Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ellen Hart

Ellen Hart, “a top novelist in the cultishly popular gay mystery genre” (Entertainment Weekly), is also a Lambda and Minnesota Book Award winner.

Her latest novel is The Lost Women of Lost Lake, the 19th mystery featuring Jane Lawless.

Not so long ago I asked Hart what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m hoping my editor doesn’t see this. I’m working on a deadline and should be writing, but reading compels me like nothing else. Besides, I’m a great believer that writers need to read. The “life of the mind,” and all that. In fact, if I had to make a choice between giving up writing or giving up reading, it would be a struggle, but reading would win.

I’m currently teaching a creative writing class--An Introduction to Writing the Modern Mystery. I’ve assigned Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War, because it is was his first book, (I want my students to see where the bar it set for first novels) and thus I find myself rereading it. What engaged me most in this novel is the fine use of language and the artful way the writer layers in the complicated lives of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennero, the two main characters. This is a story set on the mean streets of Boston, a rough, dark, powerful book.

I’ve often asked my writing friends if they’ve ever read a book on writing that actually helped them with their craft. Over and over I received the same answer: Stephen King’s On Writing. I assign this book to my students because, of the hundreds of books out there on the subject, I think it is, handsdown, the best. I started looking at it again the other night, and an hour later, realized that I couldn’t put it down. The first half is more biography than anything didactic, and yet it goes a long way toward giving a young writer an idea of what the real writing life is like. (As you might expect, it’s not sitting by the pool talking to your agent.) In many ways, this section is every bit as instructive as the second half, which discusses practical issues involved in structuring a story. You won’t waste your time reading this volume.

I’m currently into my second book by Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang. Both volumes have been utterly fascinating--Bad Samaritans, and 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism. Chang is gaining traction, becoming a major voice in new economic theory, mostly revolving around the notion that there is no such thing as a “free market.” He posits that neo-liberals, Milton Friedman and The Chicago Boys, have sent the world down the wrong path, a reason why economic growth has stalled for the lower and middle classes since the late 70’s. Chang is funny, whip smart, writes so that average people, like me, can understand him, and he loves mysteries--especially Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes. What’s not to love?

Having just finished Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, a massive work that supplements standard American history textbooks, I can report that Zinn looks at history from the bottom up (ordinary people) and not from the top down (political leaders, leaders of industry). While readers may argue with some of his conclusions, I wish I’d had this book when I was in high school. History might not have seemed so deadly dull.

And finally, I’m about halfway into a biography of Woody Allen: The Unruly Life of Woody Allen by Marion Meade. Biographies can provide a writer with direct insight into the complex issue of human motivation. So far, I’d say this portrait, gained by talking to both friends and enemies (but not Allen himself) presents the picture of a tormented, sometimes ugly, often obsessive, occasionally brilliant man. Allen has always fascinated me and this biography is opening him up...at least, a little.

Now, I need to get back to my writing!
Visit Ellen Hart's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Lost Women of Lost Lake.

--Marshal Zeringue