Friday, December 14, 2018

Darkness Over Puget Sound

There was a time when I not only hoped but expected to have another book out in 2018. After all, I had impressed myself by managing to get Lautaro’s Spear out in 2017 after publishing The Three Towers of Afranor in 2016. I flattered myself that a new book each calendar year might be my new default schedule.

That obviously has not happened, and I will not bore you with the reasons or excuses. On the positive side, I am now about halfway through the first draft of my fourth novel. This was meant to be the fun, easy, throwaway book that was meant mainly to amuse myself. As such, it was not supposed to require huge amounts of time or mental, intellectual or emotional expenditure. It was to be an amuse-bouche or palate cleanser before getting back to the hearty literature of my nearly-accidental Dallas Green trilogy.

I should have learned my lesson with The Three Towers. That was also meant to be an “easy” write which, set in a pure fantasy world, would not even need any research because it was all being made up out of whole cloth. Yet that one did not actually see the light of day until about two years exactly after the previous book. That probably had more to do with what was going on my life than the book’s subject matter, but it may have also been related to a sense of decompression—if not mental exhausation—after finishing Maximilian and Carlotta. Something similar may have been going on in the wake of Lautaro’s Spear.

For an unbearably long time I was mired in the first couple of chapters, trying to get the characters and the tone as right as I could. The writing and rewriting was probably necessary in the long run, but the eventual breakthrough only came by taking to heart the wise words of novelist Richard Bausch, whom I quoted here in April: “When you’re stuck, lower your standards and keep going.” I overcame my tendency to not move on from a chapter until it was “perfect” and just started plowing through. That was much better for my output and a lot more gratifying. The worry, of course, is that I will end up going back, perusing it, and finding that it is all unreadable rubbish.

The old rule of thumb for writing novels is that the first fifty pages are the hardest, and that is once again proved true. Since getting past that amazingly important milestone, it has been clear sailing. It is a bit of an exaggeration to say that the book is now writing itself, but that is what it feels like. Plot turns and twists seem to occur organically, as if I am channeling someone else’s story. The characters take on their own inner lives. I am looking ahead and seeing plot threads magically weaving around each other and coming together nicely. The other day the final paragraphs of the book came to me, as if delivered on a silver platter, so I know definitely what I am writing toward. Critically, in between writing sessions, I can scarcely wait to get back to it. That is a feeling I have to bear now for a few weeks since the holidays will necessarily leave little time for daily writing. Fortunately, the timing is not too bad because I have paused at a natural breaking place, and I need to be working out further plot details in my head anyway.

Even though this book is another fantasy, I have had to engage in a surprising amount of research. Unlike The Three Towers, this one takes place in the “real” world—specifically the region around Seattle, which I happily know well. There are flashbacks, though, that have sent me scurrying to be knowledgeable not only about Pacific Northwest history but also that of 17th century England and Ireland. Somehow I have even managed to bring in the area where I currently live and in a way that I feel works quite well for the story.

As I have said before, this is my homage to the Gothic and supernatural stories that delighted me in my misspent youth. Specifically, it shamelessly but lovingly reworks many of the elements of my beloved adolescent object of fascination, the TV series Dark Shadows, while aiming to be something original. It also veers self-consciously in the most opposite direction possible to the adolescent-male-infused world of Maximilian and Carlotta. (By the way, did anyone actually catch the deliberate Dark Shadows reference I incongruously placed in my first novel?)

There is something wonderful in being at this point in the creative process. Most of the hard work is either behind or ahead of me. It is now thoughts of my current story that flood my brain in idle moments—instead of images for the third Dallas book, as was the case until a couple of months ago. Most delightfully, during this relatively short—and no doubt temporary—span of time, this feels as though it is going to be the best book I have ever written.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Stan the Man (1922-2018)

FYI: This is a cross-post on both my book and movie blogs.

My phone beeped with the alert as I was in throes of writing. After effectively putting my fourth book to one side for the summer and early autumn, I was finally back at it. I was once again back in the zone—that strange mental space one enters after about fifty pages or so, where the characters take on distinct lives of their own and their story has developed its own self-fueling momentum. It is a time when you fight against distractions and become anti-social. You block out the outside world as best you can.

But suddenly there it was on my phone screen.

Stan Lee, the comic book writer and editor who co-created Spider-Man, the Avengers and the X-Men, dies at age 95

How sad yet fitting, for me personally, that the man who was the preeminent role model of my youth should pass away just as I was once again in a delightfully creative moment of my life. If only I had a fraction of the creativity of the many writers I admire. And their number definitely includes Stan Lee.

The first comic book I ever bought with my allowance money was an issue of Popeye the Sailor at a drug store in Pismo Beach, California. I soon moved on to the superheroes of DC Comics—names that still grace our screens and comic book stores: Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern. As oft told here, it was my best friend Eric who turned me on to the new comic books from a publisher called Marvel. Loyal by nature, I stuck with my DC titles for a while, and my pal and I engaged in a friendly rivalry over which were superior. Soon enough, though, Eric and Marvel had prevailed, and Superman, his female cousin, his super-dog and the rest of his growing family were left by the wayside. As an artist himself, Eric could see what was still opaque to me. The pencil-and-ink illustrators of Marvel had formed heroes with weight and stature and made them move and do battle in a way that was cinematic. It looked and felt much more real than the brighter-colored, two-dimensional panels of DC.

As the writer, I could tell there was something much more interesting going on with the stories. The heroes were not generic adults like Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. They had specific ages and lived in specific places—well, a specific place anyway. They all lived in New York City, and the city was geographically real and culturally alive. No generic Metropolis or Gotham City for Marvel. Rather than being consistently stalwart, Marvel’s heroes had problems and complexes. Peter Parker was miserable in high school, had a crush on a girl with no interest in him, and suffered constant guilt over his doting but elderly Aunt May. Reed Richards, who had graying temples and was a veteran of WWII, was a bookish scientist from somewhere posh. His unlikely best friend Ben Grimm was a tough, wise-cracking, street-wise guy. The heroes, their friends and families, and all the supporting players were real, identifiable people.

Lee and his most celebrated collaborator, Jack Kirby, were real people to us readers and fans as well. Because of Lee and Marvel, Eric and I wrote and drew our own amateur comic books. We talked endlessly of going to New York and working for Marvel. For years I wanted nothing more than to be Stan Lee. I took it as some kind of cosmic sign that he and I had the same initials.

The back of the comic books always had a newsletter or a “soapbox” written by Lee or maybe his secretary, Flo Steinberg. That’s right, we even knew his admin. Think of it as a prehistoric precursor to blogging. Not only did we know Lee and the others personally but, in what is apparently a New York thing (which future President Trump would take to new, more biting levels), everyone had a nickname: Jumpin’ Jack Kirby, Gentleman Gene Colan, Wild Bill Everett, Fearless Frank Giacoia, Jazzy Johnny Romita, Marvel-ous Marie Severin, Joltin’ Joe Sinnott, Fabulous Flo Steinberg.

When I wrote a fan letter asking for an autograph, it was only a matter of weeks before a sheet of Marvel stationary came back with Lee and Kirby’s signatures scrawled on it. When I submitted my own comic book script, Flo’s rejection letter was respectful and encouraging. When an official fan club was started, I was a charter member. Along with the badge and membership card came a round bit of flexible plastic that could be played on a turntable like a vinyl 45. That is how I got to know Stan Lee’s distinctive voice and would be able to recognize it instantly when it was heard in the eventual big-screen movie adaptations where, by contract, he always had a cameo.

The movies—the really good ones—were a long time coming (due to various legal entanglements), but they were worth waiting for. By that time, really great directors like Sam Raimi, Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon, Ryan Coogler and many others were the right age to have grown up as fans themselves or at least have a proper appreciation for the universe Lee et al. had created.

There were some hard feelings over the years about the way Stan Lee got the bulk of the credit for Marvel’s creative success and, in fairness, the collaborations did rest heavily on the illustrators. Lee and the artist would work out the stories in general, but the artists would come up with the detailed story panel-by-panel, adding the immediate dramatic touches. Then Lee would come along and add the dialog. Consequently virtuosos like Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Buscema, Johnny Romita and Jim Steranko definitely deserve equal credit. Yet there is something impressive about Lee’s consistent creative involvement with so many varied, diverse characters and the rich voices he gave them that make his contribution special.

In one of his soapboxes in the 1960s, Lee told of his excitement at meeting legendary French director Alain Resnais. The two became friends and even collaborated on possible movie projects. The Monster Maker got the closest to production but, sadly, was never made.

Lee also wrote about how he adopted the pseudonym (later legal) name Stan Lee for his comic book credits because he was saving his birth name, Stanley Martin Lieber, for his “serious” writing. Like many of us, he had youthful dreams of writing the Great American Novel. He never wrote his The Sun Also Rises or whatever it was he had in mind but, by the end of his 95 years, in addition to his amazing comic book output, he had been involved in numerous graphic novels and other books, including the memoirs Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee (with George Mair) and Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir (with Peter David).

Perhaps Stan Lee’s greatest creation was himself. The Onion had it pretty much right in its spot-on satirical headline: “Stan Lee, Creator of Beloved Marvel Character Stan Lee, Dead at 95.”

Stan “The Man” Lee has moved on to the great comic book beyond, where he joins his beloved Joan, his bride from 1947 to 2017.

Famously, Lee invariably ended his missives with the immortal catchphrase “’Nuff said!” While we are fortunate to have had him for nine and a half decades, when it comes to his imagination, humor and bringing joy to millions, there will definitely never be ’nuff said.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

What’s in a Name?

Once I get caught up on all my other reading, I plan to re-read a book on my shelf which is called Turtles All the Way Down. Have you heard of it?

If you said yes, then you probably fell into my trap. I’m guessing that you thought to yourself, yes, that’s the new book by best-selling YA author John Green. You are not wrong, of course, but the book I have on my shelf, which is indeed called Turtles All the Way Down, is not by John Green.

What are the odds that even one book would have that title—let alone two of them? What does the title even mean anyway? Thanks to the internet, that question is pretty easy to answer. It is an expression of infinite regress. The idea is that ancient Hindu mythology conceived of the world as the earth being supported on the back of a turtle. That turtle stood on the back of a larger turtle. And so did that turtle. And so on ad infinitum. It’s a pretty clever idea for a title really. It’s unusual and intriguing and perhaps gets people curious to read the book if only to find out what the title means.

That may very well be the reason that, in an Irish bookstore a couple of decades ago, I decided to pick up the book. Published in 1997 and written by Gaye Shortland, Turtles All the Way Down is narrated by Tony, who is what you might call a free spirit—in a pretty literal sense. You see, before the book even begins, Tony is dead and cremated. In fact, he was dead and cremated even before Shortland’s previous novel, to which Turtles All the Way Down is a sequel. That one was called Mind That ’Tis My Brother, which is Tony’s brother Liam’s admonition to someone who insists on inspecting the urn he is carrying from London to Cork. A blurb promotes the book thusly: “A lethal mixture of sex, religion and MTV, Mind That has been described by Gaye’s then-teenaged daughter as ‘not very healthy but a good laugh.’ ”

That is why I am revisiting the book. No, not because of the religion and sex and MTV (well, not entirely anyway) but because it is about Cork. The characters are Corkonians. The language is pure Corkese. It was nearly impenetrable when I perused the book the first time. Written quasi-phonetically, it nearly needs to be read out loud to be understood—at least for a non-Corkonian. After a couple of decades’ exposure to various Irish accents, however, and several visits to the Cork Film Festival and watching movies like The Young Offenders and its spinoff TV series as well as Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, I may finally be getting a handle on Rebel City patois. You see, in a fit of questionable judgment, I have decided to make one of the main characters in my fourth novel a Corkonian. Am I mad or what? Will I be able to pull it off? Probably not. In any event, it is fun trying to get my head around the lingo anyway.

The book does have a working title, which may turn out to be the final title. We’ll see. It is kind of long, which is a disappointment since I tried to swear off long titles after Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead which, as far as I know, is the only book with that title. One thing is for sure, I will definitely not be calling the new book Turtles All the Way Down. For one thing, it would make absolutely no sense. For another, unlikely as it may be, there are already two books with that title. Of course, I could use that title if I actually did want to.

As I am sure John Green—and virtually every other published author—knows, you cannot copyright a title.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Forever Young

I have to ask the question. What is the deal with YA books?

In the literary market, the Young Adult segment is huge. This appears to go back to the phenomenon of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. She is an author who seemingly kicked off a whole renaissance in young people becoming avid readers, and cheers to her for that. The YA label, however, apparently dates from the 1960s. Books like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and the novels of S.E. Hinton struck a chord with and found an audience among teenagers, but the YA category really took off with Rowling, followed by many other authors writing stand-alone books and books in series aimed at the teen audience.

My interest is, of course, a self-centered one. Am I a YA author? The question is not purely academic. Whenever I register one of my works for publishing or for copyright or with a bookseller, I am required to designate one or more fiction categories, e.g. romance, adventure, historical. The choice of YA is always there, which is a bit confusing since, properly speaking, YA is not a genre like the other choices. A book is not either YA or romance. It can be both at the same time. YA refers to the target market rather than the its literary pigeonhole. In the case of The Three Towers of Afranor, I did designate it as YA because I had teen readers in mind while writing it. In the case of Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead, I did not designate it as YA because, even though the protagonists are teenagers, I did not have a teen audience specifically in mind while writing it. In fact, there were things in it that I did not particularly want my own teenager reading until she was at least a bit older.

Even with The Three Towers I had some hesitation in putting the YA label on it. In my mind literature is literature and the readership is self-selecting. How would Mark Twain have answered if asked whether The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was intended for a YA audience? I suspect he would have laughed and perhaps not even understood the point of the question.

What is YA actually meant to be? My understanding is that there is literature, and you are either old enough to appreciate a given book or you are not. Then there is children’s literature, which consists of books written specifically to be accessible to younger minds. Children’s books are micro-targeted since there are very distinct differences in reading and comprehension abilities from one year of a child’s life to another. Teen or Young Adult literature appears meant to bridge the gap between books aimed squarely at children and “real” literature. The funny thing, though, is that we all probably know people well into their 20s and even 30s who admit to reading and enjoying YA fiction. So what is the practical difference between YA literature and “adult” literature?

I think my own hesitation to use the YA label is that it represents some sort of ghetto, albeit a potentially very lucrative ghetto. The “young” in Young Adult gives the impression that these books have some sort of virtual training wheels, that some of life’s rougher edges have been smoothed down in deference to still-maturing minds. If you actually peruse some popular YA titles, though, you quickly learn that there isn’t as much smoothing going on as you might have thought. Gender confusion, sexual experiences, rape and other violence, drugs, and the whole panoply of current social issues all get treated. After all, life does not shelter teens from these realities, so why should their literature?

So again, why call it “YA literature” instead of just “literature.” Is it because one assumes that people are interested in reading only about characters who are roughly the same age as they are? That seems strange to me. While I am delighted at the thought that teen readers might enjoy and relate to the characters in Maximilian and Carlotta, my expectation is that the book may actually be of more interest to people my own age, i.e. people who were Dallas and Lonnie’s age at the time the book is set. Hopefully, though, that would not be the extent of its appeal. Otherwise all novels would have an expiration date at the point in time where there are no longer readers contemporary with the characters.

I suppose what it comes down to is my nagging suspicion that the YA designation is really just calling certain works “literature lite,” that YA is somehow inferior to or less serious than “real” literature. Is YA perhaps a variation on what has traditionally been called “popular fiction”: works that people consume and enjoy but which will never be taught in any English class?

At the end of the day, the best way to understand YA is a as marketing device—and I do not mean that negatively. Publishing is, after all, a business. A lot of people are making a lot of money by serving the YA market—and more power to them. Personally, I would prefer to concentrate strictly on the writing and not worry about the labels and categories. And that is essentially what I am doing. Still, once I (finally) finish the next book, I will be required once again to choose labels to apply to it and these questions will again plague my mind.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Proving Thomas Wolfe Wrong

It’s hard to believe that it has been more than fourteen months since Lautaro’s Spear was released. After this amount of time, you may even been wondering if it is not time for the next book to come out. You are free to continue wondering. It has been a busy summer and, indeed, a busy year. Yet hope springs eternal that I will soon, finally, return to writing.

One way my time has been used this summer was to journey back to the home country. By that I mean the West Coast of the United States. It was my first time in California and Washington since 2011, which is to say, since well before any of my three books were published. So it was interesting to go back and visit some of the places I had written about in Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead and Lautaro’s Spear and to see them in the new light of settings for works of fiction. Hence the cheeky title to this post, a reference to an early-20th-century novelist’s book You Can’t Go Home Again. Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) is definitely not to be confused with the later novelist and practitioner of New Journalism Tom Wolfe, who died in May at the age of 88 and whose works included The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities. That’s a mistake I made for an embarrassingly long period of time in my youth.

So I was able to go home again. Except that I wasn’t—at least if you think of home as not just a place but rather as a time and place. Everything was different, yet in a lot of ways it was the same. Since it was July my hometown was, well, as my protagonist Dallas says in the very first chapter of Max & Carly, “If you ever spent a summer in the San Joaquin Valley, you know it’s f***ing hot.” That hadn’t changed. It was indeed right around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). The people from my youth were all, of course, older or gone, and there were new people. One thing that had not changed, though, was the high temperatures. I didn’t mind. After so many years in cool and wet climates, it was a nice change. Besides, it was part of being home.

I drove down Chester Avenue in Bakersfield, just as Dallas and his best friend Lonnie would have done back at the beginning of the 1970s. It wasn’t the same, though. I don’t know if teenagers in Bakersfield and the surrounding area still cruise Chester. “I didn’t know who his friends were,” says Dallas in that same first chapter, talking about an older friend, Tommy Dowd, whose disappearance a couple of years earlier sets the plot in motion. “It didn’t seem like he did any normal things that a guy does. He never got drunk or went cruising down Chester Avenue.”

Bakersfield has done a lot of growing since I lived in the area. It has expanded way out toward the west, and that seems to be where the action is these days. Do teenagers now cruise in that part of town? Who knows? My recent drive down Chester wasn’t on a Friday night, so who’s to say? Anyway, kids, if you want to get an idea of what I’m talking about, go watch George Lucas’s American Graffiti. The good news about Bakersfield is that there are still great Basque restaurants, Mexican restaurants and Dewar’s Candy Shop, the best soda and ice cream parlor in the world.

Like Dallas in Lautaro’s Spear, we made a transition from the southern San Joaquin Valley to San Francisco. This would have been my first occasion to return to that special city since sometime in the previous century. I didn’t have time to look for what might have been Dalla’s old apartment in the South of Market district—if it even would have still been there. We did however, spend time around Union Square where he and Lonnie’s old girlfriend Linda went to a fancy restaurant for dinner. I don’t think that area has changed all that much except for maybe all the gleaming high-tech coffee places catering to business people and tech employees. We even drove up and down Russian Hill, but there wasn’t time to look for the mysterious house where Dallas was entertained by the enigmatic Marty with his glasses of outrageously priced scotch and his smuggled Cuban cigars.

Unlike Dallas, we did actually manage to leave San Francisco and go to Seattle. The fact that, more than once, Dallas makes plans to go to Seattle but never does is something I included in Lautaro’s Spear purely to amuse myself. It’s perhaps the one clear thing I can point to in order to prove to certain curious readers that Dallas and I are not the same person. And we are not. We really, really are not.

If Dallas never makes it to Seattle, that does not mean I do not get to include the Puget Sound area in my fiction. My next book is set in Seattle. Well, it starts out in Seattle anyway. From there it moves to the San Juan Islands and then to all kinds of other dimensions and worlds and time eras and who knows what else. Did I mention that it was a supernatural fantasy?

When you can’t go home again, you just start making places up.

Friday, June 29, 2018

R.I.P. Cordwainer Bird

FYI: This is a cross-post on both my book and movie blogs.

It is always sad when a great talent, who has been contributor to our culture for years, passes away. So it is with the writer Harlan Ellison, who has died in Los Angeles at the age of 84. The impact for me is just that bit greater when it so happens, as is the case with Ellison, I actually met the man once.

In my ill-spent youth in California’s San Joaquin Valley, my best friend Eric and I had dreams of writing and drawing comic books. When we were in high school, we met Ed and Jake who had a similar dream but, being a couple of years older than us, they had taken their dream quite a bit further. For a while the four of us had a great time reading each others’ comics, throwing around ideas and making grand plans for super-heroes and fantasy storylines. This culminated in the four of us making a journey down to Los Angeles for my first-ever attendance at a science fiction convention. For a small-town kid like myself with an overactive imagination, it was heaven. There were well-known sci-fi authors everywhere, panel discussions, exhibits of props and costumes from our favorite movies and TV shows. Naturally enough, there was a heavy emphasis on the original Star Trek series, which had only gone off the air a couple of years earlier.

Of all the people we met there, the one that stood out and has always stuck in my memory was Harlan Ellison. I don’t know if I would actually have recognized him, but upon running into him, Ed went crazy like the total fanboy he was. As we blocked his way and chattered away incoherently, the diminutive author (he never quite achieved 5'3") stared up at us two giants (both a full 6'4") and muttered, “Well, a couple of all-American boys.” His attitude was brash and sarky but not unfriendly. For years to come I would laugh whenever I would (frequently) hear of some outrage the writer caused with his prickly manner and bulldog stubbornness. After all, I had gotten my own brief glimpse of it.

As a wannabe writer myself, I saw him as something of a role model. He was working for all the people I wanted to work for. A promising early job with Walt Disney Productions was cut short, though, when he had the bad timing to joke about—and act out—in the studio commissary the idea of a Disney porn flick—within earshot of Roy Edward Disney.

He was a prolific writer of short stories and novels and oft-heralded by the Hugos, the Nebulas and the Writer’s Guild. Perhaps his best known title is the 1969 novella A Boy and His Dog, which was adapted into a 1975 movie starring a very young Don Johnson. He was also a prolific contributor to television shows. He wrote journeyman teleplays for the likes of Burke’s Law and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., but of course his writing really shone when writing for The Outer Limits, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Star Trek, for which he penned the famous City on the Edge of Forever episode, which featured Joan Collins and which Gene Roddenberry insisted on having rewritten to make it less dark. To Ellison’s further ire, Roddenberry would not allow him to replace his own name with that of his customary nom de plume for projects he wanted to be dis-associated from: Cordwainer Bird. Ellison’s Hitchcock episode was “Memo from Purgatory,” which was based on his own experience, at 20, of infiltrating an inner-city gang for research purposes. It starred James Caan.

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Ellison was a lifelong advocate of gun control. He was credited with convincing DC Comics’s publisher, with a phone call, to end its practice of running ads for BB guns. He also took filmmaker James Cameron to court and won, forcing the director to add Ellison’s name to the credits of The Terminator after the author insisted that the plot was similar to one of his stories.

Ellison was friends with fellow sci-fi writer J. Michael Straczynski and had a credit as “conceptual consultant” for JMS’s TV series Babylon 5 throughout its run. He also wrote the stories for the episodes “A View from the Gallery” and “Objects in Motion.” Not only that but he provided the voices for Sparky the Computer and the comedian Zooty, as well as appearing in a walk-on as a Psi-Cop. One of the great things about being a B5 fan was that JMS was an early pioneer in communicating regularly with fans on the internet, so we got a lot of interesting background anecdotes about B5 in detail. None were more entertaining than the ones about Harlan and his escapades.

I refer to Ellison as a science fiction writer advisedly, as I understand he did not like that term. He preferred to be described as a fantasist. On that topic, he once said, “Call me a science fiction writer and I’ll come to your house and nail your pet’s head to the table.” Here’s another of his choice quotes, about working in Hollywood: “This town is filled with weasels and wormers and people who will stab you in the front if they can’t reach your back.” And another: “The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen… and stupidity.”

I could dine on his bons mots all day. Here he is on popular science fiction: “Star Wars is adolescent nonsense; Close Encounters of the Third Kind is obscurantist drivel; Star Trek can turn your brains to purée of bat guano; and the greatest science-fiction series of all time is Doctor Who! And I’ll take you all on, one-by-one or in a bunch, to back it up!” Perhaps his most self-aware comment: “My role in life is to be a burr under the saddle. I didn’t pick that for myself, it just happens that’s the way I am.”

The difference, of course, is that when the burr is gone, we usually do not wish that it was still there.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Children of the Revolution

“Time is running out for Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega,” proclaims a headline in The Economist. “Nicaraguan students whose families fought with Daniel Ortega to oust the Somozas now lead a rebellion against Ortega’s own family dynasty,” a sub-head in The Wall Street Journal informs us.

Things are clearly unsettled in the Central American nation. Seeing the name Daniel Ortega back in the news again evokes interesting memories for me. Some of those memories found their way, in a literary guise, into my first novel Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. If you have read the book, then you know that the narrative does not lead my protagonist Dallas Green to Nicaragua, but it does take him up to and over the Mexico-Guatemala border. Along the way he becomes mixed up with a couple of political activists, one from California and the other from Galway. While those characters are completely invented, the American one (Peter) was at least partly inspired by people I knew in Seattle in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Here’s the background. When I was young and naive, I went to work for a weekly suburban newspaper. What I did not realize until I had been there awhile was that there was a unionization effort well underway by employees in my department. Because I was new and apparently unoffensive to management, I was persuaded to represent the prospective new bargaining unit in labor negotiations. Following a vote to unionize, I was elected the union representative. At this point the boyfriend of a co-worker latched onto me, convinced that I was some sort of firebrand of the workers’ rebellion. This fellow was an unabashed political leftist keen to find foot soldiers for his various projects. One such project was reading international news items with a non-American, non-corporate slant five evenings a week on a non-profit, community-based radio station, Seattle’s legendary KRAB. An even more interesting project my friend got me involved in was a voluntary technical effort to help modernize the Nicaraguan banking system. No, really.

In 1979 Sandinista rebels had overthrown the Somoza dictatorship and established a revolutionary government. A member of the new ruling junta was Daniel Ortega, the same man who is now Nicaragua’s president and who is currently facing mass student-led rebellion in response to cutbacks necessitated by the government’s financial mismanagement. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at least 127 people have been killed and 1,000 injured in the crack-down on anti-government protests that began in April. Four decades ago, though, Ortega was one of the young revolutionaries who had found themselves newly in charge of their country. One of the many challenges they faced was an antiquated banking system in which remote branches could not efficiently communicate with the capital Managua. That was what I got drafted for. The fact that I was learning to program at work and knew Spanish from having lived in Chile made me an near-ideal candidate.

While the Reagan administration was supporting Contra rebels to undermine the Sandinistas, I was writing code—and others were playing with shortwave radios—to build a packet-based transmission system to bypass Nicaragua’s lack of wired infrastructure. Personally, I looked at it more as a technical challenge than a political cause. The work we did was passed on to other volunteers, who took it to Nicaragua. I have no idea how much, if any, ended up being used in any practical way down there. One volunteer I met briefly along the way went down to build a rural hydroelectric facility. Unfortunately, it was located in the northern Contra war zone, and he was killed in an ambush at the age of 27. Enthusiasm for our project was already on the wane even before the Sandinistas were thrown out of government in an election in 1990.

The story in Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead takes place several years before I had any (long-distance) involvement of my own in Central American politics, but my experiences in the 1980s—along with campus politics during my university days—were good research into how the American leftist mind works. While there may have been some wry hindsight humor in the way I portrayed Peter and Séamus, I hope I was fair to their point of view. The older and more cynical I get, though, the more I tend to think that revolutions are not really about ideology at all. In practice, by my observation anyway, revolutionaries are ultimately less concerned with the actual order of the social hierarchy than whether the right people are at the top.

Still, those who roll up their sleeves and get involved in the trenches deserve a certain amount of respect. The fates of Charles Horman in Chile in 1973 (subject of the Costa-Gavras film Missing) and Ben Linder in Nicaragua in 1987 are stark reminders that idealistic activism is not without its risks. As you may have guessed, they were both inspirations for my character Tommy Dowd, who meets a similar fate in my fiction.