Richard Ford – “Let Me Be Frank With You”

Let Me Be Frank With YouThe Sportswriter was one of the few books I’ve read twice. I dug Independence Day and Lay of the Land, too. I can’t imagine reading Let Me Be Frank With You without having devoured all that’s come before for Frank Bascombe—but I suppose it’s possible to do so.

Richard Ford or John Updike? Make mine both. You could certainly make a case for Updike’s sheer range, his ability to use so many locations and set so many characters in motion. By pure volume, it’s not even a close contest. Updike was prolific; Ford seems to pick his moments.

But Rabbit Angstrom meeting up with Frank Banscombe? Let a thousand college essays commence.

As I said, make mine both.

Richard Ford’s prose is so clear and fresh and effortless you are sucked into his unassuming vacuum of story-telling, Updike never let you forget you were reading. Well, rarely. Updike liked to do a few gymnastic handsprings down the page with flourishes of vocabulary and involved sentences (I’m a big fan) while Ford keeps it simple.

Ford lets Frank narrate his stories in first-person; Updike tells the Rabbit yarns in third.  As Richard Ford pointed out in this recent New Yorker interview, this creates a “very different moral positioning.” And, I would argue, feel.

Let Me Be Frank With You is four connected novellas. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and its devastation along the New Jersey shore, Frank goes in the first section (“I’m Here”) to the site of his former house, which has been demolished.

“The poured gray foundation is what’s left intact—a surprisingly small rectangular pit with a partial set of wooden steps going nowhere. The big Trane heat pump’s in place in the dank water that’s collected. But everything else in the “basement”—bicycles, hope chests, old uniforms, generations of shoes, wine racks, busted suitcases someone’s father owned, boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff you should’ve gotten rid of decades ago—all that’s been sucked up and blown away to some farmer’s field in Lakehurt, to be found, possibly returned, or else put in a museum to commemorate the awesomeness of mother nature when she gets it in her head to fuck with you.”

Okay, Ford can write a long sentence, too—but what a beauty.

In the second section, “Everything Could be Worse,” he is visited by a former occupant of his current house who has a tragic story to reveal. Frank finds himself in the uncomfortable role of grief counselor. While he’s endured his share of grief (see previous novels) he’s never been asked to perform in this regard. The moment is awkward, heart-felt, and sad. New neighbors are in the offing as a real estate agent is plunking down a sign—“For Sale—New Price”—into the grass, “the equivalent of a buzzard landing in your yard.” Amid the devastation, life continues to churn.

In “The New Normal,” he goes to visit his ex-wife, Ann, who suffers from Parkinson’s and lives in an extended care facility.  Again, Frank squirms. “I’m still gazing around the over-cogitated room, wishing something would take place: a smoke alarm going off. The phone to ring. The figure a Yeti striding through the snowy frame of the picture window, pausing to acknowledge us bestilled within, shaking his woolly head in wonder, then continuing into the forest where he’s happiest.” Frank’s wry humor, especially regarding the functions and changes of the male psyche and the body’s various functions, are hilarious.

In “Deaths of Others,” Ford visits a dying friend who chooses to confess a past betrayal—involving Ann. If you saw it coming, I sure didn’t. “Maybe Eddie would like me to give him a punch in the nose on his deathbed … But I’m not mad—at anyone. A wound you don’t feel is not a wound. Time fixes things, mostly.”

This is a quick read. It’s thoughtful, funny, wry, and poignant (in a smart way). Hurricane Sandy has taken its toll on New Jersey, which never saw it coming. Life has taken its toll on Frank Bascombe, who has watched various attacks coming and who has charted their impact on his body and his own weary, wise soul. Frank is living in the “accumulations of life.” Around him, everything is in ruins.

Yet Frank, like Ford, is after only one thing: more clear explanations of it all.

David McCullough – “The Wright Brothers”

the-wright-brothers-9781476728742_hrI’m sure there are readers who can compare this history / biography to what’s been published before but I imagine that I’m more typical.  My knowledge of Wilbur and Orville Wright is reduced to a few bullet points.

They were the first to fly in a powered aircraft.

They were from Ohio.

They were bike mechanics before the big discovery.

And they first flew on the beach in North Carolina—at Kitty Hawk.

Reading “The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough, needless to say, filled in so many blanks: how and why these two brothers put themselves on the quest; how they managed to focus and study; how they managed to not give up, given so many doubters and nay-sayers; how they dealt with the reaction to their discovery; and what happened to the brothers in the years after everything about transportation began to change.

I also had zero awareness of their sister’s role, particularly post-Kitty Hawk, and I had no sense of how much they flew and demonstrated their “flying machines” once they mastered their skills.

More than anything else, David McCullough’s history offers a true sense of their character. Their virtues seem so old-fashioned. They were understated, undeterred, and tireless.

And they were keen, precise observers. I loved the scenes of Wilbur Wright walking around Paris for the first time, making notes about urban planning, art and architecture.

To me, the biggest surprise was finding out that the United States government, at the time, didn’t believe reports (at first) of what the brothers had accomplished. The government wanted paperwork when an eyeball would have done the trick.

The Wright Brothers gained more credibility and traction overseas, particularly in France, before the U.S. came around. The local Dayton newspaper, in fact, long ignored the fact that the Wright Brothers (post-Kitty Hawk) were busy flying, regularly, in a nearby field.

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a century since humans started taking to the air on a regular basis, to the point today where we take it for granted and want our flights to be on time, coast to coast.

Is it possible to quantify the changes based on the work of The Wright Brothers? Sure, somebody else would have figured it out if they had failed and everything else might be the same. But the Wright Brothers, the unusual bicycle mechanics from Dayton, were the ones to pull it off.

For someone with only a cursory sense of their work, I found “The Wright Brothers” remarkable. Like other McCullough works, the narrative is driven by facts and steady, easy prose.

Final note: For those considering an audio recording of this, I have to say that David McCullough’s reading is dry and plain. He reads with as little drama as he writes—none. Don’t expect a performance like Dick Hill or George Guidall.


Q & A #31 With Manuel Ramos – “The Skull of Pancho Villa And Other Stories”

Skull-of-Pancho-Villa-The-350x550Two years ago, Manuel Ramos published Desperado: A Mile High Noir. 

In 2014, that title earned Ramos the Colorado Book Award for best mystery–the latest award in an ongoing collection of honors. Ramos’ first novel, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, was a finalist for the Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America and also won the Colorado Book Award.

Set against the gentrification of north Denver, Desperado won praise from the Denver Post and drew considerable national attention, too. It also generated a very cool book trailer and I liked it, too.

Now Ramos is back with The Skull of Pancho Villa And Other Stories and I’m here to predict he should clear some room on his awards shelf.

A full review follows.

First, Manuel was kind enough to answer a few questions in his colorful, casual style.


Question:  Okay, before we get to The Skull of Pancho Villa And Other Stories, I’m wondering if you know Juan Felipe Herrera? Did you know he was being considered as a US Poet Laureate? Do you have any favorite poems of his?

Manuel Ramos:  I personally don’t know Mr. Herrera but I’ve seen him perform his poetry and I’ve participated in events where he also was a presenter. He’s been a leading literary figure for decades; well-respected and admired; and it seems that I know dozens of writers, poets and otherwise, who were students of his or have been influenced by him in some way. The Poet Laureate announcement was a pleasant surprise for me and universally applauded by everyone. He’s getting well-deserved recognition.  I’m not sure about a favorite poem of his, but don’t overlook his children’s and young adult fiction – check out Crashboomlove: a Novel in Verse.  Excellent.

Question: Where is the actual skull of Pancho Villa? Also, why is that there is often so much mystery and intrigue about the corpses of legendary revolutionaries?

Manuel Ramos:  The mystery of Pancho Villa’s skull has not been solved.  Thus, stories multiply and the legend grows. Somewhere, someone has the relic – maybe under lock and key at a prestigious Ivy League school, maybe in the trunk of a tricked-out ’64 Chevy Impala driven by a lowriding cholo. Until it’s unearthed, it provides juicy inspiration for story tellers, fiction writers, and other liars.

It’s true, isn’t it, that the remains of outlaws and outcasts often are idolized, even romanticized?  Some of that must come from the reluctance of followers and true-believers to give up the ghost of the hero.  Some of it has to do with the “martyr” mantle that graces many dead revolutionaries. Che Guevara, for example, or Pancho Villa’s contemporary, Emiliano Zapata. And then there are the treasure-hunters and crass exploiters – anything for a buck, including defiling a grave or selling morgue photos of assassinated champions.

My generation of Chicanos revived the history of men like Villa and Zapata and, in the U.S., transformed the revolutionaries into icons for the political and sociological struggles of our youth. So, in a way, Chicanos also dug up Pancho’s remains and put them back on display, but we did it with respect and pride.

Manuel RamosQuestion:  This collection of short stories demonstrates such a range of styles—sketches, some genuine “gotcha” endings, flash fiction, a few pieces that are more mood than plot. How do you know when you’ve got a short story idea and that it’s something you want to pursue?

Manuel Ramos: Tough question to answer because I haven’t really tried to analyze my writing process too deeply. I often feel that the writing “just happens.” With plenty of hard work, that is. The character builds in my imagination until I feel that I can say something dramatic or unique about him or her. I keep notes about the character until the notes turn into something longer, and the story begins. Most of the time a completed story will result, but there are false steps and dead ends, of course.

Question: First person or third? How do you decide?

Manuel Ramos: I usually write in the first person, especially my longer works.  First person is restrictive and requires a soft touch, but it does allow me to get up close and personal with my main character. The kind of crime fiction I write, noir included, lends itself quite well to the “interiority” of first person.  First person allows me to reveal the character’s strengths and weaknesses in creative ways, but it also provides the reader with opportunities to see things that the character doesn’t realize or doesn’t want to realize. And the reverse is true – the character can hide certain things, even lie to the reader, all under the guise of telling a story.  I hope it works.

Third person is more expansive, obviously, and I find myself using this method when I think the story needs a broader canvas, or when certain things need to be shown but only an omniscient narrator can do it.

My latest project is a bit of an experiment with point of view – that’s all I can say now.

Question: Okay, I’ve picked up Roberto Bolaño and considered diving in. His works look daunting, but everyone I know raves about the experience of reading his works. Thoughts?

Manuel Ramos: Yeah, daunting. I’m no expert on this writer, but I can talk about my experiences with and reactions to his writing. When I first discovered Bolaño, I felt like someone ripped a mask off my eyes.  He pushed the boundaries of fiction in ways that I don’t think many others were doing or even dared to try.  He was experimental without being pretentious; clever, but not quirky. I read his books as soon as they were published in English (all after his death, I think,) and I was not disappointed. I absolutely dug his short story collection, Last Evenings on Earth. But I did reach a wall with him, probably around the time of the release of the translation of The Savage Detectives. However, since then, I’ve read more of his stuff (The Third Reich, for example, as well as several short pieces that periodically are “discovered” and published.) I expect to tackle 2666 one day. No really, I do.

Question: You say there’s a story behind every story. I’m dying to know the story behind “Murder Movie.”

Manuel Ramos: The story behind the story is that it was picked up by Juan Bruce-Novoa, one of the few genuine Chicano literary critics.  Juan was an intellectual. He developed Chicano literary theory at a high level. He taught his theories and analyzes at the university.  He produced seminal literary essays, and wrote articles and books on the history and theory of Chicano literature. He interviewed hundreds of writers, which he preserved in books, and he published his own fiction.  He also was the judge of a national literary contest where I won first prize, for my first novel, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, although at the time of the contest the manuscript was entitled El Corrido de Rocky Ruiz.  Years after we first met, Juan wrote an article for the magazine Voices of Mexico that he titled New Chicano Literature: Manuel Ramos.  I thought the article was cool, of course, and felt honored that Juan picked me as a topic.  The icing on the pan dulce was when he said that the magazine editors had agreed to publish one of my short stories to go along with his piece, and did I have one?  I came up with Murder Movie and Juan gave it the green light.  It was a big deal for me and I was very grateful to Dr. Bruce-Novoa, and regret that he passed away before we could work on more projects together.

Question: Care to point us to writers, overlooked or not, who inspire you today?

Manuel Ramos: I’m often inspired by the writers I’m currently reading. By “inspired” I mean I’m spurred on to try to create something that will hold a reader’s attention as much as mine was held by the particular writer.  Today that includes Héctor Aguilar Camín (acclaimed Mexican author whose books are finally being published in the U.S.—I’m reading an advance copy of Death in Veracruz, one of his classics, which will be published in October), Elmore Leonard (novels from the 1970s when he was still developing his crime fiction voice,) Georges Simenon (Maigret, naturally,) Ross Macdonald (like West Coast jazz; his books should have Art Pepper theme music.) Tomorrow it might be Kathleen Alcalá, Gary Reilly, or Ernest Tidyman.

Question: In “The 405 Is Locked Down,” a writer is tempted to head to Los Angeles on the notion of potential for a movie offer—though it’s vague what might come of it. Been there?

Manuel Ramos: I’ve been there, but can’t say I did that exactly (i.e., what happens in the story.)  Options have come and gone.  A few scripts have been written. That’s it. Never had a producer pass out at dinner.

Question: What’s next?

Manuel Ramos: I’ve finished my working draft of my next novel featuring Gus Corral and Luis Móntez.  Have high hopes for the book as I take a few (writing) gambles and break some rules.  My agent is giving it the once (and twice and thrice) over.  And I’ve started thinking about a short story for a proposed collection to which I’ve been asked to submit – but that hasn’t reached the pen-to-paper stage yet.  Also, from somewhere, an idea has been floating in and out, all around me, about seriously damaged people, people we may not want to know in real life, who cope and carry on and get a job done.  Not sure where that will go, but it should be interesting to find out.


Manuel Ramos website

The Skull of Pancho Villa And Other Stories



The Skull of Pancho Villa And Other Stories is a full-flavor variety pack of styles and moods. One story might pack a punch, the next might move your heart.

This collection is a Manuel Ramos master class in effortless, engaging prose—no pretensions, all story.  The scenes are frequently downbeat—but not all. The characters hang or thrive on the fringes and in the shadows—but not all. Most are set in Denver—but not all. L.A. shows up and El Paso, too. Most of these stories move in a world of green chile and sausage sandwiches, bar tops and back alleys, Tecates and Coronas.

A few examples:

In “No Hablo Inglés,” disbarred lawyer Manolo is hungover in a town he hates “but that wasn’t El Paso’s fault. I hated myself and that meant I hated wherever I woke up.” Manolo’s world is about to go south.

In “White Devils and Cockroaches,” González is “damn good legal aid lawyer” but finds himself representing “crazies, weirdos, misfits, losers and plain folks who got taken.” His latest client works as a dishwasher at the White Spot. González, in short, is not the slick wolf of Wall Street. He’s the scraggly coyote of Capitol Hill—and he’s pretty damn close to his breaking point.

“When the Air Conditioner Quit” (one hilarious title) starts with a gunshot but that isn’t the only violence in this taut seven-page story of street rules, deception and nasty surprises.

There are 23 three stories in four sections—Basic Black, Outlaws, Lovers and Chicanismo. One of the 23 is a poem (“The Smell of Onions”) but It starts with a line that is pure short story: “Shorty stumbled from the Rainbow Inn/Jenny would give him hell again.” That is a great opening couplet with a wonderful rhyme: and how can you not read more?

I particularly enjoyed Ramos’ first-person stories, like the whole chunk (Chapter 5) from “Desperado—A Mile High Noir” that is a stand-alone tale in the title story here, “The Skull of Pancho Villa.”  In first-person mode, Ramos goes into ultra-glide mode with his prose, so smooth and unassuming and laid-back. “You’ve heard the story, maybe read something about it in the newspaper or a magazine. How Pancho Villa’s grave was robbed in 1926 and his head taken.” This one is rife with the wry humor of Gus Corral, who may or may not be telling the truth.

Sprinkled throughout the stories are a few classic noir touches, like this one from “If We Had Been Dancing:”

“She licked the wet edge of her glass with a tiny pink tongue and did a move with her shoulders that could have been a dance step, if we had been on the dance floor, if we had been dancing.”

Ramos makes it look easy.

There’s no way to wrap these stories in one box with a neat bow, and that will keep you turning the pages. Some feature writers and lawyers (particularly in the “Bad Haircut Day,” a wonderful tale of street ethics) from mainstream society and several are creative, brisk sketches that show a poet’s heart. But when Gus Corral turns to the audience for a comment in “The Skull of Pancho Villa,” he sums up the feeling I get from many of the stories in this anthology, which gathers gems from nearly 20 years of Ramos’ works.

“Okay,” says Corral, “right about now you’re thinking, call the cops, Gus. Don’t be a pendejo. Let the law handle it. But see, you don’t live in my world, man. Where I come from, the cops aren’t your first line of defense. You didn’t grow up constantly squaring off against cabrones like Jessie. You never had to accept that every lousy week another clown would challenge your manhood and you would have to beat or be beaten.”

True fact—I don’t live in these worlds. But Ramos is our tour guide. And for that we can all be thankful. With extra hot green chile on top.


Craig Johnson – “Dry Bones”

Dry BonesI listen to Craig Johnson novels on audio for one reason: George Guidall.

George Guidall is the voice of Walt Longmire. He perfectly captures Longmire’s wise, calm inner workings. As fans of the main character know, Sheriff Longmire never gets too excited and Guidall shifts from general befuddlement to rising alarm to stubborn insistence in smooth fashion.

Together, Guidall’s narration—as natural as sitting around a campfire—is made that much more sublime due to Craig Johnson’s easy-going prose and the steady rhythms of his velvet narrative style. The pacing is exquisite, the details are wonderful, and the plot charges ahead on a natural roll. Nothing feels forced. Johnson’s prose is a master class in subtraction—only the needed details—and steady forward momentum.

I don’t know about other Craig Johnson readers, but I live for the colorful touches as much as the big plot. A pack of dogs is “the canine mafia.” A one-year old “escapes from everything like a miniature Houdini.” And at one point Vic smiles with “the kind of smile cats reserve for their dealings with mice.”

As reviewer Kevin Tipple and many others have pointed out, Johnson’s books and the television series “Longmire” are two different animals.  The books are first-person. They ride on Longmire’s big-world view. He has ample reason to be jaded and biting, but he’s open hearted. He’s in charge, sure, but nobody needs to know he’s the smartest guy in the fictional Wyoming county where he keeps order. He gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. Longmire’s feet are so firmly planted on the ground that he makes ghosts as real as the dogs, trucks and Vic’s colorful language. There are multiple double-meanings of ‘dry bones’ in this yarn (including a nifty lesson on cremation);  the best reference might be Longmire’s own marrow.

Unfortunately, the television show relies on a more traditional cop show mentality and, of course, can’t possibly let us in on the steady observations and attitudes that gives the books their fine style. It’s possible you’ve seen the show and don’t think you would enjoy the books. That would be a big mistake.  If anything, treat the television series like a gateway drug. (I’m writing this before getting a chance to see what Netflix does with the “Longmire” production; I’m hoping they open it up a bit and let it breathe.)

As stories go, Dry Bones is up there with my other favorite, Hell is Empty. The good news here is that Johnson isn’t mailing it in, despite the success of both the books and show. (I’d be surprised if he ever did.)

Dry Bones involves a gem of a plot ignited by two events. The first is the discovery of a complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton—and possibly one of the best examples ever found. The second is the death of Danny Lone Elk, whose body is found being nibbled by turtles in a fishing hole. Murder? Natural causes?

The fight over ownership and the future of the skeleton and the investigation into the murder (hey, we know it’s murder—this is a murder mystery series) are smoothly interwoven with Longmire’s warm humor and ability to endure a variety of ordeals that both man and nature hurl his way.  A subplot deals with the pending visit of Longmire’s daughter and granddaughter and then a tragedy back in Philadelphia adds a solid hunk of emotional weight, as if Longmire’s load wasn’t quite heavy enough.

There will no scenery chewing, however, nothing too over the top. Walt Longmire sucks it up, keeps moving right along.

Even given the most shocking news of all, Walt keeps it all in: “It’s a fact that the planet rotates at approximately 1,040 miles per hour, but there are those moments when the world just stops, magnetic poles be damned; you just stop the world with the weight of your own solitary gravitas.”

Listening to George Guidall, you’ll feel that “gravitas” right down in your own dry bones.


Previous reviews of Walt Longmire novels:

Serpent’s Tooth

Junkyard Dogs

Hell is Empty 

As the Crow Flies

Craig Johnson’s website

Q & A #30 With Gregory Hill – “The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles”

Lonesome Trials of Johnny RilesGregory Hill won the Literary Fiction category for the 2013 Colorado Book Award for  his first novel, East of Denver.

Earlier, that same novel had won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest (out of 5,000 entries).

Some time ago Greg stopped by this little old blog for one of the most colorful interviews you’ll ever encounter, print or audio or video .

And now he’s back.

The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles comes out later this week (launch event at The Tattered Cover on Thursday, June 4). I was fortunate to get a sneak peek.

A review follows, but first, Greg was kind enough to take again take on the challenge of answering some hard-hitting queries about his work.

He’s got a cautionary tale about the Amazon-related “fame,” some thoughts about city living and more than a few musings on the difficulty of recording his own audio book.

Saddle up and hang on.


Question: How is writing a novel like writing a song?

Gregory Hill: Before I answer that question, let me set the stage. I’m in a basement, where I’ve just begun recording the audio version of The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles. I’ve decided, in the great tradition of audio books, to do the entire thing from memory. If I seem distracted, that’s why.

Memorizing the text.

Memorizing the text.

To your question. Writing novels and writing songs are absolutely nothing alike. I can’t even think about songwriting when I’m working on a book. Then again, I hardly think about songwriting when I’m writing a song.

Question: Is it possible to burrow underground on the plains of Eastern Colorado?

Gregory Hill:  Certainly. Burrowing owls do it all the time.

My original goal with the audio book was to do it all in one eight-hour sitting, but I discovered that my temporal mandibular joints start to make distracting cracking noises after just forty-five minutes of reading. This is going to be more difficult than I anticipated.

Question: Okay, these two people. I mean, Johnny and Jabez have both found a way to enjoy isolation—or at least manage it. Do people need people? 

Gregory Hill: People need people. But I tell you what. People don’t need as many people as many people think. On a typical day in a city like Denver, you’re going to interact–indirectly or directly–with, like, a couple hundred people. Statistically speaking, at least twenty of those people are certain to be complete jackasses, and at least one situation (usually in traffic or in a line or any other place where humans and courtesy should intersect), one of those jackasses is going to act like a jackass and ruin your day. To deal with this, you learn to mentally dehumanize all the jackasses you run into. But then you become a desensitized jackass, thus continuing the cycle.

In rural areas, especially on isolated ranches and/or holes in the ground, one interacts with roughly zero people per day, thus reducing the number of potential jackasses to one, that being oneself. When, a person–for example, a depressed rancher who lives alone–encounters another person–say, a traumatized former Korean War Nurse who lives in a hole in the ground–then those two people can establish a certain je ne sais rien that bonds them together in a literarily satisfying fashion, especially when the aforementioned theoretical rancher has a really stupid brother.

Question: Can man survive on beer and whiskey alone? And were you a fan of the old ABA? Was it fun to do research about 1975 or is that all fresh in your head like it was yesterday?

Gregory Hill: I knew this guy who went three weeks on a Guinness-only diet. Six glasses spaced evenly throughout the day. He had to give it up because he was gaining too much weight. He’s in prison now.

I was only three years old when the ABA went kaput in 1976 so I don’t have any direct memories. But when I started watching the Nuggets in the early eighties, the NBA still had a ton of former ABA players and my big brother–who had followed the ABA–also frequently lectured me on the Tragic Tale of David Thompson.  Consequently, although the ABA was gone, enough of its artifacts remained for it to linger within the collective basketball consciousness for years. It’s like how, although the Beatles had broken up before I was born, Paul McCartney kept their essence alive via Silly Love Songs. I do not know if that previous sentence was sincere or sarcastic.

Speaking of sincerity, half the reason I set the book in 1975 was so I could make Johnny Riles a fan of “Horse With No Name,” the 1972 soft rock smash by America. People have been making fun of the lyrics to that song for forty years now. In the early seventies, Tom Waits famously (and allegedly) said, “How about, ‘I rode through the desert on a horse with no legs’?  That I can see.”

Say (or be accused of saying) what you want, Mr. Waits, but I love America, the band, especially their lyrics. The lyrics to “Horse With No Name” are perfect for this story. They’re the Rosetta Stone for understanding Johnny Riles.

Four hours into my audio book experiment, I’ve decided that it’s time for me to start drinking coffee, which I rarely do.

Getting a little extra oomph.

Getting a little extra oomph.

Question: What was the inspiration for Johnny Riles?

Gregory Hill:  I always wanted to write a western, but I never wanted to write a western western.  I wanted to write a psychedelic western.  As I came up with my outline for the book–an outline I would completely ignore–I made an effort to ensure that the characters and the story failed in every way to behave like a typical western. Consequently, our silent hero, Johnny, is depressed rather than bionic; the book does not contain a Most Beautiful Woman; and there are no gun battles. But there is a bloodthirsty poodle, which makes up for a great deal.

Oh, boy, coffee gives me headaches. And I’m reading way too fast. Chapters 24 thru 36 of the audio book are going to be very hard to listen to.

Question: Why do you feel drawn to Colorado’s eastern plains?

Gregory Hill:  Most of your interactions in the city are with other humans. The quality of those interactions becomes the basis of your happiness. Most of your interactions in the country are with nature and you can’t really get pissed off at nature. Nature isn’t malicious, it’s just nature.  Weather, for example, is rarely brutal on the plains, but it is frequently nearly-brutal.  Wind and hail and cold and hot and wind and wind. And you can’t escape it, because when a storm hits and the power goes out and you don’t own a cell phone, you’re all by yourself in a house two miles away from any other humans.  So you wait it out and tack up boards over the broken windows and contemplate the manner of your death.

Plus, there are some terrific musicians out there.

Question: Okay, you won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2011 for ‘East of Denver.’ How did winning that contest help your career—or not? What was it like working with Amazon during that time? It was well publicized that you would receive a $15,000 advance – which seems like a fairly decent investment in your career. Did Amazon get behind you?  I asked you this question when you were here last, in 2012. Has your view changed?

Gregory Hill:  The following answer may not actually address your questions.

With all due respect to my gift horse, when people start asking if your company is worse that Walmart, it’s time for some oral hygiene. To their eternal credit, the folks at Amazon who worked on the contest were genuinely concerned with helping out unknown writers. Alas, Amazon the Organization seems to be more concerned with avoiding sales tax and undermining small booksellers than it is with furthering the advancement of human expression.

So, yes, to answer a question you did not ask, I felt odd receiving that award from Amazon, but also, being desperate to get published, I never even considered declining it. Which means I feel guilty now.

Once Amazon wrote me the check (the largest sum of money I will ever receive for any of my creative endeavors), they were pretty hands-off. From there, I worked with Penguin, who published East of Denver as a consequence of partnering with Amazon on the contest. The experience was mostly pleasant, and I learned some terrific lessons about the book industry. I learned that, when an editor concludes an email with, “Let me know if I can help you with anything,” you should interpret it as, “Please don’t ever attempt to contact me again, unless you write a best-selling thriller.”

After Penguin sent me packing, I learned that if you include “Winner of the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award” on your query letters (the letters you send to publishers and agents in which you beg them to invest their time and money into your nutty novels) you are guaranteed to receive no response.  Independent publishers tend not to like Amazon. If you change it to read, “Winner of the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, but please don’t hold that against me,” you will receive a response roughly twenty percent of the time. Ninety percent of those responses will be, “No.”

However, one of those responses was yes and it came from Leapfrog Press. They’re small, they’re humans, they welcomed my advice on the book’s design, and they didn’t tell me to change the book’s ending (for the record, Penguin didn’t ask me to change East of Denver’s ending, either), and they’re fearless. It’s an honor to work with them.

Question: I happen to know you have cautionary advice for kittens. Care to share?

Gregory Hill: Keep ‘em away from great horned owls. I won’t go into the details, because I’ve found that people find those details disturbing. Just keep the kittens away from the owls. Life on the plains can be rough.

You know what else is rough? Reading a book from memory. Every time I make a mistake, I go back to the top and start again. I may revise that policy.

Question: Favorite writers – go.

Gregory Hill: Willa Cather, Jim Thompson, Arthur Koestler, René Daumal, Ishmael Reed, David Lee Roth.

Fifteen hours into the audio book and circumstances have deteriorated.  I’ve started drinking whiskey, which will surely help.

Question: What jokes are you going to tell at The Tattered Cover?  Also, what’s next from you in terms of writing?

Gregory Hill: I’ve been working on a series of racist jokes. Here’s one:  A racist walks into a bar. And everybody leaves, because racists are assholes. 

I’m well on my way toward finishing my next book, which is tentatively called Asynchronous Man. It won’t be called that forever, though. “Asynchronous” doesn’t roll off the tongue so much as tumble down the stairs. The book’s about a smart-ass amateur basketball referee who gets stuck in Eastern Colorado when time totally freaking stops. The whole book takes place over roughly ten minutes on the same day that East of Denver ends.  It’ll answer, more or less, a whole heap of questions that people have been asking me about East of Denver.  And I’m going to get a whole lot more questions with Johnny Riles because it’s even more ambiguous that East of Denver. Which means I’m also going to get a load of hate mail, too, which always makes my day. Right now, I’m wresting with what role aliens will play in the book’s ending.

I’m going to take a nap now and finish the audio book later this week.









Gregory Hill

Gregory Hill accepting 2013 Colorado Book Award

Audio Book



Words that come to mind about The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles by Gregory Hill: raw, untamed, gritty, bold, fantastic (in all its forms), spirited, lively and slightly, wonderfully crazy.

The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles is unforgettable. When you see that title some years down the road you’ll think, “oh yeah, Johnny, I wonder how he’s getting along?” You’ll remember Johnny and what he’s been through. You’ll wonder about his brother. You’ll certainly remember when Johnny was last spotted, getting down and low and going to unexpected places out on the gritty, windblown eastern plains of Colorado.

It’s 1975. It’s October. Johnny Riles is looking for arrowheads out along the Old Stinkum riverbed, now “just a stripe of moist stand with half-dead cottonwood trees lingering on either side.”  Johnny is on horseback and, not for the first time, he’s contemplating whether life is worth living. “Previous contemplations of this sort had always ended inconclusively and, on this particular occasion, I was having even less success than was customary.”

Yorick-like, Johnny finds a skull. This one is not a human, but it’s stuck in an ancient grave. And Johnny starts scraping the dirt and, given all the work, it’s a good thing Johnny has brought along a flask to help him endure the work. But the horse won’t take to carrying the skull and, well, bolts. Johnny is left alone, not for the first time, to his own devices.

By page four, we are deep in Johnny’s barren world. The earth is only in the early stages of giving up its secrets, including one of the most feisty, unusual creatures you’ve ever met.  (Nope, no more details here.)

The story is effortless. There is a natural, easy energy on every single page. There are flashes of magic and mysticism. Johnny’s world may be small, but there’s plenty of things to do, including figuring out where you belong—and how.

Johnny’s simple needs, in terms of alcohol consumption and family management, drive everything. He grows sweet on a girl named Charlie. He endures the visits and communications from older brother Kitch, who is getting his shot with the American Basketball Association (as a player with the Kentucky Colonels) and who is brashly attacking the big wide world—for all the obvious benefits (money and women).

Kitch sees “nothingness” in Johnny’s world. “It’ll drain your brain,” Kitch tells Johnny. “And the people. Ignorant, dumb, and racist. Not my type. I can only thrive in a free society.”

Of course, Johnny doesn’t see nothingness. In fact, he sees a busy landscape that feeds his soul. He’s open to possibilities. His needs are straightforward. He’s scrappy, nimble and goes with the flow. Whiskey helps. Like that first weird skull he spent time digging up, he’ll do whatever it takes to get the full story. He sees beyond the surface. He will burrow down the darkest hole for a shot at redemption and that very necessary human touch.

Q & A #29 With James Ziskin – Stone Cold Dead

Ziskin stone cold deadJump back in time with me now to the innocent years of 1960 and 1961 and imagine a tender, young female reporter working for a small newspaper in upstate New York.

Now, trash whatever bucolic image is in your head and start over with James Ziskin’s three novels about young (but not so innocent) Ellie Stone, who will out-bulldog the bulldogs. I met James at Left Coast Crime and got my hands on the second mystery in his series, No Stone Unturned, and then got to read the new one, Stone Cold Dead, that came out earlier this month.

These are rollicking, fast-paced books with what appears to be Ziskin’s signature style—a rich plot, a full cast of characters, and a dynamite ability to yank us all back to a time of hot lead and inky newsprint.  As James says in the Q & A below, he wanted “constant, realistic” conflict in the stories (and he delivers, like a fat Sunday edition).

A review of Stone Cold Dead follows.  (I previously reviewed No Stone Unturned here.)

By the way, the last Q & A with Tim Johnston presented the case of a pure seat-of-the-pants writer. Ziskin, however, is a meticulous plotter. Let the battle begin.


Question: Okay, we’ll start you off easy because you look like a decent guy. Why 1960, 1961? Do you enjoy the research?

James Ziskin: Thanks, Mark. And you’re quite tall.

In fact, I do enjoy the research. It means I can justify watching old TV shows and movies, listening to some great old music, and browsing through Sears catalogues and newspaper clippings that have nothing necessarily to do with my books. It’s all “background research.” Nostalgia plays a part in it, too; I love reading and writing about times gone by, but I chose the exact year of 1960 to accommodate an important subplot in the first book, Styx & Stone. I needed a fifteen-year gap between the end of World War II and the start of the story. The time also had to jibe with a much more limited role of women in the workplace. I wanted to set this series before the Women’s Liberation Movement and the sexual revolution. 1960 worked perfectly for that. And it’s the year I was born.

Question: No cell phones, no emails, no texting, no DNA evidence—how do you go about developing the evidence trail you’re going to use given the era you’re writing about?

James Ziskin: Before I begin writing an Ellie Stone book, I plot out the story, starting with the solution. I actually spend a great deal of time searching for that eureka moment, the piece of evidence that proves beyond a doubt who the guilty party is, even without modern technological aids. Then I work backward to outline the story. That way, I hope, the solution doesn’t seem forced or unbelievable. To the reader, the entire narrative should feel natural, as though everything I’ve written leading up to the end contributes to the conclusion, and I haven’t resorted to some kind of deus ex machina device or tacked something on at the last minute. So, in the case of Ellie, I can’t use techniques that more modern detectives might have at their disposal. Still, for her time, she uses what technology she can: her camera, for instance, and the telephone. But most of her digging is the old fashioned kind. The kind that gets her hands dirty: pawing through newspaper archives, public records, breaking a window here or there, and even raking her fingers through the mud of the victim’s makeshift, shallow grave. And, of course, Ellie uses people to solve her cases. She confronts suspects and asks them difficult questions that often get her into trouble.

Question: Ellie Stone—where did the inspiration come from?

James Ziskin: The genesis of the Ellie Stone mysteries came so long ago that I don’t rightly remember the exact moment. She’s not based on any real person, for sure. What I do recall is wanting to tell a story that provided constant, realistic conflict for my main character. Without conflict, there’s nothing at stake in the story. The fact that Ellie Stone is a young woman in 1960, trying to make it as a reporter instead of, say, a typist, gives me ample opportunity to show her butting her head daily against condescension or, worse, outright discrimination. In addition to the difficulty of solving a crime, Ellie has to prove herself constantly. Remember that at that time, many companies required their young female employees to be single, for fear that their husbands might make them quit or that they would leave to start a family. A double dose of lose-lose unfairness for women. That said, the world was about to change. 1960 is just two years before Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl came out, so there were certainly “modern girls” like Ellie at that time. But New Holland, the small upstate New York town where Ellie lives and works, is a provincial place, at least several years behind a big city like New York. 1960 in New Holland probably felt more like 1950 for a career girl. Maybe even earlier. That’s bound to create conflict and notoriety for Ellie in her community, which is good for the story.

James Ziskin PortraitQuestion: Care to share tips for writing across gender? Do you think the series would work as well if your reporter was a guy?

James Ziskin: Tips? Prepare to work very hard. Readers will challenge you on it. And learn about fashion. Just kidding. The Ellie Stone books are about solving crimes, not what she’s wearing. The thing I try to do when writing in Ellie’s voice is to imagine what a woman I admire would do in certain situations. How her gender and appearance might affect her behavior, and how the behavior of others toward her might affect her. I’ve learned a lot about empathy writing a female protagonist. I don’t think I do a perfect job, but I hope she’s a believable and likable character. And Ellie — a woman — is certainly the smartest, funniest character in the books. I think that’s supremely believable.

As for whether this series would work with a male protagonist, I think it might. But it would be about something totally different. Just another guy — even a fascinating guy — trying to solve crimes in 1960 and dealing with the difficulties the case presents. But it wouldn’t be about overcoming the other daily obstacles a woman deals with.

Question: One of the things I admire about both books (#2 and #3) that I’ve read is how well populated they are—Ellie runs into a lot of folks and lots of possibilities for both murder investigations. And that means (I imagine) that you must keep track of many stories within your story to make sure everyone is in the right place at the right time, partly because Ellie is so good at building timelines. How do you keep track of it all?

James Ziskin: With great care. (Smiles.) I love to provide a variety of suspects, even if some are eliminated from contention more easily than others. I like the blur that an investigator faces at the start of a case. No idea what’s happened. Who’s involved, why, where, etc. The fun, then, is following her as she sharpens the focus step by step, until all is clear. Many books today are more about how the good guy gets the bad guy, without much mystery about who the bad guy actually is. I actually love books like those, but the Ellie Stone Mysteries are a different flavor of crime fiction.

I keep track of the suspects by plotting them all on the book’s timeline. The timeline may change somewhat along the way if I come up with a better idea, and sometimes that will wreak havoc with who was where when. Once you’ve broken the original timeline, you’ve got to look very carefully for any connections or consequences that may have been severed as a result. For example, in No Stone Unturned the night of the murder presented lots of challenges for me. If one detail changed, e.g. the time the motel owner said the Late Show ended on TV, I had to go back and fix the arrivals and departures of everyone who visited Jordan Shaw’s motel room that night.

Question: Plotter or seat-of-the-pants writer? And why?

James Ziskin: Plotter. Have to be. Though I make changes to the plot during the actual writing process, think of some new scenes, come up with better ideas, the ending doesn’t change. Picture a Dorothy Sayers novel. The intricacies and importance of train timetables, the tides, who was seen where and when and by whom…That’s why I plot. I want to be that good, even knowing that I never will be.

Question: Most overlooked contemporary writer? Okay, doesn’t have to be the ‘most,’ but care to name one? Or two? Which writers inspire you? Favorite mystery writer?

James Ziskin: There are so many wonderful writers out there. So many great mysteristi I’ve met and whose books I’ve enjoyed over the past few years. But I would have to say that Lynne Raimondo, who writes the superb Mark Angelotti books (Dante’s Wood, Dante’s Poison, and Dante’s Dilemma) deserves a much larger audience. Among the smartest crime fiction you’ll read. I love her books.

For inspiration, I look to Dorothy Sayers, of course, and Graham Greene. Dick Francis, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, P. G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Twain, Melville, Hergé, Dante Alighieri, and Columbo. And countless others.

Question: Is Ellie going to keep making the world a better place? What’s next?

James Ziskin: Yes. Next up for Ellie is Heart of Stone (summer 2016 from Seventh Street Books), set on an Adirondack lake in August 1961. Drawn into the investigation of the odd diving deaths of two unrelated vacationers, Ellie wades into a slippery morass of gone-to-ground fellow travelers, free-love intellectuals, and rabid John Birchers. She navigates old grudges and Cold War passions, lost ideals and betrayed loves, sticking her nose where it’s unwanted and putting herself in jeopardy. But this time, it’s her heart that’s at risk.


James W. Ziskin is the author of the Ellie Stone Mysteries, STYX & STONE (2013), NO STONE UNTURNED (2014, nominated for the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original 2015), and STONE COLD DEAD (2015), all from Seventh Street Books. HEART OF STONE is due in summer 2016.

James Ziskin AMore about James Ziskin.



With a keen eye for details and the tenacity of a whole fleet of investigative reporters, Ellie Stone gives fresh definition to the meaning of relentless. She’s a reporter by job title and a crime solver at heart. Where the two mix, fine, but none of those other lazy reporters better try to step on her beat or pretend they’ve done the real work.

Stone Cold Dead picks up a few weeks after Ellie wrapped things up in No Stone Unturned and again Ellie gets her nose onto a case, this time of a missing girl.  In fact, it’s Ellie’s work and reputation at The New Holland Republic in upstate New York that has drawn the mother of missing 15-year-old Darleen Hicks to ask for Ellie’s help.

It’s 1960, spilling into 1961 and here’s where things get fun and the series gets memorable—enjoying the references to events and people of the era and watching a reporter at work in a much more straightforward time.

The writing zips along, matching Ellie’s easy energy. James Ziskin populates the story with a full-blown cast of possible suspects for Ellie’s consideration. Ellie is brash, fearless and, at times, a tad reckless. She’s had flings, and isn’t afraid of some fun, but her job swamps every other desire. She’s fussy about her music, her drink and her reputation.

At Ellie’s core is a sterling talent at building timelines around a crime and sorting through the dead ends, the dud players and the most obscure details. No wonder she “has a thing” for Paul Drake, the dogged TV investigator from the Perry Mason series.  Even when she’s “bruised like an old peach kicked down the hill,” she’s raring to go. Ellie Stone put the metal in mettle. She combines guts and brains as she  pieces together the whole story; these are stories for readers who relish a solid puzzle.

The Hicks case leads Ellie to high school, to neighbors, to reform school. She has a natural talent at getting people to talk. This time around, “real” reporting crowds her world—basketball games to cover, society pages that need work. (No surprise, she keeps her eyes and ears open during the detours, too.) She’s fends off stalkers, chats up sources, brushes off envious colleagues and dances around angry, skeptical editors. The themes touch on the changing roles and options for women and what they are—and are not—allowed to do. Chin up and questions ready, Ellie stays hard on the trail. It’s freezing outside but nothing is going to leave Ellie out in the cold.

Q & A #28 With Tim Johnston – “Descent”

new-Descent-cover-flat-smallerIn the Q & A below, Tim Johnston mentions one of my favorite writers and writing instructors, Ron Carlson.

And here is a quote from Carlson that nails, perfectly, why Tim Johnston’s novel Descent works so well.

“It is not my job to explain the story or understand the story or reduce it to a phrase or offer it as being a story about any specific person, place, or thing. My job is to have been true enough to the world of my story that I was able to present it as a forceful and convincing drama. Every story is a kind of puzzle. Many have obvious solutions, and some have no solution at all. We write to present questions, sometimes complicated questions, not to offer easy or not-so-easy answers. Do not be misled by the limited vocabulary the American marketplace uses to describe the possibilities for story and drama. If we’re really writing we are exploring the unnamed emotional facets of the human heart. Not all emotions, not all states of mind have been named. Nor are all the names we have been given always accurate. The literary story is a story that deals with the complicated human heart with an honest tolerance for the ambiguity in which we live. No good guys, no bad guys, just guys: that is, people bearing up the crucible of their days and certainly not always—if ever—capable of articulating their condition.”

So much to like in that Carlson quote, but Descent made me think more than anything, that not all emotions can be named. Johnston embraces the puzzle, embraces the ambiguity and celebrates the complications. It is not an ordinary book and should not be approached, despite a cover and title that make it look like a traditional thriller, as anything other than a thoughtful novel about lots of stuff that can’t be explained.

A review follows (in which I’ll quote Carlson again). First, Tim Johnston answered a few questions by email. Given his busy schedule with all the praise being heaped on Descent, his taking the time to answer my questions was much appreciated.


Question: Did you set out with the objective of demonstrating that the thriller genre needed a solid re-thinking in terms of pace and flow?

Tim Johnston: Absolutely not. In fact, I had no thoughts about the thriller genre whatsoever. All of my training, schooling, and ambition has been in the literary genre, and so I was just trying to write the best damn literary novel I could. That said, I also wanted the novel to be compelling; I wanted it to appeal to those readers who simply crave a great story. Mainly, though, I was interested in my characters—in making them as real, complicated, and flawed as they could be. That’s why this so-called thriller isn’t paced like other thrillers, especially in the first two-thirds of the book: because I wasn’t writing a thriller. In fact, the first time I heard that word applied to Descent was when early readers and booksellers began providing little reviews and blurbs. And then my publisher got on board, deciding to market the book toward that—let’s face it—considerably more lucrative audience, and out into the world the novel went.

That said, if Descent has some sneaky pace-adjusting effect on the thriller genre despite my intentions, I’m totally OK with that.  The down-side: a good number of veteran thriller readers are going to go, “What the hell’s with all this character-development crap?” and move on.

Question: At The Tattered Cover in Denver, you mentioned that you don’t plot out the book but rather that you follow the characters as the writing goes. For the dedicated plotters out there who need a thorough outline before they start write the first sentence, is the seat-of-the-pants approach something that can be taught?

Tim Johnston: The seat-of-the-pants approach can be taught in the sense that it can be suggested, and tried out, like any writing process. In my undergraduate Fiction Writing classes I have my students read Ron Carlson’s craft book Ron Carlson Writes A Story, in which Carlson describes his philosophy and practice of “process as discovery”: how the actual act of writing creates the story as you go. What the students—and I—get from watching this master go through the process of creating an entire short story out of nothing more than a memory (the time a mattress flew out of the back of his truck on the freeway), and in one sitting, is that writing compelling fiction is a leap of creative faith; and that if you know too much about where you want the story to go and what you want your characters to do and say, and you are determined to by-god have them do it, then you are not likely to be surprised by your own story. And if you are not surprised, then the reader is not likely to be surprised. Having everything figured out before you begin is kind of like clipping the wings of creativity before you begin.

But really, that’s just one philosophy of process. There are plenty of plotters out there creating wonderful compelling fiction. Every writer must figure out what process works best for him or her. And likely that process will evolve over time, along with the writer’s skills and voice.

Question: Can you describe a bit of what that writing approach is like for you? E.L. Doctorow says it’s like knowing that you’re driving at night and you can only see what’s in your headlights in front of you. You might know your destination, but you don’t care about what you can’t see. Sound about right? What questions do you ask yourself about the character and moment to keep going?

Tim JohnstonTim Johnston: The Doctorow description does sound about right. Having a destination in mind isn’t quite the same as plotting. It’s like taking off from Iowa and knowing you want to arrive in Los Angeles, but not spending too much time looking at maps, trusting instead in your own internal GPS and knowing that there is no wrong turn, really…or if you do take a road that peters out into a cornfield, say, you will find some other road to get you back on track. And the funny thing is, along the way you may find you no longer want to end up in Los Angeles; you may find you want to end up in the Rocky Mountains, instead. My approach is to take it one scene at a time, and to give my full attention to that scene, as if it were the most important moment in the book. I try not to think about where this scene is supposed to get me next: all I care about is the scene, and I know that if I focus all my attention and skills on getting the scene right—getting it real, getting it true—then by the time I reach its end, I’ll know where I’m going next. Which is, as Hemingway taught us, a good place to stop for the day.

Question: It seems to me that one of the central themes of the book is the role of ‘belief’ in shaping character and the power of ‘belief’ in an individual’s ability to manage tough situations. Yet there’s not a heck of a lot of religion (organized religion) in the story. (Did I miss something?) Was this in your mind at the outset—essential human belief, on its own—as something you wanted to explore?

Tim Johnston: Belief v. lack of belief as a theme arrived without premeditation or intent. As with the seat-of-the-pants plotting philosophy, it’s completely foreign to me to set out with themes in mind to explore. The themes, like the plot, arise out of the characters—who they are and what they do scene by scene. Later, when I have a first draft in hand, and if I have managed to recognize them, I might go back into revision with one eye on these themes, checking them against some kind of over- or under-doing it barometer, but mainly I don’t worry about it too much. Certainly, in this book or any other, I was not in the least bit interested in saying anything about organized religion. But it is hard not to broach the subjects of belief, faith, and God in a story where the faith of at least one of your primary characters smashes up against such a huge and inexplicable loss. Also, I think it’s human nature even for the least religious of us to question—or entreat—some larger governing force when faced with such cruelty.

Question: There’s one scene that is, shall we say, “off-screen.” I think you know which one. Yes, that one. (If you’ve read the book, you know which I’m talking about.) Did you try to write it?  Yes or no? If yes, why didn’t you keep it?

Tim Johnston: If we’re talking about the same scene—no, I never tried to write it out. I wrote more about the lead-up to the scene than now appears in the book, making it more obvious—too obvious—what was about to happen, but I never attempted to write the scene itself. I knew that the other characters in the book would only be able to imagine that moment, try to fathom its various psychological, emotional, and physical extremities from that one character’s point of view, and I wanted the reader to have to do the same.

Question: The term ‘page-turner’ is often billed as a positive. But, but, but… the middle of a good read don’t you want to slow the sucker down and sip every sentence? For me, ‘page turner’ means I know what’s happening so I’m flipping pages to minimize the pain. Okay, that’s not really a question.Thoughts? Were you going for a mix?

Tim Johnston: For me, ‘page-turner’ refers to the experience of being so caught up in finding out what happens next that the most beautiful and sippable sentences in the world aren’t going to slow you down—indeed there’s a frustration in your reader’s heart and mind: you know that there’s some lovely writing going on, you’d like to slow down and take note of the lovely sentences, but you are just too darn eager to find out what happens next. The truth is, I was far more interested in writing a good literary novel than I was in writing a so-called ‘page turner.’  Not to say I didn’t want the story to be gripping, but I spent a lot of time laboring over sentences and developing characters, and that process when you are in the middle of it for so long feels like anything but page-turnery.

Question: Most overlooked contemporary writer? Okay, doesn’t have to be the ‘most,’ but care to name one? Or two? Which writers inspire you?

Tim Johnston: I go back to James Salter’s short stories again and again. I just love how much life he gets out of a single sentence. I’m always surprised how few of my students have ever heard of him.

Question: In case you haven’t looked, your two previous works have generated a total of 21 reviews on Amazon while ‘Descent’ has drawn close to 600. So, what’s next?

Tim Johnston: What else? I am working on a novel that will generate 1,200 Amazon reviews!


Tim Johnston’s Website

Tim Johnston’s presentation at the Tattered Cover

Ron Carlson Writes A Story

‘The Signal’ by Ron Carlson

The Signal





‘Five Skies’ by Ron Carlson

Five Skies







A thoughtful thriller? Sure. Tim Johnston thinks so—and pulls it off. Descent says a high-stakes premise rides better on the back of solid prose. If you are contemplating reading this book and if you are reading reviews (like this one), there should be no doubt at all about what you’re getting into. Yes, there are several scenes of intense action and extreme jeopardy, including a harrowing scene where you want so desperately for one thing to happen and of course, it doesn’t. Yes, there are elements of strong suspense. But the thriller moments are interspersed with watching real human beings grapple with the fallout of watching a family member vanish.

The four characters at the heart of Descent are the four members of the Courtland family. They are our prism into the fractured world of grief. Mother, father, daughter, son. On a trip to the Rocky Mountains, daughter Caitlin, preparing for the track team in college, goes out for a morning run. Son Sean tags along on a bicycle. Only Sean comes back—and he’s been injured.

The portraits of the father and son, Grant and Sean, drive the heart of Descent. It’s their strikingly different reactions to Caitlin’s disappearance that create a mountain of compare-and-contrast thoughts as we read and watch and wonder. Descent is about suffering through a parent’s worst nightmare, of finding a way to endure, of finding a way to literally get lost or lose yourself in the process of trying to figure it out. Sean finds trouble—and drifts—but we see his heart. Grant searches and stays close to the investigation and search while Angela stays at home, in Wisconsin.

But between Grant and Sean we see two very different men, each propelled by raw and real emotions. Johnston takes fairly major risks, at least in terms of relentless chase toward a traditional resolution, by drifting far from the central issue of Caitlin’s disappearance. There are chapters with Sean that feel as if we have gone far afield from the central search for Caitlin, but the book covers years and, well, Sean’s world felt every bit as real to me as Grant’s. Which reaction makes more sense?

The characters’ actions and responses are grounded in the wonderfully varied qualities that make each person unique and that’s Johnston’s real gift, to put the singular Grant Courtland on the page, not just “desperate father of missing daughter.”

The big finish, as the blurbs might say, packs a wallop. By the time the nail-biting scenes come (and we know they will) we are so fully invested in these people that we care and we care hard.

The writer Ron Carlson said, “I always write from experience, whether I’ve had them or not.” Reading Descent I got the feeling that Johnston channeled the four Courtlands and understood, completely, how four different people would react to one of the most challenging situations imaginable.


Q & A #27 With Gwen Florio and “Missoula” by Jon Krakauer

Missoula CoverIf you read Missoula (and you should) you’ll run across the name Gwen Florio about as as often as the names of the victims and perpetrators and prosecutors and defense lawyers in this harrowing account of sexual assault and rape on college campuses today.

Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven) cites Florio’s work throughout this account.

Gwen Florio is a former reporter (37 years) who left the business in 2013 and now works as an adjunct professor at the very university that is one of the key entities covered in Missoula. Gwen is also a fellow fiction writer and full disclosure that we now share the same publisher (Midnight Ink). She’s visited this blog before to talk about her mystery writing, but after reading Missoula, I asked Gwen to answer a few questions for the blog about her role and thoughts about being part of the story.

A full review follows.


Question: Did you have any idea that Jon Krakauer would be relying so heavily on your original reporting for his book? When did you find out your stories would be referenced throughout?

Gwen Florio: None whatsoever. And to be fair, the book largely relied on the same documents that I had obtained, although—props to Krakauer—he got much more. I didn’t realize that he’d very generously given me credit until the book came out.

Question: So, what did you think of Missoula?

Gwen Florio: That’s an oddly tough question. Because I was so familiar with the material, much of the book was review for me, and I’ve been curious how readers who were new to the situation might respond. (Several have contacted me and told me they found it riveting.) I very much like two things about it. First, the aforementioned reliance on documents, which make this book the polar opposite of the execrable Rolling Stone story. Second, the national, and even international (I’ve seen stories in the Canadian and British press) conversation it’s prompted on this crucial issue.

Question: The book is called “Missoula” but there have been similar issues in at the University of Colorado in Boulder and recently from college campuses all over the country. From what I know, the events in Missoula are hardly outliers. Agree? What do you think of the title and how is the book going over in…Missoula?

Gwen Florio: I was grateful to Krakauer for making exactly that point; in fact, he takes pains to inform us that Missoula’s rate of sexual assault is a little lower than average. That said, it really steams me when I hear complaints that the book unfairly singles out Missoula. So often, and especially here in Missoula, people seem far more upset about the title than the issue at hand. The argument, “We’re no worse than anywhere else,” is pretty embarrassing.

Question: Is there a way to fix this? I mean, a way to improve the training and the whole process, investigation through prosecution? How about the collaboration between a university and the city police force? Should there be more collaboration?

Gwen Florio: One of the issues the book points out, and that I also wrote about in my stories, is that in at least one of these cases, the university ignored its own agreement with the city to immediately report potential felony cases to the city police. So, yeah–more collaboration, stat. To the credit of the city police, that collaboration was strengthened, and more training mandated, even before the federal Justice Department investigation was announced.

Question: Um … college kids, drinking and hormones. Go. (What if Missoula was required reading for all college freshman? And is this situation a football star, jock issue? Or more than that?)

Gwen Florio: I think it should be mandated reading, and I think it will be a cold day in hell on the UM campus when that happens. The university has really tried to distance itself from the book, which is a shame. They could have seized the opportunity to show continued focus and leadership on the issue.

As for it being a jock issue, certainly sexual assault cuts across all categories of students and non-students alike. I think the cases involving athletes got such attention because for many years, the university so aggressively defended athletes charged in any number of alleged criminal cases. It was common, for instance, for university administrators to call the newspaper and complain about the placement of stories involving athletes in trouble, but the phones stayed silent when we reported on other students accused of running afoul of the law. There was a sense that at UM, as with many schools, athletes were a protected class. To the school’s credit, since the hiring of a new coach and athletic director, we’re no longer seeing stories on a regular basis about jocks getting in trouble.

Question: Do you think anything has changed in Missoula since you started reporting on these cases three, four years ago? Have the police and prosecutors changed anything? Has the university done anything more to improve awareness among students?

Gwen Florio: Certainly there’s more awareness. The university now mandates a sexual assault awareness online tutorial for students, which is much maligned by those same students—it involves watching some videos and taking a quiz. Likewise the city has instituted some programs that are better received, including a series of “bystander intervention” public service announcements. The police have gotten much more training, and individual officers have told me they appreciate it. The advocacy program for victims has been strengthened. And, according to a U.S. Justice Department report released this week, sexual assault reports to the Missoula Police Department are up 54 percent since 2012, likely indicating that women are more comfortable coming forward. That’s good. What’s missing?


Gwen Florio

We don’t know yet if a higher percentage of sexual assault cases are being prosecuted, nor what the conviction rate might be. The report also found that “rape myths” remain distressingly prevalent.

Question: Without going into a great deal of it, it’s clear you took a great deal of verbal and online abuse for your reporting about these cases—how did you deal with it? Has the release of the book created another wave of anger?

Gwen Florio: Oh, for sure. Most of the recent vitriol is focused on Krakauer, although they’ve regurgitated their old complaints about me, too—and, far more graphically and disturbingly, the women who came forward to report these cases. During the height of the controversy over these sexual assault cases, especially when UM’s quarterback was on trial for rape—he was acquitted—things got really ugly. Lots of abuse of a sexual nature, some of it violent, and references to where I live, etc. Important point: Simply ignoring it, which is the most common advice, doesn’t work. I took to posting screen shots of the most egregious stuff on Facebook and Twitter, and after some initial wailing and moaning and gnashing of teeth among those writing this sort of crap, it quieted down to some extent. But for three or four years now, I’ve gotten anonymous letters in the mail (the address typed, cut out, and taped to the envelope; very old-school) from someone who has also contacted my book publisher, a local bookseller, my then-supervisors, and even judges, among others. The most offensive thing about those is the grammar; for example, “Your a dumb ass.” The incorrect your is bad enough. But everyone knows ‘dumbass’ is one word.

Question: Other than the fact your protagonist is a reporter, how has reporting informed your fiction writing?

Gwen Florio: Completely. Reporting forces you to observe how people look and act and, at least as important, how they talk. It throws you into fascinating situations, many of which never make it into newspaper stories but later provide fine fodder for fiction. Oddly enough, despite having spent a few years watching the mesmerizing, if frequently disillusioning, workings of our justice system, I haven’t written any court-based stories or even scenes. That probably needs to change.


Gwen Florio’s Books



I don’t know if it made any difference, but I listened to this in fairly intense fashion–the vast majority of it during an 800-mile road trip.

I have little doubt, however, that reading Missoula at a less frenetic pace would not lessen the cumulative jolt of being taken inside these powerful cases of college campus acquaintance rape and watching the very dramatic human fallout that results.

The themes in Missoula are manifold. Star systems for prized gladiators a.k.a., football players. Dual systems of justice with the university procedures and bureaucracy on one hand, the “outside” world’s laws and judicial bureaucracy on the other. Politics and subjectivity. Training and bias for investigators and prosecutors. Sex, drinking, rights of passage, entitlements, expectations, fitting in. And, in both the college-track prosecution and the criminal justice system itself, escape-hatch appeal opportunities that make a joke out of all the “process” that went before it.

Beyond the procedures of prosecuting date rape, Missoula captures the heavy, draining emotional training on all involved, particularly, of course, the women.

We have all read about how difficult it is for women to step forward following a rape, but Missoula makes it palpable and then shows us the agony involved, blow by blow and step by step. Why would there be confidence in the system when it’s this messed up? Krakauer makes a convincing case that the systems are not prepared, college campus and alcohol issues or not, to handle these cases. The vast majority of reported rapes are not prosecuted successfully.

Missoula dives deep into a spate of high-profile rapes on the campus of the University of Montana between 2008 and 2012. The attackers were football stars in a town that is nutty for the sport. Krakauer unspools the series of decisions that are behind the formal processes at the college and city level. The college comes across looking like a swift, decisive organization, no doubt with some quirky elements to its system. The consequences of the university’s decisions are plenty severe, especially for athletes in the limelight. When it comes time to describe how the criminal trial proceeds, Krakauer points out (and doesn’t have to point too hard) that trial rules these days and courtroom behavior make it easy for a defense attorney to mislead and confuse and jury. You read this thinking, can’t we make this a bit more fair? A bit?

One case involved a football player who linebacker named Beau Donaldson who pled guilty to having raped a young woman who he had known since grade school. She was sound asleep when she woke to find him mid-assault. (Missoula is quite graphic.) The other involved Jordan Johnson, the star quarterback who maintains throughout long negotiations and trial that the sex was consensual.

Missoula stresses the “acquaintance” or “non-stranger” elements here that make matters confusing–the nature of the relationship leading up to the assault, brief moments that might have been misinterpreted before the attack and how the women in each instance chose to handle the moment, particularly in their decisions to not shout out or being more forceful. However, “decisions” might not be the right word; more like “reactions.’ The football players, of course, had the size and strength advantages. In Jordan’s case, the woman involved had a male roommate not too far away on the other side of a closed door.

I won’t give away here how the prosecutions of Donaldson and Johnson ended up, but clearly claims of having a good character, no matter ample evidence that otherwise decent people have committed rape, does play a role in minimizing the penalty for one of the two.

Is the system capable of changing? I know Krakauer must think so. I’d like to think so. From Ferguson to Baltimore to Missoula to Vanderbilt University, there are certainly ample opportunities to show that new training and new approaches might yield better responses to how police and prosecutors engage with a crime, or any encounter on the street, from the very first moment.

I completely agree with the New Yorker review, by Margaret Talbot, that “Krakauer’s timely book is also a reminder of a crucial point that a subset of students evidently need to learn: a person who is too drunk to stand or walk properly, who is vomiting or passed out, cannot consent to sex.”

This is gripping, must-read book.