Write Like You Mean it

 

I don’t presume that every visitor to our humble site voted the way I did. If you’ve read my previous posts and/or my work, you probably have a good idea who I cast my ballot for this past presidential election. Nonetheless, the die is cast and at least for the next four years we shall see if the winner is going to deliver on his promises and threats.

But in times like these those moments where you question what it is write as a storyteller. That in some ways I’m jealous when fake news stories on social media sway people. These fictions are propaganda, but not labeled as such. This material is not meant to offer reflection or enlightenment, bsimpsonsut to reinforce pre-existing perceptions and move the needle among the undecided. How do you top that?

The danger then is in feeling the need to redirect your work to make it cynical and didactic, to hit the reader over the head in driving home whatever particular point it is you’re trying to make to get said reader on your side. But then you take a deep breath, pause and collect your thoughts, and once you re-group, understand that what it is you write, be it genre to so-called literate writing, can contribute to broadening the discussion.

Not for nothing those of us who love our pulp stories helped put together Black Pulp and Asian Pulp. Not to be PC, but also acknowledging that for the most part, in the original wild pulp tales of the ‘30s and ‘40s, if people of color were say in a story set in Africa, a black person might be individualized as the gun bearer or the Asian be the villainous Yellow Peril or Dragon Lady. The aforementioned anthologies, and for sure those two examples are among several – the steamfunk novel set in the horror that was the Belgium Congo, Everfair by Nisi Shawl and The Striver’s Row Spy by Jason Overstreet come to mind — was a way to put the background character up front as the adventurer, the aviatrix, the gunslinger, the jungle lord. We can all have a turn playing these iconic characters to fire the imaginations, to have some fun and just maybe plant the seed that diversity isn’t some academic, lefty concept to guilt trip you, but is organic and seamless in the context of enjoyable stories.

In that way I feel renewed to still tell tales of derring-do, of the hardboiled and heartache, of noir and its dark alleys, sometimes with a bit of socio-political content threaded through and sometimes not. But consciously I want to stretch as a writer to put on the page and the stage in your mind, characters of various ethnicities not because I’m all touchy-feely, but because I want to challenge myself and the reader. In my own way counter those false narratives with fiction to hopefully resonate and connect. I’ll also look for ways my work can reach beyond the “Bubble” and into those areas of the rust belt and red states where folks may or may not have an affinity for crime fiction, but not fully indulging. Outreach to those who are hungering for something more than what they hear on AM radio.

I mean hey, VP-elect Mike Pence went to see “Hamilton,” didn’t he? Okay, he got schooled but still. Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won the Pulitzer and the Edgar for his novel The Sympathizer, stated in his recent piece in the L.A. Times Book Review section, “Listen to Radicals, Artists,” that sci-fi/futurist writer Ursala K. Le Guin said writers need to be “realists of a larger reality.”

Come on, y’all, let’s get large.

Happy Thanksgiving

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The Mysteries of Fatherhood

Last month my wife Gilda and I had the pleasure to take a brief week-long vacation to Florence, Italy.  Our American friends were already there, having rented an apartment on the south side of the Arno River which bifurcates the historic city and we stayed with them.  As they say, it was a whirlwind tour which involved seeing the famous Statue of David, renting a car to drive to Bologna, Puertomaggiore  and other environs — “Take the second right out of the roundabout.”

“I took the second right.”

“That was the third,” Gilda would point out.

“I can count,” I would insist, “that was the second.”

Fortunately Siri’s calm directions often resolved our navigational problems and allowed us to enjoy our day trips and the food in local cafes.  For even though my wife’s laptop and phone were hidden but nonetheless stolen from the rental, after the thieves busted out the rear window of the hatchback, and getting back to town that night we were locked out of the apartment after yours truly left the keys some damn place, we had a great time

Walking around a section of Florence one day and marveling at the centuries old architecture, the old daily comic strip Dondi flashed in my head.  The kid, Dondi (the photo for this post is a still from the film based on the strip that starred David Janssen – TV’s Richard Diamond, Private Eye, as the G.I), was a button-eyed war orphan who was befriended by an American G.I. in the closing days of World War II.   Man and boy grow close and the soldier turned veteran and his wife adopt Dondi and they live in Midville, U.S.A.  Dondi never aged so as the strip kept going for many years, his past wasn’t alluded to much.  Nowadays, if Dondi was to be updates as a show on the CW, he’d be an Afghan war orphan befriended by a lonely G.I.  We’d start with him as a tough 11 or 12 year old trying to adjust to small town U.S.A., both damaged individuals helping the other heal. Then if the show was renewed, the second year we’d skip ahead five years to Dondi as a troubled but goodhearted hunky teen who must solve the murder of his basketball coach.

Dondi

The Bicycle Thief, which emerged from the Italian neo-realism period of post WWII films, is another example of a relationship between father and sons.  In the film the father is scraping together work in the war ravaged Italy Dondi has escaped.  He gets a job pasting up movie posters but has to have a bike to accomplish the tasks.  He has a bike but had pawned it and his wife gives him their sheets to pawn in back.  Then on the job, the bike gets stolen.  We follow man and son on an odyssey across this rugged landscape of Rome to find his bicycle as each learns something about the other, and we the audience see what war on your doorstep does to a country.

A Better Life, based on a short story by Roger L. Simon (creator of the Moses Wine ex-hippie private eye series) is a kind of modern day version of The Bicycle Thief.  An East L.A. gardener and his teenage son have a strained relationship, what with the kid gravitating toward the gang life and the son embarrassed by his old man’s thankless work.  The two give us a look at Southeast L.A., far from the damn near lily white one percenter enclaves encountered in Entourage, and come to understand one another better as they search for his stolen pick-up truck.

Not to let fathers and daughters off the hook, in Naomi Hirahara’s Gase-Gasa Girl, her retired gardener amateur sleuth Mas Arai travels from Pasadena to New York City to aide his grown married daughter Mari with whom he also has a strained relationship.  As these things happen, Mari’s ex boss’ body is discovered by Mas and he’s drawn into solving the crime while he and his daughter navigate their relationship.

In comics there’s numerous father-daughter super-hero and super-villain relationships and probably one of the most complicated is Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia al Ghul who is Batman’s baby’s mama.  At times father, head of the League of Assassins, and daughter are aligned and at other times she’s trying to off her pops.  Kids.

Happy Father’s Day, y’all.

The Lifer

Back in one piece from Left Coast Crime, the Great Cactus Caper it was dubbed, in Phoenix. Yakked it up on a panel or two, hung out and talked shop and trash with fellow writers and fans, and played poker — badly . While the act of writing is a solitary one, not all writers are solitary by nature. Many writers enjoy mixing with the public and can be found in the bar holding court as they spellbind with stories of Hollywood deals gone awry or reveal just who was the inspiration for that shoe sniffing pastor in their last book. Certainly many other writers feel their work speaks for itself and while perfectly lovely people and not recluses, don’t dig the “hustle” one can find themselves doing at fan conventions.

Jewish Noir panel
Me and fellow contributors on the Jewish Noir anthology panel.

Not to be crass, but writers, at least those of us plowing the crime fiction fields, have long ago concluded we’re not coming out of pocket for transportation and hotel fees to attend conventions because we sell a ton of books at them. Though none of us are opposed to such should that be a byproduct of these public interactions. Rather we enjoy the camaraderie and ideas for new projects are sparked while talking with your colleagues. There have also been time when I’ve chatted with an editor and not been in hard sell pitch mode, just two pros talking over ideas of interest. Now and then an idea might become a project that will see the light of day from the house the editor works at.

To some extent I’ll admit I still subscribe to the adage expressed by Alec Baldwin’s Blake in the classic film of greed and disillusionment, Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet. Blake has come to give a highly charged pep talk to the harried salesmen trying to unload land parcels of a supposed development.

‘Let me have your attention for a moment! So you’re talking about what? You’re talking about – bitchin’ about that sale you shot, some son of a bitch don’t want to buy land, somebody don’t want what you’re sellin’, some broad you’re trying to screw and so forth. Let’s talk about something important…A-B-C. A-always, B-be, C-closing. Always be closing! Always be closing!”

But you can’t hard sell a book, the work will ultimately resonate with the reader or not. Though you do have to let the potential reader know your book is out there to give it that chance. Yet what’s the balance between the tactics of the abrasive Blake and writers such as Tomas Pynchon who lead hermit-like existences? For instance I get inundated by emails daily with notices that some writer has posted in this or that Facebook group their book in e- format is now on sale for a limited time or why it is you should buy their book. I routinely delete these emails even with the knowledge that I also post in these same Facebook groups promoting my work. Let alone the amount of time and effort writers put in doing social media to maintain a presence.

I seek then to achieve a zen in my journey as a writer, a lifer in the game as it were. It’s about always striving to improve my work, to hone my craft. Yes, I want readers and potential readers to know about my stuff, but there is only so much time in the day and on balance, it’s better to sweat the storytelling than the telling you I’ve written a story. That doesn’t mean I won’t let you know about it, just will do my best not to overdo it.

See you at the next convention.

Hardboiled Santa

Herewith for the Holidays is a favorite of mine I’ve posted before but bring back out albeit in slightly different form, for the Views from the Muse readers.

There’s certainly material to be mined about the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, whose lessons of kindness seems to have been recounted in various cultures. Though if the facial reconstruction is accurate, he looked like an aging customizer from Pimp my Sleigh. Nicholas was said to have been born to wealth.

But that like scion Bruce Wayne he would be orphaned at a young age and this would have a profound effect on the rich kid who was deeply religious. While Wayne is not particularly religious, he is driven and dedicated as Nicholas was for like Wayne’s alter-ego, Batman, he would come at night and do good. For example there’s a persistent story of Nicholas delivering three bags of gold to three penurious young sisters to save them from being sold into prostitution by their hard-pressed parents.

Santa

In my version the orphan Nicholas St. Nicholas, with more than a nod to Dickens, is cheated out of his fortune by his evil, greedy uncle who has the lad imprisoned on trumped up charges of having killed one of the sisters. In prison the young man meets various sorts of cutthroats from cat burglars, street corner magicians to bare knuckle brawlers. Because he is a personable sort he learns various skills and methods from these rugged types. In particular he befriends and protects an older gent named Klaus, imprisoned for unfair taxes, a man who used to be a circus high wire performer who wore a colorful red costume trimmed in white fur for flare. The old fella dies in prison, whispering a secret to Nick.

Our hero engineers a break out and seeks to right the wrong his uncle has done. Unk has used his ill gotten gains to become king of the local rackets – having forced the two other sisters to be on the stroll among other misdeeds. But also seeking to be a symbol of hope to the downtrodden, Nick St. Nick finds old Klaus’ hidden away trunk of wonders and dons his costume to honor him and adding a crimson domino mask, strikes fear in the hearts of his uncle’s blackguards as Saint Klaus, a ghost of justice from the grave.

From 19th century political cartoonist Thomas Nast, credited for first depicting an American version of Santa Claus, Frank Castle, the killing machine known as the Punisher in comics who has donned Santa’s gala garb so as to inflict his mayhem on unsuspecting mobsters, old school illustrations with the Claus selling Pepsi or Lucky Strike cigarettes (my dad’s brand), to that Smiling Bob sumabitch in one of these damn Enzite (no matter the company founder was found guilty of fraud a few years ago) male enhancement commercial as Santa with a retinue of middle-aged women eagerly, nay joyfully, lining up to sit on his lap, Santa Claus has proven to be a lasting touchstone in our pop culture.

Time now for some nog and rerunning the minor mini-classic from my man David Walker’s Badazz Mofo Productions, Black Santa’s Revenge: He Knows When You’ve Been Naughty.

So hell yeah…Happy Holidays!

Of Widgets and Craft

We over here at TPAC think about writing a lot. The doing of it and the marketing of what it is we produce. Particularly in an era when the fight for, dear reader, your attention is an unrelenting and quite daunting task given how many ways you can spend your free time. For instance, there are cable television shows I used to watch every week, Longmire and Hell on Wheels to name two. I got behind on these programs, keeping up with the storylines of other shows, then figured out why sweat it. Wait until the episodes were streaming on Netflix, Hulu or some damn thing yet to come along, and binge watch – a phrase spawned by our digital age. The age where stuff never truly goes away and we can find something to entertain us around the clock via various outlets.

Amazon is a factor in this as the Kindle and other e-readers have had their effects on the pursuit of creative writing as a career. Those who self-publish solely or as part of their writing life as I do, have felt the crush to constantly feed the machine. That it’s not unusual for some writers to produce four novels or mixed with novellas per year. I know at least a couple of writers who work full time at their craft and have managed to pull this off. They write across genres, under a different name or two, and maybe with a partner on one or so of the books they have to get out there. It’s a time when a come on to gather potential readers of your book is not so much a glowing review in the New York Times but putting it on sale for .99 or giving it away for free for a limited period. The book as commodity as opposed to an appreciation of its individual merits, what it gives to you the reader.

Lorraine Devon Wilke in a recent piece in the HuffingtonPost Book section decried these practices of producing books as if making your quota supplying the conveyor belt. She self-published her first novel called After the Sucker Punch. She’d worked years on this effort, wanting it to be a work of art, a book of depth and merit. I can dig that. I too want to write books that have something to say in big and small ways. And that does take time to make happen on the page. Writing and rewriting, thinking about does this passage work as I intended…maybe my man character should really want this and her antagonist talks in this way and those changes will alter the plot That even if you write genre, you might elevate the genre at times.

typewriter2
Carl Kolchak at his typewriter

This versus the grind to turn out x number of pages a day to get to the finish line so you can start all over again. Little time to shape and hone that one sentence just so or be reflective on how to shade the nuances of your characters as the story unfolds. That like the pulp writers of old, you pound out the work because writing’s a job and you have a deadline to make. The Raymond Chandler versus Erle Stanley Gardner school. The two were friends and Gardner it’s been reported could dictate three novels on a given day, each at its own stage, to his secretaries Even when he was doing his own two finger hunt and peck typing, Gardner was known to write two short stories a day for the pulps with a goal of producing 100,000 words a month – while maintaining his law practice. Chandler penned less than 10 complete novels and a few screenplays, and he sweated long and hard on what he put down on the page. Could you find Gardner more formulaic, yes. Was Chandler more evocative in what he wrote, certainly.

Arguably Chandler’s work has endured but you can’t dismiss Gardner so easily as his ultimate creation, keen witted criminal defense lawyer Perry Mason, has endured as well.

Is there a happy medium between these two approaches? For some it’ll remain a numbers game and for some, they can be prolific and hit a certain standard of writing that can entertain and be insightful. Other can’t be rushed and will take the time they need to write the book and there’s nothing wrong with that either. For yet another recent riff indicates readers like writers are becoming hybrid and consuming their books electronically and the tried and true method of paper.

Could be there’s room for all types of approaches, levels of output and how those stories are received..

My Name is Hunter X

Hitting bookshelves next month is an anthology I co-edited with Richard Brewer entitled Occupied Earth from the fine folks at Polis Books. It’s a collection of original stories about life under space alien occupation some twenty years on under the book heel of the Mahk-Ra.

But of course there is resistance of an organized nature in the form of the Red Spear and freelances for want of a better term. The following excerpt concerns such a freelancer, a character Richard and I created codenamed Hunter X. He is a bad muthaforya.

Occupied Earth is out on October 15 and we are also having a giveaway over on Goodreads.

I had previously mapped out the streets in my head. I took a shortcut and zoomed through a swath of dockworker housing, mostly nondescript concrete apartment blocks that reminded me of the crap housing I grew up in back in Sacramento near the downtown arena where I use to sneak in to watch the Kings basketball team. The area is decently cared for and it was a bitch secreting away one of my caches, but I’d eventually found a spot behind an old senior center.

In a freestanding little used outside storage shed, long in need of repair, I fetched my case from behind some adult diaper boxes and took off again. Traffic was light that time of day. I passed an over-sheriff patrol car, a Ra and Re in the vehicle. They gave me the once over and I nodded back, a nervous smile on my mug just like any other civilian hoping to be left alone to do their job without any trouble. They rolled past and I gave the rig some gas, heading back toward the roadway at a clip.

It’s pretty much a straight line to the Department and if I was moving that shitheel, that’s the way I’d have done it. No rigmarole, no fancy ducking and dodging. No time for that kind of bullshit ’cause maybe there’s some floating IEDs around or a clear plastic, nigh invisible Symtex Bouncing Betties about. I figured they’d want to get him safe and secured as fast as possible.

In the case I had a few special items, including an RPPG, a rocket-propelled pulse grenade launcher. I parked in a handicap zone near the front of a housing complex that bordered the route as I heard the sirens approach. I’d bet the noise wasn’t Harper’s idea but Maastas-ra, being the self-important prick he is, would have insisted so that the humans would know somebody important was coming through and to make way.
My phone’s lock pick app easily overcame the circuitry of the apartment’s entrance gate, and like that I was inside. The rain had let up for a few minutes and even though it was still overcast, there were a couple of good lookin’ babes in spray-on bikinis laying by the pool.

Occupied Earth standing bookCrazy.

From the bit of chit-chat I heard between them it sounded like they worked at the casino. I tipped my cap to the ladies as I walked by. Maybe they thought I was there to repair the washing machines what with my work clothes and the case I was hefting.

I hurried up an enclosed stairwell and gained the top floor, the third landing, and blew out the lock of an apartment door with my handgun. I lucked out and no one was home. I made my way to a rear window and opened it. The small convoy was coming straight up the road and I got out the RPPG; sited it, took in a breath slowly, and let loose the grenade. It struck the hood of the lead vehicle, the skimmer, blowing up the engine. The vehicle dropped like a rock, fishtailing, and the Lincoln, unable to stop in time, T-boned it at full speed.

Sweet.

Given its armor, I figured nobody inside the limo would have been injured too badly. But now they were stalled on the road and I was that much closer to my kill shot. Staying in the apartment would be sure death as their tech would probably already be zeroing in on the origin of the assault. Odds were they wouldn’t exit the vehicle. They’d sit tight and wait for back up. Then the trailing skimmer hit the Limo.

I ran down the stairs. Ascending was a cop, a Mahk-Ra. The fuck? Was he one of the uniforms I passed in the patrol car? How could they have responded so quickly?

“Halt. Hands up,” he said, his gun already starting out of its holster and starting to rise.

I shot the deputy in the face, his dark blood staining the compact stairwell’s walls. I kept going, stepping over his crumpled corpse. I was traveling light. I only had the one shell for the RPPG so I’d left it upstairs. I wasn’t wearing gloves or a DNA blocker. Fuck it. It wasn’t like they didn’t know me.

###

For more Occupied Earth goodness and to read stories, bonus tracks as it were, not in the book, check out the website.