Monday, November 10, 2014

C.B. McKenzie and T. Jefferson Parker at The Poisoned Pen!

As evening crept in on Tuesday, November 4, Denis and I hopped into the KIA and headed to our favorite bookstore, The Poisoned Pen. (I don't remember if I mentioned that Denis traded in his motorcycle, and we're back to having two four-wheeled vehicles again.) We would be seeing an established author, T. Jefferson Parker, and a brand new one, C.B. McKenzie, and since neither of us had read their books before, we were looking forward to the evening. 

Before the evening began, Ariel asked me if I intended to come to their 25th Birthday Bash on December 12, and I said yes. She smiled at me and said, "We just got word that Craig Johnson will be here to celebrate, too!" Live entertainment, food and drink, lots and lots of book giveaways, authors... I told Denis that he needed to see if he could get the time off from work so both of us can go! (You know... I do have a question about Craig Johnson, though. When in the world does the man find time to write???)

"Be timely in your application..."

L to R: T. Jefferson Parker, C.B. McKenzie, Barbara Peters

In her introductions, host Barbara Peters told us that she and Parker had been friends for at least twenty years... but she couldn't remember if McKenzie's book Bad Country had won the 2014 or the 2013 Tony Hillerman Prize. "It was the 2013," McKenzie said. "I should have won the 2012, but I turned in my application a week late and they wouldn't accept it. There was no winner that year, so I blew that one. There's a moral to this story: Be timely in your applications!"

Barbara went on to inform us that the award is given in honor of the late great Tony Hillerman in conjunction with St. Martins Press, which led her to ask Parker if he'd won their Private Eye Award, since his first three books were published by them. "I'm not aware of having not gotten it," Parker said with a twinkle in his eye. Parker wrote his first four books for St. Martins and has now come full circle back to that publisher with his twenty-first book, Full Measure, a non-mystery. He's been writing for thirty years.

T. Jefferson Parker
"It was so interesting to go back after so many years and meet the people who were going to be publishing my book. I found that I knew half of them. They were still working there after thirty years," Parker said.

"They have longevity at St. Martins," Peters said.

"One of the people I met at Macmillan has been there for thirty years," McKenzie commented.

"Yes, it's kind of like The Poisoned Pen," Peters replied. "We suck them in and then they never leave. Yes, they're very good that way with very long histories and no revolving doors. Ruth Gavin never retired as an editor at St. Martins. She was ninety something when she died. They were sending a limousine for her every morning to take her to work.

Available Now!
"You just received a fabulous review in the Washington Post which talked about what a good job the book did in depicting soldiers reentering society after spending time in the war theater," Peters said. "I always think of Jeff as a spokesperson, not just for California, but for various aspects of life there that we may not think about. In Full Measure, it's the avocado ranching."

"Yes, I had to put that in there," Jeff replied. "Fourteen years ago I moved from Orange County, California, to North San Diego County-- a little place called Fallbrook which most of you have probably never heard of. Fallbrook is very proud of being the Avocado Capital of the World, but something else that figures into the book is that Fallbrook abuts Camp Pendleton. Fallbrook is a Marine/Navy town. 

"The book is about a young Marine who comes back from Afghanistan to pick up the pieces of his life. He was a part of a storied unit called the Three Five, the Third Battalion of the Fifth Regiment of the First Marines out of Camp Pendleton, which was formed in 1917 in Belleau Wood. The Three Five was sent to the most dangerous area of Afghanistan to root out the Taliban. Six months later, they had done their job and were called back home-- but they had taken the heaviest casualties of the war."

"And ironically when he gets home, he finds that drought has decimated his avocado ranch," Peters added. "He's under a lot of family pressure to save the ranch, but what's even more ironic is that his brother who stayed home is under even more pressure, and that's the underlying dynamic in the book. Full Measure isn't a mystery, but I don't want to say any more and spoil the story for you."

"I think it is a mystery," McKenzie said. "There's that twist at the end"-- to which the others agreed. "I wanted to send my character--Patrick-- out of the frying pan and right into the fire. I think any writer worth his salt wants to do that with his characters," Parker said.

Talk then meandered through the California town that's the Artichoke Capital of the World, and yet another California town that's the Garlic Capital of the World. Barbara wondered what could be said for Arizona. Then she remembered: "Well, Ajo is the Freshwater Shrimp Capital of the World! Who knew that Arizona would be known for shrimp?"  "Arizona does have Pima cotton," McKenzie said. "Best cotton in the world."

"What's your background, Mr. McKenzie?"

C.B. McKenzie
C.B. McKenzie is a native Texan who was a model from his late twenties to his late thirties, when he was diagnosed with Bell's Palsy-- a type of facial paralysis-- that ended his modeling career. "I then got into writing in the mid-1990s. I earned my Ph.D, and my wife and I got into academia. I teach rhetoric," C.B. said.

When asked by Barbara, he rattled off an involved definition of rhetoric. Barbara asked him if he could say that twice. C.B. laughed and said, "I can do it in my sleep, and so can my students for the past fifteen years. I am an old-school teacher, and my students all have to memorize something. One of the things they have to memorize is a definition of rhetoric-- which is the study of how things are persuasive in the world. Rhetoric is one of the oldest parts of the educational canon of Western civilization." 

Jeff's inquiring mind wanted to know "Does all that aforementioned rhetoric go out of your head when you sit down to write a novel, or is it in the back of your mind pestering you the whole time... or is it something you don't deal with consciously as you're writing?"

"Bad Country started out as a serial killer thriller," McKenzie said, "based on a non-technical reference book put out by the University of Arizona Press called Paths of Life. So if you do buy this book and want a companion read, Paths of Life is actually a very interesting one.  

"The first part of the book is obviously sort of serial killer, but then it morphed into something that had more rhetorical implications in that there's the drive-by killing of a young man on the reservation, and no one seems to care. I didn't think about that as a plot device, but people who are reading it are saying that there is a rhetorical implication there. So... no, I didn't think about it. That's the short answer," McKenzie said, smiling at Parker. C.B. then became an interviewer himself, asking some very insightful questions of Jeff.

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"I think of my main job as being that of a storyteller," said Parker. "I'm an entertainer. But I've had people who've read my books say 'Oh, that's clearly a book about redemption' when I never used that word once in the book nor did it come to my mind while I was writing it. I've always thought of my primary focus as being the story, of being entertaining."

"I think part of that has to do with tone," McKenzie commented. "Full Measure has a kind of tone which will make you read it seriously; whereas, if you're reading Bad Monkey-- or a book like that-- the tone is just different, and you're looking for banter. It's kind of like apples and oranges, if that makes sense."

"Yes, it makes sense," Barbara replied, "but I don't think Full Measure is very out of line from your other books, Jeff. It's very comparable to California Girl, which is a more formal mystery. You've always gravitated toward a long story."

"I've always aspired to gravitas," Parker quipped. "I've never been a good wisecracker, and I know that, so I always try to bring a sense of gravity or import to the story I'm writing."

"But you've always enjoyed exploring character," Peters said to Parker. "Silent Joe-- which is like one of my 'lifetime books'-- that was a real challenge for you in how to write about that young man without being either sentimental or superficial."

"One of the beauties of first person narrative is that you can surrender yourself all the way to that psyche," Jeff said. "The story is about a young man whose face is severely disfigured for life by his father, and I pick up his life as an adult low-level sheriff's deputy working for his powerful stepfather. The trick to that book was trying to think like Silent Joe would think. I'm not like him. I'm not scarred, and I'm not young. But sometimes when you get the right character, you can pry into that character, and he comes to life on the page. It sounds like a cliche, but after one hundred pages, Joe was running the show."

The Book Virgin

"Tell us about your character in Bad Country," Barbara prompted McKenzie.

"Rodeo Grace Barnett is a former professional rodeo cowboy. More importantly he was a bronc rider and not a bull rider because bronc riding is something real cowboys could conceivably do on a ranch," McKenzie said. "He achieved some level of athletic stardom and then fell. He's poor. He's got an old dog. He's got an old truck. He lives out in the middle of nowhere. He's forty-two. I think. I'm well into my own middle age now, and it's very seldom that you get to have a first-time experience doing something. So for me at this age to be able to come here and have this day as my first day-- my release day-- it's big."

Barbara Peters
"You are a book virgin," Barbara said.

"I am a book virgin," McKenzie admitted.

"This is very exciting!" Peters exclaimed-- spoken like a woman who's passionate about working with talented writers.

"Rodeo is kind of closed down because his options have become severely limited," McKenzie disclosed. "He's not a hero. He's not a noir Superman. He doesn't jump out of ditches or wrestle rattlesnakes. He uses his brain to solve mysteries. I really think of this book as No Country for Old Men with an Agatha Christie plot."

"That's a great line!" Barbara said with a laugh.

"There's no exposition in this book," McKenzie went on to say. "People don't recognize that, but if you read it, there are no 'he thoughts,' there's no reflection, there's no navel gazing. People don't realize that, just as they don't realize that there are no quotation marks, no chapters. Rodeo is moving from scene to scene, and I'm following him through this process. What I've tried to do in this book is to develop character and plot through action.

"I'm not pushing for this to be a series. I have five books planned in my head, but what happens is up to y'all," C.B. said, looking out at us. "And I'll include a spoiler alert right here and now. There's not that many of us here.... If this does turn out to be a series, by the end, Rodeo will probably be dead.

Talk between the three then moved on to quintets (McKenzie's five proposed books), the trilogy of Stieg Larsson, and the limited series of a few other writers before C.B. said, "I'm tired of Rodeo. I'm going to Iceland for my next book." Jeff smiled and replied, "When a writer becomes tired of a character, it's time to move on." (Something that many series readers don't like to hear.) "It's not even that you get tired of them," Parker went on to say. "It's just that you're done with them. After the third Merci Rayborn book that I wrote, she was finally in a good place, and I thought that the best thing I could do for that poor woman was just to leave her alone!"

Winding Down... darn it!

After mentioning that Graham Greene was his role model as a writer, McKenzie said, "When you're selling a brand more than you're selling an individual book, you run the risk of writing books that are only going to satisfy on a certain level. That's why I'm saying that it's brave to stop writing something that's profitable, and I think most writers don't have the guts to do that. But it's that apples and oranges thing again. If you want to write a series and make a living, that's the way to do it. You have to give people what they want. It's not not art, it's just a different kind of rhetoric."

C.B. McKenzie and Barbara Peters

Both of these authors were fascinating, and although Jeff Parker never hesitated to speak his mind, this established author seemed quite happy to let the spotlight shine on "the newbie." That's one thing that I've seen over and over at The Poisoned Pen when more than one author appears on the same evening-- their incredible generosity with each other and with their fans.

C.B. went on to tell us that, since he'd missed that deadline for submitting Bad Country for the Tony Hillerman Prize, he spent an entire year going through all 400 pages and trimmed 100 of them from the final edition-- a book that everyone who'd read it before had said was fine. He then read his favorite paragraph to us, which was basically a list of ticket stubs, and as he read I was very strongly reminded of a writer who can put chills down my spine: Ken Bruen. I am really looking forward to reading Bad Country!  

Parker was asked what he was working on now. He laughed and said, "I can't tell you. I'm working on something, and it's really good, but if I talk about what I'm working on it's always a complete frickin' jinx!"

Barbara went back to talk about Bell's Palsy, and McKenzie told us that when he was first stricken his agent took one look at him and told him, "Well, that's the end of that." When Barbara mentioned the agent's lack of compassion, C.B. laughed and said, "You may think the book industry is tough, but it's really nice compared to the fashion industry!"

Peters commented that his experience had to be life-changing, and McKenzie replied, "There are game changers and there are life changers, and to me life changers are the really important things. How you look is not important. I write because when I do, it's like I'm 7 feet tall playing basketball."

With that, the book signing line began to form. I have to say that, without a doubt, this was one of the most fascinating events I've attended at my favorite bookstore. Not just being able to see and hear these two authors in action, but being able to hear how their books come to life, how editors and authors can work together to create magic.... I was enthralled. In case you're wondering, this is not a verbatim account of the evening. I left some goodies out, and I really do encourage you to watch and listen to the entire event on Livestream. Now all I have to do is finish reading a stack of advance reading copies so I can get to Bad Country!


  1. Cathy - What a fabulous evening! You are so fortunate to be able to go to the PP as you do and have these rich experiences.

  2. IAfter reading your article on the latest PP event, I bought "Bad County". I am always looking for a good put set in the southwest, and of course having a cowboy protaonist is just one more bonus. I was convinced when I saw the author had won the Hillerman prize (even though I had never heard of the prize) but went to Amazon to check out reader reviews. Suspicious. Nine reviews, all are 5 stars. Hmmmm. Checked out each reviewer. Most were first time reviewers. Very suspicious. Makes one think that perhaps some friends are doing someone a favor. Will let you know my own rating after reading it...... Ken from McLean, VA. (headquarters town of the CIA - we're all suspicious here)

    1. I hope you cut the poor man some slack. He's a new kid on the block. How's he supposed to get started in this social media circus without some friends helping him out? It does sound suspicious, but it is altogether possible that nine people absolutely loved his book.

      It may seem odd, coming from someone who reviews books, but I don't pay a lot of attention to Amazon reviews. I have reasons that I won't go into here, but it's also a personality type of thing. Maybe it's because I grew up in the wealth of a library, but I've always chosen what I want to read with little to no input from others. I can be a rebel when I choose to be. *wink*


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