I have way too much of a guilty conscience to ever be a successful criminal. The only thing I ever shoplifted was a pack of Fruit Stripe gum when I was seven. My mom said she wouldn’t buy it for me, so into my pocket it went. But the thing is, when I got it home, I felt so terrible, so guilt ridden, I couldn’t bring myself to chew it. And I knew that the right thing to do was confess, return the gum even, but I was too afraid of the repercussions. (Leg irons, maximum security prison where I’d end up with a tattoo…) So I did the only thing I could think of: I got rid of the evidence. I took the unopened pack of gum out into the woods and buried it. Deep. Then I sprinkled leaves over the freshly turned earth and ran home.
Having no real criminal nature myself, I get my kicks reading and writing about how other people deal with crimes. I tend to favor books about ordinary, average Joe (or, better yet, Josephine!) kinds of people who are faced with extraordinary circumstances. Give me a story about a baker or a carpenter who accidentally stumbles into something sinister over one starring a seasoned cop or lawyer any day.
So why is it that the kid who was once sick with guilt over stealing a pack of Fruit Stripe gum is now drawn to read and write books that center around crimes? Because for me, a novel is most satisfying when something dire happens. I want someone to end up dead or missing. Some twisted little part of my brain gets a happy endorphin jolt when I read or write about something terrible happening. But I’m not satisfied with that alone – I want to see the ripple effect of that event on the characters involved. I want to see (and create) ordinary people pushed to their limits.
In the opening of my novel, Promise Not to Tell, the narrator, Kate Cypher, confesses, “I killed someone tonight. I have always believed myself to be a person incapable of murder. Suicide has crossed my mind once or twice, but murder? Never.”
Kate’s a somewhat reserved school nurse who’s had an average life (other than her childhood friend being slain). So the question the book sets out to answer is what would make her pick up a gun and pull the trigger.
What would make any of us do such a horrendous thing? What are my limits? What are yours? How far would we go to test them? And for who, or what, would we keep going, no matter what?
This is why I write what I write. (That and I gave up my career as a thief at the age of seven. What else am I going to do to get my thrill fix?)
I did some idiotic, not-quite legal things when I was younger–things I’m not sure I want bobbing about on the Internet forevermore. So I’m going to deflect by telling you about bank robberies I’ve been involved in. As a spectator, not as a robber.
The first robbery was during the Montreal Olympics when I was ten. My grandfather was visiting from California and he took me, my 22-month-old brother Michael, and my cousin Scott to the bank. This was mid-day, mid-town, mid-summer. Scott and I were leaning on a check-writing table, Michael was wandering around, Grandpa was next in line at a teller window.
In a flash, four or five men stormed the place. One moment they weren’t there, the next, they were deep inside the bank. All wore dark clothes. All had nylons over their faces. All had guns that I can only describe as big machine guns. Two or three jumped the counters and aimed their guns at the tellers, screaming their demands for money. Another two charged the customers, waving their guns and shouting at us to get down on the floor.
My cousin and I froze. All around us, people were lying face down and sobbing but neither of us could move. Someone later told us that one of the gunmen came at me and Scott, screamed at us to get down. But I have no memory of this. What I do remember is that someone under the table pulled my feet out from under me and I fell to the tile floor. They did the same to Scott.
I lay there certain the robbers would do one of two things: lock us all in the vault and kill us, or take us all hostage in their van. Either way, we were all dead. And it was the day my dad–who had separated from my mother and moved to Toronto–was coming back to visit. All I knew was I’d never see him again. I hid my face in the curtains so the robbers would see I wasn’t staring. So they wouldn’t kill me just yet.
Then I heard a small voice say, “Boogie man.” It was Michael. I peeked up to see him wandering around the bank, way on the other side, pointing at the gunmen in wonder. He was wearing footsie pajamas. A few people lying on the floor tried to get hold of him, pull him down, but he stayed just out of reach. I’d like to say I crawled over to him, risked my life, but I didn’t. I was a little girl with a gunman standing over her. As scared as I was for Michael–unbelievably vulnerable and innocent at that moment–I could see the robbers weren’t bothered by his accusations. I remember thinking they seemed slightly amused.
As quick as it came on, the whole thing was over. The bank flooded with police and reporters, my brother was in my grandfather’s arms, and Scott and I climbed out from under the table. The robbery turned out to be one of the biggest in Montreal’s history.
My next bank robbery wasn’t nearly as frightening. First of all, I was about 20 and had just moved to Toronto from LA, where I’d survived veritable herds of flashers, freak-boys and D-list actors. Second, I’d just had my purse stolen from my car in Hollywood–twice. And had to stand in countless lineups to replace all my i.d.–twice. Third, by this time I’d learned the value of having a cute story to pull out of my pocket while chatting with boys.
I was working for my dad’s company that summer and had gone to the bank on my lunch break to deposit my paycheck. This bank was tiny and I was one of maybe three customers. Standing at the teller, I set my wallet on the counter to my side and signed the back of my check. As I scribbled, a man approached the teller on my right. I looked up to see a black gun pointed at the teller. Just like in the movies, he passed her a paper bag and told her to fill it up. I couldn’t stop myself from staring at the gun. It was way too real and way too close.
Then I noticed my wallet. Midway between the robber and me, just next to his gun. Filled with my spanking fresh, twice-replaced driver’s license, birth certificate, social security card. The gun ceased to exist. My only thought was, “If Asshole here takes my wallet, he’s going to have to fight me.” (I didn’t say I was bright at 20.) Very slowly, very carefully, I reached my hand out and began sliding my wallet toward me. Once it was close enough I placed my body between the wallet and the gun. Like a shield made of stupid.
Robber Man grabbed his sack, spun around and–also just like in the movies–dropped the cash all over the floor. He scooped up what he could, jumped in a waiting car and sped away.
My lunch hour was over. I headed back to work with rescued wallet and buoyed confidence. Oh, and a really cute story for the boys back at the office.
Oh, yikes. Are we really going to go here? I already feel like the delinquent deb — Thank God, is all I can say, for Jennifer‘s at times equally risque adventures — but is it really time to come out and confess the crimes?
I’m going to skip through the drinking-related misdeeds, because who really needs to hear about how I got busted for underage drinking when I was 16 and wearing a poodle skirt over my head? (I’d been in a dance show earlier that night where my friend and I had performed synchronized moves to “Chantilly Lace.” True. All of it. I wish it weren’t.)
Ahem. Sorry. Skipping. Let’s move onto when I was in eighth grade and had taken on the habit of shoplifting sunglasses with my friend L. (who, it should be noted, is now a successful therapist). We had our routine so down that we truly fancied ourselves geniuses. Here’s how it would work: we’d enter a store, pretending to be self-involved, distracted teenagers (it wasn’t hard). Try on glasses. “Do you like these? What about these?” Push whichever pair we liked best — and had tried on last — to the top of the head. Then a glance at the watch. “Oh my God, we’re late to meet Maria!” Or some such. And a dash out of the store. With the type of clueless bravado that only a pair of delusional adolescents could possess, we assumed our plan was full-proof because we could always convincingly exclaim, “Glasses? On my head? Oh my God, you’re right. How silly of me! How much are they?”
Now here’s the dark part of the story and knowing that what I’ve said so far is light still won’t prepare you for what I’m about to reveal. Because it was at this point that we decided to involve my grandmother in our illicit activities. (If you thought that I wished the poodle skirt and Chantilly Lace wasn’t true, you can only imagine how I feel now.) We went to Palm Springs for a week to visit Grandma, where we went to a slew of those tacky tourist shops that only teenagers and the elderly seem to enjoy. Inside, we’d scope out the glasses selection and when we found a pair we really liked, we’d ask Grandma if she’d mind “holding onto” them. She never did and they slipped right into her big black purse. Who, we figured, would question a sweet older lady like her? All I can say about that now is that if I believed in hell, I’d be fully convinced I was going there, and the fact that I haven’t been struck down by lightning does seem like some sort of a karmic mistake.
The run L. and I were on came to a screeching halt the day that we took our act to Macy’s back at home and were caught on videotape ripping the tags off of the glasses. Once we’d been busted, I confessed everything while L. went the denial route. And, after they let us go with the truly embarrassing — and unenforceable, but I was too paranoid to understand that at the time — order that we never enter Macy’s again without an adult until we came of age, they released us and called our parents. Coming clean was apparently the way to go because the “cop” — that’s what he was to me, anyway — told my mom that it seemed like my friend had pressured me into the theft.
While my adventures in shoplifting ended that very day, the paranoia that accompanied them is with me still. Every single time I see a sign that says “We prosecute shoplifters,” I feel this strange urge to throw my hands into the air and confess my sins, despite the fact that my pockets are empty. Perhaps that’s just my soul’s way of torturing me for having involved an unwitting and slightly senile relative in my life of crime.
Will the Great Reviews ever end for the Debs?! Let’s hope not! Debutante Tish Cohen’s TOWN HOUSE was reviewed by Kirkus this week, who had this to say: “A constellation of characters whose idiosyncrasies make the family of Little Miss Sunshine look like Ozzie and Harriet.” Folks, if Kirkus likes it, you’re gonna love it!
Debs on Lists! Deb Mia King’s Good Things is #38 on the Barnes & Noble General Fiction Trade list!! And more great things for Good Things: “Entertaining!” The Seattle Times, and “GOOD THINGS is one of those books that you never want to end! Mia King’s stunning in her debut novel!” by Romance Readers Connection (4 ½ stars). Keep it coming, Mia!
Friends of the Debs! Killer Year and Murderati leader, mentor, and all around awesome chick and writer J.T. Ellison has passed that milestone of a COVER! It’s gorgeous and creepy and just as good as ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS itself. Congratulations, J.T.!
Debs being treated ever-so-kindly! Debutante Kristy Kiernan and CATCHING GENIUS will be feted on Monday on our own Larramie’s blog, Seize a Daisy! Stop over and say hi, please!
And folks, there’s more, but frankly, admin is just bone tired! We’ll catch up next Sunday Have a great week, Debs and readers!
I can’t do it.
Everyone else’s posts have been so eloquent, so persuasive and passionate in their offerings, and I find myself reaching, futilely, for something that hasn’t been said, some book that will prove my devotion to the form, or at least to a specific writer or genre.
But I cast back over the books I read in 2006 and cannot remember them properly, only fleeting impressions remain. I am a fickle, capricious lover, and I hop from genre to genre, author to author, poetry to fiction, biography to educational text. I read the back of a bottle of Pantene conditioner 365 times in 2006, and I loved every moment of it.
So instead I would like to beg your patience and ask you to allow me to tell you about some of the books I currently have on my nightstand, in the towering To Be Read pile we all seem to have and rarely get to the bottom of. I am passionate about these books, because they are still waiting for me, untouched, unknown, and therefore rich with possibility. In order the way I think I’m going to read them, and yet know I won’t:
1) Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – bought at The Vero Beach Book Center
2) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – also from Vero
3) Ian McEwan – borrowed from Janna Underhill too many months ago
4) The Abomination – also from Janna
5) Jesus Land – bought three weeks ago from my local Borders 3 For 2 Table
6) The Inheritance of Loss – bought at my local Borders on the recommendation of a bookseller from the Bal Harbour Books & Books
7) Anna Karenina by Tolstoy – Vero Beach, one I’ve always wanted to read
8) Three Junes by Julia Glass – Local Borders, 3 For 2 table
9) We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver – It will be my fourth reading, but my first from a copy I own, bought on a layover at the Atlanta airport returning from NYC
10) Collected Stories of William Faulkner – bought from indie bookstore in Apalachicola, meant to read on beach, fell asleep instead
11) The Midnight Disease by Alice W. Flaherty – kindly given to me by Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books in Coral Gables
12) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – Local Borders, 3 For 2 table
13) Lisey’s Story by Stephen King – given to me at Christmas by my husband
14) Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss – Local Barnes and Noble
15) Labyrinth by Kate Mosse – given to me by my editor, Jackie Cantor, and edited by my first editor, Leona Nevler
16) Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon – Amazon purchase, made along with a pre-order of Good Things by our own Mia King
These are all important books to me, as much for their content as for the ways in which I received them. I am comforted by my TBR pile. It tells me that this is my home, this is my room, this is my side of the bed, and I am always welcome. I will always be comfortable there, so long as I have a book to read and a memory to go along with it.
Pick one book for 2006?
Just one? I love them all. I am a self confessed book tart. I read constantly. When I’m in the shower, I read the shampoo bottle directions. When I head off to work in the morning, I stick a book in my bag. I most likely could have sponsored a dozen starving children in some far flung country except for my book buying habit.
I’m going to steal my fellow Deb’s idea of six books for 06 (summaries stolen from Amazon)
Daughter’s Keeper by Ayelet Waldman: Olivia Goodman, a rebellious 22-year-old, dropped out of college as a sophomore and headed for Mexico. After she moved back to her hometown of Oakland, Calif., she was followed by Jorge Luis Rodriguez Hernandez, with whom she had a brief affair in Mexico. Jorge crossed the border illegally and is unable to find work, and Olivia feels obligated to support him. Desperate for money, Jorge is persuaded to participate in a drug deal, and Olivia’s vague complicity sweeps her into an intense legal battle when she is arrested with Jorge. As Olivia fights for her freedom, her mother, Elaine Goodman, is doubly tormented. Elaine raised Olivia on her own, but never felt she could love her enough. Now, when she has finally found happiness with a man, she is forced to choose between helping her daughter and holding on to her fiance.
Lamb by Christopher Moore: While the Bible may be the word of God, transcribed by divinely inspired men, it does not provide a full (or even partial) account of the life of Jesus Christ. Lucky for us that Christopher Moore presents a funny, lighthearted satire of the life of Christ–from his childhood days up to his crucifixion–in Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. This clever novel is surely blasphemy to some, but to others it’s a coming-of-age story of the highest order.
Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier: This one wins for best cover in my opinion. A deadly virus has spread rapidly across Earth, effectively cutting off wildlife specialist Laura Byrd at her crippled Antarctica research station from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the planet’s dead populate “the city,” located on a surreal Earth-like alternate plane, but their afterlives depend on the memories of the living, such as Laura, back on home turf. Forced to cross the frozen tundra, Laura free-associates to keep herself alert; her random memories work to sustain a plethora of people in the city, including her best friend from childhood, a blind man she’d met in the street, her former journalism professor and her parents.
The Girls by Lori Lansen:Conjoined twins Rose and Ruby Darlen are linked at the side of the head, with separate brains and bodies. Born in a small town outside Toronto in the midst of a tornado and abandoned by their unwed teenage mother two weeks later, the girls are cared for by Aunt Lovey, a nurse who refuses to see them as deformed or even disabled. She raises them in Leaford, Ontario, where, at age 29, Rose, the more verbal and bookish twin, begins writing their story—i.e., this novel, which begins, “I have never looked into my sister’s eyes.” Showing both linguistic skill and a gift for observation, Lansens’s Rose evokes country life, including descriptions of corn and crows, and their neighbors Mrs. Merkel, who lost her only son in the tornado, and Frankie Foyle, who takes the twins’ virginity. Rose shares her darkest memory (public humiliation during a visit to their Slovakian-born Uncle Stash’s hometown) and her deepest regret, while Ruby, the prettier, more practical twin, who writes at her sister’s insistence, offers critical details, such as what prompted Rose to write their life story. Through their alternating narratives, Lansens captures a contradictory longing for independence and togetherness that transcends the book’s enormous conceit.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book’s categorization to be sure that The Devil in the White City is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair’s construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor. Burnham’s challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous “White City” around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair’s incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison. The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World’s Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims. Combining the stories of an architect and a killer in one book, mostly in alternating chapters, seems like an odd choice but it works.
Sex with the Queen by Eleanor Herman: In this follow-up to her bestselling Sex with Kings, Eleanor Herman reveals the truth about what goes on behind the closed door of a queen’s boudoir. Impeccably researched, filled with page-turning romance, passion, and scandal, Sex with the Queen explores the scintillating sexual lives of some of our most beloved and infamous female rulers.
Anyone else enjoy non fiction too?
Like my fellow Debs, I read a lot. A ton. And very quickly, mostly because quick is all I have these days.
Caveat: I may be quick, but I’m not always timely (also like my fellow Debs – Debs of a feather flock together, and all that), meaning that books released in 2006 may not cross my desk until, oh, 2008 or so. So the title I am about to put forth is six years old, but by far the best book I read in 2006, so here it is:
Waiting by Ha Jin
Aside from the usual accolades (PEN/Faulkner Award, National Book Award Winner, Pulitzer Prize Finalist, NYT Notable Book, yada yada yada), it is a damn good book. It’s eloquent, easy to read, but multi-layered and complex. It’s literary fiction at its best, and carries a moral: Be careful what you wish for (because you just might get it). It also has one of the best first lines of a book: “Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” Now how could you not start reading with an opening like that?
But here’s the other thing I love. The author, originally a Chinese national, was illiterate until his mid-teens, lived through the Cultural Revolution, studied in America, wrote a bunch of poetry and books, and now teaches English at Boston University (he use to prof at Emory , too). Plus there’s all those awards and that Pulitzer Prize thingy. I have to say I admire that about a writer. I mean, sure it makes me feel like a wimp for whining about not finding time to write, but it also makes me respect the process of writing even more, and pushes me to be a better writer.
Who, or what, helps you be a better writer?