Friday, December 31, 2010


The year we made contact.

In January, I stood outside of a house in Pittsburgh where they were holding a New Years punk dance party. Right after the countdown, some friends set off homemade fireworks. They actually went off this year, and did not dissipate as they fell down. Two guys with fire extinguishers ran into someone's backyard to put it out. Since this is Pittsburgh, you could hear fireworks going off all around. There were also some popping sounds that weren't fireworks.

In February, I held my first birthday party in 13 years. It was small, and cozy, and all of my Cyberpunk Apocalypse housemates were there. I read a whole hour-long story for my friends. "Graveyard Shift," the zombie story. Then we danced to New Jack Swing.

In March, I was working at the Pittsburgh Job Corps Center as a residential advisor. I find that the only jobs I can really tolerate are ones where you interact with real people, such as this one, where I was responsible for a dormitory of 80+ 16-24 year old men. Any job where you're just saying "Thank you" and "How may I help you?" is 100% soul crushing. Social work is occasionally soul crushing, but the rewards are stupendous. At Job Corps I saw true poverty. I grew up poor, but not that poor. Men who could not afford to take a bus anywhere, leaving them stranded at the center, waiting desperately for the meager check they got every two weeks. A whole network of relations around the borrowing of change, laundry soap and bus passes. There was also a fair amount of thievery and drug use, and some deadbeats who could care less about their children. Seeing firsthand how the system creates whole generations of neglect was pretty heartbreaking. The light was in seeing the people who actually got their lives together. I remember one young man who had a serious drug problem before he came to Job Corps. He was very focused on getting through the nursing program. Unfortunately, the dorms are not the ideal place to make a life change, and he started to wear down from all the people stealing his stuff and acting disrespectful. I was so happy to see him at the graduation in July. Hopefully he's gotten into a medical program by now.

In April, I waited in the drizzling rain outside the house of my publisher, Nathan. He emerged carrying a box. In this box were the first copies of my very first book. I thanked him, put them in my car and drove to the Cyberpunk Apocalypse to drop the books off. Then I drove through the rain to go to work. Pretty low-key fulfillment of something I've dreamed of since I was a little boy. Anyway, we had the book release party later that week. Many thanks go out to the friends who made that possible.

In May, I read in Cincinnati, the last stop on the Elvenslaughter Tour and, in my opinion, my best tour performance. We were staying with an old friend of Dan McCloskey's mother, in a house with cable, which meant we got to watch HBO. You forget how good a bed can feel after so long sleeping on couches. Dan and I had an hour to kill before the performance, so I did the only thing I could think off to do in Cincinnati: drive across the Kentucky border and go to the Cork 'N Bottle. The trip took way longer than it should have, and, yes, we did get lost looking for the Buttermilk Parkway exit. However, hallelujah, we reached the liquor store. Dan: "Since we're in Kentucky, we should get Jack Daniels." Jack Daniels is from Tennessee, but anyway. We ended up buying a bottle each of cold duck, that country-ass pseudo-wine my father used to drink like water. By the time we got back from our impromptu road trip, everyone was at the U.Turn Art Gallery, ready for the show. "When the Law Come" was the first story I read on tour, at the Bloombars open mic, and I don't think I did very well. I still had to work out how to perform that particular one. By the time I read it in Cincy, it was killer. Seeing people get so delighted by a fantasy story is amazing to me. I want to do it again and again. After the show, we met some good folks, went back to Dan's mom's friend's house and toasted a successful tour with cold duck. Then we watched True Blood. Then we watched The Wrestler. And then we slept, well.

In June, I was still working as a residential advisor at Pittsburgh Job Corps. Every week we got new guys in the dorms, gave them some basic materials and assigned them a room. Two young brothers got put in a room with the section leaders, i.e. students who ran the chores on the dorms. I don't know who started the beef, nor did I care. The new guys were certainly immature and prone to shit-talking. The section leaders were certainly arrogant and covetous of their space. Either way, an ungodly fracas arose around midnight, with everybody up in everybody's face, everybody telling the other guy to put his money where his mouth is. The section leaders told the kids their shoes were emitting an odor, and they replied by spraying a whole bottle of Axe on the shoes. It was like somebody set off a chemical weapon on the dorm. I made some room moves, obviously. The first move was the kid in the room with asthma, who could have straight up died from that. I stayed an hour after my shift was done airing out the dorms, weeping from the stench of Axe. Then I went to the bar. I'm happy to say that, last I checked, the two brothers had acclimated themselves and become more responsible students.

In July, I read at Bluestockings in New York City with four out of five members of my writers' co-op. It's a space I always wanted to read at. I'd been trying to book a show there for ages. Here I was, walking around New York City in the blistering heat, when I look up and see a raging inferno down the street. Biggest damn fire I ever saw. Destructive and beautiful. NYFD handled it, thankfully. The reading itself was sparsely attended, and we only made enough money to get a return on the coffee we bought, but that was fine. My only regret is that all five members couldn't come. Simply being in New York is a gift that I appreciate every time I'm there. Have you ever seen Central Park? Have you ever seen Spanish Harlem? Have you ever seen Broadway in the summertime, the endless surge of humanity? Hands down one of my favorite places on Earth.

In August, I left Pittsburgh for the Bay. The plan was always to return to San Francisco. Yes, it's an insidiously racist place, worse than anywhere I've encountered in the East. Yes, it's damn near impossible to make a living. I was leaving a steady lifestyle in Pittsburgh, and a woman I had fallen in love with. We had so many adventures in a short time, traveling around Pittsburgh and exploring hidden places. Leaving her was difficult. There was also the spectre of urban renewal: the G20 obviously, companies scouting out the city, so-called radical anarchists moving to the area to buy property and appear in Levi's commercials, turning into the new landlords. Gentrification is finally happening to my city, and I leave. What would I do if I was still there? I don't know. I think that it's impossible for me to stay in a place that's so easy and familiar. Then again, I've found that it's impossible for me to stay anywhere for too long. Maybe I'm just a floater pretending to be the sedentary type.

In September, I was knee-deep in classes at Mills College. It was the only school that accepted me in the Bay, so that made the decision easy. I took Reading and Writing the Body (body theory), Fiction Workshop and Theories and Strategies of Teaching Writing. Theories and Strategies was amazing purely because of the interpersonal dynamics. People were at each other's throats over the notion of how to teach English. I loved this. Education is a serious thing and should be taken seriously.

In October, I worked on my first audio project. Using borrowed equipment, I recorded "Dead Teenagers" on Audacity, complete with music and sound effects. There's a bit of an amateur quality to it, but for a first shot it came out pretty good. I've long wanted to add an audio supplement to my stories, maybe make mix tapes like Li'l Wayne. When I write there's often music going on in my head, so it's good to have a creative outlet for that. The program Audacity is amazing. Since "Dead Teenagers" is a Halloween story, I tried hard to get it uploaded on the 31st, only to find there were no internet sites that had the bandwidth. It still sits there on my computer. I'm hoping to turn it into video and post it to my Youtube channel, providing thrills and chills for the Easter season.

In November, I wandered from Berkeley to Oakland after the Meserhle verdict came down. I have long known that the lives of black men are forfeit in this country, but getting such a clear reminder of it made me physically ill. I was dating a woman at the time who was very much into relationship drama, and the last thing I wanted to do was call her. When you feel like there's a giant target on your back, and all you need is some reassurance that your life has value, the last thing you want to hear is "Why are you pushing me away?" Acknowledging I felt that way was pretty much the end of that relationship. None of my friends on the east coast were picking up their phones and there was no one to talk to on the west coast, and the only outlet for my rage was some downtown protest where they assembled every cop in the country to arrest people. Pure loneliness. Pure anger. Pure misery.

In December, I decided to do like Neil Gaiman does and write a Christmas story to send to my friends as a card. If Gaiman does something, it must be right. I finished the story, but never got around to making the cards, so I just emailed it to my friends. It was called "The Piper's Christmas Gift", my homage to early 20th century children's lit. I had great fun writing it. I think my friends enjoyed reading it, as well.

That's just glossing over what was an undeniably exciting chapter in my life. Another great year, filled with family and friends, and some adventures to top it all off. I feel so grateful for the love that has surrounded me. See you in 2011.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Chapter 38: In Which I Discuss Black Folklore

"Everybody's got a laughin' place, a laughin' place, to go-o-oh..."

The two stories in my collection that have gotten the most effusive responses when I do readings are the ones based out of black folklore. People get excited by the concepts and archetypes used in this particular style. I've been happy to provide what, for some people, is their first introduction to a forgotten American art form.

The stories are called "When the Law Come" and "How Brother Roy Lost His Dog, Twice." The first one is a collection of vignettes, structured sort of like the way folktale collections are structured, except there's an overarching narrative. The other is a straightforward ghost story told in black folklore style. Both employ the supernatural, trickster motifs, humor, and use the language of oral storytelling. I started writing "When the Law Come" in the summer of 2008, right before I dropped out of the University of Maryland. It was shopped extensively at the Berkeley Writers Circle, then published in The Dirty Napkin in summer 2009. I began "Brother Roy" in late 2007/early 2008, as I recall. Out of all the stories in the collection, these two changed the least between inception and their final published form. The main critique I always received was "less dialect."

The use of dialect is what attracted me to these narratives in the first place. The idea that not only is the plot magical, with turpins and wolves all running about, but the language itself is askew: it's English, but not the type you typically see in a book. It pops out at you, it has energy, and there's a feeling of oral telling in it that makes people pay attention. My introduction to the stories were Joel Chandler Harris' Brer Rabbit tales. These are amazing pieces, with all the drama and violence that mark your average fairy tale, plus the humor of Afro-American folklore. What a lot of people don't know is just how thick the dialect is in the Uncle Remus stories. Trying to read it in your head is like reading Chaucer. The only way to translate meaning from them is to read them out loud.

What also attracted me was the fantastic. Sure, there are talking animal stories, but there's also a religious aspect. God and the Devil enter frequently. This isn't Satan as an all-powerful source of evil, but the Satan who appears in a lot of European fairy tales: an active participant in the story who, for all his power, acts as a pretty local demi-god, and can be tricked by the wily protagonist. It's absolutely cool to see the Judeo-Christian mythological characters alongside West African animalism, sort of a storytelling Santeria. Black folklore is a cultural mishmash if ever there was one. The popular book Little Black Sambo, with its notorious pickaninny imagery, was an East Indian folktale adapted to America. As a kid, I was simply blown away by the idea of a child in the American South encountering tigers.

The other thing that struck me is the humor. Much of black folklore (like a lot of white folk cycles) revolves around off-color jokes. I remember a particularly long one about a black, a Jew and a Mexican going to Hell, and them arranging with the Devil to get let out. It's an extremely long set-up for a punchline about black people being cheap. All sorts of stereotypes pop up in these stories about crackers and Yankees and Jews. There's also black stereotypes: the mammy, the northern dandy, the shiftless coon. Plenty of self-deprectating humor to go around. I can see where humor developed: if you're a slave or living during Reconstruction, you have to have something to get you through. I have to wonder, though, if blacks added all the negro stereotypes, or if they were added to the folktales by white writers.

As with Hans Christian Andersen, I went back to these tales when I was older. I had been writing urban fantasy for a while, and was looking to expand the styles I used. This led me more towards fairy stories, the inspiration for urban fantasy (and Tolkien and Dunsany and all those guys). Black folklore is amazing because you can see the immediate relevance. All of these tales were transcribed less that 200 years ago, and fit within a uniquely American perspective. Needless to say, I had to write my own.

"How Brother Roy Lost His Dog, Twice" was a blast to write. I loved the characters and I loved the setting: 1920s Florida, which was at the time still a fontier. When I was young, I read a Remus story called "Why the Nigger's Palms are White," in which a slave master gets upset at an uppity slave, so he pretends to be a ghost and scares the slave so bad his palms lose their color. Years later, I write a story where a black laborer scares his boss with a real ghost. Inspiration? Maybe.

"When the Law Come" offered me a chance to blend mythologies, adding some Greek and Arthurian legend. Inspired by the folklore I was reading, I wrote the different vignettes in pretty short succession, putting down all the crazy ideas that popped into my head. One thing that always caught me about the old tales is the theme of black empowerment. Put in the context of slavery, this makes so much sense. Brer Rabbit does the kind of thing every slave wished they could do, roaming the countryside freely, giving grief to the Powers That Be. Blacks in the 19th century developed fok heroes, uniquely American heroes with American names, like Petey Wheatstraw. "When the Law Come" has a theme of independence which I think is in keeping with the original tales.

The introduction to these stories for many people was the film Song of the South, which has been famously banned from DVD release by Disney. Meanwhile, the horribly anti-indigenous Peter Pan gets a 2-disc special edition. I'm sure the Arab-phobic Aladdin did as well. Disney works under the popular notion that the best way to overcome the sins of the past is to pretend like it never happened. This is of course nonsense, and seems to be a type of nonsense targeted primarily at blacks (for instance, we are told often and loudly to forget Jim Crow, but tell a Jew to forget the Holocaust and you're automatically marked as the asshole you are). So Song of the South gets banned. Never mind that it's one of the few movies out there about black folktales, and it does so beautifully. The animation is exemplary of Disney from that period and James Baskett kills it as Uncle Remus.

My main issue with the movie is the one I always had with Harris' writing: the Confederate revisionism inherent in the Uncle Remus character. Harris was a gifted storyteller, but he had a pretty horrific agenda. The Remus stories take place in an idealized Confederate past where the war never happens, presenting a slave who is perfectly happy with his station in life and is treated well by his masters. This doesn't mean Song of the South should be banned. It also doesn't mean that Harris' stories should be put on the back shelf. What I would like to see are more black writers reclaiming these stories. Zora Neale Hurston and Virginia Hamilton do just that. I think it's absolutely imperative that those who actally had (or whose ancestors actually had) these experiences shape the dialogue on the stories. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a great read, but give me a real slave narrative any day.

Uncle Remus was my first introduction to black folklore. This was my second. 

Oh yeah.

Even that image itself holds all kinds of meaning, acknowledging what Warner Brothers never did: Bugs Bunny is an updated version of Brer Rabbit, and so many of those classic cartoons owe a debt to black culture. This movie shook my world up when I was 12 years old. I will be eternally grateful to my father for assuming that all cartoons are for kids and renting this weird, insane, hyper-violent X-rated movie for me about 7 or 8 times. Looking back, I owe so much of my storytelling style to Coonskin (or "Streetfight" as it was called in my day). It's a movie that uses humor and surrealism to excoriate American culture, which I appreciated, and still appreciate.

Like the Uncle Remus stories, Coonskin is black folklore related by a white man: animation master Ralph Bakshi. The same man who had the balls to adapt "Lord of the Rings" back in the 70s. The movie is a satire on black culture based off Song of the South. Anybody who thinks black culture isn't ripe for parody isn't paying attention. Black gangsters, crooked preachers, pimps, hookers, bums and drug addicts are all mocked in this film. Stereotypes are thrown around with alarming regularity. Literally the entire history of the African-American in the U.S. is held up to laugh at. Bakshi got a great deal of grief when this came out, since he was a white man doing what the producers of The Boondocks do every week. Does a New York Jew putting the critical eye on black culture make him a racist? I don't know. The level of satire in the movie is not that simple. Let's say he's a racist. Great film, regardless.

What makes Coonskin great is that it also ridicules the institutions which created blacks' situation in the first place. Bakshi is equal opportunity in his bashing. Cops get dissed, southern crackers, Jews, gays, Italians (a lot). White men and their exotification of black women come up a fair amount, as do condescending white liberals. Jim Crow comes up as well. In an insane world, insanity becomes the norm, and the ugliness of the black characters is par for the course in Bakshi's America. This film is Bakshi's greatest satirical statement, showing why he was one of the foremost humorists of the 70s.

What also makes it interesting is that it is a straight up blaxploitation movie. Blacks are heroes, whites (or, more accurately, white racism) are villains, and blacks win in the end. This is all done in the milieu of 1970s gangster culture. Blaxploitation films are a direct offshoot of folklore. They updated the folk heroes for modern times, sometimes literally; Rudy Ray Moore made a series of fabulously stupid films about Petey Wheatstraw. The stories created by African slaves evolved into urban myths about pimps and pushers; urban folklore of the 1970s reads like a blaxploitation film. As always, the idea of the wily underdog succeeding against explicitly white oppression is key. Shaft is Brer Rabbit is John de Conquer is Anansi the Spider is Sweetback is Superfly. That Ralph Bakshi picked up on this is part of the movie's genius. A large section of the film is dedicated to satirizing The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola's Oscar-winning glorification of sociopaths. The main antagonists of Bakshi's film are more or less the Corleones. At the end of Coonskin, Brother Rabbit deals with his mafioso enemies in a way that brings the melding of blaxploitation and Uncle Remus together wonderfully. Watch the movie. It won't make you feel comfortable. It might even make you feel terrible. Watch it.

Lately I've been reading Appalachian and Ozark folktales. It shares so much overlap with black tales. Brer Rabbit is a trickster character, as is the Scots-Irish character of Jack, as is Coyote of Native American myth. High John de Conquer is a swaggering folk hero, the kind who shows up frequently in white American mythology, only the character is tweaked to be a black liberation hero.  Appalachians also share blacks' fondness for off-color humor. There's something intrinsically human about this; wherever you go, if somebody farts, people will laugh. Africa being the cradle of civilization, you can determine that these archetypes developed over there. It is fascinating to see how they changed after humanity split up and then reconvened on the American continent.

A lot of people assumed that I had read Zora Neil Hurston before writing my own folktales. In fact, I was unfamiliar with her work until I started on the second edition of JDS. "Brother Roy" takes place in Florida, and I wanted my Florida dialect to sound authentic. Thus, I finally read Hurston, and I'm glad I did. She was a very experimental writer, willing too mix genres and write about experiences that were not her own. In order to work on the Mississippi dialect in "Assistant," I read Faulkner and Mildred Taylor. For "When the Law Come," I went back to Uncle Remus. Of course the question comes up: how much dialect do you use? "Well, I is sho' gwine climby up dat dar hill yonder" does not translate easily. Faulkner's dialect is incredibly thick, which I love reading. Ultimately, I went the Mildred Taylor route, using key phrases and certain words to reflect the language of the place, but keeping it decipherable for the uninitiated. As I have read more experimental authors, the thickness of the dialect seems like less of a problem. Somebody like Antunes or Lispector doesn't care if people have to work to understand their language, which is why their books are incredible. It's worth noting that Charles Dickens also used dialect like it was going out of style. I'll see how I feel about it if I ever write another such story again.

Folktales are fascinating in that they are eternal, ever-evolving. Most children nowadays don't know Brer Rabbit, but they certainly know Bugs Bunny. In writing folkloric stories, I feel like I'm going back to the roots of something that never really went away. "When the Law Come' and "Brother Roy" were the last stories I wrote for my collection, and I am exceedingly proud of them.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Chapter 37: In Which I Discuss Mutual Aid

So I live in a hippie house. It's chaotic sometimes, which is to be expected. Tonight was not chaotic, however, with the various and sundry roommates at home for the holidays. I was in the kitchen, talking with whatever housemates remained about life in general, eating figgy pudding that Food Not Bombs donated to us. I tried to lead everyone in a rendition of Queen's "Thank God It's Christmas," but that failed. At some point, a random girl who was friends of a friend of a friend came in looking for a party that was supposed to be happening. She found no party. Ten minutes later, a man who none of us could identify came barging into the kitchen. I'm going to paraphrase what he said during his 5-minute introduction.

SQUAT GUY: I live at the squat down the street. Right now we are entangled in a legal dispute with the person who owns the property, the details of which I don't wish to go into right now. Our water's been shut off and we need water. We did the calculations on how much a gallon of water costs in the Bay...

ONE HOUSEMATE: I don't have any change on me.

SQUATTER GUY: It came out to fourteen cents a gallon. We need twenty-five gallons. So we pooled our resources together and I have...three dollars to cover it.

ONE HOUSEMATE: Cool. Just put it on that pizza box over there.

SQUAT GUY: I heard there's a party going on here tonight. There's a bunch of us right outside. We brought some wine.

US: Bring the party over here!

We have no idea who this motherfucker is. He ran outside, and I was left to wonder if I'd stepped into a Mad Max movie, with post-apocalyptic survivors going to great lengths to secure water. I go to the window to see about this group.

OTHER HOUSEMATE: He's bullshitting. There's nobody here.

ME: There's a whole fucking squad of people.

Indeed, there were six or seven black-clad strangers gathered outside the gate, whiskey in hand, waiting for our word on this water. And they looked like they stepped out of "The Road Warrior." Grabbing their shopping cart and plastic water coolers, they come back around. We attach the hose to the spigot.

SQUAT GUY: How long has this hose been in the sun? I'm concerned about plastic erosion and plastic getting in the water.

So they poured it straight from the spigot. In the interest of responsibility, I stood outside and monitored. All of the squatters came from different places. Oregon, New York, Poland. We BSed about life in the Bay. I watched as the Squat Guy informed one of our couch-surfers about the government oppression on environmental activists, prefacing it with a 5-minute long description of the World Bank protests in Seattle '99 to set the scene.  At some point during this chaos, one of my more straightlaced housemates came over, and I informed her that there was a horde of spangers out back taking our water. This upset her, and she informed them that no house decision had been made, so they could not do this.

SQUAT GUY: I am so sorry. If you feel this is violating the consensus method, we'll only take so much water that we have, and come back when you have your house meeting to explain our position.

ME: Well...they did pay. Three dollars.

Seeing that she was outnumbered by insanity, she acquiesced. The squatters took their twenty-five gallons politely, and I promised to inform them of the next time we had a house meeting, whenever that would be, and some of them used the bathrooms and charged their phones, and I was left to wonder if I'd accidentally taken a dose of acid. In all seriousness, there is such a thing as mutual aid. It is real, and it's wonderful when put into practice. Water for three dollars. Hell, water for nothing. Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail, too. Merry Christmas...from the hippie house.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Chapter 36: In Which I Discuss 90s Nostalgia

Three of my good friends DJ the 90s Nite at Belvedere's. It started small, of course, about two years ago. Small crowd, once a month. Since then, they've expanded to bi-weekly, and the place gets packed with people dancing to the rhythms of the days of Zubaz pants and economic prosperity. My friends are rap enthusiasts, and really only play hip-hop inspired music. I actually like this. Jane's Addiction is a good band, but they are not dance music. And, unlike with other dance nights, I come to 90s Nite for the music. I could be on the floor, dancing to some Dr. Dre. I could be just as happy sitting in an armchair, drinking my Pabst and nodding along. It does occur to me that 90s nostalgia is in full swing, and it's about time.

The 80s thing started way too early and lasted way too long. This is coming from someone who frequented 80s Night at Club Laga, then at Belvedere's, dancing to the sounds of DJ Hatesyou while the hip young Pittsburghers did lines of coke in that little-ass restroom. What always irked me about 80s nostalgia are the absurdly strong blinders people have to put on to celebrate what was without a doubt the lowest point of the 20th century. VH1 is partly to blame, with its lazy-ass pop culture programming. I always figured 80s nostalgia got so prevalent because it enables the laziest aspects of youth culture. All the people who can't bother to match their clothes and only know one herky-jerky dance move can simply say they're "being 80s," go to the bar and rock to the sounds of the "So Bad It's Good" Decade.

Unlike a lot of people who dig such things, I actually remember the 80s. Now, I was very young, but I distinctly remember being five years old and cognizant that things sucked. I couldn't really tell what the problem was, but somehow I was privy to the overwhelming stench of powermongering right-wing lunatics, absurd corporate oversight, knee-jerk patriotism, cultural blandness and horrible, horrible fashion choices. This VH1-inspired glossing over of everything that was shit makes me dread when they do "I Live the 00s." I think they already did that, actually. And I'm sure Mo Rocca was on there, wisecracking about how wonderful and funny it was to have a cowboy for president.

The 90s were actually cool. That's not just me saying that because it's my childhood. I am aware that the part which mattered most to me--endless reruns of "Salute Your Shirts" and "Wild and Crazy Kids"--was not cool. The fashion was cool. The movies were cool. Clinton? Coolest president ever. Yes, he killed a ton of people, like every president has. I don't adore him like most black folk, who worship his image with a devotion we usually reserve for rappers, basketball players and characters from Judaic fairy tales. But Clinton was undeniably cool. His impeachment was one of the great repudiations of cool in world history, paving the way for outright dweebness like getting up in other people's sex lives and walking around aircraft carriers in flight suits that give you a wedgie.

Even MTV, that bastion of American trash culture, was cool. The thing about the 90s is that artists were given free reign to be weird. So you had a wave of weird music videos, weird game shows, weird cartoons. Seeing something like Oddville or Aeon Flux on TV was just amazing.

And the music--Sometimes the stars just align and everybody fires on all cylinders. The alternative was Green Day, the Pumpkins and the Chili Peppers when they still did drugs. RnB was TLC, Janet and New Edition. Hip hop was NWA and Pac. Your best-selling pop star was Alanis Morrisette, an actual songwriter who wrote personal lyrics. Even some signature 80s artists had their renaissance in the 90s. "Lucky Star" and "Material Girl," for all their chintziness, have nothing on songs like "Take A Bow" and "Vogue." During the 90s, every single genre got a shot in the arm, and listening to music was such a joy. With the current influx of nostalgia, I may have to start going to the club again.

Nostalgia itself is a lame thing, a rose-tinted glasses approach to history that is all about gawking at the past while doing nothing for the present situation. Compare Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, an ADD-style repetition of childhood images without a story to hang itself on, to The Social Network, a movie with hardly any contemporary references but that says so much about the state of a generation. That's the difference between nostalgia and actual art. Since the decade remembrance thing has to happen, it is nice that for the next ten years we'll be reminiscing about the cool.

Monday, December 13, 2010

About dreams and metaphorical things

Where have I been lately? School and the resultant finals have been taking up much of my time, but its almost done! I also managed to see two heavy metal concerts during this time: Blind Guardian and Epica. I liked the Epica show better, because there were four bands and the energy kept up all throughout. Serious mosh pit going on. Could have done without the fat smelly guy falling all over people to get close to the band, but anyway. It was my first time seeing Epica, second time seeing Blind Guardian. I appreciate that, though they're the biggest power metal band on the planet, they don't take themselves seriously. Hansi Kursch comes onstsage, makes jokes about "Lord of the Rings" and smiles because he's gotten to travel around the world doing this shit for thirty years. I still wish they'd switch up the setlist a bit. A band like them has so many songs, it would be great to hear something obscure. Seeing a band like Epica feels more like being at a slambang mosh pit metal show. Blind Guardian feels like taking part in a ritual, chanting the classic songs as millions of others have done at BG shows for 30 years.

I read and wrote an essay on Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente. I've had a copy of the book for awhile (autographed!) but only got around to reading it now for a class. I genuinely think Valente might be the closest thing we have an honest to God genius working in fantasy at the moment. There is such a level of precision in Palimpsest. Every word, plot point, motif, even the character names work in conjunction with one another to prove her point about the destructive powers of desire. She pulls from different cultures and languages, finding the common ground in these histories/mythologies and weaving them together with delicious prose. Everything is deliberate in her books. Its literate, its intelligent, and it takes risks. The fact that she puts out work of this quality once a year shows a level of creativity that is just uncommon. I could see her getting talked of in the same way that Dickens is a hundred years from now.

Anyway, enough gushing. There's a wonderful part in the book where a character goes to the dream-city of Palimpsest and gets her fingers cut off. She returns to the "real" world to find that the fingers are still gone. She says, rather off-handedly, "Now we can count out this dream stuff," or something to that effect. At this point in the novel, it seems like Palimpsest might be a dream place, where different characters' obsessions are materialized by their subconscious to make some comment about their frame of mind. Um, no, it's actually a city with rivers made of coats and sharkmen and trains that are alive. It's real.

Reading a book like this reminds me why I dislike metaphor. Don't give me dreams. Give me living, breathing worlds. Give me danger. Give me wonder. Give me things that matter not just in the head, but in the whole body. Palimpsest would not be nearly as effective if it was just a book about hallucinations.

I generally don't book fantasy-specific readings, or read in genre spaces. I've done one scifi convention in the past year. This is because I don't want to ghetto-ize myself, and I'm sure that people who don't appreciate your typical fantasy literature would still appreciate the good yarns I spin. I relate to them; I don't appreciate typical fantasy either. Because of my choice of venue, there have been multiple occasions where people come up to me and say "I really liked that story with the drug trip at the end" or "I really liked the one where they had the weird hallucinations."

My response. "It wasn't a drug trip. Those were real dragons."

I always found this reaction funny. If you assume the dragons are part of a trip, all of a sudden you have a drug story. If you assume the protagonist, from out of nowhere, has a vision of dragons, all of a sudden you have a piece about mental illness. It changes the context, plot and characters of the story entirely. Never mind that nothing I've written in the story leads up to this. If I'm writing a story about drug users, I will establish early on that they're drug users. Hell, even William Burroughs' crazy ass stated at the beginning of Naked Lunch that his characters were junkies, before diving into their bizarre fantasies. Yet people come up to me talking about the metaphorical creatures in my stories, and what they represent, though I haven't said anything about metaphor. Apparently, its easier to assume that I'm a bad writer than a fantasy writer.

There is no metaphor in my stories. I'm kind of old school like that. Nor is there symbolism, no hallucinations, and there are sure as hell no dream sequences. The dragons are always real.

I know many people who hate the "it was all a dream" thing, and I know why. It is a staple of lazy writing; taking chances with the piece and then saying "No, I was just kidding." It's absolutely horrid and the audience can spot it from a mile away. It's a way of doing something wacky once you've run out of ideas, but lacking the storytelling balls to follow through on this and see where the gamble takes you. Something I realized recently: real writers don't use this gimmick. My experience with it, and my detestation for it, come from television and movies. Sitcoms are notorious for it. Episodes of Fresh Prince where Will dreams that he murders Carlton or something. The dream thing is a card in the sitcom handbook, right up there with clip shows.

Again, real writers don't use it. L. Frank Baum crafted an entire fantasy universe based out of unbridled imagination, where anything can happen. The writers of the MGM Wizard of Oz musical decided to make it all a Technicolor dream Dorothy had after getting hit in the head. Don't ask me why. Baum's Land of Oz is real. Dorothy really goes there, and she really lives there at the end of the series. At the end of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, it's left pretty ambiguous whether she was dreaming or not. Lewis Carroll was a writer; he knew that the idea of finding a bizarre and dangerous world down any rabbit hole was exciting, so he kept it open that she could return (and she did). Real writers use dream sequences to enhance the narrative. Hacks use them to dismiss the narrative.

And why would you want something to be a dream? There's enough rationality to the human experience (life is not rational, but we like to think it is, and approach it this way). Why is there an instinct to explain everything away as "These characters must be on acid"? A fantasy world is far more fun than an acid trip. Yeah, Pan's Labyrinth could just be the hallucinations of a girl as she lay dying from a gunshot, but why would you want it to be? (By the way, there's a clear tip-off in the movie that the faun and everything else are real, but you have to watch for it.) I'm with Valente on this one: the magical place should be an actual world with rules and consequences, and everything that happens is the result of character actions, not the subconscious running wild. It's much better that way.

The story I'm writing for my split book with Christine Stoddard is like that. What starts out looking like a Fight Club scenario turns out to be far more involved, interesting and fantastic than the characters realize at first. I'm having a blast writing it.

On a final note: I did corrections on my book this week, got the proof back from the publisher. It looks perfect. I told him to fire torpedoes. I'll made a blog post as soon as it is sent to Createspace. Book launch party is scheduled for January 22nd at the Layover in Oakland. Would anybody like to read with me?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Chapter 35: In Which I Give Thanks For the Whistleblowers

The European Union recently bailed out the banks of Ireland. Ireland is in debt to the EU. Maybe I've already touched on this before, but its worth mentioning again. The United States operates under an outmoded form of imperialism. These are the new superpowers: the EU, the IMF, the World Bank. They spread influence through their moneylending. We bombed our way into a recession. Almost ten years in Iraq with absolutely nothing to show for it, not even lower gas prices. Just another outmoded colonialist venture where we occupy a land, then have to spend our money rebuilding their bridges and educating their children. Watching the United States get outclassed by entities like the EU seriously makes me wonder if this whole America thing will last another hundred years. China is poised to overtake us as the world superpower, bolstered by money we gave them buying their sweatshop products. What kind of half-assed empire funds its own usurper? The Nazis brought the British Empire down, but at least you didn't see Churchill paying for Hitler's panzer tanks.
*sigh* In such a world, its good to see those who stand up for freedom. Those would include the good people at Wikileaks. The corporate media under-reported the biggest leak of classified military info in history, having long ago decided that anything which challenges the governemnt's Iraq mandate or honors the lives of Iraqis we've killed does not make for good news. Now the information is out there, about undocumented murder, lies, torture, and coercing other governments to go along with torture. I am so thankful there are people out there who think the uncomfortable truth should be readily available to all. The US government has declared jihad on them, and megacorporation Amazon cut their server, so now they're operating like folk heroes, broadcasting the truth from an underground bunker while founder Julian Assange dodges Interpol like some modern-day Lupin III. They say Assange is wanted on rape charges. This makes me skeptical, due to my knowledge of the Roman Polanski case.

1. European authorities think of rape and the prosecution of rape as a pretty subjective thing. It's just not a big deal to them.

2. If you piss off the United States, as Assange has done, you will be given free reign to travel within Europe's continental borders, just so they can say "Na-na!" to us from across the ocean.

Interpol wants this guy, which means he pissed off somebody big. I don't have high hopes for him. All I know is I want someone to keep Wikileaks up and running. I find the Obama administration's histrionic reaction to be pretty funny. They say Assange is a threat to national security, thus making a hero out of someone nobody knew about, turning a back page story into front page news, all so Obama can kiss up to the neocons who will never accept his black ass anyway, and I start to wonder if he might just be a one term president in the Any Idiot Can Get Two Terms Era, and I wonder if he cares, at this point. What really pisses me off is how this whole idea of killing the messenger has permeated our culture. Assange did not send the troops to Iraq, yet somehow he's putting them in danger by pointing out stuff that they did. It makes me yearn for the post-Watergate America of the '90s when people hated and feared their government.

We live in a strange age of loyalty to party and ideological leaders over country. It's also a manufactured age, devised, thought out and broadcast on Fox News by some of the brightest folks on the planet, in order to ensure that every indignity they commit on the people of the world is justified by commoners. This post-9/11 ideology was invented by Karl Rove. Anybody who talks about how we should not know everything the government is up to is putting up a smokescreen, dancing around the real issue. Those who talk about Wikileaks "endangering troops" have no loyalty to the troops. Their loyalty is to justifying everything George Bush did, and this is really scary.

They say history is written by the victors. That's true. Its also written by facts. Fact: these documents are out there. Fact: they were made by the U.S. military, which means they are true. Fact: when all is over, this will shape our dialogue on this whole weird Middle Eastern colonial adventure we've been on. The Pentagon
Papers insured that Vietnam would forever be known as what it really was. The same will go for the War of Terror and these docs. I feel so lucky to live in a world where people fight to tell the truth.

Location, location, location

I am writing a story that I will make into a Christmas card. I will mail this card to select friends. It takes place in early 20th century NYC, and will be filled with odes to old children's lit. I know it will be a lot of fun. Last week, I sat in the San Francisco Public Library, perusing old books about New York in one of their nooks. Now, the SF Library is not quiet. It has more straight-up yelling than most institutional buildings, let alone libraries. They also have the most overworked security staff I've seen. The last time I was there, I was reading on the third floor and, from what I could gather was an argument over place in line, the voices of an angry homeless person, a shrieking librarian, a pissed-off patron and an excitable child all combined in a swirling crescendo of noise that, from the third floor, sounded like a kung fu battle, complete with striking weapon sound effects.

It is not a quiet library. It is beautiful, though. Sometimes the best thing for writing is to find a new location. Lately I've been frustrated staring at screens in the Mills College computer labs. I'm thinking of going to the library, picking out some books, and finding a corner where I will write the story out longhand.

Jack Daniels Sessions

The cover for my book has been fixed. I did a last round of edits. I think Joe Abercrombie pointed it out in a recent blog post, how anti-climactic editing is. You go over and over the book, each time finding less mistakes. There was actually a point when making these edits was exciting, now it is tedious. The excitement will pick up only once I have a book out in the world again. Thanks to a technology malfunction, my publisher can't get to the document until next week. I want this up on Amazon in time for the holidays. We'll see.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Chapter 34: In Which I Rave Some More About Fantasy Art

Ran into Swords Edge today at the bookstore. Obviously, anything with the name Robert E. Howard on it I have to take a look at. Sanjulian is one of those artists I am only peripherally familiar with, having seen his art a million times but never becoming a fan. I was unaware he did all these Howard illustrations. They're amazing. What I like is that, in addition to making such evocative paintings, this Spanish master emphasizes the fantasy aspect of the Conan stories. Every painting is crammed full of demons, goblins, zombies, castles, jewels, mountains, ghosts, magic staffs, warriors, statues, etc. Were these elements in the stories? Some of them. Doesn't matter. There's serious world-building here. Some Conan artists are content to show him just hacking apart a bunch of guys. Sanjulian wants to show Conan in a time-lost magical world. Pretty darn cool. Everything in it, from the art to the quotations to Arnie Fenner's essay at the beginning, show reverence to Howard. The book's too short to justify the cover price, but its worth a look.

While on the sword-and-sorcery thing, today I read #34 of the collected Berserk. Kentaro Miura is simply on the next level. I've been on and off with this series, since the whole manga "monster of the week" format and requisite power-up pissing contest bores me after awhile. Even in a great narrative like Berserk. This latest volume is just amazing all the way through. The climax is genuinely one of the greatest things I have seen in comic books. I hope, once all is said and done, Miura gets the credit he deserves for fashioning one of literature's great dark fantasies.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Obscure Fantasy: Urshurak

Look at this picture.

Who is the young man chained to the tree? What does the scary gargoyle-warrior plan on doing to him? What brought them both into this situation? Is the boy unconscious? Sleeping? Waiting his chance to escape? Where are they?

As a boy, I had a pack of Brothers Hildebrandt trading cards. There were several images from their Tolkien calendars, and some science fiction work, and images like this one, from a concept called Urshurak. The lush paintings, with character and place names to accompany them, let my imagination go wild as I filled in the gaps. Images from Urshurak found their way into my own stories. This is all to say that, often, the wonderful thing about fantasy illustration is not knowing the source.

I personally feel that, in the age of copyright, illustrators are the new storytellers. Long gone are the days when some neanderthal came up with the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, and subsequent generations of bards put their own spin on it. You can't retell a Tolkien story. Christopher Tolkien is free to publish every grocery list his dad made, but eventually he'll run out of stuff that JRR wrote. So how do you keep the stories fresh? How do you put a spin on stories that can't be retold? That's where Alan Lee comes in. John Howe. The Brothers Hildebrandt. Every new picture offers a new way of seeing the tale.

The late Tim and Greg Hildebrandt came to prominence in the '70s for their LOTR illustrations, and for designing the first (and best) Star Wars poster. They are among the greats. I came to know their photorealistic style through a series of abridged classics they illustrated. I literally mistook their amazing paintings for photographs. It had something to do with the detail on the faces, but also their masterful skill at light and shading. In the late '70s, they began conceiving the world of Urshurak. They envisioned it as a movie, and took two years off from illustrating to shop it around Hollywood. Sadly, this didn't come to pass. I can see why. Something like Urshurak would have easily become the most expensive movie ever made, and probably a debacle of Ishtar-like proportions. Nobody in Hollywood had the budget or technology to bring something of this scope to film, though Dino de Laurentis (RIP) might have tried.

Nobody had the money for that. Think about it. The movie Krull is a fantasy epic that spans many kingdoms, where magic-using heroes face off against a science fiction bad guy with a massive army in a teleporting space fortress. That's the video box description of the flick. The actual movie primarily takes place in a forest.

Back to Urshurak. I saw some storyboards that suggested they were going to attempt the animated route, which would have been the best thing for Urshurak. They also had some cool drawings of dragons and winged demons that, unfortunately, didn't make it into any kind of final project. The plans for Urshurak: The Movie were a bust, and the brothers took time off afterward to work on individual projects. The book is the only true legacy of this particular obsession, with its profuse sketches and 16 color plates. Make no mistake about it: these are artists at the top of their form. The artwork for Urshurak is lush, atmospheric, ambitious. Their sense of scale and design is off the charts. It took all my control not to scan every last picture in the book.

A few years ago, I found the Urshurak novel, written by Jerry Nichols and illustrated by the Brothers Hildebrandt, in a used bookstore and just had to get it. I was probably better off with the trading cards. Knowing the story drains some of the magic right out of it. Even rereading Urshurak for this review was no easy feat. As a book, it's a guaranteed cure for insomnia. Just a page or two of droning prose put me to sleep, but I'll attempt to summarize.

The Novel

Urshurak is the story of how the Vandorian archer High Oxhine is recruited by Elgan, the wizard of Mowdra, to aid the Dwarves Erbin and Evrawk, the elf maiden Gwynn, and the Gwarpy Oolu, in the quest to restore Ailwon, Sevena of the White Elves, wielder of the magical blade Elvgard and heir to the Crownhelm, to the throne of Cryslandon, and defeat Gorta, Witch of Zorak, and the Death Lord Torgon who reigns in the dark land of Golgorath. Yes, it's that kind of book. I pretty much give the Hildebrandts a pass on the derivativeness because, along with Terry Brooks, they were the first to rip off Tolkien. I can certainly imagine them reading Lord of the Rings in the '60s and wanting to make their own high fantasy, just like the Wachowski Brothers saw Ghost in the Shell and wanted to make anime-inspired work. In other words, there was a time when the traditional high fantasy story was fresh, and not the genre-killing abode of bad writers that it is now. So Urshurak can get a pass. However, it's been almost 50 years since LOTR came out. It's been 25 years since Weis and Hickman added characterization to the genre, 15 years since George Martin added grit to it. I like a lot of the escapist stuff that came out after Star Wars, while acknowledging that it wrecked the field. If I hear about another recent book with "young white farmboy quests to destroy the evil dark lord, only now he's a dragon rider" or "young white farmboy quests to destroy the evil dark lord, only now he's in a wizard school", I roll my eyes.

Jerry Nichols is a bad writer. The book mainly consists of characters wandering around, pitching camp, doing some navel-gazing, then heading off for more sightseeing. The dialogue is right out of a D&D manual. Nichols' prose literally reads at times like storyboards. His descriptions of architecture and landscapes so exactly match the Hildebrandts' drawings that it's obvious which came first. The story itself is there as a frame for the visuals, with all the characters performing serviceable roles.

The book starts with Hugh Oxhine following some rat creatures through the forest, determined to avenge his family, whom they have murdered. In doing so, he inadvertently rescues Ailwon, the Chosen One, from said rat creatures. As Chosen Ones go, Ailwon is pretty typical: blond hair, blue eyes, brave but self-doubting, whiter than an albino in a snowstorm. The guy is so straight out of the hero's journey handbook that he even appears to have stolen Luke Skywalker's white bathrobe. After saving Ailwon, Hugh meets the wizard Elgan, who can transform himself into a sweet-looking unicorn.

At Elgan's woodland house, Mowdra, he meets the jolly Dwarf twins Erbin and Evrawk (who, in a cool stylistic choice, seem to be physically based off the Hildebrandts themselves), the cheerful Gwarpy Oolu, Ailwon's girlfriend, the elven cutie-pie Gwynn and her useless red-shirt sidekicks Glenden and Ianen. There he learns of The Quest. Many years ago, an elven prince was corrupted by the land of Golgorath, and became Torgon. For a thousand years, Torgon's forces have battled for control of Urshurak. Long have the free people resisted them, all the while trusting to The Prophecy: the coming of the Sevena, who will defeat Torgon on the Day of Fulfillment and bring peace to the land. Twenty years ago, Ailwon's royal parents were murdered, and the newborn prince was taken into hiding among the Dwarves. The companions believe Ailwon is this Sevena, and are determined to help him claim his throne.

So, these 9 companions (ugh) decide to venture on The Quest. This first involves killing a sub-boss, the evil witch Gorta of Zorak. Hugh is only onboard to kill the witch, who is master of the rat-people. From here, massive amounts of nothing happens. Hugh, Ailwon, Oolu and the Dwarves traipse around the scenery on their way to a swamp named after a Space Ghost villain. Gwynn and the side-elves go to the Dwarf city of Penderak for recruits. The Dwarf chapter is kind of fun, since Dwarves seem to live for fun-loving activities. While there, she parties with the twins' father, Esrund (Evrawk son of Esrund? *groan*). Gwynn is the story's Joan of Arc-type, rallying the people through rousing speeches.

"He is the Prince Ailwon...soon to crowned at Cryslandon. I ask you to join us there...for afterward we march against the Death Lord. In dark Golgorath we will decide the final fate of Urshurak...And when we return from Golgorath...we will gather again at Cryslandon...And where we will all hold the damnedest celebration ever seen on the continent!"

That speech brings to mind Keira Knightley in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Not a good thing. And what's with all the ellipses? From there, Gwynn travels from Pendarak to Andeluvia, home of the Brown Elves. She attempts to convince her pacifist father to join in the fight, without success. It is worth mentioning that Nichols likes spending time on secondary characters who add nothing to the plot, like the royal chamberlain in this chapter. It is also worth mentioning that the elves of Urshurak are the least impressive, least mystical, least fae elves ever created. They don't appear to have any powers, no connection to the earth, and apparently aren't even immortal. Half of them aren't even good-looking. I looked through all the pictures in this massively illustrated book, and found only one where I could clearly see an elf with pointy ears. What distinguishes them from humans?

In the meantime, a contingent of Vilderone soldiers (the gargoyle people) ride out from Golgorath to find Ailwon. They are too late and, seeing Mowdra abandoned, set the peaceful wizard's home on fire. Right after they leave, the magic of the place extinguishes the flame. So, very early on, it is established that the villains can't even effectively kill a house.

This seems like as good a time as any to talk a bit about Oolu. From the start, he's the traditional cute/funny sidekick. He says stuff like this: "It's Oolu, is who. Got things will make Hugh feel good!" There's a point where the characters go to a Gwarpy village and get bombarded by a horde of the annoying little Snarfs. To the Hildebrandts' credit, they were using this trope three years before George Lucas and the Ewoks redefined how to suck all the seriousness out of an epic. This is all well and good. I have just one question:

How in the world is this cute? A short, fat hairy guy. The Ewoks were at least made to look like teddy bears. I see dudes like this begging for change on Haight Street.

They go to the swamp of Zorak, where Ailwon is captured for the first time by the witch Gorta. Of all the characters, she is the one I could most easily see transplanted to a late 70s fantasy film.

I could swear I saw that lady in Conan the Barbarian. She's even got the fur bikini going on. Like a good villainess, she is shrieky and hyper-sexual and tries to tempt Ailwon to the dark side. He will have none of it. The other questers show up and take her out in less time than it took Dorothy to kill her witch. This is how it went down, the best I can remember from that nonsensical chapter: Gorta is in her lair with an army of 100+ rat creatures. Ailwon's friends come up with the brilliant rescue plan of charging straight into them, and, in the novel's second show of incompetent villainy, the rats don't just crush them. Ailwon gets his sword back, Gorta morphs into the mother-demon from Dead Alive, and Ailwon and Hugh kill her, but not before calling her a bitch. Everybody makes it out safely, because apparently they've killed all the rat creatures in two minutes. I fail to see how somebody could terrorize an area for centuries if she and her whole army get taken out by five guys and a comedy sidekick.

One thing the Hildenbrandts do right, and many of their contemporaries did oh so wrong, is that they try to include more than just white people in their world. It is a multicultural book. While the other companions are engaged in the not-at-all hard task of killing Gorta, Elgan goes to the city of Tal-Amon. There he meets the the Viking-like Norseman chief, Tark-Volmar. Since this is a kids' book, Norsemen are more grumpy than frightening. There's also the cultured warrior-king Ali Ben Kara, who looks like he should be a member of The O'Jays. We also meet Elgan's friend and mentor, the Ghandi-like sorceror Shandar. It's worth noting that white = wizard, black = sorceror. Got it? Okay. At this point, Elgan establishes to his allies what makes them so special.

"If we're to be successful in our quest, then we--all of us--must dismiss the hatred that often threatens to engulf us. Let our anger fight this tyranny...but not our hate. Hatred is an emotion--like others--which teeters upon the edge of its opposite...Thus hate is more easily overcome by love than by additional hate."

That's right. Years before JK Rowling discovered her equation of "magical skill = wizard x number of wizards who care about him," the free people of Urshurak were defeating evil with the Power Of Love.

The book is filled with mystical, post-'60s gobbledygook like that. There's talk of the energy in Urshurak and how Shandar's peacefulness leads him to eternal birth and being at one with nature and choosing the right energies over the wrong. There's a point where Elgan and Shandar go to the Valley of Life and get the Crownhelm from the Great White Bobabo, which I believe gives birth to the artifact from its great white womb. All of this wouldn't be so bad if there wasn't so much of it, with endless monologues trying to add depth to a book that could never have any.

Ailwon's band goes to ask the Amazons for aid. The Amazons are not only warrior-women, but scientists and naturalists. They even show respect to the disabled, sectioning them off in an area of the jungle where they commune with nature, then going to learn from them. It would have been more progressive to just let them live with the other Amazons, but these are the early days of PC, so give the Hildebrandts a break. The heroes are captured and brought before Queen Azira. When asked to aid Cryslandon, she gives the "Where was Gondor when Rohan needed aid" speech about how nobody ever helped her people. She apparently does this just to fuck with them, because right after they leave she talks to her heir Zyra and commits their troops to the cause.

Despite her utterly humorless countenance, Hugh falls in love with Zyra. After spying on her skinny-dipping, he emotes: "I believe beautiful women are not to be trusted...Ty are so fussed over and pandered to that it seems impossible for them to understand things of reality..and she...How can one such as she feel anything but obvious disdain for the rabble who mire themselves with the struggles of the world?" Calm down, Hugh. The Amazons are ready to go. The Norsemen are ready to go. The black people, ready. Elgan and Shandar, in the great tradition of '80s interracial buddies, devote the next 48 hours to retrieving the ark containing the Crownhelm and walking it to the Elves. Everybody in Cryslandon is told to keep a lookout for a pair of raggedy, smelly wizards hauling a giant box.

But what of the traitor, you ask? While Gwynn is coming to join the party, she meets up with the unfortunately-named White Elf Deceidon. Deceidon is the book's on-the-ground villain, and has been governor of the White Elf city for 20 years. Which begs the question, why didn't he just open the back door to Torgon's forces instead of keeping up the ruse? He was leader of the elves! In the great Saturday morning villain tradition, Deceidon is vain, horny, prone to self-congratulatory bad guy speeches, and is totally in it for personal gain. Or maybe he's just mad that he has a name like a robot from a bad '60s sci-fi novel. In case you weren't convinced he's evil, here's his intro picture.

He captures Gwynn, kills her companions and sends her upstate to Golgorath. Golgorath is a desolate realm at the northern tip of Urshurak, about the size of a postage stamp, and is apparently all Torgon has managed to conquer in a millenia. It really makes me appreciate Tolkien, who actually had a realistic view of how much damage a campaign of evil can cause over ome centuries. Sauron destroyed whole kingdoms. Torgon is content to sit on an uncomfortable-looking metal chair and do nothing. In quick succession, Deceidon captures the Chosen One. Feeling pleased with himself, he ventures to Cryslandon to deliver an ultimatum. Torgon's forces and the people of Urshurak converge on Cryslandon for the least dramatic battle ever.

So they have their Battle of Minas Tirith, which lasts a chapter and the good guys win easily. The battle is so without tension that Nichols has to establish after it's over that many Amazons died and their lightning-spraying war machines all got destroyed. During the chapter, all I saw were Amazons beating the snot out of the orcs/goblins/whatever.

Around this time we are treated to my favorite part of the book: The Death of Shandar. At this point in the narrative, I am so disinterested that I say, "What? Who is Shandar? He's dying?" Go back a few pages. "Oh, he's the black wizard. Deceidon stabbed him after a failed attempt to bring the bad guy to the side of love. Must have skipped that part." The sheer level of boredom in this book creates its own surprises, each skimmed-over plot point coming at me like a Chuck Palahniuk twist. So Shandar is dying, in what I'm sure the Hildebrandts conceived as a beautiful and pathos-ridden goodbye to a beloved character. Instead, its the point where the book veers from harmless kids' story to a bastion of bad fantasy writing.

Though "his breathing had become extremely labored" from his "bloodied wound," he sits there, calmly brainstorming their next step with Elgan. They decide that Elgan will fight Torgon in place of their incompetent Chosen One. "Blood was oozing from his bindings," yet he sticks around to have tearful goodbyes with Elgan and some Dwarf, and espouses his views on mortality. Elgan leaves. "Shandar sat motionless." Does he die? No, but he feels depressed. He doesn't feel like dying just yet. So he stands up, "his hand clutching his chest," and ascends some stairs, "his breathing coming in tortured gasps. The life of his body being slowly drawn from him." I am on the edge of my seat.
Hugh and the other companions go to find the Chosen One with a knack for getting beaten and captured. That's the chapter where the first picture comes from, by the way. This is probably the most well-written chapter in the book, since it is told from the evil orc leader's perspective, with him wondering why the captive prince scares him so much. All this self-reflection does not keep him and his party from getting wiped out. So Ailwon is rescued, and arrives at Cryslandon a week later, where Shandar still hasn't died, but is waiting for them in the citadel tower with his guts hanging out. By now, it's just comedy. "The old man's body stiffened beneath a sudden spasm of pain," but he manages to have tearful goodbyes with everybody he ever met. As "the old man coughed, shuddered," he crowns Ailwon the new king, putting the unearned crown on his tousseled golden head, spouting all the necessary gibberish about destiny. He "spat blood on the floor." "The old man gasped, and would have fallen, had Ailwon not caught him." He says farewell to the entire cast, then sends all Elves and Dwarfs to finish their mission, "the rattle of phlegm and blood suddenly thick within his throat." With tears in their eyes, the companions ride to an uncertain destiny. Ailwon is at the head, an inspirational leader of men out of absolutely nowhere. Afterward, we get to the optimistically titled chapter:

Shandar still hasn't died. He is alone, contemplating the eternal mystery, and that girl who he loved when he was a youth, and how he needs to pick up his dry cleaning. "The pain of his deep wound increased, his mind began to float and the room grew suddenly dark." Does he die? "He lay for a moment, breathing heavily, death rolling within him with each rise and fall of his chest." Enough already! "He rested for a moment, then began to move forward on his belly," and now I wish to God they had made this a movie so this preposterous scene could be caught on celluloid forever. At the precipice of the tower, he looks over all of Urshurak. "This was balm to Shandar. Now he was ready." Then fucking die! "Now I offer the remains of my being!" Oh God. "Come now, O eternal!" he screams with energy no man on death's doorstep should have. He has one more psychedelic vision of the clouds gathering over the land before giving himself to the cosmos. "The cavern of mystery reopened, while in the sky above him, the dark clouds parted and the brilliant light of day issued forth..." "Now touch me, O infinite love!" Dead.

Sigh. Nichols and the Hildebrandts have not mastered the concept that the pathos when a character dies extend from how attached the audience is to them, not the length of the death scene. At some point they even drew a neato "Dead Shandar" pic.

There's a nice one for the kids to color.

Did I mention I like something about the book besides the art? The Hildebrants have crafted a world, and they delight in showing it off. They get heavily into the travleogue aspect, which I appreciate if only for their enthusiasm. Anyways, Shandar becomes a storm or something, enabling Ailwon's crew to reach Golgorath in time for the Day of Fulfillment. So all paths converge on Golgorath, good and evil, where the final fate of Middle-Earth will be decided.

Battle happens. There is some minor character development, and Zyra realizes her love for Hugh. Deceidon gets his. Oolu aquits himself admirably. Minor characters get killed by other minor characters. Some more Amazons fall victim to the "red shirt" policy. Ailwon faces of against Torgon in the Fistfight For The Fate Of The World. It is a harrowing, thrilling battle with Ailwon versus his great-great-great-great-great-etc.-uncle. He literally wins this when the Death Lord trips on his helmet and falls down a hole. Yes, in the great Disney tradition, the villain falls to his death. There is the obligatory celebration, and Hugh talks with Elgan about the Meaning of Life as they contemplate nature. The end, after 405 agonizing pages.

So Urshurak is derivative, poorly written, cliche, cornball, boring, and only useful as a child's introduction to high fantasy (and even then, they'd be better off reading The Prydain Chronicles).

But, I mean, look at this!

Look at it!

Oh my GOD!

As a novel, Urshurak is subpar. As an artbook, it's possibly one of the greatest ever made. It's a treasure. I wish they'd released it as an artbook, pictures without a story, that I could fill in the gaps myself. Years later, the Hildebrandts did just that, releasing a calendar with pictures of their vision of mythical Atlantis. It was a cross between lost civilization fantasy and Buck Rogers-style space opera, with out-of-this-world creatures and plants, and absolutely no story to it. Ursharak would have been amazing in that format. It's not that they're bad storytellers; their specialty is a different kind of storytelling, at which they are undisputed masters. As I said, Urshurak is the brothers at their pinnacle. And I, for one, am glad these pictures exist, to spark imaginations for generations to come.

Chapter 33: In Which I Update Once More


Just got word from the publisher. All copy edits are done for the second edition. With the updated layout, the book is now around 149 pages. I don't know how you revise a book for six months and somehow it gets SHORTER, but that's how it goes. We'll have to do some adjusting of the cover again. Every time layout changes, so does the cover size. I still find it fascinating how the different elements of creation work together. I approve the changes, publisher enacts them, cover artist adjusts to them, publisher sends to printer. Anyways, we're one step closer.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I am thankful for...

Art. Art and artists. Those I know, those I don't know, those who have inspired me. We were gifted a beautiful world. What's even better is, we have the ability to recreate this world throug our own lens.

Nothing much to report. I recorded two stories for the audiobook on Tuesday. About to go convert them into .wav files before I inevitably scratch the CDs somehow.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chapter 32: In Which I Talk About Collaborators

As I've stated before, illustration is huge to me. Visuals always add something to storytelling. I remember reading issues of Savage Sword of Conan as a boy, which had GORGEOUS covers, plus a little picture of Conan in the top left corner, plus pinups in the back, plus great interior artwork. Pictures are an alternate form of storytelling. Why only have one story in your book (the text version) when you can have several.

Dan McCloskey has been my illustrator, tourmate, housemate and landlord. We first met when we lived together at the N-circle-A-CP, an anarchist apartment in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh. To call it scummy would be an understatement. To call it messy would not come close to describing the sheer clutter. He was a resident, I was a subletter. We bonded over our mutual appreciation for genre fiction, though he is firmly in the science fiction camp, and I am firmly in the fantasy camp. We've both read a ton of genre work, but the authors we read hardly ever cross over. Dan is incredibly tall, and at the time of our collaboration had an extreme pompadour of '80s anime character length.

Dan specializes in comic illustration. He did comics for the Pitt News in college and now does the monthly Andromeda comic anthology. Art is pretty much his family business, passed down from his parents. He studied at Pitt and Kutztown University. During my last stay in Pittsburgh, I lived at the Cyberpunk Apocalypse, a writers' co-op that Dan put together in the Lawrenceville area. It came to be that I collaborated with Dan more than I have any other artist, even if that collaboration was building doorframes, dumpster-diving or hauling large boxes of crap around. The Cyberpunk Apocalypse has been going strong for about two years now, has put out several publications, hosted more readings than I can count, and has been the workspace for quite a few finished books, including my own. All this is to say that, in addition to being tall, Dan is extremely talented and shockingly ambitious.

He was originally going to do the inside illustrations for Jack Daniels Sessions, and did some preliminary ink sketches that were beautiful. However, I don't believe in collaborating exclusively with one person, so I contacted Rachel Dorrett about doing the interiors. Dan is thoughtful when it comes to design. Here is the finished product:

My request was that it look like an album cover. I was very specific about the typewriter/desk/Jack Daniels combo. Dan added the coffee pot. Since we lived in a writers' co-op, I should note that all the objects were modeled off things already in the house. Dan's major concern was giving some indication on the cover that it is a fantasy collection. I originally wanted to downplay those elements. Going along with his artistic inclinations, we brainstormed how to do this. He was especially interested in the subtitle, which I think a lot of people overlook. "A Collection by Elwin Cotman" was too generic. "A Collection of Wonders by Elwin Cotman"? Kind of twee. "Weird Stories by Elwin Cotman"? Cool, but kind of archaic. Finally, we settled on "A Collection of Fantasies." Straightforward but effective.

Dan talked about other ways to enhance the fantasy quality. Recently, I'd run across an old copy of one of my favorite books:

An Atlas of Fantasy by J.B. Post is a must-have for any fantasy lover. Within it are maps of the Hyborean Age, Narnia, the Young Kingdoms, Barsoom, the Hundred Acre Woods, the river by Toad Hall, and lots more. It is an extensive collection of fantasy maps. Post digs really far into the history of the fantastical, beyond the modern fantasy publishing industry, finding 18th century maps of imaginary lands. This book is simply a treasure. My old copy was falling apart, and I planned on using the maps to paper the recently-constructed wall of my room.

Dan mused: "Maybe we could have a map of Middle-Earth over the typewriter."

I thought that sounded grand. Have something in there that not only indicates fantasy, but indicates the Quest, and gives homage to a forefather. The spirit of creativity, and fear of getting demolished by the Tolkien estate, led Dan to design his own map. He based it off of jokey regional maps from the Atlas. For instance, there would be "A Texan's Map of the United States," where Texas takes up almost the whole country. Or "A New Englander's View," with Massachusetts being gargantuan. Dan ended up combining the idea of a warped United States map with some of the more fantastical ones, creating the amazing little world in the corner of the picture. I cannot stress enough what a cool thing maps are for fantasy books. I'm glad to have one in mine.

Dan has a sort of electronic sketchpad that he uses. With this, he drew the cover. My favorite part of it is the wallpaper behind the typewriter. Its all characters or situations from the stories, creating a kind of "Where's Waldo" game. I still haven't been able to make all the connections, and they're from my stories. I had a blast working with Dan on this, two guys brainstorming art ideas in the freezing winter months in Pittsburgh, sitting bundled up at a computer, drinking massive amounts of coffee/whiskey. I'll openly admit a bit of jealousy towards artists. As a writer, I always compare myself to the thousands of years worth of fantasy writing that have come before, and worry about my own originality. A good artist can find an entirely new way of looking at things.

Six Gallery Press has a template they use for cover creation, and it takes some work to design a cover exactly to the book's dimensions. I could see from the amount of time that Dan spent that its a long process. We've tweaked the cover since then, shrinking it so there's not so much empty space. I think Dan may have even added a ghost rabbit or two. I can't wait to see it.

I suggest you take a look at the website I attached. Dan's a writer himself, currently shopping his manuscript around. Jack Daniels Sessions was his first professional cover job, and my first book. If I can spend the rest of my life working with such dedicated artists, I will consider myself lucky.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Chapter 31: In Which I Talk About Pittsburgh

I live in a hippie house in Oakland, CA. Fifteen people live here, but the nights have been surprisingly quiet and, more surprisingly, relaxed. Tonight I walked downstairs to a full salmon dinner on the kitchen table, with potatoes, carrots and dumplings. One of the non-residents who hangs around bought the meal on food stamps, then treated the house. We broke bread around the table. I was unsure of the place when I first moved in. It's crowded, of course, and there is little privacy. At times, the personality clashes are a bit much. Its not the cleanest place. But it's surely the kind of place I'd like to spend Thanksgiving. It might just be special this year.

This whole week I've been going over last-minute copy edits with my publisher. Lucky for us, the incorrect proof offered a chance to see how this newest edition would look in print. This will be the last round. We cannot polish this book anymore. I'm itching to send it out into the world.

Food Not Bombs

It has been several months since I was last in Pittsburgh. I wonder if they are still digging up Market Square.

I spent many years working with the local chapter of Food Not Bombs. Cooking out of community spaces, apartments and punk houses, we did weekly servings for the city's homeless. The Pittsburgh chapter still does, and hopefully always will. Since the 1990s, the mainstay of Food Not Bombs was the Sunday feeding at Market Square. I experienced some of my best times ever cooking on Sundays, feeding the people who showed up, tossing bread to the pigeons. Market Square was a little cluster of restaurants and bars surrounding a cross-section of cobblestone streets, with horrible parking, benches absolutely filled with homeless and assorted blue-collar people, in the gleaming shadow of PPG place. Doing FNB felt like such a direct form of resistance. The sheer fact that homeless people exist in Pittsburgh is disgraceful. Half the city is vacant buildings. By all rights, it should be a squatter's paradise.

One time, a few years ago, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership declared war on FNB. A black guy in a yellow shirt calling himself a "security ambassador" or something showed up, saying we had to leave. We kept serving, of course. He asked to speak to the leader. We explained that there was no leader. Then a white yuppie woman showed up, telling us we had to leave. She was from the PDP, and did not like our organization attracting homeless people to the area. We treated her with pretty much open disdain, alternately arguing with and ignoring her as we kept feeding people. She insisted we go. She got another black man to come tell us to leave, then finally a cop to enforce the PDP's edict. We had to go to the edge of the square. In what was one of the most disrespectful things I can recall happening to me, we were forced to serve our food by a dumpster. Somewhere out there is an amazing photo a friend of mine took, of a middle-aged white woman in sunglasses surrounded on all sides by black lackeys.

So FNB fought back. We sent emails. Fliers about how the PDP wanted to dislocate the homeless appeared around town. We put out the call to other Pittsburgh radicals and had a presence the next week. Hell, we had a party. The PDP backed down, telling the assembled media they had no problem with us serving. So we won. Temporarily.

How did the PDP gain victory? They got rid of Market Square all together.

For God knows how long, there's been a giant hole in the middle of Downtown Pittsburgh, fucking up traffic even further. The PDP has been remaking it in their image. One thing is certain: homeless people will not be allowed into the new Market Square. The idea of Pittsburgh outlawing homelessness like New York did is pretty horrific. It seems like the gentrification of Pittsburgh has finally gained some momentum. It is, after all, the most livable city. The industry left in the 70s, and, instead of withering and dying, Pittsburghers created vibrant communities. And now the rest of the country's taken notice. A city that's been in a recession for forty years can easily shrug off this latest economic downturn, so the eyes are on Pittsburgh, big-time.

That's where folks like the PDP come in. What I find interesting about the redevelopment of Pittsburgh is how intent they are on establishing an identity that's the opposite of what Pittsburgh's famous for. The definitive blue-collar town is now an "arts" city. The definitive industrial town is now a haven for software development. The definitive smoggy hellhole is now "green." All this gentrification is encouraged by Pittsburgh's child-mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who won the first time because of special elections, the second time because of weak competition. Nobody wants to be mayor of Pittsburgh. I make no bones that I don't think Ravenstahl's worth half a damn. Neither is Gaven Newson, or any of these Carcetti types. Yeah, the whole "we have the youngest mayor" thing was cute for awhile. Fact is, Pittsburgh's a real city. It needs a real mayor.

Long story short: I'm very interested in seeing what goes down with Pittsburgh. I could spend several posts ranting about Levi's Jeans' interest in Braddock, and that insulting "documentary" they made, and I probably will. Maybe the dislocation and corporatization won't be so bad. Or maybe it will be like Columbia Heights in Washington DC, the Hispanic area of town completely swallowed by chain stores, condos and botox centers.

Food Not Bombs serves in front of the Carnegie Library in Oakland now. Every Sunday. It's a beautiful thing.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Chapter 30: In Which I Do a Movie Review

When people mention the Harry Potter series, I inevitably point them towards the Chronicles of Prydain. I understand what Rowling was doing, framing the mono-myth as a literal coming-of-age story. In my opinion, Lloyd Alexander did it better, he did it in a fourth of the page length and he did it over 40 years ago.

The books always bored me, what with the cardboard villains and no variation on the usual hero's journey. The mysteries never seemed too exciting. I've had more fun reading Wikipedia summaries of the books than trying to slog through the meandering plots. I've been on and off with the movies. Prisoner of Azkaban is one of my favorite fantasy films. It's a dark, beautiful and truly effective film that actually made me care about Harry. Goblet of Fire was funny, entertaining, but also overlong and burdened with unnecessary nods to the book fans. Order of the Phoenix barely held together as a coherent movie; its just a succession of plot points. I skipped Half-Blood Prince. Hearing good reviews, I decided to catch the new one.

I liked it. Definitely didn't need to be two movies. I heard the characters spend a huge amount of the book camping, and this is translated to the film. They could have cut out a lot. There's not a drop of set-up for the uninitiated, but I didn't mind that. Expecting a recap in the seventh chapter of an ongoing storyline is kind of nonsensical. The film starts right in the action without a moment to breathe.

The main appeal of these movies is their longevity, the idea of the films and filmmakers growing with the audience. Watching the films evolve has its own interest for me. Seeing the cinematography that's reminiscent of Azkaban; the Ghostbusters-style ectoplasm wand battling from Goblet of Fire; the wand fights substituting sword- and gunfights, which started in Phoenix. All of these elements have been added over the years, and are now at full use in this movie. The films have their own mythology now. There are repeated call-backs to previous films, characters who show up just to be there. The absolute waste of some of the world's finest actors might rile some, but I never watch these movies expecting to see Alan Rickman or Maggie Smith do real acting. They're window-dressing to the teen angst, and that's fine.

The plot's incomprehensible. Also par for the course. I enjoyed the urban fantasy elements. Seeing Harry and pals have a wand shootout in a diner is pretty cool. The movie moves them between the wizarding world and ours, with good results. One moment they're in the middle of London. The next, they're in fantasy woodlands populated by evil wizards who all look like the cast of Les Mis. One moment they're in the ruins of a trailer park, the next they're in the Terry Gilliam-style Ministry of Magic. There's an amazing broom chase over a highway. I liked finally seeing these movies transplanted to a recognizable, modern English setting. All this is helped by maybe the most seamless special effects I've ever seen. I'm a geek: seeing fantasy tropes updated (and so well) will always get me. There's also a shadow puppet fairy-tale in there that I found genuinely enchanting. It's the kind of stuff you'd expect from a Tim Burton movie, if Burton was actually the visionary he's advertised as and not just a soulless Hollywood factory.

Everything skids to a halt when THE CAMPING starts. The Hogwarts students start spouting clunky exposition when they should be having character moments. It gets boring at parts. Still, the actors playing the Trio are solid, having grown into the roles after being not the best child actors in the world. I also liked that the movie acknowledges the chemistry between Harry and Hermione (which may simply be due to the actors), even if its only in a platonic way, and showed how it affected Hermione's boyfriend Ron, who already has jealousy issues about his heroic friend. This part also has some nods to Lord of the Rings and King Arthur that I enjoyed. Fantasy is nothing if not about paying homage to your forefathers.

Where I've always felt these movies missed the boat was in the human element. Because I saw Azkaban, I know there is the opportunity for emotion in these stories. Not just because of attachment to the books, or getting to see an actor grow from a boy to a man onscreen, but the emotion that stems from the characters and their situations. This is the story of someone growing up, with all that entails, while shouldering responsibilties he is nowhere near ready for. Harry is a hero, sure. He's also an orphan, an abused child, a person with plenty of reasons to lash out. In the Azkaban movie, he does. All of this has been lost in the last few movies, in favor of cramming in every single red herring from Rowling's books. In doing this (and, yes, I'm speaking as a non-fan) I think they might have lost some of the books' appeal. HP book fans I know are wild about the characters. I don't know anybody who watches the blockbusters for anything other than special effects. As someone who believes strongly in character, watching them squander that has been pretty disappointing.

These movies hold a distinct place in film: they are the most expensive fan movies ever made. Only Azkaban holds up as a film. The rest are for the joy of seeing these characters onscreen. Deathly Hallows part 1 was an enjoyable enough matinee. I have no real desire to watch it again.

All the same questions remain. Why don't they just use guns? Why don't they use the time travel device Hermione had in the third movie, go back in time and kill Voldemort when he was a baby? On that subject, why is he such a weak villain? Why is there a spell to fix everything? Because it's Harry Potter, and it will always be that way. This isn't deep entetainment and was never meant to be. For me, the magic is seeing such a classic style fantasy translated to modern times. And the concept of watching a cast grow together over ten years is undeniably fascinating. I remember watching the 6 original Star Trek movies as a kid, being intrigued how the plot and themes developed over the course, and how the actors aged but retained the charm of their characters. Harry Potter seems to be that for this generation. And it's cool they have that.