Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chapter 68: In Which I Discuss Small Press Things

Had this terrible nightmare the other day where Newt Gingrinch was a viable presidential candidate and the army had the right to indefinitely imprison US citizens, Guantanamo-style. It sucks having an overactive imagination. Must be something I read in a dystopian novel.

I'm in Pittsburgh right now. The holiday break at my school is very long, and I have a whole month with which to hang around my hometown and get work done. Also moved out of my hippie house in Oakland, so I'm looking for a new place. It got too crazy. Left behind some really stellar people who I plan on keeping in touch with. Also left behind a selfish douchebag or two who I'm leaving in the past. So it goes. I can say I am done with communal living situations for the time being. The one I lived in was not a good example, as it was incredibly disorganized and had an almost nonexistent interview process to weed out people who didn't fit. Still, there comes a time when dealing with community issues becomes a liability to personal security and desires, and even if a spot opened in the World's Best Co-op, I need personal space right now. Not ruling it out for the future: communal living seems ever more attractive as our whole "me first" society crashes in on itself. I don't have anywhere lined up, but I'm excited to find a new place, just like with any next step.

Working on the manuscript for Hard Times Blues. The other day I posted up at the library at Carnegie Mellon (yay for finals hours!) and had a successful writing session. A bit on my writing process: I can't just sit down and write. I can type a bit, but then I need to walk around, read something, eat, listen to music. And by music I mean dubstep. I listen to much dubstep these days. I set aside four hours to write, wrote for three hours, then spent an hour researching Haitians in Louisiana for a story that may or may not end up in the final draft. Sometimes I feel unproductive, but as I get older I learn to embrace my own process and own it.

So everything was going fine until...

My computer crashed.

I don't know how it happened. I was writing in Open Office on Sunday morning, working on a commission piece. Sunday afternoon I go to the library and can't open Audacity, Open Office, or anything I use with any frequency. I kept getting a bar saying I don't have the authorization to do this. The only thing I could access was Internet Explorer and all the explanations on how to fix it made my head explode. I'm afraid to fix it myself because I don't want to fuck it up worse. I know a few techno-savvy types, and plan on checking in with them before paying a thousand bucks to the Best Buy geek squad. Luckily, the most important files on there were backed up elsewhere, but I am looking at some that might be permanently lost because of this nonsense. And I really don't get how my computer got jacked up between that morning and taking it to the library. What is this, an airborne computer virus? I just got done re-typing everything I typed on Saturday on the family computer, using Microsoft Word. Life is all about the slings and arrows, as we all know. There are certainly advantages to writing stories entirely from scratch, looking at them from a whole new perspective instead of trying to fit new ideas into an old draft.

Recently checked up on my consignments. As the person who consigned with the stores, every once in a while I need to call and see if I sold any. I didn't. Though I did let one get paid out at a certain store because I forgot to check on it months ago. So it's in a used bookstore somewhere. It's cool that I sold two of three books that I consigned there, though if I'd been on the ball I could have picked up that unsold one and consigned it elsewhere. There are always little mistakes in the learning process when doing things by yourself. Like that time I made fliers for a reading in Pittsburgh and started passing them out, not knowing there was no date on them.

In the interest of promotion: these lovely establishments carry The Jack Daniels Sessions EP. They are independent stores full of beautiful people and always need the support:

Future Dreams (Portland, OR)
Quimby's (Chicago, IL)
Marcus Books (Oakland, CA)
Laurel Bookstore (Oakland, CA)
Boxcar Books (Bloomington, IN)
Blind Willow Bookstore (Emmaus, PA)
Rainbow Bookstore Collective (Madison, WI)

Buy a copy from them and you will get my eternal love. And speaking of bookstores...

Reading tonight!

It's a homecoming, baby. Six Gallery Press presents yours truly, Jason Baldinger, Bill Hughes and Don Wentworth for a night of the literary. Judging by next month's lineup, I'm guessing tonight is "Dude Nite." I assure you, though, that women are more than welcome to come. I'll probably be reading from "Assistant," as I've been growing interested in the last few chapters as performance material. It's good to be home.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

R.I.P. Darrell Sweet

One of my favorite scifi/fantasy mags is Black Gate. They cover all fantasy, from 80s role-palying tie-ins to the pulps to 60s science fantasy, and they do so with unabashed love. I found out from their site that cover artist Darrell Sweet passed away.

Sweet is the kind of person who made people read fantasy in the 80s. After all, the cover is what you see first. He came from the school when fantasy covers were gorgeous, detailed, colorful and blatantly, happily fantastical. Along with the Hildebrandts and Elmore, this guy pretty much set the standard. His portfolio is a treasure trove of halflings, dragons and magic swords. They let you know you were in for adventure. Seeing his covers on the shelves were the reason why I read series like the Deryni books.

Here's Black Gates tribute, which is far more eloquent than anything I could put it. Please, please look into his work if you have not already. I feel lucky to have grown up in a time when every fantasy book was blessed with a beautiful painting for a cover, and Darrell Sweet was at the top of the heap. R.I.P.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Chapter 67: In Which I Discuss Hard Times

Got on the bus today and saw a girl reading a Bran chapter of ASOIAF. Got off the bus and saw a girl reading Neverwhere. This fantasy thing. It's spreading.

I'm putting Motley & Plume Players on the shelf for a while. I'm not saying it was a hard decision. It was a startlingly easy decision. After working on the novel for a year, and getting up to over 400 pages, I'm still learning things about this book and these characters. I need the room to discover this story, and all the blown deadlines should have been my tip-off to give it the time a novel deserves.

Tried to finish the whole book over Thanksgiving break. Soon realized this would be impossible. One trip to the Berkeley Writers Circle convinced me that I would be shooting myself in the foot trying to do a truncated version of this material. Even if I did finish the manuscript, the goal was to edit down to 300 pages, while I was still figuring out the different, wonderful avenues I could take this piece. I know that someday it will be something special. Just not this May.

I also know that me and deadlines don't mix. Hell, I blew an anthology submission deadline just last week because I was feeling sick. As a writer, I'll have to start making these deadlines. This is important for things like anthology submissions. But I cannot actually write a book on any kind of tight schedule. The kind of novels I want to put out will take years. Which sucks. Years are something I have in limited supply. There's so many stories I want to tell. I really envy writers like Gaiman and Catherynne Valente who can produce mountains of quality work every year.

Sigh. I spoke with Christine and my publisher. I let them know I wanted my end of the book to be something I could put together by May, at the level of quality I expect from myself. They agreed. Like I said, an easy decision. The right decision. Motley & Plume Players, you're going back on the shelf. A little bit older, a little bit wiser, a lot longer. Looking forward to seeing you again.

That said...

Hard Times Blues

Rejoice! Hard Times are comin'.


Love that promo. And I'm as hyped up as Dusty.

The tentative name for my next collection is Hard Times Blues, collecting my work of the last year. Zombie stories, fairy tales, Jack tales, poems, and various doodads. I see it as a companion piece to Jack Daniels Sessions, with the skills I gained in the interim. I have four definite stories and I'm debating what the fifth piece will be. I will spend my sabbatical in the wintry harshness of Pittsburgh putting together this manuscript.

I'm about to embark back into the real world from grad school. It's time. So much has been going on, literally on my doorstep, and college feels more and more like a bubble to hide from the troubles of the world. Are there jobs for young men such as me? Will anyone survive 2012? I don't know; these are hard times. That this book will be killer...that's one thing that is certain.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Chapter 66: In Which I (And A Cat) Welcome December

So I slept horribly on the morning of the first. Thanks to a combo of indigestion, insomnia, and an uncomfortable position on an uncomfortable mattress, I woke up feeling like my legs were stuck in my arm sockets and my arms stuck in my head sockets and my head stuck in...well, you get the idea. Sore all over. I literally crawled from my bunk to go take a hot shower.

I live in a hippie house. Since the summer, we have adopted an orange tabby. As far as I know, it was a gift of a man to his daughter, and the babymama had no desire to take care of it. We feed it, so it stays here all the time, and has grown quite fat. I walk in the bathroom and there it is, crouched on the toilet, its eyes shining like sequins. They're such creepy animals. Nocturnal, haughty, and even the smallest kitten has something of the predator. It was staring straight at me.

After showering, I went back to bed for part 2. I settled in, when all of a sudden I heard a tapping, as of someone gently rapping. The cat, trying to get in. Knocking on the door like a person. I thought no more of it, when I heard the door open a crack. A skinny arm, like a prop wielded by a puppeteer, slipped through and started moving up and down, widening the gap.

The cat was opening the door.

And I thought, "Goddamnit, this is Poe territory."

I watched this in fascination a minute before getting up and locking the door. The cat is welcome, of course, just not that morning. The thought of it perching on one of the bunks and saying "Nevermore" at me did nothing for my ability to sleep. I locked the door. The cat knocked harder, and meowed, and somehow managed to swat at the lock. Several minutes later it started screaming to get in. An appropriately creepy way to start December, the scariest of all months. The autumnal change that comes with October can't compete with the pure apocalyptic feel of the last month, when you stand on the brink of a new year, and the weather makes the simple act of going outside feel potentially lethal.

Hans Christian Andersen
Currently reading: "The Marsh King's Daughter." There's nothing better than discovering a piece from a familiar writer that leaves you as riveted as the first piece you read of theirs. "Marsh King's Daughter" is amazing, enchanting from beginning to end. There are familiar Andersen-isms: birds, a princess under a spell that makes her disagreeable, an old king who falls ill, heavy Christian symbolism, etc.

Yet the aging writer flips the script a bit. First off, it has an international feel where different cultures are allowed to coexist. The titular character is the daughter of an Egyptian princess and a marsh-spirit, and spends half her life in a grotesque amphibian form. Half of our world and half of the fairy world, she is raised by a Viking chieftess, comes to break her spell by the influence of a Christian priest, and is ultimately reunited with her North African mother. Their first goal as mother and daughter is to save her grandfather, the Pharoah. The story is held together by a family of storks, a bickering husband-wife combo who provide both the catalyst and denoument to the story. They are a sort of guardian angel to the imperiled princess and help her family without question. Andersen is not only doing cross-cultural, but cross-species collaboration. The humans even learn how to speak stork!

Though Christianity is lionized, as usual, Andersen affords respect to the pagan beliefs of the Vikings, his own ancestors' beliefs. The Viking chieftess is a loving person who gains comfort through her religion. It is both the pagan and the Christian that influence the princess in a positive manner. Though Christianity redeems in this story, Andersen adds an element to it that is very much in line with the Old Testament. His presentation of Christianity emphasizes the "awe" of God, the ability for religion to burn you.

There's some "Beauty and the Beast" here. The titular character spends half of her life as a perfectly kind and good amphibious monster, the other half as a beautiful, evil and vicious princess. Andersen completely subverts the beauty=goodness stereoptype. The human side of her is the side that is truly duplicitous. This play with binaries is something I would expect from Angela Carter, not one of her literary predecessors.

Andersen is a romantic, as in a main focus of his writing is romantic love. Childhood infatuation, unrequited love for women. Here, he puts emphasis on familial love: for daughters, for sons, for birth parents and foster parents. The ties between family are what ultimately move the story along and serve as its anchor. The storks even become a sort of surrogate family for the human characters. There's also his delightful fairy tale logic: characters don stork feathers to fly between fantasy versions of Denmark and Egypt. Baby girls are born from flowers, Thumbelina-style. "The Marsh King's Daughter" is a later story, a more thoughtful Andersen working with the tropes of his early work. And I would be remiss to not mention the writing style. His strength as a writer was bringing old fairy tales to life through description and characterization. This would not be half the story without the diaogue between the wise stork couple. The characters experience loss and longing, all of it heartfelt.

For all its rambling fairy tale language, "The Marsh King's Daughter" is very cohesive story, every digression leading back to the original plot, all of it coming to a twist ending I sure didn't see coming. Magic is dangerous and unpredictable, and Anderson knew this. Be careful what you wish for.

Good job, Hans.

“I can smell the Nile mud and the wet frogs,” said the stork-mamma, “and I begin to feel quite hungry. Yes, now you shall taste something nice, and you will see the marabout bird, and the ibis, and the crane. They all belong to our family, but they are not nearly so handsome as we are. They give themselves great airs, especially the ibis. The Egyptians have spoilt him. They make a mummy of him, and stuff him with spices. I would rather be stuffed with live frogs, and so would you, and so you shall. Better have something in your inside while you are alive, than to be made a parade of after you are dead. That is my opinion, and I am always right.”