Just a quick reminder that the trade paperback edition of Pyres goes on sale today from St. Martin's Minotaur. Now you can have it for as cheap as eleven bucks! And it's smaller, easier to cart around.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Sunday, November 30, 2008
The stories are rather loosely linked. You don't have to read them in chronological order. Well, you don't have to read them at all. I didn't even tell the various editors they were related. And now they're each going to send somebody to break my fingers for not telling them. That's how these noir guys operate.
If you like order, here it is:
"Bronze Horsemen" in Plots With Guns.
"Homecoming" in Pulp Pusher.
"Razor" in Thuglit (here you have to open "Thuglit Issue 28 and then my story in PDF).
While you're at it, check out some of the other killer stories they've got in these issues. Especially "Big in Japan" by my GSU pal Chris Bundy. That one's in the same issue of Thuglit above. Also check out "Guts" (Thuglit #9) and "Pay to Pray" (Thuglit #26) by my buddy Keith Gilman, whose first novel Father's Day comes out from St. Martin's Minotaur in Spring 09. More on Keith another day.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Till then, how about a short story? I just had one published in this month's issue of Thuglit. It's called "Razor," not to be confused with "Reznor" of Nine Inch Nails fame, though I am an undying fan. Perhaps one of the more brutally noir-ish pieces I've yet written. More stories to follow shortly from the likes of Plots with Guns and Pulp Pusher. Once they're all published, my master plan will be complete...
Monday, September 22, 2008
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
I should mention I'll be teaching--four courses!--at the South Carolina Writer's Workshop this October. I'm psyched, particularly because Michael Connelly, one of the world's great crime writers, will be there as the keynote speaker. In honor of Mr. Connelly, two of my seminars will be focused on analyzing the structure of his two greatest novels thus far: The Poet and Bloodwork. I'm having a lot of fun reading through them again from a practitioner's and learner's POV. Nothing like a good novel read closely to teach a writer how to write. Plus I get to hang out with my St. Martin's editor, Michael Homler, do a seminar with him, and endlessly speculate with him about the upcoming G.I Joe movie.
If you're in the South Carolina area and want to spend a weekend on the beach absorbing the wit and wisdom of some great writers (and hear nonsense from me), consider signing up. Of course, if you're looking to study creative writing long term, mostly from the comfort of your own home, there's always this soon-to-be-legendary low-residency MFA program. You might recognize one of the professors...
All right. More than enough bullshit about me. Let's talk about a real writer.
Today is the day that my pal Marcus Sakey releases his third novel, Good People. His first two novels, The Blade Itself and At The City's Edge sealed his reputation and earned him mega fans and critical accolades. Hell, Ben Affleck is directing The Blade Itself as his follow-up to Gone Baby Gone. But Good People is his real masterpiece, and it's going to put him up there with the other household names in crime writing who are also quality writers and storytellers (an uncommon double-whammy): Denis Lehane, Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos, to name a few. Bank on it. And read this fucking amazing book, Good People.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
My problem with prissy moralism in fiction has nothing to do with faith or lack thereof--it has to do with the unidimensional, anti-dramatic nature of moral absolutism. If there is only one way, then the reader can only respond to the narrative in the narrowest emotional sense: with smug self-righteousness. There are easy answers when there should be hard questions.
When I told the woman that noir is the opposite of inspirational writing, I was trying to be provocative. The opposite would be just as limited: nihilism, or whatever. In truth, the morality plays that the best noir stories dramatize engage in the intricacies of moral relativity. They ask questions instead of providing answers.
I recently watched Hard Candy and saw yet another example of just such a moral conundrum: what if the teenage "victim" of an internet pedophile stalker turns out to be the sadist herself, and tortures the supposed antagonist? (Granted, Hard Candy isn't as provocative as it wants to be. The pedophile is beyond sympathy, no matter how "human" and gut-wrenching his performance. Gradual revelations increasingly solidify our distaste for him, polarizing the viewers' reactions. By the time we reach the end, the question is no longer "does he deserve it?", which is the most provocative question; instead, the question is only, "is this girl a hero or a nutcase?," which is a dramatic but all too common cinematic question).
Still, the point is there. Gone Baby Gone (the film; haven't yet read the book; I know, I know) gives us a better example in its last act, one I won't spoil here. Suffice it to say that a question is asked which can never be properly answered. The viewer leaves frustrated, maybe a little angry. Richard Aleas' little masterpiece Songs of Innocence, Michael Connelly's Blood Work and the film Memento all provide moral conundrums about the circularity of crime and its investigation. You get to thinking about it, and you go around and around, and you can't get off.
Frustration, anger, moral relativity. These are the tools of noir, and that's why I think the genre is still so provocative. In fact, it's defined more by these effects than by any motif of character or plot. This is also why "noir" is a somewhat unpopular genre for mainstream readers and viewers. It's an inherently unsatisfying, anti-feel-good genre.
The producer for Hard Candy says in the extras that the job of independent filmmaking is to ask questions instead of providing answers. By contrast, Hollywood trades in Satisfaction, good old Catharsis. This view is a little too simplistic, since numerous Hollywood movies have provided provocative moral conundrums, and all too many independent films provide nothing but exploitation or candy-ass moralism.
I tell my students that (E)motional (M)anipulation of the (A)udience is the main job of the writer, but this isn't as simple as it sounds. The best manipulation is supple and subtle, complex, ironic. It isn't polarizing. Moral positions are used as tools toward that emotional response, since moral engagement is an excellent way to spark emotional responses, from smugness to outrage. So, really, I'm being a terrible moral relativist here, claiming that morality is just a device toward the exercise of EMA. Morality, in fiction, has no pure value in and of itself. It's just a dramatic tool.
We like to believe our moral positions are firm, but nearly every moral "virtue" has its equally virtuous binary opposite, and the clever and provocative writer will recognize how these oppositions can play against each other.
Your average American, for instance, is constantly being tugged between the two polar oppositions of "individual freedom" and "family obligations." We believe in both, passionately, but the one is often in opposition with the other. How many crime novels have played with the oppositions between "truth" and "justice?" LA Confidential is primarily about how justice can only be achieved if the truth is suppressed, and how powerful figures manufacture truth in order to avoid justice.
When moral oppositions come into conflict with each other, the effect is much like hot and cold weather systems clashing together. You get thunder. In fiction, that thunder is called "irony." I think we throw that word around too flippantly, and ignore its power far too often, when we're constructing plots. Irony (the thunderous collision of moral positions) is perhaps the most powerful literary device we have at our disposal.
Unlike most uses of sex and gore and profanity, irony still has the power to shock the reader or viewer. It will always have that power because of how it works: it knocks us out of comfortable moral posturing and reminds us that we're all hypocrites at heart. It holds us over the great chasm of human Mystery and reminds us not to be complacent about our beliefs.
It's not a comfortable feeling, which is why most writing-for-pure-entertainment (including most mystery novels, probably) avoids it. But it is a terribly powerful feeling, indeed.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Saturday, June 28, 2008
--Lou Lumenick, New York Post
What movie? Why, Wall-E, of course. A seeminly innocuous enough film. Not much fanfare upon its release yesterday, considering it's a Disney Pixar flick, most of which seem over-promoted even before their release. In fact, I predict Wall-E won't do quite as well at the box office as its Pixar predecessors, mostly because it doesn't have the same kinetic speed, bright palate, and star voice talent. In fact it's a rather dark and somber film, for a kid's movie.
But I share Lou Lumenick's sentiment about this Masterpiece. I saw it yesterday, and already I want to teach his proposed college course about Wall-E. It is an absurdly amazing movie. Most of the major critics--Salon.com excluded--have also announced their undying love for Wall-E.
How would I teach a class about Wall-E? I'm just brainstorming here. I'd probably spend a week discussing the fundamentals of classical Hollywood storytelling, particularly the tendency for film to be a visual medium. This may seem self-evident, but it's not. If film sound had been developed at the dawn of moviemaking, the movies would be fundamentally different than they are now. Our film "language" owes a great debt to the silent era, much more than it does to theater.
No film I've seen in the last decade exhibits this truth more fundamentally as Wall-E. The actual speaking part of the film only constitute about about an eighth of its run time. The rest is dialogue-less. Certainly not silent, because the sound effects are exquisite and Oscar-worthy (all the more so because you notice them when theres no dialogue to listen to).
I'd spend probably a month of the course going over "post-Classical" "iconographic code," as described by film scholar Noel Carroll in his essay "The Future of Allusion." This is the tendency of contemporary Hollywood movies (that is, post 1960) to make allusions to other films as a shorthand to emotional impact and resonance. Wall-E doesn't need this shorthand, as its emotions are as pure an evocative as you can get, but the movie is a huge treasure trove of iconographic allusions.
This "formal" concern befits its themes, since Wall-E the robot is a collector of humankind's pop-cultural "trash." Weeks could be spent watching all the films to which Wall-E alludes--from the obvious references to Hello, Dolly to the stylistic references to Apocalyptic and Dystopian satricial sci-fi films like Aliens and Westworld. There are numerous allusions to ET and Short Circuit, not to mention Star Wars and Blade Runner and most particularly 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The science fiction angle is only the most obvious, but there are also countless allusions and inspirations drawn from the slapstick silent film comedies of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and that famous French clown whose name I forget. Wall-E himself is a direct descendant of these "sad clown" figures, right down to the design of his binocular eyes.
All this classical storytelling and allusion-making is good enough for a great film, but its ancillary to what makes Wall-E a bona-fide Masterpiece. Part of its genius is the biting satire of human (if not simply American) consumption and big business...
(side note: from a political point of view, I believe we need to be convinced through gradual changes in our culture to avoid the monsters of conspicuous consumption and big business and obesity and all that--or else we deserve to be destroyed by them. This is the basis of the American Experiment, still in progress. Satires like Wall-E sometimes help to instigate such change. What we do not need is to be forced to change by an intrusive government and its meddling policies. That is not the American Experiment. But that's beside the point here, so back to your regularly-scheduled program).
I must admit I was actually shocked at the seriously angry subtext of this film, considering it is a Disney movie (in both senses of the word--made for kids, and the product of big business). Wall-E is all the more powerful for the adult viewer because it is able to show its sharpness even within the confines--because of the confines--of a children's film.
But the satire isn't even the real masterstroke. It's the authenticity and intensity of the movie's emotional impact. I speak specifically of the romance between Eve and Wall-E, already being hailed by more than a handful of critics as one of Film's Greatest Ever. I don't think that assessment is a stretch, really. Part of this is iconographic allusion again: we see in Wall-E a bit of Chaplin's girl-wooing, the aforementioned Hello Dolly dance-courtship motif, even at least one Annie Hall moment (Wall-E the robot bears a resemblance to Woody Allen, via the sad-clown motif and the Allen-esque trope of pairing a strong, noble woman with a fussy slouch of a man).
Eve herself is firmly rooted in the tradition of badass female action heroes like Sigourney Weaver (who lends her voice to Wall-E as a Hal-like ship mainframe computer) even as she is also ET the interterrestrial horticulturist--how's that for intertextuality.
The success of a movie, on any narrative art, depends on its ability to make the audience feel by proxy the emotions the narrative is attempting to evoke, and to convince the audience that those emotions are authentic despite our absolute knowledge that they are indeed artificially manufactured. In Wall-E, the robots, by their very "nature," intensify this problem: we are being asked to feel for two pieces of metal with computer chips inside them. These pieces of metal are not particularly complex: one is a trash compactor with pincers for hands and binoculars for eyes. The other is essentially a bullet-shaped IPod. They can't really speak except to say each other's names, and even then Wall-E can't really say Eve's name correctly (which only adds to the pathos). They are merely objects, cartoon--no acting or dialogue to help us understand and empathize with them. We're not even permitted facial expressions, except the most rudimentary kind.
And yet--and yet--their romance is deeply moving. I'd have to go on for pages, and think a lot more about it, in order to explain why--but the trick is all action. The purest form of visual storytelling, and by God it works. I won't belabor the point, but all of us who are involved in the narrative arts ought to closely analyze this supposed kid's movie in order to understand the mechanics of (E)motional (M)anipulation of the (A)udience, our bread-and-butter and our salvation, no matter how much we want to talk about big ideas, lyrical language, and the like. All these secondary issues work at the service of EMA. The scene with Eve inside Wall-E's trailer/home is worth a few class meeting all by itself.
One of the hardest lessons to teach budding narrative artists is how to evoke emotion with the illusion of authenticity without resorting to sentimentality or obviousness. Of course, it's also the most fundamental skill to get right. There are numerous ways: you can announce the emotion outright ("he was pissed"), also known as "telling." This is the bad way, since it's too forced, and the audience will probably resist. Another way is to use subtext, which works, though it depends on dialogue and the keenness of th audience's analytical abilities. Yet another way is to use gesture and expression ("he narrowed his eyes"), which is pretty much as bad as telling--mainly because almost all gestures and expressions have become cliche, and if they're pushed too hard they can quickly get melodramatic, operatic.
Finally, you have action--the purest and most effective of all. Action doesn't tell, but it insinuates. Actions can be unique, and sometimes even profound. I could go on about this, but I'd rather just say:
go watch Wall-E, and see for yourself.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
Wanted to see this movie in the theater, but rarely get out to the theater, except to see special effects extravaganzas that won't look good on my dinky TV when they hit DVD,. Or to see kid's flicks. So in the last couple months it's been just Iron Man and Kung Fu Panda, both pretty good in their own rights.
The Panda movie's got some great visuals and funny shit, but the storyline was pretty rote. Iron Man was great until the "action packed climax," the same point where nearly all superhero movies fall flat. It's the same fight over and over. No divergence from the script. I don't know why people keep wanting to see the hero and the villain bash into each other for fifteen minutes.
These scenes need more cleverness, more intrigue--less brute force. From the previews, The Incredible Hulk looks to be the same deal, just as Ang Lee's (underrated) The Hulk was. Yes, underrated. What Lee did with mimicking comic-book panels and with Bruce Banner's inner turmoil was sharp. What ruins the movie is the dull climax and the crap special effects--really, everything about the Hulk himself, which is certainly a problem.
Downey Jr. made a great Iron Man. I just wanted to be the millionth person to say it. Round the same time I saw Iron Man, I saw another Downey Jr. movie I'd been hearing too much buzz about to ignore--Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. I don't know how this one slipped by me when it first came out. The dialogue was hilarious, not to mention the monologues. Like the best postmodern treatments, the movie plays as a kind of parody of the detective film, but also runs with the best as a legitimate detective film. Goes right alongside Brick for kick-ass dialogue, though nothing tops Closer in that particular category.
Now, Control. I'm an unabashed devotee of Joy Division, like every goth-at-heart. I buy into the whole enigma. I loved the movie 24 Hour Party People for its treatment of the early 80s Manchester, UK music scene, though I was pissed at its flippant, dismissive treatment of Ian Curtis. Yes, New Order has some good songs, but to give Joy Division's leftovers more clout than Joy Division is near sacrilegious. You see how keyed-up about this I am?
So Control gives us the full effect of Ian Curtis, every personality nuance, every facial tick, every drop of pathos. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography captures his essence the same way Anton Corbjin, the director, captured Ian in photographs thirty years ago. You can see the devotion to character in the film, sometimes at the expense of story (that is, I'd like to have seen more about Joy Division itself, their rise, etc.; you wouldn't know from the film that the band was even ever famous).
As you might guess, the movie ends abruptly at Ian's death, which is treated with such a mixture of delicacy and rawness that I'm still in awe of it, even having known beforehand exactly how and when the man's life ends up. Yeah, I'd like to have seen more of what happened after he died, but you get that in Party People. Together the two movies, so different in tone, would make an excellent double-header--a more thorough exploration of the band (and what came afterward).
Supposedly the movie is based on Ian's wife's book about their relationship, so obviously a lot of the focus is on her character and their marital turmoil. This is as it should be, though I'm not sure Ian would've fared differently if he'd not married Debbie. He was a tragic figure to begin with, at least in my own mythic version of his life. I hate to say it, but there was a sort of aesthetic dignity, a fruition, in his death, that gave his music its power: "this is the crisis I knew had to come/destroying the balance I've kept" ("Passover"). That's like the mantra for every tragic hero in lit history, all the way back to Oedipus.
Yeah, I'm always on about not taking an artist's bio into consideration when judging the work, but Ian is an exception. He was a sacrifice to art, plain and simple. It's sick to think this way, to justify a suicide or untimely death--but isn't art sometimes bigger, more important, than the mortality of the person who creates it? Would we care so much about The Doors, Jeff Buckley?
Everybody wants to go see Heath's Joker next month because Heath is dead, and frankly it's going to add a dimension to the role. I've even heard suggestions that the Joker killed Heath, the psychological strain of playing him. Sounds like a stretch to me--we're talking about a comic book character, folks--but you never know.
Be honest: how many of you writers out there wouldn't sacrifice your very life if it meant the sacrifice would allow you to write one of the ten greatest novels of the 21st Century? I'm not trying to be morose, really. Death is a cosmic travesty, every. single. time. (but then travesty is pathos!)
I really don't know how I would answer the question, but then I don't have the terminal gift that Ian Curtis had, so I don't need to fret about it. I'll let my characters live out that fatalistic fantasy. That's noir, after all. Still, people justify sacrifices for nations and religions all the time, so why not art?
Friday, June 20, 2008
I'm finally going to get to be what I've been working toward for too many years. Only my quest to be an Author has gone on longer. In two months, I begin my first tenure-track gig as a creative writing professor at Eastern Kentucky University. It's been a long haul toward this day, and I'm glad to be settling down with EKU and in a small city called Richmond, 2o miles south of Lexington, Kentucky. It's no Atlanta, but I won't miss the traffic and the heat. Plus, there's always Lexington when I get a hankering for big city life.
EKU has just started a low-residency MFA program for creative writing, and I know it's going to be a monster success. They've hired three new writers--myself, Julie Hensley and R. Dean Johnson--to join stellar poet Young Smith in this new program. Not everybody's down with the idea of trucking off to school to learn to write for a stretch of years, so low-res might be the answer (if you choose to go the MFA route at all). EKU's program is particularly affordable, and you can do almost the whole thing from the comfort of your own home. Plus, you'll get a chance to imbibe the wit and wisdom of my colleagues and myself. Just saying.
Bought my first house--an older, but spacious (five bedroom) crib overlooking a beautiful rolling hill. It's even got one of those ubiquitous Kentucky horse fences in the backyard, though no horses. My favorite parts of the house are the wet bar in the living room and the office in the garage, perfect to set up shop for writing. Luckily, the wet bar in not in the office. That, as you know, is an occupational hazard for writers. Home ownership's no picnic, but I've been renting for fourteen years, and this is long past due.
I'm also thrilled to report that this week I joined the ranks of a few dozen talented and lucky-ass writers who are represented by super-agent David Hale Smith of DHS Literary. Friends kept recommending him, I sent him my stuff, he claims he loved it, and the rest is history. His clients and my pals Theresa Schwegel, Duane Swierczynski (some day I'll learn to spell that without having to look it up), and J.D. Rhoades can't say enough good things about him, so I'm happy to join the party.
David is also the agent for the elusive and massively talent writer Boston Teran, whom I've never met or even seen a picture of. Frankly, I'm skeptical he exists, though somebody wrote an unbelievably dark and compelling novel called God is a Bullet under his name (not to mention three other novels). I picked it up after a few readers compared my Pyres to that novel, and I must say the comparison is much too kind to my book. More on that some other day.
God is a Bullet will apparently be a movie next year, directed by Nick Cassavetes, son of one of my favorite directors of all time, John Cassavetes. I have to admit I've not been a huge fan of Nick's work as of yet (i.e. The Notebook), but he's also not trying to be his dad by any stretch of the imagination. He's rumored to be directed the upcoming Captain America feature, for goodness sakes. At any rate, I hope Nick will find a way to do justice to Teran's brilliant material.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
I'd also like to encourage anyone and everyone to pick up a copy of my good friend Andrew Foster Altschul's book, Lady Lazarus. It's an epic literary fictional biography monstrosity (almost 600 pp!) full of poetry and footnotes and meta--on the subject of one Calliope Bird Morath, celebrity-poet daughter of a famed punk rock star suicide, an exploration of the culture of fame in music, Hollywood, etc. I've not yet read the whole book, but I've heard the first chapter read by the author, and it's worth the price of admission alone. This dude can spin a brilliant scene of domestic turmoil under the watchful eye of the paparazzi. I've got a copy waiting on my bookshelf for the semester to end, then I dive in. You should, too.
Meanwhile, my buddy Craig Renfroe (we've been pals ten years now, since our days in the MFA program at UNCW) has been publishing uniquely clever and concentrated shorts all over the internet. Here's his most recent one called "Trash" at The Potomac. And here's "Melvin Blaylock Attempts a Hallucinatory Revelation" from Monkeybicycle. And perhaps most enviably, here's "The Focus Group's Transcript For My Prospective Garage Sale" on fucking McSweeny's Internet Tendency! Jesus, Craig--your titles are longer than the accompanying text.
Finally, here's a little music from Andrew Bird, live on Letterman. I'm currently obsessed with this musician, this virtuoso violinist, whistler, singer, songwriter. His album Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs is one of the most brilliantly sustained albums I've ever heard, and I hear a lot of albums. Not a less-than-genius song on the whole thing. It has essentially supplanted every other CD in my car for over a month now, and I still can't get enough. Thanks to Danielle for bringing Mr. Bird to my attention, quite insistently, I might add.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Friday, March 14, 2008
Below is a video for "Slow Show" I found on YouTube. It's a fan video, not official, but I like it anyway because it combines two things I love: the song and French New Wave. Yes, I know I'm only admitting my stereotypically pretentious white-boy hipsterism when I mention French New Wave, but fuck it. And praise Netflix for opening this world to me. It has enriched my life, all right?
The movie clips shown here are from Jean-Luc Godard's Masculine/Feminine, starring Chantal Goya and Jean-Pierre Leaud. Here Goya plays a role usually reserved for Anna Karina, who was a frequent Godard collaborator (and once his wife). Even from these short clips you can see why Godard liked to work with these women: Goya's a work of art all to herself, in that essentially French manner. It is true that Godard tended to visually objectify, dwelling on them with long close ups just because they looked compelling enough to sustain it, but he also made these women the center of his films, gave them complex and compelling characters.
The guy who appears in these clips is, again, actor Jean-Pierre Leaud, best known for playing the little boy Antoine Doinel in Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows, perhaps the masterpiece of the French New Wave movement. For years I made my undergrad students at SUNY Brockport watch this movie, and more than a few times I think their eyes were opened to what depth of feeling cinema could achieve, but rarely does. Either that, or they were humoring me.
French New Wave was the cinematic "punk" movement of the 1960s. It rebelled against French films that were too bourgeois, too carefully made and pretentious and distant. French New Wave movies were often technically shoddy (though their "mistakes" became techniques appropriated by filmmakers to this day) but passionate and intimate, particularly those by Godard and Truffaut (in the 60s and early 70s). Godard has a tendency to be cold sometimes, but not in Masculine/Feminine, A Band of Outsiders, A Woman is A Woman, or My Life to Live, my favorites of his.
Sunday, March 9, 2008
For your listening pleasure, jump on over to Besnyo's MySpace page and listen to a few tracks from their album forthcoming on April 25th. Besnyo is a post-punk/electronic/experimental band out of Buffalo NY, a group of young guys trying to make a name for themselves in the ever-evolving music industry. Their first album was a treat, but this one shows some incredible technical and songwriting progress. Check out "Olympic" in particular, and "Promises" also in particular. Then show 'em some love and tell 'em I sent you.
Oh, it also just so happens that my little brother Steve is a guitarist/keyboardist for the band.
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Saturday, March 1, 2008
(okay, I was about to write "pictographs," but not wanting to look like an idiot (too late), I did five minutes of research. Turns out Japanese characters are not "pictographs" (pictures that are meant to represent exactly what they picture), nor are they "ideograms" or "logograms" like in some Chinese characters (symbols that represent complete ideas rather than mere sounds like in the English alphabet; our numerals are ideograms, like 1). Anyway, modern Japanese is phonetic (sound based) just like English. The "lettering" is called hiragana, or katakana. There is an element of the Japanese writing system called kanji, which is apparently ideographic, because it is older and borrowed from China. Feel free to correct me if I am wrong about this information. Either one of you.)
I can't wait to get my very of own copy of the Japanese edition full of Japanese hiragana and katakana that I can't read. It'll be fun to look at and to break out at parties, nonetheless.
Friday, February 29, 2008
I don’t go to the movies much. Even when it’s something I desperately want to see. Can’t justify the cost. Only P.T. Anderson and the Coen Brothers have lured me to the theater this year—There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, respectively. Both fantastic films, the latter being the clear victor, as the Academy rightly noted last week. I loved There Will Be Blood, no question. I especially like that PT pulled off what I thought impossible: making oil prospecting interesting. But there were a few slow moments, and the end—well, another risky ending on PTs part that doesn’t quite come off as brilliantly as the frog rain in Magnolia. The end of There Will Be Blood felt too much like a punchline to something I didn’t think was a joke. “I’m finished.” Ha, ha,
Rent a lot of movies. Finally got to see The Darjeeling Limited this week. Been eager for that one for a while, being as I’m a huge fan of Wes Anderson, no relation to PT. His breakthrough movie Rushmore hit me at just the right moment in life—early in grad school, nostalgic for a high school life I didn’t actually lead. Max Fisher spoke to me, and I thought
And, to the point—I loved The Darjeeling Limited. Perfect actors for the parts, and I loved the interplay between the “feature film” and the short film at the beginning. Bill Murray’s fantastic cameo during the intro credits. The flashback to the father’s funeral in the middle. The “imaginary train” scene—obvious in its metaphor, but still a brilliant idea. There’s just a treasure trove of pans, zooms and framings in this movie. Sure, the characters aren’t quite as deep or complex as in Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums, and you don’t get the truly moving sense of tragi-comedy you get in those other two films. I don’t think
I still love Rushmore the best because it was my first
If you’ve never experienced
Posted by Derek Nikitas at 2:15 PM
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
"Hemidalsgate like a Promethean Curse"
from Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
Another recent favorite, and my vote for best video since, well--for a very, very long time. I love a band that can write a great pop song with a sense of humor that stretches the genre, yet with lyrics that actually resonate, especially for a writer with concerns about melancholy and the natural chemical processes that affect it. "Chemicals, don't strangle my pen..."
I'm in a crisis
I need help
Come on mood shift, shift back to good again
Come on mood shift, shift back to good again
Come on, be a friend
Nina Twin is trying to help, and I
Really hope that she succeeds
Though I picked the thorny path myself
I'm afraid, afraid of where it leads
Chemicals, don't strangle my pen
Chemicals, don't make me sick again
I'm always so dubious of your intent
Like I can't afford to replace what you've spent
Nina Twin is trying to help, and I
Really hope she gets me straight
Because my own inner cosmology
Has become too dense to navigate
I'm in a crisis
I need help
Come on mood shift, shift back to good again
Come on mood shift, shift back to good again
Come on, be a friend
Chemicals, don't flatten my mind
Chemicals, don't mess me up this time
Know you bait me way more than you should
And it's just like you to hurt me when I'm feeling good
Come on chemicals
Posted by Derek Nikitas at 10:28 AM
E.M Forster’s wrote Howard’s End and A Passage to India. He’s (post)Edwardian, which means early 20th Century. He gets lumped in with the Modernists sometimes because he was writing round the same time as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, but he’s much more traditionalist (i.e. Victorian). Not much in the way of wacky formal experiments for Forster. He respected wacky formal experiments, even if he didn’t indulge himself.
I’m not being obscure when I chat about Forster. Really. He’s significant. He’s somebody. He wrote this book called Aspects of the Novel. Actually, that’s not true. He delivered a series of lectures about literature called Aspects of the Novel at
We learn from Forster that “story” is an unfortunate necessity in fiction writing, an aspect that appeals to mere curiosity. We learn that fiction is really about human beings, and Forster expends a good deal of talk musing on authentic character and the difference between flat and round characters (probably his most notable contribution to the canon of creative writing craft writing, though his ideas have been challenged from time to time, most recently by James Wood in this Guardian article).
We learn that even though novels are about human beings and the truths about human nature and human value that fictional characters exhibit, novels also have a bunch of other stuff that competes with this “pure” depiction of humanity. You can’t just go showing humanity. You’ve got to tell a story, fashion a plot, use language, and exhibit pattern and rhythm. All of these things, in a sense, get in the way of showing character, but they’re what make fiction fiction. Character and form, constant competition. The trick for the writer is to find the balance.
Forster also tells us that every aspect of the novel makes different demands on the reader. We readers know these demands and enjoy them, like good little masochists, so we don’t mind. Story—that is, wanting to know what happens next—makes no real demands; it just appeals to our curiosity. Even a caveman can do story.
The demands come in when character is introduced. Once a writer gives us a character, we readers are expected to engage with that character according to our own human feelings (i.e., empathy) and our sense of human value (i.e., our ethical system). If we have no empathy or ethics, we’re not going to give a shit about fictional characters.
Plot is not story, exactly. Plot is the deliberate fashioning of story in order to emphasize causality. One event causes another, though not necessarily in chronological order. Even in a novel as inane as The DaVinci Code, plot is carefully constructed. In fact, you might argue that some of the most ingenious plotting occurs in novels that are often dismissed for being genre garbage. Why this highbrow scoffing at plot? Because plot is more prone to formula than other aspects—or at least more recognizably so. Because plot comes from the head, not from the heart, like authentic character does. Or so they say.
Anyway, with plot, cues and clues lead us to further revelation and realizations. What happened before the story begins is gradually revealed as the story itself progresses. In that basic sense, two “stories” form a plot (this, by the way, is the basic structure of most mysteries). You have the story that unfolds chronologically from the discovery of the body to the punishment of the murderer. But you also have the other story, often broken out of its chronology and sprinkled throughout the chronological story, of what happened before the body is found—the story behind the murderer’s motivation, the exposition.
Forster says plotting makes demands on the reader’s intelligence and memory, and this makes perfect sense to me. The more plot a book has, the more it demands of our ability to unravel conspiracies and make connections (intelligence) and our ability to remember names, clues and motivations (memory). You can’t be stupid and read James Ellroy. It’s not his complex ideas that hurt. After all, Ellroy’s idea is essentially: everybody’s guilty and we always have been. Instead, it’s the complex structure of his plots: hundreds of characters, dozens of motivations and interlocking crimes and conspiracies.
I read Forster’s Aspects the first time back when I was an undergrad. What I’ve said so far is basically what I came away with, what I figure most folks come away with. Lots of good nuggets of advice, though Forster doesn’t really package them as bits of advice to writers so much as cool stuff to notice about how great books work. Aspects: a time well spent for everybody involved.
But the thing is: Forster adds two “aspects” into the middle of the book that throw his whole treatise into confusion. These aspects are “fantasy” and “prophecy.” He devotes a chapter to each. These chapters are so daunting and difficult, you get an overwhelming urge to dismiss them altogether—concentrate instead on the chapters that made sense. This is exactly what I did when I was an undergrad. I was baffled; I moved on. But now, years later, I feel ready to tackle those two chapters. Not because I want the trivial satisfaction of having understood them (though that’s fun), but because I think Forster might get closer in these two chapters than anywhere else to the real reason good fiction is so powerful and memorable for the reader. The great secret is here, man.
Every craft book you read discusses story, character, plot, pattern and rhythm—just like Forster does. But no book I’ve ever read discusses “fantasy” and “prophecy,” at least not the way Forster does, and not with the same terminology. Lots of craft books and essays cite Forster’s seminal ideas on the more basic aspects of the novel, though I’ve never seen one that mentions these two pesky aspects, “fantasy” and “prophecy”. He devotes two chapters, a whole third of the book, to them. So what’s the big deal?
Well, for one, what he says is not “nugget-like.” You can't take it away and make a rule out of it like: “plot should emphasize causality,” or: “important characters should be round and not flat.” You can’t say: “one should attempt to write fantastically or prophetically” and hope that anyone has a clue what you mean. There’s no prescription here. There’s only Forster noticing that some of the greatest writers in history were doing a little something extra beyond just creating truthful/meaningful characters and fashioning ingenious plots and writing well. He suggests, though he doesn’t ever come out and say it, that we apprentice writers might want to consider this other stuff if we too want our novels to be remembered by posterity (which is not nearly the same as the desire to make it to the bestseller list, mind you).
So what is “fantasy” and what is “prophecy”? Ask two people and you’ll get two different answers. Forster himself is not totally sure, in part because he thinks all great writers are completely unique in their vague exhibition of fantasy and prophecy. Melville does it one way, Joyce another, Emily Bronte yet another. He can’t really define either one, but he knows them when he sees them, much like that congressman and his definition of pornography.
Of the prophet-writer in general (and D.H. Lawrence specifically), Forster admits: “what is valuable about him cannot be put into words.” No amount of logical analysis will help us understand either, because when we read the prophet or fantasist writer we must “lay aside the single vision which we bring to most literature and life . . . and take up a different set of [analytical] tools.” In fact, these new tools aren’t even analytical because logical analysis won’t help us understand fantasy or prophecy.
Fantasy and prophecy sure as hell can’t be taught, at least not in a craft lecture. They can be taught by making apprentice writers read Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov and Wuthering Heights and Ulysses and hoping said apprentices imbibe some of the spirit that lingers there (but also make their own versions—no fake, disappointing copycatting).
The problem of defining fantasy and prophecy is also exacerbated by the fact that Forster doesn’t define either word the way we normally would. A “fantasist” writer is not necessarily one who writes fantasy/sci fi/ supernatural horror literature, like J.K. Rowling or Tolkien or Ursula LeGuin or Clive Barker or Anne Rice. Forster’s definition of “fantasy” includes all this stuff, but extends beyond it, into literature that would be considered realistic or “literary,” that would never be placed on a genre rack in the bookstore. His cryptic definition of fantasy: “it implies the supernatural but need not express it.”
Similarly, the prophetic writer is not one who writes about what he believes will happen in the future. Prophecy, for Forster, doesn’t have anything to do with prediction. It doesn’t have anything to do with making any kind of statement at all— forwarding a logical world view. Therefore, prophecy is also not about establishing moral or ethical groundwork. The first sentence of Forster’s prophecy chapter goes, “With prophecy in the narrow sense of foretelling the future we have no concern, and we have not much concern with its appeal for righteousness.” This negative definition cancels out the Jesus image we might get in regards to the prophet: the moral bastion, the sage. That ain’t what he means.
Okay, so we know what fantasy and prophecy are not, but does this help us understand what they are? Nope. Every apprentice writer who reads these two chapters in Aspects will get—if he gets anything at all—a different understanding. Mine is no better than yours, even if I’ve been considering mine for a while. And—at the risk of overstaying my welcome—I’ll wait till tomorrow to take the egomaniacal step of telling you what I think Forster means by “fantasy” and “prophecy.” Or, at least, I’ll tell you what I want him to mean. Isn’t that exciting?
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Anyway, the D'Auray review heralds the second time I've been compared to John Connelly, whom I have admittedly not yet read, even though his novel Every Dead Thing begins with an epitaph from John Donne's poem, "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day, Being The Shortest Day," being the poem from which Connelly took his titular phrase. For reasons clear to those who've read Pyres, I would've used that same epitaph to begin my book, had not Mr. Connelly beat me to the punch. Do I hold a grudge? Of course not!
I must also admit I've not heard of this wonderful website, "The Agony Column..." until today, and this is my own internet ignorance. I'm out of every loop. What I've discovered is not only an amazing repository of reviews, but also an archive of audio interviews and podcasts that are going to keep me glued to my RealPlayer for days.
I also want to thank Amazon Top 1000 reviewer Gary Griffiths for his review of Pyres. Gary lives in Cali. I seem to be getting an inordinate amout of love from California, a state far removed from my (not to mention my characters') stomping ground. The folks at the M is for Mystery bookstore in San Marcos, CA have been amazing advocates of the book, as has Tzar of Noir Eddie Muller in his San Fran Chron review. Here's hoping the love makes its way down to Hollywood.
Meanwhile, the folks at Barnes and Noble have been far too good to me. This link will probably expire soon, but just take a gander if you're reading this and it's still Feb 2008. Scroll down, of course.
Okay, enough love. You can't ego-google and expect everything to come up roses. This guy thinks my book is suffocating, and I agree. I thought thrillers were supposed to be suffocating. I'll try better next time.
And worse: my supposed friend Craig Renfroe has publically accused me of stealing propagan... I mean property from the Paddington, London branch of the Church of Scientology. I am innocent. Kelly and Sarah are the culprits, as he well knows. I merely suggested it. I even felt guily (and curious) enough to go get a free audit, which, for the record, did not make me feel better, but now permits the Scientologists to "have a file on me," as it were. Anyway, this kind of unwarranted accusation and aspersion-casting will never bring you to a state of theta clear, as you also well know, Craig. May Xenu and the Galactic Confederacy show you no mercy.
Saturday, February 9, 2008
Weekly short story workshop at college interrupted by a fire drill. Two hundred English-major mopes expelled from the hallowed hall, now slouching around the quad waiting for the all-clear. We’re huddled in a circle of writers: Peter, me, Karen, Melissa, Sarah. It’s like fifty, cold for
Sarah bemoans her own short story, soon to be workshopped. Pete goes, “Am I the only one here who loves his own work?”
Dead silence. Uuuummmm. Somebody nods.
Pete’s cool. He takes it in stride. He chuckles. He used to live in
My immediate impulse: yes, Pete, you are. Ain’t nothing I despise more than my own writing at its worst. It makes me livid, fit for suicide watch. When your chemistry is set to spark only when you strike upon the lyrical, you’re going to be dumps most of the time. Sorrow abides more so than the dude abides, if you ask me. I can’t take a compliment for shit because I think: you don’t know how good it could’ve been, man, you don’t know the dream I had, the one even the sharpest revision chisel couldn’t chip out of the block. I love what could’ve been.
If I loved my writing, why do I dread it? If I loved it, why would I want it fixed even long after it’s published? If I loved, why would I accept rejection slips like valentines and dread that acceptances are clerical errors at the lit mag office? “Oh, crap, sorry man, we had the wrong guy.” If, why then have I thrown away ten times more than I’ve ever dared disseminate? Why do I wake every morning in fear that I’ve lost forever whatever limp shred of talent I had?
But who am I kidding? There’s got to be some love in this or else I’m a freak for dragging on so long with two dead limbs. Is it just false modesty for me or anybody but Peter to say my work makes me sick with disappointment and terror? Yeah. So what do I love, if not the writing?
I want to quote somebody else, don’t remember who: “I hate writing but I love having written.” But that ain’t true either. When the writing’s going good, ain’t no better drug in the world. And there’s nothing worse than having written shit. One of my undergrad creative writing profs, Judith Kitchen, once gave a speech about the thirteen agonies and the one ecstasy of writing. The agonies include: gestation, drafting, revision, submission, rejection, publication, galleys, reviews. The one ecstasy is the moment. That fleeting few minutes when your rationale bleeds away and there’s nothing but pure language between your subconscious and your fingertips on the keyboard. I believe that’s true. It can happen in revision, too, but it’s still true.
So why all this agony for a fleeting ecstasy? And can you really love something that offers so little reward, so much pain? What kind of idiot would keep hacking at it, except an obsessive? ‘Fraid I got nothing but questions today, folks. That and a few tentative answers.
Here’s the thing: I don’t want to say I love my writing a) because I grew up New England Proddy. Our arms don’t bend right for self-reflexive back-patting, except when we boast about how humble we are. And b) because when the writing goes right it doesn’t seem mine. Me, who I am, my conscious mind, my analytical process—all that mucks up good writing. Nothing comes of it but that which must be tossed or reworked, sometimes to death.
When the writing goes right it roils up like steam from a manhole, a sudden burst of warmth from below that you couldn’t have expected. Where it comes from isn’t me. It’s the collective unconscious. I love the hunt and the hope and the sense of having caught it for an instant, but I don’t love the wait and the empty hands I get nine times out of ten.
I’m a mystery writer of sorts, though I’ll admit resistance to and contention with the whole enterprise. Mysteries are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Mysteries mean plots, but I don’t love my plots. I don’t love anybody’s plots. Those are candy, dumb distractions. Glue on the flytraps. Sure, I fancy myself clever when I fashion the age-old twist, the Aristotelian reversal or revelation, but the self-congratulation doesn’t last more than a minute before the doubt sets in: “you schmuck; that’s so contrived.” Got a couple of those in Pyres just to give the story structure and drive. The killer’s motivations, the surprise betrayal, etc. etc. Kids’ gloves.
It’s not the plots—it’s the mysteries of character that bubble up from them, the blips of truth I find when I seek deep inside their heads in those moments of pure stark life I get when I plop them down on the road in the path of the oncoming semi truck. It’s those moments they come alive, apart from and above all my silly sleight-of-hand plotting. I make up the stories, and if I’m damn lucky my characters will tell me who they are. It’s them—not me, not my writing—I love.
E.M. Forster, a Brit, (even worse than a NE Proddy) recommends the following regretful attitude: “Yes—oh, dear, yes—the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish that it was not so, that it could be something different—melody, a perception of the truth, not this low atavistic form.” (emphasis mine, but the quote is his, from Aspects of the Novel).
For Forster, any idiot can throw together a story, a narrative to keep the reader guessing. For God’s sake, cavemen could fucking do it. Anybody who’s proud of the plot he’s fashioned might want to consider what source he stole it from. The cutest metaphor Forster can devise for story is a tapeworm: “For the more we look at the story. . . the more we disentangle it from the finer growths that it supports, the less shall we find to admire. It runs like a backbone—or may I say a tapeworm, for its beginning and end are arbitrary. . . . It is the lowest and simplest of literary organisms.”
Granted, Forster makes some distinction between story and plot, but he’s still got his point. It’s the “melody. . . perception of truth . . . the finer growths” that matter. Those I love: those stream of language that work better than any plan I could’ve made, those resonances of imagery or character that I could not have anticipated, those truths I didn’t know were true until a character told me so.
I’m not saying I don’t control my characters. I admit, I’m one of those goddamn plodding plotters. But when I can I let my characters think and emote for themselves, and sometimes I love what they show me. It’s not something I create, it’s just something I notice only after it appears. Where it comes from? Not a clue, but it ain’t me, and I don’t love what I alone can do.
Monday, January 28, 2008
01/29/2008 - 7:00pm
Panel Discussion with authors J.T. Ellison, Toni McGee Causey and Edgar nominated Derek Nikitas
Toni McGee Causey lives in Baton Rouge with her husband and two sons; a Louisiana native (and Cajun), she has nearly completed a double masters at LSU. She's placed in top tier screenwriting contests, published many non-fiction articles and edited a popular regional magazine. To support her writing addiction, she and her husband Carl run their own civil construction company. Bobbie Faye is the first in a three-book deal with St. Martin's press on a pre-empt; the chaotic, rollercoaster thriller world of Bobbie Faye owes much to Toni having way more experience than she'd like to own up to in the world of trouble-shooting, disaster-prevention and survival.