Saturday, April 27, 2013

Greetings from Puerto Vallarta...

One of the donkeys who lives on the arroyo went missing again. This seems to happen nearly every time I visit Puerto Vallarta. The donkey escapes, runs through the neighborhood. Or disappears for a much longer period. This time poor Andale was gone for more many months, and when he reappeared (or was found, I’m not sure which), he was emaciated and dehydrated. The theory is, he was stolen and forced to work, and then abandoned when he became more trouble than they felt he was worth. He’s getting shots from a vet and extra food, courtesy of my friend who lives in PV in a house by the arroyo.

The donkeys are kind of a pain in the ass, in that one of them starts braying at unexpected intervals in the middle of the night – an incredibly loud “Hawww-HEEE-hawww-HEEE-hawww,” trailing off into a sort of exasperated donkey grumble. Maybe he’s complaining about his job. This is the other donkey, not the one who went missing this time, who works entertaining tourists at one of the bars on Olas Altas. I imagine that could get pretty irritating.

But I like the donkeys (I will not say the same of the roosters – note to those not familiar with roosters – they do not just crow at dawn – or the semi-feral Chihuahua pack that lives in the house behind this one). They are a part of what makes Vallarta, Vallarta. The city still manages to be itself in spite of the condos, the time shares, the all-inclusive resorts. It’s a tourist town, to be sure, and an expat Mecca, but it’s also a Mexican town. One of these places that exists in two worlds. A liminal zone.

I try to come here once a year. I’ve found that I like to do that with some places. See them regularly, get to know them, without the familiarity of a resident, to be sure, but with greater intimacy than a tourist. To mark what changes, and what stays the same. I go to China every year, and I almost always fly in and out of Beijing, and spend a few days there. I couldn’t write a series set in Beijing if I didn’t do this – the city changes so quickly.

So, coming here, people have asked, “Are you writing a sequel?” – I wrote a book set in Vallarta called GETAWAY that was published last year. I am, I tell them, but so far it doesn’t take place in Vallarta.
Some people wonder why I come, then. They especially wonder given the book that I wrote, which is a tale of a Vallarta vacation gone horribly wrong. “I’m a little too nervous to go to Mexico,” one told me. The drug war violence has scared a lot of people away.

There are a lot of ways to reply to this. First, the book I wrote is fiction. I usually start with that. I’m writing suspense novels, so things have to go horribly wrong, by definition. I do try to base what I write on some degree of truth, however. So, yes, there’s a drug war going on in Mexico, and it’s caused a tremendous amount of damage and an appalling number of deaths. But you don’t see this part in a place like Vallarta. Most of the violence is concentrated in border areas and in places where rival cartels contend for control.

Vallarta, traditionally, has been mostly peaceful. As long as you are not actively involved in dangerous activities, this is a safe place to vacation and to live. I’ve heard more than once, “this is a vacation town, for the cartels too.” And, more importantly, this is a “lavanderia” – a place to launder money. The confluence of entertainment venues and hot real estate make it ideal.

You look at some of those blaring discos on the Malec√≥n, some of those massive condo projects that seem to spring out of nowhere, and you wonder: who’s paying for this? And why?

Here, everyone knows. 

“A lot of resort towns have that history, if you look,” a friend remarked at dinner last night. “I mean, Las Vegas. Atlantic City. The Catskills – that place was funded by bootleggers.”

If you look underneath the surface of just about anywhere, you’ll find all kinds of things.

There are societies that are more and that are less corrupt, to be sure. In the United States, most of us go about our daily activities with the expectation that people will be honest with each other, that contracts will be fulfilled. For all the loathing of Congress as an institution right now, for example, most people will say positive things about their individual representatives. Our society largely works well on that level, on the institutions both public and private that we encounter in our daily lives.

But look a little further. A little deeper. And not even very deep. I think about the financial crisis, the speculative activities that fueled it. You can call it incompetence, to be sure, but when the bankers and hedge fund managers who committed the damage get off with their careers and their bonuses intact, while millions of us lose jobs and houses and savings, you have to start calling it something else. Class warfare, maybe. Oligarchy. Plutocracy.

Or, simply, corruption. Corruption takes many forms, not all of which are as direct as a local cop demanding a mordita.

When you have the power, the money, to have laws written to your benefit, what do you call that?

So, greetings from beautiful Puerto Vallarta. I’m about ready to hit the beach, and have a margarita.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A bunch of crime fiction writers walk into a bar...

(originally published on "Murder is Everywhere")

Writers spend a lot of time alone. Most of us are introverts to some degree — you almost have to be, to deal with the solitary nature of the gig, to spend that much time in your head. But many of us also need our social outlets —and there's nothing like the chance to spend a few days with other members of your tribe.

The crime fiction community is fortunate to have a number of annual conventions, gatherings of writers and readers. What these events seem to have in common is that they all center around the hotel bar. I'm not suggesting that all writers drink a lot, but I think it's safe to say that most writers drink some. And drinking or not, the hotel bar is where you go to socialize.

(bar food at Left Coast Crime Colorado)

I just got back from Left Coast Crime, one of the two annual events I attend. The other is Bouchercon, the Big Kahuna of crime fiction conferences. Bouchercons typically bring in 1500+ attendees: authors, readers, publishers, agents, editors, reviewers, librarians and sales reps. Left Coast Crime is a more intimate affair, but equally professional in its organization and execution.

This year, Left Coast was in Colorado Springs, at the lovely Cheyenne Mountain Resort. This was the view from my window the first day of the conference:

This is a little misleading, because if you turn to your left, you'd see a really huge golf course (winter brown at least) and a bunch of "ranchettes." But still a beautiful setting.

So, a crime fiction conference -- what do you do?

There are panels to attend, on topics ranging from forensics to writing other cultures, to discussions on genre, on using social media, on cold cases, panels on craft, panels on marketing. 

(Panel:"The Character, The 'Why' in Mystery," featuring Jeanne Matthews, Terry Shames, David...crap, I'm really sorry I'm spacing on his name, cause he was an interesting guy, Shannon Baker, hello, I can't remember her name either, and she's also not in my conference program, and likewise had a lot of interesting things to say, plus moderator Robert Kresge, not pictured)

I was on two panels, "International Intrigue" and "What You Don't Know About Thriller Writers." Both were a blast. But as one of my fellow panelists said to me on the last night of the conference, "It's not about the panels. It's about...this!" An expansive wave around the bar. 

Even at this late hour, on the last night of the conference, there were groups of attendees moving chairs to make larger circles around tables, clustered in twos and threes around the bar, some going from group to group to chat with old friends and to make new ones. 

Yeah, I realize this all sounds pretty corny. But it's true. 

The first day of the conference, some of my fellow Los Angeles Sisters and Misters in Crime took an excursion to the Garden of the Gods. Beautiful...

But of course, what made it especially fun was the company...

(We Might Be Rock Stars)

The conference ran from Thursday through Sunday. On Saturday, a good-sized storm came through Colorado. Again, the view from my window:

(cold, white stuff falling from the sky)

By Sunday, the view looked like this:

(cold, white stuff no longer falling from the sky, but sticking to the ground)

Going to wonderful events like this and getting to hang out with people with whom I have so much in common, as a writer and as a reader, is really one of the best perks of this author gig. I'm very psyched that I still have Bouchercon to look forward to this year. And next year's Left Coast Crime is in gorgeous Monterey, CA! And the US Guest of Honor is none other than....(drumroll)...our own Cara Black! 

The rest of the line-up is equally epic.

Yes, I've already registered.