Violence in Writing, Marlo Thomas and Walter Mosley: Printers Row Lit Fest 2014

For the third year in a row, I availed myself of Chicago's enduring and popular Printers Row Lit Fest, a celebration of all things literary. The weather was a little cooler than it's been the last two years, but it didn't stop the crowds from coming out for panel discussions, book signings, cooking demonstrations and books, books and more books.

So, here's my little slice of what I did and saw at the 2014 event:

Violence: How to Write It -- and How Far is Too Far?: Presented by the Mystery Writer's Panel of America - Midwest Chapter

This panel, consisting of authors Jamie Freveletti, Michael Black, M.E. May and Michael Harvey and moderated by J. Michael Major, convened at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday ( I could only hope that at that hour, there wouldn't be a show and tell portion). It was an almost full house at Grace Place, the spectators anxious to hear these authors take on violence in literature and to a greater extent, mainstream media. A  few years ago, I attended a book signing where Jaime Freveletti was a guest alongside Wendy Corsi Staub (and a subsequent Printer's Row Lit Fest presentation in 2012 about female protagonists in thrillers - read about it here), so I was fairly familiar with her. Michael A. Black was part of a panel I attended last year about what you wish you knew before publishing - read about it here), so I was familiar with him as well.  Admittedly, I was not acquainted with the other authors on the panel.

The Takeaways: - Sometimes, characters need to die and it's a good sign when readers care that your characters bite the dust.

- Jaime Freveletti shared that there was a particularly violent chapter in one of her Emma Cauldron books that her editor objected to and that ultimately didn't make the final book. However, her German editor (who'd never seen the chapter in question), upon finding out about it, said the chapter could have stayed in for the German market. Freveletti wondered if there wasn't a touch a sexism associated with the objection to the scene.

- There's a secret fascination with the causal nature of violence -"people love to hear about this stuff." It's great to see it/read about it in fiction until it touches you personally.

- The psychology behind why people do what they do is fascinating, even when there isn't always a reason "why."

- People get a false idea of violence from movies, etc. "It hurts when you get hit."

- As a society, we're becoming desensitized to violence, as we're bombarded with another shooting, another rape, another stabbing. The immediacy of social media and lack of interaction was cited as a driving factor in our overall desensitization.

- The authors agreed that less is more when it comes to writing about violence. Violence can be used to reveal character and advance the plot.  The anticipation of violence is more effective than showing the actual act. The scene in "The Godfather" where Talia Shire's character is beat up by her husband was cited as an effective way of building tension.  M.E. May commented she tamps down the violence in order to let the reader's imagination  take over.  Gratuitous violence can be disturbing and it is more interesting to uncover the "how" and the "why" (which goes back to character development.).


- New writer mistake alert: The panel agreed that a "newbie" writer mistake is to have the bad guys discuss what they're going to do to the person before they do it. Bad guys just do it.

- Internet research isn't always reliable, so it's important to reach out to experts and research both sides of an issue so that you can keep things factual, without bogging down the story. "You have to try and get it right."
- Authors the panelists enjoy reading:
  • Lee Child    
  • Thomas Harris (Michael Harvey said if you want a master class, read "Red Dragon" and "Silence of the Lambs."  Duly noted.)     
  • Martin Cruz Smith   
  • John D. McDonald           
  • Robert B. Parker  
  • Joe R. Lansdale

Very interesting panel and certainly gave me some things to ponder in my own writing.

Marlo Thomas aka, "That Girl"
I've seen reruns of "That Girl," the groundbreaking sitcom featuring Thomas as the first single girl on TV. I did the St. Jude's Math-a-Thon. I probably even saw "Free to be You and Me," back in the day.  I've seen her on random "Law and Order: SVU" episodes.  Lately, I'm into her cuddly narration of "Happily Never After" on Discovery ID. 

There was a nary a perky Ann Marie flip to be found in the Pritzker Auditorium in the Chicago Public Library. It was a packed house as Thomas took to the stage to talk about "second acts." She was funny, entertaining and inspiring and as an Indie author doing my own thing, I found a lot to identify with.

The Takeaways:

- In today's marketplace, more and more women (men, too, though as Thomas pointed out, the reason she talks about women so often is because "they're my tribe") are becoming entrepreneurs in order to reinvent themselves.

- Ask yourself "what is it you do well?" and then do it. "The facts may be against you," but as actress Ruth Gordon said, "Never face the facts or you'd never get out of bed." True dat.

- It's okay to dream big, but work small. If you have a dream do something about it every day for at least six months. You can't be lazy about it or you won't get anywhere."  "Just keep going."

-Thomas uses her online presence for interaction, not to talk about what she ate for dinner the night before (good idea). She says it is imperative that as we get older, we "stay curious," so we can maintain that zest for life.

- Thomas invited audience members to stand up when asking their questions and made a point of getting their names.

- Her favorite "That Girl" episode is the first one because it was "exciting," and there was the knowledge "we were doing something groundbreaking."

Walter Mosley
I've not read any of Walter Mosley's books, though I do remember from my bookseller days in the mid-90's people going gaga over his Easy Rawlins series (for which he is perhaps best known).  The great thing about the Printer's Row Lit Fest is you can hear from authors that are either your faves or that you're either not familiar with, which makes it fun and informative.

Walter Mosley definitely fell into the "fun" category. He was there to promote his latest release, "Debbie Doesn't Do it Anymore," about a porn performer ("performer" not "star" being the preferred term, apparently) who decides mid-performance she's done with the porn world. Mosley indicated the media doesn't want to talk about this book, he thinks, because the perception is that it's about erotica (it isn't).

The Takeaways:

- He terms himself as an obsessive who has to write everyday (he also writes in the nude. Apparently he sleeps in the nude and when he wakes up every day, he just wants to get to writing and why waste time "putting on pants?" He does not however go to write at Starbucks. At least not in the nude.)

- Like Stephen King, Nora Roberts, et al., he doesn't believe in waiting for the writing muse, relaying a conversation he had with a fellow author who told him she just had a book come out last year and the notion of putting one out this year was appalling to her, for the ideas for her next book needed a few years to "cook."  He rebuffs the idea of writers thinking they're so "precious" as to wait years between publishing works.  

- Writing about sex came naturally, but like any action, you can't get emotional about it during the writing process.

- He was a computer programmer who had "no yearning to be a writer." He was in his thirties and had already decided he was a "failure," when he decided one day he wanted to be able to write a short story from beginning to end. So he did.

- As an only child, he loves everything he writes.

- Mosley subscribes to the theory that you must say what you mean when writing.

- The "color" titles for the Easy Rawlins series were an accident. "Devil in a Blue Dress" and "A Red Death," were the titles of earlier works and when he turned in the third book, (later named "White Butterfly") his editor wanted to know where the "color" title was. And thus, Mosley had branded his books without meaning to (and stressed the importance of doing so.). "Rose Gold," the latest entry in the Easy Rawlins series comes out this fall.

- He enjoys reading comic books and science fiction and says he'll never leave comic books behind.

- An audience member said she was ashamed to read "Killing Johnny Fry," and he asked her, "Well, why'd you keep reading it then?"

I probably haven't captured just how  droll Walter Mosley was, but needless to say, he was delightful and I'm inspired to dig into some of his works.  

And so, another year of Printers Row Lit Fest comes to a close. And yet another year I didn't remember my camera. I need to start wearing that thing around my neck.

Until next year!