By the Book

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Meet some of our region’s authors.

For Thrill Junkies

Allison Brennan

Rapists, kidnappers, torturers, killers and other perpetrators of unspeakable savagery&emdash;who creates these monsters anyway? And in what chamber of horrors does her laptop reside?

Answer No. 1: The startlingly normal Allison Brennan, Elk Grove mother of five (ages 3 to 13) and state legislative consultant-turned-New York Times best-selling romantic-thriller author. Answer No. 2: Starbucks&emdash;so she can pound away at her keyboard without being distracted by a mountain of laundry (which is the real horror).

Currently at work on her Prison Break trilogy about the mayhem ignited by an earthquake hitting San Quentin (the first of the series, Killing Fear, comes out in February), the author of two previous trilogies (Predator and No Evil) characteristically turns up the steam between her badge-wearing heroes and heroines. And because Brennan’s a softy at heart, true love and justice always triumph.

I believe in happy endings, says the author, whose supernatural romantic suspense novella, Deliver Us From Evil, hits bookstores this December as part of the What You Can’t See anthology. My books are scary, but scary, I hope, in a good way.

John Leacroart
New York Times best-selling author John Lescroart doesn’t have much time&emdash;or use&emdash;for basking in fame, however hard-won.

I’m just a working stiff, declares the Davis-based legal-thriller writer, who’s been, among other things, a bartender, a house painter, a moving man and a computer programmer&emdash;but never, contrary to popular belief, a lawyer&emdash;and was really poor until 45. (He’s now 59.)

His 19th book, Betrayal, due out in January, reprises the dynamic lawyer-cop duo, Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitzky.
It’s a bit of a departure from my other books&emdash;it starts in Iraq&emdash;and it’s a more political book than I’ve written before, says Lescroart (pronounced less-KWAH), who’s also a musician. (Look up his new Whiskey and Roses country CD.) I try to make all my books immensely personal, and I think that’s what people respond to. I try to start in an interesting place and see where it takes the character. I do that in a crime setting because that’s what upsets the apple cart.

Lescroart’s 2007 book, The Suspect, has been named the One Book Sacramento choice for the year by the Sacramento Library Foundation.

Her Book Made the Big Screen

Karen Joy Fowler

Have you seen the movie The Jane Austen Book Club? It’s based on a novel written by Davis author Karen Joy Fowler. The Sony Pictures Classics movie stars Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada), Maria Bello and Hugh Dancy in a story about five women and one mysterious man who meet to discuss the works of Jane Austen and find their love lives paralleling the 19th-century author’s plots.

I was completely floored, says Fowler, describing her reaction to Hollywood’s decision to transform her book to film. I saw the script before it was shot, and I got to go see one day of shooting. The novel is a lot longer, so it had to be cut and changed for time constraints. I don’t know in the end how much I feel it’s like my book, but I like it very much.

Fowler says she decided to try to be a writer on my 30th birthday. Since then, the 57-year-old Indiana native has written three novels in addition to The Jane Austen Book Club: Sarah Canary, The Sweetheart Season and Sister Noon (a 2002 Pen/Faulkner Award finalist). Her short-story collection, Black Glass, won the World Fantasy Award for Best Collection in 1999, and she won the Nebula Award in 2004 for her short story, What I Didn’t See. She’s currently at work on her next novel, Ice City, a Santa Cruz-based mystery.

Courtroom Drama

John M. Poswall

How do you deal with unsettling questions that strike at the heart of your very being? If you’re Northern California superlawyer John M. Poswall, you write a couple of novels. The first one, The Lawyers: Class of ’69, follows five former classmates from the University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law as the radical idealism of their youth crashes head-on into the realities of their profession. Are we who we were&emdash;and were we ever? Did we change anything, or were we changed? Can you be a Marxist and a millionaire? These are the questions Poswall, a Lincoln resident, explores through his fictional characters.

He uses the same technique in his new novel, The Altar Boys. The book, due out this spring, is set in Sacramento and centers around three men, altar boys together in childhood, who find themselves embroiled in high-stakes litigation concerning the Catholic Church. (One of the characters, J.J. Rai, appeared in Poswall’s first book.)

This isn’t really about altar-boy abuse, explains Poswall. It deals with questions about faith&emdash;what’s its role in your life, if any, and if you don’t believe, how do you live with it?&emdash;and relationships.

For the record, yes, Poswall used to be an altar boy.

Check Out This Chick Lit

Heather Estay

Trying to make peace with your crow’s feet and your difficult best friends? You’ve got a soul sister in Heather Estay, author of the fictional three-book It’s Never Too Late series (It’s Never too Late to Get a Life, It’s Never too Late to Be a Bridesmaid and It’s Never too Late to Look Hot).

These are fun, feel-good, humorous books about women, about friendships, about reinventing yourself in middle age, says Estay, an Arden-area resident who four years ago left a career in commercial real estate to take up writing full time. One of my goals is to make my books relatable. I am not a Prada-carrying purse person, I don’t know what Gucci looks like, and I don’t drive a Maserati.

Neither do her characters&emdash;but they do know how to have sexy, good fun.

Eileen Rendahl
Save money on a therapist&emdash;read one of Davis author Eileen Rendahl’s healing works of fiction instead. With the line blurred between the characters’ and author’s lives, Rendahl’s first-person chick-lit novels are lighthearted enough to pass the beach-bag test while at the same time dealing with tissue issues such as the death of a husband (Rendahl’s own husband died of a brain tumor in 1999, leaving her to raise two young boys), the breakup of a marriage, substance abuse and illness. Through it all, family is the glue that holds it together, just as in Rendahl’s own life.

In my life I’ve had some bad things happen. My family has a very dark sense of humor, and it really has gotten us through some horrible times, says the award-winning author of Do Me, Do My Roots; Balancing in High Heels; Un-Bridaled; and, most recently, Un-Veiled, a story about twin hairdressers who specialize in wedding ‘dos and keeping secret don’ts.

Laura Jensen Walker
Bridget Jones, move over and make room for Miss Invisible, Laura Jensen Walker’s latest Christian chick-lit novel chronicling the journey of a single, plus-size cake decorator from wallflower to a place of liberating self-acceptance.

Jensen Walker’s first book, a nonfiction work titled Dated Jekyll, Married Hyde (My husband came up with that during one of my particularly bad PMS attacks, she jokes) debuted in 1997 and was followed by nine more nonfiction titles, including Thanks for the Mammogram. (Jensen Walker is a 15-year breast cancer survivor.)

The Arden Arcade resident’s first foray into fiction, Dreaming in Black & White, won the 2005 Contemporary Fiction Book of the Year award from the American Christian Fiction Writers, but Jensen Walker swears Reconstructing Natalie, about a woman whose breast cancer is a catalyst for serious change, is the best book she’s ever written.

Consider the opening line: I’m obsessed with breasts.

Who these days couldn’t relate to that?

If you’re into romances at all, you know who Brenda Novak is. In August, when we talked to her, her new romantic thriller, Dead Right (third in the Stillwater trilogy), had just made No. 7 on the Borders/Waldenbooks best-
sellers list&emdash;the latest in a string of awards and accolades earned over the course of her almost decade-long fiction career that includes 21-and-counting Harlequin titles.
Novak, a Carmichael mother of five, quit her loan-officer job when she was pregnant with her fourth child after discovering her day-care provider had been drugging her children with cough syrup to get them to sleep. Realizing she needed to work from home, Novak taught herself the craft of writing.
It was like somebody tied my hands, threw me into a swimming pool and said, ‘Save yourself,’ she says.
 Novak did that and then some. Her recent titles include Coulda Been a Cowboy, Once Upon a Christmas, Dead Silence and The Other Woman, and she’s completed another romantic suspense trilogy, due out next summer, titled Trust Me, Stop Me and Watch Me. She says her strength lies in characters that really jump off the page and come to life.

Boy Meets Girl (With a Twist)

Susan Grant

Former Air Force instructor pilot Susan Grant, who flies 747 jumbo jets to exotic overseas locales, thinks her adventurous life is almost like cheating&emdash;that’s how easy it is to repackage real-life experiences (along with a wild imagination) as plots for her aviation and science-fiction romances that take readers from the friendly skies to otherworldly outposts&emdash;and sometimes, to our fair capital city.

I like to take regular people and put them in crazy circumstances, she says. I love fish-out-of-water stuff&emdash;I think because I’ve felt like a fish out of water so many times.

The Roseville-based single mother of two teenagers won a RITA award (that’s the Oscar of romantic fiction) for her 2003 novel, Contact, about the abduction of a United Airlines jumbo jet by an alien spaceship. Since becoming a novelist in 1997, Grant has written 10 books, including How To Lose an Extraterrestrial in 10 Days, My Favorite Earthling, Your Planet or Mine? and The Star King.

Brenda Novak
If you’re into romances at all, you know who Brenda Novak is. In August, when we talked to her, her new romantic thriller, Dead Right (third in the Stillwater trilogy), had just made No. 7 on the Borders/Waldenbooks best-sellers list&emdash;the latest in a string of awards and accolades earned over the course of her almost decade-long fiction career that includes 21-and-counting Harlequin titles.

Novak, a Carmichael mother of five, quit her loan-officer job when she was pregnant with her fourth child after discovering her day-care provider had been drugging her children with cough syrup to get them to sleep. Realizing she needed to work from home, Novak taught herself the craft of writing.

It was like somebody tied my hands, threw me into a swimming pool and said, ‘Save yourself,’ she says.
 
Novak did that and then some. Her recent titles include Coulda Been a Cowboy, Once Upon a Christmas, Dead Silence and The Other Woman, and she’s completed another romantic suspense trilogy, due out next summer, titled Trust Me, Stop Me and Watch Me. She says her strength lies in characters that really jump off the page and come to life.

Celeste Bradley
Call it brain chocolate, not a bodice ripper (that’s so ’80s), says Celeste Bradley, referring to her 2008 trilogy, The Heiress Brides (Desperately Seeking a Duke, The Duke Next Door and So I Married a Duke), which shadows three Victorian-era cousins in competition to win the family fortune by being the first in their merchant-class clan to marry a duke.

The author of 11 published historical romances, many laced with intrigue, Bradley says she decided, in her new series, to just play&emdash;something she’s been doing all along anyway.

I think my really distinguishing factor is irreverence, says Bradley, a former sculptor and art teacher who lives in Rocklin with her journalist husband and two teenage daughters. I’m not a slave to my genre. I’ll throw in modern references and poke a little fun at the ‘rules.’ For example, there’s sort of a romance writers’ rule that there has to be a love scene by page 100. I do it on page 1 sometimes.
She also never lets the facts get in the way of a good story. FYI: In reality, there weren’t that many dashing dukes running around in 1800s London society. Of the few there were, Bradley says, most had silver hair and potbellies.
Let’s thank our lucky corsets for clever American revisionists.

For Mamas (of kids and canines)

Diane Dean-Epps

If Grass Valley author/mom/high school English teacher/speaker Diane Dean-Epps can make you forget that your shoes and your budget are too tight but your face isn’t tight enough, she figures she’s done her job.

From the funny bone of this Sacramento State graduate come Last Call, a humorous mystery, and Maternal Meanderings, an Erma Bombeck-esque romp through the family life of a baby boomer that’s earned the endorsement of Dr. Laura. Next up: KILL-TV, a humorous mystery based on the author’s former career in broadcast television, and I’ll Always Be There . . . Unless I’m Somewhere Else?!, a rib-tickling riff on parenting adolescents.

Sue Owens Wright
If bassets (or any breed, for that matter) are your assets, you’ll love Sue Owens Wright’s Tahoe-based Beanie and Cruiser mystery series (Howling Bloody Murder and Sirius About Murder), as well as her two nonfiction books: 150 Activities for Bored Dogs: Surefire Ways to Keep Your Dog Active and Happy and What’s Your Dog’s IQ? How to Determine If Your Dog Is an Einstein&emdash;and What to Do If He’s a Scooby Doo.

Even my nonfiction books are funny; I write a lot of humor into my books. With basset hounds, how can you not? says the Sacramento author and pet columnist, who’s had seven droopy-eyed pals over the years.
 
Nonetheless, there’s a Sirius underlying message in her books.

I want readers to come away with a better appreciation of their dogs and of dogs in general, says the seven-time nominee and two-time winner of the Dog Writers Association of America’s Maxwell Award. I really want to see the dog population in shelters and pounds decrease.

 

Eva Rutland

Eva Rutland, the granddaughter of a slave, is 90 and completely blind&emdash;she lost her eyesight 40 years ago to retinitis pigmentosis&emdash;yet she manages to see more clearly than most people see in a lifetime.

Her 1964 memoir, The Trouble with Being a Mama, talks in alternately poignant and humorous tones about her family’s uneasy transition from segregation to integration during the 1950s and ’60s&emdash;what it was like to be the first black mother to join the PTA and the first black family in a previously all-white neighborhood. She wasn’t trying to change the world; she just wanted white mothers to know that her black children, just like white children, were filled with all the talent, hope, beauty and insecurities of childhood, just as precious and just as fragile.

This year marks the rerelease of that book, now with a new title: When We Were Colored: A Mother’s Story, which has been expanded to include family photos and an introductory chapter.

In Rutland’s view, her story is as relevant today as it was half a century ago and offers a perspective of black (Rutland hates the term African American&emdash;I feel I’m just as American as anyone else) society not often covered by the media: the black middle class and the positive contributions of black men to their families and communities.

Using a computer equipped with a voice synthesizer, Rutland, mother of four grown children and grandmother of six, is at work on her next book, about being a grandmother.

To tell you the truth, I’m just as confused about being a grandmother as I was about being a mother, she says, laughing.

The winner of the 2000 Golden Pen Award for Lifetime Achievement, Rutland is the author of more than 20 novels, most of them romances. She lives in the Curtis Park area with her daughter Ginger, a member of the editorial board of The Sacramento Bee.

Hooked on How-To

Dawn Davis

As a reluctant first-time marathoner, would you want to take rah-rah advice from a zero-body-fat veteran who breezed through the Boston Marathon in 2½ hours?

Didn’t think so. Thank God for Cheetos-munching, nap-craving Dawn Dais and her book, The Nonrunner’s Marathon Guide for Women. Part journal, part training guide, all bitchy good fun (how can you not love a book about running with a picture of a La-Z-Boy on the cover?), this book takes readers through the author’s own journey from recliner to race day, addressing insecurities that disgustingly chipper people who actually like to run would never possess.

I wrote it because all the books I consulted (on marathon running) were superserious, says Dais, a lifelong Sacramentan who dedicated her book to her grandfather, a stroke victim, and ran/walked/cried for 26.2 miles to raise money for the American Stroke Association.

I did horribly, she says. I ran about half of it and my knee went out.
 
Jennifer “Gin” Sander aka Jennifer Basye Sander
Does it seem like the checkbook is the only subject of discourse between you and your partner these days?

Has Granite Bay author Jennifer Gin Sander got a proposition for you: Prepare a dinner of aphrodisiacs like crab or lobster, tomatoes and raw oysters, then feed the juicy morsels to each other (bonus if you strip naked except for the plastic bib). Then indulge your way through the other 130 sensuous suggestions in Wear More Silk, the author’s latest entreaty to add more romance, spice and adventure to your everyday life. With any luck, your discourse will lead to . . . ahem, never mind.

These are small, inexpensive, creative ways you can take care of yourself, says Sander, who did the whole writing thing backward by starting her career in publishing&emdash;a considerable advantage in selling her 50-some books, including the popular Complete Idiot’s Guide to Self-Publishing.

Next up for the author of The Martini Diet and Wear More Cashmere: a book called Boyfriend University, detailing weird stuff you know because of the guys you’ve dated.

Uh, does that include how to win at Centipede and belch the alphabet song?

Nah . . . we’re sure Sander and her contributors dated classier guys than that. And we’re jealous.

My Book Was a Bust

I, too, am a Sacramento author.

Impressed? Don’t be.

Back in the mid-’90s, I wrote a book called Coffee Crazy: A Guide to the 100 Best Coffee Houses in America. At the time, I thought it would be my ticket to fame and fortune.

Silly me.

Like many an aspiring author, I had loads of misconceptions about the publishing biz. When I came up with my idea for a book on the then-new coffeehouse craze, I fantasized about receiving a hefty advance from a publisher, followed by a big printing, a multicity publicity tour (Oprah wants me?) and bestsellerdom.

It didn’t quite turn out that way.

I should have gotten my first clue when I called a local publishing exec to pitch my idea. Is it a travel book or a cookbook? she asked. Both, I said. (A guidebook with recipes? Brilliant, I thought.) Won’t sell, she said decisively.

Undeterred, I called another publisher&emdash;owner of a small startup that had had some modest success publishing a cookbook&emdash;and made my pitch again. Bingo! He told me to come right in.

Within 24 hours, I was sitting in his office, signing a contract. (That’s right: No agent, no attorney, just me, signing on the dotted line.) My advance was a puny $100&emdash;not the tens of thousands I’d dreamed of. There was no expense money, either: I was responsible for any costs I’d incur in researching my book. And my publisher wanted the manuscript in three months. So what? I thought. I was about to become a Published Author.

I spent the next 90 days frantically calling coffeehouse owners all over the country. (No money for travel, remember.) I did phone interviews all morning, wrote like a madwoman all afternoon. I turned my manuscript in on time. And then I waited for my book to be published. And waited. And waited some more.

I began to hear rumors that the publisher was in trouble. He wasn’t paying his bills. Authors weren’t receiving their royalty checks. I got nervous. I called my editor, who assured me that all was well. Two weeks later, he quit.

Meanwhile, the publisher wouldn’t return my calls.

That’s when I read my contract&emdash;really read my contract&emdash;for the first time. It gave me goose bumps. According to the fine print, the publisher could charge me for any costs involved in publishing my book, including editing, layout and cover design. I realized this book&emdash;far from making me rich and famous&emdash;might actually end up costing me.

That’s when I started praying the company would go under. If it didn’t publish my book, I figured, it couldn’t charge me anything.

Months passed. Then I got a call. Another small publishing house wanted to buy my book. It would pay my old publisher $5,000 for the rights, and I would receive royalties on any books sold. For me, the best part of the deal was that it allowed me to get out of my old contract. Again, I signed on the dotted line.

And again, I waited. My new publisher went under. (This is one tough business, I was discovering.) But not before selling my book to a third publisher, which published my book in 1996, more than two years after I wrote it.

In the meantime, the once-hot independent coffeehouse craze had gone bust. Starbucks had come onto the scene and driven out of business most of the coffeehouses I’d written about. My book was obsolete before it even hit the shelves.

Coffee Crazy sold a few hundred copies. My third publishing house was no more successful than the first two. It couldn’t afford to pay me the royalties it had promised. Instead, it paid me in books. One day, the FedEx guy showed up with four boxes, filled with hundreds of copies of Coffee Crazy. Great. They sat in my garage for years. Recently, I threw out all but a couple of copies, which I’m saving for my daughters. (Yes, kids, once upon a time Mommy wrote a book.)

What did I learn from my misadventures in publishing? Well, the next time I write a book (if there is a next time), I’ll start with a better idea&emdash;I should have listened to the publishing pro who pooh-poohed my pitch. And I’ll get an agent to look after my interests. 

I also learned that, for every best-selling author like John Lescroart, there are thousands of writers like me&emdash;writers whose books sink without a trace. (In 1996, more than 68,000 books were published in the United States.) Writing a book is easy; selling books is hard.&emdash;By Marybeth Bizjak

Here are more local authors and partial lists of their books.

Carlos Alcalá:Sacramento Street Whys: The Whys Guy’s Wise Guide to Sacramento Street Names

Lance Armstrong

(the journalist/historian, not the bike champ): Echoes of Yesterday: An Inside View of Historic Sites of Elk Grove, California

Max Byrd: Shooting the Sun, Visits to Bedlam, London Transformed, Target of Opportunity, Grant: A Novel, Jefferson: A Novel, Jackson: A Novel, Fuse Time, California Thriller, Finders Weepers, Tristram Shandy, Fly Away, Jill

Michael Goodman, M.D.: The Midlife Bible: A Woman’s Survival Guide

Allen Hassan: Failure to Atone: The True Story of a Jungle Surgeon in Vietnam

Richard Herman: Power Curve, The Trojan Sea, Warbirds, Against All Enemies, Edge of Honor, The Last Phoenix, Force of Eagles, Firebreak, Call to Duty

Rick Kushman and Hank Beal: A Moveable Thirst: Tales and Tastes from a Season in Napa Wine Country

David Masiel: The Western Limit of the World, 2182 Kilohertz, Year of the Monkey

Alan O’Connor: Gold on the Diamond: Sacramento’s Great Baseball Players 1886 to 1976

Terry a. O’Neal: Good Mornin’ Glory, Motion Sickness, The Poet Speaks in Black, Ev’ry Little Soul, My Jazz Shoes, Sweet Lavender

Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, Antarctica, The Years of Rice and Salt, Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, Sixty Days and Counting, Icehenge, The Memory of Whiteness, A Short, Sharp Shock, The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, Pacific Edge

James Rollins:
The Judas Strain, Subterranean, Excavation, Deep Fathom, Amazonia, Ice Hunt, Sandstorm, Map of Bones

Jill V. Ruffman and Marjorie B. Sladek: Now, What Do We Do? How To Manage Your Child’s Critical Medical Needs

Greg Velm:
True Gold: History and Adventure in Sacramento and the Gold Country

William T. Vollmann: Poor People, Europe Central (2005 National Book Award winner for fiction), Rising Up and Rising Down, The Atlas, You Bright and Risen Angels, The Rainbow Stories, An Afghanistan Picture Show, Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, The Royal Family

Louis S. Warren: Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show

Spring Warren: Turpentine

Arnie P. Zimbelman: Exile from Jamestown