About Richard Bowker

Author of the Portal series, the Last P.I. series, and other novels

Writers in movies: “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Another in an occasional series.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the true story of Lee Israel, a moderately successful biographer whose best days are behind her. Broke, alcoholic, and desperate, she stumbles onto a scam that brings in some money — at least for a while: she forges letters from literary figures like Dorothy Parker and sells them to credulous and acquisitive rare-book and memorabilia dealers. It all falls apart before long, but for a brief, glorious period she is once again creative and successful, in a strange sort of way.

It’s a nice little movie, and Melissa McCarthy is great in it. (Richard E. Grant, as her gay alcoholic sidekick, is even greater.) McCarthy’s character is a depressing loser who can’t hold down a job and cares only for her cat, but she has a spark. She comes alive when sitting in front of her typewriter, and I found myself wishing she were normal enough to find a way to create a real career for herself with that spark. But it wasn’t going to happen.

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Of serial killers and grammar

I recently listened to the audio book Evil Has a Name about the Golden State Killer, the guy whose rapes and murders terrorized California in the 1970s and 1980s. The book is essentially an audio documentary, featuring interviews with investigators, victims, and others.

Here’s the grammar issue: Not one person in the book gets the lie/lay distinction correct. And this comes up a lot: The victim was laying in bed, She went to lay down next to her husband, etc. I’m beginning to think this is a lost cause.

OK, I’ve got that off my chest. Now, about the serial killer: the suspect’s name is Joseph James DeAngelo. They interviewed a few of the guy’s neighbors and co-workers. And none of them said anything like: “Oh yeah, I could totally see him being a serial killer.” He didn’t sound like the nicest guy in the world–just an old guy with a temper. So what’s going on? One would have expected the serial killer to be a loner, a drifter, in and out of jail, an obvious creep. Maybe his crime spree ended because he was murdered or committed suicide.

But no. He was married all through the crime spree. He had three kids. He paid for their education. He had a steady job as a mechanic for Save Mart supermarkets from 1990 until his retirement. He owned a home. He took care of his lawn. Apparently he had no criminal record. The book, alas, doesn’t get anywhere close to making sense of this particular set of facts. As far as I know, the ex-wife and children haven’t said anything publicly. Did they know anything? Suspect anything? If not, how did he manage to compartmentalize this aspect of his life?

We’ll know more eventually, I suppose. But right now it’s pretty darn puzzling.

Saying good-bye to my friend’s novel

Along with my novel, this week I said good-bye (I think) to my friend Jeff Carver’s novel (now split in two), which he’s been working on (and we in his writing group have been critiquing) since 2006 or so. That’s a lot of critiquing. And writing–I can’t imagine spending 12 years on a novel. But the result is really good–probably because I made a couple of pretty good suggestions over the years, along with a lot of dopey ones Jeff wisely ignored.

Now he needs to start the next novel in his Chaos Chronicles series. And he needs to finish it in 2019, dammit.

“A Christmas Carol” turns 175

Lots of people took notice. 

Dickens, of course, wrote it to make money. He was in debt to his publisher and needed a hit. That’s how life works.

Here’s the beginning of A Christmas Carol. Was there anyone as good at beginning a novel as Dickens?

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Here’s a nice article about its covers through the years. The original cover was pretty meh:

Is it “the lesser of x or y” or “the lesser of x and y”?

Our executive VP and the VP of Sales couldn’t agree. They were trying to write a pricing letter where they wanted to specify two different payment options. So, should they say “The customer will pay the lesser of option A or option B,” or “The customer will pay the lesser of option A and option B”?

They brought the case to me for judgment.

Me: “I’m pretty sure it’s option A or option B.”

VP of Sales: “But that makes no sense: There are two options: A and B. You pick one on of them — so it’s A and B.”

Me: “But the logic is different here. You’re making a comparison. You don’t say: ‘Which do you like less: broccoli and spinach?’ It’s one or the other.”

Executive VP, with big grin: “Yay! I win!”

Just to be sure I checked afterwards with my cold-eyed editors. They all agreed with me, which was a huge relief. When I told the VP of Sales, he grumbled, “Maybe we need new editors.”

This site also agrees with me. Yay, I win!