Friday, August 20, 2010

Barbara Peters, Bookstore Owner & Editor & Bryan Gruley, Author, for Write Now! 2010

The final speaker at the Desert Sleuths' Write Now! Conference was Barbara Peters from the Poisoned Pen bookstore, who brought author Bryan Gruley with her.  Peters' biography in the conference program said, "Barbara Peters opened The Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale in 1989.   She is currently editor-in-chief of Poisoned Pen Press which she co-founded in 1997.  Barbara has been awarded The Raven and The Ellery Queen Award by the Mystery Writers of America, and the Fan Guest and Lifetime Achievement Awards from Bouchercon."

Peters said, with all the talk about changes in book publication, she wanted to give the audience an historical perspective, and things to think about.  The novel and story, as literary form, is only 250 years old, and evolving.  There is a serious revolution going on right now with digital publishing, and everything is fluid.  But, the first novel was only published in the 1740s.  Richardson's Pamela was the first epistolary novel, written as letters back and forth.  That solved the problem of point-of-view.

But, novels are evolutionary, not static.  However, three major elements remain constant; landscape, character, and plot.  The landscape of the story can include the culture as well as the physical setting.  Harry Kemelman's series about the Rabbi involved the Jewish culture.  Elizabeth Peters writes about an anthropologist in England and Egypt. 

The village mystery, which seems to have a limited setting, is actually a circle.  There's a crime, usually murder, a limited circle of suspects, an event that draws them together, and a sleuth.  That shape can be applied to anything.  It can be used on the Navajo reservation, as Tony Hillerman did.  It can be used with futuristic cops, as in Jim Born's books. 

It's the character that determines how the plot goes.  The story must be true to the character's behavior.  Peters said she's had difficult time with authors in the past, who need to transfer what is in the author's head about the character to the page, so the readers understand the character when they read the book.  According to Peters, landscape and character are the most important elements.  An author can work on plot with their editor. 

Barbara went on to say she's observed genres, subclasses of fiction, rise and fall in popularity, on a twenty-year cycle.  At the end of the '80s, mysteries were way up, and stayed there until the end of the '90s.  Now, they've gone down about as low as possible.  Part of the reason for this is, when a genre becomes enormously popular, way too many people rush in to write that type of book.  Then, readers become tired of the same books.  For instance, after Silence of the Lambs, everyone wrote serial killer books.  After The DaVinci Code, religious thrillers were hot.  The success of Stephanie Meyer increased the popularity of paranormal books.  Stieg Larsson's success with his Scandinavian trilogy set off a Scandinavian crime wave.  However, Peters warned against writing what was popular.  She said authors would be too late to catch the wave.  She told them to be original.  As writers, what is your question; will I be read, or will I be published?  With today's publishing revolution, those are two different questions. 

Then, Peters introduced Bryan Gruley.  Gruley, Chicago bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, is the author of Starvation Lake and The Hanging Tree.  He has been called the new Michael Connelly or the new Steve Hamilton, but Peters said he's Bryan Gruley, author and hockey fan.

Gruley said he wanted to write novels since he was a little kid, and his mother gave him the thirteenth book in the Hardy Boys series.  He got out of Notre Dame, and went to work for a newspaper.  He's worked for five papers, and it's been a great ride. 

Gruley wrote a nonfiction book, Paper Losses, before writing fiction.  But, at least he already had an agent from the first book.  He loved narrative stories, though, and wanted to write fiction.  So, he sent his agent part of a novel, and told him to write about what he knew.  He knew Michigan, hockey, and journalism.  So, Suzanne suggested he write about middle-aged guys who play hockey in the middle of the night, knowing he was that guy.  With his agent behind him, it took Bryan four years to write Starvation Lake, since he had a day job and three kids at home. 

Bryan submitted his book in April 2006.  One year and twenty-six twenty-six rejection letters later, he thought he was done.  Then, on the same day that Murdoch bid on Dow Jones, the owner of  The Wall Street Journal, Gruley's agent called.  They talked about that before she said, oh, and the good news is I sold Starvation Lake in a three book deal.

Barbara Peters commented that it's often easier for an author to sell a fiction book after they've sold nonfiction.  She used Linda Fairstein as an example.  Peters said publishers know how to market nonfiction, so it's easier to sell a nonfiction title.  Then, a writer has a publishing history. 

Peters said Gruley's editor sent her a rough manuscript for a blurb.  She read it, and liked it.  But, they were publishing it as a trade paperback.  With trade paperbacks, there is a problem of fewer reviews, fewer library sales, etc.  She tried to talk the publisher into doing both a hardcover and a trade at the same time, but they didn't. 

However, Starvation Lake was a wild success.  They did a lot of marketing.  He was a newspaper reporter, and a hockey guy, so they had a marketing platform for him.  Gruley's advice to writers was what you normally hear.  "Ass in chair; fingers on keyboard.  Tell your stories."

Gruley said he sees the town of Starvation Lake as a character.  It's northern Michigan in winter.

In response to a question, Barbara Peters said historical fiction and paranormal are the hottest genres right now.  Westerns have sunk to the bottom.  Fantasy and science ficiton started doing good after 9/11.  In hard times, people like escape literature, or other worlds.  She said there's a fairly regular turn in genres every twenty years.  That's why some books are reprinted, to capture a new generation of readers.

Summing up that portion of the Write Now! Conference, Peters asked the writers to think about what the new revolution means to them.  Maybe authors should think of themselves as game designers.  They should create a world and characters.  Don't sell a book.  Sell subscriptions to that world.  For artists, it's always a concern as to how they'll get paid.  She used Mozart as an example of an artist who had difficulty getting patrons, and getting paid. 

If "To write means to be read," not everyone needs to be paid or be a bestseller.  Maybe there is a different payoff for those who just want to be read.  But, she cautioned against print-on-demand, saying it's only high-speed copying.   And, the Kindle or Sony reader are just different ways of reading, for those who want only text and don't care about the book itself.

Following the conference, a number of us went to The Poisoned Pen, where Bryan Gruley and James Born talked with Barbara Peters, and were later joined by Robin Burcell.  Earlier this week, I summarized Born and Burcell's portions of the evening. 

Barbara Peters asked Bryan to tell his origin story.  He said he'd always wanted to write novels.  After college at Notre Dame, he went to work as a journalist, but he had to learn how to write, and figure out his story.  He dreamt about writing novels.  Then, one of his co-workers, Ken Wells, had a novel published.  That spurred Gurley on.

His first manuscript had Gus Carpenter as the narrator, but it had nothing to do with the current books.  His agent didn't like it, though, and suggested he write about middle-aged guys who play hockey in the middle of the night.  That was Starvation Lake.  He started it in 2001, and it was eight years until publication.  In the current books, Gus Carpenter is a journalist who returns to his hometown, of Starvation Lake, Michigan.

Peters asked Gruley if his co-workers were awed by his success as a novelist.  He answered that journalists are never awed, particularly at The Wall Street Journal.  He actually tries to keep a low profile there.  He writes in the early morning.  Peters said she thinks journalists make good writers because they're used to being edited and revised.  They accept that.  She also said she thinks journalists, lawyers, and cops write novels because, in real life, things don't come out right.  She said judges don't write crime novels. 

With hockey in his books, Gruley admitted he played hockey.  He was goaltender for one year, before getting smart.  He played at Catholic Central High School in Detroit, but he couldn't play at Notre Dame.  He was too slow.  Now, he plays in Chicago.

Gruley is the author of Starvation Lake, and The Hanging Tree.  He's working on the third book in the series.

Bryan Gruley's website is

Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley.  Simon & Schuster, ©2009. ISBN 9781416563624 (paperback), 384p.

The Hanging Tree by Bryan Gruley.  Simon & Schuster, ©2010. ISBN 9781416563648 (paperback), 314p.

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