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
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
Lou: 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
correct answer to the following trivia question and you’ll win. Good luck!
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
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 www.freshfiction.com. 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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