Saturday, September 18, 2010
Scott D. Parker
What does it mean to be a celebrity? The built-in dictionary here on my Mac indicates that a celebrity is “a famous person; the state of being well known.” Take a moment and think of some celebrities, both the ones you like and the ones you don’t like. Some celebrities are famous for what they do: athletes, entertainment stars, politicians. Others are famous for being who they are: Paris Hilton, any number of reality show contestants.
Often we look up to celebrities, trying to emulate the way they live their lives. One generation of celebrities gives birth to the next generation. Elvis and Buddy Holly influence the Beatles who influence just about everyone else. Authors like Stephen King read Lovecraft and want to carry the torch for the next generation. It’s life, and it’s natural.
Sometimes, our illusions of celebrities are shattered. Up until last November, most people considered Tiger Woods to be an upstanding guy, someone to admire, learn from, and be like. No more.
All of this brings me to the celebrity we lost this week in the mystery community, David Thompson. His death shocked us all. Word spread throughout our community, both on the internet as well as old-school telephone calls. An obvious place where the news spread was Facebook, both on the Murder by the Book location as well as David’s own account. I noticed something as the week progressed and the terrible news sank in. Many different people in the mystery community starting friending each other. I’d see “This Person is now friends with these five other people.” The number of new connections increased considerably by yesterday.
The more I think of that, the more I smile. David is still affecting our lives. We will all truly miss him as the months and years go by. But it’s nice to know that even after he’s gone, our own celebrity, David Thompson, is still influencing people and bringing us all together.
Friday, September 17, 2010
Its Friday.There were a lot of topics this week I could have written about, but others have already expressed their feelings on the events of these last few days with more eloquence than I could.
I had no idea what to write. Until I remembered that Friday is always Forgotten Books day.
And for today, Forgotten reviews day, as well, I suppose.
This review was written a few years back for a planned re-release of Stone City by David Thompson's Busted Flush Press that sadly never got off the ground as far as I was aware. But if you can track down a copy of the book, I promise that you won’t be disappointed.
By Mitchell Smith
Stone City is a dark, violent trip into a world that runs parallel to our own. A stone city where the worst of our citizens find themselves, segregated from society and forced to create their own rules and norms within the regulated world of the State Prison.
Stone City is a massive novel. Its labyrinth plot – as a college professor jailed for a hit-and-run hunts down a killer within the prison system – snakes through the twilight world of the State Prison, giving us glimpses of a place that seems far removed from the everyday reality we understand. While, in more recent years, television shows like HBO’s Oz have given us an understanding of life on the inside, the world of Stone City still feels sufficiently alien to unnerve even the most hardened reader. Inside the walls, an entire world is formed that runs parallel to the one outside. The prisoners create their own social norms, their own bizarre parodies of normal life. The prison “marriages” and the apparent division of prisoners by sex (whereby weaker, more feminine men are taken as wives in some quite willing and occasionally tender partnerships). The property market for primo space in prison. Separate blocks feel more like individual countries than extensions of the same building. This creates a self contained world with its own intricate systems of trade, barter and morality. At first glance, much of these adapted norms seem a mockery of the outside world. The reader soon comes to realise, however, that the inmates need to maintain this pretend society to survive. The only world they now know is inside, and they need to live there with each other.
In this place, new social contracts are drawn. Families – however dysfunctional – are formed among men who have never known such things before, and friendships, however tenuous, are forged through shared fears and insecurities. But everything is fragile in this world, subject to violent change at the will of any man.
Much of this is experienced through the eyes of Bauman, a college professor who finds himself sent to State after accidentally killing a girl. At least, that’s his story. Bauman survives not simply by adapting to this new world, but by trading on his own skills. Some of the best scenes in this novel are simple, brilliant scenes where Bauman attempts to help his fellow inmates somehow better themselves. Teaching illiterate bruisers to read, finding a way to recreate his old life in this twisted world in which he has been thrown.
The book relies on taking the familiar elements of the everyday world and throwing them askew. At its most basic level, the question of the sexes is dealt with by prisoners designating themselves accordingly. When Bauman starts to hang around with a fellow con by the name of Cousins, this relationship is taken in a romantic light by his fellow prisoners. After all, Cousins, with his delicate features and quiet manner, is a woman in this world, and he is so taken by the role that he dreams of becoming one for real upon his release.
Then, there is the matter of everyday living: cells are bought and traded like property. Men set themselves up in business. Different blocks become other countries within this world, each with their own set of rules and regulations. Nowhere is this more obvious than in segregation, where life is so removed from Bauman’s block that there may as well be oceans between these two places.
In contrasting Bauman’s life outside with his life inside, we see parallels and patterns that reflect the prison and the real world against each other, casting the events of the novel and the characters trapped within State, in an often unexpected light. We are forced to question: where was Bauman better off? Which life really was his personal hell? As the novel progresses and we learn more about what it was that sent Bauman to State, we begin to realise that the most seemingly civilised man in State may in fact be far from it, that civilised is dependent on a man’s situation and surroundings and that even on the outside, Bauman’s civility may have been little more than social veneer.
All of which is intriguing stuff, but apropos of nothing without the novelist’s skill to back it up. And Mitchell Smith is, thankfully, a brilliant writer. His carefully crafted prison world combined with his deeply detailed psychological portrait of a man from the outside finding himself on the inside is one hell of a read: darkly gripping, and with a final scene that is as shocking and unexpected as it is almost inevitable.
For some, the text may be a little overlong, the narrative taking many sideroads – not all of them as productive as could be expected – and occasionally guilty of repeating its most salient points when they are already made. But ultimately, the power of Mitchell’s words and the intricacy of the world and people he has created are what pull you in. You can feel the prison walls closing in, breathe the air heavy with the stink of fellow prisoners, and hear the cacophony of sounds that make up daily prison life. It is terrifyingly easy to become absorbed in this world that Mitchell has created.
Stone City is a dark trip into a world where violence lurks behind every word, where any action can be misinterpreted and where life is cheap. But it comes so close to our own world, that sometimes, when you re-emerge from the pages, you have to wonder whether you can’t hear a guard somewhere crying, “Fingers!” as the gates roll across cells packed tightly together in this manufactured hell where the guilty ultimately punish themselves.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
A recent discussion on Crimespace about books being turned into movies brought up something interesting for me.
Caroline Trippe wrote, “After all, when I read any novel, it plays out in my mind's eye like a movie -- I "see" the characters, the places, hear the dialogue. I would guess this occurs with most writers. Part of all writing is visualizing---then you bring that to life with language.”
And I wrote, “When I read a book I never visualize the scenes like a movie -- I hear the story being told by the voice of the book. I prefer it to be the voice of a character (or a number of characters) and I sometimes accept it if it's the writer's voice (but not often ;)
A long time ago at Concordia University in Montreal I took a writing class from Garry Geddes, a guy who was mostly known as a poet, and he asked us to read our stories out loud. At first I was opposed to the idea because I thought prose was meant to be read not “performed” but Garry was a good guy so I did it.
My friend Lisa Pasold (author of the excellent Rats of Las Vegas) was in that class and when I finished reading my story she passed me a note that said, “Your head is so red, looks like it’s going to explode.”
I guess I was nervous speaking in public, that’s really common, but I think I was also realizing something significant – for the first time all that talk about the “authorial voice” was making a little sense to me.
Before that I had tried to visualize stories, see them as movies I guess, but at that moment I realized that I wasn’t trying to write movie scenes, I was trying to capture those moments at the kitchen table when my Dad told a story or those moments at my Uncle’s cottage around the fire when he told a story or those times in the bar when my brother told a story.
That was when I started to realize that prose is stories being told. That voice, that point of view, is the biggest difference between a book and a movie.
The same characters in the same situations doing the same things can work both as a book and a movie, but they’re very different experiences.
What do you think? Do you visualize a book as you read it or do you hear it?
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
David Thompson was one of the few people who could get me to fly.
Three years ago, when my debut was released he asked me to sign at Murder by the Book. I couldn't go, but he made sure he asked again when my second came out--sending about fifteen different dates I could show up. The message was clear, "Get your butt down here, we want to sell your book."
I had no choice, I agreed, despite my fear of flying. I actually got on a plane to Houston to be at that bookstore.
That's how David treated writers. He wanted them to come to his store and push their books. It didn't matter if you were Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, or any old midlist writer, he and his wife, McKenna, treated everyone like a superstar.
To them, every writer was special.
And they made sure their signings were legendary. They were fun question and answer sessions that went on for an hour or more, letting you learn as much about a writer as possible, and often immortalized on YouTube by Bill Crider.
David didn't stop there. He created Busted Flush Press, a small publisher who put out great novels and anthologies. He and Duane Swierczynski placed my first original story in a print anthology with DAMN NEAR DEAD.
He energy and enthusiasm toward books was contagious. He spent his time on Twitter pushing his favorite novels or most recent reads. He always let people know what books the store had imported from the UK. Murder by the Book is my go to independent store. They would ship to NJ without hesitation.
When I heard about his passing today, I went numb. I had just been talking about him in class that morning, telling my students my most embarrassing story--traveling to the signing. I nearly had a nervous breakdown on a plane and still made sure I signed there. Not many people can get me on an airplane.
And, I suspect that's how it was with David and all other authors. They would do anything to talk to him, do anything to sign at the store. His love of books was infectious. He was one of a kind.
I'm going to miss him.
Monday, September 13, 2010
Since this blog started 13 months ago, we've worked to improve things in terms of style and content.
Yes, we lost a Canadian, but we replaced him with two Americans. I'm not sure what the exchange rate was, but this has worked out so far.
We've worked on some theme weeks and even have our first collection, TERMINAL DAMAGE, done and nearly ready for your reading pleasure.
And now we have an improved option in terms of delivery.
Sure you can read the Do Some Damage blog on the computer. But that ain't good enough for us. Now, through the magic of fairydust and cutrate pharmaceuticals, you can now get your DSD fix each morning delivered to your Kindle.
Each morning at about 3 a.m. eastern time in the US of A, the blog gets updated. (Unless it's Jay's day, then, you know, eventually.) Here's what it looks like on the Kindle.
So if you subscribe to DSD on Kindle, each morning you get the DSD blog sent right to you. I've subscribed to a number of magazines and newspapers, utilizing the FREE 14-day trial option Amazon offers. I sign up for the L.A. Times for a couple of weeks and end up with screens and screens of book reviews and feature articles. Want to see whether you like the New York Times Book Review? Trial subscription. Same thing with the Do Some Damage blog. Give it a shot on the Kindle and see what you think.
One of the little pieces of sweetness I like is that you get access to DSD archives. Check out the "section list" at the bottom of the screen.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
When I was a reporter, one of things I sucked worst at was enterprise journalism. These were the sorts of long-form, extended pieces they wanted us to write that won awards and made careers etc. I always had a bunch of good ideas, but for the most part they never got written because the day-to-day issues of covering the police beat always got in the way. I feel that way about blog posts too. I have several cool ideas for things I want to write about, but the day-to-day issues of life keep getting in the way. It doesn't help that I am created of the most procrastination-laced stock in human history.
For example, I have a post I really want to write about characters and how we choose the characters we read about and write about. But I can't because tomorrow (today) Is Spenser's second birthday and I'd rather write about that instead.
If you're talking about characters though, this little kid is one of the best. He's more of an anti-hero than your traditional type hero but he's been the greatest thing to happen in my life so far. I don't know that you can detect any major wholesale changes in my character as a result of his existence, but there has been a series of smaller changes that add up to a better, tired, me. Where I've noticed his presence most is in how I react to writing. I now fall every time for the kid in jeopardy tricks authors play with their readers. It's more fun now to read authors who have kids and see how it plays into their fiction. I'm also writing more stories about people who have kids. Granted, these stories have not always reflected a dreamy view of child rearing but I've been determined to present an authentic view of my life with kids and early on, that wasn't always a pleasant view.
At one point I debated writing a letter to Spenser instead of this post, but couldn't really find a way into it that wasn't cheesy or creepy so I'll just say that I love my little boy and would do anything for him. He embodies all of my hopes and dreams in a stinky little package that loves dinosaurs, SpongeBob, Elmo, cookies, Diet Pepsi, baseball, his light up Buzz Lightyear shoes, our dog, broccoli, Rick Astlye, and endangering himself and hates meat, littering, clothes, and sleeping.
Happy birthday buddy!