February 6, 2012

Made It Moment: Pat Browning

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 9:41 pm

Contest Update: Congratulations to reader Leah Rhyne who won a copy of ABSINTHE OF MALICE! Thanks to all of you for entering, and here’s to many more giveaways to come!

Absinthe Of Malice

I had heard about this slim, elegant mystery for almost a year before finally reading it. Once I did, it amazed me to read the author’s Made It Moment. This was the book Pat Browning decided to write on almost a, “What now?” kind of lark? Praise for this debut mystery abounds, and if you leave a comment today, you’ll be entered to win a print copy. Read it and you just may decide that, “What next?” can lead to great things.

Pat Browning

I was a tap-dancing fool. Picture this. I’m about six years old, tap dancing on the front porch just in case a Hollywood talent scout drives by looking for the next Shirley Temple. Doesn’t happen.

Never mind. When I was about nine I appeared in the Junior High School talent show, wearing blue satin shorts and a long sleeved white blouse, tapping like an old pro. The applause was thunderous. I danced off the stage, stood in the wings listening to that wonderful sound and ran back onto the stage for an encore. The rest of the year I spent my lunch hours in the school basement, strutting my stuff before a crowd of classmates. Take THAT, Shirley Temple!

Another year, another schoolyard. I get into a scuffle with some long-forgotten girl over some long-forgotten beef. The teacher, who is also my mother, hauls me inside and gives me a couple of swats on the behind. Furious and embarrassed, I put my head down on my desk. From a couple of rows back, a little boy creeps forward and slips a candy bar into my hand. As Charlie Sheen would say, “Winning!”

Time marches on. Drowsing through summer vacation, I sit under a pear tree in the front yard and write a story about fairies in a tree stump. I put it in an envelope addressed to The Kansas City Star, stick a 3-cent stamp on it and mail it off. The Star prints it and sends me a check for 50 cents. It may be the silliest story ever written but I see my byline for the first time. The best is yet to come.

Time passes. I experiment with decoupage, gourmet cooking, and writing newsletters for local clubs. When The Fresno Bee looks for a local stringer to handle weddings and club meetings I’m standing there with a camera, notebook and pen, ready to go. Before long I’m branching out into feature stories and not looking back.

All this time I’m slogging through my job in a law office, learning more about human misery than I ever dreamed possible. After almost 20 years of listening to divorce and bankruptcy tales of woe I, leave the law office and get a job in a travel agency. The trade journal arriving weekly in our mail is TravelAge West, published in San Francisco. I send the editor a letter telling him I’m a great traveler and a great writer and I’d like to be one of his correspondents.

Abracadabra! I’m cruising through the West Indies, flying the Atlantic in Pan Am’s first class section, walking through the ruins of Pompeii, riding an elephant in India. Can it get much better? Of course it can.

I go to work fulltime for the local newspaper. When I plop down at the desk next to a longtime friend she says, “I keep wondering what you’ll do next.”

What I do next is decide to write a mystery. “How hard can it be?” I ask. I find out just how hard it can be, but my mystery, FULL CIRCLE, is finally self-published in 2001. Krill Press picks it up in 2008 and gives it a new cover and new name, ABSINTHE OF MALICE. Quoting The Grateful Dead, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

The point of all this? Life is full of small “made it” moments, but sometimes we are so focused on the big score that we don’t notice. The little moments just keep piling up, adding experience and confidence to a foundation for the big break. When the Success Express comes rolling by, with any luck we can swing aboard and ride it right on down the line.

So what am I’m going to do next? I’m going to finish my second book. Stay tuned….

An award-winning newspaper reporter, Pat Browning set her first mystery, ABSINTHE OF MALICE (original title: FULL CIRCLE) in California’s Central San Joaquin Valley, where she lived for many years before returning to her native Oklahoma. An extensive excerpt can be read at Google Books.

Pat’s articles on the writing life have appeared in The SouthWest Sage, the monthly journal of SouthWest Writers, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She’s working on her next mysteries.

February 5, 2012

Guest Post: Lev Raphael

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 8:49 pm

Rosedale In Love

I believe that the lure of crime fiction for many readers is that it orders a disordered universe, providing justice where none might otherwise exist. You might think that a mystery author would be well-equipped to find a solution when a real life mystery presents itself…but when Lev Raphael came upon the mystery at the core of his mother’s life, he learned that things aren’t as orderly outside of the fictional universe. Sometimes the answers aren’t the ones you might want. And sometimes answers don’t exist at all. So why try to solve a real life mystery? Because in the quest lies a testimony to love.

Lev Raphael

When Mystery Comes Home

I got my love of crime fiction from my mother, who was a huge fan of Agatha Christie, John Creasey, and the team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I read almost all the mystery library books she brought home; they were always better than the books assigned in school! On my own, I discovered the comic mysteries of Phoebe Atwood Taylor. My mother enjoyed a good joke and had an Imogene Coca kind of laugh, but those books weren’t to her taste.

It wasn’t until after she died in 1999 that I discovered profound and unsettling mysteries in her own life that I’m still trying to unravel. My mother was a Holocaust survivor. She lost her family, her home, her freedom–and would have lost her life if the war had lasted any longer than it did. She spoke about those war years sparingly, and when she did, I was too young or too overwhelmed to ask the right questions that would have yielded more information.

Going through her things before the funeral, I found something shocking in her clothes closet. My mother had kept the concentration camp uniform she was wearing when she was liberated by the Americans in April 1945. You’ve probably seen “dresses” like these in movies and documentaries: thin, crudely sewn, it was gray with purplish stripes (though the colors may have changed over the decades). My father told me she’d washed it after the war, but he couldn’t say why she had kept this reminder of her horrible brutalization and the nightmare of seeing her world ground to dust.

I knew the names of the camps my mother had been in and contacted one via email, but nobody could find records for her. This was troubling, since I knew that despite bombings and German attempts to destroy files, records existed for many camps. And then I tried again, this time using the number on her uniform.

A world of mysteries opened up to me. For at least part of the war, my mother Helena Klaczko was listed in several Nazi records as Lidja Garbel. How do I know this Garbel and my mother are the same woman? Because the insanely detailed prisoner card for my mother at Buchenwald has her parents’ name, her street address in Poland, her education, and her birth date. All the information matches what I know to be fact. The woman with that number on her uniform was the woman listed on the card and indisputably my mother.

But why did she have another name? Even more mysterious, in a transport from one camp to another, there was a woman whose number was right before hers whose last name was also Garbel. So somehow, for some reason, my mother took this other woman’s last name as hers. But why? And why Lidja? Was it possible there had been an actual Lidja Garbel whose name my mother had assumed for some reason? The sister of this Frida Garbel?

My father had no idea what the answers were or what any of it could mean. And when I told him that this same Buchenwald prisoner card said my mother was married to a Mikhail Garbel, whereabouts “unknown,” he scoffed. “People said all kinds of things during the war.”

I had written a handful of Nick Hoffman mysteries by this point, and even been reviewed in the New York Times my mother revered. Sadly, my mother never got to read any of them because she was so sick when they started coming. But nothing in any of them matched these real-life mysteries whose solutions I have pursued in many directions, without answer.

Sometimes I wonder if there really was a Mikhail Garbel or even a Lidja Garbel, or if both were made up. Sometimes I think, what if my mother was married before she met my father? Sometimes I think, “There is a book in this, if only I can find it.” And I also wonder if my mother read mysteries not just as a fan, but as someone who had turned her own life into something mysterious.

The son of Holocaust survivors, Lev Raphael is a pioneer in writing fiction about America’s Second Generation, publishing his first short story about children of survivors in 1978. Many of his early stories on this theme were collected in his award-winning book, Dancing on Tisha B’Av.

Born and raised in New York City, he received his MFA in Creative Writing and English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where he won the Harvey Swados Fiction Prize, for a Holocaust-themed story later published in Redbook. Winner of the Reed Smith Fiction Prize and International Quarterly’s Prize for Innovative Prose, Raphael holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from Michigan State University. Raphael taught at the university level for 13 years and the first course he designed was a multi-disciplinary study of the Holocaust. He left teaching in 1988 to write and review full-time.

February 1, 2012

Made It Moment: Ali Brandon

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 10:15 pm

Double Booked For Death

There are some Moments for which I can’t write an intro worthy of being put first, and this is one. You have to read through the first paragraphs to get to the punch at the end that may bring tears to your eyes. It did mine. Ali Brandon knows what making it really means. Thanks, Ali.

Ali Brandon

Made it?

Still in the process of making it seems a more accurate description of my writing career…this after almost 20 years and 9 published books (with 2 more currently under contract) since my first manuscript sold. Part of the problem is that I’ve gone through a few phases as an author. I started out writing historical romance, then went on hiatus for awhile, then wrote short fiction, then did the hiatus thing again, and now am writing mysteries. It’s kind of hard to “make it” when your career has progressed in fits and starts. All the same, I’ve had several of what I consider to be mini-moments which were pretty satisfying.

A few are obvious. There was that whole first sale thing (woohoo!), followed by the first time I saw my book on a store shelf (double woohoo!). After awhile, it was being asked to speak at events for bucks (or, at least, for expenses and a free lunch). At the same time came the starred reviews from PW and Library Journal, as well as the obligatory smackdown from Kirkus. (An editor once reassured me that you’re nobody as a writer until Kirkus has given you a scathing review. So consider me somebody.)

Oh, and I can’t forget the contest win, complete with a really cool medal that hangs from a honking big ribbon around my neck. Even nicer was finally making enough sales in the course of a week to hit a national list. According to my editor, this means they can officially slap the phrase “national best-selling author” on my next book cover. Triple woohoo!

These were some very nice moments, indeed. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t compare myself to other writers who, to my mind, actually have made it. They are the ones who’ve made scads more money, hung out on the New York Times list for weeks on end, had their books turned into movies. Deep in my little writer’s heart, I want to be them. I want to be the novelist who steps onto a crowded airplane and sees that half the travelers are reading my latest release. I want to be guest of honor at a prestigious writers conference. And it still might happen one day.

But I’m also prepared for the fact that it might not. I’m good with that, however, and let me tell you why. You see, I’ve had the moments as a writer that really count…hearing from readers who truly enjoyed my work. Just a couple of quick lines in an email—I loved it, when’s the next one coming out?—are enough to put a smile on my face for a whole day. I’ve learned that, more than any bestseller list or movie deal, validation from my readers is all I really need as an author.

So, with apologies to Mary Tyler Moore, maybe I’ve made it, after all.

Ali Brandon a.k.a. Diane A.S. Stuckart is the national bestselling author of Double Booked for Death, the first in her Black Cat Bookshop mystery series from Berkley Prime. She’s also the author of the popular Leonardo da Vinci mysteries, which have received starred reviews from PW and Library Journal, along with the Florida Book Award Silver medal. A native Texan, Diane now lives in South Florida.

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