describes, as if these people haven’t suffered enough: It’s raining.

Norman Mailer on Trolls and Critics

The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer’s book on the art and business of writing, is a lost classic of the writing advice genre. Like Mailer himself, it’s brilliant, frustrating, and full of fist-fighting analogies.


What’s cool about this title is that it was written for working writers and advanced amateurs. You won’t find much in the way of plotting advice or grammar pointers, but you will learn  how to deal with unreasonable movie execs and how to handle potential pitfalls in the writing life, even outdated ones like Seconal addiction.

 

Mailer has a lot to say about facing criticism. He hated critics and often times the feeling was mutual. However, he accepted that criticism is inevitable in the writing game. As he saw it, the only way to write another book after your last one was eviscerated by the rabble is to develop a thick skin.

“Every good author who manages to forage a long career must be able to build a character that will not be unhinged by a bad reception. That takes art.”

 

The Spooky Art was published in 2003, a few years before internet trolling came into its own. But these lines could apply as easily to a hostile comment as a bad review:

 

“(A writer) Must learn to live with the bruises left by comments on his work.”

 

And if the moral high road isn’t satisfying enough for you, Mailer goes on to offer advice–from personal experience–on how to physically intimidate a reviewer at a book party without actually throwing a punch.

Image: the Daily Mail

 

Autumn Reading: My Massachusetts Bookshelf

Today was perfect reading weather on Cape Cod: Grey and wet with northeast winds and a small craft warning out on the water. It’s good to be home in the fall and surrounded by my books.

Here are my top home-state reads.

Mystic River -Dennis Lehane (fiction)

Mystic-river-dennis-lehane

The movie (more specifically Sean Penn’s back tattoos) helped put working class Boston on the sexy map.

There aren’t too many American cities where you could set a convincing  tale of Dostoevskian evil, guilt, and redemption, but it works in Boston.

 

The Perfect Storm – Sebastian Junger

The-perfect-storm-sebastian-junger-book-cover

If you took out the storm and the epic struggle for survival at sea, this would still be a fascinating read.

Most of us haven’t a clue how a piece of fish gets on our plate. In the case of swordfish, fishermen from the small town of Gloucester travel over a thousand miles in relatively tiny boats to reach their fishing grounds. They fish with 40 mile long lines (called longlines.) They die at rates higher than soldiers in combat.

 

A Death in Belmont – Sebastian Junger

a-death-in-belmont-book-cover-sebastian-junger

An investigation of a rape and murder–in a wealthy Boston suburb in 1963–for which the wrong man may have been convicted. Race, the psychology of killers and jurors, and the mood in Boston in the days following the Kennedy assassination.

 

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (fiction)

 

Maybe this is how Tokyoites feel about Lost in Translation… I’m not sure I recognized my hometown, but it’s interesting to see it from an outsider’s brilliant brilliant brilliant point of view. Respect.

 

The Friends of Eddie Coyle – George V. Higgins (fiction)

the-friends-of-eddie-coyle

The story of a gun dealer and his lowlife cronies, required reading for writers looking to unfuck their dialogue. Elmore Leonard’s agent gave him this book as a homework assignment to fix the way his characters talk.

Spoiler alert, Eddie Coyle has no friends.

 

Black Mass – Dick Lehr & Gerard O’Neill

black-mass

 

The Departed tried to tell this story. One criticism of the movie from Boston people is that the truth was even crazier.  

Through the 70s, 80s, and 90s Whitey Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang terrorized South Boston. They murdered, mutilated, and extorted, all while enjoying the protection of the FBI.

Same neighborhood as Good Will Hunting, Boston’s a small town.

Off the Leash: a Year at the Dog Park – Matthew Gilbert

off-the-leash-matthew-gilbert

 

One for the dog lovers and anyone who needs something uplifting after Black Mass. Off the Leash is the story of one reluctant dog-person’s initiation into the little world inside of Brookline’s Amory Dog Park.  A story about friendship, and an inside look at Boston’s 4-legged social scene.  This is the book-length debut of Boston Globe TV critic Matthew Gilbert.

Cape Cod – Henry David Thoreau 

cape-cod-henry-david-thoreau

Life, nature, sand dunes. It’s Walden with an ocean instead of a pond.

The links (in the titles and book covers) are all affiliate links. 

Cormac McCarthy: a Reading List

Cormac McCarthy is a mentor I’ve never met. We all have one of those, a teacher who sends us on a quest to seek our teacher’s teacher’s teacher. Here is an ever-growing reading list of my informal study of McCarthy and his influences. I’ll be updating the list on Goodreads.

 

FICTION

The Novels of Cormac McCarthy (Obviously.) If you’re new to him, and squeamish about blood, start with All the Pretty HorsesBlood Meridian can’t be denied, but it’s gruesome.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Carson McCullers, The heart is a Lonely Hunter

MacKinlay Kantor, Andersonville

James Joyce, Ulysses

Beckett’s Trilogy

Faulkner, lots of Faulkner…

And Shakespeare

Fydor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment & the Brothers Karamazov

Gustav Flaubert, Salammbô

Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness

Flannery O’Conner, Complete Stories

Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer

Oakley Hall, Warlock

NON-FICTION, PHILOSOPHY, & CRITICISM

Plato

Nietzsche

The King James Bible

Lt. Col. David Grossman, On Killing

Harold Bloom, Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ & Cormac McCarthy’s ‘All the Pretty Horses’ 

Edwin T. Arnold, Border Trilogy Companion & Perspective on Cormac McCarthy

Steven Frye, the Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarthy 

Georg Guillemin, the Pastoral Vision of Cormac McCarthy

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: a Brief history of Humankind 

Leslie Harper Worthington, Cormac McCarthy and the Ghost of Huck Finn 

Wallis R. Sanborn, Animals in the Fiction of Cormac McCarthy

POETRY

Homer, The Iliad & The Odyssey

Milton, Paradise Lost 

W.B Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’

Ted Hughes, CrowThere’s no direct influence I can find here, but Hughes is a perfect complement to McCarthy in terms of  powerful language and haunting description of the natural world.

Friday Roundup

“I like grit, I like love and death, I’m tired of irony.”
― Jim Harrison

Seth Godin on failing ’til you don’t (featuring van Gogh’s Ramsgate.)

The 40-hour workweek is bad for business. 

The art of the pitch parts I & II over at Steven Pressfield’s blog.

On Being tells you Why You Haven’t Written Your Book Yet (hint, ‘you haven’t turned off the damned internet’).

Lessons from Jim Harrison

Last Saturday, we lost Jim Harrison. He was one of America’s literary treasures, and perhaps our greatest craftsman of the novella.  On the page, Harrison was best known for Legends of the Fall. His extracurricular activities included gourmet cooking and eating, raising many dogs,  fly fishing,  and chilling with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Anthony Bourdain, and Jimmy Buffet.

When I was an undergraduate, he was the writer I wanted to be. Here are few things I gleaned from that episode of hero-worship:  

Nobody Wants to Read About Landscapes and Food–Unless they’re Written Brilliantly

Someone said Jim Harrison is to food what Henry Miller is to sex. His details are out of this world. The trick is, he knows when to be sparse and economic, and when to linger on every sensation.

New York is a Distraction 

Harrison was well aware of the advantages of being a non-New York writer–peace and quiet for one. According to his obituary in the Times, he had ‘little but contempt’ for the city, and was not afraid to question New York’s cultural prominence. He told The Paris Review, ‘The Upper East Side of New York was constitutionally the most provincial place I’d ever been.’ Also, he found Hollywood paid much better.

Hemingway and Faulkner didn’t go to College…

Jim Harrison did, but his degree was delayed by frequent road trips and romances. He used college to get his hands on the books he needed to teach himself the craft of novel writing.

Living Well is what Matters

He broke up his writing days with cooking and eating with friends. He collected wine and recipes for woodcock, grouse, and birds I’ve never even heard of.  His  memoir includes strip clubs among his lifelong obsessions.

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