Saturday, July 5, 2014

Come, Let us Party Like Book Patrons Do!

photo: J. Scott Smith

Writing a book is a lonesome experience -- at least it is for me.

When I'm at my desk, whether plotting, hacking out a paragraph, or deep in the archival research that informs my historic narratives, it feels like I'm completely alone in the world. My subjects have been dead for decades, their homes and offices bulldozed or forever transformed, even the language they use is different from how we speak today.

When I do my job right, I've got one foot so far in the past that a ringing telephone is just as startling as if it were breaking into a dream. It's a sort of time travel, with no room for a sidekick to tag along. And brutally hard as the work is, I love the feeling of being transported for a while.

I'm told that there are writers who thrive on workshopping. They share the day's pages with their loved ones at the dinner table, or bring new chapters to writer's groups for feedback and inspiration.

Even typing those words out makes my skin crawl. I think of a work-in-progress as an ugly little bundle of raw nerves, wrong words and half-baked ideas. It has to metaphorically settle, spend some time in the rock tumbler, sit on the counter with a wet cloth on top, be examined with a magnifying loupe, take a couple hundred trips around the block and generally be worked to death and back again before I'd dream of subjecting anyone else to its company.

The Kept Girl took about a year and a half to write and edit, preceded by six years of sporadic research into the true crimes featured within. It was only in the last six months that I began sharing what I had with trusted readers and incorporating their feedback.

And then, rather suddenly, it was finished. The book was set in print, final edits were made to ensure the paragraphs flowed prettily, the covers were printed, the pages were folded and trimmed and bound, the Art Deco wraps (video link) produced for the Subscribers' edition and my oft-tumbled little baby was sent out into the world.

Then a couple of months later, it was time for a party. The Kept Girl was published by the subscription method, with 65 generous and gracious readers supporting the project through their advance purchase of the deluxe edition. Their belief in the project was enormously encouraging, and I wanted to do something really nice to reward their faith and celebrate what we had accomplished together.

The Subscribers' Appreciation Party brought about half of that charmed body together for an afternoon's walking tour, followed by cake, wine and conversation upstairs at Figaro Bistro in Downtown Los Angeles.

This pretty place was formerly the historic Schaber's Cafeteria and is the home of our monthly LAVA Sunday Salon. It's always a pleasure to host a gathering in this room, but this one felt different, more charged.

David Smay gives a tug.
photo: Chinta Cooper

We began the festivities at the southeast corner of 6th and Hill Streets, to see the handsome doorway that inspired the design of the deluxe edition wraps. This was the first in a series of stops highlighting the real locations featured in the novel, and in the life and work of my hero, Raymond Chandler.

photo: J. Scott Smith

At Sixth and Olive we visited the Oviatt Building, which Chandler called the Treloar in The Lady in the Lake, in tribute to the Harvard-educated bodybuilder who ran the gym at the Los Angeles Athletic Club a block away.

photo: J. Scott Smith

Although the Art Deco entryway lost much of its historic glass when Oviatt lost his mind in the 1960s and sold it off to an admirer for $50, it remains a powerful portal into the jazz age city, and we were grateful for the opportunity to peep inside the stunning, and largely unchanged, retail floor which Chandler called the Gillerlain Company and where today you can dine and dance at the Cicada Club.

photo: J. Scott Smith

At Seventh and Olive, we admired the ruined hulk of the Bank of Italy, the Romanesque masterpiece where Chandler worked as an executive with the Dabney Oil Syndicate through the 1920s. It was the 1929 fraud complaint made by Dabney's nephew that sparked the investigation into the Great Eleven cult that revealed the terrible secrets that form my novel's core. The building is, despite its long neglect and the foul odors in its windbreak doorways, still very beautiful. We all said a small prayer that it might be sold to kinder owners and reopened one day.

photo: Chinta Cooper

Across the street, we gazed up at the windows of the Athletic Club, where Chandler listened in as big and often brutal deals were made by the kings of old Los Angeles, and where I spent many hallucinatory hours in the sauna, tapping into the rhythms of the lost city to write the dialogue for The Kept Girl.

photo: J. Scott Smith

Then out along 7th Street, in the panicked footsteps of my fictional Ray, as he races off to tell his policeman friend Tom James that Muriel Fischer, Ray's brave secretary and mistress, is in danger among the cultists. We stopped at Saint Vincent Court, the historic pathway with its many layers of Los Angeles history. In the book, Tom plants Ray among the trash cans while he alerts headquarters that another cop is needed on his beat.

Our next stop was 7th & Broadway, where Tom was stationed, and preached his gospel of civic reform, some years before "Cafeteria Kid" Clifford Clinton would take up the mantle and brave police-sanctioned bombings to get a crooked Mayor recalled. Although somewhat famous in his day, Tom's bravery had been forgotten until my friend Lynn Peril gave me a copy of his self-published whistleblower pamphlet. It's a strange, good, feeling to stand at "his" corner and share the story of Tom's belief in a fair and ethical Los Angeles.

The remainder of our walk took us up one of the handsomest blocks on Broadway, along the decorative terrazzo paths and beneath the theatrical marquees that would have been so familiar to the young Chandler.

We returned to Figaro's mezzanine to find a lovely spread of bread, cheese and meat selections, and glasses of wine for toasting, awaiting us.

The afternoon continued with a delightful party, as folks split off into smaller groups to talk, snack and examine "trading cards" from the novel that I'd prepared so they could see what the real life characters actually looked like. I signed a few books and answered questions, and got a chance to hear what some of my guests, who are quite a creative bunch, had been working on.
photo: J. Scott Smith

Figaro's owner, Jonathan Mgaieth, had prepared a beautiful and sinfully delicious berry custard confection on a dark chocolate base, with an edible marzipan inscription. It was like he'd peeked into my soul and found the perfect dessert to share with such a special group of people. The flavor profile evoked my late grandmother Becky's signature Trifle Pudding, while the sophisticated presentation was the thing to please my Francophile grandma (and famous Yelper) Cutie.

photo: J. Scott Smith

When the time came to cut into the cake, Subscriber Jerry Joseph surprised me by lifting a glass of wine and making a very beautiful toast, thanking me for conjuring up this lost world and bringing him and so many nice people along for the ride. It was such a gracious toast. I felt so grateful, and at a loss for words.
photo: J. Scott Smith

Then Richard, my wonderful husband who believed in this book long before I did, and who has so generously given of his time and talent to nurse it into being, cut into the cake and passed the pieces around, to much oo-ing and ah-ing. Conversation stopped, then bubbled up again, and all too soon it was getting to be time for folks to be going.

photo: J. Scott Smith

We all gathered then for a group photo, before splitting off into our component parts, having come together to celebrate a little tale with a long history, and 65 goodhearted heroes whose faith helped make it soar. And as I packed up the last bit of cake to enjoy at home with my family, I laughed aloud for ever having thought it lonesome to write this book.
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See all of J. Scott Smith's photos here.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The delights of print

It was exciting to click the link to "Models for Marlowe," Michael Paraskos' kind review of The Kept Girl in The Spectator, but that paled beside opening up the actual magazine, and finding dreamy John Gielgud moping above me on the page.

Thanks for the hard copy, MP!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Case of the Storybook Book Club

It's a little unusual for an author to attend a meeting of a book club that's discussing her latest book, but what is there to say but "you bet!" when the request comes from one of the prettiest storybook houses in Los Angeles?

So last night, I took The Kept Girl show on the road, for an evening of scintillating dinnertime conversation surrounding 1920s Los Angeles, the young Raymond Chandler, cults, judicial appeals, archival research and the joys and frustrations of independent publishing.

I was the guest of a wonderful group of Westside women who have been gathering to talk about books for 25 years. They don't typically read mysteries, or books set in Los Angeles, so I was honored that they put The Kept Girl on their list.

Our hostess, Martha, set a beautiful and clever table dotted with a selection of packaged foods that were available in the 1920s. We began with Waldorf Salad. Dessert, naturally, was Jell-O.

I brought along little packets of photos of the real-life characters who appear in the book, wrapped in a replica of the limited edition art deco slipcase. It's fun to share these faces, which I've lived with for so many long hours, with folks who have only met them in the novel. I didn't take a formal poll, but it appeared that Raymond Chandler (at 12 o'clock) and Manly P. Hall (at 3 o'clock) were tied for book club dreamboat status.

The night ended with a lively discussion about the group's summer reads, and the gift of this lovely bouquet of purple hyacinth flowers from our hostess' daughter, Alissa. Their perfume today reminds me of a very sweet night.

Is your book club interested in reading The Kept Girl? Esotouric Ink offers discounted copies for group orders, and can provide discussion questions on request.   

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Printing "The Kept Girl" - Behind the Scenes Footage

Writers, readers: did you ever wonder how the book on your shelf was made? This four-part video series (with a new episode published daily from April 8-11, 2014) reveals the secrets of modern offset printing, through the process of printing The Kept Girl, a neo-noir novel from Esotouric Ink.

The Kept Girl is crime historian Kim Cooper's acclaimed debut mystery, starring the young Raymond Chandler, his devoted secretary and the real L.A. cop who is a likely model for Philip Marlowe, all on the trail of a cult of murderous angel worshippers.

Although The Kept Girl was printed using modern offset press technology, the book has a look and feel inspired by the pulp fiction of the 1940s. It needed a printer who understood what Esotouric Ink was aiming for, and would let them be part of the production process to ensure the book hit its unusual aesthetic marks.

In this four-part series, you are up close and personal at Tower-Lee Company, the oldest family-run printing concern in Los Angeles, watching inner pages and cover wraps of "The Kept Girl" come off the offset press and pass through the folding machine, as well as watching a test run of the hand-crafted Art Deco decorative wraps created for the deluxe edition, and learning how this neo-noir novel was crafted in the digital age.

Visit us daily for a link to each new episode.

Day One: The Guts (published April 8, 2014)
Day Two: Color Covers & The Folding Machine (published April 9, 2014)
Day Three: Decorative Wraps for the Deluxe Edition (published April 10, 2014)
Day Four: Interview with the printer (published April 11, 2014)

The Tower-Lee Company's website. For a printing quote call Gary (323) 890-1000.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Kim Cooper's blog tour guest posts

All through February, Kim Cooper was on a virtual blog tour celebrating the launch of her debut mystery novel, The Kept Girl. Along with interviews, excerpts book reviews, the tour included five original essays placed on bookish blogs:

Plus one more, post tour: a Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist highlighting music that inspired the story.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Kim Cooper explains the origins of "The Kept Girl"

Los Angeles Times, October 1929

I first encountered the Great Eleven cult while researching a true crime bus tour called Wild Wild West Side for EsotouricThe cult's mixture of esoteric absurdity, brutality and sex appeal was fascinating, and I accumulated a large file of press clippings and legal documents in an attempt to understand their motivations. Passengers on the tour were similarly captivated by the cult's bizarre antics, and quite moved when we paid a graveyard visit to their youngest victim, Willa Rhoads.

After a few excursions, all of Esotouric's West L.A. bus tours went on hiatus. But I didn't want to let the Great Eleven go. Another facet of their story fit in perfectly with my husband Richard's tour of Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: their most prominent financial victim was the nephew of Chandler's boss at the Dabney Oil Syndicate.

Raymond Chandler, circa 1920s

My other task on this tour was introducing Thomas H. James, a crusading Los Angeles policeman and likely model for Chandler's white knight detective Philip Marlowe.

The two narratives blended together as I shared my research—which grew to include James' scarce self-published pamphlet Chief Steckel Unmasked (a gift from the writer Lynn Peril) and writings and historic documents from the collection of Rick Baudé, whose mother is the last surviving member of the cult.

With each successive telling, I felt I understood the characters and their city better. I yearned to do something more with them, but what? How could I tell these concurrent, but not necessarily connected, stories outside of the specialized format of a bus tour?

Lonely old people—financial fraudsters—Raymond Chandler and his women—crooked politicians— idealistic cops—missing husbands—golden idols—the great bubble of boomtown Los Angeles about to burst—oil—alcohol—milk—blood. It all simmered together in my brain until, one day, I saw the pieces of the puzzle start to click into place, and the form they took was fiction.

It wasn't what had actually happened, but it absolutely could have been.

I set down mental pins representing the facts of the fraud against Clifford Dabney. Then I put Raymond Chandler and Thomas H. James on the set, and moved them among the other figures. I could feel the story meshing like the wheels inside a clock.

Chandler with Dorothy Fisher.

But there was something missing—or rather someone. If you know your Raymond Chandler, you know he was worthless without a smart secretary at his side. And so I created the character of Muriel Fischer, her name and aspects of her personality a nod to Chandler's Paramount Studios secretary Dorothy Fisher, who I was privileged to know at the end of her life.

Once Muriel was in the picture, everything came alive.

The result is The Kept Girl, my first novel. You can read the first few pages here.