All Posts By Michael Kahn

In Praise of Cage-Free Characters

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246383_original[1]The good folks at the Writers & Authors blog asked for some of my thoughts and advice on writing. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the joys of what I call the cage-free characters. Think of them as the fictional version of free-range chickens.

kramer-seinfeld5[1]For readers, the cage-free character is the minor character who suddenly appears to have taken control of the novel or play, morphing from a bit player into a major figure. My favorite cage-free character is Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts 1 and 2. But there are plenty of others. For fans of sit-coms, a great example is Kramer of Seinfeld. As for literature, the Hall of Fame of cage-free characters most surely includes Sancho Panza of Don Quixote. And for all you supplicants in the Church of Breaking Bad, that marvelous free-range character named Saul Goodman has not merely broken out of his cage but is now the star of his own show.

Andantes,+Serie++El+Qijote+y+sancho+Panza,+Óleo+sobre+lienzo,+Jesus+Helguera[1]For authors, the cage-free character is like a gift from the gods, to be treasured and enjoyed and spoiled, as I explain in my Writers & Authors blog post, which you can read here.

 

The Hott Books Interview

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A_Hand_Holding_a_Microphone_100205-203180-762009[1]I recently had the honor of sitting for an interview with the great Gina Hott of the Hott Books blog. We talked about the biggest challenge to a writer’s career and the most surprising thing I discovered while writing The Sirena Quest.

But perhaps her most daunting question was: “Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?”

Here is our interview.51r2Cj94myL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]

Mystery Novels, Art, and Napoleon’s Penis

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Yes, you read that right.

1464203520.01.S001.LXXXXXXXThe folks at the Mythical Books Blog–in honor of the missing Greco-Roman statue at theholygrailite[1] heart of my latest novel, The Sirena Quest–asked me to offer some thoughts on mystery novels that involve works of art.

As I mulled it over, I realized that a missing work of art has been a theme as recently as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and at least as far back as those Arthurian legends of the quest for the Holy Grail.

For my novels, the theme is as recent as The Sirena Quest and as old as my second Rachel Gold mystery, Death Benefits.1607913[1]

As I explain in the essay, the inspiration for the missing work of art at the heart of Death Benefits is, believe or not, the most famous (and expensive) penis of all time.

So fasten your seat belts and enjoy the ride through the realm of mysteries, art, and, well, a certain collector’s item.

David_NapoleonStudyB-1576[1]

The Iliad and the Honeymooners: A Mashup for the Ages

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DSCN0490[1]Homer’s Iliad is one of the most revered literary works of all time, admired for its artistry, its universal themes, and its profound influence on Western literature.

Although I am no scholar of ancient Greek epic poems, I doubt whether many of those scholars have found parallels between the classic Gods of Mount Olympus and the classic sit-coms of television. Nevertheless, as I listened to Part 1 of the audible book version of the Iliad, I started grinning as I  envisioned Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows, the quarreling Kramdons of The Honeymooners, cast in the roles of Zeus and Hera.

But first some background:

The Iliad takes place during several weeks in the tenth year of the Trojan War. The Greek army, during a battle with a 233828_1245011556995_400_299[1]town allied with Troy, captured a pair of beautiful maidens, Chryseis and Briseis. King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, took Chryseis as his prize, and the great warrior Achilles claimed Briseis. Through a series of events not worth explaining here, Agamemnon was forced to return Chryseis to her father and, demanding compensation, takes Briseis away from Achilles. Furious at this insult, Achilles returns to his tent, where he sulks and refuses to fight in the war. He yearns to see Agamemnon disgraced and the Greek army destroyed, and asks his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, to convince Zeus to help make that happen.

Zeus and Hera  1[1]And so, as the poem explains, Thetis “rose from under the sea and went through great heaven to Olympus, where she found the mighty Zeus sitting all alone upon its topmost ridges.” She makes her plea. Zeus is sympathetic–he kind of likes those Trojans–but he’s “much troubled” that his wife Hera–a big fan of the Greeks–might hear them.

And thus Zeus, the almighty King of the Gods, leans over and whispers to Thetis: “I shall have trouble if you set me quarreling with Hera, for she will provoke me with her taunting speeches; even now she is always railing at me before the other gods and accusing me of giving aid to the Trojans. Go back now, lest she should find out. I will consider the matter, and will bring it about as you wish.”

Thetis thanks him and leaves, and Zeus heads back to his house. According to the poem, “The gods rose from their seats, before the coming of their sire. Not one of them dared to remain sitting, but all stood up as he came among them. There he took his seat. But Hera, when she saw him, knew that he and the old merman’s daughter Thetis, had been hatching mischief, so she at once began to upbraid him.”

And this is the moment when Jackie Gleason takes on the role of Zeus and Audrey Meadows steps in as Hera. Here are their lines (in the somewhat stilted Samuel Butler translation from 1898):

“Trickster,” Hera cried, “which of the gods have you been taking into your counsels now? You are always settling matters in secret behind my back, and have never yet told me, if you could help it, one word of yoShowPictureTV[1]ur intentions.”

“Hera,” replied the sire of gods and men, “you must not expect to be informed of all my counsels. You are my wife, but you would find it hard to understand them. When it is proper for you to hear, there is no one, god or man, who will be told sooner, but when I mean to keep a matter to myself, you must not pry nor ask questions.”

“Dread son of Saturn,” answered Hera, “what are you talking about? I? Pry and ask questions? Never. I let you have your own way in everything. Still, I have a strong misgiving that the old merman’s daughter Thetis has been talking you over, for she was with you and had hold of your knees this self-same morning. I believe, therefore, that you have been promising her to give glory to Achilles, and to kill much people at the ships of the Greeks.”

“Wife,” said Zeus, “I can do nothing but you suspect me and find it out. You will take nothing by it, for I shall only dislike you the more, and it will go harder with you. Granted that it is as you say; I mean toazfwvudhswrvvt2qdcdu[1] have it so; sit down and hold your tongue as I bid you for if I once begin to lay my hands about you, though all heaven were on your side it would profit you nothing.”

All that’s missing from that scene is the mighty King of the Gods, flushed with anger, shaking his fist and and shouting, “One of these days, Hera . . .  POW . . . straight to the moon!”

To which Hera would roll her eyes, shake her head, and answer, “Aw, shut up, Zeus.”

Some Terrific Questions for You (and Me)

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1464203520.01.S001.LXXXXXXXReady for some fun? Read on.

The book tour season is in full swing again, this time for my new novel The Sirena Quest. As my fellow authors will confirm, one challenge of the book tour is to find a new twist for your answers to the exact same questions you’ve already been asked by the last five interviewers.

Ah, but then you are approached by one of the cool folks from the blog Reviewing the Evidence for their “SIXTY SECONDS WITH … ” interview. Although their blog hasn’t yet posted my interview–and thus my lips must remain sealed for now–the questions they asked me (and other authors before me) are among the most clever and challenging ones I’ve ever been asked.

So much so, in fact, that you’re going to have fun coming up with your own answers.

Set forth below are seven of the questions I was asked. What would your answers be? And what about a friend or loved one? See how they would answer them.

I confess that Question #2 took me the longest to answer. After all, you’re going to be all alone on that desert island, and presumably you’ll be there long enough to listen to that freakin’ album a hundred times. So what’s your choice?

Enjoy!

(1) Describe yourself in a sentence.A_Hand_Holding_a_Microphone_100205-203180-762009[1]

(2) What’s the one record you’d take to a desert island?

(3) What did you want to be when you were growing up?

(4) If I ruled the world …

(5) Which book do you wish you’d written?

(6) Name your five dream dinner party guests.

(7) Who would you least like to be stuck in an elevator with?

5 Best Jokes About Writers

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Well, not exactly five. Maybe not even one. Think of this more as a plea for help. I’m suffering from writer’s-joke block.

I am a lawyer by day and a writer by night. As for my day job, I have heard — as no doubt you have heard — dozens and dozens of jokes about members of my beloved profession. For example:

  • What’s black and brown and looks great on a lawyer? A doberman.
  • What’s the difference between a jellyfish and a lawyer? One’s a spineless, poisonous blob. The other is a form of sea life
  • Why won’t sharks attack lawyers? Professional courtesy.

And so on and so on. Yearning for more lawyer jokes? Enter here.

But what about writer jokes? I’m drawing a blank.

Now I have heard jokes about other players in the written world. For example, publishers. How many publishers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Three. One to screw it in and two the hold the author down. Or: what’s the difference between amazon.com and terrorists? You can negotiate with terrorists.

And then, of course, there are the agent jokes. Plenty of agent jokes. Here’s one: Why did New Jersey get all the toxic waste dumps while California got all the agents? New Jersey had first pick.

Even screenwriters have their own jokes, although they tend to be somewhat sad, such as this one told to me by a veteran of that Hollywood craft: Why did the dumb blonde sleep with screenwriters? She was hoping to get ahead in the film business.

But writers. What about us? Hello? Are we chopped liver?

The handful of writer jokes I’ve heard over the years are, to be charitable, pretty lame:

How many mystery writers does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to screw the bulb almost all the way in, and one to give it a surprising twist at the end.

Meh.

There are, thankfully,  some funny writer cartoons, including this one I came across on writer MJ Fifield’s My Pet Blog:

needed muse[1]I can relate!

And, to be fair, there are funny quotes from writers about writing. Stephen King warns, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” And Samuel Johnson once responded to an aspiring writer whose manuscript he had just read: “Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” Ouch.

But, alas, fellow writers and readers: we need some good jokes about writers. Heard any lately? Help me out here. Please.

 

The Coolest Book of All Time

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We live in the Age of Listicles: “The 10 Best [fill in the blank]” and”The 8 Reasons to [fill in the blank]” and “The 12 Secrets to [fill in the blank]” and, of course, those two old chestnuts of the Internet, “The 10 Sex Positions You Must Try Before You Die!” and “8 Surefire Weight-Loss Tips.” Listicles have become the ultimate click magnets, as Wired  magazine explained in a piece cleverly entitled “5 Reasons Listicles Are Here to Stay, and Why That’s OK.”

Beat-Generation[1]Literature is not immune to the lure of the listicle. I recently succumbed to the urge to click onThe 50 Coolest Books Ever. There are definitely some clever and hip books on that list, including On the Road by Jack Kerouac and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Itala Calvino. But the oldest of the 50 is Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which just celebrated its 89th birthday.

While 89 years might seem old for something labeled “cool” or “hip,” the coolest and tumblr_n5o8p1tcYJ1t1ecduo1_500[1]hippest book of all time — yes, of ALL time — is more than 500 years old. Indeed, every story-telling device we label “post-modern,” every literary gimmick we crown as”meta-fiction,” every narrative technique we celebrate as “cutting edge” — yes, every single one of those “revolutionary” innovations — was first done by an author born in Spain in 1547.

I refer, of course, to Miguel de Cervantes and his novel Don Quixote. The fact that Don Quixote is a great work of literature is hardly newsworthy. Indeed, it occupies the #1 slot in The Guardian’s ranking of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time. And the fact that Don Quixote is an exceedingly clever work of literature is hardly a new topic for this blog. In a prior post I explored how certain of Cervantes’ literary inventions make postmodernist meta-fictions seem almost quaint.

But I am enjoying anew all that coolness (and hilarity) as I listen to the audio version of the novel read by the great George Guidall. There are so many clever little moments in the book, one of which I share below.

But first let me set that scene. Alonso Quijano, an aging landowner from La Mancha, has been driven insane by his obsessive reading of the tales of chivalry. Resolving to restore dignity to the lost profession of knight-errantry, he dons a rusted suit of armor, anoints himself Don Quixote de la Mancha, mounts his spavined horse, which he has renamed Rocinante, and sets out in a quest for glory. When he returns from his first “adventure” badly beaten and nearly starving, his two closest friends in the village — the priest and the barber — decide they must “cure” their friend of his madness. Thus once Don Quixote has been put to bed, the two men enter his massive library to identify, remove, and burn every tale of chivalry on those bookshelves.

cervantes[1]One item regarding the author’s background before we turn to that scene: 20 years before publication of the first volume of Don Quixote, Cervantes published a pastoral novel entitled La Galatea. That book soon went out of print, and its promised sequel was never published.

Now back to Chapter 6. Inside the library of Don Quixote, the priest and the barber take turns removing a book from the shelf, discussing it, and deciding whether it should be kept or burned. The various titles they deride, all bestsellers of that era, would no doubt have made Cervantes’ contemporaries chuckle; sadly, the humor is lost on us because those books have long since faded into obscurity.

But then, as the priest was discussing the author of a book that the barber was about to pull from the shelf, the priest paused and asked:

“But what’s that book right next to it?”

La Galatea by Miguel de Cervantes,” said the barber.

The priest nodded. “For years, this Cervantes has been a good friend of mine, and he certainly knows a lot more about misfortune than he does about poetry. There are good touches in his book; he starts some things, but he finishes nothing. We can only hope the second part, which he keeps promising, will set matters right and the book will earn the compassion now denied it. So keep him, my friend, locked away at home with all the others.”

“That will be fine with me,” answered the barber.

And we readers, smiling with amusement, move on to the next paragraph (and thus the next book on Don Quixote’s shelf), barely aware of the revolutionary bit of meta-fiction our author has just pulled off.

So, okay, Hemingway was hip and The Sun Also Rises is cool. But try to add a scene in that novel where, say, Jake Barnes has come to visit Lady Brett Ashley. He walks over to her bookshelf, pulls out a copy of In Our Time, and the two of them start discussing the author. “For years,” Jake tells her, “this Hemingway has been a good friend of mine.” Well, you get the idea, right. Sorry, Papa. Don Quixote. Coolest book of all time.

A Real Time Machine

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For the first time in my writing career, I had to step into a time machine in order to write my next novel, The Sirena Quest. Let me explain.

Most novels, from those on the bestseller list to the classics, are written in the author’s “now.” In the same way that Gone Girl takes place in Gillian Flynn’s present, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Jane Austen’s Emma take place in fictional worlds that are in chronological sync with their author’s world. In other words, when Herman Melville decided to write Moby Dick, he didn’t need to research the whaling industry during the two decades before the Civil War to avoid making any anachronistic errors. That’s because he wrote the novel during those same decades. So, too, the  streets, cars, typewriters, and telephones that Philip Marlowe used in the Los Angeles of the 1930s in The Big Sleep are the same streets, cars, typewriters, and telephones that Raymond Chandler used while he wrote that novel in Los Angeles in the 1930s.

But many wonderful writers have elected to set their novels in an earlier era. Alan Furst, for example, is the master of the historical spy novel. Most of his books are set in Europe just prior to or during World War II. So, too, in 1989, Ken Follett, whose earlier books established him as a bestselling author of international thrillers, made a radical shift back in time to the 12th century with Pillars of the Earth, the first novel in his trilogy set in medieveal England.

Not keen on the 12th century or pre-WWII Europe? No problem. Name your era, pick your genre, and you’ll be amazed at the offerings. Have a yen for mysteries and suspense set in ancient Rome? Here you go. How about medieval romance novels? Step right up.  And when you finish, say, Robert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy, pause to reflect on the amount of historical research into the Dreyfus Affair that had to precede the moment when Harris typed CHAPTER 1 at the top of that first page.

That’s because, among other things, when you set your fictional world in an earlier era, you need to guard against anachronisms. For example, Shakespeare committed one such error in Julius Caesar when he had Cassius announce that “The clock has struck three.” The problem? There were no such mechanical clocks in ancient Rome. Another example? In the movie Titanic, the character Jack mentions his ice-fishing on Lake Wissota near Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Unbeknownst to the screenwriters, that particular lake is a man-made reservoir constructed five years after the sinking of the Titanic. You can find other chronological flubs here.

Ironically, as I discovered in writing The Sirena Quest, keeping the smaller details accurate is even trickier when your novel takes place sometime in the past several decades. That’s because, in addition to all the cultural changes and new events that will impact your characters, you have to pin down the then-current technologies. Set your novel in, say, a law firm in 1979, and you sure better not put a laptop on your lawyer’s desk or give him access to the Internet. And you best wait a few years more before you have him settle down on his couch at night to watch SportsCenter on ESPN.

As you move forward into the 1980s, the pace of technological change only increases. Think of that iconic shot of Michael Douglas with the gargantuan cell phone in the 1987 movie Wall Street–a technological wonder back then, an object of mockery today.michael-douglas-phone[1]

My novel, The Sirena Quest is set in 1994. It features four men who met as college roommates their freshman year, drifted apart after graduation, and are now coming together a week or so before their 20th year college reunion.

1994.

Not that long ago, right? You’d be surprised. Though our cell phones had starting shrinking, the flip phone version was still two years away and, even more surprising, Apple would not unveil the iPhone for another 13 years. Facebook was ten years from launch; Twitter twelve years.

In an effort to ground my readers in the world on the day the novel opens, I included the following passage in the first chapter:

June 6, 1994—a date hitherto known, if at all, as a slow news day following a busy month. During May of 1994, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died of cancer, Nelson Mandela won South Africa’s first democratic elections, Michael Jordan swapped his Air Jordans for baseball spikes, and President Bill Clinton beamed as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat signed what the pundits declared “an historic accord” on Palestinian autonomy.

June sixth. No big headlines. Not much on the sports page. Nothing special at the movies, either. Release dates for Forest Gump and Pulp Fiction are still weeks away. Ace of Base’s “The Sign” sits atop the rock chart.

Just 20 years ago. Time flies, eh?

The Mysterious Case of the Monkey Selfie

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When you practice copyright law by day and write novels at night, you experience odd moments of convergence, the most recent of which involves the most famous monkey selfie in copyright history.

For those of you just returning to civilization after a ten-year sojourn in the wilderness, a “selfie”–as defined in the current edition of the Oxford English Dictionary–is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media.” Within the past few years, millions of selfies have been posted on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and elsewhere. And while most of those folks do it for fun, selfies can be big business. The Huffington Post reported that Kim Kardashian will soon publish a book of 352 of her favorite snaps, which you can buy for $19.95.

Devotees of the selfie include President Obama, posing here with other heads of state:obama-selfie[1]

And Ellen DeGeneres during the 2014 Oscars broadcast, posing here with other Hollywood celebrities for what has been labeled the most famous selfie of all time.

BhxWutnCEAAtEQ6[1]

So where is this intersection of selfies and copyright law? It exists over the question of who owns the copyright in that photograph?

Rarely is that question an issue, even within the realm of selfies. Under the Copyright Act of 1976, the owner of the copyright in a photograph, is, in the jargon of copyright law, the “author” of that photograph, i.e., the photographer who snapped the picture. Ironically, the “author” of the famous Ellen DeGeneres Oscars Selfie, and thus the actual owner of the copyright in that photograph, is the actor Bradley Cooper. As shown in the photograph below (taken by someone else at the moment of the creation of that selfie), Cooper snapped the photo:

article-2572822-1BFB3A0800000578-669_634x464[1]

Recently, however, the realm of selfie copyrights took a far more intriguing twist. It all began in 2011, when British wildlife photographer David J. Slater was in Indonesia taking photos of macaque monkeys.Monkey-takes-photo-007[1]

Some of the monkeys began playing with his digital camera, and one of the females managed to take a particularly striking selfie, shown at the top of this post.

That selfie went viral. It was published in various magazines and on websites around the world, including Wikimedia Commons, a collection of images that are free for public use. Slater apparently sent Wikimedia a standard copyright-notice-and-takedown request. Wikimedia, however, refused to take down the photo or pay Slater a royalty for it, claiming that there was no copyright in the monkey’s photo.

This raised an intriguing issue worthy of a law school final exam question: can a monkey be the “author” of a work that would otherwise be protected by copyright? Stated differently, is copyright ownership limited to humans?

That issue has caught the attention of the United States Copyright Office, which recently announced its release of the public draft of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition, which will take effect by the end of the year. Buried within more than 1200 eye-glazing pages of administrative practices regarding the Copyright Office’s registration and recordation policies is Chapter 306, entitled “The Human Authorship Requirement,” which opens: “The U.S. Copyright Office will register an original work of authorship, provided that the work was created by a human being.”

Most ominous for our talented macaque photographer is the third paragraph of that chapter, which begins: “The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants.” Listed at the end of that paragraph are several examples of works not eligible for copyright registration, the first of which is: “A photograph taken by a monkey.” (The second example? “A mural painted by an elephant.”)

This not only means no royalties for our macaque but, alas, harbors an equally unrewarded future for that rarest of typing monkeys that has for decades–or, in other versions, for centuries–been the hypothetical second author of Shakespeare’s plays in the so-called Infinite Monkey Theorem. To paraphrase the title of that great country western song, “Mama monkeys, don’t let your babies grow up to be artists.”Monkey-typing[1]