Posts Tagged ‘Carl Hiaasen’

cheesesteak 2“Naked Came the Cheesesteak.” Weird fetish site? No. At least … I hope not.

Actually, it’s a “serial novel” mystery, with each chapter written by a different Philadelphia-area writer. And it’s happening right now at Philadelphia Stories, where a new chapter is being released each month.

So how do nakedness and cheesesteaks tie in? Here’s a little bit of background.

Back in 1969, a bunch of journalists played a literary practical joke by releasing a deliberately bad book titled “Naked Came the Stranger,” in which each of them wrote a different chapter and released it under a pseudonym. Their intent was to show that any book could be a success, as long as it featured lots of sex. Turns out they were right. The book became a best-seller.

In 1996, a bunch of South Florida-area writers — including the legendary Carl Hiaasen and the beyond-legendary Elmore Leonard — did something similar by crafting a mystery/thriller parody in which a different author wrote each chapter. Unlike “Stranger,” this one wasn’t a hoax. But the title, “Naked Came the Manatee,” paid tribute to its literary forebear. Or, should I say … foreBARE?

Sorry. I kind of hate myself now. Anyway.

Some of the folks over at the wonderful Philadelphia Stories decided to do something similar with a bunch of Philadelphia-area writers.

I don’t want to talk about it too much. I’ll let co-editor Mitchell Sommers take care of that in the following interview.

But I will say this. I recently attended the launch party for “Naked Came the Cheesesteak,” at which a number of the authors gave readings from their contributions. I can tell you already that it’s very different from “Naked Came the Stranger,” which the writers intentionally made bad. Because “Cheesesteak” features some amazing writing.

The writers themselves, who didn’t see the chapters that came after their contributions, have no idea if it’s going to hold together as a story. But hold together or not, it will definitely be worth reading for the quality of the prose, if nothing else.

That’s why I wanted to feature it here. That, and the fact that it gives me an excuse to use the word “naked” a lot, which I figure will boost my Google search rankings.

By the way, the writers associated with the project are: Kelly Simmons, Nathaniel Popkin, Kelly McQuain, Warren Longmire, Don Lafferty, Tony Knighton, Merry Jones, Victoria Janssen, Shaun Haurin, Gregory Frost, Mary Anna Evans, Randall Brown and Diane Ayres.

The co-editors are Mitchell Sommers and Tori Bond.

So here are the questions that co-editor Mitchell Sommers graciously agreed to answer for me:

Q: Can you give us some background on how “Naked Came the Cheesesteak” happened, and your involvement with it?

A: The idea of a serial novel has been something I’ve thought about ever since reading the Dave Barry/Elmore Leonard creation “Naked Came the Manatee,” which was also a serial novel/ murder mystery set in Miami using South FL writers. It’s a crazy book (and totally worth reading). And when I finally had a forum to try something like this in Philly, I decided to try it. I’m fiction editor for “Philadelphia Stories,” and the two co-editors and founders, Christine Weiser and Carla Spataro, were totally on board. They may have thought I was nuts, but they were on board. I very quickly realized that I was not even going to come close to organizing this thing myself, and I asked Tori Bond, who is also with “Philadelphia Stories,” and who is a recent MFA graduate from Rosemont College, to become co-editor. She has an important quality I lack, that being anything involving even rudimentary organization skills. (Note to my law clients: Please ignore what I just said.)

 

Q: What were you hoping to accomplish with this?

A: Two things: First, I wanted to see what a bunch of writers, with different styles, writing in different genres, could do on a project like this. The story very quickly became a murder mystery–that format worked well with the concept, and it was a way of paying homage to Naked Came the Manatee. And it really did take on on a life and shape of its own. Getting several member of the Liars Club (Kelly SImmons, Merrey Deedee Jones, Gregory Frost and Don Lafferty) was a big help. We also had two poets (Warren Longmire and Kelly McQuain), which I thought added some interesting shape and texture to the project. But really, every writer brought something cool to the project.

Second, I wanted to bring attention to “Philadelphia Stories.” Our mission is fostering a community of writers in the Greater Philadelphia Area, and this fit perfectly. I wanted people to read us, to stick with us, to come to our readings and our yearly Push to Publish one day writers’ conference. And, hopefully, give us money. Our on-line auction is up right now.

 

Q: Do you think there’s any particular literary quality that tends to characterize work from the Philadelphia area?

A: I don’t think pretense is a quality you’re going to find in Philly writers. They, like the place, are a tough bunch, without a lot of fake sentimentality. Funny and poignancy exist pretty much side by side.

 

Q: Obviously, everyone involved is having some fun with this. But do you think it reveals anything about the storytelling process?

A: That it’s mysterious, lively, capable of taking inspiration from all kinds of places and if I knew more, I’d use it to finish my own novel.

 

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about Philadelphia Stories?

A: We’ve been around since 2004. That’s 11 years. We publish quarterly, featuring poetry, fiction, non-fiction and artwork. We are completely, totally free, and are distributed across the Delaware Valley, including every branch of the Philadelphia Library. We also publish PS Jr., twice a year, featuring the work of children up to 12th grade. And the aforementioned Push to Publish writers workshop, in which more and more agents (the magic word to a writer) show up every year. It’s a great magazine. I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Nobody else would have let me do this.

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Alex SeguraAlex Segura’s debut novel, “Silent City,” recently redefined Florida noir. Alex agreed to answer a few questions for “Chamber of the Bizarre.”

Q: Can you give us some background about yourself?

A: Happy to! I’m a comic book publicist by day, crime writer by night. My first novel, “Silent City,” came out late last year from Codorus Press. It’s a noir tale set in modern day Miami and features washed up journalist Pete Fernandez as he’s swept up by the search for a missing woman, which involves a much deeper — and deadlier — underworld conspiracy. When not writing crime novels, I write comics — mainly at Archie — and spend time with my wife and cats. I live in New York.

Q: What inspired “Silent City?”

A:I got into crime fiction in my early 20s, somewhat late. I read the classics — Chandler, Hammett and so on, but it was a copy of George Pelecanos’s excellent “A Firing Offense” that showed me that you could have a very flawed and relatable protagonist. It opened up a world of possibilities for me, not only in terms of what I could read, but also got me thinking about maybe writing myself. I point to Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane’s “Darkness, Take My Hand,” Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan books, Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder stories and Ellroy’s LA Quartet as the books from modern writers that made me think about possibly doing this myself. I should also note that I’m continually motivated and driven to keep at this by the work of other great writers, like Megan Abbott, Greg Rucka, Michael Connelly, Kelly Braffet, Reed Farrel Coleman and many more.

Q: Who are some of your influences, and how do you think they played out in the story?

A: Like I listed above, Pelecanos, Lippman, Lehane, Ellroy, Lawrence Block and older authors like Chandler, Jim Thompson and Ross MacDonald were huge influences. Pelecanos, Block and Lehane show up mostly in Pete — he’s definitely a distant cousin of Nick Stefanos, Matt Scudder and Patrick Kenzie, though there’s some Tess Monaghan in there, too. I think I learned a lot about mood from people like Chandler and Thompson, with Ellroy really showing me how important a role setting can play in a story. Which isn’t to say my book does anything in the same galaxy as these authors, but they definitely inspired and motivated me to be better, which I’m eternally grateful for.

Q: Why do you think Miami has proven so attractive to crime fiction writers?

A: It’s tropical, sexy, beautiful but with a dark and dangerous underbelly. It’s the perfect contrast — a beachfront paradise that houses the most dangerous criminals and killers. It’s full of possibilities, and can cover a wide range of genres even in mystery fiction — from hardboiled detective novels like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books to the funnier Carl Hiaasen stuff to Vicki Hendricks’s underrated, disturbingly dark and amazing “Miami Purity.”

Q: Was there anything distinctive you were trying to bring to a Miami-set crime novel that you feel other writers may have missed?

A: I think so. I think that was a big reason I wanted to set the Pete books in Miami. I felt like so many authors had done NY stories already that it’d be silly of me to take a stab at that out of the gate. I also had just moved to New York, so I didn’t feel as comfortable writing about it. Miami was my home and I felt like I knew it pretty well. I also didn’t feel like my Miami had shown up much in fiction — the suburban sprawl, the nooks and crannies I remember exploring as a kid. Those were fertile ground for me.

Q: What do you think makes for a good crime thriller?

 A: I think it starts with a good character — and the feeling of risk and potential threat. I’m drawn to characters that evolve. One series I really love are the Moe Prager books by Reed Farrel Coleman. They focus on an ex-NY cop who becomes a private eye. But each book pushes him forward — some even jump five years into the future, so you always have a new set of circumstances that are still true to the character. Good crime books keep readers on their toes while shining a light on society’s own problems. I feel like crime fiction can be the most socially conscious — because crime and criminals really show the cracks in the system and where government and society have failed. So, I guess I like my hardboiled stories to have some kind of message, too.

Q: Do you have anything in the works?

A: I’m hoping to have news on my second Pete novel, “Down the Darkest Street,” soon. I’ve got a few short stories in the works and my most recent Archie issue, #659, hit this month with #660 following in October. Keeping busy!


As you’ve probably gathered from this blog, I read a lot. But I pick my reading material in kind of a haphazard way, so I can’t claim to be up on the latest trends or have comprehensive knowledge of any particular genre.

So maybe this isn’t as rare as I think. But here’s the deal. With his debut novel, Silent City, Alex Segura has written a crime thriller set in Miami populated by … get this … actual human beings.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of what Dave Barry has called the “bunch of nuts in South Florida genre” of crime fiction. Love Tim Dorsey. Carl Hiaasen is like a god to me. (Jeff Lindsay’s “Dexter” is a bit more problematic. And I stopped following the TV series, which I hear jumped the shark big-time after I wrote this post. *Sigh*)

Much of the fun of the aforementioned writers is their over-the-top style and zany characters. I also admire the way that Hiaasen manages to get in touches that humanize even the most eccentric of his characters, such as the hirsute thug “Tool” in “Skinny Dip.”

That being said, you can overwork even the most appealing story elements, as I wrote about here. I love it when I’m reading a detective story published in the 1940s, and a dame who looks like trouble walks into a private dick’s office. I cringe when the same thing happens in a book published in 2013. Sometimes there’s a fine line between paying homage to a classic convention, and kicking it to death in the alley out back.

Segura’s book has many of the elements of a vintage hard-boiled detective novel. A missing woman. A mysterious killer. A hard-drinking hero with one last shot at redemption, and a cast of characters as apt to drop false leads as they are to provide clues.

And Miami’s no safer than it is in the conventional crime thriller set there. It’s still the Wild West on crank, full of drug runners, killers-for-hire and corrupt cops. This is no cozy mystery.

But “Silent City” feels refreshing in large part because the characters ring true. They’re motivated by recognizable emotions, and behave in believable ways when thrust into desperate situations. The story is set around a newspaper. And as a former longtime newspaper reporter myself, I can verify that Segura nailed the different personality types who haunt newsrooms.

One of those is the hero of the book, sports editor Pete Fernandez.

Pete’s on a downward spiral. He’s still licking his wounds from a broken relationship, mourning the recent death of his homicide detective father, and barely managing to choke back his anger at the smarmy corporate types gathering at his newspaper like hyenas to feast on newspaper journalism’s corpse.

He’s drinking heavily, sabotaging what remains of his career and pissing off his few remaining friends.

Then a dodgy columnist from his paper approaches him with an unusual request. He wants Pete to look into the disappearance of his daughter — an investigative reporter who was working on a piece about a mysterious underworld assassin known only as “Silent Death.”

Dangerous complication arise, as they will in this type of story. Nobody’s giving Pete a lot of credit. But he learned a trick or two from his father, and may have more grit and resources at his disposal than either friend or enemy suspects.

In the best noir fashion, the ensuing mystery dredges up some ghosts from Pete’s past. And it has the requisite double-crosses, edgy characters and twists.

I guess really, that’s the challenge for any writer of genre fiction. Hitting the beats that make fans love the genre in the first place, without hitting them so predictably that they’re drained of all vitality. Segura manages that balance admirably.

And he ends the story with a promise of more to come. That’s good news for fans of quality crime fiction.