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Archive for August, 2008

The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing
By Mayra Calvani & Anne K. Edwards
Twilight Times Books
www.twilighttimesbooks.com
Twilight Times Books
POB 3340
Kingsport TN 37664-3340
Phone/Fax: 423-323-0183
ISBN: 1-933353-22-8; 978-1-933353-22-7
Release Date: June 15, 2008
Trade Paperback
188 pages, $16.95
First printing: 5,000 copies
Writing/Reference
Foreword by James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief, Midwest Book Review

*Currently used as a text book for book writing course in Loyola College, Maryland.

The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing will serve as an excellent reference tool and amalgam of resources for both beginning and experienced reviewers.

• How to read critically
• How to differentiate the various types of reviews
• How to rate books
• How to prevent amateurish mistakes
• How to deal with the ethics and legalities of reviewing
• How to tell the difference between a review, a book report, and a critique
• How to start your own review site
• How to publish your reviews on dozens of sites and even make money while you’re at it, and much more

If you’re an author, publisher, publicist, bookseller, librarian, or reader, this book will bring to light the importance and influence of book reviews within a wider spectrum.

Distributors: Midpoint and Florida Academic Press. Also available from Ingram and Baker & Taylor.

Visit the authors’ websites: www.MayraCalvani.com, www.MysteryFiction.net

What reviewers are saying:

“There’s not a reviewer out there that wouldn’t benefit from this review of reviewing… this is a great reference book for libraries…”
–Heather Shaw, Editor-in-Chief, ForeWord Magazine

“The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing should be considered mandatory reading for novice and aspiring book reviewers, as well as having a great deal of enduring value as a reference for even the more experienced reviewer. Additionally, The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing will provide to be informed and informative reading about the book review process for authors, publishers, publicists, booksellers, librarians, and the general reading public.”
–Reviewed by James Cox, Editor-in-Chief, Midwest Book Review.

“This book from Mayra Calvani and Anne K. Edwards is the first ‘Reviewer’s Desk Reference’ for book reviewers at all levels.”
–Reviewed by Ernest Dempsey, The World Audience

“As an experienced reviewer I learned that I do not know it all and will keep my copy of The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing for reference. It is not a book I will loan out because it won’t be returned…If you want to break into book reviewing, The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing is a must-have reference. Heed the author’s advice and you can write reviews that will get you and the books you review noticed.”
–Reviewed by Sharon Broom, Armchair Interviews.

“The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing is a useful took for both amateur and professional book reviewers, as well as book review editors. There should be no doubt that the good tips, thoughtful perspective and resource information can be of considerable value to anyone wishing to practice this art.”
–Reviewed by Emily-Jane Hills Orford, Allbooks Reviews.

“I do recommend The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing as a must-have resource guide. Calvani and Edwards present a well-written gold-mine to potential reviewers as well as a source of information for experienced reviewers and authors.”
–Reviewed by Irene Watson, Reader Views.

“The Slippery Art… is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in book reviews – writers, reviewers, publishers, publicists, librarians, booksellers and readers.”
— Reviewed by Francine Silverman, Editor of The Book Promotion Newsletter

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Brandon Wilson is an adventurer and travel writer. From the Himalayas, to Mount Kilimanjaro, to the Camino de Santiago, to his most recent 2,620-mile trek from France to Jerusalem, Wilson has been in over a hundred countries and faithfully recorded his experiences in his books. He's the author of the award-winning titles Yak Butter Blues, Dead Men Don't Leave Tips, and Along the Templar Trail: Seven Million Steps for Peace. In this fascinating interview, Wilson talks about his books, travels, writing habits, and his most rewarding and scariest moments as a travel writer.

Thanks for being here today, Brandon. Tell us a bit about yourself. When did your passion for traveling begin?

It’s always been there. I had my first taste of life on the road at six and haven't stopped. It all began in an old red and white Chevy with a burlap-covered water bag strapped to the front grill. With my father behind the wheel, we sailed wide-eyed across the wide expanse of an uncluttered America. I was hooked on travel, my sweet addiction.

What compelled you to put your travels into words—your love for writing or your desire to share your experiences with others?

Although I’ve always enjoyed sharing my travel experiences with others, this need became a necessity in 1992. An adventurous 1,000 km. trek across Tibet transformed into a journey with greater meaning.

Before attempting a trek the Chinese authorities called “impossible,” my wife and I learned that Tibetan people today are forbidden to walk to their sacred sites in Nepal. So we vowed to make it in their stead. For forty nights as we crossed the wild Himalayan plains, we stayed with poor Tibetan families, sipping yak butter tea around their fire, listening to their stories, and witnessing their faith and hardships firsthand. Upon returning, I was determined to share their story with the rest of the world. It was a message too important to be ignored. That story, their “message in a bottle,” became my first award-winning book, Yak Butter Blues. It’s the true tale of a culture pushed to the edge of extinction and the human link connecting us all.

Quite by accident, crossing Tibet also changed my outlook on travel and on life. Although I’d explored nearly 100 countries while checking must-sees off a checklist, trekking across Tibet was a transcendent experience. I was hooked on slow and “deliberate” travel, which nourished a connectedness with nature, and a Zen-like link to the spiritual.

How long does it take you to write each book? Do you write as you travel or after the trip has ended?

All my books are initially constructed from daily journals. I've always found it best to write each night while the events (and aching muscles) are fresh. In that way, I capture the passing thoughts and fleeting nuances along the way, events that otherwise melt together if you attempt to reconstruct it all months later. I write an hour or so each day, no matter how late, creating a running narrative that becomes a very first rough draft. Returning, I pour myself into the project, beating it into shape over the next year or so.

Tell us a bit about your books.

My books bridge the typical travel genre by infusing a destination with adventure, history, culture, the mystical, and a bit of social consciousness. I avoid using broad brush strokes to describe a place. Readers are tired of hearing about another beautiful sunset. And I can’t blame them. They expect to truly “experience” a place.

Traveling slowly, often on a small budget, I share the good, bad and gritty of each destination. That often brings out the good and bad in people—as well as myself. At the risk of sounding like a terrible person, I strive to expose it all—the ups and downs, as well as the small triumphs and laughs that make each day unique.

Some reviewers have called my three books a trilogy. Soon after Yak Butter Blues was published, Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips followed. This book provides an intimate look at Africa—the trials and tribulations of crossing an ever-changing landscape filled with quirky characters, raw challenges, and edge of your seat adventures. It’s not a guidebook, but a real uncensored, darkly humorous look at what it takes to cross some of the wildest places imaginable.

Unlike Tibet, we initially set off with a loosely organized safari guided by “experts” (who’d never been to Africa). That was our first mistake. Then again, Mark Twain once said, “You never really know whether you love or hate someone until you travel with ’em.”

As our seven-month overland dream safari quickly turned into a nightmare, we left the ship of fools and set off across Africa alone. And that made all the difference. Once outside the cocoon of group travel, our immersion in the controlled chaos of African life led from one wild adventure to another—from the heights of Mt. Kilimanjaro to the depths of war-torn Mozambique and beyond.

Hey, where else can you climb a volcano one day, photo stalk mountain gorillas the next, and dance with stoned pygmies soon after?

After Africa, I followed my passion for long-distance trekking down some of the world’s most renowned pilgrimage trails, including Spain’s Camino de Santiago, the Via Francigena from England to Rome, and St. Olav’s Way across Norway. Each year brought another path, another challenge. Each time, I relished slowing life down, reducing it to its bare essentials. Trekking became my Walden Pond. Long-distance hiking is a trampoline for the mind, as you process a lifetime of thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations. Your senses become heightened. I delight in the minutiae of smells and sounds: the scent of an approaching cloudburst or hearing the scamper of a lizard in the brush. I've also found an inner peace through these treks. I've lightened up my pack—and metaphorically my life. It's something that remains with you, a sanctuary when life becomes too crazy once again.

The seeds for my new book grew from those experiences. Along the Templar Trail: Seven Million Steps for Peace chronicles my recent 2620-mile trek with a 68-year-old Frenchman from France to Jerusalem. Following in the footsteps of First Crusades and legendary first Knights Templar, we set off to trek across eleven countries and two continents.

Unlike my other books, from the very start, I was determined to make the trek not only as a personal pilgrimage, but also as a walk for peace. I wanted to remind folks along the way about the necessity of solving our problems in a more enlightened manner than resorting to war.

As journeys go, it was far from easy. Following a thousand-year-old map, each day we were uncertain where we would eat or sleep. Temperatures ranged from freezing to nearly 100 degrees (F). There was also an ever-changing landscape and languages, but politics turned out to be the greatest unknown. By the time we arrived in Serbia, Israel had bombed Beirut Airport, southern Lebanon was being evacuated, there was a bombing attempt on the US Embassy in Damascus, and Western travelers were gunned down in Amman, Jordan. Oh, and an Ebola-like virus raged in central Turkey.

Still, without exception, in every country the people we met were curious and kind when they discovered the reason for our journey. Our message found great acceptance. Folks are so tired of endless war and some were moved to tears when they heard of our quest.

True to my initial objectives, I wanted Along the Templar Trail to not only chronicle this historic journey, but also provide a blueprint for others who'd like to walk this path of peace. So this book is my most personal and surprisingly philosophical. It interweaves observations, koans and brief encounters that are metaphorical in nature. Some readers will hear a resonance in these—others will see only the adventure.

The story unfolds at a walker's pace, since a journey such as this forces one to slow down and savor the beauty and tranquility of life. As in all my books, I want to engage the reader, to make them feel like they’re walking beside us and experiencing both the good and bad, small miracles, and moments of discovery along the way. I want to inspire no only those who will follow in our footsteps—but also those who travel in mind and spirit.

Eventually, I hope my story will re-launch this historic trail as an international path of peace that others may walk in brotherhood, regardless of nationality or religion, much as they follow the Camino de Santiago. Thousands will walk this same path each year, sharing blisters, food and conversation. Once they walk together, they’ll discover a connectedness, a personal peace. Then they’ll return to their families, jobs, communities and countries with greater tolerance and belief in our commonality as human beings. They’ll embrace the ideal of cooperation on our increasingly fragile planet.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your traveling adventures?

The more I travel, the more I learn about the world (and the more I learn I don’t know). Wherever I travel I truly enjoy meeting and sharing with local people and learning about their lives: former monks in Tibet, African villagers, or army officers and Palestinians in Israel. I am inspired by their strength, faith, optimism and universal hope for peace. If only we can re-channel that fortitude, we can reshape our society, re-prioritize our budgets, and wage a lasting peace. As many reminded me, only governments stand in the way.

Then again, the more I travel, the more I learn about myself. You never return home the same person as when you left.

Scariest moment?

The Tibetan journey taught me to never give up—even while pushing the limits of survival. We were shot at, trudged through a blizzard, slowly starved, never knew where we would spend the night—or if we’d be taken into police custody. Yet we learned to have faith; trust that the Universe would provide, that we were meant to be there, that there is some greater purpose to it all.

What's in the near future?

Only the wind knows—but my walking stick is calling once again from the corner.

Do you think you'll ever settle down?

What? (Have you been talking to my mother?) I never say “Never,” but this appears to be as settled as I’ll ever be—unless I find something more worthwhile or exciting.

Is there anything else you'd like to say to our readers?

Ignore the naysayers and conformists. Life is too short for regrets. Have confidence in your dreams. Follow your passions, wherever they lead. Small joys still exist in our world. Discover the moments of magic and serenity in secluded places. See the world for yourself without hesitation or fear. Discover a personal peace, and as Gandhi once said, “Be the change you would like to see in the world.”

Where are your books available?

They may be ordered from any bookstore or Internet bookseller worldwide. Signed copies may only be purchased at www.PilgrimsTales.com.

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One of the things writers are asked most often is: where do you get your ideas from? I’ve heard all kinds of responses. I’m envious of the writers who know… but I suspect they are few and far between. The truth, for me, is that they fall out of the sky. They are an amalgamation of the life I’ve lived, the people I’ve known, the books I’ve read, the movies I’ve watched, the songs I’ve loved… and often all at oblique angles.

Example: I watch a lot of true crime shows. I watched one recently that was telling the story of this poor woman who’d been kidnapped by a man and his wife and imprisoned for six or seven years. I won’t go into all the horrible details, but suffice to say that it sparked something. What I ended up writing had little, if nothing, to do with the original story – but it started the ball rolling. Another time, I was writing about a relationship between two characters, and I remembered when a woman in my life had asked me to sing her to sleep because she loved the sound of my voice. My voice is nothing special, in my opinion, but her love of it was so honest and genuine, I couldn’t refuse. This found it’s way into the book, even though the character I ascribed it to was nothing like the real life woman I’d sung to.

I suppose people (self included) look for formulas for things. An ‘if you do A and B, then C will occur’. Writing is no different. In the end, I guess there aren’t any easy answers, or, if you really want to get down to it – there are too many. ‘Write what you know’ is true sometimes. ‘Less is more’ is true sometimes. But ‘rules are made to be broken’ can be true in the right moment as well. It’s all about a feeling in the gut, for me. ‘This goes there.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because it does.’

A last, too-cutesy little mention. If you want to get all butterfly effect and zen-ish. I once sat down and wrote out an idea for a story. It was a good idea, and, I thought, an original one. A few days later, I was watching one of those true crime shows, and there my idea was – in real life. Something that had happened years ago. I’d never heard the real life story, but the parallels were downright spooky. I’d come up with an idea for a story. A real life killer had executed this idea years before. Did we both get our inspiration from the same place?

Maybe, sometimes, ideas come from a dark little man in a dark little room who sings and claps his hands and laughs while we dance to his tune.

A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Cody McFadyen is the author of the international bestsellers Shadow Man and The Face of Death. A third book, The Darker Side, is coming out this October.

Read an interview with Cody at The Dark Phantom.

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A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Cody McFadyen is the author of the international bestsellers Shadow Man and The Face of Death. A third book, The Darker Side, is coming out this October. In this in-depth, candid interview, McFadyen talks about his books, inspiration, his writing habits, the difficult aspects of writing, negative criticism, and his experience in finding an agent, among other things.

Thanks for this interview, Cody. Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?

I was born in Fort Worth, Texas in February of 1968. My Mom and Dad were both 20 years old and as poor as you’d expect 20 year olds to be. I grew up reading, largely because we were too poor to do anything else, and with the dictate to choose my own life. The ‘choose’ part took a while longer than it should, but here I am.

When did you decide you wanted to become an author?

I’ve wanted to write since I was ten. I didn’t really start writing until I was thirty-five.

Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?

Very much an avid reader. I read across the spectrum. My mother would let me read anything as long as I could prove comprehension. She didn’t censor my choices. I grew up reading everything from the Lord of the Rings to Mark Twain to Mad Magazine to Michener. If a book really gripped me, I’d lock myself away and read all weekend and after school. I read Shogun by James Clavell, for example, over a weekend, and enjoyed it so much I read it again the next weekend. My Grandfather had a bound collection of classics in literature and Philosophy, and one summer when I was visiting them I read the Iliad and The Odyssey over a two week period, followed right after by Heinlein’s Time Enough For Love.

Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.

I’ll tell you about two – The Face of Death, which just came out in paperback, and The Darker Side, which is due out in Hardback 1 October.

The Face of Death: The idea of the book is simple. What if a serial killer, instead of killing many victims of the same physical type, left his primary victim alive? What if he followed her throughout her life, killing anyone and everyone that she ever loved? And what if no one believed her when she told them this was happening?

The Darker Side: A woman who is not what she seems is murdered on a plane at 30,000 feet. She leads Smoky Barrett (The FBI heroine of my series) to a monster who is obsessed with secrets. Not the itty-bitty secrets, but the deep, dark ones, the kind we’d rather die than reveal. He finds out your secret, and then he kills you for it, and then he reveals it to the world.

Inspiration comes from someplace, but I’m not sure of the source. What’s imagination? Mental illness or focused thinking? Maybe, in my genre, focused thinking about the mental illness of others?

How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?

The Face of Death was much more stream-of-consciousness. Pick up the laptop and let fly. For The Darker Side, I sketched out the general idea before writing.

Did your book require a lot of research?

Each book tends to require a certain amount of research. I build my books around the villains, and they each have their ‘niche’, which is to say, their obsession. I have to understand that obsession as much as they do, as does the hero.

What was your goal when writing this book?

My goal is to entertain and to move. To make the reader feel as though he or she has experienced something, and not passively. I want immersion and involvement, and for the reader to feel a little bit shook up by the end. When portraying violence, I don’t want to glamorize it by sugar-coating it. Nothing I’ve ever written is as violent as reality.

Who is your target audience?

Thriller readers, both men and women.

What will the reader learn after reading your book?

To quote the heroine of my books:
"However bad things may become, evil men only triumph in the most important ways when we let them."

What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?

Mostly the one who daydreams or fantasizes. But there is some experience there as well. Heh – not in the ‘killing people’ arena, but I think every writer, as he or she creates characters, draws on people from his or her own life. We observe as we live and that will find its way into books, intentionally or not.

Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is?

I get my best ideas in my own home, while reading or watching TV or staring at the ceiling. I can write anywhere, but I like to write at home the best, and I always prefer to start a book at home. I think it is because starting a book is such an uncertain act for me, I need the comfort and support and stability of ‘home’.

Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?

My muse and I mostly get along fine. She’s rarely uncooperative, but when she is, I just write anyway until she’s ready to get on board again. Inspiration/perspiration, for me, is a true proverb when it comes to writing.

From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?

Writing a book generally takes me about 3 months. I spend quite a bit of time letting the idea percolate around, letting it settle into me. Once I begin writing, I write every day without exception, rain or shine or on the road, till the book is done.

Describe your working environment.

I write in my office mostly, which is its own environment. I have music, I have a TV, and I have pictures on the walls of ocean scenes. I have an easy chair that I write in. So I put on some music, or turn on the TV and then I sit down, lean back and write on my laptop.

What type of scenes give you the most trouble to write?

The connective tissue of the book. In other words, scenes of transition, movement from one place to the next. They’re necessary, but not always that exciting to write.

Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?

I will generally write half of a novel, then I go back and revise up to that point. Why? Because I’m usually convinced, half-way in, that the book is crap. I have to go back and fix it before I can go on with the rest. I then write the last half, and revise that. Then I return to the beginning and re-edit it all again.

They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?

I think that’s a mis-statement… I think anyone who creates something, who puts something out there that is a part of them, is vulnerable to criticism, whether they’re a painter, a singer, an actor, or a writer. Having said that, I do think you have to develop an acceptance of the basic truth: not everyone is going to like what you create, and many are going to hate it. And that’s okay. I really don’t mind if someone doesn’t like a book I write. That’s what subjectivity and opinion is all about. I do have a problem with someone being too snarky or acerbic, or when someone proclaims themselves as the guardian of ‘what is good’. The old ‘brutally honest’ trick, wherein honesty is used as an excuse to be cruel.

As a writer, what scares you the most?
The next book.

When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?

Love. Surviving and overcoming suffering. The truth that most things don’t come easy. Exploration of morality in all its forms. I also feel strongly that underdoing violence can be as damaging as overdoing it, and that I need to work in each book to find the right balance between them both.

Are you a disciplined writer?

Yes. When I am writing, I write every day, and I try and set a word goal and meet it. When I don’t, I feel guilty and like I’m loafing.

How do you divide your time between taking care of a home and children, and writing? Do you plan your writing sessions in advance?

I generally write in the morning (which answers the next question), and try and finish up by lunch time. Then I deal with correspondence and the other aspects of writing. However… I can get obsessed when I’m writing, particularly towards the end of a book, and can become a bit inaccessible to my family at those times. I find it hard to get the book out of my mind in those instances, and will be thinking about it at dinner, or even while out with the family.

When it comes to writing, are you an early bird, or a night owl?

I used to be a terrible night owl. I’ve changed my ways, and now I write in the morning, mostly.

Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?

I have a great agent, Liza Dawson. Searching for an agent was the biggest part of getting published, for me. I tell people that it took me about three months to write my first book, about three years to find an agent, and then six weeks for my agent to sell the book. Finding the agent was definitely the hardest part.

Do you have any unusual writing quirks?

Sometimes I write with the music or TV blaring. As in, really loud.

What is your opinion about critique groups? What words of advice would you offer a novice writer who is joining one? Do you think the wrong critique group can ‘crush’ a fledgling writer?

I personally can’t be in a critique group. I’m too superstitious about my writing. I’m afraid if I did that it would, as you say, ‘crush’ my writing. I really can’t say it wouldn’t work for others, but I don’t know… I’m leery of anyone who says they’re an expert on the subject of writing. I might go to a critique group run by Hemingway, but beyond that, I’d be suspicious.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?

Oh sure. Everyone gets writer’s block. My solution is to step away for a bit. Go watch a movie, work in the yard, hit the gym. Take your mind off the writing and refuel.

Technically speaking, what do you have to struggle the most when writing? How do you tackle it?

Finishing what I start. Seriously. It sounds inane, but the first failure in writing, as in anything, is follow-through. Writing is a perilous activity for me, fraught with self-doubts and uncertainty. I’m always sure, half-way in, that a book is worthless. When I hit those moments, I just keep on writing and hope for the best. The fact of writing eventually pushes through those doubts. Besides, revision is where the book gets good anyway.

How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?

I was lucky to have a lot of interest from various publishers in my first novel. My advice is to get yourself a good agent. This is a great industry filled with great people that love books, but you need an agent that is in there fighting for you.

What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?

Still finding out…

Who are your favorite authors?

This changes every time I get asked this question… I’m currently going through a Tess Gerritsen and Karin Slaughter phase. I just finished reading John Connolly, who is amazing. Meg Gardiner is great. I am working my way through the books of some authors I was on panels with or met recently, and two of note have been Tim Maleeny and Kathryn Fox. Good stuff.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Always use the active voice versus the passive. Avoid adverbs wherever possible.

Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?

www.codymcfadyen.com.

Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?

I’m currently working on the 4th installment of my series featuring FBI agent Smoky Barrett.

As an author, what is your greatest reward?

Hearing from a satisfied reader. That sounds trite on the surface, but it is the truth: most of us write to be read. I’m satisfied that I’m not writing the next great American novel. I want to entertain people within my genre. So when I hear that someone couldn’t put the book down or wept on the subway or couldn’t sleep with the lights off because of one of my books, I really am tickled pink. I grew up loving reading, and loving that experience myself. To be able to deliver it to others is an honor.

Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?

Read my books!

Thanks, Cody, and good luck with your books!

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Christopher Meeks is the author of the short story collections The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and the most recent Months and Seasons. He has been a journalist, critic, playwright, and screenwriter. Currently he divides his time between writing and teaching at five different colleges. He's the editor of the ecclectic news magazine, The Maplewoods Mirror. In this in-depth interview, Meeks talks about his books, life, writing and publishing, as well as getting an agent and book promotion. 

Thanks for being here today, Christopher. Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?

I started as a freelance journalist and critic, writing for over twenty publications. One of my specialties was interviewing authors, which included top authors such as Colleen McCullough, Chaim Potok, Thomas Thompson and playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. When I found I was getting published faster than the checks were coming in—magazines owed me money—I looked for a full-time job and found a heavenly one. I became the Institute Writer at CalArts, an arts college in Valenica, California.

There, I edited an arts magazine, and then a quarterly where I interviewed artists of all sorts—dancers, filmmakers, theatre directors, musicians and composers, painters, graphic artists and more. I wrote about them as well as events happening at CalArts. Some of my favorite interviews include film directors Tim Burton, Werner Herzog, and Alexander Mackendrick, Pixar’s John Lasseter, theatre director Peter Sellars, actors Don Cheadle and Ed Harris, and bassist Charlie Haden.

While I worked there, I wrote plays that were produced and screenplays that were optioned. Between my bigger projects, I wrote short stories. Fiction to me felt dangerous. I didn’t have any producers or actors to help me polish my work, so what I wrote felt so naked. I kept those stories to myself until I finally started submitting them to literary magazines in the late nineties and getting them published.

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which closed CalArts’ main building, and classes were taught in rented buildings all over town, I took a chance and asked a dean if I might teach a class in creative writing. He thought it was a great idea.

Watch what you wish for. I’d been a writer because I didn’t have to be in front of people. With my plays, the actors were on stage, not me. Suddenly, I found twenty pairs of eyes looking at me, saying “I dare you to teach me.” That brought more fear in me than writing had ever done. Still, I persevered. I left being the Institute Writer to teach creative writing and English. I’m proud of my teaching, especially when I see I inspire great writing. I mostly teach now in USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program.

I’m best known for my two books of short fiction, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and the recent Months and Seasons.

Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?

As I’ve read the histories of literary blogsters on such sites as yours, I see I wasn’t as avid a reader compared to others (and probably you.) My parents didn’t want my brothers and I up reading after bedtime, but I’d sneak under my blanket to read by flashlight in fourth and fifth grade. Frankly, my English teachers pounded out of me the joy of reading.

It was only when I was in Denmark in my junior year of college studying abroad that I found myself so utterly alone that I devoured books again. At that time, I’d planned on living with my Danish girlfriend, who’d I’d met in Minnesota, but by the time I had all my studies arranged and got over there, I learned she was living with another man. She didn’t tell me until I landed. She arranged it so that I could live with her parents. Life’s odd, yes? (That loosely became the basis of an upcoming novel, The Laughter and Sadness of Sex.)

The local Danish library did not have a lot of English-language books, and the ones they had were well-known ones. I tackled Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage right away because it looked wonderfully thick. I needed escape. I then fell into Hemingway and Fitzgerald and found their stories fabulous. How had my English teachers made it seem only they could properly understand these books?

I came to make some Danish friends, and at one of their parties, I found books by Kurt Vonnegut in a bathroom, and the host let me borrow them. I became a Vonnegut fan because his stories were so different than Fitzgerald, Hemingway’s, and Maugham’s. He was having fun. Vonnegut was probably the first author who showed me that serious stories could have humor.

Tell us a bit about your latest book, Months and Seasons, and what inspired you to write such a collection.

I love writing short stories, but my first agent made it clear he wouldn’t represent a collection of short fiction because they didn’t make money. I started writing novels. I had already put together The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, however, and so I had it published independently from my agent. The book didn’t make money. However, it received some great reviews, including a mention in Entertainment Weekly and a big review in the Los Angeles Times. The agent called me to say congratulations.

Anyway, I was not going to do another collection of short stories, but someone approached me from the Beverly Hills Public Library. She wanted to present my short fiction in a special evening using actors, but the stories couldn’t be from an older book but from a new one. If I said yes, she couldn’t fit me in for three years, so I went ahead and wrote a batch of new stories at that time, which became Months and Seasons. It’s crazy to do a book just for one night of glory, but I only needed an excuse to write another collection.

The title story, “Months and Seasons,” is about a guy who will only date women whose first name is a month or season, such as April or Summer. It’s his weird notion of finding true love. I used the title of the story for the collection, though, because I realized the ages of the major characters ranged from seven to seventy-eight. The stories cover different seasons of people’s lives.

As readers will find out, the stories often have humor in them, but they are, at heart, stories of real crises in people’s lives.

Sam Sattler, one of the early reviewers of the book at his website Book Chase, compared the stories to tracks on a CD—each track solid. No filler. He and others have found the stories compelling.

Who is your target audience?

Not everyone reads short story collections. In fact, only a small percent of fiction readers do. Then again, when people receive such books as gifts, they find the short story form perfect for their busy lives. You can read a story in a short time and have a full experience. While my stories are layered so that the close reader can find much in them, the average reader, too, will find the stories involving, even fun, and relate to them. These are stories of ordinary people having the kinds of deep problems we’re all faced with.

Good stories help us reflect about our own lives, make us see things we might not normally consider. Philosopher Martin Heidegger basically said most people live life on autopilot, and it’s only when we’re “thrown” are we forced to think. I write stories about people who are thrown, letting the absurdities of our world filter in.

What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?

I’m both types of people. My first stories tended to be autobiographical, as is typical of most writers. Once you burn through those, what will you write about? I’m writing a mystery novel now, something I never thought I’d do. I can’t tell you how it’ll come out because it’s already becoming a quirky thing. My sensibilities are seeping in, but I’ve laid out the whole plot on paper. I’ve learned that’s what mystery writers do, and J.K. Rowling did the same thing for her Harry Potter books.

My early writing had no planned structure, but the more I've written, the more I’ve seen how one can have fun and be creative in writing an outline. It has let me “what if” to a larger degree than I would have without an outline.

Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is?

I’ve learned my ideas tend to pop out in one of three places: driving, just falling asleep, or taking a shower. Those are times when one daydreams and is under no pressure to create. Your mind free-associates. I’ve learned to keep a notebook next to my bed and in the car to write down good ideas. That’s because of the times I’ve thought, “This idea is so good, so amazing, I won’t forget it.” The shower is short-term enough that I can write things down when I’m dry.

By the way, not all the ideas are always great. In the morning, I might look at my note and think, man, that’s silly. Most ideas have to make it through several hurdles.

Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?

With novels and short stories, I write all the way through. This world has too many half-completed books because the writer wanted to get everything perfect until the end—and the book gets stalled. I took Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to heart, and I allow myself to write a shitty first draft. When you give yourself permission to be mediocre and just write write write, genius sometimes slips in.

They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?

Getting reviewed is harder to take than I had expected, which is funny for me to say because after college, I was a book reviewer, and then a theatre critic for seven years with Daily Variety. My goal as a critic was to celebrate great writing when it came around, and to encourage other writers even if something didn’t work entirely. I would express what was weak, but I never wanted to deplete the will of a writer. I’ve since learned, it’s far easier to be a reviewer than a reviewee.

Months and Seasons has received almost all great reviews so far, which is pleasing. Tony O’Brien, a critic in New Zealand, said mostly great things, but he didn’t like all my similes and metaphors, some of which he found far out. I happen to think my comparisons can be funny—not as out there as Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) can be but along the lines of what Lorrie Moore can do. It’s hard seeing someone not “get” what I’m doing.

Then again, in a recent graduate class of mine, someone brought up The Great Gatsby, which is as near to perfection as a novel can be. Many of the students loved the book, and two hated it. If we can’t agree on The Great Gatsby, who am I to expect every critic to love my stories? Still, I get anxiety knowing reviews are in front of the public.

As a writer, what scares you the most?

That’s a good question. Plenty of writers get scared, which is why there’s writer’s block. I allow myself to write a quick fun first draft. I suppose what scares me is what I’ve seen with some other writers. Their ego gets so big, they’re not able to see what they’re publishing is weak. That’s why I have a good editor, who I hire. She’s able to keep egg off my face.

I worry that as I age, I might not have the stamina to keep up the pace I’m doing, which is writing a book a year while I’m teaching a lot. I teach creative writing among five colleges—not all at once, certainly. My hope is that as my writing brings in more money, I can teach less and write more. My fear is that might not happen.

Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?

My agent is Jim McCarthy at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management in New York. I found him with the textbook approach: I wrote a novel, polished it as best I could, hired an editor, and went through the book a few more times. Once I thought it was worthy of showing, I wrote, polished, and obsessed over a cover letter. I sent that and the first fifty pages of my novel to ten agents, asking if I might send my whole novel for consideration.

I hoped for one positive response and received three. Some agents don’t write back, and three called or e-mailed saying they’d like to read the whole thing.

All three turned me down after reading the whole manuscript.

I sent another ten queries out, and received two more positive responses. Both read and liked the novel. I went to New York to meet them, and I really liked Jim. He pulled out a contract, and I signed.

What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?

Book promotion is one subject not talked about or glossed over in many writing programs. I happen to teach in USC’s graduate Master of Professional Writing program, which offers a class called “The Business of the Business.” That at least gets students thinking about what they’re actually going to do after they graduate. The best thing I recommend is learning how to write a fabulous one-page query or cover letter. My letters have opened more doors than anything. A good letter is your calling card.

But that’s only the start as I’m still learning with my two books of short stories. There’s so much one can do in marketing. I highly recommend the book The Frugal Book Promoter by Carolyn Howard-Johnson. It gives one specifics.

The biggest challenge is in getting reviewed. There are over 200,000 books that make it into Books in Print each year, and yet even major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times only review maybe twenty books a week. That’s just over a thousand books a year. Now that literary websites have popped up, new opportunities have arisen, but how much can a single critic read and write about each year? Eighty? That’s a lot. To give perspective to college freshmen, that’s like writing eighty literary essays a year (if it’s done right).

So if you’re a writer, ask yourself how much are you willing to put yourself out there in terms of promotion? I have a publicist for Months and Seasons, a person who’s lovely and means well, but she’s made only four placements in six months. Actually, that’s probably an amazing thing, considering I have a book of short stories. My own efforts at marketing have inspired another eight reviews so far.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Write in the same spot at the same time each day. The late author Thomas Thompson told me that. He was a best-selling author before he died. He’s best remembered for his nonfiction books Blood and Money and Serpentine and the novel Celebrity.

For a while right out of college, my specialty was interviewing authors and getting my interviews published. Tommy Thompson was my first, and the interview appeared as a cover story in Writer’s Digest. He gave me the advice, and it’s worked.

Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?

My website is www.chrismeeks.com and there’s another at http://www.redroom.com/author/christopher-meeks. I also write a monthly newsletter about life and writing called “The Maplewoods Mirror.” For a free subscription, fill in the form on my first website—just your name and e-mail address is all I need.

Thank you for your questions.

Thanks for your thoughtful answers, Christopher. Best of luck with your books!

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People always ask me “Where do you get your ideas?” They also inevitably ask,”Who are the real people behind the characters you write about?”

I wish I could give great insight here, but the truth of the matter is that my ideas come from the news, usually. Something I’ve read, something I’ve seen on television, heard about on the radio or viewed on the Internet. I always think, “Geez, that’s a weird story, but if I were to write it . . . ” From there on it’s a pure flight of imagination. Often times the story goes nowhere, but if it does, watch out, a novel is born.

As for characters, sorry. There are no real people behind the ones in my books. Well, okay, I’ve used a few of my friends as incidental characters, neighbors, foremen or friends. Sometimes they play a larger role as a nurse or doctor or, in the case of Larry Sparks, husband to one of my best friends and a retired Oregon State Policeman, he gets a lot of play. The real Larry is also a good friend and a great source of knowledge, so he gets some major parts. (Check out DEEP FREEZE and FATAL BURN to meet him!)

The characters in LEFT TO DIE are all figments of my imagination, however. Jillian and MacGregor, the hero and heroine, I’ve never met before. But the detectives were inspired by my editor who said, years ago, “Why don’t you write a story where female cops are partners.” I thought I never would. It surely wasn’t working on the story I was creating at the time. But along came LEFT TO DIE and voila, homicide detective Alvarez and Pescoli were born! (They even have their own myspace pages. That’s how real they are to me.)

Lisa Jackson is the bestselling author of Lost Souls, Absolute Fear, Hot Blooded, Cold Blooded, The Night Before, The Morning After, Deep Freeze, Fatal Burn, and Almost Dead.

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Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips: Adventures X Africa
By Brandon Wilson
Pilgrim’s Tales
http://www.PilgrimsTales.com
P.O. Box 791613
Paia, Hawaii 96779
ISBN: 0-9770536-4-4 (Paperback)
ISBN: 0-9770536-5-2 (Hardcover)
Copyright 2006
Paperback, 280 pages, $16.95
Travel Narrative/Non-Fiction

Reviewed by Mayra Calvani

Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips is the thrilling, captivating true tale of a honeymooned couple who quit their job, sell their home and cars, and leave everything behind to achieve a dream: cross Africa on a seven-month, 10,000-mile journey from Morocco to Cape Town.

Join professional travellers Wilson and Cheryl as they bargain with villagers, struggle with incompetent guides and government officials, pass sleepless nights in deplorable accommodations, cross the Sahara amidst sand storms and blistering heat, meet gorillas and Pygmies face to face, and climb Mount Kilimanjaro, reminding us all along that simple things such as a nice meal, a shower and getting cash can become the ultimate luxuries.

The tale is poignant with ironic humor and human drama. Each chapter begins with a witty, profound African proverb, and in the middle section the author includes interesting B&W photographs to complement his account and give a clearer picture of Africa’s sights and sounds.

What’s striking about Wilson’s books (he’s also the author of the IPPY Award winner Yak Butter Blues) is that his journeys are not only physical but highly spiritual as well. His are journeys of body and soul in every sense of the word. The author writes with honesty and a sharp eye for detail, making this an invaluable amalgam of information for readers of adventure travel or anybody who is considering “do-it-yourself” safaris or simply visiting Africa. Interlaced with this honesty and detail are Wilson’s beautiful prose, obvious passion for adventure and a deep inquisitiveness about other cultures, making this book a pleasure to read. Having already reviewed Wilson’s previous work, this reviewer is already looking forward to his next.

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