October 17, 2008

Author Q&A: Mary-Ann Tirone Smith & Jere Smith - Dirty Water

Jere Smith writes the blog A Red Sox Fan From Pinstripe Territory. His mother, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, is perhaps best known for her memoir Girls Of A Tender Age. She has also written eight novels (including three mysteries), as well as some short stories and travel essays.

They collaborated on Dirty Water, a murder mystery set in and around Fenway Park and featuring several members of the 2007 Red Sox. Mary-Ann and Jere were kind enough to reply to my emailed questions.

How did the idea for a Red Sox-themed mystery come about and how did it evolve as the writing progressed?

Mary-Ann: Four years ago, the CEO of The Institute for International Sport, Dan Doyle, decided to create a publishing arm for the organization: The Hall of Fame Press, located along with the Institute on the University of Rhode Island campus. Dan asked me if I was interested in writing a mystery centered on the Boston Red Sox. I was, but knew I couldn't do it alone — I'm a longtime Sox fan, but short on the nuances of the game. So since I had a member of the family who was a Sox blogger, I asked Dan how he felt about Jere collaborating on the book and he thought it was a grand idea.

Our idea was to jump right into the clubhouse in the first scene with the what-if kind of question that often starts a fiction. What if the players should discover an abandoned baby in their clubhouse an hour or so before game time? From there, we asked the typical why, how and who questions now that we already had the when and where. The plot began to reveal itself when we saw an obscure article about a well-known sports agent arrested by the Judicial Dept. of the US Government for human trafficking, i.e., smuggling professional ballplayers from Cuba to the US.

Jere: We initially wanted to go into the Red Sox clubhouse, but couldn't get in. We ended up settling for a personal Fenway tour from someone in the organization who we had a personal connection to - and honestly, that worked out a whole lot better, as that person became a key fictional figure in our book, and meeting him made it that much more realistic. We do use the real players' and reporters' and other public figures' names. We also worried players would get traded, but then we decided to specifically have it be about the 2007 World Champion team.

How did the idea for including a blogger come about? Game recaps and stats in the book's blog obviously would not work very well narratively, so how did you decide what to include?

Jere: We didn't know going in that we'd have a running blog with comments in the text. But once we came up with a blogger character who knows too much, it was a natural. Some of the blog posts were things I'd written in some form before and figured they'd be good for our blogger's character's blog. That way the reader would feel they were reading the thoughts of a Red Sox fan while these crazy events are going on - sometimes he's talking about the game, sometimes he's writing general thoughts on the Red Sox and their history, and sometimes he's writing about the baby found in the clubhouse and events surrounding it.

Which books have you written with these characters (Detective Rocky Patel) previously? Are there any other returning characters?

Mary-Ann: In 2004, I published the third book in the Poppy Rice Mysteries, She Smiled Sweetly. The sleuth in the series is an FBI agent who works special cases that she researches before deciding to take them on. They are cases that have been closed, but Poppy finds reason to re-open them. Each book's secondary is a different character. In She Smiled Sweetly, Poppy goes to Boston to be joined in the investigation by Boston Homicide Detective Rocky Patel, an assimilated immigrant from the Gujerat who has Jesus in his heart but Shiva the Destroyer in his blood. I thought Rocky would be the perfect investigator for the crime involving the 2007 Red Sox. Poppy Rice makes an appearance in the book via a couple of advisory phone calls and transmissions to Rocky. (It is a psychic coincidence that the original sleuth's name is a combination of two of my all-time favorite players.)

Tell me about your collaboration. I'm assuming that it was not as cut-and-dried as Jere did the blog and Mary-Ann did the main narrative. Also, you must have both worked on weaving in just enough information into the blog posts to keep the readers guessing as the story goes on.

Mary-Ann: We are pleased and relieved that you intuit that the project wasn't divided up into a his/hers writing assignment. Some reviewers have assumed that was the case and stated it as fact without ever checking with anyone. The two of us determined the plot and outlined each chapter meticulously. I wrote the mystery text, Jere wrote the blog, and then we re-wrote each other's parts, and went on to edit them together. We shared the research chores, too. Rarely did we find ourselves duking it out, but when we did, we each benefited from the other's opinions.

Jere: It was hard for me to not feel like we were giving too much away at times. My mom has done this a million times, though, and she kept assuring me we weren't. We had some people read the rough drafts, and nobody said they knew what was going to happen in the end, so that eased my fears. But overall it was great learning from my mom - it's amazing how much stuff she had in her head before we even started collaborating. But it was also fun not knowing how it would end at first, and seeing how it played itself out. When I was little, I'd ask my mom how she knew what to make the characters say and do, and she'd say, "I don't do anything, I just let the characters do what they want." And I'd think, "She's full of crap." But now I know what she means.

How has the reception for the book been? Any comment from the team? I know Jere recently did a signing at a Red Sox bar in Manhattan -- any future plans for Red Sox events?

Mary-Ann: Reviews from Publishers Weekly, the Hartford Courant, Times-Argus Newspapers and Magazine (Vermont), the Rocky Mountain News, peacecorpswriters.org, and a dozen or so blogs have ranged from really good to sensational. Michael Kim, ESPNews anchor, is my neighbor. When he heard about the book, he got really excited. He asked, "Am I in it?" At the time, the answer was, No, but when we needed a TV sports news guy, we didn't have to think too hard. We had a lot of fun creating a story for our character, Michael Kim. No reaction from the team yet, but the book is just coming out now.

Jere: I got to sign for independent booksellers at a convention, and it seemed like everyone knew about and had been anticipating the book, so that was a good sign. Of course, I watch the Amazon rankings and our number has been spiking almost daily for months, which is another good sign considering the book is just now hitting stores. Signing at Professor Thom's in NYC was a blast, we'll probably do that again and maybe do a Boston bar, too. We have a release party at Redbone's Barbeque in Somerville, Mass. on Tuesday, October 21, and then a reading/signing at the West Hartford Public Library on Tuesday October 28. We'll also be at Broad Street Books at Wesleyan in Middletown, CT on November 20. We'll add future events and post them at redsoxmystery.blogspot.com.

I recall you telling me that this might be the first of a series of baseball mysteries from the Hall of Fame Press. What can you share about that?

Mary-Ann: We will see how things go for "Dirty Water" before considering a series. If the hardcover is successful enough to make it to paperback and foreign editions, we'll likely write another Red Sox mystery. At first we'd thought about one mystery per franchise but we've become very attached to Rocky Patel and his partner, Marty Flanagan, and of course, we love our Red Sox. We'd also like to mention -- we've had film inquiries!!!

Jere: I had heard about how companies like Blockbuster Video will tell moviemakers what to put in or take out of their films, and thereby controlling what people see. We got a taste of that. We had an idea for a cover, which is an eerie shot of the Fenway light tower seen from behind the reeds that are near the park in the Back Bay fens. It fit with our theme. And I took the picture myself. When one of the major national booksellers saw this, they (not having read the book, I'm sure) said they'd "prefer" a cover showing the Green Monster and fans. We "preferred" that they go screw, and went with our own cover.

[Disclaimer: I provided a blurb for the book. Plus, a "commenter" mentions JoS on page 18!]


Zenslinger said...

Congratulations on the good reception so far.

It was hard for me to not feel like we were giving too much away at times. My mom has done this a million times, though, and she kept assuring me we weren't.

I have been writing fiction seriously only for the last three years or so, and have found that this is a difficult but important lesson. To the writer, it often seems like you're giving away the plot too much. But you have to remember that the reader is going along relatively quickly. Hopefully they're propelled by interest in the plot and are only picking up your hints in an almost subliminal way.

I can think of books that, upon rereading them, I was surprised to find more or less direct statements of plot facts that I did not pick up on the first time through.

Amy said...

Jere, What time will you be in West Hartford on October 28? I have a class that afternoon and a dinner I have to go to that night, but depending on your schedule, I might be able to get there. It's only about 40 minutes from where I live.

L-girl said...

I really enjoyed the book! Great baseball stuff, great sense of place, very supsenseful, and it kept me guessing til the end.

Jere said...

The West Hartford date is 7:00-8:15 PM.

L, glad you enjoyed, thanks.

Ann said...

your Girls of tender age bok left me breathlesss, it is currently my number one best book ever. I have an autistic son and was blowm away by your honesty