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Monday, October 12, 2015

That Dodgy Galwegian

This blog post will conclude the official Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead apology tour.

To my friends in Ireland: I apologize for including a dodgy Irish character. I know you will pick apart the way he speaks and find him inauthentic. My excuse—and I’m sticking with it—is that we are seeing him only as he appears and sounds through the narrator’s young, inexperienced American eyes and ears.

It’s a funny story how the character called Séamus came to be part of Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. Well, funny to me anyway.

I had always promised myself that I would never write a novel in the first person. Maybe I’m just lazy, but it always seemed like too much work to have to write constantly in the voice of a particular character for hundreds of pages. But as I finalized my ideas for my first novel, I realized that I wanted it to be—among other things—something of an homage to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And that meant that it really needed to be narrated by its main character in his own regional voice.

But, I figured, that would be a piece of cake because the story takes place in the time and place where I myself came of age, so this would be a voice that I should know well—or so I thought. When reading over what I had written, I kept finding usages that sounded more like 21st century Ireland than 1970s San Joaquin Valley. Even when I thought I had fixed all of them, my indispensable friend Dayle found more. We went around and around for a long time over the verb “to bring” versus “to take” when applied to a person (as in “he took her shopping”). It turns out “to bring” a person somewhere is a particularly Irish usage of English—and one that I had not even realized I had adopted wholeheartedly. In short, my use of English had been hopelessly affected by all of these years living on the Emerald Isle.

This made the writing a lot more work—and a lot more frustrating—than I had anticipated. So, to amuse myself, I decided to include an Irish character. This was an entirely plausible story detail because you cannot go anywhere in the world without meeting the Irish. They turn up everywhere—even, presumably, in 1970s Mexico. And, in my deluded thinking, I figured that the exercise of actually trying to make a character sound authentically Irish would somehow, by contrast, make it easier to maintain the American sound of my other characters. At least that was theory. In practice, however, it was even more work to make Séamus sound authentically Irish than to keep Dallas and his friend Lonnie sounding like they were from Kern County.

To make it worse, there was the added pressure from the fact that the Irish tend to be extemely critical of Irish characters who do not come off as authentic to them. Not only do American and English actors get roundly slated for bad Irish accents in movie and television roles, but my wife has been known to roast perfectly competent Dublin actors for doing inadequate Connacht accents. Fortunately, it wasn’t as though I had to somehow get vowel sounds just right. After all, you cannot actually hear the accent of a character who exists only on a printed page. But the usage and tone certainly have to be right.

After the book was published, I was on tenterhooks every time I heard from anyone who had read the book and who was Irish. Strangely, to date no one has actually said they found Séamus inauthentic as a globe-trotting Galwegian. To be clear, no one has praised the character as a masterful creation either. Irish readers, at least in my limited sampling, seem to have little reaction to him at all. I would be tempted to attribute this lack of criticism to politeness, but I have never known the Irish to be polite about this sort of thing in any other situation. Even my wife—who I expected to excoriate me over the character because, well, that’s just what she does—had virtually nothing to say about him.

Yes, I would prefer that lots of people were heartily congratulating my on getting the nuances of my Irish character exactly right. But, realistically, I am actually ecstatic to be hearing nothing at all. I have convinced myself that that is actually the highest praise of all.

To everyone I know: I apologize one more time for all the bad words. It won’t happen again.

Hmmm. I may have lied about that one. I really can’t promise I will never again have any sweary characters in anything I ever write again. But I can promise that there will be virtually no expletives in my next book of which, I am happy to note, the first draft was completed over the weekend! And yes, it is written in the third person. And no, there are no Irish characters (or American ones for that matter), although there are characters with Irish names.

And I do not plan to make any apologies about any of it.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Still Aboard the Apology Train

The official Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead apology tour continues.

To my friends in Seattle: I apologize for the misogyny, racism, homophobia, casual acceptance of economic inequality and irresponsible gun use. The characters are most definitely not meant to be role models. Please focus on their character growth, not on their myriad character flaws.

This particular apology was really tongue in cheek. After all, the offenses I enumerated above are, after all, well entrenched features of our popular entertainment. And yet…

I did regret that there are no great female characters in the book. Marisol features somewhat prominently, but mainly as an idealized fantasy in Dallas’s feverish teenage mind. The Pérez family includes some nice women, especially Mama Marta, but they are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. No, this is a guy story told by a guy and about guys. I’m sorry. I’ll make it up in my other writing.

Also, it did concern me that the two main characters’ attitudes toward Mexicans (not even bothering to distinguish between actual Mexicans and Mexican-Americans) could be offensive. But the attitude was true to the characters and to the time and place. And the whole point of the book is how the narrator Dallas has his world view enlarged by actually getting to know Mexicans and Mexican culture, so I’m not sure that an apology is really called for.

Then there is the question of gay characters.

I do not consider myself—or any author of fiction, for that matter—responsible for presenting balanced or positive portrayals of any demographic group. (That’s the job of non-fiction writers and propagandists.) Having said that, however, it did bother me that this particular story resulted in all its portrayals and/or references to gay people being associated with pedophilia. But frankly, in that time and place, that was the only context in which I—and other guys my age that I knew—had any awareness of homosexuality. In the end, I hope that Dallas’s growth on the issue—partly from learning more of the world and partly from dealing with his own instances of sexual confusion—mitigate the thin portrayals.

Anyway, if you want a more deeply diverse set of characters, just wait until I finish my epic novel about 1980s Seattle. None of them will be role models either, but at least they won’t all be seen through the prism of badly behaving rural teenage boys.

Actually, you may not have to wait that long. Now that the end of the first draft of my sword and sorcery tale is actually in sight, I have lately been leaning toward going ahead and taking on a sequel to Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. For a long time all the ideas I worked on in my head for a sequel never seemed quite right. But then I literally had a dream about something I experienced while traveling around in my twenties, and something clicked. I have to believe it is fate because the dream involved a train. And it was a dream about a young woman on a train that inspired Dan Curtis to create the classic 1960s TV show Dark Shadows.

Part of the interest in the sequel for me—and hopefully the reader—will be to see how Dallas has grown and changed in the several years since the first book. One thing will be for sure. He will definitely meet and know a more diverse set of characters.