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Thanks for the interview Fiona!
Name Lissa Pelzer
Age A lady never tells
Where are you from
The UK originally, but I’ve lived in the US, France, Japan and Denmark. I’m currently living in Germany
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I first thought seriously about a career in writing during university. I was mesmerized by Patricia Highsmith novels and idolized her work and her lifestyle.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I go in and out of phases of considering myself a writer. Once I had a job as a content writer, churning out 3000 words a day for a salary, then I felt like a writer!
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
Patricia Highsmith’s Talented Mr Ripley. I desperately wanted to create a character than aspirational.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
I try for an economic, plot driven style, but know that…
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I luuuuuve me a little bit of Highsmith… The prose is so economic but oh so gripping. She creates truly hateful characters, in whom we recognise people we also may have held deep, dark dislikes for, people we may have fantasised about ‘doing away with.’ For some, reading Highsmith is a kind of therapy, but for others it’s a master class in how to create teeth grinding tension with a satisfying conclusion. I’ve learnt a lot about writing just from reading Highsmith, but my favourite 5 of these….
Highsmith described the origin of her stories coming to her as a “germ of an idea”… that she would have some tiny small piece of inspiration and then have to grow it out until the story followed. This is an excellent way of seeing the beauty in a good book. All too often popular books are created instead of written, and seemingly through an arrangement of ticked boxes. Hook – Push off – Tension – Relief. The self-help writing books also endorse this formulaic method, so it’s no wonder, so many books seem to be lacking the fundamental element of a burning idea.
Looking out down on to the beach at Positano at 6 am one morning, Highsmith saw a young man with a towel over his shoulder walking alone on the sand.
This was the germ for The Talented Mr Ripley. A single soul walking along a deserted beach at day break. Where had he been and what had he done? Where was he going and to do what? My mind reels at the thought of the process that she would have gone through to ultimately arrive at Tom Ripley. Was he an American? He’d have to be – she was still a young writer and hadn’t started imaging foreign heroes. How did he get there? Was he wealthy – no that’s dull. How did he feel? How did she feel in this town of judging glances, where if you say you write you are compared instantly to Positano’s other onetime residents Hemingway and Steinbeck? She put her thoughts and feelings into this vessel and grew the oak tree that became TTMR.
I’m a big fan of this germ-theory 😉 When you get a twinkle in your head, you can turn it over and over for years before suddenly it becomes what it became.
2. Ignore the rest of the world…if in doubt throw you typewriter out of the window
When Howard Ingram goes to Tunisia to write a script in the ‘Tremor of Forgery’, things start going down back in the USA. A friend commits suicide and his girlfriend is probably having an affair. But Howard doesn’t get on a plane to dive right into what could have been a different plot. He stays put. He starts working on a novel and as he waits for a letter from the girlfriend to explain what’s going on, he sorts out his plot and accidentally, possibly kills a man with a typewriter. Luckily this gives him lots of opportunity to explore feelings of guilt. In this example, I see the power of not following the expected plot line but rather fighting against it, letting it build and build until your protagonist is ready to tackle it. Because if we all dealt with our issues right away, we wouldn’t have any.
3. Write about what you know and if you find something you want to write about and have never done it…Do it.
In the Suspension of Mercy, Sydney Bartleby actually makes the lady next door suspect him as murderer to harness the feeling of being a suspect. He buries an old carpet, he acts dodgy as hell. The old dear ends up keeling over out of terror and pretty soon the cops really do think he’s killed someone. This fake body burying thing always struck me as something Highsmith actually did. Because she doesn’t skimp on the details, just as anyone who’s ever carried a drunk friend out to a taxi or tried to move a wardrobe knows, they are heavier than they look and the pure strain and fear of having either one halfway up the stairs and wobbling is enough to lead to blind panic.
I like to imagine Highsmith is heavy boots and a thick jumper, pacing around Montmachoux, pulling on a rolled cigarette, looking into damp wooded lots and “setting her jaw” as she would say, trying to work out if you could stash a body in there. I wrote a passage a few years back about someone fighting and being killed as he slipped down a set of icy concrete steps in Stuttgart, Germany. The scene is set in a real place, the steps rise up between pre-war apartment building and cross two roads as a short cut. I saw them everyday from the bus I took to work and I kept telling myself, I have to get off the bus and stand at the top of those steps next winter to see if it looks as scary as I think it is. I was so thrilled when I was invited to a Christmas party shortly after and realized as I followed the map that I was at the top of the steps. I almost turned around and went straight home.
4. “You don’t write a book with your little finger.” -You’ve got to commit.
This is a straight dig from Tom Ripley about Marge Sherwood’s writing schedule. When Tom asks Dickie where Marge is, he tells him she is having a good day with the book and suggests that she is on a roll with her work. In the same breath he remarks that she might come along to the beach after lunch. We all know this type of writer, faffy types (as my mother would say) who seem to spend more time at Nanowrimo socials than at home in front of the computer and we snigger with satisfaction when Tom makes this remark. However, we are all guilty of occasionally being this type of writer, so it cuts both ways. It says, I know what is needed of me to be satisfied with my writing efforts and I am still not doing it, not always. This is a very important lesson from Highsmith and one which I hear in my head whenever I switch off the computer to read an episode of The Killing (I haven’t quite mastered Danish yet
5. Move on.
In Plotting and Writing Suspense, Highsmith shares with the reader her failings and talks about the stories that never got published. While trying to put the idea out of my head that I should immediately rush off to the archives in Switzerland (kidnapped publisher in tow) and demand to see these silenced masterpieces, I am reminded that if Highsmith was able to shelve her failures definitely I should be able to do so too. I spent 7 years on and off trying to write one particular novel that contained my own alter-ego. He became so diluted by all the experiences I imagined for him that he was almost translucent at the end. I recently had some boxes sent over from the UK and found reams of pages of the same-same but different chapters. Literally years of work… for nothing. However, my first impulse was to write it again…. properly this time!
Highsmith would give herself 20 opportunities to publish a story and after the 20th rejection she would take “a few days” and then start fresh. With this in mind, I resealed the box and put it back in the wardrobe to try to forget about it. Of course I failed and spend 10 whole days over the Christmas break, rewriting it, 14 hours a days, for no reason. After all – just because I’ve learnt the knowledge from the master, doesn’t mean I mastered it myself.
Book Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
In this ambitious imagining of the Lizzie Borden case of 1892, Sarah Schmidt fleshes out the conclusion, which was always assumed, but never proven. The case was a national obsession, when a 30 year old live-at-home daughter from a nice town in Massachusetts axed down her father and step-mother, because famously, the jury decided, a woman was not capable of such a crime.
Looking back at the story from a true crime angle, there was very little for Schmidt to build on. Facts like Lizzie owning pigeons, burning her dress, her considering purchasing Prussic Acid the day before etc. are oft repeated in the Lizzie Borden files but there’s only so much you can do with these bones without creating melodrama. So it was a pleasure to read Schmidt’s take on the emotional and mental state of the presumed killer.
In a Venn diagram of the Lizzie Borden of this book and the real Borden, the circles are probably a good mile apart. The Lizzie we find here is a bouncy woman-child, manipulative and psychopathic and doesn’t ‘look’ much like the black and white photos of the frizzy haired Borden. I always imagined Borden as a cold and calculating killer, someone at the end of her tether, who had just enough distance from herself to hope she wouldn’t be suspected. This is Borden re-loaded, licking droplets of blood off her hand like a cat, laughing hysterically within sight of her murdered step-mother and without much mention of the trial, getting away with it.
As a psychological thriller, it certainly delivers. Schmidt makes Lizzie easy to hate and despise while we root for her sister and the maid throughout. The story is really well built up to include possible motivations for murder from both the maid and a hit-man, but of course, the reader never entertains these as prospects unless we consider that Schmidt intends to derail the story. Of course, Schmidt doesn’t need to tell us, Lizzie did it, but she did need to land the story and she does this well and as stylishly as would be possible. However, because a few ‘red herring’ threads were started to build the story, it would have been nice to have seen these land satisfactorily too. I was a wee-bit miffed that Bridget didn’t get her tin back or than the story ended before the hit man gets into Lizzie’s new house.
One word of advice, don’t let the awkward first few pages distract you. I didn’t know if the maid was meant to be Italian, Caribbean or what when I first started reading and I assumed she was around 60 and that Lizzie was meant to be 14 (for some reason). I did nearly close the book but I’m so glad I didn’t. The maid is 26 and Irish. Lizzie is her real age of 30. JSYK.
This is well-written, meaty, authentic feeling, page-turner of a book and I lost a few hours to it when I should have been sleeping. I imagine, if you knew nothing about Lizzie Borden, then this book would be an even better read. But either way it is a good one.
Two interesting looking books popped up on my Kindle this week: Rivers of Gold by Adam Dunn and The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins. Both sounded gritty and noir-ish for different reasons, so I was pleased to give them a go. After finishing, I had a strange feeling, kind of like waking up after being hit by a plank of wood to find a credit card receipt for 20 shots of premium tequila in my pocket.
I guess you could say that’s my masculine side coming out. I felt like a man – a manly man. Because, these books are just that – totally – manly.
The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins
First up, this is a collection of short stories written by a current inmate serving life without parole for a murder during a ‘botched’ house robbery. The first thing you notice in this collection is how well it’s written. This isn’t a teenager writing fan fiction, this is someone who knows their craft, and I suppose he should as he has an MFA from Western Michigan University. This book isn’t actually out yet and the publishers have asked that no quotes be shared, but I’ll just say this, the authority of the stories just melts off the pages.
The setting is mostly Kalamazoo Prison, Michigan and the narrator seems to be often the same person interspersed with an Arthur or a George as he tells us their stories too. He takes us through a wide range of experiences from Processing to spending time in Quarantine before being sent to a prison, to the prison itself. It feels dramatically realistic, but there’s also a smattering of the supernatural too.
Where this book really shines is in the glimpses of insights into how an obviously intelligent and educated man mitigates the monotony of life in prison. Early on, ‘I’ tells us he isn’t normally a sociable person, talking for no reason, but in jail, you have to be, as there’s nothing else to do. And I think many of us could imagine this of ourselves (imagine it and shudder). So in order to reconnect with the outside world, he calls random numbers collect (he doesn’t have any personal contacts he can call) in the hope that someone on the other end will talk to him for 15 minutes, or at least let him listen to the traffic noise outside their house or the background TV and this as an idea is mesmerizing. In a nutshell, this book is mesmerizing, like been taken for an experience which I hope I’ll never encounter, but for which I’m grateful for the advice. It reads partly like a diary, partly like a philosophy.
However, a couple of factors got in the way of absolute pleasure. First off, there’s the issue of the author. If you want to learn more about him, check out Bullmenfiction.
The phrase, “I shot a man dead who had no business being shot” shows up here and this reeks of a lack of genuine remorse. If I went to someone’s house and shot them without any reason, I hope I could muster up a little more emotion than that, but hey. The other issue is the short story format. I wish to high heaven, this were a novel, but alas, I’m guessing Mr, Curtis doesn’t have his own personal MacBookPro in his cell with all his research and files neatly organized in coloured folders. And you know what they say, if you don’t want short stories, don’t read them. It’s a free world – for some of us.
Rivers of Gold by Adam Dunn
Okay, hold on tight. NYC 2013. Man in a taxi thinking about money and sex. My first impression of Renny was that he was a fat, boring version of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho travelling through an NYC that seemed recognizable to me. But wait, it’s meant to be a dystopian future version of NYC after some huge financial crash and an over running of drugs… It’s always tough when fiction falls short of reality.
Now there is a storyline and once you get into it, it is good but it’s hard to get past the layers of (to a woman) boring man-stuff. There’s a fashion in women-centric novels at the moment for including the recipes of the foods the characters eat, and in Rivers of Gold, there is so much talk of cocktails that I felt it was just the same need being fulfilled but differently. The sex talk is grim and sounds like it’s coming out of a middle aged, over fed man who is partial to botox, as in ‘no thanks, I’m late for a spin class’. But I can imagine plenty of guys really love those scene. Plus Renny gives girls head, so that make him a modern-thinking man, right?
But enough of the man bashing, because Rivers of Gold is a good book. Dunn has some great ideas and thoughts, which translate well on paper as the thoughts and ideas of his characters. He can also write well and in this age of self-publishing, that has to be recognized.
Naturally, this book, both these books, are populated with men and deal with how men think. The women are superficial, attractive or sexual characters or remarkable because they’re not attractive or sexual. I read and enjoyed both books on a surface level, but felt a little out of touch with the context and emotions.
Maybe this is just how guys feel if they read an Alice Walker/Munro collection. To each their own. Thank God we don’t all like the same stuff!
With ebooks picking up pace, many publishers are looking at their back catalogs to see what hidden gems they might have that would appeal to modern audiences. Some of these re-releases are genuinely in demand. When The Talented Mr. Ripley came out as a movie, Patricia Highsmith saw a resurgence in popularity and the various publishers experienced a windfall from the re-release of the Ripliad series and then The Cry of the Owl and Deep Water.
Agatha Christie also regularly sees a surge in sales, and whenever this happens, old releases in the same cozy crime and period genre often find their way onto the market. This month, I’ve been handed a bunch of these to review. And some of them are brilliant lost treasures.
Arthur J. Rees, The Hand in the Dark, The Moon Rock, and The Hampstead Mystery
Arthur John Rees was an Australian mystery writer. In his early twenties, he went to England and made this the location of many of his classics.
The Hand in the Dark is a ‘closed room mystery’. A woman is shot in a country home when everyone is at dinner downstairs and are therefore not implicated. However, a mysterious figure is seen in the bushes by the butler when he goes to fetch the police. Surely, it must be the killer! However, the gun and a bloody rag are soon discovered in the room of a maid and she is arrested. But in a further twist, once the nervous husband recovers his senses, he seeks out the services of a famous detective, as he is convinced she is innocent. This story is wonderful. Perhaps a little predictable (a golden rule in these types of stories is that it is never the staff), however, the story flows and uncovers various elements along the way that keeps the reader guessing.
The Moon Rock is of a similar feel. A rich man obsessed with having his title reinstated is found shot dead after he disinherits his newly discovered-as-illegitimate daughter. Did she do it, did her love interest do it or was it his faithful but overly familiar servant? And who is the ‘monster’ the dead man was running from? The Moon rock offers a story within a story and only once this story is played out, do we start to guess the truth.
However, I also received The Hampstead Mystery. This started off well, a rich man comes home early from a shooting party in secret and is shot at home. The police only discover it when they are sent an anonymous letter. The question being, who sent the letter and are they the murderer. Unfortunately, this story was a little convoluted compared to the other two and didn’t quite have the same charm. Just goes to show, not all books by the same author will go down well as re-releases.
Pearl S. Buck, Death in the Castle
The description goes, “An ancient castle, a cash-strapped and psychologically unstable aristocratic couple, and the rumor of ghosts weave together in this sparkling historical mystery.” Sound’s good doesn’t it? But it really isn’t for a number of reasons. In reality, the plot is about a castle about to be sold for transport to the US and the hope that some hidden treasure can be found to stave off the need for the sale.
I honestly thought – this must be written by an American teenager who knows nothing about British aristocrats. The behaviour of the family and the staff is like a Disney cartoon version of an upper-class household. There is also a scene where the Prime Minister repeatedly calls the King ‘Your Majesty’ in the same conversation. There’s a sub-plot about the butler’s orphaned granddaughter lording it around the house that was cringe worthy and bizarre. All in all, the writing was silly, with a Mills and Boon type feel.
I started reading this book unaware that the author was a Nobel prize winner, and that was probably for the best because I judged it on the writing alone. Buck was an American and wrote The Good Earth (1931) which was about her insights into the civil unrest in China. It was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and William Dean Howells Medal. So, I guess it’s true what they say – write about what you know. And just because a book is a classic – doesn’t make it a good one…
Oh, well… on to the next book.
Eileen is the story of a 24-year-old woman in a small town in New England sometime in the early sixties. She lives with her emotionally cruelly but not physically abusive alcoholic father, where she has taken on a carer, co-dependent role since the death of her mother. Eileen works in a children’s prison and dreams of emptying her father’s bank account and going off to start a new life in New York. She doesn’t have any friends and seems to be suffering from body dysmorphia, telling us one minute that she is fat and the next that she weights 100lbs. The story is essentially about Eileen leaving X-ville.
This is a hard book to pigeonhole. On the one hand, it is wonderfully written, poetic, looping, well observed and fascinating and on the other seems full of mistakes, repetitive language and missed opportunities with a rather flat climax.
To start with the good bits – I was hooked from the very beginning. I was mesmerized by Moshfegh’s prose and I love an anti-hero. With set ups such as ‘this would be the last time I left the office,’ I was fully on board to hear about Eileen’s adventures. As the character study deepened, I had a feeling reminiscing of reading Dostoevsky. When the Rebecca character came along, I was excited too. She was drawn so well, I was convinced she might have been someone I knew. Their developing relationship sounded exactly like an experience I’d had with a beautiful, confident redhead at about that age. And Rebecca’s unhinged actions, which bring about the catalyst for Eileen’s change, were totally unpredictable from my POV. So if I could have just had these parts I would have been thrilled by Eileen.
However… there were too many issues for me in this book to make it enjoyable. The first 20 pages of exposition soon turned into 80 pages of the same information told from another experience. We learn early on that her father is a drunk, that she has body issues, that she steals, that she’s ambivalent about a range of elements in her life, but these get revisited time and time again with no further effect. The only outcome is that things we are told – that the author tells us are so for Eileen – get confused. Yes, Eileen is an unreliable character regarding her body and feelings about sex, but in one passage she tells us she has an idea of what a penis looks like from her father’s porno mags and 20 pages later she tells us as her father’s mags don’t include penises, she relies on a text book. There’s also some details about her mother which don’t seem to mesh. At the beginning, she bitterly complains that the house is dirty because her mother isn’t there to clean up anymore and later on gives us the impression that her mother was a poor housekeeper. This feels like the subject has been over written to the point where the author has lost hold of the threads. However, if it is meant to be further evidence of unreliability, it goes so far as to make anything she says dismissible.
I was really looking forward to reading Eileen, so much so that I didn’t even read all of the Guardian review before searching it out. If I had, I would have read that the book fails as a thriller. It was only after I finished Eileen that I went back to the review, curious what Sandra Newman had said of it and why. That’s when I read the last line ….
“Eileen is original, courageous and masterful…however, the plot machinery simply stands immobile until it’s cranked into life at the very end, whereupon it unceremoniously malfunctions and falls apart…”
I hate to end a review with a review, but that sums it up. Eileen is beautifully written prose, but the plot is not great thriller or suspense fiction material.
I’m writing this half way through my blog tour week for Dead Memories and honestly speaking, it’s hell! It’s not the fear of a bad review that makes it so terrible, even good reviews, really good ones, seem to rattle my cage. It’s kind of funny. We spend half our (non-writing) time thinking about getting more blog posts, Amazon and Goodreads reviews and then when they drop in, it’s like going to the doctor for a shot. Arrgh! I can’t look. Owwaw! Just do it already.
This first time around with No More Birthdays, I noticed a trend with the reviews: About 40% of them where very positive, 40% so-so and 20% not loving it, if that’s a way to describe it. And I expected that kind of spread… As they say in the hair commercial, “Here comes the science part!”
Average star rating for a bestseller?
A typical bestseller on Amazon has a review average of 3.75 stars. This is because, we as the review leaver, tend to compensate for other people’s reviews. If we love a book and the review before ours is a 1 star, you better believe, we’re giving that book a 5 (even though we did consider it a 4/4.5 before that). And if other readers are raving about it and it was just not our thing, that 3 star book review suddenly becomes a disgruntled 2 star review. Also it’s easier to slam a book by an author who (possibly did, or you imagine) was paid a gazillion dollars!
Get reviews for a self-published book
However, a lot of independent books have much higher review averages, around 4.25 stars. Wow. Does that make any sense? Well, yes it does. The independent, self-publishing market is a strong, social and loyal friend (if you play it right) and seriously dissing an author you may be friends with online, is a little awkward (footnote, if you do write a scathing review and post it on a FB group page, you must tag the author if they are a member too. I once saw an amazing feud between a blogger and an author’s fans over this – popcorn please – all over a bad review and missing tag, and I haven’t seen that blogger since).
As it is a series, I put both books up on offer for review and got reviews back for No More Birthdays too. No More Birthdays if certainly darker than Dead Memories as it sets the scene for the series, but it’s pretty clear from the blurb (gritty crime noir) that there are going to be some unsavoury elements in the story. Still, if the wrong person picks up this book, they’re going to hate it. Even my sister hated this book but then she told me she was going to give it to her 13 year old daughter (I told her not to, absolutely not to, but she did). I can just imagine the conversations they had over dinner that evening. So I really expected a mixed bag for this blog week.
Anyway back to the half time scores
So I did get a couple of bad ones… a 1 star (she would have given me ZERO stars if this was possible), who obviously stumbled across this book on her way to the shelf marked ‘Fairies’ and ‘Dashing, London Vampire Detectives’ (Yeah, I looked at her other books). And her review was a good read (No pun intended). For me, words matter! I want to see why someone HATED my book (caps used intentionally – for some reason haters love caps!’) She hated it because the only crime in the book was murder (okay) and it was ‘smutty and pornographic’ (a teenager fights of a potential rapist). So that for me, it totally fine, just the wrong book in the wrong hands. If she had said it was boring, and if it was boring, I would be upset.
The other bad review was a bit of a mystery, 2 stars and the reviewer complained that there was no detective in the story… but I’m pretty sure there was… I distinctly remembe writing her in. Anyway, as said, bad reviews also rock! Those people read the book and hated or maybe mixed it up with another book but, it is still all-good. After my 1 star review, the very next one was a 5 star. I like to think she wasn’t over compensating for the 1 star, but hey – I’ll take it!
But I’d be lying if I said I liked bad reviews as much as good ones. I love good reviews. I especially love it when reviewers ‘get it’ and really get it. When I have the feeling that they read the book I thought I wrote, my skin tingles! I’m looking at you Avid Reader. And of course, the reviews from bloggers who read a lot and are prepared to think between the lines and recognise that the hero is an unreliable witness, like at shawnashauntia. I don’t write stories that spell it out because I don’t want readers who needed it spelled out to them.
So these lovely people also tend to put their reviews (good and bad) up on Amazon and Goodreads too, which is great (essential) for any book. And there is nothing I love more than seeing a good healthy spread of very positive, good, and very negative reviews. Why? Well, when was the last time you bought a book based on its 20 reviews which all gave it 5 stars or even worse, the first 20 are 5 star reviews and the last 3 are 1’s? Finding a good book online is hard work. A lot of writers and publishers are buying reviews and they only want 5 stars. When a real reader gets it, they are so disappointed they give it a 1. And we all, instinctively know this.
So bring on the 1, 2 and 3 star reviews. I can handle it! Scratch that – I want them!
This blog piece was written at 3am – any spelling a grammatical errors are probably just your eyes. Go get a coffee 😉