December 7th, 2023
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December's Must-Reads: Top Books to Close Out the Year with a Bang

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Jen's Jewels
Get the lowdown on your favorite authors with Jennifer Vido.

Interview with Lou Berney

I’ve always been interested in traveling especially to exotic places. Strange customs and unfamiliar food seem to pique my curiosity. Have I ever been to any, you ask?  If New Jersey qualifies as one, then yes!  All kidding aside, as part of my list of New Year’s resolutions, I plan on venturing outside the USA with my husband and kids in tow. Who knows where we might wind up? I can guarantee it most certainly will be an adventure!

This month’s Jen’s Jewels Lou Berney has been bitten by the same travel bug. In his debut novel GUTSHOT STRAIGHT, he takes the reader on an outrageous ride to the jungles of Panama in a hilarious crime caper that is sure to catch your eye.  From the Armenian mob to a Vegas strip-club, this wild adventure has it all. Even the catchy title draws you in!

As part of this interview, William Morrow Publishers has generously donated five copies for you, my lucky readers, to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question.  And as always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your reading adventure.

Jen: Your road to publication is quite the story in itself. From screenplays to the academia, your career has encompassed many areas of the publishing business.  So that my readers have a better understanding of the man behind the words, please share with us the highlights of your educational and professional accomplishments.

Lou BerneyLou: My background, in college, was mostly journalism. But even though I loved reporting – getting out and observing, asking questions – I wasn’t crazy about having to stick to just the facts when it came to writing. So I decided to get my MFA. In grad school, I had great teachers and great fellow students, and I was lucky enough to have one of my first short stories picked up by the New Yorker, which led to a collection of stories. I also started teaching in grad school. At first it was just a way to make some money, but I discovered I really loved being in the classroom. So when I got my degree, I took a job as an assistant professor at a college in California. It was a great job – getting paid to read books and talk about them all day with smart people. I kept writing, but I started drifting away from short stories and toward movies. I wrote a script about an ice-cold female bank robber who has to go hide out in a small, friendly town. I managed to sell that screenplay to Focus Features, and even though they didn’t end up making the movie, it opened up a lot of Hollywood doors. So ever since then I’ve been writing movie and TV projects for everyone from Jerry Bruckheimer to Warner Brothers to various independent producers. But I always really missed writing fiction, which is my first and deepest love, so when the WGA went on strike in the winter of 2007-2008, there was a silver lining for me – it gave me a chance to write GUTSHOT STRAIGHT.

Jen: Being a writer for television pilots as well as screenplays enables you to spread your creative wings on different fronts. Describe for us the process in terms of the collaboration aspect of writing for a specific type of audience compared to simply writing your own novel. Which is more challenging and why?

Lou: They’re both challenging, but in different ways. When you write screenplays, a lot of the time you’re working closely with producers every step of the way, from pitch to outline to draft to polish. I’ve been lucky enough to work mostly with great, smart producers, so that can be really nice – to have a great, smart person always there to give you feedback, encouragement, ideas. It makes writing a lot less lonely, and a lot of times two heads really can be better than one. On the other hand, sometimes this kind of collaboration can be stressful – you don’t want to let down the team, and you can start just trying to give your producers what you think they want, rather than trying to blow them away with something they didn’t realize they wanted until they saw it.  Writing a novel can be brutal since if it’s going badly you’ve got know one to blame but yourself. But you have the freedom to make big mistakes that might turn into really great discoveries.

Jen: As a scholar, you have taught in three very different areas of the country…west coast, northeast, and the prairie land. How did each geographical area influence and/or affect your teaching style? Did you find a marked difference among your student body in terms of their approach to learning?

Lou: That’s a great question. And it’s hard to answer, because I’ve found such a diversity of students at each college where I’ve taught. At the University of Oklahoma, for example, here on the prairie, I’ve had students who have come from rural, small-town farming backgrounds, but I’ve also had students as sophisticated, worldly, and well-traveled as any student I’ve ever had on the coasts. As a teacher, I just try to read each individual class like a quarterback reads a defense and adapt my approach to what I think will be most effective.

Jen: Your short stories have appeared in many notable publications, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and New England Review, to name a few.  As for the nuts and bolts of the writing process, what is the most exhilarating part of writing in this particular genre?

Lou: I love how a short story builds to one precise moment – one sentence, one image, one word that brings everything together and just goes off like a bomb. It can be brutally hard finding that precise moment, and getting it right, but when you do, it’s a terrific feeling.

Jen: As for your previous work, please tell us about your connection, if you will, with the Baltimore Orioles.  As many of my readers know, I live in the Baltimore area!

Lou: This is kind of funny. I have no connection whatsoever with the Baltimore Orioles. There are actually two writers named Lou/Louis Berney. What are the odds of that, right? My full name is Louis, but I’ve always gone by Lou. When the New Yorker bought my first story, the editor there suggested I use “Louis” in the byline because it sounded more substantial and writerly. I agreed because, well, it seemed like a good idea to listen to a New Yorker editor. After my story collection came out, I discovered there was another writer named Louis Berney who covered the Orioles. I think we exchanged a couple of notes. He published a couple of non-fiction books about baseball under the name “Louis,” so I was happy to go back to “Lou,” which I’m a lot more comfortable with anyway. The irony is that since I was named after Lou Gehrig, I’ve always been a fan of the New York Yankees, divisional rivals of the Orioles. But I do love the city of Baltimore, and I love the baseball stadium there.

Jen: Your latest endeavor, GUTSHOT STRAIGHT, is a hilarious crime caper set in Panama. It’s a superbly written novel with just the right balance of romance and intrigue. I couldn’t put it down. Bravo! First of all, how did you arrive at the premise?

Lou: Thanks! I really appreciate that. As for the premise, I somehow got it into my head that I wanted to take the story of Snow White and update it to a contemporary, criminal setting. But I wanted to put the focus on one of the fairy tale’s minor characters, the Huntsman who is ordered by the Evil Queen to take Snow White out in the woods and kill her, and instead he lets her go. He always seemed like an interesting, sympathetic, potentially complex guy to me, just trying to do his job and getting hit with his huge moral dilemma. I always wondered what happened to him when the Evil Queen found out that he’s disobeyed her orders. If it’s in the Disney movie, I don’t remember it.

Jen: Secondly, the title is a quite catchy…GUTSHOT STRAIGHT.  I have to admit, you’ve got me stumped on this one! What does it mean? And, how does it relate to the matter at hand?

Lou: “GUTSHOT STRAIGHT” is a long-odds poker hand where you have to draw a single card rank (e.g., a nine) to make a straight. Basically, hoping you land a GUTSHOT STRAIGHT is a pretty reckless gamble – the poker equivalent of a wing and a prayer. My novel isn’t really about poker, per se, but it IS about bluffing, lying, playing the odds, and – when it comes in particular to my two main characters – an awful lot of reckless gambling.

Jen: Let’s talk about the characters. Charles “Shake” Bouchon has quite the checkered past. Upon his release from prison, he enlists in one last “deal” before finally becoming clean. What is the driving force behind his affinity to a life of crime?

Lou: At one point in my novel, Shake is described as a guy who is too nice for the life he’s led, but not nice enough for any other, and I think that sums him up pretty well. I’m not sure he really has an affinity for a life of crime. But he’s never really been a guy who’s taken charge of his own life – at least not until the events of the novel – so when the current of his life happened to carry him out onto the other side of the law, he never really tried to swim back in.

Jen: Not only is he a wheeler and a dealer, but also he has a compassionate side. When assigned the task of guarding the boss’s captive, Gina, he does the unthinkable. He sets her free. In Shake’s eyes, is Gina a femme fatale or is she just perhaps a way in which to make amends for his past transgressions?  Is he tempting fate or simply choosing to take the higher ground?

Lou: That’s another great question. Hmmm. I think Shake’s big motivation is that he’s basically a good guy and he can’t bear to think about what’s going to happen to Gina if he turns her over to the bad guys (it doesn’t hurt that he also has kind of crush on her, but I think he’d have let her go even if she’d been homely and smelly). But I also do think Shake sees this as an opportunity, for once in his life, to take control of his own destiny and not just drift along. His timing for this revelation isn’t great, as he himself would be the first to admit, since it involves angering some very dangerous people, but I’m certain that Dr. Phil would see Shake defying his boss and letting Gina go as a healthy, empowering psychological development.

Jen: Gina, Gina, Gina. Where to start?! Sexy, conniving, and the ultimate temptress! Gina has it all going on and then some. Yet, if truth be told underneath all that fanfare is just a wounded soul trying to find its way. Why then is she willing to take a chance by joining forces with Shake against their adversaries, Alexandra Ilandryan and Dick Moby? Who is the smarter player in this game of deception and how so?

Lou: I’m really glad you see her this way. I never, ever wanted Gina to be a typical, one-dimensional femme fatale. In a lot of ways, she’s just like Shake – trying to figure out if she can become a different person than the one she’s been for so long. I think that’s why she joins up with Shake. Yes, she can use him to get what she wants, and yes, she has a little crush on him, and yes, he’s fun to banter and match wits with, but most importantly, I think, Gina really responds to Shake’s essential decency – something she’s never had much of in her life. As for the smartest player in this novel, Shake would be the first to admit that Gina is a lot smarter and creatively deceptive than he is. But he’s got age, experience, and the humility that comes with both on his side, so he can hold his own with her. (And he probably learned a lot by dating Alexandra, who is even smarter than Gina.)

Jen: The comic relief in this story centers on some zany and unforgettable characters. For instance, poor Ted Boxman! Having come to Panama to find some love, he wound up finding more than trouble. How is he able to overcome such misfortune while managing to keep his head on straight?

Lou: Ted started out as just a minor character. He wasn’t even going to get his own POV, but once I got in his head I couldn’t get out. It’s just hinted at in the published draft, but Ted, before he comes to Panama, has been through a really emotionally devastating experience back home. So that always informed the character for me. Even when he was in zany situations, and even though he is mostly a pushover, Ted was always a character who I knew had a real streak of resiliency and toughness deep down (even though this streak often surfaces at exactly the wrong time). I was always rooting for Ted.

Jen: Next, there is Jasper, Dick Moby’s right-hand man. For him, things go from bad to worse as he tries to redeem himself in the eyes of his boss. Surprisingly, he and Shake have much in common. What enables these two men to see eye-to-eye?

Lou: Jasper, unlike Shake, is not a nice guy. But he’s also not evil, like some of the other characters in the novel – there’s a flicker of genuine decency there.  I think Jasper, like Shake, is a guy who’s come to a crossroads in his life, and he knows he needs to act now or lose forever whatever chance he has of becoming a better man.

 Jen: Let’s switch gears now and talk about your promotional plans. First of all, please take us on a brief tour of your website.

Lou: I read a quote somewhere that said author websites should be about what you have to offer, not what you have to sell, so I’ve tried to make sure my site offers some fun stuff. There’s a video book trailer that was produced by a buddy of mine who is an award-winning close-up magician. They’re not flashy, but some of the moves he makes are just incredible. There’s an excerpt from the novel, plus an entire short story of mine, “Stupid Girl,” that shows where my fascination with Snow White began. You can get free, signed GUTSHOT STRAIGHT novelty playing cards, and if you enter the first contest you’ll get your own crime persona and description on what I’m calling the Wall of Noir. There’s a lot of other stuff too, and pretty soon I’ll be adding deleted scenes from the novel, more contests, more free stuff, and more stories. As for other marketing, I’m going to do book signing events in 15 or 16 cities. That’s one of my favorite parts of having a book out – getting to meet and talk to readers and booksellers all across the country.

Jen: A question I just have to ask, what is the story behind your author photos? You have to admit they are not your run-of-the-mill headshots!

Lou: They’re not? Why, that’s just my typical Tuesday afternoon. Well, not really, I guess. My wife actually had the idea for those photos. We both hate author photos that take themselves too seriously – you know, dramatic lighting, bookcase in the background, the writer with chin on hand, gazing off into the distance, deep in profound thought. We wanted an author photo that not only would get your attention, but also communicate the humor and spirit of this novel. For the record, neither of the women in the photos is an exotic dancer.

Jen: What’s next on horizon for you? Any new books in the works?

Lou: I’ve got a lot of ideas for a sequel to GUTSHOT STRAIGHT (you didn’t think Shake and Gina were going to settle down and live boringly ever after, did you?), and I’m also working on a literary suspense novel that’s got humor but is also darker and deeper, more Kate Atkinson than Elmore Leonard.

Jen: Thank you so much for kicking off the New Year with my readers. GUTSHOT STRAIGHT is a sure winner!  I wish you the best of luck in 2010!

Lou: It’s been my pleasure! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me, and for all the nice things you’ve said about my novel!

I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Lou. I encourage you to stop by your local bookstore or favorite library branch and pick up a copy today! Better yet, how would you like to win one instead?

Okay, be one of five readers to enter our contest with the correct answer to the following trivia question and you’ll win. Good luck!

In GUTSHOT STRAIGHT, what is Shake’s real name?

Later this month, I will be bringing to you my interview with Gretchen Rubin, author of THE HAPPINESS PROJECT.  You won’t want to miss it!

Until next time...Jen

When a twist of fate landed Jennifer at the "Reading with Ripa" roundtable discussion with Kelly Ripa and Meg Cabot, she knew that her career as a French teacher would essentially be over. Instead, she figured out a clever way to combine her love for reading and writing and "voilà" She became a book reviewer and columnist with On the sidelines, her parents secretly hoped that her French degree from Vanderbilt would one day come in handy and Jennifer is happy to report that the phrases ‘Je ne sais pas' and ‘C'est incroyable!' have been quite useful when reviewing certain selections! As is typical in her whirlwind life, one thing led to another and soon she found herself facilitating a popular moms' book club and writing a column she cleverly named Jen's Jewels. (Jewelry is one of her many addictions, as is the color pink and Lilly Pulitzer, which when you think about it, would probably make for a good story! Hint! Hint! ) To keep herself away from her favorite retailer, Ann Taylor, she serves on the Board of Trustees of the Harford County Public Library in Maryland. As a national trainer for The Arthritis Foundation's Aquatic and Land Exercise Classes, she is an advocate for those like herself who suffer from arthritis, the nation's #1 cause of disability. When asked how she manages to do all of these things and actually get some sleep at night, she simply replied, "It's just Par for the Course." Hmm! Now where have we heard that before?




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