Thursday, May 27, 2010

Guest Blogger Lenny Kleinfeld

Our guest author this week is Lenny Kleinfeld.
Lenny started out as a playwright, working in Chicago.
His articles have appeared in Chicago Magazine, Playboy, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.
And now he's written an absolutely delightful crime novel he calls Shooters & Chasers.
If you haven't read it - get it.
Lenny's subject for today is:

The use of coincidence in fiction is a big no-no. Just plain tacky.
            To which I respectfully say: Bullshit.
First, like any technique, it can come off brilliant or brain-dead, depending on the skill with which its deployed. Second, coincidences happen all the time. At least in my life.
As in this 100% true chain of coincidence stretching over forty years:
            In the mid-1960s my wife, Ina, attended New Trier High School in the Chicago suburbs. She dated a guy named Mark Estrin.
            In 1969 Ina made the mistake of marrying me.
            In 1986 I sold a screenplay and made the mistake of believing people who told me I had to be in Los Angeles.            
            In L.A. I hung out a bit with a wealthy guy named Dan. He's a Dodgers fan, I'm a Cubs fan. We went to games when Los Cubbies were in town.
            In 1987 Dan called and said he'd been at a charity auction and bought lunch for four with Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. Did I want to go?
When I got to the restaurant, one of Dan's other guests sat down next to me and introduced himself.
            "Mark Estrin."
            Pause. "Did you go to New Trier High School?"
            Another pause. "How did you know?"
            "I married Ina Jaffe."
            Mark had come to L.A. to write TV movies. His career hit the wall and he became a wine salesman. Dan was his best customer.
            In 2003 my career hit the wall and I started writing my first novel, Shooters And Chasers, which has a subplot about winemaking.

            By this time Mark and a different wealthy customer of his had started making wine, at a co-op wine facility in Santa Barbara County Their mini-boutique label, Red Car, was an instant success.
            Mark became one of the wine advisors on my novel.
            One day Mark was excited because Red Car had bought what he believed were the best wine barrels in the world: Gamba barrels, French oak crafted by Italian coopers.
            The Gamba barrels went into the book.
            In 2004 my agent submitted Shooters to all the majors. It didn't sell.

Mark was stricken with brain cancer. He asked to read Shooters. I told him if he wanted to read the book he'd have to survive until I could hand him a published hardcover copy. When it became apparent he wasn't going to keep his end of the deal, I dropped off a manuscript at the hospital.
Mark plowed through it in one night. Best review it'll ever get.
            That same year, the movie Sideways came out.
It was set in wineries in Santa Barbara County.
            When it became a hit, Ina—a reformed actor who'd become an NPR correspondent—went up there to do a story on how Sideways effected business for the wineries and restaurants featured in it.
            Ina hit it off with Karen Steinwachs, a woman who worked at Fiddlehead Winery. Karen was disappointed that Ina wasn't tasting any of the wines (because she was working). Karen invited Ina to stop by and taste Fiddlehead's stuff if she ever got back that way.
            A year later we were driving up the coast. Ina called Karen. Karen said she'd be out of town, but she'd leave the keys to Fiddlehead with their next door neighbor.
That turned out to be Steve Clifton, partner in the high-end, low-volume Brewer-Clifton label. Steve had also started Palmina, a line of moderately-priced Italian varietals.
            Steve asked us if we wanted to taste some of his wines before we went to Fiddlehead. Twist our arms, why dontcha.
            After about an hour spent going through all of the Palminas, and a couple of Brewer-Cliftons, Steve asked if we wanted to go backstage and taste a sample from one of his tanks. Twist our arms again.
            While we were in the winery, I leaned on a wine barrel. Looked down at it. The logo on the side said Gamba.
            "You have Gamba barrels!" I exclaimed.
            Steve nodded. Said he'd bought them from some friends who had a company called Red Car.
            I was leaning on Mark's barrels. I was leaning on the barrels that were the props in a scene in my book.
            Wait, as the late-night philosophers say, there's more.
The other wine advisor on that book was a guy named Chip Hammack, a good friend from Chicago who'd also slid down the continent into Los Angeles in the 1980s. 
Chip and Mark ended up working in the same wine store in L.A., and became close. Chip spoke at Mark's funeral.
            Last year, when Shooters finally got published, Chip contracted stomach cancer. Passed away last September.
            Moral #1: Coincidences are pure naturalism.
            Moral #2: Never be a wine advisor on one of my books. It's one of the most dangerous jobs in showbiz.
            Or maybe it's just one of those tacky literary coincidences.

Posted by Leighton, for Lenny - Thursday


  1. Hi Leighton, Lenny-

    What an odd set of coincidences!

    Lenny, where in Chicago did you grow up?


  2. Susie--The part of Chicago I grew up in was Brooklyn, New York. I moved to Chicago in 1971 to work on WARP, a trilogy of sci-fi plays at the Organic Theater.

    I immediately felt at home--already had a number of friends from Chicago I'd met met at the University of Wisconsin--oh, and a wife from there. (Born in Rogers Park.)

    I think Chicago's the best American city. Lived there until 1986, when I sold a screenplay and it dragged me out to L.A. for work reasons. So I am now, um, 24 years into a business trip to the Coast.

  3. Hi Lenny,

    LOL (NY)

    I grew up in Roger's Park. Was your wife from east or west Roger's Park? Another can attribute this one to Leighton, I'm a big fan of his.

    There is or was a bar around here called Shooters, that was why I asked.

    The Organic Theater doesn't sound familiar to me, I wonder if it's still here and maybe the name's been changed?


  4. Lenny,

    Sadly, Chicago lost its #1 rating when you and La Jaffe relocated to the left coast....

    I hope that folks who frequent this site get an inkling for your post of what a wonderful writer you are. They should fetch a copy of Shooter's immediately. It is only a few mouse clicks away. There are no excuses.

    Best, Mal

  5. Mark Twain said, "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't."

    Except for Charles Dickens, I am afraid we novelists are better off sticking to the plausible.

  6. Susie--Oh, what a Chicaguh response! It was EAST Rogers Park.

    I've never heard of that bar, Shooters. I was just making list after list of possible titles one day, and pulled that one out of my...keyboard.

    The Organic is out of business. But its graduates soldier on.

    Mal--Bless you.

    Annamaria--Sad but true. Unless you can get a laugh. Readers will cut you some slack if you distract them, race past their plausibility checkpoint and flee to the next paragraph.

  7. Is your wife Ina Jaffe? I hear her reports on NPR quite often! I am an NPR junkie--being a journalist and writer myself.

    How fantastic that so many coincidences led you to so many wonderful crossroads--and people! We ask readers to suspend their disbelief in reading all the time, why not believe in a little bit of coincidence? It happens to all of us.

    Thank you for this wonderful story.

    Southern City Mysteries

  8. Hi Lenny-

    Did she go to Sullivan High School? West Roger's Park was divided between kids going to Mather and Sullivan, I was on the Sullivan side.

    Would she mind if you posted the year she graduated? I'll go first, '72.

  9. Michelle--So pleased you enjoyed it. Is Leighton a cool, generous, talented guy, or what?

    Yeah, I am married to that Ina Jaffe. Don't tell her I leaked this but--she just won two major awards for a series she did last year on California's Three Strikes law.

    Anonymous--No, when Ina was in grade school she moved to Glencoe. She attended New Trier.

    Susie--I have to make a correction. The Organic Theater ain't dead. I just received an email from its founder Stuart Gordon, who is an old, old, old friend. We've known each other since dinosaurs roamed the earth, and we were the dinosaurs. He says:

    "The Organic is still in business and in fact is currently
    presenting their rotating repertory at the Greenhouse (formerly the
    Body Politic.) on Lincoln Avenue.

    The Company is now sponsored by North Central College in Naperville. You can check them out at Organic's website."

  10. Hi Lenny-

    You may want to check out the thread I host on amazon's Mystery Community Discussion board. Someone has already read and commented on your book, and I've added it to my TBR list.

    The thread's name is NBIE II, Nordic/British/Irish/Euro crime mysteries, our discussions include books set everywhere.

    Okay, one final personal question, is your wife related to Larry Jaffe from Rogers Park?


  11. Susie--

    Thank you for putting me in touch with my heretofore unknown Nordic roots. No wonder I woke up this morning so much blonder and taller. Not to mention depressed, but with an attractive grim wit.

    As far as La Jaffe, no, Larry is not a relation. Unless he owns a publishing company.


  12. This is not just wonderful, it came to me at a moment in my writing when I'm trying to decide "is this too much of a coincidence"? Your piece can't answer that question for me, but it reminds me to think about the many strange coincidences in my life that people find unbelievable. It's the story that will make it work (or not). Thanks! (I've never even been to Chicago, I'm sorry to say, so I have nothing to offer there :)

  13. Jane--

    In any of the performing arts:

    Ain't what you do, it's how you do it.