T.J. Newman’s Advice to Creatives

If you’ve never heard of T.J. Newman, you can be forgiven. Until fairly recently, T.J. was a flight attendant. To be more precise, she was a flight attendant with a dream. T.J. wanted to be a writer. In her spare time–and at times while she was working as a flight attendant–T.J. wrote a novel about a pilot who has to choose between purposely crashing his plane, killing everyone onboard, or having terrorists kill his family. It seemed like a great plot idea. Agents disagreed. Forty-one agents turned her down. Many of them didn’t even bother to read her writing. Forty-one rejections.

T.J thought about giving up. Who wouldn’t? But she reached out to a forty-second agent, and this one said “yes.” A few months later, T.J. had a two book deal and an advance of $1.5 million. Since then, her first book, Falling, has gone on to become a New York Times bestseller, has been distributed to more than thirty countries, and is soon to become a major motion picture. T.J. has another book, Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421,  coming out at the end of May 2023, and a $1.5 million movie deal.

T.J. recently penned an “Open Letter to Dreamers” in which she encourages creatives to never give up on their dreams. Here’s what she had to say:

*Originally published on Deadline.com (May 9, 2022)

I know that a lot of famous people — writers, directors, agents, lawyers, and powerbrokers — read Deadline every day.

But so do a lot of dreamers.

I know because for many years I was one of them.

This is an open letter to all the dreamers reading Deadline today.

After nearly two decades of trying and failing — and being rejected by 41 agents — last month, Warner Bros purchased the film rights to my second book, Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421, for $1.5 million against $3 million in a heated bidding war where five separate studios and streamers put up seven-figure offers. This is the part where I would normally say I never dreamed of something like this happening to me. But I did. I did dream. And dreams are important. They’re what keep us going. My dreams kept me going.


The Best Books I Read in 2022

Wow! What a year 2022 was for books. I read more great books this past year than I have in the past two or three years combined. I continued reading more nonfiction than I have in the past (with the exception of 2021), but I also had the great good fortune to spend time with terrific works of fiction. From a reading perspective, 2022 was a great year!

Although it’s a good problem to have, after reading so many good books, some really terrific books didn’t make the top 10 list. For instance, there were five books I read in 2022 that just missed this year’s top 10, but which would have easily made the list in any other year. Those books (in alphabetical order) are:

All five of these books were terrific, and there’s a part of me that feels guilty for not including them in my top 10.  Of course, that means that the books that did make the top 10 were exceptional. Here they are:

!0. Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution by Elie Mystal — Americans–particularly white Americans–take a lot for granted when it comes to the Constitution. We’ve been taught things about what different parts of the Constitution mean, and that has become common knowledge. And often, that common knowledge is wrong. Mystal does a great job of explaining the history of the Constitution in clear, easily digestible language, and then goes on to show how what we believe about the Constitution today is simply wrong. In fact, in many cases, what we believe about the Constitution is often unconstitutional (i.e., not in compliance with the Constitution). Throughout the book, Mystal is not only informative, but entertaining and often righteously indignant. The title of the book might lead readers to believe this is a book for black Americans, but it’s a book that should be read by all Americans who care about the history of the Constitutional and the truth of its meaning.

9. Anxious People by Fredrik Backman — I tend to be a realist. If a story takes place in the real world (as opposed to a sci-fi created world), I expect things to make sense. People should act the way people act in the real world, which usually means, they should act in their own best interest (If you’ve never heard my rant about the implausibility of the novel Gone Girl, you don’t know what you’re missing). Anxious People breaks this rule. Even so, I’m okay with it. Backman has a way of creating characters that the reader comes to care about so deeply, that they accept just about anything the character does, even if their behavior is unlikely. So, when an otherwise law-abiding citizen decides to rob a bank and the police investigating the crime choose to overlook the criminal behavior, what is a realist to do? In the hands of a master like Fredrik Backman, even a realist like me can accept the unlikely behavior. Why? It’s the characters. With Backman, it’s always the characters.

8. The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders — George Saunders is the best short story writer of his generation. But he’s not limited to short stories. In 2018, he published Lincoln in the Bardo, one of the finest novels I have ever read. The Braindead Megaphone is neither short stories nor novel. It is a book of essays. And true to Saunder’s form, it is brilliant. The Braindead Megaphone is not a new book. In fact, it was first published in 2007. Yet, much of what Saunders writes feels fresh and relevant today. Like all of Saunders’ writing, the essays are smart, witty, and exceptionally well written, with the unique Saunders’ voice. The essay that has stuck with me the longest is “Buddha Boy,” which was originally published in GQ Magazine. It is a travelogue of sorts, chronicling Saunder’s transcontinental journey to witness a meditating boy, purported to be the reincarnation of the Buddha. It is at once absurd, deeply spiritual, and steeped in the beauty of the human condition that Saunders brings to all of his writing.

7. Life’s Work: A Memoir by David Milch — Back in 2019, I wrote a blog post listing my favorite TV shows of all time. The top two shows on that list (Spoiler Alert!) were Hill Street Blues and Deadwood. In fact, I loved Deadwood so much, that I wrote a two-part deep dive (Part 1 and Part 2) into the show. The one common denominator between Hill Street Blues and Deadwood: David Milch. Milch was a writer on Hill Street Blues, and he created and wrote Deadwood. Both were groundbreaking shows. Sadly, Deadwood ended after just three years. Milch had much more of the story he wanted to tell, but he couldn’t reach an agreement with HBO to continue. For ten years, viewers and Milch yearned to return to Deadwood, but the deal with HBO was dead, the show’s actors had moved on to other projects, and Milch himself, who was the driving force behind the show, was in failing health, having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  But in 2019, Milch was able to get the band back together to do a movie. It wasn’t a return to the series, but it was mighty good just the same. Throughout his career, Milch was a creative genius, as both a show creator and writer. But he was also troubled, struggling with alcohol and drugs. He made a lot of money, lost most of it, and always relied on the strength and loyalty of his wife and kids. In Life’s Work, Milch brings his raw, gritty, unflinching style to his most personal story; his own. It was sad knowing his life story would be the last story he would ever share with the public, but it was also satisfying hearing it from the man who lived it.

6. The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant –In literary circles, Matt Bondurant is well known. His books have won several prizes and have been made into movies. He teaches creative writing at the University of Mississippi. I knew of Bondurant, but I had never read his writing until this past year. I’m glad I did. It’s an overused cliché to refer to literary writing as “rich” or “lush,” but that’s exactly what Bondurant’s writing is. It surrounds the readers, enveloping and engrossing them. In The Wettest County in the World (a moniker given to Franklin County, VA by famed writer Sherwood Anderson), Bondurant tells the true story of his grandfather and two grand uncles, all notorious moonshiners and tough guys in prohibition-era Virginia. The three men lived outside the law, protecting what was theirs with their fists and, when necessary, with guns. The Wettest County in the World was made into a movie (entitled Lawless) starring Shia Lebeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jessica Chastain. I’ve never seen the movie, but if it’s half as good as the book, it would be worth watching.

5. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles — In my 2021 list of the ten best books I had read, I commented that Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow may be the best written book I had ever had the pleasure of reading. I went on to say that Towles plot, despite being so well written,  was plodding and uninspiring. In The Lincoln Highway, Towles writing isn’t quite as brilliant (it’s still really good), but his plot is better. The story takes place in mid-1950’s Nebraska. Emmett Watson returns home from a juvenile work camp to his family’s empty farm. His mother ran off years before, and his father has died. His precocious younger brother, Billy, who worships Emmett, is living with the neighbors. To Emmett’s surprise, two of his pals from the work farm have escaped and joined him in Nebraska. Their appearance derails Emmett’s plans and sends him and Billy off on a cross-country adventure. They want to go to California to find their mother, but instead end up in New York City. Along the way, they meet interesting characters, suffer indignities, and experience the expansion of the nation along the Lincoln Highway.

4. Reimagining Blue: Thoughts on Life, Leadership, and a New Way Forward in Policing by Kristen Ziman — Kristen Ziman and I share a couple things in common. First, we were both born and raised in Aurora, IL. When we graduated from high school–me 13 years earlier than Kristen–we both joined the Aurora Police Department. I decided I really didn’t want a life as a cop. Kristen went the other direction, becoming a patrol officer, moving into leadership, and eventually becoming Chief of Police in Aurora. I wrote a complete book review of Reimagining Blue previously, so I won’t re-do that here. Instead, I’ll simply say that Ziman’s book caught me off-guard. I did not expect to be so entertained or inspired by her stories. Neither did I expect to be so impressed with her writing. Reimagining Blue is part history, part memoir, and part treatise on leadership. It is also a deep and badly needed look at policing in America. Ziman is unapologetic in her support of local law enforcement, but she refuses to turn a blind eye to the corruption and bad behavior that plagues many departments across the country. She believes that law enforcement plays an important and noble role in our society, but thinks we are getting it wrong when police departments take actions to separate themselves from the communities they are sworn to serve and protect, rather than enmesh themselves within those communities. Reimagining Blue is both an entertaining read as well as an invaluable resource when it comes to American law enforcement.

3. Heat 2 by Michael Mann — In 1995, Michael Mann wrote and directed the movie Heat, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, and Amy Brenneman. It was a blockbuster and went on to earn more than $180 million. For years, ideas for a prequel or a sequel rolled around in Mann’s mind. He wanted something big that would be worthy of the success he experienced with Heat. But as time went on and the nature of big blockbusters changed, the opportunity to make a prequel or sequel to the film vanished. Instead of a film, Mann turned his attention to a book. And instead of choosing a prequel or a sequel, he chose both, all in one book. Reading Heat 2 is like watching a movie. Mann’s descriptions and characters are cinematic in nature. His dialogue evokes dialogue from a movie. I can’t fully explain it, but reading Heat 2 was a unique experience for me. Other books reminded me of a movie. Heat 2 was like watching a movie. It is fast-paced, switching between timelines, relentlessly moving the story forward. Heat 2 was a fun, non-stop thrill ride.

2. The Dispatcher/Murder by Other Means/Travel by Bullet by John Scalzi — Imagine this: The world is exactly as it is today, but suddenly, people cannot die at the hands of another human being. In other words, people still die from disease, including old age. They still die from suicide. They still die from car crashes and other types of accidents. But they can’t die at the hands of another human. If another human is the cause of a death, the victim disappears from the site of the murder and reappears, usually at home, naked, but otherwise uninjured. Imagine how that would change our world. That’s exactly what John Scalzi did in these three short novels. And in this new world, the government employs people called dispatchers who, in certain circumstances, are empowered to kill another human in the name of saving their life. For instance, let’s say a young woman is critically injured in an auto accident and is rushed to the hospital. Doctors agree they cannot save her. Or perhaps she’ll never walk again. In this case, a dispatcher is called in to end the young woman’s life. Once killed, the young woman will disappear from the hospital and reappear at home, in the same condition she was in six or ten hours previous. It’s an intriguing premise and one that takes a lot of twists and turns throughout Scalzi’s three books. I’m not sure if there will be a fourth book, but I’m hopeful.

1. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman — Everyone has heard of A Man Called Ove now that it has been made into a movie starring Tom Hanks (somewhat oddly retitled, A Man Called Otto). I hear the movie is good, but I seriously doubt that it is as good as the book. As I stated in my review for Anxious People (see above), Backman is a master at creating characters that find their way into the reader’s heart and wedge themselves there. Often, these characters start out as unlovable. Maybe they’ve made a mess of their lives, or in Ove’s case, they are grumpy beyond reason. He has built a metaphorical suit of armor around himself to repel any sort of human affection. Of course, as the suit comes down and the real Ove emerges, we are sucked in. We care about Ove. We want to see him make friends and open up to the world again. Despite whatever missteps or hardships he’s had in the past (in fact, precisely because of these missteps and hardships) we want him to win, to experience some good in his too dark and callous life. This is Backman’s formula, and it works time and time again. A Man Called Ove will melt the heart of even the most curmudgeonly reader.


Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips for Writing Great Short Stories

Kurt Vonnegut is an interesting guy. I’ve written about him a couple of times before, and each time I do, I tend to learn something about Vonnegut, something about myself, and above all, something about writing.

Vonnegut was not only a great writer, most well-known for writing the novel Slaughterhouse-Five. He was also a veteran of World War II, a former POW, and a unique and deep thinker.

In the introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box, his 1999 collection of previously published magazine stories, Vonnegut offered eight tips on writing great short stories.

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Despite his advice, Vonnegut admitted that the best writers often break these rules. For instance, Flannery O’Conner, who Vonnegut considered to be the greatest short story writer of her generation, often broke these rules. “She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that,” Vonnegut is quoted as saying. Even so, he maintained that it is important to know the rules and learn how to follow them before breaking them.


Book Review: Reimagining Blue: Thoughts on Life, Leadership, and a New Way Forward in Policing

I graduated from high school in June 1978, and a few months later, I joined the Aurora (IL) Police Department as a cadet. In Illinois, police departments can hire people under the age of twenty-one to become cadets, which prepares them to become police officers. At the time, I was eighteen years old, immature, and had no real direction in my life. I needed to figure out what I was going to do for a living, and being a police officer seemed like a reasonable career path to follow.

Thirteen years after I joined the police department, Kristen Ziman became a cadet in Aurora. Unlike me, Kristen knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. Her father was a police officer in Aurora, and she wanted to follow in his footsteps. And while I gave up on becoming a police officer, Kristen followed through, finishing her time as a cadet, became a police officer, moved up the ranks within the department, and eventually became the first female chief in the history of the Aurora Police Department.

I did not know Kristen, but I knew a lot of the same people she knew. I worked with her dad, Hans Kjendal-Olsen, an immigrant from Norway and former US Marine. Hans was always very nice to me. I remember him as a quiet man, a bit of a loner, who I always saw as a bit exotic because of his hyphenated last name. He was the first man I’d ever met with a hyphenated last name (I was not particularly worldly).

I also knew Mike Nila, a fellow police officer and one of Kristen’s main mentors. Mike unknowingly influenced my decision to quit the police department and instead go to college. For Kristen, Mike encouraged her to read widely and seek further education in her chosen profession. Mike had a profound impact on us both.

After Kristen retired as Police Chief in Aurora in 2021, she wrote Reimaging Blue: Thoughts on Life, Leadership, and a New Way Forward in Policing. The book is part memoir, part treatise on what it means to be a cop in modern day America, and part leadership lesson. I’m not exactly sure what I expected when I picked up Reimaging Blue, but I can say that it was much better written, much more interesting, and much more inspiring than I could have expected.

Kristen opens the book by recounting what must have been the worst day of her professional career, the mass shooting at Henry Pratt Company, where six people—including the shooter—were killed, and six people—including five police officers—were injured. In Ziman’s telling, the shooting comes to life. As I read, I could feel my pulse quickening and my heart racing.

The book has several police stories, but it’s much more than just memories of her time as a cop . Ziman shares personal anecdotes including stories about her dad’s drinking problems, her marriage to and divorce from a fellow police officer, and her coming to terms with her own sexual orientation. One of the things I appreciated so much about Ziman’s book is the rawness of her story, how she takes responsibility for many of the challenges she faced, and what she learned by dealing with those challenges.

I came to know about Ziman following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I was sickened when I saw Floyd murdered by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, and my disgust was multiplied when I started reading comments from other police officers defending Chauvin or excusing his behavior.

Kristen Ziman was not one of those cops. In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, she wrote on her Facebook page:

“When I first watched the video of the Minneapolis police officer, I didn’t need to wait for more information to come in. I didn’t need to wait for the investigation to conclude before I made an assessment. When you place your knee on the neck of a human being for over eight minutes—a human being who is handcuffed and pleading that he can’t breathe—there is no defense…Resisting suffocation is not resisting arrest.”

Although I didn’t know Ziman personally, I sensed a kindred spirit who saw the job of police officers in much the same way I did. Ziman saw cops as community defenders and community builders. Without a doubt, she is a supporter of law enforcement officers, who she views as doing a noble and necessary job. However, she sees big problems with the warrior mentality a lot of cops exhibit. While far too many cops view their jobs with an “us against them” mentality, Ziman says there is only “we.” She advocates a police-servant mentality, building relationships in the community and being a good, respectful, and dependable neighbor.

Let me put a finer point on Ziman’s approach to policing. She has no time for cops who abuse their power or use their position for personal gain. She is a tireless promoter of the profession, but she understands that in many communities, police are not always welcome. She supports a more compassionate approach to policing that builds a partnership with the communities being served.

One thing that has impressed me about Ziman is the way the people she leads willingly and happily follow her. She really didn’t discuss this in the book, but I have seen it from afar. Ziman is a petit female in a profession dominated by macho males. Yet, she rose to the level of chief of her department on her own merits despite the obstacles that were thrown at her along the way.

For Ziman, “leadership is about aligning a vision and taking people where they need to go but otherwise wouldn’t. It’s about setting clear goals for your people and getting work done through others.” This is pretty standard stuff, but it’s foundational to being a leader.

When Ziman attended a three-week course at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, she learned another definition of leadership from Prof. Marty Linksy. Linsky suggested that leadership is about disappointing people at the rate they can absorb. Initially, Ziman rejected the idea. Disappointing people? Isn’t leadership about building people up, motivating and encouraging them? What was Linsky talking about?

Ziman left Harvard not understanding Linsky’s message. But when she got back to her office and had time to reflect on what her professor had said, she had a light bulb moment. As she describes in the book:

“When you are the top person in an organization, you can no longer point to someone above you and shift responsibility. That means that every decision is yours and yours alone. And even if you’ve collected other opinions and data, and made an informed decision, it’s still not going to please everyone. Even with the best of intentions, a leader is going to upset someone. Whether it be through a policy decision, a choice for promotion, or administering discipline, leaders disappoint people. Even when attempting to implement something new and big, that will change an organization for the better, people resist because it’s different from what they are used to. People are creatures of habit and they don’t particularly like to be forced out of their comfort zones. When their environment shifts, they stand their ground in defense of it…Being a leader who actually transforms an organization invariably means that some people are going to get left behind. It also means that you (the leader) have to find the precise amount of transformation, because people who walk in and decide to scrap everything are making a mistake. Every organization has a lot of wonderful in it, and those things should be left exactly as they are. But the things that need to be changed should be changed, even if it means that people are going to be disappointed in the process.”

Weeks after reading Reimaging Blue, I continue to be struck by the stories told and the lessons shared by Ziman. She shared them with authenticity, competence, hard-earned wisdom, and compassion. And she offered them in a way that is extraordinarily accessible to the reader.

Ziman is a young woman who, despite being retired, has much still to offer the police profession. I don’t know what the future holds for her, but I suspect she will play a leadership role in transforming another police department or law enforcement organization in the same way she transformed the Aurora Police Department.

Reimagining Blue is an informative, entertaining read that can be enjoyed by anyone. For law enforcement officers—particularly those in leadership positions—Ziman’s book should be required reading.


It’s Time to Get Busy

If you read my last post, you know that I’ve been busy for the past year or so completing a master’s degree that I started in 1984. Between re-certifying classes, researching my thesis topic, and writing my thesis, I’ve been really busy. Sadly, I haven’t had any time to write fiction. I’ve missed it, and for months, I’ve looked forward to getting back to working on my next novel.

Now that I’ve completed my master’s degree, there are a few things I’d like to accomplish.

There are two things I definitely want to complete by the end of the year. First, I want to complete the audio versions of my first three books. I’ve put this off for too long. I’ll be reading the books myself, and my daughter (a sound engineer) is going to be helping me out. I’m looking forward to getting this done.

Second, I want to complete (at least) the first draft of Second Chances, the novel I’ve been working on for nearly two years, and which was interrupted when I decided to finish my master’s degree. Second Chances is the story of former high school basketball players–all now in their 50’s–who get a chance to redeem the biggest, most demoralizing lose in team history.

The novel may be the most complicated book I’ve ever worked on. It involves telling the stories of six-eight different characters, the struggles they face, and the second chances they’re being given. It’s trickier than writing about just one character, but it’s much more satisfying to get right.

If I can finish those two things in the next five or six months, I’ll be happy. If by some miracle I finish both with time to spare, I’ll turn my attention to Leaving Home (formerly Paris), which is already in pretty good shape and shouldn’t take too long to get ready to publish. If there’s not enough time to get to Leaving Home this year, it will be first on the agenda for next year.

Today starts the countdown to the end of the year. It’s time to get busy.


How to Make Your Soul Grow: A Life Lesson from the Great Kurt Vonnegut

In 2006, an English teacher at Xavier High School in New York gave her students an unusual assignment. The teacher, Ms. Lockwood, instructed her students to write to their favorite author and ask for the author’s advice. The assignment was designed to help build the student’s persuasive writing skills.

Five students chose to write to Kurt Vonnegut, author of several novels and short stories, including his most famous work, Slaughterhouse Five. As it turned out, Vonnegut was the only author to answer any of the letters sent by the class. Here’s what he had to say:

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut


The Best Books I Read in 2021

In a lot of different ways, this past year was an odd one for me. One way it was odd was in the books I read. I read fewer works of fiction in 2021 than I have in several years. Instead, I found myself reading a lot of nonfiction. Part of the reason for this is the political times we are living in. There’s so much going on, and it takes time and effort to understand it all. Also, I’ve been working on a project that required reading a lot of nonfiction books. I enjoy most of the nonfiction books I read, but I miss spending more time with fiction.

Despite not reading a lot of fiction, I did read several really terrific works of fiction. In fact, I read one book this year that might be the most well written book I’ve ever read. Trust me, that’s saying a lot.

Once again this year, I had trouble deciding what kind of “books” to include in my list. I decided to include traditional books in print as well as audio-only books and Audible Original “Words & Music” books, which are audio books about musicians which include music. I didn’t include limited series podcasts, which are basically books split up into segments.

I also decided not to include audio lecturers, such as those in the Great Courses series. I’ve listened to dozens of these audio lectures over the years, mostly dealing with various religions, history, and biographies. This year, I listened to a history of the Supreme Court. They’re almost always terrific. Even so, I’ve decided not to include them in my top ten list. I’m not sure I can defend the decision to exclude these limited series podcasts or Great Courses audio lectures, but at least for this year, I’m not including them.

With these caveats out of the way, here are the ten best books I read in 2021:

10. It Was All a Lie by Stuart Stevens – Author Stuart Stevens is a former Republican political consultant who became disillusioned with the Republican party following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016. Over the next few years, Stevens watched the Republicans become a political party he no longer recognized. They did things and said things with Trump in the White House that were contrary to the values—the American values—he thought the Republican Party stood for. And, as the title suggests, Stevens came to the conclusion that all of the things the Republicans said they stood for before Trump were nothing more than lies. The book is a stark rebuke of Republican politicians and the Republican Party, including candidates that Stevens worked for and, in some cases, helped elect. Personally, I don’t buy everything Stevens says in the book. I knew too many Republicans who truly believed what they were saying and what they were working for prior to 2016. Even so, Stevens makes a strong case that Republicans weren’t practicing much of what they were preaching. And its clear that in some instances, many Republican politicians were simply ambitious opportunists who changed their tune in order to ride Trump’s coattails and take advantage of his base.

9. Playing to Win by Michael Lewis – If there’s a better nonfiction writer than Michael Lewis, I don’t know who it is. Lewis, the writer of such classics as The Blindside and Moneyball, never fails to impress. Playing to Win, while a smaller, more personal book, is no exception. In the book, Lewis chronicles the extent parents go to to prepare their kids for big-time college athletics. From running kids around for travel ball teams to attending expensive, high-pressure camps, to hiring private coaches, Lewis details the grind on both parents and players, and he does it using his own daughter, Dixie, who is a talented softball player, as an example. Lewis took a rather mundane story, something a lot of people experience, and turned it into an interesting read with characters that we come to really care about. That’s what a good writer does. Sadly, just a few months after reading Lewis’ book, his daughter, Dixie, was killed in a car accident.

 8. To Balance on Bridges by Rhiannon Giddens and The Moment in 1965 When Rock ‘n Roll Became Art by Steve Earle – Both of these books are part of Audible Originals “Words & Music” series. In To Balance on Bridges, Giddens talks about growing up in North Carolina, the daughter of a black mother and white father, about how her parent’s different cultures influenced her musical tastes, about her time in the Carolina Chocolate Drops bluegrass band, and about her partnership, in both music and in life, with Francesco Turrisi. Steve Earle takes the reader (listener) on a journey through his, at times, chaotic life, growing up in Texas, living as a singer-songwriter in Nashville, and ending up in New York City. In particular, Earle discusses the world in 1965 and how it impacted his life and his music. For music lovers, and lovers of great stories, I highly recommend both books.

7. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – I’ve wanted to read Colson Whitehead for some time. This year (2021), I got to read two of his books, The Nickle Boys and The Underground Railroad. I thought The Underground Railroad was better than The Nickle Boys, but The Nickle Boys was really good too. In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead tells the story of several slaves, either escaped from or released by their owners in the South, making their way to freedom  in the North via the underground railroad. The main character, Cora, encounters new worlds on her journey to freedom. She can never be sure who to trust, who to believe, or who to fear. Along the way, she meets other former slaves who face challenges of their own. Some get captured, some are killed, and some make it to freedom. Whitehead does an admirable job of weaving their stories together.

6. The Devil May Dance by Jake Tapper – Did you know that Jake Tapper, CNN anchor and host of “State of the Union” is an author? This past year, I had the opportunity to read both of his books of fiction, The Devil May Dance, as well as The Hellfire Club. Of the two, I thought his second novel, The Devil May Dance, was the better read. In Tapper’s book, Congressman Charlie Marder, along with his wife, Margaret, go to California at the behest of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to look into a potential threat, not only against the president, but against the security of the United States. In the process, the couple endears themselves to Frank Sinatra, and become honorary members of the Rat Pack. But does Sinatra have a connection to the threat the Congressman and his wife are there to investigate? Through plenty of twists and turns and famous faces, Charlie and Margaret get ever closer to the truth, but will it cost them their reputations, or even their lives?

5. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig – Every decision we make has an impact on the direction of our lives. Imagine if there was a place, a library out on the edge of the universe, where there were books that chronicled every decision we make, and tells the story of how our lives would have been changed if we had made a different decision. This is the concept behind The Midnight Library. Protagonist Nora Seed, existing somewhere between life and death, has access to the Midnight Library. She must decide if she should change her life by changing her career, her relationships, her dreams, and her desires. By making these changes—or not—Nora learns what makes life worth living.

4. Falling by T.J. Newman – Imagine you’re a pilot of a commercial airliner. As you take off from Los Angeles enroute to New York, you learn that your family has been kidnapped and the only way to save them is to crash your plane, killing all one-hundred-forty-three souls onboard. There’s one person on your plane aiding the kidnapper, but you don’t know who it is. If you don’t crash the plane, your family will die. If you do crash the plane, you’ll die along with everyone else on the plane. What would you do? That’s the conceit behind Falling, a suspenseful thriller by debut novelist and former flight attendant, T.J. Newman. The plot is fast-paced, and at times, a little unbelievable, but Newman pulls it off. Warning: I would suggest not reading this book on an airplane.

3. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor TowlesA Gentleman in Moscow may be the most well written novel I have ever read. That’s not just hyperbole. The writing is beautiful. So, why isn’t A Gentleman in Moscow the number one book of the year? Fair question. The problem with the book is that, while the writing is spectacular, the plot is just so-so. A more cynical critic might say A Gentleman in Moscow is the epitome of literary fiction. I’m not that cynical, but I’d understand the criticism. The book tells the story of Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocrat in Moscow just after the Bolshevik Revolution. Rostov is deemed unrepentant by a government tribunal and sentenced to house arrest at the hotel across the street from the Kremlin that he calls home. He is exiled to a small room on one of the upper, less desirable floors in the hotel where he establishes a routine for himself. Rostov loses the freedom he once enjoyed in the outside world, but his confinement in the hotel opens up a world of emotional discovery and freedom previously unknown by the Count.

2. The Sum of Us by Heather McGee – This is from the description of The Sum of Us: “Heather McGhee’s specialty is the American economy–and the mystery of why it so often fails the American public. From the financial crisis to rising student debt to collapsing public infrastructure, she found a common root problem: racism. But not just in the most obvious indignities for people of color. Racism has costs for white people, too. It is the common denominator of our most vexing public problems, the core dysfunction of our democracy and constitutive of the spiritual and moral crises that grip us all. But how did this happen? And is there a way out?” I couldn’t have said it better myself (That’s why I quoted so liberally). If you want to really understand how racism effects people of color, and how often, it also effects lower- and middle-class whites, you need to read The Sum of Us. It was the best nonfiction book I read this year, and one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read.

1. Bearskin by James A McLaughlin – This book was a real surprise to me. I’m not sure where I even heard about it, but when I first cracked open the book, I wasn’t expecting much. From the first chapter of the book, I was hooked. I like this kind of surprise. The book tells the story of Rice Moore, a former drug smuggler who thinks he’s put his troubled life behind him. He moves to Virginia to take over caretaker duties at a remote private forest preserve, owned by a mysterious and eclectic widow. But Rice doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into. When bears begin turning up dead in the preserve, Rice stumbles into a world of poaching, with a dose of rape and murder thrown in. Rice fights back against the poachers. But by fighting back, he runs the risk of revealing his whereabouts to the drug smugglers he worked for–and stole from–who are still looking for him.


New Year, New Goals

This past year didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned. Early in the year, I set a goal to write or edit four short stories, then submit them all to literary publications by mid-year. The good news is, I finished all four stories, but I never submitted any of them. In the end, I decided that it just wasn’t important enough to me to go through the headache of getting published in literary journals.

During the year, I also worked on two different novels, but didn’t make much headway on either. I’m still working on both but am considering turning one into a novella and abandoning the other.

Despite these challenges, it’s a new year and I’m excited to get it started. I have some plans for the year and I’m ready to share them. Here goes!

My first goal for the year is to record the audiobook version of my books Road Stories, Driven, and The Ones That Got Away. I’ve been wanting to do this for some time, and I’m determined to get it done this year.

I also want to figure out what I’m going to do with the two novels I’m working on. It’s time to move forward. I’ve spent too much time with these books and there are other books I want to write. I’d love to finish them and get them published, but that may not be in the cards. I need to make that decision soon.

There’s also a chance I may publish another collection of novellas and a book of short stories. That’s a bit of a stretch goal and it’s going to take a little work to get it done, but I have the material for both books nearly ready to go, so we’ll see.

I’m also working on two other non-writing projects in the first half of the year that are going to take up a good deal of my time. One involves competing in the National Senior Games in May. I’ll be competing in pickleball mixed doubles with my friend Linda. I have a lot of work to do to get ready for the competition—improving my game and building my endurance—so that will take a little time.

I’m also working on another project that I want to keep quiet for the time being. Very few people know about it at the moment. I’ll probably reveal more around April or May. Stay tuned.

I’m excited to get started and determined to be more productive in 2022 than I was in 2021. It’s time to get busy.


The Black Swallow of Death

Several years ago, I was working on a writing prompt based on Jimmy Buffett’s song, “He Went to Paris.” I did some research and found out that “He Went to Paris” was loosely based on the life of Eddie Balchowsky, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who, after being injured, was taken to Paris to recuperate. The injury resulted in Balchowsky losing a hand, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a well-regarded poet, artist, and piano player.

Buffett’s song was largely fictional, and I wanted my writing prompt to be the same way. Eddie Balchowsky’s life was the inspiration for Buffett’s song, and Buffett’s song was the inspiration for my novel (or maybe novella), tentatively entitled Leaving Home.

While researching Paris in the 1920’s, I came across a character that makes a cameo in my book, but who deserves a lot more notoriety. His name is Eugene Bullard and I’d like to tell you a little about him.

Bullard was born in 1895 in Columbus, GA to William and Josephine Bullard, former slaves from Stewart County, GA. Eugene attended school in Columbus and completed the fifth grade.

Bullard’s father believed strongly that black people should always display dignity and self-respect, even in the face of overwhelming white prejudice. The elder Bullard was once the victim of an attempted lynching, the attack coming in front of young Eugene. Even after the attack, his father continued to encourage Eugene, the seventh of ten children, to hold his head high and act with dignity. Eugene never forgot that lesson.

The elder Bullard used to tell his son stories about France, a place where slavery had been abolished and blacks were treated the same as whites. Young Eugene dreamed of someday going to France where he could be judged by his character rather than the color of his skin.

At the age of 11, Bullard ran away from home, with the intent of going to France. He landed in Atlanta, where he took up with an English clan of traveling gypsies. He tended horses for the gypsies, eventually learning to race. The gypsies told him stories about the equal treatment blacks received in England, which changed his ultimate destination goal to England.

As a 16-year old, Bullard developed a reputation as a competent jockey, and was hired by a family in Dawson, GA to ride their horse in the 1911 County Fair races. But his dream was not to be a jockey. He still wanted to make his way to Europe, where he could live a life free of racial discrimination.

In 1912, he stowed away on a German freighter out of Norfolk, VA and landed in Aberdeen, Scotland. From there, he made his way to London, where he earned a living as a boxer, and as a performer in a slapstick troupe known as the Freedman Pickaninnies. He trained with a well-known boxer known as Dixie Kid, who arranged a fight for him in Paris. It was this trip to Paris that convinced Bullard to settle there. He continued to box in Paris, and also worked in a music hall until the beginning of World War I.

Although Bullard was an American, he wanted to fight for France. A few months into the war, he joined the 3rd Marching Regiment of the Foreign Legion. Because he wasn’t French, he could only join the French Foreign Legion. He saw action as a machine gunner at Picardy, Artois, and the second Champagne offensive.

Later, he joined the 170th French Infantry Regiment, known as the “Swallows of Death.” It was during this time that Bullard received the nickname, the “Black Swallow of Death.” In March 1916, at the Battle of Verdun, Bullard was severely injured. He was cited for his acts of valor at Verdun and received the croix de guerre.

While he recuperated, Bullard learned to fly. When he was well enough, he received further flight training, and received his pilot’s license in May 1917. During a two-month period in 1917, Bullard flew 20 successful combat missions. When the Americans joined the war, Bullard applied to be a pilot in the United States Army Air Service, but was declined because only white pilots were allowed.

For his service to France, Bullard received several medals, awards, and citations, including the Medaille militaire, Croix du combattat volontaire, and the Medialle de Verdun.

Following his discharge, Bullard returned to Paris where he found work as a jazz drummer at Zelli’s, a nightclub owned by Joe Zelli. Bullard partnered with Zelli, and obtained a club license, which allowed the club to stay open past midnight. This was a boon to the club, and it thrived, becoming one of the most celebrated clubs in Montmartre. But Bullard was restless. Despite his success, he quit Zelli’s and joined a jazz ensemble that travelled to Alexandria, Egypt. He also began boxing again, competing in two fights while in Alexandria.

After his time in Egypt, Bullard returned to Paris where he earned a living hiring musicians for private parties, giving massages, and as an exercise trainer. He later managed Le Grand Duc, a jazz club, where he befriended and hired the American poet, Langston Hughes. In 1928, he bought Le Grand Duc from famed jazz singer Ada “Bricktop” Smith. It was at Le Grand Duc that Bullard became acquainted with such luminaries as Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, and French flying ace Charles Nungesser. Bullard’s fame in Paris garnered the attention of Ernest Hemingway, who based a minor character on Bullard in The Sun Also Rises.

In 1923, Bullard married Marcelle Straumann, a woman from a wealthy French family. They had two children, but divorced in 1935. Bullard was granted custody of their children.

When World War II began, Bullard agreed to spy on his German customers for the French government. Despite the war, the Germans still often frequented his club. But following the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, Bullard joined France’s 51st Infantry Regiment and was injured fighting in the Battle of Orleans. He escaped to Spain, then was flown to New York City, where he was hospitalized for his wounds.

Bullard’s return to the United States was not a happy one. The fame he enjoyed in France, as both a war hero and a club owner, was gone. He found work doing odd jobs, including selling perfume and as a security guard. He even worked as an interpreter for his old friend, Louis Armstrong. But life in the states was not nearly as good for him as it had been in France.

In 1945, at the conclusion of the war in Europe, Bullard returned to Paris to reclaim his club. Unfortunately, it had been destroyed during the war. He received a settlement from the French government, and used the money to purchase an apartment back in New York.

Despite fighting side-by-side during World War II, whites and blacks returned to their pre-war animosity in the United States. In 1949, during a concert by Paul Robeson in Peekskill, a riot erupted. Bullard was beaten by an angry mob, including local law enforcement officers. The beating was captured on film and was included in the Oscar-winning documentary, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist. Despite the photographic evidence, no one was ever prosecuted for Bullard’s beating.

For the next several years, Bullard lived in near anonymity. His daughters had married and he lived alone in his Harlem apartment, which was decorated with photos of his famous friends in France, as well as the 14 French war medals he had earned. He found work as an elevator operator in Rockefeller Center, and in 1959, was interviewed by Dave Garroway from the Today Show, about his military service and heroism. Following the interview, he received many letters of support. Bullard died in October 1961 of stomach cancer.

Despite his death, the honors continued to come in. In 1989 Bullard was inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame, and in 1994–thirty-three years after his death–he was posthumously awarded the rank of second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. In 2019, a statue of Eugene Bullard was erected in his honor at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, GA. Today, a sign stands near his home in Columbus, GA describing his early life.

Eugene Bullard may not be a household name, but what a life he lived. I’m glad I got to know a little about him.


The Genius of Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard is, by many accounts, the greatest American crime writer in history. Many of his books, like Freaky Deaky, Get Shorty, and Rum Punch, were turned into big Hollywood blockbusters. His Raylan Givens series was adapted into the popular TV series Justified. What’s less known about Leonard are the westerns he wrote, including 3:10 to Yuma and Hombre, and for purposes of this post, his book on writing, aptly titled, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

For Leonard, who died in 2013, writing was a job. He didn’t approach it as a hobby or wait until inspiration struck him. He sat down at his desk each morning, usually writing in longhand, and didn’t stop until 6:00 pm. He even worked through lunch, often snacking while he wrote.

Surprisingly, at least to me, Leonard didn’t care about plot. He started with characters, first naming them (a process that could take weeks), and then he let them loose. They’d talk to him, and their words would lead to the action that determined the plot. This is a very literary way to approach writing and it surprised me that Leonard, the king of the crime novel, employed it. Obviously, it worked for him.

During a talk at the New York Writers Institute, Leonard explained his approach to creating characters by assuming one of their personas and tattling on their creator:

“What he does, he makes us do all the work, the people in the books. Puts us in scenes and says go ahead and do something. No, first he thinks up names. Takes forever to think up names like Bob and Jack. Jackie for a woman, a female lead. Or Frank. Years ago anyone named Frank in one of his books was a bad guy. So then he used Frank as the name of a good guy one time and this Frank wouldn’t talk, refused to come out and become the kind of person Elmore wanted. So he changed his name to Jack after thinking of names for another few weeks, and it felt so good he couldn’t shut the guy up, I mean this Jack, not Elmore. So he names us and he says okay start talking. So that’s what we do. Sometimes if a character has trouble expressing himself he’s demoted. He’s given less to do in the book, or he might get shot. What can also happen if a minor or even a no-name character shows he can talk, he can shove his way into the story and get a more important part. So Elmore names us, gets us talking to each other, bumping heads or getting along okay and then I don’t know what happens to him, I think he takes off, leaves it up to us. There was a piece written about him one time in The Village Voice called ‘The Author Vanishes’ and it’s true.”

Leonard’s book on writing is a short tome, weighing in at only 96 pages, but it’s chock full of good, practical advice. The rules are geared toward crime writers, but writers of all stripes can find something useful in Leonard’s thoughts.

Here are Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing:

  1. Never open a book with the weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control!
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Same for places and things.
  10. Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.

As a writer trained in literary fiction, numbers 8 & 9 from the above list jump out at me. MFA programs train their writers to include rich, detailed descriptions of characters, places and things. We’re trained to paint a detailed picture of the scene and the characters in it. Leonard says no. He believes that overly specific descriptions slow down the story and tends to tug on the reader’s sleeve reminding them of the writer’s presence. Interesting. This is something I’ll have to think about.

In an interview with writer Martin Amis, Leonard expounded on his ten rules and came up with what can be thought of as eight addendums to his rules. Here they are along with some of his thoughts from the interview:

Addendum 1: Pick a routine. Stick with it.

“I write every day when I’m writing, some Saturdays and Sundays, a few hours each day. Because I want to stay with it. If a day goes by and you haven’t done anything, or a couple of days, it’s difficult to get back into the rhythm of it. I usually start working around 9:30 and I work until 6. I’m lucky to get what I consider four clean pages. They’re clean until the next day, the next morning. The time flies by.”

Addendum 2. All good writing has a point-of-view.

“First of all, I’m always writing from a point of view. I decide what the purpose of the scene is, and at least begin with some purpose. But, even more important, from whose point of view is this scene seen? Because then the narrative will take on somewhat the sound of the person who is seeing the scene.”

Addendum 3. Dialogue feeds narrative.

“From his dialogue, that’s what goes, somewhat, into the narrative. I start to write and I think, “Upon entering the room, “and I know I don’t want to say “Upon entering the room.” I don’t want my writing to sound like the way we were taught to write. Because I don’t want you to be aware of my writing. I don’t have the language. I have to rely upon my characters.”

Addendum 4. Writing in the third person lets you switch to the bad guys.

“I like third person. I don’t want to be stuck with one character’s viewpoint because there are too many viewpoints. And, of course, the bad guys’ viewpoints are a lot more fun. What they do is more fun. A few years ago, a friend of mine in the publishing business called up and said, ‘Has your good guy decided to do anything yet?’”

Addendum 5. It all starts with character, and they better be able to talk.

“I start with a character. Let’s say I want to write a book about a bail bondsman or a process server or a bank robber and a woman federal marshal. And they meet and something happens. That’s as much of an idea as I begin with. And then I see him in a situation, and I begin writing it and one thing leads to another. By Page 100, roughly, I should have my characters assembled. I should know my characters because they’re sort of auditioned in the opening scenes, and I can find out if they can talk or not. And if they can’t talk, they’re out.”

Addendum 6. Minor characters ought to assert themselves, too.

“[I]n every book there’s a minor character who comes along and pushes his way into the plot. He’s just needed to give some information, but all of a sudden he comes to life for me. Maybe it’s the way he says it. He might not even have a name the first time he appears. The second time he has a name. The third time he has a few more lines, and away he goes, and he becomes a plot turn in the book.”

Addendum 7. Bad guys also have mothers they should call more often.

“When I’m fashioning my bad guys, though (and sometimes a good guy has had a criminal past and then he can go either way; to me, he’s the best kind of character to have), I don’t think of them as bad guys. I just think of them as, for the most part, normal people who get up in the morning and they wonder what they’re going to have for breakfast, and they sneeze, and they wonder if they should call their mother, and then they rob a bank. Because that’s the way they are. Except for real hard-core guys.

Addendum 8. Appreciate the craft and you’ll never get tired of it.

“It’s the most satisfying thing I can imagine doing. To write that scene and then read it and it works. I love the sound of it. There’s nothing better than that. The notoriety that comes later doesn’t compare to the doing of it. I’ve been doing it for almost 47 years, and I’m still trying to make it better.”

Here is the video of Leonard giving a talk at the New York Writer’s Institute:

In 2006, BBC Two did a special on Leonard, allowing him to talk about his background and his writing process. There are a few more “writing advice” gems in this video as well: