Michael Cavacini

An award-winning arts and culture blog.

Archive for the month “August, 2013”

Book Review – Seduction by M.J. Rose

SeductionI recently read my first book by M.J. Rose, Seduction, and its compelling, suspenseful narrative kept me turning pages from start to finish. Rose’s ability to effortlessly switch between two storylines, filled with rich dialogue and palpable characters, kept me coming back for more. I was completely invested in Jac L’Etoile’s story arch, and I love how it intersected with Victor Hugo’s. Seduction was bursting with historical detail that kept me engrossed in the characters’ world, and the conclusion left me completely satisfied. If you’re trying to decide what to read next, I highly recommend you check out Seduction.

Below is the book’s synopsis, and make sure to read my interview with M.J. Rose to learn more about the author.

Synopsis

A gothic tale about Victor Hugo’s long-buried secrets and the power of a love that never dies . . . In 1843, novelist Victor Hugo’s beloved nineteen-year-old daughter drowned. Ten years later, still grieving, Hugo initiated hundreds of séances from his home on the Isle of Jersey in order to reestablish contact with her. In the process, he claimed to have communed with Plato, Galileo, Shakespeare, Dante, Jesus—and even the devil himself. Hugo’s transcriptions of these conversations have all been published.

Or so it has been believed . . .

Recovering from a great loss, mythologist Jac L’Etoile thinks that throwing herself into work will distract her from her grief. In the hopes of uncovering a secret about the island’s mysterious Celtic roots, she arrives on Jersey and is greeted by ghostly Neolithic monuments, medieval castles and hidden caves. But the man who has invited her there, a troubled soul named Theo Gaspard, hopes she’ll help him discover something quite different— transcripts of Hugo’s lost conversations with someone he called the Shadow of the Sepulcher. Central to his heritage, these are the papers his grandfather died trying to find. Neither Jac nor Theo anticipate that the mystery surrounding Victor Hugo will threaten their sanity and put their very lives at stake.

Seduction is a historically evocative and atmospheric tale of suspense with a spellbinding ghost story at its heart, written by one of America’s most gifted and imaginative novelists. Awakening a mystery that spans centuries, this multilayered gothic tale brings a time, a place and a cast of desperate characters brilliantly to life.

Author Interview: Thomas B. Sawyer

Thomas B SawyerAt ThrillerFest VIII, I was lucky enough to meet Thomas B. Sawyer, the former head writer for one of my all-time favorite TV shows: Murder, She Wrote. In addition to working in television, Tom has written several books, as well as a musical drama. Below is my interview with Sawyer about his exceptional career. I hope you enjoy it.

Growing up, did you always want to be a writer?

In a way, yes. My childhood ambition/fixation was to draw and write a realistic syndicated daily newspaper comic strip, telling a continuous story. There are almost none of those today, but they were big when I was a kid. My hero was Milton Caniff, who drew and wrote such strips as Terry & the Pirates and Steve Canyon. I started freelancing as a comic-book artist (writing a few) in Manhattan at age 20, moving on to advertising, where I became a successful illustrator. Along the way, I realized that doing a daily strip was not for me, so I began making short films, and fell in love with directing. I studied with Lee Strasberg, directed off-off Broadway, and directed/produced TV commercials for major ad agencies.

What led you to the television industry?

I moved from NY to the LA area to try breaking into movies – as a director. My plan, produce and direct a low-budget comedy as a calling-card. My writer fell out as soon as I arrived on the Coast, so I wrote it myself. Then, the financing fell through, so I bankrolled it, shot it, and began screenings in hope of finding a distributor – and getting my money back. By then, I’d begun to network with people in the biz, and would invite them to screening as well. One was a multiple Emmy-winning writer/director/producer, Lila Garrett. She approached me at the end of a screening: “Tom, you should be writing for television.”

Truthfully, I had never even thought about that, totally focused as I was on directing movies. I asked her how I might get started. Her response, with a shrug: “I’ve got a production deal. If you get an idea, call me.” Two weeks later, I phoned her with a one-line pitch: “A gang-comedy on a tacky used-car lot in the valley.” She said: “That’s great. You’ll write it and I’ll produce it.

Another two weeks, my first gig in Hollywood: I was writing a comedy pilot for CBS. Incidentally, it was several years before I realized that is not the way it works for most people.

How did you become involved in Murder, She Wrote?

I became a writer for Murder, She Wrote (MSW) before it began to air, the result of my agent sending show creator Peter Fischer a non-mystery series pilot script I’d written for CBS, a one-hour WWII drama titled Cody’s War. Peter ‘saw’ something in it – presumably, that I could write scenes that worked – and he gave me a ‘blind assignment’ to write an episode. Meaning, I had to first come up with a story that was acceptable. He invited me to come in and view the pilot, and to me, anyway, Angela Lansbury’s specialness, her presence, was awesome. As was the prospect – the honor and privilege, really – of writing for her.

MSW looked to me like a hit, and I said so. In response to my question about the approach, the show’s style, Peter explained that he envisioned it as “sort of” in the mold of traditional Agatha Christie puzzle mysteries. Which prompted – with no hesitation: “Peter, I have to tell you, when I was a kid I read a couple of Christies and one or two locked-room mysteries, you know, where they gather the suspects in the drawing-room at the end? They bored the shit out of me, and I won’t write that for you.” His response: “Okay. What will you write?” “I’ll write The Maltese Falcon.” Peter replied without missing a beat: “That’ll be fine.” And – on reflection – I realize that that was my signal contribution to the show. With few exceptions, over the next 12 seasons, in each episode we did a play about a bunch of interesting characters in conflict with each other. And someone is murdered.

What was it like working with Angela Lansbury?

The absolute best. Angela was – and still is – a total professional, without vanity, generous to other actors. My only frustration was that the character of Jessica Fletcher, as originally conceived, used such a tiny fraction of Angela’s incredible range as an actress. But in re-examining her movies, I observed that she played irate-and-pissed-off better than almost any actor in the world. So I contrived, in each episode, to give her at least one moment when another character would say the equivalent of: “Ms. Fletcher, I don’t have time for this, so get outta my office.” And Jessica would get her back up – and the show would immediately take on that energy.

Meeting Tom Sawyer at ThrillerFest VIII.

Meeting Tom Sawyer at ThrillerFest VIII.

Murder, She Wrote regularly featured popular guest stars. Which guest stars did you enjoy working with the most and why?

Jerry Orbach tops the list. Jerry played a recurring character, PI Harry McGraw, which we eventually spun off into a series (The Law & Harry McGraw). Jerry, a major Broadway musical star, was a great guy, and a delight to work with. Oh, there were so many others, too: Len Cariou, Anne Meara, Lorna Luft, Milton Berle, Bobby Morse, Buddy Hackett, Steve Lawrence… The list is endless.

How did your role on the Murder, She Wrote team evolve over the years, and what was it like when the show came to an end?

I was on staff, then off, doing other shows, and pilots and film scripts, plus the McGraw spinoff, but continuing to write for MSW. And then, after 7 seasons, Fischer departed, and I was asked to take over as Head Writer/Showrunner, which I did – and enjoyed enormously – for the next 5 seasons.

It was sad when CBS pulled the plug. We were still one of the top shows, but had become a casualty of demographics. We were on opposite ABC’s Lois & Clark, which had 1/3 fewer viewers. But, of a more advertiser-desirable age-group, they were able to charge more for commercials.

Our final episode: “Death By Demographics,” was about the murder of a broadcaster.

What is the TV script-writing process like, and how many revisions are made before shooting a scene?

A lot depends on the type of show. Comedies involve a lot of meetings in the “Writers’ Room.” Dramas, less so. And while I’ve written finished shooting scripts for action-adventure shows in as little as four days, teleplays for MSW took several months. Plus – unlike many theatrical movies – in TV, once the script is written, that’s what is shot.

The Writers Guild dictates that the TV episode writer do two drafts of the story (outline), and two drafts of the script. After that, the show’s staff writers have to make any necessary changes. Thus, it is in the interest of those staffers to work closely with the freelance writer, holding his/her hand along the way, so that final script is as close to shootable as possible.

You’ve written a musical drama (Jack) and a novel (The Sixteenth Man) about John F. Kennedy. What inspired you to base these two works on the former U.S. President?

I regard his loss as one of the major tragedies this country has experienced. JFK’s passion was without equal. Moreover, I find his life and family fascinating (operatic, really, hence, Jack), and the truth about his assassination never revealed (thus, my take on it, The Sixteenth Man).

How does writing novels compare to writing for television and theater?

In novels the writer really gets the chance to know the characters far more intimately. Though in the case of Jack, the writing process – and getting to know the characters went on for years. More than five in fact, before we figured out who Jack Kennedy was.

Your conspiracy thriller, No Place to Run, was focused on the U.S. government’s involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. What inspired the premise? And did the sensitive subject matter lead to any interesting encounters with the government or law enforcement officials?

I gradually became convinced that 9/11 was known to be in work, and was abetted/permitted to happen because our government (as in: the MICC Complex) needed an event that would cause the public to put up with another war. I’m fully aware that once history is written, it becomes part of the public’s comfort-zone, but in writing that book, I figured if I could make as many as a dozen people think (re-think, actually), I had succeeded.

It did not provoke any encounters with government or law enforcement, but I was invited to post my take on it at a very interesting website, patriotsquestion911.com, where I found myself in some amazing company. I have since appeared on panels with a number of them. But getting the book published wasn’t easy. The head of one of the major houses in NY said to my agent: “I really like Tom’s writing, but I’m offended by his premise.”

Fiction Writing DemystifiedYou teach an online course about writing fiction and wrote the book Fiction Writing Demystified. How has writing for television influenced and helped what you produce as an author?

More than anything else, TV taught me that the number one requirement of any writer, (novelist, historian, ad copywriter, clergyman, you-name-it), no matter how lofty the goal, is to know – and never forget — that we are Entertainers.
Simply put, unless we entertain, one’s audience isn’t going to stay with us until The End.

Are there any authors in particular that you read regularly and draw inspiration from?

Absolutely. Moreover, these hold up for me on rereading. John O’Hara, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Donald Westlake, Elmore Leonard, Irwin Shaw, and Eric Ambler.

What do you think is currently the best-written show on television?

For me – and they’re inconsistent, a tossup between Blue Bloods and The Good Wife. The all-time best? The Sopranos.

Are you working on any exciting new projects?

Yes. I just finished my first non-stand alone thriller (w/humor), Cross Purposes. It features a New York PI, Barney Moon. Barney, a permanent fish-out-of-water, hates Los Angeles, is stuck there, and he doesn’t drive. I’m also completing my memoir, Who Knew…?

Revisiting Alan Wake

Alan WakeAlan Wake took more than five years to develop but the end result is one of the greatest video games of all time. The game’s story follows bestselling thriller novelist Alan Wake as he tries to uncover the mystery behind his wife’s disappearance during their vacation in the fictional town of Bright Falls, Washington. While searching for his wife, Alice, he experiences events from the plot in his latest novel, which he can’t remember writing.

This compelling narrative is told through a series of eight episodes, two of which – “The Signal” and “The Writer” – are additional downloadable content. All eight episodes kept my rapt attention from start to finish, and when facing the game’s frightening enemies, known as “The Taken,” I was stricken with chills.

Alan Wake’s character development is exceptional. As the game progressed I found myself more attached to the main characters and emotionally invested in their well being. Another “character” worth noting is the town of Bright Falls. This fictional locale came to life in a way no setting has before in a video game since the original Silent Hill. The transformation of the town from light to dark was impressive, and its foreboding presence was amplified by the fact that I was in control of Alan Wake.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that Alan Wake’s score by Petri Alanko is simply gorgeous. It’s one of the most beautifully haunting pieces of orchestral music I’ve ever heard. It perfectly embodies the game’s mystical nature and Alan Wake’s dreamlike state. Even if you don’t play the game, you should give the score a listen.

While books, movies and television shows are wonderful mediums for telling stories, video games can be superior. Not only do they combine the best elements of the aforementioned art forms, but they put the person inside the story and make him or her play a key role in how it unfolds and, sometimes, how it ends. Having that level of agency within a game as spectacular as Alan Wake can only yield one result: complete satisfaction.

Below are three videos. The first is the game’s trailer, and the last two are about the making of Alan Wake.

 

 

 

Author Interview: M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose is an international bestselling author of 13 novels and a founding member and board member of International Thriller Writers (ITW). I had the pleasure of meeting her at ITW’s ThrillerFest this summer. Her latest novel is Seduction, which I’ll be reviewing soon, and below is my interview with the author. Enjoy!

When did you first discover your ability to write, and did you always aspire to be an author?

I wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember. I always loved to read though. I think wanting to be a writer just snuck up on me. I don’t actually remember when I knew. As for the first part of your questions – I’m still trying to find my ability to write … I’m more comfortable coming up with ideas than actually writing.

How did you get into advertising, and how has it influenced your career as a writer?

My grandfather was in advertising and at my Dad’s company he was the one who worked with the ad agency. It was always in my blood. Then in college I started taking graphic design classes – which I loved as much as painting – and was much better at. My first job was at a very small ad agency where I wrote the copy and did the design, and I realized after a year I liked the writing better.

You wrote the first self-published book to be picked up by a New York publishing house, Lip Service. What was this process like, and how did you feel when a traditional publisher wanted the book?

I didn’t set out to do that. I got tired of my agent telling me that publishers loved my book but couldn’t figure out how to market it. So I told her I’d put it online and market it (since I was in advertising) and once I had a campaign that worked she could show the publishers how I did it. It was during that effort that The Doubleday Bookclub and Literary Guild discovered Lip Service on line and wrote me and offered to publish it as one of their featured alternates. That was about 6 months after I’d started my experiment. I was convinced it was a friend playing a joke on me.

Do you write every day? If so, how do you avoid distractions and do you set goals for yourself when it comes to the number of words or pages?

At different times in the course of writing a novel I work different ways. The first three to four months of a book, when I’m formulating and researching and planning, I don’t write at all except to take notes. I walk around a lot thinking and calling a few great friends with panicked phone calls about how this idea is most boring book in the world.

Once I start writing the first draft, I write 1,500-2,500 words a day, 5 or 6 days a week, first thing in the morning at 6:30. When I start on the second draft I’m happy – I love editing. I keep up that same pace – working 5-6 days a week but in less of white heat.

Spending time with M.J. Rose at ThrillerFest VIII.

Spending time with M.J. Rose at ThrillerFest VIII.

As was discussed at length at ThrillerFest, some authors are plotters while others are pantsers. Do you draft an outline before sitting down to write a novel or do you have a rough idea of what you want to say and let the story unfold one page at a time?

I do a bit of both. I can’t over-plot or I’d be too bored to ever write the story but I do a lot of research and need to know quite a lot about the characters and have a list of the top 10 to 15 main scenes and the end before I start.

You wrote a book called What To Do Before Your Book Launch with Randy Susan Meyers that provides writers with information on how to be successful, and your company, AuthorBuzz helps authors market their books. What was the inspiration for this book and service?

When I first got published in 1999, it was a very different world. Authors wrote and publishers published. And a lot of opportunity was falling through the cracks. Together with a wonderful author and one of my closest friends, Douglas Clegg, I wrote a book and started teaching classes called Buzz Your Book. In 2005, that lead to my opening the first marketing firm expressly to help authors (but we work with publishers too). And then last year, Randy and I both realized we’d each written a lot of blog posts that would make an interesting workbook and put What To Do Before Your Book Launch together.

Have you had any authors serve as mentors during your career as a writer?

I was in advertising during the years I was writing my first few books and didn’t know any other authors and so never had a mentor. But I have been very lucky to have a group of amazing friends who are amazing writers and I have learned so much about the craft of writing and story telling from them.

SeductionYour newest novel, Seduction, features Victor Hugo. Has his work inspired yours, and was it a challenge working a historical figure into a novel?

I was always in awe of Hugo and yes, I found his work inspiring but on a grand scale I don’t think I’m at all capable of. As for Seduction I came up with the idea for the book without quite realizing that I’d have to write in his voice. And when it came time to start, I panicked and almost bailed. What hubris! I gave up three times. It was when my agent suggested I read his letters to his friends and family that I might get past the genius thing. Sure enough the letters weren’t as intimidating as his fiction and I started thinking I might pull it off. But it wasn’t until I started writing with a fountain pen and on paper – the way Hugo wrote – that I finally was able to begin. I wrote the whole book – 120,000 words – by hand.

Seduction features two storylines and two time periods. How do you go about keeping the reader emotionally invested in both storylines while advancing the plot at the same time?

As a reader I get bored easily – so I try to keep myself emotionally invested. I figure if I can keep myself excited and I know the story, I might have a shot with the readers.

Some authors dread research while other relish it. When it’s necessary, how do you go about conducting research and do you enjoy it?

I love it. So much so that sometimes I think that I write as an excuse to do the research. In fact I have to force myself to stop.

Do you have any exciting new projects you’re working on?

Yes, I’m starting a new book Sept 1 and it’s a bit different and a big challenge.

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