Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tucson Festival of Books - Part 1

I was only able to get to the Tucson Festival of Books for one day this year, but it's a wonderful experience no matter how much time you spend there. The grounds of the University of Arizona are filled with booksellers, booths, and, most of all, people who love books. It's only in a book lover's world that the first sentence I overheard that day came from a woman standing at a table of children's books who said, "Anyone who read that book wouldn't grow up to poison their stepdaughter."

So, I had seven hours to enjoy. I started with a panel called "Slaying with a Smile." Moderated by Cara Black, it featured Josh Bazell, Craig Johnson and Sophie Littlefield. Cara did quick introductions, beginning with Sophie.  She said Littlefield's series features a 50+ woman in Missouri who was a victim of domestic violence. Oh, and Sophie's book won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel in 2010.

Craig Johnson writes the Walt Longmire series, and his books have won numerous prizes in France.  Black, who spends a great deal of time in France working on her Aimée Leduc books, said Craig is a cult favorite there. She tells people that she knows Craig Johnson.

Josh Bazell wrote his debut book, Beat the Reaper, when he was an intern at a hospital. The book made the Times list of the top thirty novels of the year in 2010. Bazell said he was visiting Tucson because his grandmother lives there. And, he waved at her in the audience.

Cara's Aimée Leduc mysteries are set in Paris.

Since the panel was supposed to be about humor, Cara asked, "Do you think you're funny, Sophie?" Sophie said, no. She had written for a long time, but she had never written funny material. She wrote dark, deadly, pain, angst. But it didn't sell. Once she was paid 12 pounds for a story she sold overseas, and it came in the mail. She was so excited to finally get paid that when she opened the envelope, she tore the check right in half. Littlefield read all kinds of things. She wanted to be the next Ken Bruen. And, then, when she went through her own mid-life crisis, she had a bad day that lasted four months. That's when she created her character, Stella Hardesty, and wrote A Bad Day for Sorry.

Craig Johnson & Sophie Littlefield
Craig Johnson said there are only 25 people in the town where he lives in Wyoming. He has to save up his humor because the other 24 people think he's not funny. So, he enjoys public appearances and the
chance to get out and meet people.

Johnson said he thinks you have to have humor in crime fiction. Anyone who works in law enforcement has to have a sense of humor. That style of humor isn't far from cowboy humor. Cowboy humor was explained once to him when he was fired. He didn't do anything wrong, but that's the way it was in ranching. The young guys were always fired in the fall, and the older guys kept on. So, he was called into the den to have a final drink with the boss, a den filled with books by Louis L'Amour and other western writers. And, he was told about cowboy humor. "Everything's funny till you're dead." And, then he paused, and said, "You know, dead's funny sometimes, too."

Craig said that's a lot like law humor. In book 3, he takes Walt to the city, and he's at a crime scene and asks a cop, "Why do you think he jumped off the bridge into the alley?" And the cop answered, "I don't know. Most men jump off into the water. Maybe he couldn't swim."

JoshBazell's character is a hit man who has turned informant. The FBI financed med school for him. He's working as an intern when one of his patients turns out to be his old mob's hit boss. Bazell has a gallows humor. While he was in med school, he worked with the chief medical examiner, and did crime scene autopsies. The period between Christmas Day and New Year's is the biggest time for crime in New York because everyone is home. He came into work one day to find a large package wrapped in butcher block paper, and it was leaking. It had a note on it that said, "Merry Christmas, Josh." A woman had complained that she knew the smell of corpses. You can't get the smell of corpses out. And, she insisted someone find that smell in her apartment. There was a body hidden there, wrapped in paper.

Craig told us he likes Sophie's books. They combine two of his favorite things, baseball bats and summer dresses.

Sophie reminded us she had said she was going through her own midlife crisis when she wrote A Bad Day for Sorry. She had 200+ rejections before she found an agent willing to take her on. No one thought they could sell the story of a 50+ plain woman who wants to get laid, and can't. Publishers didn't think she was a great heroine. Her agent, Barbara, submitted it to seven publishers, and had seven no's. But, finally she found a publisher.

When Littlefield did her first event, she felt grateful that anyone would read about Stella, a foul-mouthed woman who killed her husband, and used bondage equipment in the course of the mystery. Sophie had to learn about bondage equipment, which was a surprise to a nice girl from Missouri. When two women came up to her at the event, and said we read your book, she wanted to say, "I'm sorry." But the women said they really liked it. They were in their 60s, and they felt as if they weren't visible anymore. Forget about dating. You're cut off, even if you're living in your hometown. Sophie said she understood. She spent her life as a homemaker. When a homemaker is done, no one wants to look at her.

Littlefield's third book in the Stella Hardesty Bad Day series will be out in June. It's called A Bad Day for Scandal. And, the fourth book has been turned in. Sophie thought maybe she could be a voice for all those invisible women who need a voice.

Craig Johnson discussed humor as it related to his character, Sheriff Walt Longmire. Johnson's humor is situational, stemming from the relationship between characters. He deliberately contrasts his characters. Victoria Moretti, Walt's second-in-command, is very different from him. She's a transplant from Philadelphia, urban. Walt's rural. She likes the technical aspects of the job while Walt is aware of the social implications of the job. Longmire is careful with his language, while she's not so careful. Johnson deliberately set them up for conflict, and that conflict is probably why Warner Brothers and A&E have picked up the stories for a projected series called Longmire.

Craig said in his books, there is an anticipation of humor that is sometimes better than the scene itself. Readers know something is going to happen becuase of the set-up of characters. And, the job itself lends itself to a sense of humor. Johnson was out riding with the sheriff who advises him, and he asked him what was the most important thing sheriffs learn? The answer was, how to herd cattle with a cruiser.

That sheriff still vets Craig's books. He had Walt going undercover in Dark Horse, the fifth book, and the sheriff told him there are difficulties in going undercover in a town of 40.

Johnson said Vic Moretti is pretty hot. No one cares who plays Longmire in the TV series, but all of the old ranchers want to know who is playing Vic. He says, "You dirty old men."

Josh Bazell said his next book has a lot of political subtext. It's over the top. But, politics makes publishers nervous. They can handle a lot of sex and violence, but they don't know how to handle politics.

Cara said Josh wanted her to ask him to tell the story of how the two of them met, walking down the street in San Francisco, where she lives, and he lived at the time. Josh said he's a bit of an idiot savant, and never got the hang of the savant part. He's the type that, if you spill matchsticks, he'll tell you there are 104, when it turns out there were only 47.

Anyways, he was walking down the street with his cute dog, his earbuds in, and his sunglasses on. He thought he heard someone calling his name. It was Cara. He had dropped his credit card, six blocks earlier. He knew Cara Black wrote Murder in the Marais because he read it, but he didn't know what she looked like. Cara saw it was a gold American Express card, and chased him down. She looked at the card, and said, "Are you Josh Bazell, the writer, Josh Bazell?" So, that's how they met.

Asked if they had heroes growing up, Craig Johnson answered with John Steinbeck. He always found Steinbeck hilarious. He also liked George MacDonald Fraser, who was known for his Flashman series, but Johnson liked the humor in his McAuslan stories. Steinbeck had horrific things happen in his books, but there was always hope for humanity, some benevolence. You can do horrific things in books if you show faith in humanity.

Cara asked the authors how they balance murder and humor. Bazell likes funny books and crime books. He writes the books he wishes he had seen on the shelf. Johnson said it's hard to be serious if you have that humorous strain in you, or if you were raised in a family in which everyt is grist for the mill. It's like straight razors with a nerf ball. Craig said his family had a sharp sense of humor, particularly his father. His father referred to constructive stupidity. If you don't know any better, you can get through.

Sophie Littlefield said she came from a humorless family. They were Polish, and they went through some rough years. Her father is a Supreme Court historian. And, her brother, Mike Cooper, has a book coming out in 2012 from Viking. He found his sense of humor. He liked Bazell's Beat the Reaper. But, Sophie and Mike lost their mother to dementia when they were young. They got through it by cracking each other up. George Carlin referred to it as "Coffin humor."

Does humor make a character more empathetic? Johnson responded, "Of course! Who do you want to spend time with, someone with a sense of humor, or someone who goes on for 300 pages?"

He said he had a lot of advice when from other authors when he first started writing, most of which he ignored. People told him not to give Walt a pet because he'd have to take care of it. But, Craig's a rancher with all kinds of animals, so he gave Walt a dog. And, it's worked out well. Longmire is a western sheriff who drives long distances. Is it better for him to talk to the dog while he's driving, or talk to himself? The dog is foil for Walt. He has running monologues in which he talks out his thoughts to the dog.

Cara mentioned that Leonardo DiCaprio bought Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper for a movie. Josh said his experience with books and movies means that the chance it will be actually made into a move is hazy at best.  He said his next book is sort of a sequel, but very different. It should be out at the end of the year, beginning of next. He agreed that humor is important. He finds it important to even joke about dementia and cancer. From his experiences as a doctor, he knows that once someone receives a serious diagnosis, everyone is afraid to be funny around you. It's important to acknowledge the situation, and incorporate humor. (Yes. On a personal basis, when my husband was dying of cancer, I told his best friend that he was to continue to call every day as he had, and continue to have a joke for Jim. He found it hard, but he did that, right until the end.)

Sophie's character, Stella Hardesty, had a hard time getting dates. Littlefield made that part of the humor. Her character is a vigilante, running a sewing shop. Sophie is sympathetic. She herself has a tiny resilient streak. Told she can't do something, she'll find a way to do it. Sophie understands that a woman's options are limited in a small town. What if you're fifty, from a small town in Missouri? You know everyone in town. Your options include dating the guy in town who dated everyone in town. So, by now, she's given Sophie two love interests. One of them, the sheriff, is bald, because Sophie thinks bald men are handsome.

Stella is a sympathetic character. There's also a teenager in the books, a thirteen-year-old modeled after a boy who might or might not have been Sophie's son. And, he isn't a cheerful teen like unrealistic ones in novels. He's realistic. There's a dance coming up, and Stella mentions it. But, no thirteen-year-old wants to go to the dance. He wants to go behind ARCO. That's realistic.

Johnson said the funniest book he ever read was The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall. It's about a mailman on the reservation who ran over an Indian boy's head, and when the boy is in the hospital recovering all he wants to do is get back to the rez to tell the mailman he's OK.

Bazell said E.F. Benson's Queen Lucia was the funniest book he read. Cara said for her it was Eloise. She wanted to be Eloise and live in the Plaza.  From there, the titles deteriorated as Bazell and Johnson tried to outdo each other for outrageous titles.

Craig Johnson's next Walt Longmire book, Hell is Empty, is due out in June. The title comes  from The Tempest, when Prospero says, "Hell is empty, and the devils are all here." Walt and his Basque deputy, Santiago Saizarbitoria, are helping to transport prisoners in the mountains. Santiago hasn't been happy with the education he's getting, and Walt is always quoting literature, so he asks everyone in the office for a list of ten books he should have read. Walt gives him books such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Three Musketeers. Ruby, the dispatcher, who trys to improve everyone, gives him Pilgrim's Progress and Dante's Inferno. So, Santiago gets into a discussion with a prisoner who questions him, and asks about the books. Finally, the prisoner says, at least I'm not reading a book by Alexander Dumb Ass.

In the course of the book, there's a federal case in the mountains that doesn't go smoothly, and Walt has to handle it. Santiago tells him he knows he always wants a book, and gives him Dante's Inferno.  From there, the book parallels The Inferno.

Sophie Littlefield's next book is also due out in June. A Bad Day for Scandal involves a woman no one likes who turned her back on everyone. And, Stella and her daughter, Noelle, had been estranged. They just got back together when Noelle reveals something about herself that Stella has a hard time accepting.

Bazell thinks his next book is going to be called Wild Thing. He wanted to call it The Dick, but the publisher wasn't willing to go there. It's a retelling of Moby Dick.

Since Cara Black was the moderator, she hadn't discussed her books, so someone in the audience asked her about her career. She answered that she kills people all over Paris. Her character, Aimée Leduc, likes bad boys. She's taller and thinner than Cara, and lives where Cara would like to live. Craig said whenever he goes to France, he reads Cara's books. Cara said, yes, and then he emails her from France. He responded that writing from Wyoming would have no effect.

Black asked the authors about humor in narrative vs. dialogue. Johnson said he likes turns of phrase. When he was going to write his first book, The Cold Dish, he talked to sheriffs, and then took  a ten year hiatus. When he went back to it, he realized he wasn't smart enough to hold Walt's attention for three hundred pages. So, he better be funny and smart to hold Walt's attention. He enjoys Walt's company.

Then, Craig discussed Bear, who started as a minor character for Walt to play off. He's an Indian with a dead pan delivery. White and red humor is dissimilar. Bear sometimes sounds as if he's talking bullshit, and when he's using Indian humor, the bullshit level goes up. Johnson said he has an Indian friend, Marcus, who told him he would have good weather for his book tour. He had seen the first sign of spring in Billings. He saw an Indian carrying a space heater into a pawn shop. He said that was a true story.

He said Wyoming is still untouched by mainstream society. He was with Marcus on the rez one day when they stopped to talk to a boy who had one shoe on. Marcus said you only have one shoe on. Did you lose your shoe? And, the boy answered, "No, found one." Craig likes to find oddities and explore them. The French just don't understand that Wyoming's about the same size, but only has 500,000 people. Cara commented that Craig straddles the world, being so popular in France.

Then, she asked Josh about his popularity in Europe. He said for some reason he's really big in Germany, and has a large audience there. He gets emails from Germany and Italy, but he doesn't read them because he doesn't read either language.

Craig said it wouldn't have been his first guess that France is where a Wyoming sheriff would catch fire. But, they like the humor. And, they've been inundated with the American West in movies. They're curious about the contemporary American West. They're interested in Indians, and open spaces. Open spaces don't exist in Europe, and there's a longing for that.

Sophie told us her only foreign sales have been in Japan. Fortunately, her brother is fluent in Japanese, because she's curious about the translation.

Cara Black wrapped up the program by reminding everyone where the authors would be signing. But, then she surprised me by saying before closing she wanted to acknowledge Lesa Holstine in the audience. She said Lesa has a blog, Lesa's Book Critiques. She said, she's a librarian from the Phoenix area, and her library, Velma Teague, is a destination for all the authors.

So, thank you, Cara.

Josh Bazell's website is

Craig Johnson's website is

Sophie Littlefield's website is

Cara Black's website is


Cozy in Texas said...

Book festivals are so much fun. I went to the Austin one last year.

Tyler said...

I had so much fun on that panel! Although like I told you Lesa when I looked out into the audience I sort of froze because I know you are a genius at getting every last bit down. then I had to start watching my mouth :)

Beth Hoffman said...

I so enjoyed reading your first-hand account of the festival. It sounds like you had a lovely time.

Happy Sunday, Lesa. Hugs to you and the kitties!

Inside A Book said...

Great details! My husband went to that panel and he told me only a tiny portion of what you did! I'm coming to you for the real scoop from now on.

It was A Great Day for Books, Reading, and Authors, wasn't it?? (Doesn't quite have the same ring as Sophie's books but it's the truth.)

Love the reviews.

le0pard13 said...

This sounds like it was a fantastic author panel, Lesa. So much good info here. I recently asked Craig if he was coming out to next month's L.A. Times Festival of Books, but he said the Longmire series will keep him busy and unable to attend this year's event. I'm really looking forward to that new program.

Tell you what, if I can get out to next year's Tucson event, perhaps you can make your way out to the coast and join some of the other bloggers and I at the LAT FoB? Looking forward to your next part of this book event, my friend. Thanks.

Lesa said...

Oh, the Austin book festival is a model for so many of them. I haven't been there, but I've heard grat things about it.

Lesa said...

Now, now. You know I'm always careful about what I put in print. I'm not going to embarrass anyone. It was a terrific panel.

Lesa said...

Happy Sunday, Beth! The kitties don't realize it, but I'm leaving them on Tuesday, going to Santa Fe until Sunday. But, they have a terrific cat sitter.

I'm spending my Sunday watching basketball, and cleaning the house in preparation for the house/cat sitter moving in.

Lesa said...

Oh, that's funny that I did a better job reporting on the panel than your husband did, Inside a Book. What panels did you attend that day?

Lesa said...

Hate to tell you, Michael, but Tucson is the place to be. I know a couple authors who are skipping LA, but came to Tucson.

That doesn't mean I won't make the effort. My college roommate lives in LA, so I'd have a place to stay. I just refuse to drive there. I'm not that confident in my driving skills. Sure, I drove all the way across country. That doesn't mean I want to drive in LA.

My summary of Tucson Festival of Books will be scarttered between book reviews and guest blogs. Then, I leave for Left Coast Crime on Tuesday, so later in the week I'll have that to report on as well.

I agree with you. I'm looking forward to Longmire.

Anonymous said...

Great recap Lesa! You really captured the tone and humor of these very cool writers...I had fun moderating and didn't have to try and be funny - big relief xCara

Lesa said...

Thank you, Cara! You did a great job. I'm sure it was hard to rein in those three. Unfortunately, my picture of you and Josh didn't turn out. But, later this week, I'll have that great picture of you on my blog. Terrific program, Cara. Thanks.

caite said...

sounds like great fun!

I hope Beat The Reaper makes it to the screen. I loved the book and think it would be a great movie.

Lesa said...

It was terrific, Caite. I just wish my picture of Josh and Cara had turned out. My angle was funny from where I was seated, and it didn't work.

kathy d. said...

Well, I just laughed my way through this post, and in between laughs, I was grinning.

What a hilarious group, and a terrific recap of this panel.

I have read books by Sophie Littlefield and Cara Black, and enjoyed them. It is true that middle-aged women like Littlefield's main character--her attitude, her self-confidence, her humor, her actions defending women. And she's not glamorous or a sharp-shooter or black belt in karate or former spy. She's a person. I must read her next few books.

And you have really sold me on Craig Johnson. I should have taken Jen's advice long ago, and started his series. What a sense of humor! Dante's Inferno!

Where should I start?

And I must check out Josh Bazell after reading this post.

Have a great trip, and can't wait for the reports, which are probably better than my own experiences would be--as you note everything and tell us, which we appreciate greatly.

Lesa said...


I'm going to say the same thing Jen would. Start with Cold Dish. She's right. You'll get to see the character development.

Thank you! I will be reporting, but I can't imagine you'll have a better time reading about it than if you were here. Wish you were!