Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Two Minute Book Review -- Adrian C. Louis's Savage Sunsets

Of course any discussion of Adrian Louis's work needs to go over his view of the life of Indians in contemporary society, but he's doing more than that here. His poetry gives us insight into the life of an Indian, a Mid-Westerner, a college professor, a Minnesotan, and just an older guy. He's playing with color imagery in an interesting way here too, especially gray. I read this all in one shot -- beginning to end --  and I think it would have had greater impact to read the poems individually, let them roll around my brain pan for a day or two and then come back to them. Each is profound not so much for the what it says but the way it says it, and I know that's not completely clear, but I also know that it's true even if I don't understand my own words completely.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Crispin Guest Saved me That Year

I don’t know what book I was reading when Ann and I decided to do a short sale on our house, but I know I started Jeri Westerson’s Blood Lance soon after. I was told that Jeri was a good reader, and I was thinking about having her out to read at the college where I teach.

It was a difficult time. I had a good job, and I had bought the absolute cheapest house in my part of Los Angeles, but I hadn’t gotten the cost of living pay increases that had been standard, and the repairs on the house had been tens of thousands of dollars more than I’d been told they would be. After years of trying to keep up, it made sense finally to do a short sale on my house, a process that’s just one step up on a foreclosure. I’d give up my house and ruin what had been a near perfect credit rating. It destroyed my sense of self and my ideas about ownership and security.

Plus, it just kind of sucked.

That’s when I started to read Jeri Westerson’s medieval noir series, which follows Crispin Guest, a fallen knight turned tracker -- what we would think of a private detective.

I love period pieces. I love mystery novels. I loved this series. And I’d finished all the Cadfael novels years earlier. I found myself preferring Guest to Cadfael. Why? He was exactly what I needed when I needed it.

That he had lost his property and his home was lost to me at the time, but that had to have something to do with it. But despite his setbacks, he was brave and good. The writing was clean and direct and the good guy kept doing good things.

The Crispin Guest novels are all powerful and fun. I lost myself in their stories which moved quickly and Guest is always on the edge or dying or losing, but he pulls himself out in the last minutes. They are absolutely brilliant and all consuming.

And that’s what I needed then, to be consumed by something other than the fact that I was losing what I’d worked so hard to keep. And Guest helped to remind me that property and things aren’t the most important parts of my life. If, like him, I could keep my important friendships and my honor, if I could help other people out when I could, that was all right. That was enough.

They were written well, and they hit me just exactly when I needed them to hit me.

That was more than enough.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Two Minute Book Review -- Gyles Brandreth's Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol

Great mystery novel. Loved it. It follows Oscar Wilde after he'd been arrested and imprisoned for his non-crimes. (I could go into a long rant here). And it imagines him as a kind of Sherlock Holmes character solving murders that happened while he was imprisoned. I won't give away the mysteries, of course, but like any great mystery novel, the mysteries are secondary. What's more important to the author, I assume, was the discussion of Wilde and the way he lived. He was very much a part of Doyle's creation of Holmes, helped to inspire and even to come up with plots. I loved the accuracy there. But I loved the complexity and accuracy that went into his discussion of the brutality of the prison system in Wilde's age. Read it.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Why We Love Dick Francis

I didn’t read mystery novels until I was about thirty. Dick Francis brought me in. I had a four-hour commute that year, and I was developing a serious addiction to audio books. In those long hours, I learned that I love Dick Francis because he treated his readers like adults.

I’m not a horse person either. I think a lot of readers are drawn to his work because he writes about that world so well. Not me. No, I like the way he writes about evil.

Evil works its way throughout his novels, and he captures its petty smallness so well. It is not a maniacal genius who is going to do you in, in a Dick Francis novel, but someone who just wants to win office or someone who wants to make a little more money at the horse races. The villains are not towering men who control the world. They are pathetic and petty, and they use whatever little power they have to hurt people in their lives.

It sounded familiar to me. It sounded like all the evil I’d ever come face to face with in my life. He was treating me like an adult exploring issues that were relevant in a real manner -- things that I’d encountered and never fully understood.

And he explored the idea of good too. His protagonists were good guys, deep down, but they weren’t sure of themselves. They never had complete clarity on their morality. They were just muddling through life trying to do the right thing at the right time. Often, they were underinformed and worried that maybe they were on the wrong side.

The race track made sense to them. On a horse, they only needed to ride. They had clarity, and that’s the way they liked it. They would ride their hardest and their best even if doing so meant they would have to take a ten pound penalty in a more important race. So the race track became a larger metaphor for who they wanted to be not necessarily who they were.

That too sounded familiar to me. So much of our lives, we are under-informed and hoping that we’re making the right choices -- worried that we’re on the wrong side, and it’s such a relief when we find our own race tracks.

Stephen King once said that we write to recapture the feeling we had when we read our favorite authors, and that’s certainly true for me. My own crime novels are in loving response to Dick Francis and a couple of other writers, like Lawrence Block and Robert Barnard.

It’s wonderful when just the right novel hits you at just the right moment when you’re feeling just the right thing. It changes you.

Dick Francis certainly did that for me.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Two Minute Book Review -- Chris Swinney's Gray Ghost

Chris Swinney is an actual narcotics agent turned novelist, and his professional intelligence and competence comes through in the details of this novel. It's a very strong novel that is entertaining and kept me focused and engaged the entire time. It great to get an insider's look at the way actual narcotics police view their job and the world. It is an all-consuming lifestyle, not just a job, and that comes through not only in the day to day work that we see throughout the book, but in the way the officers describe themselves and the way they deal with the world. And it's not just strong because of the technical details. It's fun and engaging for anyone who liked movies like Dead Bang or Heat.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Two Minute Book Review -- Horatio Nelson By Tom Pocock

A very straight forward, pro-British view of the man. Nothing was really surprising, but it gave me a relook at the sailor's life and I've been thinking about this period in world history lately. I gotta get back to mysteries and poetry collections.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Best and Worst Cars in Detective Movies, Fiction, and T.V. Shows

I’m always telling my creative writing students that the objects characters have with them help to define who they are to the readers. With mystery, crime, and suspense, the object that often defines characters most clearly are the cars they drive.

Want to nail down characters’ strengths or weakness? Put them in a car that sticks out.

Below is a list of some of the best and worst cars in film, television, and books.

Great: Thomas Magnum’s Ferrari is the perfect symbol for the character and a fun car too. In Freudian terms, Magnum P.I. was the story of a superego trying desperately to be an id and failing. What? He was a person who lived by a code and followed rules, but after the horrors of Vietnam, he was trying to break out of that role, but it was his code that saved him every time. The Ferrari was the ultimate expression of that desire and of the failure too. It was a free sports car, but it came with all of Higgins’s rules.

Terrible: Kinsey Milhone’s broken down VW. Sue Grafton’s novels are set permanently in the mid-1980s with Kinsey right at the start of her career. The car reflects her lack of money, and the car is always reliable but right on the edge. This is also a perfect metaphor for Kinsey, that great character who is so wonderfully reliable but always in danger.

Great: Steve McQueen’s mustang in Bullet. Never has anyone been cooler than Steve McQueen, and never has there been a cooler car. Both were stronger than everything out there, faster, better. Never has a chase scene been more exciting than McQueen on the streets of San Francisco.

Great: Nick Mancuso’s stingray in the short lived television show Stingray. I cannot remember anything about that show except how great the car was. I suppose that means the show wasn’t strong, but I’ve dreamed about owning that car. How well does it reflect the character? I admit defeat here. I can’t remember anything that happened in any episode.

Terrible: Gus’s Blueberry in Psych. Gus drives his company 2002 Toyota Echo, which is a perfectly good car. It’s reliable, but it helps to highlight that these two are not action stars in any way. The scenes that capture them the best are when they see a murder and go running away squealing in horror.

Great: Nero Wolfe’s ever shifting collection of cars. Because Wolfe keeps himself rich and he’s terrified of contraptions, Archie Goodwin goes out and buys new cars to keep Wolfe’s paranoia at a minimum. Each year, they have a new Heron or Rolls Royce, cars that will keep Wolfe safe and fuel Goodwin’s sense of style.

Great: Mike Hammer’s Jaguar in Kiss Me Deadly. I’ve never liked Mike Hammer. He’s too evil, takes too dim a view on humanity. He’s nearly impossible to like except for those moments when I want to feel some schadenfreude for the bad guys, and those moments are few and far between. His Jaguar captures his personality though. It’s tough and fast, and he’s always pushing it to the edge. Say what you want about Hammer, the man knew his cars.

Great: Jim Rockford’s brown Firebird. To me, this was more iconic than Magnum’s car. It’s a sports car, yes, but really the best car a person who has almost no money can afford. It never breaks down or gives up, like Rockford himself, who keeps going even when he’s thrown into prison.

Terrible: Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy’s collection of broken down cars. Lovejoy is an antiques dealer, so he never has much money, but he always needs to transport his goods. Generally he has old trucks he’s afraid to push over twenty miles an hour. Luckily he’s generally in the middle of an affair with any one of a number of rich women who are always willing to give him a lift.

Having started this list, I realize that I could go on for days. I’m missing cars and detectives that I love here, but where to end? The car is so often a vital character in detective fiction. Who am I blatantly missing? What cars do you love and love to hate?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Catching up on my book reviews

Here are some two minute book reviews. I've been caught up doing other things, but the reading continues. Right now, I'm poking around history book trying to get some inspiration for a new poetry collection or mini-collection. I don't know if that's going to work or not. Maybe I should be poking around poetry books.

H. C. Robbins Landon 1791 Mozart's Last Year

I picked this one up hoping that it would give an alternative perspective of one of history's most interesting eras -- to me at least. There's political turmoil, post-American Revolution and the French Revolution was heating up. So much was changing in Europe including the emergence of some of England's most interesting poets and writers. Nope, none of that. I don't know anything about music and this was very much a discussion of the technicalities of music. I couldn't follow a lot of it. I think it would be a good book for anyone who understands anything about music in a technical way. Although I have a wide appreciation, I was never in band, don't know what the word "clef" means.

Elmore Leonard's Road Dogs

No one writes an idiot like Elmore Leonard, and I love the way he captures petty crime and the true baseness and pettiness of evil. That's what it is usually. Hitlers are rare, thank goodness. Mostly we have to deal with the moronic sociopath who wants to hurt us because hurting us is fun, which is pretty close to the definition of sociopathy. This one continues with the story of Jack Foley (think of George Clooney's character in Out of Sight) as he's finally and legitimately let out of jail. He wants to get out of bank robbing and into something legit, but he's pulled into the world of con artists who are trying to fool a widow out of her money. The book isn't his best, but it's still Elmore Leonard and I loved watching Foley at work again.

Dennis Lehan's Mystic River

Seems strange to review a blockbuster after this many years, but I'd never read it before. Read it, but only if you're ready to have yourself destroyed emotionally. I'm not giving anything away here. The first moment begins with terrible tragedy and it goes from there. Great book. It deserves its status.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Fish Drop

I went up to Weaver Lake recently, the lake that inspired my short story "The Fish Drop" from my book, Let Us All Pray Now to Our Own Strange Gods. Below I've copied the story and a video of the lake. The lake is in the middle of Sequoia National Forest next to Sequoia National Park, famous for the giant Sequoia trees, but the trees aren't the only reason to go there. Every single inch of the park and forest is absolutely amazing. I hope you enjoy the story and the video. My dog is in there too!

The Fish Drop
Stanley is awake and up and out of the tent before Harrison can even move in his sleeping bag. Harrison slept outside last night, next to the fire with two sleeping bags zipped up to make one big bag, and he thought that he’d be up with the dawn, but the sun’s been rising for a while now. Luckily, Deena’s scrunched down a little in the bag, and Harrison can pull the edge up enough so that Stanley doesn’t notice her head as he passes by.

“Morning, Dad,” he says.

It’s funny how many things kids his age miss, but on the other hand, why should he even think to check on what his father is doing, has been doing. “Hey, Buddy,” Harrison says. “Would you mind checking on something in the tent for a moment?”

Stanley turns to him with that frustrated look that he gets every once in a while now. He seems to be growing into it. He narrows his eyes at the sleeping bag, and for a worried moment, Harrison thinks he’s going to figure out what his father has been doing all night, but he doesn’t ask about the extra lump in the bag. “Can I go to the bathroom first?” he asks.

Harrison exhales. “Sure, yeah, of course,” and he watches the boy walk out of the campsite, making his way away from the lake to relieve himself in privacy.

“I don’t know why you’re so paranoid about him finding out about us,” Deena says. She climbs out of the bag and pulls on her shorts and a t-shirt. “You’re going to tell him eventually, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I just don’t want to confuse him too much. He’s been through a lot in the last couple of months, you know. He doesn’t need any more.”

“I didn’t realize that I could be such a burden on him.” But she pulls on her shoes quickly, knowing that Harrison wants her out of the camp. As far as Stanley will know, they spent the night alone, father and son out in the woods under the pines, sleeping in the dirt. Sure, there had been other people in camp, but this will have been their special private camping trip. Harrison has his jeans on, and is pulling on a flannel button down shirt to fight the chill of the morning in the mountains, but she’s already dressed and walking over to her own camp. “You know Carol doesn’t bother to hide her boyfriend, and he seems all right with that,” she says.

Deena’s right, of course. Carol, his ex-wife, is living with her new boyfriend, who would probably be her husband now if the divorce were final, but Carol isn’t exactly the model that he wants for his own behavior. He’s going to yell something funny to her as she walks away, but Stanley might hear. Instead, he zips apart the sleeping bags and rolls them up, putting his in his backpack and dropping hers behind a tree on the edge of the camp.
When Stanley comes back, he seems to have forgotten that he was supposed to do something for his father in the tent. Instead, he starts gathering wood to start a new fire. “Not this morning, Buddy,” Harrison says. “We’re going to have a cold breakfast this morning.”

“Oh,” Stanley says, and Harrison can see the boy’s heart breaking. Sometimes he thinks that making things burn is Stanley’s favorite part of camping. He’ll sit there watching the flames with the rapt attention of . . . well, of a ten year old boy.

“Remember when I told you there was going to be a surprise on this trip?”


“We’re going to see it this morning.”

As though she’s the surprise, Deena pops out of the woods and into their campsite. “Good morning,” she calls.

She’s waving and smiling, and Stanley waves back. “Deena,” he says. There’s excitement in his voice, and he goes over and hugs her.

“Did your Dad tell you what’s going to happen this morning?” she asks. She’s a short woman with a tiny body that Harrison loves and a blonde pony tail.

“No,” Stanley said. “He just said there’s going to be a surprise.”

“Well.” She looks at her watch. “If we want to be sure to see it, we’d better go now.”

They begin to circle the lake, and as they start, Harrison can see that a lot of people are going in the same direction. These are mostly people who, like him, work for the forestry service and know from looking at the schedule what’s going to happen today. It’s not so spectacular, but it’s really interesting, and a lot of people come year after year, each time with new people following along. “Maybe you ought to tell Stan what we’re going to see.”

“Hmm?” Harrison says. They’ve come to a part of the bank where boulders have been piled up by avalanches possibly thousands of years ago. They have to pick their way across them in a dance where they hop from one to the next, never quite pausing, and never able to look up for long enough to know exactly where they are.

“I said that we should probably tell him what’s going on today so he understands what he’s seeing.” In her voice, there is significance as though she’s made some kind of profound point that he’s supposed to understand on multiple levels.

He wants to roll his eyes or make a gagging motion to her, but instead, he just stops hopping forward. “This is as good a place as any. Why don’t you tell him about it?”

They all stop their dance at once and sit down on their own boulders. Deena points to the eastern sky. “I want you to watch there,” she says. “In a little while, a plane is going to come over that ridge you see in the distance and fly down really low over this lake.”

“Why is it going to do that?”

“They’re going to stock the lake. Do you know what that means?” Stanley shakes his head. She brings up her knees to her chest, and Harrison gets the feeling by the way she’s sitting close to the boy that she’s always wanted children. He wonders if she thought she was getting too old and that Harrison is her last shot. 

“There are too many fishermen around. Every year, people come up to these lakes and fish so much that there isn’t enough fish for anyone else or the bears or anything. They used to bring them by mules up here, but now they dump them out of the back of the plane.”

“Wait,” Stanley says. His eyes are wide in disbelief. “They’re going to drop fish out of that plane.”

“Yeah,” she says. “Baby fish. I mean, you’re not going to be able to see the fish exactly, but they’ve got a tank of water, and you’ll be able to see the water and maybe some little objects in the water. Those will be little baby fish.”

Harrison is happy to see that the boy is curious, and he and Deena talk about the fish and why they do it for a while, and as she predicted, the plane, a twin engine propeller deal, comes out of the east. Harrison chose this spot on the west side of the lake because he wanted to be able to see the whole approach, but he realizes now that if the pilot or bombardier over shoot the lake, they’re going to be covered in little baby fish, to use Deena’s phrase.

He could tell them to move, but he doesn’t. He’d rather take the chance to be sure that they can all see the whole thing.The plane dips, heading right towards them, and Stanley shifts nervously, but when the plane just seems to be skimming the treetops, it levels off, and while it’s over the lake, a spray of water is released from its steel belly. He sees in the mist, or thinks he sees, little flecks of something, and imagines that they’re fingerlings, wriggling up there for a moment, knocking into each other, and for a moment, free in the air, in full sunshine for the first and last times of their lives.

From every side of the lake come hoots from those who had come up here and assembled for this moment specifically, and the sound works its way into Stanley, who picks it up and screams, “Woooooo!” Harrison and Deena cheer too, and without realizing he’s doing it, he hugs Deena in front of Stanley and breathes in the rich scent of woman.

Back at the camp a half hour later, Stanley says, “You know, we forgot to have breakfast.”

“Oh yeah,” Harrison says. “I guess we did.”

“Can we have a hot breakfast?”

Harrison knows he’s just angling for a fire. “Sure,” Harrison says. Fish falling from the sky and now fire. This might be the best day in the boy’s short life.

The three of them head out in separate directions to gather wood, but Stanley comes up behind Harrison in a minute. “Dad,” he says. “Are you going to ask Deena out?”

“You mean on a date?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I think she wants you to. I mean, I think she likes you.”

“Would that bother you?”

“No,” he says. “Mom goes out with Joey.”

He should be happy hearing that Stanley would be all right with him dating, but Harrison feels himself collapse a bit, and he knows what it is. Stanley had been the easy way out up to now. With Stanley, he could put Deena off and still look like the good guy. He’s going to have to be honest now. Either that or he’s going to have to date the woman, and she’d be a good woman to date, but God, when he thinks of those last years with Carol, he has absolutely no desire to date anyone seriously ever again.

They go back to the camp, and Stanley has his fire. The three of them are going to stay here today, and Harrison isn’t sure what he’s going to tell Deena tonight as they lie together under the stars. Maybe he’ll put her off and maybe he’ll make a decision one way or the other. What he wants though is just to sit with her on the edge of the lake silently and watch the stars reflected in that lake all night and not have to say a word.

Check out the book! Order Let Us All Pray Now to Our Own Strange Gods here!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

In Defense of Psych

Psych is one of the best shows that I don’t think most people should watch.

I was a zealot at first. I am always zealous with detective shows that I love. I told people to watch, talked to friends who I knew liked mystery or comedy.

Psych is both mystery and comedy at once -- a hilariously post-modern take on the detective genre especially as it relates to the traditional European mystery’s trope of the special man. The European detective is the person with some extraordinary ability -- think Sherlock Holmes or Poirot. He/she is such a genius that he/she can solve cases that baffle others just by glancing at evidence.

Well, Shawn Spencer of Psych is the same. The difference is that these detectives are such geniuses they often live outside of society. They live the life of the mind learning new things to supplement their extraordinary abilities.

Shawn is incredibly observant like Holmes, but he’s also a bit of an idiot who doesn’t want to study, and he’s incredibly charismatic. He gets by on faking psychic abilities to bumble his way through life. Like any great post-modern take on literature, Psych spends fifty percent of the time referencing and commenting on popular culture as we follow Shawn and his sidekick Gus through the world they’ve created for themselves in a completely ironic sometimes shallow, sometimes deep discussion of the nature of detective fiction.

My favorite bit is Psych’s recurring discussion of The Mentalist. The Mentalist came out years after Psych and clearly borrowed from the basic premise. Rather than berate the show, all of the characters on Psych revere it and attack anyone who dares to say a bad word about it. It’s genius.

But here’s the thing that makes Psych truly genius. It’s not written for everyone. The jokes and references target Gen-Xers specifically, and they are happy to leave out anyone who isn’t between the ages of 35 and 48.

I tried selling the show to people who were older than I was, people who love mystery. The thing is that unless you loved Magnum P.I., kind of hated but kind of loved the Friday the 13th movies, understood why “Rio” was the only truly lame thing Duran Duran did, and are obsessed with Tears for Fears even now, none of it’s funny.

That’s the beauty and shortcoming of post-modernism. It exists only for some and only for a brief moment. The older people I brought in on the show just kind of stared at the screen. Then I watched it with my assistant, who is 27. I laughed and laughed at the camera angles in the horror episode, realized halfway through that it was referencing the horror spoof April Fools Day, and completely loved that the plot ended halfway through the episode, but he didn’t understand why any of this was funny.

Why should he? It’s a show that just wasn’t written with him in mind.

So I’m not trying to sell it any longer. I don’t think it will go many more seasons anyway, and who cares if anyone but my friends and I like it. It’s an interesting way to develop a show and to target an audience, and it’s not a bad lesson for writers. A show or a book doesn’t have to be universally appealing to be good. It’s enough to entertain and enlighten any group of people. But I think what the show’s creators, writers and actors are doing that really makes it loveable is that they are entertaining themselves.

Monday, July 8, 2013

An Interview with Kristen Elise revisited

Okay, I was supposed to post this today rather than last week. So here it is again. Kristen is a good interviewee. Enjoy!

I'm taking a break from my usual kinds of posts today to interview Dr. Kristen Elise, the author of The Vesuvius Isotope

Kristen is a scientist turned novelist who has brought her experience and training into her fiction. I hope you enjoy!

1. What is your novel about?

Thanks so much for the interview, John, and for letting your readers know about my debut novel! The Vesuvius Isotope tells the story of Katrina Stone, a scientist whose Nobel laureate husband was just murdered. Katrina's search for her husband's killer leads to a medical mystery initiated two thousand years ago by Cleopatra, and Katrina quickly learns that her husband's murder was only the beginning. To halt certain impending disaster, Katrina races through Italy and Egypt on a quest for the solution to Cleopatra's last riddle, the ancient remedy that comes to be called the Vesuvius Isotope.

The book is at its core a murder mystery, but it is laced with several non-fictional historical and scientific themes. I consider it more historical thriller than science or medical thriller, but certainly there are elements of both. 

2. You’re a scientist. What is your specialty?

I'm a drug discovery biologist, which means that I hunt for the molecules that will be made into medicines. I have spent the last several years in a major pharmaceutical company; this company has a lot of lawyers, so I omit its name from these discussions. I have worked on anthrax and immunology and more recently, my work has centered around finding drugs to combat various cancers.

3. As a professor, when people ask advice about getting a degree, I usually tell them that they should get a writing degree if they feel they have to, but that it won’t necessarily help them with their writing career. Often it’s better to get a degree other than writing so they have something interesting to write about. As a specialist in a field, how do you think that specialty has helped you to create a writing career?

The ideas for my novels come from experiences in my "real life," and much of this is experience in the sciences. In fact, I started writing in the first place because I discovered something in the lab that freaked me out enough to make me want to write a thriller about it. Once infected with the writing bug, I was hooked, and my stories always in one way or another involve experiences from my career. You'd be amazed (and probably distressed) at how many thriller-worthy things happen from day to day in the sciences.

4. Has it limited you in any way?

Kristen Elise is actually a pen name. I don't use my real name for my writing because I have always felt it was prudent to keep my writing separate from my scientific career. I don't exactly bash the pharmaceutical industry in my books, and I absolutely don't discuss any specifics, because everything you do for a pharmaceutical company is done under agreements of confidentiality. But I do create dubious characters who might not always portray the industry in the best light. And as mentioned above, they have a lot of lawyers. The limitation of using a pen name is that the day you decide to use one, you steal your own identity. I couldn't call upon friends and family to be my first readers, except for the really trusted ones. I don't really talk about my writing at work, and I don't advertise my books to colleagues.

5. Who are your favorite authors and are these people of science as well?

The Vesuvius Isotope definitely takes a lot of influence from Dan Brown. When I first started developing the idea that would eventually turn into this novel, I had just read Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code and loved both of them. Vesuvius shares the theme of a non-fictional historical mystery in the context of a modern-day thriller. The incorporation of true science is also Brown-esque, but I certainly have to also give a lot of credit to classic science and medical thriller writers like Robin Cook and Michael Crichton. I am also a fan of more classic historical fiction and read a ton of it. My book is set in present day, so it doesn't have the same tone as, say, a Philippa Gregory novel, but sometimes I think I take voices from those kinds of books because I read so many of them. I'm also a huge fan of Khaled Hosseini, and have at one time in my life read almost everything ever written by Stephen King.

6. Who has inspired your writing professionally and personally?

I credit influence and inspiration to the sources listed above, but I have also gotten a lot of inspiration from my best friend and my mom. My friend Sara McBride was actually the person who first dared me to write a story, and that story was what ultimately spawned the release of my debut novel. My mom was always the number one advocate of everything I do. She definitely gave me the confidence to pursue my career in science in the first place and also to just go for it creatively.

7. You are also a traveler. In what way has this affected your writing?

Almost every "vacation" I take is actually an excuse for book research. I love novels that incorporate interesting locales, and conversely, I think it makes for a really cool vacation if I'm on a quest in the process. But my books tend to tell me where we are going, rather than the other way around. The Vesuvius Isotope starts in San Diego and then migrates to Italy and Egypt. But we never set foot in Rome, Naples, or Florence and my poor protagonist never gets to see the pyramids either. Instead, her quest leads to some of the lesser-known, but equally fascinating, locales. So I hope that readers enjoy the story while benefitting from the side effect of ideas for some cool trips off the beaten path.

8. What else can you tell us about your books and your life?

I have written a prequel to The Vesuvius Isotope entitled The Death Row Complex. This was the book first inspired by the whacky discovery in the lab I mentioned above. I had written this book first, but when the idea for Vesuvius struck, I realized that Vesuvius should be the first book released so I ran with it. Now that it is available, I'm returning to Death Row and will be releasing it next year. In addition to writing and hunting for drugs, I have a wonderful husband who is not only my number one fan, but also the owner of an Italian restaurant here in San Diego. So we have an awesome little scam going in which book clubs interested in discussing my book are invited to have their discussion at the fountain outside of the restaurant, and I'll join the discussion, and pizza and sodas etc. are on the house. San Diego book clubs, please feel free to hit me up for details! Last, but certainly not least, I have three step kids, a step granddaughter and three canine kids.

9. Okay, this question is just for me. I’ve been writing about television and movie mystery cliches. I was wondering if you had a favorite.

Ha! What a fun question. I actually have a series of posts on my blog entitled, "Most Over-Used Protagonists." I'll defer to this post to answer your question. As a scientist, my favorite cliche is the 22-year-old Supermodel Head of [name your department] at [name your world-famous hospital or research organization.] Because in reality, this woman doesn't exist. But on TV and in movies, she's everywhere! Readers, who is your favorite?

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. Please visit her websites at and The Vesuvius Isotope is available in both print ( and and e-book formats ( for Kindle, for Nook, for Kobo reader.)

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.