Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mark Coggins at the Poisoned Pen

I don't always make it to the Poisoned Pen to support those authors who have appeared for Authors @ The Teague in the past, but I try. Mark Coggins, author of the August Riordan mysteries, appeared there Friday night to talk about his collection of true stories about his life, Prom Night and Other Man-Made Disasters.

Patrick Milliken introduced Mark, saying he had lived here in the Valley in the '60s and '70s. Mark is the author of PI novels. His last August Riordan book was The Big Wake-Up. Patrick asked Mark why he wrote a collection of personal essays. Mark said he went to Central High in Phoenix, and he did grow up here. Why nonfiction? Coggins' wife doesn't read fiction. She hasn't even finished one of his books. She told him nonfiction was the way to go, and he should be trying to write like Chelsea Handler, David Sedaris or Bill Bryson. It's not as easy as they make it look.

When Coggins went to Stanford, he was fortunate to take writing classes taught by some authors who weren't well-known then, but became well-known later. Tobias Wolff and Ron Hansen were two of them. But, Mark had a crush on a third instructor, Brett Singer. Every short story he submitted to her was a thinly veiled love story with him and her as characters. However, she was very professional about it, and never said anything.

Singer was working on her first novel, The Petting Zoo, while she taught that class. Mark decided to buy it when it came out, thinking he would at least get her picture on the dust jacket. There was a character named Coggins in the story. Coggins was a lecherous professor who hit on students. At least that's how Mark saw him. Actually, it's a better story than that. Coggins was actually a professor, a writing instructor who only ever wrote one book, a book about writer's block. One of the stories in Prom Night and Other Man-Made Disasters is called "The Singer Affair."

Mark told us he went to Madison Meadows to grade school, and Central High. Some of his friends from back then were in the audience. Coggins writes about dating, relationships, and work in this book. Bill Bryson wrote a book called The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid about the years he grew up. Mark's Prom Night and Other Man-Made Disasters covers that same territory for Coggins.

When Patrick asked him about growing up in Phoenix, and what was lost, Mark told us he can't find his way around anymore. There were no freeways then, although there was talk about them for years. He had to use surface streets. South Mountain was far away from where he lived. The Central corridor was his world. And, Phoenix seemed much smaller. He and a couple friends mentioned a few restaurants and stores back then. He also said everyone watched Wallace and Ladmo, a children's show that ran from 1954 to 1989.

Back to Coggins' current book. He said one story, "Confessions of an E-mail Forger", takes place at a company he calls Big Iron, a company like IBM. Mark worked as a computer programmer, and he became quite good at sending e-mails so that they appeared to have come from someone else in the company. He sent one that ordered a woman to go out with Mark Coggins. Luckily, she took it well, and agreed to go out with him. Another email spoof didn't work out as well. He e-mailed one woman, saying it was from a married man in the company, and he wanted a relationship. At the end of the e-mail, he said actually this is from Mark Coggins. But, she never read that far and ran into the restroom in hysterics because that married man was e-mailing her about a relationship. Mark said it was amazing he never got reported to HR.

Patrick wanted Mark to tell about his prom night disaster. Mark said it was a little embarrassing because some of the people from back then were in the room. During his senior year, Mark went out some with two young ladies. And, he couldn't decide which one he would ask to prom. One night, he was hanging out with friends at Bob's Big Boy. In the middle of a conversation about kung fu, they asked him who he was taking to prom. He said he couldn't decide between Olive or Blythe. Before he could decide, the guys who were with him that night asked both girls out. Mark was upset and mad at the guys. So, he ended up asking a girl he had no right asking since she was so far above him in the high school caste system.

What's happening with the August Riordan books? Coggins is working on the next book. At the end of The Big Wake-Up, August was in a tough place. He's now moved out of San Francisco, and lives in a trailer in Palm Springs. He gets sucked into his next adventure, and that's as far as Mark is.

Milliken asked how he became interested in the classic PI novel since August Riordan fits that pattern. Tobias Wolff was not yet famous when Mark took his writing classes. In one of them, he read snippets from authors with distinctive styles. He read a snippet from Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Coggins loved the writing. Looking back, he doesn't think Wolff cared for Chandler. He was just showing he had a distinctive style. However, Mark went out and bought books by Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Then, when he was in Ron Hansen's class, he wrote a story called, "There's No Such Thing as Private Eyes." It was a short story featuring August Riordan. Hansen suggested he try to sell it, but it was a long story, and even today long short stories are hard to sell.

Then, in the mid-eighties, The Black Mask Magazine was revived as The New Black Mask. Richard Layman and Michael Bruccoli were the editors. Layman is the author of six books about Dashiell Hammett. Bruccoli wrote about F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he also did bibliographical works about Chandler. They liked Coggins' story, and "There's No Such Thing as Private Eyes" got published. Coggins was pleased because Chandler and Hammet were both first published in The Black Mask Magazine.

When the audience was asked if they had questions, author Craig Johnson asked Mark how he managed to balance the classical form and contemporary issues. Coggins admitted it's easy to slip into parody of Chandler or Hammett. He tries to make Riordan of that mentality, but shoved into the modern world.

The final question asked him how he handled e-books. Mark answered that he's a big book collector, with lots of first editions, including the books by Chandler and Hammett. He's torn because he comes from a high tech background, but he's going kicking and screaming into the new era because of his love of books. Barbara Peters of the Poisoned Pen wrapped up the program by saying publishing is actually in such a state of flux with e-readers and e-books that no one knows how everything will really shake out.

Mark Coggins' website is

Prom Night and Other Man-Made Disasters by Mark Coggins. Philodox Press. 2012. ISBN 9781467985710 (paperback), 181p.


Rosemary said...

Hi Lesa, this looks like it was a great evening, I would have loved to have attended. Some of my favourite writers are David Sedaris, Bill Bryson and Alan Bennett. Alan Pearson (a Guardian journalist) is also fabulous. I will look out for Mr Coggins' book, it sounds just up my street.

And I must mention that I love the way that you are always so happy and smiling in your photos! You really share the warmth of these occasions, and everyone always looks like they are having fun. Some author sessions with Highbrow types just come over as so depressing ('and then your grandmother slit her wrists, right after your goldfish died...." etc etc.) Take themselves way too seriously.

Thanks for all your great reviews,


Lesa said...

It was fun, Rosemary. I'll have my recap of Craig Johnson's appearance there in a few days, followed by Kevin Hearne's appearance at Velma Teague.

Thank you! I just love authors. I've said all along they're my rock stars. I'd rather go see an author than anyone except Celtic Thunder. (grin) But, Celtic Thunder isn't rock.

Oh, you're right. Authors with literary pretensions are beyond me. Most of the time nothing happens in those books - just depressing. Give me a good murder any day. ;)