Thursday, September 30, 2010

Q&A: Hilary Davidson

At a reading in New York last year I met Hilary Davidson. I was already familiar with Hilary’s work having read her short fiction; her chilling story Beast had won an award only days before. Hilary’s debut novel The Damage Done was published this week and is in stores now. I thought I’d mark the occasion by conducting the first-ever VKDC Q&A. My thanks to Hilary for playing along.

Q: Tell us about The Damage Done. Hang on, that’s not a question. (Sorry, it’s just ... I don’t normally do this.) Let's try, what can you tell us about The Damage Done? And who is this ‘us’ I keep referring to?

I think “What can you tell us about…” is what every interviewer is supposed to say. It means, “Hey, buddy, I’m not being nosy. Invisible people want answers!” I’m honored to be your first interviewee, you know. And since you asked about my book, I don’t have to accost you, like I did to two strangers in an elevator today.

The Damage Done is my first novel, and it’s about a travel writer, Lily Moore, who is called home to New York when she’s told that her sister, Claudia, has died, only to find that the body belongs to a woman who’d stolen her sister’s identity and that Claudia is missing. Lily and her sister haven’t spoken in months — partly because Claudia’s a drug addict and something of a con artist, and partly because Lily can’t cope with Claudia unless she thinks she’s fixing her problems for her. But when the police start to suspect that Claudia’s responsible for the death, Lily instinctively feels she has to find her first, because she still wants to protect her sister.

Q: Your protagonist Lily Moore shares your background as a travel writer. Did any of her experiences come directly from your life?

The professional background, definitely. Not only because we both write about travel, but because we’ve traveled to some of the same places, like Thailand and Turkey. But Lily’s career has been more exotic and glamorous than mine. My books have been about Toronto and New York, my hometown and my adopted home, while Lily is on the road most of the time. She lives in Spain, which makes me just a little bit jealous of her.

Our personal lives are very different: I don’t have a sister, though I do have two brothers. I used to think about trading them in for a sister. Lily’s single and I’m married. When I started writing the book, I was wary about having her be my alter ego, especially since we share the day job. When I pictured Lily, Ava Gardner came to mind, so I put a print of Ava on my desk. I ended up thinking of Ava as Lily’s role model.

Q: How did travel writing prepare you for novel writing? Were there any habits you needed to break?

The worst habit was probably my attachment to deadlines. By that, I mean I wouldn’t do anything without a deadline. Also, I found it hard to take any time away from paying work to write fiction. When I started freelancing, I was single, and “time is money” was tattooed on my brain. But once I decided to really work on fiction, it was addictive.

Travel writing was helpful in terms of pacing my work, though. I’ve written 18 nonfiction books, and the one thing I know is if you write a thousand words a day, you will have a book in three months.

Q: What’s your favorite place that you’ve written about as a travel writer? What remains on your list of places you would love to write about?

It’s so hard to pick one. The first travel story I ever wrote was about a New Orleans cemetery, and it’s still one of my favorites. Easter Island was great to visit and write about, and so were Thailand and Peru. The list of places I’d love to write about is long. Cambodia is at the very top of that list.

Q: You wrote the Frommer’s Guide to your birthplace of Toronto. On a whirlwind tour of the town, what are the must-sees? What’s the city’s best-kept secret?

I love telling people about the Malcove Collection, which is hidden inside the University of Toronto’s downtown campus. It’s this incredible little art gallery that’s open to the public but is a secret… or at least it was, until I started blabbing about it. It has everything from Lucas Cranach’s 16th-century “Adam and Eve” to Byzantine artifacts.

On a whirlwind tour, I’d start at Casa Loma, which is perched above the downtown core and gives you a truly gorgeous view of the city. I can’t tell you how much nicer it is than the view from the CN Tower, which is what everyone goes to instead. It’s a castle dreamed up by a crazy rich guy who lost all his money building it a century ago, so it’s got that going for it, too. I’d also see the Art Gallery of Ontario, Kensington Market, and Chinatown. One of Toronto’s real virtues is its downtown parks. One of my favorites is Trinity Bellwoods, where you can watch for the mutant albino squirrels. At the end of the day, I’d hit Ossington Avenue for its fabulous cocktail lounges.

Q: You broke through as a fiction writer with short stories that had nasty kicks to them. Can you go to darker places in the short form?

That’s definitely been true for me. When I start a short story, I have a scenario in mind, and the characters are there to play it out. “Insatiable,” which ran in Beat to a Pulp and got the Spinetingler Award this year, would be a good example. I had an image in my mind of a man watching his wife at a party. He sees her check out other men and he knows that she would soon be sleeping with someone else. Everything in the story came from that initial image. I tend to think in scenes, almost like there’s a movie playing in my head but I can only catch glimpses of it. That scene made me think about what kind of man would watch his wife do that. Why is he accepting that his wife cheats on him? Everything in the story came from answering that question.

Several of my short stories have been set inside the minds of really sick, depraved people, though the reader doesn’t necessarily realize how twisted they are in the beginning. But I know, and there’s only so much time I want to spend in their heads. That said, The Damage Done is a book with a dark heart. But it’s not dark because Lily is actually a serial killer — she isn’t! Hopefully no one will be disappointed by that spoiler.

Q: What’s the novel that truly got you hooked on crime fiction?

I discovered William Golding’s Lord of the Flies when I was 12. That book made a huge impression on me. It’s a brutally dark vision of human nature. I’ve re-read it several times, and it still hits me hard.

Q: You’ve appeared in Needle, your debut novel is called The Damage Done, and you’re Canadian. How big an influence is Neil Young on your life?

Huge! He’s such a brilliant lyricist and musician. The title of my book is taken from his song “The Needle and the Damage Done.” When I wrote to Ken Bruen asking him to read the book, Ken asked me if the title was a Neil Young reference. He was thrilled that it was. When you read Ken’s books, there are all kinds of Neil Young mentions in them. I guess we’re members of the same cult.

Baseball Q: Are you a Toronto Blue Jays fan? If so, isn’t it hard to be one while living in New York City? How tough is it to root for one of the “other” teams in the same division as the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays?

I am a Blue Jays fan, and when I moved to New York in 2001, I decided that I had to become a Mets fan, since there was no way I was going to root for the Yankees. Truthfully, I’m a lazy fan who rarely goes to more than one game a season, so my rooting for anyone isn’t very impressive.

Movie Q: You’ve spoken elsewhere about your love of film noir. What’s your favorite of those films, and why?

It’s so hard to pick a favorite! For a long time it was The Lady From Shanghai because the husband and wife at the center of it are so irredeemably evil. It’s like an inverted Beauty and the Beast, with them dragging each other — and other people — to their doom. But when I was writing The Damage Done, I watched every Ava Gardner film I could, and I fell in love with The Barefoot Contessa. I’ve never heard it talked about as a noir film, but it really should be. The story is about how we can never escape our essential natures, even if that leads us down a dark path. Humphrey Bogart and Edmond O’Brien are brilliant in it, too.

Cocktail Q: You’re in a bar. What do you order?

Since The Damage Done is being released this week, I’m going to say a Kir Royale. Nothing else says celebration quite like that!

Tony Curtis, R.I.P.

The greatest thing about Tony Curtis is that he never stopped being Bernie Schwartz, a kid from the Bronx who didn’t completely buy into his stardom but loved being a star. He was terrific in Some Like It Hot and The Boston Strangler, scorching as Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success. But Tony Curtis was the role of his lifetime, and he was wise enough to know it.

It’s amazing how often I think of something Tony said to writer Jeffrey Wells back in 2000.

Can I tell you a story? In 1948, when I was 23 or 24, when I first came out here I lived in a house on Fountain Avenue ... I rented a room there. And they had a swimming pool. I had an appointment and I got on a trolley car ... they were running right down the middle of the freeway back then.

Then I got back, I jumped in the pool, I took a shower, got dressed and got into the car, and drove up here to meet you. That’s how quick these fifty-fucking-two years have gone ... quick as that.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Movie: Death on the Diamond (1934)

The Mets have played their last meaningful game in 2010 and are currently battling for a .500 finish and third place in the NL East. The Mariners, meanwhile, are on the verge of having the worst record in the American League. With no vested interest in the remaining pennant races, I had to get my baseball fix somewhere.

Death on the Diamond is based on a novel by Cortland Fitzsimmons, whose work as a screenwriter includes the gotta-see-it-to-believe-it The Devil with Hitler. Pop Clark is both owner and manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, a state of affairs that happens regularly in professional sports. He’s mortgaged the team to his eyeballs but is sure they’ll take the pennant thanks to fireballing phenom Robert Young, who immediately falls for Pop’s daughter (Madge Evans, a dead ringer for Kristen Bell). The Cards start winning in spite of Young’s deranged windmill throwing style, which is still better than Anthony Perkins’ form in Fear Strikes Out. A gambling syndicate does not like.

This is the sort of lighthearted comic mystery in which a baserunner is killed by a sniper as he rounds third and another player dies after slathering poisoned mustard on his hot dog. There’s time for things to get maudlin as an umpire tells the dead slugger he’s been feuding with for the entire movie that “you’re not out, you’re safe!” A character literally comes in from left field and is introduced with “As you know ...” dialogue so atrocious that it instantly identifies him as the killer. There’s no nationwide panic as one Redbird after another goes down swinging, just changes in the odds. The mystery is solved in the best Scooby Doo fashion, and the happy ending has a pitcher hitting a walkoff inside-the-park home run that sends the Cardinals to the World Series with most of their starting nine six feet under. The Gashouse Gang they are not.

It’s a terrible movie. It was still better than watching the Yankees clinch again. With Mickey Rooney.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Local Tourist: Queen of Seattle

After a summer of hearing the mighty whistle of the Queen of Seattle from her office, Rosemarie insisted that we go aboard. The Queen is the largest steam-powered paddlewheel boat west of the Mississippi. It offers a two-hour cruise of Lake Union and the Lake Washington Ship Canal. Berthed next door is the Arthur Foss, featured in the 1933 film Tugboat Annie. Rosemarie, a Marie Dressler fan, was pleased by this no end.

Seattle history is covered throughout the cruise, with special emphasis on the Klondike gold rush era. My two favorite stories: then-mayor William F. Wood resigned as soon as he heard about the strike and went north to Alaska. Then there’s the one about the unscrupulous outfitters who’d sell sled dogs to a would-be prospector, only to blow a high-pitched whistle as the sap’s ship left the pier. The animals would jump overboard and swim home to be foisted off on the next poor sucker.

As we tooled around the lakefront, a piano player plinked out period tunes. On the return leg he climbed to the top deck and went to work on one of the world’s few remaining steam-powered calliopes. Then came the Klondike Cabaret, which really ought to be spelled with a K. Our tour guide, kitted out in appropriate attire, sang a few turn of the last century songs and followed up with a stirring rendition of Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee. Rosemarie, whose father would recite the poem regularly, was ready to step in if the need arose.

It’s all a little hokey, yes, but exactly the right kind of hokey. Rosemarie bought our tickets through a deal-of-the-day website, and kept reminding me about the voucher for what she called “the awesome boat ride.” The thing about Rosemarie is that she meant this. She genuinely believed that this boat ride was going to be awesome. And she was right. The cruise was a splendid way to spend an afternoon. It was nice to be the reason why the Fremont and Ballard drawbridges were going up for a change.

More photos at my Flickr page.

Gloria Stuart, R.I.P.

The actress passed away at the age of 100. She was a contract player in the 1930s, working with director James Whale in The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man, and Busby Berkeley in Gold Diggers of 1935. Roles were few and far between in the 1940s, although she did appear in the first of The Whistler films. She has a lovely scene in My Favorite Year in which she doesn’t say a word, simply dances with Peter O’Toole.

And then, of course, came her role as Old Rose in Titanic.

I spent an extraordinary morning listening to her speak in January 2002 when she visited Seattle. In her nineties but still sharp and vibrant, she told one amazing story after another. About her long friendship with Groucho Marx, hosting Humphrey Bogart at dinner parties, meeting Dorothy Parker, organizing the Screen Actors Guild. It was a small gathering, and it snowed while she talked.

Rosemarie bought a copy of her memoir I Just Kept Hoping that day, and used the short version of her name when she asked Miss Stuart to sign it. Which is why our copy is inscribed, “Best wishes to (another!) Rose.”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Grab Bag: Westerns, Welles & Whiskey

I haven’t been posting as frequently as I once did. Lots going on. But sometimes that hectic pace is a boon for the blog. A little distance allows you to see what’s truly worthy of comment.

Like Death Ground, by my friend Ed Gorman. I’ve got a copy of Ed’s latest book Stranglehold, already winning raves, but the urge to read a western came on me like a fever so I picked up this 1988 novel. Bounty hunter Leo Guild is marking a joyless 54th birthday when he hears that his current boss has been murdered. The prime suspect is mountain man Kriker, and Guild joins two deputies in tracking him down. Their journey takes them to Kriker’s settlement, full of misfits determined to make their own way but woefully ignorant of how vulnerable they really are.

There’s a great feel for landscape and the elements. None of the characters is what you expect, Kriker in particular. I loved the cardsharp priest, the twisted dynamic between the deputy brothers, Guild’s bone-deep weariness. Ed later said, “westerns are where I do my noir,” and that’s what Death Ground is. A dark, glittering gem.

Also worth recommending is the coming of age tale Me and Orson Welles (U.S. 2009). Zac Efron is the aspiring actor who finds himself cast in a small role in the Mercury Theater’s 1937 production of Julius Caesar. It’s always fun to see actors playing other actors like Joseph Cotten and George Coulouris, but Christian McKay’s Welles is pure wizardry. The offhand smiles, the cock of the head, the bravado. It’s as if Orson is among us again.

Then there are the constants in life. The Zig Zag Café, where everybody knows my name, has again been crowned the finest cocktail bar in America, this time by GQ Magazine. Congratulations to Murray and the entire ZZ team. It’s also nice to see Needle & Thread, the upstairs bar at Tavern Law, rate a mention. I’ve been to a few of the New York and San Francisco outposts on this roster, and intend to hit more during Bouchercon next month. Who’s with me?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Movie: Cell 211 (U.S. 2010)

I heard the premise of this Spanish thriller and started salivating. “Yes. When can I see this? Is now possible?”

Juan Oliver, a young man with a pregnant wife, needs to make a good impression at his new job as a corrections officer. He shows up at the prison a day early for orientation and during his tour an accident knocks him out cold. He’s temporarily put in the title room. Seconds later a riot breaks out. When he comes to, the inmates are in charge. To survive, Juan must convince them he’s a new fish – and on their side.

Admit it. That’s genius.

Cell 211 is a little too slick at first, playing like the studio remake that is undoubtedly coming. It doesn’t help that Alberto Ammann, as Juan, is criminally handsome. But the script does a convincing job of explaining how Juan could so quickly become part of the inmates’ inner circle, led by Luis Tosar as the aptly named Malamadre. It’s also rich, weaving in material about Spanish politics (Malamadre has timed the takeover to coincide with the arrival of Basque terrorists held by the government), institutional corruption, and Juan’s wife on the outside. Yet for all that Cell 211 still moves, building up a hell of a head of steam and crashing through preconceived notions in time for a third act where you have no idea what’s going to happen next.

I’d missed the movie on the festival circuit but didn’t mind, because IFC picked it up and planned to show it on demand. Diligently, I checked their offerings every week. Cell 211 never showed up. One night I was goofing around with the remote and discovered a separate section of “IFC Midnight” movies. That’s where Cell 211 was hiding – but only for another day. I’d stumbled onto it just in time. The movie may still be available on some cable systems, is playing in a handful of theaters, and will be on DVD soon enough. Look for it.

Passings: Too Many, Too Close

I’ve been remiss in not acknowledging the deaths of several people of late.

Claude Chabrol was often described as the French Hitchcock, but over the course of his career his movies evolved into their own genre: dark comedies of manners about the correlation of means and morality.

Kevin McCarthy will always be remembered for his performance in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But he was one of the great character actors, his toothy bonhomie uniquely American, his presence improving everything he appeared in.

I never met bookstore owner and publisher David Thompson, but our paths crossed online frequently. I planned on introducing myself at Bouchercon next month. Now, sadly, I won’t have the chance.

Plus the Liberace Museum that was a high point of my last trip to Las Vegas will be closing its doors.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Book: The Reapers Are the Angels, by Alden Bell (2010)

When did the zombie apocalypse achieve cultural singularity? A couple of years ago I’d never heard the phrase. Now I half-expect to open my interfaith calendar and find Z-Day listed.

Another harbinger of the walking dead bringing about the fall of mankind is the birth of a new genre: zomlitfic. Alden Bell is a pseudonym for Joshua Gaylord, who wrote last year’s novel of teachers and students Hummingbirds. In The Reapers Are the Angels, his teenage protagonist is facing something worse than a clique of mean girls.

15-year-old Temple has never known a world not plagued by what are known variously as meatskins or slugs, and as such she’s made her peace with it. She keeps moving and knows how to find what beauty remains. Reapers is a Gothic picaresque, following Temple as she roams the American South. She encounters survivors coping in different ways, some attempting to start society over in the face of this new reality, others content to stay trapped in a distant past. She also acquires a sworn enemy who stalks her across the countryside.

Bell writes in an ornate vernacular. “But the family, it’s an iron fierce thing.” Temple grouses that “... you can’t put nothing past these southern boys. They just sit around waiting for somebody to kill their brother so they can get started on some vengeance. It’s like a dang vocation with them.” Picture Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird grown up and in a Flannery O’Connor novel filled with the undead. Reapers is a potent, unexpected, and ultimately moving book. Considering that I’m genuinely unnerved by zombies, that’s strong praise.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Movies: Animal Kingdom/The Square (U.S. 2010)

Why haven’t I posted lately? Blame competing deadlines, promising developments, and the busiest weekend of my life. I spent the last few days at the Penny Arcade Expo, directing willing con-goers before a green screen in vignettes that may allow them to be background characters in a video game. Am I a director? No. But I’ve seen more movies than anyone else at the company, so the assignment naturally fell to me.

I put more than 300 people through their paces in three days, and for the most part the cast seemed to enjoy themselves. It’s surprisingly exhausting work. You wouldn’t think telling other people what to do would be so draining. Fortunately I remembered an essential piece of directorial advice I’d heard years ago: wear sensible shoes.

Here’s another tidbit that some of you are already aware of. They know how to make crime dramas in Australia.

In theaters now is Animal Kingdom, which I’ve been waiting for since seeing the trailer. (NOTE: You will never hear Air Supply the same way again.) In David Michôd’s electrifying film, a teenaged boy is returned to his distant extended family of armed robbers. Michôd never shows us their crimes; it’s as if they’re wanted primarily because of a grudge on the part of a deeply crooked police force. Every performance is worthy of praise. There’s Guy Pearce’s understated honest detective, Jacki Weaver as the mother who loves her sons too much. Ben Mendelsohn’s Uncle Pope is the most realistic criminal this side of Elmore Leonard, a man whose ruthlessness is made necessary because of his stupidity. It’s all held together by James Frecheville, unbelievably making his debut. His Joshua is a heartbreakingly real teen, all awkward impulses and silences. Frecheville’s face actually seems to physically change onscreen as he feels his way through a treacherous world with no one to rely on but himself.

Joel Edgerton has a key supporting role in Kingdom. He co-wrote and co-stars in The Square, directed by his brother Nash and now available on DVD. It starts with a conventional noir premise: two lovers married to other people and desperate for escape, and the promise held by a bagful of cash. Unlike many neo-noirs there’s not a wink in the entire enterprise. The Square has a true blue collar sensibility. The lives of these people would in fact be changed by the relatively meager sum of money involved, so the stakes are that much higher. And the small town setting, where everyone knows everyone else, only ratchets up the claustrophobic feel. Two relentless films, beautifully engineered.