Monday, December 23, 2013

@ The Poisoned Pen with Martin Cruz Smith!

Little did we realize it at the time, but December 5 marked the last opportunity Denis and I had to attend an author signing at The Poisoned Pen together this year. From the looks of their schedule, the next time will be at the end of January.

Pre-signing chat centered around how some "patrons" are misusing the numbered slips given out as passes to allow you to take your place in the signing line. Evidently some folks aren't willing to buy one of the author's books at the bookstore in order to get in line. Denis and I just looked at each other and shook our heads. I try not to think about how, if everyone stopped spending all this time thinking up dishonest ways to get ahead and switched to thinking up good stuff instead, how much better this world would be. Enough of that. It was time to think about something pleasant, like Martin Cruz Smith!

"I thought I was done with Arkady..."

Host Barbara Peters with Martin Cruz Smith

Before the event officially began, Smith mentioned that he lives in Marin County, California, in an area where deer and wild turkeys have a tendency to strut down the middle of the street. With a daughter who's a buyer for Book Passage in San Rafael and a son who's also in the book business, the award-winning author feels as though he's started his own dynasty in the field that he loves so much.

"I love doing stuff for which there's no rational explanation," Cruz said. "I've been able to do what I want, write about what interests me-- like Rose which is set in Wigan, England in 1872. I've been able to look into my own background with Stallion Gate, in which the Indians won."

"You've stuck with Arkady for three or four books now," host Barbara Peters observed.

"He's such a nice guy that I hate doing that to him," Smith quipped. "I never know from one book to the next where I'm heading. I thought I was done with Arkady, but the piercing moans of my publisher were deafening."

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Smith's newest book, Tatiana, was inspired by Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist, writer, and human rights activist who was assassinated in 2006. "She's like a flame that won't go out," Smith said.

"The opening scene in the book is remarkable," Peters commented, which led Smith to talk a bit about Kaliningrad, a Cold War "secret city" hemmed in by Estonia and Lithuania. Stalin cleared the area of all Germans and created "the ugliest city anywhere-- even Siberia. Kaliningrad was stripped of its history, its population, and its language," Smith told us. It is now an unusable area prone to floods. There's a 22-story edifice in Kaliningrad called The Monster by the locals. Vladimir Putin had it painted blue.

"This scene is really rolling along!"

Martin Cruz Smith
Recently diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, Smith spent some time telling us how that has affected his writing.

Instead of writing, he dictates his book to his wife, who insists "No dead kids. No dead dogs... and when there's a sex scene, she'll leave the room!

His wife has been reading Martin Cruz Smith's work since college. There are times when he feels that the work is really progressing well. "This scene is really rolling along!" "It ought to," his wife replies. "You wrote the same scene two books ago."

Smith has learned that composing a book orally is very different from writing it all down. He now makes an effort to speak in complete phrases. "I like working off paper," Smith admits. "I hate looking at that screen!" Does this new way of writing always run smoothly? No. There have been various disagreements over word choice and the like. "I've never been light on ego," Smith said.

"I'm very aware of taking my wife's day and turning it into my work day," Smith goes on to say. During the times he paces back and forth, his wife works "her way through a huge stack of New Yorker magazines. Now we know why we kept them all those years."

"...just stay out of politics."

With a mystery series set in Russia, it's inevitable that talk would turn to that country, which has changed so much in recent years. Smith told us that there is still tolerance for Lenin in Russia because he's seen as having had ideals; whereas Stalin is still seen as the devil.  

When Vladimir Putin came to power as President of Russia, there was a great deal of concern amongst all the oligarchs (very rich businessmen with a great deal of political influence). Putin told them, "You can keep your money. Just stay out of politics." Only one oligarch didn't follow Putin's advice... and now he lives in Siberia. 

Putin has rebuilt the Church of Christ the Redeemer to please the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. Barbara Peters, who has traveled there commented, "They are also meticulously rebuilding palaces, and it doesn't feel like it's just for tourists."

Martin Cruz Smith
Smith originally went to Moscow to do research for a novel about an American detective teaching forensics to his Russian counterparts, but he soon realized how stupid that was. What would work, he decided, was a book written from the viewpoint of a Russian detective that shows readers the things he has to do without as he solves crimes.

When Smith first began writing his Arkady Renko novels, the Russian government tended to be rather touchy about his doing research there. In fact, Smith was listed in a government book as an "agent provocateur," and from the smile on his face we could all tell he relished the title. Times have definitely changed: Martin Cruz Smith is now published in Russia!

"I've come to highly regard Arkady Renko to the point where I believe he's a better man than I, and I think 'What would Arkady do?' When I do that, I usually think of a better answer," Smith told us. 

He was pleased to be at The Poisoned Pen. "I look out at you, and I even remember faces... the good places stand out," he remarked.

Martin Cruz Smith's next book will be a standalone, and the only clue he would give us about it is "Italy." Evidently the research he's conducted in restaurants is fantastic. When asked about the length of time between his books, Smith said, "I hate sending out an ill-equipped warrior."

His research trips to Russia last two weeks at the most. One person who followed him around on one trip asked, "When are you going to start working? You've been here a week and all you've done is go out eating and drinking with your friends!"  Smith smiled and replied, "That's it. I am doing research!"


  1. Cathy - Oh, you see? I didn't know Cruz Smith had a new release. Just goes to show you how unaware I can be. I must get my hands on Tatiana and on the standalone too! Thanks.

  2. I have read the entire Renko series (and a few other books by Smith, I particularly enjoyed "Six Seconds") and I have found the series very spotty. The first three books beginning with "Gorky Park" but I felt a number of the subsequent ones were lame, very hit or miss. But "Tatiana" is a winner, and it's story line is very reminiscent of a 1940's movie. Can you guess which one?

    Happy New Year ! Ken

    1. I haven't read it, so I wouldn't dare hazard a guess!

    2. Me and my quicker-than-brain fingers... Happy New Year to you, too, Ken!

  3. Sorry, meant to say "the first three books beginning with Gorky Park were excellent, but...."

    1. I hate it when my fingers zip ahead of my brain! :-)


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