Entries from July 2009

“Free” and the Future of Publishing

I had an interesting conversation on Saturday with Bruce Spector, the founder and CEO of a new web service called LifeIO. (See the end of this article for an explanation of what LifeIO is all about.) Bruce was part of the team that developed WebCal, which Yahoo! acquired in 1998 to form the core of its own calendar service, so he has been watching the web with an entrepreneur’s eye for some time now and he had an interesting take on the whole “free” debate and how it might apply to book publishing.

If you somehow missed the recent back-and-forth about Chris Anderson’s book Free, read the pro-“free” comments by Anderson, Seth Godin and especially Fred Wilson, and the anti-“free” perspective by Malcolm Gladwell and Mark Cuban, among many others. This piece by Kevin Kelly, not directly about “free,” is very good, too.

For the uninitiated, the issue boils down to this: The marginal cost of delivering a bit of information over the web — a song, a video, a bit of text like this one — is approaching zero. As a result, information is increasingly available, and consumers increasingly expect to get it, for free. So traditional “legacy” information-sellers like musicians or movie studios or newspapers, whose actual costs are very far from zero, have to figure out how to turn free-riders into paying customers — and fast, before they go out of business. Fred Wilson’s answer is “freemium“: you lure the customer in with a free basic service, then up-sell the heaviest users to a premium version of your product. As Wilson puts it, “Free gets you to a place where you can ask to get paid. But if you don’t start with free on the Internet, most companies will never get paid.”

How does all this apply to book publishing?

Here are some of Bruce Spector’s ideas. He is a great talker, though, and a summary like this doesn’t do him justice. Also, this was a private conversation, but Bruce kindly gave me permission to repeat some of his comments here.

Continue reading →

Categories: Internet · Publishing    Tags: · · ·

Walter Cronkite and “The Strangler”

A still from Biography of a Bookie Joint

In the deluge of clips since Walter Cronkite died a few days ago, the same video seems to come up over and over, like a greatest hits collection: Cronkite announces the JFK and Martin Luther King assassinations, the moon landing, the call to withdraw from Vietnam. I’d like to call your attention to a more obscure clip, a 1961 CBS News exposé called “Biography of a Bookie Joint.”

The show — and Cronkite — make a brief appearance in my novel The Strangler. In the novel, a character named Joe Daley is filmed coming out of a Boston key shop that is a front for a bookie joint. Joe is just a bagman for local cops on the take, but his life goes into a tailspin the moment Walter Cronkite announces, “The man coming out of the door now is a detective. We found that he comes from Station Sixteen, Boston Police Department, just a few blocks away.”

What readers may not have realized is that the CBS News documentary was absolutely authentic. I rendered it virtually word for word from a transcript of the original, altering the narration only for pace and to insert poor Joe Daley into it.

Readers also may not realize that the CBS News exposé played an indirect part in the Boston Strangler murders, which began soon after. The documentary caused a scandal in which the Boston police commissioner, among others, lost his job. When the Strangler murders began and were not immediately solved, the city’s loss of faith in its police department led to a critical mistake: the investigation was removed from the experienced police detectives working the case and transferred to a jury-rigged, politicized “Strangler Bureau.” (The whole story is told in a nonfiction account by Susan Kelly called The Boston Stranglers, which is the best single source on the Strangler cases that you’ll find. If you’re curious about the history of the Strangler years, I recommend it.)

When I was researching my novel The Strangler, in 2005, “Biography of a Bookie Joint” was not available on the web. To see it, I had to go to New York where I watched it at the Museum of Television & Radio (now the Paley Center for Media) on West 52nd Street. There I laboriously transcribed the show on a legal pad. But CBS has finally made this historic show available online. You can watch the whole thing below. (The show runs about an hour.) It is a rare glimpse of the old, seamy, unreconstructed Boston that is the setting for my book.

I always wanted to send a copy of my book to Cronkite, who spent his last years near here, on Martha’s Vineyard. I never did it. I didn’t have the nerve. It seemed presumptuous for a guy who writes meatball mysteries to approach a certified Great Man. But I wonder what Cronkite would have made of his cameo appearance in a story of old Boston.

Image: A still from “Biography of a Bookie Joint.”

Update 2.13.13: CBS has disabled embedding the video of “Biography of a Bookie Joint,” but you can still watch it here.

Also, I recently stumbled on this AP news story which adds an interesting detail: Abraham Swartz, who owned Swartz’s Key Shop, died in February 1962 at age 81, just three months after the original, nationwide broadcast of “Biography of a Bookie Joint” but before the documentary was aired in Massachusetts.

Categories: Boston · My Books    Tags:

The Definitive Boston Crime Novel: “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”

Yesterday I wrote about the film version of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which I think is the best movie ever made about Boston. Today, over at the Rap Sheet, my review/appreciation of the George V. Higgins novel is up, part of the Rap Sheet’s “Book You Have to Read” series highlighting forgotten classics. Here is a clip:

Elmore Leonard, in his introduction to the Holt paperback edition, recalls reading The Friends of Eddie Coyle when it first came out. “I finished the book in one sitting and felt as if I’d been set free. So this was how you do it. … To me it was a revelation.” Leonard has called it “the best crime novel ever written.”

Eddie Coyle was a revelation to me, as well. I was a young assistant D.A. when I first read it, another Boston College Law grad with literary aspirations. I worked in Cambridge then, across the river from Higgins’ old office. I had never read the book. I was only eight when it came out, and later I was never much of a crime-novel fan anyway. But when I hit the first page, I had the same reaction Leonard did: so this is how you do it.

Read the rest here. Of course calling any book or movie the best of its type is a good way to start an argument, but I did it yesterday so why stop now? The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the best crime novel I’ve ever read.

Best Boston Movie Ever: “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”

Recently I wrote a short appreciation for the Rap Sheet of George V. Higgins’s definitive Boston crime novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The piece will run soon as part of the Rap Sheet’s terrific Friday series, Books You Have to Read, which celebrates forgotten (or never properly appreciated) crime novels. [Update: My article on the novel is now up. You can find it here.]

Fortuitously, Criterion just released a pristine new restoration of the 1973 film version of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and it is not to be missed. The Criterion DVD brings back a forgotten classic and the best movie about Boston ever.

Let’s be honest: there aren’t that many great movies about Boston, particularly crime stories, though the city has bred more than its share of crime novelists. There are some good movies set in Boston that could as easily take place elsewhere without losing much; The Verdict comes to mind. But movies that aim to capture this city’s unique personality — as, say, L.A. Confidential and Chinatown do for Los Angeles? Or Goodfellas and Once Upon a Time in America are unmistakably New York stories? Those are rare.

The serious competition is all recent. Good Will Hunting is fun but overrated. (Watch it again.) The Departed is just not a serious movie, and anyone who believes Jack Nicholson or Leonardo DiCaprio would last five minutes in Whitey Bulger’s world really ought to turn off the DVD player and come out into the world for a while.

The only real challenger for the title of best Boston movie is Mystic River. But put the two films side by side and Mystic River looks like Eddie Coyle lite — Boston as Californians might imagine it. Mystic River is just too much of everything: a melodrama, pretty to look at, with gorgeous swooping helicopter-cam shots of the city skyline and a platoon of glamorous stars, all of them strenuously, visibly acting. These are the sort of big, emotive performances we now recognize as Oscar bait, Sean Penn’s in particular.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the real thing. Quiet and dingy, a series of terse conversations in dim bars and gray, leafless parks. It is an ensemble piece, despite having a big-ticket star in Robert Mitchum. Voices are rarely raised. Only two fatal shots are fired. This is the reality of small-time crime life: not high drama, but a wary, exhausting series of risky transactions dimly understood even by the thick-headed hoods on the inside.

With any Boston movie, we have to consider how the difficult Boston accent is handled, too, and here Mystic River flops badly. I saw it in Boston in a theater full of Bostonians, and the audience seemed to require subtitles to understand what the hell these people were saying. Eddie Coyle has a few wobbly moments but mostly gets it right. Alex Rocco, now remembered mostly as Moe Greene in The Godfather, plays a convincing Boston hoodlum. He should: as a pudgy kid named Bobo Petricone he hung around on the periphery of the fearsome Winter Hill Gang.

Eddie Coyle is not perfect by any means. A lot of the dialogue is lifted straight from the novel (that Higgins did not get a screenwriter credit is a travesty), and some of those lines don’t work as well in the actors’ mouths as they do on the page. And the seventies tics — the wah-wah soundtrack, the groovy idioms, “man” and “lover” and so on — can be a bit much, though you might go in for that sort of thing.

It may be, too, that the film appeals to me as a time capsule of a city I remember. To a kid who grew up in Boston, it is a kick to see Barbo’s furniture store. (Any New Englander of a certain age can sing the Barbo’s jingle, which played on car radios incessantly.) And to revisit the old Boston Garden, where Eddie watches the sports god of my childhood, “number four, Bobby Orr — what a future he has.” Just seeing Boston in late fall — completely drained of color, the trees all bare, the grayed-out sunless sky, the people dressed in drab — is enough to make me feel poignant and murderous.

But the main thing The Friends of Eddie Coyle has going for it is Mitchum, speaking the incomparable lines of George Higgins. Mitchum is not the Eddie Coyle of the book. Even in his brokedown fifties, Mitchum is too big and handsome for that. He can’t smother his leading-man charisma enough to quite become a small-time loser like Eddie. So this Eddie Coyle is Mitchum’s own creation. The booklet that accompanies the new Criterion DVD — which alone is worth the price of the disk — says that Mitchum was first offered the part of Dillon, the two-faced bartender. That part instead went to a then-unknown Peter Boyle. Good thing. Mitchum gives the the best performance of his life. He is as quiet and understated as Sean Penn is actorly. There is not a hint of the preening movie star anywhere in his performance. Watch this clip and notice how little Mitchum moves his body or alters his expression, how he communicates a lot while “signaling” very little. The effect is completely convincing. That voice, that smirking wised-up manner — true Boston.


E-Books and Distracted Reading

Author Steven Johnson on what we may be losing in the switch to e-books.

Because they have been largely walled off from the world of hypertext, print books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of linear, deep-focus reading. Online, you can click happily from blog post to email thread to online New Yorker article — sampling, commenting and forwarding as you go. But when you sit down with an old-fashioned book in your hand, the medium works naturally against such distractions; it compels you to follow the thread, to stay engaged with a single narrative or argument.

The Kindle in its current incarnation maintains some of that emphasis on linear focus; it has no dedicated client for email or texting, and its Web browser is buried in a subfolder for “experimental” projects. But Amazon has already released a version of the Kindle software for reading its e-books on an iPhone, which is much more conducive to all manner of distraction. No doubt future iterations of the Kindle and other e-book readers will make it just as easy to jump online to check your 401(k) performance as it is now to buy a copy of On Beauty.

As a result, I fear that one of the great joys of book reading — the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author’s ideas — will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.

(Read the whole thing here.)

The internet is a near-perfect publishing medium, both a copy machine and “super-distribution system.” At the same time, it creates an attention deficit: accustomed to “surfing” and “browsing,” we can barely hang on long enough to read a short blog post, never mind the deep dive of a whole book. The internet promises to bring us the bounty of every book ever written delivered instantly at the click of a link — even as it trains us not to want them.

Categories: Books    Tags: ·

Why the Strangler?

A reader suggests that I use this blog to share a little about how my books develop from initial concept to final draft. I’ll try, but readers should understand that a strange sort of apathy descends as soon as a project is finished. When I am writing, I am obsessed with the book being drafted, absolutely submerged in it. Robert Penn Warren once likened this feeling to having a new baby: you want to check on it constantly, feed it, pat it on the head. But the moment the book is finished, I lose all interest. (Do all novelists feel this way? Any writers out there?) Already, my last book seems a distant memory — which often comes as a surprise to new readers, whose experience of the book is necessarily fresher and more vivid than my own. With that said, here is something I wrote a couple of years ago, when my novel The Strangler was first published, about what drew me to the case and to Boston during the Strangler days and why I thought there might be a novel in it.

Years ago, back when I was a prosecutor, I first heard a rumor that Albert DeSalvo might not actually have been the Boston Strangler. At the time, no one outside law enforcement (and precious few inside it) took the suggestion seriously. The campaign to reopen the Strangler investigation rarely made the news, and when it did, the stories often had a smart-alecky tone — as if we all knew better, and only a crank would really believe it.

To my mother’s generation, who were young adults when the case broke, the idea was plainly ridiculous. After all, they’d lived through it. They’d felt besieged during the murder spree and relieved afterward. Then they’d read Gerold Frank’s best-selling book, and even watched Tony Curtis play DeSalvo as a mincing, menacing Boston Strangler in the movie. Now, twenty or thirty years later, DeSalvo was innocent?

As readers of my novel will know, I don’t delve too deeply into the DeSalvo case, let alone pretend to solve it. Like a lot of historical novels that ask “what if?” (Robert Harris’s Fatherland, for example), I simply take it as a jumping-off point for the story: What if DeSalvo really was the wrong man?

What fascinated me about the idea was not the case itself but what it suggested about this city. In Chinatown, screenwriter Robert Towne fictionalized an actual historical scandal involving real estate and the water supply in Los Angeles. In that scandal, Towne obviously saw something emblematic, something revealing about L.A. The Strangler story gave me a comparable shiver of recognition. It seemed to suggest all sorts of things about Boston — at least about Boston in those years when the city was evolving into its current incarnation. My city, too, had a secret history.

But what did the Strangler case say about this place, exactly? That it was brutal? Corrupt? Close-mouthed? Why did the Strangler controversy seem to me a quintessentially Boston story? I don’t have definitive answers, even now, having long finished writing the book. The signature Boston crime stories of my day (I am 43) [ed: 45 now] often involve secrecy and corruption — rot — in the city’s most trusted, impenetrable institutions: the Catholic church in the case of pedophile priests, the FBI in the Whitey Bulger case. From a distance, the DeSalvo case certainly looks like a close cousin to these — another sinister secret deal, another conspiracy of silence. True Boston.

Or is it? You’ll have to decide for yourself. I don’t pretend to know. I think of novel-writing as a way to explore the world, not to pontificate about it. It is a mistake to assume novelists are intellectuals, or reporters bringing the news (about Boston, about DeSalvo, about crime, about anything). We are just storytellers. And the storyteller’s job is to follow his vision, to bring it to life. Whether there is any truth in what he sees … well, that’s up to the audience — you.

Categories: Boston · Crime · My Books    Tags:

How Writers Write: Graham Greene

In The End of the Affair, Graham Greene described what was in fact his own method of working.

Over twenty years I have probably averaged five hundred words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene. Every now and then during the morning’s work I count what I have done and mark off the hundreds on my manuscript. No printer need make a careful cast-off of my work, for there on the front page is marked the figure — 83,764. When I was young not even a love affair would alter my schedule. A love affair had to begin after lunch, and however late I might be in getting to bed — as long as I slept in my own bed — I would read the morning’s work over and sleep on it. … So much of a novelist’s writing, as I have said, takes place in the unconscious; in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them.

Coincidentally, in the summer of 1950 Michael Korda happened to witness Greene at work on The End of the Affair. That summer Korda vacationed with Greene and others aboard a yacht called Elsewhere off the coast of Antibes. Korda was sixteen at the time, Greene forty-five. Korda later described watching the famous writer at work during this cruise.

An early riser, he appeared on deck at first light, found a seat in the shade of an awning, and took from his pocket a small black leather notebook and a black fountain pen, the top of which he unscrewed carefully. Slowly, word by word, without crossing out anything, and in neat, square handwriting, the letters so tiny and cramped that it looked as if he were attempting to write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, Graham wrote, over the next hour or so, exactly five hundred words. He counted each word according to some arcane system of his own, and then screwed the cap back onto his pen, stood up and stretched, and, turning to me, said, “That’s it, then. Shall we have breakfast?” I did not, of course, know that he was completing The End of the Affair, the controversial novel based on his own tormenting love affair, nor did I know that the manuscript would end, typically, with an exact word count (63,162) and the time he finished it (August 19th, 7:55 A.M., aboard Elsewhere).

Greene’s self-discipline was such that, no matter what, he always stopped at five hundred words, even if it left him in the middle of a sentence. It was as if he brought to writing the precision of a watchmaker, or perhaps it was that in a life full of moral uncertainties and confusion he simply needed one area in which the rules, even if self-imposed, were absolute.

As he got older, Greene found it harder to maintain his clockwork discipline. Twenty years after that summer aboard the Elsewhere, Greene gave an interview to a reporter from the New York Times. Greene was then 66.

I hate sitting down to work. I’m plugging at a novel now which is not going easily. I’ve done about 65,000 words — there’s still another 20,000 to go. I don’t work for very long at a time — about an hour and a half. That’s all I can manage. One may come back in the evening after a good dinner, one’s had a good drink, one may add a few little bits and pieces. It gives one a sense of achievement. One’s done more than one’s thought.

There are certain writers who seem to write like one has diarrhea — men like Durrell for instance. Perhaps their bowels get looser and looser with age. I’m astonished at someone like Conrad who was able to write 12 hours on end — it’s superhuman, almost.

It’s like a strain on the eyesight. I find that I have to know — even if I’m not writing it — where my character’s sitting, what his movements are. It’s this focusing, even though it’s not focusing on the page, that strains my eyes, as though I were watching something too close.

In the old days, at the beginning of a book, I’d set myself 500 words a day, but now I’d put the mark to about 300 words.

The reporter added, a little dubiously, “Did he mean that literally — a mark after every 300 words? Precisely. With an x he marks the first 300 words, 600x comes next, 900x after 900 words.”

Personally, I have never counted words. I have no idea how many words my novels contain. When I am writing and a scene is flowing, the feeling is precisely the opposite of Greene’s methodical word-counting — “the precision of a watchmaker.” For me, writing is like a trance, and holding onto that dream-state is a precarious thing. I would be afraid to stop to count my words for fear of interrupting the dream and losing the rest of the scene. Remember, too, that Greene had to stop and laboriously count his words by hand, with no computers to do the busywork for him. I count scenes and chapters, sometimes pages. That’s it. I don’t prefer my method or recommend it. My method is more erratic and less productive. It is hardly a method at all. But I seem to have no choice. Word-counting has never worked for me.

That is probably why I marvel at Greene’s discipline, his steadiness and regularity. He had such a sure hold on his stories even as he wrote them, in their first iteration. Look at the manuscript page below. It is the original handwritten draft of The Heart of the Matter, which now resides at Georgetown’s Lauinger Library. There are virtually no corrections. He has already imagined the entire scene. When he uncaps his pen and bends over the page to begin composing sentences, he “remembers” the details of his story rather than inventing them. It is as if Greene is taking dictation.


Update: A short audio clip of Graham Greene discussing his work method is available here.

Capote and Ellison: Blocked or just procrastinating?

“Did Truman Capote and Ralph Ellison have writer’s block — or were they just chronic procrastinators?” This interesting article from Slate, by Jessica Winter, considers whether there is a difference between writer’s block and procrastination to begin with.

Famously, both Capote and Ellison went silent after producing great books. Capote’s silence lasted nineteen years, from the publication of In Cold Blood in 1965 until his death in 1984. Ellison struggled for nearly forty years to produce a followup to his 1952 debut, Invisible Man. He never did.

Their struggles were not alike, though. Capote seems to have produced very little in all that time. Ellison, when he died in 1994, left behind thousands of pages. One was paralyzed, the other flailed. But both seem to have had the same inner problems: perfectionism, crippling anxiety about meeting heightened expectations after an early success, low self-esteem, excuse-making.

As a writer and lifelong procrastinator, the stories of Capote and Ellison scare the hell out of me. The lesson: the ultimate failure for a writer is not producing a bad book; it is producing no book at all.

(And yes, I realize I am procrastinating by writing this!)

chronic procrastinators?Did Truman Capote and Ralph Ellison have writer’s block—or were they just chronic procrastinators?