Thriller writer channels anger into her books

Fargo, vice president of the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime and the cocreator of the podcast Unlikeable Female Characters, has a little bad girl in her too.

“I love the sinister title of ‘They Never Learn,’” she said, adding that this, her second thriller, has everything she loves in a book — sexy women, Shakespeare references and the stabbing of men who “deserve” it.”

Layne Fargo

Scarlet Clark, the lead character in Layne Fargo’s newest psychological thriller, “They Never Learn,” is not your typical English professor. While she takes her studies and students seriously, for 16 years she’s also been on a mission, to eliminate men at Gorman University she considers to be bad guys. By planning carefully and keeping the murder rate down to one a year, she’s managed to avoid discovery.

That is until her last killing — the poisoning of a star football player accused of rape — doesn’t go so well. She posted a suicide note on the guy’s Instagram account, but it turns out you can’t kill a star athlete without some ramifications.

Suddenly, the other suicide notes written by Scarlet are under review and her current project — dispatching a lewd department head who also is her competitor for a fellowship she desperately wants (not all of Scarlet’s killings are devoid of self interest). Trying to forestall discovery, Scarlet insinuates herself into the police investigation while under pressure to get away with this next kill.

But it’s even more complex than this. After all, it is a Fargo book, and the Chicago author who wrote the well-received “Temper” likes the complexities and power struggles inherent in relationships.

In this case, adding to the drama is the transformation of Carly Schiller, a freshman who has escaped an abusive home life and now immerses herself in studies as a way of avoiding life. But when Allison, her self-assured roommate, is sexually assaulted at a party, Carly dreams of revenge.

Fargo, vice president of the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime and the cocreator of the podcast Unlikeable Female Characters, has a little bad girl in her too.

“I love the sinister title of ‘They Never Learn,’” she said, adding that this, her second thriller, has everything she loves in a book — sexy women, Shakespeare references and the stabbing of men who “deserve” it.

Fargo was enraged at what she saw as the injustice of the appointment of a man accused of rape into a high position.

“I channeled that all-consuming anger into a story where men like that are stripped of their power, where they get exactly what they deserve,” she said.

This are article also ran in the Books section of the Northwest Indiana Times.

TMI: My Life in Scandal by Perez Hilton

The phone call from Perez Hilton came two days earlier than planned.

“He can do it now instead,” his assistant emailed me on Wednesday.

I was totally unprepared. Hilton’s autobiography, “TMI: My Life in Scandal” (Chicago Review Press) — the one we’re supposed to talk about — sat unread on my desk.

Thinking “right now” might mean I had a few minutes to speed read, I reached for it. The phone rang.

Perez.

“I love your book,” I said, just to start it off. That’s all it took.

“Thank you,” Hilton responded. “I was so afraid that people wouldn’t like it. There’s so much of me in it, I’m one of the most transparent and honest people there are. People like that, and they like nostalgia and that’s me, I’m a dinosaur.”

Jurassic throwbacks seem a little bit overdone. Hilton hit the scene 20 years ago, garnering almost instant attention with his blend of gossipy take on celebrity distilled through his blog, podcasts, personal appearances and general lifestyle. He didn’t just report of celebrities, he hung with them. If he didn’t like them or had a juicy story, he reported it. His blog quickly was dubbed the “most hated blog in the world,” though he garnered millions of followers.

But the more he talks about being a dinosaur, it starts to make sense. He was one of the first bloggers.

“I started in 2004,” he said. “There are 13-year-old kids who don’t know about blogging, they’re doing TikTok. There were names that were big that no one thinks about anymore. You may luck your way into celebrity, but you have to have perseverance to be a success. You have to learn to reinvent yourself. I reinvented by going into podcasts; I have two YouTube channels. I started Instagram way back in 2011 when it first came out. It’s about knowing when the next trend is coming, and I’ve always been good at that. I’ve outlasted a lot of the stars I wrote about.”

But Hilton is still worried. Sure, he’s constantly metamorphosing, but he’s learned some lessons and he wants to share a few with me, starting with how important it is to live below your means.

“I have three children, I have to save for their education, I have to take care of them,” he said. Does he know about that new purse I bought? I wonder, vowing to return it.

He also worries about the Kardashians. I should note that by this point, I realized Hilton doesn’t have a filter, which is one of the many characteristics that make him so delightful.

“People reach a tipping point,” he said, explaining why he’s concerned about these glamorous, fully-endowed women who seem to have the most beautiful jewelry, homes, children, clothes, husbands, ex-husbands and boyfriends and a fascinating jet-set lifestyle.

I know about the jet-setting because last year, when I was on Providenciales, one of the islands in the Turks and Caicos, we’d made reservations to have dinner at the Conch House, a beach joint where fisherman dive for conch right off the shore and the cooks turn the meat info fritters, stew and all sorts of conch delights. But then the restaurant called and canceled our reservations. Why? Well, the Kardashians had just flown in and wanted to eat there, and they didn’t want non-cool people around. Their evening was filmed for their show. I didn’t watch it. We went the following Kardashian-less night.

But Hilton knows about tipping points. He reached his own a while back and it taught him lessons even if the Kardaashians aren’t listening to his advice right now.

“Now I’m the cheapest person I know,” he said.

Born Mario Armando Lavandeira, Jr. and raised in Florida, he graduated from New York University, dabbled in acting and public relations but found career success in his ability to feed our celebrity fascination.

“I’m sharing stories in my new book,” he said, “because I want to make money.”

All the juicy escapades with and about stars that I read when I finally read his book are delightful, but they come at a price.

“I work 17 hours a day,” Hilton said. “I never rest. But that’s part of perseverance. The more you work, the more you notice the patterns and you can see how they’re coming together, and which ones will become trends. That’s how you know what the next thing is going to be.”

For your information

What: Perez Hilton Virtual Event

When: 7 p.m. Nov. 30

Cost: This is a ticketed event, and a purchase is required to attend. Anderson’s offers a variety of ticket options. Every book ticket will include a signed copy of “TMI: My Life in Scandal.” 

FYI: To obtain tickets for the Perez Hilton virtual event, visit http://www.andersonsbookshop.com/event/perez-hilton. 

Lincoln Roadtrip: Following the backroads to find Abraham Lincoln


I am proud to announce that my book, Lincoln Roadtrip: The Backroads Guide to America’s Favorite President, published by Indiana University Press, is a winner in the 2019-20 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition, taking the bronze in the Travel Book category. The annual competition is sponsored by the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation.

The Old Talbott Inn in Bardstown, Kentucky looks much like it did in Lincoln’s day.

Winners of the awards, the most prestigious in the field of travel journalism, were announced October 16, 2020, at the annual conference of SATW, the premier professional organization of travel journalists and communicators. This year’s gathering was a virtual event.

Buxton Inn in Granville, Ohio

The competition drew 1,299 entries and was judged by faculty at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. This year, the SATW Foundation presented 99 awards in 26 categories and more than $21,000 in prize money to journalists. The awards are named for Lowell Thomas, acclaimed broadcast journalist, prolific author and world explorer during five decades in journalism.

Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial replica of the Lincoln Homestead when the Lincoln family lived here in the early 1800s.

In honoring my work, the judges said: The concept of this book is straightforward, “historical travel” with a focus on perhaps the most beloved President in the history of the United States of America. But a straightforward concept does not automatically signify a simple task. Author Ammeson completed massive research about Lincoln’s life before his ascension to fame. The photographs enhance the words nicely. Another attractive enhancement: offering current-day sites unrelated to Lincoln that provide entertainment along the route of the dedicated Lincoln traveler.”

The Home of Colonel Jones who knew that young Lincoln would accomplish much in this world.

I wanted to create a fun and entertaining travel book, one that includes the stories behind the quintessential Lincoln sites, while also taking readers off the beaten path to fascinating and lesser-known historical places. Visit the Log Inn in Warrenton, Indiana (now the oldest restaurant in the state), where Lincoln dined in 1844 while waiting for a stagecoach, stop by the old mill in Jasper, Indiana where Lincoln and his father took their grain to be milled (and learn of the salacious rumor about Lincoln’s birth–one of many) and spend the night at the Golden Lamb in Lebanon, Ohio, a gorgeous inn now over 200 years old.

The Golden Lamb, Lebanon, Ohio

Connect to places in Lincoln’s life that helped define the man he became, like the home of merchant Colonel Jones, who allowed a young Abe to read all his books, or Ashland, where Mary Todd Lincoln announced at age eight that she was going to marry a president someday and later, Lincoln most likely dined. Along with both famous and overlooked places with Lincoln connections, I also suggest nearby attractions to round out the trip, like Holiday World, a family-owned amusement park that goes well with a trip to the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial and Lincoln State Park.

The Kintner House, a bed and breakfast in charming Corydon, Indiana. Lincoln never stopped here but his brother Josiah who settled nearby did when it was a tavern and inn. Confederate General John Hunt Morgan took over the inn for a short period of time after crossing the Ohio River with his soldiers in what was the only Civil War battle fought in Indiana.

Featuring new and exciting Lincoln tales from Springfield, Illinois; the Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown, Kentucky; the Buxton Inn, Granville, Ohio; Alton, Illinois; and many more, I wrote Lincoln Road Trip  hoping that it will be a fun adventure through America’s heartland, one that will bring Lincoln’s incredible story to life.

Ashland, the home of Henry Clay in Lexington, Kentucky.

For more information about the awards, including a full list of winners and judges’ comments, and SATW, visit www.satwf.com and www.satw.org

Graue Mill, a stop on the Underground Railroad. Lincoln stopped by here to meet with the owner on his way to nearby Chicago.

To order a copy of Lincoln Road Trips, click here.

“Central Indiana Interurban” chronicles the state’s electric trains

There was a time when electric railroads, called interurbans, crisscrossed the state, connecting the small villages and large cities of Indiana.

“I was about 10 when my mother first started letting me take the interurban on my own,” recalls Lorraine Simon, who was born in East Chicago in 1911. “My mother would put me on the train and I’d go to Chicago and get off and walk to where my grandmother worked sewing linings into hats for a millinery company.”

Interurban in Valparaiso. Photo from the Steve Shook Collection

Also, according to Simon, the interurban she rode, known as the South Shore, also served food — for awhile. “But that didn’t last long,” she says.

Interior of the Muncie Meteor, Courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images.

With names like the Marion Flyer and the Muncie Meteor, the electric-powered interurban railway was the first true mass transit in Indiana in the 20th century. Coined interurban by Anderson, Ind., businessman and politician Charles Henry in the early 1900s, the name meant between towns or urban areas.

Photo courtesy of the Shore Line Interurban Historical Society.

“Before the interurban, public transportation in central Indiana relied upon mules or horses to pull crudely fashioned passenger wagons,” says Robert Reed, author of “Central Indiana Interurban” (Arcadia, 2004, $19.95). The interiors of these passenger wagons were piled high with straw for warmth in the winter and candles were used after sunset to light the interior. It was, as can be imagined, less than an optimal way to travel.

“The genius at work was the idea of using electrical power, on the pavement beneath the tracks or on overhead lines, to power existing traction cars,” writes Reed in his book.

Muncie Meteor. Courtesy of the Internet Archive Book Images.

Though the book’s title would seem to indicate a focus on the interurbans in Central Indiana, Reed points out that it encompasses many of the interurban lines that ran through Northwest Indiana.

“Indianapolis may have had the busiest interurban terminal in the world early in the 20th century but Chicago laid claim to the busiest corner in the world at State and Madison streets,” he writes. “Clearly interurban and cars were jammed in with all other traffic. The Chicago and Indiana Air Line Railway was established in 1901 at a cost of $250,000. Through reorganizations and acquisitions it grew from just over three miles of coverage in the beginning to nearly 70 miles of routes as the Chicago, Lake Shore and South Bend Railway, a decade and a half later. Eventually, encircled by its transportation lines were East Chicago, Indiana Harbor, Gary, Michigan City and Hammond.”

Photo courtesy of the Steve Shook Collection.

The Gary and Interurban Railroad provided 50-minute service between Gary and Hammond, according to Reed, and 60-minute service between Gary and Indiana Harbor. “In the years before the 1920s,” writes Reed, “one of their major routes began at Hammond and continued on to Indiana Harbor, Gary, East Gary, Garyton, Woodville Junction, Chesterton, Sheridan Beach, Valparaiso, Westville and LaPorte. Variations of the Gary and Interurban Railroad routes commenced at Valparaiso, Chesterton and LaPorte. Typically more than 20 different interurban cars from that line arrived and departed from Gary each day.”

From the Steve Shook Collection.

To highlight the popularity of the interurban throughout the state, Reed mentions how in 1908 the French Lick and West Baden Railroad Company connecting the West Baden Springs Hotel and the French Lick Resort & Springs, about a one mile route, carried 260,000 passengers.

From the Steve Shook Collection.

The book, filled with black-and-white photos from the interurban era as well as timetables and postcards from the routes, came about after Reed, a former magazine editor, wrote a book called “Greetings from Indiana” which showed the state’s history through early postcards. As Reed collected the postcards, he noticed that many were of the towns on the interurban route. “

From the Steve Shook Collection.

It made sense that people riding the interurban would send postcards of their stops and that these postcards were often of the interurban terminals,” says Reed who specializes in writing about antiques and collectibles. “I really became fascinated with interurbans because they were so much a part of Indiana.”

Laying tracks for the interurban was an expensive proposition. “It eventually got to where it was about $144,000 a mile,” Reed says. “And they reached a point where it was too expensive to expand.” Besides, by then Henry Ford had introduced his Model T and people were starting to drive more and more. “A lot of old timers say that if the interurban had survived until after World War II, they would be popular today,” Reed says. The one interurban to survive, the South Shore Railroad, did so because Samuel Insull, the utility magnate whose holdings included Commonwealth Edison and the Northern Indiana Public Service Company, also owned the South Shore.

Tracks in downtown Gary, Indiana. Photo courtesy of the Steve Shook Collection.

In other words, he helped usher the South Shore into the era of public subsidies for passenger transport. That is considered to be the reason why the electric train, which still travels from Chicago to South Bend and back on a regular schedule, is the only interurban that successfully made the transition to a commuter railroad.

Central Indiana Interurbans by Robert Reed.

All the others are now just vestiges of history — abandoned track lines here and there, faded black-and-white or sepia-colored postcards, a few timetables and even fewer fragile memories.

Beverly Shores Depot. Courtesy of Steve Shook Collection.
Beverly Shores, Indiana today. Jane Simon Ammeson.

Merrill Markoe: Comedian turns childhood diaries into book

Merrill Markoe. Photo by John Dolan.

The first time I met Merrill Markoe — the multi-Emmy award winning comedy writer who created such segments on the David Letterman show as “Stupid Pet Tricks,” “Stupid Human Tricks” and “Viewer Mail” — was in the living room of Barbara Stevens, who at the time was living in Hobart.

Stevens, who has since passed away, was the mother of my friend Andy Prieboy; Merrill is his partner of almost two decades. The two live in Santa Monica, California with their two dogs. Andy, a musician, and I both grew up in the Indiana Harbor section of East Chicago.

I know a lot about their romance, not from them, but by reading “The Psycho Ex Game” a darkly humorous and ultimately romantic book they wrote together about two friends competing to see whose ex is the craziest. How autobiographical it is, I don’t know for sure, but the basics are very factual. Merrill’s ex was David Letterman, though she changes his name slightly in the book. She not only was his original head writer but also his partner for 10 years. Google her name and up pops the description of her as “the key creative force behind” the Letterman show.

Recently I learned more about Merrill by reading another of her books, the recently released “We Saw Scenery: The Early Diaries of Merrill Markoe.

Andy set up a Zoom meeting so Merrill and I could talk about her book. But first he and I had to share a few stories about Indiana Harbor — we didn’t know each other growing up but we knew a lot of the same people. And Indiana Harbor being what it was, there are always stories. Merrill, as usual, was very polite about it all, but I don’t think she quite gets our enthusiasm for an old steel mill city.

And since California is always on fire, we chatted about how they’d been without electricity for 24 hours when the electric company shut off everyone’s power to prevent further conflagrations during a raging thunderstorm. “Were there fires near you?” I asked, and Andy said there are always fires. I guess it’s the new normal.

It turns out that Merrill kept diaries from her youth, and a few years ago she rediscovered them in a box she was sorting through. Many women around her age will remember these diaries — they often were protected by a tiny lock that supposedly could only be opened with a tiny key.

“I wondered what did I do that was so secret I had to keep it under lock and key?” Merrill said. Nothing it turned out, which was a good thing because those locks are very flimsy.

When she began reading the diaries, it was as if they belonged to a stranger.

“I didn’t remember two-thirds of the stuff I’d written,” she said about the years covering elementary school to college, or as Merrill puts it — spelling bees to an acid test party put on by Ken Kesey.

As she read, she drew. Merrill graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a master’s in art with the goal of becoming an art professor. She segued into comedy writing out of necessity.

“It was easier for me to get a job writing for TV than getting a job teaching art,” she said. “It hadn’t occurred to me before then that comedy was a career, that I could be doing stand-up. I had learned at that point I could write jokes, but I wasn’t someone who could write them while walking back and forth on stage in front of an audience. I’d stay home and write them.”

Illustrating her diary excerpts was part of her search into her past.

“I was looking for that spot when I turned into myself,” she said. “Where I wasn’t 12 or 13 years old observing stuff around me and making jokes. But that’s the core of myself — observing, stepping away from it and writing jokes. When I was hospitalized recently, the first thing I did was make a joke.”

Since we’re on the subject of jokes, I ask who her favorite comedians are.

“I can’t say because whoever I leave out will get mad at me,” she said.

How about dead comedians? She’s got a list: Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker who were famous in the 1920s in New York; Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Alley from the days of black and white television in the 1950s; W.C. Fields; Ernie Kovacs; and Lily Tomlin.

I pointed out she was still alive.

“I know, but I couldn’t do what she did with all those characters she played,” she said. And then we talked about how her drawings and diary passages turned into a book.

“I showed it to Andy and some friends, and they said that’s a book,” she said. “I showed it to my agent, and he sold it.”

So what does she, after all this time, think of her younger self?

“I think she was kind of an idiot,” said Merrill. “At least until she moved to Northern California.”

What: Merrill Markoe Virtual Book Event

When: 7 p.m. Dec. 2

What: Merrill Markoe online event

For more information: http://www.bookyaya.com/

Michigan Haunted Lighthouses

Michigan, surrounded by water on three sides, has about 125 lighthouses and of those, 40 or more have a ghost story tied to them are said to be haunted.

The aroma of cigar smoke drifting through the Seul Choix Point Lighthouse in Gulliver, a small fishing village in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is to be expected. After all Lighthouse Keeper Joseph Willie Townshend loved his stogies.

The only problem for those visiting today, Townshend died back in April 1910, his body embalmed in the lighthouse’s basement where in then lay in state in the upstairs parlor for three weeks as his family traveled to pay respects. Then, because the ground was frozen solid—after all the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a cold place in the winter—his body was returned to the basement until spring.

George and Sarah Sheridan. When George was young, he and his siblings watched in horror from the South Manitou Lighthouse where their father was keeper, watched as their parents disappeared during a storm along with their baby brother as they were trying to reach the mainland. The children walked the beaches for days hoping to discover their parents’ bodies but they were never recovered. George would later commit suicide.

“No wonder he haunts the place, right?” asks Dianna Stampfler, author of Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses (Arcadia Publishing), noting that over the decades there have been dozens reports of the smell. “The keeper is clearly enjoying a stogie in the afterlife.”

Michigan, surrounded by water on three sides, has about 125 lighthouses and of those, 40 or more have a ghost story tied to them are said to be haunted.

White River Light. Photo courtesy of Chris Light.

Stampfler, President of Promote Michigan, an independent consulting company specializing in media & public relations, social media and event planning in the hospitality, tourism, entertainment, and culinary industries in Michigan tells the stories of 13 in her book.

Keeper Bill Robinson served 44 years as keeper at the White River Light Station and after dying his ghost remained, frequently walking up the tower steps to tend his light just as he had done in life. Nearly 100 years after his death Sarah Robinson’s ghost joined her husband—and no we don’t know what she was doing during all those years.

Aaron Sheridan.

“The curator of the museum there was dusting in a second story display room when she had to run downstairs to answer the phone,” says Stampfler. “When she returned, her dusting spray and rag had moved from one side of the display case to the other and the dust–which had been there when she left was gone. Now, I don’t want to live with a ghost – but the idea of one that cleans house is interesting.”

Stampfler began researching back in the late 1990s impressed about the stories she was hearing not only for their paranormal factors but also because they were unique stories about the keepers who dedicated their lives to the lighthouses.

” I should note that while the book has many ghost stories, it really is an historical work. There are dates and details about keepers and their families, shipwrecks, local industry and other things going on in the world at the time,” she says. “It’s also been popular with readers of all ages.”

Old Presque Isle. Photo courtesy of Dianna Stampfler.

She also has some advice for those visiting Michigan lighthouses.

“Some people get nervous about haunted places – but let me assure you this isn’t like visiting the house from ‘Amityville Horror’ or ‘The Exorcist’,” says Stampfler. “The paranormal activity at our lighthouses really is really very mild. Footsteps, voices, things moving around without explanation. Really I think it is the keepers who were so dedicated to their jobs that they can’t leave. They love their light so much it will always be their home. Or, for those who died tragically in or near the lights, it may provide the only safe space to them.”

Seul Choix Point Lighthouse. Photo courtesy of Carol Highsmith.

Autographed copies of Stampfler’s book can be purchased online at: www.MiHauntedLighthouses.com

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