Thursday, November 13, 2008

Larry Karp & Michael Bowen for Authors @ The Teague

Mystery authors Larry Karp and Michael Bowen recently appeared for the Authors @ The Teague series at the Velma Teague Library. Larry Karp

kicked off the program.

Karp's recent book is The King of Ragtime. One hundred years ago, Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin both called themselves "The King of Ragtime." Berlin's big hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," was written in 1911. Scott Joplin moved to New York City in 1907, wanting to legitimize ragtime. He wrote an opera, "Treemonisha", and couldn't get it published. He submitted it to Irving Berlin's publishing company, but it was rejected. When Joplin heard "Alexander's Ragtime Band," he said it was his song. The opening of his song, "A Real Slow Drag" sounds like "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Was it plagiarized? Years later, Joplin's widow said he had to rewrite it before publishing so he didn't get accused of plagiarism.

Between 1911 and 1916, Joplin was sick with cerebral syphilis. It was a disease that affected the brain, and people died slowly. Judgement went. There were mood swings, and tremors. Joplin died in 1917.

Karp said he isn't a musician, but he reads ragtime history. He said before he died Joplin was working on a musical drama called "If." Karp questioned what was "If" about. He needed a link for The King of Ragtime. So, he said, what would have happened if Joplin submitted the drama to Irving Berlin. He said it was unlikely that a black man in 1911 would have succeeded in getting an opera or drama published. Joplin was poor, and taught students. So, he created a student for Joplin, Martin Niederhoffer, who was also a bookkeeper at Berlin's company. What would happen if he asked Joplin to submit it, and offered to act as watchdog? It could be an ideal situation for murder. Joplin or Berlin? Who really was The King of Ragtime?

The first book in the series, The Ragtime Kid, came about because Karp was reading history. It's a fact that a white music store owner in Sedalia, Missouri offered to publish "The Maple Street Rag" in 1899. What induced John Stark to offer a royalties contract to a black composer at that time? Nothing in history explains it. Karp said he takes a known history, and where there are holes, fills it with fiction to explain what might have happened. The Ragtime Kid was a real person. In 1899, a fifteen-year-old white boy hopped a freight train because he had to have lessons from Scott Joplin. History leaves us puzzles. This is not history, but historical fiction.

When asked about his background, Larry Karp said as a kid he lived in New York, and liked to write. But, in the 1950s, you didn't tell your parents you wanted to be a writer. They had a family physician who was a friend, and a legendary doctor. He made lifesaving diagnosis, so Karp decided to become a doctor. He did alright, bu he really wanted to write. So, fourteen years ago, he left medical work and began to write. He started a mainstream novel about a music box collector,, but his protagonist kept getting killed early in the book. Finally a friend said, why don't you write it as a mystery. The book became The Music Box Murders. He went on to write a couple more music box books.

Karp wrote a book called First, Do No Harm, with a medical setting. It was about a legendary doctor with a character flaw.

He said he wrote The Ragtime Kid about the birth of ragtime. The King of Ragtime is about the death of ragtime. His third book in the series will be about the beginning of the ragtime revival in 1951.

Karp said characters drive his books, and they won't follow outlines. There was a ceremony in Sedalia in 1951, with a plaque to honor Scott Joplin. There's a kid who wants to learn from the Ragtime Kid, Joplin's student. What if the KKK wanted to blow up the high school during the ceremony? Karp said in doing the research, he was in a restaurant in Canada, and he asked a contractor he was with, how would you blow up this place. So, they discussed the dynamite needed, and the plans. When he got to Customs, he realized he had notes as to how to blow up Hubbard High School. He didn't know if he should rip out the page, and eat his notes. Then he saw the cameras. He said fortunately he and his wife seemed like an innocent older couple, so they just let them through.

Karp said he thinks of the characters first when he writes, then begins to write the story, until he hits a road block. He works through the first draft, trying to get the story down. Then he rewrites, and the story comes through. In the movie, "Finding Forrester", Sean Connery's character tells a student, "Write the first draft with your heart, and then you get your head to work." That's how Karp does it.

Some of his research was done in Sedalia, in local histories and local libraries. He said the Sedalia Carnegie Library has histories of the town and people in a locked cabinet. One was just a three page manuscript, "Sights and Sounds of Sedalia". He uses 1 to 2% of what he finds, just to advance the story, and show the setting better.

When he wrote the first music box book, Karp was lucky enough to sit down with his editor. She told him I'm sure this is fascinating to music box collectors, but it's boring to me. So, he learned to cut scenes when they don't advance the story. He doesn't want to overuse his research. He said the web is terrific for research. They have census figures that can tell him about his characters, and who they lived with. Since he's not a musician, he attended ragtime festivals.

Larry Karp learned to write in the morning, when it seems to flow. His writing is very cinematic. He sees the action as he his the keys. He writes for four hours, has lunch, takes a walk to clear his head, and then will either write more, or work on promotions of work, and research. He writes regularly.

Michael Bowen said he writes what he calls a "Plucky couple series." Plucky couples include Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Nick and Nora Charles, or Jerry and Pam North.

Bowen attended Harvard Law School, and made history when his class elected the first woman as President of the Harvard Law Review. He referred to the recent election, and the so-called Bradley effect, and said with the law school election, they had the choice of voting for a man, or making history by voting for a woman. Bowen is a trial lawyer, but he doesn't put his clients' problems into the books. He writes about the emotional effects. He said he once had a death threat, but his law partners said one death threat in 32 years meant he wasn't working hard enough. At the time, they didn't have separate extensions. The receptionist told him he'd had an interesting message. It said, "Your contract will be terminated in 30 days." As a good lawyer, he contacted the FBI, who listened and said they wouldn't take any action unless something happened. As he was crossing the parking lot that night, he thought, this is what it feels like.

Bowen's characters, Rep and Melissa Pennyworth, are married and deeply in love. Rep went into Trademark & Copyright Law because he wanted a nice, quiet predictable practice. His mother was arrested for murder when he was just fifteen months old. His wife, Melissa, is, by the time of the current book, Shoot the Lawyers Twice, an Assistant Professor of English Lit. When the series began, she was studying. The book is set in Milwaukee because she's now in a tenure track position.

Michael Bowen said his characters are "plucky couples" because, in his opinion, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers is the greatest mystery ever written, and he admires Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. By the time of the Jerry and Pam North mysteries, the female half of the "plucky couples" had become unappealing. In the later incarnations, such as the Norths and Nick and Nora Charles, the female role was to stumble across the corpse and get herself into mortal danger so she could be rescued. And, she often triggers a clue for the male.

In Bowen's books, Melissa is a strong character. He avoids some of the techniques used in writing about women detectives now. Quite often, they have family members who taught them how to shoot, defend themselves, etc. That's not really common. And, Melissa misses when shooting at someone, and makes fun of herself.

Bowen said he had fun with his books. You should have fun writing and reading. He uses banter, wordplay and satire. He has poked fun at academic political correctness, and did a send up of the mystery/thriller genre.

What made Bowen start writing mysteries? He tried his first jury trial in 1978. It was a small case, but the jury took it seriously, and they were out for a day and a half. He couldn't concentrate on anything while waiting for the verdict. Bowen wasn't raised to think much of mysteries. He picked one up, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. When reading a master, you normally don't say, that's a masterpiece. You say, they make it look easy. So, Bowen thought, "I can do this." His first book was very derivative, and no one will ever see it. But, he found his voice, and something to write about. Bowen said the point of his plucky couple mysteries is to have fun.

His next book might be called Standard Duty Blues. It's a military term from the Naval Academy. He's talking to his editor, Barbara Peters, from Poisoned Pen Press, about the book. He's been very happy with Kill the Lawyers Twice. Bowen said Barbara Peters is the most wonderful editor to work with.

Michael Bowen said his first book, Can't Miss, was about the first woman to play Major League Baseball. He said none of his books have been bestsellers, and not even midlist. He writes stuff that critics like, and people buy, but it doesn't make him famous.

Here's what it's like to be in his category. He was sent a slide of the cover art of the middle book in a five book series. And, he told his editor he didn't like the art. The editor said that was too bad, but they weren't changing it because the artist had been paid. He asked why they sent him the cover for approval. She said it wasn't for approval. They were just being polite.

He also had a title he really liked, but the editor said the sales team didn't like it. He said but he wanted the title. And she said when it's sales vs. talent, sales wins.

Michael Bowen said he writes when he can. His partners play golf. He doesn't play golf; he writes while they golf. He found that he has to stop before he wants to stop writing, so the next time he can pick right up. He ended the program appropriately. You'll find time to write if you want to.

Larry Karp and Michael Bowen were the latest authors to appear for Authors @ The Teague.


The Poisoned Pen Bookstore said...

Lovely article, Lesa.

Lesa said...

Thank you! A nice compliment coming from The Poisoned Pen.