On Writing: Interview with Noir Writer Philip Kerr

10857328_10153217413504648_5348156522957261372_oI recently interviewed British thriller writer Philip Kerr in front of a live audience at Chester County Book Company. Philip’s latest novel is the The Lady from Zagreb, and it’s his tenth Bernie Gunther thriller. Bernie Gunther is a private investigator who works to solve crimes which are set against the backdrop of the much larger crimes against humanity being committed in Nazi Germany. In these novels, Bernie often encounters top-level Nazis such as Joseph Goebbels and Reinhard Heydrich, and he finds himself trying to do the right thing, while also trying to survive. Publishers Weekly calls the series, “A searing look at the inhumanity of the Nazis.” The writer Jonathan Ames has called Philip Kerr, “the only bona fide heir to Raymond Chandler.” The Daily Beast wrote, “The Bernie Gunther books are the best crime series around today.”

Here’s some words of writing wisdom from Philip Kerr.

On where ideas for his novels come from:

“Sometimes it just seems as though books sometime arrive in your head and it’s almost impossible to try and second guess where they came from. There’s a painting by Rembrandt called Belshazzar’s Feast and you see this disembodied hand writing on the wall… and sometimes that’s what it feels like, there’s a disembodied hand that’s writing the books. I sometimes feel that the writer is the person who stays at home and the author is the person who goes on tour.”

On visiting a concentration camp to research:

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“I very much believe it’s like being a method actor, you know, like Robert Deniro driving a cab around New York in order to make the film Taxi Driver, so I can feel it. So I stood alone in one of these cattle cars for about ten – fifteen minutes, just really trying to think myself into the situation of the people who were there… and got thoroughly depressed as a result, but that’s kind of one’s duty, one’s job really, because you realize that in order to write about this sort of thing you have a duty to be careful of the memories of the people who met their ends there. I strive for as much factual accuracy, but emotional accuracy too, because I think it’s really important that if you are going to write about this, you do it as well as you possible can and deal with it as sensitively as you can too.”

On the balance of writing about Nazi officers:

“I believe the only way to write about them is to encounter them as men and women first, to find their humanity, because the only way you can understand them and get under their skin to make them come alive as characters is to understand that at one stage they were normal people and it was a gradual process.”

On writing about women in his noir novels:

“The thing about the women in most of my novels is I like really intelligent women. I like women to be more intelligent than me, for instance, these are the women I’m particularly attracted to, like my wife for example, she is much more intelligent than I am. I can’t see the point in being attracted to people who aren’t more intelligent than you. For instance if you want to learn how to play tennis there’s no point in playing someone who isn’t any good, you want to play someone like John McEnroe, and you’ll maybe improve as a tennis player, it’s great to be with someone who is a sharp inquiring mind.”

On learning the craft of writing and inspiration from P.D. James:

“I think I’m still learning. The day you think you stopped learning, you might as well pack up. I still think my best novel is ahead of me – I sincerely hope so. In fact, I did an event with the late P.D. James, who at the time – I think Phyillis must have been 91 – and I said this, ‘I think the best work is ahead of me’ and she said, ‘I’m so glad you said that Philip because I think the same,’ and I thought great! Good for you! It’s fantastic! It’s actually really important to a writer. You can’t keep doing what you do without believing that the best is yet to come.”

IMG_5948Thanks to Chester County Book Company for hosting the Philip Kerr interview and asking me to play a part. As of this writing, they have a few autographed copies of The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr remaining. Oh, and thanks to Robb Cadigan for the top photo.

On Writing: Interview with M.M. Wittle

wittleM.M. Wittle appears to dabble in everything. She writes plays, poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. She recently published 3 Decades and I’m Gone, a non-fiction chapbook based on the loss of her parents. Her plays have been produced at various Play in a Day festivals in the Southern NJ theatre community as well as her play, “Family Guidance” had a reading at the Walnut Street Theatre. Her most recent full length play, “Ghost Lights” will be at the Luna Theatre in May. She is the creative non-fiction editor for The Fox Chase Review and an adjunct professor as well as a Literacy Coach in Camden, NJ. I first met Michelle at Rosemont Writers Retreat a few years ago and wanted to see what she is working on now.

Jim: Out of all the writing you do, is there one genre you are most passionate about?

M.M.: I think plays are the easiest for me to visualize, flash fiction would be the next passion. I do my best work when I have to be contained in a smaller form.

Jim: 3 Decades and I’m Gone is a very personal look at suffering, survival and healing and you use poetry, prose and pictures in the book. Tell me how the project came about.

3decadesM.M.: This is a funny story. The poetry came first and my idea was to just have the poetry as a chapbook about loss. Then the bat came into my apartment and I started researching what bats symbolize. When I saw bats take one’s grief I thought that was interesting but didn’t really pay it any mind. When I was in therapy and found out grief is a step in the grieving process, the book came into formation. I know there were some things I still couldn’t fully talk about but poetry made it easier because that was just an image. Some pictures said things I could never fully explain. And the flash creative nonfiction made telling the story easier because I only had to spend time in that memory for 1,000 words.

Jim: Can you tell me about the Play in a Day concept and how often you’ve done it?

M.M.: The play in a day concept is I have 12 hours to write a play with my characters and props dedicated to me and then the director and actors have 12 hours to put the show on. I’ve done this for about 2 years and have written about four ten-minute plays. There is another Play in a Day festival coming in April or May and rumor has it the performance will be at Stockton University.

Jim: So working on these short plays and flash fiction, do you consider yourself a minimalist?

M.M.: I never though of it that way. I just like the challenge of the forms and how specific the word choices have to be when writing in the smaller forms.

Jim: Can you tell us about an incident where you received writing advice that was meaningful to you and what that advice was?

M.M.: When I was a full time teacher, I stopped writing. I felt like I had to spend my time really focusing on my students and their education. I didn’t know how to balance teaching and writing. However, I had a friend say to me after I complained that I had nothing new to say no one can tell a story the way I can tell the story. Then J.C. Todd kicked me out of poetry class because she knew I was writing around the poem instead of writing the poem. Her instructions were to write everything about the poem I had in my head. That helps me a lot when I am trying to find my way into a story.

Jim: Did J.C. physically kick you out of class? That sounds like tough love! It sounds like good advice though.

M.M.: She didn’t physically kick my shin but she did tell me the poem I wrote wasn’t what the real poem was about. Then she told me to go into an empty classroom and just write. J.C. Todd is one of my pillars of writing. I knew she would be the only one to teach me how to write poetry and she still inspires me today. In a post script to this story, the poem still hasn’t been written yet.

Jim: Can you tell us about your new full-length play “Ghost Lights” that is being produced in May? What is the play about? And as the playwright, how much do you get involved in the production once it is on paper?

M.M.: “Ghost Lights” is my homage to the theatre. When I worked in a theatre in Philadelphia, I became curious about ghost lights and there place in theatre history. The play was once just a 14 page act and now it is a full 90 minute production. The play looks at all the cliches and wonders of the theatre. It was such a joy to write and I’m grateful to Haddonfield Theater Arts Center for the opportunity to write the play for their adult theater class.

Scott Laska asked me if I wanted to write a full length play for his adult class and I jumped at the opportunity. I attend class most nights and listen to the actors play their roles. Some of the choices they made influenced how I shaped the play. It was a really spectacular experience to build this show for them.

Normally a playwright writes the play and if the play goes to a reading or workshop, he or she gets to do rewrites based on what the playwright hears. With this experience, I worked with the director Benjamin Sterling Cannon, and the actors on a weekly basis. It was so wonderful to be able to rewrite the play weekly and really watch it take shape.

Jim: Sounds awesome. Good luck with the play!

M.M.: Thanks!

Learn more about “Ghost Lights,” which is being performed at The Luna Theater, 620 S. 8th St., Philadelphia, PA on May 9th. Order M.M. Wittle’s book by clicking here.

Eric Smith discusses Inked and the Philly Lit Scene

timthumb.phpEric Smith appears to be always running through Philly. He has written The Geek’s Guide to Dating and co-founded the popular website Geekadelphia. When not writing at a city cafe, organizing the Philly Geek Awards, or emceeing a local story slam, Eric is making books shine for the independent Philly publisher Quirk Books. He has just published his own YA novel, INKED, and agreed to answer a few questions about writing, tattoos, and all things us literary types like to geek out about.

Jim: Tell us about your new YA novel INKED.

Eric: Sure! INKED is a YA fantasy novel that takes place in a world where, once you come of age, you’re forced to get magic tattoos that tell the world what you’re best at. It marks you, and you’re destined to do that thing for the rest of your life. Farmer, soldier, whatever. The story centers around a teenager that doesn’t want his future set for him, and the misadventures that happen as a result.

timthumb.phpJim: What inspired you to write about tattoos? Was there a flash where you said, “this would be a cool story?”

Eric: A friend of mine is a tattoo artist, and when he was working in Philadelphia, he made a comment about all his tattoos. On how he’ll be a tattoo artist forever, because of the way he looked. It was a joke, but it got me thinking a lot about that idea. It sort of spiraled out from there.

Jim: Are you inked?

Eric: I am! Quotation marks on my wrists, and Jules Verne-inspired tattoos on my left arm. When I was a kid, his books were the first ones I really fell in love with. Despite how my mom feels about the tattoos, they are kiiinda her fault.

Jim: Where can we find INKED?

Eric: It’s a digital exclusive release with Bloomsbury, under the imprint Bloomsbury Spark. It’s available via all major eBook retailers. You can pick it up on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBook, etc. An audiobook will also be coming out in the next few months via Audible.

Jim: How would you describe the Philly literary community to someone new in town?

Eric: Very warm and welcoming. I feel like everyone is eager to connect with one another, and just as eager to celebrate the success of each other. Folks like Lillian Dunn at The Apiary are always trying to pull people together, and super editor / writer Sarah Grey always seems to have a great networking event going on. Once you catch wind of something happening, go. Meet people. When you’re in, you’ll never want to leave.

timthumb.phpJim: You’ve written The Geek’s Guide to Dating and co-founded the popular website Geekadelphia. What advice can you share on embracing our inner geekness?

Eric: Hm, I guess to just let that geek flag fly, you know? You never know where your passions are going to lead you. No sense in bottling them all up. Embracing and promoting all the geeky things I care about led to so many great things in my life. Awesome friends, a platform that helps launch my career in publishing, first real book deal and an agent… just do it!

Jim: I know you’ve hosted a First Person Arts Story Slam and judged last year’s Grand Slam. Is there a most memorable story you’ve heard at a storytelling event?

Eric: You know, it’s hard to think of one specific story, but I can tell you my favorite storytellers. I cannot get enough of Marjorie Fineberg Winther. My goodness, that woman has me in tears every single time I see her. She’s hilarious.

I also adore any story that my friend Andrew Panebianco tells, whether its on stage at a First Person Arts event or at happy hour. He’s one talented guy.

Jim: One envisions Quirk Books being a truly hip company. Can you give us a glimpse of what it’s like to work there?

Eric: It’s one awesome hub of creativity, that’s for sure. A group of really passionate people working on projects they adore day in and day out. We have a lot of fun bringing our fun books into the world. It’s like one big happy geeky family, that place.

Jim: Not to rush you, since INKED has just debuted, but do you have ideas on your next writing project?

Eric: Well, I’ve been fussing over a sequel manuscript. I definitely pictured Inked as a series. So, lots of editing to do there, as I work to get it into shape. Right now, that’s it.

Thanks for having me, Jim! :-)

To learn more, and to check out upcoming INKED events, check out Eric Smith Rocks! You can download the book from Amazon by clicking here.

Books on my Christmas Wish List

It’s Thanksgiving morning, so time to make my Christmas wish list! Here’s the books I’m hoping to find under my tree this year, along with a list of books I recommend with some tongue-in-cheek suggestions on who might enjoy each book.

MY WISH LIST

imagesRedeployment by Phil Klay – My friend Eli, a former Marine, read this short story collection over the summer and highly recommended it. Having just read Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried in the past year (an amazing collection), I’m anxious to see what direction Klay takes. Klay won the National Book Award for fiction this year, and short story collections don’t win that often.

imagesStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – I picked up Emily’s first novel for my wife a few Christmases ago, and then was lucky enough to meet Emily and get her second novel when she did a reading at Steel City City Coffeehouse in Phoenixville. When my friend Pat told me he enjoyed her new post-apocalyptic novel, I placed this on my list. Emily was nominated for a NBA this fall also.

imagesThe Mom Squad by Christine Weiser – Christine, one of the co-founders of Philadelphia Stories and the author of Broad Street, recently published this novel about a stay-at-home mom who uncovers corruption at Philadelphia City Hall. If you read her previous novel, you know Christine writes fast paced plots with humor. The cover is reminiscent of Charlie’s Angels, so you know this has to be fun.

OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS

Here’s some of the books I enjoyed this year, with a humorous note on who the book might make a good gift for:

2903a3a42a1e4a0f316013844df1f86aThe Blessings by Elise Juska – This fractured novel follows members of the Philly-based Irish-American Blessings family through their lives. Beautifully written, Elise captures the small sad moments in their lives as well as the pivotal family events. Recommended for your Irish-American Catholic friend or relative who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, particularly if they still attend church.

photo-26Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain – I know this satirical novel was on my list last year and I love it enough to still recommend it. My book club hated it, a very literary friend hated it, but my Aunt Peggy thought it was hilarious. The plot is set on Thanksgiving day, at the Dallas Cowboys game, as a platoon of soldiers are being celebrated for a firefight they survived in Iraq. This novel has tons of expletives, and I found myself laughing and in tears, often in the course of one paragraph. Recommended for that macho friend or relative who loves reading The Onion and drops the occasional F-Bomb.

lifedrawing3DLife Drawing by Robin Black – This is a dark and quiet novel, set in Bucks County, PA. The antithesis of Billy Lynn’s Long Walk. A woman and her husband, both artists, struggle with their marriage when a neighbor moves in next door. Recommended for that brooding, self-reflective serious middle-aged bookworm.

CannedCanned!: Artwork of the Modern American Beer Can by Russ Phillips – This beautiful coffee table book explores the craft beer scene’s revival of beer cans with photos of craft beer cans from every region of the country. From Phoenixville’s Sly Fox Brewery to Wild Onion Brewery’s, we see how craft beer is marketed with colorful images of everything from beautiful women to Grateful Dead logos. Recommended for that friend who you always meet at Victory, Side Bar or TJ’s or your buddy that works in graphic design.

imagesThe Spirit of Gin: A Stirring Miscellany of the New Gin Revival by Matt Teacher – I reviewed this comprehensive gin guide for the Town Dish this fall and I’ve been a bit obsessed with this book ever since. Matt Teacher provides gin recipes, gin history, and insights into famous gin bars and distilleries. Not only is this book fascinating to read, but it makes a great reference guide and looks great sitting on your coffee table or on your wet bar. Recommended for that person who is always pulling out a new bottle of liquor and mixing drinks when you visit.

unnamedWest Chester Story Slam: Selected Stories 2010-2014 – I recommend this because it contains 40 true stories told by people who have become friends over the past five years. Several stories are hilarious, such as Luke Stromberg’s story about a missing wheelchair and Kevin Ginsberg’s story about getting lost in Camden. Others are touching, such as Karen Randall’s Lettuce story and Jessica Kupferman’s remembrance of her mother. Recommended for that relative who is always telling good stories, or that buddy you always discuss The Moth or This American Life with.

COMING IN 2015

10670103_10204953133365665_7366139958525587162_nCommunion by Curtis Smith – I saw Curt read an older essay of his at the Rosemont Writers Retreat this summer, and it was awesome. I later read another essay he wrote on Faith and enjoyed that as well. As someone who grew up Catholic, I think this collection will resonate with me. I love the fact that Curtis and I both attended Kutztown University also. Unfortunately, Communion won’t be released until Spring 2015. Maybe in my Easter basket?

What books are on your Holiday Wish List this year and what do you think I missed?

What is “Books in Bars?”

BIBWhen my friend Linda Ortino and I started discussing holding an event at her family’s bar/restaurant, Ortino’s Northside, I thought we should try something different. QVC viewers will recognize Linda. She was a QVC model for many years (See her photo from a Nolan Miller show below!) and is now an on-air guest with a variety of products. She was always a blast to work with in the studio. I haven’t seen Linda in years, so I’m excited to visit!

Anyway, you might be asking, but what is “Books in Bars?”

“Books in Bars” is simply a happy hour for people who enjoy reading books. Think of it as a networking event for book readers – in a bar! You won’t have to listen to an author read. No highbrow literary diploma needed. Did I mention the event is held in a bar? Just enjoy happy hour specials while discussing books with other avid readers. Meet other book lovers and learn about their favorite books, authors, and genres. You may walk away with a larger “To Be Read” list.

For the Sunday, November 9th event, the Ortino family is generously offering a 1/2 price appetizer menu, 1/2 price Margaritas, and $3 Craft Draft Specials. Ortino’s Northside is located at 1355 Gravel Pike, Perkiomenville, PA. Books in Bars will run from 3pm – 6pm. Their phone number is (610)287-7272.

Each Books in Bars event will feature two writers with recently published books. On Sunday, November 9th, the writers will my friend (and former QVCer) Robb Cadigan, who is the author of the popular novel Phoenixville Rising. I’ll have a few copies of Shoplandia, my novel inspired by QVC. Yeah, you can buy a book if you would like, but there is no pressure. Writers happen to enjoy talking about books in bars.

Books in Bars will be an occasional series. We have chatted with bar owners about holding possible future events in Phoenixville, West Chester, and Media. To sign up and receive email notices about upcoming Books in Bars events, click here. Also, if you are on Twitter, reach us at @BooksInBars.

Here’s a photo of Linda (center) all ready for a Nolan Miller show.

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Writer’s Digest quotes my #nanowrimo advice

Are you doing #nanowrimo this year?

I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month twice over the years and blogged about the experience back in 2010. In their latest issue, Writer’s Digest quoted me about the experience, which is kinda cool. On newsstands now! If you’d like to read my entire post blog post about #nanowrimo, click here. If you are hunkering down this November to partake in #nanowrimo, good luck! WRITERSDIGEST

Thanks, Shoplandia Readers! Loving these tweets!

Twitter makes me happy. So much fun to see responses and reviews pop up during each Twitter check-in. Thank you. If you haven’t read Shoplandia, order your copy today.

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