Monday, April 26, 2010

An Artsy, Wordsy Weekend

It was a wonderful spring weekend full of creativity and friends. 

It kicked off on Friday afternoon with a visit to a terrific and moving photography show at LA Artcore Brewery Annex (650A S. Avenue 21, L.A. 90031). The show is titled: Quiet Heroes/Over 80 and the photographer is Barry Shaffer. Barry has been a dentist for over thirty years (he's my dentist!) and has transitioned his longtime photography hobby into something spectacular with this show.

With Quiet Heroes/Over Eighty, Barry set out to meet some of Los Angeles' oldest residents and document their lives. His subjects are almost all from other countries and many from backgrounds of war and conflict. The photos, all black and white, were taken in the subjects' homes using natural light. Barry sought to achieve intimacy seldom found in photographic portraiture. The exhibit is a celebration of humanity, wisdom, and our country's history of immigration and assimilation, exemplified by Los Angeles. 

The photographs and the subjects' stories are remarkable. Below, Barry and I are in front of two of his photographs.

See the show if you can. It's terrific and moving. Days later, I'm still reflecting on the subjects' images and words. The show continues until May 2. Go to Barry's site to learn more about the project:

Friday night was the always fun pre-party for the L.A. Times Festival of Books at the Mystery Bookstore.  I spent Saturday at the festival on the UCLA campus (my alma mater).  I took a bunch of photos. Here's one with the awesome women of mystery I shared my signing time with at the Mystery Bookstore's booth. 

L to R: Cara Black, Alafair Burke, Karin Slaughter, me, and Kelli Stanley.

You can see all my festival photos here:

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Will Write for $$$

I was with a group of friends, all accomplished professionals with good jobs. I was the only professional writer there. The conversation turned to books and authors. One friend asked, “Do writers write for money?” Another opined, “It’s an art. Writers don’t write for money.”

All eyes then turned on me and someone asked, “Do they?”

I felt like sarcastically responding, “Writers write purely for the love of it, just like when Mommy and Daddy love each other very much and, after a while, a stork delivers a baby to the house, or when the Tooth Fairy snatches lost teeth from beneath your pillow and…” You get the idea.

The truth, as usual, is more complicated.

The physician’s oath begins, “First, do no harm.” The writer’s should begin, “First, write for the love of writing.” Writers have to love writing because doing it well--writing something that others want to read--is hard work. Writing a book, sustaining a reader’s interest through 70,000 to 100,000 words (on average) is very hard work. That’s not counting the tens of thousands of words that will be jettisoned during the process, as rewriting that book is as important as cranking out the first draft.

Of course, one can write a book without passion for the craft of writing and storytelling. And one can write a book without any talent for writing. The problem is, all that becomes apparent in the work. Readers can not be fooled. Readers know the real thing.

So how can this sublime, creative, beautiful process be compatible with doing it for money? Well, Virginia, writers have the same basic needs as everyone else: food, shelter, safety. After the basics are taken care of, a few pats on the head for self esteem are also welcome.

The pressure to maintain a roof over the scribe and his or her family can be a tremendous motivation to keep churning out the words. At the Left Coast Crime conference in L.A. earlier this year, I heard Michael Connelly discuss having difficulty keeping his motivation going. Robert Crais quipped, “Michael, buy a bigger house.”

That night with my friends, I curbed my sarcastic impulse and instead related my favorite story about writers writing for money.

Mario Puzo had published several novels that were critically acclaimed but that hadn’t paid very well. He was married with five kids, working as a government clerk, and under financial pressure. He decided to turn out a book that would appeal to the masses and make a lot of money. During stints working in pulp journalism, he’d collected anecdotes about La Cosa Nostra. In the 1960s, the Mafia was just entering the public’s awareness and its inner workings were mysterious. Puzo’s book, The Godfather, published in 1969, was on the New York Times bestseller list for 67 weeks and was the basis of the three Godfather movies made by Francis Ford Coppola. Puzo didn’t just write a bestseller, he launched an entire goodfellas genre.

Do writers write for money? What do you think?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

On Becoming an Adult Orphan

A friend who'd lost his father years ago, recently lost his mother. He told me, "I'm an orphan."

"Orphan" conjures images of scruffy waifs in drafty, moldering institutions, not middle-aged people with spouses, homes, and children. Having never known a parent is shattering. Losing a parent too young is shattering. Losing a parent at the "appropriate" time, when you're well into adulthood and after mom or dad has enjoyed a long life is... shattering.

This is not a cheerful topic. Aging and dying parents have become an epidemic among friends in my age group. But we are the lucky ones, having had our parents for so long. They are lucky too, experiencing the natural order of life and outliving their children.  Still, a parent’s decline and death rends to the core. 

Recently, I was at the gym when an acquaintance received news that his father had died, not unexpectedly. Still, he looked broken. He was a big, strong man, yet I glimpsed the boy he'd been.

I know how he felt.  One wonders, "Who am I now?"

Ten years ago, I’d received similar news. Mine came via a phone call from my aunt. She delivered her message in the plain-spoken, direct manner of the rural north Texas plains where both sides of my family are from. She said, “Your father is dead.”

The news was not unexpected. My father’s last months were a twilight nightmare. At last, the nightmare was over.  So when my aunt’s call came, it was a blessing and yet…

I hung up the phone and moved to an easy chair where I rarely sit. That day, I sat there with both feet on the ground and my arms resting on the chair arms. The solidity of the big old chair was comforting. I sat there for a long time and thought of my father. The most resonant memories were the most mundane. As a child, holding his hand that seemed impossibly big and strong. Climbing astride his shoulders and seeing the world from so high up. Racing in the yard where I could never catch him unless he let me. 

Decades later, I sat beside his hospital bed where his body, which had seemed so tall and invincible had atrophied.  I held that same hand that, beneath the weathered skin, was still big.  I whispered into his ear. I wasn't sure he understood or even heard, but I thought that maybe my voice, my presence might make some neurons fire. Whether he heard my words or not, I needed to say them, even though there had been little left unsaid between me and my dad while he was still standing.  We'd certainly had our differences. 
"Your father is dead."  Who am I now? I stepped into a role that was new to me—fatherless daughter.

As I drove home from the gym the day my acquaintance had heard about his father's passing, I looked at the puffy clouds moving across the sky. Although ethereal, clouds seem capable of holding our hopes, dreams, and memories, our grief and prayers. I'll tell my gym pal that the human heart is stronger than it sometimes seems. He'll be able to look for his dad there. That's where I look for mine and that's where I always find him--big, tall, and fast.