Stephanie Swilley

Women may be the great communicators, but given the state of the economy, it’s no surprise that ladies aren’t clamoring to talk about personal finances. And January may top the list of the worst months to come out of the cave of denial as the post-holiday bills start pouring in.

To face your financial statement with less fear, we’ve found three books that mix self-help, financial how-to and a big dose of female sensibility. Each of these accessible books recommends opening up about money, and they give you the advice you need to make the conversations a little easier—whether it’s with your spouse, financial advisor or debt collector.

To get you inspired to take charge of your wealth (start with positive thinking!) in 2010, pick up Live It, Love It, Earn It: A Woman’s Guide to Financial Freedom. Marianna Olszewski, a popular money and lifestyle coach with years of Wall Street experience, writes in an engaging style that educates without being overwhelming.

Olszewski focuses first on maximizing your potential to achieve financial independence by finding balance in all areas of life (diet, sleep, exercise) and adding more fun to the everyday. It feels a bit like you’ve wandered into a “best life” episode of “Oprah,” but it succeeds in energizing and opening your mind to new possibilities. Part two then gets into the financial practicalities of dealing with debt, cleaning up credit and saving for retirement. However, Olszewski goes beyond the basics by coaching the reader on uncovering why and how their individual money histories got them where they are today. She includes activities and questions to defuse emotions around money and even suggests that it’s OK to love money. The personalized “fun spending plan” reframes the money perspective to make it less boring than following a basic budget.

The final strategies focus on action, and the interactive approach helps you make the most of the advice. Whether you do it on your own, inspired by the personal stories from powerful women in the book, or start a group to work on the exercises together, Live It, Love It, Earn It will energize how you think about—and act on—money.

While you’re still feeling empowered, tackle Get Financially Naked: How to Talk Money with Your Honey. This succinct guide teaches women in committed relationships how to talk successfully about money with their mate—without fighting. It’s no surprise that many gals simply avoid this tough conversation, since 85 percent of all couples say money causes tension in their marriage (according to Money magazine). But, while the conversation may not be appropriate for a first date, authors Manisha Thakor and Sharon Kedar say it’s a must to discuss what you own, what you owe, your income and your credit scores before moving in together or getting married. No problem, right?

Start by baring all and getting naked with yourself first, then warm up to doing it with your partner. Helpful “foreplay” questions get the ball rolling, and the financial compatibility quiz is revealing and eye-opening. The authors are refreshingly honest, reassuring the reader that you don’t have to love—or even like—dealing with money to be successful. Their best advice is that personal finance should be simple. Focus on the big stuff: house, car, kids, retirement and family. And the common sense, straightforward advice on these five key lifetime expenses makes it truly seem easy. It’s having the courage to have the “get naked” talk before saying “I do” that is really powerful. The roadmap developed by Thakor and Kedar helps readers navigate these landmine conversations and get to happily ever after.

Another distinctive female perspective on financial independence is A Purse of Your Own. It’s based on a metaphor we can all relate to: an impulsive splurge on a designer bag to fool everyone into thinking we have it all put together. This is what author and wealth coach Deborah Owens calls a “counterfeit purse.”

With 20 years of financial industry experience, Owens turns the purse metaphor into a wealth philosophy and provides tips, action steps and “purseonality profiles” for her seven must-have wealthy habits. It starts with cleaning out that purse to cultivate a Wealthy Outlook that allows you to dream big again. The remaining habits teach the basics of investing, with a heavy focus on owning stocks.

Some of the best advice comes at the end as Owens details how to start your own Purse Club and covers nine “pursessentials. ” The no-nonsense tips on hiring a financial planner, speaking the financial lingo and establishing your daughter’s purse allow you to start putting your new wealth habits into practice with confidence.

Pick up any of these valuable books to start your purse makeover in 2010.

Stephanie Gerber writes from Kentucky, where her purse has turned into a diaper bag.

Women may be the great communicators, but given the state of the economy, it’s no surprise that ladies aren’t clamoring to talk about personal finances. And January may top the list of the worst months to come out of the cave of denial as the post-holiday bills start pouring in. To face your financial statement […]

Romeo Cacciamani and Julie Roseman are rival florists in Boston, whose families have hated each other for as long as anyone can remember (although no one can recall why). After 15 years apart, these two 60-somethings meet again at a small business convention where both are trying to salvage their family business. At last, animosity withers and attraction blooms instead.

The two quickly become lovebirds, and they aren't about to let something as trivial as a generations-long feud stand in the way of romance. But their respective families feel differently. Romeo's octogenarian mother, Julie's meddling ex-husband, and a cast of Cacciamani and Roseman children intervene with a hatred that matches the couple's love.

Julie and Romeo is the first novel from Jeanne Ray, mother of Ann Patchett, the best-selling author of The Magician's Assistant. Ray, a 60-something herself, has created a funny, sexy leading lady who shows that there is life and love after children, grandchildren, divorce, and age 60. The novel picks up the pace with each chapter as Ray falls into an easy rhythm. Her characters get funnier and each situation zanier than the last. Ray never fails to find the humor as Julie and Romeo face just about every obstacle on the road to romance. You'll be laughing out loud at the crazy things the two families do to spite one another, and one or two of the down-to-earth, flawed characters are likely to remind you of someone from your own family.

Julie struggles to maintain her sanity as she tries to keep her new relationship under wraps, her two daughters turn into nagging mothers, and the flower shop gets closer and closer to going under.

Think Montagues and Capulets, but unlike that tragic story, it's hard to guess what Julie and Romeo's outcome will be. This is a love story, but after some family feuding lands Romeo in the hospital, the future doesn't look too rosy. With just the right amount of sassiness and assertiveness, Julie feels like every woman fighting for love. Her characters fall in love early on, but Ray does a fine job keeping us guessing who will end up with whom. Wise, witty, and thoroughly modern, Julie and Romeo is a fun novel for anyone who thinks love is easy.

Stephanie Swilley, who graduated from college in May, wonders if she'll be 60 before she finds her Romeo.

Romeo Cacciamani and Julie Roseman are rival florists in Boston, whose families have hated each other for as long as anyone can remember (although no one can recall why). After 15 years apart, these two 60-somethings meet again at a small business convention where both are trying to salvage their family business. At last, animosity […]
Interview by

Author George P. Pelecanos has created his own niche as the "best kept secret in crime fiction." The critics love him, but after eight gritty urban novels, the Washington, D.C.-based writer has yet to crack the U.S. bestseller lists or achieve instant name recognition. And that's just fine with him.

"I don't think my books are for everybody," the soft-spoken author said when BookPage caught up with him at a recent ClubMed mystery writers conference. "I totally cooperate with everything [my publisher] asks me to do, and I want the book to succeed, but I've stopped having unreal expectations for any of my books. All I want to be able to do is write another book."

Just the kind of answer you might expect from the easygoing author. But with his growing cult following in the U.S., a thriving fan base overseas and plenty of cheerleaders inside the industry, his name might not stay a mystery for long. "He's the best," raves former touring partner Dennis Lehane. Along with Lehane, authors like Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly are heaping praise on Pelecanos' latest book, Right as Rain.

Like all of his previous novels, Rain is set in the working class suburbs of Washington, D.C., a side of the federal city that has nothing to do with politics. The story involves former cop Derek Strange, a Samuel L. Jackson-like character with cool confidence, who now heads his own P.I. firm, Strange Investigations. He's hired to investigate the death of an off-duty black D.C. cop who was gunned down by Terry Quinn, a white cop with the unpleasant combination of a quick temper and a chip on his shoulder. Although Quinn was cleared of any wrongdoing, he's tormented by the thought that race made him pull the trigger. He volunteers to help with Strange's case and the unlikely duo of killer and investigator create a unique partnership.

Pelecanos, a Greek-American, has created plenty of multi-ethnic characters in the past, but here he tackles the race issue head on. The racial tension is always just below the surface in his honest look at prejudice on both sides.

Describing his novel as an "urban western," Pelecanos says the story is based on actual events that were happening in Washington during the time he wrote the book. Several black officers had been shot by other policemen and the majority of those shootings were by white cops. Pelecanos researched the book by riding along on several midnight to dawn shifts to get a sense of their job.

"It's a real interesting shift," he says. "You really see what's going on. All the straights are in bed, and the people who shouldn't be are [the only ones] out there."

He also did what he has always loved — just "get out there and listen to people talk." Which might explain why dialogue comes so easy to him.

"I've been listening all my life," he says. Every summer as a kid in Washington, D.C., he would travel across town on the bus to work for his dad's lunch counter downtown. The various conversations he overheard on the bus fascinated him. "I was always interested in not just what they were saying, but the rhythms of their speech, the slang. Just a love of the language."

There are a few other things that Pelecanos is obsessed with, like basketball, cars, music, movies and ladies shoes. Each obsession has a history, and each of those elements finds its way into Pelecanos' books. He put himself through college selling shoes on straight commission ("the best job I ever had"), describes himself as a movie freak who, as a boy, dreamed of becoming a movie director, and admits he used to own a jacked-up Camaro. To him, the kind of car you drive and the music you listen to say a lot about your character. So can he explain the guy/car phenomenon?

"It's something about having a beer between your legs, the music up loud, a girl beside you," he struggles to explain. "Yeah, my books are for guys, I would say. It's another thing keeping me down," he laughs.

Even if you don't get the car thing, maybe you'll understand the vast and varied music references that punctuate his descriptions. It's been suggested that his books should come with a soundtrack, and it's not a bad idea.

"I do understand that I'm alienating a certain part of the audience that doesn't listen to that music. I don't expect people over the age of 60 — just to pick a random age — to know what I'm talking about," he says. "It's sort of like I can't help myself or something. The things that I write about, the settings I write about, people are listening to music. If you've got a book set in the kitchen of a restaurant, the radio is the most fought over appliance in the restaurant all day long. I know because I worked in plenty of kitchens. When people start talking about what they're listening to or why the other guy's music sucks, you start finding out about their characters."

Pelecanos knows all about blue collar jobs because he has amassed quite a resume over the past 30 years: bartender, truck driver, line cook, valet and don't forget shoe salesman. He was general manager of a $30 million company when he had what he calls an "early mid-life crisis."

"That's when it all fell apart for me," he says. "Because what I thought was going to happen was that I'd buy a company or own my own business, and I didn't want to do that. I just didn't want to get in my car every day and be like everyone else. In a way, you can say it's a personality flaw of a lot of writers — they can't really conform. They question everything, from authority to driving the same route everyday."

Despite the fact that he'd never tried to write anything before, he quit his job and started his first book. He finished the largely autobiographical A Firing Offense a year later.

"You've got to remember, I was just a guy saying, 'I want to write a book.' I didn't have any formal training. I never took a writing class, so I'm sure the people around me that loved me were thinking, 'He's gonna fail.' And how would they know, and how would I know, that I could write a book? I just thought that I could. I just had the idea that I could," he says.

And whether or not Right as Rain is a huge hit, Pelecanos will be content as long as he can keep writing seven days a week and churning out one book a year.

"I'm always one book ahead," he explains. "I can write another book before the next one comes out, and I don't have to worry about what people said about that one. I just put something else in the hopper and keep the cycle going."


 

Author George P. Pelecanos has created his own niche as the "best kept secret in crime fiction." The critics love him, but after eight gritty urban novels, the Washington, D.C.-based writer has yet to crack the U.S. bestseller lists or achieve instant name recognition. And that's just fine with him. "I don't think my books […]
Interview by

Donald Westlake was recently treated to a special big-screen viewing of The Hot Rock, a 1972 film based on his novel of the same name. The credits rolled and when the screen flashed Based on the novel by Donald E. Westlake, a loud cheer erupted from the assorted mix of best-selling mystery authors and journalists in the audience. Twenty-five years since his last viewing, Westlake flashed a grin as a young Robert Redford filled the screen with his jaunty gait, bringing to life Westlake’s ever-challenged burglar Dortmunder.

No stranger to the big screen, Westlake has seen several of his novels make their way to the multiplexes, including the classic Point Blank!, the Mel Gibson remake Payback and his Oscar-winning screen adaptation of The Grifters.

In June, an adaptation of the 1996 Dortmunder caper What’s the Worst That Could Happen? debuts at the box office, and this time Martin Lawrence takes over for Robert Redford as the bad luck burglar.

Popular and prolific, Westlake is widely credited with creating two of the most memorable characters in crime fiction — the cold-hearted, professional crook Parker and the bumbling burglar Dortmunder. This month Dortmunder makes his 10th appearance in print in the new mystery novel, Bad News.

Westlake, 67, has been making readers laugh at the foibles of his professional criminals since his smashing debut, The Mercenaries, in 1960. His career took off, and he was soon publishing three to four books a year. So prolific was his output that his publisher warned him not to publish so many books under his own name. Rather than slow down, he developed a myriad of pen names (Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, Samuel Holt and Curt Clark to name a few) to keep up with the overflow. After 40 years, even Westlake himself has lost track of how many books he has written. "I don’t know. I believe we might be in the 90s — not 100 yet though," he says.

You get the sense when talking with Westlake that he doesn’t have time for trivial matters like tracking his workflow. His conversation frequently veers off track, sentences tripping off his tongue unfinished. With all those books and characters in his head, who can blame him?

The Parker character made his first appearance in 1961. "I hadn’t even bothered to give him a first name because I thought that [book] would be the only one," he says. With a new ending that let the bad guy get away, the series was born. Written under the name Richard Stark, Westlake’s Parker novels don’t waste words or spend much time dealing with emotions; Parker is a true tough guy.

A plot idea originally intended for the hard-hearted anti-hero led Westlake to create Dortmunder, another life-long crook and the polar opposite of Parker. Westlake thought it would be fun to have Parker grapple with the challenge of stealing the same thing over and over. But he realized that "as soon a tough guy becomes inadvertently funny, he isn’t tough anymore; he’s just ridiculous. I liked the idea, so I said, well, let’s switch it around and give it to somebody else."

The Hot Rock was the first novel featuring the comic efforts of Dortmunder (named after a German beer) and his merry band of thieves. With plenty of puns and gags, this guy can’t quite get his act together to pull off the perfect crime. Whether it’s a scheme to nab a priceless bone or steal a bank (yes, the whole thing), the endless plot twists are a natural antidepressant.

In Bad News, Dortmunder’s problems start right off the bat when he and his friend Andy Kelp are hired by shady businessman Fitzroy Guilderpost to do a little graverobbing. Soon they’re caught up in a DNA switcheroo meant to prove that ex-Vegas showgirl Little Feather Redcorn is a long lost member of the Pottaknobbee Indian tribe. If they can pull off their scam, Little Feather will become one-third owner of the largest casino in the East. As with all Dortmunder novels, things never go according to plan, and plenty of hilarity ensues.

Westlake is famous for his comic touch, but in 1997, he had something of a career breakthrough with the publication of The Ax, a savage tale of a man caught in the era of corporate downsizing. He began getting a lot more attention, and suddenly the guy who could crank out three books a year was struggling with writer’s block.

"I realized that for 35 years I’d been flying under the radar and always able to do whatever I wanted to do — just successful enough so that I didn’t have to have a day job and not successful enough so that they were watching me. So all of a sudden, after 35 years, I was having second novel problems," he says.

Not wanting to follow the critical and commercial success of The Ax with a light Dortmunder novel, Westlake spent over a year trying to figure out what to write next. "I was spending several hours playing solitaire in my office, which can really get to you. I think I’d rather be a drunk," he laughs.

He had given up and moved on to a different project when a snippet of conversation with a friend got the wheels turning. Soon The Hook, a tale that ironically involves a best-selling author suffering from writer’s block, was under way. His editor took one look at the manuscript and announced, "That’s the book that follows The Ax."

Which brings up another dilemma. "Now I have to think about what book will come after The Ax, after The Hook, after Bad News. Has enough time gone by? Can I go back under the radar now?" he laughs.

But Hollywood isn’t about to let that happen. When the film adaptation of What’s the Worst That Could Happen? debuts at the box office in June, Westlake will have to venture out for one more trip to the theater.

Author photo by Lisa Berg.

Donald Westlake was recently treated to a special big-screen viewing of The Hot Rock, a 1972 film based on his novel of the same name. The credits rolled and when the screen flashed Based on the novel by Donald E. Westlake, a loud cheer erupted from the assorted mix of best-selling mystery authors and journalists […]
Interview by

It’s 16 down and 10 to go. Sue Grafton is working her way through the alphabet with the mystery series featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone, and this month she follows O is for Outlaw with her latest release, P is for Peril. Coming up with plenty of title possibilities for the letter "P" was not a problem for this prolific author.

" ‘O’ was tricky," Grafton explains, "but when you come to ‘P,’ you’ve got poison, pistol, peril, persecute, prosecute, prison, police, whatever — you can go on and on."

Just don’t ask her what the book is about, because she candidly admits in a phone interview from her home in Louisville, Kentucky (where she was born and raised) that she’s "already forgotten it."

"I’m on to the next one," she says, "and my only survival skill is to delete from my brain anything that doesn’t exactly pertain to the book I’m working on."

More on Q is for . . . to come, but right now we’ll give the rough cut for Peril. At the center of the mystery are Dow and Crystal Purcell, a quintessential California couple: he, elderly and wealthy; she, cute, tanned and curvaceous, not to mention 40-odd years his junior. When Dow goes missing under mysterious and sinister circumstances, Kinsey Millhone is called in to investigate . . . by Dow’s ex-wife, no less.

Grafton’s latest possesses all the humor, charm and attitude that have compelled readers to show their devotion to the feisty P.I. by naming their daughters in her honor. "Originally they were naming their dogs and cats Kinsey, so I think I’m moving up the food chain," she laughs.

Grafton admits she based her character on herself. "Kinsey Millhone is my alter ego," Grafton says. "She is the person I might have been had I not married young and had children, so it is fun that I get to live her life and mine."

For several years, Grafton was living a life neither she nor Kinsey would have wanted. Grafton had moved to Hollywood after college and for 12 years she made her career in TV writing. The only problem was, she hated it.

"I knew I had to get myself out of Hollywood because it just did not fit me at all," she says. So she took the advice of her father, an attorney who wrote mysteries on the side, and started plugging away at A is for Alibi. Five years later, she finished it and four months before it was published, her father died.

"I never got to sit down and ask him about plotting and how to come up with good premises. He was a whiz at it, but we never got to talk shop," Grafton says. And since Grafton is determined not to repeat herself in any of her storylines it would have been nice to have some help on the road to Z is for Zero.

"I thought they’d get easier; I thought after eight or 10 letters I’d get the hang of it. But I am convinced there are 26 things to say about homicide," she says determinedly.

We promised to get back to "Q," and while Grafton won’t give away any plot secrets ("never talk about a work in progress"), she will say that she has chosen Q is for Quarry as the title, "both the sense of rock quarry and in the sense of hunted," she explains.

It’s 16 down and 10 to go. Sue Grafton is working her way through the alphabet with the mystery series featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone, and this month she follows O is for Outlaw with her latest release, P is for Peril. Coming up with plenty of title possibilities for the letter "P" was not […]
Interview by

Harlan Coben, the wise-cracking mystery writer who’s every bit as funny as his characters, would rather not hear that you don’t have time to read. 
 
"Please don’t say that!" the author joked in a recent phone interview. "I have a fourth child coming in July; I need to feed them all!"
 
Sure enough, just as his new thriller Tell No One is released, Coben and his wife Anne will add baby number four to their family that already includes three kids ranging in age from 2 to 7 years old. "To answer your next question: Yes, I am insane," he deadpans.
 
The stay-at-home dad might need to be a bit off his rocker to come up with the twists and turns that make Tell No One such a wild whodunit. The story follows pediatrician David Beck’s search for the real story behind his wife’s murder. Eight years after her death, the inner city doctor receives an anonymous e-mail sending him to an Internet street cam. As he watches people stream by on a busy street, he suddenly finds himself staring at the woman he lost all those years ago. It’s almost impossible to distill the plot into short summary, as Coben has enough surprises up his sleeve to keep you racing to the end.
 
"I love to lead [the reader] down one path and then rip you in the other. I want every book, especially this one, to really twist and turn," he says. "I love a book that sneaks up behind you at the end and slaps you in the back of the head, and that’s what I hope this book does."
 
After seven books featuring Myron Bolitar, his sports agent mystery sleuth who reigns as the king of zippy one liners, this is Coben’s first release without the alter ego. "At the end of [my] last book [Myron] kinda looked at me and I kinda looked at him, and he said, ‘You know, give me a break here pal.’ So I gave him some down time," Coben says.
 
It wouldn’t be a Coben book without his trademark wit, but Tell No One relies less on snappy comebacks, keeping the humor more controlled. And what ranks as his most suspenseful book yet had an unlikely origin.
 
"I was watching one of those typical romance movies — I won’t mention the name — where the man loses his wife, years pass, he can’t go on, but he learns to go on. I said to myself, What about the guy who can’t go on? How can I find a story where he can find redemption and solace?" Coben explains.
 
Learning to go on is something Coben knows a lot about. He talks candidly about the death of his parents while he was in his 20s, saying his close relationship with them has affected his writing "more than I ever anticipated."
 
"There are parts of Tell No One where I describe what lessons [Beck] learned from the death of his lover, and really a lot of those lessons I derived from the death of my parents," he says.
 
That family theme seems to find its way into all of Coben’s novels. Unlike most mystery protagonists, Myron Bolitar still loves his aging parents, and his visits with them are often a source of great comedy.
 
"I’m always shocked at how much people relate to the stuff that deals with family and parents," he says. "I love writing about the suburbs of America; it’s sort of a last battleground of the American dream. It’s where everyone, you and I and everyone else, fights to find some sort of happiness." He stops himself before getting too profound. "Wow, that was deep, give me a moment. (short pause) OK, I’m OK."
 
Coben hasn’t left the suburbs in Tell No One, but he admits he had a few anxious moments about leaving his favorite character.
 
"With Myron there was a comfort zone, in the sense that it was an ‘I know I can do it’ zone. Not that it was easier or harder, but I knew I could do it and that the public would accept it," he admits. "So to try something new took a bit of a nudge, but once I was there, I really found it quite freeing."
 
Coben felt even better after Hollywood snapped up the book in a four studio auction. In fact, he calls the whole bidding war "just four or five days of sheer bliss." With orthodontia and college to come, it’s a family man’s dream come true.

Harlan Coben, the wise-cracking mystery writer who’s every bit as funny as his characters, would rather not hear that you don’t have time to read.    "Please don’t say that!" the author joked in a recent phone interview. "I have a fourth child coming in July; I need to feed them all!"   Sure enough, […]
Interview by

When he was just out of law school, Brad Meltzer quickly joined the ranks of John Grisham and Scott Turow with his nail-biting debut thriller, The Tenth Justice. Four bestsellers later, he’s still reveling in a job that gives him inside access to the Supreme Court and the White House.

"I love digging around for the details. They are the most fun," Meltzer says from his home in Washington, D.C. "Hollywood lies so much to us that when you take the time to get it right, it becomes amazing." He researched his latest thriller, The Millionaires, for more than two years, but the topics he explores couldn’t be timelier. Crafting a story of two brothers on the run for stealing way more than they intended, Meltzer dove into subjects now on everyone’s mind: how people can change their identity and just disappear, and how the super-rich keep their millions hidden.

"It is so pathetically easy to change your identity in this country that it’s not funny," he says. "I thought it was going to be hard, [requiring] masterful, evil villain thinking, and it’s not. It’s simple. And that’s what’s truly scary." The Millionaires centers on Oliver, a rising young associate at a swank private bank in New York, who discovers that his boss is sabotaging his plans to get into a top MBA school. In a fit of anger, he agrees to his brother Charlie’s plan to steal $3 million from an inactive account about to be turned over to the government. To Charlie and Oliver’s thinking, no one will ever miss the money since the owner is dead. But it turns out quite a few people want the money, and the two boys are soon on the run as they try to figure out who’s chasing them, and how $3 million turned into $313 million.

Meltzer threw himself into his research and in no time learned how to get a fake Social Security number and passport. He discovered the art of garbage reading and the wonders of Nice N Easy hair color to create a new appearance. "Sometimes the dumb things and the easy things are the most effective" when trying to disappear, he says.

Meltzer even hired a private eye to put him under investigation. With just his name, he told the detective to find out everything she could on him. For an author who admits he’s paranoid, the results were scary.

"Within two minutes, she had everything," he says. "She had my Social Security number, my address, my former addresses. She had all of my relatives and my neighbors. She had my phone number, and once she gets your bank info, she can get your credit cards. In no time at all, she had my entire life laid out in front of her." But to Meltzer, The Millionaires is about more than stealing money and finding privacy in a world where everyone can see you.

"It’s about what we dream of as dreamers," he says. "It’s about what you think you want from life and realizing that sometimes it’s OK not to get it."

The journey for Meltzer’s characters inevitably hits close to home. "Every book that I write, I finish it and say, That’s the most personal character I’ve written." Meltzer sees part of himself in the serious, hardworking Oliver who struggles with money and class issues in a world of wealthy entitlement. "Our backgrounds are very similar," he says. "It’s always been the thorn I step on."

At 13, Meltzer was suddenly uprooted from Brooklyn when his father lost his job and did a "do-over of life" by moving the family to Florida with just $1,200. His parents lied about their address so Meltzer could attend the rich kid’s public school, and suddenly he was surrounded by families with more than one car and kids planning to go to college.

"In terms of feeling like you’re the outsider looking in on the rich person’s life, I felt like that was my entire life when we moved to Florida," Meltzer says, adding "That’s what Oliver was based on the kid who wants more."

Now 31, Meltzer still populates his thrillers with young protagonists with grand plans and plenty of idealism. Usually in their 20s, the wannabe lawyers and bankers have their lives all planned out, until, invariably, everything goes wrong.

"It’s just a magic time. I think it’s the best time to write about. And maybe this is just my belief in how power really works," Meltzer says. Meaning that without the "little people" to drive the cars, send the faxes and work the computers, the big shots would be up a creek. "I feel like in some ways I’m forever trapped there in the low part of the totem pole," he admits, "but thankfully so."

Meltzer, like one of his young, eager characters, thought he had his future mapped out. With one year to go before starting law school at Columbia University, he took a job in Boston at Games magazine. And like one of his twisting, turning thrillers, nothing went as planned. The job turned out to be awful, and Meltzer remembers thinking, I have one year and I can either watch a lot of television, or I can try and write a novel. "I know it sounds insane," he says now, "but it just seemed like the most logical thing to me."

Maybe his plan was crazy, because Meltzer eventually received 24 rejection letters for his literary novel Fraternity. But he fell in love with the process of writing and early into his first year of law school, the idea came to him for The Tenth Justice. Being a paranoid person, Meltzer says, writing thrillers came naturally; he had found his niche. The Tenth Justice was so successful that after finishing law school, he devoted himself to writing full-time and never practiced law.

Although he made his mark by writing about lawyers, Meltzer wanted to take a new direction with The Millionaires. "I did not want to forever rely on the big Washington power structure to scare the reader," he says. So he moved the action to New York, left out the lawyers and tinkered with the thriller structure.

"Usually you always know who the villain is and why the character is in danger. And in this book, I said, Let’s know neither of these things. Let’s see what happens when the character doesn’t even know why he’s in trouble, if he can figure his way out of it," Meltzer explains.

He charged into unknown territory, but didn’t lose an ounce of the Meltzer magic. The 482 pages fly by with pulse-pounding suspense, and the unraveling secrets chase you to the end. Joey, the female insurance agent in The Millionaires who’s smarter than both the bad guys and the good guys, sums Meltzer’s style up best: "The best games always keep moving."

 

When he was just out of law school, Brad Meltzer quickly joined the ranks of John Grisham and Scott Turow with his nail-biting debut thriller, The Tenth Justice. Four bestsellers later, he’s still reveling in a job that gives him inside access to the Supreme Court and the White House. "I love digging around for […]
Interview by

Jeanne Ray has redefined life after 60 for herself and her readers. At an age when most people start thinking of retirement, Ray launched a second career writing endearing comedies about the angst-filled love lives of the senior set. "Yes," Ray says, "grandma and grandpa can still kick up their heels and fall in love."

In violet eyeshadow, a silk blouse and delicate jewelry, Ray proves that over 60 is still sexy. In fact, the author attracts a few stares when we meet in the Davis-Kidd bookstore in her hometown of Nashville. When her first novel, Julie & Romeo, debuted to rave reviews, the store was the site of her very first reading and drew a crowd of more than 400. "Surprise is not even a big enough word for it," Ray says of the reaction to Julie & Romeo, which sold some 480,000 copies and was optioned for film by Barbra Streisand. Readers were inspired by the spunky over-60 florists who not only reclaimed romance late in life, but passion as well. Even now, Ray admits to tearing up when delighted fans tell her how much the book meant to them. "It is just so touching and surprising to hear," she says.

This month Ray releases her second book, Step-Ball-Change, and breathes new life into the old married couple misconception. Caroline and John's dream of retirement and travel is always just out of reach; instead, they face everyday catastrophes with hilarious aplomb: their daughter is planning a 1,000-guest wedding, their home's foundation may be collapsing and they still can't find time alone.

"I wanted to show how complicated even a happy family can be that nothing is ever status quo or comfortable."

"One of the things I was trying to show in Step-Ball-Change is that it is possible to have a long, respectable, happy marriage," says Ray, who has found happiness with her third husband. "I wanted to show how complicated even a happy family, a well-adjusted family, if you will, can be that nothing is ever status quo or comfortable."

Ray shook up her own status quo when her writing unexpectedly blossomed into a full-time career. After 45 years as a nurse, the timing seemed right to turn her little joy time activity into a serious pursuit: she was in a secure relationship, the kids were grown, and she had finally found a topic that motivated her. Sharing her writing was frightening, but Ray had a little help from daughter Ann Patchett, who happens to be the author of such acclaimed novels as Bel Canto and The Magician's Assistant. Patchett gave lots of constructive criticism and then leaned on Mom to finish the book. "Now we understand each other on a whole new level," says Patchett, who thinks the new book is terrific. "The things we get really excited about and the things we complain about are now the same things."

If Ray gets tired of writing, she might take up tap dancing as a third career. "I always, always, always, wanted to be a dancer," says Ray. "I think I was really living my dancing needs out vicariously with Caroline." The do-gooding heroine of Step-Ball-Change, Caroline is a dance teacher juggling the demands of a family pulling in every direction. The house is crowded with children, her estranged sister and the ever-present construction man, but with a little fancy footwork, Caroline manages to keep the chaos under control.

"I think [Caroline] came from me," laughs Ray a little ruefully. "I'm sure she hasn't made as many mistakes as I have made, and probably did a better job in many ways, but the basis [is] pretty much me." The relationships with her husband, children and sister are essential for Caroline, a mother who has created a cozy nest of family and friends. Without being saccharine, Ray's characters have just enough witty banter that when the table is set, you can't help wishing there was an extra place for you.

Just as Caroline thrives off those basic connections, Ray admits that writing can sometimes be too isolating. "I think that's why I'm a nurse. I didn't work when [Julie & Romeo] came out, and I was miserable," she says. "The family my patients and I had created was very, very important to me."

Now she's back to working one day a week with an internist at the Frist Clinic in Nashville. "Meeting people as a nurse which I've been for 45 years or so is very different than meeting people as a writer," Ray says. "You get more respect as a writer, but people tend to reach out to you more as a nurse."

And what's it like with two writers in the family? Both women say there's no competition or jealousy, but Ray laughs, "[Ann's] friends who are writers tell her, 'Ann, if I were you, I'd break your mother's knees.' . . . We have learned a whole lot about one another. Our relationship has changed throughout all this. We've always been very close, but now, I think I understand a whole lot more about what she does."

Like the grueling demands of promotion, for one thing. A three-week book tour kicks off this month, and the woman who three years ago would never have pictured herself as a public speaker is looking forward to the trip. She'll be back at Davis-Kidd in Nashville on May 28.

Writing has filled a niche for Ray, but she didn't spend her first 60 years being miserable. "I loved what I was doing, had a good time, have no regrets," Ray says. "I think it's sort of perfect that I did what I did the first 60 years of my life and now I get to do something different that's equally as enjoyable. It's like seeing the stage from stage right instead of stage left. You just get a little bit different view of life."

Jeanne Ray has redefined life after 60 for herself and her readers. At an age when most people start thinking of retirement, Ray launched a second career writing endearing comedies about the angst-filled love lives of the senior set. "Yes," Ray says, "grandma and grandpa can still kick up their heels and fall in love." […]
Interview by

Ethan Hawke—yes, the scruffy, slightly bohemian actor from films such as Training Day and Reality Bites—isn't content to act, direct and enjoy married life with the lovely Uma Thurman. He's back with a second novel, Ash Wednesday, six years after delivering The Hottest State, a fiction debut that fans loved and reviewers loved to hate. Critics are no doubt sharpening the knives again, ready to take the Hollywood hottie down a peg or two.

Although he feels less like a novelty act the second time around, Hawke admitted in a recent phone interview from L.A. that some of the abuse is justified. "Part of it comes from the fact that they feel like it is so much easier for you to get published and you need to take a beating for that. And in a certain way of thinking, that's fair." Hawke didn't want to feel rushed with his second effort, so he spent five years carving out blocks of time to write between acting jobs and playing with the kids. The 31-year-old father of two estimates he tried 80 million different techniques to create discipline in himself, but eventually settled into a routine of getting out of the house before the babies got up, writing from 6-10 a.m. and then spending the rest of the day with daughter Maya Ray, 4, and son Roan, now six months.

"The first time you write something, you're so excited to have written anything at all. You're like, I wrote something that's 200 pages long! Everybody should read it!' The second time you hold yourself up to a higher bar."

The story of a hapless couple (she's pregnant, he's AWOL from the Army) on a road trip to Texas sounds intriguing, but even this reader picked up the book ready to take aim. Really, what could Big Mr. Movie Star have to say about the lives of normal folks?

"Wait, where does it say I wasn't allowed to do this?" Hawke wants to know. "Doctors and teachers and lawyers and people who work in jails [write] . . . everybody who writes also has another profession. I didn't know why it was supposed to be so taboo. Actors write screenplays; there's no problem with that. I also think it has to do with people thinking you have it too easy, and they gotta make you pay."

He has a point, and Knopf certainly liked the book enough to offer close to half a million for it last December. Ash Wednesday is told in the alternating first-person voices of Jimmy and Christy, a young couple struggling with the harsh realities of marriage and impending parenthood. Both perspectives feel refreshingly honest, and it's clear these characters are traveling a road the author has been down before. ["The book] deals with things that were very relevant in my own life," says Hawke, whose wife Uma Thurman was pregnant with Roan during the writing process. "There's a certain time in your life you have to figure out what you're living for and what the aim of your life is, and starting a family can really raise those questions."

It sounds like a no-brainer to want to settle down with Uma, but Hawke has been candid about the real-life ups-and-downs of marriage. "We all have this fantasy of finding our one true love who's going to be the perfect fit and make our whole life move effortlessly. It's just not a reality," he says.

In the book, Jimmy and Christy are at a similar crossroads. Their relationship has gone sour when Christy discovers she's pregnant and hops on a bus headed for home. Finally overcoming his fear of commitment, Jimmy races after her in his souped-up Chevy Nova and convinces her to marry him. Jimmy isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, but he relays his cliched bits of wisdom with all the fervor of a Sunday preacher. His simplistic belief that "without you, I just see, like, gray, like shit, you know?" wins over Christy, despite her well-reasoned arguments that their love is doomed.

"They are two people actively seeking a rebirth in how to orient themselves to begin their adult lives," says Hawke, "[learning] how to put their childhood to rest and how to be adults in this world and take care of somebody else."

When he refers to rebirth, he means it in both the literal and spiritual sense. Images of God and religion appear on almost every other page, and Hawke does a masterful job of subtly drawing out the question, What do you believe in? It's fascinating to follow one couple as they begin to answer that question for themselves and undergo the evolution that inevitably occurs when one person really tries to love another.

Hawke had to go through the same process when he settled down as a married man in 1998, but his struggle took place under the glare of the celebrity spotlight that has followed him since Dead Poets Society propelled him to fame at age 18. The star of big screen adaptations of Great Expectations, Hamlet and <I>Snow Falling on Cedars</I> admits, "It's tough when you have to learn in front of people. But that's the problem if you become a celebrity at 18 and you don't learn in front of people that means you're not learning anything." Wanting new experiences is one thing, but Hawke admits he doesn't take criticism well. "Uma tries to be supportive, although for Ash Wednesday she did point out that my female characters should not be talking about women's breasts so much," Hawke laughs. And he wasn't naive enough to think the publishing world would embrace yet another actor trying his hand at fiction.

"I knew I would take a beating for [The Hottest State]," he says. "It wasn't unexpected. So the real lesson I took from that was I don't think I'll ever be that susceptible to criticism again in my life. I knew that if I really did want to write, it would only get harder the longer I waited." Hawke says he plans to write another novel ("I'd be shocked if I didn't") and might try his hand at a screenplay next. He's rethinking his ban on movie adaptations for The Hottest State and Ash Wednesday, but he isn't sure he'd be the right actor or director for the job.

"I wonder if anyone has ever done that?" he says. "Adapted their own novel, starred in it and directed it? Sounds like too much, doesn't it? A little too much like looking in the mirror."  

Ethan Hawke—yes, the scruffy, slightly bohemian actor from films such as Training Day and Reality Bites—isn't content to act, direct and enjoy married life with the lovely Uma Thurman. He's back with a second novel, Ash Wednesday, six years after delivering The Hottest State, a fiction debut that fans loved and reviewers loved to hate.
Interview by

Growing up in a small Appalachian town in Virginia, author Lee Smith describes herself as being a "deeply weird" child. With an incredible passion for books and reading, she devoured novels like The Secret Garden and Heidi and loathed letting go of her favorite characters so much that she wrote new endings to keep the story alive. By age 8, she had written her first novel (Adlai Stevenson and Jane Russell head West and become Mormons) and at age 9, she was selling stories to neighbors for a nickel.

Although she was "a terrible student," she enrolled in Hollins College, a small women's college in Virginia, and the intense writing program proved to be a turning point. "I always felt like I was so weird, and suddenly I was thrown in with these other girls who were just like me! It was like going to heaven," Smith says during a phone call from Maine, where she frequently vacations.

The formative college years propelled Smith into a career as an author (Fair and Tender Ladies, Oral History) and provided the real-life adventure behind her new novel, The Last Girls, which tells the story of four women who braved the mighty Mississippi on a raft during college. The book is fiction, but for Smith, the raft trip was real. Surrounded by women who loved books, it's no surprise that after studying Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn in a literature class, one enterprising student declared, "We could do that!" and the trip was on—Smith and 15 of her college gal pals would float down the Mississippi River in the summer of 1966. The girls constructed a 40 x 17 foot "floating porch" made of a wooden platform on oil drums and hired a 73-year-old retired riverboat captain to navigate. The raft took 18 days to travel the 950 miles from Paducah, Kentucky, to New Orleans.

"We would have gotten there sooner, but we had some mishaps, as you can imagine," Smith says, recalling the drenching rainstorms, mosquito bites and even a brush with a hurricane.

The romance of the river they remembered from Twain's fiction dissipated somewhat with the reality of too much work and muddy waters. "You couldn't just jump off and have an idyllic little swim when you wanted," says Smith, "and we got way too much media attention." Greeted and photographed at each stop, Smith describes this as the era of the "last girls," the last of the pre-feminist generation.

Smith always knew she would find a story in her great adventure, but she laughs, "I only had to wait 30 years to see what the meaning of that was for me." It turned out that Twain needed an update. The idea of traveling downriver on a raft and reaching a profound destination "is not a metaphor for any women's lives that I know," Smith says. "Our lives are not that linear. That's more the plot of a boy's book."

Instead, she started thinking about how the past affects the present and how expectations rarely match up with reality. "It's all about the journey rather than the destination for women's lives," she says. "In many ways that can make a much richer journey full of many more events and multiple meanings."

Smith's novel, The Last Girls, explores the twists and turns life took for the friends who traveled the Mississippi River in the '60s as they reunite to cruise the river again, this time on the luxurious Belle of Natchez steamboat. Thirty-five years after the first trip, the women, now in their 50s, will spread the ashes of fellow rafter Baby Ballou, who recently died. Building each character by weaving in and out of their memories, we meet Anna Todd, a famous romance novelist; Courtney Gray, a scrapbook-obsessed socialite; Catherine Wilson, a sculptor in an unhappy marriage; and Harriet Holding, a smart but timid teacher who wonders where her nerve went. The flashbacks are both wistful and brutal as memories of the dramatic, free-spirited Baby Ballou open Harriet's eyes to the possibilities she never dared to explore.

"My husband [writer Hal Crowther] read this book and said, 'You are each one of these people.' There's a lot of me in each [character]," Smith admits, though she claims she's most like the orderly, care-taking Harriet. Maybe that's because she went through her "Baby wannabe" days in college, describing those years as a "breakout period—I just went wild." Even while busting loose, Smith showed her literary side: She and fellow author Annie Dillard performed as go-go dancers in the all-girl rock band the Virginia Woolfs. "Yeah, we were go-go dancers," she says, quickly adding, "but it was much less exciting than it sounds."

Baby Ballou permeates The Last Girls, and she's one of those irresistible characters that leap off the page. Her story is told via poetry, and Smith, who had never written poetry, "just went crazy," writing 50 or 60 poems for the vibrant character and reveling in the "freedom from having to tack everything down so securely" as a novelist. "There was this part of me that was just dying to write poems," she says.

Maybe the river provided the inspiration. She wrote the poems cruising down the Mississippi on a big steamboat similar to the one in The Last Girls. She traveled from Memphis to New Orleans with her husband in tow. "I made him go with me, even though he's claustrophobic and hated the idea of being stuck on a boat."

Smith still keeps in touch with some of the college buddies from her own Mississippi adventure and sent several of them a copy of The Last Girls. She laughs at the idea of organizing her own reunion cruise, though, saying "I don't think so."

True to form, Smith would rather spend a vacation devouring a suitcase full of books. Already "reading around" her next novel—which is set in the Piedmont area of North Carolina in the years right after Civil War—she has a new addiction. "It's like heroin," Smith says, with a drawl you can't resist. "You start reading about the Civil War, which I'd never given a damn about frankly, but it's just fascinating."

Growing up in a small Appalachian town in Virginia, author Lee Smith describes herself as being a "deeply weird" child. With an incredible passion for books and reading, she devoured novels like The Secret Garden and Heidi and loathed letting go of her favorite characters so much that she wrote new endings to keep the […]
Interview by

At the ripe old age of 14, Timothy Olsen has to think back six years to remember his first stock pick. The 8-year-old investor went with a product he liked and decided to invest in Pepsico. That initial $150 investment grew to $70,000 and ignited a passion in Olsen. He now spends seven to eight hours a day managing his portfolio. “CNBC is on all day. From when I get up at 7 a.m. till about 5 p.m.” Is he obsessed? “Yes, very.” The ninth-grader from Cranford, New Jersey, who wants to be a hedge fund manager, channels that focus to help other young investors find the road to riches in The Teenage Investor. This thoughtful primer for stock novices of any age stresses the importance of doing your research and staying away from hype. “There will always be tough times and you have to stick it out,” Olsen says. “If you keep adding money, it will grow over time.” Originally Olsen “didn’t have any intention of writing to teenagers,” but a smart editor changed his mind. Once convinced, the writing “came easy to me,” says Olsen. He pounded out the entire book during the summer before eighth grade.

Olsen’s biggest thrills come from finding great companies selling at bargain prices, and the excitement bubbles up as he recalls Crown Cork ∧ Seal, his “best investment of all time.” He bought at $1.25 and sold at $11.

So what do his parents think of their teen whiz kid? “They’re very encouraging,” he says. Mom’s investment group loves the free stock tips, but Olsen’s not quite ready to take on paying clients. “I’m in school all day, so there’s no time. Plus if I lost their money, that would be bad.” But not even school can keep a determined investor down. “Right away when I get home I turn on CNBC. It’s strange for a kid my age, but it’s something I enjoy doing.”

At the ripe old age of 14, Timothy Olsen has to think back six years to remember his first stock pick. The 8-year-old investor went with a product he liked and decided to invest in Pepsico. That initial $150 investment grew to $70,000 and ignited a passion in Olsen. He now spends seven to eight […]

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!