Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Linda Fairstein & Joseph Kanon

Joseph Kanon, Barbara Peters, Linda Fairstein
Linda Fairstein and Joseph Kanon kicked off this year's Poisoned Pen conference at the Arizona Biltmore. Linda said she'd been told never to share a stage with Joe because no one will know you are there.

Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore, said they have hosted Linda for all of her books, and hosted Joseph for all his books except his first one, Los Alamos.  Peters said in trying to come up with a common theme, she decided on food.

Kanon said he had a fabulous lunch in Istanbul, the scene of his latest book, Istanbul Passage. The book is set at the end of World War II. It's an espionage book in the same vein as Erik Ambler and John LeCarre. Istanbul is the main character, and all the chapters are named after neighborhoods. He told us all of his books begin with place.

He immersed himself in Los Alamos when he wrote that book. He wanted to learn more about it, what it was like to be there, to live there. Kanon does "literary archaeology". He can find the neighborhoods, the smart restaurants. What is most difficult is putting his head back in time. Istanbul Passage takes place in Istanbul in 1945. The end of the Sultanate was in 1922, only twenty-three years earlier. That's not impossibly far away. It's as far as 1989 and Ronald Reagan is from now. Kanon wanted readers to know what it feels like. Turkey is just out of the Ottoman Empire. Adults who lived during the empire were forced to be western. The harem had been abolished in 1909, just thirty-six years earlier. There were adult women alive in 1945 who had been brought to Turkey as slaves, and had been part of the harem. What happened to those women?

Kanon invented a character, Lily, a former harem girl. He was able to kill two birds with one stone. There are beautiful mansions on the Bosporus. Lily makes the perfect host for parties there. She went from a harem girl to a socialite.

Peters mentioned that Joseph Kanon had been an editor before he was a writer. He said every writer is different. There are no rules. He makes it up as he goes along, and doesn't use an outline. He was one third into The Good German before he knew who killed the victim in the first chapter.

According to Kanon, readers remember characters, not storylines. The real interest is in the people, their moral values, the kind of life they lead.

Some places just capture your imagination. Kanon went to Istanbul as a tourist, and fell in love with the city. He likes the perennial student aspect of a city. There's 1000 years of Byzantine history. All of Kanon's books have been set in the immediate years around World War II. Istanbul was neutral during World War II. He was intrigued as to how a city could remain neutral with war all around it. What he discovered is that war comes to you. There were all kinds of spies in Istanbul. The city was a chess board for everyone to play out maneuvers. It was like catnip. Everyone had operatives at the Park Hotel, which is now being developed as condominiums. The Americans were amateurs in the OSS. The Russians were there along with the Turkish police. There were Nazis. They were table hopping, buying each other drinks.

Kanon likes interesting moral questions. In Los Alamos, the scientists couldn't resist having the bomb go bang. This book deals with making of webs. There's an appeal to the secret life. It's based on lying. How does lying spill into other parts of life? The post-war period was a pivotal time. It was inherently dramatic. Kanon told us he was going to use a movie metaphor. The war begins with the black and white clarity of "Casablanca". It ends with "The Third Man", grey with moral compromise. Peters said there's murder and a love story. She jokingly referred to it as "Fifty Shades of Istanbul".

Linda Fairstein's Night Watch is the fourteenth book in the Alexandra Cooper series. Alex has been having a romance with a man in France for a while. Her books, like Kanon's, have a great sense of place. Her books are set in New York City. It's a character in Fairstein's books. Each book includes a short history of some section of New York. Fairstein enjoys exploring the history of familiar places. They may seem familiar, but have a dark underside.

Alex has the job Linda had for thirty years, sex crimes prosecutor for Manhattan. The books are about Alex and her two detective friends. Those three people can be set anyplace. Fairstein said people enjoy reading series because of the relationship with characters, and you can come back to them.

Fairstein's editor didn't want her to take the story to France. It's only the second time the series has gone out of the country. Fairstein told us most of her email asks, "When is Alex going to get together with Mike Chapman?" Her email about Luc, Alex's current lover, says he's not a keeper. Move him along. She takes readers into his world in Night Watch. There's a murder in the south of France. Usually the mysteries involve exploration of historic places. Alex is usually working on a related case.

While Fairstein was writing this book, a housekeeper in a hotel claimed she was sexually attacked. It pained Linda that she wasn't involved in the case. She tried, but wasn't able to get involved in it. Fairstein said she's been shocked as a prosecutor. You're helping a victim, giving them everything you've got, and still sometimes they lie. The accuser's story begins to change. Fairstein watched that New York case. It had an irresistible pull. People asked Linda what she thought happened. What happens when your victim lies? Linda's friend Jane Stanton Hitchcock told her she had to write about it. There were race and power dynamics. Fairstein created her character, and made him live near Luc's restaurant.

For pacing purposes, Fairstein had to get the story done in a week instead of dragging it out. She put in a twist, and wove the two stories together. Like Kanon, she doesn't outline. She knows early on who did it and why. It's the prosecutor in her. She likes a story to take twists and turns.

The title Night Watch is a police term from the time when a police force worked all day. Then, a private person, one man, was hired to be the Night Watch from midnight to 8. In New York City, that shift is called the Night Watch.  Police on that shift work that case only for those hours, and then turn it over to regular investigators.

Fairstein said she wanted to call her first book Night Watch, but her agent said she and other older people would find it too related to World War II with the night watch and subs. Instead the book was called Final Jeopardy.

Barbara Peters mentioned that Night Watch involves Lutece, a New York restaurant where she never had dinner, and she regrets it. Kanon said he did eat there once. It was a great restaurant in the early '60s. It represented fine dining, very fancy French food. Now, dining in New York is more casual. Too formal might make people feel uncomfortable.

When Dorothy Parker came back from France and went to a restaurant, she was asked, "Would you like a beverage with your main?" She almost wept. Lutece was famous for publisher lunches. They'd go to the French restaurant, and have two or three martini lunches.

Fairstein said she'd let us in on a secret. The first love of her life was the man who created Lutece. Luc in the book is the son of that man, Andre Surmain. Andre was Linda's first love before her husband. He lived for food and fine dining. When he opened Lutece, complaints were that it was outrageously expensive. He charge $8.50 for lunch in the '60s, and had to lower his price. He was the first to use French crystal and dinnerware. Andre is alive and well, and unhappy that the character is named Luc. Linda said she ate well when she dated him.

Why is Luc in New York? He owns a restaurant in France. He wants to open one in New York, and needs backers. When you see a famous chef heading a restaurant, there is a business person behind them. It costs millions of dollars to run a restaurant. It's a dirty business. Many restaurants are owned by business conglomerates. Luc wants to do it the old-fashioned way. And, he wants to have great wines.

Asked about restaurants, Kanon said he lists the top restaurants in Istanbul on Facebook.

The three of them discussed the restaurant 21. It was well-known for its gates during Prohibition. The bars and shelves all collapsed. When the Feds showed up, there was a first gate outside where the guards could see who was there. Then there was a second gate. When the bartender pressed one button, the shelves collapsed. All the bottles broke and ran into the gutter. In the basement, there was a secret door opened using a pinhole. There was a door because the governor or stars couldn't be found in a bar. There was a side door into another building. 21 was raided, but alcohol was never found. Joseph Kanon joked that he was seated across from Trump at 21, and he wanted a door. He looked at his comb over, and thought, "How could you?" It's good if they know you at a restaurant. Linda had the best line in the book. A good restaurant is one where they know you.

Kanon said L.A. and New York restaurants have status. There's a food culture in Manhattan. Michael's is the current writers, publishers place.

People told Kanon he was going to hate book tours? He said, compared to what? Meetings and piles of paper? He said it's an interesting country. He enjoys meeting people, and it's a way to see things. How is it out there? He said once he gets out of NYC, he realizes how important driving and cars are to most of the country. He owns a car, but doesn't drive it much in New York.

Peters asked Linda if she was going to continue to set parts of the Alex Cooper books in Martha's Vineyard. After she said yes, Joseph said product placement really matters. That's Linda's lesson. Writing about 1945 isn't doing him any good.

Asked if he went to Istanbul intending to write a book, Kanon answered that he went as a tourist. He found it so interesting that he went back. He likes walking the city. He does it alone. He wants to know the city as his characters would. Where was their apartment? Would they take the train? He has to have a sense of the city, and knows it.

He said when his book, The Good German, was made into a movie, he had nothing to do with it. George Clooney was in it. But, the scriptwriter didn't get it. He knows no one really wants the author's input. But, the screenwriter didn't go to Berlin. He said he knew he couldn't put Lena on a plane out of Berlin because it would remind people of "Casablanca". But, the screenwriter had her sailing out of Berlin. Kanon asked if they could put her on a train or something. He really thinks the screenwriter has to go to the place. He had her sailing to Amsterdam, and there's only a small river there. That can't do justice to the story.

Asked which book was their favorite, Linda Fairstein answered the new one, fresth out of the box. Of the other thirteen, it would be The Bone Vault, set in The Museum of Natural History. There are fifty million human bones there.

Kanon agreed with Linda that you always like the one you just did. You're always hoping you're getting better. The first one is great because it's the one that started everything. His favorite is The Good German. He did what he wanted to do with that one. He likes parts of books. In Stardust, there's a page and a half when a man hears the the whole of history in a song.

What did Kanon learn as an editor? Listen and take what an editor says under advice, but from the other side, the only name on the book is yours, and you sometimes have to go with your gut instinct. Fairstein agreed. After 9/11, she included a scene about it, and her editor wanted her to take it out, saying it wouldn't be timely by the time it was published. But, Linda loved that scene. She said my readers will want to know what the characters were doing on 9/11. She's had more positive comments about that scene than any other. Kanon mentioned that editors say speed up the action. No editor says slow it down. He said we have a television culture. He said both authors use a lot of dialogue. There are ways to trim the material.

In discussing Turkey, Kanon said Istanbul is becoming the center of the region again. He has a Turk in the book say, "You think of it as a bridge. We see it as the center of the world." Istanbul was the center of the Ottoman Empire. The empire was not just Mideastern, but also Eastern European, and even went up to Russia.

Kanon said his books don't always have the same titles when they're published in other countries. His German publisher was always changing the titles. In Germany, you can't use a title if it's already been used. "The Good German" was a term used in the late '40s. It's not a good title for them. So, the publisher called it In the Ruins of Berlin. Joseph gave in to his publisher. Then, when he did his media tour there, everyone asked him why the name was changed. When Kanon told his publisher, the publisher said, see, they're talking about the book.

Barbara Peters said an author has to give you the feeling the place is real and you want to go there. Kanon agreed, but said if you do get it wrong, you get a slew of emails. Joseph Kanon ended the program by saying he has a theory. The more we accept spin in our public life, the more we expect authenticity in our fiction. Sometimes authors just want to say, "We made it up."

Linda Fairstein's website is www.lindafairstein.com

Joseph Kanon's website is www.josephkanon.com


Anonymous said...

I really appreciated your summary and comments on what sounds like a wonderful meeting!! I am reading it while sitting in sweltering Manhattan in the middle of our terrible heat wave - so the joy in your article was double!! Thelma Straw, MWA, in Hottest ManHOTTen

Karen C said...

Superb recap, Lesa - wish I could have been there and met these wonderful authors. Reading your post is the next best thing - thanks.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Thelma! I understand Manhattan was as hot as Phoenix yesterday. Sorry about that! Glad you could get away with me for a little bit.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Karen. I'm always glad to share my author experiences here!