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Book Expo 2010

An invitation arrived from The Author’s Guild to attend three days of Book Expo at the Javits Center in New York. As I am a longtime devoted member of The Authors Guild (they host this site), I decided to go. I am a friendly author and thought the event would be author friendly. It was not. Unless you were Michael Connelly. I am not.

I had been invited to such an event at Atlantic City some years ago. The gambling and indoor waterfalls were more of a draw than my book or my non-celebrity. The man next to me, Arthur Frommer, signed a lot of books. I signed two or three. Who wants to read about war and humanitarian workers? All told, none of my appearances in the United States did much to sell my book. In London, however, where authors are interviewed in depth, I was able to talk about the project on the radio. That sold books.

So what is an American Expo for exactly? A place to schmooze and "take meetings,” just like in Hollywood, it seems. Sadly, there was no central location for non block-buster authors to gather and have meetings with one another whereas the agents and sales representatives had meetings in specially designated café-like enclaves while the book collector/fans stood on long lines to get their free, autographed copies, their neon green and orange bags filled to overflowing with giveaways.

Aren't Expos--historically--meditations on past, present and future? Plus ça change and plus is changing, but where were the changes in the book industry evident? On the periphery, in the margins, way down at the Southern-most end of the Convention Center near the Children’s Books and Toys and on the long lines leading to the women’s restrooms where people spoke off the record: It’s sleight of hand, a stage set, the industry is in trouble. Why are the electronic media companies down at the far end?

And so on.

I didn’t go on the first day—Tuesday—because a warning email said that the booths were not yet installed. Obviously, people had arrived, found the cavernous space empty, and were annoyed. Some of the overseas attendees were still erecting their sites when I arrived on Wednesday afternoon, to be struck, like stage sets, at the end of the next day. The Vietnamese Cultural Ministry and The Chinese Cultural Ministry were still setting up, or were they already leaving? No matter, they are not publishers, they are propaganda arms of the state. Their booths remained sans visitors, except for me. I sat down with Yang Xiaohe of the Shanghai Press & Publishing Development Co. She was in New York for four days, she explained, and was very tired from the long journey. Dressed in a summer khaki suit, she looked pert, her expression serious but friendly, about thirty I’d say. Her English was impeccable. She had two helpers, also young women, equally pert, pretty and friendly. I think I was their first guest.

There were about fifty books arrayed on the wobbly shelving. As I picked them up and replaced them, they kept falling to the floor through the cracks. Yang was disoriented. I had taken the liberty to browse and she wanted to pick up the books herself and hand them to me. I was most interested in a series of stories, translated into English, by contemporary writers from Shanghai. When I told Yang I was a professor, she gave me a book by a professor called “His One and Only.” It’s about a boy from a poor family. When his mother forces him to marry an older girl, he flees home. It’s a picture of life in China before Communism and after. I suppose I will read it, out of curiosity, though I know already that it’s a moral tale about the importance and necessity of Communism. I thanked Yang for the sample copy and answered her questions about what Americans like me want to know about China. There was a book about gardening on the shelf and I pointed to that. “Gardening,” I said.

"Do you have an agent?" Yang asked.
"I do. She is here somewhere. It would be nice to run into her."
We exchanged cards, a global protocol, and I wished her a safe journey home.

Next stop was The Authors Guild booth where I was offered beer and hot dogs and talked briefly to staff about negotiations with Google. I thanked them for their hard work. Across the aisle, I spotted an old friend from Gotham Writer’s Workshop in their booth. The familiarity was heartening. At last, a place for a non-block buster writer to schmooze and rest.
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Master Work

There are writers who continue to polish their work even after it has been published. Louise Erdrich revised her first novel, “Love Medicine,” and published it a second time, many years later. And, if memory serves, the poet Seamus Heaney did the same with one of his collections. I may revise “Say Nothing,” after I have written another book in the series, evolved the main character, and also my own definition of the mystery genre.

The great and famous British mystery writer, P.D.James, has given me courage to continue to experiment and to risk approbation and perplexed responses when “real” mystery genre fans read my book. Nearly ninety-years-old, James has written an extended essay, “Talking About Detective Fiction,” in which she says, “We may not always believe in the details of the plot, but we always believe in the man himself and the world he inhabits.” Plot challenged, most of my fiction is character driven. The mystery genre challenges this weakness or, better said, preference. That said, it is quite possible, according to James, that plot will become less and less important to some mystery writers as the world we inhabit becomes increasingly disordered and less re-ordering or "solving" at the end of a story is possible. To live as an agnostic, without absolute solutions or certainties, is our existential condition. And that is what I tried to illuminate for myself in my unconventional wartime murder mystery. I also worked hard on the language itself, the description, and the political backdrop.

It isn’t absolutely successful; it was an experiment. I sent it out into the world as an experiment. Readers have offered feedback that will be helpful to me in my next attempt. I look forward to the continuing process of deepening my writing and making it better. Not every work can be a master work.

Like P.D.James, I hope I am still writing at age 90. Indeed, I hope I live to 90 in good health with full creative power. That said, every writer knows that the master work is in the writing life itself.  Read More 
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Monet's Late Paintings

I took a much needed lunch break yesterday and traveled to the Gogosian Gallery on 21st Street to see Monet’s “late” paintings. I had read an article about the exhibition in the New York Times. The accompanying image was very different than the restrained, atmospheric paintings that have become a mainstay of so many museum collections. The pastel palette and soft focus haystacks, cathedrals and gardens always draw a crowd; they are pleasing and accessible. These late paintings are provocative and have rarely been seen by Monet’s admiring public. He had changed course; he was experimenting.

How does an artist (or writer), successful in his own lifetime, restore his creative energy without risking sales? This is the question that surfaced as I entered the well-appointed gallery with its capacious rooms. The paintings were not for sale, they were displayed to be seen, a receptionist explained, disingenuously, as every exhibition (especially one so generously reviewed) increases the value of the work.

A few of the paintings were familiar but most were not. Monet had transformed both his palette and his brushstroke. Both were looser, more layered, and expressive. Monet had become what we would call today an “abstract expressionist.” True, he was older, his eyesight was failing, and he was financially secure. But he was also contemplating the end of his life, the vertiginous unknown beyond. And this was brave and compelling.

The lily ponds, benign in earlier renderings, had become dark protected whirlpools spanned by a bridge in the near distance, then swirling away into an ominous tunnel under a bridge before exploding again into color and light. A dapple of sparkle in a lily head here, another there. These paintings are sublime.

It is my observation that the subject of most art is impermanence, that in the art we attempt to capture the present moment and hold it, knowing full well that before we have done so, it has disappeared. Out of this keen realization, which can give both pleasure and pain, we make our work. Read More 
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