Tuesday, November 30, 2021

More than a Month: 7 Native American Authors

Wes Studi and Adam Beach as Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee in a
TV adaptation of Tony Hillerman's Navajo Mysteries

Craig every second Tuesday

Kia ora and gidday everyone. 

Can you believe it's the end of November already, and we're hurtling towards the festive season (or already started it in some places and cultures) and the end of 2021? What a year it's been. 

It's also that time of year when many magazines, newspapers, podcasts etc are sharing their 'best of the year' lists, including best books. I've contributed to some, and shared others. Lots of amazing reads - in a troubled time we've certainly been blessed with some superb crime writing, at least. 

Over the past weekend I was involved with the Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival, a wonderful event that was intended to be a hybrid festival somewhat like this year's Bloody Scotland - having in-person events in Tasmania alongside international authors and attendees appearing online - that in the end had to go fully online after recent COVID concerns in Australia. 

Australian booklover Romany Jane shared this pic of her enjoying my interview with Queen of Crime Val McDermid over breakfast. The beauty of online festivals!

It was a heck of a lineup, with international crime fiction stars including Val McDermid, Liz Nugent, Ann Cleeves, Abir Mukherjee, David Heska Wanbli Weiden, and Naomi Hirahara joining a wonderful array of Australian and New Zealand crime writers for a weekend of interviews, author panels, masterclasses, and book parties. I had the good fortune to bookend the festival by interviewing Val to kickstart things on Saturday morning, and Abir to close out the festival on Sunday evening. 

In between I also spoke at the Southern Cross Crime Cocktail Party showcasing 20 Aussie & Kiwi crime writers, and had the privilege of interviewing International Guest of Honour David Heska Wanbli Weiden, a Lakota Sicangu author whose wonderful debut WINTER COUNTS has gobbled awards in the United States since its release, and has recently become available in the UK, Australia, and NZ. 

My feature in the New Zealand Listener on David Heska Wanbli Weiden
and WINTER COUNTS, recently published in Australia and New Zealand

WINTER COUNTS is one of my favourite reads of the last couple of years, the 'pandemic years' if you will, and I've been fortunate enough to interview David a few times this year for festivals, podcasts, and the New Zealand Listener magazine. You can listen to our CrimeTime FM conversation here. 

I've long been interested in Native American culture, and have spent a small amount of time on the Navajo Nation and Cherokee reservations when travelling in the United States in years past. But until I read WINTER COUNTS last year (I ordered the US hardcover on the recommendation of SA Cosby, author of BLACKTOP WASTELAND), the only crime fiction I'd read with Native American protagonists was written by non-native authors like Tony Hillerman and Dana Stabenow. 

While Wanbli Weiden is a fan of Hillerman's mysteries starring Navajo sleuths Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, it's great to see a Native-written thriller now getting lots of acclaim and attention too. 

Of course, Wanbli Weiden is not the first Native American crime writer, but hopefully his recent success - WINTER COUNTS has already won nine awards in the United States, including sweeping the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards for Best First Mystery this year - will bring more attention and open doors just as Larsson and Mankell did for Scandi Crime and Jane Harper did for Australian crime. 

Today is the last day of November (which is Native American Heritage Month in the United States) and given I've been thinking about this topic after speaking with David again recently, and we should read indigenous authors all year round, here are seven Native American authors you may want to try (some I've bought and read on David's recommendation, plus a few others) in the coming weeks and months. 

laFavor's ground-breaking crime novels were re-released by the University of Minnesote Press in 2017, six years after the author and activist passed away.


A Two-Spirit Ojibwe novelist, nurse, and activist who lived and worked in Minnesota, laFavor published two crime novels in the late 1990s, around the time she was serving as the only Native American member of the of the President's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. ALONG THE JOURNEY RIVER introduces Renee LaRoche (likely the first queer protagonist in Native crime fiction), who must investigate the theft of several sacred artefacts and the murder of the Tribal Chairman while juggling the cultural differences in her new relationship with a white woman. 

"Ultimately the re-release of Carole laFavor’s novels serves to underscore the significance of her writing to the Indigenous literary canon, to remind us of the power of her activism for HIV-positive Native peoples, and to return her important claims for the centrality of Two-Spirit peoples, bodies, and histories to the public eye," said Lisa Tatonetti in the Foreword to the new 2017 editions. 

David Heska Wanbli Weiden is a Professor of Native American Studies in Denver
and an enrolled member of the Lakota Sicangu Nation. 


As I said above, WINTER COUNTS is one of my top reads of the past couple of years. It's a powerful thriller set on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, beautifully written and laced with themes of a broken criminal justice system and native identity. Virgil Wounded Horse is a tribal enforcer on the reservation, available for hire by victims and their families who are looking for some sort of justice when the FBI and tribal police fail. But when heroin threatens the rez, and Virgil's nephew, he undertakes a dangerous investigation into those who profit from others' pain.

This is a thriller with heart and soul. The kind of book that sticks with you beyond the events that have you rapidly turning the pages. Character-centric crime fiction that packs a punch in a setting that pulses through its lyrical prose. For me - and many other readers, critics, and awards judges, it seems - WINTER COUNTS marks the arrival of a strong new voice in crime fiction. 

An expert on John Steinbeck and pioneer of Native American Studies, Louis Owens won the Roman Noir Award in  France in 1995 for THE SHARPEST SIGHT


The first time I discussed Native American crime fiction with Wanbli Weiden, he immediately named Louis Owens as in his view "the most important" Native crime writer. A Professor of English and Native American Studies and the Director of Creative Writing at UC-Davis before his suicide in 2002, Owens blended thriller plots with broader themes, murder mysteries with mysticism in novels like THE SHARPEST SIGHT, BONE GAME, and NIGHTLAND. 

Says Wanbli Weiden: "His books are not really page-turners, but he pioneered a style of crime fiction which sort of set the stage. He incorporated a call for political action, social commentary, and a surrealistic style. There’s something really interesting about Louis Owens; he’s not really included in the canon of great crime writers and I’ve been arguing for a long time that he should." 

Chippewa poet and novelist Louise Erdrich won the National Book Award in 2012 for THE ROUND HOUSE, her tale of a teenager attempting to avenge his mother's rape


Considered 'one of the most significant writers of the second wave of the Native American Renaissance', Louise Erdrich is a poet, novelist, children's author and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. She's won numerous awards including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and published more than 30 books, including a 'justice trilogy' of novels set on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota that may be most appealing to crime fiction fans. 

THE ROUND HOUSE, the second in the loose trilogy, centres on Joe Coutts, a 13-year-old boy angered by the poor investigation into a brutal attack on his mother, who sets out to uncover the identity of his mother's attacker with the help of his best friends. Blending crime story and coming-of-age, the Sunday Telegraph said "Erdrich has achieved an impressive trick; a spellbinding read, an earnest message and fierce emotional punch". 

Marcie Rendon's second Cash Blackbear novel was shortlisted for an Edgar Award


Following David's recommendations back in September, I ordered novels from a few other Native American crime writers, including two mysteries by Marcie Rendon, a playwright, poet, author and activist who is a member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation. I really enjoyed both books - MURDER ON THE RED RIVER and GIRL GONE MISSING - and in some great news they're now more widely available thanks to Soho Press, with more Cash Blackbear tales hopefully on the way in the not-too-distant future. 

Set among the grain and sugar beet fields and small towns of North Dakota and Minnesota during the Vietnam War, the Cash Blackbear Mysteries centre on a tough young Ojibwe woman who’s survived tragedy and foster care and now drives truck, hustles at pool, and occasionally helps her only real friend Sheriff Wheaton solve crimes. I thought these were really good character-centric crime tales that also explore some of the prejudices and injustices faced by Native Americans.

Most famous for his Arkady Renko 


Perhaps the most renowned Native American crime writer is one that many may not know is Native American, especially given his seminal work is a series starring Russian investigator Arkady Renko, Yes, Martin Cruz Smith, author of the huge bestseller GORKY PARK, and the eight Renko novels that followed, is of Native American (Pueblo) descent. While GORKY PARK was a breakthrough novel for Cruz Smith in 1981, he'd actually published eighteen books the decade before that, ranging across pseudonyms and genres. 

The film version of GORKY PARK went on to win an Edgar Award, but Cruz Smith himself had twice been an Edgar nominee for his earlier novels, including NIGHTWING (1977), a supernatural thriller inspired by the author's own tribal ancestry. Cruz Smith also co-wrote the screenplay of the 1979 film adapted from that novel, which did poorly on release but later developed a cult following. 

insert caption

A native storyteller that I've been hearing a lot of great things about during the pandemic is Stephen Graham Jones, a Blackfeet author of experimental, horror, crime, and science fiction. I've recently bought THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS, his literary horror novel published in 2020 that was praised by NPR as also doing "a lot in terms of illuminating Native American life from the inside, offering insights into how old traditions and modern living collide in contemporary life". 

Talking with Wanbli Weiden in September, he said of Jones: "He’s mainly known for his indigenous horror, but he wrote a [crime novel] that I think is almost a direct descendant of Louis Owens, called ALL THE BEAUTIFUL SINNERS. He very much takes Owens’ surrealistic style and then moves it in a new direction." 

Thanks for reading. Until next time. Ka kite anō.

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 

Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I'll be ending my fortnightly posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life.

Ehara taku toa, he takitahi, he toa takitini

(My success should not be bestowed onto me alone, as it was not individual success but success of a collective.)

Monday, November 29, 2021

Lessons from Stephen Sondheim

Annamaria on Monday

RIP to a genius with words

The New York Times calls him a titan.  He himself said that he thought teaching was a sacred profession.  We may not think we could ever come close to his genius with words, but we writers can look to him for lessons.

Sondheim's first big break as a lyricist/composer came when Leonard Bernstein chose him to write the lyrics for West Side Story.  Here is a song we all know (Aside: Rendition specially chosen for you, Stan):

Great right?  Yes!  But... 

Lesson one: Years ago, I heard an interview with Sondheim in which he  said he thought the lyrics you just heard were wrong.   He picked on one phrase in particular - "It's alarming how charming I feel."  He said those words are far too sophisticated for a girl like Maria.  The New York Times posted that 2008 interview at the top of its obituary on Saturday.  In it he says that Maria sounds like Noel Coward.  My debut novel had just gone to press when the interview first aired.  I blanched when, upon inspection of the page proofs, I saw the number of instances when my characters were using language that was (ahem) out of character for them. 

Here is my favorite version of Sondheim's biggest hit tune. Bonus: It comes with his intro and him accompanying Bernadette Peters:


Lesson two: Sondheim's introduction says he wants to teach us a lesson with this song. I'm not sure exactly what lesson he had in mind. What this song teaches me is that you don't have to dumb down your work to make it popular.  These subtly ambiguous lyrics struct a universal chord.

Then there is this:

Lesson three: if you want to show off your extensive vocabulary, you can get away with it.  But only if the scene is silly and will make people smile, not groan.

The Sondheim song that I listen to most often is this one.  This is my favorite rendition, by the incomparable Barbara Cook.

Lesson four: if you want readers/listeners to fall in love with your work, make them feel something. Make it intense. And especially if you can give them comfort or a glimmer of hope, they will keep coming back to what you have to say.

I've saved for last what I think is the most important lesson. Present MIE company excluded, I think this is a lesson that applies particularly to the crime novel genre. Lesson five in Sondheim's own words:

"I like to change styles.  That's one of the things that appeals to me about stories. It has to be unknown territory.  If you've never done anything like it before, it's got to make you nervous. If it doesn't make you nervous, you're going to write the thing you wrote before."

You can hear and see the whole that interview and hear these words and many more from Sondheim himself. Just click here.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

What comes next? Handling writer's block

Zoë Sharp

I wrote a post about writer’s block about seven years ago, but as it’s a condition that does not improve with time—or age, alas—I thought it was well worth revising and revisiting.


Up until a few years ago, I would never have considered that I suffered from writer’s block. I still view my work as a craft not an art, and whilst I always strive to become a better craftsperson/crafter/more crafty, that doesn’t mean I can get away with sitting around waiting for the muse to strike. Putting arse in chair and putting fingers on keyboard generally works for me. This is a job, after all, no longer a hobby. As Lee Child famously once said, lorry drivers don’t get lorry driver’s block—they simply get up in the morning, get in their lorry, and drive.


In the past I thought of writer’s block as being a dreadful case of staring at a blank page and not being able to get a word down. But according to the online definitions, it can go much further than that. It also covers being able to write, but being convinced that everything you produce is utter rubbish.

If that’s the case, I’m a chronic sufferer. 

One of the best blogs I ever came across on the subject was penned by 
Charlie Jane Anders going back ten years ago. In it, she explored the different types of creative shutdown that form WB, and how to overcome them. The blog itself is well worth reading, but here are the highlights:

You can’t come up with an idea

This has never been my problem. I have so many novel ideas they’re falling out of my ears. Unless, of course, we’re talking about blog ideas, or short story ideas, and then yes, I do stare holes in the walls. These days, if I’m stuck I try writing up any kind of scene for which I have half an idea, regardless if it might fit with a current project or not. The CJA blog recommends you do a ton of exercises to get your creative juices flowing, from writing a random scene in which somebody dies, or falls in love, to writing a scathing satire of someone you hate. (Of course, just be careful not to accidentally email this one out to your writing class buddies…)


You have plenty of ideas, but none of them seem to go anywhere

This is a tougher one to get around and I admit to it being an issue with me. Until I have the starting point of a story of any kind nailed down I feel I can’t proceed further. CJA suggests working out the purpose of a project—that the novel idea you’re losing a grip on is actually a short story, for instance—which may rescue it. Saving them for a later date is often the only thing you can do, and come back to them later—and by that she means sometimes years later—when any reservations surrounding them have had time to disperse. Instead, look round for something fresh. If your creative mind is working so hard on reasons to reject the current crop, the chances are it will soon produce something that works here and now.



You can’t make progress even though you have an outline

This always happens when I’m in the middle of a novel. I’ve carefully worked out my outline beforehand, but there will always be sticky bits, and they’re usually where things have got a little vague. I tend to think of working from an outline as like driving along a road at night. Your headlights are on and you can see the road immediately in front of you in stark detail, but beyond that things are hazier. You know ultimately where the road leads, but that doesn’t mean a deer isn’t going to leap into your path, or an oncoming driver will career into your lane and you have to be prepared to react to that. If I’m trying to shove a story forwards and it won’t go, there’s usually a good reason. The best bits—to my mind at least—are the ones that arrived easily and fast.
CJA points out there could be a couple of reasons for getting stuck in this way. Either your outline has a major flaw and you won’t admit it, or there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with your outline, but you just can’t see a way of getting from one high-point to the next. In either case, she suggests going off on a bit of a tangent and seeing what happens.


You have no idea what happens next

This can quite often happen if the night before I didn’t stop writing until my forehead kept nudging the space bar. The next morning I’ll open up the document and discover that not only have I stopped in mid-sentence—occasionally in mid-word—but I have no idea where I was going with it. Sometimes the bulk of the previous paragraph makes very little sense either, but that’s another thing altogether. This is why I try never to end the day’s work at the end of a scene or chapter, so I do know what’s supposed to happen next when I pick up the thread again, and I re-read the previous day’s scribblings as well to get me back up to speed. CJA suggests, if you’re really stuck, to have something unexpected happen. To have Huck and Jim take a wrong turn on the river and get lost, or to drop a grand piano on someone. Or, as Chandler would say, to have a man walk into the room with a gun.

You think your story took a wrong turn waaay back, but it’s only finally come to a head now

This is terrible. I mark progress on a book by the cumulative total of words and having to throw away some of those words because you’ve wandered down a literary cul-de-sac just throws the whole project out of whack. To quote some old phrase: there’s no harm in turning back if you’re on the wrong road. That’s not to say it doesn’t hurt, but don’t throw any of that excised chunk away. The chances are it might come in handy for something else further down the line. You just might not be absolutely sure what that is yet. CJA suggests that you miss a section and carry on from the point you feel you should have been at, had you not decided to deviate in the first place, leaving the missing part to be filled in later. As someone who frequently writes out of sequence—many’s the epilogue I’ve written before the rest of the book—this would work for me.


You’re bored with the characters

Here CJA and I deviate because she suggests that perhaps this is because you haven’t worked out who your main protagonist is yet, and you’ve been concentrating on someone who’s a minor character. CJA’s advice is that sometimes you have to find the knife before you can twist it, and therefore writing a dozen pages or so of nothing-much-happening will help you get inside the world you’re creating and possibly also discover whose voice grabs you hard enough to make it obvious they should be the main character rather than a bit-part player. 
When I was writing only the Charlie Fox series, I was never in any doubt who was the main protagonist. But since then I’ve written more third-person, multiple-viewpoint narratives. The latest Blake & Byron books focus on two main characters, but with various scenes from other viewpoints. These characters are important to that particular story, but who may (or may not) reappear in the next book.
The best advice I ever received on this front was to make everybody count. Imagine Hollywood is turning your book into a movie, and a bit-part actor has just been cast in only one short scene, in which he/she is questioned by your hero/she-ro. I want that actor to be delighted with the part, rather than reading glumly through their lines and thinking, ‘ah well, it pays the rent…’
The scenes I’ve just been working on are a case in point. My detective, Byron, needs to question a possible witness at a motorway service station. The witness turns out to be a female truck driver from Glasgow, who is a reformed drug addict and spends her downtime reading Dostoevsky. What’s not to like?


You keep imagining all the reasons why people are going to hate your work

CJA describes this as your Inner Critic—you can’t make choices because you keep imagining how someone on goodreads or Amazon will tear you apart for it later. The Inner Critic, she says, has its place during revision, but during the first draft stage is better drowned out with some Finnish death metal. I’d agree with this, but at the same time I tend to self-edit as I go along, and therefore I don’t rush a first draft onto the page with the thought that I can correct any problems at the second/third/fourth draft phase. But, this is just me. I know everyone writes in their own way and therefore I do give sneaky house room to my Inner Critic during the first draft. I just try not to let it paralyse me to the point where I can’t get anything down. Reading over and over what I’ve written previously, trying to refine and improve it, always helps.



The Difficult Third Quarter

Here I’m deviating completely from CJA’s list to add a few of my own. The Difficult Third Quarter—DTQ—is one of my constant bugbears when I write. The first quarter of the novel I’m racing into the story, introducing the players and asking more questions of the reader than I’m answering. The second quarter is for some answers, followed by more questions and a few red herrings. But the DTQ is when you have to start pulling the threads together. Pull them too tight, too soon and the ending falls flat. Don’t pull them tight enough and you’ll be left with too much explanation to do in the final chapter. Unless you write the kind of books where the detective settles everyone down in the drawing room for the big reveal, this is something to avoid.



So, my question this week is do you suffer from writer’s block and if so what do you do to combat it?


This week’s Word of the Week is carking, meaning anxiety, worry, a burden on the mind or spirit. It comes from the Anglo-French karke, from the Old North French carche, charge—a variant of load, burden, imposition.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Iceland Noir's After Party




Last Saturday, I wrote about the wisdom of Iceland Noir’s curated approach to matching panelists to their moderators, and I named some of the legends of the international mystery community honored by the festival.  All of that took place in the heart of Reykjavik, divided between two magnificent facilities separated by no more than a five-minute walk.





This week it’s all about the festival’s legendary “after party.” No, not the Saturday night disco get together in a private club overlooking the city, where Barbara and I got the crowd rocking and rolling–plus yours truly into a bit of limping.


What I’m talking about is the now traditional Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday trip by festival panelists and their partners to parts of Iceland hand-picked for their mysterious beauty and camaraderie-inducing magic by the festival’s organizers, Ragnar, Yrsa, Oskar, and Eva (right to left). 


Those three days create new friendships and reaffirm the “family affair” nature of the festival.  This year nearly forty of us caravanned along the south coast to our base of operations at the Hotel Ranga—after a delightful Sunday brunch hosted by Iceland’s First Lady at the official residence of the nation’s President.




Under pain of mysterious consequences, I’m sworn not to reveal the substance of the many confidences shared over those days, nor am I able to remember the names of the places we visited. BUT I do have photographs.  They will reveal some of our fellow travelers and the sort of venues we visited.  All I can say is this: There is nothing like Iceland Noir.












But now we’re home.