Monday, April 25, 2011

Cara Black vs Jacqueline Winspear a contradiction in Author Reading

Short version: Two authors come to Seattle with much in common, but one had the better author reading.

In novel writing there are few things the author has control over but one of them is the author reading. It is the one opportunity where an author can connect with the reading public in a way that is both personal and professional.

What makes a good author reading is the question. So many things can happen. So many things are unforeseen. Some are boring, but if done properly it can leave a lasting impression. This brings us to the show down between two ladies of literature.Cara Blackand Jacqueline Winspear

On the surface the two authors have a tremendous amount in common. They are mature, polite, educated and worldly women. It is not hard to imagine them being neighbors and visiting while trimming roses or drinking tea.

Both women write an established mystery series with character’s set overseas in the 20th century. Ms.Winspear’s character Maisie Dobbs is set in England after the end of World War I while Ms. Black’s private detective Aimee Leduc lives in 1990’s Paris.

Why compare these two female authors? Because both recently appeared in Seattle and demonstrated how, despite the similarities, there are differences in each author reading.

Start with atmosphere, which is important. The French organization, I’Alliance Francaise and University Books sponsored Ms. Black to read and discuss her newest novel “Murder in Passy”. Her reading took place in one of the rooms at Seattle’s Good Sheppard Home. This is a unique setting inside a beautiful one hundred year old building now used for various events. It is also worth mentioning that the Good Sheppard Home is centered in a quiet neighborhood with few distractions. No car horns or sirens or heavy traffic as the room window opens up to the large grounds surrounded by an old stone fence and heavy foliage.

Tonight the biggest distraction was I’Alliance Francaise selling French wine by the glass. (an excellent idea)

The spacious classrooms large enough that the soft spoken Ms. Black was concerned about being heard as no microphone was available. Her anxiety was unwarranted as the crowd remained attentive and cell phones silenced without being asked.

They came to hear her speak of Parisian culture and her how her years of research lead her to the inner workings of a French private detective agency. It was a simple straight forward uneventful presentation. Nothing spectacular would happen tonight and the audience was comprised of mainly people from I’Alliance Francaise some fans and other writers.

Still Ms. Black had a large challenge ahead of her. She was presenting her novel to a group whose interest lay not in her books but that of French culture. This was her eleventh book. The question is how does an author present a new novel, (and not a standalone novel but one from an established series, no less) to a crowd unfamiliar with her work.

More later.

The reading for Jacqueline Winspear presenting her novel "A Lesson in Secrets" was the exact opposite of Ms. Black. Her novels have a strong following in this region and the impressive crowd size placed a strain on the Lake Forest Park branch of Third Place Books.

She read on the main stage is known as the Third Place “Commons” where it is located in the center of a large food court and multitudes of long tables are used by the public for personal meetings. The chairs are set and the curtains are drawn, but only the biggies read here.

It is impossible to close off the noise of the conversations in the Commons. On a busy night such as this, the conditions were reminiscent of the days when European Opera singers sang for the wealthy in their boxes while the proletariat were milling around the floors selling chickens, gambling and throwing the occasional tomato at a bad actor.

Even so, Ms. Winspear has a formidable presence, on stage. She has a gorgeous English accent that marries to a rich gentle voice. From the very moment she takes the stage she is prepared and more focused than Cara Black or several authors for that matter. If you hear her speak there is little doubt she is an expert in her subject.

Ms. Winspear also avoids one of the great blunders that author’s make on tour. She is here to sell books. Early on she tells the audience that she will divulge little information about her new novel and politely encouraged the crowd to buy the books. This is an admirable trait, but one that can be taken too far.

Ms. Winspear’s talk was more of a history lecture than an author reading. Her intention was to leave the crowd with hints about her newest novel which was strange for a woman who desires to sell books. Tonight she spoke on the subjects of secrets, unappreciated contributions by British women during WWI and of all things “Winnie the Poo.”

Neither woman was a particularly entertaining reader but this is not a damnable sin. Not every author has the talent to sound like they perform at the Globe Theater and to their credit neither woman read more than a couple of pages.

So what was the difference?

Here lies the lesson. Ms. Winspear assumed her audience knew her work where Ms. Black did not.

By her own admission, Ms. Winspear had been to Seattle on many occasions which might explain why she addressed the audience about her main protagonist, Maisie Dobbs, with such familiarity.

Ms. Winspear’s intended, on this evening to create interest in her new novel but her “clues” were so abstract and so cryptic that she failed to leave any understanding about what Maisie Dobbs will do to warrant investing twenty five dollars to find out.

By the time the Q&A session came about she left no room for the audience to ask questions about the new novel and the All the questions were regarding past novels and the standard, “What are you reading now?”and “Will we see Maisie Dobbs in a movie?”

In defense of Ms. Winspear, it is appreciated when authors try to bring something new to their base core of readers. A tired old speech given repeatedly to fans is a big turn off but tonight people learned a great deal about Winnie the Poo and nothing of “A Lesson in Secrets"

The majority of Cara Black’s talk was about her characters development, history and plot lines. She brought the crowd of unfamiliar fans into the world of private investigator Aimee Leduc. Granted this took time, (she spoke longer than Ms. Winspear) and thank God for French wine, but by taking these steps in an intimate setting, Ms. Black was able to draw the crowd into both her newest novel and the entire series. Proof of her success this evening was demonstrated as Ms. Black was peppered with questions about her entire catalogue of novels and the amount of books bought by the more modest crowd.

Both women are deserving of their success but putting aside writing talent, prose and plot, it seems that to gain new fans in these hard economic times, it pays for a mystery novelist to be less mysterious.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

T.C. Boyle's Book Tour Review


Seattle Public Library
University Books Sponsor

The short version: A reading of a short story that turned into a long evening

The main branch of the Downtown public library. It stands as a monument to the city of Seattle’s voracious appetite for books. University Books is there so things run smooth. In comes short story master T.C. Boyle to promote his newest novel "When the Killing's Done "and this should be a fine evening. Sort of.

The reading stage is a vertical wall of chairs; high enough to remind one of Mount Rainer. The chairs were designed by an architect who thought only people five foot four and weighing a 120 pounds would be sitting inside them. The audience packs in with rain soaked winter coats, and umbrellas shoved in cramp leg spaces that it looks like a grade school coat closet, ten minutes after recess.

The reading is supposed to start at 7pm. Five minutes before hand Mr. Boyle is visible off to the side. He stands in the wings early while the ushers clear people sitting on the stairs in search of more leg room.

Then T.C. Boyle disappears. The audience is left waiting while the evening hostess from the Library, (an obnoxious woman we find out later) comes on and announces that we start late because TC would like to tour the library. What a blatant admission. The crowd groans as parking cost more than Mr. Boyle’s new book. This is the kind of thing you usually do before you’re supposed to take the stage. It’s a packed house for God’s sake and it would have been more acceptable had she announced the author was across the street and trade shots of Wild Turkey with Tom Sizemore and Randy Quaid.

Anyway, TC Boyle is a brilliant short story artist. He comes, complete with Kenny Logan’s style hair cut (Top Gun Kenny Logins, not the Caddy Shack years) yellow jacket and orange shoes. The look works for a middle age man. He greets the crowd with love and they show it in return.

The Reading

Actually T.C. Boyle reads great, the selection from his new novel, however, lays an egg. He tries to explain the plot and discusses the books plot about a man and a woman and conflict and ecology and there are feral animals like sheep and pigs and eagles and the whole damn thing is lost by the time he is done.

He reads a selection of the novel. The crowd is shifting uncomfortably in their narrow chairs with wet coats soaking their laps. Then something so routine occurs that it actually spices up things.

An overhead announcement stating that the library will be closing in twenty minutes.

It is not a big deal but for a moment annoying. The announcement is not as annoying as Mr. Boyle’s dramatic reaction as he stops the reading and asking the hostess if overhead announcements can cease while he is reading. Then the hostess jumps up out of the audience and takes over the microphone and goes on a long obnoxious explination about how these are automated messages timed to come on and there is nothing she can do to stop them.

Again not a big deal to most but Mr. Boyle’s face resembled a man who won a chili eating contest only to find out they ran out of toilet paper.

As he finishes with the reading from his new book the room’s energy is flat. At this point the reading is lost. Wrap it up, and go to your signing desk. The overhead announcements and his reaction have sucked the air out.


This is the difference between a first time romance novelist and an experienced pro: he keeps going. This was a thing of beauty to watch as T.C. Boyle recovers the evening. He selects out a short story for reading tonight called “The Lie.”

Where was this energy before? It was theatrical and practiced and he barely looked down as if there was a teleprompter in the audience. He was changing speed, hitting accents at the back of polysyllabic words, pausing for comedy bits to sink in but not long enough to drag the reading.

The Liar was a good story. T.C. Boyle’s reading made it a great story.

Then to top it off Mr. Boyle was open to questions from the audience and handled it with grace and class.

Highlights of the questions:

-He would never work on a script because he hates to collaborate on anything so why would he work on a script.

-He actually liked the movie Road to Wellville (an adaption of his novel) even though it was panned by critics and different from his book. He had a lot of nice things to say about the director and crew.

-He handled what may be the STUPIDEST QUESTION of the year so far with tremendous savvy. “Mr. Boyle. Do you know if you have EVER won a Pulitzer Prize?” As if they keep that a secret. If a surly author like Andrew Vachss had been asked that question, people would have been dialing 911 and ducking for cover.