An interview with Katharine Weber

In advance of the March 30 presentation, our president, Patrick Stuart, conducted an interview with Katharine Weber about her recent book Still Life With Monkey). Read on below!

PS:  OK, let’s set the scene:  you are Katharine Weber, the Richard L. Thomas Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College (who also taught at Yale and Columbia), and the author of several critically acclaimed books including Still Life With Monkey, which was picked for the Washington Post’s list of “50 notable works of fiction in 2018.” The novel involves Duncan Wheeler, an architect in Connecticut at the beginning a successful career when a horrific car crash renders him a quadriplegic, not to mention killing his young apprentice.  Duncan’s wife Laura discovers an organization in New England that trains capuchin monkeys as helpers for people with spinal cord injuries, and they adopt Ottoline to help with Duncan’s daily needs (turning pages, picking up dropped items, etc.).  So how did you come up with the storyline?

KW:  A friend from high school, Andy Zerman, one of the book’s dedicatees, became a quadriplegic some 25 years ago in a boating accident that took someone else’s life. His circumstances and choices in life are completely different from Duncan (Andy was a gay Broadway show casting director, who lived and worked and continued to work for many years after his accident in New York City).  But Andy’s situation, and the day to day needs, were familiar to me. I first heard about monkey helpers long ago. As a novelist, sometimes the spark that ignites is the juxtaposition, no matter how unlikely, of two separate things that I find intriguing and filled with narrative possibility. For me, developing plans for a novel is never one single moment of aha! but the gradual accumulation of ideas and situations, many aha!s, and then comes the gathering feeling of the need to bear down on something particular in a particular way.  Andy died in January, very unexpectedly. I am very glad I had seen him just a couple of weeks before, and that he lived to see publication of a book dedicated to him. He was an avid reader and he was very willing to answer questions from me about everything from the function of a tenododisis grip (which he called his “teena” — I can show you what this is and why it matters with damaged hand function) to his depression when he was first recovering from the accident — he told himself “I’m going to give this a year.”  That was an aha! moment for me — my ticking clock!  All fiction needs a ticking clock.

PS:  Full disclosure:  I have an architectural background (as well as a son named Duncan), so this novel hit home for me.  The amount of detail in Duncan’s background is spot on (well beyond the typical Wikipedia/Google search), as well as an important part of his character.  A similar amount of detail was evident with the fictitious Primate Institute where Ottoline was trained (based on an actual organization), Laura’s job as an art curator, and other areas.  Exposition is important in establishing realism in a story; what’s your process for gathering such detailed background information?

KW:  Wikipedia? Please!  For one thing, I worked in an architecture office (Richard Meier) as a ghostwriter and general office and archive clerk of the works. I have intimate knowledge of art restoration.  I read deeply into monkey behavior studies, and I spent time behind the scenes at Monkey College, where Helping Hands, in Cambridge Mass, trains capuchin monkeys. They are the real thing on which my fictional Primate Institute is based.  When I don’t have personal knowledge, I certainly do read deeply, but I also ask people questions, I delve into the personal relationships with professions or circumstances as much or more than I gather concrete information.  If you operated a garbage truck I would want craziest/best/worst/stories, I would want to know if you dream about your work, as much as I would want to know how you actually operate the truck.

PS:  The novel shifts perspectives between Duncan, Ottoline, his wife Laura and his twin brother Gordon.  There isn’t so much a linear path as several views from different vantage points.  Was this intentional or did the story structure grow this way organically?

KW:  It was both intentional and organic. I am not being coy. I very much wanted to write in the close third person, what kids these days call free indirect discourse. Most of my previous novels depend on first person narrative much of the time, and here the only true first person narrative comes late, in Duncan’s long farewell letter to Laura.  The close third person isn’t limited to one point of view as much as a first person story really is. I also wanted to write in a male perspective, which I have not done before.

PS:  (Spoiler alert to readers:  this question involves the ending):  Duncan’s identical twin brother Gordon is the polar opposite of Duncan’s personality.  Whereas Duncan is independent, Gordon is dependent on everyone around him.  Duncan is controlling and driven to succeed, whereas Gordon prefers his daily routine and is a bit of a ‘squish,’ etc..  But after the accident they seem to switch places, and Duncan is forced to rely on others as Gordon steps up to become more responsible for his brother.  Duncan can’t make the adjustment and eventually takes his own life; definitely a tough subject, but in Duncan’s eyes he did what he thought was right.  Was this always Duncan’s ending, and how did their dichotomy play a part in his decision?

KW:  I am very interested in copies, mirror images, matched pairs that can never really be perfectly matched. We can discuss the role of these twins, the way Duncan isn’t content at all, and maybe despite his enjoyment of all sorts of things he was never fully content, given his deeply hidden (from himself too) homoerotic attraction to Todd, while Gordon is content with his life in ways others don’t recognize. What is a successful life? Gordon and Duncan would define very differently. I am interested in the limits of how much we ever really know about other people, what we think we know, the difference between the inner life and the outer life.  

PS:  Chekhov came up with that great quote about a gun being shown in the first act of a play necessitating firing by the second act.  One potentially unfired gun in SLWM (in my highly subjective opinion) involved Todd Walker, the apprentice killed in the car crash.  There appeared to be something beyond a working relationship developing between Duncan and Todd.  But then the accident happened and the issue kind of disappeared.  Intentional?  Unintentional? 

KW:  It didn’t disappear. It drove Duncan’s desire to end his life. Nothing unintentional here. Just subtle. Starting with the scene riding back on the ferry, with Duncan gazing at Todd (a close paraphrase of a scene in Death in Venice, when Von Aschenbach is gazing at Tadzio (Todd, todt = death in German).

PS:  And lastly, in a blatant rip-off of James Lipton and his t.v. series Inside the Actors Studio, what is a) your favorite word, and b) your favorite (literary) curse word?

KW:  My favorite words may vary from one day to the next, but today:

Favorite word: lunch

Favorite literary curse word(s):  numpty fuckwit (I spend a lot of time in England and Ireland) 

BCW member Dan Stout talks first novel, ‘Titanshade’

Buckeye Crime Writers member Dan Stout’s first novel, ‘Titanshade,’ is slated for release on March 12. He answered a few questions from BCW in advance of the release.

Dan Stout
Dan Stout

You recently Tweeted out a photo of you holding a stack of copies of your first book, Titanshade. When they arrived, can you even begin to describe what that moment felt like?

It was a pretty great feeling! There’s something much more concrete about the final product, even after seeing ARCs and proofs. But if I’m being honest, the real thrill is when I know that someone else has a copy and is getting ready to start reading. Because love it or hate it, they’ll be engaging with it. And once it’s in their head, it’ll stay there as an influence, no matter how subtle.

For me, that bit of cultural engagement is the real magic in any art, from literature to film to sculpture and more.

You not only wrote a detective story, you set it in a different world, where sorcerers, eight-tracks and disco are all the rage. What prompted you to create that kind of setting?

When I was a kid reading Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS, I used to wonder what someplace like Middle Earth would look like when the inhabitants began to develop technology. Eventually, they’d have their own industrial revolution, and then increased urbanization. And that in turn would require a centralized infrastructure and emergency services like fire and police departments. And of course, police departments mean police investigations. Add in the fact that fantastic creatures and magic are still around, and it’s a pretty fun sandbox to play in.

Tell us about your main character, Carter. How difficult was he to conceive, and then to let grow?

Carter’s voice came to me along with the core of the story. The trickier part was understanding the many ways in which he fails to understand the world around him. He’s a very observant person, but he has major blind spots. These are pointed out by those who support his case, and exploited by those who don’t.

Once I understood both his strengths and weaknesses, I was able to see the choices he’d make in a given situation. And from there, everything kind of fell into place.

How did you come up with the concept behind Titanshade?

I was a member of a writers’ website called Liberty Hall. There, once a week, a hidden prompt would be posted. If you viewed the post, a 90 minute timer would start to count down, and you’d have that long to write a story and post it to the site. All the stories were anonymized, and everyone who took part in that week’s challenge would give feedback. What was brilliant about the system was the time limit: you didn’t have time to second guess yourself, and the time frame meant that everyone understood that most of the submissions would be preliminary sketches at best. TITANSHADE came out of one of those challenges; I got the set-up and murder scene, along with a basic arc of the plot. 

How long did it take you to write it?

It was almost exactly two years from writing the first sentence to my agent going out on submission with it. Of course, there were more edits after that, and in some ways I continue to add layers to the world and its inhabitants, so I don’t know that I’ll ever really be done writing that book!

What advice do you have for other writers who are still working to get their first books published?

Be as honest as you possibly can. Talk about the world as you know it, and tell stories about characters who behave in the most authentic way possible. (Even if that’s being authentically dishonest.)

When you’re honest about the truths you believe, and your characters have their own worldview, your stories will resonate with readers. From there, it’s just a numbers game before you have the audience you need to keep on going.

When does the book come out, and where can people buy it?

It comes out March 12th, 2019. It will be available in most book stores and libraries, and if they don’t have it, they can order you a copy! If you prefer to get your books online, it will be available at all major online vendors. The audio version releases at the same time, and will be available at all those spots, as well as on Audible. Links to all those sellers can be found on my website (DanStout.com).

Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about my book and my publishing journey!

Our next event is BYOB!

(You’ll see why in a moment.)

Hi, everyone! Did you enjoy our first winter blast? Ready for the next one? The good thing about all that snow is, it’s a great time to stay at home and get some writing done.

And if you happen to be writing a murder mystery, and someone happens to get, ahem, poisoned, then our next event is right up your alley.

Dan Baker is the Chief Toxicologist at the Franklin County Coroner’s Office. Mr. Baker earned a Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science from Youngstown State University, a Master of Science in Pharmacology & Toxicology and a Graduate Certificate in Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense from Wright State University, Boonshoft School of Medicine. Mr. Baker is a Board Certified Fellow in Forensic Toxicology by the American Board of Forensic Toxicology. Mr. Baker has co-authored publications in The Journal of Analytical Toxicology, Case Reports in Medicine, and the journal Clinical Toxicology on subjects such as opioid related deaths, novel psychoactive substances, carbamazepine metabolism, and fentanyl intoxication.  Mr. Baker has 18 years’ experience in various toxicology specialties including postmortem toxicology, human performance toxicology, pre-employment drug screening, probation/parole compliance drug testing, and professional sports doping control.

This event will be held Feb. 16 at the Bexley Library. So please, join us, and… BYOB! 😉 (But seriously, folks – this is a public library, so make sure it’s non-alcoholic. Just in case!)

On March 30, we have Katharine Weber, the Richard Thomas Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College. She’ll be with us on March 30 in the meeting room of the Gahanna Library. And April 20, Linda Kass, founder and owner of Gramercy Books, is coming to visit.

As always, our meetings are from 12:30 to 3 p.m., with a lunch afterward in which we ask our guests all the questions we were afraid to ask them in front of people, but are perfectly fine with discussing over, say, food. Mark your calendars!

Book review: Cherry

By Patrick Stuart, BCW president

I’m a sucker for good books (big surprise). I’m an even bigger sucker for origin stories of authors who managed to get published under trying circumstances, usually involving some combination of talent, grit, happenstance and fairy dust. Case in point; John Kennedy Toole and “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Donald Ray Pollock and “Knockemstiff.” Lucia Berlin and “A Manual for Cleaning Women.” Or William Gay and “The Long Home.” But now it’s time to add another: Nico Walker, debut author of the autobiographical novel “Cherry.”

In 2003 Walker, at 19 years old and by all accounts a good kid from a wealthy Cleveland suburb, bouncing around in a dive band and toying with college, decided to enlist in the Army. He went to Iraq as a medic, got dumped in one of the worst parts of the war, and experienced daily exposure to some basically horrific shit. Walker returned with undiagnosed PTSD and went on to self-medicate with Oxycontin and heroin. To pay for his new habit, he became a bank robber. And for four months, he confounded police by robbing several banks for a total of about $40,000. Until the 11th bank turned into an 11-year sentence at a federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky (expected release date: 2024).

After becoming incarcerated, however, Walker’s story wound up in a long Buzzfeed article, where a small publisher ran across it. The publisher started a correspondence and asked him to write some pages. Realizing there was a bigger story in the making, the small publisher got a bigger publisher involved (Knopf Doubleday), and over a few years Knopf and Walker corresponded via typewritten pages and scheduled 15-minute prison phone calls. Long story short (pun intended, ha), a novel was born.

Here’s the kicker: “Cherry” is actually good. Keep in mind that the novel is essentially Walker’s life, with a first-person protagonist who closely follows his experiences in Cleveland, Iraq, then Cleveland again. Which makes for some intense reading that easily could’ve become a muddled, grueling and hyperbolic mess. But Walker’s protagonist is a combination of honest, funny, kind and depressing. The writing, despite the rawness of the material, is surprisingly tender and sweet. And much of the detail, especially involving military and drug culture, rings brutally realistic. But if you want an abject lesson in how to capture voice, holy mother of . . . this book could be taught at MFA programs. It’s that good. Keep in mind: “Cherry” is harsh, profane and deals with tough subjects. It’s not for everyone. But if you’re willing to take a chance, this will stick with you like a bad addiction.

(Cherry, by Nico Walker, Knopf Doubleday, pub. 2018)


Flash fiction winners: December 2018

Congratulations to this year’s winners of our flash fiction contest! The writers had 200 words to incorporate five words – icicle, sleigh, batter, regift and pine, or variations thereof – into a delightful little murder mystery. Our esteemed panel then narrowed down the field, and the winners were Alicia Anthony (first prize) and Eileen Curley Hammond. Congratulations! Here are their stories:

The Elf’s Revenge, by Alicia Anthony

The scent of pine assaulted my nose. Why these idiots kept moving me around, forcing me into embarrassing positions – sometimes involving a Barbie doll – I’ll never understand. Tonight I sat immobile in the center of the wreath, a prickly spike of evergreen stabbing me in the ass. Humans were ridiculously brutal, battering my arms and legs this way and that, turning and twisting them into whatever position they deemed worthy of Facebook.

Mr. C couldn’t have had this in mind when he assigned this mission. The Elf Workers Union had filed complaints, but so far, the big guy just, “Ho, ho, hoed,” his way out of the conversation. The world would regret ignoring us, manipulating us, regifting us when kids got too old. Tonight, I’d end the abuse.

I swung from the wreath and onto the mantle, sliding in my red onesie down the fancy woodwork to the floor below. The thump of sleigh runners against the roof launched me into a sprint. I yanked an ornament from the Christmas tree before tucking myself among the logs in the darkened fireplace. I braced the ornament between my hands. Exhilaration mounted. The metallic icicle speared straight up, waiting for its target.

(Untitled), by Eileen Curley Hammond

The twelve-inch icicle glistened in the sun. Fat water droplets slid down its length, falling to the bluestone patio far below. I shivered as I shut the window. There was so much left to be done. Michael was in the living room, feet up, watching a rerun of the World Series win. I squinted at the TV. Derek Jeter was the batter.

I picked up the wooden sleigh and some ribbon. With a quick bow, hot glue gun, and several pine cones, a passable centerpiece stood complete. The punch bowl landed on the table, surrounded by small cut crystal glasses. I glared at Michael. “Some help would be nice.”

He grunted, “Where’s my sister?”

“Probably puffing away outside. Would you please find her? It’s not like you don’t know the ending.” He hit pause and ran down the stairs.

I lifted the bright yellow scarf from Aunt Margaret. Definitely not my color. I slid it back into the box and wrapped it. Nothing wrong with a quick regift. Sort of like the thirty second rule.

Michael yelled from downstairs. “Come quick. It’s my sister. She’s outside. I’m not sure what happened, but she’s dead.”

I smiled.


Happy New Year!

Okay, okay, as of this writing, it is still 2018, but hey, close enough for horseshoes, hand grenades and crime writers! Thanks to all who came out to our holiday party, and congratulations to Alicia Anthony, who came away with the “top prize” for the flash fiction contest, and Eileen Hammond, who took second! All the contestants read their stories out loud, and fortunately for us, our waiter was intrigued by what we wrote, and did not call 911 as we described in eloquent yet brief detail how various, er, beings were killed. For the winning stories, check out our blog. Please wait at least 10 minutes after the posting of this update! 😉

So, now, on to 2019! We have some good programs already lined up. We’re starting not with our own program, but with our annual appearance at The Write Stuff at the Upper Arlington Library. This is always a great event, and registration is now open, so check it out – and us, while you’re there!

After that, on Feb. 16, we have an actual, bonafide, toxicologist coming to visit! It’s Dan Baker, M.A., Chief Toxicologist at the Franklin County Coroner’s Office. We’re still pinning down the location, so stay tuned to this space for updates!

For March, we have Katharine Weber, the Richard Thomas Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College. She’ll be with us on March 30. The location is pending.

As always, our meetings are from 12:30 to 3 p.m., with a lunch afterward in which we ask our guests all the questions we were afraid to ask them in front of people, but are perfectly fine with discussing over, say, food.

So that’s what’s on tap for the first quarter of 2019! See you soon!

2018 BCW Holiday Writing Contest!

Hear ye, hear ye:  in addition to the 2018 BCW holiday party, which will include all the events in the aforementioned post (see for additional details), there will be a WRITING CONTEST for those interested.  For any who may have followed the infamous Janet Reid site, the rules are surprisingly similar:

  • 200 words maximum.
  • Must involve the following 5 words: 1) regift, 2) batter, 3) pine, 4) sleigh and 5) icicle.  All 5 words must be included in the story, although plurals and transmogrifications are accepted (e.g., ‘batters’ and ‘regifted’).  Words may also have more than one meaning or may be used to substitute for similar-sounding words of different spellings.
  • Participants can be BCW members or interested non-members, but you should plan on attending the holiday party (12/8).  Significant others, relatives and/or friends who also attend may also participate.
  • Keep in mind:  we’re mystery writers, not pastry chefs.  So the more murdery (murderier?  murderiest?), the better.
  • Submit entries to buckeyecrimewriters@gmail.com no later than 11:59 p.m., Thursday, 12/6 (please include the name of the author).  One entry per attendee, please.  Top finishers will be presented at the holiday party Saturday, 12/8, with awards of indeterminate value (i.e., cheap) presented at the holiday party to the top finishers.  And the winner will be published on the BCW website (yeah, baby!).

So on the count of three . . . one.  Two.  Wait for it:  three . . . start scribbling.  See y’all 12/8.

Holiday Party 2018!

That’s right – it’s time to take a break from the wrapping of presents. Or, if you haven’t bought them yet, a break from shopping.

Or, if you aren’t THERE yet, a break from bugging your relatives about what they want for Christmas. You get the idea.

That break comes on Saturday, Dec. 8, from 12:30-3 p.m.! We’ll be at the Rusty Bucket, 180 Market St., New Albany, to commiserate on the sad state of our shopping swap tales of our writing successes and generally have a good time! We have a party room reserved, but you’ll still be responsible for your own lunch.

And, at the risk of giving you one more present to think about, here’s one more! It should be easy, though, and you know going in that you’ll get one in return. Please bring a book to exchange! We have a highly-complicated, ritualized, patent-pending method prepared that will ensure you don’t get the book you brought. Ok, it’s not that complicated, we don’t believe in rituals, and patents are overrated. Other than that, it’s exactly as described. Anyway, bring a book that has some meaning for you – a new author, a great story, whatever works for you. It doesn’t have to be new, as long as it’s in good shape.

And that’s it! Hope to see you there!

Hey, Writers! You’re Chunky!

If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, I bet there’s something you didn’t know – you’re chunky. Yes, according to Allie Pleiter, the masterful presenter for “The Chunky Method,” all writers are chunky. Whether you write first thing in the morning, during lunch breaks, or only on weekends, writers fall into one of two categories: Big Chunky or Little Chunky. What does that mean? Well, Big Chunk writers prefer to write in their office, have no time limit looming, and no interruptions; they tend to accomplish 500 – 1,000 words per writing session. Little Chunk writers, on the other hand, are those folks who can write on index cards, while riding the subway, and aren’t rattled by sudden distractions – such as taking a friend to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy (Allie helped out four friends in that very situation); they might accomplish 250 – 300 words per writing session. What does this mean for writers? By knowing which type you are, a writer can apply Allie’s Chunky Method to target a few things. First off, you need to discover your average word count per writing session. Then, determine how many writing sessions you can commit to per week, based on your schedule, your life. With that knowledge, you can then find out how long it will take you to write or finish your current project. For example, if you write 500 words per writing session (Little Chunk) and you can commit to four writing sessions per week, you’ll end up with around 2,000 words per week. Enter that info into Allie’s Chunky Method calculator (provided to those who sign up), and you can see how long it will take you to write that book, based on the word count you’re aiming for. If your word count goal is 100,000 words, you’ll complete your novel in 50 weeks (based on our simple example). This is helpful in many ways. For one, it can help writers determine if their goals are realistic, can encourage them to *tweak* the amount of writing sessions (as needed), and can be a useful tool when committing to a deadline. There’s more to it, of course, but Allie’s Chunky Method is a wonderful resource for helping writers achieve their goals.

Top Ten Tips from a first-time writing festival attendee

By Eileen Hammond

Buckeye Crime Writers member

I recently had the good fortune of attending the Magna Cum Murder writing festival in Indianapolis. As I reflect back, here are some takeaways from the conference.

  1. Book the conference hotel as soon as you know you will be attending. You will feel more a part of the action, as you will be having conversations in the elevator, in line for coffee, etc.
  2. Practice the elevator pitch for your book or for the project on which you are currently working. There were quite a few occasions where someone asked me what I was writing. It’s a great opportunity to share the great stuff you are doing.
  3. Order bookmarks or cards for your books, if you are published. (Thank you to board members Kandy Williams and Connie Berry for that suggestion.) After giving your elevator pitch you will be happy to be able to have something to give out as a reminder. It also makes you look more professional. I used vistaprint.com and was quite pleased with the results.
  4. Go to all the sessions you can. I got something out of nearly every one I attended. Bring a notepad and a pen. You never know when your next best idea will be triggered.
  5. Go for the weekend, if you can afford it, especially if it is a smaller conference. You will run into people repeatedly: they will get to know you and you them. According to some of the authors with which I spoke, this is a more intimate conference. It was a true family-like atmosphere.
  6. Get the complete experience. If you are an author or hope to be one someday, buy at least one of the books for sale and have it signed.
  7. Bring your laptop. There was an impromptu time-bound writing contest sponsored by the Indianapolis chapter of Sisters in Crime. (Two hundred and fifty words centered on or based on a Christmas carol.)
  8. Engage with the other attendees. Even if you go by yourself, you will feel like you are part of the community. Plus it’s a great opportunity to learn. At the lunch table a New York Times bestselling author suggested aspiring writers attend the Penn Writers conference, which is in Pittsburgh next year. It sounds like an intensive three days.
  9. Ask questions. The panel authors are grateful to get them and you can get answers to writing questions that may be vexing you.
  10. If you are a published author, let the organizers of the conference know (yes, even independent authors). When I signed up in May, I wasn’t, but by mid-October I had two books out. They are always looking for people to be on panels. And they had a place for readers to purchase panelists’ books and specific book signing times.
    Panel discussion, Old FriendsParnell Hall (left) and John Gilstrap meet in a panel discussion at Magna Cum Murder.

Guest of honor interview
Guest of honor John Gilstrap (right) with honoree Reavis Z. Wortham.

Lost in Translation panel
From left, Albert Bell, Ethan Cross, Elena Hartwell, Charles Todd and Larry Sweazy participate in the Lost in Translation Panel at Magna Cum Murder 2018.

Magna Cum Murder banquet
Keynote speaker Peter Lovesey was honored at the Magna Cum Murder banquet.