Local novelist Deborah Coonts finds success

Like most aspiring novelists, Deborah Coonts tried taking the advice of others who, presumably, already have been published.

Write the story you’d like to read. Write what you know. That sort of thing.

But Coonts’ literary breakthrough came when she decided to ignore such well-meaning suggestions and simply follow her own instincts.

The result: Lucky O’Toole, the 30ish head of customer relations for the Babylon hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, who has a wry sense of humor, a female impersonator for a best friend and an unerring tendency to become involved in the weirdest situations.

Lucky is the heroine of “Wanna Get Lucky?” Coonts’ first novel and the charter entry in a series that deftly smushes together the genres of murder mystery, social satire, chick lit and flat-out humor in one tidy, Vegas-based package.

Coonts, speaking by cell phone from New York City where she was attending a booksellers event, says she’s excited, awestruck and humbled by the publication of her first novel. And when the book hit the shelves May 11, it confirmed the truism that, whenever an author seems to experience overnight success, he or she has “been working at it a lot longer than most people realize,” Coonts says.

“Wanna Get Lucky?” actually was her third full-length manuscript, Coonts notes. “The first one was published by Kinko’s and is in my desk drawer, and I’d rather have naked pictures on the Internet than have anybody read that one.”

That one — a product of Coonts heeding the “write what you’d like to read” dictum — revolved around international intrigue and romance and was, Coonts says, “a piece of junk.”

Then, Coonts gave the “write what you know” dictum a shot. “At the time, I was a single parent of a 4-year-old practicing tax law in Colorado. Please, who wants to read that?”

Actually, the legal thriller that resulted was, Coonts concedes, better. Then, finally, Coonts decided to simply follow her instincts.

“I think, as writers, we all have things that really play to our strengths, and I don’t think I was smart enough to know what my strength was,” she explains. “And it wasn’t until I started writing a humor column for an aviation magazine that I sort of found my home.

“I sort of have a weird, semiwarped, wicked view of the world, and when I wrote humor, it was fun and I enjoyed it. So when I sat down and wrote ‘Wanna Get Lucky?’ I just threw the rules out the window.”

It was then that Coonts found a publisher who liked the character of Lucky and the novel’s offbeat wit. In fact, when Coonts asked her publisher what he liked about the book, the answer was Lucky’s “view of the world, and her one-liners and her ability to handle her job and her inability to handle her life, and her vulnerabilities. So he really liked the character.

“So, I was just lucky it worked. They’re very enthusiastic about the story, and they’ve done all they can to help put it in people’s hands, which is, as a first-time novelist, all I can hope for. The story has to do the rest.”

Lucky’s first adventure begins when a woman falls from a helicopter into Treasure Island’s lagoon during an evening pirate show. Meanwhile, an adult film convention and a swinger’s convention are taking place at her hotel, and Lucky finds her hands full with potential love interests, her brothel madam mother, a mysterious new hotel security hire, her own assistant who seems to be developing cougarish tendencies, and, oh yes, an anaconda.

The second and third entries in the series — already written, Coonts says, and awaiting publication — will include a shark-assisted murder at Mandalay Bay, the auctioning off of a young woman’s virginity at a Pahrump brothel, a UFO convention and a magician who really disappears.

Coonts is having a great time utilizing her Las Vegas setting to the fullest. Las Vegas is, she explains, “where humanity comes out to play,” and “it’s fun to watch how it plays out bigger than life in Las Vegas.”

Coonts moved to Las Vegas 10 years ago and admits that “I’m in love with the city.” So, rather than mining the usual downbeat vein of Las Vegas fiction, “I want to write about the fun stuff — the magic and the entertainment and the 45 million people a year who come here and don’t ruin their lives, and have a wonderful time and want to come back.”

Las Vegas is “a character in the book, that’s for sure,” Coonts adds. And, by virtue of Lucky’s job — which can put her into contact with practically anybody — Lucky may well be the perfect Las Vegas protagonist.

Nor does it hurt that Coonts has plopped Lucky into a city in which just about anything can happen. In fact, such plot points as a virginity auction sound absurd until one realizes that, oh yeah, they’ve actually happened.

“If I made this stuff up, people would ridicule me,” Coonts agrees. “But it’s real, and that whole truth is stranger than fiction (saying)? Las Vegas is a perfect example of that.”

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Here are some other recently released books by Southern Nevada authors or that deal with themes that might be of interest to Southern Nevadans.

“A Heart Attack Survivor’s Guide to a Long, Healthy Life” by Nelson Anderson (Sunbelt Publications, $17.95 ) is by a Las Vegas science teacher who suffered a major heart attack at age 29 and tells of the lessons learned from his journey back.

“Raw Edges: A Memoir” by Phyllis Barber (University of Nevada Press, $26.95) chronicles the end of the author’s 33-year-long marriage and the changes and challenges — including having to reconcile her divorce with the idealistic Mormon vision of marriage she had held — that followed.

“Morris As Elvis: Take a Chance on Life,” a memoir by Morris Bates, with Jim Brown (Fox Music Books, $34.95), includes reminiscences of Las Vegas by Bates, “the world’s greatest Elvis impersonator,” whose venues here included Vegas World, the Landmark and the Silver Slipper.

“Vanishing Village: The Struggle for Community in the New West” (CityLife Books, $14.95) by retired University of Nevada, Las Vegas communications professor Evan Blythin explores the life, times and ways of Blue Diamond, the village in which he lives.

“About a Mountain” (W.W. Norton & Co., $23.95) is essayist John D’Agata’s exploration of Las Vegas, in which the author begins with Yucca Mountain and spirals out to what some hereabouts considered questionable conclusions.

“Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of Southern Nevada” by Shawn Hall (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99 for the book, companion postcards for $7.99) is the Tonopah author’s photo-packed look at Southern Nevada’s boom-and-bust civic casualties.

“Angel in Vegas: The Chronicles of Noah Sark” by Norma Howe (Candlewick Press, $16.99) is a comedic satire that involves, among other things, a teenager who thinks he’s a guardian angel, Princess Diana and a strange sojourn in Las Vegas.

“Mac King’s Campfire Magic: 50 Amazing, Easy-to-Learn Tricks and Mind-Blowing Stunts Using Cards, String, Pencils and Other Stuff From Your Knapsack” (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, $12.95) is exactly what the title says, and just in time for summer. (By the way: Bill King did the illustrations, and Lewis the Monkey assists.)

“A Mother’s Story: Memories from the Turtle Creek Valley” (iUniverse, $14.96) is a memoir by Las Vegas author Maryann B. Lawrence that spans growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, marriage during World War II, motherhood in the ’50s and, then, retirement and beyond.

“PokerWoman: How to Win at Love, Life and Business Using the Principles of Poker” by New York City business consultant and poker coach Ellen Leikind ( Mary Ann Liebert Inc., $24) translates the principles of the venerable card game to real life.

“How to Get From There to Here: One Man’s Triumph Over Addictions, Obesity and Being Down-and-Out” (Emerald Book Co., $19.95 ) is Henderson chef/businessman Jay Littmann’s memoir of battling demons and coming out victorious on the other side.

“Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes” by Douglas Wellman (WriteLife, $10.95) is the story of Eva McLelland, who claims to have been Hughes’ wife during the period when most of the world — mistakenly, according to McLelland — assumed the enigmatic billionaire to be an emaciated recluse.

“Nora’s Ark” (Dorrance Publishing Co., $19 ) is a post-Bushian political thriller by Boulder City resident Linda Monilaws that includes feminist and historical themes.

“The Complete Book of Polymer Clay” by Lisa Pavelka (The Taunton Press, $24.95) is the Las Vegas-based artist and writer’s latest book about clay artistry techniques. Also included are six original projects to try at home.

“Cheat the Grave” (EOS, $7.99) is the fifth entry in Las Vegas author Vicki Pettersson’s “Signs of the Zodiac” series featuring a newly mortal Joanna Archer dealing with a stalking madman and, as always, a Vegas “underworld” that has nothing to do with the Mafia.

“Under the Neon Sky: A Las Vegas Doorman’s Story” (Jay Rankin Publishing, $14.99 ) offers Jay Rankin’s stories of six years spent as a graveyard shift doorman at the MGM Grand.

“Lay the Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling” (Spiegel & Grau, $25) is a first-person account of author Beth Raymer’s experiences in the world of high-stakes sports gambling, both here in Las Vegas and elsewhere.

“More Peoples of Las Vegas: One City, Many Faces,” edited by Jerry L. Simich and Thomas C. Wright (University of Nevada Press, $29.95), continues and expands upon the exploration of the ethnic communities that make Southern Nevada tick begun in 2005’s seminal “The Peoples of Las Vegas.”

“Catalina Avenue” by Las Vegas author Phyllis Skalak (PublishAmerica, $16.95) is a novel, set during the 1920s, the Depression, World War II and beyond, that follows two Minnesota sisters who run off to California after their father dies in a farm accident.

“Going Through Ghosts” by Mary Sojourner (University of Nevada Press, $25) is a novel about pain and loss that begins when a middle-aged cocktail waitress in a rundown Southern Nevada casino befriends a Native American co-worker.

“Free Money” by Reno author Barry M. Vass (Rio Norte Press, $19.95 ) is a novel, set in part in Las Vegas, about a “free money” scheme that turns out not to be so “free” after all.

“It All Comes Down to W.E (work ethic)” by Las Vegas human resources veteran Linda Westcott-Bernstein ( LJB Consulting LLC, $16.95), who examines the components and power of a solid work ethic.

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