Get to know author John Mantooth in this fourth episode of our podcast, “Inside the Writer’s Head.” The podcast, hosted by the Library Foundation’s Writer-In-Residence, Kurt Dinan, focuses on writing, reading, and creativity. John, who also writes under the name Hank Early, spent much of his youth in the mountains of North Georgia and now lives in central Alabama with his wife and two kids. He writes mostly about crime. His book “Heaven’s Crooked Finger” was his first novel. As John Mantooth, he’s also published “Shoebox Train Wreck” and “The Year of the Storm.” Listen as John and Kurt talk about the creative process and what you can learn from their experiences. Subscribe and leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts.
In this second episode of the new season of our podcast, The Library Foundation’s Writer-In-Residence, Kurt Dinan, continues talking writing, reading, creativity, and more. Listen as Kurt interviews local author Geoffrey Girard about his writing process and his “other” life as a high school teacher — something Kurt and Geoffrey both have in common. Geoffrey writes thrillers, historical fiction, and dark speculative fiction. His first book, Tales of the Jersey Devil, is thirteen original tales based on American folklore. His upcoming book, Truthers, is young adult novel about a 9/11 conspiracy. Subscribe and leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts.
We’re all busy people, so let’s get right to it, shall we? I’m Kurt Dinan, high school English teacher, 2016 debut author, and the Cincinnati Public Library’s 2016-2017 Writer-in-Residence. I’ll be keeping this blog going for the next year, and figure it would be best to start with an introduction of sorts. I do best answering questions rather than just rambling about myself, so with that in mind I now present: The Kurt Dinan FAQ
Random Person: Wait, Kurt Dinan? That guy who graduated from Lakota High School in 1989, got his Bachelor’s degree from OU, his Master’s from Miami, who has taught English for twenty-two years, and who once won $1000 playing Bingo?
RP: And now you’re the writer-in-residence? Just to clarify, that means you’ll blog, do a podcast, and run writing workshops and other smaller events for the library over the course of the year?
RP: What are those workshops going to be about? Just guessing, but are they maybe a 5-session primer covering all aspects of writing a novel, from (1) developing the initial concept to (2) plotting to (3) writing tips to (4) revising to (5) getting published? Is that what you’re thinking?
RP: But don’t you have to have some sort of proven experience and knowledge to do something like that? You’d probably have to be a creative writing teacher and also have been writing for over ten years. In fact, it’d be nice if maybe you’ve had a novel published recently that you can draw from those experiences. Do you have any of that?
RP: Wait, I may have heard of it. Are you the guy who wrote, DON’T GET CAUGHT, the young adult novel about a prank war gone awry, filled with juvenile humor and terrible knuckleheaded behavior written to make the reader laugh?
RP: So I’m guessing that you’re going to use what you learned from writing that novel, procuring an agent, and selling the novel to a publisher as the foundation of your workshops, your posts here, and the podcast?
RP: That sounds great. I’m just hoping, you know, that you’re a lot better more lively and talking in person than you’ve been in this interview. Will you be?
Okay, so that’s it! I’m planning on updating this blog twice a month, and there should be a monthly podcast as well. You can follow me on Twitter at @kurtdinan and the Cincinnati Public Library at @CincyLibrary I’m really excited and looking forward to a great year!
The screenplay for “The Revenant” was co-written by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarrito and Mark L. Smith.
We’re talking narrative. We’re talking the primary source of all storytelling, filmic or narrative print. In fact, we can’t appreciate Leo’s versatile acting in early films like “This Boy’s Life,” “Who’s Eating Gilbert Grapes,” or even “Titanic” without saluting the narrative that was first imagined and crafted on paper.
The original script. Or the script adaptation from a novel.
In the most recent Academy Awards celebration, the evening’s first two Oscars recognized screenwriting. The Academy of Motion Pictures launched its public tribute to the mega-star employees within its billion dollar industry by illuminating one of the most understated of the industry’s art forms.
It’s the actual art which every actor, actress, director, cinematographer, and producer must salute. Leo DiCaprio knew it so well on February 28, and to Leo’s continuing credit, he’s a humble guy, an acting dynamo whose genius lifts every script he touches to a peak that we also crave to reach as movie-watchers. Leo DiCaprio thrives on top of that peak, and he loves to carry the torch for colleagues and fellow artists that give him ample room in front of a camera.
To reach that precipice, Leo had to follow the writing. It gave Leo and his director words they could trust.
The results of screenplays – the writing that gives a movie life – constitute the simplest and most extreme reason these “employees” can take advantage of their longevity and diverse opportunities. Each actor interested in some role usually, at first, reads a screenplay that his or her agent, producer, or director-friend passes along.
It was appropriate that screenwriting was recognized first on February 28. The writing should be the first thing an actor sees. In recent Oscar ceremonies, screenwriting has been front and center as the lead-off award category.
I teach a screenwriting course, and it’s not an easy genre to teach, much less one in which to write. It’s always interesting to think where a film starts. With words. With visual images and dialogue put on pages. Sure, a film might start with a director or producer’s vision, but the real grind starts with the process of transferring that vision to the page.
As with “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” in 2015, those visions perhaps exceeded expectations on Oscar Night when both films were awarded “Best Original Screenplay” and “Best Adapted Screenplay,” respectively. It immediately occurred to me that the films’ epic productions perfectly transcended the words that were crafted to play out these visions.
My colleague at Mount St. Joseph University, Elizabeth Barkley, recently passed along to me a beautiful tribute to the script of “Spotlight,” one of her favorites in 2015. I’d asked her about the writing. She wrote, “The two worlds portrayed in ‘Spotlight’ are ones I know well: journalism and the Catholic Church. The script, especially the dialogue, felt authentic to me. The Boston Globe investigative team revealed frustration and excitement as they began to realize what they were onto. And they also felt fear, a natural response as they weighed the implications of their investigation for the Catholic Church. Church leaders, in contrast, came across as smug, convinced that no one could build a credible case against them. It was the ordinary Catholics in the film that rang truest: one reporter who had ‘fallen away’ from his faith, but still felt guilt, and another reporter’s grandmother, whose life had been intricately entwined with her local parish, so visibly shaken (no words necessary) at the end of the film as she pored over the story. Nothing fancy about this script – but it credibly captures the complexity of this heartbreaking, yet inspiring, moment in journalism history.”
Dr. Barkley points out honest, truth-to-power language in the film. The “Spotlight” script captured such varied tone.
The essence of a script or screenplay is pared down language. What are the most emphatic yet unadorned set of words you can craft for a scene? What are the fewest words possible that will do the most work, give the boldest understanding to how that scene, moment, and dialogue are to be played out? What can you, the screenwriter, convey promptly yet elegantly in your script that will energize an actor reading a role? How exacting can you be with words? This is all part of the art of screenwriting.
Yes, it’s an art form.
What makes it art? It takes creating scenes that drive energy, intrigue, and character interaction toward a resounding resolution. How the movie ends depends upon all points working in the previous 100 pages of the script, if it’s a regular feature film. No question that many poorly written scripts have given birth to thousands of poor quality movies.
Stephen King once said that the huge difference between screenwriting and novel writing was that screenwriting “forced the writer” to write in obligatory short increments. The writer’s imagination couldn’t wander; the imagination was required to dream up something that had to be major contained. No room for wandering on the page, cutting a delightful swath of language and robust lyricism. In the Hollywood-framed script, King said the writing couldn’t become unmoored and wander into something akin to poetry – not for long.
The next time you watch a movie, for just a moment, when you hear a spurt of dialogue, think about the writing behind the words. Lock into your mind the sequence; imagine the writer(s) penning those words. Imagine the fact that they could have been penned over and over again, until the perfect pitch, vibe, and delivery melded. Until what you hear rings with adulation, fury, real joy, utter disdain – whatever the tone, whatever the moment.
Think this, too: the acting, cinematography, set design, and costume creations were certainly reasons “Spotlight,” “The Big Short,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and “Room” won Oscars this year in multiple categories. But, their ultimate appeal can be traced back to a writer sitting alone in front of a computer screen, cranking out page after page of words, scenes, and directions. I’m sure the thought of a red carpet rolled out at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood was the last thing on the writer’s mind.
The sport is a never-ending commodity. Soon enough, there will be the NFL draft, free agency signings and fanciful trades and trade rumors, spring football, the NFL draft-Combine in Indianapolis, and for those tightly-wound football aficionados, the NFL summer training camps will rise in the heat of July to stare down the mid-season flux of Major League Baseball. Like it or not.
Love it or hate it, unfortunately or fortunately, the sport of football reigns supreme in this country. However, what most appeals to me is to look inside the culture of a number of sports, and especially football.
I teach a literature course at Mount St. Joseph University called “Sports in Literature.” Given that my university has several hundred athletes in various sports, it should be obvious that the nature of the course drums up some interest.
In central Florida, there’s a region that remains iconoclastic, newsworthy, and at times controversial. Football in this region is god-like. And one of the most fascinating books on football since Friday Night Lights is entitled Muck City.
I count this book of journalism every bit as significant as Friday Night Lights. Muck City is an area in south central Florida whose name originated as a result of its proximity to the Everglades. Muck City has been ground zero for battles with storms and hurricanes. It is a wide land rich in farming. The area has produced vast quantities of sugar cane. It used to be the home of U.S. Sugar Company., Inc. The author, journalist Bryan Mealer, is quick to point out that as you drive into the city of Belle Glade, you see a sign that reads, “Her Soil is Her Fortune.”
It’s an ironic entrance into Belle Glade, which notably occupies one of the most impoverished populations in the U.S. According to Bryan Mealer and his research, Belle Glade city officials estimate that unemployment among its residents has reached a statistical figure of forty to forty-five percent. This is really disheartening.
Mealer fastens a shrewd eye on Glades Central High School as it reflects the transitions affecting the community of Belle Glade. The name of the high school was initially Belle Glade High in 1948. Mealer, who lives in Texas, journeyed to Glades, Florida to check out why this area so excels in producing superior football players and championship teams, and how the school and city have managed to instill a system of winning inside noticeable economic hardships.
This struggle is multi-pronged and takes its shape in the form of gang-related tension, drugs, and a general sense of uncertainty among youth as to what school will even help them accomplish in the future – except get them some sort of athletic scholarship.
Bryan Mealer stayed well over a year to get his story. His searching and research paid off. He was able to re-create a seminal portrait of the embattled yet productive high school and community.
In spite of the poverty level which will make any population desperate, many youth – and many of their families – turn to football as an outlet. Hopefully, for many, it’s a kind of saving grace. The power of this book springs from Mealer’s skill in digging into the stories of several individuals whose lives intersect and who will not be deterred by any sense of failure or being forgotten.
Belle Glade, Florida is a tough and uncompromising place for a young person to grow up. The pressure to win at Glade Central High permeates the book. The high school careers and stories of Jamarious “Mario” Rowley, Jonteria Williams, and Kelvin Benjamin anchor Muck City. Each has his or her own trajectory. What’s unique is how all three survive deep-rooted struggles inherent in living in Belle Glade.
Mario Rowley embodies the spirit and fortitude of an athlete who plays through multiple injuries. He does so in a demonstrative way. His shoulder is a mess; he tells no one. He keeps quiet. Mario rarely complains. He decides early in his senior year that his young leadership will help energize his fellow players to set their goal for a state championship and not veer from it – no matter what.
Muck City captures the depth to which Mario Rowley shelves his own personal needs and sacrifices his body – a torn muscle in his shoulder and a bad leg – to provide the impetus the team needs to advance to the 2010 state championship game against Cocoa High School.
In 2010, current NFL player Kelvin Benjamin, star wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, is inarguably the under-achiever of the Raiders. KB’s fellow teammates are not impressed. He is the best athlete and an undisputed star of the team, yet in spite of his injury, his lack of participation or zeal rubs the guys in a negative way. They admire him, sure; but the team realizes that it’s going to move on without Benjamin. For his part, Benjamin is looking far beyond his senior year of high school in 2010 to NCAA Division I scholarship offers and, possibly, to an NFL career.
He does have that lucrative NFL career now. But, in 2010, the “rise” of Kelvin Benjamin was depicted in a less appealing light. To his credit, today with the Panthers, KB is considered a hard worker, a generous teammate. At Glade Central in 2010, a very different KB ran the field.
My favorite student profiled is Jonteria Williams. She is an indefatigable student and cheerleader whose personal goals are anything but lofty. They’re straightforward and rather unique, actually, to Glade Central High School in 2010. Jonteria Williams wants to graduate with honors, pursue scholarship offers, and fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse. One goal is to continue to help others.
Jonteria is as an asset to the student body and the cheerleading squad. She cares that her mother, Teresa Williams, is taken care of in the short term. Teresa is a strong and pivotal character in Jonteria’s life, and she won’t let her daughter deter far from her bright goals. Jonteria also mends a relationship with her father who, at this time, has been in prison a good portion of her schooling. There’s a scene involving Jonteria and her father on Senior Night that heightens even more the book’s emotional impact.
Muck City captures far more than football.
It’s a minor classic in the way it analyzes socio-economic factors in an impoverished region that influence athletics at the high school level. Except Bryan Mealer uses one football season of one, major high school football team in one community to isolate the relationships and monumental conflicts that stem from these rugged socio-economic factors.
You cheer for these Glade Central players, the cheerleaders, the coaches, the school, and the families, while simultaneously raising your reader’s eyebrows at the sometimes harrowing heartbreak that accompanies their journeys.
Jeffrey Hillard and Trace Conger talk about the process of writing and Conger’s latest book, Scar Tissue. His award-winning debut novel, The Shadow Broker, published in 2014, introduced the world to “the heavily caffeinated and less-than-ethical Mr. Finn, a disgraced PI who walks the fine line between investigator and criminal.” Learn how Conger approaches the writing process and hear him read an excerpt from his newest book. Share your thoughts about this podcast in the blog comments below. Check back regularly for future “Inside the Writer’s Head” podcasts.
WARNING: Podcast contains some explicit language during book excerpt reading.
Jeffrey Hillard’s Note: The following is an interview with local award-winning novelist, Trace Conger, whose “A Mr. Finn Novel” series of crime fiction deliver a whopping combination of local settings and hard-boiled, noir-oriented action. Conger’s blend of the tragi-comic is exceedingly shrewd and totally memorable, leaving readers with that earnest desire to follow Finn Harding through future novels. Conger’s first novel, The Shadow Broker, published in 2014, received the Shamus Award for Best Independent P.I. Novel at Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention . His second Mr. Finn novel, Scar Tissue, has just been released. The interviewer, Anna Drees, is currently a student at Mount St. Joseph University.
Anna Drees: Your first novel, The Shadow Broker, is full of irony. The protagonist, Mr. Finn Harding, might be confronted curiously with the option or impetus to harm a man either in light of the dangerous and frequently-subversive work he’s in or in self-defense, and then when he gets a call from the elementary school that is daughter is sick, Finn rushes to get her and takes her home and tends and takes care of her. A major character, Little Freddie, tortures people, yet he is a man of faith and wants to support youths by purchasing a bag from the school. How do they reconcile or separate out these two seemingly contradictory parts of their personality? Do they have some certain of “code” that they live by?
Trace Conger: This reconciliation is a big theme throughout the novel. What will we compromise ourselves for? Both men feel as though anyone who comes in contact with them (i.e. Banks in the underground room) is because of their own actions, so neither feels too guilty about it. Little Freddie mentions in the book that “these people get what’s coming to them.” Neither could really reconcile hurting innocent people, but in their minds, the people they are sent to kill aren’t innocent. They are waist-deep in the criminal world, so they see it as just “thinning out the herd.” I wouldn’t say they have a “code” they live by (such as Dexter would), but they (especially Freddie) don’t really see themselves as bad people, because they feel justified in what they’re doing. Little Freddie is already in this world and Finn is slowly being brought into it. That’s why he struggles with it at first, but is able to compartmentalize it throughout the novel.
Anna Drees: I felt like the book hinted that Mr. Finn’s father, Albert, has some sort of skill set that might be associated with the mob – or mob tactics. For example, he knew that someone was tailing him and drove around down town to lose him and Albert had $20,000 hidden under his cabin in Maine. Did Albert ever play a part in the mob?
Trace Conger: Great catch on Albert. He is one of my favorite characters to write. Yes, I intentionally left his past ambiguous, but wanted readers to know there was more to him than meets the eye. Even Finn isn’t aware of the extent of his past. Albert plays a big part in the second novel, Scar Tissue. We learn where he got that cash under his boathouse, why he has it, why he was living in a nursing home, and why Albert is a bit more “experienced” than he lets on.
Anna Drees: Mr. Finn is incredibly good at finding people who do not want to be found. This is basically the foundation for the whole series, you’ve said. Little Freddie tells Mr. Finn how his wife and daughter were raped and killed and the people that did it still send him postcards about how his wife and daughter screamed. I was curious as to why Little Freddie didn’t hire Mr. Finn to find the people involved in his wife and daughters murder.
Trace Conger: After Little Freddie kills Bishop in The Shadow Broker, he up and disappears. What is not evident in this first book (intentionally) is that Little Freddie has gone out west himself to find the people responsible for the death of his family. As to the reason why he didn’t hire Finn, I think it’s because he takes things very personally and this is something he wants to handle himself (it won’t turn out well for those involved). I’m working on the third book in the series now, and plan to write a novella (a shorter book) that follows Little Freddie out west to find those responsible for his family’s death.
Anna Drees: Most people have a moral compass that would not have them do the stuff that Mr. Finn does. Even though on the surface it is the money that motivates him, what is it internally that drives him to involve himself in these situations?
Trace Conger: Finn Harding is a very flawed character. He’s struggling to make ends meet and he desperately wants to be with his family. The revocation of his PI license and his split with his ex-wife Brooke have made this impossible. Finn does have a moral compass in the book, but it’s tested because of these circumstances. His moral compass plays a big part in the third book, The Prison Guard’s Son, in which he’s hired to find and dispatch someone in the witness protection program.
Anna Drees: The Shadow Broker repeatedly alludes to the fact that Mr. Finn possesses a skill to do what no one else can. Mr. Finn even says that he is like “deaths GPS.” I know he is a former private investigator, but how did he develop and recognize this ability? What pushed him in this vain?
Trace Conger: Finn developed this skill set through his former life as a PI. Most of what PIs do depends on their problem solving skills. He has to think of ways to locate people who are trying to cover their tracks, so it’s really just his experience with prior cases. I always try to figure out real ways to do this. I hate when writers use some device, say, like a hacker finding all the info out of thin air. Finn has to really work for it. He has to really work at finding information.
Anna Drees: In reading a novel, when we start with the age of a character as an adult, so much of what happened to that character in his or her childhood affects who he or she will become. Was there something in Finn Harding’s childhood or past that impacted him in such a strong way to compel him to work in these dangerous situations and associate with people that have the potential to turn on him and kill him? What makes him such a risk taker? It has to be more than the money.
Trace Conger: There isn’t a specific experience that has led Finn down this path; it’s more him biting off more than he can chew with the Bishop case. He never intended to kill anyone, but after being drawn into the case, he rationalizes the actions as appropriate. Most of that is being driven by his desire for money, but more so what money represents, which is the opportunity to get back his family. He rationalizes that if he can just make a few dollars more (by taking these cases) he’ll have the means to get “back on track” and support this family in a legitimate way. What some readers might not pick up is that by the end of the book Finn has made $0. He has to pay Dunbar off at the end of the book and what he’s left with is a tarnished soul and absolutely nothing to show for it. This is intentional, and what I tried to do was show that after risking his life, and his family’s life, he has gained nothing.
Anna Drees: Crime/suspense novels are my favorite type of books. What led or inspired you to write such a dark yet funny and family-oriented book?
Trace Conger: I love dark fiction, crime, suspense and horror all included. That’s what I read as a kid (nothing too dark, but age appropriate fiction) and have always loved it. I’m thrilled that my daughter reads the Goosebumps books for the same reason. As for the humor, I think there is humor in everything, even death. Not slapstick, but it’s how we deal with things. That’s why you’ll see people laughing at a funeral. There is humor in most of my work, some more subtle than others. As for the family aspect, that’s where I am in life at the moment. I’m married and have a four and a seven year old. When I think of what scares me, it’s something happening to any of them. That’s why that theme is such a big part of the novel. Harm coming to his family scares the heck out of Finn and motivates him to do what he does.
Anna Drees: Francis Ford Coppola said in an interview that when he fleshed out Vito Corleone for the screenplay of “Godfather I,” he studied several famous mobsters. He then said that Vito was an amalgam of several, drawing out specific traits to form who Vito would become. Who was your inspiration for the protagonist, Mr. Finn and what was your process?
Trace Conger: Finn is based loosely on a real person. Years ago I met a retired Private Investigator who, at a point when he was down on his luck financially, accepted an illegal job for the money. He never told me what the job was (but I know it wasn’t too bad), but he said he felt horrible for doing it, and after getting paid a good sum for the case he went back to legitimate work and never looked back. He knew that if he got caught, he’d lose his license. Luckily for him, he didn’t get caught. But I always wondered, what if he did get caught? And that’s where Finn came from.