Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Engaging with Representation from the Past

On Saturday night, I was watching Turner Classic Movies and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ava DuVerney is co-hosting "The Essentials" series this year.  Along with TCM regular host Ben Mankiewicz, DuVerney has been hosting the series for a couple of weeks now, but Saturday was the first of the films I caught her talking about before the movie played - the 1943 musical Cabin in the Sky, notable for being the first film ever directed by Vincente Minnelli -- Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), An American in Paris (1951), The Bandwagon (1953), and many others, a great director -- and for having an all-black cast. 

Cabin in the Sky had been a Broadway musical before it was a film.  Appearing in the film from the show's cast were Ethel Waters and Rex Ingram.  The film also starred Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and Lena Horne.  Besides perhaps Lena Horne, none of these names are well-known now, but they were, at least to black audiences, at that time. Ethel Waters, for example, in 1939, was the first African-American to star in her own television show, something called The Ethel Waters Show on NBC.  It was a short - 15 minutes - variety special.  Also popping up in Cabin in the Sky is Louis Armstrong, as a demon no less, and there is a climactic big musical number led by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra.

I wouldn't say Cabin in the Sky has a great story.  In folk tale like fashion, it concerns the fight for the soul of a man named Little Joe (Eddie Anderson).  Shot and near death, almost claimed by Lucifer for Hell, Little Joe gets a reprieve and has six months to amend his ways.  A kind of good angel called "The General" tries to guide him one way while Lucifer Jr., Satan's son, tries to guide him the other.  In terms of women, of course, there is one good influence on him and one bad. On the good side is his ever loving wife (Waters) and on the other side is a temptress (Horne).  Anyway, the plot is not the point here, not watching the film nowadays. And as Ava DuVerney says, though the film is well-meaning and put together in superb MGM style, it does present some representations of African-Americans that are, well, "challenging" (her word).  So why watch it?  Here's a film that may have been somewhat progressive in its day in that it had an all-black cast (meaning certain US theaters would not even show it), but it's a film that was made entirely by white filmmakers with their own particular conceptions about black people.

DuVerney gives a few reasons to sit down and watch it, and I couldn't agree with her more.

For one thing, it's fascinating to see actors who appeared all too little on screen during their careers have major roles.  Where else are you going to see Ethel Waters sing on screen and in such a prominent role?  Or Lena Horne in a leading role?  Cabin in the Sky is like documentary evidence of what these two and others could do. It reminds us of what they could have done if they'd gotten the chance in film, during their careers, to do more.

As well, the film deals in broad types just short of caricature - an early version of what DuVerney points out someone such as Tyler Perry would do years later.  It's an interesting film from that historical perspective, to compare representation then to now, and by whom, along a kind of continuum. 

And most of all, besides even the film's leads, there is the large cast of talented black actors and dancers who fill the film.  Again to cite DuVerney, one wonders, as one watches that big club scene at the end and the remarkable dance number in it, whatever happened to all the marvelous people who bring that scene to life. There's such energy and joy and skill to behold.  And here in Cabin in the Sky was a chance for all those artists to show themselves doing their thing at their best.  Where did they all go afterward and what did they do?  You assume they danced and acted elsewhere, but did any of them ever get a stage to play on as bright and large as the one Cabin in the Sky afforded?  Probably not.  To watch the movie is to pay a bit of homage to all those people. 

I happened to be flipping through the channels this past Saturday night when I caught the TCM promo saying that Cabin in the Sky was coming on with Ava DuVerney introducing it, and I'm happy I stopped my flipping there.  For all the challenges it presents, the movie is pretty fascinating.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Regarding "Stop begging for Diversity"

by David Nemeth

Over the last four days, I have stayed out of the social media fray regarding the post, "Stop begging for diversity" (Do Some Damage). If anyone directly asked me about my role in the essay, I was forthcoming with a response. However, I chose not to respond to supposition and innuendo. And since you're probably asking right now, I did not write "Stop begging for diversity".

You may wonder about the length of time for this response and that is due to several factors including "Stop begging for diversity" being hosted on this website of which I am only a guest and having multiple people involved. All of this only slowed down communication.

Below is my recounting of the events that transpired over the last several days.

On Thursday, May 2, I received an essay that became "Stop begging for diversity". I asked the writer if I could post it and they said they’d have to think about it. If it was published, they told me, they might want to do so under a pseudonym.

On Tuesday, May 14, after the Strand Critics Award nominees came out, I got in touch with the writer and asked if I could publish the essay. They agreed but under a pseudonym. I respected the author's request for anonymity which encompassed both business and family reasons.

Later that day, I got in touch with Steve to check with him about posting it under an admin account. My reasoning, however faulty, was that by not publishing under my byline, the focus would be on the essay rather than me. That line of thinking proved wrong and for that I am sorry.

On Friday, May 17, Steve and I chatted about a response to concern in social media regarding the essay. We traded versions back and forth. I thought a statement by me might put pressure on the anonymous author. This statement has the same problem I was trying to avoid. I agreed with Steve that a Do Some Damage editorial response was warranted.

We can argue about the essay's newsworthiness or the author's anonymity, but I will not ask the writer to out themselves nor will I reveal their name. I will keep my word. 

Writing While Trans Part 2: Figuring Out My Brand

As many of you know, I am a transgender woman. But that's not all I am.

I am also a living kidney donor. I'm a wife. I'm a professional caregiver. I ride a motorcycle. I'm a desert dweller. I'm a recovering alcoholic. I'm a rape survivor. I've also been a goldsmith, a librarian assistant, and a web developer.

One of the things that drew me into writing was the fact that the vast majority of queer fiction were coming out stories, romance, and erotica. But there is so much more to life as a queer person than coming out, falling in love and having sex. Where were all the adventure stories, the sci-fi operas, the urban fantasies, and crime dramas with queer protagonists?

Cover art from Iron GoddessMy first series, which was eventually picked up by Random House's digital-only imprint, Alibi, was about a lesbian outlaw biker. Think Sons of Anarchy meets The L Word. Pretty fucking awesome, right? I certainly thought so. My agent thought so.

But before Alibi said yes, publisher after publisher passed. Not because they didn't like it. The vast majority said they loved it, but didn't know how to market gritty biker crime fiction with a lesbian protagonist.

Turns out they didn't understand how to market a thriller with a lesbian protagonist unless it was a coming-out story or had a romantic subplot. God forbid anyone writes about lesbians who actually have a career and a life outside of a relationship.

When Alibi decided not to extend the series beyond the first two books, I realized I had to now start focusing on a new series. With a lot of input from my wife, I decided to write about a modern day bounty hunter who happened to be a transgender woman.

This time I didn't bother going the traditional route. I was going indie. If publishers didn't get crime fiction with a lesbian protagonist, they certainly wouldn't be interested in a thriller with a trans protagonist. Even when the story wasn't about her being transgender. The story was about her tracking down someone who jumped bail. You know, crime fiction.

Now I was faced with the question about how to market my stories. Do I disclose in the book blurb that the Jinx Ballou the badass bounty hunter is transgender? Will that potentially turn away readers who might otherwise enjoy the story and not really care if Jinx is trans? If I don't mention it and readers learn about her past during the middle of the story, will they be turned off then?

Time Magazine cover featuring Laverne Cox
One the one hand, since Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the covers of glossy magazines, the media has finally started to treat trans people as human beings worthy of respect. There's been a sort of trans chic thing going, much like there was a lesbian chic going on in the 1990s. And I'm not ashamed to take advantage of it.

And the crime fiction community tends to be very inclusive and welcoming, anyway. When I reach out to media, such as podcasts who want to interview me, part of my pitch is that I'm one of the few (just me and Renee James, as far as I know) crime fiction authors who are trans.

At the same time, when it comes to the decision to buy, white heteronormative readers tend to stick with what they're familiar with: white, heteronormative protagonists. Not that they're overtly bigoted toward other kinds of protagonists. There is simply a subtle bias, a subconscious resistance, perhaps a fear of the unfamiliar.

Since the launch of Chaser and Extreme Prejudice, the first two books in the Jinx Ballou series, I have tried a wide range of approaches. Disclosing up front that Jinx is trans. And not disclosing she's trans, except in the book. I find the latter the more productive of the two.

Cover art for Chaser
I don't feel the need to disclose everything about who my character is in the Amazon book description. The book description is supposed to hook the reader into the story. And that's what I focus on. A bounty hunter who runs into trouble while pursuing a fugitive and chaos ensues.

Occasionally I will get a review or even an irate email complaining that while they loved the story, they don't care to read about queer characters. I once got a three-star review from a Trumpster who didn't appreciate the liberal agenda that crept into the book. Honestly, I was tickled the little shit gave me three stars.

Bottom line, I don't write queer fiction. The stories aren't about transitioning or falling in love with someone of the same sex. Few if any of my stories have a HEA as far as a romantic subplot is concerned.

Instead, I write crime fiction from a queer perspective. Or better yet, I write gritty crime fiction with a feminist kick. Like Sara Paretsky. Like Stieg Larsson. Like a lot of successful crime fiction authors who aren't afraid to challenge the patriarchy in fiction.

As one of the only transgender authors in crime fiction, Dharma Kelleher brings a unique voice to the genre, specializing in gritty thrillers with a feminist kick. She rides a motorcycle, picks locks, and has a dark past she’d rather forget.

She is the author of the Jinx Ballou bounty hunter series and the Shea Stevens outlaw biker series. You can learn more about Dharma and her work at https://dharmakelleher.com.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Ode to a (Fresh) Prince

I’m going to go all generational on you today and talk about my age group’s first global movie superstar. Because he returns to the screen this Friday. Will Smith stars in Aladdin.

I’m looking forward to it and I’ll tell you why. Not because I’ve been secretly dying for a live-action remake of this movie, but because I love Will Smith. He was the first big star—bankably huge, face on every movie poster, nobody scheduled a release opposite him—from Generation X. It was like, we have arrived. In the form of a skinny, wise-ass black rapper from West Philly. Oh yeah, this is going to be fun. And I felt like I’d discovered him. He was a ball player I watched on the farm team of TV, pointing at the screen during The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and saying “He’s going places.”

He took his persona—our Gen X persona—into feature films and not only succeeded, he blew everyone else out of the water. Independence Day, Men in Black, Wild, Wild West, Men in Black II. Just those films alone grossed more than $2 billion. All were vehicles for the Will Smith charm. Then he, like us, grew up. He took parts where he got serious, he got prestige, he played Muhammad Ali. The charm was still in there somewhere, but the fizzy fun—the I’m-having-such-a good-time-I’m-going-to-talk-you-into-coming-along-too—was diminished. Wait a minute, how did I wake up one morning and suddenly be middle-aged?

This brings me back to Aladdin. I think it might have some fizz. From the clips I’ve seen, it’s got some of that circa-1990s Will Smith verve going on. I hope so. He’s said that he couldn’t hope to match Robin Williams’s take on the role. He wanted to be “in a different lane, versus trying to compete.” He decided that bringing a hip-hop flavor to the part and putting his own stamp on the music would be one way to carve his own path. Just like our generation has been doing all this time.
And I can’t wait. A rapping, wise-cracking, middle-aged grantor of wishes.

It’s the genie that America needs right now.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 20

Scott D. Parker

It's all in the details.

Proofing the Hardcopy of Aztec Sword

Always, always order a hard copy of your books printed by Amazon.

When you create a paperback via Amazon (or IngramSpark), you are provided with a template. On the template are the bleed areas and the bar code space. It is incumbent on you to design your cover with those lines and boundaries in mind.

Amazon also has a great online viewer where you can proof your book electronically. It's good, because it has all the borders marked. But sometimes, you just need the paper.

Because of mistakes like this.

That's all on me. I got this text as close to the bar code as possible in my design program. Clearly, I got it too close. The spine's text also was misaligned, so I've got more than one thing to fix.

The interior is good. Vellum is a good program that takes care of all the little details so you don't have to. It also makes ebooks, so this is a key piece of software for any independent writer.

Oh, and Amazon now puts this banner across the whole cover.

The End of The Big Bang Theory

Strangely, I didn't watch this show out of the gate. I don't hardly watch anything live at 7pm CST. But when it finally landed on my radar, the family and I bought the DVDs and caught up. Ironically, we didn't watch live, but we watched both episodes on Thursday.

For many of these long-running shows, the characters face some big change and move out of the apartment or bar or whatever. But what I loved about the series finale of TBBT was that we now know things will continue just as they have for the past twelve years...we just won't be seeing their lives. Babies will be born, children will grow up in this wonderful make-shift family, and they finally have a working elevator. Come on. That's not a spoiler. You knew going in the thing would finally work.

Anyway, loved the finale. Well done.

Game of Thrones: Leave the Creators Alone

I love being a geek who has seen very little of this series. It just didn't do it for me. My wife enjoys it and, up until this month, always watched the shows via binging when HBO offered a week's worth of free programming. But for Mother's Day, I bought her HBO so she could watch the end live.

And I actually sat in for most of last week's episode. I'll also tune in tomorrow live. I think by Sunday, I'll have watched something like six or seven full episodes. With my wife's running commentary, I get caught up.

As a Star Wars fan who loved The Last Jedi and groused about those fans who signed petitions trying to get Disney to remake Episode VIII, I rolled my eyes this week as GOT fans wanted a do-over of this season.


I can imagine one day we'll have some famous author write a blockbuster book and they'll be fans demanding the publisher re-write it to their tastes. Sigh.

Always Have an Answer

Last week, at Houston's Comicpalooza, a friend of mine asked me why I haven't written any genre stories that would find a home at a geek convention. It was an honest question and one to which I didn't have a good and ready answer. I fell back on my humorous answer as to how I came up with my western hero, Calvin Carter: Growing up a SF geek kid, I discovered mystery fiction as an adult, so naturally I ended up writing a western.

It prompted me to examine my writing to date and I arrived at an answer: I enjoy writing thrillers, mysteries, and westerns.

But I think I'll be trying my hand at some SF before year's end. It might even be this summer.

Podcast of the Week

Blockbuster. It's fantastic. It is an immersive podcast, completed scripted like a radio show, about how Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, with John Williams, created their massive films of the 1970s. How good is this series? When Lucas and Spielberg face challenges to their productions, you can't help but be worried for them...and we KNOW the answer! Check it out.

Book of the Week

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe. I bought this on Audible when it was a daily deal, but highly recommended...and I'm not even finished.

Song of the Week

Could it be anything other than the second single from Bruce Springsteen's new album? Just listen to the lush orchestration. And the chimes!

Friday, May 17, 2019

Editorial Statement

When we set up Do Some Damage ten years ago -seriously, ten years, what?- we came out of the gate promising to pull back the curtain on crime fiction, and to provide a platform to as wide a variety of voices as possible. We also came out of that same gate as seven white guys, representing both the bearded and un-bearded male communities. We were called out on this, and listened. As time went on, we aimed to do better, and we're proud of the work the site has done over the years to platform new voices and be as inclusive as possible. Never perfect. Never 'right'. Never finished. But always listening to criticism and aiming to learn.

As part of our approach, we adopted the editorial line of not having an editorial line. We provide the space, our posters provide the opinions. Sometimes we all agree with each other, sometimes we disagree. We've always been willing to host anonymous essays, and to allow anonymous comments in the discussions. One shift that's happened in the last ten years is the conversation moving elsewhere. It used to be, the conversation would all stay in the comments below the post. Now it goes all over. Facebook, Twitter. The responsibilities are shifting, and blogs need to recognise it's no longer just about maintaining our own little corner, but in the part we play in the wider conversation.

On recent posts, about important issues, we've been made aware that anonymous comments have made people uncomfortable. And, of course, we hosted an anonymous essay that has generated a lot of conversation elsewhere. We think it's important, in the current climate, that conversations need to be open, transparent, and as close to 'face to face' as we can manage in the social media age. If we are to continue having the important discussions, we need to put our names to things. It wouldn't be fair of us to retroactively change any rules. Previous confidences will be respected. But moving forwards, Do Some Damage will not accept anonymous posts, and any unsigned comments will be deleted.

Thanks for your patience, and thanks for sticking by Do Some Damage for ten years.

Steve & Jay.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Stop begging for diversity

By A.C. Sorrell*

Now that the brilliant Walter Mosley has graciously accepted the 2019 Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for his magnificent novel Down the River Unto the Sea, it appears all of the sturm und drang over last year’s MWA nomination of notorious “Central Park 5” prosecutor and megabucks mystery writer Linda Fairstein as “Grand Master” has, at least in the short term, been mollified. As a direct result of this mollification, quite a bit of the heated discourse aimed at Fairstein and her madcap defender—Mysterious Bookshop owner and seemingly perpetually pissed off gadfly-about-town Otto Penzler—appears to have gone from volcanic diatribes to tepid whispers. Yes, there remains the volatile subject of diversity in mystery/thriller publishing and welcoming of Writers-of-Color into the genre.  But for the moment, we rightfully shine the spotlights of Decorum and Statesmanship on Mr. Mosley who, as a wise teacher to a recalcitrant student, calmly told the MWA membership in his Edgar acceptance speech, “You’re learning.”

And all the haters on both sides of the Fairstein/diversity issue politely took their seats.

I have no doubt, however, we’ll soon get back to our acidic vilification of Otto Penzler, as I have no doubt we’ll resume our raucous j’accuse mock-trial of the publishing industry as a good-‘ol-boys-‘n-girls bastion of white privilege.

And when we do return to clinched fist condemnations of both, at least a quiet few of us WoC will once again shake our heads in disbelief and discouragement while thinking, “You’re focusing on the wrong things. You’re demonizing the wrong people.” In fact, for a few of us, I would dare say this:  Otto Penzler is not the enemy. He’s simply the loudest clown in a really fucked-up, generations-old circus.

And Linda Fairstein?

She’ll continue to be a wealthy bestselling mystery writer who remains unapologetic about her prosecutorial past. Her bright, smiling countenance will continue to adorn millions of book jackets from here to Scandinavia and beyond; a diffused light, L’Oreal look that says, “Controversy? Darling, what controversy?”

And Mystery Writers of America?

Well, ain’t no party like a Mysterious Books party!

So where does all of this leave the overarching discussion on WoC in the world of mystery/thriller publishing?

To begin with, it’s my observation that the publishing world has made a subtle yet no less disturbing shift in its age-old sub rosa question “Do black people read?” An idiotic yet long-standing question used to justify apocryphal “information” and mythical “data.” A question that finally comes down to the accounting and marketing departments asking “How much do we want to spend this year on colored folk?”  (You can apply this same question to most any American minority including LGBTQ+, but if we are to be honest here, the question was born, breast-fed and raised to answer the perceived anomaly of black people in publishing/being published.)

The 21st Century world of publishing appears to have swung to an almost begrudging acknowledgment of black readership and market viability. However, this acknowledgment comes tagged with the new question, “Will anyone who is not black read black writers?”

And it is this question that should be of central concern to WoC.

This is the question that potentially leads to lower advances offered to WoC. It is the question that may affect how aggressive your agent is in getting you that deal, that advance. It is the question that may ultimately keep your work from being equally and vigorously represented in foreign markets. And it is the central and damning question that continues to segregate, ghettoize, and render as unequal a disproportionate number of WoC.

Smaller publishing houses have emerged with the stated mission of addressing the inequities of a less than diverse—never mind inclusive--book industry. While many of these start-ups are honorable, I would surmise they have yet to achieve the economic clout needed to publish a wide and deep catalog, achieve effective distribution, enact consistent multi-platform marketing and piquing international publication interest. (And, to be honest, a few of these new “champions” of diversity in publishing seem nothing more than dodgy pay-to-play houses, draining the author’s wallet without a thought or a care to an honest residual return on the writer’s invested dollar.)

The bottom line is you already know what and where the real battlefront is—and it most certainly isn’t petty skirmishes with irate bookstore owners or pearl-clutching multi-millionaire mystery writers. The battle is advancing your own career and getting the right team behind you to build and sustain that career, beginning with an agent that shares your vision, smartly engages publishers and fights like a junkyard dog for more than just another 15% paycheck. Your goal is to monetize your talent, initiative and sweat-equity worldwide!

Listen: Ms. Fairstein and Mr. Penzler are not the ones who recently gave alleged con-man, liar and Handsome-White-Privileged-Poster-Boy Dan Mallory, aka A.J. Finn, a lucrative million-dollar advance for a mystery novel whose authenticity of originality is still up for debate (The New Yorker, February 4, 2019, “A Suspense Novelist’s Trail of Deceptions” by Ian Parker). And they are not the ones who, from time-to-time, issue “definitive” lists of “America’s Top 100 Novels”, “America’s Top 100 Authors” or “Top 100 Books Everyone Should Read” which almost always exclude black, Native, Mexican-American, Asia-Pacific American authors—even Mr. Mosley.

They are simply gargoyles on the publishing castles’ ramparts.

Stop wanting, hoping and begging for “diversity.”

Your fight is now and always has been for inclusion.

Because regardless of a publishing industry that continually whines about an ever-dwindling bottom line—it’s still a big, juicy, multi-billion dollar, worldwide pie.

And you like pie, don’t you?

* A.C. Sorell is a pseudonym. This was written before the recent all-white 2019 Strand Critics Awards nominees were announced.