Michael Connelly

Is it weird that I want to stalk Michael Connelly?  Okay:  I mean this figuratively.  I’m too lazy to do anything more than look people up on Google.

For those of you who don’t know, Michael Connelly is one of the great detective fiction writers in the world.  How do I know this?  It says so on the cover of his book:  “The Best Mystery Writer In the World.”  All caps.  By GQ, no less.  End of story.

I have to agree.  I’m reading one of his legal fictions, featuring Michael Haller and I can’t put it down.  Haller is back in the saddle again, after being shot, getting addicted to pain killers, divorcing, hitting rock bottom and getting into slow recovery.  The Lincoln Lawyer always planned his return but not in this way, because suddenly he’s inherited an entire law practice from a murdered colleague.  Among these cases: a career-making, high profile murder involving a studio executive in a love triangle.

Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly was an LA Times reporter and it shows.  Great sentences.  Superior knowledge of Los Angeles, my home town.  He’s got a sense of intrigue.  You’re always wondering what’s happening, who has what ax to grind, whose hiding true intentions.  That’s the kind of art that doesn’t happen sentence-by-sentence.  That’s brain art:  highly conceptual.

I used to run a writer’s series back when I was teaching at a college in Iowa.  We got amazing writers—Francine Prose, John Edgar Wideman, Adrienne Rich—who were acknowledged masters to come and read from their works.  I was supposed to be in attendance.  But if it were not mandatory, I probably wouldn’t have shown up.  I never understood why people showed up to get their books signed.  It felt kind of stalker-ish.

But for Michael Connelly, I’d show up with a copy of The Brass Verdict in hand.  “Sir, could you make it out, not to me, but for the serial killer in my novel, because he’s going to need a real good, ass-kicking defense attorney like Mike Haller?”

Connelly’s gift to me:  permission to write about my LA—the LA I grew up in.  I love the way Michael Haller inhabits the world of DuPar’s, Traxx, Musso and Frank’s, landmarks all.  So I realize that my hero needs his own landscape.  But will people recognize Spaceland, Giant Robot, American Rag?  Will they recognize that Thai dive on Hollywood Boulevard—Sanamluang—that is forever ruined by good reviews in the LA Weekly?  Will they know why my hero refuses to go to Café Figaro, even when he gets a call out of the blue from someone who has vital information?



What’s in a Name?

My detective is a driver.  By day, he delivers stuff—fabric, samples, patterns–with the Millenium Falcon, his pet name for the outdated Isuzu SUV.  On off hours, he drives a Toyota Corolla:  a beater.  He’s also got a red, mint BMW he’s inherited from his younger sister, a UCLA coed who is murdered by her boyfriend, Kelly.  But he never drives that.  The car is more of a shrine, not transportation.

Kelly is a world class surfer.  And Robert, my hero, only suspects that he murdered the sister.  But he can’t prove it.  So he keeps the car privately garaged off La Brea.  He thinks there’s still evidence that is left in the car, linking Kelly to the murder.  Whenever he sees Kelly on a bus stop or a billboard or a surf shop display window—God—he wants to spit.

Name Tag

This is motivation to solve the current mysterious set of serial killer murders of beautiful girls—all interns—who are very much like his sister:  smart, sophisticated and chic.  All the girls have this in common:  they are richer than they appear.  They are beautiful but could be more so.

The serial killer is obsessed with improvement and perfection.  He thinks that he’s making them better.  And they are all victims because there’s a lot of girls in Los Angeles with low self-esteem who are climbing the ladder who will put themselves in compromising situations to get that much closer to their goals.

But back to Kelly:  isn’t his name awesome?  I’m terrible with names.  My fashion designer is Betsy.  What kind of image does that bring up for you?  What name should I change it to?


Robert Crais: Michael Phelps to my Ryan Lochte

Here’s the order I do things:  I read and then I write.

I wake up every morning, brew a pot of coffee.  Do my sit-ups.  Weigh myself.  Then, I read.  As I’m reading, I jot down notes (in pencil) of super cool ideas.  Then, I only write when something I read is amazing…when the writer knocks the top of my head off with a flying roundhouse kick.

I write on the computer for a full single-spaced page, usually.  Then, I’m back to reading.

I feel like a cheater.  Why?  Because I think of myself as a swimmer but not the lead guy—one of those guys in second or third or fourth place—riding the wake of a Michael Phelps.  Does Michael Phelps ride anyone else’s wake?  If I was a bona fide genius, shouldn’t I just wake up with the story-lines fully-formed in my head?

Michael Phelps

Right now, I’m swimming in the wake of Robert Crais.  God, the man is a genius.  Short lines.  Terse dialog.  But there’s so much character packed into these little lines.  He’s a funny guy.  Lullaby Town:  highly recommended.  New York Times Bestseller.

I know that a writer is super-amazing if I look them up on the internet…just to see what they look like.  (Crais:  handsome, fiftyish, rugged with a passing, round-faced resemblance to Robert Deniro)  They’re good, also, if I want to write like them.  I try not to do this.  This will take me off my game.  Anyway, it’s impossible.  I write long sentences.  Crais, short.

Should I feel like a hack that I can only write if I read?  Does this make me second-rate?  Or am I Ryan Lochte, swimming in Michael Phelps’s wake—biding my time, building my strength?  I got my eye on you, Robert.

Ryan Lochte

Showdown in Little Tokyo

The other day, I was on the treadmill, watching Showdown in Little Tokyo—an eighties action flick starring Dolph Lundgren and the late Brandon Lee.  I caught it in a climactic scene.  Lundgren and Lee infiltrate a traditional Japanese bath house filled with yakuza in nothing but loincloths and full body tattoos.

Boy do they whip some yakuza butt.  There was a moment that it looked like it was over for the pair.  A big fat sumo wrestler has been holding his breath underwater and suddenly leaps out and takes down Lundgren.  But then, the duo really pull through.  And Dolph Lundgren keeps his hair neat, even though he’s shiney and wet all over.

Showdown in Little Tokyo Poster

As an Asian American, I know I should have been outraged that all ten of the yakuza got beat up by the buff, blond white guy.  I know it should have gotten me pissed that Brandon Lee, a much better action star, had to play second fiddle–much like his old man Bruce did–to a hack.  I know that I should have been creeped out by the fact that in the final scene Dolph Lundgren has a samurai sword fight, dressed as, of all things, a real samurai…in order to save the Asian girl who is his one true lotus blossom.

But I wasn’t mad at all.  I was mesmerized.  Mesmerized by the fact that this  action flick was taking place in the same place my novel takes place.  Downtown LA.  I could name every street and shop.  I actually kept running on the treadmill until the movie was over.  Usually, I get tired and give up after a half hour.  I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to exercise.

That night I ate an extra big meal.  Research can really be tiring.

Chase Scene in the Downtown LA Artwalk

People who live downtown hate the Downtown LA Artwalk.  The art is terrible.  The traffic gets super-snarled.  All sorts of people from outlying areas come in to drink and puke and piss.

The Artwalk is a nuisance—the two-headed, crackbaby love-child of urban renewal.

But it’s also becoming an institution—as much a fixture on the downtown landscape as used condoms and cigarette butts.

So, I want a chase scene that happens in the middle of the Artwalk.  My protagonist is going to have to abandon his car and it becomes a foot chase.  There will be all sorts of colorful things to describe:  food trucks, stalls, kiosks, galleries, bars, etcetera.  They are local color, obstacle course, maze.

Now all I have to figure out is who is he chasing?  And is he chasing the right guy?

Crowd at LA Downtown Artwalk

Healthy Sadomasochism: Self-Improvement

I’m learning to be cruel to my characters.  The more I like them, the more they must suffer.  I learned this from reading Cider House Rules.  I didn’t want those characters to be broken, damaged and humiliated…but it sucked me in when it happened.

Call me a sadist-in-training.


So, one of my characters is based upon my best friend who is a super-cool, whip-smart, real-life fashion designer.  I love her to pieces.  And she always has helped me out, even when I was stranded in Mexico…with no money to my name.

My friend was the jumping off point for this character.  The character has evolved.  But I still feel that I should be nice to her, because she’s based on my best friend.

Now, in order to become a great novelist, I’m going to do mean things to my best friend…oops…I mean my protagonist’s best friend.  She’s going to become an ugly person.  Revenge will be exacted upon her.  Her frailties will be exposed.  She will become a suspect.  Maybe she will be cleared but her reputation will be damaged.

I’m not sure if she will be exonerated.  I hope she doesn’t “unfriend” me on Facebook.

What does your character like?

One standard exercise they ask you to do in Creative Writing Seminars is this:  What does your protagonist like?  What does he hate?


My detective kinda likes Giant Robot.  Okay.  He also hates it.  Why?  Most of his friends are into that store, that magazine.  Yeah, his ex-girlfriend gave him an Ugly Doll.  He named it.  She asked for it back.

There was a protracted custody battle.

Green Ugly Doll

Ugly Doll

This is how complex my detective is:  he only hates Giant Robot because, now, everybody’s jumped on the bandwagon.  But he was into it first.  He vows never to buy anything.  And then when he gets a bowl of noodles at Asahi Ramen, guess where he goes?  He never manages to leave empty-handed.

Smoking Rabbit Plastic Doll

This is what he got on his last visit.  A smoking rabbit.


Only Outsiders Pee on the Street of Downtown LA

My detective’s stomping ground is  Downtown LA.  He knows it like the back of his hands.  He grew up in Boyle Heights and, later, his mom moved him to the Westside where they could be close to better schools.

He resents the “revival” of downtown, mainly because he was there before outsiders came and made it congested and gross and polluted.  What bothers him is that all these outsiders come and piss on the street, because they think that’s what the homeless do:  piss on the street.  This is what is expected in downtown LA.  Grit.  Grime.  Gross.

But my main character has been in downtown—worked and lived and loved in downtown—and he knows that it was much cleaner before the hipsters moved in.  The homeless actually knew they had to sleep on the streets.  So, they made sure not to pee as much.  Only outsiders pee on the streets—thinks my narrator.  I think so, too.

"a Row of Urinal"

Is this autobiographical?

My mystery novel has one crucial feature:  its hero is an Asian American detective.  More precisely, he’s half Vietnamese/half white.  Son of a GI.  Abandoned. Raised on both sides of the train tracks: East and West LA.

He’s not a private dick.  He’s a reluctant detective.  By day, he drives delivery for an up-and-coming fashion company run by his best friend.  And he finds himself tracking a serial killer who is slowly murdering all the hot young interns that are the cheap, beautiful labor of the fashion industry.

This is not a typical LA fashion novel.  Because you’ll see the world of sweat shops, the dye houses, the ugly brown people with their tattoos.  My driver, like all drivers in the production side of the fashion industry, is a person of color.

So here is the classic question:  is this autobiographical?  Yes, my best friend has a fashion line that is quite successful.  Yes, I worked for her as a driver.  Yes, I am Vietnamese.  No, my father is not a GI.  No, I have never stalked a serial killer.  I only wish I did.

"Malcolm X"

Malcolm X


I’m writing a detective novel

So I decided to start writing a mystery novel.  I’ve never worked in the mystery genre before.  I have always read detective fiction with a guilty pleasure, mainly because I spent so much time studying literature as if it were art.  But when I spent three years backpacking the world, after finishing my Ph.D. in English Lit, all I could get my grubby little hands on was detective fiction.  That’s when I caught the bug. If you like to read, there are limited options on the road:  it’s either Detective Fiction or Chick Lit.  That was all you could get at the dusty hostel book exchange.  Guess what I read?  I read tons of Agatha Christie, Ross MacDonald, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Barbara Kingsolver.  You name it. If it was sitting on the shelf, I picked it up and put another book down.  Sometimes I even filched one or two…just to make sure nobody would snatch it up.  I’m a bit compulsive.

"Travel Trunk"

I’d swap mystery novels with fellow backpackers and this was the best way to make a friendship with a Norwegian, a German, an Englishman.  They’ll invite you to drinks at the rooftop restaurant (almost always there’s a rooftop bar).  And voila, you’ve got a new best friend, for at least three days—someone to see the sights with,  someone who will turn you onto great new writers, someone who will teach you choice curse words in their mother tongue, someone who will stick up for you in a tight situation.  Like a bar fight on a rooftop.  An added plus:  if they just came from the opposite direction, these fellow lovers of detective fiction will tell you about which hotel has a hot shower.  And this is an important thing on the shoestring that gets you through India or South America or Cambodia.

Detective novels came to mean more than just good plots.  They were about friendships, connection and resources.

Maybe a year into reading detective fiction, I started thinking there were things I would do differently.  I started noticing how there are a lot of wise guy white guys who do a lot of hard talking and all the cool solving.  Occasionally, there’s a black one.  Oh yeah, there’s a woman or two.  And this got me a bit disgruntled…because I’m Asian American and I didn’t really find one of my kind on the hostel shelves.

Then, when I got home and had unfettered access to bookstores, I really didn’t enjoy what other stuff I came across:  too ching-chong, opium den, sex slavery for me.  What about an Asian American detective who lives in a world that I know—who likes Japanese Anime and Giant Robot and boba?  Who actually has a job outside of Chinatown?  Who doesn’t have to talk in italics to show that he knows all sorts of exotic words and phrases that will somehow prove he’s authentic?

"French Opium Den"

I finally realized that I could become a mystery writer, too.  After all, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.  Anyway, I thought, “How hard could it be?  Right?”

Well, I just started it.  And its damn hard.  I’m determined to finish, too.  And I’m going to put it up for sale on Amazon.com as an e-book at a recession proof price.  Why?  Well, times have changed.  You can travel with a kindle now.  You can download all sorts of junk.  You never have to rely on the randomness of hostel book shelves.  But still the pickings are slim.  So, I’m no longer on the road but I often feel the pull and I want to send out a digital lifeline to a fellow traveler who is looking to find something—something different but familiar–that speaks to him…or her.