Monday, July 31, 2017

The Witness Stand: Memories

After graduating from college in 1991 I worked as a newspaper reporter in Southern California. Often the newspaper's sole reporter, I covered a variety of beats. Looking back on the work, though, the stories I remember the best are the ones I covered as a police reporter. On that beat you see the best and worst of people - well, more often the latter - and are left with memories, some good and some bad.
He was lying. It was obvious to everyone in the courtroom.
His mom, Kathy James of Aguanga, was smiling at him and he would look at her but couldn't look the prosecutor or anyone else in the eyes, even when they would bend down to be at the level of this child, who was seven. Or eight. Or nine.
He wasn't really sure what grade he would be in, or his age, because he couldn't remember. It'd been a while, though, he said.
The question to him was simple: Where was his mom when the fire began?
The circumstances were less simple. His mom was accused of accidentally setting the fire as she cooked meth in her trailer. His two siblings, his younger brother and sister, died in the fire.
He looked like he wanted to cry but he also wanted so much to be tough and strong. He was, after all, now the man of the family.
The prosecutor, Michael Soccio, had worried this might happen so he had a tape of this boy telling the truth, telling him that his mom was sitting by the oven when a "ball of fire" flew out of it. The court called a recess and Soccio took the boy to Burger King and explained to him that he didn't want to show him to be a liar.
In tears, the boy later told at least snippets of the truth, enough that the jurors knew that he was lying to protect mommy. She looked pissed. If looks could kill... well, scratch that cliche. There'd been enough killing.
There was easily enough evidence to convict her. The courtroom was packed at times because this was the first time a district attorney in California was trying to charge someone with murder for a meth lab gone bad.
As a last ditch effort, her attorney agreed to put her on the stand.
She didn't do it, a defiant James told the court in what became one of the more remarkable things I ever saw on a witness stand.
"I didn't do it," she said.
"You mean you didn't cook drugs?"
"Well, yes, I did that."
"And you cooked drugs around your kids?"
"Oh, sure."
"But you didn't cook the drugs that resulted in a fire killing your kids?"
"And why not?"
"'Cause I'm too good," she said. Her "recipe" was failure-proof, she said.
She then went into a very detailed step-by-step description of exactly how she cooked meth. Jurors, reporters, everyone took detailed notes. Enough notes that I wondered if the notes would be collected and destroyed by the guards. It turned out later that the FBI was taping the trial and used her testimony for classes on the manufacture of meth.
She was one smooth, cocky, feisty meth-making woman.
What she was not was a sympathetic figure. And she forgot to mention that she had any sadness about the loss of her children. Juries notice those little details.
She was convicted and sentenced and her son is now with an aunt.
The whole matter was later voted story of the year by the readers of our newspaper but I just didn't feel like celebrating that news.

Why The Conservative Songs Were Bad Choices

(from 2007)
I know it is silly to label songs or artists as "liberal" or "conservative" but since John Miller of the National Review Online started this debate I'll take the bait.
A variety of other people have also responded to the list from Pete Townshend of the Who – who had the #1 song but was not crazy about the selection – to the Proclaimers, who were amused by having one of their songs picked.
At first I thought this was a joke. Maybe it's a desperate attempt for one or more conservatives to appear hip and cool. Seriously, how can anyone in their right mind consider ANY songs by the Sex Pistols, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger or The Clash as conservative?
But when I saw the story about the list in the New York Times I knew this piece by Miller, National Review Online's national political reporter, was serious. John Miller responded to the reaction by adding a few thoughts and then listing 50 more conservative songs.
Miller laughingly complained about rock critic Dave Marsh calling the list "a desperate effort by the right to co-opt popular culture." Miller responds: "In other words: The 62 million Americans who voted for President Bush's re-election don't actually participate in the creation and consumption of pop culture, but we steal it and twist it in dastardly ways."
To which I say, "What? I don't remember there being anything on the ballot about the Who, the Sex Pistols or music at all? What does George Bush have to do with rock music?"
The whole polarizing piece by Miller reminds me of the time President Reagan referenced Bruce Springsteen during one of his speeches. He seemed to have no idea about the true meaning of the songs on Born In the USA, which was not exactly an endorsement of the conservatives' position on Vietnam.
My thoughts on some of the selections:
1. "Won't Get Fooled Again," by The Who
The only way this song is conservative is that conservatives repeatedly voted for Bush (senior and junior) and then were dismayed by his decisions. Yes, they got fooled again. Incidentally Pete Townsend says that this song is neither a conservative song nor a liberal song. And he should know since he helped write it.
2. "Taxman," by The Beatles
Miller uses this song as an attempt to get on a soapbox and suggest only conservatives oppose taxes. That's simply not true. That's like suggesting only conservatives oppose crime and support law enforcement.
3. "Sympathy for the Devil," by The Rolling Stones
Well, I agree with this one. How else can you explain Dick Cheney and Karl Rove still being part of the White House administration?
4. "Sweet Home Alabama," by Lynyrd Skynyrd
Sure, if the conservatives want to claim this song, a favorite tune of those who are sad the south lost the Civil War, then they can go right ahead and have it.
5. "Wouldn't It Be Nice," by The Beach Boys
Miller says this song is about marriage and being pro-abstinence. This song reminds me of John Lennon's "Imagine" in that both are what-if scenarios. But I don't suppose the National Review wants to be associated with any song with the word peace in it.
6. "Gloria," by U2
Saying U2 intentionally wrote a conservative song is about as silly as suggesting the same about the Sex Pistols ("Bodies," #8), Metallica ("Don't Tread on Me," #9) or Bob Dylan ("Neighborhood Bully," #12.) The Dylan song is chosen, Miller said, because it is pro-Israel. Again, why is that a solely conservative stance? Are there no liberals who support Israel?
7. "Revolution," by The Beatles
Miller writes:
"You say you want a revolution / Well you know / We all want to change the world . . . Don't you know you can count me out?" What's more, Communism isn't even cool: "If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow. (Someone tell the Che Guevara crowd.)
The Beatles would be saying, "Count me out" on the Iraq war. (Someone should tell the pro Iraq war crowd.)
13. "My City Was Gone," by The Pretenders
Miller writes:
Virtually every conservative knows the bass line, which supplies the theme music for Limbaugh's radio show. But the lyrics also display a Jane Jacobs sensibility against central planning and a conservative's dissatisfaction with rapid change: "I went back to Ohio / But my pretty countryside / Had been paved down the middle / By a government that had no pride."
But wait a minute – that sounds like a cry for controlled growth, which is more often a liberal position than a conservative one. Miller can't have it both ways.
14. "Right Here, Right Now," by Jesus Jones
Miller writes:
The words are vague, but they're also about the fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War: "I was alive and I waited for this. . . . Watching the world wake up from history."
Since when are conservatives the only ones who want peace, who want walls to come down between countries?
18. "Cult of Personality," by Living Colour
Miller writes: "A hard-rocking critique of state power, whacking Mussolini, Stalin, and even JFK: "I exploit you, still you love me / I tell you one and one makes three / I'm the cult of personality." You think Reagan, along with other gods of the Republican party, did not also have a cult of personality??
23. "Brick," by Ben Folds Five
Miller writes:
Written from the perspective of a man who takes his young girlfriend to an abortion clinic, this song describes the emotional scars of "reproductive freedom": "Now she's feeling more alone / Than she ever has before. . . . As weeks went by / It showed that she was not fine."
Because this song deals with abortion, somehow that makes it anti-abortion? That's quite a stretch. The songwriter himself has said the song is not taking a position on the abortion issue.
33. "You Can't Always Get What You Want," by The Rolling Stones
Miller writes: "You can "[go] down to the demonstration" and vent your frustration, but you must understand that there's no such thing as a perfect society — there are merely decent and free ones." Well, this choice makes sense: Republicans say they want smaller government but then Bush took the United States to war and into deficit. Sing with me, "You can't always get what you want…"
38. "I Can't Drive 55," by Sammy Hagar
Miller writes: "A rocker's objection to the nanny state." This is too funny. I don't even need to show how stupid this choice is. Or do I? This would imply that the conservatives are in favor of speeding and driving recklessly.
43. "Wonderful," by Everclear
Miller writes:
A child's take on divorce: "I don't wanna hear you say / That I will understand someday / No, no, no, no / I don't wanna hear you say / You both have grown in a different way / No, no, no, no / I don't wanna meet your friends / And I don't wanna start over again / I just want my life to be the same / Just like it used to be."
Again, this suggests that liberals are, what, soft on divorce? Liberals are pro-dysfunctional family? Am I also to believe there are no conservative dysfunctional families that are not divorced?
My responses to some of his other 50 songs:
"Alive," by P.O.D.
Miller writes: "An expression of Christian faith by a super-hip band." I guess only conservatives are Christians. That's news to non-conservative Christians.
"Back in the U.S.A.," by Chuck Berry
Miller writes: "A patriotic rock song: "Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway? / From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay / You can bet your life I did, till I got back to the U.S.A." This is getting tiresome. On every issue Miller seems to have decided that conservatives are morally superior and therefore a song about missing the United States, i.e. patriotism, must be conservative.
"Date Rape," by Sublime
He writes:
Many liberals probably think this song blames the victim; conservatives will see it offering a bit of common sense: "The moral of the date rape story / It does not pay to be drunk and horny."
Really? I don't know anyone who thinks the song blames the victim. I think Miller is playing the rape card and trying again to suggest that liberals are soft on crime.
"Turn! Turn! Turn!" by The Byrds
He writes:
Originally written by Pete Seeger and sometimes interpreted as anti-war, the words are taken from Ecclesiastes and announce that to everything there is a season, including "A time to cast away stones / A time to gather stones together" and "A time of war, a time of peace / A time of love, a time of hate / A time you may embrace / A time to refrain from embracing.
You have got to be kidding! So a song written and performed by anti-war activist Pete Seeger, and often played in anti-war rallies, is actually conservative because that's how this writer interprets it?
I could go on but I won't because this is crazy. I usually avoid lists but this one was so stupid, so polarizing, that I just had to point out how incredibly dumb and bad some of the choices are.
Lastly here are my three nominations for conservative songs:
1. "Opportunities (Let's Make a Lot of Money)" by Pet Shop Boys
A great summary of capitalism and fun to dance to.
2. "It's Hip to Be Square" by Huey Lewis
Some conservatives should embrace their inner squares instead of fighting it by writing lists like this.
3. "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" by Toby Keith
Oh, justice will be served and the battle will rage:
This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage.
An' you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.
'Cos we'll put a boot in your @!$%#, it's the American way.
An excellent summary about why residents of other countries despise the United States' arrogance.

Interview with Tim DeLaughter of The Polyphonic Spree

When I saw that The Polyphonic Spree had a new EP coming out I jumped on it.
The band has one of the more original, innovative sounds and styles around.
Who would guess that Tim DeLaughter, former lead singer for Tripping Daisy, would go on to head this ensemble project?
The EP is fittingly titled Wait, since that is what fans are doing as they anticipate the new album, The Fitting Army, to come out. I didn't know what to make of the EP - which includes covers of "Love My Way" by the Psychedelic Furs and "Lithium" by Nirvana - so I put that and other questions to DeLaughter in an interview conducted by email.
Scott: First, what have you guys been up to? I loved the debut EP and CD but haven't heard much from you in the last two years. What's been going on?
Tim: Man, what a question. What hasn't been going on the last two years? We'll just say preparing an album, on a much needed break and having babies.
Scott: Rather than me try to put a label on your new direction, how would you describe how the new EP - and forthcoming album - sound different from the old stuff?
Tim: I'd say it's a little more urgent. More electric. And still in the spirit of The Spree. We are excited to have utilized the instruments in a different light.
Scott: I'm not sure what to make of the covers of Psychedelic Furs and Nirvana on your EP. Why did you decide those particular songs?
Tim: It's one of those things that we didn't overthink. It was spontaneous and we had a chance to work with Jon Brion. He came to Dallas for an evening and we just cranked out different ideas and songs 'til we stumbled upon these two. The idea was to do a cover or two but not sure what. Yes, ballsy to have covered Nirvana. But Jon made sure it was our own while paying tribute to one of the best songs ever written.
Scott: Is the EP representative of how the album itself will sound? I ask because sometimes bands use EP's to put out some material that is atypical of the rest of their work.
Tim: No. I don't think so. The only common thread really is the fact there is a little more "rock" factor, but I believe our new album covers much more ground. And has its own character and sound.
Scott: I read your new album is going to be anti-war. Is that correct?
Tim: Hmmmm. The new album asks questions as we humans constantly do... then has bursts of emotion exploring politics, love and relationships... and how we are affected.
Scott: What's the best part about being part of such a large band? What's the worst part?
Tim: The best is obviously the opportunity to play with so many great players... as well as the adventure instrumentally. I love the immediate gratification I get with this group.
The worst?
Having approximately 30 people on the road and in the studio trying to survive in order to present a real show/recording with all instruments intact whilst hearing about three- and four-piece bands "hiring" out a sound for studio recordings, then being hailed as a "rock opera" in the commercial world while traveling in two or three buses with little, or true presentation of the title they've earned.

Best Disturbing Songs

(from 2007)

This subjective list, focusing more on lyrics than on music, is in no particular order.
1. "Hurt" - Nine Inch Nails
Covered by Johnny Cash, I get a shiver each time I hear this song so full of despair and pain with classic lines like "everyone I know goes away in the end."
The song has taken on added meaning as the last hit of Johnny Cash before he died, with a harrowing video made not long before Cash's wife, June, died. The video went on to win a Grammy.
Best verse:
"I hurt myself today To see if I still feel I focus on the pain The only thing that's real The needle tears a hold The old familiar sting Try to kill it all away But I remember everything "
2. "World Destruction" by Time Zone
This song is much less well known but I used to request this to dance to while in high school. It's sung by Afrika Bambaataa and John Lydon of Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited fame.
It's got a good beat, you can dance to it and the lyrics name-drop Nostradamus, talk about third-world governments, brainwashing and other issues.
My favorite line: "Fascist, chauvinistic government fools."
My favorite moment, when Bambaataa asks: "Who wants to be a president or king?" and Lydon shouts, "Me!"
This from the same guy who sang "God save the queen, the fascist regime" while leading the Sex Pistols.
3. "Family Snapshot" by Peter Gabriel
This song captivates and engages me every time I hear it and I've listened to it hundreds of times.
This is a song, metaphorically, about a boy killing his father
"The streets are lined with camera crews Everywhere he goes is news Today is different Today is not the same Today I make the action Take snapshot into the light, snapshot into the light I'm shooting into the light
The music speeds up as the moment of violence comes closer... "
"They're coming 'round the corner with the bikers at the front I'm wiping the sweat from my eyes -It's a matter of time -It's a matter of will And the governor's car is not far behind He's not the one I've got in mind
And then the music slows down again at the key moment:"
"Holding my breath Release the catch And I let the bullet fly "
The listener can imagine the visual slow motion as he shifts from his actions to possible causes of his distress:
"All turned quiet-I have been here before Lonely boy hiding behind the front door Friends have all gone home There's my toy gun on the floor Come back Mum and Dad You're growing apart You know that I'm growing up sad I need some attention I shoot into the light "
4. "I Don't Like Mondays" by the Boomtown Rats
Speaking of possible causes of action, this song's title comes from a famous exchange. Asked why she went on a 1979 shooting spree at a San Diego elementary school 16-year-old killer Brenda Ann Spencer famously said, "I Don't Like Mondays. This livens up the day."
"Tell me why? I don't like Mondays. Tell me why? I don't like Mondays. Tell me why? I don't like Mondays. I want to shoot The whole day down.
All the playing's stopped in the playground now
She wants to play with her toys a while.
And school's out early and soon we'll be learning
And the lesson today is how to die.
And then the bullhorn crackles,
And the captain crackles,
With the problems and the how's and why's.
And he can see no reasons
'Cause there are no reasons
What reason do you need to die?"
I remember the song's catchy chorus was stuck in my head on a day when I had a college English assignment to write about three songs that were on my mind. I wrote about this song. The teacher never treated me quite the same after that, perhaps thinking me psycho by association.
I did not realize, until reading the Wikipedia link, that Spencer has been in prison since 1979 in Corona, Cal. I spent the first 25 years of my life living and working in that region, including for a newspaper in Corona.
5. "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd
As with Hurt, this song packs so much emotion into such a short period of time that one can't easily listen to it without being affected. I know I never am.
The song, from the Wall, includes these lyrics:
"When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse, Out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look but it was gone. I cannot put my finger on it now. The child is grown, the dream is gone. I have become comfortably numb."
Runner-Ups: "Folsom Prison Blues" - Johnny Cash (mostly for the classic line of "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die)
"Intruder" - Peter Gabriel - What can I say? Gabriel has a gift for getting in the head of disturbing people, in this case, that of an intruder.
Between "Family Snapshot," "Intruder" and "Lead a Normal Life" (about living in a mental hospital) Peter Gabriel III is probably the most disturbing album I listen to on a regular basis. And why? Listen to a song like "Biko" - about the slain South African civil rights leader - and you should understand why I have so much respect for this artist.
And, yes, I'm sure I'm overlooking some of your own personal favorites so feel free to tell me which ones I left out.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Reflecting On A Mistake As A Reporter

There are/were definitely some good parts about being a reporter - you get the news faster than other, often being the one delivering the news, getting paid to do some fun things (I did everything from ride in a hot air balloon to get a brain scan to interviewing Al Gore to regularly interviewing Sonny Bono as he was the congressman for the region I covered ) to, well, you get the idea and, obviously, this depends on how and what you consider fun.
The downside is you see some things you wish you did not see or hear. I wrote here about having to watch a boy testify in a murder trial against his mom. Or the time I sat among a family of victims of a serial killer as the prosecutor described how they were butchered. I'd tell myself some of these things were growth experiences as, for example, the latter challenged my position on the death penalty.
Anyway I'm thinking about this today for two reasons. First, we had a plane crash into a building in Austin today. I seeded a story about it here. One of my first reactions to hearing the news was "thank God I'm not a reporter anymore because if I was I'd be sent to go toward the crash to find out what was going on when the logical thing to do is go away from it." I wrote about this illogical instinct when it came to covering fires here.
I was already in a nostalgic mood last week as I wrote the following as post while discussing the matter of NBC's airing of the video showing the luger dying. I decided to make that post a full article here.
I find writing these things somewhat cathartic.
I used to have to cover fatal car accidents on a way too regular basis (I'd literally pass one on the way to work and would then pull over and start gathering the details).
I will never forget one time when I screwed up. I get very protective of victims and victims families whether its a crime or a car accident and when I had to phone to get comments I'd do in as respectful a way as possible.
But one time I was at the scene of the accident and I was making that horrible walk where you pull as close to the crash as you can and then get a cop to explain to you - on the record - what was happening and you see others watching you and wanting to ask details and even if they had I knew better than to say something.
But one time - and this is more than 15 years ago but I can still recall it - a guy asked me what happened. I was caught off guard. I assumed (and this is the part where I've been kicking myself forever) that he was just another motorist who was a curious lookie loo. I think he asked which car hit which and I told him. And he asked if either person had died and (this is where I screwed up) I told him.
Then he said something to the effect of "that was my wife" or that was my mom
and I felt like crap because I'd just broken some rules and I waved down a cop who came over and I told him he knew the victim and argh!
but i digress.
I think I liked knowing that I was not the first to pass on the bad news of a death and when that changed that time i felt horrible and I gained respect and sympathy for law enforcement and others who had to do that on a regular basis. And me gaining respect for law enforcement was a big deal having grown up in So. Cal attending a college near L.A. when the Rodney King tapes and riots happened and writing columns and editorials about Darryl Gates.
Yeah I do NOT miss being a cop reporter

Interview With Film Critic Roger Ebert, Author of Your Movie Sucks - Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Roger Ebert, one of my heroes.
The first part of this interview includes a small tribute that I wrote to Mr. Ebert. Here is a link to another tribute, this one written by Mr. Ebert himself, to the great Studs Terkel:
plus a piece Ebert wrote during his health recovery about Rob Schneider– of all people – acting like a gentleman
As part of an effort to make this project an example of citizen journalism I solicited questions and received several that asked him to rank movies or list his favorites. I subsequently read, in the introduction to one of his excellent Great Movies books, this comment:

"I do not believe in rankings and lists and refuse all invitations to reveal my 'ten all-time favorite musicals,' etc., on the grounds that such lists are meaningless and might well change between Tuesday and Thursday. I make only two exceptions to this policy: I compile an annual list of the year's best films, because it is written in stone that movie critics must do so, and I participate every ten years in the Sight & Sound poll of the world's directors and critics."
With that in mind, I cut all questions asking him to list or rank anything. Instead, since this interview is ostensibly to promote his latest book, This Movie Sucks, I decided to list my favorite comments from this book. The only movies I thought he was a little too hard on were Team America and Serendipity.
I completely agreed with his criticisms of The Village, which I also trashed.
My Eight Favorite Critical Remarks By Roger Ebert In Your Movie Sucks (In No Particular Order):
The Village

"The Village is a colossal miscalculation, a movie based on a premise that cannot support it, a premise so transparent it would be laughable were the movie not so deadly solemn. It's a flimsy excuse for a plot, with characters who move below the one-dimensional and enter Flatland. M. Night Shyamalan, the writer-director, has been successful in evoking horror from minimalist stories, as in "Signs," which if you think about it rationally is absurd -- but you get too involved to think rationally. He is a director of considerable skill who evokes stories out of moods, but this time, alas, he took the day off…" "Critics were enjoined after the screening to avoid revealing the plot secrets. That is not because we would spoil the movie for you. It's because if you knew them, you wouldn't want to go."And the best part: “Eventually the secret of  Those, etc., is revealed. To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It's so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don't know the secret anymore.
Pearl Harbor

"Pearl Harbor is a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours, about how on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an American love triangle. Its centerpiece is 40 minutes of redundant special effects, surrounded by a love story of stunning banality. The film has been directed without grace, vision, or originality, and although you may walk out quoting lines of dialog, it will not be because you admire them.”
Sarah Silverman Is Magic

"Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic" is a movie that filled me with an urgent desire to see Sarah Silverman in a different movie. I liked everything about it except the writing, the direction, the editing and the lack of a parent or adult guardian. There should have been somebody to stand up sadly after the first screening and say, "Sarah, honey, this isn't the movie you want people to see. Your material needs a lot of work, the musical scenes are deadly, except for the first one. And it looks like it was edited by someone fooling around with iMovie on a borrowed Macintosh.
 :“This sucks on so many levels” - Dialogue from Jason X.  Ebert begins the review this way: “Rare for a movie to so frankly describe itself.  “Jason X” sucks on the levels of storytelling, character development, suspense, special effects, originality, punctuation, neatness, and aptness of thought. Only its title works.”
John Q:
“Anne Heche is deep-sixed by her role, which makes her a penny-pinching shrew and then gives her a cigarette to smoke just in case we missed that she’s the villain. The Grim Reaper would flee from this woman.”
Undead: “Undead is the kind of movie that would be so bad it’s good, except it’s not bad enough to be good enough.”
Freddy Got Fingered
"This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.”

Charlie’s Angels
Charlie’s Angels is eye candy for the blind. It’s a movie without a brain in its three pretty little heads, which belong to Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu. The movie is a dead zone in their lives, and mine.   What is it?  A satire?  Of what?  Of satires, I guess. It makes fun of movies that want to make fun of movies like this. It’s an all-girls series of mindless action scenes.”  And in case you’re wondering if it gets better, or if he gets nicer, here is his conclusion:  “In the months to come there will be several movies based on popular video games, including one about Tomb Raiders and its digital babe, Lara Croft.  Charlie’s Angels is like a trailer for a video game movie, lacking only the video game and the movie.”
One last quote before I share the second half of this interview:

“I have cited before the British critic Derek Malcolm’s definition of a great movie: any movie he could not bear the thought of never seeing again. During the course of a year I review about 250 films and see perhaps 200 more and could very easily bear the thought of not seeing many of them again, or even for the first time”
 Thanks again to Mr. Ebert for doing this interview.  Also, thanks to Ana Moreno Amon for editing and writing contributions.  Finally, I would like to thank those who suggested questions for this interview.

Interview, Part 2:
Did your first collection of negative reviews – I Hated, Hated,
Hated this Movie
- sell well? Is that one reason why you decided to put out a second collection or were there other factors? Do you think readers take pleasure in reading a blistering yet spot-on negative movie review?

It did sell well, but frankly, thought I had enough good negative reviews that it was time for another book. Because too many people reduce me to a thumb in their minds, I am happy that my written work is available in book and on the web. I especially enjoy writing the negative reviews; my muse is the British satirical columnist Auberon Waugh, whose work for Private Eye and The Daily Telegraph was sublime.
Your book documents instances where two people – one involved with The Brown Bunny and the other with Chaos – publicly criticized your reviews. How often do you get a reaction from someone involved with a movie you have reviewed? Does it tend to happen more when you've written something negative?
Very, very rarely. I was also called a racist after the "Diary of a Mad Housewife," but that was a different kind of complaint.
I am intrigued by your variations in form. What made you decide, for example, to write your review of The Cinderella Story :
as a letter and Wet Hot American Summer as a variation on Allen Sherman's classic song "Hello Muddah! Hello Fadduh!'
I take dictation from that place inside my mind that tells me what to write. Conscious thought is not helpful in the creative process. The Muse visits during the work, not before. Allen Sherman also worked on The Daily Illini, many years before I did; I heard him perform "Hello Muddah" and I guess the summer camp movie brought it out.
How is your health? When do you expect to return to your television show on a regular basis?
My health is good, considering that I had to go through rehab twice after two surgeries to learn to walk again, after months in bed weakened my muscles. But I still face more surgery, which will hopefully restore my ability to speak. No timeline. I'm happy to be writing again.
Can you explain how your film festival got started and what impact it has had?I read your profile on Wikipedia and wondered if you would be kind enough to settle a slight disagreement: which interpretation is correct regarding your "opening words," read by your wife, Chaz, at Ebertfest 2007, from the film you co-wrote with Russ Meyer, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: "It's my happening and it freaks me out."
Most people thought you were talking about the dramatic rise in popularity of Ebertfest over the past few years. Others thought you were referring to how you had actually become the protagonist, and pass it off as a sardonic remark typical of your writing style and spoken commentary.

That year, we closed with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and I was simply making a joke. That phrase seems to have entered the language.
Do you still argue with Siskel? By this I mean is there a voice in your head that belongs to Siskel and does it ever influence what you write?
Not so much about the movies, but more about life itself. He was a philosophy major at Yale, and at times we had long, deep conversations that stimulated me very much.
What is the biggest misconception about you?
In a superficial way, that I am still fat. In a critical way, that I am all thumbs.
I know several people who detest trailers because they give so much away. How do you feel about them?
I try to watch them as little as possible. They never show them before the Chicago advance screenings.
What, if anything, could the Academy Awards do to better include comedies in the award system?
Have a category for the year's best comedy?
How has acting and directing changed during the years you have been writing reviews?
Improved in general, with many exceptions both then and now.
What was the most revolutionary movie you've reviewed, by which I mean a movie that had the biggest influence on the industry and craft?
Star Wars
Any thoughts on the distribution of film and the way people choose to watch movies? With home delivery by Netflix and Blockbuster, for example, and other modern options, is the movie theater dying out? Are we losing something important by not going to the movies together anymore?
Yes, we are. The movies live in theaters. Their ghosts live on DVD.
Is the non-linear storytelling trend being overdone or do you like it as a creative device? What film pulled it off well and which film blew it?
It's an old tradition. I think Altman brought it back. Interesting, how it didn't work in the original cut of Donnie Darko and did work in the director's cut.
I've noticed you sometimes inject yourself into your reviews, which I find refreshing. Would you care to elaborate on your decision to break this longstanding rule by including your own opinions, politics and educational perspective.
All reviews are written in the first person, whether the author realizes it or not. I sometimes consider a review like a conversation with the reader. There can be the sense of intimacy.
As an example, I'll cite from the second half of your review of em>
If I were in charge of everything, and I certainly should be, I would divert billions of dollars into an emergency fund for our schools. I would reduce classroom size to 15 or 20. I would double teachers' salaries. I would fund boarding schools to remove the most endangered children from environments that are killing them. I would be generous and vigilant about school lunch programs and medical care for kids. I would install monitors on the television sets in the homes of these children, and pay a cash bonus for every hour they are not turned on during homework time. I would open a storefront library on every other block. And although there are two sides to the question, I would consider legalizing drugs; illegal drugs are destroying countless lives, and legalizing them would destroy the profit motive for promoting and selling them.
All of this would cost a fraction of -- well, of the cost of the government undertaking of your choice. It would pay dividends in one generation. There is something wrong when, as our own officials say, we depend on immigration to supply us with scientists. A kid like Montrey, who goes from a standing start to the top state score in math in one year, can supply us with an invaluable resource, but he has to be given a chance. We look at TV and see stories of drugs and gang bangers and despair, and we assume the victims bring it on themselves. If we had been born and raised as they were, in areas abandoned by hope and opportunity, the odds are good we would be dead, or watching TV in prison.
Do you ever second-guess your earlier reviews in light of the weight of popular or critical opinion? Who came up with the whole thumbs-up/thumbs down thing? In hindsight, would you reverse any?
I second-guess myself in my own lights. Other opinion doesn't enter into it. I am no longer quite certain I should have given Thoroughly Modern Millie four stars, or said the Simon and Garfunkel songs in The Graduate were forgettable.
Just for fun I'm going to end with Ebert's original review of The Graduate in 1967
and Ebert's revisiting of The Graduate in 1997

My Interview With Film Critic Roger Ebert, Author of Your Movie Sucks (part 1)

This is the first part of a two-part interview with Roger Ebert
As far as I am concerned, Roger Ebert is a national treasure. He writes film reviews and criticism but in everyman's language. Getting the chance to interview him made my summer.
However, I did not immediately come over to the pro-Roger camp. In fact… oh, God, shall I confess? Okay, I shall.
During high school and part of college I went through a stage (typical, I think, at that age) where I decided that anything that was popular could not, in fact, be cool. This is also the stage where anyone who makes money is considered a sell-out. Ah, idealistic youth!
For that reason I was suspicious of popular icons, which meant I had an immediate distrust of certain public figures, including, and here are two names you don't often hear in the same sentence: Roger Ebert and Bruce Springsteen.
At first glance they have nothing in common beyond the fact that they were both popular (this was the Born in the USA era) white males. But now that I think about it, there is more to it than that: Neither of them uses fancy language or puts on airs – they just continually crank out quality products, evolving their craft over time without becoming redundant or predictable. As opposed to, say, Paul McCartney who was born the same day and year as Ebert.
I was, and to some extent - still am, a film snob; I'd rather see an obscure classic than the latest box office smash starring some flavor-of-the-month actor. When I would read reviews of a classic I would find that it was invariably praised by Ebert while the remake, also reviewed by him, (is there nothing he hasn't reviewed?) would get the trashing it usually deserved.
While I have always been a movie buff, in recent years I have become more of a student of film. A few summers ago I decided to educate myself about film so I bought this book called The A List: 100 Essential Films and vowed to rent each movie, read the accompanying essay, and decide whether I agreed with it or not. In other words, I wanted not just to watch movies but also to really think about them.
Over time, I found myself reading not just the essay for each movie but also going to bookstores or looking online at Ebert's Web Site to see what he thought. More often than not, he would note something I had missed or state something more eloquently than I could have. Gradually, I decided that either I was clueless, he was more knowledgeable or, most likely, both.
At first, I would read other critics' work as well but eventually came to the conclusion that Ebert was the one with the most thorough and insightful remarks. When he put out his Great Movies books, in which he gives a more in-depth analysis than a normal review allows, I picked them up with glee. You should too.
Ebert has become a part of my life, like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and sometimes, as amusing as either one. More on that note in the second half of this interview where I'll list some of my favorite comments from his movie reviews.
In the past few days I think I've checked Ebert's Web site more often than I've used Google. In preparation for leading a discussion of the Jonestown documentary, I checked to see what Ebert had to say. When I decided to watch all of the Harry Potter movies before reading the last Potter book, I bookmarked every one of Ebert's reviews on them.
Put frankly, I'm an Ebert convert and a big fan. And I'm not alone. When he was recovering from an ordeal with cancer, a topic on Newsvine about his recovery received lots of comments from other avid Ebert fans.
When I got the good news that Ebert agreed to be interviewed, I asked friends and colleagues (from my prior profession of journalism) as well as other Newsviners to suggest questions they would like asked of him.From a submission pile of about 50 good questions, me and my writer friend Ana Moreno Amon narrowed that list down to 14 questions for the first part of this interview. I mention this not to brag or whine but to show how much interest there is in Ebert as a writer, critic and thinker.
I kept the biographical details about Ebert brief because you can read those elsewhere. In 1975, Roger Joseph Ebert was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. They don't pass those out to just anyone you know.
He became one of the most well-known movie critics because of his weekly television show with his longstanding work partner, Gene Siskel. They did the show together for 23 years, ending abruptly when Siskel passed away in 1999.
After trying out a few replacements, he chose Richard Roeper and their show has been airing since 2000. However, in recent months Ebert has been absent from his program due to health problems.
According to Wikipedia, Ebert was diagnosed in early 2002 with papillary thyroid cancer. While being treated for it in 2006, he did not miss a single movie opening. In June 2006, though, he underwent surgery to remove a malignancy near his right jaw.He was hospitalized, in serious condition, on July 1 after an artery burst near the location of the surgery. He had a tracheostomy at one point.
He has been recovering ever since, and although he hasn't returned the airwaves yet on a regular basis, he is at least well enough to respond to me via email.
When he appeared at his film festival, Eberfest, in April 2007 he "spoke" by having his wife read his notes aloud. His first words were from the parody he wrote, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: "It's my happening and it freaks me out." I'm asking him to elaborate on those comments for part two of this interview.
Ebert has used his popularity and influence for good (not evil), speaking out against the seriously screwed-up rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America, fighting email spam and championing relatively unknown movie directors. He was also somewhat responsible for encouraging Oprah Winfrey to get her program syndicated (and the rest is history).The second part of this interview will focus on some of Ebert's negative movie reviews and his latest book, Your Movie Sucks.
Here is the first part of the interview:
Scott: How did you go from writing science fiction and poetry to writing the infamous Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to reviewing films?
Roger: In 1966 I was a PHD candidate in English at the University of Chicago, working part-time at the Sun-Times, and when the movie critic retired, they offered me the job. I only wrote two sf short stories, one sold to Amazing, the other to Fantastic, after I was already a film critic. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was also written after I became a critic, so it all began from there.
Scott: How do you decide what to review? Or, put another way, how do you choose what NOT to review. As you've noted, you may not be the person to review, for example, a story aimed at girls
Roger: Before my illness I reviewed more or less as many films as I could, period. There is really no such thing as the "right person," since everybody is the right person to write his or her review.
Scott: Do you feel any responsibility to be impartial in your reviews? Is objectivity possible or even desirable?
Roger: I am always subjective. Objectivity has nothing to do with critical opinion. Critics are paid to be subjective.
Scott: Do moviemakers have a moral obligation or should entertainment be their only concern?
Roger: Any obligation is to themselves. Would they rather participate in growing more or less complex?
Scott: When a book is adapted for the screen do you try to read the book prior to seeing the movie? What about reading screenplays?For example, I recently seeded at Newsvine your review of the latest Harry Potter movie and you made a comment that some readers at the site thought odd – you made a comment about whether future movies would be able to still be PG-13 and some wondered if that was because you have not read the Harry Potter books (have you?) or if it was a statement of yours on the rating system.
Roger: I only read the first book. Quite enjoyed it. I don't make a point of reading books before their movies, however, because my question should be, how good a movie is it, not how good an adaptation? If I have read the book, that inevitably enters somewhere into the review.
Scott: What is your actual reviewing process like? How many times do you watch a movie before writing your first published review of the movie? What is the most number of times and which movie gets that honor? (How do you write notes in a dark theater? Every time I try that I can't read my own handwriting.)
Roger: Usually I only have the opportunity to see a movie once. If I saw it at a festival some time ago, I'll see it again. I take notes, and can sometimes read my handwriting.
Scott: Is it okay for a reviewer to get into what should have been done rather than just sticking with what was done? When is it ok to do that?
Roger: It's okay for a reviewer to get into anything.
Scott: Who are some of your favorite critics and why? And how do you feel about the fact that anyone can write and publish their own reviews on the web these days? Do you view that as a positive trend?
Roger: Pauline Kael, David Bordwell, Stanley Kauffmann, Dwight Macdonald, Manny Farber. I think the web is a great place for film criticism. Writing your own reviews is a good way to deepen your knowledge of the movies.
Scott: What are the funniest, most glaring continuity lapses you can recall?
Roger: In Jaws III (or IV?), Michael Caine swam to a yacht and climbed on board completely dry.
Scott: What about the movie industry do you think lowers the bar? What trend do you find encouraging?
Roger: Mass openings and short runs, to try to use advertising to blunt word- of-mouth. Encouraging? It costs less to make a movie, and indie films are thriving.
Thanks to Roger for the interview and thanks to Chris Copley, Pamela Drew and others for helping come up with solid questions to ask Roger and thanks to Ana for helping me with this whole project. Stay tuned for part 2 later in the week

Parents Are So Ignorant (Fiction)

What are you doing, William?" asked Mommy as I tried to pick up a copy of Romeo and Juliet. I had heard a spate of criticism lately about this book by my namesake, William Shakespeare, from some of my colleagues in day care. They, too, complained that every time they tried to read some of his works, adults took the books away.
Adults - they make me so mad sometimes. They think we don't understand them, that we are dumb because we are little, just because they can't make out the words of our secret language. They don't know about our drama club and book discussion group at the day care.
I reached again for the book by Shakespeare and mom slapped my hand, telling me I should not be holding books. I screamed out one of my favorite insults by Shakespeare, "These words are razors to my wounded heart."
She did not understand. Alas, I could not yet speak the language of the adults. That came later, Frank said. Frank is three, a year older than me.
Instead, mom, as she calls herself although her real name is Joanne, bought me a book called Jack and Jill.
I was sick of the book but thought maybe I could interest myself with a deconstructionist analysis of the story and what the bucket and water they carry represents.
As we drove home, I worked on my essay analyzing the use of blood in Shakespeare's plays. Mom thought I was just doodling on the new book and made me stop.
As Shakespeare said, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."
Adults, they are just so ignorant sometimes.

Dan Brown and Me: Our Dysfunctional Relationship Unveiled

It could have been my big break and I missed it. But I'll get over it.
Back before I wrote book reviews and author interviews for Blogcritics and Newsvine, and even back before I created, edited and wrote for a book review page at a newspaper in Fayetteville, Arkansas, there was an Internet site about mysteries for which I wrote.
As is the case now I was sent unsolicited books to review. Only now the books I'm sent are usually ones I'd love to review, and authors I'm excited to interview, including upcoming releases from James Lee Burke and Mary Higgins Clark.
Back then I'd get books from authors I had never heard of, so desperate for press or Web attention that they'd send their books to a crazy book junkie like me. The fools!
One of those books I was sent had a cover that looked like something out of a Dungeons and Dragons game, and I pegged the author (yes, I judged the book by its cover, forgive me) as someone who played way too much of that game.
The author, I figured, was even more of a dork and geek than me.
So I set the book aside on the shelf and, when desperate for money, sold it via Amazon.
Years later the book The Da Vinci Code became a huge best-seller. I read it but loathed it. I found it predictable, trite, with characters written with less depth than a third-grader would compose. In short, I hated it.
But maybe I'm missing something, I figured. When I'd repeatedly run into people insisting I must read and love this book I thought, "What are they getting out of this that I'm not?"
Perhaps I was just annoyed that Brown implied his book contained more historical accuracies than it actually did and I'm always a bit peeved when authors blur the lines between fact and fiction, leaving the reader to sort out and/or guess which is which.
(This peeve later resurfaced, like a zit that just won't go away, when James Frey messed with readers heads - causing mine to nearly explode - about what was fact and what was fiction.)
Thus we now have millions of Americans who think they know details about the Vatican that are not actually accurate.
But it's just a novel, some say. Why do you care if it's true or not? The problem, as this Wikipedia link notes and this newsviner's rant serves as a good example, is the author implies much of his fiction about the Catholic church is fact and some readers take that as, no pun intended, gospel.
I decided to give Dan Brown another try and read the Angels and Demons book. As I was reading it there was something bothering me, and it wasn't just that the plots and characters were so similar that if they were not written by the same author I would have expected a lawsuit over stolen content ideas.
No, what was bothering me, I figured out, was that I had seen this book cover before. And that title sounded damn familiar.
Finally it occurred to me – this was the book I was sent unsolicited, the one I didn't read.
So what does it all mean? Am I crazy to think that if I'd written a review of the book I would have been the first to champion this author and went on to fame and fortune alongside him? Well, probably not, especially since my review would have been negative.
Still, each time I see Dan Brown's name I think, "Man, I could have been the first! I could have started this crazy trend."
And then I feel chills run through my body and think, "Whew! I'm sure glad I don't have that guilt on me," and then I feel better.
Now my story has been told. I feel slightly less dirty now.

Good News: I'm Loving The Harry Potter Camp I'm Helping With (2010)

Each year my church puts on a weeklong camp. You can read about it here. and you can read about my first thoughts as I joined this Unitarian Universalist church here in Austin, Texas.
I have not written a memoir piece or a good news piece in a month or two - that is not due to a lack of good news or interesting stories - rather I wanted to wait until I had a really good story to share.
Seeing as I've been full of anecdotes, high spirits and wearing a wizard's cloak for much of the last few days I decided to create this article.
I'll write this as a series of anecdotes and, as the week goes on, I will add to this.
I wanted to help with this last year but other commitments prevented me from doing so. I was dying to see how exactly they taught quidditch.
This year I was available and excited to participate. I thought it a nice coincidence that there was a New York Times story - which I seeded here - about camps set up around make believe stories be it Harry Potter or Percy Jackson.
My first two challenges were choosing my name and figuring out a costume.
A Facebook post from me from about a week ago: "Scott is trying to think of who he should be for Harry Potter camp. Each participant creates their own fictional name. I'm open - pleading actually - for suggestions."
Then I later posted this, "Heard one great suggestion for my name: Caledonius Glutroot
I've been told it can be broken down this way:
Caledonia= Scotland
Glut= butt
Root= key
The weekend before the camp I went wizard costume shopping and this was my report via Facebook:
"I now own a wizard's cloak for my Harry Potter outfit. But I still need to find a wizard beard and possibly hat. For some reason stores don't seem to have costumes in July. I mean, whats up with expecting people to only buy costumes in certain months? That's practically monthism or something."
People have been complimenting all week how I look in this wizard cloak so I no longer feel inadequate without a hat or beard. Bonus: I have a killer Halloween costume.
Sunday night I helped set up camp while a little nervous about how my first day would go. I am the duelling instructor which is one of those jobs you accept and then wonder how you're going to teach since it is, after all, doing instructions related to fictional things. Long story short, I pulled it off. To find out how, read on.
My favorite question asked by kids and teens during the set up of Harry Potter camp: "Is it defense of the dark arts or defense of the dark hearts?" One adult was heard asking if the two aren't related.
I posted at Facebook Monday:
"I have taught 60 kids at Harry Potter Camp rules about when to use their wands and wand etiquette, helped them (with the aid of the house elf) create a mini book of spells and then got them started on a wand duelling exercise that's similar to rock paper scissors.
And I keep getting compliments on my wizard cloak." When I'd mention to the campers that the game was similiar to Rock, Paper, Scissors at least one in each group would complain "but that's a muggle game," as if they're not all muggles but I did my best not to break character.
I tested the kids: is it ok to do spells in anger? No, they said.
Do you ever do things when mad - like at your parents - when mad that you later regret? Almost unanimously they said yes. So what would it be like if you had a wand? "Really bad?" they say. Yup.
I got wacky at times, being me, asking "Is it ok to take the wand in to the shower? Toss it in the laundry? Give it to the dog as a chew toy? Break it in two so you can have two wands?"... etc.
I think all parents with kids in the camp owe me because i stuck a few "ask your parent before you do spells at home" and don't use spells on your siblings/parents messages in there.
Those were not on the lesson plans but when one asked if they can immobilize their siblings when they next became annoying i decided to do the parents a favor and say "ask your parents first," ok? They nodded because, hey, if this guy from Hogwarts faculty says something you need to listen to him, right?
Hey i help where i can:)
I posted Tuesday morning:
"Caledonius Glutroot (aka me) just sat at the head table while our 60 attendees at Harry Potter Camp watched with anticipation and excitement the sorting hat sorting them into various schools. This is pretty fun to watch.
Today they each get their own personalized wands (including me) and i'm looking forward to watching them play Quidditch though probably later in the week due to the weather."
There were a lot of memorable moments which I'll write up as time allows.
Wednesday/today -
Favorite moment of the day at Harry Potter camp was a girl taking the book of spells we all made together Monday and crossing out the unforgiveable curses, explaining, "That way I won't accidently do one." She also circled one spell "which may be good to remember": the one that mends broken bones. And THIS was one of the youngest girls in camps.
I taught each group two games and the one they were most excited by was Giants, Wizards, Elves, which is a fun one because they have to work together in teams.
I also taught them another game that I like mostly because it is of the form where the students can take turns leading the game, sort of a game version of "the student becomes the teacher."
Posted at Facebook:
"Just witnessed kids playing human chess. One kid yelled at his coach one of the teenage prefects: "Put me in, coach." I think they're getting their sports mixed up. The coach later announced: "Pieces can't and don't tell their player what to do."
Good advice.
And that, in a nutshell, is Harry Potter camp week so far.
It ends, as many of the movies do, with a feast in the great hall.

A Possible Letter to NPR Re: car stereo theft

(originally published in 2009)

Dear NPR Morning Edition
On Tuesday you broadcast this report
about car stereo thefts being down. On Wednesday morning, while I was parked at an Austin library, someone stole my car stereo. At least half of the people to whom I've mentioned that my first month in Austin was marred by this respond by mentioning your report.
This has led me to a few conclusions or possibilities
a) The car stereo thief does not listen to NPR
b) The car stereo thief didn't listen to NPR before but he may now and if he is listening to you read this letter aloud I hope he will realize his faux pas.
c) The number of people who listen to NPR is higher than I thought.
On Saturday I realized that there was one other thing the theft took - an electric razor that I kept on the car seat. At first I thought did he think, while robbing the car, "man I need a shave?"
But I later decided maybe i'm coming at this backwards. The guy didnt break into my car, steal my stereo and then decide to steal my electric razor that was on my car seat. Rather he needed a shave and saw the electric razor and broke into my car and then thought "while i'm here.... I want to get a radio so I can listen to NPR."
Scott Butki
P.S. Maybe the thief was confused by the bumper sticker I have: Voluntary Simplicity: Less is more. Perhaps the word "voluntary" threw the person - I like to keep things simple but I like to make my own choices on how simple I want things to be.

Followup here: Good News: My Relationship With NPR, Through Car Stereos, Has Resumed, After An Awkward, Abrupt 13 Month Break

Saturday, July 29, 2017

An Interview With Author Andy Abramowitz About His Debut Novel Thank You, Goodnight

With Thank You, Goodnight Andy Abramowitz has written a witty, excellent debut novel.
The book is about the lead singer of a band, a one-hit wonder, who has decided it's time to record new music and go back on the road. But first he has to convince the band, including a member he slept with, that after a long break it's time to go out and try again. It's funny but engaging, relateable yet entertaining.
I interviewed Andy by email.

  1. How did this story develop?  How would you summarize it for readers?

THANK YOU, GOODNIGHT is about a one-hit-wonder who, as I expect is the case for most one-hit-wonders, isn’t terribly happy about having been a one-hit-wonder. Teddy Tremble had his moment back in the ‘90s with his band Tremble, and he’s now a lawyer sporting some low-grade bitterness about his premature exit from the music industry. While traveling in London, he comes face-to-face with a photography exhibit in which he and some other has-beens are unflatteringly portrayed. (Teddy has been snapped unawares as he messily consumes nachos.) Way leads on to way, and soon he’s contemplating rounding up his old band mates, all of whom have moved on with their lives, and talking them into making one more album in the name of reclaiming their legacy.

The story actually arose from a visit I made to a museum in London. I saw a photography exhibit featuring people who didn’t seem to know that their picture was being taken. I began to imagine what it would be like to happen upon an awful photo of myself hanging in one of the world’s most heavily trafficked museums. It might force me to consider whether this is how the world perceives me – and whether there’s anything I can do about it. That’s exactly the reaction Teddy has. And the consequences are steep.

2) I liked the idea that there was a pocket of fans in another nation. It reminded me of the documentary Rodriguez, where he's considered unpopular in the USA but has a huge fan base in South Africa. Have you seen it?

I absolutely love the Rodriguez movie, Searching for Sugar Man! Not only did it tell a truly remarkable story – which has to be one of the greatest stories in rock – but it introduced me to a fantastic artist. After hearing Rodriguez’s music, I was angry with the people in my life. Why hadn’t I been told about this guy? Who dropped the ball?  But yes, instead of the fan base in South Africa, Tremble’s lunatic fringe is cloistered away in the hills of Switzerland. And that’s a shorter flight than Johannesburg in case anyone wants to do a THANK YOU, GOODNIGHT walking tour.

3) Were any of the characters based on real people? Maybe it's just me but when you talked about eccentric acclaimed producer Sonny I thought of Rick Rubin.

I tried not to base these characters on real people. I had a pretty strong idea about each of Teddy’s band mates, so I didn’t feel compelled to borrow from the personalities of the musicians I know personally. I also didn’t want to base them on famous people in the music industry because I thought that would lead me down the path of rock cliché, which I desperately sought to resist.

That said, Rick Rubin is one of my all-time favorite producers. (He gave us Petty’s Wildflowers!, Cash’s Unchained!) So when I was conjuring up the character of Sonny Rivers, one of the most respected record producers across so many genres, I’m positive that in my head I had the following conversation: “Like a Rick Rubin type of guy, right?” “Exactly. Just like him.”

4) What was it like getting musician Rick Springfield to blurb your book? Springfield wrote, "Thank You, Goodnight is a hilarious send-up of the music industry, late-onset adulthood, and where the two often uncomfortably meet. It's also a sage novel for anyone who believes that our talents don't fade away as we get older, they only get better."

Let’s put it this way: in addition to the generous blurb, Rick Springfield was also kind enough to promote the release of THANK YOU, GOODNIGHT on his Facebook page and Twitter feed. He wrote “I really dug this first novel from fellow musician-turned-writer Andy Abramowitz.” So, in the eyes of Rick Springfield, he and I are fellows. The rest of my life is filling in the blanks.

5) How did you go about picking names of bands and songs? I dont know about you but my roommates and I spent more time choosing band names than, say, writing songs or learning instruments.

You’ve clearly got your priorities in line. Song titles and band names are far more important than craftsmanship. I had fun picking song titles. (I even klepto’ed some from my ancient songwriting days.) I also tried to work in the occasional reference to the book – for instance, there’s a song called “Make it Right, Lucy” on one of the Tremble albums, and Lucy is Teddy Tremble’s ex-wife. Mostly though, as with you and your roommates, I just had fun with it. The most fun was picking song titles for Teddy’s failed solo album, a pompous, pretentious, overblown concept album. “He Asked Whose Sheep They Were, and I Said I Watched Them for Lord Wren” should’ve been a Jethro Tull song. Or Sufjan Stevens. You’re welcome, Sufjan!

6) I understand you had a  difficult time stopping editing. What happened there?

It’s really hard to know when you’re finished, and with every read of the manuscript, I felt this powerful urge to rewrite dialogue to make it sound snappier or more authentic. Or slash descriptive passages that felt killer at 3 a.m. but sounded bloated and showy come sunrise. I can honestly say – and I admit I’d probably say this even if it weren’t true – that I’m enormously happy with the way it came out.

7) You were in bands. What type of music did you guys play?

We played dad rock long before we were dads. Our originals weren’t particularly inspired – I shoulder most of the blame for that – and they were cheap imitations of quality classic rock. But I played with some excellent musicians and great friends. I don’t think there was a single Tom Petty song we didn’t play. Then obviously all the other staples: Beatles, Dylan, Steve Miller Band, Jesus Jones.

8) What are you working on next?

 I’m finishing up my second novel. It’s about a brother and sister, both in their early- to mid-30s, whose lives are separately falling apart. One is a journalist, the other is an engineer who builds roller coasters. Nobody plays in a band.

Interview With Jeff Abbott on Adrenaline, First Order and Last Minute

Article first published as Interview: Jeff Abbott, Author of Adrenaline on Blogcritics.
Jeff Abbott's new book  lives up to its title. Sometimes book titles imply action or urgency but fall short. Not Adrenaline. This one hooked me and didn't let go. I was reading this at the same time I was reading Jeffrey Deaver's new James Bond novel, Carte Blanche, (interview on that in the works) - I mention this because Bond books and movies are fast-paced and this one by Austin resident Jeff Abbott made that one look like it was slow going in comparison.

Like coffee this book should not be read before you go to bed unless you truly don't want to go to sleep. It's the kind of book where if you think you can stop reading at the end of a chapter, you are deluding yourself. Each chapter seems to end with a cliffhanger so you have to read on to see what happens next, and soon you realize you've just read another 30 pages and you can forget about getting a good night's sleep.
Abbott does a great job with pacing and switching perspectives. Check out this book, Adrenaline - you will thank me later.
One other thing: I ask in the interview about the television series Burn Notice because it reminded of the best parts of it. Both are about company men in trouble, who explain to the reader ways to disarm people, fix potentially violent situations, etc., that you are not aware of. Calling it "educational" would be a stretch but it adds another interesting element. If you like Burn Notice I think you'll also like this book. If you don't watch Burn Notice then you should check it out.
But first get this book. See why it's getting praise and hype and be happy that this time — unlike so many hyped books — it's well deserved.
Don't believe me? Let me share two blurbs.
Laura Lippman, who I last interviewed here and respect greatly, wrote this:
"This is a wonderful book and the start of one of the most exciting new series I've had the privilege to read. Jeff Abbott has been one of my favorite writers for more than a decade and Sam Capra is now on my short list of characters I would follow anywhere. Adrenaline provides the high-octane pace one expects from a spy thriller, while grounding the action with a protagonist that anyone can root for. Sam Capra is the boy next door — assuming the boy next door to you is a CIA-trained agent who will do whatever is necessary to find and protect his loved ones."
Harlan Coben writes, "Adrenaline has everything-relentless action, mind-bending intrigue, and twists and turns you won't see coming. It's exhilarating, and confirms Jeff Abbott as one of the best thriller writers of our time."
After hearing Abbott speak at the great Book People in Austin I asked for an email interview with him which he gratefully did. Here's the resulting interview:

Would you mind setting the stage for readers curious about this book?

Adrenaline is a thriller about family. It opens with CIA agent Sam Capra, who lives in London with his seven-months pregnant wife. She calls him one morning at his office and asks him to come outside. When he does, the office behind him explodes and he sees her in a car, driven by a stranger, roaring away from the carnage. Accused of treason by the CIA, Sam must escape from government custody and find out who has taken his wife and child, all while being hunted by the CIA.   
How did you go about doing research on this book? I'm particularly curious if you tried to learn how to do any of the parkour moves described in the book?
One of Britain's top parkour runners, Dan Edwardes, kindly helped me with that aspect of the research; it's amazing to watch what he can do. I also spent a lot of time in London and Amsterdam, where most of the book is set. 
How would you describe the protagonist, Sam Capra, and in what ways are you similar and different from him? 
Sam is rather young to be the hero of a new suspense series; he's only 25, and has been with the CIA for three years. He grew up wandering the world; his parents worked for a relief agency so he had an unusual childhood. He joined the CIA out of Harvard when his older brother was killed doing relief work in Afghanistan. He's finally believing he has a perfect life with his new wife and soon-to-be-born child and he's very determined to get his family back. 
What's it like to get so much praise for this book including a starred review in Publishers Weekly, a Good Morning America summer read and Entertainment Weekly Book of the Day, and an Amazon Best Books of July pick? 
Adrenaline was the only book this summer to be both a Today Show and Good Morning America best summer read pick and an Amazon Best Books of July, and all that happened within a week. It was amazing, and with all the other reviews it felt like winning the publicity Triple Crown. I have no control over how people respond to the book, but it was all very exciting and humbling. 

What was it like to make The New York Times bestseller list? I saw and publicized your piece on that distinction. Was that a career high? What are some other career highs and lows?
It was a career high, just in that you know your book is reaching a lot of people. And also nice because my books have been bestsellers in other countries for a while now, so it was nice to know I was really reaching readers here at home. But the next day, it was, well, got another book to write, get back to work. Re career lows, I think those just come if the writing is going badly. You just have to work through those periods, work is the only cure.
I'm curious what you think of the TV series Burn Notice which, like your book, has a company man get burned and trying to get back into their fold while dealing with personal issues? I like both the series and your book.
I've not seen the show, sorry, but have heard that it's very entertaining.
Is this book the start of a series? Why start a series? What are the advantages of writing a series vs your usual style of standalone books?
Yes, it's the start of a series. The next one is called The Last Minute and will be out next summer. I only wanted to do a series if I thought of a character who was well-suited to multiple books, and I'm having a lot of fun writing about Sam. I think readers really do enjoy series; people have been telling me they can't wait to read the next Sam. I always like it when they say "the next Sam" instead of "the next book." 
Why is the book coming out in England before it comes out here in the U.S.? What book number in the series are you currently working on?
I changed publishers in the U.S., hence the time difference. I'm currently writing Sam #3.
I'll end with what I call my bonus question: What question do you wish you would get asked in interviews but that you are not asked? Here's your chance to ask and answer it.
I'll quote Amy Tan, when Stephen King asked her the same question in On Writing: No one ever asks about the language. At least they don't ask commercial fiction writers. And the choosing the language in stories is the hardest part of writing. Probably because talking about craft doesn't lend itself to the short and snappy answer. But the best thriller and mystery writers think a great deal about craft, and select their words with care in creating the effects that readers expect: suspense, terror, relief, romance, and more.

In The First Order, Jeff Abbott has written yet another great thriller about his protagonist hero, Sam Capra, and his continuing adventures and mishaps.
This is Abbott’s fifth novel in the Sam Capra series and I keep thinking one of these is going to be a dud – no offense, Jeff – but he keeps pulling it off. Each has enough excitement that it should come with a warning: Don’t read before going to bed… because there’s enough adrenaline to keep you awake.

“Usually when an idea with this many facets comes to me, I know it’s one good enough for a book.”

The series began with AdrenalineCapra’s first appearance. Abbott jumps right into action at the book’s start with a mysterious warning from Sam’s wife, telling him to leave his workplace. As soon as he gets outside, the building explodes, killing everyone within. Capra’s wife does a runner, leaving Sam behind for the CIA to blame as a murderer and traitor.
In Abbott’s latest novel, Sam works to determine if his brother, Danny, is as dead as Sam and his family have been led to believe… or if Danny may be still alive. Meanwhile, someone is being paid $20 million to kill the leader of Russia.
Will these two stories somehow collide? If you don’t say yes then you have not read these books, a fact you must rectify. I talked to Jeff about The First Order, which comes out January 5th, just in time for Jeff’s upcoming visit to the store.
Mr. Abbott will be speaking and signing his latest this Tuesday, January 5th, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s second floor. You can find copies on our shelves on the day of the event, or pre-order a signed copy via

Interview with Jeff Abbott

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?
Jeff Abbott: I wanted this thriller about two brothers to have both personal and global stakes. So I thought: Sam Capra has to stop his brother from killing the Russian president during a state visit to America. That’s the spine of the idea. But then I have to execute the idea in a way that feels fresh and compelling to the reader. There have been lots of great books about assassination attempts, what can I bring that is new? In this case, it’s Sam Capra and his brother. Of course, readers of the Capra series know that Sam’s brother has been presumed dead for years. What did he do during that time, why did he choose to let Sam and his family think he was dead? Sam made all these choices in his life: to join the CIA, to try and honor his brother’s sacrifice, and those choices changed Sam’s life forever and that was all based on a terrible lie. So there’s a huge emotional component to this thriller. Sam wants to keep his brother from starting a war, and he wants the brother he loved back. Usually when an idea with this many facets comes to me, I know it’s one good enough for a book.
SB: As you get further into your series of Sam Capra stories is it becoming harder or easier to find new plot lines?
JA: I have more ideas than I have time to write them. The challenge is deciding which are the right ones to use.
SB: You have now written stand alone books and books in a series. What are the pros and cons of each?
JA: I think it goes back to characters. In a standalone you get to explore characters and situations that might not work as part of a series. In a series you get to revisit old friends and go deep into their lives.
SB: How do you do research for books like this? Are you researching, for example, Russia since there’s a plot-line about killing a Russian leaders?
JA: I research a whole variety of topics: being a relief worker overseas, the history of political assassination, antique Afghan weapons, super -yachts, just to name a few. I had to research the peculiarities of Russian politics, the role in the government that several ex-KGB agents who have become billionaires play in Russia, what the changing role of the president is there. But this is fiction, so I change it up to make it clear that this is a different world than the one we live in. For other aspects, I have readers who help me with this; for instance, for a scene with US soldiers searching a village in Afghanistan, a college friend of mine who did two tours of duty in Afghanistan read that chapter and gave me detailed comments. I tend to do more research than what I need, but even what I don’t put into the book seems to inform my writing.
SB: One of my favorite things about reading your books is the impressive advanced technology. Is the technology in your book new things most don’t know about yet or are some fictional or a mix?
JA: I don’t really make much stuff up. For instance, I got a lot of help from a man whose company sets up satellite internet access and networks for super- yachts, since part of the book takes place on one owned by a Russian billionaire. He shared all sorts of details about satellite internet technology specific to maritime use that provided me with a plot complication, as well as what daily life is like aboard such a luxury craft. Experts love to talk about what they know, it’s just finding the one who is happy to help you.
SB: Seems like several of your books in this series came out just in time to be summer reads but this ones coming out in January. Was that intentional to change things up?
JA: The timing of a release of a book by a publisher is always intentional, these are scheduled long in advance. My 2017 book is already scheduled for a specific release date and I’m still writing it.

 “I research a whole variety of topics: being a relief worker overseas, the history of political assassination, antique Afghan weapons, super -yachts, just to name a few. I had to research the peculiarities of Russian politics, the role in the government that several ex-KGB agents who have become billionaires play in Russia, what the changing role of the president is there. But this is fiction, so I change it up to make it clear that this is a different world than the one we live in…”

SB: What’s next for Sam?
JA: He gets a break for one book. I’ve put him and Mila Court through a physical and emotional wringer for five books and so much has changed for them by the end of The First Order, I wanted to give them a chance to breathe for once. I know what the sixth Sam novel will bring but I’m writing a standalone before that.
SB: What’s next for you? Any plans for stand alone books?
JA: The next book is a standalone psychological suspense novel, set in Austin. It will be out January 2017.
SB: What’s the status of your books (Adrenaline, Panic and Collision) becoming movies?
JA: I have the film and TV rights back to the Sam Capra books and I have a plan for bringing them to the screen. Panic and Collision are still in development. A short story I wrote, “Human Intelligence”, has been optioned for a TV series and is also in development.
Article first published as Interview: Jeff Abbott, Author of The Last Minute on Blogcritics.
I wasn't sure if Jeff Abbott would be able to follow up the adrenaline and excitement of his last book, appropriately titled Adrenaline, but with The Last Minute he has pulled it off.
The Last Minute is Abbott's second book in his series about Sam Capra, a betrayed CIA agent and parkour enthusiast. I was moved to read Adrenaline and interview Abbott after hearing him speak at a booksigning at BookPeople in Austin in June 2011, when that book was published.
The fellow Austin author agreed to let me interview him again for his new book, which comes out this week. He is speaking and signing books at BookPeople again on Monday July 9 and the employee, Scott Montgomery, who helped arrange that first interview just published his own positive review of The Last Minute a few minutes ago. Scott's review is spot-on but does contain spoilers.
Both books about Sam Capra move fast and easily fit the definition of a thriller. You, the reader, can't help but get caught up in the excitement and adventure as Sam deals with criminals and CIA agents, and at times it's hard to tell which ones are worse.
Adrenaline starts off with a great plot device: Sam's seven-months pregnant wife calls him at work and tells him to get out of the office--he does so and almost immediately the building explodes, killing everyone inside. Meanwhile, his wife is gone--he saw her being taken when he ran out of the building. While she saved his life it looks suspiciously like he had inside information, as did she. Without giving away too many spoilers let's just say he learns things in his life, especially with his wife, were not what they seemed. He is chased and tortured by the CIA and others as he tries to prove his innocence while also trying to sort out what exactly is going on.
The Last Minute continues the action as Sam works to get his baby back from a shadowy international criminal organization called The Nine Suns, which has members working for the CIA and other government agencies.
The good news is The Nine Suns offers to give him back his baby--the bad news is what they are insisting he do in exchange: He has to hunt down and kill someone and even if he does so he can't be sure he will even get his son back. Meanwhile, the CIA wants Sam to turn over Milla, a partner who has been helping him. This, of course, leads to lots of good action scenes taking place all around the world.
Without giving away any more I will encourage you to pick up this book--if you like good thrillers you will like Adrenaline and The Last Minute--and proceed to the interview.
Would you mind setting the stage for The Last Minute is a direct sequel to Adrenaline, the first book in the Sam Capra series. In it, former CIA agent Sam Capra is trying to find his infant son, hunting the international criminal network that has kidnapped his baby. He's told he can have his son back as long as he commits an impossible murder: finding and killing the one person who has the evidence to  destroy the bad guys.
How did the ideas for this new book come about?
Since The Last Minute directly follows Adrenaline, many of the ideas for it (but not all) came from thinking about the first book. One that wasn't, though, is that I take a very minor unnamed character from Adrenaline who only appears in one scene and make him a major character in The Last Minute. That was an unexpected idea, and since it wasn't planned when I wrote Adrenaline, it was a fun challenge.
Was it hard picking a plot line that kept up the frenetic energy and, well, adrenaline of your last book, Adrenaline?
No, not at all. A parent searching for their child is a very emotional and propulsive plot, inherently. I am glad readers seem to find the book frenetic, but all that energy is wasted if there is no emotional investment in Sam and his search for his son. So I can't just think about the action, the muscles, I have to think about the heart as well.
Do you outline your books extensively before you start or are you one of those writers who writes and then waits to see where things go?
I outline in some detail, but even after the outline is done I often get a new idea that is an improvement, so the outline is a living, breathing thing as well. I also re-outline when I'm two-thirds done, to be sure that there is an emotional payoff from all the plot lines and to be sure the story is as tight as it can be.
I read somewhere that The Weinstein Company has kept up the film option on your novel, Panic, and is now looking to adapt it into a television series. What do you think of that option? I know some writers, like Craig Johnson, who seem thrilled by how (at least so far) the television adaptation has been done on his books, while other authors like Robert Crais fight adaptations of his books. Do you have any thoughts along those lines?
No one forces me, or any other writer, to sell a film option on the books. If you don't want to run the risk that the filmmakers may adapt your work in a way you don't like, then you don't sell the option. You know when you sell it that they will have to make some changes, just because film and TV are different media than books. Panic, Collision, and now Adrenaline have all been optioned, and are in varying stages of development, and I'm happy about that. It's their movie or TV show, but it's my book. The book is the book, and no adaptation changes that.
What kind of research did you do for this book? Do you have someone in law enforcement or espionage who you are able to show your books to in order to help keep things as accurate as possible?
I travel, a lot, to research the locales for the books. I have professional contacts that I can ask questions of, or show them scenes to vet. You meet a lot of interesting people this way, and as long as you've done your prep work so you're not wasting your time, the experts are usually really happy to help.
Should readers read Adrenaline before this one? I notice you provide some backstory but would you hope readers start with that one or does it matter?
Since The Last Minute is a direct sequel to Adrenaline, yeah, I think readers will get the most out of Sam's story if they read Adrenaline first. I do know of readers in Britain who read The Last Minute first and enjoyed it, and every single one of them that emailed me said they immediately went and read Adrenaline, not realizing they'd read the books out of order. I also wrote a e-book only short story that bridges the time between Adrenaline and The Last Minute, called Sam Capra's Last Chance, which was fun to do. It's not required at all to read it but it was an interesting experiment in e-publishing for readers. But for readers who come to The Last Minute first, I did try to give them information from the previous book without it being pedantic.
What did you learn from all the praise you got from Adrenaline? When I interviewed you for that one and asked about critical acclaim you wrote, "Adrenaline was the only book this summer to be both a Today Show and Good Morning America best summer read pick and an Amazon Best Books of July, and all that happened within a week. '
It was amazing, and with all the other reviews it felt like winning the publicity Triple Crown. I have no control over how people respond to the book, but it was all very exciting and humbling."
Looking back now can you take away anything from that experience beyond perhaps pressure to repeat that success?
People can't buy a book they haven't heard of, as my fellow author M.J. Rose says, so the attention is nice just because it makes people aware of the book. And it is exciting and humbling. But it doesn't change the daily work of writing. You can't believe the praise, or the damnations, you get. You just have to sit down and write the next book. I mean, it's not all uncommon for a writer to get a ton of publicity for one book and then not get as much for the next one. I don't worry about that because I try to worry about the one single part of the job I can control: the writing of the book. If I do that well, I feel, good tidings generally will follow and readers will stick with me. I mean, this is typical: I got some really great news on the book one day, and five minutes after getting off the phone I was scooping dog poop out of my yard. Balance is a good thing. I think, and you were working on the third in the series.
What are you working on currently? The next book in this series? Are your books still coming out earlier in England than in the U.S. due to your change in publishers? Last time I interviewed you this book was already done, I think, and you were working on the third in the series.
I am in the final rewrites on Sam Capra #3, and it will come out simultaneously in the U.S. and the U.K. in 2013, and have started Sam #4.