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.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Mud in Your Eye

On my movie blog I like to joke that I write my film reviews and commentaries—especially the ones dealing with the Academy Awards—while drunk. I am sure some (most?) readers believe it is true, not least because of the quality of the writing or the frequency of typos. I am sure that my latest commentary, which discussed how UK drink driving laws were threatening the closure of a film landmark in northern Scotland, did nothing to dispel the notion.
Where the magic happens
The image of the dipsomaniac writer is well ingrained in the popular view of authors. Ernest Hemingway, for example, was known to be a prodigious drinker, and it is difficult not to notice that novels like The Sun Also Rises seem to be chronicles of one drinking session after another. Indeed the number of celebrated writers who had reputations as serial imbibers, if not full-blown alcoholics, includes such renowned figures as F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Edgar Allen Poe, Dorothy Parker, Dylan Thomas and Tennessee Williams. The list goes on and on, and never mind the ones truly legendary for their exploits in substance abuse like Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson.

There are so many great talents who apparently drank all the time that one wonders whether or not it is entirely coincidental. Is it possible that alcohol can actually unleash one’s creative potential? It is a thesis I have willing to test. Especially since my wife gave me the generous gift last Christmas of a very dear Irish whiskey called Writer’s Tears. Can there be a better name for a bottle of spirits? Unfortunately, it was pricey enough that I have been hesitant to drink very much of it. Perhaps at some moment when I am truly in need of inspiration?

It turns out that someone has actually conducted a study into this. Believe it or not, the Harvard Business Review recently published an article with the definitive headline “Drunk People Are Better at Creative Problem Solving.” There you are. Case closed.

The online version of the article by Alison Beard sums it up in the very first paragraph: “Professor Andrew Jarosz of Mississippi State University and colleagues served vodka-cranberry cocktails to 20 male subjects until their blood alcohol levels neared legal intoxication and then gave each a series of word association problems to solve. Not only did those who imbibed give more correct answers than a sober control group performing the same task, but they also arrived at solutions more quickly. The conclusion: drunk people are better at creative problem solving.”

This immediately raises two questions: 1) was this some sort of April Fool joke, and 2) where can you sign up to take part in a study like this? Professor Jarosz elaborates: “You often hear of great writers, artists, and composers who claim that alcohol enhanced their creativity, or people who say their ideas are better after a few drinks. We wanted to see if we could find evidence to back that up, and though this was a small experiment, we did.” Asked if this means all people in creative jobs should be drinking more, he replies, “Very few professions require you to be 100% thinking outside the box or 100% focused, so I think it’s going to depend on the task you’re doing. You know the old saying ‘Write drunk, edit sober’? Well, there’s a reason the ‘edit’ part is in there.”

There’s the rub. I do not doubt that a certain amount of inebriation can have a positive effect on the creative process for the same reason it can make people feel more relaxed and confident in a potentially stressful situation. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and that can be very liberating emotionally and mentally. I suppose it helps bring out thoughts and ideas that are partially suppressed. Experience, however, suggests that drinking is a disaster when it comes to doing anything that requires concentration, consistency or a quick reaction time. Things that sound brilliant when you are a bit tipsy can be excruciatingly embarrassing when replayed to a sober audience. If you think finding and correcting mistakes—let alone avoiding them in the first place—is difficult under normal circumstances, well, it becomes pretty much impossible if you have been partying in your office.

Professor Jarosz, who describes himself as a craft beer fan, also reports coming across research showing that, surprisingly, people who have been drinking speak with more fluency in a foreign language. I can personally vouch for that, although I have never been sure if a bit of pisco or tequila only makes me think I can speak Spanish better.

In the end, this study strikes me as so many academic reports I read about. After all the research and study, the conclusions always seem to me to have been obvious from the outset. Case in point: “One paper, ‘Lost in the Sauce,’ by Michael Sayette at the University of Pittsburgh and coauthors, reported that people under the influence are more susceptible to mind wandering, which could be helpful in some scenarios but harmful in others.”

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Write Stuff

A reader has been very kind to seek me out about writing advice. Specifically, he asked how I center myself and clear my thoughts prior to writing.

I am flattered because, like him and lots of others, I too am always looking for good advice about writing. I have been amazed to find out how much advice—much of it really good—is out there, probably mainly because so many authors—and also editors and readers—write blogs. While I have happily discussed my own writing process on these pages, I have not tried to pass myself off as any kind of writing expert. After 23 years as a blogger and three novels, I still feel like a beginner who has barely begun to learn to write. Still, I am willing to share my thoughts, for what they are worth.

There are probably as many variations of the writing process as there are writers—if not actually more. I can certainly tell you what works for me, but that does not mean it will be the best way for you or anybody else. For one thing, I do not have the common problem that some aspiring—or even some successful—writers have, which is to regularly find oneself frozen in front of a blank word processor page. So I am probably not the best person to tell you how to beat writer’s block. For that, I still think the best approach is that of novelist Richard Bausch: “When you’re stuck, lower your standards and keep going.”

For what it is worth, here in a nutshell is how I myself approach the challenge of writing a novel. (It occurs to me that I am mostly repeating what lots of other writers have already said.)

Have a clear story in mind. That may be stating the obvious, but there is no point sitting down at a keyboard if you do not know the story you want to tell. I do not plot my books out in excruciating detail before I start—and I sometimes find things happening in the story I did not entirely expect—but I always have a definite story arc in my head and in my notes. That includes a firm sense of where the story begins and where it ends. And that leads to the second thing.

First, write a really good first sentence. Then write a really good last sentence. It is important to have a really good first sentence, so I will spend a lot of time on that—even if it may not seem like it. Then I try to come up with a really good last sentence. Realistically, it is difficult to come up with the last sentence at the very beginning, but it is important to have at the outset an general idea of what that sentence will be like. Usually, about two-thirds through the writing, I come up with a pretty definitive version of the whole final paragraph. That may not work for everyone, but it is essential for me.

Commit to writing a significant number of pages every day. This advice is pretty common. The suggested number of pages varies, but it is important that your goal is set in number of pages as opposed to, say, number of hours per day. I think the reason for that is self-evident. Since I am pretty motivated and disciplined by nature, I have always given myself permission to write the most pages I reasonably can each day—whatever that number might be. And, since I have the luxury of setting my own deadlines, I do not beat myself up about skipping writing days. If, however, you are trying live off your writing, then you would be well advised to put strict benchmarks on yourself.

Lower your standards and keep going. (Yes, I am plagiarizing that from Mr. Bausch.) Some days I feel absolutely inspired and every keystroke I make seems absolutely inspired. (The next day, though, it usually looks like it was typed by random monkeys.) Some days every word I muster feels stale and tired, and I question why I ever bothered to go to school—instead of just staying illiterate. If I make the mistake of reading actual really good writers (for me that’s people like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but there are many, many others) and comparing their work to mine, well, then I just want to break all my fingers. The trick is to just keep writing—no matter how short from your ideal you are falling—with the thought in your mind that you can always go back and polish it later. Of course, it is better to write something good in the first place, but the fact is that, as the person doing the writing, you will not really be in a position to judge the quality of your own writing until you read it later anyway. Even then, you really are not the best judge. That is what editors are for, but the goal is always not to embarrass yourself in front of the editor.

Make your initial goal to simply finish the first fifty pages. I have read in several places that there is something magic about hitting the fifty-page mark. In my experience, this is actually true. Those first fifty pages are always a lot of work, but at or about that point something strange does happen. Every word is still as much work as it ever was, but overall there seems to be less wind resistance or less friction on the runway. It becomes less easy to stop writing because the story has something akin to momentum or maybe inertia. Let that thought encourage you to keep going.

Accept that you are only about halfway done when you get to the end. As much work as writing can be, it is much more fun writing the first draft of a story than it is to go back and polish and re-write the whole thing. I am sure there are actually writers who enjoy that part of it, but for most of us, I suspect it takes a pretty healthy ego to spend day after day dealing with what is basically ample evidence of your own imperfections. If you want a book you can be proud of, then you just have to suck it up and get on with it. You have to keep reminding yourself that making the writing better is as creative in its own way (though different) as dreaming up the characters and the plot developments.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Fitness of Character

How do writers come up with their characters?

The suspicion with novelists—especially first-time ones—is that their protagonists are thinly-veiled versions of themselves. Writers known mainly for one main character—Ian Fleming comes to mind—are frequently seen to have deliberately made that character their alter ego.

But what about the other characters, besides the main one, who populate a novel? Where do they come from?

I suppose in the worst of cases they spring from whatever mechanical need there is to advance the plot. Or perhaps they are just slightly modified stock characters from any number of examples of stock fiction. What writers and readers would prefer, of course, is that every character in a story—even the most minor—would spring to life as a fully realized creation that lives and breathes naturally and is unique in the same way that every human being is non-identical to all other human beings.

My own experience is that a character may begin as being somewhat “like” someone I have known in my life, but by the time she has become fully immersed in the biosphere of the story, she has taken on her own life and overshadowed the original inspiration. It is amazing how your characters—not unlike your children—may begin by depending on you entirely but, before you know it, they have minds and wills of their own. As a writer, you may end up feeling less like an author than a stenographer.

No one has really queried me about where the various characters in Lautaro’s Spear came from—aside from the inevitable accusations that Dallas Green is really me. (For the millionth time, he’s not.) As for the other characters, individual readers have had their favorites and their non-favorites, but most (of the ones who have communicated with me anyway) have liked Marty, the somewhat mysterious proprietor of a hole-in-the-wall Mexican eatery hidden away in San Francisco’s Mission District. Interestingly, he is the one character in the book whom I more or less appropriated full-cloth from real life. It so happens that back in the 1980s when I was working in the Lower Queen Anne area of Seattle, I had my own Marty.

He was pretty much as described, although he did not have a sidekick Leonides (that I was aware of anyway) and I was never invited to his home. And he never made me a margarita, although I am sure it would have been good. He was just a guy who served up Mexican food and liked to talk. Always anxious for an opportunity to practice my Spanish, just like Dallas I would converse with him en español, which he clearly understood, but he would insist on responding in English. And just as in the book, when I mentioned my year in Chile during the Pinochet regime, he began dropping hints that he somehow had something to do with the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende and brought Pinochet to power. I could never be sure, when he said “yeah, we did on a job on him,” whether he was speaking of the U.S. collectively or some other community he identified with or, most tantalizingly of all possibilities, some elite squad of which he was personally a member. The last idea fascinated me. What if he was some sort of secret agent?

If that had been the case, how likely would it have been for him to have wound up cooking enchiladas in the shadow in of the Space Needle? In hindsight, perhaps more likely than I might have thought. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I was a regular customer of a Mexican restaurant in downtown Redmond. Years later I learned that one of the people cooking the food there had been Henry Hill (using a new identity), an FBI mob informant whose story became the basis for the Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas.

I never actually learned the name of the cook who inspired the character for my book. In Lautaro’s Spear I called him Marty. That was my own little tribute to the character played by Edward James Olmos in the TV series Miami Vice, Lt. Martin Castillo. In all my years of television viewing, that was definitely one of the best cases of an ordinary-seeming secondary character being revealed, bit by bit over time, to be way more interesting than was first apparent. I wonder who he was based on.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The First Hurdle

The good news that I have now written nine chapters of my next book.

The bad news is that five of them are Chapter 1 and four of them are Chapter 2.

In other words, things are going about normal. With three novels under my belt, I can actually now make sweeping generalizations about my writing process, and here comes one. The early stage involves a lot of writing and re-writing of the initial chapters. More than once I have read that the biggest hurdle to completing a book is getting past the first fifty pages, and I understand why. I do not know if there is something magic about the number fifty, but I do know that it takes about that many pages for the creation of a book to attain lift-off. Until you get to that point, you are like an airplane taxiing on the runway. The main difference, at least in my case, is that the plane is (usually) not continually backing up and starting again from a dead stop. Come to think of it, neither am I, so maybe the airplane comparison is not completely inapt after all.

A lot of things have to happen in those first few chapters that are crucial to everything that happens after. The characters have to be drawn right, which is to say that they must be consistent with what will be happening further down the line. Some characters start out as placeholders or plot devices, and they need to be fleshed out so that the story has some hope of feeling like it is really happening. The writing process takes up too much time for me to want to spend it all with a bunch of robots. Since my characters are going to be residing in my head for months and years, I want them to be good—or at least interesting—company.

Also, events need to happen in a way that leads to where I need the story to go. Plotting a story is basically a long chain of decisions. I suppose the reason that the early stages are more challenging is that there are too many possibilities. Once you get past a certain point, the possibilities become more manageable because so many branches of the decision tree have been pruned.

Maybe a better comparison for explaining the challenge of getting past the first few chapters is lighting a fire. This is an activity that has been particularly relevant lately since it has been extremely cold in Ireland. Since a mass of polar air arrived from Sibera last week (dubbed “the Beast from the East”) and met Storm Emma coming up from the Bay of Biscay, building fires has become a critically important chore so, yes, let us compare the fifty-page barrier to building a fire.

For all the reason mentioned above—and maybe some others—there is something wondrous that happens around fifty pages in. It is akin to the moment when the turf in the fireplace ignites and begins to burn on its own. From that moment on, you are not exactly home free, but everything is easier. You are no longer going back and laboring on top of already-trodden ground. You can focus entirely on going forward. If the first few chapters tend to get over-written, the rest of the book—at least in my case—is always in danger of not being sufficiently polished. Because of the momentum. I just want to keep the story going and not “waste” time looking back.

I am still looking forward to getting to that point, but at least I know from experience it is not far away.

In the meantime, let us observe that today would have been the 91st birthday of the journalist and novelist Gabriel García Márquez. He was born on March 6, 1927, in Aracataca, Colombia, which he immortalized in his books as the fictionalized village of Macondo. I have previously written on one of my other blogs about what his works—first and foremost One Hundred Years of Solitude—meant to me, particularly at the point in my life when I first read and studied them in South America.

Literary heroes can be daunting because they pose the danger of making someone like me feel his attempts at writing are pointless when there are books of García Márquez’s caliber already out there. Personally, I prefer instead to take comfort from the probable fact that, with each and every one of his books, he would have experienced the same exact frustration as me in getting past those first fifty pages.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Art of the Sequel

In my previous post I explained in a fair amount of detail how my first novel Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead came about. There is no need, though, to explain how Lautaro’s Spear came about, right? It’s just a continuation of the first book because it is a sequel or, as I explained in another previous post, just another book in the same “novel sequence.”

Okay, let’s be real. Lautaro’s Spear is a sequel. So how does it measure up to the definition of sequels that I have oft cited on my movie web site? As I keep saying, a sequel is basically the same story as the original movie or book but re-worked to give the impression that it is actually a new story that advances some overall storyline. Also, the conventions of the sequel require that, when the original story is retold, everything must be bigger and better.

So how does Lautaro’s Spear measure up as a sequel? Well, you can certainly make the argument that it is the same story. Once again Dallas feels his life in California closing in on him and decides to escape by taking off for foreign parts. During his foreign adventure he meets and falls in love with a woman and he forms a strong bond with a new Hispanic friend. Also, he gets mixed up with a bit of political intrigue that leads him to a dicey border crossing.

Had you spotted all those parallels? Actually, come to think of it, if all those coincidences constitute a sequel, then doesn’t The Three Towers of Afranor—if you substitute Alinvayl for California and Afranorian for Hispanic—technically qualify as a sequel too? Actually, when it comes down to it, isn’t every story basically about a journey of some sort?

Okay, I got a bit silly there, but there is a fair amount of truth in what I was saying about sequels. Consumers of fiction, I believe, read or view sequels precisely because they enjoyed the original work and want to have that experience again. Of course, the author cannot give them the exact same experience again because you can only experience—really experience—a particular thing once. If you experience it again, then you are re-experiencing it, which is something different but still valid in its own right. After all, in the sequel experience there is something pleasing about subtle reminders of the original experience, the recognition that, yes, we have been here before, although things were different then.

The real challenge comes with the sequel to a sequel—something some people call a “threequel.” Just doing the same thing but bigger still and better still does not quite cut it. That is why so many third installments in a series (cf. Superman III, Godfather III) fall flat. To avoid this, writers sometimes go in a different direction. They go about de-constructing the original story instead of just retelling it. That appeals to some readers/viewers, but others are put off by the fact that the writer no longer seems to take the story and characters seriously.

Fortunately, I still have a bit of time—and a whole other book to get through—before I have to decide exactly how to make Dallas’s sequel’s sequel work. I can promise you it will be something totally original—but just the same.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Percolation

So I survived another winter solstice, another Christmas, another New Year. The dark end of the annual journey around the sun is past, and things are returning to as normal as they get in my house. It is actually possible to think about writing fiction again.

During holiday periods, when schools and businesses are closed and the world is oppressively gloomy outside, I enjoy my lie-ins. They are strangely fertile moments creatively. In the early-morning dark, my brain finds itself entering dream states where my mind plays out various vignettes, while slipping in and out of wakefulness. Normally, these would be scenes from the next book but, against my will, my brain keeps wanting to skip ahead to the third book about Dallas Green. Interesting things lie in store for him.

Dallas has become a near-constant companion for me, which is kind of strange. He really has taken on a life of his own in my head. This must be what it is like to be possessed by a ghost.

The thing is, I never actually meant to write a book about someone like Dallas. The seeds for Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead go all the way back to the year I lived in Chile during the fourth year of the Pinochet dictatorship. Inspired by such writers as Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez and Guatemala’s Miguel Ángel Asturias, I wanted to create a literary work around the rise and fall of an idealistic but flawed Latin American leader. It would be a thinly veiled allegory, mirroring the revolutionary rise and inevitable crucification of Jesus. Daunted by the risks of inauthenticity and cultural appropriation, I decided the saga would necessarily be related by a foreigner. He would be an idealistic young North American. As an outsider, he would be imbued with a fair amount of skepticism of this political movement in the name of the people. In other words, if my Salvador Allende figure was to be Christ, then my North American would be his most doubtful disciple, Thomas. Thus the point-of-view character’s name would morph from doubting Thomas to Tommy Dowd.

The epic percolated in my mind for many years, but one thing or another—like the better part of decade disappearing like a flash of light into the time-warping wormhole of the software industry—kept me from writing more than a few chapters. Finally, marriage and relocation to the Emerald Isle gave my mind space to return to the long-neglected story. By then, though, a funny thing had happened to the tale. The story I had mapped out was just not working for me. Somewhere along the way, I got an idea. What if I did not tell the story directly? What if the story was lurking in the background of someone else’s story? Inspired by my own childhood exploits with my often-feckless best friend, I conceived an early-1970s odyssey adventure à la Huckleberry Finn. Tommy Dowd would not actually appear in the story. He would be the McGuffin, the reason for the pair’s adventure. After his disappearance, they would head south to look for him. They would go outside of their own country, their own culture, their own language and their own comfort zone. They would be changed forever. And all the time—just outside of their peripheral vision—would be the story of Tommy and that idealistic leader who led himself and his followers to doom.

It was meant to a self-contained story, a one-off. It never occurred to me to go beyond the end of Dallas and Lonnie’s adventure in 1971. Other people, however, told me that I had to continue the story. Some made suggestions for what would happen next. It was a strange feeling. Dallas was no longer just an idea in my head. He was now out in the world. He no longer belonged to me alone. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that I too wanted to know what else happened to him.

Now that I have taken him nine years further through the twentieth century, I want to see his story through at least another few years.

Before I do that, however, I have another story that has been percolating for a very long time. One about ghosts and spirits and curses and demons and ancient evil and stormy weather. It wants its chance to see the light of day too. Fair’s fair. It has waited long enough. It is now at the head of the queue.