Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Day of Surrender

I rarely get sick, but I seem to have come down with a case of strep throat, and the result is that I've already let my job know I'm staying home on Tuesday.  My son will be at school and my wife out of the house in the afternoon, and with my energy level low, I plan to spend the day in bed reading and watching stuff.  It's not so unpleasant to feel less than stellar but not altogether miserable, and I'm looking forward to what will be a day of book and movie indulgence.

So what's on the agenda?  Well, before I get to that, let me tell you the attitude that I will not be taking.

I know he's an easy target, but let's just say I will not be taking the perspective of one Jonathan Franzen.  Why even bring that guy up? Because for some reason now, whenever I get sick and have to stay home, I think of the introduction he wrote to the Martin Beck novel, The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.  You might not expect Franzen to have written the intro to a "mere" crime novel, but he did, though of course, his admiration for the book comes with a caveat.

As he says (admittedly a little tongue in cheek at the beginning of this excerpt), "An actual Swedish person, my college roommate Ekstrom, introduced me to this book...This was in 1979.  I was exclusively reading great literature (Shakespeare, Kafka, Goethe), and although I could forgive Ekstrom for not understanding what a serious person I'd become, I had zero interest in opening a book with such a lurid cover...It wasn't until several years later, on a morning when I was sick in bed and too weak to face the likes of Faulkner or Henry James, that I happened to pick up the little paperback again.  And how perfectly comforting The Laughing Policeman turned out to be!  Once I'd made the acquaintance of Inspector Martin Beck, I was never again so afraid of colds...There were ten Martin Beck mysteries altogether, each of them readable cover-to-cover on the worst day of a sore throat."

I've only read five of the Martin Beck mysteries so far, and I managed to read them all when I was in the full bloom of health.  I'd call them excellent, and often funny, though not exactly "comforting". I get what Franzen means when he says he may not want to tax his brain when he's feeling ill and listless, but come on!  But what the hell, it's Jonathan Franzen, and I'm sure he's not alone in thinking like this. 

What's funny is that to this day, I remember a specific winter weekend in college when I came down with a severe cold, one of the worst I've ever had, and read a book as difficult as any I've ever read.  I was living alone and off campus and felt terrible with my cold, and for the lit class I was taking, we were reading William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!  It's the ne plus ultra of Faulkner novels, with sentences that run on for pages and pages - parentheses within parentheses - and its hallucinatory action, not to mention its many characters and extensive time span.   Faulkner's hardest novel to get through, I'd venture, and I'm a Faulkner fan who's read a bunch of his novels.  In any event, I recall stocking up on food, juice, and tea on Friday, in frigid weather, then rushing home as I sneezed and coughed.  After that, I changed into my pajamas and got into bed, and I didn't leave my apartment for three days. Somewhat delirious, repeatedly dozing and then waking up to read, I tore through Absalom, and I daresay being sick allowed me to let go and float along with those incredibly long convoluted sentences.  I was too weakened to stop and analyze them.  The book gave me a kind of high, though that feeling, in all honesty, could also have come in part from the medication I was taking.  The point is, I loved Absalom, Absalom!, and as a matter of fact, it's my favorite Faulkner novel, a book I still put in my all time top ten favorite novels.  I've never dared go back and try to re-read it, though; I fear that if I do, not sick, I won't have the same blissful experience. I could try reading it again when I am sick, but what's the point of that, really, and anyway, I'm not alone in my living situation and able to devote myself to a book for days on end like I once could. That particular read was a one time thing, but it serves as the exact opposite of the Franzen "oh let me read a mere crime novel when ill" approach.

So what about the current sick day?  What to read, what to watch? Simple: I'll continue with the book I've been reading - Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt and The Bohemian Highway.  I read the first Claire DeWitt book a few months back, and I'm about halfway through the second.  I'm enjoying it.  Maybe on my day off from work, lying in bed, I'll be able to finish it.  

I'll also be watching episodes three and four of Twin Peaks: The Return, and I can't wait for that.  That's for the afternoon. As I say, my son will be at school and my wife out of the house, and I'll be able to lie in utter darkness before the big flat screen TV and give myself over to the entrancing pleasures of David Lynch.

I need rest and antibiotics for strep throat, no medicine that will reduce my alertness.  And that's a good thing. Between Sara Gran and David Lynch, between all the intoxicants Claire DeWitt takes and the intoxication that David Lynch's images provoke, who needs to ingest anything else?  (Well, besides coffee for Twin Peaks).   These are both the sort of spacey but lucid works to which you just surrender yourself. You let them lead you through their mysteries and take you wherever they happen to go.  

It's going to be a restful day, but trippy.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Word Power

There's been a lot of talk in my Facebook feed over the past few weeks that's had a common underlying theme. It started with the latest 'cultural appropriation' brouhaha, which resulted in opinion after opinion after opinion after opinion after opinion about the subject, and this is a subject that's been discussed at length many times before.

One old commentary of note began:

A few months ago, I read “The Orphan’s Tales” by Catherynne Valente. The fantasy novel draws on myths and folklore from many cultures, including, to my delight, fairy tales from my Russian childhood. Curious about the author, I looked her up online and was startled to find several social-media discussions bashing her for “cultural appropriation.”
There was a post sneering at “how she totally gets a pass to write about Slavic cultures because her husband is Russian,” with a response noting that her spouse isn’t even a proper Russian, because he has lived in the United States since age 10.**
This article produced a multi-page thread on Snopes discussing the issue.

Welcome to the new war on cultural appropriation. At one time, such critiques were leveled against truly offensive art — work that trafficked in demeaning caricatures, such as blackface, 19th-century minstrel shows or ethnological expositions, which literally put indigenous people on display, often in cages. But these accusations have become a common attack against any artist or artwork that incorporates ideas from another culture, no matter how thoughtfully or positively.

A work can reinvent the material or even serve as a tribute, but no matter. If artists dabble outside their own cultural experiences, they’ve committed a creative sin.
And the recent brouhaha spawned a number of responses and dissections of the issues, but one of note comes from Jesse Wente, and others who are members of the First Nations community.

I respect the fact that there may be some within different ethnic communities who felt hurt by the original offending editorial. I'm not sure the editorial intended that. The writer may have had a genuinely good intent - to prompt writers to stop writing about mirror images of themselves and embrace minorities and other cultures in their writing - and conveyed it poorly. Or perhaps that's the intent I wanted him to have. Either way, the reality is that if we don't clearly convey our meaning then we're at fault for some of the interpretation and response that follows.

However, I have been bothered by the whole cultural appropriation discussion, because of how the subject becomes misinterpreted, twisted and perverted for - in some cases - personal reasons. In the course of discussion after discussion, I saw some people shifting the meaning towards the criticisms leveled at Valente referenced in the above quote from 2015. In other words, if you aren't from a specific ethnicity, you don't get to write about it.

That's an interpretation I take issue with. A writer's job is to step outside their frame of experience and present characters who are more than caricatures, who feel real. Would it be real for me to write about strictly white women in a white world? No. Why is is that we have no issue with women writing about male characters and men writing about female characters? Why do we have no issue with older people writing about younger people, and vice versa? As long as the author does their job of fleshing out the character and presenting them in a way that makes them real to the reader, what's the problem? Nobody flipped out over Shakespeare writing a Danish tragedy. I'm fairly certain that 99.9% of the population has had no interaction with aliens from outer space, and I don't protest ET. I mean, for all we know, on a planet far, far away, a bunch of aliens are sitting down with their version of popcorn, watching V and wondering about the batshit crazy Earthlings who've gotten aliens so wrong.

Part of the reason I'm bothered by the way that the discussion gets twisted is because nothing changes; the same points are recycled every few years, and we're no further ahead.

Another reason I'm concerned is because some writers may fear the backlash and actually shy away from incorporating ethnic minorities into their writing for fear of accusations.

And the subject makes me nervous because I worry about overstating our claims to content of any nature. One person's experience of growing up with a bipolar parent isn't necessarily the same as another person's experience of growing up with a bipolar parent. One person's experience at a private boarding school isn't necessarily the same as another's. And it may come as a shock to some, but one person's experience of being white isn't necessarily the same as another person's experience of being white. I mean, I'll be the first to tell you that when I hear some of the extreme feminists who seem to think that they're better than men, what goes through my mind is, "You don't speak for me."

I have Aboriginal characters. I spent a number of years living barely more than a stone's throw from the Penelakut First Nations reserve. (And even as I typed that, I questioned if we still use that term. Yes, I found an article today that referred to Canada's 'Indian' reserves and I'm perplexed. A few years ago, Aboriginal became the proper term... How can 'Indian' still be generally used?) I had friends who lived there. I had a lot of interaction with people from the tribe over the years.

I wanted to attack some of the stereotypes that are leveled against Aboriginals. I created an RCMP officer who was Aboriginal; one of the RCMP officers who helped me with research was part Aboriginal, part French. I gave Tain a terrible personal wound; his daughter had died after he failed to get custody of her, because he was a man and Aboriginal. The courts sided with the white mother, who was ultimately responsible for the abuse leading to their daughter's death. (You want to take about prejudice, don't even get me started on the blanket assumptions that all mothers know what's best for their kids and dads don't matter.)

I don't see myself as stealing anyone's story, and I certainly don't think that I'm asserting I can tell it better. What I am doing is incorporating my own perspective, that Aboriginal people have faced discrimination in society that has been devastating, and that it is wrong to make determinations about people based solely on their gender, religion, skin color or heritage. In order to write a book that's authentically based in Canada, within the scope of what I write about and the settings for those particular books, I think that's very important. After all, how do you write about crime fiction in British Columbia without addressing the indifference shown to Aboriginal victims?

This morning, I did a silly Facebook quiz and it produced my sarcastic one-liner.

And it felt very timely, because words matter. Words can hurt. Words can move us to tears, and they can motivate us to act. They can impart understanding, and they can cut through us like a knife. We may have all sung the childhood verse sticks and stones can break my bones but names with never hurt me at one time or another, but the proof that it isn't true comes in the next line; call me this, call me that, call yourself a dirty rat.

Why would we respond to name calling with more name calling if we didn't think it would hurt someone? The truth is, it does.

The recent focus on words on Facebook that's been filling my feed started with cultural appropriation, and has moved on to discussions about political correctness and the use of disparaging terms. I don't want to say too much about that, though, because one thing I'm not going to do is try to figure out whose Facebook posts are full public and whose are private, and I don't want to violate anyone's preferences by citing them without permission.

The specifics aren't relevant. If you aren't concerned with the possibility of offending others, not much can be said to convey why some terms should be abolished from our speech. You won't get why I'm questioning the 'Indian reserve' term still being in use. And if you are a person of consideration, then you will likely already be aware of the power your words have, and choose your words carefully.

What writers draw from this discussion can shape their works in the future. One of my biggest fears as an editor is tied to some of the reaction I've seen to this discussion. Write what you know. Please don't 'write what you know' or feel you have to stay in your lane. Make sure you do appropriate research and treat the people you write about with respect and make them real to the reader. That's your job. Please don't retreat into a monochromatic mindset that conveys a world that doesn't exist.

You want to know what the fastest way to get a rejection letter from me is? It isn't a quirk in the formatting that needs to be corrected. It isn't a typo. It's boring me to tears. If you're going to limit yourself to 'write what you know' then you better have an extraordinary life. As I've been going through Spinetingler submissions I've identified what must be the common themes assigned to people of specific genders at specific ages. I'll say no more about what those are, but it's become my primary turn-off. By god, give me something original. Something with flavor. Something more than typical twenty-something or forty-something angst.

The words surrounding the discussion of cultural appropriation have power. Unfortunately, they've put the emphasis on appropriation in literature, while the real problem is with how people of different cultural groups are treated within society. If characters within stories can highlight those issues, isn't that a good thing?

Words matter. They have power. Use it wisely.

 Did Fargo get it right? Does Hanzee feel like a stereotype, or like an authentic character who'd been discriminated against because of his ethnicity and pushed to the point where he wasn't willing to take that kind of discrimination anymore?

**Included because in the course of discussion elsewhere, I was asked to provide sources to prove that people were connecting the idea that writers shouldn't write about people from different cultural groups as part of cultural appropriation discussion. I walked away from the discussion after that.  Beyond what's in your own Facebook feed, if you can't do a google search and establish that reality within 10-20 seconds, as I easily did, then to ask me for proof means either you're lazy or you think I'm a liar, and there didn't seem to be much point trying to have an intelligent conversation with anyone who falls into either category. There is a lot of material to read on this particular subject, if you really want to be an authority, and it doesn't take long to establish that there's a range of interpretations about the term and what it means for writers. To discuss it without clarifying your specific interpretation and position is the dangerous ground many walk on; I found that a lot of people were discussing the subject without having read the recent editorial, the articles and editorial responses to it, or the interviews related to the subject, so the discussion risked operating solely off presumptions. And I considered not writing my thoughts here, because it's hard to do this topic justice within a blog post, and even what I've written feels a little simplistic. However, the subsequent discussion about the 'r' word underscored how people were so willing to defend using a term to offensively define people of specific community... and left me wondering if those same people walk around using the 'n' word, too. All of that reiterated to me that our words do matter, and whatever our intent, which we can question on the part of the writer of the original editorial in this recent brouhaha, the response demonstrates that we must choose our words carefully, or risk facing an avalanche of criticism as a result.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

UnCHARTed Waters

Amazon has just thrown another rock in the pond of bookselling. 
It announced this week that it will begin publishing a weekly list of bestselling titles. Sound familiar?
Publishing bestseller lists since Rip Van Winkle was young.
Amazon will chart its top twenty bestsellers in fiction and nonfiction. This sounds similar to the NYT, or USA Today, or other such lists. But Amazon has a whole other level of data at its dot-com fingertips. It’s “Most Sold” list will include titles purchased or pre-ordered through,, and Amazon physical bookstores, as well as titles borrowed through Prime Kindle, Kindle Unlimited, and Audible. That’s a heck of a lot more sales points than what other bestseller lists have access to.
But that’s not all. Amazon also will have a “Most Read” list, that tallies the average number of daily Kindle readers and Audible listeners for that week. Yeah. Back to that whole other level of data. No one else can compile that. Not even close.
This is particularly interesting to me in terms of pre-orders. Authors are told that pre-orders are extremely important – they gauge advance interest in the book. Now here’s something that will, theoretically, tell the world in real time (well, weekly time) how those pre-orders are coming along. This raises some questions for me. If a book that hasn’t even come out yet generates enough pre-orders, will it sail to the top of the list, thereby bumping off a hardworking, already released title? Will those books, likely by big-name authors with good name recognition, now gobble up list spots before and after they’re released, instead of just afterward, like with the already existing lists? Or will more bestseller real estate mean more spots for everyone? My cynic’s heart tends to think the former, but we’ll have to wait and see.
The New York Times recently eliminated its mass market bestseller list, which disproportionately impacts certain genres, like cozy mysteries and romances, that are published primarily in that format. No matter how many an author sells – oftentimes a lot more than a hardcover title – there’s no getting on the NYT any more. So will Amazon’s new Charts be a chance for those kinds of books to regain a bestseller crown?
Only time will tell. I, for one, will be watching closely.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Packing for the Hospital

Scott D. Parker

I had to accompany my wife to the hospital this week. She needed surgery--success!--and I was to spend the night with her. Plus there was the waiting time. Clearly, I needed reading material. I hope I'm not alone in the following packing regimen.

First thing in the bag was the Kindle Paperwhite. It is my go-to reading device when I don't read a paperback. This would account for the novels I'm reading especially at night when the lights were out. Then, if I wanted to pass the time reading some comics, I packed my Kindle Fire. It's the little one that you can hold in one hand. I've got a lot of comics on that thing no matter what my mood. I threw in an old issue of BACK ISSUE magazine I picked up at Comicpalooza last week. These are great magazines that features long articles and interviews about this history of comics and their creators. The latest issue of MEN'S JOURNAL found its way in the bag. And, well, I am a writer so I tossed in the Bluetooth keyboard to link up with my iPhone when I write on the go. Then there was the yellow legal pad with pens.

Hey. I was going to be gone from the house a day.

Now, guess how much I read? Four pages of MEN’S JOURNAL. The rest of the time I was in the hospital bubble be it waiting for the surgery with my mom and sister-in-law or tending to my wife in the immediate hours after recovery. There’s something very pure when it’s just the two of us, alone, no other cares than those in that hospital room, and we just spend time together. Despite the circumstances, I rather enjoyed the time. And I didn’t even miss the reading.

But I packed like I was going away for summer camp. I just can’t help myself.

Surely I'm not the only reader here who packs like this?

(This is the kind of post you get when I'm still recovering from the productive night at the hospital. And by productive I mean the ability to snatch not-enough-sleep in between nurses' visits. More next week.)

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Ted Bundy Movie with the Trainwreck Title

They're making a Ted Bundy movie with the kid from High School Musical, and they're calling it Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Holy crap, that title. Whenever I think of Zac Efron I think of my old roommate's ten year old daughter and her obsession with the Disney movies even though Efron's been "all grown up" for years. I can't stop thinking of him as a pre-teen heart throb, but I wasn't particularly bothered by his casting as Bundy. Bundy gets a rap as being handsome and charming, and Efron can pull off both.

In fact, Zac Efron as Ted Bundy is the thing about this movie I like the most. The title reads like a working title, or, not even that. Like they described what they wanted the movie to be, and decided "Fuck it, let's call it that!" The director is the guy who did Blair Witch 2 (Like... what?!) and the premise is at best confusing. All early press has been Efron playing Bundy, but the film is supposed to be told through the eyes of his longtime girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer. The problem with that is... there doesn't seem to be any casting information on her, and she wasn't actually involved in... well anything. She went back and forth between vehemently defending Bundy against allegations and secretly calling the tip line to report him. I'm not sure what the hell the movie is going to be about if it's told from her point of view. While the story of her internal debates and fear for herself and her daughter may be very interesting, it would seem dismissive to focus on the way he victimized her without getting into the actual murders he committed - none of which she witnessed or was involved in. 

To make matters worse, TMZ interviewed Bundy's lawyer (who is shopping his memoirs around, because of course he is) and ran this: "Efron's background as a charming heartthrob gives him an edge tapping into Bundy's persona -- the smooth talking, good looking guy who seduced young women."

Bundy didn't "seduce" young women, he kidnapped and murdered them. 

It's not a direct quote so I don't know who to put the blame on, but let's all just take a moment to vomit and move on. There's all sorts of buzz about this movie, but I gotta tell ya - there are only two things I think about when I think about Ted Bundy. The terror he caused, and the look of his dead eyes after his execution. Neither give me any comfort, and neither make me think of "seduction." 

I have a personal and professional interest in Bundy and the way he turned being an inoffensive looking young Republican into a way to meet and murder girls - but this movie makes me nervous for a lot of reasons. I hope I'm wrong. It would be really fantastic to see Bundy through the eyes of a woman who trusted him. Kloepfer is another victim of Bundy's when all is said and done.

I don't think the public interest in Ted Bundy is going to quell anytime soon, and this movie is already getting attention from every angle. With Efron as the star, it will probably attract a whole new crew of Ted-Heads who can't help but be charmed by the facade Bundy put out, even as they consume the gory details of the horrible things he did. Of course, that's not the film's fault, nor is it the actor's. It's the strange reality of Ted Bundy, and what keeps him popular. It's what allows his lawyer to refer to his crimes as "seduction."I hope it's a good film. I hope it treats the victims with respect. I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Writing, Self-Promotion, and Real Life

By Court Merrigan, Guest Post

I haven't updated my blog since December 15, 2014, and it's been a lot longer than that since I updated the site itself (where you will still see advertised my collection of short stories, which came out in 2012). At one point I had almost totally torn myself away from social media, ignoring Facebook, never logging onto Twitter for more than five minutes at a time. Then my publisher, Beat To a Pulp, gave me the release date for my new novel, The Broken Country: Being the Scabrous Exploits of Cyrus & GalinaVan, Hellbent West During the Eighth Year of the Harrows, 1876; With an Accountof Mappers, Bounty Hunters, a Tatar, and the Science of Phrenology. So I started tweeting and posting again, sorta. No one's perfect.

This, I am told, is a bad idea. I should be engaging in a continuous publicity process of various sorts and sizes, blog tours, a social media blitz, the whole works. I am sure this is true. Among my other failings, I am failing to expand on my personal brand.

Now, I grew up on a farm in western Nebraska. On this farm, we raised cattle. Every spring, these cattle received a brand, a real one.

Not very romantic, I'm afraid; like this picture,
we used a cattle chute and an electric brand.
So for me, the word "brand" will always carry the scent of burnt fur and flesh, slippery cow shit on your boots, and howling bovines, a day's hard work, dinner well-deserved at its end. Meanwhile, the branded bovines carry the brand for the rest of their (short) lives. That brand signifies a profit-producing commodity owned by you, the farmer. A brand is all business. It is a perpetual motion machine, the perpetual motion supplied by your labor, namely feed and water and medicine until such time as the cow can be converted into hamburgers and leather jackets and cash. There is no whimsy in a brand. Only hard work and reality's barbed wire. The marketplace is merciless. Just ask the cow on the killing floor at the wrong end of the stun gun.

Now, I know publishing is a business (though I doubt very much that David Cranmer, who runs Beat to a Pulp is getting rich ... and if he is, WHERE'S MY CUT, DAVID? WHERE???) and I see that social media and self-promotion and personal branding can be one, too. It just happens to be a business I've never quite wrapped my head around. Like lots of people, more than a few minutes on social media leaves me feeling hollow, confused, and lost. Jealous or, vastly worse, smug with schadenfreude. I feel a lot better about my slice of the world when I'm off social media, the longer, the better.

All of this, of course, is a long preamble to say that you should buy and read The Broken Country. Now that I’m (sorta) back on social media, I’ve been yapping about my book like everyone else. Of course, since I've let my presence slide the last couple years, no one is much paying attention. Certainly not a certain breed of tactless and dull writer who treats Twitter like a Turkish bazaar, hocking their goods nonstop. That’s okay, I’m not paying attention to them, either. I’m just glad most writers have better sense.

That said, I have got some good response (and some preordering action!) from the civilians of the social media world, those who log on to post pics of their kid's dance recital and to ask friends how to keep rabbits out of the garden. Real people, in other words, the ones who, as it happens, need to be  buying your book for it to have any chance of selling in real numbers.

Am I suggesting that the best marketing strategy is to not have one? Certainly not. I'd never presume to hand out book marketing advice. After, all, I'm the guy who thinks "burnt flesh of cattle" when the word "brand" is mentioned, which is not a very 2017 kind of guy to be.

But fortunately for you, The Broken Country isn’t a very 2017 kind of book. It's set in a post-apocalyptic 1876, about as far from our current reality, wherein the device in your pocket stores the sum total of human knowledge, as you can get. (Then again, maybe the Cassandras are right and Trump will lead us over the cliff and The Broken Country will suddenly get a whole lot more relevant. Let us hope not.)

For The Broken Country, I imagined the hardest world I could think, a literal turning-back of the westbound wagon trains as America turned its back on Manifest Destiny. A world where people believe in a pseudoscience like phrenology and a man with a working sixgun is as good as a feudal lord. What sorts of characters would such a time loose on the world, I wondered, and proceeded to write this novel to find out. I hope you'll want to find out, too.

 Get Yours: The Broken Country