Stuff & Nonsense 012: Present Tense

These are the pieces I keep going back to after the horrible events of last week:

"I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist. And I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack s—. Yeah. That’s us."

"These are the 9 men and women tragically murdered by the Charleston shooter."

"There is a timidity that the country can no longer afford."

Until responsible gun owners support responsible gun control laws, innocent blood will continue to flow. How many times must we see this?

"The Confederate flag should come down because it is embarrassing to all Americans. The embarrassment is not limited to the flag, itself. The fact that it still flies, that one must debate its meaning in 2015, reflects an incredible ignorance. A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren’t quite sure why."

"Yet other than the perpetrator’s non-Muslim identity, the Charleston attack from the start had the indicia of what is commonly understood to be “terrorism.”"

"America is killing itself through its embrace and exaltation of ignorance, and the evidence is all around us."

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OK. Onward to this week's interview.

I've really enjoyed doing interviews for this newsletter because they allows me to not only chat with friends, but to spotlight people I admire that are doing valuable work - in books and elsewhere. This week I get to chat with the great Erin Mitchell, who does a number of things for many authors and readers and does them all smartly, thoughtfully and with precision. She's a master of many trades, from publicist to site designer to social media maven to agent. That's a lot of stuff.

I'll let her dive into the nitty gritty of what her job looks like, and thank her kindly for taking the time to do this interview. It was a lot of fun!


Erin, you describe what you do as "connecting books and readers." I think that's an awesome job, and you do it very well. But can you elaborate a bit on your day-to-day?

My days start and end with reading. Literally. That is, I read for an hour or so when I wake up, and I also read before I go to sleep. These are probably the most important parts of my day because without being a reader, I can’t possibly connect into their day-to-day experiences, and that’s what I spend my time in-between the reading bookends doing.

The majority of what I do is online, so I spend time on social media every day and throughout the day. I manage a lot of author Facebook pages, and so I’m always looking for content that’s going to interest readers, be it promotional or editorial. I also build and manage websites, handle traditional media and events, and even fill an agent role for some clients, so it is fair to say that my days are varied!

Sounds like it. I imagine the idea for this career didn't appear fully-formed. How'd you get here, and what happened along the way?

You’re absolutely right—if my career has been anything, it’s been evolutionary. I think it started in the Greenlake Public Library in Seattle. That’s where the librarians recognized that I was a reader, and nurtured my love of mysteries, and it’s also where I learned how to do research, which remains the most valuable skill I possess. It never occurred to me that I could build a career based on this love, though, and so I spent a couple of decades in corporate PR. I started as a secretary in the days before the interwebs, when I took dictation and learned to smile (bonus points if you can name that tune). I will never forget the first website project I worked on for a client (Miller Brewing Co.), and I’m grateful to have learned “online” from the ground up, working for everything from big tech companies (Motorola and Nortel) to fledgling start-ups (like the MMO game company that created Flickr).

In 2011, I had been working for a small, NY-based PR agency for 10 years, and had managed a number of publishing-related clients, including the launch of an e-reader and its affiliate bookstore (in the days when it was still unclear whether Amazon or Sony would win the e-reader market). So I had a sense of some of the untapped possibilities in marketing and publicity for authors and publishers, and decided to hang out a shingle of my own.

Part of why I love what I do is that it continues to change. In just four short years, the mechanisms of books discovery, brand-building, and sales have altered dramatically. And they continue to do so. This means I can’t ever stop learning or think I have everything figured out. I always tell clients that if they’re willing to let me try different things, some will work, and some won’t, and we’ll learn from them and adjust as we go. Luckily, I’ve found folks who are willing to try this!

I love hearing about special moments people experience - when they meet an author they've been a fan of for a long time, for example. Can you share one or two "pinch me" moments you've experienced in the industry?

One of the things I’m most grateful for is that I have had quite a few of these…

It’s probably not surprising that mine have originated online. The first author I ever emailed was Alafair Burke. Suffice to say that my missive was utterly fan-girly, and Alafair was incredibly gracious and wrote me a lovely note back. I hadn’t expected her to, and I might have squealed at the computer when her reply arrived.

I also met Lawrence Block online. The first time I met him in person was at a signing at BEA, but having coffee with him at Bouchercon in Albany was—no exaggeration—a life-changing experience.

Then there was the time I was walking into a Subway and stopped dead in my tracks when I got an email from Stephen King. My husband thought I was having some kind of strange seizure because it was the only time (we’ve been together for 25 years) he’s ever seen me actually speechless.

Like most readers, I’m often shy around strangers, and the first time I introduced myself to Val McDermid and took the opportunity to thank her for her spectacular stories, she was so kind and humble—and funny—that she, in that moment, gave me the courage to do the same thing again and again with other authors.

I know now that these moments happen because crime fiction people generally and authors specifically are exceptional people in much higher proportions than the general population.

The crime/mystery community is a close-knit, warm and welcoming place full, for the most part, with good people who want to help. Do you have the same sense of things? Have you made many friends over the years? (I know the answer is "YES," but I'd like to hear you talk about it!)

When I worked in corporate PR, I never felt like I fit in. I mean, I met a lot of great people, some of whom are close friends to this day. But when I went to CES or the American Academy of Ophthalmology convention, I felt like I was working. I was always a bit nervous. I could never let my guard down.

The crime fiction community, on the other hand, is my tribe. We share common experiences as readers, yes, but I think the ties that bind us are much deeper than that. We share a history that none of us experienced through our reading of those who lived before we were twinkles in our parents’ eyes. We also share a pace, insomuch as we like stories that develop and have an element of exploration and discovery, and we view the world through this lens. We are willing to discuss things. And laugh about them. I’ve never before encountered a group that has such a fantastic sense of humor.

Totally agree. And what a wonderful tribe to be a part of. I'm always curious about what people are reading. What was the last book to knock your socks off? Why do you think that is?

Can I give you three?

Last year, I got to read the Lawrence Block’s then-as-yet-untitled manuscript for THE GIRL WITH THE DEEP BLUE EYES. It was a revelation, in no small part because it will be something different to each reader. To me, it was both a love story and a noir tale.

I’ve long been a fan of Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne police procedurals. Having grown up in the 87th Precinct, procedurals hols a special place in my heart. His latest, TIME OF DEATH, is one of those series books that jumps out because while all the books are good, this one has a special quality, something I can’t clearly define, but know absolutely is there.

Paul Cleave’s TRUST NO ONE is one of the most unusual and skillfully told stories I’ve read. The protagonist is a crime writer who has Alzheimer’s, and seeing the world through his eyes is incredibly uncomfortable in wonderful ways.

Can you name a few writers that have earned your loyalty as a reader - that you'll plop money down for having little to no idea about the plot/story?

This is a really interesting question because the writers who fall into this category are ones from whom I have a good idea about what to expect. Not the plot, mind, but the pace of the story. I know I’m going to forget some, but the list includes Lisa Unger, Alex Marwood, Elizabeth Haynes, Gregg Hurwitz, James Lee Burke, and everyone I’ve mentioned above.

I think we're very like-minded in terms of how we approach this business, and for me, it all starts with kindness - be nice and people will be nice to you. I find that to be a great rule of thumb. Do you agree? Do you have similar parameters that you work within that have served you well?

Absolutely—on all counts. I believe karma is very real, that the energy you put out into the world comes back to you. I’m incredibly lucky because I have never had to work with anyone I wouldn’t consider a friend; I think I did my time in that regard in corporate communications (I had a boss once who called me a c***, and he wasn’t even the worst of them).

Don’t get me wrong; I have a fierce temper. But when I need to vent, I have people I can talk to. I do my best to be as nice as I can…and if I can’t be nice, at least be polite.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a couple of author websites that I’m excited about, as well as three self-publishing projects, one for an established author that’s a different kind of book (he normally writes thrillers; this is chick-lit), a medical thriller for a first-time author that I think readers will enjoy, and a book columns about some of the best albums of the 20th century. I’m handling the online communication (website, Facebook page, and Twitter) for Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, and also working on the new national website. I’m also getting ready for the launch of a bunch of client books; the next up is BLOODY ROYAL PRINTS by Reba White Williams, a traditional mystery that I think readers will love.

In between, I'm trying to think of more ways to connect books and readers!

Did I miss anything? Any last thing you'd like to share?

There is one other author I’d like to mention, someone who created a character, Pete Fernandez, who I’m looking forward to spending more time with. Pete is kind of a “messy” guy, but he is interesting and endearing in his own way, and I’m excited for DOWN THE DARKEST STREET, Alex Segura’s next novel.

Hey, you're too kind! Thank you so much for that - and for chatting with me, Erin!

***

A nice article that points to Archie as the most important character in the fictional world. I'll take it.

I talk to Angel Luis Colón about his new novella from One Eye Press, The Fury of Blacky Jaguar.

The finale of "Season One" of The Black Hood, for lack of a better term, hit this week. Editing the series has been hugely rewarding for me, and hopefully people have enjoyed the end result - a dark, gripping piece of noir that shows writer (and friend) Duane Swierczynski cutting loose, given visual life by the masterful Michael Gaydos. Big thanks to the team, which includes letterer Rachel Deering, colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick and assistant editor Joe Morciglio, for putting together a story that I'm extremely proud to be a part of. Still on the fence? Well, The Miami Herald had this to say about the first five issues: "Noir fiction fans will surely dig this first sordid arc."

In related news, the legendary Howard Chaykin will be stepping in for a special one-shot story hitting in October in advance of the next Swierczynski/Gaydos arc.

"I’m just sort of into Pavement being a ‘90s thing. I don’t really feel like making another record with those dudes. What we have is great."

If you need a laugh, these three links should help.

I was happy to see Sara Gran interview Karolina Waclawiak at Jezebel, timed to Karolina's new novel, The Invaders.

Speaking of great interviews - Megan Abbott talks to Patricia Abbott (her mom, and author of the excellent debut novel Concrete Angel) at The Life Sentence.

Author Eric Beetner lists the 10 best noir novels of the 21st century.

New Tropic Miami is now telling stories in comic form ("Sketchecitos," natch) and has a spotlight on the Miami comic book scene, including its best comic shops. Miami and comics - two of my favorite things.

You can buy James Ellroy's house in L.A.

***

So, I watched the first episode of True Detective season 2. I did not hate it. I should preface this by saying I enjoyed the journey of the first season, if not the finale. I didn't let the awkward finish sully what had been, up until that point, an interesting if flawed noir tale. I also went into the new season with eyes open, knowing that this new take (featuring a new cast, setting and a handful of directors instead of one consistent vision) would be vastly different. Did the episode have problems? Sure. Plenty. Colin Farrell, as expected, is the weakest link in terms of acting and the role he was given. Rachel McAdams, who I usually like, also hasn't been given a lot to work with. Vince Vaughn, though, seems to be in top form and shines in the first outing. There still is a dearth of strong female characters and there's not a lot of substance to the four leads yet, but what I saw was enough to stick around for more.

As a friend of mine said when I brought this up earlier in the week: "The first season wasn't as good as people say it was and the new season isn't as bad." I tend to agree. There's a race to judgement or outrage lately that doesn't allow for giving things room to breathe or expand or get better, which is a shame. That isn't to say criticism is bad - this episode merited it, and you should all read my friend Sean T. Collins's recaps at Rolling Stone for a slice of thoughtful and well-written commentary. But it's just one episode. For me, the quality I saw - and, admittedly, I'm a Nic Pizzolatto fan, going back to his novel, Galveston - was enough to lock in for at least a few more episodes. I don't feel like I have the whole picture yet - and that's totally fine.

***

Tuesday was a wonderful day to be a reader - it marked the release date for two books I've been looking forward to for very different reasons: Blackout by Sarah Hepola and The Cartel by Don Winslow.


I'm almost done with the former - an intense, honest and raw memoir of the author's drinking days and her eventual recovery. I've read a lot of addiction memoirs - some great, like Lit by Mary Karr or With or Without You by Domenica Ruta or Dry by Augusten Burroughs or Night of the Gun by David Carr, some not so great. The lesser ones tend to get lost in plot and structure or accuracy while the best ones almost resemble the effects of a bender and the eventual awakening the narrators find. Hepola's book is like that. The research and reporting doesn't feel heavy-handed and each cringe-loaded story is followed by an even more frightening episode. While you'll definitely chuckle at Hepola's misadventures, this is not a Chelsea Handler-style ode to drunken hijinks. It's about the dangers of alcoholism and the truth about what it means to be a blackout drinker. Yep - heavy stuff. But Hepola manages to paint a picture of herself and her life quickly, so it feels lies like a "message" book and more like a conversation with an old friend you've been in the trenches with. It's an emotional read that will stick with me for a while.


Don Winslow's one of my favorite modern crime writers. Power of the Dog, to me, is the kind of book you hand to someone and say "This is The Godfather meets The Wire" - and you don't feel like you're hyping it up too much. It's one of those books that earns your time and pays you back with colorful characters, genuine conflict, stakes and a whirlwind plot that makes you feel like you've been on a trip yourself. Winslow's new book, The Cartel, is a sequel to Power of the Dog, and from everything I've read or heard, it's the book of the year so far. While I'm reading Hepola's book quickly because I like it, part of me is also speeding along because I can't wait to dive into this one. Don't miss Winslow in conversation with the great Sarah Weinman at Bookcourt, too! Wish I could be there.

***

In terms of podcasts, I just started Breakdown, produced by the AJC. It's basically another take at the Serial formula - spotlighting an innocent victim of a "breakdown" in the justice system. While lacking the This American Life-style narration and polish that helped Serial, Breakdown works because it's well researched and engaging, though I do hope the host loosens up as the episodes progress so it sounds less…scripted? Still, worth a listen.

Band you should be listening to: Speedy Ortiz


Until next week!