Wednesday, November 28, 2007

When your book comes out, your life changes...


Well, that's what I used to think and it is what a lot of aspiring novelists think. And so, since I teach writing at the UCLA Extension School (yup, I'm in New England – I do it online), I blogged today on the UCLA Writers' Program blog about what it feels like when those boxes arrive – and what you can look forward to!

On a lighter side, one of the lovely things about being published is that other people interview you and you get to just sit back. Sandra Parshall (a wonderful mystery writer herself!) did that for me today on her blog Poe's Deadly Daughters and local freelancer Rachel Lebeaux did me the honors in this week's Cambridge Chronicle. Thanks, folks!

On another note entirely:
My review of a wonderful book, Farewell, Shanghai just ran in the San Francisco Chronicle. Not crime fiction, but an exquisite, involving World War II story.

And finally... a week late, but how can I resist?

Monday, November 26, 2007

My Kitty, Myself

Two weeks ago, I ran into a very nice man I know slightly and he shocked the stuffing out of me. How? He showed me a picture of his 13-month-old son, Declan.

Why was I shocked? For the first time in ages, I found myself looking at a picture of a cute little thing that had neither whiskers nor pointed ears.

That’s when I realized how completely pets have taken over my life. When you write mysteries with cats in them, certain things happen. One is that you get caught up in the pet world, a social milieu that like any other has its share of issues and infighting about which outsiders are unaware. I wrote “Cries and Whiskers,” in part, because I was hearing a lot about the conflict between animal welfare and animal rights, with animal welfare people calling animal rights people “anti-pet” and animal rights people saying animal welfare people were “anti-nature.”

This followed “Cattery Row,” which dealt with the pedigreed/show cat world, and “Mew is for Murder,” which touched on animal “hoarding” and pet overpopulation. You start hanging around animal folks and you hear these things. And while normal people – nonwriters – might go, “Oh, how interesting! I never realized that animal rights people might not favor pets,” as a mystery writer, I automatically think: “How interesting – and what a great motive for murder!”

The other thing, much more benign, that happens when you write books with silly animal puns in the titles is that people start sending you pictures of their pets. If I’d been smarter, I’d have saved these – I could have an entire section of my website devoted to readers’ companion animals. It would have been a hoot. As it is, I have some, and expect others to come out of wallets, bookbags, and cell phones every time I read or speak. Hey, I’ve got pictures of pets past (Cyrus) and present (Musetta) on my website, it’s only fair!

Looking at these photos, I’m struck by the variety of pets that we hold dear. I mean, I’m basically a cat person. But I’ve seen photos of rats, puggles, and even the occasional boa. And I wonder, how did we choose these animals? Or did they choose us?

Years ago, I tried a serious take on pet-choice. I wrote a series of articles talking to animal behaviorists and shrinks, breed rescuers, and the like. I read studies – yes, there are studies – and polls done by pet-food manufacturers. I interviewed folks who bought expensive pedigreed animals, and those who were adopted by strays. I talked to people who loved both the ordinary (house rabbits) and the extreme (a uromastyx lizard).
What I wanted was an answer to some basic questions: Why do we love our pets? Why are some of us cat people, and others feline-phobic? What makes one person love pugs, while another is dedicated to Dobies? In the process, I got to visit a gentleman who does reptile rescue. Seriously. He had turned one closet in his house into a terrarium for baby alligators, and he had another room full of rare amphibians, most of which had been smuggled into the country and confiscated by animal control officers. For companionship, though she’d passed on before my visit, he’d long had a four-foot long monitor lizard that would curl up with him on the couch.

Along the way, I learned some sad things about people. We’re a faddish lot, and we tend to adopt animals we’ve seen in the movies (particularly some dog breeds) without paying any attention to their temperaments – or ours. But along the way, I also learned some wonderful things about pet love. It’s as blind as human love. To the adoring heart, a budgie and a boa can be equally adorable, and the company of a cool, calm, and beautiful reptile can provide as much solace to a lizard lover as the kneading purr of my Musetta does for me. Ultimately, whether we choose our pets – or our pets choose us – the connection is as deep and real as any other emotional bond. Declan’s dad may disagree, but just wait till Declan gets his first puppy.

So I’ve got to ask: Do you have a pet? How did you end up with that particular animal? Or maybe the real question is, how did your pet end up with you?

* A version of this blog originally appeared on Writers Plot, but it's a topic near and dear to me, so I thought I'd repost here.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A cat shooting in Texas

Now that I have your attention, let me state for the record: I would never shoot a cat in one of my books (and certainly never in real life). I may have multiple human victims in my mysteries, but all my cats have happy endings (and if I ruin some of the suspense for readers by saying that, so be it. I don't like reading books in which animals are harmed, and as a reader, I'd want to know that.)

But there's a case in Texas that has been on my mind, and those of animal lovers everywhere. In brief, a bird lover, seeking to protect the endangered piping plover, shot a cat he saw hunting the plovers. He was charged with animal cruelty. Cat lovers have been outraged – and so have bird lovers, who say that the animals we have introduced into the environment (i.e., cats that roam free) are threatening birds and other elements of the delicate native ecosystem. As much as I am pro-feline, I have to admit it's a complicated issue. This story is particularly of interest to me because this conflict – animal welfare (i.e., the pro-cat side) vs. animal rights (often the folks on the side of native species, and sometimes anti-domestic animal) – is at the core of my soon-to-be-released mystery, Cries and Whiskers.

Today, this particular tragedy may be at an end. Yesterday, a judge announced a mistrial, after the jury declared that it was "hopelessly deadlocked," according to this story in The New York Times. One big legal issue in the case was the question of whether or not the cat, which lived beneath a toll bridge, was "owned." According to an outdated Texas law, only "owned" animals – that is, not ferals – are protected under state animal cruelty laws. Ferals, that is, genetically domestic animals such as cats, dogs, pigs, etc., that have been abandoned by their owners, lost, or simply bred and colonized in the wild, are not. The feline victim in Texas had lived under the bridge, i.e., "outdoors," but had been given food and toys by the caretaker of the bridge.

The outcome may be as good as was possible in one way: The uproar about the case has caused Texas to change its animal cruelty law, removing the requirement that a cat be "owned" in order to be protected by law. And while nothing will bring that poor grey-and-white tabby back, or console the toll-bridge caretaker who fed, played with, and clearly loved him, at least Texas has taken a smart legal step. And maybe brought an important debate to light.

My take is that a reasonable truce is possible. For our beloved pets' own safety, as well as for that of their prey, I'd rather all cats be kept in happy, safe, and loving homes. I also hope that abandoned and lost pets can be rescued, and replaced into loving homes. But I also believe in, and support, TNR – trap, neuter, return – of feral cats. Truly feral cats, which have never known human love, usually cannot be made into happy housepets. The best resolution, therefore, seems to be to keep them disease free (trapped ferals are given shots), fed, and also neutered, so that their numbers don't increase. Of course, some people think differently. They see letting cats out as part of their contract with these little tigers, and they take the death of their prey as part of nature's deal. And, of course, as long as people keep dumping pets, letting unwanted cats and dogs loose so they can "fend for themselves," the problem won't disappear. And cases like this one in Texas will keep happening.

What do you think? Do you keep your cats in or let them out? How would you have ruled, had you been on that jury? Can you come up with a better resolution?

* * *
On another note, entirely, I guestblogged over at Writers Plot, today, talking about the the role of our pets in our lives – and why we love the pets we do. Thanks to the marvelous mystery writers who keep this blog going for the opportunity!

Monday, November 12, 2007

The last days of Kay Scarpetta?

I didn't mean to bring this up on Veteran's Day, but perhaps it is appropriate. After all, today as we remember those who have served to protect our country in real life, it isn't that far a leap to look at those who work to protect us in their fictional worlds as well.

Today, I'm wondering: Is Patricia Cornwell's forensic protagonist Kay Scarpetta too far gone? Has she been hounded, wounded, pushed beyond sympathy? That's a question I was mulling as I wrote this review of the new "Book of the Dead" for the Boston Globe.

I was a huge fan of Cornwell when she started, and I still think few do the forensics – the sheer science – of murder better. But, is it time, perhaps, for a rest?

According to Entertainment Weekly, 1.5 million of these books were printed. Was that a mistake? Do people still read Cornwell? Do you?

This opens a bigger can of worms: When should a series end? Are there some series that you'd like to go on forever? Are there some that you used to love but that now deserve to be retired? What keeps you reading a series? Is it that you love the characters? And what can, ultimately, make you turn away from a long-running fiction addiction? This can be a touchy subject, I know, but it is one that we authors and readers need to consider.

THIS JUST IN! I never thought I'd say this, but THANK YOU, KIRKUS REVIEWS! In the latest (well, the Nov. 15 edition) Kirkus, their reviewer said all sorts of nice things about Cries and Whiskers, concluding by saying: "A fast-paced look at the Boston music scene and a delight for cat fanciers."
(You can click on "Kirkus" above for the full review.)

Best wishes for a peaceful, thoughtful Veteran's Day.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Guest blogger: Karen E. Olson

Today, I'm pleased as punch to be hosting a guest blog by mystery author Karen E. Olson, whose new Annie Seymore mystery, Dead of the Day is just out. This is the third in the Annie Seymour series, which is set in Karen's home city of New Haven, and really give readers a feel for the neighborhoods, the people, and the marvelous food! I've loved these books, which feature a very real and very spunky reporter, since the first, Sacred Cows, and cannot wait to read the new installment. I'll get to hear some of the stories behind it, too: Karen and I will be speaking together at Brookline Booksmith on Dec. 11.

In consideration of my overall theme, Karen wrote today about music:

One thing I’m asked a lot is whether I listen to music when I write. I don’t. I think it’s all those years of working in a big newsroom, with no walls or cubicles, and learning how to shut out the sounds of people talking, phones ringing, keyboards clacking. Sometimes I try to put a CD on while I write, but usually I realize an hour later that the music hasn’t been playing for a while and I just never noticed.

But music does have its place in my books. My reporter protagonist, Annie Seymour, has a real fondness for the Rolling Stones. In every book, she’s listening to their music in her car as she drives around covering stories. I’ve said that if there’s ever a movie made from the series, the Stones have to provide the soundtrack.

I did wrestle with this decision, though. It’s the old Stones vs. Beatles question, and I sit squarely on the Beatles side of that. I’ve always liked the Stones enough, but the Beatles were who I lipsinced to when I was in elementary school with my best friend Alison Prendergast. I wasn’t quite sure just who the Stones were for a few more years (I blame my parents for that; they were quite unhip in the Sixties and for years I thought Jose Feliciano had written “Light My Fire.” I was shocked to find out it was a Doors song.)

But because readers think that Annie is me (writing in first person does lend itself to that, and it doesn’t help that Annie’s a longtime journalist, like I am), I wanted to give her something that really wasn’t me, even if my readers might not know that.

In DEAD OF THE DAY, the third in the series that’s just out this week, I wanted to throw Annie out of her comfort zone a little, in more ways than one. One of those ways was to take away her Stones tapes. She loses them in a unique way and is forced to listen to borrowed CDs. I gave her the White Stripes and Our Lady Peace, in order to expand her horizons a little.

Let’s just say that Annie is a creature of habit and while she listens to the CDs because she doesn’t have any others, she’s back to listening to the Stones in the next book.

As readers, do you notice the music in the books or is it just background noise?

I'm curious, too! Please let us know.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

"Mad Skillz"

Got this right after I dropped Deb Grabien off at the T. Deb was our guest while in town to promote two (count'em!) new books, New-Slain Knight and Still Life with Devils with a stop at Kate's Mystery Books. I ended up having a great time talking to Deb (she has wonderful stories, particularly of the rock world) and also got to chat with Kate. All in all a good time – but wouldn't it have been better if we had this feline DJ on hand?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Cats on the road!

A big THANK YOU to the Cheshire Cat Club of Edgewater, NJ. They had me speak at their cat show yesterday, and it was a blast. Despite getting lost in Fort Lee, we managed to make it to the show in time for the cat fashion show, which was frankly hilarious. None of the cats seemed to mind, maybe they enjoyed the attention. And in the midst of signing books, a friendly breeder brought over a Turkish Angora (see pic below) for me to hold. (Don't tell Musetta.) Thank you, all!

I can't expect quite the same treatment (or cats) at all my upcoming events. But I am beginning to schedule some talks for Cries and Whiskers. If you're near New York City, I'll be having a book party at Partners and Crime on Monday, Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. That Friday, Dec. 7, again at 7, I'm having another at Harvard Book Store (and I hope to sign at Kate's Mystery Books holiday party earlier, 5:30-6 p,m.). And the following week, on Tues., Dec. 11, I'll be joined by my buddy Karen E. Olson at Brookline Booksmith. All free, of course. Let's get this party started!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

the cheap catch-up

Doesn't that sound like a Ross MacDonald title? In reality, the lovely and brilliant folks at Worldwide Mystery (a branch of Harlequin) have decided to publish a mass market (i.e., less than $5) version of my very first mystery, "Mew is for Murder" in November. (Click here to see it for real and buy it.) Worldwide only sells online (how do you think they keep their prices so low?) and they only print a limited number of books, so this is a limited-time offer. Once the books are gone, they're gone!

This fall, they're making the deal even better with a free shipping offer. So, if you'd like to catch up with my Theda Krakow series, or with any of the many other authors (including my sister Sisters in Crime Cynthia Riggs, Susan Oleksiew, Leslie Wheeler, and many many others), click on this link for the deal. (This is the classic book club deal where they'll keep sending you books if you don't cancel after you get your freebies. But maybe that's not a bad thing?)

Yes, it says "eHarlequin." Don't be scared. Just go over to the right and click on "mysteries," and there we will be...

Enjoy An Exclusive Offer from

Oh! And I almost forgot! My review for the Boston Phoenix of Rebecca Barry's lovely, if Richard Russo-esque short story collection.