“Artists Behaving Badly” is a topic that has fascinated the public for centuries. It continues to this day in the publishing arena, with blogs by agents, booksellers and readers commenting on rude, insensitive and egotistical writers, who cut themselves off from other authors, their facilitators and even their reading public.
But leading the pack of collegial, helpful and friendly writers, who hopefully are in the majority, was our guest speaker at last Saturday’s Movie Night, Author John Lutz. I had the honor of making the introduction to his pre-screening talk. His work includes political suspense, private eye novels, thrillers, regional suspense, urban suspense, humor, occult, crime caper, police procedural, espionage, historical, futuristic, amateur detective…virtually every mystery sub-genre. He is the author of more than forty novels and over 200 short stories and articles. His awards include the Edgar, the Shamus, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Golden Derringer Award. His novels and short fiction have been translated into almost every language and adapted for almost every medium. He is a past president of both Mystery Writers of America and Private Eye Writers of America.
His latest published book is the crime thriller Night Kills. Another is due in October. From his private investigator novels–the Nudger series in the late ’70s and the Carvers of the 80s, to his more recent output of nail-biting thrillers, he has sent his flawed protagonists and misfit yet brilliant associates into danger in steaming Florida swamps, seamy St. Louis neighborhoods and the plush New York offices of drug lords as well as the sleazy hangouts of their operatives.
The conditioned air in the Engineers Club of St. Louis provided welcome respite on a warm July evening, as fellow writers arrived early to set up for an experimental program. In a new location, a new format and a new medium (for us anyway), we had decided to take advantage of the fact that one of our long-time members, this award-winning author, had scored a writer’s coup, launching a successful feature film.
As my wife and I pulled into the parking lot a few minutes before the doors were to open, sitting in a modest sedan waiting to go to work was Mr. Lutz himself, accompanied by his charming wife, Barbara. Soon joined by fellow members Brad Cook, David Lucas, Joe Passanise and our president, Rebecca Carron, we got down to business. He handed me a two-sided disk, which offered either the old TV format or the wide-screen version (we picked the latter), and we inserted it into the DVD drive of my laptop, which I had already hooked into the club’s high-tech projection system. We hoped for the best: when I’d plugged the computer in, I’d made a wrong menu choice that caused the picture to disappear out of view on the left side of the monitor, and it took Brad, some thirty years my junior, about twenty minutes to unravel my error and show the movie where we wanted it–on the projection screen.
In the midst of that confusion, Daniel, a slender, neat young man even junior to Brad, appeared from Left Bank Books, with his cartons of John Lutz mysteries and thrillers–although he regretted that he did not have copies of his 1990 classic,SWF Seeks Same upon which the film was based.
Meanwhile our audience began arriving and Joe and his wife set up shop to check members in; Rebecca set up popcorn sales, and David hauled in heavy coolers of chilled soda, all in the spirit of providing an informal movie theater atmosphere. The only thing missing (blissfully) was a pack of teenagers creating a disturbance in the front of the theater.
John’s remarks were illuminating. Unlike so many writers who’d been told to “deposit their manuscripts at the California state line” and invited to scram, he’d had a cheerful experience, complete with his own director’s chair, parties and even consultations on arcane details of scenery.
He credits the film’s artistry to Producer-Director Barbet Schroeder, Don Roos, who wrote the screenplay, cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, who created dramatic lighting effects, and to the original musical score by Howard Shore. He felt blessed by the fact that studio executives left them alone until the final screenings. At that point, one mogul who was known for meddling with and messing up many a good film changed the ending. Even that, John said, had its benefits.
“The net effect of this intervention was to take what would have been a good art film, struggling to earn back its $20 million investment, and turn it into a strong commercial thriller, which also developed a cult following and grossed over $80 million worldwide.”
In my note of appreciation for his marvelous program, I said, from an aspiring writer’s point of view, “I stayed up late last night to finish Night Kills. It almost discourages me to see how much skill in plot, pacing and character you’ve woven into this masterful story. While I said I admire your style and try to write the kind of story you do (with the same sense of atmosphere, complex plots and noir characters, although more amateur sleuth and romantic suspense than police procedural), I can only hope that someday I can approach the level you consistently maintain.” This fast-moving and enthralling novel takes the theme–anonymity in the big city breeds vulnerability to evil–that began with SWF Seeks Same and explores its possibilities in even greater breadth and depth.
It’s fitting that John have the last word here. He wrote in reply, “Much thanks for your efforts. I had a good time reintroducing SWF to people who seemed to enjoy it. Thanks also for your kind words on Night Kills. Barb also enjoyed the evening, both the company and her two seconds on screen. Movies are fun but books are better.”
More next time, but, as the late, great John Ciardi would say,
Good words to you,