(Here’s a distilled version of the author talk I gave at the Great Valley BookFest in Manteca on October 8. Thanks to Toni Raymus for inviting me.)
I’m skeptical about branding. Sure, everyone knows that 15 minutes can save you 15 percent on lizard skin. But I’ve sat through enough branding meetings over the years to decide a brand wasn’t relevant for me as an author.
Until I came up with one.
This past summer, I was asked for a title for my talk here at the Great Valley BookFest. Four words or less. I came up with “page-turners with a conscience.”
I wasn’t thinking brand then, just title, but it is a brand, my brand — a distilled marketing message that defines who I am and what I write.
I didn’t have this brand in mind when I wrote my two novels, but it was there in the back of mind. I hadn’t found the words. Arguably a brand is more important for marketing than writing, but having this brand is already helping me write my third novel. (A family drama about euthanasia.)
I know I want the story to race like a rollercoaster, but give the reader something to think about.
I’ve been a reader all my life. I can’t imagine life without reading. My father was an English professor and my brother is as well, so I’ve read my share of literature.
But I’m a lazy reader. If something doesn’t grab me, I stop reading. I’m not in school anymore. I don’t have a test to ace or a paper to write. So I read a lot of mysteries and suspense. I love reading a book I can’t put down.
Take The Firm, by John Grisham, who’s laughing all the way to the bank. Twenty-plus years ago, I stayed up till 3 am at camp reading it by headlamp. It tore to the finish. But it was ridiculous. The protagonist took on the mob and the FBI with one hand behind his back. To make the plot sprint, Grisham sacrificed character development and believability. And there was nothing to think about once the book ended.
What I want to read and write are books that move like The Firm, but with three-dimensional characters, believability, and some sort of moral dilemma or nuanced choice that gives the reader something to think about.
Now to the conscience part. What ties my books together — I have digitally combined them in Albuquerque to Berkeley: Two Election-Season Thrillers, for only 99 cents — is the daunting challenge of doing the right thing. Not just in politics, but in family, love, and murder.
In my first novel, Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher, set during the 2008 presidential campaign in New Mexico, ambitious Albuquerque Mayor Tomas Zamara is charged with doing “whatever it takes” to deliver the state’s five electoral votes for John McCain. He has a strong sense of right and wrong — one of my friends said, I know you’re writing fiction, because your protagonist is a Republican with integrity. But Mayor Zamara understands that politics is like playing football on a muddy field. If you don’t get dirty, you’re not giving your all.
In Wasted, Brian Hunter, a wannabe investigative journalist covers the “recycling wars” in Berkeley, finds the body of his friend Doug crushed in a bale of aluminum, and sets off to find the murderer, all the while chasing Doug’s ex Barb, now a suspect in his murder. Brian is convinced that the big bad corporation, Consolidated Scavenger, is responsible for the murder, and blinds himself to the possibility that it could be Barb.
At the center of Wasted is an idealistic, but dysfunctional collective called Recycle Berkeley, or Re-Be. What I aimed to do, and succeeded, according to many of my readers, is portray this collective as the good guys, well-intentioned, but flawed in huge ways. And the bad guys, Consolidated Scavenger, aren’t all bad. They have a record of taking over companies and using their lobbying muscle to influence regulation, but they’re also more efficient than Re-Be, and less corrupt than many of the companies they’ve absorbed. And though Brian would like to peg them for this murder, he can’t unearth any evidence they killed Doug.
In short, I’m attracted to things that aren’t black and white. To the fifty shades of gray in between. (I might have grabbed that as a brand, but it was taken.).
That’s why I like this “page-turners with a conscience” brand — my books are entertainment more than literature, but they’re not just galloping plots. The characters face tough moral choices.
My goal is to aim for that sweet spot between best-selling mindless entertainment reading and literary masterpiece.
Though my writing style and subject matter are totally different, I’ve been very influenced by the British spy writer John Le Carre — I’ve read about 20 of his books. His early Cold War books, the good guys, the Brits or Americans, are often very compromised. In their zeal to defeat the Soviets, they become just as bad as they are. Of course, the life of a spy is characterized by deception.
One of the first books of LeCarre that was not about the Cold War was Little Drummer Girl, which starred an Israeli secret agent who went undercover as a Palestinian, and as he becomes more embedded in Palestinian society, he understood their situation more and it became harder for him to see things in black and white.
I’m going to read a scene from Bones in the Wash, featuring Mayor Zamara’s antagonist, Sierra León, a precocious hometown girl who’s made good a political operative, and has returned to Albuquerque from Washington D.C., to run a statewide coalition supporting Obama.
As editor of her high school newspaper, she covered Zamara when he was a city council member, and later, for the University of New Mexico Daily Lobo, his campaign for mayor. He doesn’t know her, but recognizes her face and her name. She pressures him to live up to his reputation of integrity, but he doesn’t, and the dirty tricks he engages in work. This drives Sierra crazy, and this scene is her talking with her father about this over dinner at an outdoor cafe.
“The thing is,” said Sierra, “I feel like such a chump playing by the rules. It’s not just being punked. It’s them shutting down voter drives, running sleazy racist ads. Cliff says we should play dirty, and I don’t want to, but I’m starting to think he’s right. Integrity is just a selfish indulgence.”
“You don’t believe that, do you?”
“I don’t know what to believe. I mean, I’m a model citizen. I don’t litter. I bring in milk for coffee and other people use it without ever buying any themselves. I play by the rules and it doesn’t make any difference. The goopers are cheating left and right, but all the news is about us cheating. Their lies carry more weight than our truth.
“You know, you look at the news and what people talk about and you get the impression that the nitty-gritty of politics is the people running, their characters, their positions on the issues, and of course, that’s partly true. But underneath that is this whole business of setting rules, like who can vote and when, and the Republicans are evil genius and meta on that front. I hate it that I actually admire what they did even as I despise it. If they can manipulate the rules so it’s harder for the poor and young and old and disabled to vote, then they have an advantage no matter how weak their candidate is.
“They just ran this sleazy, racist ad too, well, a third-party group did that, but I’m sure the McCain campaign knew about it. We’re a third-party group and we take seriously this rule that we’re not supposed to coordinate with the Obama campaign, but right-wing groups ignore this rule blatantly, and never get called on it, except by us, but then they just say, oh, it’s partisan attacks. That’s what’s so infuriating—”
“Slow down, mija.”
“If only there were some impartial referee, like at debate club, some thoughtful observer who says, well, you got more votes, but you broke the rules, so we’re going to subtract points. The right does whatever it wants, rules be damned. I’m just so tempted to get down in the gutter and give them a taste of their own medicine. I can feel the blood lust.”
“What would that mean?”
“Well, we’ve been doing some oppo research. Opposition research. Not so much McCain as his local surrogates, like the mayor, who has a reputation for being a clean, straight-and-narrow kind of guy, but that’s just an act. He has skeletons in his closet too—and I don’t just mean the bones of his wife in the wash. I covered her disappearance when I was at the Daily Lobo, and before that, his campaign for mayor. In between, there was some scandal that didn’t get much play.”
Her father wasn’t nodding his head, but he was listening intently. He licked his lips, rubbed his cheek with his hand.
“We could make a big deal about that,” she said, “sully his reputation. I mean, this is not how I like to operate, with personal attacks and all that, but after what he’s done, he deserves it. This insistence on being honorable gets in the way. When the stakes are high, it’s a liability—”
Lamar didn’t wait for her to stop. “So you want to fight the bad guys by acting like them?”
“I don’t want that. I want to win. That’s why I’m going zombie over this.”
“Can I tell you a story?”
She nodded. She knew she didn’t have a choice.
“You eat.” Lamar had cleaned his plate and drunk his beer. Now it was getting cool. He buttoned up his long-sleeve shirt, wiped his mouth again with the threadbare turquoise napkin.
“Once upon a time there was a farmer who was gearing up for spring planting when his horse ran away. When he told his neighbor that afternoon, the neighbor said, ‘That’s terrible news. Disastrous. How are you going to get your beans planted?’
“The farmer shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Bad news, good news, who knows?’”
Sierra, with her mouth full, waved her fork. “You told me this before,” she said, “but go ahead, please.”
“I’ve also told you before to slow down and not talk with food in your mouth,” he said, signaling the waiter for another beer. She made a face at him. “The next day, the horse returned with a wild white stallion, strong and spirited, and the farmer reported this to his neighbor, who said, ‘That’s great news. You’ve got another horse to help with the plowing.’ The farmer says, ‘Good news, bad news, who knows?’
“The next day, the farmer’s son started training the stallion to pull the plow, and the horse threw him off and he landed hard and broke both legs. When the farmer told his neighbor, he said, ‘What bad news. You were counting on your son for the planting. How can you possibly get the ground ready for your beans without him?’
“Of course, you know where this is going. The farmer says, ‘Bad news, good news, who knows?’ And then the next day, the king’s men come to conscript able-bodied young men into the army to fight the Mongols or whoever. The farmer’s son can’t even walk so they don’t take him. Predictably, his neighbor is ecstatic. ‘This is great news.’
“Whereupon the farmer says, ‘Good news, bad news, who knows.’ And so on.”
Sierra held up her fork to take the floor, but finished chewing first. “So what you’re saying is if we lose the election, I shouldn’t jump off a bridge because some day in the distant future, I might get a pony. I don’t think you understand the gravity of this situation.”
(Read more of Bones in the Wash at bonesinthewash.com.)
I have one more reading before Election Day — Sunday, October 23 at 2 pm at the Tam Valley Cabin on Tennessee Valley Road in Marin County.