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.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Chapter 29: In Which I Talk of Inspirations

An individual writing style is a neverending cycle of inspiration. All of the stories have been told already, but the rub lies in the way they are told. Even books I have hated provided me with at least a crumb of inspiration for my own work. With the new edition on the horizon, I've been thinking of writers who, if not obviously affecting my style, gave me some guidance on the way. Of course, I could never list all the writers who have influenced me, so I'll do two for now, along with the hows and whys.

There's not much I can say about this Pulitzer Prize-winner that hasn't been said. I'll say what it was to me. Beloved made me love horror. Prior to seeing the movie in 1998 (at the brand-new Regal Theatre in Rockville, MD), I had seen plenty of horror movies. Plenty of Child's Play and Puppet Master movies. Entertaining, and certainly scary at times, but not truly horrific.

This changed when I saw the film by Jonathan Demme, the man who brought respectability to the slasher genre with Silence of the Lambs. Beloved is a terrifying film. From the moment I saw Thandie Newton propped up against a dead tree, covered in insects, I knew I was in for it. The movie works because it combines strange and unsettling images with a growing sense of dread, but the subject matter is also a huge part. It is about slavery, American history's elephant in the room. You'll find more narratives about people who fought to preserve slavery than about actual slaves. The reason the whole "I never owned any slaves so we shouldn't talk about it ever" argument exists is because a lot of people don't want to acknowledge the brutality of the American slave system. It was a centuries-long parade of rape, torture, lashing, crippling, hanging, infanticide and degredation. The movie did not shy away from this. Its horror stems from slavery itself.

I'm not writing this blog post to talk about a film. I could, since Beloved-the-movie is one of the most faithful adaptations Hollywood has ever made. They cut some stuff out, but they didn't change anything. The movie inspired me to read Toni Morrison's book. The above picture is from the edition I read, and still my favorite of all the book's covers. Beloved is a horror novel. It is full of weirdness, from the creeping dread of the ice-skating scene to the body horror as a fattening Beloved saps all the energy from Sethe, succubus-style. All of this is coupled with Morrison's most masterful move: the slow reveal of the horrors of slavery. She gets the gory stuff out the way early, moving on to the way it demeaned and demorialized the slaves. The part where Sethe remembers Schoolteacher comparing her to a beast springs to mind. What is more horrible than not being considered human?

I love reading the negative reviews for this masterpiece on Amazon where the snot-nosed brats who are now required to read it in high school complain about having to read about slavery. Their discomfort is the novel's victory. It is about the myriad ways that slavery damaged black people, most importantly on the inside. These characters are mentally unwell products of a mentally unwell system, to the point that even the way they love is damaged. Life does not get easier for them after the Emancipation; they have to live with the indignities, and the way they try to create a community for themselves is simultaneously valiant and tragic. This is a book that doesn't shy away from the evils that human beings do to each other. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Stamp Paid fishes a bloody pigtail with a ribbon on it out the river, and asks the question "What are they?" I am sure many slaves thought this, wondering how their oppressors could even count as people. Morrison's imagery is often disgusting, and I can't think of anything more appropriate for a narrative about slavery. However, she uses such imagery because the story is about real people, bodily as well as emotionally. People who piss when they're scared, or vomit up food they can't eat.

Morrison is using the entire tapestry of American history here. She goes into prison chain gangs, the extinction of Native Americans. The girl who helps Sethe cross into Ohio is an indentured servant, and Sethe's own mother came across the Middle Passage. Every character gets their individual story, so the final effect is a narrative about a country. I learned more about America in reading Beloved than I got from a lot of school textbooks. Considering my awe at the idea of using American history as a background for genre work, maybe the book had a greater effect on my writing than I thought it did. After I read Beloved, my attentions turned from the World of Two Moons and settled firmly on the wonder of my own home. I've stayed in America since then. So Beloved was a great inspiration, not just in cementing my focus but in developing the grimness in my work. Pulling your punches doesn't help anybody. It sure as hell doesn't make for good writing.

Back to horror. After I read Beloved, I saw how truly compelling and relevant horror could be. Up until that point I ignored the genre. Toni Morrison led me to Clive Barker and Clark Ashton Smith. She led me to Richard Matheson and Poe. Buried beneath all the corny jump scares I remembered as a kid, there was a whole genre of work that really gripped the heart. Tales of wasted lives, uncertain futures and unfulfilled love. Tales of tragedy. True horror stems from tragedy; the idea that what lies ahead is not just inevitable death, but inevitable sorrow. That's what is really scary. Toni Morrison taught me that.

The wonderful 1980s film version, for all its charm, does not come close to matching Peter S. Beagle's classic. The Last Unicorn is one of those rare To Kill A Mockingbird type situations. Namely, Beagle cemented his place in literary history with this one book, and didn't need to ever write another one. For awhile it looked like he wouldn't. Beagle spent most of the 70s and 80s writing non-fiction and screenplays. Only in his later years has he decided to become prolific. I've attended a few of his readings, and it's an absolute pleasure to here his latest.

There's the timeless plot, the way the elements all work together, the deft way he employs magic that keeps it so strange and fae. I am tired of D&D-style magic systems that whittle the impossible down to mathematical formulas that men in robes master by singing songs. In Beagle's world, magic is entirely unknowable, and the trouble the wizard Schmendrick has with it is perfectly understandable. Beagle understands the logic of fairy tales. For instance, the character King Haggard is unhappy. Many people are unhappy. His is an omnipresent unhappiness that casts a shadow over a kingdom. It is an unhappiness that multiplies around itself. It is grand unhappiness, and I always think back on one of my favorite quotes, from when the unicorn first meets him:

"You are losing my interest and that is very dangerous. In a moment I will have forgotten you quite entirely, and will never be able to remember just what I did with you. What I forget not only ceases to exist, but never really existed in the first place."

What really cemented my love for this book is the language. Beagle drops metaphors as easy as breathing, his ideas so refreshing and evocative that I had to wonder Where do they come from? Reading Unicorn pushed me in my own lyricism, making me look at different aspects of the world, forcing me to delve deeper into my own reserves of imagination. Poetic language is fantastical in its very nature. This is especially evident to me since I have recently read Bruno Schulz and Antunes. Their works take place in the real world, but they don't feel like any world I've ever lived in. The relentless creative metaphors build the fantastical atmosphere. And Unicorn is the king of such works, the poetry working alongside the plot to present an entirely original fairy tale.

I had a copy of the above pictured edition. It literally fell apart as I was reading it. When I explained to Beagle why I had nothing for him to sign, he replied, "Yes, I remember that edition." I'm glad I managed to keep it intact long enough to get so much out of it. There's a very nice illustrated version that was published recently. I should pick that up and do a reread. For the story, but also for the challenge to look beyond whatever easy image comes to my head. Any mediocre metaphor can be a great metaphor. Any dull sentence can spring to life with energy. The Last Unicorn is a 100+ page book crammed with nothing but those kind of sentences.

I feel fortunate to live in a time when not only do such books exist, but the masters who wrote them are still alive and producing art. And I honor them.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chapter 28: In Which I Update Once More

So I got word from the publisher. He found an unusual gaff: In pdf form everything is centered on the page, but in print form there is all kinds of marginal white space. He found this out after reading the incorrect proof sent by Createspace. So he is taking this opportunity to make the illustrations larger, which is always good.

I am working on my NaNoReVo piece. Lots of fun. Revision really cements in my mind that writing is a journey. Every day I sit down and write material that I may never use. I've always jettisoned pages worth of material that I put down during these recent revisions. It is never a matter of just putting words on paper. You have to see where the story goes, and this comes down to writing as much and as often as possible. A good book takes not just skill, but time. As my current workshop professor pointed out, it takes Toni Morrison five years to write those books. I hope to have this piece self-published by next June, and will probably be revising up until the last minute. Can't wait to see where the journey takes me.

In other book-related news, I got a nice recommendation on the Karen Lillis' blog:   Karen Lillis is a fellow 6 Gallery author, a small press champion and all-around quality writer. And I agree, the book makes a great holiday gift!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Chapter 27: In Which I Discuss New Developments

Taking a break from lamenting the ponderance of racism in America, I'm here to say that my book will most definitely be out IN DECEMBER! I was hoping for November, but there is still work to be done. My publisher got a copy of the proof from the printer was from an earlier draft, not the final one. Now we have to order a copy of that specific draft, which will go up on Amazon. This means at least another 15 days until we get this new proof. Don't know why that gaff happened, but it's no biggie. I'm simply excited to hear that the book has been approved, and all that is left is the printing. Having the second edition in hand will be a perfect cap to the year.

In other news, Caliban Books and The Big Idea in Pittsburgh are added to the list of shops carrying the book. As a Pittsburgher, and a patron of both stores, this is great news. They have long been supportive of independent writers in the area. The Big Idea is an infoshop with a lot of radical lit, so its really neat to have my book on their shelves. Note: these are first edition copies.

A major thing once the 2nd edition is out is consigning with stores. 6 Gallery Press has their own select stores they consign with, mainly selling the book through small press distro. As an author, I will have to contact stores personally to ask for consignment. I will contact every store I have read at in the past, and those I will be reading at in the coming year. A pain, and there's no guarantee my book will get picked up. But this is how people start. I'm a fan of 80s indie comics like Cerebus and A Distant Soil. Dave Sims and Colleen Doran had to put in similar legwork to get their stuff out there. Handling subscriptions and mailing comic books personally. It paid off.


Or "Now I remember why I bring a glass of water to readings."

So I am recording the audiobook of Jack Daniels. I had the first session last week, at a studio in Mills College in Oakland. The producer set up the microphone, then we did a lot of "can you hear me now?" Either I couldn't hear him through my headphones or he couldn't hear me in the booth, or he could hear me but not through the speakers...set up took a long time. For my part, I sat in a chair, my stories on a podium in front of me, a microphone on a drooping stand literally dangling in front of my face, wearing headphones through which I could hear myself. I will never love the sound of my own voice. Maybe one day I can get Patrick Stewart to do my voiceovers, but for now I think I do a halfway decent job. The fun started early when the producer needed to check "the levels" (don't ask me what that means), and instructed me to do the screaming parts from "Safe Space." We did a few mic checks and I got to reading.

Turn my headphones up

I did a complete read-through of "Safe Space." There were a few flubs which we will have to re-dub. I mostly felt concerned with my mouth that got more parched as the story went on, to the point I feared my dry smacking lips could be heard over the mic. By the end, my throat felt like the Sahara Desert. I also had to rustle some papers while reading. You'll never find a guy who treats paper as gently as I did during that reading, but there was some noise anyway. There has always been a performance aspect to my work, but sitting in a recording studio is an entirely new experience. When I was done, the producer burned me a CD to listen to. The things to listen to were spots where I made mistakes, and the level of difference between highs and lows in my voice. If the parts where I scream like a madman were too high, he'd have to compress it. It turned out fine.


This microphone was damn near in my mouth

Yesterday was more of a rehearsal session, since we had a lot of technical difficulties. It was one of those everything that can go wrong will go wrong things. (Murphy's Law? I dunno.) This time around I read "When ther Law Come," but didn't get all the way through. Doing the different characters takes a lot out of my voice. I am becoming cognizant of how I read in a recording setting, such as breathing through my mouth instead of my nose. The microphone picks up everything. In order to lessen paper rustle, I brought a laptop to read from. I have a plug-in mouse. That little nubbin on top of the mouse that you gently push to scroll up and down sounds THUNDEROUS over the microphone. I recorded about 20 minutes of reading, which the CD didn't pick up, so now I have to start over again next Tuesday. More time to practice.

I can't possibly fathom what all these knobs are for


Recently, I watched Windaria, a masterful 80s anime about war in a fantasy setting. There are steampunk elements, with guns and motorized vehicles, but essentially it's a fantasy. It's also brutally sad. It's all about the misconceptions that lead people to war and how war is terrible and destroys everything. It's about how war affects people, told in a baroque way that animes don't really do anymore.

I liked the movie. A lot. At some point I should do a whole post on it. Here's my problem with it, and a lot of anime. There are two kingdoms. One is Paro, industrial and militarized. The other is Isa: agrarian, situated on a river dam that, if it is opened, will flood the whole city. At the beginning of the movie, the Paro sends an agent to do just that. He is stopped, and the plot goes from there, with various people getting caught up in the conflict. The filmmakers spend a lot of time emphasizing the fact that Isa country is building up for war (poorly, I might add), and the stubborness of its queen in refusing to sue for peace.

My question is: How come animes always do these "give peace a chance" messages in stories where one side is the obvious aggressor. I see it over and over. Nausicaa, Mononoke, Escaflowne, the list goes on. Some industrialized country kills a ton of people, then they go to defend themself, and some girl starts screaming at everybody to "Stop fighting!" Whatever happened to self-defense? In Windaria, Paro literally tried to wipe out Isa at the beginning of the movie. It is made clear that their king will stop at nothing to take Isa, and peace will never be an option.

So Isa was justified in military build-up, just like the people in the Valley of the Wind would have been justified in massacring every Tolmekian soldier who violated their home. Maybe I would understand it better if the stories were more nuanced, but the aggressors in these stories are always marauding, war-loving villains who leave mountains of corpses in their wake. No, don't stop fighting. Protect what is yours. I wonder if this whole mindset is some sort of repudiation of Japan's militarist past. At one point, they were the evil empire spreading sorrow across Asia, and we see where it got them. Is the idea of maintaining peace, even in the face of aggression, some counter-reaction to Japan's war-like past? Food for thought.

Monday, November 8, 2010

chapter 26: Life in Jim Crow

So, Meserhle got off with a year for cold-blooded murder.

This is not a surprise. Nor will it be a surprise when he gets out in a few months, moves to Montana and gets a cushy job at a security firm. Where I come from in Pittsburgh, PA, the cops murder black people routinely, including one time where they shot an adolescent boy in the back for running from them. The idea of trials and sentencing is a pipe dream. What made this particular case special was the sheer overwhelming evidence against the killer cop (and his brothers who were beating the guy on the ground). The fact that it occurred in a "liberal" area inspired some hope. Many people thought this may be the one time where a black man's life was applied any worth in this country. It was not. Again, not surprising.

Which also doesn't make it comforting. There's a story in my book called "Assistant," in which I explore what it was like in the Jim Crow south, where black people lived under the constant threat of white terrorism. It was, in short, horrific, a life of constant fear. Events like this sentencing only nail home the fact that nothing has changed. I leave my house every day feeling like there is a giant target on my back. All the while I think: it could have been me. Or any number of people I know. I have literally been in the same position Oscar was, and knowing that I could have been murdered with the same reuslts is not comforting. I could be killed by white cops with absolutely no comeuppance, in order to maintain the status quo. As a black person, there is nothing you can do to protect yourself, other than fighting back. You can't turn your life around and live like a good citizen (like Oscar Grant did), you can't comply (like Oscar Grant did), and no amount of education kept Skip Gates from getting shackled like a runaway slave for trying to get into his own house. Its important to remember that the first police in this country were overseers, and that is the mentality today: patrolling the plantation to make sure the chattal don't get out of line.

This sentencing has also further exposed me to the depths of racism in the hearts of Americans. Go on any internet comments page, where anonymity makes people say what they feel. Its a flurry of comments about how Grant was a "thug," how "thugs" are going to riot in Oakland and steal liquor and Nikes, how blacks kill each other all the time and nobody makes a stink, how blacks need to stop complaining about racism because apparently the world is racist to whites now (the old anti-affirmative action BS argument), how nobody stands up for whites when "thugs" target them (in this fantasy universe where the predominant victims of black crime are white people, and not other lower-class blacks), and how Grant was resisting arrest, thus getting what he deserved. Only someone coming from an extreme place of privilege can say trying not to be handcuffed is worthy of public execution. As I said, we live in Jim Crow, where southern justice reigns and the uppity are made an example of. What scares me is that racism seems to be getting worse. The fact that you can find that many racist comments on a public message board, or spoken on Fox News, gives me the feeling that the only lasting legacy of multiculturalism is that the lines are drawn more clearly in the sand. I mean, you're really going to say Oscar deserved to die. Terrifying.

The San Francisco bay area is extremely racist. Its set up as a paradise for white liberals, who pay thousands of dollars a month in rent so they won't have to see the black people who live on a toxic landfill in Hunter's Point. Not only do people in Oakland live in a virtual police state, they have to live in the shadow of all the wealth in San Fran. The self-congratulatory liberal attitude around here makes me yearn for the days when I could be called a nigger to my face. I love watching the news footage where politicians villified the citizens who rioted. They patted themselves on the back for all the police they brought in, ignoring the fact that police started this in the first place.

This one thing is clear: in the Bay area, police execute civilians on train platforms and get away with it. This is a fact.

I feel proud to live in an area where people are politically active. Back in the 60s, blacks lived under Jim Crow. These were intolerable conditions. They inspired rioting. Even the now-socially acceptable direct action of Martin Luther King was, at the time, considered a huge disruption worthy of harsh retaliation. In the 2000s, black people live under Jim Crow. These are intolerable conditions. So they riot. And good for them.

Maybe I'm overreactive, but the fact that I live in the same environment of oppression and violence that my great-geat-great-grandfather, who was a slave, lived in, really hammers home that nothing has changed. The only thing I find encouraging, after watching the aftermath of Grant's execution, is that the people of the community are mobilized, and the institutions of resistance that have been around since the 1950s are still working to fight oppression. This is where I have found joy, in all this darkness.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

He's back

I can't muster the energy to really respond to this arrogant tripe right now, but I'm sure in the coming days the media will be all over Matt Lauer's interview with Bush. The living embodiment of everything wrong with America is back, and, apparently, the worst moment of his presidency is something somebody else did. Good to see some things never change. Stolen from, here's the Decider talking about Kanye West's infamous assessment of him:

Lauer quotes from Bush's new book: "Five years later I can barely write those words without feeling disgust." Lauer adds, "You go on: 'I faced a lot of criticism as president. I didn't like hearing people claim that I lied about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction or cut taxes to benefit the rich. But the suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low.'

President Bush responds: "Yeah. I still feel that way as you read those words. I felt 'em when I heard 'em, felt 'em when I wrote 'em, and I felt 'em when I'm listening to 'em.

Lauer: "You say you told Laura at the time it was the worst moment of your presidency?"

Bush: "Yes. My record was strong, I felt, when it came to race relations and giving people a chance. And it was a disgusting moment."

Lauer: "I wonder if some people are going to read that, now that you've written it, and they might give you some heat for that. And the reason is this..."

Bush [interrupting]: "Don't care."

Lauer: "Well, here's the reason. You're not saying that the worst moment in your presidency was watching the misery in Louisiana. You're saying it was when someone insulted you because of that."

Bush: "No, and I also make it clear that the misery in Louisiana affected me deeply as well. There's a lot of tough moments in the book. And it was a disgusting moment, pure and simple."

Heh. "Don't care." More on George Bush's record of race relations:

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Halloween will always be my favorite holiday. A day without religious connotation, made purely to celebrate fun. I hear it derives from pagan rituals, but I really like the mainstream interpretation. Just have fun. I went to SF's Castro district, which was insane, even with no parade and 40000 cops hanging around to make sure the gay people don't enjoy themselves too much.

The second edition of the book has been sent to Createspace! Done! Now I must wait for them to approve it. Then the print. Again, much love to the people who have supported me through this process, supported the book, supported the tours, supported fantasy fiction. If you are wondering if I celebrated, let me just say that Halloween was quite the time. And the party's only begun.

In other awesomeness: I'm going into the studio on Wednesday to record the audiobook. Could not be more excited. One thing I am working on is saying the dialect. Writing accurate dialect is a challenge in itself, but speaking it correctly is downright terrifying. I may not be a trained actor, but I want to try to get it right. I'm thinking of writing more dialect-heavy script versions of the southern folktale stories so it comes out better when I read. Also, I've been looking over certain stories to get a feel for the regional dialects.

"When the Law Come"/Alabama--Uncle Remus
"How Brother Roy Lost His Dog, Twice"/Florida--Zora Neale Hurston

Should be really cool. Can't wait to have it all in the can.

NaNoReVo Month

I'm doing NaNoWriMo. Not writing a new book, though. At this point, starting any new project seems a waste of time. I'll be revising "The Motley & Plume Players," the novella I'll be putting out with Christine Stoddard. Seems a good time to tighten the story. I plan on revising 1,667 words a day. Yes, it's cheating. That's why I'm not pretending to do NaNoWriMo. I'm doing what I call National Novel Revision Month. I've gotten better at self-editing, especially since I got over my fear of jettisoning a single word from my precious stories. Nowadays, I'll cut out anything. Hoping many happy revisions come my way.