Q & A #33 With Stephen and Joyce Singular – “The Spiral Notebook”

Spiral Notebook CoverOn the night of July 19, 2012 my wife and I decided to sleep outside in our side yard to stay cool. We live in the Stapleton neighborhood, in east Denver where the airport was located before the city opened DIA. Late that night, I heard sirens wailing. And wailing. I couldn’t sleep and remembered worrying and wondering what it could be.

By morning, we knew. All the stations were covering the story non-stop.

The terrible chapter in Metro Denver’s history drew to a close (or semi-close) earlier this week when Judge Carlos Samour Jr. sentenced James Holmes to the maximum time in prison possible for the unimaginable massacre at the Aurora movie theater. The sentence spans millennia. There is no possibility of parole. He killed 12 people, including one six-year-old. He injured 70 others, including one four-month-old hit by gunfire. Pure, utter horror.

How we actually wrap our heads around this crime is something I don’t understand.

Of course, the story isn’t over. And, of course, this was in no way, shape or form an “isolated incident.” As the Holmes’ trial was winding down, in fact, another shooter killed two people in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana. Locations of the shootings aside, we are in the middle of an epidemic—something that Stephen and Joyce Singular make all-too-painfully clear in their new book, The Spiral Notebook—The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth.

It’s a must-read for all thinking citizens about the kind of society we have built for ourselves and what kind of society we can leave for our children.

A review follows. First, Stephen and Joyce Singular kindly answered some questions about their work. Full disclosure that they are both good friends but I stand behind every word of my review and, friends or not, think this book is something every voter, citizen, taxpayer and policymaker should read. And absorb. And develop a plan so we can do better.


Question:  Well, since the book came out before the trial was complete, I guess the first obvious question is, what did you think of the a) verdict and b) the jury’s decision regarding life in prison?

Stephen and Joyce Singular: The final verdict of life in prison was stunning. Joyce was in the courtroom when this was announced and said it was one of the most dramatic legal proceedings she’d ever witnessed. The prosecutors looked downright shocked, as they’d basically spent three years and many millions in order to put James Holmes to death. Because the jury had voted not to accept any mitigating factors in the sentencing phase of the trial, it seemed like a slam dunk that Holmes would be given death. One juror held out against this and that’s all it took. We too were very surprised and somewhat relieved, despite the carnage Holmes had created. One of the most interesting quotes in the book came from a Denver therapist saying that Holmes, the former PhD student in neuroscience, should not be executed, but put to work — examining and articulating how he came to commit his crime and perhaps being able to help others. We thought this was a good idea and the verdict kept open that possibility.

Question:  Colorado Public Defender Doug Wilson said in an interview (in the Denver Post) that “there are no winners” with the result of the trial. Do you agree?

Stephen and Joyce Singular: There are no winners, except perhaps for one. This case has given America a chance to look more closely at the issue of mental illness and at how many times it’s been the underlying reality behind these mass shootings. In the months before the crime, Holmes tried to help himself by seeking out therapy and returning to these sessions seven times. Each time he told his psychiatrist that he had thoughts of killing “a lot of people.” Amazingly, this high-level mental health professional did not take this threat very seriously – or seriously enough to have him held for the mandatory 72 hours so he could be detained and examined. Holmes told others that he had these same thoughts. We’re gradually learning, or trying to learn, that when disturbed people talk about committing violence we need to listen and then to act. This case is the cautionary tale of what can happen when people simply ignore the problem. The good that can come from the Holmes trial is that it can raise awareness around the mental health issue, as it has already done in Colorado. That at least is a starting place.

Question:  One of the themes that comes out in The Spiral Notebook is that generation born in the 1950’s and 1960’s has no idea what life is like for those who were born in the 1980’s and 1990’s, given a host of changes. There’s a sense of numbness to the violence among the younger generation, at least based on your son’s reaction to the Aurora theater shooting, and also a sense that these events can be anticipated and are part of a broader “cultural perspective” as you write in one interlude. If it’s cultural, in fact, isn’t that a bleak prospect for where we are headed with these kinds of events?

Stephen and Joyce Singular: Rather than seeing it as bleak, or just bleak, we’ve seen as a wake-up call for the culture as a whole. We believe that the killers are trying to tell us something about their inability to cope, and that it’s time to listen to them rather than simply dismissing them as evil people. This certainly holds true for Holmes. He not only actively sought therapy, but sent his spiral notebook to his psychiatrist on the afternoon before his crime so that she could perhaps help the next troubled and potentially violent young man who came to her seeking help. These are not crimes of passion or for any personal gain. They are social crimes, committed by people who can’t find an alternative to violence within themselves. It would be very good to see a politician or even President Obama himself stand before the country after one of these events and not talk just about gun control, but also about alternatives to violence throughout our culture. There’s still a stigma about talking like this for fear that others will see you as weak. Holmes didn’t tell his parents what he was going through in the run up to his crime. Instead of showing them his vulnerability, he showed them mass violence. It’s time to address the stigma and start to break it down.

Question:  From the morning after the shootings to today, I’m wondering what was the most rewarding aspect from all the research and writing you put into this project? Like the victims who survived, the families of those who were killed and all those involved in the case, you’ve had to live with this for a very long time. What was the benefit, the good side of digging into this issue and spending so much time thinking about it?

Stephen and Joyce Singular. Photo by Kerry Ransom.

Stephen and Joyce Singular. Photo by Kerry Ransom.

Stephen and Joyce Singular: One good side was communicating in depth with our son about all of these issues, which we did throughout those three years of writing the book. We didn’t know what he thought and felt about any of this until we began a dialogue with him. Another good thing was getting to know a number of mental health professionals who feel strongly that throwing drugs at every problem or person who comes in the door is often not the most effective treatment. There’s more resistance out there to the onslaught of pharmaceuticals than we realized – and that’s encouraging. A third good thing was interviewing a many very bright and concerned young people who want social change and want to see new thinking and new solutions around these issues. They may have been upset about certain things, but they weren’t cynical. Their intelligence and creativity were heartening to see and speaking with them was one of the most rewarding parts of researching The Spiral Notebook.  You get the feeling, in fact, that they are far ahead of the politicians today. Anyone with this understanding could make political hay.

Question:  The list of mass shootings linked to psychotropic drugs that you include on pages 238 and 239 is, to say the least, depressing. The combination of these prescriptions along with the fairly access to weapons is, obviously, beyond toxic. We know how intractable the gun rights issues have become, did you find any evidence of improving the process for prescribing these drugs to certain types of individuals?

Stephen and Joyce Singular: As noted above, we met a number of mental health experts who questioned the overuse of these drugs. This was very encouraging. What we were trying to do in the book was not to provide all the answers, but to start a conversation about this subject and this ongoing American tragedy. These events occur, they are followed by shock, everyone decries the shooting and the shooter, and then we move on. Moving on is not helping solve the problem. We want politicians, teachers, media people, clergy, and others to look at the endemic nature of the violence in our culture. We want people to see their own connection to this reality. We were trying to explore the subject as a social phenomenon, not as just an individual problem. As we’ve said again and again, when mass shootings happen, we tend to look at the aberrant individual. But what in our culture may be aberrant and is contributing to this new and deeply disturbing reality?

Question:  What’s changed in your relationship with your son Eric?

Stephen and Joyce Singular: Doing the book, we began speaking to him more openly and freely than we had in years. He told us about his inner life – the thing that James Holmes could not do with anyone — and that was good for all of us. The point of the book is right there. Until you talk to people about all of this, you don’t know what they think or feel — and they often don’t see their connection to the issue until the communication starts. We wanted to try to create this dialogue on a bigger level because the emotional piece of this subject is too often ignored. Gun control is a good thing. So is self-control and self-awareness. We’re all a part of the mass shooting phenomenon and can all be victimized by it.

Ignoring the mass violence issue, as much of our culture has done, hasn’t made it go away. Talking about this difficult topic, as we did with our son, opened up whole new realms for us to explore as both parents and journalists. That was very rewarding.

Question: What advice would you give parents who are trying to be more in touch with their children today?

Stephen and Joyce Singular: Simply ask questions and then listen. Go below the surface, which is where we live now in too many circumstances. Don’t be satisfied with the first answer. Or the second. Dig a little. Dare to imagine that you can learn things you never envisioned learning. Your children are growing up in a new world from only a few years before and they may be able to teach you a lot.

Question: The damage being done by these kinds of shootings is more harmful than an external terrorist group, but we hear of no major political leader or candidate putting together a package of ideas to address it. What’s it going to take?

Stephen and Joyce Singular: Courage and vision. The politicians are so far behind this curve that it’s startling. A vacuum exists around this subject and someone stepping into that vacuum and being willing to speak about it openly would likely find an audience. The issue isn’t just mass shootings. It’s about trying to find alternatives to the gun violence that permeates America and kills tens of thousands of our citizens each year. We still have a macho mentality around the value of violence to solve complex problems, from the very top of our government on down. This could be the next big door that some public figure pries open. There are reasons that America is so much more violent than many other developed countries. It’s time to explore this in a public way.

Question:  Overall, what has the reaction been to The Spiral Notebook?

Stephen and Joyce Singular: It’s been good and thoughtful. People might think this is a book about violence, but it is far more about our culture at this time and the social forces that are shaping these shooters and the young. When people read the book, they frequently comment on how it is not what they expected. As said earlier, we’d like to kick the dialogue around the book into the political and educational and religious realms. All of these people abhor mass violence – when do they start addressing these issues?

Question: With Holmes facing life in prison, do you think there is a chance he might one day be able to communicate about his thought process that led up to the shootings?

Stephen and Joyce Singular: That is our hope. That is why not giving him the death penalty could be a good decision. He is probably the brightest of all the shooters and the most educated – and one of the very few who survived his crime. He might be able to tell us more about his descent into violence than any other shooter has. He might be able to end his isolation – and someone else’s who starting down that same path.

Question: What’s next for you?

Stephen and Joyce Singular: St. Martin’s is publishing our book, Shadow on the Mountain, in the winter of 2016. It’s about an infamous case involving a renowned Denver doctor and a socialite murdered in Aspen in 2014. For those who like mysteries and a few dangling threads at the end of the story, this one fits the bill.


Related links:

Stephen Singular

Previously reviewed by Stephen Singular:

The Wichita Divide (also published as A Death in Wichita).

Wichita Divide








Unholy Messenger – The Life and Crimes of the BTK Serial Killer

Unholy Messenger









Review: The Spiral Notebook

When the trial finally drew to a close on Wednesday, Aug. 26 (2015), the judge who sentenced James Holmes to 3,318 years in prison did nothing to stop the applause and cheering. Twelve individuals had been killed, including one six-year-old girl. Seventy others were hurt, including one four-month-old baby. More than three years had passed since the awful night in July of 2012 in Aurora, Colorado. “Get the defendant out of my courtroom,” said the judge in a rare display emotion. The applause began. The judge, for once, did not ask for an orderly courtroom. The case was over.

If only this was a rare event, we might be able to move on.

It’s not.

The Spiral Notebook—The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth, by Stephen and Joyce Singular, starts with the James Holmes case and steps back, in a very big and very helpful way, to examine “the cultural and emotional forces” driving young shooters across the country.

Read the book and you will have a good overview of the events and timeline leading up the night of horror. More importantly, you’ll come away with a growing awareness of the complex array of factors, influences and pressures around this particular incident. (Incident sounds so minor; I mean in one in a series and in this case one in a series of utter tragedies.)

Holmes’ case is fascinating in one particular aspect—he was in the process of studying the brain and its functions at a very high level at the University of Colorado’s Nueroscience Program. Six months or so before the shooting, in fact, James Holmes gave an oral presentation about the nervous system of the lobster and how neurons create behaviors in the lobster’s stomach. A professor tells the Singulars that Holmes “was good at conducting complex scientific experiments and analyzing data.”

This fact alone makes Holmes’ case unique but in so many other ways, his act of violence was typical, as the Singulars point out. His age was typical, his skin color was typical, his involvement with psychotropic drugs was typical, his heavy immersion in video games was typical, his easy access to weapons and bullets was typical, his ability to live two completely separate lives was typical, his hidden depression was typical. About the only unusual detail? He surrendered easily and without hurting or killing himself.

At least one “authority” was aware that James Holmes was displaying “increasingly disturbing signs” a few months before he carried out his attack. In 2005, Dr. Lynne Fenton entered the psychiatry residency program at the University of Colorado-Denver. In fact, she became the chief resident at UCD. Later, she was hired as the director of mental health services for students at the Anschutz Medical Campus (University of Colorado) and later still made an associate professor of psychiatry. Schizophrenia was her primary interest. James Holmes was one of her patients and it was her name on the address when James Holmes wrapped up his detailed diary, the spiral notebook itself. Holmes broke off his relationship with Dr. Fenton shortly before enacting his horrific plan.

Dr. Fenton knew James Holmes was dangerous and took steps to protect the university. She had his key card deactivated and he left the program. Holmes’ last meeting was one month and nine days prior to the attack. “Holmes was no on his own—untethered from his research and his school and no longer under the care of a psychiatric professional,” the Singulars write. “He was isolated to a degree he’d never been before in Aurora, if not in his whole life. The daily interactions with classmates and professors were gone, and he had no known social circle or close friends. His attachment to a normal routine had been severed.”

In beautiful, calm and straightforward prose, the Singulars explore how Holmes bought 6,300 bullets. They talk with a CU professor who realized the shooter was the young man he knew from campus. They look at the stew of drugs that Holmes took—some self-prescribed, some prescribed, including the antidepressant Zoloft. They talk to a mental health clinical pharmacy specialist and pscyho-pharmacologist about the Attention Deficit Disorder so-called ‘epidemic’ and the anti-anxiety drug Klonopin. And they quote, sometimes extensively, from teenagers and young adults today who view these issues through a different prism.

In one of several powerful “interludes,” they take a cue off their son’s words like “isolation” and “dystopian” and write a beautiful essay about the state of cultural violence in the United States today. They explore the definition of sanity and they make keen observations about the legal process and its protracted, deliberate and ultra-careful processes—including the delicate balance of patient’s rights in the context of such a trial involving such a horrendous crime.

“Never had lawyers worked so hard to keep the general population from learning anything about the mind or the emotions of a mass killer,” they write. “Never had it been more difficult to get beneath the façade of a crime in which nearly every pertinent physical fact was already known and there was no question of guilt or innocence: James Holmes was the shooter. Never had the public interest been greater, because the American populace not only paid for the legal system, and was not only called upon to serve on juries, but it kept getting terrorized and maimed and murdered by those with significant health issues.”

If for some reason you don’t believe there is really an “epidemic” along these lines, I suggest opening The Spiral Notebook to pages 238 and 239 for a reconsideration. The Spiral Notebook asks, and asks in convincing fashion, for us all to step back and take a much bigger look at a complex and deeply disturbing trend that has shaken far too many communities to their core. When a shooter opened fire in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana as the Holmes trial was winding down (in that case, two people were killed), the mayor asserted something to the effect of “We are Any Town, U.S.A. This doesn’t happen here.”

And that’s just the point. It does happen “here.” Or anywhere. The Spiral Notebook makes a compelling case that “here” is everywhere. And it’s time for everybody to stop and decide if we’re going to keep on enduring these kinds of horrors or, perhaps, do something about them.


Phil Klay – “Redeployment”

RedeploymentI think every single taxpaying citizen of the United States should read the short story “Redeployment.”

Why? I suppose to stop and think about what we are asking men and women to endure and how we are asking them to change who they are in order to do what they need to do over there in a distant place we’d really rather not think about.

For me, the attitude that’s caught in the title story so clearly captures what must be a grueling transition from battle zone to, say, trying on clothes at American Eagle Outfitters.

“You don’t see or hear like you used to,” says the narrator of “Redeployment” once he’s back. And shopping. “Your brain chemistry changes. You take in every piece of the environment, everything. I could spot a dime in the street twenty yards away. I had antennae out that stretched down the block. It’s hard to even remember exactly what that felt like.”

I don’t know what it’s like to come back from war, but I’ve read plenty of fiction along those lines and some non-fiction, too (including Helen Thorpe’s brilliant Soldier Girls.) I thought the movie version of “Unbroken” (based on Lauren Hillenbrand’s book of the same name) ducked the most stunning chapters of all, when after all the trials he had endured Louis Zamperini faced the biggest hurdle of all: re-adjusting to life in the United States. He barely survived. Again.

In one brief short story, “Redeployment” nails that in-between mental state. It’s one of the most powerful short stories I’ve ever read. (In order to shoot something, by the way, it’s easier if you focus on the sights and not the targets. Good luck holding it in at the end.)

And that’s just for starters.

All 12 stories in this collection by Phil Klay focus on soldiers or veterans of the Iraq war and they are written in an unassuming, non-flashy, desert-dry style. In the end, you’re left with a kaleidoscope of perspectives with an underlying flavor: this makes no sense. (The collection won the National Book Award for good reason.)

“Prayer in the Furnace” grabbed me almost as powerfully as the title piece. It’s narrated by a Catholic priest and Marine Corps chaplain who is looking for answers himself and who believes some soldiers are not being as careful as they should about distinguishing between civilian and military targets.

A major tells him it’s a “morally bruising battlefield.” The higher-ups don’t listen. Essentially, “this is war.” The priest tries to confront the issues head-on in sermons but the soldiers don’t want to hear it; they aren’t impressed. When the company returns, 16 soldiers have lost their lives. The ones who live kiss their wives or girlfriends on arrival and hold their children. “I wondered what they would tell them. How much would be told and how much could never be told,” the narrator thinks.

In planning the memorial service for all sixteen soldiers, the priest finds himself struggling to write “something satisfactory” but can’t find the words. “I wrote an inoffensive little nothing, full of platitudes. The perfect speech for the occasion, actually. The ceremony wasn’t about me. Better to serve my function and pass unnoticed.”

“Prayer in the Furnace” is devastating and, like the title stories and all the others in this collection, sharply contrasts the world of war with the world of non-war, where platitudes are enough. Over there, brutality can’t go unexplained or unexplored. Phil Klay’s stories make a convincing case that we need to sit up and pay attention to what we are asking people to do and what we are asking them to endure.


Q & A #32 With David Corbett – “The Mercy of the Night”

The Mercy of the NightI first encountered David Corbett at Left Coast Crime in Colorado Springs (2014) as he delivered a terrific three-hour class on developing character in fiction.

Later, I read The Art of Character—Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film and TV  and frequently refresh myself on its contents. I reviewed it here.

Corbett sat on a few panels at Left Coast Crime in Portland earlier this year, including a memorable one about clichés. I finally got around to reading one of Corbett’s highly praised novels, The Mercy of the Night, and found it (surprise) character-rich.

It’s a gem.

David was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work and his process. In his first answer, Corbett brings up the death of his wife, Terri, from ovarian cancer in 2001. If you want to read about Terri, and also check David’s ability to tell a powerful story, visit this reflection on David’s page.

As you’ll see, David’s experiences run deep. So do his thoughts about writing.

A full review of The Mercy of the Night follows.


Question:  Okay, I’ll start with a kind-of a jumbled-up question: With all your years as a private investigator did you encounter people you wished you could turnaround? Or help turnaround? Since Phelan Tierney knows a thing or two about starting-over, was that one of the underlying themes you wanted to explore?

David Corbett:  There were people I wish I could have helped more—defendants who went down hard on pot smuggling charges, for example, whose incarceration served no thinking person’s idea of justice. But the theme of turning someone around first occurred to me when I realized, much as Phelan does in the book, that I was blind to my own unconscious obsession with somehow “turning around” my wife’s death. I had no conscious awareness I was doing this—trying to help women in terrible marriages as a way to somehow magically obliterate the reality of Terri’s death—and when it dawned on me I was ding that, it created a very unpleasant shock.

As for helping people in criminal trouble turn themselves around, I probably got the idea for that through my interactions with former bank robber-turned-memoirist Joe Loya (The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell). Joe’s become a close friend and he openly admits his criminal inclinations remain; he’s just better at controlling them now because he has a stable marriage and a beautiful daughter who means the world to him. But he had to grow to that point of personal confidence and trust in others.

And that’s very much what the book is about. The first step in turning someone around is getting them to believe that someone who’s trying to help doesn’t have his own selfish agenda.

Question:  Your main characters, I would suggest, are keenly aware of competing loyalties. The heart of the book is the interaction between Phelan Tierney and Jacquelina Garza as they choose their path forward at this critical crossroad. Agree? Were the layers and complications in place before you started writing or did they develop as you wrote?

David Corbett:  The competing loyalties lie at the heart of the trust issue. Why trust someone if he has other obligations that may force him to betray you? I think maturity lies in recognizing this is always the case—everyone has competing loyalties—and no trust is or should be absolute. But that doesn’t mean you have to live in cynical isolation. At the book’s start Jacqi is totally convinced that no one deserves the truth. It takes her a while—and a considerable amount of grief—to get to where she realizes that her lies have created a form of prison far more insidious than the one she escaped from at age eight. Phelan guesses at that even if he doesn’t know all the circumstances. He can see the girl needs to be able to lean on someone who won’t betray her. Interestingly, it’s only once he has a compelling, competing loyalty that she finally does let down her guard. Now that he has to balance his commitment to her against his promise to someone else, he becomes trustworthy.

Question:  The Mercy of the Night isn’t labeled as anything–a mystery, a crime novel, a literary novel, suspense, anything. It seems to be all of the above–like the best of Richard Price, Geore Pelecanos or Elmore Leonard. Tired of labels and categories? Have they grown meaningless? Are you thinking in any particular structure when you start?

David Corbett:  Well, that’s very flattering company, and thank you for comparing the book to their work. Those are three writers who’ve influenced me a great deal—along with Robert Stone, Ross Thomas, Dennis Lehane, and Kate Atkinson. I don’t set out to write a crime novel, per se. I primarily focus on the social and interpersonal problems that create crime or arise in its aftermath. It’s never about the crime for me, but the people damaged by it. And I’m a firm believer that compassion trumps justice, though not absolutely.

Categories are largely marketing tools, so publishers can cater to reader expectations. But the best books, to my mind, always blur the lines. If all you’re doing is catering to reader expectations, you’ll fall prey to formula. And that’s how you get trapped in a clichéd structure that fails to serve either the characters or the story. I think all three writers you named—and the others I added—focused primarily on character, and let their characters create their stories. That’s why their work defies easy categorization.

David Corbett Promo 5 300 PPI 500 pixels highQuestion:  What’s merciful about the night?

David Corbett:  The line’s from a song by Guy Garvey, the singer for Elbow, which is about dealing with grief and sadness, and accepting that sorrow is inescapable. I believe that mercy emerges from acceptance, in particular acceptance of our limitations, our fallibility, our mortality, our need for connection with others. Recognition of the necessity for that kind of acceptance often only comes at a very dark hour.

Question:  You don’t treat secondary characters like secondary characters. In addition, the novel is well-populated. How do you approach writing about the supporting roles?

David Corbett:  I’d like to say I have a deliberate process, but often I simply ask the obvious question: who needs to be there? As I develop the characters I often ask how they are affecting the main characters—are they aiding or abetting whatever progress the main characters are making toward greater insight or honesty or courage? But my general approach is to always give my characters the freedom to surprise me, to betray my own expectations of what they might think or say or do.

Question:  About Jacquelina Garza–were you ever involved in locating a key witness, bringing her out of the shadows to testify? Who (or what situation) inspired Jacqi?

David Corbett: Jacqi wasn’t based on anyone in any of my own cases. Her story is based partially on that of a girl named Midsi Sanchez, who was the second of two girls abducted by Curtis Dean Anderson. MIdsi escaped after three days and helped police track down Anderson and then prosecute him. But her own life went into a tailspin after that, and the family came undone as well. I knew an FBI agent and several police officers who worked the case, and gained some insight into what Midsi went through. But I also took her situation in a different direction. Someday MIdsi will tell her full story. In the meantime, Jacqi got to tell hers through me.

As for bringing someone out of the shadows to testify—no one wants to testify. Every time you have to ask someone to get up on the witness stand you’re asking a lot, and everybody knows it. I’d say, though, that getting witnesses to come forward in the People’s Temple trial, where just admitting you’d been involved with Jim Jones could get you ostracized or even fired, was particularly rough. I bonded with several of those folks. As it turned out, none were called to testify, but they were willing to do so if called upon. I admired that.

Question:  In The Art of Character, you make a convincing case that writing a novel starts with looking inside yourself. You quote Chekhov: “Everything I learned about human nature I learned about me.” Tierney seems on a mission to get people, particularly Jacqi, to be honest with themselves, to understand what they want and why they want it. There’s not really a question here, just a series of thoughts but honesty seems like a key theme in The Mercy of the Night–honesty as a forgotten virtue, in a way, keeping it real. (Tell me if I’m wrong.) Do we teach our children to lie? Okay, I’m done. Your turn.

David Corbett:  The phrase “we teach our children to lie” is the key insight of one of the main characters at a crucial moment in the story, and it begins his turn toward a better self. I think the motive to protect children often obliges a sort of cynicism concerning virtues such as honesty and kindness and courage. They’re all well and good in stories but “in the real world” you “have to do what you have to do,” which is just a sanctimonious (and tautological) way of justifying selfishness, cowardice, and deceit.

As for The Art of Character—I try to get my students to resist the trap of writing stories about stories, i.e., dressing up old tropes in new clothes and thinking that’s all there is to telling a story. By getting them to focus on key moments in their own lives, episodes that might prove the germ of a truly interesting story, I try to move them beyond the realm of conventional thinking and instead ground them on honest awareness and emotion.

Question:  Does a writer who has written a guide book to writing ever refer to his own work? Or a guide book by another?

David Corbett:  I referred to my own work for the simple reason I didn’t need to seek permission—and it served to address the point I was trying to make. And I refer to several other guidebooks in The Art of Character, in particular Robert McKee’s Story and Lejo Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing.

Question:  Care to share any recent reads you’d recommend? Is there anything new or cutting edge in mystery-crime fiction these days? Does the formula need re-thinking … or better execution?

David Corbett:  One of the great misfortunes of teaching and editing is that all of my reading time is taken up with that, and I get little time to read for pleasure. What free time I do have to read is taken up with research. I think it was John Updike who said he realized early on he could either be a writer or a reader, not both, and he had to choose which he intended to be.

And I would not presume to advise my fellow writers what needs to be rethought, nor would I lecture them on execution.

That said, I did pick up Chalres Portis’s True Grit recently and loved it. I also found Joe Clifford’s memoir Junkie Love riveting. And Dennis Lehane’s latest, World Gone By, kept me awake well past dawn. I’ll note, though, that two of those I read because I was interviewing/introducing the author, and the third is research. (Similarly, I’m reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories—research again—and am absolutely stunned.) Sigh…

Question:  What’s next?

David Corbett:  I recently came out with a novella titled “The Devil Prayed and Darkness Fell” about an Iraq vet suffering from what’s known as moral injury—as opposed to PTSD—and who has to face the consequences of killing a cop. It features Phelan Tierney again—another attempt to heal the wounded, recover the lost—and I think it may just be my best work to date

I’m also working on a new novel, but I hate talking about works in progress. I’ll just say it features a woman protagonist, and has required me to research the rodeo, art forgery, the code of the warrior, the care of horses, conversion law, and autumn in Arizona. Among other things.

Thanks for inviting me to talk about these matters. Been fun.



David Corbett

The Art of Character

The Mercy of the Night



Like the best of Richard Price (Clockers, Freedomland and many others), The Mercy of the Night concerns itself more with the human impact of crime than the crime itself. Corbett puts us in the mix with three strong characters (and many more).

When we meet Jacquelina Garza she’s turning tricks again but trying to avoid crank. “Tricking again was degrading enough, but she’d rather set herself on fire than go back to being that strung out. She had no illusions about the undertow. Death by a thousand bumps. And everybody’s got one. Just for you.”  When she was eight, Jacqi was abducted by a predator and managed to escape. Now, her life is a mess and she’s protecting a valuable secret.

Lonnie Bachmann knows this particular “circle of hell” where Jacqi is stuck and has started a halfway house with a hillside view of the Napa river watershed and the North Bay wetlands. It’s called “Winchinchala House,” from the Lakota word for girl, “though some of the less enthusiastic neighbors dubbed it the House of Whores or Casa de Crackhead.” (You could make a case that all the characters in this novel are in their own personal halfway house; many are in transition one way or the other.)

Lonnie, who is trying to help Jacqi, enlists the help of a former litigator, Phelan Tierney. Tierney helped Lonnie negotiate with contractors for the renovation of the old Norse American Hall (in the fictional Rio Mirada) that is now the rehab facility/halfway house. Tierney is soon involved in tutoring Jacqui, with a goal of earning her GED.

Now if I write “and then Jacqi disappears” and “one of her potential frequent flyers is murdered” it will sound like reductionist plot points from the back of a bad airport paperback thriller—cheap and forgettable. But, no. Corbett goes organic and substantive, letting the characters breathe and interact (like Richard Price, like George Pelecanos, like Elmore Leonard) as the tension burns like a steady fuse.

What drives The Mercy of the Night is sheer, utter humanity. Other thrillers and novels have the plot points, Corbett feasts on the marrow of motivation and, no surprise, character. (Corbett’s writing guide, The Art of Character, I have previously reviewed with glowing remarks.)

Garza, Bachmann and Tierney are the opening trio in a full cast of players. Do you know how some novels buzz along the surface—all plot? The Mercy of the Night is anchored by a full assortment of deep characters swirling around themes of shame, respect, entitlement, lies, redemption, trust and hope. I’ve made some reference to modern day crime writers but the full cast of characters in Corbett’s novel also felt Dickensian to me, too. I strongly urge that you open this book with an open mind to a fresh approach to storytelling, while keeping your eyes on Jacqi Garza and Phelan Tierney and the decisions they make in challenging, important and utterly human moments.


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.