All Posts By Michael Kahn

Coolest Author Headshot Ever

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As the publication date approaches, an author receives the headshot request from the publisher. The headshot is the photo of the author to be included on the back of the dust jacket of the book. These days that preferred headshot is just that, namely, a photo of the author from the shoulders on up. Some publishers prefer a serious headshot, such as these of bestselling authors John Grisham and James Patterson.

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Some prefer a softer look, like this one of Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl:

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Mine have ranged from serious–

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to grinning–

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to somewhat contemplative–

Jill photo

But the coolest author’s photo I’ve ever seen is the one that appeared on the cover of  the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1855. In this new age of self-publishing, it’s interesting to note that Whitman self-published that book of poetry. Although his name appeared nowhere on the cover or title page, the cover of each of the 795 copies of that first edition displayed the following image of the author.

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The real Walter Whitman was a city dweller–he lived in Brooklyn–but he purposely dressed for the role of the character introduced by name midway through the first of the twelve untitled poems in the book, as follows:

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist . . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . . no
         more modest than immodest. 

I came across that “headshot” last night when I took the book down from the shelf to read some of the poems. This was, I confess, the first time I’d opened Leaves of Grass since my 19th Century American Literature class back at Amherst College in the 1970s.

The book is a marvel. As one critic, Ivan Marki, has written:

“The importance of the first edition of Leaves of Grass to American literary history is impossible to exaggerate. The slender volume introduced the poet who, celebrating the nation by celebrating himself, has since remained at the heart of America’s cultural memory because in the world of his imagination Americans have learned to recognize and possibly understand their own. As Leaves of Grass grew through its five subsequent editions into a hefty book of 389 poems (with the addition of the two annexes), it gained much in variety and complexity, but Whitman’s distinctive voice was never stronger, his vision never clearer, and his design never more improvisational than in the twelve poems of the first edition.”

My favorite praise of the book, however, comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whitman had sent him one of those original 795 copies of the first edition. To Whitman’s surprise and delight, Emerson wrote him back. The opening paragraph of that letter, dated July 21, 1855, reads as follows:

DEAR SIR–I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “LEAVES OF GRASS.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our western wits fat and mean.

The entire letter, which was published in the New York Tribune later that year, can be read here.

So if you don’t have a dog-eared copy of Leaves of Grass resting forgotten on your bookshelf or stored in the basement in that dusty box of college books, I’d recommend getting hold of a copy. In the interim, check out the Walt Whitman Archive website, where you can read the poems and learn all about the man behind the coolest author headshot ever!

 

Author Event: November 6 at 10:30

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At 10:30 am on Thursday, November 6, 2014, I will be on a panel of three authors who will take the stage to talk about their books and literature in general. Our panel discussion will be moderated by Jane Henderson, the Book Editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Here is a link to our program, which is part of this year’s St. Louis Jewish Book Festival.

It should be a fun event! JBF-logo-2014[1]

The Crime of the Century? Which One?

rs_634x835-130717120859-634.oj.ls.71713_copy[1]As a trial lawyer by day and a writer of legal thrillers and mysteries by night, I have long been fascinated with the so-called “headline trials”–both the ones that take place in real courtrooms and those that unfold in fictional ones. After all, the most famous lawyer of the 20th Century remains Perry Mason.

As for the ones in the real courtrooms, the philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”A variation on that quote came to mind as I was preparing to write a review of the book The Twelfth Victim for publication in The Common Reader.  Specifically, to paraphrase Santayana, those who cannot remember the prior Trial of the Century are condemned to give that label to the next one.

The focus of The Twelfth Victim–the Starkweather Murder Rampage–is a good example. The media circus around that 1958 “Crime of the Century” guaranteed that most Americans of that era knew all the players and key facts involved in that grisly murder spree across Nebraska and Wyoming. But just a half-century later, the details of that “Trial of the Century” are as little known to us as were the details of the Leopold and Loeb trial to most Americans in the 1950s.

Every generation, indeed, every decade, has had at least one Trial of the Century. For my fellow Baby Boomers, the Trial of the Century is, of course, the O.J. Simpson case, which involved the prosecution of the former football star and actor on two counts of murder for the gruesome stabbings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman on the front steps of her condo. Beamed into millions of homes on television from opening statements in January 1995 through the controversial Not Guilty verdicts ten months later, the trial generated virtually nonstop media coverage. We Boomers may not recall the name of the Supreme Court Justice who wrote the landmark opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, but we all know that the presiding judge at our Trial of the Century was Lance Ito.

And thus it pains us Boomers to realize that our children, and definitely our grandchildren, will know as little of the juicy details of the O.J. Simpson case as we do of the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle case, which mesmerized the nation during the early 1920s. Indeed, perhaps the most sensational trial of that decade—whose newspaper coverage exceeded even that of the Titanic disaster and whose courtroom spectators including a daily carousel of international celebrities—was known to an enthralled nation as the Sash Weight Murder Trial and is today unknown unless you’ve read Bill Bryce’s fascinating account of the crime in his book One Summer: American, 1927.

newsnyamerican600[1]Even more startling was my discovery that the first Trial of the Century, and perhaps the one trial most deserving of that title, took place in 1907. Indeed, if gauged by the quantum of scandal, sex, fame, wealth, and flagrancy, the O.J. Simpson trial pales next to the Thaw murder trial. Harry Thaw, the scion of a wealthy and prominent family, drew his pistol in the crowded rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden, and, in a jealous rage, fatally shot the celebrated architect Stanford White over White’s alleged corruption of Thaw’s wife Evelyn, nicknamed by the press as “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing,” which later became the name of the 1955 motion picture of those events, with Joan Collins in the title role.

And so it goes–at least in the real world. Murder cases that were crowned the Trial of the Century in earlier decades are today as obscure as many of the literary figures crowned during that same era with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Those former literary titans include Sully Prudhomme, Rudolph Eucken, Romain Rolland, and Henri Bergson.

If it’s any solace to lovers of the fictional courtroom thriller, some of our literary forbears have created Trials of the Century that have retained their dramatic power and cultural significance decades, and even centuries, later. I’ve even written a law review article on the subject entitled “From Shylock to Billy Budd: The Literary ‘Headline Trial.‘”

Indeed, the trial in Act IV of The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock comes to court seeking to enforce the pound-of-flesh promissory note signed by the merchant of the play’s title, has long been recognized as one of the most dramatic scenes in all of Shakespeare. And when it comes to 20th century trial lawyers, the monumental figure of Atticus Finch (of Harper Lee’s great novel To Kill a Mockingbird) far outshines the entire crew of defense lawyers comprising O.J. Simpson’s Dream Team, one of whose members–the late Robert Kardashian–has now been eclipsed by his daughters of reality TV infamy. Try putting that ironic morsel in a novel and your editor would reject it as totally lacking credibility.

Ah, well. Call me Santayana.

Hidden In Plain Sight: The Private Life in Public Art

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Minos-Biagio da Cesena
From The Last Judgment

The creator behind every work of public art–from a painting to a novel to a play to a song–is just a person, and that person has a private life separate from the work art. Nevertheless, many of those artists haven’t been able to resist the temptation to stick something extremely personal into their public art–so personal, in fact, that unless someone tips you off, you might never know it was there.

One of the most famous–or perhaps infamous–examples is hidden in plain sight in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, his magnificent fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. At the bottom right corner of the fresco is Minos, the king of hell. Michelangelo’s version of Minos, however, is actually a nasty caricature of his enemy Biagio da Cesena (a Vatican official who declared The Last Judgment unfit for sacred walls). As you can see, Michelangelo gave him donkey ears and wrapped him in a big serpent that’s nibbling on his penis. I like to imagine Michelangelo standing in front of his completed fresco, facing an outraged Cesena, and doing his own macho version of that “You talkin’ to me?” riff from Taxi Driver. For more on this personal touch to a famous work of public art, here is a fun piece by Roy Scarbrough.

Of course, some angry touches are more mysterious. A good example is the unnamed narcissist mocked by Carly Simon in her 1972 hit song, “You’re So Vain.” Indeed, the identity of her target has been the subject of so much speculation over the decades that “he” now has his own page on her website.

Hirschfeld -- WoodyHirschfeld - ChanningA far sweeter personal touch can be found (if you look carefully) in the works of Al Hirschfeld, the celebrated 20th-century caricaturist (and St. Louis native) best known for his black-and-white portraits of celebrities and Broadway stars. Hirschfeld cleverly snuck his beloved daughter Nina’s name into almost every one of his drawings. See if you can find her in Hirschfeld renderings of Carol Channing and Woody Allen on the left. (And check out the Leonard Nimoy at the top of this post.)

We novelists can–and do–have many opportunities for fun personal touches. Think of all those people and things to name in a novel. Friends of mine have their names on the letterheads of fictional law firms and in neon lights over restaurants. Some of my prior residential addresses have served as addresses of fictitious locations.

In my Rachel Gold novel Bearing Witness, there are five law students–Hanna, Jake, Josh, Zack, and Kayla– who volunteer to help Rachel sort through tens of thousands of documents dumped on her by the other side in a lawsuit. Those five students just happen to have the same names as my five children, and each of those students bears a striking resemblance to the child he or she is named after.

In the final poignant scene in my novel The Mourning Sexton (written under the pen name Michael Baron), our protagonist David Hirsch steps up to the bima at his synagogue to lead the congregation in the mourner’s Kaddish, which is preceded by a recitation of the names of, among others, those who died during the same time in prior years. Among the names David reads aloud to the congregation (and the reader) are beloved members of my family and my wife’s family.

Sometime we forget completely about a personal touch we inserted at, say, page 92 of the manuscript by the time we finish theFace Value cover novel ten months and 300 pages later. So it happened with my latest novel, Face Value. I received a call a week ago from Dennis Lubeck, one of my favorite teachers back at University City High School more than forty years ago. He called to tell me how much fun he was having showing friends page 92 of my novel. I thanked Dennis, of course, but realized that I had no recollection of what was on that page and why it gave him such pleasure. When the call ended, I pulled the book down from the shelf and opened to page 92. There, in a paragraph describing Donald Warner, one of the name partners of the law firm of Warner & Olsen, I found this passage:

And while Donald Warner would not likely ever generate the same level of affection that you may have had for, say, your favorite high school teacher, you called him Mister Warner for the some of the same reasons you called your teacher Mister Lubeck. It just felt more natural.

Nice, eh? And you deserve that personal touch, Dennis–er, Mr. Lubeck.

 

How Tweet It Is!

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shakespeare-twitter[1]During my recent interview with Omnimystery News, I was asked to create a Tweet-worthy summary (i.e., no more than 140 characters) of my newest novel, Face Value.

The challenge set me off on what quickly became a delightful tour of the Internet via my Google search for “novels tweets.”

One of my first, and favorite, stops was Twitterature, a clever website and book by Alexander Acimen in which he rewrites some of the world’s greatest works of literature as a series of Tweets. For example, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis opens via Twitter: “I seem to have transformed into a large bug. Has this ever happened to any of you? No solution on Web MD.”

And from Hamlet: “WTF IS POLONIUS DOING BEHIND THE CURTAIN???”

From Dante’s Inferno: “I’m havin a midlife crisis. Lost in the woods. Shoulda brought my iPhone.”

And this gem from Oedipus: “PARTY IN THEBES!!! Nobody cares I killed that old dude, plus this woman is all over me. Total MILF.”

I visited various websites with 140-character-or-less summaries of great novels. Thus Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield is Tweeted as: “Mean stepdad sends Dave to work in London, he flees to live with Aunt, becomes a lawyer, falls for boss’s girl and defeats enemy Uriah Heep.” The 1,000+ pages of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace becomes: “Napoleon invades Russia. Russian aristocratic families sent into a tizz. War ensues. French retreat. Russians celebrate. Lots of them marry”

The Guardian website has some clever examples in an article entitled “Tweeters Turn to the Classics”. Waiting for Godot, that bleak play by Samuel Becket, becomes: “Vladimir and Estragon stand next to tree and wait for Godot. Their status is not updated.”v65oai7fxn47qv9nectx[1]

And this funny 93-character version of James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Man walks around Dublin. We follow every minute detail of his day. He’s probably overtweeting.”

So what did I eventually come up with for my Twitter version of Face Value? Here it is, clocking in at 137 characters:

Eccentric genius claims suicide was really a murder. Rachel knew victim, knows genius, and knows she should get involved. Doesn’t know she might be the next victim.”

A Fun Conversation with Omnimystery News

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Face Value coverWe authors often complain about being asked the same 2 or 3 questions at every single interview.

Not so with the clever folks at Omnimystery News. Their creative and challenging questions ranged from my favorite authors to the creation of a Tweet-ready synopsis of my latest novel, Face Value (mine came in at 138 characters) to my favorite movies of all time to the best part about being a writer to the Top 5 uniquely St. Louis food treats (including, of course, toasted ravioli and a Ted Drewes concrete). And that’s only the beginning.

What fun–at least for me, and hopefully for you. Here is a link to the interview.

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“All But Six” — A Tribute to My Dad

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Face Value coverMore than a few readers of my new novel, Face Value, have asked about the meaning of the final words on my dedication page, which reads in full:

In loving memory of my father, Bill Kahn.

All but six, Dad.

On this, the one year anniversary of my dear father’s death, I honor his memory by explaining  “all but six.”

I first heard those words many, many years ago. I was in town on a visit with my parents. My father and I had stayed up late talking and sipping glasses of Scotch. Maybe two hours into our conversation, sometime after midnight, he paused, stared at me, and said, “Son, I have something to tell you.”

He always called me “Son.” Never “Mike” or “Michael.”

“What is it, Dad?”

“When I die and it comes time to order the epitaph for my tombstone, I want just the following three words on it: All But Six.”

I frowned. “All but six?” I repeated.

“Yep.”

“What does it mean?”

“It’s short for ‘Fuck ’em all but six.'”

Another confused pause. “Who are the six?”

“The pallbearers, son. The ones who’ll carry your coffin to the grave.”

Another moment of silence. “I don’t understand, Dad.”

“I’ll explain, son. In this life you have to do what you think is the right thing to do, no matter what anyone tells you. When you follow your conscience, when you do what you believe is the right thing to do–the moral thing, the just thing–you’re going to get criticized by others. You’re going to get called names and you’re going to have people saying nasty things behind your back. But you got to stick to your principles and tough it out. You got to say to yourself, ‘Fuck ’em. All but six.”

He gave me a wink, and held his Scotch glass toward me. “Okay?”

I smiled and tapped my glass against his.

Throughout his life, my dad practiced what he preached. As a result of a lifelong commitment to equality, to fairness, and to social justice, his achievements were extraordinary, though often controversial at the time, as was recognized in this obituary from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and in this beautiful tribute read aloud by Rabbi Jim Goodman when my father received the Heschel-King Award for Social Justice in 2008.

But alas, when he died last June and it came time to specify the words to be etched onto his gravestone, his four children looked back on his life, and especially those final gentle days, and there emerged a consensus among my siblings and my wife Margi that Bill Kahn’s memory would be better served by words that conveyed his life’s meaning to friends and family instead of a cryptic three-word phrase. And thus above his name on the actual gravestone appear the words:

DEAR HUSBAND, FATHER, GRANDFATHER AND GREAT-GRANDFATHER

And below his name the following:

A TRUE FRIEND

AND A

CHAMPION OF JUSTICE

Even so, I was haunted by the memory of that night so many years ago, by the silent promise I made when we tapped those Scotch glasses together. And thus when I learned that the publication month for my novel would be the same month as Father’s Day and my father’s death, the language for the dedication page became obvious. And my dad, a huge fan of books (including his son’s), would hopefully smile over where his epitaph actually appears.

And so on this first yahrzeit of my father’s death, I raise a glass of scotch and repeat these words in his blessed memory:

All but six, Dad.

Who Tells the Story: From the Bible to Marlowe

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1592590512[1]Who will tell the story?

Every author must answer that question before typing “Chapter One” at the top of that first page.

Not who will write the story. That’s the author’s job. But who will tell it? Who will serve as the narrator?

One common answer is known as Third Person Omniscient. That’s where the teller of the tale is an unnamed observer who provides the reader with an all-knowing perspective on the story being told. A good example is the opening of Genesis:

 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light “Day” and the darkness he called “Night.” And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Note that God is not the narrator. Instead, the story is told be some unidentified third party who tells the reader what God is doing and what God is saying.

The third-person omniscient narrator is the most common form of storyteller. From Jane Austen to Leo Tolstoy to Earnest Hemingway to the authors of virtually every modern-day thriller, the teller of the tale is that unidentified third-person: the all-knowing fly on the wall.

Another option is the first-person narrator. He or she is either the central character in the novel or someone Rye_catcher[1]
close to that character. One of my favorite storytellers is Huck Finn, who famously opens that novel as follows:

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly – Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is – and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.”

tbs[1]As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” That impact resonates a century later in the opening paragraph of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

So what about mystery novels? Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and many other British authors preferred the third-person omniscient, as did many of the earlier American authors. But with a nod toward Hemingway’s quote about Mark Twain, I’d say that some of our best American mystery novels come from one book by Raymond Chandler called The Big Sleep. As is on display in the opening two paragraphs of that wonderful novel, this is first-person narration in all its modern American glory:

“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars

“The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.”

Philip Marlowe, whose voice and essence Chandler so brilliantly captures in those opening paragraphs, has spawned a remarkably large images[2]and vibrant collection of successors. You can find Marlowe DNA in a wide array of American private eyes, from Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer to Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warhshawski to Robert Parker’s Spencer to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone to James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux to, dare I say, my own Rachel Gold. Here, for example, are the opening paragraphs of Trophy Widow:

“You’d have thought this was my first time.

“Not even close.

“I don’t specialize in celebrities, but I’ve had my share.  The list includes a member of the Chicago Bulls, two Major League Baseball players, and the entire morning drive-time crew for one of the highest rated FM stations in St. Louis.  And that only covers contract negotiations and endorsement deals.  I’ve sued the Savvis Center on behalf of an Atlanta rap group in a gate receipts dispute.  When the case ended, the group’s manager offered me a walk-on in their next music video.  I told him I’d prefer to have my fees paid in full.  I’ve represented a Hollywood star accused of trashing his hotel suite while on location here for a shoot — and we’re not talking just any star.  He made Entertainment Weekly’s “20 Sexiest Men” two years running.  Alas, he’s also two inches shorter than me and — as I learned while defending him in a four-hour deposition in a small conference room — afflicted with rhino breath.”

Thank you, Mr. Marlow.