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Festival of the Book gets steamy
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Festival of the Book gets steamy

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It's not easy being a tough-guy writer, known tough-guy writers told an audience Saturday at the Montana Festival of the Book.

You have to do things like write sex scenes. Explicit ones.

When he was writing his first book, "Twice Dying," Missoula writer Neil McMahon ended up with two characters, a man and a woman, in a motel room. He tried to suggest a little romance and slide on by in a few sentences.

His editor kept telling him he had to write a full-blown sex scene. It's a suspense-filled thriller with psychopaths in it.

"Finally, he calls me up, and he says, 'All right. This is it. You're going to have to write this. It's going to have to be explicit. This is a deal-breaker.' So I wrote it," McMahon said.

After the book came out, he got a letter from his mother. She enclosed a clipping of a review of a book in which the hero, Father Tim, solves mysteries by sitting everyone down with cups of chamomile tea.

"Why can't you write books like that?" his mother wrote.

If it's not one thing, it's another.

The topic of sex scenes kept the writers' Wilma Theatre audience laughing throughout the panel.

Wyoming writer C.J. Box, author of the Joe Pickett series of novels, doesn't have to worry about them.

"My protagonist is married," he said, "so there are no sex scenes."

Writing sex scenes is no more or less difficult than writing scenes of violence, said Missoula writer James Lee Burke, best known for his novels about Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux. They don't always have to be explicit.

"There are scenes in Kafka that leave people panting, but they don't know why," he said. "That's writing."

Playwright Roger Hedden led the panel in a rambling discussion of what tough-guy writers think about in their work. The writers also included Wyoming writer Craig Johnson, author of "The Cold Dish," and Missoula writer Jim Crumley, author of hard-boiled mysteries.

The writers' main characters have a wide variety of marital states: a complex marriage, divorced, widowed, newly remarried.

"Can you think of a book about a happy marriage that lasts very long that makes people happy?" Crumley said. "Marriage was invented when we only lived to be 38 years old."

The writers were split on their preferences for first-person or third-person narrators.

Burke, whose Robicheaux novels are written in the urgency of the first person, has learned a lot through his years of writing.

"I always try to keep in mind when using a first-person narrator that the voice should be a collective one," he said.

He recalled something said by the writer of 15 years of the "Bonanza" TV show: "I created characters who an American family felt comfortable inviting into their living rooms every Sunday night," he said.

Sometimes the first person gets out of hand, especially in nonfiction, Burke said, " 'I' becomes the tallest letter in the alphabet," he said.

But it's been used to tell great American stories. Everybody knows Huck Finn, Burke said, even people who don't read. "Call me Ishmael" is one of the most powerful lines ever written.

Box likes the third person.

"The reader always knows more than Joe Pickett," he said.

No offense, he said to his fellow writers, but the first person distracts him.

"I always think, 'If this guy's such a good writer, why is he a detective?' " he said. "I can't get past that."

The writers took questions from the audience, too.

Do you ever get writer's block, a woman asked, and how do you get around it?

"You go check your bank account," McMahon said. "Works for me."

The Montana Festival of the Book wrapped up Saturday night with a gala reading by Sandra Alcosser, Rick Bass and Crumley.

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