Monday, April 16, 2012

Scene of the Crime with Author Cornelia Read!

Some characters are created with voices that synch perfectly with your own brain waves. Cornelia Read has created just such a character in Madeline Dare-- to the point where I think Maddie could spend an entire book leafing through the New York City phone book and making wisecracks and I'd follow along quite happily.

Cornelia Read
Tomorrow you'll have an opportunity to read my review of the third book in the Madeline Dare series, Invisible Boy, but before we head off to this absolute treat of an interview, let me share one goody and a few links with you.

The goody is that Cornelia's fourth book, Valley of Ashes, will be published in August, so mark that in your calendars, and of course I always give you a few links just in case you'd like to learn more about the author....

Now let's move on to this very special interview!

What was the very first book you remember reading and loving? What makes that book so special?

I remember the moment I actually learned to read. I was in Mrs. Luydig’s first-grade class at Carmel River School in California, and she was pointing at a line in this workbook about Sam and Ann and their poodle Nip, getting me to sound out the letters, and all of a sudden it just gelled and made sense as words, right before my eyes.

I was absolutely insatiable from that moment on. I finished all twenty one of those workbooks in short order. The great part was that the last two were all about Roman mythology. (Wow... just Googled “sam ann california reader” and found out that those books were called “Sullivan Associates Readers”.  I love the internet....)

But I was soon reading so much that the actual first book doesn’t come clear to me.... I was reading The Secret Garden and The Thirteen Clocks and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and my little sister’s set of Childcraft Encyclopedias all at the same time, I think.

Man, I loved those encyclopedias. Still remember a lot of the illustrations—a little boy looking up at the rounded-corner computer screen on the wall over his desk that had a cowboy galloping across the mesa, and this other little boy in a “rocket belt,” flying to school....

I was a stone junkie for reading matter, and I had great teachers who fed my habit. Mrs. Green handed me The Great Blueness and got me hooked on Roald Dahl, Mrs. Miller turned me on to fantastic Scholastic books: Follow My Leader, about a blind boy and his German-Shepherd guide dog; Stranger from the Depths, about these kids who scuba dive and find the artificial-ruby casket of a reptilian denizen of an ancient undersea city, and bring him back to life; the Narnia books; Phantom Tollbooth; Harriet the Spy, of course, with whom I’m still obsessed.

Then my mother told me that my then-in-absentia father had liked Ian Fleming, so I became a complete Bond fanatic in fifth grade. I bought up all the paperbacks at garage sales around Carmel over the course of a year.

For a crime writer I was never much of a Nancy Drew person, really. I always wanted to kick around with the boy characters. Girls, or at least the lameass shit most of them were allowed to get up to fictionally in those days, bored the hell out of me.

Well, and that was also true in real life. I was always, like, “Really? I’m supposed to sit around in patent leather go-go boots and get all goopy-stupid about pictures of David Cassidy and Bobby Sherman in Tiger Beat? Can’t we go build a fort or make bows and arrows or graft our own fruit trees or pretend we’ve discovered a new planet or something?”

Outside of your writing and all associated commitments, what do you like to do in your free time?

James H. Hackett
Read. And talk with pals until all hours of the night. I wish I could do both at the same time, though.

Also, it appears I’m working on what might become a documentary about the cemetery that’s at the center of my third novel, Invisible Boy, with Peter Riegert—who has the film option on my first novel, A Field of Darkness--and my distant cousins Cate Ludlam and Andrew Farren and this really cool young camera guy named Daniel Cowan. So much fun, because I’m a huge history geek and we’re finding out all this cool stuff about the people buried there, especially James H. Hackett, who was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite actor.

We’re editing the first day’s footage for a Kickstarter campaign trailer. The cemetery is called Prospect, and it’s the oldest burial ground in Jamaica, Queens. Cate has a great website about the place.

Oh, and apparently I’m joining the DAR. Cousin Cate and I were recruited by this incredibly cool woman Wilhelmena Kelly, who’s a descendant of Pocahontas.

If I were to visit your hometown, where would you recommend that I go? (I like seeing and doing things that aren't in all the guide books.)

Centre Island, Oyster Bay
I kind of have three hometowns... First would be Centre Island in Oyster Bay, New York, where I would take you to see my mom’s family graveyard and then maybe for cocktails at the yacht club, if I could find a pal who’s actually a member who could sign the check for us in exchange for a little cash from me on the side.

Second is Oahu—lived there three times between ages four and eight, out on Portlock Road near Hawaii Kai and Koko Head. I finally got to go back for the first time in twenty-odd years, New Year’s before last.

My favorite places are the Savers thrift store and this hike I remember doing when I was four, up through guava and bamboo groves to a beautiful meadow in the dormant volcano cone of Mount Tantalus. Okay, that’s probably a really short hike since the time I did it I was four years old, but it was the first time I ever heard The Doors’ “Light My Fire” playing on these other hippies’ transistor radio, when we got to the top. 

(L to R) Lolly Fassett, Bill Fassett, Henry Miller
Third is Carmel, California. The best thing about Carmel is having an Ambrosiaburger on the terrace at Nepenthe, in Big Sur. Great restaurant founded by my very favorite guy my mother ever dated, Bill Fassett. Here’s a picture of Bill (center) with his wife Lolly and Henry Miller to the right. ►

Bill and Lolly built Nepenthe in 1947. The oldest of the buildings was Orson Welles’ and Rita Hayworth’s honeymoon cabin.

◄ Here’s another view of the terrace, from the cover of Bill’s granddaughter (and fave person of mine) Romney Steele’s fantastic book about the place, My Nepenthe.

You have total control over casting a movie based on your life. Which actor would you cast as you?

Ellen Page
Ellen Page. She’s got excellent comedic timing and she knows how to swear fast. Plus, she can totally rollerskate. I still cherish my rollerskating badge from Girl Scouts.

Since my books are about 80% autobiography and I wish she would actually play my alter-ego Madeline Dare, this is not a completely off-the-wall question.

(And, hey, the character she played in "Hard Candy" was kind of a cross between Lolita and Rhoda Penmark. Synchronicity....

But I’m not in charge of casting, I’m just the writer. And who the hell knows how particular people end up being in particular movies, most of the time?

If it ever does get made, I’ll be lucky if I’m not played by Britney Spears. Or Shelley Winters, for that matter, even though she is No Longer With Us. Because I wouldn’t be surprised if it got turned into a musical about zombies featuring actual zombies, you know? With tapdancing CGI zebras. Except that it would be too expensive.

Who is your favorite recurring character in crime fiction?

Movie still from "The Bad Seed"

Oh, wait, she doesn’t recur. I just keep re-reading it, hoping she’ll haul off and whack Humbert Humbert over the head with a shovel, dispatching him to “the choir eternal” alongside that dead Monty Python parrot.

Definitely crime fiction, though. Lolita, I mean, not Python.

(Ooo! Cool plot idea: we could cross Lolita with Rhoda Penmark, the sociopath kid from The Bad Seed.)

Name one book that you've read that you wish you had written. What is it about that book that made it come to mind?

Off the top of my head right this moment? The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. Because she totally nails the WASP thing (albeit the British version, though that is of course The Mother Ship), she’s excellently snarky, and it feels a lot like my childhood in odd ways.

My mother is definitely a Bolter, and most of her swains had a lot in common with Uncle Matthew (except for Bill Fassett.) And the kids in that book stick together—and up for each other—without any whining. We did that, too.

Too bad we didn’t have a nice warm linen closet to hang out in that was that big when I was little, though. That’s why I started building forts. You always need a place to get away from the grownups if you want to see things clearly and maintain your wit.

Also, I am still hoping someone will give me a pony. Though I’d settle for an old Porsche.

How did you celebrate when you first heard you were to be published? What did you do the first time you saw one of your books on a shelf in a bookstore? 

This should be a joyous answer, but unfortunately it’s a really sad angsty one...

The day I got the news that the first editor was interested in Field of Darkness was one of the most bittersweet I’ve ever had. My agent called from New York crowing, and in any other circumstances I would probably have suddenly discovered that I knew how to tapdance and sing Puccini, simultaneously, but five minutes earlier I’d been on the phone with the wife of my very dear friend Rick, who told me that he’d committed suicide the previous night. And I’d blown off a phone call from him the day before because I was late getting my daughters to a pediatrician’s appointment.

So when my agent said, “We got a yes!” the first thing I did was lie down on my kitchen floor in Berkeley—phone still to my ear—and start sobbing. My poor agent was really freaked out. It took a while before I could explain why I was crying.

I’ve dedicated my fourth novel, Valley of Ashes, to Rick and to my father, who committed suicide two years ago this May, while I was writing V of A. Madeline’s best new pal in the book is based on Rick.

Boy, I’m a real ray of sunshine, huh? I guess there’s a reason I write noir....

I don't know if you've seen it, but I love Parnell Hall's video about book signings. What is the most unusual experience you've had at a book signing or author event?

Flowers for Mrs. Boys
The very best thing about author events is having excellent friends show up at them. I got to do a signing at Murder by the Book in Houston with Lee Child, when Field of Darkness came out, and two wonderful guys I only knew online from a website we’d all written for called—Brett “AggieBrett” Nicholson and Dwight “Counsel” Moody drove, like, halfway across Texas to cheer me on. I love those guys...

And the summer before last I got to speak to the Monterrey chapter of the California Writers Club, and it turned out the person introducing me was my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Boys. She’d brought along a whole bunch of photographs she’d taken of me and my classmates back in 1972. That totally made me “cry for happy.”

What's the best thing about eBooks? What's the worst?

The best, very-most-wonderfullest thing about ebooks is that cool people like to read them. The worst thing is that uncool horrible asshole people like to pirate them.

This crap about how “information wants to be free” is a lie thieves tell themselves to assuage their own guilt when they steal stuff. Information doesn’t want to be free any more than information wants to order a bacon-cheeseburger deluxe platter at the lunch counter across the street from my apartment.

Writing is a seriously tenuous profession. This is my work. I don’t have a day job, or (post-divorce) health insurance, or a 401k. I’m trying to support myself and my offspring on writing income alone. I am incredibly lucky to have earned enough to keep a roof over my head and discount-outlet groceries in the refrigerator for the past several years, but it’s really, really hard and it could all go pear-shaped at any moment and every dollar counts.

People who pirate ebooks from writers should be put in public stocks outside libraries and stabbed in the eyeballs with very sharp pencils. Then hit over the head with a shovel. Repeatedly. People who pirate audiobooks should get pencils through the eardrums. Then kneecapped. With shovels.

But I’m not bitter.


On Sale Now!
Those thieves pirating eBooks and audio books? They'd probably be even more "not bitter" if they discovered someone stealing food from their own children's mouths. Which leads me to all sorts of other thoughts, so I won't get started!

Cornelia, thank you so very much for spending this time with us. My readers and I certainly appreciate the chance to get to know you a little better.

May your book sales do nothing but increase!

(Don't forget to come back tomorrow for my review of Invisible Boy. If you've read it, let us know what you thought by leaving a comment!)


  1. Oh, my, my, my - did I enjoy this interview! I love Cornelia Read's books and am so happy to know about the new one coming this summer. Believe me, I'll be watching for it. I've read all 3 in the series and I have a great fondness for Madeline - a smart aleck with a big, big heart. Sorta like her creator methinks. LOL

    I wrote a review of INVISIBLE BOY a couple of years ago on my blog. Look forward to reading what you have to say about it, Cathy.

    1. I'll take a look at your review after I've finished writing mine, Kay. As for Madeline, I have a particular fondness for smart alecks with big hearts!

  2. Nice interview!
    It's so funny - I saw this post, completely recognized the author photo and then had to wrack (is that even the proper spelling here for that?) my brain to figure out what book I had read by her. It was "The Crazy School" and I think I remember liking it. Will have to add this new one to my list.

    1. I think you have to set out to purposely dislike these books, if you know what I mean!

  3. I adore Cornelia`s writing and central character. Both are smart, self- aware, imperfect but always good~ hearted and intent on doing the right thing, like knee capping book thieves. Wicked funny to boot.


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