Mourning Lost Characters with Jean Alica Elster

A wonderful Detroit writer who I have had the pleasure to meet at a number of local author events is Jean Alica Elster. As a Kresge Arts fellow, she was featured in a video discussing her work. I thought I would share it here, not only because she’s someone you should know about, but also because she brings up a topic that I’ve mentioned here a number of times: the mourning that follows the completion of a literary work.


Quote of the Day: On “Urban Pioneers”

…the phrase “urban pioneers” is perpetually problematic especially in this city. Let’s all just take a moment to remember the original “pioneers” who came through Detroit…The issue with the idea of pioneers is that historically they are treated as if they discovered something. Detroit has been here. People live here, have lived here, have raised generations of their families in Detroit proper. No amount of cheap studio space is going to allow artists or anyone else to move in and act as if they found something new. And to be very clear, it’s not brave or bold, it’s strategic opportunism.- Casey L. Rocheteau, on the Write House blog.

I read the above article immediately after this one from The Metro Times which points out that Detroit’s latest renaissance has also seen the number of black-owned buildings downtown fall by as much as 75 percent.

Michigan Author Monday: D.E. Johnson

D.E. JohnsonD.E. (Dan) Johnson’s literary debut, a historical mystery entitled The Detroit Electric Scheme, was published by St. Martin ‘s Minotaur in September 2010. The sequel, Motor City Shakedown, was published by Minotaur in September 2011. Dan is a history buff with a special interest in early twentieth century Detroit. As he writes on his web page, “Dan comes by his interest in automotive history honestly. His grandfather was the Vice President of Checker Motors, beginning work with Checker in 1924 and continuing until 1980. Fortunately, Dan doesn’t come by his interest in murder the same way.”

Tell me about “Detroit Shuffle.”

Detroit Shuffle is a mystery set in 1912 Detroit, in the middle of the era’s biggest (real life) political scandals: in the summer, all but one of the city council members were arrested for accepting bribes, and in the fall, women’s suffrage was on the ballot, and a group of conspirators tried to rig the election. Will Anderson, the protagonist, weaves through these situations while trying to discover who is attempting to kill his girlfriend, who is a militant suffragist. It’s a challenge, especially because no one else believes someone is trying to assassinate her.
Your books all have Detroit themes. What is it about Detroit that piques your imagination?

Detroit was once known as the “Paris of the West.” It was an amazing city of parks and boulevards, culture, and success. During my lifetime, the city has been in decline–until recently. I thought people should see what the city was like in its heyday and what it might be again.
How do you go about researching your novels?

I do a lot of research at the Detroit Public Library. They have the archives of all the major newspapers of the day, which are the best source of information about what people were thinking and talking about during this time. Most of the information on these scandals has never been put in a book, so that “on the ground” researching is necessary. I have a lot of early electric car information in my books, and I’ve gotten most of that from the Henry Ford Museum. They have a great research facility.
Which comes first– Does historical research inspire ideas for your plots or do you start with a plot and then research the period?

That’s a good question. I look at the historical events as the backdrop of the story. In my books I have told the stories of the rise and fall of the early electric car, Detroit’s first mob war, Wayne County’s massive asylum, Eloise Hospital, and early political scandals. Those are really the major subplot in each book. The real plot is the story of trying to catch a killer.
What do you like to read? Are mysteries your favorite genre as a reader?

I read a wide variety of novels: literary, historical, thrillers, but most of my favorite authors write mysteries. When I started writing, my goal was to marry E.L. Doctorow and Elmore Leonard, a Herculean task. I’m not really sure it’s possible for anyone to do that, but we have to have goals, right?
What is your process as a writer?

My process is to sit my butt down in my chair and write. I have a full-time job, so I don’t have the luxury of waiting for my muse to come calling. I get up very early in the morning and write, and I spend most of my weekends writing too. Of course, there is a lot of mental work being done in my downtime as well. I need to be able to visualize at least the beginning of a scene to be able to write it. Once I get going, my brain hijacks my consciousness and continues.
Do you have any literary pet peeves?

I wouldn’t say I have any particular pet peeves other than bad writing.
Do you have any new books in the pipeline?

I am just finishing my first book set in Chicago. It’s a mystery that takes place in 1874 in the middle of the country’s first major depression. The dual protagonists are a fifteen-year-old orphan and her uncle, who she didn’t know existed until her father died. He believes that her father was poisoned, which is contrary to the doctor’s opinion–that he died from simple heart failure. The uncle enlists the girl to help him investigate. Oh, and he’s a resurrectionist–one of those guys who digs up bodies to sell to medical schools. He became a resurrectionist to investigate deaths similar to his mother’s, who he is certain was murdered with the same poison that killed his brother.
I’m not certain at this point when this one will be published.

You can learn more about D.E. Johnson and his mysteries on his web page.

Michigan Author Monday: Lynn Arbor

untitledToday’s Michigan author is Lynn Arbor. Arbor was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and has lived in California, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Illinois. She’s spent her life writing and making art. When her daughter and son were little she wrote children’s books: Grandpa’s Long Red Underwear was published by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books. She contributed to a decorating column in the Detroit News and wrote two unpublished novels. For twenty-five years she made her living as a graphic designer, but after serious illness, she turned to fine art. She’s best known in the Detroit area as a painter.

Tell me about Intentional.

I wanted to write a novel about the aftermath of a suicide. How do family and friends cope? When I was considering writing this novel, I made a list of things that I wanted to explore beyond the suicide issue: politics, greed, environment, infidelity, desertion, friendship, and the frailty and strengths of being human.

What inspired you to write it?

When I was in my late twenties, about 40 years ago, a friend committed suicide. None of her friends could figure out why she did it, but we each had our own ideas. But I wanted my novel to be contemporary, so the story is set in 2012, a month before the election.
What is your process as a writer?

Sometimes I get ideas when I first wake up in the morning, especially if I’ve been stewing about something in the story. It’s almost like I’m in a foggy, half dream state. Then I get up and write as fast as I can before I lose it. Other times, uninspired, I just sit look at the keyboard, reread what I’ve already written, then write one sentence. Which, hopefully, leads to another sentence. One thing I find very useful, is walking my neighborhood first thing in the morning (not when it’s cold), it seems to stimulate my thought process.

When I did the final edit of the book (before sending it to the copyeditor), we were staying at the family farm in Wisconsin. About a mile from the farmhouse, past fields of corn and into a wooded area near a spring fed lake, we have an old airstream-like trailer. Everyday after I swept the mouse droppings out of the trailer, I read the novel out loud (no one could hear me except mice and deer). It’s an excellent way to edit, listening to the rhythm of the sentences.
What is your favorite part of writing?

Sometimes magic happens. I don’t know what will happen, don’t know where I’m going in the story, and I just start writing and words come from some unknown place inside me. Things happen that I hadn’t expected or planned. When I was writing Intentional, I got stuck on the first chapter about Christina (the mother of the woman who commits suicide). I was avoiding writing about her, I didn’t want to deal with her pain. Then as I started writing, I discovered that she was avoiding facing the reality of what had happened and so I wrote about her avoidance. I think it’s one of the better chapters in the book.
How does the process of writing a novel compare to your process in making art?

It’s very different. When I paint, I usually listen to music or NPR so the atmosphere is noisy and I’m painting half-distracted, working by instinct. When I’m writing I like it quiet so I can hear the voices in my head. When I’m having trouble writing, going into the quiet is too lonely, so I turn on the TV and don’t accomplish anything.
What was the biggest challenge you faced along the way?

Commas. I knew I needed a copyeditor to get my commas in control. Hiring someone was very smart and important, but expensive. I hesitated for weeks before hiring someone.
What do you like to read?

Mostly I like good fiction, short stories in the New Yorker, or by Alice Munro. Novels, recent favorites: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Old books, like Grendel by John Gardner. Non-fiction: Doris Kerns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and The Wild Trees by Richard Preston are wonderful and favorites.
Do you have any literary pet peeves?

Yes, it irritates me when writers try to make a pamphlet or short story into a book. Padding and redundancy are such a waste of reading time.

Does being a Michigan author inform your writing?

Yes. I like it here, and I want other people to get to know about this place through my writing. Intentional takes place in Detroit and the Northern suburbs. People who live here tell me that it was fun reading about places they know in the area. One reader asked, “Are there really tunnels connecting the hospitals at the Detroit Medical Center. Does it really have all that art?” This week my husband and I went to the Detroit Institute of Art to see the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibit. It was so satisfying to me as I looked around at the fresco in the Rivera Court, that I could include that magnificent space into the narrative of my novel. People should know about our city and community.

Did you have any special teachers or mentors who encouraged you along the way?

I did. From the time I was tiny, I thought that my best and only real skill was art, but then, Katherine Peters, my English teacher at Groves High School introduced me to creative writing. Before that I had no idea that I could write or even that I liked writing.

Do you have any new books in the works?

Finally, just yesterday, after all the hoopla and exhausting (but fun) promotional work with Intentional, plus the slight depression and feelings of loss (is that normal?), I got back to working on my next novel. I’m about 13,000 words into this one. It began while Intentional was away being edited. It felt so good to get back to creating something new. The next novel, A Bird in the House, is set in 2008. The story is about a woman who’s the caregiver for her mother. This time, I’m exploring greed (again), compassion, family relations, jealousy, being trapped by duty and responsibility, and several aspects of memory loss.

Doesn’t that sound like a fun read? First novel’s about suicide, the second’s about dementia, woo hoo, such fun.

Order Intentional via this link or visit the author’s blog to learn more.

Visions of Sugar Plums… Or Something

So it’s Nutcracker season.

Last night I dreamed I was in a theater and the ballet dancer David Hallberg was on stage, dressed in a white ballet costume. He was breathing in that heavy but controlled way that dancers do when they are taking bows after a solo. (What that? It was no effort at all. You see, I’m not even winded.) He was explaining to the audience, who I understood to be a room full of theater owners, why they should book his Nutcracker.

“Unlike other Nutcrackers,” he said. “This one will finish in the Museum of National Security.”

Ok, then.

I drifted to consciousness at this point, which is why I remember, but soon fell asleep again and the dream theme continued. I was scrolling through an Amazon listing for the book version of the National Security Nutcracker starring David Hallberg. A voice over my shoulder was asking me (as people used to when I worked at Borders Books and Music) whether the Nutcracker had been released as a book with a blue cover. I explained that, no, it was small and green.

A review in one of those Amazon pull quotes jumped out at me. “The longer you sit with this book after reading, the more meaning you will find.”

The quote was signed “Bette Midler.”

Now this is a Nutcracker production I have to see.

I think this dream rivals the one in which I was on the set of Downton Abbey with Stephen Fry.  Or the one I had the other night (which I did not blog about) in which I was watching a Youtube video interview with Lord Alfred Douglas. (In my dream world there are such things.) The interviewer was saying, “I’m surprised you read____”  The name was of something folksy and lowbrow which I no longer remember.  Douglas replied in his plummy accent, “It is country but it is charming.” Then his smile faded and he turned on the interviewer shouting, “You presume to tell me what I should read!”

Before bed yesterday I listened to this interview with Hallberg about the Bolsohi Ballet’s Nutcracker, which will be aired as part of the Ballet in Cinema program on December 21. It is probably what put him and The Nutcracker into my subconscious.

I have something of a Nutcracker conflict this year. As I mentioned, The Bolshoi’s Nutcracker is airing in cinemas on December 21.  Bolshoi Ballet in the U.S. Facebook page is showing images of Evgenia Obratsova and Vlad Lantratov to advertise the produ1002533_876706535683622_9096228976393518148_nction, but the Bolshoi’s web page lists Anna Nikulina and Denis Rodkin in the principal roles on that date.

If you are in the Detroit area, however, you have an opportunity on the same day to see The Motown Nutcracker at the Ford Performing Art Center. My partner, Valery Lantratov (also known as Vlad’s dad) choreographed the pas de deux for this year’s production. When Legacy Dance Studio first asked him to create a classical pas de deux for the Nutcracker to Motown music, it was a bit outside his comfort zone.  But I had an opportunity to see the result this summer as he was rehearsing with the students, and it was beautiful, proving my theory about creativity from constraints.

I am looking forward to seeing it.

Michigan Author Feature: Liz Crowe

bw at festAmazon best-selling author, beer blogger and beer marketing expert, mom of three, and soccer fan, Liz Crowe lives Ann Arbor. Her early forays into the publishing world led to a fiction subgenre, “Romance for Real Life.”

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m a self-confessed sports fanatic—just about very sport but my favs are: soccer, basketball & American football. I’ve lived in 3 different countries as a somewhat frazzled trailing car executive spouse with little kids (my youngest was born in Japan). I have a degree in English Lit from the University of Louisville and am a Kentucky native. Michigan is my adopted home now, having lived here over a dozen years, between the overseas stints. I practice Bikram yoga but like to complain about it. I’m a preacher’s kid, a band geek, love every kind of music (with the possible exception of jazz) and have 2 standard poodles I call My Muses because when I get stuck I take them on a long walk and almost always get unstuck.

I am part owner and former marketing director for a craft brewery and probably drink more alcohol than is honestly healthy for me but like to think it’s all balanced out with the sweaty yoga. I consult breweries, real estate agents and amateur soccer teams on their marketing/social networking strategies.

What inspired you to become a writer?

Being a reader, I think. I read across genres and have for as long as I can remember. My mother taught me to read when I was 4 for her Master’s Degree in Education project on the Montessori Method which makes me a very fast reader, (I can take in chunks of words at one time, I have no idea how) but am an atrocious speller as a result. I read Gone With The Wind for the first time at 14 which I see as a bit of a jumping off point for long form fiction for me.

Back in 2008 I was killing myself selling houses (Oh, I’m a licensed Realtor too) in Ann Arbor and picked my first “erotic romance” (by Lauren Dane) and thought… “Wow, ok…” I tried a few others, most of which I hated, to be honest but a few that stuck with me and I kept thinking “Wow….I have an idea about a couple of high-strung, super successful real estate agents with emotional constipation and over-revved libidos.” So I wrote it.

It took 3 years but it found a (small) publisher home and since then The Stewart Realty series is a best seller on Amazon in “family saga” and “urban fiction” categories.

Did you have any special mentors or teachers who helped you along the way?

My mom is definitely my reading mentor. She devours books and I rely on her (especially lately) for recommendations, as I have become Way Jaded when it comes to finding books and (new) authors I like. In the writing arena, I definitely owe a lot to the small publisher that took a chance on the Stewart Realty series. Tri Destiny Publishing has a dozen of my titles and I have learned an awful lot working with them. I also would say that a couple of editors with another publisher have taught me What Not To Do … a lot.

Tell me about your books. What is “Romance for Real Life?”

I’ll be the first to confess that I don’t read romance much. I’ve never read anything published by Harlequin, which is not to say what they publish isn’t great and successful. It’s just not my thing. When I concocted the concepts for The Stewart Realty series I was really only thinking “relationships”—all sorts of them. Not just between a couple attracted to each other physically and/or emotionally but the relationships between siblings, friends, and family. So what started out with (literally) the concept of a very hot hookup in an emptied-out real estate office between two people who seem perfect for each other but spend a lot of energy resisting anything beyond physical morphed into a 8.5 book sweeping story arc that includes novels about secondary characters that were so compelling to me I had to tell their stories.

Along the way I spent a ton of frustrated energy trying to convince “romance readers” to give me a shot and was given a warm welcome…until my books started turning “too real” for them. I don’t like to read books that are pure fantasy of any kind, so I don’t write them which has garnered me my fair share of haters (even once a twitter flame campaign thanks to a brewery-based novel: Paradise Hops.)

It was even harder to make people who think anyone who “writes romance” is barely literate understand that “romance” suffuses most everything we do, see, write, watch or listen to.

An uphill battle on both sides of the field. So when one of my fans proposed that what I write is “just like romance, only in real life, not billionaire and his virgin fantasy,” I jumped all over that. It makes perfect sense. And while I have resigned myself to never being a superstar because I just cannot write traditional romance novels, I am happy with what I do and think that every day I gain a bit more traction on both sides of the literary genre battlefield.

What is your process as a writer?

I’m a marathoner—writing-wise, not actual running. I only run if there is booze at the end of the race.

810eWIx+BQL._SL1500_When I grasp a concept I give myself a week or so to head-write it (I don’t really take notes although I’m learning how helpful that can be) then I just open up the old laptop and plunge in headfirst, writing typically from start to finish, usually in a pretty short amount of time. For example, Good Faith, the final novel (maybe) of the Stewart Realty series is over 200,000 words and once I accepted how that was going to end (talk about controversial) I wrote it in about 8 weeks. Mind you, those 8 weeks I am useless for much else, just ask my family who have learned through the last 6 years or so of my writing journey that when I growl at them without taking my eyes from the screen that translates to: “Call for pizza.”

What do you find most challenging and most rewarding about a writing career?

I think it has to be the yin-yang of relative success. This business is so overcrowded with authors of all types and talent levels. And the ease of self publishing means some folks use it to cut corners on editing and cover art which dumps yet more, many times marginal, options into the book market. To be heard above all that, including the noise made by traditional publishers on behalf of their authors, is one of the most challenging things going right now. I’ve used my experience with small pubs, getting edited, promoting (the do’s and definitely the don’t’s) and choosing/designing covers to help me take the step into “total indie” and so far I like it. But it just means I am “totally independent” when it comes to all my promotions, financially and emotionally which is, in a word, challenging.

Does being based in Michigan influence your writing?

Absolutely. Even though Michigan is (one of) my adopted home(s) I find the practicality and stoicism of Midwestern people inspiring. I set the Stewart Realty Series in Ann Arbor (and East Lansing, and Manistee with a few diversions for trips and such) and kept the characters grounded in reality. They’re hard-working, mostly small business owners, love the outdoors and value the bonds of family and friends. Not that they don’t do that elsewhere, but the beautiful West Michigan coast settings and the “college football Saturdays” atmosphere really allowed me to draw vivid portraits of an area of the world many of my readers never really considered as “interesting” until now.

Other books I have set in Ann Arbor or in Michigan cities include Paradise Hops, Honey Red, and Healing Hearts.

Do you have any new books in the pipeline?

The Love Brothers, my family saga with romance elements is taking up all my time now. I wrote the 3 initial novels this spring and summer and have worked the first 2 through pre-order and have both of them in audio production. Book 3 is in edits and I’m writing a free novella I’ll release between books 2 and 3 now. “Safe Love” tells an interim story of the oldest brother that never really gets fleshed out in book one.

Once that’s all done (release day: Jan. 5 and March 1), I have 2 or 3 new ideas plus a Detroit-based thriller novel I’ll be reviving. It’s set in the future and contains elements of reproductive rights, racism and water safety. And yeah, there’s a brewery in it.

You can read more about Liz Crowe on her web page.